08 January 2017

Riddles of Fundamentalism 5: Biblicism, Oracular Presence and Concluding Thoughts

Faced with the overwhelming and crushing burden of philosophical collapse and the onset of scepticism we are presented with another option. It comes in the form of a Person, a Way, a Door, a Prophet. We are called to listen to His Voice and trust in Him. As Christians, as followers of Jesus Christ, the Word of God... Scripture comes into the picture. It contains the accounts of the good news, the doctrine, the paths of discipleship and it is, is centered on, and culminates with the Revelation of Jesus Christ.

This is particularly true in the Post-Apostolic era. What is Scripture? What does it mean that it is the Word of God? It must be understood as an extension or more properly the foundation of the foolish proclamation (kerygma) of preaching. It is the signification of the Spirit-presence. And yet this presence can only be true, ratified and functional when the Word is properly acknowledged as the Prophetic Voice of the Spirit. The Scripture is the extension of the Prophetic/Oracular message and presence in the Post-Apostolic age. It is through the acknowledgement of the Oracular Word-Proclamation that the mystery Paul speaks of is revealed. The recognition of Scripture as the Word of God is to recognise the testimony of the Apostles and their Christ-granted and Spirit inspired Authority.

Their words were not to be subjected to philosophical inquiry. They were not data points to be considered within a larger framework of intellectual endeavour. Their spoken words and teaching are recorded for us in the Scripture. They are Authoritative. To treat Scripture as something less is to reject the Apostolicity of the authors of the New Testament.

The only 'examination' praised by Luke was that of the Bereans who searched the Scriptures to determine the truth of Paul's message.

How the Bereans are despised today. I have been amazed at how many clerics and academics will roll their eyes when they are mentioned. Why are they rejected? Because to most ecclesiastics the 'layman' isn't properly trained. Sola Scriptura is (to them) all well and good if run through the proper filters and integrated within a larger framework. In their intellectual and institutional milieu an appeal to 'raw' Scripture becomes something of a fallacy. To many academics who profess an allegiance to Sola Scriptura there are a host of 'resolved' issues and concepts that are embodied within historical theology.

Though it grieves them when it is put this way, like Rome many Protestants (even Fundamentalists) have a functional set of canon laws and doctrines. They have a system of belief that is extra-Scriptural but treated as if it were equal to Scripture. To be fair they think their formulations are faithful expressions of Scripture and represent the teaching of Scripture in a systematic, didactic and utilisable form.

Thus to them the Berean spirit is something of an annoyance, it is to revisit already resolved questions. It is to probe matters that are no longer subject to further examination. The interpretations have become canon, in other words, the interpretations are the functional equal of Scripture.

This is neither the Sola Scriptura of the pre-Reformation nor the early Reformation. The Reformers were unwilling to completely divorce all thought and doctrine from the context of Christendom but they were to a much larger degree than subsequent generations. They were at least willing to entertain all questions in a way Protestant Scholasticism was not.

This is not to suggest that Scripture can't be misread and misunderstood by average well-meaning Christians. There is indeed a method to reading to Scripture but the difference (I would argue) is the methodology and assumptions are within Scripture itself. Scripture supplies its own epistemology and the very brief Berean episode only emphasises this point.

The Word is God's miraculous and thus epistemologically defying gift of Prophetic-Oracular presence to the Church in this age, this time between the times as it were. It is the means by which the Spirit is present in the Church. It is the Word that unlocks or bridges (as it were) the Spirit-presence in the Holy Rites (even mysteries) of Baptism and the Lord's Supper. It is the Word that brings us into the heavenly council, the very Communion and Presence of God. In Christ we are there in His Heavenly Kingdom, in the Great Zion-City, in the very throne-council chamber and He (through the Spirit) is present among us individually and corporately. This bridge, this portal, this exodus path through the chaos-waters and the realm of death, this actualisation, this present participation in the reality of the Eternal Kingdom is through the Word.

It is this question of Oracular presence and recognition as such that provides the primary criterion for determining what is the True Church in this age of counterfeits and lies.  

Scripture must not be treated as something to be dissected or analysed. By the latter I do not mean to suggest that it isn't to be carefully and diligently studied. By analysis I refer to the tendency and process of resolving complexity by breaking into elements, to probe the nature of a thing. Of course the latter exercise is conducted according to standards of analysis that accord with empirical observation. It is to treat the material in a mathematical or even formulaic manner and to fail (utterly) to grasp its absolute profundity and spiritual nature.

To treat Scripture as an expression, outworking, fulfillment or consequent result of Common Sense Realism is to denigrate Scripture and the role of the Holy Spirit. It is to treat the Scripture as not unique but universally accessible, ordinary indeed common. It is to treat it without reference to the Covenant or to the Divine Glory-Presence implied by the Covenant. It is to denigrate the Spirit's role in Scripture's apprehension and interpretation as well as the critical place of internal testimony and confirmation.

It is to ignore the apostolic imperative- to reject the world's wisdom and to be content in being reckoned a fool, a believer in that which is reckoned by the 'common sense' of the world to be absurd.

Scripture in the hands of an academic or politician is by definition sacrilege. This is at the heart of the modern Evangelical impetus. This is but one of their many crimes and errors.

Biblicism at this point ought to differ from Fundamentalism. That said there is much in the spirit of Fundamentalism that can be appreciated.

However, it has tied the knot of the noose by which it hangs itself.

Fundamentalism was born of a sociological context from which it has never been able to divorce itself. Early forms of Fundamentalism were able to follow-through and consistently apply a more Biblical view of history that recognised the nations as part of a temporary order and ultimately in the service of the Beast. Mostly Dispensational they had a rather impoverished view of the Church and yet during the period from the 1910s-1940s there was a strong testimony with regard to the spiritual nature of the Church and its pilgrim place in the world. Several factions within the movement were able to divorce themselves from Protestant-America/Chosen People meta-narratives that so dominate the Christian Right today. Many of the early Fundamentalists were against nationalism and war and despite many problems with their thought are to be commended at least on some level.

And yet World War II changed the equation. And if that wasn't enough the onset of the Cold War and the feared menace of Communism quashed what remained of their New Testament sensibilities.

Too rooted in Americanism, its metanarratives, and culture to be content with separatism, Fundamentalism began the process of turning into world-relevant and accommodating Evangelicalism. Though many opposed this shift (led by figures such as Billy Graham), by the 1980s they had succumbed to the impulse. Only a handful still opposed Graham and the newly ascendant Falwell faction.

Evangelicalism reinfused bourgeois values and sensibilities within Fundamentalism. Long content to be somewhat on the fringe of American society, Fundamentalists once again sought a degree of respect and security within the mainstream of American life, participation in its processes and a claim to its heritage. This continues to play out in terms of values with regard to money. There has been a profound shift in attitude just over the past thirty years. Fundamentalism continues to survive but is in a state of sharp decline. Even today, the 'feel' and culture of Fundamentalist churches are no longer what they were a generation ago. That's a subjective generalisation to be sure but a claim few would challenge, even within those circles.

For the Evangelical wing, this change in values also affected the course of theological development. Again seeking respect from the academy and a place at the table, the doctrine of Scripture was continually tweaked and modified. We shouldn't be surprised to see the outworkings of this in our own day. At this point the doctrines that once stood for Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism have been watered down and are beginning to disappear. Evangelicalism itself has become a term that no longer has any meaning. If it does retain any viable definition it is now only within a sociological context.

Born of a desire to change the culture and transform the world, it is Evangelicalism that has been changed. It invited the world into the Church. The only transformation is that the Church has become indistinguishable from the world. The wise and perceptive leaders turned out to be the great fools and blind guides. They were and are wolves in sheep's clothing.

Fundamentalism has tried to hang on by bolstering its doctrine of Scripture. And yet it retains the hermeneutical and epistemological package that continues to drag it down the same path. You can stand on the King James Bible but when your epistemology is rooted in naïve realism and empiricism it will wither and fail. They're sawing off the branch that they're sitting on.

Just as we often cannot see the composition of a building's foundation we can infer something of its nature by the type of superstructure. The superstructure betrays the nature of the hidden foundation. Fundamentalism's superstructure purports to be built on Scriptural foundations but its 'Common Sense' empiricist theories of epistemology and justification belie the claim.

Fundamentalism properly speaking is only about a century old. We could stretch the definition and perhaps come up with 150 years. It's not isolated and is certainly related to earlier forms of thought. And yet it represents a distinct epoch in the history of the Church. It has proven to be an instructive interlude that will soon pass. Many intellectuals will consider Biblicism to be of this stripe, cut from same cloth if not the very same thing.

Some Evangelicals who claim the Biblicist label are in reality proponents of Fundamentalist Common Sense and will consequently soon perish. The younger generation isn't buying it. These well-meaning folks represent a kind of Biblicism but like the Fundamentalist variety, it is a Sub-Biblicism understood through a rationalist lens. Seeking cultural relevance only amplifies the effects of the poison. In seeking to save their youth they often sow the seeds for their defection.

Others who claim to be Biblicists and Scripturalists are in fact not. There are many Charismatics, Evangelicals and even some Confessionalists who pay lip-service to the notion but in almost no way actually reflect a view of Scripture as the ultimate authority. While Lutheran and Reformed Confessionalists usually reject the Biblicist epithet they do claim to be adherents of Sola Scriptura. There have even been some rather wanting attempts to draw a distinction and create a Sola Scriptura rooted in philosophy and wed to tradition while decrying Biblicism as naïve, archaic, unhistorical and even dishonest. Many of the same critiques levied against Fundamentalism are applicable to these faux-Scripturalists and many more besides. Their understanding of Scripture Alone represents a marked difference with Biblicism.

It is beyond the scope of this series to probe historical pre-Reformation understandings of Sola Scriptura in addition to why and how they differed from the Reformation and especially Post-Reformation variety. But there was a difference. Some will view the Pre-Reformation variant as primitive and obsolete. Others will criticise its approach to Scripture as being of a legalist or even a Neo-Nomian persuasion. 

Scriptural Biblicism differs from Fundamentalism. Despite the differences and the seemingly wide chasm I maintain there is still a healthy intuition and reverence for Scripture that gives me hope. Those of the Fundamentalist inclination while standing on a rickety foundation and having embraced many doctrines that are alien to Scripture, can still be reached. And in many ways I find a greater resonance and camaraderie with them than I do with those of Confessional and certainly Evangelical allegiance.

A case for Biblicism can still be made and must be made. Beginning with a Christ-rooted doctrine of revelation, a Biblical epistemological-hermeneutic can be developed consisting of subordinated logic, submissive correspondence and an abandonment of holistic-comprehensive knowledge and coherence criteria. Christocentric and Redemptive-Historical, this approach while in human terms is circular and even self-contained, it shifts the nature of what knowledge is and how to prioritise it. Technical comprehensive knowledge is subordinated and the believer learns to focus more in terms of telos and meaning. Knowledge is rooted in faithful apprehension and perception.

Stripped of worldly pride and expectation of respect, let alone Dominionist aspirations and pretensions, the quest for knowledge becomes an exercise in doxological profundity, hope and expectation. It is both a burden and joy as we wait to be clothed upon, to fully realise what it means to have the mind of Christ and to know the mystery which eye hath not seen, ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man.

But to do so, to begin to explore the meaning, nature and Authority of Scripture, we must turn away from impoverished and caricatured forms of Sub-Biblicism. We must turn away from the riddles of Fundamentalism, Confessionalism and their Scholastic foundations and rediscover the Oracular nature of the Text and by implication the nature of Saving Faith.