Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Sermon Scraps from 11/21 -- Christ the King Sunday and Biblical Authority

In my sermon on Christ the King Sunday, you might have missed that I was actually picking apart my understanding of Biblical authority. I said, in the UMC we have no specific doctrine to say what we believe about the Bible. Yes, we hold that it "contains all things necessary for salvation," (forgive me if I'm not quoting properly -- I have no books with me), and we hold that in the epistemic quadralateral, scripture is primary, sort of above tradition, reason, and experience.

As I discussed a narrative of salvation, or story of our salvation, I was touching on Narrative Theology. Being the English major I am, narrative theology tends to speak to me. I tend to find myself thinking in narrative terms. My story is taking place within the story of others, and those stories are taking place within an even larger story. This is comfortable for my mind. It's kind of Fulgum-ish (All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarden) way of thinking. The problem is, narrative theology is inadequate. As a Francesca Aran Murphy says, God is Not a Story (see the book by the same title). And truthfully, the Bible is not a story. Narrative theology speaks to the reasonable part of me, the part that craves logic and understanding. God, however, is rarely logical or reasonable -- seriously why would God chose to come to earth as a baby to an unwed teenage girl?

So if God is not a story, and the Bible is not a story, what's going on? I believe the question I am asked for ordination is, "What is meant in the claim that the Bible contains all things necessary for salvation?" or something to that effect (it's been a year since I answered my commissioning questions, and I haven't yet pulled out my ordination questions). Anyway the question comes down to Biblical authority. I don't know that I'm going to answer that question here today, unless you view my answer through the lens of sanctification.

During my last semester of classwork at Perkins, I foolishly decided to take a class called the Authority of the Bible as a Source for Theology. It was foolish for many reasons, one -- I didn't need it (I graduated with 3 extra hours), and 2ndly this class really messed with me. I wanted to take it because Charles Wood and Roy Heller were team teaching and when presented a class like this from GIANTS in their fields, it's hard to pass it up. About mid-way through the semester, while eating lunch with Dr. Wood, I told him that he had destroyed my faith. I didn't know what I believed anymore, but I was pretty sure the Bible didn't have any authority. His response was, 'Good, let's get to work.'

As I begin with my answer, a brief disclaimer -- please remember me that I have none of books with me and I'm doing this from memory.

The Bible  is filled with beautiful writings of the people of God who have spent generations upon generations trying to be open to God's continuing self-revelation. Sometimes God's self-revelation comes through brightly--think of the repeated OT description that God is merciful, gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Even better, read Psalm 137, and ask yourself, why is the psalmist reminding God to remember the Edomites? Sometimes what God does not do reveals more than what God does. And sometimes, we have to search or struggle to understand the revelation. God is tricky that way.

This collection of writings came together over centuries. Many of the early stories began around campfires, with elders telling the tribal stories to the next generation. Think of the liturgy of the Passover -- Papa why is this night different from all other nights? Anthropologically speaking, it is probable that there were other stories, beyond those that were codified and bound together with our Bible. In the Jewish tradition, we have the Tanakh, (Torah, Nevim or prophets, and ketuvim or writings), we have centuries of Midrash, and the Talmud. In the NT tradition, we're discovering texts still that we did not include in our Bible for one reason or another.

Schubert Ogden says that there was a certain kerygma of God or even of Christ that drove the creation of the canon. The canon created the text. Delwin Brown says that may or may not be a central principle or kerygma which drove that process, but that there are boundaries or canons that guided that process -- for instance, we don't know exactly who God is, but there are things we know God is not. Over time, those writings that did not play within the boudaries or traveled too far over the canon line, (or maybe even there were other reasons), those writings fell away. Sometimes, people just stopped telling those stories, they were forgotten, and in our more recent NT history, sometimes we burned the writers at the stake as heretics. For Brown, the text played within on the boundaries of the canon.

As a christian and a United Methodist, I really do believe that Holy Spirit works in groups (or committees). I believe that the Holy Spirit was involved in the writing of what became our scriptures, in maintanence and its inclusion in our current protestant canon. The Holy Spirit spoke to and through the prophets. Hear this, there were other prophets outside of those we know as the Biblical prophets, but the test of a prophet is did what he said happen. Those who could not pass this test, fell away. I believe that the Holy Spirit, as the Triune vehicle of revelation, speaks to our spirits and shows us what is of God and what is not. Think of the gospels according to whoever that have been discovered in the last century. Contrary to the fascinating stories contrived by Dan Brown, many of these gnostic gospels were excluded because they were inconsistent with God's self-revelation. These gnostic gospels describe secret wisdom, but the Hebrew wisdom tradtion tells us that Wisdom stands on the streets calling out to anyone who passes. The wisdom of God is not a secret. These gnostic gospels were inconsistent with the revelation we have previously known from God -- not just inconsistent, but opposed. God does not hide but wants to be known.

But still, there are writings in the Bible that I absolutely hate -- Judges 19, the haustafeln (The household codes in jazz-fusion Pauline writings). What do we do with those? If God has been involved in the creation and preseveration of these writings, why are these texts excluded? Or said another way, if they are still in the Bible, why do I get to treat them the way I do-- with distain. Do they not reveal something about God? Who are we to know how God feels about Judges 19? How do we know this is not a consistent revelation of what God would want us to do in a similar situation?

I've been trying to remember the scholar, and I believe it is Ellen Davis who wrote about the virtuous reader. If not, I'll correct this later. She wrote that the way we approach these texts makes all the difference. If we come with humility, with charity, with patience (other virtues as well), then we come prepared to struggle with our Scirpture. And we SHOULD struggle with all of the scriptures. All of them. We should never simply accept them at face value. First of all, we can't. We're incapable of unbiased readings. Secondly, it's not just the words that reveal God to us. It's the struggle as well, if not more -- the struggle breaks our hips and renames us. I'm not sure I know who to explain this any better, but I would recommend trying it. Find a scripture that you really love or that you really hate and read it. Read it again and again. Then read about it. Pray over it. Pray about it. Read commentary. Invite the Holy Spirit into the struggle, and see if your understanding of God is not broadened, and see if you're not changed in the process.

I'll tell you, the other day, in our Bend Bible study on the gospel of John, I read something I had never read before in the account of Jesus' arrest. When the guards first come to arrest him, they ask for him, and responds I am. They all fall down. I'm turning this over and over in my head. Jesus spoke the Divine Name, and they fell to their knees. I'm struggling with this old and new part of the story I thought I knew. The more I pray, the more I read, the  more I think about it, my understanding of the power of God is in motion.

So what does all this mean about the authority of the Bible? In Ellen Davis's explanation of the virtuous reader, the Bible has defacto authority -- its all in the way I approach it. While there is something to this, it's not fully adequate. It's not just the way I or we approach the text, but also it's testimony. Generations of church mothers and fathers, of scholars and pastors, and friends whom I trust have testified to its dejure authority. Morever, the revelation of God testifies to the Bible. I experience God when I come to the Bible. We might even say, though I am not at all comfortable with this language, that the Bible testifies to itself. Let me put it in United Methodist terms.

If we hold the Outler quadralateral of scripture,tradition, reason and experience as a basic epistemic frame (Br Scot will be all over this -- I can feel his argument already), then what we read in scripture should testify to our tradition. It should be consistent and even expand our reason. It should be consistent with our experience and expand it. Our reason should testify to it, and so on and so forth. And the Great Cloud of Witnesses (saints militant and triumphant) stands with us as we approach the text. And in all, God is revealing God's self to us -- which really is the whole point. Our whole purpose in study is to learn more about God, to learn more about ourselves, and to learn who we are as children of God. I should say, not just learn in a gathering-knowledge way, but learning in a way that fosters growth.

I welcome your questions. I know there are holes all over this, so please bring it.