Access to Scripture debated at SEBTS
October 5 2001 by Tony W. Cartledge , BR Editor

Access to Scripture debated at SEBTS | Friday, Oct. 5, 2001

Friday, Oct. 5, 2001

Access to Scripture debated at SEBTS

By Tony W. Cartledge BR Editor The priesthood of believers is preferable to the priestcraft of church authorities and the Bible should be accessible to all, said Paige Patterson in a recent debate with Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas. The debate was held Sept. 25 at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where Patterson is president.

Hauerwas, Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School, was recently lauded as America's best theologian by Time magazine, which described him as "a very Anabaptist Methodist." His book, Unleashing the Scriptures, provided a starting point for the debate.

Hauerwas, known for his provocative views, contends that the Bible cannot be understood apart from the church and that only those who have appropriate spiritual grounding can interpret it rightly. Thus, he proposes that the Bible should not be in the hands of those who might misinterpret it, including children.

The invention of the printing press, the Reformation and the Enlightenment led to a sense of the individual in which people "assumed they could read and interpret text and in particular the Bible without spiritual guidance or moral formation," he said.

But reading the Bible apart from the church is dangerous, Hauerwas said, leading to a loss of Christian unity. Bible reading cannot be separated from the church, he added. "We must test our readings with our sisters and brothers in the church across time and across geography. No one has possession of the meaning of the text in and of itself."

Hauerwas said part of the problem lies in assuming that the original text has an identifiable meaning in and of itself. "My real enemy is not fundamentalism, but rather forms of so-called critical study of the scripture that assume by getting behind the text to the historical forces that produced it you can know the real meaning of the text."

Fundamentalists also go to war against historical critics, he said, but both assume that the text has a meaning apart from the church.

Baptists' reliance on "soul competency" implies "that they have a personal relationship with God which they then have confirmed by going to church," a view that borders on ancient Gnosticism, he said. Gnostics believed that special knowledge could put one in touch with the cosmic forces of the universe.

Christianity is not found in knowledge or experience, Hauerwas said. "Rather, to be a Christian is to be made a member of the body of Christ through baptism, which means I am made accountable to a dangerous people. Outside the church there is no salvation."

Hauerwas said he believes the Bible is the word of God because "That is what the church has taught me to believe." But the Bible should be "put back where it belongs," he said. "That is in the hands of the church, in the hands of Christians coming to look with one another about how to read the Bible ..." He concluded, "For Christians our first loyalty is to the triune God and God's church across time and space. Only in that context can we confidently and prayerfully read scripture as God's word. Otherwise it is just our opinion."

Patterson disputed Hauerwas' premise, as stated in the preface to the book, that the Bible should be available only "to those who have undergone the hard discipline of existing as part of God's people."

Patterson agreed that some read the Bible with more profit than others. Those who have more education or a deeper church background might gain more from Bible study, he said.

Patterson said Hauerwas' thesis has no prospect of fulfillment, since "It is no longer conceivable to take the Bible away from the people."

Interpretation of the Bible cannot be left up to the "priestcraft," he said, which "would allow the magisterium, the pope or the academy ultimately to tell us what the Bible means. ... To say that one should and could read the Bible is also an affirmation that it is indeed the living God whose voice we hear in scripture and that He can speak with anyone."

Patterson said Hauerwas' proposal threatened human freedom. "Because no one of us sees everything exactly as it really is, we need that religious liberty to talk to one another in the market place just as we are doing tonight, and have a right to debate the very theses of the Bible itself in order to try to come to a full understanding of it. That can only be done in a society where religious liberty, the most fundamental and important of all liberties, is absolutely maintained."

The possibility of error in interpretation is certain, Patterson said, but the church should not be troubled by it. "So are there mistakes made? Are there heterodoxies? Are there errors in interpretation? Certainly so. Not to worry. They only point to the beauty of the accuracy and the truth of God's word."

Hauerwas fails to consider the very lessons of church history that he wants the church to embrace, Patterson said, citing lessons to be learned from Augustine, Anabaptists and Mennonites. Patterson mentioned the Reformation emphasis on the priesthood of believers, adding "I believe that Dr. Hauerwas would like to have us forsake that."

Patterson said his greatest concern was that "the proposal of Dr. Hauerwas fails to contemplate adequately the nature and the mandate and the promises of the Bible." He cited 1 Tim. 3, 2 Tim. 2:15 and John 14:26, 15:13 as texts that encourage Bible study.

"It is not the church itself that is the infallible teacher of God's word," Patterson said. "It is the Holy Spirit who inspired the word of God who is to be the great internal teacher. And it is that ability of the Holy Spirit to teach the one reading the book that makes it so very important that everyone have access to the word of God."

Patterson agreed that biblical authors may have written things with significance greater than they knew, but denied that the original writing was without meaning. New light may break upon a text, Patterson said, but future interpretations cannot be contrary to what the author intended.

Hauerwas responded to Patterson's statement that more educated or church-grounded people might read the Bible to greater profit, saying both groups are among the poorest readers of scripture: "We no longer are able to read it for the radical message it has because we think we have got it explained." American Christians have domesticated the Bible, he said, leading people to assume "that the American way of life and the Christian way of life are commensurate."

Biblical injunctions against believers taking one another to court in 1 Cor. 5 and 6 illustrate the issue, Hauerwas said, since American Christians know the text but routinely ignore it.

Hauerwas agreed that the people have the Bible and it cannot be taken away from them. "That is the problem," he said. "That is exactly the problem, that they have got it. And as a matter of fact, that they think they can read it just straight up without the kind of life that would ask the question, 'I would rather be wronged than take a fellow Christian to court.'"

"Of course, you hear a tendency towards priestcraft in me," Hauerwas said. "Indeed, I can't imagine the church without a priestcraft. Indeed, I say the only interesting ecclesial question left is why we are not all Roman Catholics. Only Roman Catholics have been a church, capable of being a church of the poor in this culture."

"I do not believe in religious freedom," Hauerwas said. "I believe in the freedom of the church. And that is not the same thing as religious freedom."

The language of freedom is tainted, Hauerwas said, to the extent "the project of modernity is to produce a people who believe they should have no story except the story they chose when they had no story."

Some people "go to a Baptist revival and get religion and you get to choose that story," he said, "but you still are a liberal. You're still choosing."

The problem with American pulpits, Hauerwas said, is not a government telling us what we can and cannot say. "The problem is, the pulpit in America is self-policed by preachers who are afraid of offending their congregations."

"And so the question is not whether we have religious freedom," he concluded, "but whether we are a church that scares the society so deeply the society is frightened to give us that freedom, but we will take it anyway because we are the people of God who stand against the powers of this world by God's grace and Holy Spirit that makes it possible for us to say no when Caesar calls."

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10/5/2001 12:00:00 AM by Tony W. Cartledge , BR Editor | with 0 comments
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