Can’t be done, hence “Authority is Constructed and Contextual”?

I thought about simply titling this post Can Theological Libraries Accept the Assertion “Authority is Constructed and Contextual”? That said, upon further reflection, I now suggest that the current title is exactly the question posed by the “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” frame in the new Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education.  

Writing in the October 2015 (vol. 8, no. 2) issue of Theological Librarianship, librarian Bill Badke sought to introduce theological librarians to the Framework.

A couple interesting quotes that I would like to highlight. First of all, when looking at the “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” frame in particular, Badke suggested the following approach:

For a biblical studies course, do close readings of key articles, showing how scholars present evidence for their assertions; trace the development of a concept from the scholar who first voiced it through a pattern of supporters and critics, to its current state; consider with students a significant theological debate (for example, the clash between Jacob Neusner and E.P. Sanders),14 and look at the reasons why scholars’ views may differ so markedly.

All well and good, right? Well, not necessarily. One clue comes earlier in the article when Badke argues that the Framework is built on the educational philosophy of constructivism.* Following from this assumption, he asked this very interesting question:

The constructivist foundation can be problematic for those theological schools that base their understanding of truth on biblical revelation, however that revelation is to be understood. Are there multiple possible meanings to virtually anything, or is meaning at least to some degree pre-determined by the textual bases of faith?

At this point, some sirens should be going off here. Is the Framework at all compatible with religions that talk not only about the importance of divine revelation, but the clarity of divine revelation?

If, for example, a student at an orthodox Christian seminary insists that all authority is humanly constructed and contextual, is it not likely he will find himself failing to graduate? I am not as familiar with the Jewish and Islamic faiths, but I imagine a similar question could be asked in their context.

Perhaps you ask “Why can’t we say that this just goes to show that authority is constructed differently in different contexts”?

St. Paul, in Romans 13: “…there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”

The answer is because the seminary we are speaking about — insofar as it is an orthodox Christian seminary — expects the pastors it graduates to assert Christianity, as revealed and able to be known in the Scriptures, as the truth. And not just in what we today might call a “subjective” but an “objective” sense. And in spite of the very real doubts that they will experience.**

The Framework, however, expects the very opposite when it comes to such authority. Believers might consider their holy book(s) to ultimately be the word of God, but all authority is humanly constructed and contextual.

Therefore, according to the Framework, the answer to the title of this post is “No” (this would be the implication insofar as this frame remains unchanged).

While many may not agree that some or any of the above-mentioned religions are true, the wider problem that this points us to is that the Framework is indifferent to the matter of truth in general. Certainly as a whole, but most noticeably when it deals with the matter of the authority.



*Librarian-philosopher Lane Wilkinson talks about the many librarians who embrace not the educational philosophy of constructivism, or even the psychological theory of social constructivism, but the philosophical/sociological theory of social constructionism. Differences between these terms is explored in papers like the following:

  • RA Young, A Collin. “Introduction: Constructivism and social constructionism in the career field.” Journal of vocational behavior, 2004.
  • Vall Castelló, Berta. “Bridging constructivism and social constructionism: The journey from narrative to dialogical approaches and towards synchrony.” Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, vol. 26, no. 2, 2016., pp. 129-143.doi:10.1037/int0000025.
  • Efran, J.S, S McNamee, B Warren, and J.D Raskin. “Personal Construct Psychology, Radical Constructivism, and Social Constructionism: a Dialogue.” Journal of Constructivist Psychology. 27.1 (2014): 1-13. Print.

My paper in Reference Services Review assumes that the Framework is talking about the social constructionism that Wilkinson talks about.

**Often, among people of devout religious faith, there is a conviction that they think that their faith is right – in spite of their doubts – and yet they can still get along quite well with others who disagree (so long as they have their space and respect boundaries). They know that they need to disagree in peace because of the kind of thing Francis Beckwith observes: “God cannot be impersonal, personal, transcendent, polytheistic, pantheistic, monotheistic, able to beget, not able to beget, relevant, and irrelevant all at the same time… Irreconcilable data gives us no knowledge of God whatsoever.”

Note: post has been updated since originally published for the sake of clarification.