The Transforming Heart of Christianity
I - The Christian Scriptures and Tradition
The Rev. C. Joshua Villines
March 5, 2003
Every once in a while we church-going folk get asked the sort of question that seems so obvious that we’re initially flummoxed by trying to answer it. Usually it’s something like “What does your church believe?” or “What does it mean to be a Christian?” The purpose of this series of lectures (or, if you’re encountering them online, this series of essays), is to help provide concrete answers for those questions.
My goal is not to provide denominational answers, rooted in specific resolutions of theological controversies. Not only would that require a far more exhaustive and lengthy series of essays, it would also miss the key point. The goal here is not define the issues that divide us as Christians, it is to better understand what makes us Christians in the first place.
It is also worth noting that different denominations place different weight on the components of the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” of: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. As much as my fellow Protestants and I like to proclaim “sola scriptura,” the reality is that each of us relies on the other components – what we have observed to be true, what seems reasonable, and what our tradition has historically taught – in establishing our own doctrinal boundaries. Where possible, this series will try to introduce some of the ways that those factors have shaped the history of the Church’s beliefs, while also searching for common ground that respects an orthodox definition of Christianity that is broad enough to include the diversity of the Church, but clear enough to respect the historic boundaries of distinctively Christian belief.
That’s no small task, and we will likely commit the sin of over-generalization far too often. At the very least, however, this series should introduce the common vocabulary for a Christian theological identity, as well as a way forward for those looking to articulate what it means to be a Christian. Specifically, we will look at the nature of the Bible, the nature of God, the nature of humanity, the concept of Salvation, the nature of worship and the role of the Church. The underlying theme throughout will be the idea that the essence of Christianity is transformation, and that we are new creations in Christ [2 Cor 5:17]who are called to be different from the world in which we live [2 Cor 6:16-18].
With that understanding, we will also talk about the ways in which our faith is expected to transform us and the ways we are expected to transform the world with our faith. This approach provides the title of the lectures – we will be looking at the living heart of tradition which can transform us and which in turn uses us to transform our environment. I had thought about entitling it “Transforming Christianity” – but I was afraid that some of my more conservative critics might accuse me of doing just that – transforming Christianity to fit my agenda.
Which brings me to something else that I should point out – no discussion of theology is without some underlying ideology; and I should be frank about mine. Compared to the diversity of contemporary approaches, orthodox Christian doctrine existed with very little variation until the Enlightenment. After that time, rationalism and the scientific method posed a significant threat to a faith system built on mythic language and perpetuated through an ancient worldview.
Those who defined theology and the Bible only in terms of what could be scientifically and logically understood were called “liberals,” and the early twentieth century saw two significant responses to nineteenth-century liberalism. One was fundamentalism, which is enjoying a new Renaissance today. Fundamentalism has many different permutations, but in essence it resists allowing any form of modern scholarship to modify a first-century worldview or a literal interpretation of the Bible. (This is, in fact, a charitable view of fundamentalism because – in my experience – fundamentalists tend to pick and choose scriptures according to suit their own socially conservative worldview.)
The other major movement of the early twentieth-century was neo-orthodoxy, a movement that is also experiencing revived interest in some circles. Neo-orthodox theologians asked, “How can I know what I know and still believe what I believe.” They worked to balance the historic beliefs of the church with the results of rigorous study.
I have been strongly influenced by neo-orthodoxy, and if there is a slant to the information I’m providing it is a neo-orthodox one. In addition, as someone who grew up a fundamentalist and who encounters them regularly in his professional career, there will be times when I cannot resist comparing what is normative in a progressive (or neo-orthodox) congregation like ours and a fundamentalist one. This is particularly important since fundamentalism often seems to offer – if we don’t look too closely – the simplest answers to theological questions.
Scripture and Church Tradition
Which brings us to our first topic – the Bible. We are beginning our series here because everything that we will do in the coming weeks requires biblical literacy, and familiarity with the Bible is essential to a mature Christian faith. Some of what I’m going to cover may be old hat for many of you, but I want to make sure that we are all on a level playing field, so I’m going to start from scratch. We’re going to cover the theological significance of the Bible, define the Scriptures that compose it, how they came to be there, and some of the techniques that we use to interpret them.
To begin with, the Bible – interpreted in a community of faith under the guidance of the Holy Spirit [John 16:12-15] – is the authoritative and defining document for Christians. Free-church Christians generally describe that community as the local church influenced by the larger history of scholarship and tradition. Churches that come from hierarchical traditions give greater credence to church tradition.
But we all agree that the Bible is our authority, that it defines who we are as a distinct community of faith. My own preference in worship is to place great trust in the actual words as they have been translated – and to trust the Holy Spirit to those words in our minds and hearts. That’s why I believe worship should always include four complete readings: from the Hebrew Scriptures, from the Gospels, from the Psalms, and from the Epistles. That’s also why I believe the liturgy for each Sunday should reflect on those readings. I trust the Bible, especially in the hands of the Holy Spirit and the Church.
I do not, however, use some of the popular buzzwords for the Christian Scriptures. You’ll notice that I do not refer to them as “The Word of God.” I have a biblical reason for that. John 1 tells us that Jesus was the Word of God; and I’m uncomfortable with confusing printed words on a page with the resurrected Son of God.
Some find it convenient, however, to claim that the Bible was literally written by God. Whenever I hear that, I always think of Ezekiel 23:19-21. Although I may be wrong, I seriously doubt that the Creator of all humanity would take the time to preserve a description of male genitalia and ejaculations for all eternity.
That’s really a pithy answer to a much deeper question, one that rocked an American denomination of 16 million people and continues to divide Christians. Our fundamentalist brothers and sisters will generally say to you that every word of the Bible is perfect and true. This proposition, however, simply will not hold up under close scrutiny. As a “for instance” look at Mark 5:13 where the author of Mark, who was apparently unfamiliar with the area’s geography, sends a herd of swine plunging into the sea – in an area without a sea. An understandable mistake if the account was recorded by a human being, but an unacceptable one for those who insist that every word in the book must have been divinely chosen.
It gets worse. If we are to believe that God chose every word of the Bible and affirmed it, then we must believe that there was a time in history when God supported the execution of women who were raped in urban areas or that a woman who was raped should marry her rapist [Deut 22:23-29]. We must believe that God felt that human beings could be owned and that such people could be beaten beyond walking because they were property [Exodus 21:20]. We must believe that at one time God thought it was OK to consider women property [Exodus 22:16-17], and to value them less than men [Lev 27:1-7].
Interestingly enough, the same fundamentalists who believe these are the inerrant words of God, and who believe God never changes (despite the presumably inerrant Exodus 31:14 were God change’s God’s mind – compare Numbers 23:19), no longer believe the claims of the above passages to be true. Let’s run that again: God’s standard never changes, this was once God’s standard, but it doesn’t need to be our standard now.
It doesn’t make sense to me either – and it only will make sense if you need it to be true to believe. To make things worse, the Biblical authors are not even consistent on fairly significant issues of the faith. I’ll give you the biggie: is salvation by faith of by works? That depends on whether you read Romans 3:27-28 or James 2:24. Theologians have worked out some clever homogenizations of these texts, but the plain reading of them straight out of the supposedly crystal clear, inerrant book is completely contradictory.
Yet when I was ordained they handed me a Bible and entrusted me with preaching it – and I try to do so with great reverence. Does that make me a hypocrite? How can we honor the Bible and teach the Bible without believing it was written by God? How can we consider the Bible authoritative while still recognizing its internal contradictions?
We do so by treating the Bible as what it is. At its heart, the Bible is the human record of real encounters with God. In the beginning was God, and God made us. We turned away from God and still do, and God reached out to us and still does. Ever since then, a few people have managed real encounters with God, and they have recorded those encounters to the best of their ability. Later generations considered those recordings authentic, and they graciously preserved them for us.
Let me break that down in a little more detail. The Bible records the history of two groups which had direct encounters with God: the people who identified themselves as the physical children of Abraham in the nation of Israel; and the people who identified themselves as the spiritual children of Abraham and Sarah in the Early Church. As the story goes, once upon a time there was a couple named Abraham and Sarah who talked to God (Sarah even laughed at God, but that’s another story) and from their descendants God raised up a nation that would preserve a unique understanding of who God is and how to be faithful to God.
That unique understanding included knowing that there is only one God, and that God is not created in our image. Other groups in the area made gods that represented their virtues or their vices or the elements in nature. The children of Abraham knew that there was one Creator, and that our Creator was holy, set apart, not like us. They also knew that we must discipline ourselves to be set apart if we are to follow God.
Interestingly, they did not feel the need for an inerrant book (or even a formal canon of writings) to preserve that understanding. It was not until they were in exile and their nation shattered that they began to try to piece together a precise and particular account of who they were as a people of faith. That makes sense – you don’t need a photo album until you’re back from vacation. Why look at a picture of the Eiffel tower when it’s right in front of you. Also, you don’t really know which pictures are keepers until you’ve laid them all out on the kitchen table and compared them.
That’s exactly what the Jewish people did. Over the centuries they had picked up stories that defined their identity as a people. They chose the ones that were the most true, that most honestly reflected their understanding of God, and they compiled them first into the Torah – “the Law.” These are the first five books in our Bible. The Jewish leaders also collected court records and historical accounts that described their past through the lens of their faith. In addition, they gathered the writings of people called prophets – people whose words carried an echo of divine truth that the Jewish people recognized as authentic. Later they added other writings that – for various reasons – were also consistent with their corporate experience of the will of God.
The religious leaders of various times did not hesitate to edit these writings to fit the needs of particular situations or to mold them to better reflect their understanding of who God is. Eventually, the content and format of these books became fixed, and today we know these writings collectively as the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament. In Hebrew they are called the Tanak – “The Law, The Prophets, and the Writings.” In your Bible they likely consist of 39 books.
At the time of Jesus, however, there were many other writings that were also considered of Scriptural authority. Unlike the writings of the Tanak – which was written almost entirely in Hebrew – these later writings were written in Greek, and debate continued even after the death of Jesus about whether or not to include them in the Scriptures. Some of the New Testament authors refer to some of those writings, and many of them are gathered in what is now known as the Apocrypha.
In the time shortly following the writing of much of the Apocrypha, according to some of the people living in that time, something amazing happened: God took human form and walked among us teaching, healing, dying. God was killed, and then rose again. Those who believed the stories about Jesus formed a new tradition, built on Judaism, but radically reinterpreting it in significant ways.
Stories about what Jesus had done and said circulated for decades; and they were originally collected into writings from a unique literary genre called “gospels.” Part biography, part theological treatise, and part wisdom literature; these gospels are at the very center of Christian identity since they describe what it is to see and hear God in the flesh.
As communities of believers grew around the teachings of Jesus, leaders in these early churches arose from among Jesus’ early followers. Those leaders wrote letters, and others wrote in their names; and the Early Church preserved those of the writings that were most consistent with their understanding of the teachings of Jesus.
Not each local congregation was in agreement about which writings those were. Generally, though, they chose which writings to follow based on what Lee McDonald (Formation 228-249) and other authors identify as five principles: Apostolicity (Did they appear to be written by apostles?); Orthodoxy (Were they consistent with their understanding of the teachings of Jesus?); Antiquity (Did they date from a time close to that of Jesus?); Inspiration (Did the works seem to reflect real contact with God?); and Usage (Were most local congregations using the works?). Writings that met these criteria were identified as Scriptural, those that did not were treated with lesser degrees of credibility.
This led to some diversity among the lists of authoritative (or “canonical”) writings maintained by early Church leaders; but not as much as one might think. A book here of there might be included or excluded. By the fourth century, when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, even that strong consensus was not enough and several edicts of the Emperor Constantine formally solidified the New Testament into the 27 writings we now have. Many churches still continued to argue for the inclusion of additional writings, and even later church councils took up the discussions of what should make up the canon.
Although the 27 books we now identify as “Scripture” were very widely used – it’s safe to say that Christians have never been fully unanimous on them. By the time the Roman Catholic Church made it official with the Council of Trent in the 16th Century, Luther was already questioning the book of James. Still, we continue to print those 27 bound under one cover. By general consensus, this is what we have. Goodness knows how many Gideons we would upset if we changed that.
So what do we have bound here in faux black leather? The literal words of God? Only in places, and only heard through human ears. Nevertheless, we still have the documents that those who heard the words of God recognized as reliable. We have the preserved traditions and identity of those who listened when the Spirit spoke and answered when God called. Liberated from attempts to force them into something they are not, we can hear them as they are.
How do we do that? Clergy spend three years in seminary including extensive work in Greek and Hebrew to scratch just the surface of that question. I can’t answer it in even a perfunctory way in the time remaining. Nevertheless, I would like to offer a few general principles of biblical interpretation that we neo-orthodox types use.
First and foremost, we read each writing in context. Genesis gives a theological history of humanity and the early children of Abraham. Exodus tells the (likely allegorical and not historical) story of their journey to the Promised Land. Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy describe the laws by which God’s covenant people lived – their best understanding of how to be faithful. Joshua through Esther give a theological history of the nation of Israel. Job, the Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes are collections of various tidbits and anecdotes that teach us wisdom. The prophetic writings from Isaiah to Malachi give a prophetic call to transformation and repentance in times of doubt or failure. The gospels give us the enigmatic teachings and life of Jesus. Acts tells us of the early Church. The epistles give specific instructions for how certain churches tried to live out the gospel in their respective contexts. Revelation is one long, prophetic metaphor to offer hope in times of persecution.
In other words, we don’t just flip open the book, point our finger on a page, and do what the passage says. If we did, we might find ourselves sacrificing our daughter to God like Jephthah [Judges 11:29-40]. Or we might find ourselves giving all our possessions to the poor [Mark 10:21-27]. No need to get crazy.
We recognize that different writings were written for different situations, and we also understand that the human authors of Scripture were writing from within their own cultural limitation (as we interpret, preach, and write within ours). This means they may have gotten some things wrong (as Paul did with Onesimus), and that we may get some things wrong as well. We are imperfect creatures, and we must simply do the best we have with what we get.
That does not mean we are without resources. We look for general principles that run throughout the Scriptures. The holiness of God. The faithfulness of God. The reality of God. The judgment and mercy of God. Jesus’ consistent acts of love, charity, and inclusion. Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection. These become the template through which we view individual passages.
We also rely on scholarship to place writings in their historical context, to help us deal with thorny language issues, to find literary patterns and theological parallels. Good investigative research can help us see what particular questions a biblical writer is trying to answer. This can keep us from trying to use that same answer for a different question. If in one epistle Paul, for instance, is relegating women to a particular role in worship because they lacked education and authority in his day; it would be unwise for us to try and relegate educated, authoritative women to the same role.
Ultimately, that is what all biblical scholarship boils down to: trying to figure out what question the biblical writer was trying to answer. Mature biblical interpretation is then about finding the underlying principle(s) for each pericope and making sure we don’t answer a different question with the wrong text.
On the topic of biblical scholarship, some of the most accessible forms of biblical scholarship can be found in study Bibles (I recommend the Oxford, New Interpreter’s or Harper-Collins) and in commentaries (I recommend the New Interpreter’s Bible series).
When we put it all together we are humans under the guidance of the Holy Sprit interpreting the writings of other humans who had contact with Holy God. We recognize that the encounters with God on which our canon of Scripture rests were real, and we likewise recognize that the method that records those events was as good as we are likely get it. Our task as interpreters is to do more than just quote the Bible. It is to be able to understand the principles that placed those quotes there in the first place; and give primacy to those principles. In doing so, we are attempting to be interpreters “who [have] no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” [2Tim 2:15].
Childs, Brevard S. The New Testament as Canon: An Introduction. Valley Forge, PA: Trinity, 1994.
Ehrman, Bart D. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. 2d ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2000.
Keck, Leander E., et al, eds.. The New Interpreter’s Bible: General Articles & Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections for Each Book of the Bible including the Apocryphal / Deuterocanonical Books. Nashville: Abingdon, 1994-2001.
McDonald, Lee M. The Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995.
Metzger, Bruce M. The Early Versions of the New Testament: Their Origin, Transmission, and Limitations. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1977.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV). Metzger, Bruce M. and Roland E. Murphy, eds. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.