Saturday, January 01, 2005

Why Reading CS Lewis is Dangerous

In Letters to Malcolm, CS Lewis gave his correspondent an unusual perspective with regard to corporate prayer, the liturgy. He asked him to consider that, as laymen, we should accept what we are given. Now this is a most un-American perspective, for it follows the historical commitment to custom and tradition for which the English people are so well known. Yet there is something instructive about this attitude that perhaps we American protestants would do well to examine.

Americans in general, and conservative protestants in particular, tend not to act as laymen. We have been so conditioned to be "Bereans"--which I am not certain means what many believe it to mean--that we act as if God has laid upon each of us individually the responsibility and authority to determine the meaning and application of the Faith for ourselves (all too often, for others, too). This burden may stem in no small part from our modern democratic and everyman sensibilities, which are instilled in us from our earliest years. Hence, we are all equal, so says our political, cultural, and social constructs, therefore we must be equal in the ability and responsibility to determine the meaning of Scripture. Responsibility implies authority, for no one can long bear the responsibility for a task without possessing the authority to carry that task out. Authority, however, implies ability or qualification.

Am I qualified to determine Scripture's proper meaning? Do I possess the necessary knowledge and training? Even if I do, does that possession imply authority? From where do I obtain this authority?

No doubt, many would answer these questions with a pallate of Scripture verses from both testaments that prove and affirm the very notion I am questioning. But, such answers already assume the authority and responsibility I am questioning, and so it would seem the cart is before the ox. Let me put the question another way: Since Scripture contains all things necessary for Christian faith, and since the language of Scripture means one thing and not other things, who has the authority to determine its proper meaning? Who is given the power to judge and interpret Scripture?

I suspect the real answer may trouble and disturb most of us. What if God has not granted us the individual authority to carry out this task as individuals, as laymen? What if God has actually given this task to His Church, through her duly ordained ministers? Even in this, perhaps the minister has not authority on his own to make these determinations, but must rely on his fellow ministers--whether living or in heaven--for counsel, affirmation, and confirmation of what Scriptures mean regarding this or that portion of the faith. Now this perspective should be distinguished from the attitude of those who are content to warm the pews and "let the professionals do all the work." No. What I am suggesting does not require relinquishing a life of reading, thinking, studying, and applying the faith to one's life. But it does mean carrying on these things within the counsel of the Church. And this is risky, because we live in an age where people are taught to distrust any kind of authority, most of all ecclesiastical authority. The Church is led by sinful men, called by God to fight against their sin and feed and lead His flock. God also calls His flock to follow the shepherds He has appointed. This is difficult, for it mean giving control to others who are sinful. But since I am also sinful, why should I have any greater confidence in myself, than in those whom God has set to watch over my soul?