Making Peace with the Bible (Ken Pennings) 1/19/2020

One way to make peace with the Bible is by being honest about where the Bible gets it right and where it gets it wrong.

Audio version of Making Peace with the Bible

Many of us have a love/hate relationship with the Bible. We treasure it for its beauty, wisdom, and mystery. But we’re deeply troubled about how it has been misinterpreted and misused by so many people for centuries.

Some of us love reading, studying and meditating on the Bible because it points us toward Divine Mystery and Ultimate Truth, but others of us find the Bible pointless, outdated, full of contradictions, and want as little to do with it as possible.

I’m actually quite amused by the range of feelings in this congregation regarding the Bible. On the one hand, there are those who are really not into it very much, and are sort of befuddled by their pastors preaching the Bible so often. On the other hand, there are those who are totally into the Bible, and wish the pastors would explain it in greater depth. But I’m particularly tickled by those who are right in the middle, who are just relieved the pastors use the Bible rather than Dr. Seuss.

Regardless of where we are in relation to the Bible, I’ll bet we can all agree that the Bible is a complex piece of literature, and raises more questions than gives answers. Therefore, we are suspicious of any simplistic approach to the Bible, such as “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”

Here at ORUCC, we read and think critically about the Bible using “a hermeneutics of suspicion,” which is a technique of reading & interpreting texts with the understanding & expectation that they don’t always mean what they appear to mean. It’s reading texts against the grain and between the lines, of cataloging their omissions and laying bare their contradictions, of pointing out what biblical writers failed to know and could not have possibly represented.

For example, feminist theologians today are fully aware that the Bible was written by men in cultures dominated by men. So they are always asking of the text, “What was the impact of patriarchy on how the texts were written?” and “Whose voice in the Bible is not being heard?”

At Orchard Ridge, we don’t take the Bible at face value. We pay attention to what’s not being said, along with what is being said.

We take issue with fundamentalist and evangelical Christians who believe the Bible is the divinely inspired, infallible, inerrant Word of God. The Bible is holy to us not because we believe God wrote it, but because we find sacred worth in it.

We can embrace the Bible and its riches without affirming that it is inerrant and infallible. We take seriously the centrality of the Bible for Christians: its status as sacred scripture, its function in Christian formation, and its power to transform lives.

We believe the Bible is literarily true, but not literally true.

We take the Bible seriously, but not literally.

We believe that the Bible points to the truth, but is not itself the truth.

The Bible is a product of our religious ancestors in two ancient communities. The OT comes to us from our ancestors in biblical Israel. The NT comes to us from our ancestors in early Christian communities. As such, the Bible is a human product; it tells us how our religious ancestors saw things, not necessarily how God sees things.

Many voices are all there – some voices of vision and wisdom, other voices of limited vision and limited wisdom.

We believe the Bible is the witness of the people of God, but that sometimes the biblical writers get it wrong.

Biblical scholar Marcus Borg states it just that plainly in his book Convictions, which was the last book he wrote before he died — “Sometimes the Bible Is Wrong” (page 81).

Isn’t it refreshing to be able to be that honest?! Sometimes the Bible is wrong!

For those of us who are conflicted about the Bible, who have a love/hate relationship with it, we may want to call a truce — make peace with the Bible!

And one way to do that is by being honest about where the Bible gets it right and where it gets it wrong.

I’m going to share Borg’s examples of where the Bible is wrong, and then I’ll share a few of my own. The Bible gets it wrong…

  • When biblical writers proclaim violence in the name of God, even total destruction of the wicked and evildoers (I Samuel 15:1-3; Revelation).
  • When biblical writers condone slavery as the will of God. See Eph. 6:5-8; Col. 3:22, 4:1; Titus 2:9; I Pet. 2:18).
  • When the biblical writers insist that according to the law of God a virgin who is raped must marry her rapist (Deut. 22:28-29).
  • When biblical writers affirm patriarchy and the subordination of women to men as the will of God (Eph. 5:22-24; Col. 3:18; I Tim. 2:11-15).
  • When biblical writers proclaim the second coming of Jesus in the near future. Jesus did not return “soon” (Mark 13:26-27,30; I Thes. 4:15-19).

And now some of my own examples:

  • When biblical writers describe God being for some people and against others, choosing some and rejecting others, identifying some as righteous and others unrighteous, some as saved and others lost.
  • When biblical writers describe God as predestining or predetermining everything in advance.
  • When biblical writers impute the sin and judgment of Adam upon all who came after him.
  • When biblical writers interpret the meaning of Jesus’ death as a substitutionary atonement for sin to appease the wrath of God.

 

How do know that the Bible is wrong in these and other places? Because all of this is contrary to the God-way revealed by Jesus of Nazareth, whom we take even more seriously than the Bible.

How do we responsibly discern when the Bible is right and when it is wrong? How do we avoid treating the Bible like a buffet, a smorgasbord, a cafeteria from which we choose what we like and leave the rest off our plate? These are part of a much larger question in my mind, “How do we hear God speaking?”

The Methodists have helped the Christian Church a great deal in attempting to answer this question.

The Wesleyan Quadrilateral, or Methodist Quadrilateral, is a methodology for interpreting the scriptures, doing theological reflection, and gaining guidance for moral questions and dilemmas faced in daily living. It is credited to John Wesley, leader of the Methodist movement in the late 18th century.

We hear God speaking through at least four sources: scripture, tradition, reason, and human experience. These four are like the stabilizing supports or legs of a chair.

I couldn’t be more proud of the United Church of Christ, which has gone public with its conviction that God is still speaking.

Indeed, we hear God speaking through a collection of ancient documents which over time we’ve come to regard as sacred and holy. But God is still speaking through other writings, through tradition, through reason, through nature, through human experience. In fact, God is still speaking through all that is!

Discovering the Wesleyan Quadrilateral profoundly changed my life. I was raised in a Christian tradition that cited seven biblical passages that clearly condemned homosexuality, and I honestly believed there was no way for a practicing homosexual to be Christian. Therefore, I stayed in the closet, constantly conflicted over my orientation and my place in the Christian world.

I then attended a conference in Waukesha for LGBTQ-Allied people where Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong explained how the Wesleyan Quadrilateral might set many of us free from our internalized homophobia. For the first time in my life, a Christian leader was giving me permission to silence the homophobic voices I had heard in the church and were still ringing in my ears, and pay attention instead to my own nature, reason and experience. Spong asked, “What is natural and normal for you? What is the most reasonable and responsible way for you to live in the world?” I knew in my heart it was to self-identify and live as a gay man.

To clarify, I didn’t come out because Spong told me it way okay. I came out because I heard God speaking through my own reason and human experience.

Eventually, I was able to unpack those seven texts of terror in the Bible which supposedly condemned homosexuality, and appreciate how and why those texts were written in the way they were. More importantly, I came to understand that those texts had absolutely nothing to do with me.

So in this congregation, we engage in an ongoing conversation with each other and with a collection of ancient documents, which over time have come to be regarded as sacred. And we listen for all the ways God may be speaking in and through each other, in and through the scriptures, in and through all that is.

The Bible really matters to many of us, which is why I invite you now to stand and read 3 or 4 verses of your favorite Bible passage, a passage in which you hear God speaking. No explanation needed. Simply read the text, and I’ll sound the chime so that we can pause and reflect on what you’ve read.

Comments

  1. Pastor Ken,
    I looked forward, anxiously, to your message on Sunday. I have those parental voices in my head saying “the Bible is God’s truth,” and I have also read many passages and thought, “My God would not do that!” You presented a way of making peace with the Bible that was reasonable, and faithful, and instructive (I grew up a Methodist and did not even know about the quadrilateral.) Thank you very much. The only issue I have is that Dr Seuss can be read with the appropriate hermeneutics to give some very good insights on life!

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