Shuck and Jive

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Heresies for Holy Week: Day 3

I decided to add one of my own heresies to the mix. A few years ago I wrote an essay for the Jesus Seminar that had to do with how the insights of biblical scholarship affected the business of the church, including preaching and worship. It was a liberating exercise for me and I will share some of what I still think is true from the paper What to Preach? The Challenge of the Jesus Seminar to Contemporary Homiletics (woot, fancy title):

I believe that many clergy are overdue for a heart to heart with their congregations about the metaphor “Word of God” especially as it applies to the Bible. I have found that this metaphor more often stops creative thought than inspires it. The question we might ask our congregations is, “If the Bible is the Word of God, what makes it so?”

Modern scholarship has eroded the foundations for this metaphor. We have come to a time in which it is incredible to assert that our canon of scripture is objectively true or authoritative for all of humanity. Appeals to the Bible’s historical or scientific accuracy are naive. The claim that our canon has been dictated or inspired by supernatural revelation amounts to little more than special pleading. There is no magic power that makes the Bible or any text within it superior, truer, or more divinely inspired that any other human writing, religious or secular. The hands of human beings through their own imaginative power made every jot and tittle of carving and of script. The Bible is a collection of the writings of humans for humans. Once we dismiss the assumption that our book or library of books is more authoritative than any other collection, we can finally take our seat around the table of humanity.

When faith communities begin demythologizing the Bible, some interesting things will happen. The Bible’s authority will shift away from the text and toward the individual interpreter or community of interpreters. No longer will the Bible be considered an authoritative source of truth that contains infallible propositions about God or the human condition. Rather, it will become a resource for wisdom. Since authority is earned by the truth it tells, the Bible will have whatever authority the individual or community gives to it. People may find through its narratives, poetry, and song, an oasis of spiritual refreshment. Or they may not. It will be up to the people (both collectively and individually) to draw out what is meaningful and good and to discard what is not meaningful and good.

The preacher’s task will be to offer permission and encouragement for the congregation to engage in this discipline of freedom. The preacher can no longer assume that within a biblical text is a Word from God that needs to be teased out through exegesis and delivered to the waiting faithful. The preacher can no longer assume that just because a text is in the Bible that it is from God or is even valuable. A preacher can, however, provide information about a text using such tools as literary and historical criticism. The preacher can also provide an opinion regarding the text’s value for the community of faith. The preacher may even use the text as an impetus to speak about a contemporary concern. But I believe it is unethical for a preacher to make the claim that what s/he is saying is true, good or of God because it is based on his or her interpretation of a biblical text. In other words, a preacher cannot use a biblical text to prove a point. Anything a preacher says must stand on its own terms. This ethic will free both the biblical text and the preacher. The text will be freed from the preacher’s misuse of it. The preacher will be freed from the constraints of needing to “preach from the Bible” or to have everything s/he says to be backed by scripture.

Preaching can do a great deal of good in a community of faith. It can inspire, comfort, challenge, and inform for the betterment of humanity. Preaching can also do a great deal of harm. The harm results not so much on the content of the message or its style of delivery as on the implied authority of the preacher because s/he supposedly preaches the Word of God. I believe that Word of God is not only a meaningless metaphor; it is also a harmful metaphor for both the Bible and the preaching act. I recommend that preachers discontinue its use and have this conversation with their congregations.

What approach, lens, angle of vision, or metaphor might we take toward the Bible that will make it a helpful resource in the Sunday morning experience? I consider the Bible to be the family history of our spiritual ancestors. It is a collection of the record of human experiences canonized by various family historians. Our family history gives us rooted-ness. We have a story. We have a past. Our ancestors do have wisdom. I believe that they caught a glimpse of the fire. If we are wise, humble, and courageous, we can see that fire as well. It is out of respect for our ancestors, our need for rooted-ness, and our need to listen to the wisdom of the ancients that we “open and read.” The advantage of this metaphor is that it allows us to appreciate that there are other families on this earth. They have family histories as well. Telling our stories to one another (without the competition about whose is more objectively authoritative) will enable us to engage more positively and peacefully with those of other faith traditions. Also, family histories are never complete. Like the genealogist who discovers great Uncle Albert, who for some reason was not mentioned in the family history, so too, scholars of Christian origins have found remnants of communities whose stories were not told, or at least told positively, in the canon of accepted lore. These “Uncle Alberts” include communities reflected in the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary and numerous others. As we discover the great diversity of our Christian past, we who are charged with adding to the family history for our descendants, will now be obligated to include these voices as well.

Careful thought must be employed regarding the use of texts from the Bible and other non-canonical literature during the Sunday Morning experience. It would help level the playing field by not elevating the canonical literature over any other reading. Also, preachers must come clean with their congregants regarding the type of literature the text they have selected represents. Simply determining if it is history or fiction is a good start. Particularly with Jesus material, the preacher needs to be honest as to whether the material is historical, legendary or if it fits some other typology.


  1. John,
    As usual your thoughts, good sense, ideas and writing work for me.

  2. It will not surprise you that I disagree with you on the Word of God part. I do agree with you on identifying the type of literature although I tend to do that when teaching rather than from the pulpit. Although I have no problem with saying "the gospel writer chose this story and put it in this place because . . ." I wouldn't describe Biblical material as fiction unless I have good archeological or literary/historical evidence. As to the gospels I have become convinced that we can't penetrate back behind the editor and distinguish real Jesus sayings and acts from false ones. There is are some things I am sure about. Mark uses the words "and immediately" as a device to connect two texts together. Most if not all of the "and immediately" are humanly impossible.

    Oh, and I think the Sermon on the Mount is a construct. And there are, I'm sure, other places where I have questions but can't name them all right now.

  3. So Bob, what does "Word of God" mean? And why should the Bible be called "Word of God?" What does that phrase do to the Bible?

  4. First I would acknowledge that the primary meaning of "Word of God" is Jesus, referred to in John as the logos of God.

    Having said that my main definition would be the one used by some of the prophets. During such and such a year the Word of God came to so and so. The Word of God then is what God intends for people to hear in what the Prophet says. Notice I didn't say that God spoke through the prophet as though the prophet was a puppet. Rather I would use the phrase "The Word of God in the words of humans."

    Beyond that I think the words of the Westminster Confession says it well, that the purpose of the Bible is to teach humans what to believe and how to behave.

    But let's never forget that the Bible, as a literary text, always must be interpreted. And sometimes we are wrong and others are right. That's the fun of being in the Church.