I’d like to add one more point relevant to our understanding of Scripture (from here and here). This point bears less directly on the nature of the Bible’s composition and truthfulness and more on its interpretation and authority. I’m very much in process on this point and hope readers will appreciate the tentative nature of my comments. I’m test-driving this in an attempt to aim in the direction of where I think more settled conclusions are likely to be found.
(6) SENSUS COMMUNIS, or a “communal reading” of Scripture — at least on the essentials. To be sure, there’s certainly a sense one could give to the notion of sola scriptura which is compatible with what we’ve already said in points 1-5. The Scriptures relay that sufficiently truthful historical-social-religious context necessary for the Incarnate One’s self-understanding and vocation. That (i.e., incarnation), we argued, was the primary point of creation and election of Israel. Naturally, it is to the Scriptures (and not to the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita, the Avesta of Zoroastrianism or the Quran however profitable they may be) that Christians look to understand those events which ground their self-understanding, their religious inspiration and worship, their ethical core, and their missional/vocational calling. So there’s certainly a ‘sola’ to affirm in this sense with regard to Scripture as the authoritative source of Christian identity and vocation. If that’s all one means by sola scriptura, I don’t know any Christian who would disagree.
But this is not the popular understanding given to sola scriptura by the Evangelicals I grew up with. What’s typically meant is not only that the Scriptures are the authoritative source of doctrine and theology for the Church (there’s agreement there) but that the individual believer is the final arbiter in determining doctrine and belief for him/herself, a kind of creedal sola fidelis (the ‘believer alone’, i.e., ‘my’ reading of the text is the authoritative one for me).
As such sola scriptura entails a certain mistrust of community and with that, of course, of tradition. No surprise on the minimal regard for tradition among Evangelicals. But it may surprise our Evangelical friends who value their identity as ‘relational theologians’ to hear someone suggest that they are in effect isolationist when it comes to finally deciding what the Bible authoritatively teaches; so let me try to describe where I’m coming from.
‘Community’ is promoted as an essential value at the heart of life and belief by relational theologians (like open theists). God and creation are about ‘community’ — communal identity, communally defined and driven mission, crossing traditional boundaries in cooperative efforts to forge a wider and deeper sense of community (because that makes us more like the trinity of divine persons who have their being and identity in community), etc. You get the point—‘being is communion’.
But so far as I can tell this doesn’t translate into how we (Evangelicals of the ‘relational’ sort) finally interpret Scripture, more specifically how the authority of Scripture to determine belief and doctrine is negotiated by the individual. For when it comes to this authority, it seems the individual considers him/herself to be the final arbiter in saying just what that authoritative teaching is. Scripture’s authority effectively reduces to the individual’s authority (to interpret and decide for him/herself). On this point little of the concern for ‘the relational’ survives into how those of us who otherwise value relational being end up determining our faith and identity as Christians. What happens in Evangelicalism is the individual takes sola scriptura to mean Scripture’s authoritative meaning is ultimately fixed for the individual by the individual alone — sola fidelis (the believer alone). After all, individual believers are indwelt and empowered by the Spirit. Shouldn’t this mean final arbitration on matters of interpretation and doctrine, indeed, in saying just what “Christianity” essentially is, rests with each individual believer? Shouldn’t the Spirit’s indwelling and enlightening the individual believer mean the individual is where the Scripture’s authoritative meaning is determined? Only “I” can say what the Christian faith finally is, what its essential beliefs are, etc. True, I’d be wise to listen to other voices, ancient and modern, but in the end, only “I” can finally say what “the faith” is, what “the Church” is, etc. Here the authority of Scripture to settle faith and practice is taken not to describe the boundaries within which the Church is to ‘say together’ what the Church is and believes; rather, that authority is reduced to the individual standing before God. I’m just wondering if this is really the best way to go.
Without wanting to suggest that individuals not read and interpret Scripture but just let other church authorities read it for them and tell them what it means and what they’re to believe (an equal but opposite abuse), I do want to suggest that something is amiss with the sola fidelis reading. The Church after all is Christ’s “body,” a “community,” a “communion” of faith and identity formation. Only that community as a community can decide who they are, what they believe, and what they exist for. To argue that every individual believer is authorized by God to define the Church for him/herself and its faith, as indispensable as the individual is, looks like a failure to maintain a ‘relational ontology’. An irreducibly relational ontology would, arguably, mean a relational or communal reading and understanding of Scripture (sensus communis).
I am, for better or worse, a Protestant, but not because I believe Protestantism has achieved a measure of community or interpretive accuracy that rivals Catholics or Orthodox. Arguably we Protestants have sunk to lower measures on these matters. Who but Protestants can reinvent the Church every generation or divide themselves into what must by now be hundreds of splintered factions each claiming to have reclaimed the faith and practice of the earliest believers? Whatever value sola scriptura might have for Christian unity, Evangelicals have failed more than any other tradition to achieve or demonstrate it. Now that every individual believer is deputized by the Spirit to determine the meaning of Scripture and identify what the Church and her essential faith commitments are, every believer just is his/her own Church, own faith, own mission.
I don’t have any safe, trouble-free path from the ‘text’ (which we all agree speaks with authority) to individual believers, but it seems to me that the Church as a community ought to share in the mediation of this authority if we’re going to be ‘relational theologians’ through and through. This is why I suggest sensus communis, a relational-communal reading of Scripture.
One way to approach this which might help suspicious Evangelicals warm to the idea is to consider that fact that Evangelicals are already implicitly committed to the communal mediation of Scripture’s authority and to a certain extent its key doctrines as well, in their acceptance of the traditional canon. The very texts Evangelicals hold to be authoritative Scripture and whose key doctrines they reserve the right to determine for themselves (as individuals) were in fact settled on by councils on the basis of, among other things, their teaching. These writings and not others were adopted as canon in conciliar agreement on the basis of a shared reading of their content and teachings.
But we cut off the branch we’re sitting on if we agree that these books are our authoritative canon fixed by conciliar agreement but then reject that same authority when it comes to definitive questions of faith and interpretation. It was the authority of conciliar agreement that settled on which texts in fact embody Scriptural authority. So if we accept the standard canon without conducting our own investigation of all the relevant literature to establish the canon for ourselves as independently as we want to interpret it (!), we are implicitly accepting the authority of the Church’s conciliar agreement to determine for us which books shall speak to us with final authority. But it makes little sense to accept as authoritative the conciliar-communal agreement which fixed those texts we take to be authoritative Scripture and then dismiss the authority of that same community on matters of interpretation. How do I dismiss the authority of a Church on the basis of authoritative texts whose identity as Scripture I accept on authority of that same Church? Unless I’m going to fix the canon as independently as I want to interpret it, I’m implicitly presupposing the authority of the councils/agreements that gave me the Scripture. The authority of Scripture, then, is mediated communally to me already. I just thought this is a point lost on most Evangelicals and worth considering.
Just thinking on it.