Friday, May 25, 2012

Developing the Scripture Picture

My last blog about Scripture and science left the picture of the authority of Scripture a little underdeveloped.  If we stop in our journey to understand Scripture in that it's a book about salvation and Christian living (as true as that is), we are prone to wonder down the paths of allegorizing the entirety of Scripture as simply tales and fables with theological propositions laid underneath. A book of propositions that we must believe is exactly the kind of book that we are trying to say Scripture is NOT.  It's a dynamic book about a relationship with God through Christ.  The inspiration of Scripture and the interpretation of it today are both superintended by the Holy Spirit.

So, the picture of Scripture actually begins before Scripture. It begins with God. Who fully revealed Himself in Jesus Christ. In Christ we know who God is. Christ is the center of the salvation story. Jesus Christ is God's major redemptive work.

The first step in developing a model of understanding Truth is to realize that it begins with Christ.  Jesus is the logos - the reason, the knowledge, the word that is God himself.  The person and work of Jesus is the driving force of the Christian faith.  This cannot be overstated.

Scripture, then, is the story of Jesus.  Really, it's the history of how God has interacted with Creation to redeem it.  The Old Testament begins with a perfect world that is without sin.  From the minute sin enters the world, we see God acting on a rescue mission to redeem all of creation.  Throughout the Old Testament it becomes obvious that God is acting.  He is sending leaders, judges, kings, and prophets to try draw His people back to Him.  These stories provide the background and meaning of the coming of the anointed one - that is, Jesus.  The New Testament explains who this Jesus is and what his life and actions meant then and continue to mean now.  Scripture is authoritative because it reveals the story of Christ to us.

This is where we stopped in my previous blog - Scripture is about the salvation story.  And it is.  But Scripture isn't just about theological truths.  There is a true narrative that has actually happened throughout history.  This is not to say that the Bible is a historical text book.  It is by all means a salvation narrative.  However, the story of salvation has unfolded within our world.  God himself broke into creation, our time and our space, through Jesus Christ.  While some of the accounts of Scripture may not be exactly correct as to the details of the story (for example, archeology suggests that the story of Jericho probably actually happened in Ai), they are still true in their essence. 

Just as the salvation narrative itself occurred in history, so did the recording of these accounts.  Each book of the Bible was written by an author or a group of authors that actually lived in our world.  They were surrounded by and embedded in particular historical, social, and cultural contexts.  They were bound by the knowledge and reason of their time. 

The challenge today is to ascertain the meaning of these texts that were written within specific historical contexts.  A common-sense, face-value reading of Scripture misses a great deal of its intended meaning.  For example, in Genesis 1 when we read that the Spirit of the Lord hovered over the water, it isn't just a report of the actual location of God's Spirit.  Water in the Ancient Near East often represented chaos (a somewhat complex phrase that may be similar to evil + disorder) in our time.  Scripture is full of meaning that cannot be grasped by a top-layer reading of Scripture.  The Bible has to be interpreted. 

We utilize three tools to interpret Scripture.  As I just mentioned, we can't just read it and know what it means.  So we use tradition, reason, and experience to interpret Scripture to find its meaning.

Tradition is an important and historical resource for those of us reading Scripture today.  The Creeds, the documents of the early church, and the fathers and mothers of the faith are all included in this category.  One might also include the Church itself in this category.  (The Roman Catholic Church actually tends to put tradition in front of Scripture in that the Church itself dictates what Scripture means).  When we utilize tradition to look at Scripture, we are seeking to know how the Church has understood a passage throughout all of time (since its birth, of course).  But tradition can't stand alone as a means for interpretation because sometimes perspectives change. Or sometimes the Church makes mistakes (indulgences, for example) This is why we have the other two tools.

The second tool is Reason.  Here we find both logic and science.  This is connected to my previous post in that, although science and Scripture explain two different realms of reality, they also provide insight into one another.  Additionally, when faced with a specific interpretation of Scripture, one is able to use this tool to decide whether or not "it's reasonable."  Does it make sense?  Is it in line with what the rest of Scripture says?  For example, if a person takes a single verse of Scripture and tries to create an entire doctrine based off of the single verse, the Christian ought to use the tool of reason to know how this verse and doctrine compare to the rest of Scripture.  So if a person reads Romans 5 and says that Christ's death and resurrection provided universal salvation for all people and that all people are going to heaven even if they don't believe, reason should point out that this view is in opposition to several other verses that say that one must believe in Jesus and his work.  However, reason by itself can be dangerous.  The incarnation, miracles, and resurrection of Jesus are not reasonable, for example.  But tradition tells us that this is what the Church has professed since the beginning and the Creeds have made this as the center of our faith.  Reason is still superseded by Scripture itself.

Experience is the third tool.  We know that the contents of Scripture are true because we have experienced them ourselves.  Our experiences worshipping as a community, being free of sins that once bound us, or seeing miracles (big or small) shape the way we read and interpret Scripture.  When our experiences or feelings seem to be contrary to Scripture, we can't use our feelings to trump what Scripture says.  We must use reason and tradition to balance the temptation to make Scripture subjective through our experiences.  Our interpretations of Scripture through the other two tools should help us reinterpret our experiences as well in light of these truths.

Even with these three tools, even the brightest man or woman cannot understand all of Scripture. This is why a "common-sense," face-value reading of the text doesn't cut it. We trust that the Holy Spirit has superintended the entire process.  We believe that the Holy Spirit inspired the writers of Scripture to write what they did.  We believe that Holy Spirit guided the leaders of Israel and the early Church in the formation of the Old and New Testament canons.  We believe that, even in the translation process, the Holy Spirit kept in tact the important meanings within Scripture.

We also believe that it is only through the Holy Spirit that the text can be properly interpreted today.  A person who doesn't know Christ will have a hard time understanding the Truth of Scripture if she is not open to the Holy Spirit moving at the moment.  If Scripture could be understood without the work of the Holy Spirit, the whole world would already believe in Christ.  If the depths of the knowledge of the glory of Christ could be known with a face-value reading of Scripture then our salvation would be attainable by our ability to read Scripture.  If all the knowledge necessary for our salvation was self-evident in a look at the Bible, I would not have to be writing this blog to explain how to interpret Scripture.  We depend on the Holy Spirit to illuminate Scripture for us. 

And, although the Holy Spirit superintends this process, the Spirit does so in community.  The Bible is not meant to be read, interpreted, and lived out entirely in isolation from others.  It should be done in community (for how can you "love your neighbor," or "meet together," or "encourage one another daily," if there is not "other" to include in this).  This community cannot be just a group of people who gather together with common interests or opinions. The primary reason for this group to exist cannot be a political agenda, a social initiative, or a particular slant on the Bible.  Those types of communities cannot truly interpret Scripture as the revelation of Christ because that is not the reason for their gathering.  We must read Scripture in the context of the Church - a worshipping community gathered together to glorify God by participating in His mission of redemption for our world.  

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