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Ignorance, Scholarship, Authority and Autonomy

The progress of modernism and post-modernism (or Liquid modernity) has impacted the Church in significant ways. The Reformation slogan Sola Scriptura or Scripture Alone was initially meant to signal a return to the Bible as the source of authority and the final arbiter of truth. Injected with the virus of Enlightenment thought, the "Enlightened" Modernist made Man's "objective" interpretation of Scripture the source of authority and the arbiter of truth. Yet truth was still seen as objective if not absolute. The Scriptures were still seen as being the source of authority and the arbiter of truth, after it has been filtered through the real final arbiter of Man's thought of course. Modernism thus keeps the form of Scripture's authority except that it made Man the final interpreter instead of God.

Modernism version 2.0 or Post-modernism destroys the idea of universality. Any facade of continuity with the Reformation has been eradicated. Whereas the arbiter of truth in Modernity is Man universally speaking, the arbiter of truth in Post-modernity is each and every man for him or herself, each one creating his own truth each equally valid.

The Church being made up of people living in the world cannot help being not affected by the Zeitgeist. Enlightenment thought with its flowering of humanism led to the elevation of a new group of "clergy" — the Academics (Theologians). In pre-modernity, authority was invested officially in Scripture but unofficially in the clergy class of priest, bishop and other ecclesiastical offices. In modernity, scholarship is seen as the diligent workings of Man to strive to know the truth. Academics rule the world of ideas, and woe to those who go against the "scholarly consensus", whatever that may be. In postmodernity, the explosion and democratization of knowledge led to the creation of the "inner clergy" — every single person's views and opinions no matter what they are. In the postmodern world, everyone now is "clergy".

As it can be seen, Science as an enterprise and a significant portion of Evangelical scholarship remained stuck in the phase of Modernity. The now assimilated-into-the-mainstream Emerging Church Movement is on the other hand a manifestation of postmodernity.

Under the heading of hermeneutics, Man under the three worldviews will address the discussion of doctrine differently. Under the pre-modern mindset, if the priest says X; X is true. Under the modern mindset, if the scholars say Y; Y is true. Under the post-modern mindset, whatever you say; it is true for YOU only.

In discussion of doctrines, the three mindsets come into play. The older theological establishment works under the modernist framework on this issue, and sees itself as superior to those who are uneducated. Criticism from the proletariat of learning is almost always ignored, for what can the hoi polloi teach us?

The shift to postmodernism however causes other problems in the Church. With everybody being "clergy", no one wants to listen and learn anymore from anyone else. Sure, eclectic learning takes place, but education and learning is a consumerist activity where the learner is king. The idea of authority is resented and vigorously opposed.

To complete the analysis, under pre-modernity, if the priest or bishop says X, there are right period. The only debate then was between counciliarism and papal fiat authority, but whatever the leaders of the Church say is always right even if they are actually wrong.

Over and against all three frameworks is the biblical framework of Sola Scripture. Scripture alone is the final arbiter of truth. Contra pre-modernity, the church and her offices have no inherent authority. Contra modernity, Man, and most definitely educated men, is not the intellectual mediator between God and Man. Contra Post-modernity, there is such a thing as an authority transcendental and standing external to one's own self.

The problem with doctrinal discussion and controversy nowadays is the utterly alien Zeitgeist people even Christians take to the discussion. We have too many sheeple who behave like pre-moderns and blindly accept whatever their pastors teach them as the truth. At the same time, we also have [theologically] educated and not so educated people who follow the latest trends and ideas in academia and treat whatever they say as true. On the other end, we have people who are offended when pastors and/or theologically educated people tell them that they are wrong in their biblical interpretation. Such people are seen as pompous and proud because they are educated and are imposing what they say as true on others, surely the most egregious violation of the post-modern rulebook on ethics.

To the pre-modern mindset, Scripture gave us the example of the Bereans in Acts 17:11 who did not just accept Paul's authority as an apostle but check his teachings according to the Scriptures. Uncritical acceptance of even the teachings of an Apostle is unbiblical. "To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn" (Is. 8:20).

Against the modernist mindset, we must stress the doctrine of the Priesthood of all believers (cf 1 Peter 2:9). Also, "For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?" (1 Cor. 4:7).

"Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? ... But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God." (1 Cor. 1: 20, 27-29)

In the rest of this missive, I will focus on the response to the postmodern mindset.

Contra the Postmodern Mindset

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes ... that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you (1 Jn. 1:1a, 3a)

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: (1 Cor. 15:3a)

The Apostolic Faith is the tradition handed down to the Church which we are to stand firm and hold on to (2 Thess. 2:15). As John wrote, he heard and saw the unfolding of the drama of redemption in the person of Jesus Christ, and this tradition which he has is proclaimed to the Church (1 Jn. 1:1a, 3a). Paul similarly is passing down the apostolic tradition which he has received, not created (1 Cor. 15: 3a). In all this, the apostles were adamant that their job was never the creation of a body of literature of their own design (2 Peter 1:16). Rather, Scripture is the transmission of the tradition which they have received in order to pass it down through the generations (2 Peter 1:21). [So yes, Protestants have Tradition (capital "T"); it's called Scripture.]

Contra postmodernity therefore, Scripture is not of "someone's own interpretation" (2 Peter 1:20). Scripture is not so much putty you can mould to mean anything you wish it to mean. On the contrary, the faith is fixed even for the Apostles! The Apostles themselves were not creating the Tradition. Rather, they are bearing witness to the Tradition (receiving and delivering), and in so doing their witness (ματυρια) became the Scriptures which are similarly breathed out by God (2 Tim. 3:16) and authoritative for us (cf Herman Ridderbos, Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures).

We must also note that it is called "prophecy of Scripture". Prophecy relates to preaching and the [authoritative] proclamation of the Gospel and the Christians truths (cf William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying). We are told to obey our leaders and submit to them (Heb. 13:17). The implication here is that the proclamation of Scripture and biblical truths has derivative authority from the Word and should be submitted to.

Back in our example of theological discussion and controversy, the post-modern aversion to all forms of authority here is not only unbiblical, it is positively sinful. Since the proclaimed Word is authoritative insomuch as it is based upon the Scriptures, there is no option to leave and ignore it. Either you accept it, or dispute it. The problem with postmoderns (and moderns) is that they refuse to accept it if others say that they are wrong. The proper response should be to discern and argue Scripture like the Bereans, not attack the messenger for doing a politically incorrect action. Worse still is the autonomy rejecting all forms of authority and sees anyone who seeks to "enforce" their views as being arrogance or something like that.

So let's get this straight. There is nothing wrong with authoritatively proclaiming what is true and what is false and expecting people to respond. That is not arrogance. Rather, it is the Apostolic model. The minister should not be conceited (contra Modernism), but he nonetheless has the authority that should be respected by the people in the biblical manner. He is not infallible, but because his authority is derived from the Word, the only biblically legitimate way to disagree with him is to dispute his interpretation of the text according to Scripture, not one's personal preferences. If what the minister says is biblical, the content must be obeyed and submitted to no matter what.

Ignorance and Scholarship, Authority and Autonomy. Embracing Sola Scriptura would brings us to correct our worldview, and see doctrinal discussion in its proper light. Amen.