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?

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

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.