I've been holding this blog post in my head for a couple weeks because I haven't had time to post it, for no good reason perhaps, except that we had our Yearly Meeting sessions this week. Although I didn't have any major roles this week, it was a full week between attending meetings for worship for business, evening worship gatherings, and leading a workshop on Christian Peacemaker Teams. It was also fun connecting with F/friends, old and new.
Anyway, it was interesting reading the three chapters I read for this doctrine, from Barclay's Apology, Migliore's Faith Seeking Understanding and Freeing Theology, edited by LaCugna. The most interesting thing was that I agreed with all three of them, and they all added something the others didn't do as well. In a lot of ways they were saying the same thing from different perspectives.
The main point of all three can be summed up with a quote from Barclay: "the scriptures are only a declaration of the source, and not the source itself...." (46). Or again, here is a similar quote from Migliore: "Christians do not believe in the Bible; they believe in the living God attested by the Bible" (50). Sandra M. Schneiders, the author of the essay "The Bible and Feminism" in Freeing Theology, points out that Vatican II emphasizes that Christ is the only true revelation, as opposed to the Catholic Church's previous emphasis on scripture and tradition. All of these authors emphasized that the Word is Jesus, and the biblical text is just words about God, about the history of human interaction with God and words through which God often communicates with us. But without the Spirit, the words therein are just the same as any other words--they can be harmless, and also can be harmful.
It is difficult for all three authors to distinguish this doctrine fully from that of revelation, because so many tend to believe that the Bible is our only source of revelation, that it and it alone tells us the truth. All three of these authors combat that claim. It is the Spirit who communicates Truth to us, the Spirit we recognize speaking through the biblical text. "Otherwise," says Barclay, "there would be no distinction between the law and the gospel" (50). He means that if we think of the biblical text as a kind of law book showing us the truth, then what did we need the gospel for? The gospel frees us from the confines of the law.
The problem with this is its tendency for supercessionism, for making it really easy to demonize Judaism because all they had was the law. (Did I already write about this, or just think about it?) At any rate, the important thing to remember is that this tension exists within Judaism as well as Christianity. There is an amazing prophetic tradition within Judaism, calling the people back to faithfulness to God, not just to the letter of their law. The summaries of the laws Jews are to follow are the same as those for Christians: we are to love God and our neighbors, we are to act justly and love mercy and walk humbly with God. In this way both religions are ones of the law--the law of love. Christianity perhaps makes this more explicit, but this theme is present and even dominant in the Hebrew Scriptures (that which we often call the Old Testament).
Although scripture is not the truth itself, it is the written record we have that, whether we like it or not, has been handed down to us as something through which God speaks to us. Personally, I trust that what is in there is there for a reason, although it's hard to see why some of it is in there and how much we can reinterpret for a new time. I think there may have been other things written that could have been in the Bible but were kept out and destroyed because perhaps they were written by women or in support of women, and that is sad. I agree with Migliore who reminds us that although this is something through which God communicates, it is also a human document, written by human writers, and collected by human leaders of the church in particular contexts. I also agree with Schneiders who emphasizes that the Bible is "God's self-communication in human language" (37), so although it is as authentic a communication of God as we can get (apart from Christ in physical form, or the Spirit speaking to us directly), every revelation we receive is communicated in a way we can understand. Therefore obviously it does not contain or communicate all of who God is, because of the limited medium and the limits of our own minds for comprehension.
One huge problem with the biblical text, which of course Barclay doesn't think to talk about, is that "the biblical canon was established by men who selected writings by men that men found valuable since they reflected male experience, interests, and theological positions, because these male authorities obviously thought that male experience was equivalent to human experience" (Schneiders, 42, in LaCugna, ed.). One could add to this that it was written in particular places and times, reflecting particular cultures and norms, which may or may not translate to current cultures. So the text is not perfect for us. It is confusing, it is archaic, it uses metaphors and cultural contexts we don't understand, and without illumination by the Spirit it can be incredibly damaging.
I found Migliore's "Principles of the Interpretation of Scripture" helpful as we think about these things. I think he helpfully balances these tensions by emphasizing personal connection and interpretation of the text combined with communal and historical understandings. Here are his principles:
1. Scripture should be interpreted with historical and literary sensitivity; yet Scripture's unique witness to the living God resists its imprisonment in the past or its reduction to pious fiction.
2. Scripture must be interpreted theocentrically [with God at the center]; however, the identity of god is radically redescribed in the overarching narrative of Scripture as the triune God, i.e., the God of Israel who comes to us in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
3. Scripture must be interpreted ecclesially, i.e., in the context of the life and witness of the church; however, an ecclesial reading of Scripture differs not only from an individualistic reading but also from the control of Scripture by church doctrine or hierarchy.
4. Scripture must be interpreted contextually; however, the context of our interpretation must not be confined to our personal history or to that of our immediate locality.
Interpretation of the text is so important, because it is in our interpretation that meaning occurs. This is also where the Spirit is present with us. I love this quote by Schneiders: "meaning is not 'in' the text but occurs in the interaction between text and reader, just as music is not 'in' the score but occurs as an event when the score is performed" (47). I think when we read the text apart from interacting with the Spirit it's like looking at music notes on a page, when we can't read music and can't even begin to imagine what the song would sound like. But when we listen to the Spirit we can hear the symphony played in us, and through us. We can respond and participate from our own context on our own unique "instrument." This goes well with the following, final Barclay quote:
"This is the great work of the scriptures, and their usefulness to us. They find a respondent spark in us, and in that way we discern the stamp of God's ways and [God's] Spirit upon them. We know this from the inward acquaintance we have with the same Spirit and with [the Spirit's] work in our hearts" (59).