“Above the Scripture” or “Under the Scripture?”

dudes                                     Martin Luther (1483 – 1546)                                             Desiderius Erasmus (1466 – 1536)

Martin Luther summed up the difference between the Reformation and the Renaissance nicely when he said to the great scholar Erasmus: “The difference between you and me is that you sit above the Scripture and judge it, while I sit under Scripture and let it judge me.” [John Stott]

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Making the rounds last week was an article published at Hemant Mehta’s “Friendly Atheist” web page (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist) called “8 Things Your Pastor Will Never Tell You About the Bible” by Richard Hagenston, a United Methodist minister.  It apparently caused Richard little or no concern that something he wrote was being promoted and published on a “friendly atheist” webpage! It wouldn’t have been there if it didn’t serve their interests or bolster their case!  That alone is troubling to me and makes me wonder why it didn’t give Richard more pause?

In this essay Richard made the accusation that “ministers keep secrets about the Bible, lest things they learned in seminary hurt church attendance and the Sunday offering.”  So, what are these supposed “secrets about the Bible” that Richard says that we who are ministers learned in seminary and are afraid to tell our people?  Well, he named 8 –

1) The Apostles of Jesus Seem to Have Known Nothing about a Virgin Birth.
2) Jesus Said He Wanted to Offer Nothing to Gentiles.
3) Jesus Tells Everyone Not to Think of Him as God in the First Three Gospels.
4) The Resurrection Appearances in the Gospels Have Irreconcilable Differences.
5) Jesus Was Against Public Prayer.
6) Some Books of the Bible Are Forgeries.
7) Parts of the Bible Were Intentionally Written to Disagree with Other Parts of the Bible.
8) Apostles Who Had Been Taught by Jesus Himself Insisted that Paul Was Wrong about the Gospel.

Now, I’m pretty sure that Richard thinks that he was just being a faithful “disruptor” by writing this article.  Richard ended his essay by saying, “I am still a Christian, but I don’t believe we should hide from the facts about our own faith,” and that tells me everything that I need to know about his mindset and his motives.  And if it didn’t, then the title of Richard’s book, Fabricating Faith: How Christianity Became a Religion Jesus Would Have Rejected,” would.  The controversial retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong of Newark, New Jersey wrote a book in 1999 that set the agenda for “disruptors” in its title: Why Christianity Must Change or Die. “Disruptors” in the church have taken this challenge to heart.  The theologian Paul Tillich in one of his books wrote about how the content of our faith as Christians is contained in fragile containers that can be easily shattered.  It’s the old kernel and husk argument, the one that says that our faith consists of timeless truths held in temporary time-bound shells.  Nobody wants to bite into a shell after shoveling a forkful of Thanksgiving pecan pie into their mouths!  The shell certainly serves a purpose but it is clearly not the point.  And so, returning to Tillich’s “fragile vessel” analogy, lots of ministers come out of seminary thinking that it is their job to go around shattering people’s containers.  They take their seminary degree and use it as a hammer to gleefully obliterate what they have concluded is ignorance in the church at best, or deception, as Richard Hagenston accuses some ministers of promoting by their silence, at worst.  Being a “disruptor” is what they think they are in the church to do and be, and right now “disruptors” are all the rage.

CNBC goes so far as to publish an annual list of the 50 top “disruptors” in the business world, “companies that have entered traditional sectors and turned them upside down… displacing the established incumbents in their own industry, prompting a ripple effect throughout their economic ecosystem… disrupting the public giants.” Last Saturday’s paper had a full page promoting an upcoming seminar with Steven Wozniak of Apple fame that painted him as the ultimate “disruptor.”  We need to go hear him speak, so the ad suggested, because he is an intellectual anarchist, someone who has changed the world by challenging accepted norms and settled assumptions, someone who has, to use the now tired slogan, “thought outside the box.” And I don’t doubt that he has, or that we have benefitted from his “disruption.” I’m certainly not opposed to innovation, creativity, progress and success. But by both temperament and conviction I am conservative, I am someone who, by definition, possesses “the disposition to preserve or restore what is established and traditional.” And so when a disruptor starts disrupting I instinctively find myself pushing back.

My first instinct after reading Richard Hagenston’s essay was to immediately start writing the “counterpoint” argument to each of his eight “points.”  You see, there’s nothing on Richard’s list that is nearly as certain as he has stated it.  Every one of his 8 points can be and has been countered with intelligent arguments made by competent scholars who would disagree with his conclusions. His dogmatic certainty, the absolutism of his assertions is just a different version of the kind of “shut-down-and shut-up-the-opposing-point-of-view” fundamentalism that I’m quite sure that in his mind he was writing to oppose.  The truth is that there is plenty of room for a faithful conversation on each one of the 8 assertions that Richard makes in his article, but you would never know that from the way that Richard stated his conclusions about what’s in the New Testament.  His list reads as if all 8 of his points were already completely settled and incontrovertible facts with which only an idiot would disagree.

They’re not.

And so, my conservative head and heart both react strongly to Richard’s essay. My head says that things are not nearly as black and white as Richard’s conclusions might lead a reader of his essay to believe, and my heart says that his enthusiasm for playing the role of the “disruptor,” of shattering traditional points of view that have served well people’s confidence in the Bible as a trustworthy witness to the act of God’s self-disclosure in Jesus Christ through the years, is unseemly.  I hear whispers of Paul’s warning to the Corinthians that “knowledge puffs up — makes arrogant” whereas “love edifies — builds up” (I Corinthians 8:1).

I have been haunted by Bishop James Pike’s – the Bishop Spong of his generation – lament since I first read it back in 1979 as a freshly minted minister just weeks out of seminary. He said that he had gone to seminary seeking the bread of life, but what they gave him instead were stones (see Matthew 7:9 for the Biblical reference).  They taught him how to be suspicious of what he found in the Scriptures without showing him how to be trusting of what he found in the Scriptures at the same time.  They deconstructed his traditional faith, “throwing the Bible under the bus” is how it has been described, without providing him with any guidance for how to put it all back together again.

In a staggeringly insightful and important essay published in The Christian Century (“Salvation by Trust? Reading the Bible Faithfully” – February 26, 1997 – pp 218-223), Richard Hayes, a professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School, stakes out the alternative –

The Protestant reformers of the 16th century proclaimed that God’s word in scripture must serve as the final judge of all human tradition and experience. Left to our own devices we are capable of infinite self-deception, confusion and evil. We therefore must turn to scripture and submit ourselves to it, the Reformers insisted, in order to find our disorders rightly diagnosed and healed. Only through the biblical writers’ testimony do we encounter the message of God’s grace; only the revelation of Jesus Christ, disclosed uniquely and irreplaceably through the testimony of the evangelists and apostles, tells us the truth about the merciful God and our relationship to that God. Without this word which comes to us from outside ourselves, we are lost. …[And] to get our bearings on the question of our fundamental attitude toward scripture [today] I propose that we take our cue from the Reformers and return to scripture itself.

In order to read scripture rightly, we must trust the God who speaks through scripture. …Like Abraham, like Mary, like Jesus, like Paul, we stand before God with empty and open hands. That is the posture in which the reading of scripture is rightly performed. The German New Testament scholar Peter Stuhlmacher describes it as a “hermeneutics [the proper interpretation of texts, especially the texts of the Bible] of consent”—a readiness to receive trustingly what a loving God desires to give us through the testimony of those who have preceded us in the faith. …Our minds must be transformed by grace, and that happens nowhere more powerfully than through reading scripture receptively and trustingly with the aid of the Holy Spirit.

If Richard Hagenston’s “8 Things Your Pastor Will Never Tell You About the Bible” helped us to do this better, to “read scripture receptively and trustingly with the aid of the Holy Spirit,” then I’m all in.  If Richard’s 8 points can help us sit more attentively under the Word, then let’s have that conversation, point by point, conclusion by conclusion and see where it leads.  But if it’s just a “drive-by” disruption intended to upset the traditional apple cart, then I’m really not interested.  In a world where people are spiritually starving to death, it is bread they need to be given and not stones.  DBS+

 

 

 

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