Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Doctrine of Differential Authority

One of the most maligned aspects of religious traditions is the role of doctrine and dogma. Being called "doctrinal" or "dogmatic" isn't usually considered a statement of respect. Instead, those terms are pitched out at people whose "faith" seems to serve as an impenetrable outer shell, a carefully constructed wall of tradition and received teachings that insure that there's no chance anything outside could ever touch or change them. As the common wisdom holds it, such souls are safe from the the pernicious influence of things like other human beings, reason, and the Spirit of the Living God.

This isn't entirely fair, of course. We all "take things on authority," and holding to doctrines and dogmas means little more than that. Abandoning doctrine entirely means essentially dismissing the insights of everyone who has come before you. For Christians, that would mean you're trashing several thousand years worth of insights from brilliant, thoughtful, Spirit-filled Jesus people. I just can't do that. I love Paul. Augustine is my brother. Walks through the woods with St. Francis would be marvelous. It is only out of the strange, self-centered arrogance of this age that we're able to delude ourselves into imagining that our "personal relationship" with God doesn't connect us to all those other souls who've rejoiced in Him through the ages.

But we don't like doctrines. Bleh. And because doctrines are so stinky, I'll..ahem...offer up another one. I've expounded on this a few times here before: The Doctrine of Differential Authority.

The rule of thumb...the "doctrine"...coming out of the Protestant Reformation regarding the reading of Scripture has always been that Scripture interprets Scripture. The intent of the reformer's approach was to liberate the interpretation of the Bible from the institutional church, and to allow it to speak for itself. If you read Calvin in particular, that liberation was intended to unfetter the Holy Spirit, which is the source and root of Scripture's authority.

This has taken us down two unfortunate paths. First, many Christians allow themselves to accept what I like...in my usual non-provocative manner...to call Satan's Method of Scriptural Interpretation. We've all seen it used. You take a random assemblage of unrelated texts that seem to prove your point, and count 'em all up to prove whatever point you wanted to make. Old Scratch used that one on top of the Jerusalem Tower. Whoever's got the most verses...wins!

Second, there's the tendency to view every single text in our canon as equally full of transforming power. Unfortunately, this lends itself to a level of cognitive dissonance that most sentient life forms can't endure. Let's say I'm in conversation with a woman, and she lets slip that she's a practicing Wiccan. Do I obey the infallible Word of God and immediately stab her? (Exodus 22:18) Or do I obey the infallible Word of God and engage her in an open and respectful conversation that surfaces my theological disagreement but remains guided by love? (Romans 12:17-18)

Many Christians get around the disagreements in Scripture by saying there is no disagreement. I understand this perspective, but I just can't do it myself. At a basic level, it doesn't seem to respect the authors of the texts...or the Author, for that matter. Instead, I prefer to interpret using the Doctrine of Differential Authority, which assumes that not all Scripture speaks with the same amount of God's power. To put it bluntly, some Scriptures are more rich with the Spirit than others, and those scriptures must be used to define those below them.

Well, you say, that leads us down the slippery slope of subjectivism! Though I appreciate your alliterative reply, I beg to differ. The Bible itself tells us that some passages are more important than others. Torah can be condensed into 10 Commandments. Those 10 Commandments can be condensed into the Great Commandment, the Love commandment, which is itself an expression of God's own nature.

As we approach scripture and seek its guidance as the rule of life and faith, it is this understanding that needs to govern our interpretation. Why approach it this way?

The point of such an approach is to do two things. First, to recognize and accept this innate hierarchy within canon. Second and more importantly, it's to help unlock the movement of the Holy Spirit in Scripture, which is its ecstatic source and the foundation of its authority.

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