Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Reading Scripture

The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. In the name of the Holy Scripture we do understand those canonical books of the Old and New Testament of whose authority was never any doubt in the church.
                                        United Methodist Church, Article V of the Articles of Religion
Yesterday, I made the case that the Christian Scriptures contained in the Old and New Testaments were a unique yet not qualitatively distinct source for theological reflection.  In discussions, I was a bit harsh, I believe, leaving out any nuance as I felt a bit defensive.  Relativizing what was considered the central, authoritative source for our faith surely is not something even the most vocal advocates of new ways of thinking about the faith do with any comfort.  Here, I would like to revise and extend some of those thoughts.

Articles V and VI deal with the canon of Scripture, with VI making clear that the continuity between the Old and New Testaments rests, as it states, on the confession that "everlasting life is offered to mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and man, being both God and Man"  While I would certainly not dispute this claim, I search in vain through the actual text of the Hebrew Scriptures for any actual mention of Christ, his uniqueness, how the salvation he brings, while certainly resting upon the firm foundation of the Jewish people's self-understanding, wasn't more clear to his contemporaries.  In fact, that is a confession in which we Christians read back in to the text of the Hebrew Scriptures particular interpretations.

Reading Jesus back in to the Old Testament narratives, poetry, and what not is a confessional move, resting as it does on a prior agreement among the faithful that, as Jesus witnessed in his ministry, death, and resurrection, such a continuity existed.  As Jesus was himself Jewish, the early believers all Jewish of whatever nationality, his life and ministry was the hinge upon which swung the doorway from the old covenant to the new.

Furthermore, while it is indeed true that various Scriptures did indeed exist even in Jesus' day, carrying with them an authority the historical record testifies with the discoveries of the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, there were numerous texts that were as authoritative then as they are now - for example, the apocalyptic books of Enoch, to take an oft-quoted example.  While it is also the case, as one person pointed out, that the letters of St. Paul were passed around among believers, the matter of their original authority is one, I believe, that can never be answered with any precision.  Canon formation took a century or two, with another century or so before it was finalized.

The Article printed above summarizes what is a common affirmation: The Bible is authoritative because it contains everything we need to know about being a Christian, to live faithfully as followers of Jesus Christ.  How do we know that?  Because the Church assembled the Scriptures in such a way that larger, overarching narrative, including the continuity between the Old and New Testaments, would be clear.  Along the way, all sorts of books, some of which may well have been considered authoritative, fell by the wayside.  In other words, the Bible is uniquely authoritative, according to the above definition, because it is authoritative.

Some, at least, of the discussions around the Christian Scriptures comes close to affirming what is for me a highly sensible point: there needs to be a starting point, a source from which the Church can tell its story.  The Bible provides that starting point, including the story of the people of Israel's ever-changing relationship with the God whom they knew as LORD.  There is nothing internal to these narratives that insists upon their authority.  That rests upon the collective affirmation of the Church through the ages that, in fact, these texts do, indeed, speak with the singular voice about who God is, what God has done, and what God continues to do in and for creation.  Yet, that affirmation rests not on the texts, and certainly not within them; rather, it rests upon the historic experience of the Church on the efficacy of the use of the particular texts in achieving the aims the Church has set for itself, viz., the preaching of the Gospel, service to the world, the sound ministry and administration and order for the people who follow Jesus Christ.

I find it odd indeed that after two centuries of historical and other criticism we would turn around and make a fetish of the Christian Scriptures in our public confession without all the caveats and care we take in practice.  Furthermore, the text of the Article is ambiguous enough - as most general statements always are - to be open to interpretation that leaves many questions begged.  What are "all things necessary"?  What is "salvation"?  If, as the article states, we are under no obligation to require "for salvation" those things that aren't in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, what about those parts that are in there, yet few would consider necessary for salvation?  Do we believe the stories of Creation?  Which ones?  Do we celebrate infanticide, genocide, plural marriage, rape, slavery, the subjugation and dehumanization of women?  Do we give up our form of government for monarchy?

There is no internal guide to answer the question about how, precisely, this unique set of documents and texts, is singularly authoritative.  That only comes through critical reading and reflection, as well as the honest confession they contain much that is morally repugnant.  That we can affirm the overarching narrative while being a bit more selective which texts we actually search for the light guiding us along that narrative path is an obvious reality.  We should just be honest that is what we are doing.  That and making clear that our reliance upon Scripture rests more upon the pragmatic understanding that, well, we have to start somewhere, right?

Finally, none of this is to deny the unique witness of Scripture, the testimony within its parts and whole to our very human struggle to understand what God is doing in and with those whom God has chosen. Its authority, however, rests outside the texts themselves, an affirmation the Church has also made throughout its history.  The question of Scriptural authority rests upon what we read and how we read it.  Confusing uniqueness and authority in this case leaves us in the odd position of merely stating the obvious - the Bible tells us a story that helps shape Christian self-identity - without telling us anything useful.

Virtual Tin Cup

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