On Scripture, I: Preliminaries and Assumptions
by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund | September 19, 2019Hi friends, as many of you know, I’m currently enrolled in a Master’s program with the University of Nottingham in the UK. Over the next few weeks, I’d like to use (most of) our newsletter space to tell you about what I’m researching and pondering. The questions I’m wrestling with currently have to do with the bible, particularly the New Testament as a whole. Questions like, How do we understand the bible’s authority? What are we affirming when we say the bible is revelatory, or when we say it is the Word of God? What is gained and what do we risk obscuring when we affirm this particular collection of texts as unique amongst all others? And how did we get a New Testament, anyway? I hope to explore these questions. At times, this exploration will be systematic and linear; at other times, it may not be much more nuanced then, “Look at this thing I learned! Neat!” Today, however, I’d like to lay out some preliminaries and call attention to my assumptions.
Preliminaries. When I refer to “the bible” or “scripture” I mean two things: first, I simply mean the book lots of Christians keep by our bedsides or on our bookshelves. It might be an NRSV, or a King James, or a Contemporary English Version, or whatever. I just mean that book, which for Christians contains two testaments (and perhaps an apocrypha—more on that in subsequent weeks).
But in referring to “the bible,” I also mean a book that is special, a book in which we recognize authority other books do not have. So, in a later post, if I write something like, “For Bishop Old Guy, the bible contained X, Y, and Z,” what I am saying is that Bishop Old Guy read X, Y, and Z as though they were special, just like you and I read the bible as a book that is special. As we will see, at different points in the Church’s history, the book folks like Bishop Old Guy kept on their metaphorical bedsides did not contain exactly the same things as yours and mine do.
This distinction between two senses of the word bible is important. For example, I majored in English and minored in Creative Writing, so I spent a lot of time in the humanities building at Birmingham-Southern College. In the environment of a liberal arts literature department, when one hears somebody talk about the bible, one can safely assume that she is referring to the bible in the first way I’ve noted, but not in the second. Though it may be obvious, I say it for the sake of clarity: I’m not really interested in the bible simply as a literary artefact that is studied like any other literary artefact, though secular methods of study and interpretation are illuminating. I am writing for and from a confessional perspective: I am interested in the bible as a literary artefact, sure, but one which is authoritative and revelatory.
Thus, my primary assumptions are confessional. Essentially, in our explorations, I will assume that Jesus is exactly who Christians proclaim Him to be: the Messiah, the Son of God, the savior and redeemer of the world, a Jewish kid from Nazareth who grew up in a particular time and place to do signs and wonders, a man wrongfully executed by the dominant power of his day, a man whom God raised from the dead and ascended into heaven. Again, this sounds like an obvious thing for a priest to write in a church newsletter, but it is of fundamental importance. My assumption is that at the end of the day, Christianity depends upon a person more so than it does on a book. This distinction between person and book is fundamental but not neat and tidy. After all, all the language I’ve just used to describe Jesus is biblical language.
Why is this assumption so important? Methodologically, it is important because from the outset I am accepting that the orthodox Christian proclamation about Jesus is true and has been revealed to us as such; it simply remains to be seen how this is so with our particular questions in mind. As we explore, it’s a bit like we have the starting and ending points of a map, and we’re trying to figure out the in-between pieces. Practically, my assumption (faith, might be a better word) is that whatever we learn about the bible—its history, its authority, how it reveals God to us, etc.—is ultimately compatible with the proclamation that Jesus is the Son of God. In other words, whatever turns we end up having to take in the missing pieces of the map, I assume that we can take them and still end our journey at an orthodox port. So: fare forward, voyagers!
This assumption already reveals much about the particular theological perspective for which I will argue. While all Christians accept a unique connection of some kind between Jesus and the bible, not all Christians accept, whether explicitly or implicitly in practice, that there is also a distinction between them: Jesus Christ is the object of our devotion while the bible is a unique means to knowledge and love of that object. The erosion of this distinction is understandable (though, as I hope to show, problematic) given that we use the phrase “Word of God” to refer both to the man Jesus and to Holy Scripture.
A final assumption is that not all perspectives about this are equally good, that it is possible to argue for and against them, and that this sort of learning is part of the practice of faith. Theology is faith seeking understanding. This seeking proceeds by prayer, participating in the communal life of the Church and her traditions, reflection on our experiences, studying holy writ, and genuine argument and conversation. Jesus Christ is the Truth, the Way to it, and the Life sustaining us on the journey. Thus, while we travel Truthward, each of us sees always only in part, and yet we should expect that some perspectives give a clearer or more comprehensive view than others. When presented with a better view, we must endeavor to move our feet a little.
So, over the next few weeks, I’m going to try and put into words what is good about the view from where I am standing (I’m still getting used to some of it!), and why not all of it is easy to see from other places we sometimes stand. Having said that, there will be plenty missing or out of focus in what follows. Who knows? Maybe you’ve a keener eye. If so, I hope you’ll show me the view from where you are.