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Standing Up for ‘Hermeneutical Democracy’

'The ultimate authority in Protestantism isn't the Bible, it's the individual conscience,' says Protestant

This post by Richard Beck on the Experimental Theology blog is going to get a lot of you talking.  Beck is a professor and chair of the psychology department at Abilene Christian University. His post is a model of concision, analysis, and fruitful intellectual provocation. I wish I wrote them like this more often. Here’s how it begins:

I was recently consulting with a conservative Protestant organization that was wrestling with its policies regarding same-sex marriage. I was asked to be there to help articulate a liberal, progressive perspective to expand and enlarge their conversation.

Not surprisingly, time was spent using the adjective “biblical.” As conservative Protestants the group kept coming back to the aspiration to seek the “biblical” view. Their desire was to follow the Bible.

This is a very common desire among conservative Protestants, but it misses something important, something that Protestants need to be honest about.

Here’s the situation, I told the group, you have to own the fact that you are Protestants (as am I). Which means that you are never going to land on an uncontested “biblical view.” Protestants have never agreed on what the Bible says. Just look at all the Protestant churches. Underneath the conversation about the “biblical view” what you are searching for is a hermeneutical consensus, the degree to which your community can tolerate certain hermeneutical choices.

Stretch the hermeneutical fibers too thin and the consensus snaps. People can’t make the leap. The view is deemed “unbiblical.” But if you keep the changes within the hermeneutical tolerances of the community the consensus holds and the view is deemed “biblical.”

Beck goes on to make what I think is a solid point: that what Protestant churches and organizations are really doing in these debates are trying to find out if its membership wants to change, and if so, how much change will it accept. The truth is, says Beck, is that Protestantism is a “hermeneutical democracy,” in which the individual consciences of believers determine what is true and what is false. This, he says, is the “genius of the tradition,” and having to do all this “relational work” is a key part of what it means to be Protestant. The Bible doesn’t speak for itself; it has to be interpreted, and for Protestants, that means that everybody gets a vote.

“Own your Protestantism,” he says. “The ultimate authority in Protestantism isn’t the Bible, it’s the individual conscience.”

Read the whole thing. Discuss.

(By the way, you might want to check out Beck’s blog. I am neither a progressive nor a Protestant, but I think he’s going some interesting stuff to say.)

UPDATE: Alan Jacobs’s response is here. Excerpt:

There really is no way to promote general agreement among Christians about the interpretation of Scripture without some doctrine of Holy Tradition.



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