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On Authority, Tradition, and Millennial Evangelicals

August 15th, 2013 | 4 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Over the weekend I started reading Roger Scruton’s The Uses of Pessimism and the Danger of False Hopewhich is like everything Scruton writes: both instructive and engaging.  It was this bit, however, on the nature of authority that stood out to me as particularly interesting, especially in light of recent disputes over millennials and the church:

When it comes to our own lives, to the things that we know and in which we have acquired both understanding and competence, we take a measured view….The midwife who knows her job respects the solutions that have been proved by the generations who preceded her; she recognizes those with authority and instinctively obeys their advice.  And she does not hesitate to offer advice of her own.  She measures her own judgment against the accumulated wisdom of tradition, and if she takes a risk, because the problem before her is without a clear precedent, she is careful to measure the cost of failure and to ensure that it can be borne.”

Scruton goes on to suggest that the “scrupulous optimist,” as he calls them, are “acutely aware that we are only one among many in our field of expertise, are ready to defer to those with knowledge and experience, and are more respectful of the accumulated store of others’ knowledge than the scant addition we might make to it ourselves.  It is with an educated sense of the first-person plural that we deploy the knowledge that is our securest personal possession.”

If Scruton is right, there’s an inherent modesty required both to speak authoritatively and to discern and respond to authorities.  When Jesus speaks “as one with authority” in Matthew 7, he teaches within the context of an established and authoritative body of work, the Torah.  He illuminates various aspects in new and distinctive ways, and the whole teaching is reframed around the advent of the Messiah.  Yet his teaching is authoritative only because it comes from within a tradition, in the first place, rather than because it questions or subverts that tradition.  He’s able to wrangle with the Pharisees in the Temple at the age of twelve because he knows his stuff.  He’s done his due diligence, you might say.

Scruton keeps his example narrowed to the individual, but it’s worth expanding it and thinking generationally for a second.*  There is within the progressive temperament that is now en vogue among many “millennial Christians” the temptation to make skepticism the fundamental posture toward religious authorities.  Never mind that authorities in other disciplines, like science, are somehow immune.  The disposition does not look at our received tradition as an inheritance to be enjoyed and lived on so much as a burden that has to be subverted and deconstructed.  Progressive Christians are not interested in measuring our  judgment against the tradition; rather, the progressive temperament judges the tradition against a conception of “reason” or “experience” that is currently popular (“we now know….”).

The difference between the progressive temperament and what Scruton describes above is not simply one of emphasis, then, but one of substance.  The person who places himself under authority is necessarily more interested in the gifts they have received than the gifts they have to give–and inasmuch as they are able to speak authoritatively (and not simply popularly, which is an important difference) they will speak out of that sense of deference.  To put it bluntly, theological progressivism has to speak from a posture of pride.  The progressive question is the theological “humblebrag”:  it refuses to give the benefit of the doubt to stances that we have inherited while treating the world as a blank canvas which we then get to “create” on.  Assimilation by a surrounding culture isn’t a bug of theological progressivism so much as a feature.

The relationship between the institution that bears the tradition and the speaker is not symmetrical, then, and for the speaker, it cannot be.  That we stand on an equal plane with the institution we live within isn’t simply wrong–to the one who has been formed by the tradition, it seems…laughable.  That claim prompts a flabbergasted stammering as though someone had dared insult our wives or girlfriend.  “If you only knew,” the response can only be, just how much we have been given.  Such is the bashfulness of those in love:  in the face of a good so wonderful as a woman, as the churchthe appropriate response is penitential reverence and kneeling, rather than trumpeting our own virtues and gifts.  If Christ is to be seen there at all, if there is anything lovely, or pure, or holy, or any of the qualities that the eyes of faith detect–our entire outlook must shift and all our speaking and advocacy along with it.

But then, that will only be the response when the creeds are lived within, when they are prayed, and not simply repeated.  As Austin Farrer once put it, “No Christian deserves his dogma who does not pray them.”  Or this, also from him, after noting that Christ presents himself to be examined by the disciples in the upper room:

“On the other hand how can I question a truth like this truth?  For have I not begun to see Christ as the Lord, and does this not preclude questioning?…You might as well recommend to a husband the rational duty of suspending judgment about his wife’s fidelity until he has tested it by a sufficient number of ingenious traps and artificial maneuvers.”

“Come and see,” the exhortation is, but such sight is given only if we come reverently, soberly, and in the fear of God.  It is given when we have been chastened, when we have learned of the failures of the past and been instructed in the humility of wisdom–for “the only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”

The appropriate response to the troubles of the church, to her failures and her flaws, is to recognize what Chesterton understood when responding to the question of what is wrong with the world.  As he famously replied by way of a letter:

Dear Sirs, 

I am. 

Sincerely yours, 

Matthew Lee Anderson

*Such generational analysis has been plenty in vogue for a while within evangelicalism, and I’ve engaged in it a bunch myself. However, I note that the approach has a very limited usefulness, if any at all.  I use it here because it’s shorthand for a phenomenon in a way that lots of people recognize, but could easily be talked out of ever using the phrase again.