Friday, July 31, 2009

scripture

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).

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Cherice. You are way, way ahead of me in your reading and understanding of these important authors Good! The balance between the written Word and that which we understand directly through the Spirit (Jesus speaking to us personally) is of course significant. I am glad we have a written word, since it is very foundational to our understanding, but the Jesus of that word, speaking to us today, is extremely important.

To me the male-orientation of the scripture is not very important, as long as I understand the gender assumptions came from the time the scripture was first written and translated, and that was the norm at the time. Obviously we should recognize that in Christ there is no "he" nor "she". All are one in God's eyes.

Gr. Ralph

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Cherice, for this thoughtful essay. I so appreciate the "friendly" perspective that gives priority to the living word of God, Jesus, and following that, acknowledges the importance of the written word, as it is illuminated by the Spirit. I read this in light of the new emphasis of the board of education of North West Yearly Meeting on biblical literacy in our churches. This is important in light of the possible tendency of Friends to disvalue (is that a word?) the written word in our preference for the living word. I found the principles for scriptural interpretation you listed helpful. This is an important conversation.

Nancy T.

Mary Ellen said...

Thanks for a powerful and thoughtful piece of writing. I have drifted, I guess would be the word, away from fully engaging with Scripture since long-ago seminary days. Some is the sheer work of interpretation and wrestling that's needed (ah, but remember Jacob). Also, I think I need to take the time to read Barclay. The quotes you share are luminous.

nolan said...

Thanks for such a thoughtful piece, Cherice. Seems like figuring out how to interpret scripture is at the heart of so many ecumenical and interfaith discussions. I appreciate the wisdom you point to here.

Theodore A. Jones said...

If your perspective is true then "continue in My words" as the orthodox process for discovering what is actually true has become suspicious of not being true. You can only get praise from the choir from your effort as the supportive comments indicate but, the result of study which God does approve the choir will not.

cherice said...

Theodore,

Thank you for your comment, although I'm not really sure exactly to what you are referring. What is it about "continue in my words" that you think I am not doing? I am sincerely interested in your answer, if you happen to come back to read this comment.

Theodore A. Jones said...

RE. Is Barclay's Apology, Migliore's Faith Seeking Understanding, and Freeing Theology, The Bible and Feminism, Vatican II, etc. the process described in Jn. 8:31 "If ye continue in my word"?
Example. "Thou preparest a table before Me in the presence of mine enemies." and isn't this table right down front and center of every "Christian" church? See the difference of your way and His way?

cherice said...

Theodore,

I'm still trying to understand what you mean. Are you talking about who is saved, according to scripture, and that Jews (the ones Jesus is talking to in John 8:31) and whoever else doesn't accept Jesus are not going to be saved? Or are you referring only to the part about "continue in my word," taking Jesus to mean that the "word" he is referring to is the Bible? And what would it mean to you to "continue in [Jesus'] word," that you think I'm not representing in this post?

Thanks for continuing in dialogue.

Theodore A. Jones said...

Well look at it this way. Start at the bottom of my last comment with the word of His, enemies, and look at the names at the top. The process is noted as deductive reasoning. Make the connection. Aye.

cherice said...

OK, Theodore, I think what you're saying is that Barclay, Migliore and and Christian feminists are Jesus' enemies. Is that the case? I would like to ask two things:

1. Please keep your comments respectful. I am personally trying to give you and any others who make comments on my blog the benefit of the doubt, even though I don't know you or anything about your background. I feel like your last comment was less than respectful.

2. If you make charges like that, please explain your reasoning. I'm trying to understand where you're coming from, and in what ways you would label these people as Jesus' enemies. Perhaps they (and all of us, for that matter!) deserve that appellation at one point or another. Please explain what in particular you find offensive about their views. Otherwise your comments are meaningless, because they cannot help anyone see more clearly, if these individuals (and I myself) are in error.

Theodore A. Jones said...

I would think that the only thing I might be guilty of is showing that the connection is made, but I didn't make it. It is my opinion that you might profit more by determining why His judgment is not incorrect. Discarding the bunch your are learning from just might be a first best step and then learn of Him. As in "Take My yoke upon you and learn of Me." I'll give you ten to one odds. The bunch you are learning from never said this to you did they? Later.

cherice said...

Well, ya know, Theodore, that is actually the main point of Quakerism: listen to Christ. George Fox found what he was looking for when he heard from God, "There is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to your condition." I believe I do listen to Christ, and I read the Bible and know it pretty well. I try to listen to the voice of Christ speaking to me here and now through the text, interpreting it. I try to listen to the voice of Christ in a similar way, speaking through the recorded thought and experiences of other theologians. This is not exactly the same as reading the Bible, but God can still speak through it, and can give us a more complete understanding of God's meaning as we listen together across time and try to act faithfully. That is my goal.

If you don't like these particular theologians, I'm sorry about that. But for me, they speak truth that is found in the Bible, and help me listen better. I hope you, too, can find other voices who will help you understand how God is speaking to you more clearly every day.

Theodore A. Jones said...

George Fox isn't Christ. Which is why Jesus says "My sheep know (that is they know it when they see it) My voice and they (only) follow Me." The rule for the practical follower of Jesus is "Do not go beyond what is written." 1 Cor. 4:6, written in the scripture that is. By the way where is your choir? Didn't go home and leave you did they?

nolan said...

Theodore, anyone can directly quote scripture. But none of us can ever escape the necessity of having to *interpret* what is written there. Cherice has been pointing us toward responsible, respectful interpretive attitudes that 1) take the Bible seriously, and 2) acknowledge that we humans have to remain humble about what we know.

I, for one, am grateful for faithful scholars such as Migliore (see his interpretive principles above), whose ideas and witness point me toward Christ, who is himself the truth.

Theodore A. Jones said...

A degreed scholar purchased the degree didn't he/she? And isn't it true that a spiritual gift cannot be bought or sold? I agree that Jesus is quoted saying "I am the way, I am the truth," but why does he say "I am the life" and why does he say "I have come that they might have life." If your teachers only point you in the direction of Christ is the direction correct? But do any of them ever tell you what the small narrow door is that Jesus says "make every effort to use it" or you fail to save your life?

cherice said...

Nolan! I just realized this is the Nolan I know! Good to hear from you! Hope life is going well these days.