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Hoosier Musings on the Road to Emmaus

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Systematics Report-- Part I

Okay, here it is-- the paper that's the first part of the "theological investigation" that we are doing in our systematics class. I'll put the footnotes in later.

I'm not completely happy with it. There's more I could put in, if it weren't for the specified page limit-- and probably stuff I should take out. But it's due today, so this is it.

If you have comments, criticisms or suggestions, I'd be grateful to hear them-- that would help me tweak this part, when I add the "sign of the times" section that will come later in the term.

The Inspired Word

One of the actions required of an ordinand in the Episcopal Church is the signing of a document testifying, in part, that he/she “believe[s] the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation...” However, there are many ways those words can be understood. The extremes range from right-wing fundamentalist biblicism ("Every word of the Bible must be accepted as literally factual"), to left-wing liberal revisionism ("the Bible is full of unenlightened, patriarchal attitudes that should be discarded in the modern era"). Further, this understanding has a direct bearing on the Christian approach to American culture, especially as seen in the "family values" movement currently so popular in what is essentially a postmodern, often post-Christian society. So, what do we mean that scripture is “inspired by God?” I suggest a view which holds that the biblical text is neither handed down as inerrant, nor solely contextual and a dispensable accessory. Instead, it most wholly fulfills its purpose when the entire canon is considered in a more nuanced, balanced approach; and when guidance is sought though studied consideration of the preponderance of scriptural teaching.

Since the time of the early church, most Christians, and most Christian communities, have relied upon writings “inspired by God” as a basis for faith. However, agreeing upon which writings meet this criteria has been a long and arduous process. For much of the history of the church, as much discussion arose over the issue of canonization than interpretation; debate over what to read--what was, in fact, Holy Scripture-- was often at least as heated as any disagreement over how to read it.

Canonization of the Hebrew Bible is a process that scholars believe took place between 200 BCE and 200 CE. The earliest evidence of efforts to propose a definitive Christian canon appear in Marcion’s writings, around 150 CE. His proposal-- that none of the Old Testament, and only the Gospel of Luke and certain of Paul’s letters (suitably edited) were acceptable-- and the theology upon which he made his choices were roundly rejected as heretical. In doing so, however, the church was forced to consider which texts were scriptural and “necessary.” The main body of the New Testament canon was eventually finalized at the Council of Carthage in 397 CE. However, debate about which Old Testament scriptures to include continued for several hundred years; and there are still differences today in the lists of canonical texts accepted in Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant traditions.

Yet even while the process of canonical development continued, the labor of scriptural exegesis also went on. There have been of course, many differences of opinion over interpretations that have developed in the life of the church; and debates have raged in separating heresy from orthodox understanding. However, the nature and methods of interpretation (primarily a literal-allegorical method) appear to have remained largely the same for more than half of Christian history.

It was not until the 16th Century that the Reformation substantively altered the principles of biblical criticism. Although certainly unintended by the reformers, Mark Noll describes the shift in reasoning thus:

"If there was some kind of innate human right to pose the individual’s understanding of Scripture over against the magisterium of the Catholic Church, might there not also be an innate right to pose the individual’s conception of Scripture over against the traditional Christian view of its entire truthfulness?"

From this point, the shifts in cultural orientation resulting from and through the Enlightenment, and the development of modern science and education, continued the assault on traditional understanding and methodology. By the end of the 1800’s, the theology of biblical hermeneutics had begun its evolution into a spectrum of thought and practice that continues to expand today.

That contemporary spectrum is buttressed on the far right by the fundamentalist notion of literal, biblicist inerrancy. This viewpoint is best expressed by the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, a document produced at a summit conference of nearly 300 evangelical scholars. As part of its summary, it states:

"Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God's acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God's saving grace in individual lives."

At the other end of the continuum resides those with a definite revisionist view. This approach, typified by feminist theologian Mary Cary, or some of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s writings, suggests that much of what is currently contained in the canon is irredeemably androcentric and advances the cause of patriarchal control, rather than liberating redemption. The answer, then, is to excise from the Bible those texts that are read as oppressive, or to selectively deny revelatory status to them.

However, there is a vast middle ground between these two poles; and there, I suggest, lies a preferred interpretive path upon which to walk. We can testify to the Bible as sacred text inspired by God, without needing to hold to a belief in a flawless, dictated transcript. We can own the canonical scriptures collectively as wholly worthy of our considered attention and study, without picking and choosing the portions we prefer, and thereby missing lessons and learnings that might we might not have if we are not forced to struggle through the text.

I believe this is appropriate for several reasons. First, insisting upon the literal inerrancy of scripture does a disservice to God and the Gospel message by encouraging idolization of the text, rather than the worship and discipleship of the gracious God portrayed therein. The mainstream of theological thought has never clung to the edge of literal inerrancy as fiercely as some biblicists aver. Indeed, from the time of the earliest church writers, consideration has been given to the place of context, allegory, and theme in the effort to interpret the scriptural message. Irenaeus made use of a “rule of truth,” intended to give to the Bible a proper interpretive context. Augustine was concerned with modes and levels of meaning within scripture. Even Martin Luther, the father of sola scriptura, continually sought for the spiritual meaning within the literal sense of the text.

Secondly, I believe that the development of the canon has been a process no less informed by the movement of the Spirit than if it had been handed down, like the tablets of the Law, directly from the hand of God. As such, it should be considered with a holistic approach-- not subject to redaction simply because parts of it are difficult or unpalatable. Ugliness has as much to teach us as beauty, and sometimes the most illumination comes out of places of deepest darkness and struggle. Rather than ignoring or denying individual texts whose traditional or surface understanding makes us uncomfortable, we need to consider the canon as a body of work, in addition to the separately written pieces that make it up. Selective readings permit manipulations of the message; and these have been used to advocate human agendas (slavery, or the subordination of women) that a careful consideration of the preponderance of scripture does not support.

Furthermore, recognition that these works, while inspired by God, are transmitted through human authors, opens the interpretive arena to contextual considerations that may significantly affect the message some passages convey to today’s readers. Portions often considered oppressive or burdensome can and should be reconsidered in new ways that illuminate fresh understanding. In light of this, Feminist theologian Sandra Schneiders also suggests use of a toolkit of hermeneutical approaches to difficult texts:

"...scrupulous translation that helps to defeat the gratuitous linguistic masculinizing of biblical material that is actually inclusive; using the liberating traditions of the Bible, such as that of Jephthah’s daughter or the rape of the concubine “in memoriam,” as “texts of terror,” rather than as an acceptable part of the history of salvation; pressing the silences of the text for the hidden stories; and using rhetorical analysis of oppressive texts such as Paul’s disciplinary injunctions against women to establish women’s actual roles and practice in early Christianity."

The catechism in the Book of Common Prayer tells us that the Holy Scriptures are “the Word of God because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks to us through the Bible;” and that we understand the meaning of the Bible by the help of the Holy Spirit., who guides the Church in the true interpretation of the Scriptures.” This nicely summarizes the theological “middle road” I am trying to walk in this paper. By stating that Scripture is inspired by God, it acknowledges the divine inspiration that should cause us to hesitate at revisionistic, selective consideration. At the same time, conceding the humanity of the authors who conveyed that divinely inspired text prevents us from holding up any one portion of the text as literally flawless transmission of the Word. Instead, we are required by this underanding to struggle through the details and the differences, working together through the canon to find the lessons that God would have us learn.

“Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life."


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