Not long ago I had the pleasure to read Martin Marty’s concise biography of Martin Luther. One of the things which Marty’s book highlighted nicely was one often overlooked but critical aspect of the Reformation era: that the debate of those times was about authority as much as anything else. Who has the right to interpret Scripture? Which pattern and ordering of authority is right, and which is wrong? Of course, this was a problem which was inaugurated well before the Reformation. The conciliar age and the divided papacy were expressions of the same, growing debate, and from a long view of history Luther’s arrival was but one particularly ripe crop of fruit on a long-growing vine of controversy. The point I really want to make, however, is that the issues Luther raised still haven’t been resolved. We continue to live with the hangover from the vintage pressed during the 1600s. As a result, it is notable just how modern and relevant Luther seems even today. How fitting sound his claims to rely upon conscience, his rejection of “oppressive” authority! His famous, defiant, “Here I stand, I can do no other,” rings heroically, romantically true to our ears. It’s enough to set us humming A Mighty Fortress under our breath. Luther is a hero in an age of conviction.
In a real way, Luther may have set the pattern for this present age of conviction, and yet today we have entered a time when “conviction” is become an insufficient basis for action or belief. We have rejected authority, we loathe hierarchy, we elevate a ubiquitous and fuzzy ‘equality,’ and in the process we have chopped the mooring lines which connected us to anything tangible. Adrift from any concrete points of reference, we rely on the experience of conviction to motivate our beliefs. As a consequence our convictions are unreliable. We become impassioned and pugnacious for causes which are unworthy of our attention. We have come to trust more in the feeling of conviction than we do in the knowledge of the truth.
We inhabit a profoundly disordered age. Where our convictions ought to serve our knowledge of the truth, instead we describe truth in such a way that it favors our convictions. But until conviction is once again made the servant of truth, we will inhabit a confused and destructive age, one that is shaped by every cultural wind, every passing fancy, one that is, because un-founded on the rock, destined to be swept away by storm and wave.
How, then, can we connect ourselves to the truth which shapes our convictions? For the Christian, our sources are Scripture and history. (For the non-Christian, presumably only history.) That Scripture is a source for Christians should be no surprise. As a canon it measures all things. As Divine Revelation it offers us a kind of short-cut to absolute truth—not in the words themselves, but in testifying to the unchanging and perfect character of the only Absolute in the universe, God Almighty. To the knowledge of the Scriptures is necessarily added the knowledge of history—not only because the Scriptures do not operate in a vacuum, but because they are shaped by and interpreted in light of a host of contexts (cultural, linguistic, historical), and in view of a history of interpretations.
At this point I want to intercept an objection. There are many who reject the authority of the Scriptures on the basis that “the church has gotten it wrong in the past.” To such a person I want to reassert that “context” is by no means a trite answer. And so this inaugurates a process. First, we must examine the Scripture itself—what does it say? Second, we must examine the context of its misinterpretation—what did it say, then? Third, we must make an evaluation—was it a real misinterpretation, or did they see something we’ve missed? Fourth, we must look along the line of history to see if others before our misinterpretation got it right, or if others after our misinterpretation corrected it. Through this all we must not presume that our interpretation is necessarily right, nor that our present viewpoint is superior to that of our predecessors. We might be wrong, and in fact one of the tyrannies of our age is the belief that, because we are at this point in our timeline, we are de facto superior to our predecessors. (In Chesterton’s words, we are that “arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”) History, again, rises to faithfully combat our arrogance; a robust knowledge of the past is the only tonic against the tyranny of our age.
The experience of conviction, in short, is like a love affair. We are enflamed, we shape our lives and bend our belief (rather, we suspend disbelief) while in the presence of the beloved. But while appearance regularly inaugurates passion, it is character which justifies it. As I used to tell young women in my church, “How good he looks won’t matter much when he cheats. None of you says, ‘He’s a liar and a cheat, but does he ever look good while doing it!’” In the same way we must strive in this age of hasty conviction to unveil—painfully if necessary—the particular character of our temporary passions. A mooring fixed on the Scriptures and in the metric of History will reveal that character and will either enhance or sour its appearance. Thus revealed, we can wisely order our passions—our convictions—and establish them according to their proper proportions.