Thursday, September 25, 2014

WSPK 7: How shall we then read?

Some of you may feel like I pulled a switch-a-roo on you. Didn't my lead off post in this series start with this:
  • The Bible as Scripture is as much transformational as informational.
So why have I spent the last five posts more or less talking about the informational? Two reasons.

1. To prepare the way for a clearer sense of the transformational by deconstructing our confidence in the informational.

Everyone thinks they know what the Bible means. This is a by-product of American democracy. Everyone thinks they're an expert at everything. And with the Bible, everyone thinks they know exactly what God thinks about everything.

And of course you might easily respond, "Scholars don't agree on a whole lot of things," and you'd be right. Those who are supposed to know the most about the original meaning disagree all the time. So even the best scholars should be a whole lot more tentative about what they think Bible originally meant than they usually are. [1]

But here's an important point on this topic:
  • Biblical scholarship is essential to an informational approach to the minutia of the original meaning of the Bible, but it is neither essential nor intrinsically capable of reading the Bible as Scripture.
Once we have at least distanced the original meaning of the Bible from the meaning and significance of Scripture for us today, a whole different discussion ensues. Obviously there must be other guiding factors at work (other than the historical meaning) behind not only the transformational experience of Scripture but even its "informational" aspects as it relates to us today.

What are these factors? All the legitimate factors ultimately relate in some way to the Holy Spirit.

a. First, there are "words from the Lord" to individuals and smaller communities of faith. It is understandable that many Christians and Christian traditions have shied away from spiritual interpretations, "pneumatic" words from the Lord. No doubt if we were to examine all the "revelations" people have claimed to receive over time, most of them are probably nothing but hokum, individuals both good and bad, self-deceived, playing a subconscious game to make themselves feel more important than they are.

Yet the original meaning of the New Testament includes indications that there are prophets among us who hear words from the Lord, including words that are mediated through a prophet's reading of Scripture. We must "test the spirits to see whether they are from God" (1 John 4:1). Those who say the Spirit does not inspire new or extended meanings on the basis of the words of the Bible have their head in the sand when it comes to the way the New Testament authors interpreted the Old Testament.

Communities of faith can also, apparently, have "localized" convictions about how to live out the Bible. The Brethren foot wash. The Wesleyans don't drink. Neither are required positions on the basis of the original meaning of the Bible, but they are the convictions of these groups. They don't mean that these groups are more spiritual than the others. They just have community convictions that they believe are from the Lord.

b. Much more importantly, a preacher can also be confident in the commonly agreed truths of Christianity--the rule of faith and the law of love. These are the truths and ethics that the Church of the centuries has taken from Scripture. Here is actually the most important place for a preacher of the word to camp. We know the biggest ethical principles of all--love God and love neighbor. We can preach any text of Scripture through the eyes of the love of neighbor and we will be able to preach with authority! We can speak with the authority of God to any situation today that clearly plays out our submission to God and our love of others!

c. Beyond this, let me suggest that we are most in danger of going bizarre when we are looking at the details of the biblical texts. It is in the big principles, the trajectory of Scripture, the common sense that the Spirit has built up in the Church over centuries, that we are most certain. It is in the details that we are most likely to make ourselves look stupid informationally--whether we are a scholar, preacher, or lay person--with regard both to what the text meant originally and in how to apply it.

We are safe to apply any passage of Scripture through the lens of God's love for humanity and our obligation to love each other. We are safe to apply any passage with the theme of complete submission to God and the submission of our will to him in a way that does not harm others and correctly recognizes his character as love. We are not safe to apply every passage directly to today without considering the whole counsel of God in Scripture.

The bottom line is that everyone--scholar, preacher, lay person--needs to be a lot more humble when it comes to our handling of the Bible and our confidence that we are speaking for God when it comes to interpretation. "I wonder if the Lord is telling us today..." should be our mode of operation when it comes to the Bible.

Now if you are confident that you are hearing the Holy Spirit, go for it. "The Spirit is telling me today that we need to enter a building program like Nehemiah undertook so long ago." That's fine. Just don't use the Bible as an excuse. "The Bible says..." is often you say--that is the conclusion of these last five posts. You may be right because of the Spirit, even if you're wrong about what the text actually meant.

Just don't play the game so many preachers don't even know they're playing, giving their ideas and trying to give them the authority of Scripture.

2. So one purpose of the last five posts was to move us away from the informational use of Scripture toward a transformational one. What is a transformational use of Scripture?

It is one that listens. It is one that waits. It reads the text and meditates on its words. Bathed in the light of God's love and our total submission to him, we wait for the Holy Spirit to speak to us, to change us. We hide the key passages of Scripture in our hearts (the ones that relate to the spiritual common sense the Spirit has developed in the Church) and we read the others in their light. This will make us bristle at some stories. It will help us rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.

But God sets the agenda for the transformational experience of Scripture. We ponder. Preaching for transformation is reflective. What is God saying to us, to you this morning? Where does God want to take us today as we read these words? Who is you in this story? Who should you be?

The informational approach to Scripture has as its intrinsic goal the mastery of its content. The transformational approach has as its goal the Spirit's mastery of us.

[1] It might be helpful to clarify what an original meaning Bible scholar is. An original meaning Bible scholar of a particular part of the Bible 1) knows the appropriate original languages, 2) knows the historical and cultural context of that part, 3) knows the key history of discussion about the interpretation of that part, and 4) can competently practice contextual interpretation.

Having a PhD does not in itself say how far along one is in the journey toward this vast array of knowledge. Many individuals with PhD in hand are still a little shaky on the languages, have a hit and miss knowledge of the historical background information and may only know the history of the discussion for a small part of the text. Still more significant, the current climate has moved away from contextual interpretation to where many of those with PhDs in the last fifteen years may simply be, more or less, very sophisticated pre-modern interpreters.

Despite the fact that both subjectivity and the limitations of our evidence make positive interpretations eternally tentative even for original meaning experts, such scholars should, however, be able to eliminate rather quickly anachronistic interpretations, interpretations that would not have made any sense in the ancient world. Since the essence of premodern interpretation is anachronism, this negative function remains a key area of insight for the biblical scholar today.

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