Bible

Passage of Scripture

Christians talk about scripture passages or, in the singular, a passage of scripture. The emphasis is on the phrase is the word scripture. And understandably so. Scripture the first authority (not the only authority) that Christians use to make sense. There is wisdom in the scriptures that often remains hidden to us until we prayerfully engage and wrestle with it. But I do not have to extol the importance of scripture, but rather I wanted to highlight the other word: passage.

Scripture offers us different passages, different ways, different paths to see and understand the world. There is the prophetic passage. The pastoral passage. The priestly passage. There are more passages of scripture than we can list here to be certain. These different passages of scripture guide and lead us. Like other passages in our lives, scripture passages also have many things to see and notice that are just as important (sometimes more so) than the destination the passage takes us to.

Most people who read the Bible tend to journey such that a set of passages are more worn than others. This does not mean the other, less journeyed passages are unimportant, only that through discernment we attempt to find the well worn paths. Jesus preferred the passages of Isaiah and the Psalms over, say passages of Numbers or Nehemiah. We all have passages we walk and make clear for others to journey with us.

Some say that we are to take each section of the Bible with equal weight. I find this almost impossible to do. Even Jesus had his preferred passages. And so, if Jesus is our teacher and he says that we will do things greater than he (John 14:12-14), then is it possible that we too will have preferred passages of scripture?

Trajectory/Redemptive Movement Hermeneutics - Humans Driving Redemption

The fancy word to describe the process we all use to interpret the Bible is called “Hermeneutics”. There are many different hermeneutics, just like there are many different political philosophies. And like politics, hermeneutical processes are in tension with each other and these tensions are what makes theology fun and exciting. It is also what makes theology contentious.

One of the “newer” hermeneutics that I have come in contact with is called “Trajectory” or “Redemptive Movement Hermeneutics” (RMH). How it works, as I understand it, is that the Biblical authors have a context and a culture that must be taken into account when interpreting the scriptures. The context allows us to see beyond the specific teaching, and allows us to ask in what direction is the teaching moving the people of God?

Some have found this hermeneutics helpful to address a number of topics. For example, It is argued, most notably in William J. Webb’s book Slaves, Women & Homosexuals, that there is an overall “trajectory” of liberation when it comes to slavery and women throughout the Bible. For instance, Exodus 21:7-11 says:

When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master (father), who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed; he shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt unfairly with her. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. 

You may read this and think this sounds awful; however, what Webb and other trajectory thinkers would point us toward is that this scripture is redemptive because this commandment limits who the father can sell his daughter to. The daughter cannot be sold to foreign people and the daughter is given rights that were uncommon in the day. Webb suggests that God is pushing the boundaries of the male dominated world in such a way that women are to be liberated and free.

These signs give a ‘trajectory’ but there is much interpretation needed to arrive at Rio.  Photo by  Deanna Ritchie  on  Unsplash

These signs give a ‘trajectory’ but there is much interpretation needed to arrive at Rio.

Photo by Deanna Ritchie on Unsplash

Webb goes on to show the incremental ways God is pushing and pulling the people toward greater redemption and liberation of women and slaves and children. According to Webb, God does not push or pull the people too far or too fast but that “God brings his people along in ways that were feasible adaptations.” (p. 255).

And this is where this hermeneutic becomes counter to the basic idea that God is the primary mover of redemption.

God pushing for liberation of women in ways that were socially acceptable still permits God to allow for the sin of subjugating women. Yes, this commandment from Exodus may be more freeing than the culture in which it was written, but redefining who you can sell your daughter to still allows you to sell your daughter.

If selling your daughter is a ultimately reveled to be a sin, then why not prohibit the selling of all daughters in Exodus? Why is there a gradual softening of the position by God over the course of scripture?

For the moment, let’s accept that God prefers to have a gradual reveal of what is sinful in ways that are “feasible adaptations’ to culture. What do we do when the trajectory seems to shift? For instance take the trajectory of marriage. Adam and Eve are monogamous, but later scriptures endorse polygamy, but then when we get later into the Bible monogamy seems to take a privileged position. Of course this trajectory is called into question when marriage is no longer a part of the new creation.

Is there is trajectory? Is the Bible waffling on the definition of marriage? Or are these commandments just reflecting what was acceptable in the culture of the time and then given a divine veneer?

If God only moves in ways that are “feasible adaptations”, then we have to ask who is driving the work of redemption? Will God command the redemption of people only when it is “feasible” to achieve? Is God waiting on humans to be willing to change before God commands it?

As a evangelical progressive pastor I believe God has already revealed God’s desire in the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The desires are stated by Jesus himself in several locations, none of which are feasible adaptions to culture. To name a few - the liberation of all people (Luke 4:17-21), mercy over purity (Matthew 9:13), supremacy of forgiveness (Luke 23:34), taking up the cross mandate (Matthew 10:38; Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23; Luke 14:27), give up possessions (Matthew 19:21, Luke 18:22).

Christianity proclaims that the desire of God is most clear in Jesus Christ, but readers of the entire Bible know that these are not new revelations. Jesus fulfills the law which we have failed to do (Matthew 5:17-20). In doing so Jesus points us back to what is already known to us. Humans have done a good job at justifying why we are slow to live out the desires of God.

If Trajectory/Redemptive Movement Hermeneutics reveals anything, it reveals the same sin we have always done - justifying our delay to make real the desires of God.

Reading the Bible Like a Zacchaeus

Canadian Lutheran theologian Jann E. Boyd Fullenwieder wrote in Proclamation: Mercy for the World:

Like Zacchaeus of old, we climb up into the scriptures, a great tree of life grafted to the Crucified One’s cross, that we might see Jesus. There we discover that we, too, are seen, named, invited, and welcomed to share the life of God, whom we spy through the branches and leaves of scripture, even as Christ has already spied us.

Photo by  Jon Asato  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jon Asato on Unsplash

First of all, can we just admire the beauty of Fullenwieder’s language?

Reading the Bible is much less about learning all the nuances of the leaves and branches and much more about an encounter with the Divine. It is less about knowing how to understand the Bible as it is about seeing and being seen by Christ. If our engagement with the scriptures lead us to know more about the Bible but nothing about Jesus Christ then we are just studying dead trees.

If our Bible study is interested in “going deep into the word” then we may very well miss an encounter with Christ as we are busy with our heads in the book.

Perhaps the reason reading the Bible for many of us is boring is that we are reading it like we read a map: for information. Scripture reading is less about the information in the tree and more about looking for God, who knows your name and invites you to join in the journey.

Giving up Bible Reading in 2019

Photo by  Priscilla Du Preez  on  Unsplash

Reading the Bible is a time honored tradition in the life of the Christian and this year I think I am giving it up. I am giving up reading the Bible for scripture reading.

Reading the Bible and scripture reading are different not in content but in posture. The same words are engaged but it is a different approach. When we read the Bible we tend to look for what we can learn or what we can gain. We look for the teaching or the wisdom we need to get through the moment. We find something that can challenge us or stimulate our thinking. The vast majority of Bible studies that I have been apart are interested in expanding your thinking in order to shore up belief structures. Reading the Bible puts the reader as the protagonist (the main actor) in the process.

Reading scripture is different.

First of all, we do not read scripture - scripture reads us. Scripture exposes to us the things in our life and world that we are blind to and even need to repent of. However the primary difference is that scripture reading means that we are open to (and expectant of) an encounter with the living Christ. This means scripture reading is not an action but an event. It is a “happening”. It is a theophany.

Shifting from reading the Bible to scripture reading is ultimately differentiated by the fruit each practice bears. If we are not transformed by the words we read, then we are reading the Bible. And so, as a start consider this scripture reading:

But if you had known what this means, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”, you would not have condemned the guiltless.
— Jesus, Matthew 12:7