What was lost when the Bible was printed on paper

The advent of the printing press and the proliferation of the written word on paper was a great and wonderful advancement for humanity. The sharing of ideas, and perhaps more importantly, the ability to not have to remember everything only where to find it, was explosive. Like much of the world, I am a fan of books and the proliferation of ideas. 

But we did loose something when we printed on paper. We lost the metaphor of parchment. 

Parchment is more costly than paper but it is also more durable. Additionally, parchment is flexible and, perhaps most important to this post, is made from animal skin. 

What does it mean to have words written on a flexible and "living" medium? When scripture is written on parchment we get the impression that scriptures are living but also flexible, durable and sacrificial. The scriptures cost something and thus parchment was a wonderful metaphor for such deep truth claims. Much of this was lost when we went to paper. 

Photo by  MJ S  on  Unsplash

Photo by MJ S on Unsplash

Paper of course is cheap and thus easy to come by. Paper also is less durable and rips easily. While paper is more common and thus easily shared, it also is more fragile and rigid. Could it be that in our efforts to spread scriptures to the ends of the earth, we have allowed our understanding of scripture to be more rigid?

In the digital age, what does it mean that scripture is electronic? It is easily shared (even more than paper), it reclaims a sense of flexibility (even more than parchment), and it is also much more durable (especially scripture in the cloud). It is also the case that electronic scripture means it is so ubiquitous that it does not cost anything, thus scripture is cheap to come by. 

Could it be that some of our debates about the authority of scripture are bound up in the different mediums scripture comes these days? 

A UMC Problem: Authorities in an Age of Authority

Church historian Phyllis Tickle (1934-2015), has argued that every 500 years the culture goes through an upheaval, and the last upheaval was called the Great Reformation. For those of you counting, this year marks the 500 year mark since Martin Luther nailed his theses to the Wittenburg door. If Tickle is accurate, then we are right in the middle of a new upheaval (which she calls a "new rose"). 

Tickle also makes it clear that a core issue in these upheavals is the question, "Where now is our authority?" Here is a three minute video that makes the point from Tickle herself:

If you did not watch this video, Tickle sates that Luther's theses were at their core an argument that the Pope was not the authority any longer because the office had become corrupted. As such, Luther argued, the old authority is not longer authoritative. What he offered as the new authority was the scripture (Sola Scriptura).

This new authority has held, according to Tickle, for 350 years but is now facing the same situation the Pope faced with Luther. Sola Scriptura is no longer culturally identified as authoritative as it was because it has become used by so many for corrupt purposes. (Note I am not saying scripture or the Pope are corrupt but have been used for corrupt purposes).

Now that we are in the middle of this 500 year upheaval, the question is the same - "Where now is our authority?" And just as Luther offered a new locus of authority, others today offer their own sense of where the authority is now. Here is a short list of examples as I see them (please note these are generalities and I am aware of the shortcomings of making generalities):

  • Non and Post-denominational Christians elevate scripture as sola authoritative [When a church calls itself a "Bible Church" (as though other Christian churches are not) it is sort of a give away.]
  • Secularists and Democrats elevate science as sola authoritative
  • Academics and Technocrats elevate reason as sola authoritative
  • Conservatives and Catholics elevate tradition as sola authoritative
  • Pentecostals and Relativists elevate experience as sola authoritative

Again, there are great exceptions to this short list, and truthfully I am sure that I can be wrong on the diagnosis, but I believe the point stands - in the upheaval, every camp is claiming an authority and the more there is unrest the tighter each camp will cling to their declared authority. Which leads to the problem in the United Methodist Church: The UMC does not claim an authority. The UMC claims authorities.

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was a man who placed a preimum on Scripture, but also understood there were other authorities that were valid and gifts from God. Wesley was a priest who did not want to break from the Anglican Church (thus upholding tradition), he was a product of the Enlightenment (thus upholding reason) and he had a number of powerful personal encounters with God, such as when his "heart was strangely warmed" (upholding experience). Wesley knew of the value of holding these authorities in tension and the danger of putting all authority in one source.

The UMC faces the problem of holding onto the community of authorities that guide us while living in a time where people want/need/desire to collapse all authority into one source. When things are complex, there is a desire to simplify things and seek one authority source. The Christian witness of the Trinitarian God is that the mystery and interconnection of a community of authority is where we find God.

Now if we could just hold on.

The Bible is Authoritative (not Authoritarian)

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

We call the Bible authoritative for the Christian life but we are seem to forget what it means for something to have authority but not being authoritarian. Knowing if the Bible is authoritative or authoritarian may be thought of in terms of where the Bible is located in our lives. Namely, does the Bible have the first or last word?

Major court cases in the United States ask a number of questions to make a judgement. Among the first questions asked is "what does the Constitution say?" The Constitution for the Untied States is authoritative for the rule of law. The Constitution did not say much about Native people living in the early days of the Untied States. When Chief Standing Bear sued for a writ of habeas corpus the government took the Constitution as an authority and saw the Constitution did not even consider Natives as human. By the end of the case, the judge ruled that an Indian is a person". When the judge gave the Constitution the first word on the matter, he did so because there is deep respect and reverence for the Constitution. The Constitution is authoritative, not Authoritarian.

When something is Authoritarian, we do not give it the first word, we give it the last word. When the bumper sticker says, "The Bible says it, I believe it" the last statement is "that settles it!" This gives the impression that the Bible is no longer authoritative but more Authoritarian in that person's life. Authoritarian systems cannot and do not tolerate questions or deviations. There is not room for interpretation or grey. Kings of old would make a decree and then say "thus says the King!" If you had any questions, the King had the last word and that was that. The King was the Authoritarian ruler and others were to fall in line. Those who did not were not out of the King's punishment.

The Bible is authoritative for me. I have great respect and reverence for the Bible. It has the first word in my life because it is authoritative. I have too much respect for the Bible (and God has too much love for me) to make the Bible Authoritarian for Christians. 

Treating the Bible as Idol rather than Icon?

My wife bought me an icon of Elijah sitting and being fed by God through the delivery system of ravens. It has been with me now for over a month and I have worked to integrate it into my prayer life. When I have shown it to people the questions immediately come up:

What do the Greek words at the top of the icon mean? Is it significant that his robe and the water are the same color or that the tree in the bottom right corner has a branch broken off? What

These are not very interesting questions. Looking at this icon and asking questions about what can be seen is missing what the icon is pointing to. This icon, like all icons point to the unseen. For instance, this icon points the one who is praying to a deep truth about patience and waiting and trust. You cannot measure these things, but we can trust in them. 

What makes an icon different from an idol is that the idol is dedicated to point to itself. The idol claims all that is powerful and meaningful is contained in the idol itself. We need not look beyond the idol to find "meaning". Idols can only point to themselves, while icons point to that which is beyond.

The difference between icons and idols is relevant when discussing our relationship with the Bible. There are many Christians who get tripped up with what the authority of the Bible really means and treat the Bible as an idol. Meaning that the Bible is the only place that God ever has or ever will speak. Using words like inerrant and infallible are attempts to elevate scripture but in reality it only lowers scripture to dead words on a page. The Bible is not an idol, it is more an icon that points us to the divine love that calls all things into being. 

The first step in moving away from idolizing the Bible is to stop asking what does the Bible say and ask what does the Bible point us to? 

Now we are talking icon.