The Sources of Theology: Scripture

This post is part of the series Theology and Philanthropy: A Dialogue.

This post is also part of the sub-series The Sources of Theology.

In my last post in this series, I briefly reviewed the sources used by theology by referring to the Wesleyan quadrilateral: scripture, tradition, reason and experience. I want to take a few posts to look at each of these sources in slightly more depth. I begin with scripture.

Despite the fact that I am beginning from a particularly Christian construction – the Wesleyan quadrilateral – I am interested in understanding scripture in more general terms, in large part in order to see how it fits in with my more general understanding of theology. That is, just as more general understanding of theology as beginning from a point of faith in (trust in and/or loyalty to) a theos (some standard for the evaluation of values) and seeking to understand and articulate what it means to live in faith to that theos allows us to do theology outside of a Christian – or even a religious – context, is there a way to understand scripture that allows us to utilize it as a source in this more general theology?

Obviously, I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t think the answer was ‘yes’. The challenge is simply to see how religious scripture functions and where similar texts might exist in non-religious contexts.

Scripture as Authoritative Textual Touchpoint

In my post summarizing the Wesleyan quadrilateral, I wrote this about scripture:

For all Christians, the collection of ancient texts known as the Bible is in some way, shape or form authoritative. Obviously, what this means varies from community to community and from Christian to Christian and ranges from understandings of the Bible as a cohesive and coherent document effectively dictated by God to a fundamentally mysterious collection of texts by human authors struggling to illuminate some ultimately inarticulable truth. Despite the wide disagreements over what texts to include and how to interpret them, however, scripture remains a vital source for Christian theology precisely because it is – again in some way, shape or form – a record of human encounters with Christ and the God encountered in him.

As pointed out here, scripture for Christians is a collection of authoritative texts known as the Bible. So powerful is this authority that many people – ranging from fundamentalist Christians to ardent atheists – view Christianity as little more than adherence to a single unified document conveying God’s message to humanity. The story of the Bible is, of course, far more complex: a variety of oral and written sources contributed to various writings composed in a variety of genres by numerous authors in three languages over hundreds of years and probably never intended by those authors to be scripture. Even after the written texts had been created, there were processes of collection and canonization and, later, translation (which is always an act of interpretation).

Put quite simply: there is no ‘the Bible’ that has been the same for all Christians around the world and throughout history. The same is undoubtably true for many other religious scriptures, if only because languages and understandings and contexts change over time.

So what makes scripture into scripture?

The fact that a community accepts the text(s) as authoritative touchpoints.

What I mean by ‘authoritative’ should be obvious. Scriptural texts hold a position in the community not occupied by other texts. This position includes, but isn’t limited to, the power to make normative statements on ethics and morals, ritual practices, joining and remaining a part of the community and so on. Moreover, part of being part of the community is engagement with these particular texts, often in a particular way (e.g., one is a Christian in part because one engages with the Biblical texts in a way that one does not engage with other texts.

What I mean by touchpoints is probably less obvious. As already mentioned, there is rarely, if ever, a single ‘the x’ that serves as scripture: “the Bible”, “the Qur’an”, “the Tanakh”, etc. Furthermore, scriptures are often at least somewhat opaque and open to interpretation. However, despite textual and contextual variations, the content of scripture can still serve as a common reference point for ongoing conversations. In this sense, scripture is not simply ‘the text’, but an authoritative foundation for a conversation in which the scripture itself is involved.

Using such an understanding of scripture – a text or set of texts, written or spoken, accepted by a community as authoritative touchpoints – I think we can see the commonality among the various texts recognized as scriptures. More importantly, however, we can use this understanding to see scripture outside of the paradigm of religion.

Scripture Outside of Religion

While we usually think of scripture as being specific to religion, once we consider it as an authoritative textual touchpoint for a community we can see scripture elsewhere. A startlingly easy example – and possibly a sensitive one given the officially secular stance of the American government – is the American Constitution. This single document contains the foundational text for the American government, including the creation of what is in effect a massive interpretive infrastructure: the court system.

While the Constitution may not have the same issues as many texts routinely considered religious – there are no questions about which version most closely matches the ‘original’, for example – it cannot be denied that there are considerable questions about how we should interpret various passages and the document as a whole. This can be seen routinely in political debates over, recently, the Affordable Care Act, the debt ceiling, presidential war powers, etc. Even whether there is a right to vote is a live question in political discussion. In all of these, the Constitution is the high authority text to which one can appeal.

In short: Just as Christianity is about the Bible – which is to say, the Bible is the authoritative textual touchpoint to which most Christians appeal in one sense or another – American political discussion is about the Constitution. That is: the Constitution fills much the same role in American political debate as the Bible does in Christian debate. The Constitution is the scripture of American political life. And perhaps there are a few other documents – the Declaration of Independent, the Federalist Papers, etc. – that join it with that status to form a kind of American political canon.

The point here is not to use the example of the Constitution to say that ‘everything has a scripture’. I would hesitate to call something like the rules of baseball scripture, insofar as there are few community discussions of those rules (of which I am aware, the designated hitter rule seems like an exception). In fact, I suspect that communities are becoming less and less likely to have an authoritative written text, if only because there are so many to choose from. However, I think it is important to note that once we understand scripture as something other than simply ‘a written text that belongs to something we call a religion’, we can easily see such written texts in non-religious settings.

And so, dear readers, two questions for you:

  • What other non-religious scriptures do you see?
  • Are there any such texts that function as scripture for philanthropy?

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