Moving from Scripture to Faith & Practice
in Times of Controversy
I am a self-avowed “Evangelical” Christian. I certainly don’t think that this is the only way to be a Christian, and it’s clearly not the dominant approach to Christianity among my own “tribe,” the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), but it is the way that I am consciously and conscientiously a Christian. The late Donald Bloesch once suggested that to be an Evangelical is to “hold to a definite doctrine” as well as to “participate in a special kind of experience.” And I find that to be a useful definition. I find that being an “Evangelical” Christian means that I believe certain things to be true and that I have a certain lived experience of those truths.
Central to my “Evangelical” experience of Christianity is the awareness that my sins have been forgiven because of Jesus Christ. This is the evangelical take on the Gospel. It’s about forgiveness. It’s about regeneration. It’s about reconciliation. It’s about how lost and guilty sinners can stand before a holy, just and loving God, and personally this is brought home to me weekly in church when I break the bread and pour the cup at the Lord’s Table in remembrance of and in thanksgiving for what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. It’s a big part of the reason why I am a “Disciple” and an “Evangelical.”
Central to my “Evangelical” theology is the conviction that the Scriptures rightly interpreted will be the defining authority for my faith and practice. In his “liberal-evangelical dialogue” with David Edwards back in 1988, the late John Stott observed –
I think I would characterize Evangelicals as those who, because they identify Scripture as God’s word, are deeply concerned to submit to its authority in their lives (whatever their precise formulation of the doctrine of Scripture may be). In other words, the hallmark of Evangelicals is not so much an impeccable set of words, as a submissive spirit, namely their a priori resolve to believe and obey whatever Scripture may be shown to teach. They are committed to Scripture in advance, whatever it may later be found to say. They claim no liberty to lay down their own terms for belief and behavior. They see this humble and obedient stance as an essential implication of Christ’s lordship over them.
And so it is as an “Evangelical” Christian that I find myself becoming increasingly troubled by the way that the Bible is being bandied about by both proponents and opponents of the Supreme Court’s recent same sex marriage decision. With magisterial authority I have heard both critics and proponents of this decision make sweeping pronouncements about what is and isn’t on the Bible on this subject, and about what the Bible does or does not actually mean. The proof–texting has been coming fast and furious from both sides, and as an Evangelical who tries to take the Bible seriously, I have been deeply dismayed by what I’ve seen and heard. Take the case what happened recently in a community just south of Ft. Worth, Texas.
When the Supreme Court handed down their ruling on the legality of same sex marriage throughout the United States, an e-mail exchange almost immediately broke out between Burleson’s politically conservative mayor, Ken Shetter, a self-identified Christian, and some of his vocal critics. It seems that Mayor Shetter took to Facebook right after the Court’s ruling to congratulate the Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual and Transgendered citizens of his community for the new legal protection of their civil rights. But, as you might expect, not everyone in Burleson was thrilled that he did this. In fact, one of his constituents publicly challenged the Mayor to cite just one Bible verse to justify his views. And unfortunately the good mayor took the bait. He quoted I Corinthians 13:13 – “Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” And so it began. Christians lobbing Bible verses back and forth at each other thinking that the verse they just cited, yanked from its context and with no meaningful interpretation, could settle the matter once and for all.
This is not how I was taught to use the Bible as an Evangelical.
Richard Hayes is the Dean and the George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School, and a self-identified “Evangelical.” In his book The Moral Vision of the New Testament (Harper-SanFrancisco 1996) he argues that there are four overlapping critical operations in our use of Scripture to form our theological and moral judgments. Larry Lichtenwalter, an Adventist minister, summarized this four-fold task in an article he wrote for the Journal of the Adventist Theological Society in 2000 that he called – “Living Under the Word” (http://www.andrews.edu).
- The Descriptive Task – The descriptive task has to do with reading the text carefully. The descriptive task is fundamentally exegetical in character. It has to do with the question, “What does the Scripture say?” We read the individual New Testament or Old Testament texts or passages with the purpose of understanding the distinctive moral vision embodied in each text, and in time, in each individual book in the biblical canon. We do this without prematurely harmonizing them. We are simply to note the distinctive moral themes and patterns of reasoning in the individual New Testament or Old Testament witnesses.
- The Synthetic Task -The synthetic task means placing the individual text, passage, or book in its larger canonical context. This has to do with finding coherence in the moral vision of Scripture as a whole. Is it possible to describe a unity of ethical perspective within the diversity of the Old and New Testament canon? What, if anything, makes these diverse writings hang together as a guide to the moral life? Care needs to be taken that the synthetic task does not create homogenizing interpretation that neutralizes any particularly challenging passage we may encountered. We assume a vast theological and moral unity between the Old and New Testaments, and within Scripture as a whole. This common moral vision, however, does not neutralize or homogenize the individual witnesses.
- The Hermeneutical Task – How do we bridge the temporal and cultural distance between ourselves and the text? What does Scripture mean for us? Thesis the hermeneutical task—relating the text to our own contemporary situation. In particular, how do we appropriate the moral vision of Scripture as a word addressed to us? How do we actually use Scripture in doing ethical reflection?
- The Pragmatic Task – Christian ethics ultimately comes down to the very practical question: how shall Christians shape their life in obedience to the moral vision of Scripture? In other words, what shall we do? How concretely does the moral vision of Scripture speak to our contemporary exigencies? The pragmatic task has to do with living out the Word in concrete everyday life.
This is just too crucial a moment in the life of the church for proof-texting by anybody. Paul Tillich used to say that the world poses the questions that the church then has to answer. And if this is the case, then the world is waiting for the church’s answer. But what I’ve heard so far from the two wings of the church – the “progressive” and the “traditional” – leaves me pretty unsettled and unsatisfied.
Thinking that we have heard from Scripture just because some Bible verses have been quoted in defense of an already arrived-at position is spiritually irresponsible. Now is not the time for anyone to be collapsing Hayes’s four-fold process for the use of Scripture in the formation of moral and theological conclusions into sound-bite snippets of “the Bible says” or “the Bible doesn’t say,” thinking that the conclusions that we have drawn and not the careful, Biblically-informed process by which we have arrived at those conclusions are all that anybody really needs to know. I’m not interested in hoisting a flag so that people can salute it and take a side in the coming fight. I’m really so much more interested instead in the crucial conversation of faith that arises when our experiences as human beings, our encounters with the authoritative Biblical text, and the reality of the living, loving God intersect and interact. It would be hard for me to be an “Evangelical” Christian, and for me to think or to do otherwise.