Saturday 21 November 2009

Bibliolatry and the Age of Orthodoxy

The Reformation was an era of fiery debate, empowered by a dynamic that saw the world in broad brush strokes. Once the fire died down, and until the Enlightenment broke through, the embers were used to justify the reign of Orthodoxy.

Those assertions are not new, but I've been reminded of them by reading Bernhard Lohse's A Short History of Christian Doctrine. It's a remarkable work, especially given that the first German edition dates back to 1963 (which, if you're in need of a pop culture reference point, was the year The Fugitive first hit black and white television screens.)

Lohse is measured in his approach, but there's not much doubt that he is less than enchanted with the rise of Protestant Orthodoxy. The fact that it now lies gutted on the floor, a victim of the rise of historical thinking, doesn't change the fact that it affects us all still. Its outstanding but pernicious legacy may be the way most of us, as a default setting, were once taught to superstitiously regard scripture.

The Reformation thrust the Bible into a new prominence, and the big name Reformers were responsible for making it central to their agendas. Yet, as Lohse points out, the original layers of Protestant confessional writing contain no specific doctrine of scripture. That had to wait till the Formula of Concord in 1577.

It was possible, in those salad days, to be very critical of scripture - the letter of "James" for example (famously dismissed as "an epistle of straw") or the book of Revelation. The criteria for such judgment seems to have been whether or not a particular biblical document witnessed to what was seen as the essential gospel proclamation. Early German Protestant bibles happily relegated whole canonical books to a New Testament appendix, something almost unimaginable today.

In the Formula of Concord are found "the first traces of that development which sought to find in Scripture merely proofs for a comprehensive system of doctrine and which, at the same time, used Scripture as a law book..." (p.220)

Why? "This was done in order to obtain a bastion which would be safe from attack by the [Catholic] church... not even the most curious theories were disdained." (p.221)

Orthodoxy never solved the problems associated with this approach in a satisfactory way. In time the "dead hand of Orthodoxy" was first dissed by the Pietists (whose progeny yet prosper in a variety of evangelicalism) before collapsing under the impact of a modern world. But the proof texting approach that emerged then endures and prospers in the pigpens of fundamentalism.

The liberators - and of course Lohse is writing from a European perspective - emerged in the figures of Semler and Lessing, and the questions any thoughtful Christian faces today are not perhaps much different from theirs - unless you were raised in a "liberal" tradition to begin with. Semler "demonstrated the gradual development of the biblical canon, and in doing so undermined the Orthodox doctrine of the verbal inspiration of Scripture." Lessing grounded Christianity in the beliefs that predated the creation of the New Testament, the "rule of faith." Idolatrous claims about the bible and its alleged perfections have a long history of challenge.

For Lohse, these were liberating deeds. If so, it's a freedom that was enjoyed by many of the Reformers themselves, but after more than four hundred years has still to percolate through to the coal face of conservative Christianity.

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