Saturday, August 20, 2016

If You Think . . . (11)


Ch.11: The Bible is Important

The Bible plays a vital role in God’s Subversive Counter-Revolutionary Movement. Every movement, especially a “great campaign of sabotage” (C. S. Lewis) needs a Field Guide, and that, I suggest, is how, in most respects, the Bible functions for God’s people. The respect in which the Bible is unlike a Field Guide, however, is the most important. It serves as a sacrament, sign, and servant of God’s SCRM.


The Bible as the Living Word of God


The SCRM God communicates himself and his will and way for us in the Bible. “Jesus Christ as he is attested in Holy Scripture is the one Word of God whom we have to hear, and whom we have to trust and obey in life and in death.”[1] So claims the remarkable Theological Declaration of Barmen written by the Confessing Church as a witness against the Nazi regime in Germany in 1934.

“As he is attested in Holy Scripture” – the Jesus we find in the pages of the New Testament witnesses to the living Word of God that effects and grows our relationship with God. This relational connection with God’s SCRM-in-person gives us a personal stake in the movement. In and through him we too share in God’s SCRM.

The living Word in and through the written Word speaks to each of us calling us to return to who we truly are and the vocation for which we are made. The Word who bound himself to us and made us his own and now gives himself to us as life itself. “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life” (Rom.5:10).

In light of this personal address from God to us in the Bible, can we then speak of the Bible as a love letter from God to us? James McGrath, biblical scholar and popular blogger, says not. Recently he posted this on his blog.

Few assumptions prevent people from understanding the Bible as much as the idea that it is a love letter from God to them. Every part of that – that God wrote it, that it is a love letter, and that it is written with you in mind – is badly mistaken, and so the combination thereof creates a lens that radically distorts and obscures the Bible.”[2]

On the other hand, no less a theologian than Dietrich Bonhoeffer apparently did so describe the Bible. One of his students remembers this from him: "There, before the church struggle, (Bonhoeffer) said to us at the new Alexanderplatz, with a simplicity like old Tholuck might have once used, that we should not forget that every word of Holy Scripture was a love letter from God directed very personally to us, and he asked us whether we loved Jesus.”[3]

So what do we say? Yea or Nay?

McGrath dislikes all three parts of it: divine authorship, it being a love letter, and that it was written with the contemporary reader in mind. I suspect he has in mind a kind of “Jesus is my boyfriend” sentiment that some praise songs and worship practices invoke. I too would reject that sentiment.

Bonhoeffer is a rather different matter, I think. He certainly thinks God is speaking to us through the Bible. In a letter to his brother-in-law in 1936 DB writes:

That is because in the Bible God speaks to us. And one cannot simply think about God in one’s own strength, one has to enquire of him. Only if we seek him, will he answer us. Of course it is also possible to read the Bible like any other book, that is to say from the point of view of textual criticism, etc.; there is nothing to be said against that. Only that that is not the method which will reveal to us the heart of the Bible, but only the surface, just as we do not grasp the words of someone we love by taking them to bits, but by simply receiving them, so that for days they go on lingering in our minds, simply because they are the words of a person we love; and just as these words reveal more and more of the person who said them as we go on, like Mary, “pondering them in our heart,” so it will be with the words of the Bible. Only if we will venture to enter into the words of the Bible, as though in them this God were speaking to us who loves us and does not will to leave us alone with our questions, only so shall we learn to rejoice in the Bible . . . .”[4]

But for DB this divine speaking takes place in context of a living relationship between God and his human creatures. Just prior to the quote above he stresses that we must listen to God speaking in the Bible with an insistent humility actively seeking and even questioning what we hear.[5] This is very different from kind of sentiment I suspected above lay behind McGrath’s quote.

This kind of approach to hearing God speak in the Bible is the only way we will receive an answer to our questions. DB acknowledges this approach is different from academic reading (which has nothing wrong with it per se). It just does not get to the kind of relational listening Bonhoeffer thinks vital and necessary. Here we come to the love language. DB believes that God loves human beings. And that in that love God takes the first step toward us. And he engages us in the reality of our lives whatever that might be at any given time. This is the kind concreteness Bonhoeffer is famous for pursuing. Again, very different from a sentimental approach.

So, at least for DB, we can say that God does speak to us in the Bible and that it is appropriate, even necessary, to call this relationship to the speaking God a relationship of love. But he adds following the quote above that God speaks where God chooses, a place, he writes, “that will probably be a place which does not at all correspond to my nature, which is not at all pleasing to me.” Bonhoeffer identifies this place where God speaks as “the cross of Christ.” And here is the death of that sentimental approach. What we hear from God will not always be warm, fuzzy, and comforting. It may be a word of devastating judgment. And yet still a word of love. “This is no place which is pleasing or a priori sensible to us. But this is the very place God has chosen to encounter us.”[6]

DB even claims we should practice a “sacrifice of our intellect” in matters that remain opaque, perplexing, questionable.

“And who would not in fact bring his or her own sacrifice of intellect into such a situation, that is, with the acknowledgment one does not yet understand this or that place of the Scripture, in the awareness that even this will one day be revealed as God’s own Word? I would rather do this than only to say, following some suitable opinion: ‘This is divine, that is human.’”[7]

Many would disagree with Bonhoeffer, not willing to sacrifice their intellect for anyone, even God. And many seem willing today to divide up what “following some suitable opinion” they deem the human (dispensable) element in the Bible from the divine.

I believe here we have a watershed moment in our time. Can we allow God, as a loving parent, to have secrets beyond what we can fathom or accept and still embrace his Word as a whole as a word of love to us? Can we allow ourselves to say “I do not understand how God could do this and am sorely tempted to disregard it for my moral and intellectual well-being, but I will not. I will hold open my questions and trust that someday, someway, God will answer them.”

Only such a relationship to God through Scripture as DB describes, or something very like it, can sustain the stresses of such a practice. But only in that it is of a piece with our whole journey with God (as Bonhoeffer was already learning and would keep on learning in excruciating ways). Only the parental love of God can sustain us. Even if that love outstrips our knowledge or stretches our morality, or is the tough love of judgment and wrath. This is the genius of DB’s approach. And it is this we need to recover in our time. An insistent, humble confidence that God speaks to us and bids us follow him into the darkness of a cruciform existence that paradoxically turns out to be the light of the world (however dark it may be for us at this or that time).

I don’t know whether McGrath would agree to any of this or not. But with Bonhoeffer I continue to believe that in love God speaks to our darkness and distrust in the Bible calling us to deeper communion and commitment as befits a genuine family.

The Bible as the Written Word of God

The Bible not only communicates/reveals God himself to us, it also reveals his heart, that is, his passion, plans, and commitments to and for his creation. We have seen that God’s heart for us makes him a subversive counter-revolutionary deity in a fallen world in revolt against him. Thus his written Word to us resources our own life as members of his SCRM. It does this in various ways, all important to create and sustain a movement in the interests of his love and passion. The Bible gives us

-the vision of God for creation,

-the story of humanity's rejecting that vision, and God's continuing passion and strategy for a pursuit of his wayward human creatures and their communities,

-the victory of God over the powers of sin, death, and (d)evil in Jesus Christ, and

-the equipping of his people to live and love as they were intended in witnessing to God's victory and participating in his guiding his creation and creatures to their full and final flourishing (narrative, gospels, prophecy, apocalyptic).

-a history of some of the earliest development and growth of this movement (Acts),

-nuts and bolts for the training in and practice of God's Subversive Counter-Revolutionary Movement (wisdom, teaching, epistles). Chief among these teachings is Jesus' exposition of life in the movement in the Sermon on the Mount in Mt.5-7. 

-a challenge to the coherence of the movement (e.g. Ecclesiastes, Job) and responses to meet and process these challenges (e.g. Psalms, Daniel).   

It is within the community of faith, the SCRM that these convictions attain their plausibility. This gives the movement its plausibility structure. The social and cultural setting that makes our convictions supportable or plausible is critical. Outside this community, trying to go it individually as a Christian, we will fail. Outside such community we are left at the mercy of other communities to attack or seduce us with their convictions and plausibility structures.

All this, I take it, is a way saying what the Paul of the Pastoral Epistles says of the Bible (in this context the Old Testament) in 2 Tim. 3:16-17: “Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good.” The Bible points us to God, puts us in touch with God, and prepares us to serve God as his SCRM.

The Bible as Enacted Word

God comes to us personally through his living Word, Jesus. And he comes to us through his written Word, the Bible. But he also comes to us through his enacted Word, the sacraments. These rituals, baptism and the Eucharist,[8] give us the opportunity to both kinetically and imaginatively encounter the living Christ and practice the skills and moves necessary for faithful prosecution of the struggles of God’s people.

From the perspective of God’s SCRM, these sacraments can be re-visioned to gain traction within this framework. Indeed, I suggest that military imagery is especially helpful here and lifts up aspects of these acts frequently overlooked. I refer specifically to seeing baptism as induction into the military and the Eucharist as the rations that nourish and sustain soldiers in military action.

The Holy Spirit uses the Liquid Word of baptism and the Edible Word of the Eucharist to seal, that is, confirm and make effective, the Preached and Written Word of the Bible.[9]

Baptism is a sign of initiation into God’s people, akin, I suggest, to induction and basic training into the military. Both give us a new parent (Uncle Sam/God the Father), a new identity, a new family, new resources and skills, a new inheritance or goal, and a new vocation (to serve in God’s SCRM).

The Eucharist sustains and nurtures us in Christian living. Again, we might liken it to the “rations” a soldier lives off while in action. In the Eucharist we experience a preview of the great feast in God’s kingdom which is our hope, receive provision for present need, and we practice the skills needed to do and be the people God calls us to be. Undeserved welcome, friendship, peacemaking, hope, and stewardship chief among them.[10]

These sacraments are “means of grace” because they initiate and sustain us as members of God’s people and through whom we meet the risen Christ and grow in relation to him.

Another way to state the significance of these sacraments and their importance for us is to think of baptism as the beginning that never ends and the Eucharist as the end that has already begun. We never outlive or outgrow our baptismal call to live for Christ and God’s kingdom; so too, we experience here and now, in part, hope of life and friendship with God and one another in his new creation forever and ever. We live, as I like to put it, between the Font of baptism and the Table of the Eucharist. The various graces of each enfold from opposite directions making that imaginative space between the font and the table in the sanctuary a matrix of grace that forms us as God’s people.


Yet another way to reflect on the significance of these sacraments is to say that in baptism Jesus’ SCRM life becomes ours, while in the Eucharist, our lives become SCRM lives in his.

For all these reasons and more, it is incumbent on us, I believe, to pay far more attention to these gracious gifts God has given us to train and sustain us as his people. It is here at the font and the table that we will find the equipping and enablement we need to serve in God’s SCRM.

The Authority of the Bible

The authority of this book lies in its use by God through the Spirit to “author” a SCRM. Inerrancy or errancy plays no role here. If one has met the God who shines in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6) and been grasped by that Vision of his Desirable Future and caught up into service in his SCRM the matter is beyond inerrancy or not. It's a matter


-of the faithfulness of this God encountered.

-of the truth of his cause.

-of the immeasurable greatness of his presence in and among his people.

This, I take, as a paraphrase of Calvin's insistence on the inner witness of the Holy Spirit as the essential mark of the reality and truth of scripture's testimony. His emphasis here is reflected in A Declaration of Faith:

[1Through the inward witness of the same Spirit
we acknowledge the authority of the Bible.
We accept the Old and New Testaments as the canon,
or authoritative standard of faith and life,
to which no further writings need be added.
The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments
are necessary, sufficient, and reliable
as witnesses to Jesus Christ, the living Word.
We must test any word that comes to us
from church, world, or inner experience
by the Word of God in Scripture.
We subject to its judgment
all our understanding of doctrine and practice,
including this Declaration of Faith.
We believe the Bible to be the Word of God
as no other word written by human beings.”11


Then it becomes a matter of faith seeking understanding. We submit to the Bible, errant or not, as God's chosen vehicle to make himself known to and guide his people.


********************

[1] http://www.ucc.org/beliefs_barmen-declaration.


[3] http://ftc.co/blog/posts/bonhoeffer-and-the-costly-enjoyable-kingdom.


[5] Geoffrey B. Kelly and E. Burton Nelson, eds. Testament of Freedom (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 425.

[6] Ibid., 426.

[7] Ibid.

[8] I am aware that some traditions have more than these two sacraments and others don’t call them sacraments, baptism and the Eucharist (or the Lord’s Supper or Communion) are recognized by all traditions as special acts that are central to Christian existence and worship.

[9] See A Declaration of Faith, ch.6, par.5.

[10] My unpublished paper “Living Between the Font and the Table: Why Only the Sacraments Can Save Us Now” explores this greater detail. Available as pdf upon request from author.

[11]A Declaration of Faith, ch.6, ll.42-57.


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