Monday, March 07, 2011

Scripture as Sacrament (10) (W)

Here endeth the reading...

Generous Tradition
Heart-Oriented Tradition
God is Love

Cross is Love
Human Freedom
Optimistic about Love
Loving the Whole Person
Loving into Societal Structures
The Importance of Faithfulness
Wesleyans share with most other Christians a love for Scripture.  John Wesley once described himself as "a man of one book," in reference to the Bible.  At the same time, Wesley was also a student of Christian literature and further did not believe that God stopped speaking to his people after the books of the New Testament were finished.  Later students of Wesley described his method of finding God's will and God's truth as a "quadrilateral" consisting of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.  Certainly in Wesley's mind Scripture had first place among these potential channels of God's voice.

A great deal has happened since Wesley on this topic.  People have raised questions hardly anyone had ever thought to ask before.  Lines have been drawn, wars have been fought, leaving a landscape of charged emotions and burned over ideological ground.  The Wesleyan tradition potentially has something to contribute to this landscape, now that the ground has lay somewhat fallow for a few decades.  Our thoughts could come from other traditions as well, but they also come naturally from our history.

First and foremost, Scripture is a sacrament of transformation.  It is perhaps not surprising that most of the battles over the Bible have been fought in terms of what we might call propositional truth.  Does the Bible say things that are true or things that are false?  Certainly this question is part of the equation, but it misses the fundamental purpose of Scripture for Christians, which is to serve as an instrument of reconciliation.

More than to reveal truth about God, the purpose of Christian Scripture is to meet God, to encounter God, to be changed by God.  It is at least questionable whether our arguments over the historicity of this or that passage, about whether Genesis 1 is literal, or whether Isaiah wrote the last 27 chapters of Isaiah, have ever brought anyone on either side of the debate closer to God. To this extent, these are legitimate questions for us to take positions on--they may even be important in some way.  But they also may distract from what Scripture is really about, no matter which side you are on, namely, experiencing God's transformative power to make us more like him.

This is not to deny the legitimacy of the very complex historical method evangelical and non-evangelical scholar alike have developed over the years.  You can study at an evangelical college or seminary and learn Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic.  You can learn about literary context and how to follow a train of thought.  You can learn historical-cultural background in order to read the words of the Bible in context.  You can learn the gamut of hermeneutical perspectives on how to integrate the varied teaching of Scripture into a biblical theology and various approaches on how to move from "that time" to "this time."  Such courses of study are legitimate and will equip you to hear each book of the Bible on its own terms, the terms in which God first spoke through those words to some ancient audience.

 But you may or may not be changed.  For the Bible to be Christian Scripture, it must be your book.  The stories that appear throughout its books must become your story.  The way in which its commands, promises, teaching, and expressions become commands to you, promises to you, instruction to you, and your expressions is complex.  We could go passage by passage and analyze the complex ways in which not only common Christianity but specific denominations and individuals have experienced God appropriating these words for them.  No doubt at times they have heard him wrongly.  Arguably this is why there was a Protestant Reformation.

But the appropriation of Scripture is surely a spiritual task, another point where the Wesleyan tradition, along with its sister Pentecostal traditions, potentially has something to contribute.  Many other Christian traditions, in combating modernism, too quickly adopted its categories.  The Protestant Reformation also, in its reaction to medieval catholicism, perhaps too quickly rejected the possibility that the Spirit might speak beyond the "literal" meaning of the Bible.  In doing so, it seems to have missed the fact that the New Testament itself frequently reads the Old Testament in this sort of "spiritual" way.

As the Wesleyan tradition moves forward into the twenty-first century, it along with other like-minded traditions can suggest we begin to take a more "sacramental" and less mechanistic view of Scripture.  A sacrament is a divinely appointed means of God's grace, where God takes something that is ordinary--like bread or water--and meets us in an extraordinary way in it.  Is not the Bible like that?  These are ordinary words.  Indeed, they employ the categories and common language of the people to whom they were first written.

But the Bible is a special place to meet God and be transformed into his likeness both as individuals and as communities of faith.  Certainly it is a sacrament of revelation through which our thinking and understanding of truth is transformed to be sure.  We will want to study it for what it really meant, God's first moment of speaking through it.  But even after we have done all our homework, after we have done our best to understand its words in context, appropriating those words for today is a spiritual task.  Even more, it is a corporate task, for I am surely even more likely to know the Spirit's leading in a community of Spirit-filled individuals than I am alone.  

But as much as it is a place to meet God with my mind, it is even more a place for my heart and my actions to be changed.  It is a place for me to see myself in the stories and words and for us corporately to see ourselves.  It is a place for me to recognize the path I must take and the path we must take together.  God's leading through Scripture is not something we can set down in a formula or even a creed, although creeds rightly capture the corporate sense God has given Christians of the boundaries.  It is a spiritual leading that defies our desire for tidy answers and absolute clarity.

Wesley set a great precedent here for the Wesleyan tradition and beyond.  He began with Scripture, as we all should.  But because he lived in the eighteenth century, he had a certain kind of freedom to read and connect the Scriptures to one another in a spiritual rather than mechanistic, historical way.  He drank deeply from the writings of Christians throughout the centuries, which gave him illumination that the Spirit had brought to Christians throughout the centuries, as well as the boundaries within which the Spirit moves.

But he was open to experiencing the Spirit freshly through the words of the Bible and to receiving specific guidance for our lives from them.  Scripture for him was about God changing us, about God moving us along on the path of salvation.  May it be so in our lives as we continue to come to Scripture as God's people, expecting to be changed.


FrGregACCA said...


Orthodoxy speaks of the Bible as a "verbal ikon", doing with ink and words what pictoral ikons do with pain and forms, according to the Second Council of Nicea. And, just so it is clear, in Orthodoxy to speak of something or someone as an "ikon" is to speak the language of communion and encounter. Christ, for example, is "the ikon of the invisible God" in the words of the New Testament.

Also, this line of thinking is resonant with Paul Ricoeur's idea of a "second naivete".

It is also interesting that Evangelicals and others who wish to read the Bible only in what they believe to be a literal fashion usually have no problem with two of the oldest forms of non-literal Christian interpretation of the Old Testament: prophecy fulfillment and typology.

Greg Teegarden said...