Are we necessary?
Against the right expressed by the Catholic church to possess the authoritative interpretation of scripture (and therefore the right to define doctrine), the reformers asserted the right of private judgment. With William Tyndale, they wanted the boy who follows the plough to read scripture for himself and decide what it says. For that, they also had to assert the perspicuity of scripture – that the meaning of the text is clear to the ordinary Christian. Why then do we need lecturers in biblical studies and theology? There are two frequent responses to this question.
Firstly, there is that of the cynical onlooker.
This assumes that we have decided to make things complicated in order to make ourselves indispensable. In other words, our job is all part of an enlightenment professionalism which refuses power to traditional authorities and instead creates a knowledge elite. This has power over ordinary people by being the only ones who have the knowledge and understanding that those people need but do not possess – in law, medicine and the church. It is just such a role that many in emerging churches reject today and so do not use traditional theological colleges as they otherwise could.
Secondly, there is that of the horrified historian.
This says that the Reformation, in asserting the right of private judgment and the perspicuity of scripture actually led people to see so many different truths that today, if David Barrett’s World Christian Encyclopaedia is to be believed, we have over 20,000 different denominations. This view holds that even the reformers realised the consequences of their assertions and quickly put in place statements of faith to constrain the interpretation of scripture. Soon after that, some of them started killing each other for exercising the right of private judgment.
Clearly neither of these responses is adequate. Can we find a space between perspicuity and authority within which we can operate as teachers?
Parker Palmer says some useful things about this. “A learning space has three major characteristics, three essential dimensions: openness, boundaries and an air of hospitality”and “The teacher is a mediator between the knower and the known, between the learner and the subject to be learnt.” We can say that it is the learner’s job to learn and she can do it. In that respect, we hold to perspicuity. Yet it is also a task that should not be done alone. It should only be done “together with”.
Firstly, it is done together with the Church – that has been doing it for a long time now and in many different cultures and situations. A hermeneutical community of one walking behind a plough reading the New Testament is in an un-necessarily weak situation.
Secondly, it is done together with an informed guide who, in the categories of Palmer, encourages openness, sets boundaries of speculation and creates a hospitable space where the work can be done together. Such a guide makes available the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church over two thousand years and among as many cultures, and creates the learning space which makes the work of the student possible and joyful.
That is our necessary task.