Can we get beyond phrases such as ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘liberal’ in our discussions of biblically based positions? In the Reformed tradition we pride ourselves to be Reformed ‘according to the Scriptures.’ But what does that mean. What prompted our second and third generation Reformed thinkers to adopt such a phrase?
The origin of the phrase is biblical. It is found in I Cor. 15:3, 4: ‘kata grapheis.’ In Latin ‘according to the Scriptures’ reads Secundum Scripturas. At the same time they made a distinction that has largely been lost, but deserves a new hearing. The modern labels of ‘fundamentalism’ or ‘biblicist’ are equally unhelpful as are identifiers such as ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive.’ The terms are loaded with too much baggage. It is too easy to paint one another as being stuck with feet in concrete, or the other as being progressive in the wrong direction.
Al Janssen has said that we are ‘Reformed according to the Word.’ After all, we call our pastors ministers of ‘Word and Sacrament’, not of ‘Scripture and Sacrament.’ That points nicely to what both sides Bible-war sides have in common. It is not the Scriptures as such that are at stake, it is the question of how we ‘hear’ and ‘obey’ (the latter word from the Latin audio –ire: hearing with your feet) as a Living Word.
The early Reformers had to struggle with that in the defense of their approach to Scripture, or —as they would put it— with Scripture’s approach to them! After all, the Roman critics could easily point to passages where Scripture’s claim itself upon Scriptural progeny is quite convoluted, if not dubious. For one such place, look no further than the quoted text of I Cor. 15. Is the Exile in Isaiah really the same as the Abandonment of Christ? A question to be followed by a multitude of difficult questions about the role of Tradition and Scripture!
The issue for these Reformers led to a distinction between what we might call ‘credulity’ and ‘authenticity.’ They used the terms ‘axiopistis’ and ‘autopistos.’ The latter phrase is still used, but the first, revealing a problem with its stance of putting faith in iron clad certitude, fell into disuse. It too clearly exposed a biblically unwarranted stance. But that did not mean that that stance was no longer available, as in inerrancy, for instance.
Think for a moment about the meaning of the two terms: they both clearly ascribe to pistis, the New Testament word for ‘faith.’ Axiopistis refers to an axiomatic faith; the premise or text is posed (posited); the terms of faith are defined (positivism). That is great for Euclidian geometry, but what about the fact that the real world is curved? It is not that the axiom is wrong, it is the question of whether the axiom is adequate. On the other hand, the word ‘auto’ does not imply that autopistic faith moves by itself, at least not anymore than that an automobile moves by itself without an engine (or a tow truck).
Well, said the Reformers —who had to face the Roman Scholastics and thus had to be rather ‘straight’ thinkers to respond to those embedded in that fixed Roman framework— the adequacy has to come from something else, from the inherent ‘power’ of the text. The authority of the Holy Spirit is not an axiomatic one but is authentic. It carries weight (gravity, momentum) with it as the Word of God, for whom Being and Act is One. How do we know that the Word of God is autopistos? It cannot be made into an axiomatic process because we cannot pin down God Almighty in our reason.. In fact, at times God is hidden (absconditus) as Luther and Calvin both affirmed.
The two words, axiopistos and autopistos, point to a difference that does not lie in ‘faith’ (pistis) but in the stirrings of faith.
Axiopistic faith quotes Scripture, but has no intrinsic need for the Holy Spirit other than stating it.
Autopistic faith is Comforting AND Challenging because it relies not on human logic but on the pathos and ethos of God’s Logos.
This last sentence assumes knowledge of how ‘conviction’ works in classical rhetoric. So a very brief explication. Three aspects are necessary for conviction to take hold: logos, ethos and pathos. All three are needed —they overlap as in a Venn diagram we would say nowadays— to reveal a coinciding arena. It is in the latter ‘overlap’ that arguments are settled. Logic by itself can reason (and thus ‘opine’ toward an effect) but without ethos (a place to stand) and without pathos (a place of affect) there will be no true conviction. This center arena is called pistos in Greek rhetoric, the very word the NT uses for ‘faith;’ as a verb: pisteuoo. It is a conviction not by way of axiomatic and exclusive reasoning, but by a willingness to engage, enter the piste of the fullness of life, a decision to participate.
I, for one, think that the debates about the direction that Scripture nudges us in ‘faith’ can helpfully be cast along the lines of this Ur-Reformed distinction of axiopistos and autopistos. Truth is the Coherence of Unity in the Whole. Law can only arrive at an opinion by excluding everything but reason. But mathematicians and physicists find irrational numbers, imaginary numbers, qualities of infinite and infinitissimal, etc. indispensable for their craft. And Life to be worthy of that name demands a full engagement of ethos, pathos and logos.
God chose such a full accommodation to convict us in Christ Jesus. We, as people who are committed to live and move and have our being in the arena of such faith, cannot settle for a lesser Way, Life and Truth.