Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sola Scriptura, authority and "tolerance"

There is one way that Christians might possibly prove ["Radical Orthodoxy" John] Milbank wrong [on his accusations of "Fundamentalism"]: they might come to see the meaning of Sola Scriptura not as they traditionally have in terms of the supreme trumping or silencing power of the text over all potentially rival sources of knowledge, but rather in terms of the noncoercive, nonviolent authority of a witness that continually evokes and invites open-ended conversations about its meanings. The unique or sole authority of Scripture would in this case lies not in the Bible's ability to provide once-and-for-all answers to all our most pressing questions, nor [sic] in its power to tidily dispatch with challenging new evidence from history, science and human experiences with a fideistic "Thus saith the Lord." It would instead lie in the way that reading Scripture in communion with others who are also committed to making its narrative central in the midst of new realities with the right kind of responsiveness to the Other with whom we may have unresolved—possibly unresolvable—disagreements. [Ronald E. Osborn, Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2014), 83-4]

In chapter six of Osborn's book, he continues with his strong critique of "Fundamentalism" and its "enclave mentality," pleading for "tolerance" of alternative positions and citing with approval Karl Barth's view of Scripture. This I might add seems to be the mainstream view within the liberal wing of Evangelicalism, or the conservative wing of mainline theology, whichever characterization one prefers.

The first problem here is that Osborn has a very shallow understanding of "Fundamentalism." From what he has written and what I have read, his background seems to be from the Seventh-Day Adventist camp. The problem is that Fundamentalism especially in America is an extremely complex social phenomenon. Just like New Evangelicalism, it is extremely simplistic to say that Fundamentalism is stereotype X. Fundamentalism has no real creed, it has no central authority, no disciplinary committees, and thus is not monolithic. Yes, there are certain tendencies in Fundamentalism, and one could in a sense take those tendencies as typical of the movement. However, I do not see anywhere that Osborn has actually dealt seriously with the movement. Merely citing a couple of books on Fundamentalism, and at least a book on Marxism, is not a real analysis of Fundamentalism, of which the Seventh-Day Adventist were a part but not the whole. As I have said, picking up people like those from Westboro Baptist and think they represent Fundamentalism is just plain ridiculous. And while one might disagree (and I do) with Fundamentalists, they do not usually have malicious intent and actually are trying to do what is right according to Scripture. This is the one thing most lacking in Osborn's analysis of Fundamentalism: actually trying to understand Fundamentalism according to its adherents instead of according to its hostile opponents, or former adherents like Mark Noll (in the Scandal of the Evangelical Mind) who is ashamed of his past.

As I have said in response to Osborn, I find it incredible that he is outraged at me using two words which discount his position, while he spent more than 10 pages attacking creationism (which is linked with "Fundamentalism") as being essentially cultic. Osborn speaks about respect and tolerance, but where is that attitude from him extended to those he is writing against? I mean, if you can dish it, then you are supposed to be able to take it in kind. To the degree that you critique others, you should be willing to take it as well. I think that is a very basic law. Furthermore, since he is pleading for tolerance of opposing viewpoints, shouldn't he be practicing what he is advocating? I must say that consistency is somewhat lacking in the way he rather intolerantly attacks creationists while at the same time calling for greater tolerance.

Along this idea of "tolerance," I find it interesting that he is calling for open-ended conversations. I would question his call however for what kind of "open-ended conversations" he is seeking when he has already sent a preemptive strike against creationism by delegitimizing it? Conversations means dialogue, which means two sides speaking, not a monologue where the "enlightened" side tells us how "intolerant" and simpleton the other party is and so we must "converse" with a view towards embracing his position. So is Osborn really interested in having a conversation or not?

Osborn has also embraced the idea that a focus on words and propositions is a legacy of the Enlightenment. The problem is that this is just terrible history. Yes, there wasn't a huge focus on words in the early church and medieval and Reformation eras, but that is because ideas like words are words and propositions are the units of thought are basic concepts that are unquestioned. Which pre-modern or early modern would have countenanced the idea that error can be actually infallible (the Barthian non-inerrant infallible position)? Would that make sense to anyone at all in these earlier eras, that errors do communicate truth? No! Only in the modern and postmodern eras do we have such a concept, through an artificial division of content and form (i.e. the form of the words is errant, the [deeper] content is truth).

Osborn's appropriation of John Milbank is also interesting. I question however why what Milbank, being a modern day Anabaptist, has to say about "Fundamentalist" is important. How does his concept of "noncoercion" and "nonviolence" tally with the history of the church with its many councils proclaiming what is and what is not to be believed, even proclaiming anathema against those who disagree with the council's edicts? Has Osborn read the Athanasian Creed recently, especially its opening words? Osborn wants to read Scripture in communion with others, which I agree but not in the same way he does. If we are to talk about reading Scripture in community, then why are we discounting much of church history? The dogmaticism of the early, medieval and Reformation-era Church stands in direct contrast to Osborn's position and have much more in common with "Fundamentalism." It is the modern and postmodern church that stands in profound discontinuity with the historic Christian faith, so one would think that reading Scripture in community means rejecting most of the novelties of the last two to three hundred years. Ad fontes!

In conclusion, I do not find Osborn's plea very convincing. Like mainline Liberals, all the pleas for tolerance and open-mindedness do not seem sincere. If Osborn really wants to be taken seriously, he needs to practice what he preaches, not say one thing and do another.


Ron said...

Brother Daniel, I am by no means "outraged" at anything you have written. When I read that I laughed out loud!

PuritanReformed said...


so should I interpret your comment as being made in jest, then? Were or were you not serious when you make it?