"The Debate is about Authority"

Witnessing the continued implosion of the Anglicans and the ELCA over matters of Christian morality, I am intrigued by the way present circumstances have inspired renewed consideration of tradition, authority and obedience.

As I wrote a few months ago (“On the troubles within the ELCA” American Catholic September 7, 2009): “What is interesting, at least from this Catholic perspective, is the extent to which the critics of recent decisions recognize the seeds of their present troubles woven into the very fabric of their tradition.”

In a recent post to First Things‘ “On the Square”, Rusty Reno described the crisis of those experiencing “the agony of mainline Protestantism” thus:

One either recommits oneself to the troubled world of mainline Protestantism with articulate criticisms, but also with a spirit of sacrifice, as he so powerfully evokes. Or one stumbles forward-who can see in advance by what uncertain steps?-and abandons oneself, not to “orthodoxy” or “true doctrine” or “good theology,” but to the tender care of Mother Church.

As Joe Carter (First Things) noted, as with the Anglicans, so a faction of Lutherans have chosen a third route — forming a new Lutheran church body separate from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Meanwhile, it appears that the homosexuality debate is fanning faculty and student protests at Calvin College — the furor instigated by a memo reminding faculty that they were bound to the confessional documents of the Christian Reformed Church:

[F]rom an historical point of view, there was nothing in the least bit controversial about the trustees’ memo. It merely reminded the faculty of their confessional commitments to a traditional Christian and Reformed understanding of sexuality and marriage, commitments that had been in place for centuries and are, in some quarters of the Church being challenged.

Of course, that wasn’t how the Calvin faculty or the students received the memo. They viewed it as an assault on academic freedom, as a trampling of due process—the faculty senate had not been consulted—and as a pronouncement having a chilling effect on, as Christianity Today put it, “Calvin’s tradition of vibrant Christian inquiry.”

They, in effect, said that despite more than two thousand years of agreement in the Church on sexuality and marriage, college faculty and students get to make up their own minds as to what Scripture says and what obedience to God looks like today.

“To me,” remarked a trustee at another evangelical Christian college, “academic freedom means I can interpret Scripture in any way I see fit.”

As author Jim Tonkowich observes:

Just as the debate in the Protestant mainline are emphatically not about homosexuality, the debate at Calvin and at other evangelical schools is not about homosexuality either. The debate is about authority. And that debate goes back to the roots of Protestantism.

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