Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Gridlocked” first appeared in the Summer 1992 issue of Touchstone.
Readers may be beginning to wonder when the exchange begun by my article, “The Bible Under Spirit and Church” [Touchstone, Vol. 4.2] will end. Because the authority issue of which it partakes is an abiding concern of those interested in ecumenical orthodoxy as we think of it here, the larger discussion may confidently be expected to continue. The understanding ad extra upon which our work at Touchstone is based is that there actually is such a thing. But ad intra it must be defined—an ambition that invariably involves the long-standing and very durable differences of those who meet in the pages of this journal.
Our intention in publishing the pieces by Dr. Walter and myself was to help bring an important segment of the Church into what we regard as one of the most consequential theological conversations of our day. Evangelicalism has until now been busy with its own concerns and not really willing to open its arcanum to the larger Church of which it is a part. Its approach to the doctrine of Scripture, with all its complexity and its unique fail-safe mechanism (autographal inerrancy), is what needs the most explanation, for there is a great deal about it that strikes the Christian with strong intuitions of Church authority as eccentric and unnecessary. We were honored to have two of the movement’s most distinguished theologians, Carl F. H. Henry and J. I. Packer, offer responses, and pleased that other correspondents from several traditions also contributed. It is now time, however, to close this phase of the conversation, for some will want time to digest it and others appear to have arrived at an impasse.
Dr. Henry’s final word was that I gave more prominence to the church than to God and that I did not recognize Scripture as a comprehensively authoritative canon. He maintained that the “Church” of which I was speaking does not exist. I am afraid we have carried this conversation as far as it can go, for while I heartily agree with Dr. Henry on most things, I find his opinions on these topics as scandalous as he finds mine. Mr. MacKenzie in the correspondence of the last Touchstone took me up sharply for giving the catholic traditions a leg-up on the free churches, for he believes orthodox segments of both operate within the same epistemological framework: St. Thomas believed in inerrancy; so do Cardinal Ratzinger and other traditional Roman Catholics, those of Mr. MacKenzie’s acquaintance being more comfortable with the formulations of conservative Evangelicals than of those who are slipping to the left. He represents my view of the role of the later Princetonians by citing me in this way: “Reformed theology did without it [the doctrine of inerrancy] nicely until the late nineteenth century, when it was brought forward at Princeton . . . .” The portion in brackets, I have been informed, was added by Mr. MacKenzie. To omit “autographal” from it, however, is to create a straw man, and indicates to my dismay that despite the efforts I have taken to make myself clear, I am simply not making contact with some of my Evangelical friends.
Since I reckon both Mr. MacKenzie and Dr. Henry honorable men who would not deliberately misrepresent my views, I am pressed toward the conclusion that the ideas I am trying to present are simply foreign to them—foreign not in the sense of unintelligible, but incapable of full translation into the language they speak. Given time and the desire to do it this obstacle may be overcome, but not if they identify me as one of their old tribal enemies and set the dogs on me. It is, for example, becoming increasingly difficult to react serenely to people who make me fool enough to claim that the concept of biblical inerrancy was invented at Princeton. This is what I said in my reply to Dr. Packer:
It is the whole shivering edifice of the theology of autographal inerrancy at which I am tilting—a theology that is built into every institution and statement of faith that makes the authority of the biblical autographs the linchpin of its doctrine of Scripture.
It would be rash to claim that even this idea was first thought up at Princeton. No doubt it has passed in and out of a number of Christian heads down through the years. (One might look for it in places where the Church has been influenced by Islam, whose understanding of the nature of its own scriptures is similar.) Perhaps it may even have left a few odd traces on vellum. But this I will assert: the theory of autographal inerrancy as I believed and advocated in the world of conservative evangelicalism was indeed developed and brought forward at Princeton in the late nineteenth century. This far Rogers and McKim are correct. It has not status as the accepted teaching of the Reformed tradition, much less as the consensus of the Church. To note that Roman Catholics who are faithful to the teaching of their Church believe in biblical inerrancy and are naturally sympathetic to Protestants who do also is one thing; to claim that the Catholic Church’s view of biblical authority has the same epistemological underpinning as that of the autographal inerrantists is quite another.
Neither Dr. Henry nor Mr. MacKenzie find room in the cognitive inn for what I say about authority in the Church, but still must lodge me somewhere. The only stable they see available is that of the Liberal Drift. Dr. Henry finds me a stall among those afflicted with “nonrecognition of Scripture as a comprehensively authoritative canon” for reasons I fail to understand; Mr. MacKenzie beds me down with Rogers and McKim, who hold that the historical consensus on Scripture form which autographal inerrantists have deviated is that “God had condescended to use imperfect human forms of communication, infallibly to accomplish God’s perfect purpose in bringing salvation” (The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible, 459)—a formula rendered no less suspect in coming from United Presbyterians who call for doing theology “in a flexible, responsible, contemporary style in a pluralistic church and world” (Ibid., 460). Conservatives in the Protestant mainline have heard these lines all too often and know what they mean—that the Bible should be trusted to the hands of militantly nice people who consider themselves flexible, responsible, and contemporary in a pluralistic world. God save us from the likes of these! And me from those who think I am one of them!
No, John Woodbridge, who wrote the major rebuttal to Rogers and McKim (Biblical Authority: A Critique of the Rogers/McKim Proposal), is on the mark in asserting that the Church has historically believed the Bible to be the written Word of God, inspired by the Holy Sprit, and as such inerrant. It would be anachronistic for those on either side of this debate to read the particulars of the discussion of verbal inspiration of the last several centuries too far back into history (as both conservative and liberalizing Evangelicals all too typically do). Still, the main line of magisterial thought on this subject has clearly been that when one is dealing with the Bible, whatever critical problems there may be—and critical problems there have always been—one is dealing with something that is in some real and unqualified sense the inerrant Word of God. In this regard Woodbridge stands squarely in the Great Tradition, Rogers and McKim outside of it.
Now, the difficulty in holding that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God in this age is very great. One understands why so many have abandoned the inerrancy ship, for the forces that menace it are formidable indeed. Quite apart from this, religious scholars of all persuasions, liberal, evangelical, and catholic, agree that the text as received cannot by any reasonable judgment stand as inerrant. It is at this point where the most fundamental divisions are made. The way of the liberal is well-known: the Bible becomes a collocation of religious documents whose authority is wholly dependent upon enlightened modern judgment. Evangelicals like Rogers, McKim, and James Barr step into this stream when they subject the Tradition to the judgment of people who are flexible, responsible, and contemporary. (In Barr’s writings it is evident that the academy finally dictates to the Church what it can know and how it must know it. The autographal inerrantist does this too, although his is a smaller, more conservative academy.) The effects of these operations may be seen in the destiny of the evangelical Protestantism of the nineteenth century which became, under the influence of critical liberalism, the mainline Protestantism of the twentieth—a course now being recapitulated among late twentieth-century Evangelicals under both this and feminist persuasion.
Another way taken is by those who decide to remain in the Tradition, but this road has several forks. Dr. Henry and Mr. MacKenzie attempt to identify me as one who has left the main road, but I, like them, and like Dr. Packer, recognize and wish to defend the Great Tradition. The difference is that I believe those who follow the Princetonians are on a byway they will eventually have to abandon because it will not take them where they want to go. Mr. MacKenzie’s letter makes it necessary for me to repeat once again that treating the Church doctrine of inerrancy and the nineteenth-century Protestant theory of autographal inerrancy as if they were one and the same is ahistorical and invalid.
Where is even one citation from a Church father or reformer that makes the authority of Scripture dependent upon the autographa after the manner of Hodge, Warfield, or the Evangelical Theological Society? Gentlemen, can you find one who agrees with you? Well, perhaps you can. Then can you find two? And mind you, I mean people who base their doctrines of biblical authority on that of flawless autographa. Why must you consistently obscure this point, implying that this modern apology is a necessary corollary of the ancient doctrine that we should oblige the Church by reading back into its history? When one actually reads Church history—or examines Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, or even confessional Protestantism—where does one find an approach to authority that would make the theory of autographal inerrancy an ultimate necessity? No, Professor Woodbridge is right: inerrancy, or something very much like it, is the doctrine of the Church. But Dr. Henry and Mr. MacKenzie are wrong: autographal inerrancy, and the whole theological and institutional edifice that conservative evangelicalism has built around it, is not. Nor does it follow, I must repeat, that if one believes the Bible to be the Word of God, one must commit himself to the desperate expedient of linking its authority to the autographs. The association of the doctrine of biblical authority with the autographa is in fact the death of the quality it seeks to preserve, for it places inerrancy at precisely the same distance from us as the autographa, that is to say, both quite out of reach.
The problem here is the inability to see that the Princetonian way is not the only one possible. The other road—the right one, I believe—is that in which the authority of Scripture is viewed as flowing from and resting in the prior authority of a Spirit-inspired Church and its teachers (the apostles pre-eminent among them), a living, consensual tradition in which finding and reconstructing the best texts is a natural and useful part of its scholars’ ongoing labors, but not its touchstone or the foundation of its epistemology. What can I say to those who seem to have no comprehension of this, or even any categories that allow them to entertain the idea? What can one say to those who do not understand C. S. Lewis when he talks about “mere Christianity” as if it is something that actually exists, who are baffled at why the Creed is so important to other Christians, who regard Eastern Orthodoxy as part of a fanatic fringe, and for whom “orthodox Christianity” is measured by conformance to the opinions of the Evangelical Movement? What can one say to those who cry “subjectivism” every time the Spirit is mentioned, and can only think of error and ambiguity when one speaks of the Church?
At this point I wonder how it is possible that the teachers of the churches in which I was raised seem to lack the intuitions that I always thought were nurtured there. I learned in my fundamentalist childhood that there were certain cardinal doctrines that marked out Christian territory. These were never held to include the ones which were peculiar to us, but only those common to all Christians at all times. Calvin, Luther, and Augustine were regarded among us as heroes of the faith. Occasionally we would hear names like John Chrysostom (never “Saint,” of course, for we were all saints) or Thomas Aquinas—and always as authorities for the things we Christians believed. We used the Prayer Book rites, or something very close to them, to marry and bury. Fundamentalism, so far as it was vitally interested in the fundamentals, was liberal in outlook and catholic in both fact and intention.
When as a young adult I launched out into the larger Christian world—the world which contained the real Chrysostom, Augustine, Luther, and Calvin instead of simply their Baptist wraiths—I had scant impression that I had to leave anywhere or reject anything of substance. I had been taught to cherish the prime doctrines of the faith, and cherish them I did, along, I found, with my newly discovered Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox friends. C. S. Lewis was my first intellectual guide in this world, but he told me nothing I hadn’t already heard among the fundamentalists. He spoke of mere Christianity, and it was a faith and attitude that I had already learned from my parents, my pastors, and my Sunday school teachers. Discarding the husk of sectarian peculiarity was not difficult, for it was not of the essence. And although I had been hedged about with all the precautions and shibboleths of my tribe, I had never actually been taught that these were de fide. They mostly concerned alleged vices in which one did not wish to be caught when the tuba novissima—pretribulationally—sounded. I found armies of allies I never knew I had, once I took the pains to learn their languages. And lest it be forgotten in the heat of this family squabble, I will remind the men with whom I am disagreeing there that I regard them also as my friends and brothers.
Something else came along with this—a powerfully reinforced intuition of the Church, of the essential unity of its faith and doctrine. The Vincentian Canon took on flesh, and the disputes between the “essentially orthodox” looked more and more like variations on a theme, or misunderstandings fueled by personal antipathies, or unbalance on one side of a question brought on by reaction to excessive emphasis on its complement, or debatable extrapolations on things that everybody already believed, or as earnest but misconceived attempts to demystify the mysterious—not to avoid the mystery but to make it more accessible. At the bottom of it all truly was mere Christianity: Mother Church, quite undistracted by the wrangling of her children. (Yes, I know, my convinced Orthodox and Roman brothers, you are beginning to have difficulties here, and I, who remain Protestant, must turn to face you soon.)
These impressions were not assisted by an idealistic temperament or sanguine disposition. Those who know me would smile at the idea, for I have neither. Rather, they came about because I nurtured the hope that this might be the case, and then became a student of theology and church history to find out whether indeed it was. I have come to the conclusion that there is one Lord, one faith, and one baptism, and that when one speaks of the Church as the body of Christ, animated by his Spirit, the object is something solid and historical in which there is real communion of the mass of redeemed sinner with the Lord and with each other. Here is a reality that, as J. W. Nevin so forcefully observed, is rightly place in the Creed as both an object and subject of faith—in which one believes just as much as he believes in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. In fact one believes in God precisely in as much as he believes in the Church—in the sense of believing because one has his being as a Christian in the Church, and only in the Church.
My Evangelical teachers criticized those who supported bad opinions by quoting Bible verses out of context, and surely they were right. But in doing so they opened larger contextual questions which they hesitated to explore. (Harold O. J. Brown remains, in my mind, a glowing exception.) The Bible, in whole or in part, never stands alone; it always exists within an interpretive context, and it is that greater context within which the smaller one of the text itself is read and understood. The context includes the interpreter, and the question of meaning cannot be separated from that of the interpreter’s viewpoint and that of the community with which he is allied. The question then becomes that of which community has the correct interpretation. The only answer to this can be that the final interpretive community is the Holy Catholic Church, for the Holy Spirit, who was promised to lead us into all truth, was not promised to any part of the Church, but only to the whole. To those who protest at this point that I am off into subjectivism when I speak of the Spirit’s animation of the Church, I can only return them to their Bibles. I will also ask them to reconsider the question of priority: Which is to be regarded as first temporally and in order of authority—the writings or the prophetic and apostolic community in which and for which they arose? Calvin was simply wrong when he said that the Scriptures gave birth to the Church rather than the other way around. The Spirit and the Church are the only and proper context of any Scripture that is called holy. It is they who call our reality into question, not we who can dispute theirs. If we cannot hear them, or understand that it is their prior and supervenient authority on which that of Scripture depends, then the problem lies in our limitation and not in the insubstantiality of these, the agents of our life in Christ.
I do not hesitate to emphasize these “catholic” ideas to my Evangelical friends, not only because they are a proper part of their fundamentalist heritage (of which they seem to be able to see only the dark side), but because I do not believe they will be able to remain evangelical without them. They have come to the end of the era in which they can maintain their theological orthodoxy and institutional integrity with sole reference to the indefectible authority of the Bible, claiming that Scripture is inerrant without an accurate understanding of both how and why. The core of evangelicalism’s existence as Christian is threatened today not so much by those outside it who dispute this authority on principle, but those inside who will add to it or interpret the Scriptures in novel ways. When faced with this, it is time to find ways to bind the Church teaches to the Bible says with full reason and conviction, not simply because it is convenient, but because it is true.
—S. M. Hutchens
S. M. Hutchens is a senior editor of Touchstone.
“Gridlocked” first appeared in the Summer 1992 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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