Scripture, Tradition, and…?

Anglicans’ faith is said to rest on the “three-legged stool” of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. In a recent discussion on the Creedal Christian blog (one of the few places in the blogosphere where gay-affirming and traditionalist Anglicans can carry on a civil and sophisticated dialogue), one commenter sought understanding and advice for Christians who may be convinced of the pro-gay position according to reason, but can’t find warrant for it in Scripture and tradition.

I’m not going to try to answer that question here. Rather, I would like to explore some ways in which this whole debate has made me doubt my old assumptions about Scripture. Consider the following ideas not as the ex cathedra pronouncement of Reiter’s Block but as experiments in finding a way forward.

Power in the New Testament

The human understanding of power is antagonistic and zero-sum–what James Alison would call “over-against another”. We keep reverting to this understanding, even within the church, despite what I see as the strong message of the New Testament that God’s idea of power is wholly different.

Jesus appropriated Roman imperial rhetoric in an ironic, subversive way. “King of kings” and “son of God” were titles belonging to Caesar. The “kingdom of heaven”, unlike the kingdoms of earth, is best understood by looking at the lowliest things, from a mustard seed to a beggar, and seeing the infinite riches they contain.

If one believes that God revealed His true nature in Jesus, by becoming human and dying on a cross, think about what this means for the definition of power. No one is more powerful than God. But when He wanted to show us what was most essential about Himself, He became a vulnerable and marginalized human being–a peasant baby born to an unwed mother–and then submitted to an ignominious death at the hands of secular and religious authorities whose power was based on violence, exclusion, fear and pride. By rising from the dead, He showed that the power of self-giving love is ultimately more real than the power of domination.

While the picture is more complex in the Epistles, I believe they also support this view, on the whole. At times, Paul and the other authors seem to be encouraging Christians to accept existing social hierarchies, so as not to provoke unnecessary conflicts. Anyone whose way of life challenges mainstream cultural values must make careful moment-by-moment decisions about how to balance the imperatives of peace and justice. Impatience for change can make us prideful and unkind to those who don’t see what we see; on the other hand, conflict-avoidance isn’t always the most loving course of action.

But overall, when Paul is not dispensing merely pragmatic advice but talking about spiritual fundamentals, he often returns to the theme of mutual submission, in personal relationships and also within the church. And he relates this ideal to Christ’s self-emptying in the Incarnation:

1If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. 3Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. 4Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
6Who, being in very nature[a] God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7but made himself nothing,
    taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

12Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. (Phil 2:1-13, NIV)

The doctrine of the Trinity is not fully worked out in the Bible, but within the first few centuries of the early church, Christians were developing the idea of perichoresis–God’s very nature as a dance of loving, reciprocal submission. (Buy the book from the 2008 Wheaton College conference to read excellent essays on this and other Trinitarian concepts.)

Scripture’s “Authority”?

Returning to our opening question of Anglican Biblical hermeneutics, it seems to me that the debate nearly always relapses into the human understanding of power. We treat “Scripture, Tradition, and Reason” like “Rock, Paper, Scissors”–which one “beats” the other?

I am still searching for a better alternative, but I believe there is one. Much as it would be nice and simple to pretend otherwise, the three voices in this conversation don’t always agree neatly. I just sense that something’s wrong with the way we play them off against one another. Those who always come down on the side of Scripture or tradition may do violence to the facts of a changing world (not to mention the people living in it), whereas those who brag about unfettered reason can be hurtful and dismissive toward Christians who have experienced the Bible and the church as life-saving.

Would it be so wrong (warning: this is where I really drive the bus off-road) to work out a model of cooperation and mutual deference among the three authorities? In other words:

Why must Scripture always win?

(Substitute “Tradition” if you’re a neo-conservative Catholic and “Reason” if you’re a liberal-modernist Protestant, and resume being infuriated.)

First-Hand and Second-Hand Knowledge

Psychologically speaking, Scripture and Tradition are second-hand sources of knowledge about God. They are the record of how God has communicated with other human beings. If we understand “Reason” broadly as the independent judgment of the individual Christian, encompassing emotional and experiential knowledge as well as intellectual understanding, we can see that it adds an element not found in the other two: how God personally and directly speaks to me.

That God does speak to me, without requiring permission or mediation from other humans, is the promise I’m given by my justification in Christ. His gracious forgiveness has set me free to trust myself, not because I will always be right, but because I must live obediently the life I’ve been given and the perspective that arises from it, leaving the final verdict up to Him. I don’t need to hide in the herd. Their assent or dissent adds nothing to whether God will forgive me for getting His intentions wrong–which is always a possibility, whether we are on our own or part of a collective.

“Reason” could also be understood as the present-day response of the church to changing factual conditions or information that was not available when the Scriptures or traditions were being formed. Reason is the ability to process information outside of “Christianity” that is nonetheless pa
rt of God’s creation: biology, history, psychology, and the facts to which these disciplines are applied. It balances timeless revelations and past wisdom with open-minded awareness of the present. It reminds us of our ongoing responsibility to interpret God’s word, and our concomitant need for His mercy because of the fallibility of our interpretations. Grace, too, risks becoming merely second-hand information if we have never felt the awful weight of that responsibility.

Taken alone, reason-worship can degenerate into pure individualism and trend-following in a culture already inclined in that direction. Scripture and tradition (Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead”) remind us that our faith is part of a fellowship that spans geography and time. The consciousness of the individual is never a purely autonomous creation; it picks up its structures of thought from the contemporary community, though critical reflection can reshape the given framework up to a point. Scripture and tradition help ensure that when we do rely on second-hand knowledge, we’re resting on Christian ideas rather than unexamined values and assumptions from an antithetical culture.

Science provides a good model of how first-hand and second-hand knowledge cooperate in the search for truth. Science moves forward by direct experimental observation. However, the backdrop for any experiment is a vast body of other knowledge, not directly observed by this individual scientist, which enables her to frame the hypothesis and understand what would prove or disprove it. She takes this knowledge on “faith” in the sense that she has good reason to believe that her predecessors’ observations were reliable, and it would be impossible for her to test them all first-hand. At the same time, there is the chance that her experiment will expose a flaw in the original “tradition” and prompt its revision.

Such an event does not call into question the entire practice of relying on others’ scientific conclusions; it is, in fact, the way those conclusions themselves were generated. In a sense, the practice of science is one of Christlike humility and gracious boldness. The scientist submits to the discipline of her tradition in order to ask a meaningful question in the first place, but shows no disrespect by improving past knowledge in a way that is broadly consistent with that discipline. She, in turn, knows that her achievement is not a once-for-all monument to her ego, but an invitation to future scientists to improve upon it further. (Thanks to Prof. Larry Alexander’s law review article “Liberalism, Religion, and the Unity of Epistemology,” 30 San Diego L. Rev. 763 (1993) for some of these ideas about the philosophy of science.)

This brings me back to my original question: why must we assume that Scripture’s “authority” depends on never deferring to or being influenced by the other two? Must we always prefer second-hand knowledge of God’s will?

To say yes, it seems to me, is to act as if God’s grace is merely formal–as if my mind is still darkened and my will still depraved, but God accepts the “legal fiction” of my righteousness thanks to Christ. I know a lot of Protestants believe this, but it’s logically incoherent, because Scripture always requires interpretation, and to mistrust one’s self simply means to trust other, equally depraved humans. (For a truly slam-dunk explanation of this point, read the philosopher Eric Reitan’s “authority without inerrancy” blog post series, particularly this one.

Beyond a Hermeneutics of Patriarchy?

Pushing the Trinitarian analogy a bit more, let’s assume that Scripture is like the Father, the prime authority. Nonetheless, when we defend Scripture against contradiction or reinterpretation from outside sources, aren’t we really acting more like a defensive human father–the elite men of priesthood and empire who saw their prerogatives threatened by the radically egalitarian Jesus movement? And might not this insistence on Scripture’s impermeability–I would even say, impenetrability–be more than coincidentally related to the fear of submission and penetration, the loss of the traditionally dominant male identity, that has always fueled homophobia?

Christianity messes with physical and social boundaries in ways that Christians have never quite found comfortable. The Lord of the universe took the form of a slave. While on earth, he continually overrode purity laws to show that social order was not as important as extending healing, economic justice, and God’s love to all. Where Jesus does speak as a rigorous and passionate moralist, his temper is always exercised about actual harms to others. I can’t recall a place where he treats obedience to authority and tradition as an end in itself. I’m sure he never views rule-breaking as a sin so great that in order to avoid it, we can ignore the suffering of our neighbor–even when the rule seems to come from Scripture.

And now, of course, we eat the flesh of this Lord and Father and drink His blood, a sensual ritual that combines destruction and healing, the ultimate reciprocal exchange of power. God trusts us enough to be consumed and transformed by us. Why should the Bible be afraid of us, when He isn’t?