How It Is and How It Might Have Been Otherwise

Copyright 2011 Lutheran University Press. This essay will be published by Lutheran University Press in a book entitled Sources of Authority in the Church.

How It Is
[1] The Christian historian Papias of Hierapolis surprises us when he lays down a principle (which turns out to be quite conventional) of assigning higher value to oral sources than written ones. Early in the second century he wrote, “But, if perchance there came also anyone who had followed the presbyters, I made inquiry concerning the words of the presbyters: what Andrew or what Peter had said, or what Philip or what Thomas… [had said]… For I did not suppose that the things from the books would aid me so much as the things from the living and continuing voice.”1 Papias’ preference for voice over text is an arresting choice for Christians for whom a collection of sacred writings, likely some of the same books that Papias subordinated to the voices he heard, constitutes the New Testament portion of the Bible.

[2] We should not take too hard Papias’ dismissive attitude toward our sacred texts. I am quite sure he unintentionally gored our ox, since some such insult to writing was a cliché among the philosophically-minded of his day. The larger issue not to be missed in Papias’ methodology is the reiteration of a powerful self-delusion in Western philosophy from Plato to the present moment identified as phonocentrism by Jacque Derrida.2 I will not offer a definition of phonocentrism at this point. What I mean by the term will emerge shortly in the course of our reading of a series of texts. They include a Christmas sermon of Saint Augustine, Arrian’s Introduction to the Discourses of Epictetus, chapter 3 of 2 Peter, and chapter 3 of 2 Timothy. These writings exhibit our deep ambivalence over writing. On one hand, we highly value our sacred writings even to the point of calling them the sole authority in matters of faith and life. On the other hand, in times of moral and theological controversy when it seems we have a pastoral obligation to be clear about their authority, we discount them as writings and value more highly a voice or voices standing before and above them. In other words, the phonocentrism embraced by Plato (most explicitly in the Phaedrus) we too have fallen in love with, especially in trying times. Somewhere along the way the myth of “the living and continuing voice” as Papias wrote became the myth of authority we live by.

[3] One more thing before launching off into the texts. I have modified my assignment in a significant way. Instead of describing the sources of authority in early Christianity — nature, tradition, revelation, and the experience of the faithful — I am going to talk instead about the constitution of authority itself independent of its sources, and I will claim (regretfully with too little proof for such a big claim) that writers in and out of the Christian church who might initially seem to differ on the way they derive moral or theological assertions in fact inhabit common ground. Specifically, I argue that with some important exceptions the Christian tradition, like the philosophic, is phonocentric. That is the way is it, and important consequences follow from our unexamined preference of speech over writing. Fear of writing both highjacks our moral reflection and undermines our confession of Christ. Unless this fear is faced the best we can expect is a truce among those claiming to make authoritative statements, some making their claims on the basis of nature, some citing tradition, others holding up revelation, and still others telling of their experience. What they all have in common is a desire for the last word. The word that settles it whatever the “it” might be. If we face our fear of writing, however, if we admit and even welcome the playfulness of writing which wishes never to have the last word, I don’t know what will happen, but I would certainly like to be around to find out.

[4] At least since the time of Plato, voice has occupied the center of philosophical and theological thinking about authority, and it has done so for a plausible reason. Unlike writing, whose marks on paper or stone outlive authors and readers, the voice is politely evanescent. Brief disturbances in the air caused by my teeth, tongue, lips, and palate carry my idea in its simplicity and purity to your ears; then, like a king alighting from his carriage, my idea disembarks its material conveyance and enters your mind unencumbered. You and I come into full presence with one another. Marvelous. So marvelous that Augustine draws out an analogy between the incarnate Word of God with the human voice. The voice makes possible the extension of the idea from the inner world of one’s mind through externality to the inner world of another’s mind: “Take the word which we carry in our thoughts: it goes over into voice when we give expression to it by way of mouth; yet it is not transformed into voice, but while the word is preserved entirely intact, the voice in which it finds expression is taken in addition to it.”3 “Is taken” — is the key phrase. Like an article of clothing, a coat perhaps, the voice stands outside the mind’s chamber door ready for service. Inside is the real action, where the intimacy of intellect and idea, pure presence of one to another, is celebrated. What is at stake in Augustine’s analogy is his claim that when the eternal, unchanging Word became flesh it did not cease to be eternal, unchanging Word. Its temporary migration into the world external to the divine mind did not affect it in the least. Thus, phonocentrism by its very nature yields to another “centrism” — logocentrism.

[5] Thus, a hierarchy takes shape. First comes logos, first because of its immediate self-presence likened by Augustine to intellect’s gazing upon a naked idea; then in lower position comes voice, second because it serves logos by carrying it into the external world but doing so without changing the idea that carries it. If writing is to have any place at all, in third position it will serve the voice. As the slave of a slave, writing acts as a supplement to speaking. It knows its place as mere jottings for the sake of remembering what was originally placed in the mind through the voice. Arrian’s disavowal of having written anything at all in his introduction to the discourses of Epictetus limits writing as an aid to memory: “I have not written these Words of Epictetus as one might be said to “write” books of this kind, nor have I of my own act published them to the world: indeed, I acknowledge that I have not “written” them at all. But whatever I heard him say I used to write down, word for word, as best I could, endeavouring to preserve it as a memorial, for my own future use, of his mind and the frankness of his speech.”4 As Epictetus’ speech leads back to his mind we see that Arrian’s phonocentrism, like Augustine’s, yields to logocentrism. Writing stimulates memory, and memory places Arrian back within hearing distance of Epictetus’s voice. And there Arrian experiences the motive power of Epictetus’s words: “…he was clearly aiming at nothing else but to incite the minds of his hearers to the best things… when Epictetus himself spoke them, the hearer could not help feel exactly what Epictetus wanted him to feel.”5 It might be noted Epictetus’s words, expressions of his mind carried by his voice, possessed the quality of irresistibility, a topic of much concern to Lutherans many centuries later, one whose existence among us today is evidence of our continuing commitment to phonocentrism.6

[6] The next text, 2 Peter 3, has to my knowledge not been read in terms of the vocal structure of authority and the alleged deficiencies of written texts. Scholars have focused instead on the dramatic, fiery end of the cosmos narrated in verses 5–13. In fact, it has been suggested that the author of 2 Peter appropriated the Stoic notion of the World Conflagration as a model for Christian eschatological expectation.7 This proposal actually accentuates the issue of phonocentrism that I have been emphasizing, because in 2 Peter the destruction of writing is mirrored in the destruction of the cosmos. The connection between physics and writing resides in the Greek term stoicheion, which to a natural scientist meant one of the elements (fire, water, air, earth), but to the grammarian it meant letter, the simplest unit of inscription. For the non-specialist reader it meant both. Thus, when the author of 2 Peter describes the fiery destruction of the elements he, perhaps unwittingly, also depicts the kindling, melting, and burning up of letters, written words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and books without end. What is most remarkable is that he bemoans neither cosmic nor literary conflagration but regards dissolution as inherent in the nature of things. In fact, destruction is longed for as if resignation to its inevitability were the most exhilarating of mystical experiences. Destruction is reconfigured as assimilation to the Divine. A divine Spirit composed of fire and air permeates the universe, graciously granting it cohesion, growth, and intelligence but ineluctably consuming and assimilating it to itself. So too with writing; letters are inhabited with meaning, but they require more coaxing than the voice does to give up their hold on meaning. Voice dies away on its own; letters, however, must be burned.

[7] In light of writing’s future destruction, it is not surprising that the author of 2 Peter has modest intentions for the letter he now composes; in verses 1–2 he says he simply intends to aid the church’s memory. He recalls the pure mind which was once communicated through speech. In verses 14–16 he makes further points that Plato also had made in the Phaedrus about the shortcomings of writing. Chiefly, the author of a text, its one and only authority, is often absent and therefore unable to correct twisted interpretations. And so, we read that Paul himself has fallen victim to unstable readers who contort his letters as they do the rest of the sacred writings. It is precisely in this charge against the unlearned — that they twist Paul’s texts — that the moral imagination of phonocentrism can be observed. The author had mentioned the unlearned in verse three: their sin is playfulness. They are like children acting from their own desires. They do not submit their wild readings of sacred texts to the authorities, the proper custodians who in turn derive their authority by submitting to the voices of the holy prophets, apostles, and Lord. Morality, then, is maturity. You must be serious about the vaporization of the cosmos and the melting away of writing, expecting it, even hastening it so the perfect self-presence the World Conflagration brings to God will also come to you.

[8] I conclude the first portion of this paper with an unorthodox reading of 2 Timothy 3, that portion of Scripture that many Christians are persuaded settles the question about authority. We need to count ourselves in this group; just read the pertinent sections on Scripture in the ELCA Constitution and plow through Schmid’s Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.[8] In a nutshell, we have understood “God-breathed” to mean that the Bible is self-authenticating. The declaration that Scripture is God-breathed has been grandly interpreted to mean that no other authority than the Bible is needed for salvation and conduct of life. Additionally, “God-breathed” is thought to imply that Scripture interprets itself, or in a pithy phrase making the rounds recently: “we do not interpret the Bible; the Bible interprets us.” Yet it seems to me that 2 Timothy 3:16 in fact makes a far more modest claim about Scripture, one that breathes the air of ancient philosophy and phonocentrism even as it lends itself to the over-inflation Christians ultimately worked on it. “God-breathed” was actually a back-handed compliment, at once praising Scripture by associating it with God, but also indicating that it is not its own origin and that in spite of divine genesis the Bible is still merely letters inscribed on a surface. This would mean that no matter how sacred the letters Timothy had learned as a boy, they were still only letters, aids to memory and open to misinterpretation. Such ambivalence toward writing explains why the pseudo-Pauline author in another echo of the Phaedrus is so eager to wrap Timothy up in an educational system that keeps close watch on what Timothy learns just as it requires him to observe the lives of those from whom he learns it. The sacred text relies upon a patriarchal, or in this case a matriarchal, supervision of knowledge passed from one generation to the next. Playtime in the Pauline tradition is over.

How It Might Have Been Otherwise
[9] “Whatever things were written beforehand were written for our instruction, in order that through endurance and through the encouragement of the writings we might have hope.” (Romans 15:3) With the little word “hope” in this sentence Paul erected a barrier against the influences of philosophy and phonocentrism. As I previously indicated, however, hope was an ineffective line of defense against the authority of the voice. What was there about hope, what is there about hope, which at once makes it so weak in resisting authority and yet so dangerous to the very idea of authority that it had to be replaced by the Scripture’s usefulness as an agent of discipline to “wise people up” as the author of 2 Timothy said? Why, in other words, is hope like writing — unstable and open to what is to come?

[10] Hope, the Stoic philosophers said, was a moral disease. This was an extreme view, perhaps, but not out of step with other moral philosophies of antiquity. Hope ruins the program of a self coming into communion with itself. This was the message philosophers preached especially to young men who, like Arrian in his earlier days, were looking, or were told that they should be looking, for a stable foundation upon which to build their careers and their inner tranquility. Epictetus spoke bluntly to his students about the evils of hope: if the goal of the philosophic life is to discover within one’s own soul the resources for accepting whatever the external world throws your direction so that no news disturbs or brings joy, then it is the height of foolishness to look to the future, to await it with eagerness, and to expect an unexpected otherwise to change the ways things are. But this is precisely what the sacred writings in Paul’s view do; they promote hope.

[11] Or at least they do when Paul playfully manipulates them. Consider the two errant pronouns among the eight Greek words Paul captures from Psalm 69:9: “The reproaches of the ones reproaching you fell upon me.” Reading practices agreed upon nowadays and in the first century insist that the referent of a pronoun ought to be discovered in the context of the writing itself. If we follow this rule, then the “you” refers to God and the “me” refers to the psalmist. But Paul’s re-contextualization of the eight words, which follows the same rule, demands that the “you” now refer to persons other than yourself and that the “me” refer to Christ. Furthermore, he introduces the eight words with a formula “it is written” which implies that the context he has created existed from the beginning. There is something going on here more interesting than a flat-footed Christological reading of the Psalms, a recognized feature of later Christian interpreters whose workmanlike interpretations are derivative of Paul’s textual antics. Rather, it seems to me that Paul has turned one of the worst features of writing in Plato’s mind into a way that these ancient texts might challenge contemporary audiences, namely that in the absence of the author and/or the original audience, written words of necessity become untethered. For Plato the freedom of written texts for re-contextualization was a bad thing and drove him back to the guarantees provided by the living and abiding voice; students, he thought, would find new meanings in texts and with no author or controlling opinion of the majority of first readers to safeguard the intention of the author or the plain sense of the text, knowledge was sure to be corrupted.

[12] It is not just the words from Psalm 69 that Paul re-contextualized. Let’s stay with the notion of re-contextualization a moment longer and note that Paul extended it to the concept of authority itself in Romans 15:1–6 where Jesus Christ is confessed as kurios. This term bristles with authority. Its defining context was the relationship between master and slave. The kurios owned the slave’s body, and, as Aristotle famously said, the master regarded the slave as a living tool, an extension of his own body. As a result the slave bore the labor that the master would have been obliged to bear without a slave. It is not an exaggeration to say that slaves carried in their bodies the death of their masters, since the labor they undertook often could be exhausting. Slaves pleased not themselves but their masters. Thus, just by writing the word kurios Paul ran the risk that his readers’ confession of Jesus would become a confession of Jesus as Lord in the Aristotelian pattern. This is exactly what happened in the later writings of the New Testament, in much of Christian history and in the ELCA constitution where Scripture as the sole authority for faith and life is put into a relation of mutual implication with Jesus as Head and Savior of the Church. Jesus’ Lordship has been understood by many Christians as a reiteration of sovereignty, headship, his right and power to dispose all things as he sees fit. Even the term “Savior” has been coopted; the savior God demonstrates his sovereignty by declaring sinners justified.

[13] But to confess Jesus as Lord without considering how the history of Jesus changed lordship is to miss the re-contextualization of authority that Paul attempts in these verses. The career of this lord, the kurios of the universe, is summed up by the slavish phrase “he did not please himself” and illustrated further by the words Paul plucks from the Psalm “the reproaches of the ones reproaching you fell upon me.” A reproach in the context of first century moral exhortation — a context with which both Paul and his readers were very familiar — was a word spoken to a malefactor with the intention of bringing about repentance by provoking shame. If this is the case, then Christ’s lordship can not be distinguished from the burden bearing of slavery. Jesus the bearer of our shame is Lord. Christians, however, for the most part have gotten it backwards. Instead of imitating Paul and re-thinking authority in light of the story of Jesus’ bearing of our sin and death, we have adjusted Jesus to our ideal lords.

[14] Paul rewrote authority in honor of the one who rewrote lordship. This is how it might have been otherwise. Otherwise for Augustine, who, had he seen it Paul’s way, might no longer have feared that “the Word became flesh” meant what it said; he would have thrown off phonocentrism and instead welcomed the idea that writing does not simply carry an idea but effects it too, pollutes it, mixing it with materiality and time, and raising it from its bodiless state to the glorious, cruciform beauty imagined perhaps by John when he wrote it. Otherwise for the authors of 2 Peter and 2 Timothy, who worried about the playfulness of uneducated youth and the unguarded transmission of knowledge across generations; thinking otherwise, the one might have wept over the burning of the cosmos in solidarity with its demise and the other might have asked Eunice his mother and his grandmother Lois questions about the role of women in the churches. And finally, if we who are powerful bear the weaknesses of those who have no power, and if we refuse to please ourselves but imitate our Lord — our Authority — and count as our own the reproaches that fall upon others, if we frantically feed our hope by searching the scriptures even for scraps of text which hint that this joyous exchange with our neighbors is and will be the being of God, the author of creation, then it might be otherwise for us as well.


1. From Daniel J. Theron, Evidence of Tradition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1957) 29.

2. For a helpful introduction to phonocentrism, see Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1982) 89–110.

3. Augustine, Christmas Sermon 5.3. Translation is Thomas C. Lawler, St. Augustine: Sermons for Christmas and Epiphany (London: The Newman Press, 1952) 87–88.

4. Epictetus, Discourses, Prologue 1–2 (Loeb Classical Library). I have modified the translation.

5. Epictetus, Discourses, Prologue 5–7 (Loeb Classical Library).

6. For the unlikely similarity of Epictetus’ irresistible word and the Word of God in a phonocentric appropriation of the latter, see Heinrich Schmid, Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (3rd Edition; Minneapolis, Minnesota: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961) 503–508.

7. See Jerome H. Neyrey, “The Form and Background of the Polemic in 2 Peter,” Journal of Biblical Literature 99 (1980): 407–31.

8. Schmid, Doctrinal Theology, 38–91.

David E. Fredrickson

David E. Fredrickson is Professor of New Testament at Luther Theological Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota.