My wife and I recently returned from Europe. While there, we walked the cities, Amsterdam and Milan, in particular. We frequently were forced to bring up Google or Apple Maps (and sometimes both at the same time) to get walking directions. Truth be told, the programs don’t work well for walkers, especially not in old cities. They tell you to turn left, when you should go right, or right, when you should go left. Often, after trying to get the right directions and walking this way and that, you or, rather, your on-screen avatar, slips off the map. When that happens, the phone gives you the option to “recenter.” Pushing the recenter button moves the map to where you are. You can see your present location and try to figure out how to get to your destination from there. You are, presumably, a little less lost.
I’ve thought for some time that the church needed a recenter button for its theological maps. The question I’ve been asking in this series of blog posts is whether it’s time to push the button—to do what we can to recenter the faith. The language I’ve been using isn’t the language of Google Maps but the language of the confessions. I’ve been asking: Is this a confessional moment? A moment to restate the faith in language that communicates to our time? Or, to revert to the maps metaphor, a moment to recenter?
In the posts that preceded this one, I’ve argued that it is indeed such a moment, a confessional moment. At least, it is so for churches like my own denomination and, more broadly, the world of American evangelicalism. The church has lost its way. In the place of the gospel, it has substituted a thin form of gnosticism: the idea that salvation means escaping the bounds of time and space for another world, a heaven, and that one makes such an escape simply by saying the right prayer or thinking the right theological thoughts. Instead of the Jesus way—the way of the cross—the church has doubled down on an ethic that assigns women to secondary status and excludes LGBTQ+ people from full participation in the life of the church. It has done so in the name of the gospel and, in the case of churches like my denomination, in the name of the confessions.
In doing so, the church has begun to fracture. The righteous few are getting fewer still. People are drifting out of the church. Many who leave the church also leave behind the faith. The faith as it has been presented to them in countless sermons, synodical decisions, and other ways no longer speaks to their lives. Or, when it does speak, it seems to deny what they deeply believe.
Is it time for the church to gather what we have come to know and to give fresh statement to the faith? Is it time to grasp what we have learned about the Bible, about the universe, and about human life, and attempt to give new clarity to our faith?
Each time the church has felt compelled to give such a statement, the statement takes on the language and the character of the moment. Take Barmen, the confession written in the face of the Nazification of the church. Or, from my own tradition, the Belgic Confession written in 16th century language to address 16th century problems. Or the vast effort to formulate the faith that runs through the Great Councils, Nicea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon, an attempt to understand the gospel in terms that made sense for that era. What would such a statement look like today? What language would we use?
Where to Begin
It’s to that question that I turn in this and subsequent posts. We’ve had enough of critique, although, Lord knows, there is much more to say. And much more to try to get right. I don’t regard my efforts to this point to be anything other than the sketchiest of descriptions of our present theological (and denominational) malaise. Someone commented recently about what I’ve written: “So many words. So little said.” Perhaps so, but the alternative is worse: failing to speak when love for the church and for the gospel calls us to speak.
But how to approach the task? In reaching for a deeper understanding of the faith, where should one begin? If this is a confessional moment, what would such a confession say? What themes would it strike? Perhaps, one should begin with a better understanding of the human condition: who we are and what has gone wrong. Or with what we mean by salvation. How can we be rescued and for what? Any statement would have to get at both, if the faith is to be framed in ways that address the world today. But in the end, I decided that we should begin where Protestants have always begun: with the Bible. With revelation. With the questions of knowing and hearing: how do we know and hear the divine voice?
I decided we should begin here because much of what has gone wrong in the church begins here: with a faulty approach to the Bible. Get the Bible right, and we will be on our way to getting many other things right. Or so I believe.
The Scriptures: A Place to Start
So, let’s start with the Bible. I don’t think this will be a popular decision. As I listen to people around me, including many responding to my blog, I hear again and again that people don’t much like the Bible. They find it censorious, unscientific, patriarchal, anti-gay, and hard to read. I probably should throw in “irrelevant,” too. Who reads the Bible these days? Well, people do, but in small chunks, and in a way peculiar to reading the Bible. I’ll have more to say about that presently.
This is not really the Bible’s fault. Expectations have been laid on the Bible that, given the kind of book it is, it cannot readily satisfy. One of those expectations is that the Bible will have a single right answer to our modern questions. Thus, in the 1980s and 90s in my denomination, the question put to the Bible was whether the church should permit women to serve as pastors, elders, and deacons. After long study reports and intense synodical debates, with churches and individuals leaving the denomination, the answer in the end was, well, no answer at all. The denomination decided that the issue couldn’t be decided, at least not by the methods that were employed in the debate. A case could be made that the Bible said no: women are not permitted to serve in these offices. Equally, the synod said, a case could be made that the Bible puts no barriers in the way of women serving in the offices. So, verbs were parsed, nouns were defined and redefined, texts were cited, and in the end all the debates served to prove was what we could have known from the beginning: the Bible is not that kind of book—a book that has a single answer to all our theological issues.
These days the debate is over same-sex marriage. Put simply, are those couples of the same sex who are legitimately married to each other in the eyes of the state also married in the eyes of God? My denomination has decided (so far, at least) that they are not. To justify this decision, they cite seven biblical texts, none of which speak directly to the question, and a general theology of marriage, which comes not from the Bible but from the culture—the 70 years ago.
It’s not for me to say how this debate will come out, but I suspect that it will go something like the way the debate on women in church office went: it will not be decided by the Bible. As I’ve been saying, the Bible really doesn’t answer such questions. If people come with “biblical” answers, it’s mostly because they have already decided what they want the answer to be.
People in Protestant churches find what I have just said alarming. If the Bible doesn’t give a lock-down, once-and-for-all answers to questions like whether women should be permitted to serve in church office or whether same-sex marriage should be recognized by the church, then will we not be cast into the frothing maelstrom of the culture? Will not the church be forced to simply follow, a step or two behind, rather than serve God?
There are two answers to that concern. The first is that the church already follows the culture. Take marriage, the subject of much debate these days. What counts as “Christian marriage” in the conservative Protestant church these days is not marriage as it was understood in biblical times. The church speaks of “the covenant of marriage,” but the Bible never does. Marriage in the Bible is not contractual in the sense it is today. Marriage, as “a lifelong, exclusive partnership,” as one of our denomination marriage forms has it, is modern, not ancient. It places us in modern Western culture. This is not a bad thing. There is much to recommend modern Western notions of marriage over ancient ones, but it puts the lie to the idea that the church gets its view of marriage directly from the Bible. It doesn’t.
Second, the alternatives are not biblical truth set over against pure relativism. As I already said, much of what passes for biblical directives, are in fact derived at least partially from the culture already. The right of people not to be enslaved, for example, is a conclusion reached after a long and painful argument, a conclusion, I might add, reached only recently in terms of the long history of the people of God. It may have biblical roots (more on that to come), but it’s not biblical per se. The Bible, in fact, proposes to people to whom it was written that they learn to live with slavery.
And, on the other side, what we find in the cultural conversation is not relativism. Take the same example I just cited. It’s not the Bible that is morally strict and the culture lax. The conclusion reached by the culture is in fact stricter than that of the Bible. The Bible tolerates slavery; we—at least most of us north of the followers of Rousas Rushdoony—do not. The same is true for sexual abuse, for capital punishment in most Western countries, for rules on environmental degradation, and many other areas. The modern world is often stricter in its morality than was the ancient world. The notion that people who claim to follow the Bible strictly are moral and those who don’t are not is mostly false.
But this brings us back to the question: how do we know the will of God if the Bible doesn’t give us lock-down, once-for-all answers? The answer is that discerning the will of God is a process, not a body of statements given once from the mountain and then set forever in place.
How the Bible Speaks
But, of course, this is what we have always believed. We—the Christian church—have always believed that some parts of the Bible, say Leviticus, have a different kind of authority than the gospels. We haven’t always been very clear about the nature of difference, but we have always recognized that revelation is in some sense progressive. If one doesn’t press the metaphor too hard, one could say that there is a spiritual learning curve.
So how do we understand this process? There are many ways to get at what needs to be said, but let me propose by way of explanation two basic terms: story and conversation. It’s in terms of story and conversation that we can, I think, come to an understanding not only of the Bible but of how we hear the call of God in our time.
Start with conversation, something I’ve written about before. The Bible is the beginning of a conversation, a conversation that has been fairly continuous ever since the first scriptures appeared and perhaps even earlier, before the stories of the Bible were scriptures, when they were stories told among the people of God. But for us the conversation starts with the Bible.
The mistake the Reformation made—a mistake perfectly understandable in terms of the time—is that it supposed there was a single interpretation of the biblical text. Given the right tools—Greek and Hebrew philology, comparison of one part of the Bible with other parts, adding in historical perspective—they believed that a faithful interpreter could come to a firm conclusion about what the Bible taught. Not just what Paul teaches in his letters, or what the Pastorals (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) teach from a later time, or what John teaches in his gospel, but what the Bible teaches, as if all these writers were saying the same thing beneath their apparent differences.
But the Bible does not teach all one thing. To make the Bible teach one thing only, interpreters were forced to suppress some biblical materials in favor of others. The texts that seem to say that everyone will be saved, for example, must be suppressed in favor of those that indicate that some will be saved and others not. The texts that seem to say that we choose God must be suppressed in favor the texts that say that God chooses us (or vice versa). And so forth.
But suppose that we don’t read the Bible in this way? Suppose we read it with all its variety and differences of perspective? Suppose we read it as a conversation, a family conversation? Sometimes, the conversation becomes an argument. Suppose we don’t look to the Bible for single answers to modern questions but for the breadth of the conversation: Isaiah saying something different from Genesis, James saying something different from Paul, Mark saying something different from John, and sometimes one part of Genesis saying something different from another part?
And suppose that we bring to the conversation our own questions and concerns—questions and concerns that have arisen in our time—and in the light of all that we form our answers? And suppose that we begin to realize that all our answers are provisional? The conversation goes on.
There’s an irony to the 500-year-old history of the Reformation church. The Reformers, newly equipped with ways to study ancient texts, engaged the Bible in fresh ways: Erasmus of Rotterdam put together a Greek text of the New Testament; Luther translated the Bible into German, making it available to the masses; Calvin wrote his brilliant commentaries; the study of the Bible burgeoned.
Soon, this way of approaching the Bible led to the application of newly developed historical and philological methods to the text. Scholars began to study the Bible as they would any other ancient document, and in doing so they soon discovered that the Bible is not an historical anomaly. It shares language, many of its perspectives, its way of understanding the universe, and much else with other literature of the time. There is a literary connection between the biblical flood story and the Babylonian one, and the Babylonian one is older. There is a literary connection between the biblical book of Proverbs and Egyptian wisdom literature. Scholars began to develop theories on how the Bible came to be, how it was assembled, and what it meant in its own time. Soon the conclusions reached by scholars, the direct result of the perspectives opened up in the Reformation, began to trouble the Reformation churches. Many churches rejected their own progeny. They could not allow the Bible to be what the Bible in fact is. The fundamentalist/modernist divide opened in the heart of the church.
I was once asked in an official church meeting whether I believed in the Documentary Hypothesis. The Documentary Hypothesis is a proposal put forth by German scholars in the 19th century that claimed that the first five books of the Bible were assembled from various strands, usually four: J, E, P, and D. The hypothesis is still with us, though in greatly altered form. In the meeting, I answered the question by saying that while I certainly didn’t “believe in” the Documentary Hypothesis, I did believe that it could be true and needed to be taken seriously. My interrogator didn’t think that this was the case. It didn’t fit with his theology of the Bible.
What I want to suggest here is that the approach taken to the Bible by this professor and by much of the Reformation church over the past 500 years comes with a price. If the Bible can only be what your theology says it must be, then you can’t really read the Bible, at least not all of it. You will instead require the Bible to say what your theology claims. And so, the irony I mentioned above: in defending the Bible, the church lost the Bible. By requiring the Bible to be what the theologians wanted it to be, they could no longer read it for what it is.
So, the first step is to see the Bible as a conversation. The conversation starts with the Bible, but it does not end there. In reading the Bible, we too are drawn into the conversation. I will have more to say about this later. And not just with the Bible, but with the conversation as it has gone forward. Each new theological approach changes and the adds to the conversation. As Christians, we must take the conversation seriously. It’s not just what the preacher said last Sunday; it’s what Irenaeus said in the 2nd century and Macrina the Younger (along with her sisters and brothers) said in the 4th and Maximus the Confessor in the 7th and Hildegard in the 12th and Thomas in the 13th and Julian in the 14th and Calvin in the 16th and Barth in the 20th and on, through faithful people throughout the generations. The conversation goes on.
This conversation is anchored by story. Actually, by two stories nested in each other. The first is the story of Israel. This story is framed by the exodus and the fall of Jerusalem with anticipations in the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs and extensions in the story of the restoration. The core of the Old Testament is the various interpretations of this story: deuteronomic interpretations, wisdom interpretations, prophetic interpretations, and, sublimely, the interpretation of 2nd Isaiah.
Nested within the story of Israel is the story of Jesus: cross and resurrection. The story of Jesus interprets the story of Israel, extends it, critiques it, and fulfills it. As is the case for the story of Israel, it is not only a human story but a divine story—the story of God. The Christian God is the God revealed in Jesus, in cross and resurrection.
The conversation is always in some way about this story or stories. All the pathos and the glory of the human condition is caught up in the story of cross and resurrection. Dying to what we are; rising to what we will become. It’s when the conversation gets separated from the story that it goes wrong, as it often has. When, for example in my denomination, a study committee presents a long report on human sexuality and bases its views not on the Jesus story of death and rebirth but on their own construction of what God had in mind with creation, it’s not surprising that they find no room for human sexual variation. In their perfect creation, no one is queer. Queer doesn’t belong in their creation order. But if they had started instead with the story of dying and rising, they may have discovered that things are not so fixed as that, that perhaps diversity, even in sexuality, is what God had in mind all along.
And discovering that, they—the study committee and the synod—would have at the very least embraced the conversation. They would have invited into the conversation the voices that have too often been silenced, the voices of marginalized, and this conversation would have included the Bible and the church of the past and the church of today and people who are not in the church, and through this conversation, in the light of the story, we would have worked our way towards truth—truth about ourselves, about our world, and about our God.
But all that is to get ahead of myself. This post has gotten long enough, but there is much more to say. How do we work this out? How do we weigh scripture? How do we find both principled stances and the requisite flexibility to face the future? How can the church be faithful both to tradition and to the call of God beckoning us towards the new creation? What must die and what new creation will rise in its place?
What, indeed. To these and other questions and, I hope, to the heart of the gospel itself in the next post and the one after that and perhaps more we will step out into that vision of a church that speaks good news, good news for an age in which good news is increasingly scarce.