Saturday, January 23, 2010

The King or a Fox: Configuring the Mosaic of Scripture, Part 2

Among other things, honoring the scriptures means we must attend to the kinds of texts they are rather than impose theories of what we think they should be if they are inspired and authoritative. Wooden theories of inerrancy and assumptions that scripture can be read in all cases as straightforward history or science actually disrespect the texts as they are. C. S. Lewis pointed out some of the problems with that approach:
Whatever view we hold of the divine authority of Scripture must make room for the following facts:

1. The distinction which St. Paul makes in 1 Cor vii between "[not I but the Lord]" (v.10) and "[I say not the Lord]" (v. 12).
2. The apparent inconsistencies between the genealogies of Matt 1 and Luke 3; with the accounts of the death of Judas in Matt 27:5 and Acts 1: 18-19.
3. St. Luke's own account of how he obtained his matter (1:1-4)
4. The universally admitted unhistoricity (I do not say, of course, falsity of at least some narratives in Scripture (the parables), which may well extend also to Jonah and Job.
5. If every good and perfect gift comes from the father of lights then all true and edifying writing, whether in Scripture or not, must be in some sense inspired.
6. John 11:49-52: Inspiration may operate in a wicked man without his knowing it, and he can then utter the untruth he intends (propriety of making an innocent man a political scapegoat) as well as the truth he does not intend (the divine sacrifice).

It seems to me that 2 and 4 rule out the view that every statement in Scripture must be historical truth. And 1, 3, 5, and 6 rule out the view that inspiration is a single thing in the sense that, if present at all, it is always present in the same mode and the same degree. Therefore, I think, rule out the view that any one passage taken in isolation can be assumed to be inerrant in exactly the same degree as any other: e.g., that the numbers of OT armies (which in view of the size of the country, if true, involve continuous miracle) are statistically correct because the story of the resurrection is historically correct. That the overall operation of Scripture is to convey God's Word to the reader (he also needs inspiration) who reads in the right spirit, I fully believe. That it also gives true answers to all the questions (often religiously irrelevant) which he might ask, I don't. The very kind of truth we are often demanding was, in my opinion, not even envisaged by the ancients." Lewis, Clive Staples., The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis Vol. III, Narnia, Cambridge and Joy,1950-1963, New York, New York, HarperCollins, 2007, p.1044 ff.

In any event, theories of inerrancy do not, in and of themselves, deliver on their promise to make our knowledge of God and our lives more certain. Even among those who believe in concepts like inerrancy and verbal inspiration there is deep disagreement. Conservative Mennonites and most Southern Baptists disagree about the faithfulness of Christian participation in violence. Missouri Synod Lutherans and Baptists disagree about baptism. Orthodox Presbyterians and Free Methodists disagree about predestination. Grace Brethren and Assemblies of God disagree about gifts of the Spirit like healing and speaking in tongues. The list could go on. And some of these are things Christians have been willing to kill each other and/or split the Church over in the past. They only seem more or less trivial to us now. Then, there are the Jehovah Witness folks who also believe in a verbally inspired and inerrant Bible. That has not prevented them from heresy. That particular approach to scripture has not delivered on its promise to give us certain access to God’s truth.

The fact is there is no certain access to God’s truth in any absolute sense. Whatever we think it means for scripture to be inspired, there is no escaping the responsibility to interpret and embody it in our context. There is no one true configuration of scripture that will settle all disagreements. That does not need to mean that scripture is a wax nose that can be bent in any direction we like. The Bible is not a sort of Rorschach test. It cannot be made to mean anything we like. Some configurations are more fox-like and some smell more like a skunk rather then the fragrant sacrifice and offering of Christ who loved us and gave himself for us (Ephesians 5:2).

Unavoidably, we are left relying on the same Spirit who inspired and enchants the scriptures to inspire us and enchant the Church to configure their meaning faithfully – relying on God’s mercy and practicing patience and charity with one another. As the catechism has it, "We understand the meaning of the Bible by the help of the Holy Spirit who guides the Church in the true interpretation of the Scriptures" (BCP, p. 853 - 854).

As Lewis points out, inspiration is not limited to the biblical canon. We might agree with the 17th century preacher, Thomas Manton (1620 – 1677), that, “The Holy Ghost rides most triumphantly in his own chariot.” But we need not limit the Holy Spirit to riding only in the chariot of the scriptures. This was the view of the early church theologians who regularly referred to earlier theologians as “inspired.”

Supposedly, the process by which the Church collected and authorized the canon was in some sense inspired by the Holy Spirit. In fact, the early church had a broader understanding of canon which would have included the rule of faith – the teaching that has been received – and the church’s liturgy. Both of those were used as criteria for deciding which disputed writings were included in the Bible.

We also have the communion of saints before us whose prayerful lives and teaching guide our reading of scripture.

Faithful reading also requires we use our minds to reason with the scriptures. As Nathaniel Culverwel (1619 – 1651) pointed out, “The Holy Ghost is not a bird of prey sent down from heaven to pluck out the eyes of men.” There is understanding to be found in our reasonable attention to the rest of creation. Still, we must acknowledge that while the Spirit does not pluck out our eyes or do away with our capacity to reason, it is through attending to the Spirit through scripture that we learn to see.

Interpreting scripture takes prayerful and careful work. But it is not just work. Faithful reading and configuring calls for an engagement not only of our minds, but of our hearts and imaginations. It invites a sort of serious playfulness as we seek to allow the Spirit to lead us deeper into the heart of God where there is love, and truth, and joy. Our ancestors demonstrated this in their use of allegory, typology and other imaginative or figurative methods of engaging the Bible.

Part 3

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