Saturday, November 10, 2007

Lessons I have Learned: 1. The Importance of the Bible (Part 3)

I am determined to do better at posting than I have in the past so here is the next in the series about lessons I have learned and specifically lessons about the Bible!

We are getting ready for Remembrance Sunday here at the moment. I always find sermons hard for this particular Sunday. I don't want to do the usual platitudes and I do want to respect the dead. I am just going to do what I normally try to do and stick to the set readings.

Liturgical Churches have some advantages!

Have a good Sunday.

Lessons I have Learned: 1. The Importance of the Bible (Part 3)

From the 1970s onwards, evangelical scholarship went from seeing its role as defending the status of the Bible as the Word of God against the attacks of liberals to interpreting and explaining the original meaning of the Bible in its historical and social context.

I personally have found much that has emerged as a result extremely helpful. I have many Biblical commentaries written by evangelicals that I particularly value. Indeed the resources that specifically evangelical scholarship has made available to the preacher and the wider church are invaluable. Furthermore, those scholars who have been prepared to combine scholarship with a wider ministry in the church have performed an invaluable service in helping Christians become more knowledgeable and informed about the Bible and their faith.

There are problems, however, and I would like to have a go here in explaining what I think they are.

Alongside the stress on the need for the Bible to be understood in its original context, seeing, that is, that it was originally written, not for us now, but for them then, has gone an increasing emphasis on the difficulties of taking a text from the past and applying it to today. The old approach was that once you had understood what a passage originally meant, you then just applied it directly to today without too much bother. Once you understood its meaning, everything else would follow.

Increasingly, the realisation of how different life was then has called into question the extent to which it can be applied to today. So even if you were able to grasp what it was, for example, that Paul was saying to the Romans doesn’t mean that you would know what he would have said had he been writing today or what God is saying to us through it today. Simply because that was what was said then, doesn’t mean it would be what God want said now. And this before you even begin to get into the whole issue of the philosophy of hermeneutics where even the possibility of understanding what an ancient text meant is called in to question.

The problem is made all the worse by the way even evangelical scholars cannot agree on what the text originally meant in the first place so that there are, for example, multiple versions of the ‘historical’ Jesus and many different interpretations of Paul. I don’t think there is any need for me to spell them out! If you cannot apply the Bible today unless you have understood what it meant then, our failure to be able to agree what it meant then, despite all the resources at our disposal, has severely called in to question any attempt to apply it now.

Ironically, evangelicals have achieved what the liberals failed to do. Liberal scholarship for much of the twentieth century called into question the authority of the Bible. This was defended by evangelicals, who used their scholarship to refute such charges. Evangelicals came to engage in academic scholarship because they believed in the Bible as the Word of God and wanted to use all the tools of scholarship to understand it. However, because they have been unable to understand it, or at least agree on an understanding of it, they have unwittingly undermined the authority of the Bible on a practical level. How can a text be authoritative if you do not know what it meant?

Theoretically, we may still believe the Bible to be the Word of God, but we have become so confused in our understanding of it that it is no longer possible for us to hear it as the Word of God.

At the root of the problem, I would suggest, is the way much academic Biblical interpretation takes place in the context of an academic environment rather than a worshipping Church. Bible Study is being done, not to build up believers, but to impress other scholars. This puts pressure on the scholar to be novel, original, and clever. Furthermore, the emphasis on getting PhDs with their requirement for originality, awarded as they are by the scholarly community, imposes an alien set of criteria on the Biblical interpreter.

Might it be that these words of St Paul are of some relevance here:

‘Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual. Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.’ (1 Corinthians 2:12-14)

Not only is much Biblical scholarship being undertaken away from the praying, worshipping life of the Church, it is being conducted in academic communities within secular universities whose values and beliefs are not only different to those of Christians, but are diametrically opposed to them.

Studying and interpreting the Bible is, or should be, a spiritual exercise, which is not about the gaining of a PhD, impressing other academics, or getting published, but about understanding the gifts of God and serving the Church. If along the way we get our degrees, impress other academics, or get published - all well and good, but surely this should not be the motivation for what we are doing?

Finally, I am very worried about the trend only to employ professional academics in theological colleges training people for the ministry. This may seem an unfair criticism, but the job descriptions I have seen call for people with PhDs, who have published academically, rather than people who have been engaged in interpreting and applying the Bible in the context of mission and ministry. It is worth remembering that Paul wrote Romans, not while a teacher in a college as an article for the Journal of New Testament Studies, but while as a missionary in order to teach other Christians.

My contention is simple. By concentrating on the historical study of the Bible and doing that in the context of the academy, we have lost sight of the Bible as a spiritual gift to the Church. The goal of all Bible Study should be to understand the Bible, and to do that we do indeed need to study the Bible in its original context, but the reason we do that is so we can hear God speak to us today. If we fail to hear God as a result of our study, we have failed in our study.

It is time to reclaim the Bible as a gift to the church so that we can have a Gospel to proclaim to the world.

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