Sunday, September 20, 2015

SA6: The Scriptures are a sacrament of God's transformation.

This is the sixth post on sacraments in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first unit in this series had to do with God and Creation (book here), and the second unit was on Christology and Atonement.

We are now in the third and final unit: The Holy Spirit and the Church. The first set of posts in this final unit was on the Holy Spirit. The second set was on the Church. This third set is on sacraments.
The Scriptures are a sacrament of God's transformation.

1. It is true that we find information in the pages of the Bible. The books of the Bible are a witness to the most important moments in God's interaction with humanity, not least when he came to earth in the person of Jesus the Christ, died for the sins of the world, and rose again victoriously as king.

In the pages of the books of the Bible we thus hear about the most important events of salvation's history. We hear about how God walked with Israel and the earliest Church. We learn of his character and attributes. We hear about the instruction that he gave them. We hear about the hope and promises he gave them.

There is a fundamental continuity in the people of God. As Israel was the people of God and the earliest believers were the people of God, so are we still the people of God. Their story is our story. The love he showed them is a love he also has for us. The hope that God gave them promises hope still to us. The future of salvation that he promised them is still our promise.

2. To be sure, there are also differences. The words that God spoke to them were first of all words for them. Words only have meanings in contexts, and the original meanings were rich in context. [1] The instructions, warnings, and even the frameworks of thinking in the Bible had much to do with the contexts in which they were spoken and revealed. Only the Spirit can guarantee that we will appropriate them well without taking such distance into account.

The default reader is unaware of such distance. The default is to try to make sense of the words of the Bible using the definitions in our heads--which come from our current world--and then to apply them as best we can make sense to today. The Spirit and the Church are crucial elements in this equation if we have any hope of applying the Bible in this way in a helpful way.

The Spirit helps our weakness. He guides us into truth. The Spirit has already helped the Church develop a kind of intuition about the kinds of things the Bible might or might not say. This is one of the crucial roles the Church plays--developing our intuitions for the reading and appropriating of Scripture. The two greatest intuitions are the "law of love" and the "rule of faith."

3. The law of love is nothing other than Jesus' summary of all God's expectations for humanity. Love God with all your being, and love your neighbor as yourself. Every ethical expectation God has of us falls into this two-fold command. All Christian ethics is summed up therein. Jesus said so (e.g., Matt. 7:12; 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-33). Paul said so (Gal. 5:14; Rom. 13:8-10). John says so (1 John 4:7-8). James implies as much (Jas. 2:8).

If we understood this love command, we would not need any other Scripture to tell us how to live in this world. How are we to act toward others in this world? We are to act for the good of others, whether they are our friend or enemy (e.g., Matt. 5:43-48). We are not to act in a harmful way toward others. Any attempt to employ the Bible in a way to justify unloving action toward others is simply a misapplication of the Bible, no matter how clear we may think it is.

To love God is to submit entirely to his authority. It is to do everything to his glory (e.g., Col. 3:17). There is a tendency to use the supposed love of God to justify doing unloving things toward our neighbor. There is a tendency to use the supposed love of God to place meaningless restrictions on others because it is "just the way God intended things to be." We should soundly reject the first and strongly question the second.

4. The rule of faith is the "right belief" or understanding that God has unfolded both in the Bible and in the Church. Jesus is the "last word," the final revelation of God's character and will. The New Testament is simply the unfolding of that final word, and the Spirit continued to unfold that basic understanding in the early Church. We find these basic insights in the early creeds of the Church, especially in the Apostle's and Nicene creeds. They clarified God's existence as a Trinity and the way in which Christ's humanity and divinity relate to each other.

There are other common agreements that God developed in the early days after Christ. Which books are the Christian Scriptures? The Scriptures themselves do not answer this question. It was in the first four centuries of the Church that God clarified the New Testament canon, or collection of books that give authoritative witness to Christ. Other issues of consensus include a belief that God created the universe out of nothing, that we will be conscious in Christ's presence between our death and the resurrection, and that we will spend eternity on a new earth. [2]

These intuitions, along with intuitions that come from the various branches of Christianity to which we belong, are always present when we read the Bible. They influence the direction in which we take the words. If we are Baptist, we will steer our interpretations in certain ways. If we are Wesleyan, we steer them another. If we are Lutheran or Reformed, we will have yet another set of boundaries.

These traditions influence us even when we are in a non-denominational church. We never simply "just read the Bible and do what it says." To think so is merely to show that we are unaware of the traditional influences on us.

5. So God first spoke through the words of the books of the Bible to the people of God in the past. And the Spirit uses the Bible to speak to people in the present, even when they are not aware of the fact that they may be reading the Bible with different meanings than those words had originally.

The process of determining what these words originally meant is largely a science. It requires us to read words in their literary and historical contexts. There will almost always be some ambiguity and polyvalence to the words in their literary context. And we lack sufficient historical evidence and understanding to know the meaning of the words against their historical context with certainty. We will also always have some degree of unreflectivity about the role our own presuppositions and preunderstandings play in what we think the text meant.

So, although the process of historical interpretation may be somewhat of a science, it rarely yields results that are absolutely certain.

By contrast, the process of connecting biblical texts together and appropriating them for today is not a science. It is, rather, a spiritual and corporate task. We could know the original meaning of a verse for certain and still not know exactly how to appropriate that specific verse for today. This leads us to two important caveats.

The first is that the appropriation of Scripture for today is a "whole Bible" task. Given the contextual nature of individual verses, we are least secure in the appropriation of the Bible to today when we operate on the level of individual verses. We need to locate all individual verses within the context of the "whole counsel of God" and thus the whole of Scripture. The Bible by and large does not tell us how to locate one book in relation to another. This is a task we are forced to do from the outside looking on.

The second caveat is the recognition that since the books of the Bible addressed "that time" (or, better yet, "their times"), the task of connecting it with our time and our context is again a task we are forced to do from the outside looking on. The Bible itself does not directly tell us how to apply it to today. Thus it is important to read the Bible as reflectively as possible and it is very important to read the Bible in communities of faith, where individual whims and fancies are less likely to dominate.

6. All that precedes might still look to the Bible for information--information about what is true, information about how to live. When we look at the Bible in this way, there is the danger that we would look at the Bible as something for us to master. We gain knowledge. We gain power. We might be able to label all the parts, like a dissected frog. [3]

When we read the Bible as Christian Scripture, it becomes a tool of transformation in the hands of God. As Scripture, God is the one meeting us in these words. We must be careful about thinking that the Bible has intrinsic authority, just as we must be careful of thinking that the water of baptism or the bread of communion has intrinsic power. The authority behind Scripture is the authority of God. It is a derivative authority.

If our reading of the Bible does not move beyond itself to the real God (not merely to our ideas about God), then the Bible has only lead us to shadowy images of truth, not to the truth itself.

An atheist might be able to master the science of interpretation. Indeed, an atheist might imagine what the meaning might be if Christian presuppositions were true. An atheist could possibly be a much better interpreter of the original meaning of the Bible than some Christian.

However, the Bible is not Scripture to such a person. That person has not surrendered to the transformation of God through these words. The Spirit does not normally transform these words to become the word of God for that person. [4]

As Scripture, God does much more through the words of the Bible than merely inform. True, God does inform us of his nature, of our story, of our destiny, of the way to live. But much more important is the fact that he changes us. He makes us more loving. He makes us hopeful. He purges our tears and anger. He leads his Church. He leads us in the way we should go.

7. A sacrament is a divinely appointed instrument that God uses to give us grace. Since the Spirit led Israel and then the Church to collect these writings together, God has used them to speak to and transform his people. When we submit to God as we read the Scriptures, he uses them to make us more like him. He reveals to us what he is like and, thereby, what we are to be like in the world.

Next week: SA7: Christians vary somewhat in their conceptions of Scripture.

[1] An older approach to language saw words as signs that pointed to things (e.g., Augustine in De doctrina christiana) or as signs that point to things signified (Ferdinand de Saussure) or a sense that pointed to a reference (Gottlob Frege). With this approach, there is the possibility to see words as timeless in meaning, for you might think that the things to which the words point do not change.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, however, recognized that it is more accurate to say that words "do" things. They are tools. And to know what a word does, you have to know the context in which the word is being used and the "game" the person uttering/writing the word is playing. The same word thus can have very many different meanings, because the same words can be used to do different things in different contexts. Similarly, the use of a word to a listener/reader can be different than the one the utterer/author intended.

This reality explains the wide diversity of interpretations of the Bible even though its readers are reading the same words. It also demonstrates that any approach to the Bible that assumes its words have one meaning that applies equally to all times and places is "pre-reflective." Words just do not work like that.

[2] Christians do disagree on such things from time to time. Such disagreements are not as crucial as disagreements on core beliefs about God and Christ.

[3] Joel Green uses this image in Seized by Truth (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007).

[4] Although God's prevenient grace can certainly draw them through Scripture. And the Spirit can certainly speak judgment to them through Scripture.

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