Scriptural Authority and the Great Emergence

I’m about half way through Phyllis Tickle’s The Great Emergence.

Almost every major voice within the emergent conversation was characterizing this book as a “watershed” type event within the movement before the book even hit the shelves. Now I can see why.

A lot of other people have tried to get a “handle” on what is happening within the emergent movement. But Tickle, unlike anyone else, has managed to place it within its historical context in such a way that it becomes quite clear what is happening, and where it is likely going.

Borrowing a metaphor from Anglican Bishop Mark Dyer, Tickle postulates that – every 500 years or so – the church has a “rummage sale.” During such periods, the church ends up tossing out a lot of concepts that have not proven to be useful in light of various historical, social, political, and scientific developments of the day.

Here, she says, are the “rummage sales” that have taken place thus far:

– Roughly 33 A.D. – Jesus establishes a new movement which purports to extend Judaism beyond the Jewish nation. (Tickle argues that, from here, you could move further backwards and locate similar cycles in terms of the establishment of the Davidic dynasty, the Babylonian exile, etc.)

– Roughly 500 A.D. – Gregory the Great – in the wake of the decline of the Roman Empire, helped to establish monasticism, which would in turn act to preserve the Christian faith through the Dark Ages.

– Roughly 1000 A.D. – The Great Schism – the Church “splits” into Roman Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy.

– Roughly 1500 A.D. – The Great Reformation

– Roughly 2000 A.D. – The Great Emergence

There is one major thread in Tickle’s survey of church history that I am following with great interest. It relates to the concept of the continual struggle of the church over the question of where “authority” rests.

Within the Great Schism, the debate was over whether the “eastern” or “western” church carried the authority that had originally been handed from Jesus to Peter. However, it was within the Great Reformation that the debate became truly interesting.

Prior to the reformation, the general assumption was that the church was inerrant – it could not, so to speak, be “wrong.” However, the scientific discoveries that characterized this period were consistently undermining this assumption. Thus, the church said that the Earth was the center of the universe, but Galileo showed otherwise. The church, likewise, contended that the earth was flat, but the likes of Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci soon showed this assertion to be incorrect.

Where, then, does God’s authority rest? The early reformers latched on to the idea that it was in scripture, and scripture alone that authority could be found. Thus began the movement that would eventually birth the American evangelicalism and fundamentalism that dominates our culture to this day.

But now – 500 years later – the reformer’s idea of scripture as “authority” is beginning to wear. Einstein and Heisenberg ushered in an era in which it became apparent that it was the “subjectivity” of the observer that provided meaning to an event. In their wake, an entire army of biblical scholars have been at work deconstructing some of our most basic assumptions about the scriptures – causing us to become aware of the “subjective” way in which we encounter scripture. Marcus Borg and others, for example, have questioned exactly how much we can really know about the Jesus of history. Likewise, historical and literary criticism is consistently demonstrating that the biblical texts are products of their authors and their historical context. The idea that scripture was dictated out of some divine ether has vanished.

So, too, we have begun to wrestle with issues on which scripture seems to provide less-than-helpful answers. In the nineteenth century, Christians argued bitterly over slavery, an issue which scripture seems to tacitly accept as appropriate. Later, in the twentieth century, the subordination of women – a concept which Paul seemed to favor – came into question. Now, as the twenty-first century opens, the issue of homosexuality is rising to the forefront.

Scripture – or at least our assumptions about what it is saying – has been argued to be “wrong” on these points, much in the same way that the Church – the source of pre-Reformation “authority” – was proved to be “wrong” by the social, political, and scientific developments of its day.

Thus, we arrive at The Great Emergence – a period in which the concept of “scripture as authority” – together with a number of other concepts carried forward through the Reformation – may be placed in the next great rummage sale.

I have yet to read the third part of Tickle’s book, which discusses where the Great Emergence is going. However, for the theologically panic-stricken, a couple of personal observations seem in order:

1. Scripture will hardly be abandoned as a result of the Great Emergence. Indeed, it will likely be studied, revered, and otherwise “used” as much as ever. The challenge here is to understand how it has been mis-used, and how it can again be “used” properly.

2. In its place, I expect “kingdom theology” to continue to develop. This idea posits that Jesus – who is revealed in scripture – is our “authority,” and that it is in the advancement of that authority – within society and over nation-states, that the Church operates. Ironically, it will be the Christian scriptures themselves – which teach this concept – that secure the development of this new way of thinking.

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4 Responses to Scriptural Authority and the Great Emergence

  1. I have been planning on getting the book, and after reading your review, I am even more interested. It makes sense to step back and get a broad assessment on the emerging movement… not sure everyone would agree that the movement is as big a revolution as say the reformation, but it has made an impact. I think some more time is needed to really see how EC continues to shape things in this postmodern age.

  2. […] Center Set Christianity I just finished Tickle’s The Great Emergence. As I indicated in my last post on the book, Tickle places the emergent movement within a 500 year cycle in which the Great Reformation and […]

  3. […] on the concept of scriptural authority, the decline of which was the subject of discussion here and here. What is the plan here? Obviously, to honor God and remember the deliverance of Israel […]

  4. […] 34,35,36,37,38,39,40,41,42,43,44,45,46,47,48,49,50, 51,52, (then there is this?)    Phyllis Tickle on "The […]

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