Wednesday, September 22, 2010

John Calvin Says Scripture is not the Word of God

Recently, there was a minor stirring within the shrinking corner of the Reformed Tradition that I inhabit. Landon Whitsitt, the new Vice-Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), is someone whose blog I've been feeding since well before he got that rather long and impressive title. Up until he was selected for that esteemed position, he I am...more or less invisible to the reactionary wing of our denomination.

Now, though, he's gotten their attention. He's done so by offering up this thought: Sola Scriptura may no longer be the rule of the church, and it's something he's moved away from. This pressed the rather large and well-worn panic button at the headquarters of the Layman, the right-wing publication which polices matters of fundamentalist orthodoxy in our neck of the woods. Claxons and red lights and alarms went off. They printed an actually-rather-fair summary of Whitsitt's conversation, attached to the headline: "Vice Moderator: Scripture is Not the Word of God." This was followed by much irate shouting and stomping around on their response page. How can a church leader suggest that Scripture alone is not adequate? We're going to heck in a handbasket! We're abandoning the core principle of the Reformation! Apostasssseeeeeeeeee!

Problem is, Sola Scriptura as a free-standing and defining principle is simply not adequate. Scripture...meaning the sacred texts and narratives of our not sufficient in and of itself. It does not stand alone. It can't. It never has. You can know those texts and stories backwards and forwards, and even the most detailed intellectual knowledge of that data will not make you a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth. Spend even 10 minutes in discussion with a committed and studied atheist with a chip on her shoulder, and the truth of that will become clear.

That's because Scripture derives its meaning from the power of the Holy Spirit working in the heart of a reader. It is the Spirit that guides our interpretation of Scripture. It is the Spirit that opens us to the significance of that narrative for our own existence. Scripture does not stand as an authority for us, and cannot stand as the basis for our salvation, without the Spirit at work. Yeah, I know, this is squishy liberal relativism. It's the sort of thing you get from hopeless pomo leftists like, say, John Calvin, who wrote:
The testimony of the Spirit is more excellent than all reason. For as God alone is a fit witness of himself in his Word, so also the Word will not find acceptance in men's hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit. The same Spirit, therefore, who has spoken through the mouths of the prophets must penetrate into our hearts to persuade us that they faithfully proclaimed what had been divinely commanded. (Institutes, I.vii.4)
If what connects us with Scripture is our personal connection to the Spirit of the living God, and what allows us to recognize its authority is that Spirit, then Sola Scriptura cannot be a foundational axiom without making explicit that rather significant caveat.

That, as I see it, is the fundamental failure of Christian fundamentalism.