How to use the Bible in doing theology—in honest thinking about faith and life.
I’d like to share some ideas about how we can read the Bible responsibly, and with creative value for our own authentic faith.
Let’s consider one very common approach to the stories we find in the
Christian gospels: this is a hermeneutic which regards the texts as
records. We read it as history. Maybe we call it sacred history, or
salvation history, but essentially we treat it is as history.
Every hermeneutic that addresses the texts primarily as history is
subject to the ‘so-what’ question. "Jesus healed a blind person, so what?" This question requires us to find some additonal meaning, extra to the story. We have to add this ‘interpretation’. The question is: who is adding this interpretation?
Most theology and most preaching and most ecclesiology does this.
We try to go from then to now; from there to here.
Many models of church depend on this move: The early Christians did this, therefore we should do this.
Or the early church did this, therefore we should act similarly, or we should derive some principles from their approach, etc.
Notice how this hermeneutic works. It is a kind of analogy. But who makes the analogy? Who applies the authority of scripture? This is always the question, but especially with the ‘then and now’ approach. And so often this move goes un-acknowledged. It usually simply ignores the time, and the cultural differences between then and now—as if we can simply lift a text, or a practice, from then till now, and that’s it.
I’d like to suggest a different approach, a kind of development of the ‘then and now’ approach. It’s the one I find most helpful, and also most demanding. It’s far more risky, though, because it implies first of all a living God, who is present with and in us, and a God who is known much more immediately, so it implies different sorts of things about knowledge of God, and about faith, and the real mission of the church.
This approach is outlined in a chapter in James McClendon’s Systematic Theology, Volume 2, Doctrine: (Chapter 8, ‘The Quest for Christian Community’)
McClendon offers what he thinks is the essential hermeneutic, at the heart of a baptist approach to church. (Small-b baptist for McClendon includes all congregationally based approaches to Christian community, which focus on the lives of the disciples as the primary form of the church.)
It is an hermeneutical principle, which he calls ‘then is now’,
But in another place he describes it like this:
McClendon suggests that the living dynamic of baptist life is based on the conviction that ‘the present Christian community is the primitive community and the eschatological community’. (Ethics p.31)
By this he means two things: first: that as we read the Bible together, we are called, in exactly the same way as the first readers, the first Christians, to respond to it afresh, in radical obedience and freedom. We are competent to respond to it, freely, without any past tradition controlling or determining our response. We are the primitive community. (Kierkegaard called this contemporaneity, which he said should be the goal of all Christian teaching and preaching: to help people hear as if they were the first disciples, the first hearers of this text/story/saying.)
Second, we are also called to become what the text envisages: we are called to live into the vision and hope of the text, obedient to its vision. We are the eschatological community.
This principle of radical freedom in and for Christian life in the present is, I suggest, the dynamic at the heart of baptist heritage.
What this means, I have found, is that Gospel stories are mission stories, now.
It is very helpful, for pastoring and preaching, and simply for a proper understanding of the gospels, to recognize that the very fact of telling (and reshaping) these stories, – these stories and not others – is itself a statement about what was being experienced by the churches.
They are telling their stories in the telling of these stories: They are telling us what it is like to follow Jesus (present tense).
So when Matthew tells a story it is not just because once upon a time this happened with Jesus: He tells the story because this happens, this is happening, with and to those who follow Jesus.
Let me give you two examples about stories that are real for me:
First Matthew has a saying of Jesus about followers who leave home and family, for his sake, receiving sisters and brothers ten time over … (Matt. 19.29) In my book, Fair Dinkum Ministry I tell the story of how this saying came alive to me, in the realization one day that in my own faith community I had sisters and brothers given to me, in a dozen or more homes— and though I had left home and family to follow my calling, I had already, unawares, a far greater family around me now.
This saying is not simply something from once upon a time: it happens.
Mark has a story about a boat: Jesus is in the boat: Jesus directs them to set sail; They obey and what happens: they head straight into a storm, while he is down the back, blissfully unaware. That too is a picture of life in the mission and ministry of the gospel: and how it often feels. This is Mark’s story of what it is like when you get in the boat and go with Jesus. It is about the storm outside and the storm inside. And it says to me that we have to take responsibility for dealing with the storm inside, and God will take care of the storms outside. Then is now, Mark is suggesting.
In my opening essay to Fair Dinkum Ministry, you will see a bit more of what I think about biblical stories as open to us, and as opening us to the realities they envision.
This is a way to read the Bible that allows for a ‘living word’, which really can engage us in thinking honestly about life and faith.
We can generalise this approach, not only to apply to stories but to all passages. We can ask: what experience of God or of faith or of life led people to write like this? What is the people story behind this passage, and how does it relate to, or confront, or challenge, or inform our experience, our situation, our journey? When we engage with texts in this way, we discover new continuities and new meanings, and we can respond honestly, in life and faith.