Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The King or a Fox: Configuring the Mosaic of Scripture

I was invited to make a presentation at a Miqra event put together by the youth leaders of the Diocese of Chicago. I am posting it in installments. Here is part one:

Reading scripture, according to the great 2nd century theologian Irenaeus of Lyons, is like configuring a mosaic of precious jewels. That mosaic can be configured in more ways than one. According to Irenaeus, it can be configured to reveal a portrait of the King – Jesus Christ as the Church knows him – or it can be configured, as it was by heretics and other false teachers, as something else, say a fox.

Playing with that image of the scriptures as a mosaic, imagine each verse or passage of the Bible as a jewel. Perhaps each book of the Bible, then, is like a box of these gems. It is important to understand that these boxes of jewels and gems did not just fall out of the sky. Nor were the boxes/books of the Bible we use the only ones being used by various churches in the earliest centuries. It took many years of reading and worshipping with the books of the Bible and debating about them before the Church decided which "boxes of gems"/books would be considered reliable and authoritative for configuring a portrait of Christ and who we are as members of his body.

Even then there was not total agreement on which books to include and how to configure their meaning. And while a general consensus grew, there has always been disagreement on particulars. To be a member of the Church is to be part of an ongoing conversation as to how best to configure the mosaic of scripture and how to configure our lives in light of scripture. At times we struggle with one another as we struggle together with scripture. How do we configure scripture to reveal Christ rather than a fox? How do we read scripture such that we engage and are engaged by the Spirit of Christ? How do we read scripture honestly such that we are not finding only what we want to find? It will not do to say, “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” But, simply repeating the slogan, “We take the Bible seriously, but not literally,” isn’t much better. How might we explain how we take it seriously and why? Why is this collection of texts authoritative and in what sense? It would be good for us to be able to explain to ourselves and to others how we configure scripture the way we do.

The conversation among Christians about the scriptures takes place in the context of a larger conversation between God and the Church. The Church has always understood that the Holy Spirit in some sense inspires the scriptures such that we encounter the Spirit there with particular authority. They are more than simply a collection of historical religious documents about the spiritual insights of some people long dead. If they are inspired they are lively texts.

In the Outline of the Faith or Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer, we read, "We call them the Word of God because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks to us through the Bible" (BCP, p. 853). But, there is no one (and no official) explanation of just what it means for the scriptures to be inspired. One common way of thinking about that is that the Holy Spirit more or less dictated the scriptures word for word. But it might, instead, be more akin (though not reducible) to what we usually think of in the case of those we call "inspired" in the more mundane sense, e.g., Shakespeare, Mozart, Rembrandt. Or maybe it is the community that is filled with the Holy Spirit and then individuals shaped by and in tune with that Spirit have expressed it in writing.

Perhaps the Holy Spirit enchants the scriptures or sometimes haunts them (the Holy Ghost, after all). In that case, reading scripture is like walking through an enchanted forest in which the enchanting Spirit is free to surpise us or haunt us as it will. Or, returning to the image of the mosaic, perhaps various gems and jewels in the several boxes are infused with that enchanting Spirit such that they glow and illumine the mosaic as they are configured in their place.

Whatever else we mean when we claim that the Bible in particular is inspired, we mean something like the following. The scriptures are sacramental. We know that we cannot control where Christ by his Spirit might encounter us. He might surprise us anywhere, any time. But, we claim the promise that he will not surprise us by not being present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist or the waters of baptism. Similarly, we expect to engage and be engaged by the Spirit of Jesus Christ in the scriptures. They are enchanted and haunted by the Holy Spirit/Holy Ghost. The scriptures are not simply the creation of the Church. They are somehow over against us – a Thou rather than an it encounters us there. We cannot understand the scriptures unless we stand under (under/stand) them. We should, therefore, read the Bible with a hermeneutic of expectancy. When we read scripture, we expect to encounter the Spirit of Christ the King.

Part 2

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