Showing posts with label Sola Scriptura. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sola Scriptura. Show all posts

Friday, 9 August 2013

Time in the Evangelical Church

This is part II of a four part series. The others are (in order): Road from Unbelief, The Road to Rome, The Road Ahead.

It seems the case to me that even the most rationally inclined people have some reasons for their religious or irreligious position which goes beyond the purely logical or rational. Individuals simply do not exist independent of emotional, cultural, existential or other extra-rational factors. As an atheist, my position was intellectual but also useful, simple and easy, in addition to a certain feeling of rational snobbery that underlies believing that I had freed myself from humankind's religious yoke. This post will hopefully give an overview of my experience after sixteen months in the Evangelical tradition and what meta-rational reasons I encountered for being a Christian.

I had finished the previous part with new-found belief in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and how that led me to think I could aptly be called a Christian. However being a Christian, as anyone well knows, is rarely defined by "belief in the resurrection" - it is a position that has far more labels than that, and indeed by some people, even belief in the resurrection is not crucial to Christianity. Yet I would find it very difficult to believe in the resurrection without calling myself a Christian of sorts. I set about finding an explanation of why God would perform this miracle that made me Christian.

I made two mistakes which I recognize in hindsight: the shock of this belief made me throw all my rationality into the air for a moment, and I became a young Earth creationist.I also became a believer in biblical inerrancy without any other reason than that Jesus (who I now believed to have been resurrected) seemed to be revealed in the Bible.

The first rash belief I left within a week - the week of Easter 2012 when I visited Beulah for a rock climbing festival. I dropped it not so much because I came to the conclusion that the relevant texts did not prescribe young Earth creationism - after reading some more of the Bible I will quickly come to hold the view that science is perfectly legitimate, in line with most Christian denominations (see here) - but because I went about my day and found too many facts that contradicted that belief. Though I had rashly come to this belief, the burst of "maybe everything I know is wrong!" was quickly put down by reality. I hope readers will be understanding with my blunder: revolutions in world-view tend to have the effect of producing bizarre beliefs, and I am grateful that my error was short lived in light of the mind-boggling senselessness of young Earth creationism when it comes to reality. For my Christian brethren who disagree with me on this point, it is important to note that when somebody like myself comes to believe a proposition - in this case, "Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead" - by empirical means, one would be denying the very foundation of one's belief in that proposition if one then went on to deny empirical means. So any believer who believes because of historical evidence must in turn believe the truths discovered through scientific evidence, lest an incoherence be brought about.

The second belief is one I still hold, in some form, but the problematic bit is the phrase "without any other reason." I believed in what I would find out to be called sola scriptura without any epistemological warrant other than the view that since the scriptura talked about Christ, it must be right; a clear fallacy. About eight months later I would write about what I had come to think the real foundation for knowledge in Christianity is in the blog posts here and here (a position which I kind of retain, but with much more sophistication and without certain elements).

Nonetheless, those two issues aside, I thought that the central idea of Christianity was the forgiveness of sins because of the penal substitution of Jesus on our behalf. I got this idea in primitive form from a Pentecostal-Charismatic church (called "Hope Church") that I attended for a few weeks, and in a more elaborate form from Unichurch, which I almost accidentally walked into, in a sermon on Romans 3. I raised a question to the pastor there which would become a prominent issue on my mind a few months later, but I let it rest with "wait for Romans 6" at the time.

A philosophical note before I continue: as an atheist, I had been convinced that the only basis for morality in a secular framework (I wouldn't have dreamed of trying to think of what a non-secular framework might bring) was utilitarianism, and I still think this is the case. So I was a utilitarian, and as a relatively reflective utilitarian, I had noticed a problem: if the morally right action, and hence the obligatory action, was that one which maximized the greatest happiness for the greatest number, then the biggest problem I had was not that some of the outcomes were against my moral sensibilities, but that I did not do those actions which I believed.

It is a classical "problem" in utilitarianism that the obligations placed upon the utilitarian to act morally are enormous and go beyond what most think to be reasonable demands. Consider this: if I like ice-cream, and the ice-cream costs two dollars, may I buy it? No, because two dollars could save a life, and if not a life, then contribute towards much more happiness elsewhere. It is immoral to do anything that would not maximize happiness, and it usually turned out that what I wanted to do did no such thing. Yet I bought the ice-cream anyway. As an atheist, this is an incongruence, but as someone who now believed in the existence of God who cares about each person, who cares what I do...well suddenly I am in a bit of a pickle. For I have done wrong, and that has consequences.

It is sometimes said that modernity and post-modernity had done away with the idea of universal sinfulness in humankind, but I was convinced, since I seemed to able to indulge in my own pleasure and not able enough to live out the weighty demands of doing everything for the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people (some include animals and other sentient beings), that I at least was sinful. Which means that one of the core tenets of the Christian faith, which is that Jesus Christ came to address that very issue of sin in me, was not only sensible but also my only hope. If I was to have any hope of being in good standing with this God I had discovered, then he was going to need to forgive me.

Within this utilitarian framework, I therefore understood grace: I cannot be good enough to deserve favour with God,  I cannot claim that I have rights before God - I cannot even say I satisfied the minimum requirements of the moral law! Now, God's moral precepts are not explicitly utilitarian, but the notion that the demands of the moral law are the very maximum one can give meant that I was necessarily incapable, had I sinned even once, of being in good favour with God. Had I done everything correctly, were it even possible to never err in my deeds, I could merely claim that God should not punish me.

Throughout the almost one and a half years in the Evangelical church that I have spent, there is one thing that I hold to be both self-evident, undeniable and irreplaceable: sola Gratia. The Evangelical church has taught me much theology, many Reformed doctrines, pointed me often to the Scriptures, and yet that phrase, "by Grace alone," necessarily remains at the core of my Christianity, the condition without which none may plead for the mercy of God. What may we say before the throne of God when he asks "why should I let you into my Kingdom"? Kyrie Eleison! Any other answer is futile.

To finish, having read enough of the Bible to figure out conclusively that baptism was highly important, I pushed to be baptized, which happened on October 28th, 2012, at the UQ swimming pool. By that time, I could approve of the bolded parts of the Nicene-Constantinople creed (which is an expanded version of the Apostle's creed - both have a distinctly high Christology in light of the battle against heretical Christology):

I believe in one God, the Father almighty,

    maker of heaven and earth,

    of all things visible and invisible.

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,

        the Only Begotten Son of God,

        born of the Father before all ages.

    God from God, Light from Light,

        true God from true God,

    begotten, not made, consubstantial
       with the Father;

        Through him all things were made.

    For us men and for our salvation

        he came down from heaven,

        and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate

        of the Virgin Mary,
        and became man.

    For our sake he was crucified
      under Pontius Pilate,

        he suffered death and was buried,

        and rose again on the third day

        in accordance with the Scriptures.

    He ascended into heaven

        and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

    He will come again in glory

        to judge the living and the dead

        and his kingdom will have no end.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,

        the Lord, the giver of life,

    who proceeds from the Father and the Son,

    who with the Father and the Son

        is adored and glorified,

        who has spoken through the prophets.
I believe in one, holy, catholic,
     and apostolic Church.
    I confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins
        and I look forward to the resurrection

        of the dead and the life of the world to come.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Pillars of Christian Belief - a critical examination

Disclaimer: In a sense, critical examination is overly sensationalist. For the purposes of this entry, I am going to assume that Christians hold the Biblical texts commonly, and from there, see if we can further extend Christian understanding using the other pillars mentioned last entry. That is the sceptical question: "can we generalize to other pillars?"

Following on from the previous entry, I think it is clear that the door is wide open to other teachings. Yes, false teaching is condemned. But not all teaching is condemned. Where do we draw the line then? In terms of pragmatism, Sola Scriptura certainly has this going for it:

  1. As our earliest Christian writings, including the gospels, which have the words of God the Son, the Bible is clearly an invaluable and clearly very crucial document. Everyone will agree that Christianity and the Bible go together - even if how exactly is debated. From this, we can have a large degree of assurance of that their guidance is going to be pretty decent.
  2.  On the flip-side, we have no such assurance of other teachings, as far as we have explored so far. It seems clear to me that the most important thing in Christianity (grace) can be transmitted and learnt about with only this core of teaching - so Sola Scriptura has the added benefit that it can boast sufficiency. This word comes up a lot in discussions of this kind, and of the Catholic-Protestant dialogues, so to be clear, it just means this: that the Bible has all that is needed to attain salvation.
Now, if you are convinced by my two reasons for this doctrine, reliability and sufficiency, why would we even want to have other founts of knowledge? The reason I have is very simple: we cannot help it.

The other pillars mentioned were the Church, ("sacred") tradition and reason. Here is why I think they cannot be avoided:
  • The Church: If you go somewhere long enough, if you are in that kind of atmosphere, you will begin to be convinced of some of the understandings that place has. This is no difference with the Church. Indeed, the Church first came up with the foundational creeds (Nicene, etc). Which brings me to the next pillar...
  • Tradition: We cannot get rid of it. We are, to no small extent, bound by the way our culture thinks, and this is manifest in traditions. The Church becomes like any other body, taken up into its traditions, and with them, able to stand firm in their teachings. A Protestant might quote Jesus in telling the Pharisees that they sacrificed God for human teachings and traditions, but remember that the way to avoid human traditions is to have Godly ones. Also, it is worthy of note that enormous chunks of the Bible would have been oral traditions (particularly Genesis) before they were ever written down. It is inescapable. We do not think purely rationally, but are bound by culture and tradition - we better make sure we have the right ones.
  • Reason: To use a bit of circular irony, I think using reason as a pillar for belief is the only reasonable thing to do. Jokes aside, however, I cannot actually give an argument for the use of reason - self-authentication has never been something I thought of as valid, but instead, purely circular - in short, I do not subscribe to coherentism.
What do I conclude? Sola Scriptura, other than un-Biblical, and although it may be useful,  is not actually really possible. Submit everything you learn to the authority of the Bible - but for goodness' sake, do not think that you are separate from these other influences. Be smart and get the right usage from them.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

On the Foundations of Judeo-Christian Thought

It would be very arrogant indeed if I, a student of a discipline far from studies of religion or ancient and classical era history, wrote a small entry on a blog that I thought should be regarded as the correct understandings of the foundations of this system of beliefs in all its diversity. I do want to write, however, a short piece detailing what the foundation isn't - the Bible. Most Christian are actually not Protestants, and some of the pillars of Christian thought in the 21st century are the Sacred Scriptures (meaning the Old and New Testaments collected in either the Protestant or Catholic Bibles), Sacred Tradition, Reason and the Church (or Magisterium).

My own church (a rather lovely one based in a suburb of Brisbane, in Australia) is part of the Protestant tradition which holds to the doctrine of "Sola Scriptura" (Latin for "Only Scripture"). My opinion on this doctrine is implied in how I described Protestantism; it is a tradition. The Bible itself, to the best of my knowledge, does not claim to be the sole authority. There are questions it poses but does not answer. There are references to outside sources of information. There are even references to tradition in a positive way! The epistles of the apostles are often in the form of logical arguments, or at least reasoned arguments. Jesus speaks in parables which are, in his own words, to obscure the meaning of his words (why he does this can be the subject of another entry), the apostles use apostolic authority...meaning that overall, tradition has a place in the Bible, reason has its place, Magisterial authority has its place and really, "only the Bible has the truth" is profoundly unbiblical.

So what does the Bible say about authority? Well, as seen in yesterday's entry, the founding figure of Christianity claimed to be, in and of himself, the truth. This same figure's parting words according to the gospel of St Matthew are "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." There are references to authority (of Jesus), a command to make disciples and to teach. This is not quite the same as "give them a book and let them read it". Indeed, that would not have made sense for many many years - canonization was not for a few centuries, and not until the 16th century did the reformation occur that came up with this doctrine that the Bible was the only authority.

Where is the pillar of Christianity, then? It is not in a series of documents dating back millennia. At least, Jesus does not seem to think so. The foundation of Christianity is Christ. And unlike what many evangelical fundamentalists seem to hold to, when Paul writes about what would falsify Christian belief, it is clear that the final authority is not in the Bible. It is in  Christ's resurrection.

One final remark - yesterday I wrote about the peculiar and striking claim made by Jesus, as recorded by St John's gospel. In that same chapter, he says "Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves."

What then can Christianity hold on to? Where can we draw the line between fact and fiction? On the basis of the evidence for the works of Jesus, most notably the resurrection.