Before I begin what will be my last post for Near Emmaus, I would like to express my gratitude toward Brian and my fellow bloggers. Joshua introduced me to Near Emmaus and has looked over a couple of posts and helped me clarify some ideas (though errors are all mine). Brian is a model of intellectual rigor and Christian hospitality, and I’ve appreciated him sharing this platform and asking insightful questions. I am grateful to have been a part of this biblioblog, and know my colleagues will continue to do good work.
I’ve been wondering about sources of authority, particularly as they relate to the classroom and the pulpit. This is something that has been rolling in my head for quite a while. When I say “sources of authority” I am not speaking so much of the doctrine of revelation, but the people behind the texts, sermons, blogs, etc. that form our theology. As someone who is called to the ministry of teaching, I realize that who students read determines the shape of their theology. Who we read is just as important as what we read.
Sometimes, if we engage only one type of person, our thoughts become limited and we cannot grow. Those who are different from us often expose our blind spots and gaps in our thinking. Further, they help us ask questions of our own theological presuppositions, which are always connected to how we live. As a hopeful theological educator who cares about the church, I can’t read just one type of author—such as only white women or Reformed theology.
Case in point: I’ve occasionally heard only men quoted when constructing arguments for women in ministry. Men claim to speak or advocate for women in ministry, utilizing Scripture and experience to argue their points. Noticeably absent are a female pastor’s thoughts herself, or even an example of her sermon. While the theology in some sense may be helpful, without consulting a female pastor on the subject, the implicit authority resides with the men making those arguments.
My friend Christopher Eshelman, a United Methodist pastor in Kansas, when asked how male pastors can prepare congregations for female pastors, offers these easy and practical ideas:
This makes sense. Here, the locus of authority is expanded. In some sense, there is a kenosis of authority as well. To quote someone with attribution proves that we respect and honor their voice. When we write, preach, or teach, we must consider whose voices are uplifted, whose voices are given authority, and whose voices are absent. If we think that women can be pastors, we must regard them as authority figures as well.
I encountered a similar situation while researching connections between the doctrine of inerrancy of Scripture and slavery in the antebellum United States. Most of the primary texts were from white men, such as Charles Hodge or Archibald Alexander, and their use of Scripture in support of slavery. White abolitionists’ voices, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, were also easy to find. However, I had to intentionally seek out African American voices, such as David Walker, to show how African Americans both took the Bible seriously and opposed slavery. While I may have been able to write without engaging with African American sources, I would have implicitly given authority to the white men and women who seemed to have the most “airtime.” In reality, Black men and women also generated arguments to oppose slavery that held a high view of Scriptural authority (without the strict inerrancy of Hodge), though their voices did not receive the same amount of attention.
I’ve attempted to be more intentional about this as I construct my theological method. In my lecture on pneumatology for the Intro to Theology Class where I was a teaching assistant, I included Sojourner Truth, Athanasius, Charles Wesley, and Jose Comblin to highlight the main contours of pneumatology. Each person offered something different coming from their social location, yet they all spoke about the same Holy Spirit. For example, Truth invoked the Spirit as authorizing her to preach and teach in dangerous places and times, while Comblin perceived the Spirit working through base communities in Latin America that were socially transforming.
As a hopeful theological educator, I wish for students to be able to discern the Spirit’s movement in a variety of sources. I especially want students to hear voices of those who have been overlooked by dominant theological paradigms. Reading persons from a variety of backgrounds makes us better disciples of Christ. This practice grows us, makes us uncomfortable, and allows us to struggle. To read a variety of sources is a practice of theological and pedagogical humility, for, as disciples, we are always learners. As Teresa of Avila suggests, true humility enhances the intellect.[i] We need other voices to illuminate how we may follow Christ and live out our theology in a transformative way. After all, isn’t this what Paul meant in 1 Corinthians 12 by the church as the body of Christ?
[i] Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, 1.2.11.