John Franke on the Meaning and Authority of Scripture
Fred G. Zaspel
Pastor, Cornerstone Church of Skippack
Some of you have asked for some of my thoughts regarding Biblical Theological Seminary's John Franke and in particular his view of Biblical authority. Here is a brief summary.
Postmoderns are correct to point out that all readings of Scripture are inevitably shaped in some measure by the reader's context. Finite humans have finite perspectives. Only omniscience can avoid the limitations of perspectivalism. But this is not to say that meaning has been eradicated from the text or that we must now relegate authority to its interpretation. Finite humans are able to come to a true even if not exhaustive understanding of the text, and it is there — in the text, in authorial intent — meaning and authority reside. And it is here that Franke first goes astray.
Reading and listening to John Franke you quickly learn that he is keen to affirm that the meaning of the Biblical text does not lie in the Biblical text itself but "out in front" of the text in the interpretation of those who hear and read it. As each "community," shaped by its culture and traditions, hears the text it is influenced by the Spirit of God to discover its "meaning" for that particular context. The "meaning" is not in the text itself but out in front of the text in its hearers. Franke insistently counsels us not to approach the Scripture as though it is our singular authority. For him the meaning of Scripture is "determined in large measure by its worldly context." For him it is not sola scriptura but God's "polyphonic revelation" of tradition, culture, and Scripture. In "conversation" with tradition, culture, and Scripture, he assures us, we will determine together, ourselves, the "meaning" of God's Word to us and, therefore, his authoritative will. This, he insists, is still God speaking! It is God the Holy Spirit working and speaking through these various voices so that through them, together, "truth" is established. It seems that we now have a say in what is truth, but Franke insists that this is in fact God the Spirit speaking through us all — and through the text of Scripture.
Franke finds support for his notion in pre-postmodern theologian, Karl Barth, and he is eager to say so repeatedly. But interestingly he nowhere attempts to find support for this notion in Scripture itself. I have challenged him on this score repeatedly, but to my knowledge he has not yet attempted to demonstrate any kind of Biblical-exegetical ground for this his starting point — dare I say, his "foundational" assumption? — in interpreting Scripture. But then, he doesn't need to! If the Bible's meaning is out in front of us somewhere, yet to be determined by the community that hears it, then Biblical exegesis is simply not needed. "Meaning" is for us to determine.
The closest that I have seen Franke come to a theological justification for this position is his gratuitous contention that the Holy Spirit speaks through various media — not just Scripture but culture and tradition also — and thus, when the "meaning" of Scripture is discerned for each community it is, in fact, found with divine endorsement. This is strikingly similar to the old neo-orthodox understanding of inspiration, but it deserves criticism on other grounds.
In relocating the locus of authority from the inspired text to the Holy Spirit Franke presents a false dilemma and takes a giant step away from evangelical orthodoxy which has consistently held that final authority is anchored in the Biblical text alone. Franke's false disjunction does not adequately appreciate the role of Scripture as defined by Scripture and the Holy Spirit who gave it. The notion of truth lying "out in front" of Scripture clearly does not fit very well with Jesus' promise that "all truth" would be given to the apostles (Jn. 16:12-15; cf. 14:24-26). We are commanded to "hold fast the apostolic tradition" (2 Thes. 2:15; cf. 3:6) that was "once for all delivered to the saints" (Jde. 3). "Guard what has been entrusted to your care" (1 Tim. 6:20). "To the law and to the testimony" (Is. 8:20) has always been the Christian test. Or, simply, sola Scriptura.
Franke has often argued his case at length, but to my knowledge he has shown no attempt to provide exegetical justification for it. The reason for this seems obvious — he can't. His shift of authority is exactly against the Biblical text. Franke will acknowledge that the Spirit speaks to us through the text of Scripture (as well as through other means), but he misses the fact that the Spirit who speaks through the text tells us in that text that that text has a role that Franke will not allow it — i.e., singular, unshared, supreme, and universal authority. Franke's disjunction between the Holy Spirit and the Biblical text is a false one. God did not give his word as a secondary or shared authority to be determined by each community who hears it but as his own revealed will intended to rule supremely over all. It is entirely misguided — indeed, deceptive — to ask us to choose between God and his Word as our authority. It is not God or his Word that is our authority but God who speaks to us authoritatively through his Word.
Moreover, its meaning and authority transcend community. It is "once for all given." Its meaning — and therefore its authority — is not fluid, conforming to each next community's interpretation. Its meaning is settled, once for all, in the text itself. The meaning is not "out front" in the shifting whims of culture and tradition. It is given once for all.
So Franke claims to hold to Scriptural authority, but in reality he has repudiated it by sharing its authority with other influences. Truth is not fixed — it is yet to be determined by the context in which it is heard. And as sensitive as Franke is to the charge of relativism, it is a charge he cannot avoid — it is entirely justified. With "truth" yet to be determined, everything is up for grabs.
In short, Franke advocates a "trajectory" that inevitably leads away from the faith.
It was not that long ago that I was a very enthusiastic supporter of Biblical Theological Seminary, and it saddens me deeply to have been driven away by these kinds of issues there. But this is where the school has forced us.