Thursday, September 3, 2009

Does the Bible Stand Alone as the Sole Basis of Authority?

I was recently engaged in a debate with an anonymous commentator about one of my blog posts. As the debate progressed, the issue of health care came up and, as expected, we were on opposite sides of this debate. My inquisitor claimed that the idea of universal health care was a communist idea, and therefore, not biblical. He challenged me to point him to any place in the Bible where Jesus said that we ought to have universal government sponsored health care.

Of course, I could not offer him what he wanted, a precise chapter and verse, for Jesus never said anything specific about this issue; at least in the way we are currently thinking about it. But his request raises an important issue with which we Christians must grapple if we are to be relevant to our own context, and if we are to live out the true nature of the rule of God in our own world. The big question is this: Does the Bible stand alone as the sole basis of authority?

One of the foundational theological shifts that occurred during the Protestant Reformation was an emphasis on the sole authority of scripture as that which is sufficient for faith. Indeed, Martin Luther’s challenge to the Roman Church was based on his belief that theological doctrines must be based on scripture alone, or as he termed it, sola scriptura, and not on any church authority, whether bishop or council.

Yet, it is difficult to say that sola scriptura has ever been fully practiced even in Protestantism. Indeed, Protestant confessions that have developed since the time of Luther and his fellow reformers are in and of themselves interpretations of scripture that lay out a Protestant set of doctrines. Thus, even the heroes of the Protestant faith did not allow scripture to stand on its own, but offered their own interpretations of scripture. Such is the nature of biblical interpretation.

In the eighteenth century, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, re-framed the understanding of the authority of scripture and the methods by which scripture can be interpreted. Twentieth century Methodist theologian Albert Outler recognized Wesley’s method and christened it the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.

In the quadrilateral, scripture holds primacy of place for normative Christian faith and practice. Scripture serves as the foundational authority for the church through its time and space existence in the world, but scripture must be interpreted in light of tradition, reason and experience. Scripture is what the human biblical author believes to be the revelation of God to his specific historical situation. Yet, scripture lives on through the existence of the canon and its interpretation in future generations, who must rely on tradition, reason, and experience to formulate meaning for the church in each specific context.

This means that although the text of scripture continually serves as a basis of authority for the church’s faith and practice, each generation and locality of the church must find its own interpretations that are in conversation with scripture and church tradition, but that are open to reason and experience. In this way, the Bible remains valid as a source of Christian faith and practice, but the literal interpretation of the Bible now has a rational filter through which the text can be sifted so that it remains relevant to an ever changing world.

If we apply this method to understanding the issue of health care, we start not with having to look for where Jesus specifically commands or forbids that health care be universal, for he never said either. Rather, we look first to Jesus’ teachings about having love and compassion for all, and we understand his healings as parables of the rule of God. Here we find solid scriptural grounds for supporting universal health care.

Jesus healed the sick not because he was divine, and not simply because he had compassion on those he healed, though this much is true. Jesus’ healing of the sick was a sign of God’s rule and an indictment against a system that failed to heal and care for those most vulnerable in society. His actions of healing were parabolic actions that proclaimed that in God’s rule, healing is offered to all.

When we view how Jesus’ teachings and healings have been understood in church tradition, we can point to the growth of health care movements throughout the history of the church. During the plagues of the Roman Empire, Christian communities grew in numbers because they offered healing and comfort to the sick. In our more recent history, church denominations founded hospitals, some which still carry the names of those denominations.

Shifting our interpretation to apply reason to this scriptural argument, we can propose first that universal health care, though not specifically commanded by Jesus, was also not specifically forbidden. Instead of basing our position against universal health care on the argument that Jesus never commanded this, a more reasonable argument that is more in line with Jesus’ overall message should lead us to want health care for all. We have the opportunity to bring about a widening of God’s justice for the poor beyond even what Jesus may have envisioned.

Finally, reading scripture in light of our experience, we see that the world still refuses the rule of God. As followers of the Great Healer, we must continually ask the question, “What would Jesus do?” In an age of medical advancement, would not our personal experience of seeing the sick and our desire to live as Jesus wants us to live move us to fight for justice and health for the poor and vulnerable?

I must concede that Jesus never commanded that we have universal health care. But such a request from the person who challenged my argument sheds light on how our understanding of scriptural reading can be too narrow, and can only lead to our faith continuing not only to diminish in relevancy, but more importantly, distance itself from the person of Jesus.


Mike said...

Of course, your friend might want to note that nowhere did Jesus endorse hospitals, MRIs, antibiotics, or even the use of cars or ambulances to take people to a doctor.

Thanks for your great explanation of the issues, the focus on Wesley's thought, and the overall message of Jesus.

Jesus also seemed to regularly do things that the "religious" people did not approve of. He would not be bound by people's expectations -- unless he was being confronted by the need for love and acceptance and healing, as with the Syrophoenician woman, who seems to change Jesus' mind.

Sorry. Went to preaching and I am not one, in the wilderness or otherwise. Thanks again for your comments and your blog.

Malcolm said...

As always, a timely pertinent post!