Saturday, 8 March 2014

Having an Intelligent Understanding of Scripture

This week, we are continuing our series on Marks of an Authentic Church.  So far, we've thought about how authentic churches reflect Jesus' priority for the poor and the sick.  We've mused about how wide and deep is the grace of God towards his people.  We've thought about defining sin as the absence of love.  And last week, we focused on how God calls us to be producers, rather than consumers.

This week, I want to do something rather dangerous.  If we are to truly understand what it means to be an authentic church, we can't do so without tackling the thorny subject of the Bible.  This is dangerous ground - because it is ground over which some people have given their lives.  It is precious ground, because people often hold views about the Bible which are deeply rooted in their emotions.  But it is ground we must cover in our search to be authentically Christian.

The Bible is a collection of writings that has been responsible for more joy and, I suggest more pain, than perhaps any other collection of writings in the world.  It has inspired and shaped whole nations, and many world leaders.  It has taught people about God's heart of love for his creation.  But it has also been used to subjugate women, defend slavery, and curse homosexuals.  It has lifted the eyes of the faithful above the daily grind to gaze upon eternity.  But it has also been used to justify war on a vast scale.  It has taught many people the power of living sacrificial lives.  But is has also helped others to justify living in vast wealth, like Solomon.

The core problem, I think, is that people simply fail to work out for themselves what the Bible actually is.  Perhaps the most troublesome phrase, attached to the Bible, is the phrase 'the Word of God'. When many people hear it - and perhaps you are one of them? - they assume it means that the whole Bible contains the very words of God.  They imagine that God dictated the words of the Bible directly to its scribes, and that every word, and every phrase, contains clues about God, or about what God plans for the human race.

People who hold this view believe the Bible to be 'inerrant' (which of course means, 'can't be wrong').  They tend to qualify that statement by saying that the Bible is inerrant in its original manuscripts.  So they are prepared to have some flexibility about how the text may have been incorrectly translated, or transcribed over the years.  But essentially, such people believe that the Bible is an all sufficient guide to every circumstance of human life.  If the Bible says it, then it must be true, they believe.

Unfortunately, this has a lot of important consequences.  Have you heard, for example, about Pastor Jamie Coots, of Kentucky, USA.  He hit the news a couple of weeks ago when he was bitten by a rattlesnake, and died.  He was holding the snake at the time because according to his reading of the Bible, God promised that true believers would be able to handle such snakes, but never die.  Sadly, Pastor Coots was wrong.  His family have lost their father, and his church have lost their pastor, because he believed in Biblical inerrancy.

That was perhaps an easy example to use.  But there are still more important questions.  What do you do, for example, when the human race seems to have moved beyond the Bible's interpretation of how human beings should live together?  We've seen this in the recent debates over Women Bishops.  You see, taken at face value, the Bible clearly teaches that men and women have different roles in society.  And, if we read the text as being inerrant, and the actual Words of God for all time, then there is no way that anyone could agree that Women could be Bishops.

But, human society has moved on - way beyond a text which at its newest is still 2,000 years old.  We understand so much more than our ancestors did about the way human beings are made, in the image of God.  We believe that it is our human qualities which define what roles we may be called to play...not our gender. If God has given us leadership skills, then surely we are called to lead?  But someone who reads the Bible as inerrant really struggles with such an idea.

We then, I believe, need to return to an earlier understanding that the Church about the Scriptures.  In the earliest days of the church, there were lots more Scriptures around.  There was a Gospel according to Thomas, and another of Peter.  Even Mary Magdalene was said to have written a Gospel.  There were, in fact, so many different writings about Jesus, and quite a few older texts from the time of the Old Testament, that the Bishops of the Church had to get together in the 4th Century to have a jolly good argument about it all.  Over a period of some years, and after long meetings in Nicea, and Carthage, they finally arrived at a list of which books should be 'in', and which books should be 'out'.  The ones that were 'in' are (broadly speaking) the books that we call the Bible today.

Well, I don't know about you, but I know a few Bishops!  I try to imagine how I would feel if one of them told me that they had just returned from a series of conferences.  I imagine them telling me that all the books that had ever been written about God had been put in a room, and then after years of discussion they had been separated into two piles...books that were in, and books that were out.  I don't know about you - but the first thing I'd want to do is find out what was in the books that were ruled 'out'!

Let's get a few things absolutely straight...and absolutely in line with the historic teaching of the church.
  • The Bible was NOT dropped from heaven.
  • The Bible was NOT delivered by an Angel, first class from the Heavenly post office.
  • The Bible was NOT dug up in a farmer's field as golden plates which could only be read with magic spectacles (like the Book of Mormon)
  • The Bible was NOT suddenly discovered in a middle Eastern cave intact and whole
  • The Bible was NOT dictated to a single prophet (the way the Qur'an was, apparently, dictated to Mohammed, Peace be upon him)
  • The Bible was NOT written by fact the only words he is recorded as writing are some words in the sand which quickly blew away.
So, if that is not what the Bible is...then what is it?
  • The Bible is a collection of writings spanning approximately 1000 years, but drawing on even older stories (like the Creation and the Flood) which were handed down by mouth
  • The Bible contains a mixture of different kinds of writing - there is poetry (like the Psalms), there is history, there is prophecy and warning, and there are law books.  It has multiple authors across thousands of years. And even the writing of history was different, in those days.  History books of the ancient world were far less concerned about what actually happened, as whether what happened contained a moral or a truth to be transmitted.  It doesn't matter whether Adam and Eve existed or not.  What matters is what their story tells us about ourselves and our relationship to God.
  • The Bible is a record of first one tribe, the Jews, and then a wider tribe, the Christians, who caught glimpses of what God was like, and attempted to write down their thoughts.
  • The Bible contains some words which we can legitimately think of as Words of God, especially many of those attributed to Jesus.  But is also contains much that is speculative or aspirational.  
Here's the really important fact: we need to be very careful about glibly assigning the phrase 'Word of God' to the Bible.  It contains some words of God, without doubt.  But it is not, in itself, even a full record of the Word of God.  Its primary purpose, is rather to point us to He who was, and is, the true Word of God, Yeshua Christos - Jesus Christ.  But the Bible only points us to Jesus.  It sends us in the right general direction.  But its details should be treated with caution.  Jesus himself never authorised an autobiography.  Much of what is written about him, even by the Gospel writers, is second or third hand.

So, how can we know the mind of God?  If the Bible is not the 'maker's instructions' (as some Christians have claimed) how are we to know how we should act?  How are we to know whether we are even saved?
For that final conundrum, I believe, God sends us help.  He doesn't send a text book, but instead he sends his Spirit.  Jesus is, I believe, the very revelation of God to the world, and the Holy Spirit is the one who reminded the Gospel writers, and continues to remind us, of what Jesus taught.  To quote Dr April LoveFordham, "The Bible is unique, holy, and rich with God's wisdom, but it was never intended to be a substitute for the Holy Spirit's wisdom guiding our lives".

It is, I believe, the Holy Spirit who has guided the Anglican Church (and many others) to recognise and celebrate the ministry of women, despite what the Bible says.  We have the Holy Spirit to thank for the ministry of people like Kim, our Curate, and Joanne, our Archdeacon  It is the Holy Spirit who persuaded the Church to turn its back on slavery and racism, and will, I believe lead the church eventually to turn its back on discrimination of all kinds, including towards those of different sexualities.  It is the Holy Spirit who leads us on.  Not the dead letter of a millenniums-old collection of spiritual writings - but a living, breathing God who by the Holy Spirit keeps on pushing the Church to become more and more authentic.

Sermons in this series:

1) Introduction

1a) Reflecting Jesus' priority for the poor and the sick.

2) Having a wide and generous understanding of God's grace - Jesus poured out grace and forgiveness to everyone he met.  Are we the same?

3) Understanding Sin as the absence of Love - How should we understand Sin?  Breaking Rules?  Who decides what is Sin anyway?

4) Encouraging Christ-ians to be producers, not consumers - We live in a consumer society. Is there a danger that some of us ‘consume’ Christianity?

5) Having an intelligent understanding of Scripture - How do we approach the Bible?  A hand-written text from God?

6) Blending the scientific with the mystical - Was the world created in six days?  How did Noah get all those animals onto the Ark?!

7) Being tolerant and open to all - How do we connect with other human beings?

8) Embracing tradition while being open to the contemporary - How can we honour the old and embrace the new?

9) Understanding that forgiveness is How the World is Set Right - Is forgiveness the answer to the World’s problems?

10) Being a Eucharistic Community - How does taking Jesus into ourselves help us?

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