Friday, April 30, 2010

Sola Scriptura or Solo Scriptura?

I self-identify myself as a Protestant, and, in theory I agree with Sola Scriptura---the belief that Scripture is sufficient guide to what Christians should believe on things which are actually salient to Christianity. When the Holy Spirit moves to enable the full comprehension of what Scripture means, this works quite well. Unfortunately, this far too often seems not to be the case, and I find myself in sympathy with the more Catholic position that church tradition should be given a far greater weight.

I suppose one simply has to reflect that on many issues with theological significance, most of the church is presently at serious variance with the unseen church---that is the communion of saints reaching back to around 30 AD. Further, most Christians place far higher weight on current opinion then on the opinion prevalent in say, 100 AD, 500 AD, or 1500 AD. Further, one has to admit that Protestantism itself has schismed over and over again, to the point of being a frequent source of humor. It would seem that the Spirit animating many interpretations of Scripture is not in fact the Holy Spirit but a decidedly more malevolent one, or sometimes, perhaps no Spirit at all but simply a desire to find an interpretation that does not require the reader to be out of step with his peers and his age.

What can we do about this? Should we beg readmission to the Catholic Church, with it's more centralized approach to scriptural interpretation? Should we just pray harder? I can't answer either of those questions for myself, much less for any reader who happens to have dropped by for whatever reason. All I can suggest is this:

We must accept that our predecessors in the Church were at least as Christian as we are, in the aggregate. We must furthermore accept that they succeeded in spreading at least the knowledge of the Gospel to at least as great of a degree as we have. Furthermore, they have generally had a degree of understanding of the Bible at least as great as the average possessed by Christians today (a brief examination of the surveys of knowledge of Christians of the doctrines and beliefs of their faith will reveal this is a fairly low bar to meet). In many cases, they are far closer to the social circumstances in which the Bible was written and are closer to the source material than we were. For instance, how many of us have ANY concept of what living in a low-surplus society is like? Or what the accomodations needed to make such societies work actually are? I suspect that only a few modern Christians, likely those who have lived in very poor places of the world during long term missions have any grasp of this at all---and even then, they generally always had the option to move back---such privation was not a permanent state of affairs.
Given these premises, I would suggest this to anyone inclined to make pronouncement about how the Bible says that Christians should behave today.
Honestly answer the question, how would orthodox Christians from AD 500, 1000, 1500, 1750, and 1900 answer your question? If they all, or most all, agree with your position, you are probably right. Certainly each era has its errors, but as C.S. Lewis famously pointed out, they usually aren't the SAME errors. If most or all of them would disagree with you, the burden of proving that YOU aren't the heretic is pretty large. Smart as you might be, you probably aren't smarter than the collected wisdom and practice of your religion, and if you accept the premises of your religion at all, you must recognize that you are 'running on corrupted hardware' as the folks over at overcomingbias are fond of pointing out (in our neck of the woods, we call it original sin or total depravity, or simply failing to be a Pelagian heretic :-).
So let's take a hard case---slavery. Both Old and New Testaments talk quite a bit about it, probably because it was a fairly common part of the experience of a large fraction of the population. It isn't presented as an ineffibly evil institution in either Testament. Paul, in his letters to a slave and his master, doesn't even say the master should free the slave to the master. Yet in the 1700s, the church started moving strongly in the direction of condemning slavery and we take it totally for granted now that slavery is contrary to Christianity.
Why is this? Were the Christians who accepted slavery, serfdom and similar instruments of bondage wrong for nearly 1700 years?

I would argue that the key to understanding this lies in understanding the low surplus human society's condition. We are obscenely richer than anyone born before the 1700s. In a low surplus society, you simply can't afford to do a lot of things we take for granted now. In fact, you might not even be able to feed everyone. So what, in such a society, do you do with your screwups, idiots, and people who just can't fend for themselves? Your minor criminals that you can't afford to incarcerate and feed, your prisoners of war? The most merciful answer to that question is often bond-servitude, be it slavery, serfdom, indentured servitude, or the like. Christianity was not designed to only work in high surplus societies like our own, but in any society that God or Man might decide to inflict on us. Therefore it emphasizes that such servitude carries reciprocal obligations on the part of both master and slave (refer to Paul's various letters and the laws regulating slavery in the Old Testament). So why did it become considered an evil thing in the 1700s? Well, for that I suggest heading down to your local gym. Find yourself a fancy exercise bike or treadmill---one with a calorie consumption meter that will display in watts. You'll find that producing 150 watts is quite taxing, and the 6-7 hours that would be required to squeeze 1 Kilowatt-hour out of you very fatiguing indeed. Congratulations---you've just produced about 12 cents worth of power. This should drive home just how rich in terms of the power at our command we've become since the Industrial Revolution and the widespread availability of fossil fuels. Christians in the 1700s recognized that the amount of wealth available to society HAD FUNDAMENTALLY CHANGED as a result. Furthermore, Christians recognized that they had always been obliged to be as charitable as they could afford to be, and no more, and that said obligation had just enlarged along with their purses. Therefore they argued that society should no longer permit slavery.

Of course they didn't express it in many cases in exactly those terms, but it is telling that the timing is so close. Slavery generally ended in heavily Christian countries about as soon as society could afford to end it. Regretably, most abolitionists in the US didn't phrase their arguments in these terms. Had they done so, slavery might have ended in the US via a buyout similar to that in Brazil instead of via the bloodiest war in American history.


polymathblogger said...

I'm afraid you're wrong about slavery in the US. The existence of slaves drove down the price of wage labor, and hence the value of a slave was lower when there were lots of slaves, so you couldn't buy up ALL the slaves at the marginal price of a slave when slavery was in full force. If you tried to enforce that, the slaveholders would not have accepted it and there would still have been a Civil War, because accepting the buyout and then having to pay real wages would make their plantations much less profitable and reduce their overall wealth greatly. (Not as greatly as they would have thought, because the ex-slaves would have worked harder once they were getting paid, but still enough to turn a rich man into one who was merely well-to-do, and a well-to-do man with a few slaves into one who had much less economic security.)

Jehu said...

You can't buy out a company (i.e., as in a merger) for the marginal price of a share either. That's why the price when you try to do a M&A operation goes up, producing a fairly nice windfall typically to the acquired company's shareholders (my wife benefited from this when her old company got swallowed, then the company that swallowed was itself swallowed back before we had children). So you'd have to buy out the slaves at some price higher than the marginal price of a single slave. This fact, btw, is also the reason why it's not kosher in most people's opinion to simply buy people out using eminent domain for just the regular assessed value of the property, which is equivalent to the marginal price for a similar unit. Practically by definition, most of the units aren't the marginal unit. Brazil managed to do this, as did the British, although the British had many fewer slaves relative to the size of its economy to deal with. It'd be an interesting question to see if both parties in the US civil war were presented with a reliable estimate of how much the war would cost them if they'd still go through with it.

Hail said...

Protestantism itself has schismed over and over again

An unfair characterization, as there was never a "Universal Protestant Church". Never. The Reformation became a declaration of independence from Rome, such that any local group could think for itself. This tradition of liberty of conscience existed going back to the 1200s at least (Lollards, Jon Wyclif, Jan Huss and the Moravians, Waldensians, Albigensians, Mesiter Eckhart and his disciples... all are among the notable 'protestant', freethinking, populist, purist-spiritual movements of the West in the 1200s-1400s AD. The recently-converted Scandinavians also refused many papal edicts in this era, including Rome's banning of priest marriage).

Respecting what wise men have said before is one thing; another thing altogether is allowing ourselves to be puppets of a cabal that claims to be acting on behalf of wise men of the past and for the common good but whose actions speak otherwise.

There is also the important question of universality. Should all peoples be united by a single church, subordinate to a single way of thinking? This is Rome's position. Or should different ethnocultural or other local units be in charge of their own affairs, the Protestant position?

Hail said...

The slavery-abolition discussion in your essay is very interesting and definitely valid.

I'd further flesh out one of your driving points by quoting Oscar Wilde :
So while Humanity will be amusing itself, or enjoying cultivated leisure –- which, and not labour, is the aim of man –- or making beautiful things, or reading beautiful things, or simply contemplating the world with admiration and delight, machinery will be doing all the necessary and unpleasant work. The fact is, that civilisation requires slaves. The Greeks were quite right there. Unless there are slaves to do the ugly, horrible, uninteresting work, culture and contemplation become almost impossible. Human slavery is wrong, insecure, and demoralising. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends. [end quote]

In other words, an slavery-abolitionist or would-be-abolisher-of-serfdom of many centuries past, might seem like (the absurd notion of) a "machine-liberationist" today.

There are also vague parallels between A.) those on the left calling for an end to fossil-fuels, which draws a sometimes-hysterical reaction from some on the right, and B.) Abolitionists of the 1700s-1800s calling for the end to slavery.

Fossl-fuels provide us with essentially free energy. IIRC, one liter of gasoline provides us the equivalent "horsepower" to 30 days' labor by an able-bodied man. That one liter of gasoline costs the fraction of a price of even a single frugal meal for one. That hypothetical man needs 90 solid meals (30 days x 3), lodging, clothing, medical care, training, and on and on, to produce the same amount of work.

Jehu said...

On Protestantism, certainly the various denominations of it have schismed repeatedly, sometimes violently, I agree there's no such thing as a universal protestant church. Protestantism suffers from the lack of a commonly accessible arbiter with an agreed on mailing address. Catholicism suffers from the presence of one. There's no easy way out of that little conundrum.
You're quite right as to fossil fuels though, which has pretty profound theological implications if we're at a true peak (the plateau from around 2005-now) instead of a false peak (as in the early 70s, in addition to the economic ones. But a vote to abandon fossil fuels presently is essentially a vote to return to a state where most people are (obviously) slaves (or dead, as the carrying capacity of the planet w/o fossil fuels is much lower than the present population). Once again there's no easy answer and we harm ourselves if we pretend there is.