Shuck and Jive

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

From Dwight

I have stolen this from A Religious Liberal.

Speaking of Dwight at the above-mentioned blog, I might steal his faith as well. Check out his thoughtful proclamations.

Nitty Gritty on the Good Book

I know you have been waiting, checking back every few minutes for the next installment of Conversations with Bob! To satisfy your desire, my response:

Thanks Bob for your last response!

I won't belabor the point about the Word of God and get on to its authority and interpretation, although I think we may need to keep coming back to it. Before I do that, I want to clarify my comment on ecocide. You wrote:

While we humans may think we are so important, the earth did fine without us and could do so again. wonder if our concern about ecocide is not really a concern about preserving an environment in which humans in our current state of evolution can live.

Yes, I agree. In fact, we could get wiped out by a meteor or any number of other things beyond our control. However, this is a unique point in history, in which humankind could actually end life on Earth, human and otherwise. If that happens, Earth will continue to spin on its axis. No humans or other species aboard. We cannot control what we cannot control. But we must control what we can.

This to me is a religious/spiritual issue, and why I am so stubborn about a non-escapist theology. It is why I find theories of afterlife so irresponsible. I just want to scream: "Forget about going to heaven or hell, or being reincarnated, or following the light. It is none of your concern! This Earth is your concern! Future generations are your concern!"

End of rant.

On to the Bible. We may have some disagreements. It may be a matter of nuance, perhaps more. Let me say what I can say about the Bible (that is the 66 texts the Protestants call the Bible). This opens up the question of whether or not the Roman Catholic or Orthodox canons are "the Bible" or whether or not the Hebrew Scriptures are "The Bible." But leaving that aside, for now, here is what I can say:

1) The Bible is unique. No other book is like it.
2) It is authoritative for the synagogue and church, according to each worshiping community's respective canon. These are collections that we have said we have found valuable.
3) I can affirm, for instance, my ordination vow regarding it, "God's word to you." Yes. We may differ in our interpretation of that phrase and that vow.
4) I have no idea what "God's word" really could possibly mean in any objective sense. It appears to be an anthropomorphism that I simply cannot get my head around. I have a hard time wondering what it means to say "God" for that matter.
5) It is a book, like every book, written by, for and to human beings.
6) YHWH is a character of the Hebrew Scriptures as Jesus the Christ is a character in the New Testament.
7) It is the central text of Western Civilization.
8) It has some wonderful stories. It has some horrifying stories. It has some inspiring theology. It has some horrific theology.
9) The characters, including YHWH and Jesus, are products of human imagination. For example, the stories surrounding Jesus were an attempt to speak of his significance rather than historical reportage.
10) With all of that, the Bible has a way of drawing me into its tale and confronting me with its strange new world--a world that would be if YHWH/Jesus had fully transformed our hearts, minds, and wills.
11) I think my interpretive grid is a combination of my needs, what the world needs, and what the text says. It is a complicated hermeneutical circle as you mentioned.
12) I don't see the Hebrew Scriptures concerned at all about Creation, Fall, Redemption. Frankly, I really see more than that happening in the New Testament as well. That is a later Christian grid placed upon the texts. I don't think we are stuck with Augustine or Paul, for that matter. I think we are always in the process of reinterpreting.

Bob, that could be a way in which we see things from a different angle. I am more interested in re-interpreting than you might be, even if that re-interpretation calls some central doctrines of the church into question. To me that is what sola scriptura is all about!

You asked me:

So tell me, are we saying the same thing when I say there are no bad texts but only bad interpretations and you say there are bad texts but good and bad is determined by how we interpret them?
We may or may not be saying the same thing, but we could end up with similar results on many important topics!

The Word of God Redux

Here is the latest in Conversations with Bob!

John thanks for your response.

Anyway, more on the Word of God.

Hmmm . . . Prophets and Dickens? Interesting analogy! I agree that the prophets intended to speak to the people of their own times and the predictions they made about the future certainly took into account the political landscape of their times. But as one of our listeners has pointed out, most of the time the prophet’s predictions about the future were conditional and based on the change in behavior the particular prophet said God wanted from the people of Israel or Judah. True, in some cases like Amos and Jeremiah the predictions were absolute.

As to your comment about ecocide I agree that we have responsibility to God for how we take care of God’s good earth and I hope that we humans will stop our mad rush to destruction. I would point out, thou lover of the scientific theory of evolution, that the earth got along just fine without humans for several billion years, survived at least two near wipings out of life on earth and went on. While we humans may think we are so important, the earth did fine without us and could do so again. I wonder if our concern about ecocide is not really a concern about preserving an environment in which humans in our current state of evolution can live.

I do think we have come to our first fundamental disagreement. Tell me if you agree that we disagree! I call the whole Bible the Word of God but am concerned about how we interpret it. I believe that God speaks in the Bible, God reveals God’s self in the Bible although I would add that if one is going to hear God one must be guided by the Holy Spirit. You, and tell me if I get this right, find the term word of God unhelpful as we examine the Bible. I think the entire Bible is important and revelatory. You struggle with good and bad texts, sometimes wondering if you have said something is a bad text that you might later think is a good text and something is a good text that you might later think is a bad text. If I hear you correctly, and I really am afraid I have misunderstood you about this that God does not speak in the Bible. That is what I take your statement to mean when you say “God did not write the book. Humans wrote it.” Do you believe that God somehow reveals God’s self through the Bible or not? Is the Bible special revelation that is different from any other human text or not? Or would you use an entirely different way to talk about the question? Are my yes or no questions too restrictive?

You have at least suggested that you put the following interpretive grid on the Bible when you try to determine what in the Bible is a message from God:

I think what we find throughout the Bible in both Testaments is the tension between...
...shalom and the powers,

...peace through justice and peace through violence,
...authentic freedom and oppression,
...human dignity and all the forces of domination that divide us into category and deny our divine image,
...stewardship of Earth and the illusion of ownership,
...the kingdom of God and Empire (whether that Empire be Pharaoh's, Nebuchadnezzar's, or Caesar's).

The bad texts are those that conform to the ways of the powers and legitimate them.

On what basis do you make the decision that these should be the interpretive grids? That really is the vital question for all of us: what is our interpretive grid, how did we come to that decision and do we simply state this is my interpretive grid or this should be the interpretive grid for all interpreters and if that latter, how can we show or prove that this is the proper interpretive grid?

I believe that what you have said above is an important secondary interpretive grid. I believe the primary grids are creation, fall redemption and the person and work of Christ. These interpret what shalom, peace through justice, human dignity, stewardship of the Earth and the kingdom of God look like. Thus while I agree that all humans are created in the image of God, I believe that the fall damages that image and that it must be restored in Christ. Please note: I also believe no matter how damaged the image of God may be in individual humans, groups of humans and all humans collectively that individual humans and all humans are to be treated with the dignity that comes with being created in the image of God. The sociopathic serial killer, while he/she may need to be separated from the rest of society for safety, deserves humane treatment. And yes, being created in the image of God implies that we have responsibility to God for our use of creation individually and collectively.

Here is where things get circular for all of us. We choose a particular interpretive grid, argue that it is the true message of the Bible, and then use that grid to interpret the Bible. So I say the Bible is the story of creation, fall and redemption, that the redemption part is seen particularly in the person and work of Christ, and then interpret the Bible by that story. I’m not sure who coined the phrase but this is the hermeneutical circle. I’m guessing we have different hermeneutical circles.

So tell me, are we saying the same thing when I say there are no bad texts but only bad interpretations and you say there are bad texts but good and bad is determined by how we interpret them? Or not?

Maybe the next place to go, if we are done with the terms Word of God and word of God, is to the question of the authority of the Bible.

Grace and Peace


Monday, July 30, 2007

I do like monkeys...

Hat tip to Magdalene's Musings for this quiz. What book are you?

You're Inherit the Wind!

by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee

To you, the learning process is inherently about controversy. If
people aren't having their minds stretched, how could they possibly be learning? This
makes you a good but unpopular teacher, and the people around you are ready to make it
a federal case. All you're asking them to do is evolve a little. But they would like
you to be more creative. You would make an excellent lawyer, even though people think
you love monkeys.

Take the Book Quiz
at the Blue Pyramid.

No Nukes

Our Peacemaking Committee Chair has reminded us of this event. It is organized by StoptheBombs. Also check here.

AUGUST 4, 2007

OREPA's Hiroshima/Nagasaki commemoration will take place over several days this August. The mass peace rally, march to the Y12 Nuclear Weapons Plant and Action for Abolition will take place on Saturday, August 4.

The Rally for peace, with music, speakers and puppetistas, will begin at 10:00am at Alvin K. Bissell Park in Oak Ridge, TN.

A March to the Y12 Nuclear Weapons plant will depart Bissell Park at 12:30pm.

***Preparations for Saturday activities, including peacekeeper training for volunteers, affinity group meetings, and puppet rehearsal, will be Friday, August 3 at Church of the Savior, 934 Weisgarber Rd in Knoxville, beginning at 6:00pm.

Annual Names/Remembrance ceremony will begin at 6:00am, Monday, August 6 at Y12 Plant in Oak Ridge.

Trial for Erik Johnson, Pam Beziat and Tom Lumpkin on charges from 2006 Hiroshima Day action scheduled for Wednesday, August 8 in Clinton, TN.

Annual Peace Lantern ceremony in Knoxville will be held at 8:15pm on Thursday, August 9.

A brochure will listing event will be posted soon.

Bad Timing

My timing tends to be off now and then. It could be that full moon that lets out my Remus Lupin. By the way we did have our full moon meditation last night, even though the moon was hidden by cloud cover. We trusted it was there. Anyway, I posted a critique of a decision of the RevGalBlogPal ring, without realizing that I was to be introduced as a new member on its website! Had I known, I would have saved that post for another time. Oops. So, Revgals, thanks for visiting! I guess y'all know who I am now! I am honored to be part of that webring as we continue the struggle for what it means to be human. Blessings, john

Sunday, July 29, 2007

My Arrival in Heaven

I am thrilled to be a new member of RevGalBlogPals. I support women in ministry--all women in ministry--and I don't just say that, I do. Since I am a new member it may be rude to make a criticism, but then again, I guess I am rude now and then. It appears that the history of movements when successful, evolve into an institutional phase. In that phase the once radical egalitarian movement develops rules, becomes incorporated, makes more rules, and then secures its bottom line. Through that successful phase, some get left out.

Recently, the board of the RevGalBlogPals made a decision to remove a member. I don't know why, but the person removed thought it had something to do with her sexuality. I don't know the person who was removed. But I do wonder about the decision.

Here is the post regarding the removal. Here is her response. Here is a commentary by MadPriest. You be the judge. Or not.

An image stolen from MadPriest that cover institutions in general pretty darn well.

And a poem. (Thanks to my friend, Neil).

I was shocked, confused, bewildered
As I entered Heaven's door,
Not by the beauty of it all,
Nor the lights or its decor.

But it was the folks in Heaven
Who made me sputter and gasp--
The thieves, the liars, the sinners,
The alcoholics, the trash...

There stood the kid from seventh grade
Who swiped my lunch money twice.
Next to him was my old neighbor
Who never said anything nice.

Herb, whom I always thought
Was rotting away in hell,
Was sitting pretty on cloud nine,
Looking incredibly well.

I nudged Jesus, "What's the deal?
I would love to hear Your take.
How'd all these sinners get up here?
God must've made a mistake.

"And why's everyone so quiet,
So somber? Give me a clue."
"Hush, child," said He, "They're all in shock.
No one thought they'd be seeing you!"

Judge NOT.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

High Heat


Who is the tallest professional baseball player and for what team does he play?

Folks in Elizabethton, Tennessee know! He is Loek Van Mil and he plays for our very own, Elizabethton Twins! Check out this article in the Johnson City Press.

Gosh, if I could recruit him to my church, he might be the world's tallest Presbyterian...

What is Your Biblical Name?

Here is a bizarre one. Take the quiz to find your biblical name! This is mine. It is somehow oddly appropriate for my posts of late. Just call me "double E" for short...

Your Biblical Name Is...

Ebenezer Ephraim

You will live to see the end of times.

Still Hung Up on Word of God

The Conversation with Bob continues!

Thanks Bob!

Very thoughtful. I think we are in agreement on many points. The prophecy question is a bit of a stickler. I think the best analogy to prophecy in the Hebrew scriptures is the Ghost of Christmas Future showing Scrooge his fate in Dickens'
A Christmas Carol. Scrooge asks the silent spirit whether these shadows will happen or might happen. He receives no answer. Yet, he got the message.

The Hebrew prophets wanted to change behavior in the hearer. I think the prophets were sensitive to the times and were able to say, "Hey, this is what is going to happen!" Sometimes, I think the prophets were so despairing of the people's recalcitrance that they, like Jeremiah, simply predicted doom. The time for change had past. I hope we have not found ourselves in that position regarding the ecocide the human race seems intent on performing.

We have further discussion on the point of our responsibility regarding interpretation. You wrote:

I just mean to say that I am very nervous about saying that some texts reflect what God intended and others do not. How are we to make such a decision?

If you are asking that rhetorically, then my answer is, "We must make that decision and make it every time we open the page." Just because it is hard does not mean it is not our responsibility. God did not write the book. Humans wrote it. To call it word of God or not is also a human decision. It is also a human decision to evaluate the individual texts and the text as a whole and decide which texts speak of divine mystery, revelation, and sacredness, and which texts echo ideological concerns. It is not easy! We have our own ideologies, and I would say our own sacredness that we bring to the text and to each other. It is a never ending process. In fact what I might think of as a bad text through conversation with others, further study, and personal growth, I may find to be a revelatory text, and vice versa.

Now, if you are asking that question seriously, as in
how are we to make these decisions, then we can talk about methodologies for interpretation.

I think what we find throughout the Bible in both Testaments is the tension between...
...shalom and the powers,
...peace through justice and peace through violence,
...authentic freedom and oppression,
...human dignity and all the forces of domination that divide us into category and deny our divine image,
...stewardship of Earth and the illusion of ownership,
...the kingdom of God and Empire (whether that Empire be Pharaoh's, Nebuchadnezzar's, or Caesar's).

The bad texts are those that conform to the ways of the powers and legitimate them.

Even before I worry about interpretation of texts, I am concerned with the approach we take to the Bible. If for us the whole of the Bible is word of God and our posture toward it is one of submission to its authority, then, we may well be submitting not to God, but to the ideologies of the authors as they were compromised by the values of Empire.

This is why I question the validity of the term Word of God, except in a highly nuanced sense. What makes it so? How does calling it or thinking of it as Word of God make a beautiful text better? More problematically, how does calling it or thinking of it as Word of God make a bad text holy?

Friday, July 27, 2007

Got Ten Minutes?

Better check out this video on YouTube. This is Christians United for Israel. Hat tip to Thoughts of a Minister.

The Word of God in Interpretation

It is a hot topic! The Bible in Conversations with Bob. Bob's turn! Join in!


Thanks for your quick response. We do agree on most of what you said were agreements. One quick comment: you said, “3) The Bible is not about predicting future events. Yup.” That may not be exactly what I said. I said, “Thus any attempt to make the Bible into something else, such as a way to figure out the future, is a misuse of the Bible.” If you meant that the Biblical writers did not, at times, intend to predict future events, we disagree. The prophets sometimes used the pattern of, 1.) You are disobeying God, 2.) You better change your ways, or 3.) There will be action by God that you won’t like. Sometimes the particular prophet would be rather specific about what would happen, like Jeremiah’s prediction of the Babylonians conquering Jerusalem. I meant we should not use the Bible to predict the timing and method of how God will act in the future. If that’s what you meant we agree.

Having said that, it seems to me that your post pointed us toward interpretation of the Bible and how that interpretation may be skewed by calling the Bible the Word of God. You said, “The Bible itself is not even. I think calling it all Word of God can make us think that all texts are on a par.” Here I find Roger’s and McKim’s book very helpful. They point to a couple of specific problems in the interpretation of the Bible throughout history and how those problems affected Biblical interpretation particularly in America.

The first problem was the use of Scottish Common Sense Realism Philosophy as a way of looking at humans, the world and the Bible. This philosophy said that all humans think the same so therefore we can all read the Bible and understand what the writers meant simply by reading the text. This is a very curious and dangerous assumption about the nature of reality. Cultural context always colors the way we look at the world. Even the particular language we use colors the way we look at the world.

Used by the Old Princeton Scholastics the Bible came to be seen as propositional truth. This had several effects on their interpretive method. First, as you pointed out, it leveled Scripture, theoretically making all verses equal. Curiously it also meant that they trusted the direct teaching passages like the letters of Paul more than the stories of Israel and the actions and parables of Jesus! So while claiming all verses were equal Paul was considered more equal. Nevertheless they say each verse in the Bible is a propositional truth statement, ultimately leading to the theory of Biblical inerrancy.

Now I think we can agree that some truth claims are propositional. 1 + 2 = 3 is a propositional truth claim. But when you get beyond mathematics you run into trouble. If you say, “The sky is blue,” is this statement really propositional? Actually sometimes the sky looks blue. The statement certainly does not reflect the scientific reasons that the sky sometimes looks blue to the human eye. And what if one has color blindness of one form or another? The sky may not look blue to that person!

All of this is to say that while there may be some propositional truth claims in the Bible there are many other ways and more important ways the Bible speaks. This is the danger for Americans when we call the Bible the Word of God. Because of our history of the use of the Bible we are tempted to say that the Bible is a series of true propositions. I prefer, in disagreement with our friend Aric, to gently and slowly teach the proper meaning of saying the Bible is the Word of God.

Now, as to some of the things you said about the Bible, including the quotes from Brueggeman, whose commentary on Genesis, by the way, is absolutely fantastic.

  1. Imaginative remembering. If this means that the process of movement from event to final form in which we receive the text today, I think I agree with it. By this I mean that an event happened. The people at the time interpreted the meaning of the event in the context of their relationship with God. The community remembered the event. Particularly in the parts of the Bible that describe ancient events the stories were passed down verbally from generation to generation. This also happened in the stories about Jesus but in a much shorter period of time. As the culture changed the description of the event changed and as the needs of the community changed the interpretation of the meaning of the event, particularly the interpretation of what God intended in the event changed too. Ultimately the stories were written down and collected. The very choice of which stories were written down and which were not reflected the view of the collector. Ultimately the editors put it all together, giving new interpretation once again. If this is what Brueggeman meant by imaginative remembering, I agree with him.
  2. Deeply permeated by ideology. Personally I don’t particularly like the word “ideology.” In America we have a tendency to use the word to mean “those people look at the world in the wrong way while we look at the world the right way.” The word has tends to get our backs up. If someone says I’m working out of an ideology in America we tend to think that person means I’m wrong. I prefer the term, with all its problems, “worldview.” Having said that, if ideology means the way culture, social class, topography, physical environment, etc., affect the way we look at things, I agree. The Bible is deeply permeated by ideology. Just the way the ancient Israelites talked about their land shows this. North was not up to them as it is to us! Their main points of reference were the sea and the desert. Still I am cautious about saying that the text reflects yearning for social advantage and property. This certainly is true in some sections of the Bible. But the prophets strongly criticized this yearning, at least as a personal yearning. The prophets had a tendency to speak for the poor and oppressed against the rich and the oppressors. Even parts of the Law, which may have not actually been obeyed, tried to level the economic playing field. Of course, these were yearning for social advantage and property from the perspective of the poor. A question: does ideology also refer to theology?
  3. Inspiration. We agree about this. I would say, however, that God’s own presence was breathed in these texts. By this I don’t mean to flatten the texts and make them all equal. I just mean to say that I am very nervous about saying that some texts reflect what God intended and others do not. How are we to make such a decision? I would instead say that we need to interpret texts based on the central core message of Scripture. If Jesus, or to use the words of some of the Neo Orthodox, the Christ event, is the core message of Scripture then all the rest of the Bible is to be interpreted in relation to the Christ event. Passages then take on more or less importance depending on how they relate to Christ. And we can’t forget that the New Testament writers and editors saw things in the Old Testament that were not intended by the original writers/editors because they saw the Old Testament through the lens of the Christ event.

So, while I certainly see some texts as more valuable than other texts in looking at our present time, and I find all kinds of curious cultural traditions in the various texts, (Why did Abraham have his servant place his hand under Abraham’s thigh when he told the servant to promise to only get a wife for Isaac from Abraham’s relatives? Gen 24:1-4) I don’t see good texts and bad texts. I see texts that had particular meaning in a cultural context that now, because of our cultural context we hear completely differently.

An example: the concept of holy war. Holy war in the Deuteronomic histories meant that you had to follow certain traditions to be considered ritually clean to fight but also often meant that the enemy was to be totally annihilated. In that culture at that time that’s the way things were done. If Moab had won the early wars instead of Israel history would have been very different. The surrounding cultures of the day fought that way too. Does the central core of the Biblical message support the use of holy war? Of course not! Some days I reject the idea of just war as an accommodation of the Church to becoming a cultural power and agree with Hauerwas that the only correct position for the Church is pacifism! If we take the statement that all humans are created in the image of God as a basis for ethics, holy war cannot be commanded by God.

The really interesting thing about holy war in Joshua is the theological reason given for it and the subsequent interpretation of that reason in relation to Israel by the Deuteronomic editor. God condemns the Canaanites for their worship of idol and their immorality. But then the same standard is used to judge the Israelites and their kings in 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings.

So I would say we should interpret passages in the Bible according to the trajectory of the Biblical story, creation, fall and redemption, and out of the core message of redemption in Jesus.

As to ongoing interpretation, it is absolutely necessary not so much to find the real meaning of the passage or to determine what texts are bad and what are good but rather to recognize that our cultural milieu causes us to read the Bible in particular ways and ask particular questions that may not be appropriate in another cultural milieu.

Having said that I still think it is critical to work as hard as we possibly can to determine the intention of the original writer/editor and the cultural situation of the original writer/editor before we start trying to apply a section of the Bible to our cultural situation. So scholarship and hard work is important.

Is the Bible the Word of God?

It is Conversations with Bob! What is the Bible? That is our task. Join us!

Hi Bob,

Great start! Thanks for the links to helpful books. Another book to add to the collection is Walter Brueggemann's Introduction to the Old Testament: the Canon and Christian Imagination. I am reading it as I prepare my study guide for our congregation to read the Bible cover to cover in 2008.

In regards to the kingdom of God, it is both present and future. Thanks. In a nice post on the kingdom of God, Mystical Seeker, quotes Thomas Sheehan:
The uniqueness of Jesus' message lay in his conviction that in some way the future kingdom had already dawned and that the celebration could begin. The Baptist before him had preached an impending final judgment, but Jesus went him twice better: not judgment, but a gift, in fact the gift of God himself; and not just the impending right here and now. God had already started to reign among men and women.
On to the Bible. Points of agreement:

1) The Word is Jesus. The Bible is a witness to Jesus. Yes.
2) That the phrase comes from prophetic oracles, sounds good.
3) The Bible is not about predicting future events. Yup.
4) We need to understand what the writers and editors meant to say in their original context. Yes.
5) You didn't mention it in this post. We talked about it earlier. I think you would agree that the Bible is not Word of God because it is accurate historically or scientifically. It is not on either score.

Here is a point for further discussion. You wrote:

My real concern is the attempt by some to divide the Bible into those parts that are truly from God and those parts that are a reflection of the culture or the opinions of the writers or editors. I think we need to hear the whole Bible as the Word of God, work as hard as we can to understand what the writers and editors meant to say in their original context, and then try to apply it to our world today.

This is where it gets tricky. Aric, in a previous comment echoed my concern. He wrote:
Personally I don't think we should ever apply the terminology "Word of God" to scripture. Properly this appelation belongs only to Jesus. Applying it to scripture confuses the issue and gets people to start doing all sorts of horrible idolatrous things like imputing the attributes of God to the Bible. Scripture is not infallible. Scripture is not holy. Scripture is not divine. It teaches us about a God who is all of these things, but it does not have these characteristics itself.
I like Walter Brueggemann's three-fold designation of Scripture. It is...

1) "imaginative remembering." It is not reportage of events but the community's retelling of its story, with imagination and creativity imagining a world where YHWH promises, acts, and remains hidden in his presence.

2) "deeply permeated by ideology." The storytellers were real people in their own time, where to quote Brueggemann, "they worried about, yearned for, and protected social advantage and property." (p. 10) The text is open to critique.

3) "inspiration." Somehow God's own presence has breathed through these texts.

These three things are always in play with each other. That is why the church and synagogue is always interpreting and re-interpreting. The Bible itself is not even. I think calling it all Word of God can make us think that all texts are on a par. This allows us to put halos around bad texts and ignore important ones. Now, how do we determine what are bad texts from good? This requires ongoing interpretation. There never will be one final answer. Because Jesus is the living Word, this Word continues to speak to us through the witness of the tradition of scripture by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. There is no final interpretation of any text. We always hear anew. It is our task to distinguish ideology from revelation not only within the text but within ourselves. So, only in a very nuanced way, can I say the Bible is Word of God. Because the phrase has been so misused, I wonder if it is helpful any longer.

The Word of God

Here is the latest in Conversations with Bob! Follow earlier conversations to the right of this blog and feel free to join in the discussion! We are currently talking about the Bible.


Thanks for the suggestion. This is a tough subject to speak about in brief but I will try.

First, a quick comment on the Kingdom of God. I would point out that the parables of Jesus speak about the Kingdom in a variety of ways. Yes, there are parables about the Kingdom in the present. There are parables about the Kingdom being something worth searching for, something of value beyond all else. But there are also parables about the future Kingdom.

Now, on to the Scripture as the Word of God.

Here is a list of resources that I find helpful:

Karl Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Man

G. C. Berkouwer, Holy Scripture

Jack Rogers, Reading the Bible & the Confessions the Presbyterian Way

These are all available at

Jack Rogers and Donald McKim, The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible: An Historical Approach. Unfortunately this book is out of print, but you can get a used copy at Amazon.

Finally, from the Office of Theology and Worship: Biblical Authority and Interpretation, a paper approved by the GA in 1982, available for download at

That should keep ya’ll reading for the rest of the summer!

I’ll make references to the Book of Confessions as needed. BTW the Book of Confessions is downloadable at:

How is the Bible the Word of God? To begin I have to go off on what may seem like a tangent. Jesus is the Word of God. John chapter 1 uses that phrase to talk about Jesus. I’m not going to go into the divinity and humanity of Jesus stated rather directly in John 1. I just don’t think we can talk about the Bible as the Word of God without first talking about Jesus as the Word of God. The Confession of 1967 says (BoC 9.27)

The one sufficient revelation of God is Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, to whom the Holy Spirit bears unique and authoritative witness through the Holy Scriptures, which are received and obeyed as the word of God written. The Scriptures are not a witness among others, but the witness without parallel. The church has received the books of the Old and New Testaments as prophetic and apostolic testimony in which it hears the word of God and by which its faith and obedience are nourished and regulated.

Thus the Bible is the Word of God first in the sense of its purpose: to point to Jesus Christ as the one way of salvation, as the one sufficient revelation of God. I believe that the Bible must be defined by its purpose. It isn’t just out there on its own. God has purpose in the Bible, revealing who God is, what God wants us to believe and what God wants us to do. Thus any attempt to make the Bible into something else, such as a way to figure out the future, is a misuse of the Bible

Where does the phrase, “Word of God,” when used in relation to the Bible come from? I think its original use comes from the prophets. Many of the Minor Prophets start out with, “The Word of the Lord came to so and so” and then gives time markers. The prophet came and spoke for God to their generations. Usually the message from God proclaimed by the prophet was a critique of how the people of God had failed to live as God told them to live.

I think that is the beginning context in which the phrase was used. Of course the Hebrew actually said the Word of HWHY. But the intent of the phrase was to say that God spoke through the prophets.

How did this happen? What was the process? I don’t think that the prophet just opened his mouth and God spoke. Neither do I think that God told the prophet what to say word for word. There is too much grammatical and poetic variation from prophet to prophet. My guess is that God gave a basic theme and the prophets used their own words. In other words, as the title of Barth’s book implied the Word of God was spoken by the words of humans. This is of course speculation. I’m not a prophet in the Old Testament sense. I make this statement based on my best understanding of the vocabulary, grammar, etc. used by the various prophets.

Other Confessions in the BoC speak about the Bible but seem to be more interested in the authority of the Bible, particularly, in the Reformation Confessions, as over against what they perceived to be the errors of the Roman Catholic Church. I’ll talk more about them later in a post on the authority of the Bible.

My real concern is the attempt by some to divide the Bible into those parts that are truly from God and those parts that are a reflection of the culture or the opinions of the writers or editors. I think we need to hear the whole Bible as the Word of God, work as hard as we can to understand what the writers and editors meant to say in their original context, and then try to apply it to our world today.

I’ll also have something to say about how we interpret the Bible, particularly how we use the Bible to interpret the Bible in a later post.

So what part of the Bible is the Word of God? All of it! How does it have authority and how do we interpret it? I’ll leave that for later.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Elizabethton Blue Grays

Saw this in today's Johnson City Press.

The Blue Grays was a black semi-pro baseball team that traveled throughout the segregated South during the Great Depression and until the 1950s, playing games and winning against teams from much larger cities. The team’s home field at Douglas Park was named in honor of the team by the Elizabethton City Council earlier this year. (Read More)

Test the Waters!

If you are from the Tricities area and you are looking for a spiritual community, then here is a shameless advertisement:

Check out First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton. We are getting a lot of new folks from all over the Tricities. They come from Elizabethton, Kingsport, Gray, Bristol, Johnson City, Roan Mountain, Jonesborough, Telford, Abingdon, VA. and beyond to worship in this little progressive tree-hugging church in the woods.

We are not for everyone, but we might be for you. How to tell? You can peruse our website, check out a few sermons, and read our newsletter. If you are intrigued then come visit, Sundays at 11:00!

If you are still interested, then come to Test the Waters on Saturday, August 18th from 10a-1p. I'll give you a tour of the building, give you some great prizes and a free lunch! You can ask a lot of questions and find out about the things we do and value.

Do let me know if you think you might make it, so I know the number of sarsaparillas to buy!

Me and Bob and the Kingdom of God

Another round with conversations with Bob!


Thanks for your last post.

It is interesting how we interpret and understand the language we have both inherited. The phrase "the kingdom of God" is a puzzler. Jesus used that phrase as well as that enigmatic phrase "the son of the man" a great deal. I think that for the most part the church has interpreted both phrases in a "futuristic" and in an "out of this world" way.

For instance, you have written about "entering the kingdom of God" which reminds me of a place. "I am entering the court house or the movie theatre." I suppose there are those who might not "enter" it. Another way to phrase it is that one "inherits the kingdom of God." This reminds me of a son or daughter receiving his or her parent's estate. You suggested that pastors could mess that up for people:
My concern is that pastors might counsel or advise people in such a way that the people they counsel or advise might not inherit the Kingdom of God.
I would hope that God would have a bit more understanding and compassion then to refuse a person his or her inheritance because of a pastor's bad counsel. You also quoted from the Bible:

We have to remember that Paul does say that several categories of people, “Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.” (I Cor. 6:9b-10, NRSV)

Is there really such a person as a fornicator or a reviler? There may be people who fornicate or revile, and some perhaps more often than others. But, to classify people as such and then say no kingdom of God for you, seems a bit wooden. I would interpret this passage in the following way. There are certain ways of being and behaving that act contrary to the kingdom of God. As we become more aware of the kingdom of God, we are invited to live its values.

Certainly that phrase, the kingdom of God as well as the son of the man and all the other phrases are difficult to understand. They are symbols of symbols! Symbolic language is what we have.

A case could be made by the way Jesus told his parables about the kingdom of God is that it is a present reality that most of us do not see or even as we see we see dimly. We need to be aware that the kingdom of God is within and among us. Rather than something we enter or inherit, it is something of which we become aware. That is another way of dealing with that symbol. It is something that is also growing like a mustard seed.

How we approach these symbols probably has a great deal with how we understand what we call God, Sin, humanity, the work of Christ, and everything else, including the Bible.

Let's tackle the Bible, Bob! You go first! I'll throw out a question and you can either answer it or not. I have been wrestling with the following question for quite some time.

What does the phrase Word of God mean when applied to the Bible?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Lovin' Jesus

Viola Larson of the Voices of Orthodox Women who checks in often at Shuck and Jive wrote in a recent comment that Rev. Jim Berkley of the IRD loves Jesus. I don't doubt that. I am quite thrilled that Rev. Berkley has a love affair with Jesus. However, the institution for which he works has an odd way of showing its love for Jesus. Or perhaps it is an odd Jesus that he loves.

The IRD's Jesus among other things...

doesn't love gays.

The IRD spends about one million dollars per year to press forward with right-wing causes all for the love of Jesus in three denominations: the PCUSA, the UMC, and the ECUSA as well as taking shots at the National Council of Churches.

I love Jesus, too. But not the IRD's Jesus.

Yes Virginia, the PCUSA is Pro-Choice

Thanks to the Witherspoon Society for pointing out this article by Frederick Clarkson, Maligning the Faith of Others for Political Profit. Frederick Clarkson provides a critique of Rev. Jim Berkley of the Institute for Religion and Democracy (IRD). Rev. Berkley works for Presbyterian Action of that three-pronged organization.

Rev. Berkley criticized the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC) in a May 22nd blog entry, A Really Crass "Religious" Coalition. Berkley concluded his post:

There is no excuse for Presbyterian entities--Presbyterians Affirming Reproductive Options, Women's Ministries, and the Washington Office--continuing to financially support and lend our once-good name to a crassly political, morally bankrupt, abortion-at-any-cost outfit like the RCRC.

OK. Here is what Clarkson writes about RCRC:

It is a group that sounds like exactly what it is, a coalition of religious organizations that believe in the right of their members to make their own choices about matters of reproductive health including abortion -- free from the religious dictates of others or the interference of the government. RCRC comprises mostly major Christian and Jewish organizations such as the Episcopal Chuch, the YWCA, the American Jewish Committee, Conservative Judaism's Rabbinical Assembly, and agencies and caucuses of national religious organizations. RCRC carries out public policy and related public education work in Washington.

And it is perfectly natural that the PCUSA entities would be part of this organization, as Clarkson writes:

As it happens, it makes perfect sense that the Presbyterian Church (USA) would be active in RCRC. The 2.6 million member denomination, whose policy history on abortion is available on its web site has been prochoice since 1970, (before Roe v. Wade)...

Home Sweet Home

This article in the Elizabethton Star disturbed me.

Photo by Larry N. Stouders

A guard from Northeast Correctional Center was appalled this week when inmates under his watch exposed a shelter under the northbound bridge on Highway 19-E at East Side while mowing the median between the two bridges, where weeds and grass had grown several feet high. "This is really disgusting. It has been there for two or three years. I have told the city and county both about it, but nothing has been done," he said.

It's one of those cases of where you have to see it to believe it. Underneath the south end span of the bridge, debris is in abundance. There are mattresses, slabs of foam padding, stacks of blankets, bottles and cans, cardboard, piece after piece of clothing, shoes, a rocking chair, ice chests, and a kerosene heater as well as assorted personal belongings. At first glance from the highway, it looked as if someone has dumped their trash, but upon closer inspection, it revealed much more.

What is revealed? This was someone's home. The article goes on:

Among the items near some bedding was a Bible and what appeared to be a journal. Food wrappers and containers were also strewn through the trash. A fresh banana peel indicated someone was there just hours earlier.

The guards and the authorities can be appalled at what is a mess to them. However, this is where someone (or perhaps more than one person) calls home, or used to call home. Now, they are homeless again. I wonder if anyone is concerned about the welfare of those who made a home under that bridge?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Rev. Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping

Have you heard the Word from Rev. Billy? Check out this video on NPR. Here is Rev. Billy's webpage where you can confess your sins! You can invite Rev. Billy to your home for a Revival! Changeluyah!!

You'll want to check out this sermon on YouTube. He even has a choir! Here are his...

Beatitudes of Buylessness

Blessed are the Consumers, for you shall be free from Living By Products…..

Blessed are you who stumble out of branded Main Streets, for you shall find lovers not downloaded and oceans not rising.

Blessed is the ordinary citizen who holds onto a patch of public commons, for you are the New World.

Blessed is the artist who is not corporate sponsored for you shall give birth to warm fronts of emotion and breakthroughs of Peace.

Blessed are you who confuse “Consumerism” with “Freedom,” for you shall be delighted to discover the difference.

Blessed are the advertisers and commercial celebrities, for you are waiting for the remarkable restfulness of honesty.

Blessed are city neighborhoods that people have flown from in fear, for your children shall return to illuminate the dark economy.

Blessed are the workers in the supermalls, for the town your employers’ killed shall come back to life!

Blessed is the breadwinner with out-sourced dreams who sits in the SUV stuck in a Christmas from Hell, this year a gift will set you free

Blessed are the young women in sweatshops, for the things you make will fly you like magic evening gowns to the City of Light

Blessed are you who disturb the customers, for you might be loving your neighbor.

words:bill talen music: william moses

Monday, July 23, 2007

Judgement and Discipline

Bob Campbell has been a guest blogger for a couple of weeks now. We are both Presbyterian ministers and have been discussing theological issues and what not.

It is "Conversations with Bob" and you can check to the right for the entire conversation. Please join in!


Thank you for your kind words at the beginning of your post and your thoughtful response. Let me start with the controversial stuff for once.

Yep, I sure did write what you quoted from my blog. Besides my wife and one other person I think you are the only person who’s read it! Of course I invite all those who watch and comment on this conversation to zip over and comment on my blog! Why let John have all the fun and notoriety?

I do think the context has some bearing on the issue. I said:

I know what I am about to say will cause an outcry, but as I read the Bible, the text says that God does not bless such behavior. Besides the passages that talk specifically about homosexual sexual behavior, there is a heterosexual theme in the Bible, from the first chapters of Genesis through the final chapters of Revelation. God creates man and woman for each other. Prophets and apostles and poets write about the relationship between God and Israel and God and the Church in analogy to marriage between one man and one woman. The Bible even has a rather racy book about heterosexual love in it! Nowhere is there any blessing of homosexual sexual relationships.

Some might think that I should have included this in the section under sin. I include it in the category of serious error because, if a leader in the Church tells someone that their sin is not sin, that leader endangers the eternal life of that person. We have to remember that Paul does say that several categories of people, “Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.” (I Cor. 6:9b-10, NRSV) If the translators of the NRSV have translated this passage correctly, (and frankly I think they mistranslated “male prostitutes: it should read the soft man, referring to the one who is penetrated in a homosexual sexual act) then several categories of people are in danger of not inheriting the kingdom of God. (And yes, I wish we were talking about the greedy! Why do we Americans worry so much about sex and not about our consumerist addictions?) The pastor who preaches or teaches or counsels that one can ignore a strong warning against certain sinful behavior in Scripture commits a serious error.

I put the context in not to go down the road to talking about homosexual orientation and sexual behavior. I think you and I have a lot to talk about before we talk about that. I wanted to note my concern. I understand that you will not agree with my interpretation of Scripture or with my application. You may not even agree that my concern has merit. My concern is that pastors might counsel or advise people in such a way that the people they counsel or advise might not inherit the Kingdom of God. Please note that I am just as concerned about the adulterer, the greedy, the idolater, the robber and everyone else in Paul’s list. And yes, I know that heterosexual sexual sin is much more common than homosexual sexual sin. After all, there are a lot more of us.

Having said all of that, I think the chance of someone being disciplined in any manner in the PCUSA for saying that homosexual sexual behavior between two people who have made a life commitment to each other is right between slim and none.

If we put aside the question of whether two people of the same sex having sex with each other is sinful or not there are still several theological and ecclesiastical issues in what we both have brought up.

There is the question of the Bible: its authority and how we interpret and apply it today. I’m going to save that one for a later post.

There is the question we have been talking about off and on: the question of life after death. Since I believe that there is life after death either in the Kingdom of God or separation from God, I think what we do as the Church here on earth is very important. The Church has Good News for the world. Part of that good news is about life in this world, how Jesus, through the Holy Spirit can release us from the power of sin. To use the traditional terms, the good news for this life is about justification and sanctification. Jesus releases us from the power of Satan, takes the judgment that we deserve upon himself, reconciles us with the Father, to use just three of the images used in the New Testament to talk about justification. Personally I don’t think one image is more important than another. I think the subject is too big to talk about with one image so we have to use them all.

Then there is sanctification, a lost art, for the most part, in the American Church. Bonhoeffer talks about cheap grace. Cheap grace offers forgiveness with no change. Jesus’ first sayings in the Synoptic Gospels are calls to repentance, which includes sorrow for past sin, seeking forgiveness and seeking, through the power of the Holy Spirit to change the way we live. We have found a great deal we agree on when it comes to the need for sanctification in relation to social ethics. I suspect we would also find a great deal of agreement concerning personal ethics. Sanctification should include the strong attempt to stop gossiping. It should include careful use of God’s earth, careful choice of words when angry and a whole lot of other changes in behaviors. Part of the task of the Church is to disciple all of the members of the Church so that we will grow in our holy behavior. And we have to do this with great humility. The best context I can think of to work on sanctification is in a small group where there is trust and confidentiality so that each person in the group can talk about their sins, know that the rest of the group will prayer for each member, and then ask how each member is doing at changing their behavior. All are equal in such a group because all are sinners.

Part of the good news is, and the original context is very important as you have pointed out, that no matter what the oppressors may do to us in this world, God’s Kingdom will ultimately win out, and all those who died holding on to their faith, particularly those who were tortured and killed for refusing to worship Caesar and insisting that Jesus was Lord, will have life in the Kingdom coming. The early Church depended on that promise and we need to depend on that promise today.

The Reformation Confessions in the Book of Confessions talk about the Keys of the Kingdom. The writers meant that the Church in general and pastors in particular have the awesome responsibility of opening the doors of the Kingdom to those around them. Pastors are to so preach, teach, advise and live so that they hold open the doors of the Kingdom to those around them and invite them in. Church members are to so live and speak so that others can see and hear the Kingdom in the things that they do and say. But if a pastor preaches a false gospel, say that the pastor says if you just live a good life everything will be fine, the pastor closes the door of the Kingdom. If a pastor says that getting drunk every night is no big deal, the pastor, according to Paul, closes the door of the Kingdom.

Thus while being Church should be fun it is also a very big task, one that we cannot do without the Holy Spirit working through us and sometimes working in spite of us.

On to discipline.

I think we can agree that the Church has the right and responsibility to set the qualifications for membership and officers. It says so right in the Book of Order. (For those of you watching this conversation that don’t have a Book of Order you can download a copy at It has been rated in trials as being significantly more effective in causing sleep than Ambien!) We will probably disagree about what those qualifications are. The bar for membership, according to the questions we ask new members, is deceptively low. We ask, “Who is your Lord and Savior?” And, “Do you trust him? Do you intend to be his disciple?” This, I believe, is the beginning of discipline, or maybe we should call it discipling. Welcoming people into the Church as members and having some standards for membership begins discipling.

So if someone came to my congregation’s Session and said they wanted to join the church but didn’t believe in God we would welcome them to participate in all the activities of the congregation and love them but we wouldn’t receive them as a member. Membership is reserved for those who will affirm that Jesus is Lord and Savior.

This doesn’t mean that the person who doesn’t believe in God should not also be welcomed, loved and encouraged to participate in almost all the activities of the Church. After all, what exactly will that person who doesn’t believe in God be prevented from doing in a Presbyterian congregation? She/he won’t be allowed to vote in a congregational meeting. Just think she/he won’t even have to attend congregational meetings! He/she won’t be able to serve as an officer. Frankly I find a lot of members diving out of the way when the nominating committee calls! Who actually wants to go to session meetings every month for 3 years? Sometimes I think the desire to hold office should be a reason for disqualification! (I particularly think that about those who run for president and congress! Wouldn’t that change the nature of American politics!)

Notice I said the bar for membership is deceptively low. Saying, “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior and I trust him,” if properly understood, is a monumental thing to say. To say that means I must take up my cross and follow Jesus wherever he may lead, and that includes a lot of the things we’ve talked about and agreed about in our posts. Discipling means working hard to be the people that Jesus wants us to be and working hard to help each other at this task because we can’t do it alone.

This all sounds really serious and it is. It doesn’t mean that Jesus doesn’t want me to have fun. Church, while serious, should also be joyful and fun. I think Jesus had a great sense of humor. His parables show his sense of humor. His choice of disciples showed his sense of humor! I mean, Jesus chose a man with a serious case of foot in mouth disease, (Peter) as one of his closest disciples. Some of the things Jesus said or is purported to have said to his enemies are a scream!

In any case, discipling each other means knowing what God wants us to do and what God wants us to stop doing and helping each other in the task.

Discipline at presbytery. We do discipline when we receive someone into the presbytery or don’t receive them. That’s why we ask about their lives and listen to their statements of faith. Is this person ready to serve as a pastor? Making that decision is a very important responsibility. So, have I voted against ordaining someone or receiving someone into a presbytery? Yes. I think about 3 times in 28 years. I did vote to have a friend of mine dropped from the roll of candidates because he wasn’t willing to ordain married women. (This was back in 1980.) Please don’t ask me for an explanation of why he believed single women could be ordained but not married women! The one case that I remember in which I voted against someone for reception into membership in a presbytery was when the person clearly did not believe that Jesus was divine. Human they could agree with, divine, no. Each of us at a presbytery meeting get to decide what we think is essential. The doctrines of the trinity and the full divinity and humanity of Christ are among my essentials. The presbytery voted to receive the person anyway. I was the only one who voted against.

The joy of being Presbyterian is that we make such decisions as a group. No one will be received into a presbytery or refused reception on my say so. We believe a group is more likely to perceive the will of God than an individual. I think that’s wonderful! I’m not in charge! The other joy of being a Presbyterian is the announcement in at least one of the Confessions that “Synods and Councils do err!” So while a presbytery may make a decision we all have to live with the humility that we may have misunderstood the will of God. Don’t ya love it? We don’t trust any one person with too much power and still we admit as a group we make mistakes.

The other place I see a need for discipline about theological matters is found right in the questions we answer when ordained or installed. The first one reads:

Do you trust in Jesus Christ your Savior, acknowledge him Lord of all and Head of the Church, and through him believe in one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

If someone answers the question, “I don’t,” I suspect the ordination would stop right there. And if someone out and out claims they don’t believe this anymore, I believe that person should step down from office or that there is cause to remove that person from office. But I don’t hear either of us saying we don’t believe this statement. Instead we are trying to explain what we meant when we said “I do” at our installations. That is the down and dirty work of theology, not the short statement but the explanation of what the statement means.

And this is why John and I talk.

Grace and Peace