Liberal Autonomy or Christian Liberty

How we read the Bible depends on our understanding of authority. Therefore, it is a political problem. How we read the Bible also depends on our theory of perception and knowledge. Therefore, it is a psychological problem. Authority and perception are both issues of trust. Therefore, how we read the Bible is an ethical problem.

Can we trust our own perceptions? What else is there to trust?

On the one hand, what I call “myself” is the product of culture, upbringing, and ongoing relationships, which influence me even as I in turn push back against them and change them. The autonomous self of classical liberal philosophy is something of a fiction. (Of course, as Trinitarian Christians, we should not be discomfited to discover the relational nature of personhood. Interdependence does not negate distinctness.) 

On the other hand, all my ideas and perceptions come to me through the unique filter of who I am at this moment. My perspective is not flawless, but it is inescapable.

And should I try to escape it? To enlarge it, yes, to hear and imagine the experiences of others and recognize them as my siblings in Christ, but there is a difference between climbing higher on the mountain to get a better view, and pretending I have no vantage point at all. Finitude, and its attendant diversity, seems to be God’s will for His creatures, as James K.A. Smith suggests in The Fall of InterpretationIn my experience, people who claim absolute objectivity for their interpretations (“The Bible Says…”) are avoiding self-awareness about the personal factors that make one argument seem more plausible or desirable than another.

I’ve been wondering whether the Bible itself has anything to say about how we should interpret it. Human nature, we learn pretty early in the story, is fallen. Human judgment isn’t always accurate. Adam and Eve were extraordinarily close to God, but were still deceived about the fundamentals of His relationship to His creation: namely, that our share in the divine nature is a gift to be received, not a prize to be seized.

Original sin distinguishes the Christian picture of human nature from the liberal one. Privileging personal experience over text and tradition, a liberal might say “The truth is inside you.” I wouldn’t go that far. As a good postmodernist, I would say “You are inside you.” The right to stay grounded in our own experience should not be conditioned on the impossible burden of always “getting it right”. That’s another form of legalism.

At the other end of the spectrum are Protestants whose awareness of original sin is so strong that they believe in
“total depravity”. According to this theory, we are incapable of desiring or correctly perceiving God, absent miraculous intervention. Christians from this tradition worry that the postmodern turn toward multiple perspectives will weaken our obedience to God’s revealed Word. Left to our own devices, we would do the wrong thing, so we must follow the rule book.

Does Scripture require this level of self-mistrust? This question was on my mind last week when I read this
gospel passage during morning prayer:

12When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

13The Pharisees challenged him, “Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid.”

14Jesus answered, “Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid, for I know where I came from and where I am going. But you have no idea where I come from or where I am going. 15You judge by human standards; I pass judgment on no one. 16But if I do judge, my decisions are right, because I am not alone. I stand with the Father, who sent me. 17In your own Law it is written that the testimony of two men is valid. 18I am one who testifies for myself; my other witness is the Father, who sent me.”

19Then they asked him, “Where is your father?”

“You do not know me or my Father,” Jesus replied. “If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” 20He spoke these words while teaching in the temple area near the place where the offerings were put. Yet no one seized him, because his time had not yet come. (John 8:12-20)

Now, we are all part of Christ’s Body. Does that mean that we have the same authority as our Head to speak about our connection to God, without human religious authorities as backup witnesses? I’m not sure. One thing I do get from this passage is that Jesus recognized how demands for proof and consensus can be deployed by those in power for idolatrous ends. The majority view is just “the way things are”; accusations of bias conveniently flow downward to the individual, or the minority, who challenges the majority’s exclusive claim to speak for God. Interpretation, for Jesus, is a political question before it is a theoretical one, and his politics are radically egalitarian.

Perhaps Jesus’ authority is too unique to tell us the scope of our own powers. What about other New Testament characters? Personal testimony is often the foundation of their credibility, as in the opening of the first Epistle of John:

1That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. 4We write this to make our joy complete. (1 John 1:1-4)

I don’t know whether the New Testament writers thought of themselves as “writing Scripture”, but even if they did, the religious authorities of their day would not have accepted that claim. Paul, John, Peter and the others were in a similar position to modern-day Christians who say that the Holy Spirit is leading them to revise certain traditions or interpretations. Some of us are surely wrong. But being right is not the be-all and end-all of the Christian life. If we could ever be completely certain we were right, we wouldn’t need God’s forgiving grace; we would be our own savior.

There was a lot of other material about Christ circulating at the same time as the writings we now call the New Testament. Over time, early Christian communities “road-tested” them and found that some were more helpful and consistent with the core gospel message. Even so, different versions of the canon were used by different Christian communities for several centuries after Jesus’ death. This is not an argument for relativism, but it suggests that Scripture is more like an electron cloud than a billiard ball. Before there was “the Bible”, there were Christians. Finite, fallible people…like you and me.