the authority of scripture, or how not to read it

I’m teaching Restoration Scripture* this semester at Graceland University.   When I teach this class, I spend more time thinking about the role of scripture in normal life more than I usually do .

Restoration Scripture is an upper division undergraduate course.  For most students it’s their first disciplined introduction to Community of Christ scripture.  I don’t approach this class with one view or one approach to scripture.  Instead, I try to help students develop an integrated view that I have developed through my own years of study and practical experience in ministry.  My approach is not wholly different than other approaches to scripture.  I’m very critical of antagonistic “either/or” approaches to scripture that pit faith against modern critical methods of interpretation.  God’s Word is never just on the page or in the words.  Nor are scriptures just ancient documents or devotional materials.  Scripture are more.

I teach Restoration Scripture in a way that brings knowledge about scripture together with critical thinking about truth and authority.  I attempt to help students think critically about scripture, yet have respect for its tradition.  The point is to develop a creative openness to scripture.  I believe my approach fits well with Community of Christ’s Statement on Scripture.   It’s a relational approach in which students combine critical thinking and respect for its purpose as a communal authority.  This allows scripture to become a tool with which to think, imagine, feel, and learn the Spirit at work in the church and its sacred writings, present day and in the past.  It takes more time, effort, and discipline to think about scripture this way.  But, it is also what connects scripture with lived-life in community with others in an intellectually honest and life-giving way.

In the class, we confront the problem of scriptural authority.  We deal with it in a practical way.   This is particularly important in Community of Christ, which has unique scriptures as well as a strong position about the human role in creating and interpreting scripture.  Putting practical questions first, we start by asking the implicit question, “What is scripture good for?”  This question is important because many young adults simply haven’t developed an understanding of scripture outside their personal exposure (or lack of exposure) to it.  Like us, they see how too many Christians obsess over religion and scriptural authority in a way that alienates others. Christianity that worships the authority of scripture has alienated many of us from what it means to be Christian.  The humble call to walk and learn from the person and work of Jesus is quickly lost.  This is even truer of young adults in my experience.

Turned on to other mediums, many young adults don’t concern themselves with religion or the authority of scripture. So much focus on authority has given religion a bad name.  Thanks to media, extremism and violence control our image of religion today.   Such extremism is tied up in certain approaches to scripture.

In response, I want to get back to a more sensible and pragmatic understandings of sacred writings.  In the end scripture is not about literal authority, worshiping words, metaphysical secrets, or purely personal devotion.  Scripture caries more weight that any one of our personal opinions because scripture concerns itself with ultimate questions and endures through time.   Scriptures shape history and are about community.  It is about lived-life with others, our relationship with what’s ultimately important, and the enduring nature of those relationships.  For that reason alone, scripture is important.  Scripture can also bring us into a relationship to God.  Considering how to approach scripture is important to relating to these things in deep and life-giving way.

bible-silentThe problem is that most Christians get way too caught up in the “what” of scripture.   More fundamentalist and conservative Christians do it by overemphasizing the literal word and authority of the Bible.  Liberal Christians and pan-religious folk do it when they dispense with scripture by labeling it as personal devotional material, simply stories and moral teaching, or irrelevant historical documents.    When “what scripture is” becomes more important than what scripture points to, the “who” of scripture is eclipsed.  The message and purpose of scripture are lost.

The “what” of scripture is almost always wrapped up in questions about its authority,    Authority, of course, is the relentless modern question.   The impetus of our modern world was to free persons from every form of historical authority in order to free the human subject to make their own history.   Religion, in particular, had to be overcome in order to raise up a free world of reason and self-determination.   As a result, both conservative and progressive politics and religion concerns themselves with issues of authority.

The birth of Christian fundamentalism in the 19th century was as a reaction to modern society.   Its belief in the absolute authority of scripture, its literal approach, and unquestioned faith in the truth-power of words still influence Christianity today,   This obsession over authority also shapes liberal Christians and contemporary approaches to religion today.   Ironically, this relentless questioning of authority has led to authority everywhere.  Today, the individual is told relentlessly that s/he is the final authority.   Every opinion and perspective must be respected.  It’s the doctrine of our self-fulfilling consumer-oriented world.  In practice, many of us feel anxiety, out of control, isolated, and search for a deeper sense of relationship and community.  Scripture actually speaks to this search in a compelling and novel way.

I’m not the first to say that the constant assertions about the bible’s authority over science, personal opinion, and “man’s truth” are tiresome.  They are centuries old and weather worn.  They’ve passed the edge into absurdity.   It’s no mystery that churches formed around this approach to authority reflect this very description: closed-off, oppositional, and advocates of absurdity.

The future of scripture will grow out of a fuller understanding of its past.   Interestingly, Restoration Scripture lends itself well to this approach. Community of Christ has an open canon of scripture that evolves.  (Other traditions also have an evolving understanding of scripture and its interpretation; its the canonization of new scriptural material that makes the Community of Christ unique.)  With all the traps and dangers of having an open canon of scripture, it also has its advantages.  The same traps and dangers that come with an open canon also illuminate the all-to-human processes from which the scriptures come. Because of historical proximity, the emergence of Restoration scripture helps us appreciate how scripture emerges as crystalizations of collective (and collected) human experience.  They do not drop out of the sky or emerge pristine out of an arc or from the ground.  Scriptures are products of divine-human encounter.  They are a human endeavor.  They come out of the circumstances that created them and carried them to us.  And, they testify of God’s activity midst human experience in ultimate proportions.   “God,” in scripture, is a sign and object of ultimate meaning.

When we read scripture, we commune with the dead.  We glean their wisdom and read their witness of ultimate concern in their lives.  In scripture, diverse voices and circumstances come together to convey a semblance of God’s active presence in the mess and mystery of life.   They are stories and life-lessons of survival, life’s search for meaning, the waxing and waning of civilizations, war and peace, and life and death.  All come to us through scripture.

Scripture is also a particular kind of literature.  It is literature that personifies God.   In scripture, God is personified because God and human beings constantly interact.  They fight, deny, adore, return, struggle with and depend deeply on God.  God is strangely present and beyond these entanglements.  God is wily and faithful, powerful and vulnerable.  God is vengeful and gracious.  God is the beginning and the end, whose name is simply “I am.”  (Exodus 3:14)  This God communes with human beings and  is terribly interested in our lives and welfare.  God persistently reaches out to us at great personal expense.

When we approach scripture with narrow personal interests or uncritical assumptions about its authority and content, so much gets lost.   Any reader can slip right past the message within scripture, finding only what they set out to find. This is how we approach restaurants and government – expecting to get what we’re promised and what we want.    But approaching scripture this way avoids a deeper relationship.  I avoids questions about who it comes from, to whom it testifies, and who it’s for.  So much of what scripture is comes from our relationship with it.

Practically, scripture contains wisdom of the ancients and a living message for today.   The ancient church is always also us and not us.  The faith community that practices reading and discerning scripture together will be shaped by its message.  Reading scripture together is a particular experience that shapes a common memory and a community.    This living memory is lived and repeated in the sacraments and rituals that shape the community.  This approach to scripture gets much closer to its purpose and message.   Jacob wrestled with God; I wrestle with God.  Jesus was baptized; I was baptized.   The disciples broke bread and drank in Jesus; we break bread and drink in Jesus.   Job suffered and searched for meaning; we suffer and search for meaning.   Israel longed for a messiah; we do, too.

jesus gift bagsConsumer culture tends to make us think that religious resources are actually spiritual consumer goods.   This, too, influences how we see the authority of scripture.    Consuming scripture goes beyond using scripture as personal devotional material.   Scripture becomes only good for “what I get out of it” and “what it means to me.”    This diminishes the community-shaping power of scripture.   But, it can also lead to abusing it.    When scripture is a consumer good, it’s authority is in what I can get out of it.   In an anxious world, we have all seen alarmists and charlatans use scripture to propagate fear, manipulate persons, and create false security.   Used as a consumer good, the ultimate nature of the human problems and difficulties addressed in scripture can become a weapon.   Consumer culture does not cultivate a relationship with scripture or shape the kind of community its message conveys.

Practical wisdom leads to an understanding of scripture that liberates us from extreme and uninformed approaches.   What is scripture good for?  It’s good for reading.  It’s good for reading in community with others.  The authority of scripture is not in literal truth or infallibility.  Nor is the authority of scripture limited to what you or I can get out of it for our own benefit.  The authority of scripture lies in our ability to encounter, grasp, and be changed by its message.  In scripture, diverse voices and circumstances come together to convey God’s active presence in the mess and mystery of life.   The stories, testimonies, and life-lessons of survival, our search for meaning, the waxing and waning of civilizations, war and peace, and life and death all come to us through scripture.   Reading it together forms relationships and a common memory of stories, life-lessons, and language to express the meaning and mystery of life – which otherwise is nearly impossible for us to express.  Read this way, scriptures do not exert authority.  Their authority is evident.

*  Restoration Scripture is an undergraduate course that targets Community of Christ students at Graceland University.  The class covers historical setting, development, and interpretative approaches to the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible.

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One response to “the authority of scripture, or how not to read it

  1. Pingback: authority of scripture « Saints Herald

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