NO CHRISTIAN ALLOWS THE BIBLE TO TEACH AS THE AUTHORITATIVE WORD OF GOD WHAT IS KNOWN OR BELIEVED (FOR WHATEVER REASONS) TO BE EITHER UNTRUE OR IMMORAL.
EVERY CHRISTIAN FINDS WHAT THE BIBLE TEACHES AS THE AUTHORITATIVE WORD OF GOD TO BE IDENTICAL OR CONGRUENT WITH WHAT IS KNOWN OR BELIEVED (FOR WHATEVER REASONS) TO BE TRUE AND RIGHT.Such an audacious claim requires justification. Let me take them in order.
Two illustrations will suffice. John Calvin was concerned lest some unwary reader draw wrong conclusions from some plain words of Scripture. Genesis 6:6 tells us that God was grieved by the great wickedness that had come to pass on earth and was sorry for having created humanity. One might conclude that God interacts with the world in time and history, has feelings, and undergoes change. Calvin, however, could not allow Scripture to teach this because it would conflict with the received doctrine of divine impassibility. Hence, these words in Genesis cannot mean what they appear to mean. We know, he says, that God "cannot repent or grieve but remains forever the same in happy repose." Calvin "knows" that the doctrine of impassibility is true. He, therefore, has to find an interpretation of this passage that will not contradict what he is otherwise certain of. It doesn't matter what the reasons were that led him to the "knowledge" that God is beyond change and hence not responsive in time to events on earth. The point is that he "knows" (believes strongly untroubled by doubt?) that God is immutable and impassible. Therefore, he cannot allow the Bible to teach as the authoritative Word of God something that for him is obviously false.
A few years ago I sat on a committee of my local Baptist association examining a young man who wanted to be ordained. In his theological paper, he announced his belief in Scriptural inerrancy. I remarked that he, of course, held that women should keep silent in the churches, I Corinthians 14:34. After all, St. Paul says that this precept holds "in all the churches of the saints" (I Cor. 14:33b RSV). For the next ten minutes -- a beautiful maneuver it was -- he tried to show us that the contrary doctrine was correct. When he had finished, one almost had the impression that the Apostle was urging women to talk as much as they wanted! Although the words of the inerrant Bible say clearly that women should not speak, he affirmed on the basis of contextual interpretation, other New Testament passages, and so on that they should. He "knew" in his heart that to impose the mandate of female silence was wrong. Hence, he could not, would not, allow the Bible to teach as the authoritative Word of God what was contrary to this conviction, no matter what the passage said. It does not matter what the grounds for his belief in the right of women to speak were. Doubtless something in the Bible itself was one basis. We make a lot today of Gal. 3:28, for example. The point is that he had the conception, and not even an inerrant Bible could shake him loose from it. God would not ask us to do what is wrong. Thus, I Cor. 14:34, occurring in an infallible book, which in its entirety and in all its parts is the Word of God, cannot mean what it plainly says.
While two instances cannot demonstrate the enunciated claim, one might ask for counter-examples. Are there cases in which what a given Christian takes to be the Word of God is regarded as either untrue or immoral? The theological reason is not hard to find. God is the source, measure, and author of truth and righteousness and therefore cannot be the teacher of falsehood and wickedness. I repeat: it does not matter how we come to have our certainties about what is false and immoral. As long as we have them, we cannot find the Bible binding upon our consciences regarding these matters, no matter what given texts say. This has to do with matters of cosmology and miracles as well as with points of theology and morals. Hence, a modern Christian convinced of Darwinian notions of evolution cannot find it necessary to take the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 literally. Yet Christians for eighteen hundred years had no problem in doing so. For Augustine the Genesis account of the origin of the world was part of the revealed Word of God. So were all the reports of supernatural occurrences in the Bible. For liberal 20th century Christians informed by modern science, the cosmology and (most?) miracles of the Bible are identified with anachronistic modes of thought and thereby deauthoritized.
The crucial question is, of course, located in the phrase "for whatever reasons." Obviously among the reasons Christians believe what they do is that the Bible teaches it, or at least they think it does. As Socrates said in The Republic as the true understanding of justice was about to be revealed, "I think we are in the vicinity of the treasure we seek." The Bible says many things. What it teaches as the authoritative Word of God (read religious and moral truth) is determined by some interpreter. And, lo and behold, what every interpreter discovers in the Bible when it speaks as the Word of God (bearer of normative theology and ethics) is identical with her/his own theology. This does not mean, let it be said plainly, that the theology is worked out independently of the Bible and then arbitrarily imposed. Doctrines are the result of an encounter of the Bible and an interpreter in a given cultural situation guided by some set of presuppositions. The content of the Bible, when regarded as regulative or normative in some sense, enters into the formation of the outcome. The crucial question has to do with how the terms that define that final product are set. They are always established by the interpreter. Interpretation is a constructive work of reason and imagination that takes place within shifting cultural modes of cultural and individual consciousness. On occasion, when the conditions are ripe for change, one's theology may be altered on the basis of a re-reading of the Scriptures. Novel circumstances sometimes enable us to see what was previously hidden or overlooked. The process of interpreting and reinterpreting is complex and not reducible to any simple formula. The Bible says what it says. It does not tell us how to interpret it or when it is interpreted properly.
The heart of the matter, however, can be put this way:
The text may have the first and third or second and fourth and the next to last word, but the interpreter has the intervening words and the last word. It is the last word that ultimately counts.
Who will adjudicate disputes between rival hermeneutical theories or claims about the meaning of revelation or the authority of the Bible or the impassibility of God or the role of women? Another interpreter will. On what basis? Some particular ensemble of theological and hermeneutical doctrines. From this chain of endless interpretations no escape can be found, only temporary resting places.
To use the terminology popular in many quarters today, interpretation involves a "fusion of horizons" (Gadamer), the world of the text and the world of the interpreter. The decisive question, however, is what determines the way the fusion is to take place. The answer is that the fusion takes place in accordance with the rules and decisions of some interpreter. So this question resolves into another. Who determines how the fusion occurs and the results thereof? The answer is: an interpreter who practices some theory of interpretation. Which theory is right, best, proper, necessary, most useful? Mine, of course! No hermeneutical theory of any interpreter can deliver us from debates about hermeneutics. Every proposal takes its place among the rivals to be accepted or rejected by other interpreters.
What we need is metahermeneutics, a theory that tells us how rival hermeneutical theories are born. Why does interpreter A embrace interpretation theory B, while interpreter C is drawn to hermeneutics D? Alas, any metahermeneutical theory would generate rivals. The argument would get transferred to another level. No all-transcending supertheory can be formulated that can be used to grade all ordinary ones.
The most fascinating aspect of all this is to observe how interpretations of the Bible have changed. A century and a half ago scholars in the South, supported by many notable theologians in the North, found biblical support, or at least permission, for the practice of slavery. No one today who claimed that the Bible speaking as the Word of God justifies slavery would be taken seriously. Why not? The Bible has not changed. The pro-slavery advocates could make a good case for their position based on what the Bible says and does not say. If the Bible has not changed, what has? Cultural consciousness has changed. Today we "know" slavery is wrong. Therefore, the Bible cannot be allowed, when it speaks as the authoritative Word of God binding on Christian belief and practice, to legitimize one person owning another, no matter what it says on the subject.
John Calvin interpreted biblical passages to make them fit the impassibility doctrine. Notions of a temporal, responsive, changing God are commonplace today. Theologians who believe that God is affected in some respects by interacting with the world have no difficulty finding biblical support for their ideas. Genesis 6:6 can be quoted in favor of thoughts Calvin rejected, even while admitting the mythological or symbolic character of the language involved. Notions of change, development, evolution, and of the importance of time are deeply rooted in modern modes of thinking. Hence, we are not scandalized by the possibility that God might change in some ways. This enables us to hear the Bible, speaking as the Word of God, teaching things about the Creator that classical traditions in theology found abhorrent. We can find a great deal in the biblical presentation of God's relation to time, history, and people to justify that conclusion. It looks to many of us as if Calvin -- and practically everybody else for centuries -- read the impassibility doctrine into the biblical framework rather than discovering it there.
Some exegetes, usually wanting to justify homosexuality, are now contending that the Bible nowhere explicitly condemns responsible sexual relations between loving persons of the same sex, no matter what the texts in Leviticus and Romans seem to say. Others have no hesitation in quoting a variety of passages to support their own conviction that homosexual practice is immoral. However, even they seldom urge the death penalty for transgressors as does Leviticus 20:13, which, otherwise, seems to be on their side. Why some liberals are so anxious to have textual backing for their position is baffling. Suppose forty passages scattered through the Old and New Testaments repeatedly, unmistakenly, and absolutely condemned sexual relations between persons of the same sex under any and all circumstances. Would that settle the issue? No, of course not. Numerous passages assume slavery and teach the subordination of women. Yet multitudes today do not hear the Word of God in those texts. Even if Jesus himself were explicitly on record against homosexuality, Christians who disagreed could find some way to take the offense out of them. Look at the way some of us deal with his sayings or alleged sayings about divorce, demons, everlasting punishment of the wicked, non-resistance to evil, the end of the age, and many other things.
The art of disposing of what is otherwise troublesome to a given scheme is well developed. The practice is well illustrated by classical theologians Augustine and Calvin, who both affirm a doctrine of limited election and yet harmonize this with I Timothy 2:4, which indicates that God "desires all men to be saved" (RSV). John Hick, a modern liberal, who believes in universal salvation, almost effortlessly stays in tune with the deepest intent of Scripture and of Jesus, who suggests a permanent separation of the righteous and the wicked (Matt. 25:31-46). Fundamentalists and liberals alike have ways of dealing with Deuteronomy 21:18-21 that allow them to be "biblical" in their ethics without approving the stoning to death of stubbornly rebellious sons. No dishonesty is assumed in any of these parties.
In one sense, I am taking an obvious point and making more of it than most people do. In my childhood among unsophisticated Bible-believing rural Baptists, a common saying was, "You can prove anything by the Bible." That was their common sense way of recognizing that the Bible could be interpreted in many ways, some of which conflicted with others. The usual procedure among Christians, including erudite scholars, is to go on from there to assume, either in practice or theory or both, that some interpretation is, of course, the right or better or at least the privileged one. We once-saved-always-saved Baptists "knew" that those possibility-of-falling-from-grace Methodists were just plain wrong. I intend to take the playfully exaggerated claim that anything can be proved by the Bible and ask what it implies for our hermeneutics as practiced, not as normatively described.
THE THREAT OF RELATIVISM
Does this throw us right into the middle of the dreaded sea of subjectivism and relativism? Of course it does, well, almost. Limits to interpretation do exist. The text does say just what it does say and not something else. The content of texts is a given that has to be dealt with. Moreover, with some relative success, a study of the Bible as a whole reveals recurring themes, grand motifs, general patterns, ruling metaphors, and the like. The delineation of the biblical Gestalt produces a measure of agreement. Nevertheless, when thinkers set forth a normative theology, their appropriation of Scripture is mediated through a complex background of operative assumptions that determine the form and content of the outcome. The interpreter is the functional creator of the final product, however much the text of Scripture is a contributing source.
Hence, I affirm a more thoroughgoing relativism than most contemporary Christians. What is the alternative? The answer is that some position, usually ones own, is granted privileged status. For emphasis the voice may be raised, the desk pounded, and the foot stomped -- maneuvers that definitively settle the question. This may be done under the aegis of some theory of truth and objectivity that snatches victory from the jaws of relativism -- a triumph through fearless declaration. The bolder thinkers, of course, pronounce their opponents to be in error. The preferred conclusion, it is suggested, contains the authentic Gospel, if not in an unconditioned manner, at least in superior fashion to its rivals. Let anyone who doubts this consult a sample of contemporary theological writings. Over and over theologians claim, implicitly or explicitly, that their interpretation of what Scripture requires of us today in the way of belief and practice is closer to Jesus or the vital core of Scripture than contrary options, at least on the essentials. Is not such an avowal present in Walter Rauschenbusch, Karl Barth, James Cone, Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, as well as in many others? Despite the threat of relativity, we all find ways to uncover the one universal Gospel, the real thing!
Paul Tillich recognized that various concrete norms have arisen over the centuries. Yet that did not deter him from also speaking of "the eternal message." I wrote, before my most recent intellectual conversion, of the need for both a "universal" norm defining the single truth of the one and only Gospel and a "situational" norm that guarantees credibility and relevance for a specific context. I was no more successful than Tillich or anyone else in saying how you can have conflicting perspectives that all teach the same "eternal message" identical with itself over the centuries.
It is not easy to locate universal truth in contrary concrete particulars, except in some highly formal and relatively empty propositions, such as God is one, Jesus is the Christ, or love your neighbor under all circumstances. These assertions are, of course, full of material content when compared to their alternatives -- God is many, Barabbas is the Christ, or hate your neighbor if she/he gets in your way. They are highly formal and relatively empty of content, however, when compared to the conflicting theologies that all share them in common. Hence, while they may define the boundaries of the playing field, they have comparatively little meaning useful for life unless spelled out in detail. For example, can you rightfully kill your neighbor under some circumstances? Here diversity, plurality, particularity, relativity, and disagreement galore enter. It is an old and difficult problem with no resolution that satisfies everyone.
Therefore, I am driven into an uncomfortable corner by questions like the following. How does it happen that what scholars in succeeding generations affirm Jesus to have taught about the Kingdom of God neatly coincides with the requirements of theological movements that rise and fall? Compare Adolf Harnack and Rudolf Bultmann. We have a chicken and egg question here. It could be that changes in New Testament interpretation lead to theological revolutions. I suspect that it works the other way around too. Mutual or coinciding origination from some underlying change in the larger society may occur. Alternating and reciprocal chains of influences, doubtless are also present sometimes. Can anyone doubt that deep underlying shifts in cultural consciousness in response to changing circumstances affect what we find the unchanging text of the Bible to be teaching as God's eternal Word for today? The immanent God of the 19th century liberals and the transcendent God of the 20th century neo-orthodox took turns being the real, the only, God that Jesus knew.
How does it happen that pacifists find the teachings of Jesus about non-resistance to evil binding, while adherents to the just war theory do not? The reason some Christians condemn all violence in pursuit of good causes while others condemn only some may be more fruitfully discovered by sociological, philosophical, and psychological inquiry than by looking at their exegetical conclusions, although that is important also. Differences in political outlook may be determined by social and historical location as well as by what Scriptural texts say. Theological conclusions may follow from cultural and experiential factors as well as from exegesis of Scripture.
Why do Southern Baptists, who ordained me, make so much of Matt. 28:18-20 but much less of Matt. 25:31-46? Is the difference to be found in the texts or in the interpreters? Let it be said, however, that careful study of biblical texts may itself yield insights that shock, revolutionize, or otherwise transform the outlook of Christians with profound consequences. The context of the interpreter and of the text can, of course, be taken into account by exegetes of all persuasions. Yet no matter what exegesis reveals, it is we who exegete. We decide how we are to interpret the results as far as normative theology is concerned.
How can Christian feminists claim that the equality of the sexes expresses the vital core of biblical religion or the practice of Jesus, while traditionalists claim the same justification for the continued subordination of women? How are we to account for the different message from God that Calvin and present-day liberation theologians find in Scripture regarding the poor and wretched of the earth?
The fact that Christians hold such diverse and contrary theological and moral views, all claiming the word they preach to be the Word of God (the truth), does not seem to create the doubts about the objectivity of the enterprise one would expect it might. Is it the Bible as such or a culturally, rationally, and experientially-produced perspective determining what in Scripture is God's Word to the church? Granted, the Bible is one of the sources of all these contrary outlooks in that something in it can be construed to have the proclaimed meaning. Yet it may be that the Bible has less to do with what Christians believe normatively about theological and moral questions than many professed views about Scriptural authority might indicate.
LIBERALS AND RELATIVISM
Some may protest that my polemic pertains mainly to fundamentalists and conservatives. I think not. Many liberals, meaning all non-conservatives of the 20th century, are no different in this respect. They, of course, acknowledge that the Bible is historically conditioned and culturally relative. They concede that all theologies are likewise historically relative and culturally conditioned. Yet in practice they pick and choose their Scripture references carefully to buttress their own moral and theological positions. They generally imply at least that their views are more biblical in some deeper sense than those of the fundamentalists, who may have about as good a claim as they, if we are to honor chapter and verse. One might expect that the recognition of relativity would lead them more often to say that this is the best they know up to now, that it is the only thing possible and workable taking everything into consideration from their point of view.
The customary principle for liberals is that if texts are available supporting their position, they quote them with the same fervor as do fundamentalists. If no passages can be found or if they teach an unacceptable doctrine, rescue is sought in more basic principles or motifs, or some overall biblical Gestalt -- what Nels Ferré once called, "the larger logic of the Bible." It is puzzling that while liberals acknowledge cultural relativity, in the end they over and again somehow manage to find the deepest and truest meaning of the Scriptures -- if not the one authentic Gospel itself -- in their own theologies! Liberation theologians are among the most recent of those who have played "At last, we've got it."
Liberals may look askance on the mountaineers and rural folk who handle snakes and drink poisons as expressions of their piety. Is Mark 16:14-18 not in the New Testament? To the rejoinder that these verses were not part of the original manuscripts, one can simply say, "So what?" Does anyone seriously believe that their non-appearance in the earliest documents is the decisive reason why most Christians today do not fondle rattlesnakes or sip strychnine? Besides, even if the disputed verses in Mark were spoken by Jesus himself, some other reason could be found for deauthoritizing them as contemporary imperatives. Jesus did, after all, cast out demons. Moreover, he urged his disciples to do the same (Matt 10:8). Is exorcism in good odor among liberals? If Jesus' belief in demons is to be attributed to the relativity of Jesus' world view, then the door is open to relativise or reinterpret everything we think to be untrue or immoral. And, indeed, that door gets open so wide that we can get almost anything we want to through it.
Oral Roberts has been subjected to much ridicule for reportedly claiming to have raised the dead. I doubt that he has done so. Nevertheless, what are we liberal Christians to do with Matt. 10:8? Why do we prefer to ignore that mandate but to make much of Matt. 25: 31-46? Even then we frequently hear only the ethical injunction, while ignoring the plain eschatological teaching that warns that those who do not serve human need will be cast into "the eternal fire" (RSV). Most liberals do not believe in a fiery hell after death. So is it not finally we who become the functional authority, not Jesus?
Of course, we must, liberals urge, distinguish between what is permanently valid in the New Testament witness to Jesus as the Christ and what is relative to that time and place. Yes, we must. That principle, however, grants authority to all sorts of doctrines. In particular, it makes it possible for us to assert that anything we do not believe but yet has textual support does not belong to the "essence." Somehow we manage to find our own favored doctrines very close to, if not definitive of, the vital core of what Jesus was all about. Yet we can hardly resist the conclusion that we discover what is somehow really there. No escape from relativity follows from locating the universal element in the person of Jesus or in the Christ, the incarnate Logos, and not in propositional descriptions. Jesus, the Logos, and the Christ remain relatively empty ciphers, void of much instruction for belief and action, as long as they remain uninterpreted. Every interpretation that spells out implications in sufficient enough detail to be a practical guide to life today will be as relative as the last one or the next one. Jesus has been claimed exclusively to authorize capitalism by some and socialism by others with equal certainty.
Recently in a regional newsletter of one of our more sophisticated communions, reference was made to the long tradition of healing in the church. An aside, gratuitously inserted, noted that some contemporaries like Ernest Angley make a "parody" of healing. Is there not at least as much biblical warrant for what the TV healer does as for what the author went on to describe as the ministry of two pastoral counselors? The implication was that Angley's work was not true to biblical tradition, while that of the pastoral counselors was. Should we laugh or cry at this? Counseling may attempt to cast out demons in some non-trivial sense and thus amount to an approximate equivalent for our time. Why should Brother Angley be thought of as engaging in travesty because he attempts to do the real thing, the same thing his Lord practiced and urged upon his disciples? Are liberals, by and large, any less modest than fundamentalists in claiming to lay hold on authentic biblical truth, despite their provisional recognition of relativism?
The claim that something is biblical, whether by today's fundamentalists or liberals or yesterday's orthodox Catholics and Protestants, means not much more than that some passage, principle, model, metaphor, symbolic core, or defining narrative or something can be found somewhere to ground the belief or practice in question. Little that has ever been approved by Christians, including persecution of heretics and slavery as well as the ministry of Martin Luther King, Jr., has lacked alleged biblical support. Limits there surely are to what can plausibly be supported theologically and ethically by the Bible. It would be fun on the basis of Christian history to try to say what they are.
THE MODERNIST VIEW
The modernist view contends that we decide what the Word of God is for us today. We have to. There is no alternative. We do anyway, even if we are trying honestly to discover or re-present some modern equivalent of what is objectively there. I propose that we stop claiming that the Bible is uniquely or decisively our warrant when we speak normatively and admit that it is our views that we are contending for. Why don't we say that the Bible is in the background as an influence or source? Why don't we frankly say that we regard as obligatory for today only what in Scripture is worthy of belief as we are able to judge truth and right instructed by Scripture as we interpret it? It is finally the intrinsic excellence of what is professed and practiced that matters. We decide what that is.
The main objection to my recommendation is that it risks loss of Christian identity, maybe even abandons that aim entirely. My preliminary response is that even those who intend to preserve continuity with the Apostles cannot agree on what is necessary to the achievement of that objective or even on the criteria by which we are to judge the matter. Moreover, while the Gospel is contained in or witnessed to by Scripture, no one has been able to provide a concrete definition of the Gospel that satisfies all. Even if the Word of God is identified with Jesus Christ himself and not propositions of doctrine, no one can say what that means or implies for contemporary belief and practice in terms uninfected with particularity and relativity. That the Bible contains the Christian message is one thing. To say in words what is essential to its elucidation is another. The search for some universal essence, some vital core of belief, some ensemble of "cultural-linguistic" rules (George Lindbeck), or whatever, however defined, that is constitutive of Christian identity, is futile. But tomorrow somebody else will be trying and the following day refuted.
In the spirit of Shailer Mathews, let us locate unity and continuity in the religious-social history of those persons and communities who have found truth and salvation in conversation with the biblical witness to God as known in the history of Israel and in Jesus functioning as the Christ. As Christians interpret this vision of life, they will divide themselves into groups and subgroups, sharing much in common but with theologies marked by particularity and relativity. The reason we continue to seek saving truth in the Bible is that it gives testimony to a way of living, believing, and hoping that is supremely if not unsurpassably excellent, as we judge the matter. Hence, while only what we take to be the highest and best in the Bible is to be preserved and re-presented in forms of thought credible to 20th century persons, it is in that ancient witness and in no other that the clue to wisdom with the power to save is empirically found. That too is one more interpretation.
To be more specific, modernists can be distinguished in three ways. (1) They feel deeply their rootedness in the Christian past. That identity matters but is not paramount. Salvation is the ultimate concern, not being Christian. (2) They claim that what they preserve is not incidental or peripheral to the biblical witness but important and central to it. (3) They continue to work out their own theologies in deliberate conversation with the Bible and Christian tradition. Their main departure from liberal Christians is that they see little profit in arguing about the form and content of a universal something that constitutes the one and only essential Gospel of Jesus and the Apostles. Also, they more self-consciously identify themselves as modern persons seeking fulfillment of life and are Christians for that reason.
In short, whether we affirm only what we take to be the best in Scripture
(the modernist way) or the vital core that defines the universal Gospel
(the liberal way) or some determinative set of "cultural-linguistic" prescriptions
(the post-liberal way) or the full doctrinal content of an inerrant Bible
(the fundamentalist way), or whatever, we decide which way we follow and
what that choice implies. For all such judgments only relative validity
can be claimed.
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