Editor’s Comments – Authority in the Church

[1] Sez You!

[2] This well-known playground rejoinder (or am I the only one reading JLE who knows Brooklynese?) doesn’t characterize ecclesiastical disagreements. But it does get at the root of what they are often about. To put it in more refined terms befitting this journal: Who can exercise authority, and how is it properly exercised in a church? The ELCA’s confession of faith states that “This church accepts the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life,” but simply restating this fails to resolve questions of the nature of that authority complicated by scriptural and confessional interpretation and application that challenge us.

[3] Our issue this month comes courtesy of the Association of Teaching Theologians and their communal inquiry into the question of authority. We received a number of interesting essays on the topic, and this is the first half of them. The second half will be published in a special October issue.

[4] We begin with David Fredrickson, who makes a case that with some exceptions, the Christian tradition is in fact phonocentric, that is, it privileges speech over writing as purer and therefore more authoritative. Reinterpreting 2 Timothy 3:16 in such a light would force us to re-evaluate just what “God-breathed” is intended to convey, and just what it means to be people of the book. Sarah Hinlicky Wilson argues for Scriptural authority as the resolution to the conflict between “divine power and contra-divine power.” In the history and confessions of Lutheranism she finds that “…the Lutheran Confessions suggest that the problem of human authority is not soluble structurally, even though it must be addressed structurally.”

[5] Bishop David Brauer-Rieke thinks back to his childhood family dinners to reflect on his upbringing, where he learned that “…there can be no one right answer to what a word means, or how a bible verse is understood. Language, like the Gospel itself, lives and breathes…however, finally called to pastor a small, rural congregation in eastern Oregon I began to see that real people in the real world do not necessarily think this way.” He brings the reader to a pastoral sense of the difficulty that the sweeping rivers of change present to the fixed places of authority.

[6] Kathryn Kleinhans turns back the pages of American Lutheran history to find ways of subscribing to the Lutheran Confessions that allow us to grow in our understanding. Kleinhans finds that “…fidelity requires interpretation and application of what the Confessions mean for our own time and place.”

[7] The sum total of these essays, and the essays to be printed in a special October 1 issue of JLE, offers the reader a chance to glimpse biblical, confessional, and historical insights into the question of authority in the Lutheran church. The question is as old as the church itself: as Sarah Hinlicky Wilson points out “”The church is a two thousand-year-old crisis of authority.”

These papers were presented at the 2011 Convocation of Teaching Theologians — ELCA/ELCIC under the theme “Sources of Authority in the Church: Lutheran Traditions in North American Contexts.” The papers will be published in early Fall by Lutheran University Press.

Kaari Reierson

Kaari Reierson is the founding editor of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics and is the Chair of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics Advisory Council.