In his book Souls on Fire, Elie Wiesel told the traditional Hasidic Jewish story of Eizek, son of Yekel. Impoverished and unfortunate, Eizek sought the Lord’s help, and in a dream he was told about a treasure buried under a bridge in the shadow of the palace in the city of Prague. Faithfully, Eizek made the difficult journey to recover this treasure, and in the process got himself arrested for his suspicious behavior in poking around outside the royal palace. In the course of his interrogations he told the officer who was in charge about the dream the Lord had given him about the treasure. The commander laughed out loud at the thought of anyone listening to his dreams, let alone undertaking such a difficult and dangerous journey in obedience to a dream! And then, mockingly, the commander told Eizek about a recurring dream that he himself had been having about a treasure buried under the stove of a poor man’s house in a far distant city — Eizek’s city! “Can you see me going from house to house (in that city),” the commander asked Eizek, “tearing down all the stoves, searching for that nonexistent treasure?” With that, he released Eizek and sent him on his way. Without any hesitation, Eizek went straight home, moved his stove, dug a hole in his floor and found the treasure right where the commander had dreamed it would be!
This story describes a pattern that I often see in the spiritual quest. Unaware of the spiritual treasures that lie buried beneath our feet in our own native spiritual traditions, many of us launch out into exotic and alien spiritual traditions in hopes that we will discover the treasure of a deep and vital spiritual experience in them that has eluded us in our own. For example, when Thomas Merton felt his first spiritual stirrings as a young man, his immediate response was to consult with a Hindu teacher in New York City he had heard about and that teacher wisely told Merton to “go home.” Before considering the claims of Hinduism, that teacher told Merton that he first really needed to see what his own native Catholic tradition had to offer him. Merton did, and the rest is, as they say, history!
I have witnessed the suggestion that there is a distinctive and even vital Disciple of Christ tradition of spirituality be met with surprise, disbelief and even derision. Hughes Oliphant Old, the noted Reformed Historian and Theologian, in a 1994 article for Christianity Today – “Rescuing Spirituality from the Cloister” (June 20 – pp. 27-29) – pushed back on the idea that “there is no such thing as a Protestant (especially a Reformed) spirituality.” And my own 1995 doctoral project – “These Gracious Institutions: Alexander Campbell’s Theology of Obedience and Ordinance as a Resource for Spiritual Formation” – was an attempt to do this very same thing with our very own tradition of spirituality as Disciples. I do believe that there is a precious treasure buried beneath our feet.
I was reminded of this last Saturday as I was teaching a group of men and women who are in the process of becoming commissioned ministers in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Among the “competencies” that they are required to develop is one on “Biblical Knowledge.” They are expected “to be rooted and grounded in Scripture and to be able to interpret and apply the Scriptures in ways that are appropriate to original and contemporary contexts,” and so last Saturday I was asked to help them in the process of doing this.
In the course of our day together, I introduced them to Alexander Campbell’s “Rules for the Interpretation of Scripture” from The Christian System, the closest thing to a systematic theology that any of our founders produced. In his high affirmations of the Bible’s inspiration and authority, Alexander Campbell put himself and his followers in the mainstream of Protestant Christianity in the early 19th century, and in Evangelical Christianity today. In his call for an intelligent reading of Scripture using the best historical and grammatical resources at his disposal, Alexander Campbell put himself and his followers in the camp of those who urged the critical approach to Scripture as being the most faithful and fruitful of getting at its meaning. I really like this “both/and” combination of what today we would call a conservative understanding of the nature of Scripture with a liberal methodology for arriving at its message. And if this wasn’t enough, after skillfully holding together these “furious opposites” as the Lutherans like to say about the paradoxes of genuinely Biblical Christianity, Alexander Campbell went all “mystical” on us with his final observations about the proper use of Scripture –
For the salutary and sanctifying intelligence of the Oracles of God, the following rule is indispensable: — “We must come within the understanding distance.” There is a distance which is properly called the speaking distance, or the hearing distance; beyond which the voice reaches not, and the ear hears not. To hear another, we must come within that circle which the voice audibly fills. Now we may with propriety say, that as it respects God, there is an understanding distance. All beyond that distance cannot understand God; all within it can easily understand him in all matters of piety and morality. God himself is the centre of that circle, and humility is its circumference… coming within that circle, the circumference of which is unfeigned humility, and the centre of which is God himself — the voice of God is distinctly heard and clearly understood… He, then, that would interpret the Oracles of God to the salvation of his soul, must approach this volume with the humility and docility of a child, and meditate upon it day and night. Like Mary, he must sit at the Master’s feet, and listen to the words which fall from his lips. To such a one there is an assurance of understanding, a certainty of knowledge, to which the man of letters alone never attained, and which the mere critic never felt.
In one of his books, the Reformed Theologian John Frame told about a Chinese woman who said that when she opened her Bible and read it that she heard God talking to her personally, and that’s how it’s supposed to work! It is the experience of the “Living Word” described so memorably in Hebrews 4:12 – “The Word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” This is the function of the Word of God as “the sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:17) that changes the Bible from being just a dusty old book about ancient history and enables it to become the dynamic means for our very own experiences of God’s grace here and now. This is how Robert Walker described it in his editorial preface to the lectures of the Scottish Theologian T.F. Torrance on “Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ” (IVP. 2008) –
The Bible is the result of the long wrestling by the Word of God with the human speech and though forms of Israel. The Bible contains language, images, institutions, customs, and metaphors chosen, adapted and welded together to be the vehicle of God’s revelation. It is through these specially molded ways expression and not others that God has chosen to speak to us… Culturally conditioned and(historically) localized as the Biblical metaphors are, the Bible contains the specially adapted means and categories by which God is to be known and understood. (xxvii-xxviii)
John Piper, a Baptist preacher up in Minnesota, puts it –
I love the Bible the way I love my eyes—not because my eyes are lovely, but because without them I can’t see what’s lovely. Without the Bible I could not see “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:4). Without the Bible I could not know “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8). Without the Bible I would not know that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior. I love the Bible because it gives the wisdom that leads to salvation, and shows me that this salvation is nothing less than seeing and savoring the glory of Christ forever. And then provides for me inexhaustible ways of seeing and knowing and enjoying Christ.
And this is the lynchpin in the spirituality of the “classic” Disciples tradition. We have “no creed but Christ,” and “no book but the Bible.” And the reason why these two affirmations always go together is because the place where we first and best encounter the Christ who is our creed is in the Bible that is our book. This insight is the treasure that lies buried beneath our feet as Disciples and that I believe, if rediscovered, has the power to effect the revitalization of a spiritual tradition that still has much to offer the church and the world. DBS+