Re-writing Scripture

Speaker & scholar Phyllis Tickle believes that our generation is seeing the end of "sola scriptura," the Protestant idea of Scriptural authority correcting and superseding Christian tradition and papal authority. She believes that this end has been brought about in three movements:

1) Christians Against Slavery-- the bible does not say that one can't have slaves or should not have slaves, and yet most Christians today believe that slavery is wrong, against the will of God, and was only permissible in the bible due to cultural constraints.

2) Christian Acceptance of Feminine Authority-- according to Tickle, Paul speaks clearly against women being in authoritative positions in the church and seems to indicate that women should have very little spoken participation in the congregational setting. Tickle and a growing majority in Christian circles believes that this was a localized teaching from Paul, that he meant something else, that such a mandate does not apply today, or that he was just plain wrong.

3) Christian Acceptance of Homosexuality-- the western church is increasingly more tolerant of homosexuality and other sexual/gender issues despite the clear teaching in scripture (Tickle believes that the Bible very clearly stands against this-- and she seems to indicate that she disagrees with the Scriptures on this point, as well as feminine authority and slavery.).

Readers of my blog will have a wide variety of views on each of these three points. The point is not to debate any of these issues, but to shine light on a shift taking place. Many Christians in America today would say they believe in the Bible as their final authority and yet most of us would say genocide is morally wrong and against the will of God-- even though it is commanded by God to the Israelites. We would add that it is wrong for us to enslave other people (and people groups) because we are all created in the image of God and deserve to be treated with dignity. Most of us would then create complicated and complex arguments for why the Bible does command genocide in a few instances and how that is wrong today, as well as complicated arguments for why slavery is wrong but not stated as such in Scripture.

Tickle believes that we come to such conclusions based out of reason and experience. We "know" that slavery is wrong. We feel it in our gut. Thus, this belief supersedes that of scripture and we will then shape the scriptures and our theology to create an accommodated argument for our belief.

I do believe she is correct in saying that we are seeing the end of sola scriptura. I think we are beginning to see a new era emerge-- a place where theology is shaped by scripture but not controlled by scripture. Although I would argue that this is exactly what has been happening over the past 2000 years, it will become more visible and blatant in our time. Rather than appealing to cut-and-paste scripture verses as evidence for our systematic theology, theology will occur by appealing to themes in scripture and then departing from them to create something new. Essentially, we will blatantly state that our new theological thought is inspired by Jesus but contradicts Scripture in "such and such" ways and that this is okay and on purpose.

A good example of this will be departing from the Genesis narrative of creation and forming a theology that has evolution as its framing story but have a Yahwist-inspired value weaving throughout as opposed to a social-Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest value weaving throughout. Theologians will then argue that the Yahwist writer strain in the Torah was doing this when writing his parts of Genesis-- taking the general framework of Enuma Elish (the Babylonian Creation myth) but asserting Yahweh as creator who speaks forth creation in a loving, caring way rather than humanity and creation emerging out of the blood and violence and chaos of the gods. Thus, the new era will create its owns "scriptures" in the vein of the Bible, in a similar strain as that of the Bible, but wholly new and different.

We will appeal to various authorities for such a web of belief-- The Old and New Testaments, reason, science, experience, art and beauty, other religions/faiths/myths, Christian tradition and theology, technology, etc. Some believe that the Emergent churches (and Tickle seems to indicate this as well) are bringing about such a way of life. I'm not totally on board with that because many in the Emergent circles would never engage in the ways that I have outlined above. However, I do think Emergent is paving a road for this too occur and will converge with many other movements in theology and practice that will allow for such a way to EMERGE.

Thoughts? Questions? Push-backs?


  1. beautiful summation of my current systematic theology course

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  3. Yes and no.

    Yes in that, yes, this is how learning works. Phylis has made a great discovery, but Jean Piaget and John Dewey made it, like, 80 years ago.

    No in that she seems to be overstating. But like most "the sky is changing color" type articles, it fits.

    But if we're being quite honest, isn't this simply the way, like you said, we all read the bible? Isn't it just a somewhat drawn out definition of eisegesis?

  4. James, I do think you are correct in identifying this trend with "learning." The issue is that many Christian circles do not believe in such a process of learning. What Tickle identifies is that mainstream Christians are beginning to say that we are learning and want to learn and not just believe that our theological thoughts were solidified in a past age.
    I do think we must not classify Tickle as one of those authors talking about the sky changing color. This aged woman has been around for a long time-- long enough to remember growing up in the reconstructionist south and watching these three movements unfold. What she paints for us is a "willful" abandonment of sola scriptura, not just a inadvertant and ignorant eisegesis of the text. Rather than passive, this turn will be blatant and active.

  5. Hey Justin

    You caught me reading it with some keynote speaker with a black jacket at ministry conference in mind.

    Essentially, we will blatantly state that our new theological thought is inspired by Jesus but contradicts Scripture in "such and such" ways and that this is okay and on purpose.

    What I see in your post is that we engage the bible like poetry, making meaning out of it based on the way it relates to our experiences. I think the idea I'm quoting in italics though, is too bold for me to be comfortable with. We would have to be very very self-assured in the presence of the poems to say that. And like you said about Phllis, they're very learned and experienced. What do you think?

  6. I think you are right James. I too am uncomfortable with what Tickle believes is coming about (I believe she is uncomfortable with it as well). Her point was not to say that this trend should happen. Rather she was saying, "this trend is happening and you all must prepare for it."

    I think the poetry idea is right on. And I think one must be highly experienced in scripture to do make meaning. Early attempts might be "cute" as the way we respond to a child pounding on a piano incoherently, but at some point the child ages and we tell him/her to stop banging on the piano.