Archives For Literalism

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The Woman Caught in Adultery Homosexuality.

In discussing homosexuality in the Church, I often feel as though those with whom I disagree read a totally different bible than me. I’m sure they feel the same way.

From my perspective, when you hold scripture to be the literal Word of God, you flatten out the texts so that they’re all equally authoritative.

Now the holiness codes of the Mosaic Law or a rhetorical vice list from Paul are on par- authority wise- with the witness of Jesus’ gracious welcome of sinners. A subject which Jesus himself never addresses now has the status of gospel.

The logic of biblical literalism allows all the texts of the bible to be mashed together into one voice, even if that voice is dissonant with the words of Jesus.

What you get, I think, is a bible passage, in this case John 8 (the woman caught in adultery) that might read something like this:

3The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery homosexuality; and making her stand before all of them these straight men, 4they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery homosexuality.

5Now because God clearly ordained sex to be within the covenant of marriage between one man and one woman the scriptures command us to stone such women sinners. The scriptures clearly say:

{add a pinch of Leviticus}

“If a man practices homosexuality, having sex with another man as with a woman [and vice versa], both men have committed a detestable act. They must both be put to death, for they are guilty of a capital offense.”

Now what do you say? Are you soft on sin, Jesus? Do you not believe the bible to be the inspired Word of God? What other authoritative teachings are you willing to throw out the window because the cultural wind?

6They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him reveal his lack of biblical faith and the purity of their own doctrine.

Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground tweeted about it. 7When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without as grievous a sin be the first one to throw a stone at her.’ 8And once again he bent down and wrote updated on the ground his Facebook status.

9When they heard it, thinking he was just being rhetorical, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the sinner standing before him.

10Looking around disappointed, Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ That can’t be right. Liberals.

11She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Well, I do not condemn you.

{a dash of Romans}

For the my wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth…by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s my righteous judgment will be revealed. 6For he I will repay according to each one’s deeds.

[Just this once- because you caught me in a good mood] Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.

{come back around with a little Joshua}

Remember, I am a holy God…I will not forgive your rebellion and your sins.

{and bring it home with Romans}

For he I will repay according to each one’s deeds. 

This is the Word of God for the People of God.

Thanks be to God.

Untitled101111I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts here.

II. Witness

5. What’s Wrong with Reading the Bible Literally?

Biblical literalism attributes a supernatural origin to scripture. The bible, in this view, is the direct, unfiltered Word of God. It’s an approach to Christian scripture that has a correlative in how Muslims understand the Qu’ran as containing the very words God dictated to the Prophet.

Scripture, it is held, is as free of error as had it fallen from heaven printed and bound. This view of scripture is a modern belief, arising only in the late 19th century.

Such an absolute assertion of scripture’s divine origins and textual infallibility provoke several significant problems.

First, positing every word of scripture as the literal, inerrant word of God flattens the whole of scripture, making every word just as important and authoritative as any other. The purity of codes of Leviticus are now logically equivalent in importance to the sermon on the mount, God’s instructions to the take the holy land by bloodshed as critical as Christ’s self-sacrifice.

By flattening scripture and making it all of equal import, the central thread gets lost:

the One Word of God, Jesus Christ.

Biblicism makes Christian scripture, like the Qu’ran, into a collection of equally authoritative precepts, teachings and codes instead of diverse, polyvalent testimony to the saving love of God made flesh in Jesus Christ.

Second, demanding that every word of scripture be infallible forces the Christian in to a kind of cognitive dissonance where we must ignore or disavow what we learn in the natural world should our learning seem at odds with scripture. So then a literalistic rendering of the creation story, for example, forces some Christians to dismiss evolutionary theory or prehistoric life.

Gripping onto scripture’s infallibility can also lock Christians into defending or perpetuating the social mores of the cultural context in which scripture was first recorded.

Third, biblical literalism is an unmediated revelation.

Scripture is the Word of God with or without the testimony of faithful witnesses.

While, in the fundamentalist minds, this secures scripture from the acids of the modern world, it does so at the expense of any role for God’s People. Rather than the Word of God being mediated through the testimony of God’s People, and hence being inherently relational, it is instead presented in an authoritarian mode.

Scripture is something to which we must conform; it’s not something which invites us into a transformative relationship.

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”

– 2 Timothy 3.16

 

barth_in_pop_art_5Karl Barth began his Church Dogmatics as the historical-critical method of interpreting scripture waned and fundamentalism waxed.

To this day both liberals and fundamentalists have problems with Karl Barth.

Exhibit A~ this choice quote from the beginning of §19.1:

‘Scripture is holy and the Word of God, because by the Holy Spirit it became and will become to the Church a witness to divine revelation.’

Why do liberals hate on Barth?

Wanting to be counted as a ‘legitimate’ discipline by the social sciences, liberals lauding the historical-critical method approached scripture with the pretensions of neutral objectivity, treating the formerly revealed text as any other time-bound, humanly-authored text. Not surprisingly, the historical-critical method only proved about the scriptural text what we now know about any text: they’re ripe fruit for our manipulation. Supposed neutral, objective scholarship of Barth’s day rendered a scriptural text and a Christ therein perfectly fashioned in the image of turn of the century German prejudices.

Barth skewers it better than me:

“There is a notion that complete impartiality is the most fitting and indeed the normal disposition for true exegesis, because it guarantees a complete absence of prejudice. For a short time, around 1910, this idea threatened to achieve almost canonical status in Protestant theology. But now we can quite calmly describe it as merely comical.”

In the CD, Barth distances liberates the practice of theology from the presumptuous strictures of the historical-critical method. Scripture, Barth reiterates throughout §19.1, is  self-attesting and self-verifying.

The bible cannot confirm claims made from outside and brought to it. The Word instead claims to witness to God’s revelation in Christ, the One Word of God, and when one enters the Word one discovers- is encountered- by the truth of its witness. Admittedly, the circularity of Barth’s argument is not without its problems, but I think Barth would argue (and I would concur) that those problems pale in comparison to the ones provoked by the sinful pretension to a neutral, objective appraisal of the text.

On the other hand, Barth also wants to distance dogmatics from the heresy of biblical literalism.

Scripture witnesses to the One Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity.

Scripture is not itself the Second Person of the Trinity.

Scripture is not the image of the invisible God, Jesus is.

Perhaps most importantly, the Son is eternal and was present at creation, scripture was not present at creation:

“…by the Holy Spirit it became and will become to the Church a witness to divine revelation.”

Barth’s straddling both sides of the modern liberal-fundamentalist divide here. Barth wants to acknowledge the insight of historical-criticism (scripture is incarnational, every bit as flesh and divine as Jesus was) without abandoning the authority and truth of scripture’s witness to revelation. At the same time, Barth wants to stress the uniqueness and reliability of scripture’s witness without going down the rabbit hole of demanding that every jot and tittle come straight out of a burning bush.

In one sense, you could accuse Barth of cherry picking the most palatable of what the two sides serve, but by doing so I think Barth stumbles upon a very unique and powerful observation:

Scripture is authoritative in that it witnesses reliably to Christ as the revelation of God, but scripture became authoritative.

And scripture’s ongoing authority is always a becoming.

There is no ‘isness’ to scripture.

To put it a bit clearer, Barth creates the space for a progressive revelation in scripture without jettisoning the authority of scripture. As with any courtroom witness, the witness of scripture is sometimes clearer than it is at other points but this fact does not undermine the overall veracity of the testimony. That to which the witnesses points remains.

The problem with biblical literalism, which Barth aims to correct here, is that it conceives of the bible as eternal, outside of and unconditioned by time. While Barth stresses how there is no ‘isness’ to scripture, literalism speaks as though there’s nothing but a ‘wasness’ to scripture.

Literalism’s effect is to strip the biblical narrative of any meaningful chronology.

If scripture is all the inerrant Word of God, timeless (and thus contextless) then there is no sense in which scripture reflects ongoing development of thought or faith.

And if there is no development- no ‘progressive revelation’- then it’s hard to see how there’s any genuine relationship between God and humanity.

No where is Barth’s point more obvious than with how scripture reflects upon the meaning of Jesus’ death.

Often Christians and non assume the meaning of Jesus’ death is obvious or self-evident within the canon. Not so.

Within the New Testament, believers find how the meaning of the cross is the subject of ongoing, developing reflection.

The meaning Jesus himself ascribes to his impending death is not the meaning Paul ascribes to Jesus’ death in Romans which is not exactly the meaning Paul ascribes to Jesus’ death in 2 Corinthians or Ephesians, which is not the same meaning John ascribes to it in Revelation. Nor are any of those meanings necessarily exactly how the early Church understood Jesus’ death.

Where Jesus speaks of his death’s meaning in terms of the liberation of Passover (…‘Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many…’), Paul speaks of Jesus’ death with metaphors of substitution, exchange and recapitulation. In Colossians Paul sounds a note not unlike the one John attempts in Revelation: the slain lamb having disarmed the powers of this world.

What’s powerful about Barth’s ‘becoming by the Spirit’ take on scripture is how it recognizes and allows for- even celebrates- this give and take reflection and wrestling within the canon itself.

How remarkable is it that Paul and the other apostles felt the freedom to expand upon the meaning of Christ’s death beyond what Christ himself gave? How counterintuitive is it that the early Church did not feel the compulsion to canonize and harmonize these disparate perspectives into a single view?

In other words, it’s clear from reading scripture itself that scripture is always a ‘becoming.’

And what else could it be, really, if wrestling with scripture is a fundamental act of faith?