Shaking the Foundations:
The Shift in Scriptural Authority
in the Postmodern World
Dr. Jim Denison
(Note: An earlier version of this essay appeared in Review and Expositor, August 4, 1998)
When the foundations are destroyed, what are the righteous to do? I wanted to see for myself. For years I’d read and heard about “postmodernism,” a new way of seeing truth and the world. Scholars claimed that this “paradigm shift” is leading to a world view unlike any the church has encountered, and that it renders most of our ministry methods obsolete. But I wasn’t sure this shift was as threatening as its prophets claimed.
So I arranged to send a film crew to interview people in our community. The church I pastored, Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, is in Buckhead, the nightclub district of the city and only a mile from the most popular hangouts for younger adults. We asked some television ministry volunteers to take a camera and hit the streets. They were to tell people they’re making a documentary about religion in America, but not to tell them they’re from a church. They simply asked people what they thought of religion, good or bad.
The result: we got several hours of the most depressing, discouraging footage I’ve ever viewed. Again and again people called the church irrelevant and outdated. Three times someone said the church is at least one hundred years behind the times. They chided us for our materialism and greed, our hypocrisy, and most of all, our irrelevance. And while only one person interviewed claimed any kind of church membership, every person was sure he or she was right. They were sure that the church was insensitive, irrelevant, outdated. And we had no ministry response to give them.
How did our society change so much, so quickly? What is this “postmodern” world in which we now live? And what authority does the Scripture possess in reaching such a world?
Founding the “modern” world
For nearly twenty centuries the Christian church has built its theology and ministry upon the foundational belief that the Scriptures possess inherent authority for faith and practice. Before we can understand how this foundation has crumbled in this generation, we must first know how it was built. Then we can see the cracks and respond to them.
The patristic and medieval authority structures
The first Christians held a clear and positive view of biblical authority. Peter’s Pentecost sermon presumed the binding authority of Old Testament prophetic literature; Stephen’s defense was largely a retelling of the biblical history of Israel; James built the Jerusalem’s council acceptance of the Gentile mission on Old Testament prophetic texts; and Paul could say that “All scripture is inspired by God” (2 Timothy 3:16).
However, the authority structures of the Christian movement soon shifted from the Bible itself to the Scriptures as they are interpreted by the Church. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch argued for the authority of the bishop over the church and a “college” of bishops as the ruling authority of the universal Church.
Irenaeus further identified the Roman Church as the “preeminent authority” in Christendom, with her leaders emanating from Peter and Paul through the bishops who have succeeded them.
Soon (ca. 250) Cyprian of Carthage had separated the “clergy” from the “laity” and made his famous claim, “He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.” When Constantine made his conversion to Christianity in 312 and subsequently legalized the church, the institutional authority of the Christian movement was clearly defined as the Roman Church and her leadership.
Of course, this concept of ecclesiastical authority molded greatly the patristic and medieval concepts of Scriptural authority. As God gave the Scriptures through the Church, so (it was argued) he guided the Church through her leaders to the proper interpretation and application of his word. Creeds, councils, and papal rulings became the means by which the biblical materials were understood and transmitted.
And so the Catholic foundation blocks of the modern world were set in place: objective truth and absolute authority structures, centered in the teachings of the Church.
The Reformation project
In shorthand, the Protestant reformers sought to relocate authority with the Scriptures as they are interpreted by the individual believer. William of Occam argued that the revelation of God in Scripture is the authoritative basis for Christian faith, not the authorities of the church. His position greatly influenced Martin Luther, who studied under professors committed to Occam’s theology. In fact, Luther called Occam his “beloved master.”
Luther in turn made the famous claim, “Only the Holy Scripture possesses canonical authority.” He discounted in turn the claims of magistrates, church councils, church fathers, bishops, and even the pope to authority over the Scriptures. John Calvin agreed: “God bestows the actual knowledge of himself upon us only in the Scriptures”; “Scripture has its authority from God, not from the church.”
With the reformers’ achievement the Protestant foundation blocks of the modern world were laid: a Bible which possesses objective meaning, theological positions which are certain and true, and Scriptural authority which is final and absolute.
The “modern” mind
While the religious world was experiencing this monumental conflict between ecclesiastical and Scriptural authority structures, the philosophical world was undergoing a struggle equally foundational and far-reaching.
Rene Descartes, a Catholic mathematician with an intense personal need to find foundational truth, sought that truth which he could not doubt. He determined that the existence of the thinking self was the first truth which doubt could not deny. As a result, he defined the human condition as one centered in the autonomous rational process. The “rationalist” worldview followed Descartes’ location of authority within human reason.
The empiricist reaction focused upon personal experience as the true authority for knowledge. John Locke asserted that the mind is born not with innate ideas (the Cartesian system) but as a blank slate, a tabula rasa. David Hume claimed that this empirical method cannot lead to true and certain knowledge. Every belief is derived from an object; our minds connect these objects into patterns on the basis of the appearance of unprovable causal relations. We cannot defend our reason by reason.