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.