Wednesday, May 20, 2009

[Four Corners] Scriptura?

There is a classical dispute in the law of contracts, the underlying problem of which also bears on the doctrine of sola Scriptura.  

Suppose you enter into a contract to purchase a home from a seller, and at some point the other party refuses to sell, claiming that a term of the contract allows them out of the deal.  If you disagree with their interpretation of the disputed clause, and take it to a judge, what should he consider in resolving the matter?  Should he only consider the "four corners" of the contract that you and the seller signed (i.e., nothing beyond the written page itself), or should he also consider extrinsic ("parol") evidence, such as testimony that the seller assured you orally that the clause meant the opposite of what he now claims?   

The underlying issue, then, is whether courts can consider something more than the contract, when the parties are bound only by the contract document they signed.  The traditional position has been that only the written contract could be considered by the courts, not testimony about oral promises made outside of the writing.  If we wax theologic, this is sola pactum, if you would.  But a rift started to emerge in the courts, prompted, as is often the case, by bad cases and clear scoundrels benefiting from a 'bright-line' rule.  

A fairly philosophical view appeared: a contract is never in fact interpreted by its four corners alone because every judge's mind comes pre-loaded with normative or interpretive biases.  Anyone reading it would filter the words on the page through their own preexisting understanding of language, or of the matters being agreed upon in contract.  Specialty terms from a particular field related to the contract (e.g., construction terms) may have a different meaning to the contracting parties than they would to a lay judge.  Language is never a perfect medium for underlying thought, it seems.

Analogously, if our authority for faith and morals is the Bible alone, may we look only to the four corners of Scripture, or do we admit extrinsic sources to our interpretation as well? Some will insist upon a negative answer: "no book but the Bible, no creed but Christ."  

The Reformer opposed to 'biblicism' will be quick to note that his authority is sola Scriptura interpreted with the church (see here).  That is, some measure of deference to others' interpretations or to a traditional vein of interpretation is due.  This view, which I admire for its humble respect for tradition, is the analog to the liberal trend in contract interpretations admitting extrinsics.  But in choosing our extrinsics, in selecting whose or which traditional vein's interpretation receives our deference, we, like judges and anyone else handling text, do not start with an interpretive tabula rasa.  We add our own extrinsic.  And like the specialty terms in contracts worsening the problem of four corners alone for judges, specialty terms, period-specific terms and the like, in the Bible worsen the problem when attempting to interpret Scripture without the influence of pre-loaded biases.

How is the term sola proper when it is not [Four Corners] Scriptura, but Scriptura + Interpretive Extrinsics?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Onward Christian Soldiers: Armies of One?

The Bible tells us that we, as Christians, are types of soldiers. For instance, Paul tells the Church at Philippi that he has decided to "send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker and fellow soldier." (Phil. 2:25.) In 2 Timothy, we are reminded to "[e]ndure a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs—he wants to please his commanding officer." (2 Tim. 2:3-4.) And of course there is the well known passage from Ephesians 6 exhorting Christians to "put on the full armor of God." (Eph. 6:11.)

Today's army wrestles with the working out of individualism and the 'liberating' ideology of the previous centuries. Headlines from a few years ago savored the excitement generated by a U.S. Army junior officer who refused to deploy to Iraq. His reason: he believed that the Iraq war was immoral and illegal, so he would not participate.

In the same year, the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church ruled to petition the U.S. President to allow soldiers to selectively conscientiously object to conflicts "on the basis of just-war criteria."  The Synod noted the Christian's obligation to obey national authorities, but saw this obligation as being trumped by "our ultimate God."  By "our," the Synod meant "each individual Christian's."

This has me wondering about private judgment and effective warfare, both in the context of military soldiers fighting military wars, and in the context of Christian soldiers fighting a spiritual war.

Are we the Army of Christ, or many armies of one?  Armies are effective when they amass a stronger force than their enemy.  Strength comes from obvious things: size, training, discipline, and cohesion.  But if each soldier can privately determine the rectitude of the commander's course, cohesion and discipline evaporate.  Would Col. Chamberlain have been able to send his 20th Maine Regiment on a daring charge, thereby holding Little Round Top and saving the Union flank at Gettysburg, if private dissent was allowed?  Could Gen. Eisenhower have thought to take the beaches at Normandy with an allied force in which individual conscience could trump military orders? (And I note that the individual's conscience and judgment are far from clear when facing the prospect of incoming hostile fire.)

The sine qua non of successful warfare is an obedient soldier. Every military needs him before it can hope to have cohesion and unity.  Even guerilla forces, irregular militia, and insurgent rebels abide by this modus operandi; they have leaders and subordinates, rules of obedience and enforcement of disobedience.

So for what reason might we conclude that the Army of Christ would be any different? The concept of obedience is hardly a minor tangential characteristic of soldiering, so I do not think this is an instance where 'all analogies break down.' To the contrary, if anything is derived from our being characterized as armor-wearing "soldiers," it should be that we are part of the whole, with the whole depending on its parts. We are not Wrestlers for Christ, after all. And we are not an army of one. We should be one Army of Christ. It is--and has been since time immemorial--the soldier's to obey, and the commander's to lead.