Sunday, September 23, 2012

On Theological Authority

This is not meant to be a diatribe, but rather a thought-piece. I welcome any and all comments and corrections, as I am working through these things and it is easy to be overcome by passion, rather than love. Forgive me, I ask of you, in advance.

As a part of the Reformed community of Christians, I often hear sermons that detail various interpretations of passages given by (for example) Wayne Grudem, John Piper, John Edwards, John Calvin, Martin Luther, maybe John Owens or some other Puritan, and probably either Mark Driscoll or Tim Keller making an appearance here or there. Since these men are "in" with us, I suppose this is natural. However, I am increasingly troubled by the lack of Patristic and Medieval theologians, saints, and fellow believers showing up in our sermons, in our pietistic literature, and in our daily lives. Why is it, for example, that Augustine only makes a rare appearance (that is, when various passages of his can support our understanding of predestination)? Where is John Chrysostom? Or John of Damascus? Or Athanasius? Or Basil of Caeserea?

Part of the problem, I think, is that we do not require much in the way of Church history or historical theology in seminary. This might, although I am not sure, be due to the tendency of the Reformation itself to separate Church history into two parts: pre-Reformation error and Reformation recovery of the gospel. If that is our theological philosophy of history, then it makes sense to ignore (for all intents and purposes) those that came before Luther. This is not, of course, the official story that Reformed denominations hold, but it seems to be the implicit one. However, the view of the work of the holy Spirit that this vision of history entails is ultimately problematic. Jesus promises that the Spirit would "lead you into all truth" (Jn. 16:13). Was that promise only for the Apostles, after which the truth would fall into disrepair, error, and idolatry for 1400 years? If so, did Luther have the Spirit? Or Calvin? Or are we still waiting for the Spirit of Truth to reform us and remake us after Christ's image?

The question that I am asking, apart from these overly emotional arguments, is one of relative authority: to whom should we give interpretive priority, the moderns or the fathers? Note that I am not trying to draw a dichotomy (true or false) between them -- both have their place; my question is "what is that place?" What happens when they disagree? Sometimes sharply? Should the Ecumenical councils (at least the first four, if not all seven) hold some interpretive authority over modern hermeneutics? Or, are we so far advanced over the old ways of thinking as to render them irrelevant and outmoded? If so, does the holy Spirit change over time? Or is it a case of theological infancy blossoming into modern maturity (or adolescence)? Add to this the question of the piety/holiness of the interpreters: is Mark Driscoll more holy than Augustine? Than Maximos the Confessor? Is John Calvin a better witness to Christ than John Cassian? Should the relative holiness of an individual come into judging the relative merits and authority of their theology? Is Evagrius of Pontus correct when he says, "If you are a theologian you will pray, if you pray you are a theologian"?

Part of the difficulty, I think, is that in the Fathers pneumatology (our understanding and experience of the holy Spirit) is inseparable connected to ecclesiology (our understanding and experience of the Church): many of them where hard-working ascetic bishops who believed that they weren't uncovering something that was lost (whether in the first or second or third century), but rather were passing on something unmolested that had been passed on to them by their successors in the episcopate going back to the Apostles (known as "Apostolic Succession," which is attested to by St. Ignatius of Antioch as early as the 90s or 100s AD -- he was the third bishop of Antioch after Peter the Apostle to the Jews). In our Reformation context, we often talk about uncovering, or rediscovering, what had been lost -- and it is often very different from what these Fathers had passed on (for example, I know of no modern Reformed teacher who proclaims either theopoiesis or theosis [except maybe T.F. Torrance], that we are becoming by grace what Christ is by nature and that this is the true "chief end of man", even though this theme shows up in Irenaeus, Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers, etc. as a true "Patristic consensus"). This is troubling, especially as I read people who will claim that, for example, Gregory of Nyssa (one of the Cappadocian Fathers) had some bad parts of his theology because he doesn't line up with the Westminster Confession of Faith. Apart from the gross anachronism that this entails in the first place, it assumes that later theological expressions, in this case the WCF, have interpretive priority over earlier ones. Is this a valid assumption? If so, how is this different from Cardinal John Henry Newman's idea of "doctrinal development"? In his case, the development was rooted in the Roman Magisterium: where is it rooted in the Reformed world? Sola Scriptura? Whose interpretation of the Scriptures? Is it possible (taking this to one possible logical conclusion) that all interpretations of Scripture are wrong and we have yet to come to a correct one (and who would have the authority to claim that that one really was the correct one?), but we will because we are getting more and more theologically "mature"?

If we go with the Fathers, by contrast, does this lock us into their ecclesiology? Should Presbyterianism, then, cease to be? (A related question is where was Presbyterian church government before the Reformation? Ignatius of Antioch, as mentioned previously, argues for one bishop per city who loving rules over a collection of presbyters -- this is strikingly similar, albeit not quite the same, as modern Orthodox practice. While arguments can be made for the Biblical precedent for Presbyterianism, where was it in historical actuality? I confess my own ignorance at this point. It may be there and I've just not run into it. If you have sources, please pass them along).

And so, years later, the Postmodern Protestant Dilemma rages on. Lord, have mercy.

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