In it's earliest days, the Church poured over the Old Testament. After all, this was Jesus' "Bible." Jesus constantly quoted "The Law and the Prophets," calling attention to many things regarding the Messiah most Jews either forgot or ignored. I have no doubt Christians and Jews debated the interpretation of these texts repeatedly.
Then, the Church began to have sacred texts of its own. The apostle Paul wrote numerous letters to beginning churches throughout the Roman empire. These letters were seen not only as valuable to particular contexts, but they carried significant weight for any and all Christians. These letters were circulated throughout the churches in the Roman empire.
Along the way, four Gospels were written about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Each of these ancient biographies had different foci. Each of these biographies had different views of events. Their timelines varied only a bit in Matthew, Mark and Luke, but were extremely divergent from John. Despite this, the early Church found these four Gospels to be an authoritative revelation of Jesus.
Other books and letters were added along the way. Some received a heartier welcome than others. Various interpretations arose regarding the Christ event; the nature of Christ; the divinity of Christ; the relationship between God and creation; and so on and so forth. Appeals to Scripture became normative. Some interpretations won out over others. Some interpretations became doctrine.
The process was not always clean. In fact, it oftentimes was messy. Marcion was convinced that Christians should abandon the Old Testament with its angry, bloodthirsty God and instead focus on the revelation of Jesus. The Christian Bible should consist only of the book of Luke, the letters of Paul and a few other epistles. Marcion obviously lost and was branded heretical.
I share this brief introduction to show that the Bible has always been in a battle of sorts. There has always been a battle of interpretation and value. There has always been a battle to set parts of the Bible as having more of a priority than others. This battle is not going to go away anytime soon, and I will certainly not resolve anything by this post.
One may then ask, "Well, then why type it in the first place? If there has always been a battle and there always will be a battle, then isn't your wading into the fray a waste of your time?"
It is questions such as these which give some credence to the idea our lives are determined by forces beyond our control. Why indeed?
It is because I think such battles are still worth fighting particularly in our cultural milieu. In fact, I am beginning to think it is the lack of such battling--check that--the misplaced battling over Scripture that has severely affected many mainline denomination's effectiveness in doing mission and ministry in our cultural climate.
A Bit More History
Before wading into the current climate, I think it instructive to visit the last climate and the last big Bible battle.
The age of the Enlightenment provided the background for the last battle of biblical interpretation as science and reason took center stage. This age invoked the scientific method as the best way to obtain knowledge of the physical world. The methodology proved so successful that its application found its way into the humanities: the social sciences if you would prefer. Psychology, Sociology, History, Literature, and even Theology were affected by this methodology.
This caused no small amount of angst in regards to biblical interpretation. The idea that the universe was governed by unbreakable natural laws led many to abandon the idea of miracle as written about in scripture. The historical-critical reading of scripture provided interpretations of the texts which differed from the status quo. Some questioned the reliability of the documents as historical and sought to separate the myth from the reality.
Others, seeing this, planted their feet firmly in response. They considered such interpretation and understanding as dangerous. They responded with the thoughts of biblical inerrancy and infallibility. God's Word was not to be tampered with or monkeyed around with! It was the authority no matter what science said!
You can still hear this battle being fought from time to time especially if you enter into any intra-Christian argument on the world wide web. Accusations of fundamentalism and anti-scientific accusations abound along with retorts of a refusal to adhere to God's Word and a willingness to pick and choose what one wants to believe.
The Battlefield Has Shifted
Unfortunately, the battlefield has shifted significantly, and the battles that are often fought miss the mark substantially.
The age of the Enlightenment was the age of science and reason, but the age of science and reason met its match in two places: in postmodernity and during World War II.
Post-modern philosophy found its biggest proponent in the philosopher Nietzsche. Nietzsche undermined any philosophical appeal to transcendence. "There are no ideals," Nietzsche proclaimed. He is more famous for uttering the phrase, "God is dead." The same idea applies: there is nothing beyond ourselves to which we can appeal as "good", "evil", "right", "wrong", "just", and the like. Everything is simply a matter of one's perspective.
The scientific and mathematic community ran into limitations as well. Heisenberg introduced the uncertainty principle stating that observation affects the outcome in the quantum world, so we have had to wrestle with how our own biases affect our observation. Goedel showed how our mathematical, philosophical, and scientific systems are based upon certain unprovable assumptions and how within our systems there will emerge statements of truth that cannot be proved.
Culturally, World War II destroyed any assumption that science and reason would lead us to a more just and healthy world. When a scientifically advanced culture like Germany could obliterate six million people because of hatred and greed...well, that put a damper on positivism.
These historical phenomena deeply inform our current culture AND our approach to Biblical interpretation.
The Rise of Perspectivism
Mainline denominations, still stuck in Enlightenment Bible battles have been ill equipped to face postmodernity and its affects on biblical interpretation. For we have failed to grasp the reality and dangers of perspectivism. In fact, because of our sympathetic nature, we have actually embraced it.
Many mainline denominations to this day embrace identity theology: white theology, black theology, feminist theology, Latin-American theology, LBGTQ theology. The experience of the community (or person) becomes an important lens in understanding the theology itself, and all voices should be welcomed at the table. While the table indeed is open to any and all, a very disturbing result can take place.
This can best be shown in a conversation I had recently over what exactly happened on the cross at Calvary. I believe the New Testament witness is pretty clear that on the cross Jesus offers himself as a sacrifice of atonement for sin. The great weight of the evidence supports this.
Interestingly enough, my dialogue partner said, "Sometimes, in explaining stuff, we risk robbing it of its power."
How does explaining the cross rob it of its power?
Well, in this current culture, the interpretation of an event only has power in how a person interprets said event. In the case of the cross, it only has power through my lens of experience. It only has power in-so-far as I see it having power. Depending upon your experience, it will affect you differently: hence the need for so many varying theologies.
And the need for many biblical interpretations.
Again, a recent example taken from a Facebook discussion on the nature of God. One poster said that his understanding of God as revealed in Jesus led him to discount the Old Testament witness of God commanding the destruction and obliteration of entire cities and cultures including women and children. For him, God is love means that God cannot kill in this fashion. His experience of God led him to discount the biblical witness.
The Response of the Church
Most mainline denominations fell squarely in the historical-critical embrasure of science camp. Striving to stay philosophically relevant, they have also tended to become perspectivist. Hence, if anyone appeals to a particular part of scripture to bolster an argument--particularly an argument over the application of the Law, one is met with the accusation of fundamentalism or worshiping the Bible instead of the God of the Bible. If one makes a theological appeal--even if that appeal is fundamentally sound--then one is told, "Remember, this is simply your perspective."
Again, in my theological dialogue I spoke of identity theology, and I laid out my case for our identity as Christians. My dialogue partner (DP) responded throughout.
Me: I believe as Christians we find our identity only in Jesus.
Me: I believe when Jesus said, take up your cross, He meant that we are supposed to die to our race, our color, our sexuality, anything that we think comprises our identity.
DP: I agree completely, but keep in mind you are coming at this from a white theological perspective.
I blew up at this point. Probably shouldn't have, but did. Should have retorted: it isn't a white theological perspective at all. It's a brown skinned, Jewish theological perspective. Wasn't quick enough. I hope you see how experiential perspective begins to trump sound theology. In its elevation of inclusivity as a modern day idol, many mainline denominations no longer have any basis for critiquing theology. All are equally heard and almost equally welcome--even if they are contrary to biblical theology and teaching.
Re-elevation of Biblical Authority
I am no fundamentalist. Neither do I believe the Bible to be inerrant. I do believe the Bible is reliable. I do believe the Bible is the Word of God, and I believe it should be the source and norm of all theology and understanding for Christianity. When I say source and norm, I believe it should be the final authority in helping us understand who God is; how God has revealed Himself particularly in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; and how to understand the implications of the cross and resurrection. I believe the biblical witness has drawn out these matters, and I would like to argue why mainline denominations should put our trust in them rather than in experience and perspectivism.
First, we must decry perspectivism. We cannot allow Nietzsche to win the day with his idea of relativism. This is quite easily done because perspectivism gets hoisted on its own petard. You cannot say, "truth is dependent upon your perspective" because then that statement must be an objective truth in and of itself. But the statement cannot be objective because "truth is dependent upon your perspective." Logically, the stance fails. Secondly, no one lives as though everything were just dependent upon our perspectives. We all have notions of fairness, justice, peace, etc. No one believes that a strong person should just be able to take from a weaker person because he is strong. Perspectivism does not give you the ability to decry such an act. We all believe in some sort of truth even if we don't quite know what that truth is. This is easily demonstrated in the moral realm. Take a look at the following video:
Nearly everyone would agree that "paying" unequal amounts for equal work is wrong. There is something not only deeply embedded within us but within the world that demands justice. It is not simply a matter of perspective.
Secondly, we must realize the severe limitations of experience. There is no scientist or philosopher who uses experience as a measure of truth. None. Why? Experience is far too subjective a measure for truth. As theologians, we should be doubly skeptical because not only is experience subjective, it is also affected by our sinful nature. One of the things I think Nietzsche got correct was his suggestion that we all have a "Will to Power." Essentially, this means we try to further our own agendas even without realizing it. The person trying to achieve heights of power is exercising his will to power as is the one who says, "We should strive to serve instead of to get ahead." Both of these people are seeking their own will to power in the best way they see fit. Christianity would call this original sin. When we articulate our own theologies based in our own experience, this sin infects the process even without our knowing it.
In addition to this, contrary to my dialogue partner’s assertion, basing an event’s power upon a person’s or group’s experience of that event actually robs the event of its power. The event has no meaning in and of itself. This is an inherently dangerous position to take because if an event only carries meaning based upon a particular interpretation, then there is no critiquing that interpretation. There is no basis for changing one’s mind. There is only a perspective. And another perspective. And another perspective.
This is best illustrated in my response to one of my dialogue partner’s assertions about non-denominational churches, “Second, I think your line of questioning in regards to unaffiliated non-denoms is right on target, and I share your concerns. However, I am a bit flummoxed by how it is possible to allow for a wide range of interpretations and understandings while being critical of competing theologies? For instance, how can you call a particular theology wrong unless you know what is right? I have no problem calling Osteen a charlatan, fraud, and false teacher. In my estimation, he deserves every one of those titles because the prosperity gospel he preaches is completely antithetical to the Gospel (rooted and grounded in sacrificial atonement, Rom. 3 and quite a few other places). If I am open to the possibilities of more than a few interpretations and understandings of the Gospel, then, to insure logical consistency, I have to be open to the possibility Joel has it right.
Third, we must confront those within the Christian faith who wish to diminish the authority of Scripture based upon experience. We must unflinchingly say: the Bible is the ONLY source we have of the revelation of Jesus. The Bible is the ONLY source we have of the God who revealed Himself in the history of Israel. There is no other source for this revelation. If you claim that the source is flawed, then so is your articulation of God. If you claim the New Testament is unreliable, so is your articulation of Jesus. You cannot go to the only source we have of Jesus, call it unreliable, and then come up with a reliable portrait of Jesus based upon unreliable material. You will only construct your own, personal Jesus.
Fourth, we must strive to understand the scriptures as the early church understood them. I use the historical/critical method of studying the scriptures all the time. I am blown away by the insights each and every week as I prepare for my sermons. I am blown away by how that which was relevant in the time of Jesus is extremely relevant today. Anyone who decries that the biblical witness isn't relevant to our time and place today isn't studying the scriptures very well. The theology of the early church; of the Gospels; of Paul; of John; of Peter confronts our narcissistic, self-absorbed, idolatry in a massively transformational way--a way I am convinced much of the mainline church is missing.
As I preach from week to week, I see myself more as an art historian. It is one thing to walk into a museum and look at a Monet. One can easily see the beauty of one of his paintings. But when an art historian begins to give the background to the painting; when he or she points out the certain brush strokes and the difficulty of the medium worked with; the painting takes on a whole new life. Delving into the scriptures in this manner is very important because it allows lay folks the ability to appreciate their cursory read, AND it brings it to life in detail.
Fifth, we must put to bed the old battles. We should retire the words fundamentalist and inerrancy. There really isn't a battle between faith and philosophy/science anymore. There is no need to consider miracles as myths. The world has moved on from this. In fact, it is only the most hard core atheists who call into question whether or not miracles are possible. We know that science is limited. We know that so called natural laws do not cover all possibilities. We know that whether or not an event happens is based upon probability not certainty. Miracles are extremely improbable. They are not impossible. Science cannot tell you whether the sun will appear on the horizon tomorrow with certainty. It can say the sun will appear on the horizon with a great deal of probability. The two are not the same. Christians who lessen the authority of scripture based upon an outdated model of science are doing themselves no favors.
If this blog contributes anything to the Bible battle, I would like for readers to consider it a shot toward trusting the biblical witness. I would like for readers to consider the Gospels as ancient, historical biography based upon eyewitness testimony--testimony which begs to be trusted first and then examined. The Gospel writers were not irrational fiction writers longing to embellish the teachings of a moralist. They were earnestly seeking to relay the teachings and events of the life of Jesus. Each writer does have a particular agenda and theological take, but we, like the early church, should consider these portraits together. As in the case of a trial, the more eyewitnesses we have, the more clearly we can begin to reconstruct what happened--even if those eyewitnesses disagree on certain details.
Further, I commend that we view the entirety of the biblical canon through the cross and resurrection. This gets into sticker territory, I know. For what does the cross and resurrection mean? For the majority of scripture: it is the sacrificial atonement of the God incarnate to reconcile the world with the God transcendent. Viewing the scriptures through this lens gives coherence to the entire story without having to pick and choose based upon our experiences. It allows us to understand the wrath of God in the Old Testament along with the amazing love shown by Jesus. It finally allows us to coherently understand many difficult passages in the New Testament epistles. Finally, it gives us a tremendous tool in engaging our world today. While much technology has changed, the very nature of humanity has not changed. It is this basic nature of humanity that the Bible is trying to address. If we do not come to some sort of agreement in how to interpret the Bible as mainline Christians, and fail to address the root of human nature, we will continue our slow decline into oblivion and leave the proclamation to those who do.