Tag Archives: narrative

Nothing Outside the Text: Sola Scriptura in a Postmodern Age


Contemporary philosophy (& some theology as well) tend to emphasize the primacy of language, that various social constructions are linguistic systems made of the interplay of signs. All knowledge is interpretive, relational, and constructed, and not, as was once commonly believed, objective. Words do not have fixed meanings, but rather gain their meaning contextually, through their use in communal settings. This last thought might not be hard for many Christians to accept, but the greater implication is that all social systems, whether they be ethical, legal, religious, etc., are not based on any fixed foundation, but also gain meaning according to their context and communal interpretations. Contemporary Christianity, which is mostly rooted in an objectivist understanding of knowledge, ethics, and religion might find this hard to swallow, but I am of the opinion that we should embrace such perspectives of postmodern philosophy.

This readiness to jettison belief in an objective foundation may alarm some readers. They may even think, “Didn’t Christ say that we should build our house on the rock, a firm foundation?” The answer is that, yes, he did indeed say that. However, the rock he was referring to was not Descartes’ model of the autonomous subject, or Kant’s model of the subject that gains objective knowledge through reason and the senses, but rather, himself. Thus we Christians should build the Church on Christ, who is not a fixed object, but a relational Being.

We can think of the Church as a linguistic system, a body that shares a common language and set of symbols, all of which gain meaning and significance through context and the interpretation of the Church. When we say, “Christians are called to be loving and peaceful,” we must understand that the meaning of words like “love” and “peace” are not fixed, but change over time and in different situations. I have heard several sermons throughout my life contrasting the English word “love” with the Greek “agape”, about how our English concept of love does not compare to this Greek concept. But truly, this concept of God’s love, the love that is God (1 John 4:8), is not a Greek or an English or French or Chinese concept, it is a Christian concept. This kind of love is defined only through the narrative of the Bible, through Christ. The biblical narrative informs the Christian worldview, it defines the vocabulary of the Church. The laws, and rituals, and language, and understanding of the Church are not fixed traditions that must be preserved, but things that the Church should continually reconstruct so that they continue to embody Christ.

The idea of Sola Scriptura has not been the most popular in recent times, especially among the more liberal set of Christians who favor personal experience in deciding how the Church should act. But the Bible is integral to maintaining the particularity of the Christian faith through the communal interpretation of the Church, and dialogue between the text and ourselves.

Martin Heidegger stressed the idea that language precedes us, we are thrown into it, and that it forms us as much as we (communally) form it. The same understanding should be applied to the Church. It precedes us. We are embedded in it. We must allow its past to form us as we continue to form it in its current form. This is the Life of the Church.

Just Semantics

Lately I’ve been thinking about language, and how we human beings use it to shape and interpret our everyday experiences. I’ve long believed that most arguments are more about words and their definitions than actual issues. Its funny how definitions seems to change throughout the course of an argument, until both parties admit to be saying the same thing, only in different words. Or the opposite can happen, when one person’s definition crystalizes into the antithesis of his or her opponent’s.

A few years ago I took a philosophy class. I remember our teacher explaining different ways the word “freedom” can be defined in American politics. The “conservative” (or classical liberal) definition meant “freedom from government interference”. The “liberal” (or contemporary liberal) definition meant “freedom to participate equally in society”. This word that is thrown around so often in any political discussion can mean radically different things depending on who is using it, and also it can be interpreted in radically different ways depending on who hears it. Proponents of the “freedom from” view might naturally seek to limit government to the best of their ability, whereas “freedom to” folks might seek to expand the government so that it can ensure equal opportunity for people of different classes, genders, races, etc.

I have some friends who consider themselves “anti-capitalists”. Their definition of “capitalism” is essentially Marxist. They claim it is a system that creates social classes and exploits those in the lower of these. It is responsible for the corruption of our system of government and for the degradation of the natural environment. The definition becomes a linguistic pit that consumes any and every negative concept. Thus we have created a structural narrative in which one word is understood to represent our ultimate problem and source of all our suffering, and its’ antithesis becomes the path to our liberation. Of course the “pro-capitalist” would never dream of defining “capitalism” in such a way, but would probably opt for something closer to “economic freedom from government interference”. Can either of these definitions be right?  Or are they both gross oversimplifications that pale in comparison to the complexities of our actual situation?

Upon more reflection I started noticing these structural narratives everywhere. For Marxists, there is capitalism. For feminists, patriarchy. For anarchists, government. For primitivists, civilization. For Christians, sin. All are structural narratives built upon the demonization of a word through definition, and the idolization its’ antithesis. It would be possible for us to create some overarching umbrella structure and bring together all of these demonized words into the definition of some greater, and ever more vile word. Womanist critique has offered the term “kyriarchy” as an extension of “patriarchy” that also takes into account issues of racism and economic injustice. Some Christians have combined these injustices together as various symptoms of the larger problem of “sin”.

But should our ultimate goal be to create some monolithic, unquestionable narrative structure? I think rather we should acknowledge that any narrative falls short of grasping the true complexity of the real world. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

βλέπομεν γὰρ ἄρτι δι’ ἐσόπτρου ἐν αἰνίγματι, τότε δὲ πρόσωπον πρὸς πρόσωπον· ἄρτι γινώσκω ἐκ μέρους, τότε δὲ ἐπιγνώσομαι καθὼς καὶ ἐπεγνώσθην.