Christianity has credibility, both with its own adherents and with its despisers, to the degree that it claims and lives by its own distinctive identity. This means, at a minimum, recognizing that Christianity is not measured by cultural expectations but by the experiences and convictions by which it lives. A church that has lost a sense of its boundaries--that is, a grasp of its self-definition--can only recover it by reassessing its character as a community of faith with a canon of Scripture and a creed.
The erosion of these boundaries has been exposed in the current Historical Jesus debate. There has been no clear sense of where "the church" stands as a community concerning the historical Jesus. Indeed, as we have seen, official leaders of a church, like Bishop [Shelby] Spong, have expressed opinions that are,
on the face of it, incompatible with the classical Christian creed. "Christians" have been strung all along the continuum of stimulus and response in this discussion. But there is no explicit realm of discourse that can be called the church's.
One reason has been the loss within the church of any sense of how the Scripture can function as a basis for debate and decision making in response to crisis. This loss, in turn, is in considerable measure owing to the hegemony of the historical critical method. Several generations of scholars and theologians have been disabled from direct and responsible engagement with the texts of the tradition in their religious dimension. Even more obvious has been the disappearance of the creed as a meaningful framework for reading Scripture and undertaking theological discourse within the Christian community.
It is not at all obvious how Christians can recover some sense of community, canon, and creed. The present polarization and distrust between conservative and liberal tendencies within Christianity make the recovery more difficult. But a start might be the simple recognition that whatever the church's discourse is, it should not be the same as the academy's, nor should it be subject to the same rules or the same criteria of validity. It is time for a return from the academic captivity of the church. It is time for Christians to recognize that not every intellectual tendency or shift of mood is one that enhances the church's fundamental responsibility for handing on a tradition of life from one generation to another. --p. 169
Words still very relevant today as they were when written in 1996.
I argued in 2009 after the ELCA made the decision to begin ordaining non-celebate homosexuals living in life-long monogamous relationships that the vote was really a decision as to who would dictate the meaning of Scripture: the scholars or the people reading and interpreting the plain language. The scholars won the vote, and even though people are invited to share their own readings and interpretations, they must always take a back seat to "the scholars" who are the ones who "really know" what the Bible means.
But Johnson's statement is astute; yet it generally falls on deaf ears--at least in mainline, liberal Christianity, "It is time for Christians to recognize that not every intellectual tendency or shift of mood is one that enhances the church's fundamental responsibility for handing on a tradition of life from one generation to another." I am convinced that until those in the mainline grasp this reality, the slow death spiral will begin accelerating until there is just a remnant of those who tenaciously hold onto this perspective.