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Journalism & humility

"Journalism & humility" Continued...

Issue: "Lavelle's wonderful life," Dec. 25, 2004

For Christians, what might that ethic be?

Sola Scriptura vs. "legantians"

The humility of the "fly on the wall" approach represents a terrific ideal-but concepts of objectivity can be criticized both from secular perspectives and, at a far deeper level, from a biblical orientation. The biblical question is: Given man's fallen nature and limited natural ability to apprehend reality accurately, can we-apart from God's grace-truly be objective? Do claims that we can be exhibit a lack of humility?

Medieval teaching about natural law and Reformation teaching about common grace tell us that we can go part of the way to apprehending reality. Both doctrines have a biblical base in Psalm 19 (and much besides): "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims His handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge."

But once the glory of God is revealed by the heavens and by His coming to earth as a baby, what then? How do we glorify Him by helping more people to see God's holiness, revealed most clearly through His compassionate communication to us, the Bible? How do we show the world that we value God's counsel highly enough to live by it, even when it hurts, and to interpret the world in accordance with it?

To me a crucial phrase for developing intellectual humility is sola scriptura, Latin for "the Bible only." The phrase first became widely disseminated during the Reformation, when Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others insisted that ordinary folks could read and apprehend the Bible. They taught that the Bible is perspicacious, "see-throughable," which means that with careful Bible study almost all of it is clearly comprehensible.

They and others also explained the steps involved in careful Bible study. It's important to ask about any Bible passage, "What does it say?" and then, "What does it mean?" In other words, we are to look first at what the passage itself says, and then examine the context and the way it fits with or against other passages, because Scripture (unlike, say, the Talmud) does not ultimately argue with itself. A key principle in the sola scriptura search for meaning is that Scripture interprets Scripture, which means that we use clearer passages to interpret murky ones, and that we don't rest key doctrines on obscure passages or play "here a verse, there a verse."

Furthermore, since the Bible is primarily a true story of how God saves sinners, we do not treat it like a textbook: We distinguish between descriptive and prescriptive passages and acknowledge that in some areas, even after conscientious study, we still see through a glass darkly. Helps in this process include creeds of the early church and confessions developed by later church leaders who did careful biblical study along sola scriptura principles (for example, the Westminster and Heidelberg Confessions of Faith). Those creeds and confessions must always be checked against Scripture, but they still allow a third question-"How has the church applied a passage?"-to follow up the "What does it say?" and "What does it mean?" questions.

Sola scriptura, applied properly, helps us neither to overuse or underuse the Bible. If we overuse it by saying that the Bible says certain things that it does not say, we feed our human tendency to make up rules that purportedly will help us save ourselves, or at least allow us to think ourselves better than others. That error feeds into many others, including the legalism that has pushed many Christian students I've taught into animosity toward denominations of their youth.

On the other hand, if we turn areas where the Bible is clear into matters of personal interpretation, we fall into antinomianism, the belief (particularly familiar today) that we make up our own rules. Just as legalism is a plague among some conservative Christians, antinomianism is rampant among some liberal Christians.

And just as government-managed economies can fall into stagflation, a worst-of-both-worlds combination of stagnation plus inflation, some folks-call them legantians?-combine legalism and antinomianism. They demand particular moral rules that the Bible does not, but also say that it's improper to state the biblical view of abortion or homosexuality because some Christians might read the scriptural admonitions differently. They say, "I read the Bible and decide what it says for me. No one has the right to tell me I'm wrong, and I don't have the right to tell someone else-it's between him and God."

That's not sola scriptura: that's sola Dick or Jane or Marvin. If we accept the premise that the Bible does not have an objective meaning beyond what individuals may read into it, we cannot proclaim God's glory in a way that consistently communicates His teaching. But if we do understand the sola scriptura principle, we have a way to bring humility back into journalism.

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