Tag Archive for populism

Authority, Soul Competence and Vocation

Soul competence and the priesthood of the believer are two sides of one doctrine that Baptists cherish. Indeed, they make up part of the matrix known as the Baptist distinctives. Soul competence teaches that individual Spirit-indwelt believers can read and understand Scripture for themselves, using the means He has given. The priesthood of the believer means that every individual believer in Christ can approach God directly through the High Priestly work of Christ. Whether we are dealing with the Word or prayer, a New Testament believer is not dependent on human intermediaries between himself and God. The work of salvation is so thorough a work that if a Christian makes right use of the Spirit’s appointed means, he lacks nothing to worship God directly.

Unfortunately, these doctrines are easily misunderstood, or misapplied. When populism is part of the cultural air we breathe, such misunderstandings become almost inevitable. The most infantile of these misunderstandings is the person who opts for ‘home-church’, or Internet-church, or some other excuse to be anti-ecclesiological, and reject authority. Here the person dismisses the need for corporate worship, instruction by pastors, service to the body, or shared life in Christ, all in the name of the believer’s priesthood. Such abuses of the doctrine are easily spotted and easily refuted.

A more subtle form of this misunderstanding is the believer who thinks that if God has granted direct access to His presence, and an ability to understand Scripture, then anything worth knowing is within the immediate intellectual grasp of every believer. The logic is arguing from the apparently greater to the apparently lesser: if knowing the greatest thing – the Gospel – is open to even a little child, then there cannot be lesser things worth knowing which are harder to understand. Emerging from this attitude will be the populist suspicion of philosophy, of theology, of disciplines of thought, of advanced studies, of intellectuals and of academia in general.

The mistake the populist imports into his theological method is to assume that there is a proportional relationship between clarity and importance: the more important something is, the clearer it must be, and the less important, the more difficult it may be to understand. Were we to consistently embrace this view, we would have to conclude that the doctrines of the Trinity, hypostatic union, and election are of minor importance due to their difficulty. In reality, crucial doctrine is often enough not simple or even perspicuous.

The correct approach is to recognise that nearly everything worth knowing has multiple levels of deepening complexity and sophistication. A five-year-old can grasp substitution in the Gospel, and simultaneously doctors in theology may give themselves to decades of studying its meaning. These levels of complexity apply whether we are speaking of biblical doctrines, mathematics, the natural sciences, history, music, the arts, or any area of knowledge in God’s created order. This naturally invites the question, “But how much of this complexity do we need to know?”

God has so made the world and limited man that we each need to specialise in some domain of human life. We need some to give themselves to knowing the human physiology, so as to become experts in medicine and healing. We need some to give themselves to the physics of motion, so as to become engineers. We need some to give themselves to understanding the market, so as to become experts in economics. And we need some to give themselves to the study of music, painting, poetry, literature and architecture, so as to become experts in the arts. No one can master all the realms of knowledge in the short lifespan appointed to us. It is one of God’s mercies to the world: forcing interdependence, trade, and learning.

This is the doctrine of vocation. God calls and equips humans to function well in some area of human life, to bring order and meaning to some section of the created order (1 Cor 7:20-21). Not only so, but God invests His world with meanings, laws, ‘secrets’, which become the duty of man to learn, master and teach others (Prov 25:2).

The answer to the question, “how much of this complexity do we need to know?” is answered by the doctrine of vocation. If you are a doctor, you need to be an expert on health, since that is your calling. If you are not a doctor, you need to know enough about health to stay reasonably healthy, and you need to know when to consult a medical expert. We don’t sneer at doctors and call them elitists; we are thankful that when our basic competence in health and medicine can take us no further, there are experts to do just that. The same is true for engineering, financial planning, software development. And buckle your seatbelt – the same is true for theology, music, poetry and literature.

Soul competence and the priesthood of the believer does not remove the need for pastors, nor for professional theologians. Similarly, the fact that every individual Christian can lift his or her voice in sincere praise does not remove the need for art critics, composers or poets.

In the end, I have never met a consistent populist. I have never met the man who was willing to do surgery on himself, act as a lawyer for every one of his contractual agreements, and write his own software. He is usually selectively populist: sneering at theologians, composers, critics, pastors, but happy to accept expert opinion in other areas of his life. If he would accept the doctrine of vocation, he could reconcile the priesthood of the believer and soul competence with the authority of expert opinion, even in matters that touch the soul. He would see, in a word, that no one can know it all. It is an act of humility to accept your own limitations, and learn from those called to be authorities in some domain of human knowledge.

You Elitist, You

Since this series has dealt with “mangled” words such as tolerance, freedom, and authority, I was tempted to include elitism among them. Elitism, though, is really a misused word inseparable from the word authority. When the meaning of authority is mangled, be sure that a sorely maimed and deformed version of the meaning of elitism will make a showing.

This word makes its appearance in some Christian circles whenever a discussion of art, taste, or critical judgement comes up. That is, elitism does not rear its head when the discussion is over a simple prescription or prohibition from Scripture. There, Christians are happy to ping-pong proof texts at one another. Should the conversation require some extra-biblical information from experts, say from a musical composer, or a professor of literature, or a cultural critic, suddenly many Christians get uncomfortable, and feel the elitist camel is poking its nose into the tent. They might not think of it this way, but they are really struggling with the idea of authority, in two ways.

First, they feel that an appeal to any information outside of Scripture is a subversion of the authority of Scripture. They wish Scripture and Scripture alone to settle every debate. While this desire is commendable, it is neither the meaning of sola Scriptura, nor is it the meaning of the doctrine of Scripture’s sufficiency. Sola Scriptura teaches that Scripture is the final authority. What God says has the final say, and overrules all other opinions. But sola Scriptura does not mean no other authorities exist in the world. The world is full of authorities on politics, medicine, history, nutrition, economics, art, the natural sciences and so on. Sola Scriptura simply means that none of these authorities claims equal authority with Scripture. Once these authorities have spoken, their views must be submitted to the final bar of God’s Word. Scripture gets to overrule any and all of them. That is not the same as saying we may safely ignore these authorities and depend on Scripture to answer every question. That attitude is not sola Scriptura, it is what is known as nuda Scriptura – naked texts expected to function apart from any other knowledge of the world around us.
The Bible was never meant to deal with every branch of human knowledge, or speak expertly on every topic. It provides commands and principles that cover all that we need for life and godliness. This is its sufficiency. But these principles, in order to find application in our lives, most often require that we gather knowledge from the created order and submit it to the God-breathed timeless principles of God’s Word. For example, to obey Romans 13:1-4, I need to learn the laws of the land, and Scripture doesn’t give those to me. To avoid enslavement to something (1 Cor 6:12), I need to find out what substances or activities are addictive, and Scripture does not identify these for me. Scripture is sufficient to thoroughly equip us, but no one expects Scripture to tell us which foods are healthy, which fashions are immodest, which technologies are edifying. Most of our knowledge will come from outside the Bible. All of our extra-biblical knowledge must submit to the grid of Scripture to be properly understood, and any knowledge that Scripture explicitly contradicts is false. But Scripture is sufficient not in the sense that it exists to be the sum total of necessary knowledge for life. It is sufficient in that its prescriptions, principles and wisdom, when used to judge and evaluate all other gathered knowledge, gives us all we need to live a life glorifying to God.

Second, even among those Christians who are willing to accept expert extra-biblical opinion when it comes to medicine, economics, or science, there exists a deep suspicion of any expert opinion regarding music, poetry, literature or the arts. Supposedly this is simply too arcane, too subjective, and perhaps even too mystical for any opinion to be held as more authoritative than another. And should one quote or refer to those whose vocation is to understand the fine arts, i.e. critics, it won’t be long before the word elitism is thrown in.

Elitism, properly defined, is rule or influence by an elite. Elite, in turn, refers to a class of people superior to others in rank, ability or power. In a democratic age, the idea that elites exist is both acknowledged and resented. Perhaps it is most strongly resented in the evangelical church, which since at least the 19th century, has become strongly populist.

Populism assumes that all that is true and good and necessary to life can be understood equally by all and accessed or perceived immediately, without specialised training or instruction. To a populist, what God wants us to know is what is absolutely necessary to know, and what is absolutely necessary to know must therefore be uncomplicated, immediately accessible, and transparently practical. Recourse is made to texts about receiving the kingdom as a little child, and this is supposed to end the discussion. Consequently, populism views higher learning with suspicion. Populism views consulting experts with suspicion. Populism views advanced studies with suspicion. Populism views tradition with suspicion. Populism views authority with suspicion. Populism views intellectuals with suspicion. The upshot is a roll-your-own-at-home Christianity, where sincerity and an open Bible will supply all we need.

There are two responses to populism. One is to rightly understand the priesthood of the believer alongside the doctrine of vocation. The second is to understand the role of critical judgements. We’ll consider these next.