Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Misunderstanding The Question

I saw this (along with, most likely, three quarters of the rest of Facebook users) yesterday, and I shared it with the caption, "I think I did this on a geometry test once." Funny stuff.

Taking a second thought round about it, though, and I realized that this funny little picture is a graphic demonstration of my own problem with Biblical literalism. It isn't so much that the answer is "wrong". Rather, the wrong answer demonstrates the question isn't understood. If the question is, "What is the Bible? What does it teach us? How is it authoritative?", an answer such as the following shows me, at least, the person didn't quite get what the questions were asking:
All Protestants agree in teaching that "the word of God, as contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the onl infallible rule of faith and practice." . . .

From these statements it appears that Protestants hold, (1) That the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the word of God, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and are therefore infallible, and of divine authority in all things pertaining to faith and practice, and consequently free from all error whether of doctrine, fact, or precept. (2) That they contain all the extant supernatural revelations of God designed to be a rule of faith and practice to his Church. (3) That they are sufficiently perspicuous to be understood by the people, in the use of ordinary means and by the aid of the Holy Spirit, in all things necessary to faith or practice, without the need of any infallible interpreter. . . .(Charles Hodg, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 p.151.
Charles Hodge's famous definition of Scriptural infallibility, kicking against the pricks both of what was then called "higher criticism" and the recently pronounced Roman Catholic declaration that, when speaking ex cathedra, the Pope's teachings were infallible and authoritative in matters of faith and morals, binding in matters of belief on all (Roman) Christians, certainly has timeliness on its side. All the same, it answers a question that either was never asked, or that Hodge, for all his virtues and learning, his keen mind, and dedication to his students and the life as a Christian intellectual at Princeton, just didn't understand.

It is one thing to say, "The Bible is the testimony of God's active life with and for humanity in and through the people of Israel and decisively in the full incarnation of the Divine life in Jesus Christ." It is another thing all together to say, "The Bible is the Word of God." Elsewhere, Hodge states that, under the power of the Holy Spirit, the authors of the Biblical texts were speaking for God. Yet, the Bible states the Word of God is not the Scriptural texts, but the Second Person of the Trinity, the Eternal Son of the Father come to earth in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

What Hodge calls his doctrine of plenary of inspiration misses the point that Biblical authority doesn't rest on any intrinsic value the words of the Biblical texts may or may not have on any given topic. The Bible's authority rests upon the power of the Holy Spirit to use the text to enliven the community of believers. It is an extrinsic authority, foreign to the text itself, and superlative to the communities of faith who find within it testimony to the power and presence of the Living God with those whom God chooses.

As to the text's perspicuity (God, I love that word), I cannot imagine Hodge would believe it a matter of simple, two-dimensional reading of words. On the contrary, his argument in point three seems geared less to such a simplistic understanding than a counter-argument to the long-held Roman Catholic doctrine that Biblical interpretation is one of the charisms of the priesthood, granted to them for the good of the community. It is, in other words, a variant of Luther's understanding of the priesthood of all believers, a declaration that the Bible, being the Church's book, belongs to the community of faith. All Christians, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and in dialogue in love and forbearance to all, have the capacity to be grasped by this text, finding in it resources for faithful living through the power of the Spirit, in the Son, for the sake of the Glory of the Father.

All the same, I think Hodge's formula is far too easily elided in to a simplistic idea that the text of the Bible is transparent, accessible to any reader, its teachings and stories and ethical dictums both easily grasped and, if denounced, evidence not only of moral failing, but intellectual failing as well. Or, as an occasional commenter writes repeatedly:
If you think my understanding of Scripture is fixed beyond the ability of modern law to change, it is only because God's Will is fixed, clearly revealed, understandable and not subject to human/worldly demands, unlike yourself.
No matter how often the above formula is repeated, however, it doesn't change the fact that the Bible isn't that clear. No matter how often this person insists it to be so, God's will changes for us each and every day. No matter how many times the claim is made that Biblical teachings on matters of life, ethics, and moral practice are clear and simple, misreading them is easy to do precisely because the text is deceptively simple. This doesn't mean the Biblical writers were trying to deceive or trick readers, or that modern interpreters are trying to cloud what is actually clear.

On the contrary, with love and respect and faith and, above all, care, we respect the difference within and of the text, its place as a route for authority in the lives of our fellow believers, and its history as a really existing thing for a variety of people in different places and times. We come to the Bible with humility, understanding St. Paul was right when he said we don't even know what to pray for when we pray for the text to be open to us and for us. Most of all, speaking only for myself, I do not lean on any understanding I may have, for the Biblical text isn't mine; it speaks to me, but only as I am a part of a community of faith who come together to hear the testimony of the witnesses to God's presence in the lives of other communities, and the whole world.

Am I speaking of a way of reading the Bible that is only available to a select few? Lord knows I've been accused of that enough times. I insist not, however. As the Bible is something that reaches us only as we are part of larger communities of faith, this is something we do together in our common life. As a seminary professor of mine used to say, the canon is still open because the text of Scripture is open to us and for us to add our understandings to the many voices who have heard and believed and lived it through the centuries.

While I do not agree with those who read the Bible the way Hodge describes it. I do not, on the other hand, insist they are so in error as to provide no insight, nothing of value to our common life, our shared ways of being Christian in a world where such can be dangerous, subversive, even deadly. All of us get it wrong when we come to the Bible; that is a given. It is neither we nor the text that bridges the many gaps. Rather, God in the Person of the Holy Spirit reaches across the many barriers that can create misunderstandings and error and disillusion and disagreement to forge the communities of faith we call the Church of Jesus Christ. That is where my faith lies. That is where my hope is grounded. That is the deep well of love that never runs dry. Not the bare words of the text; in the Living Word of the Living God who is still creating, always redeeming, and moving all of us to perfection in love.

Virtual Tin Cup

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