Monday, April 03, 2006

What is the role of Scripture in the life of the believer and in the life of the Church, the body of Christ? What authority does the scripture have for ordering our life and our faith? Is it a collection of pious sayings, is it God’s message to humanity, is it a record of God’s interaction with his people? These questions are central to the way one faith will develop and mature. If we see Scripture only as a pious collection of sayings, then it will only be formative when we think that the sayings are of value. However, if Scripture is a rule for life and faith in both the believer and the church, then it will be significantly formative, even in those places where we find Scripture to be uncomfortable and even painful.
Paul in writing to Timothy said, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that all God’s people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17 TNIV). It is important that we keep in mind when Paul is writing. Paul is writing before the works of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are written and gathered as the four gospels of the church. So, what is Paul speaking of here when he says “All Scripture is God-breathed”? He is speaking of what Christians commonly know as the Old Testament, but what was for the early church the Holy Scripture. There is little doubt in Paul’s statement that the Old Testament is inspired or God-breathed. When Paul says that “All Scripture is God-breathed” the reference is to Genesis 2:7 “the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (NIV). The implication is that Scripture is in some way living, not unlike the man some ways, but not like the man in other ways. How is Scripture like the man? Scripture is like the man in that it is a creation of the Lord God, and has within it the breath of life. Some would like to suggest that Paul was speaking of Jesus, the Christ, here. We could even consider John 1:1 in this light, yet this is tenuous at best. Paul is not speaking of the Word, but of the Scriptures or the Old Testament. John does provide a good point of connection though. Jesus speaking to Nicodemus says “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to Spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:5-8 NIV). The Greek here for spirit or “pnuma”is used in three ways, as spirit, as wind and as breath. The creation of man, the origin of the scriptures and the conversion to following Jesus are tied in to one idea, one word spirt or breath. Yet, this convergence is not accidental, Jesus and Paul both have chosen these words for specific reasons. The creation of Adam, the writing of the Scriptures and new birth are all spirit filled events.
We modern or post-modern Anabaptists may have difficulty with the portions of the Old Testament, but is it wise to exclude the whole, because we have difficulty with a portion? What is it that causes difficulty for Anabaptists? Is it the command of God to kill and the violence
seen in Israel? Or is it because we have a tendency to be Christocentric (focused on Christ)? Our Christocentric nature is appropriate and it is a gift to the larger church. At times in our efforts to be Christ focused, we, at times, forget the remainder of the Trinity. The Father and the Holy Spirit, need to be remembered in our attempts to understand Scripture and our place in the world. It seems that at various points our desire to follow the example of Jesus, to turn the other cheek, to do no violence and to be peacemakers, cause us to forget or misplace the remainder of the Trinity. Historically the universal church has understood several models of atonement, and among these is Moral Influence Theory or the imitation of Jesus, and while this model is significant, it is not the only one, nor is it to be employed at the exclusion of the whole of the Trinity. I would argue that the Anabaptist tradition has much to offer the larger Christian community. We have unique and precious gifts to offer, but it is important to remember that these distinctive come not from our imagination but from the reading of Scripture.
As a people of faith we have understood the whole of Scripture both the New and the Old
Testament to be a witness to Christ Jesus, and that the Spirit is active in the reading of Scripture by God’s people. The result of this is that we often read both the history of the Church and Scripture thorough the lense of the person of Jesus. Such a practice is not only appropriate but it serves as helpful tool to keep the church from becoming enmeshed in the wrong agendas. Church of the Brethren theology has held from the outset, that new light is to be expected to come from the study of Scripture. It was this reason that the Church of the Brethren avoided creeds, or more appropriately stated that “we have no creed but the New Testament.” While they would have affirmed the creeds, they did not want to be limited by them. So, we are left with what really becomes a common experience that many of us share. We read a passage on numerous occasions but today, for reasons that we do not understand, we saw something we had never seen before, something new from God.
This experience is the active revelation of God to his people thorough the Holy Spirit
while we study the Scriptures. Clearly it is divine revelation, it may have been something revealed to many people of the ages, but to us it is a new insight from the Lord. It affirms that God continues to nurture his people as they study the Scriptures. If this were a function of our minds alone, we could learn to do this type of revelation reading at any point we desire, but it does not happen that way. God’s spirit filled people, reading God’s spirit filled word results in a new understanding of the Scriptures.
This is a good correction to our tendency the scriptures into a Pope of sorts. An
authority for us, so that we do not have to wrestle with the difficult issues of faith and life. Our paper pontiff allows us to hide behind Scripture and suggest that we have no say in the matter, or use scripture to subjugate others to our will. There are many that we employ, women should never teach men, women should wear prayer coverings, divorced men are not eligible for ministry, interracial marriages are forbidden, segregation, slavery, and many more.
I do not need to make a long list of these, but I will share one example with you. Popular Christianity will often read Matthew 18:20 as an excuse for poor attendance at times when the Body of Christ gathers for worship. We will say, “For where two or three come
together in my name, there I am with them.” So, we argue, if Jesus is there, two or three is all that is needed. So, a church of 100 people need not to have any concern because only a few people come to Bible Study, we are comforted by the fact that Jesus is there and that is sufficient. Yet, a close reading of the text of Matthew 18 will quickly display for us that this whole chapter is about church discipline, not a warm-fuzzy excuse text for poor attendance at worship.
Ultimately, the authority of Scripture is not bound up in what we as the Church say, but in what God has said. No amount of Church Councils and decisions will ever establish the authority of Scripture. The Church does not establish the authority of Scripture God does. We can wrangle and argue as much as we like, but in the end, what we decide matters little.
The clearest revelation of God that we have is seen in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the Word (John 1:1). All of Scripture ultimately points us to the realization that Jesus is Lord! This is the point of the message of God to all of humanity. And, as such, it becomes our guide for faith and life.
God’s revelation becomes clear as we understand more of who Jesus is, and what Jesus
was about in his mission. At the risk of overly reducing the matter, and making the task of understanding scripture seem trivial, I would ask you to consider a question that Jesus was asked.
Jesus was asked, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?
Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments’” (Matthew 22:36-40). In a real way this short passage can serve as a tool for
understanding all of scripture, and its application for our lives. This is a powerful tool for comprehending God’s message to us. This idea was not original to Jesus, others said similar things in the time of Jesus. Yet, that does not change the impact and the purpose of this revelation of Jesus. Jesus tells us that all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two specific
commandments, to love God with all that we are and to love our neighbor as ourselves. What Jesus gives us here is a real and practical means to learn to understand Scripture. In this light, all scripture both the New and the Old Testaments, will point us to one of these two applications, to love God with all of our hearts, our souls and our minds or to love our neighbors as ourselves.
The authority of Scripture is not established to constrict the expression of the worship of God or in other terms to the love of God, by the people of God. Neither is the authority of Scripture established to tame the love of neighbor or enemy by the same people of God. In contrast, the authority of Scripture is established to show us the way to love and worship God and to love our neighbor and our enemy. At times the authority of scripture hijacked to keep women in prayer coverings and to keep men from having hair on their upper lip. Here in lies on of the real problems for modern Anabaptism, if we construe the purpose of scripture to keep us enmeshed in a cultural expression of a previous age, we will find scripture to be a painful task master. It will also cause us to be exceedingly irrelevant to the culture that we presently find ourselves.
Scripture can be used to do hateful, shameful, things to people, at times it has
been used to justify slavery, segregation, sexism, exploitation, racism and war. Yet, the authority of Scripture has also established genuine Christian community, true worship and an explosion of compassion for the neighbor. Both expressions claimed the authority of scripture to prove their point. One results in the oppression of the neighbor and worship that is devoid of integrity, only giving lip service to the Lord God. One real test of our claims for Biblical authority rests in the outcomes of our lives. In the end, you and I will follow some path, but have we entered through the narrow gate? If we consider our lives, we will see where we walk.
Jesus provided a simple means to understand Scripture, it will point us to love God with our whole being or it will tell us to love neighbor as ourselves. So, as we look what do we see? Does slavery honor God or love my neighbor? Who is welcome in our worship? What do our dogmatic statements say and who do they show love for, ourselves or for God?
Conversely, love of neighbor will see the naked clothed, the hungry feed, the homeless given rest, the prisoner set free, the blind given sight, the exploited see justice, the lonely find friendship. All of scripture works to this end. The question we are left with is, “Are we willing to read scripture in this light?” If the answer is no, our faith and our religion if will increasingly become human focused and self-centered. We will again fall prey to the sin of selfishness. This does not need to be our end, rather, if we are willing to engage the text of Scripture in light of Jesus’ instruction, we will find our faith and religion increasingly focused on God, in the fullness of the Trinity and on the outward missional care for those beyond the walls of our churches. As we are formed by the Word of God, by the Scriptures, we will see the driving points in our own lives reflect a love of God from our whole person, mind, heart, strength and soul and a love for our neighbor. Such a lifestyle will demand of us a great deal of growth and change, yet as a people formed by God’s hand is there anything that could be better?

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