Shuck and Jive

Friday, February 03, 2012

What Presbyterians Believe (Except Me) Part 4

A recent post, Doing My Best to Undermine the Authority of Scripture, apparently raised an eyebrow or two.  I think I hit a nerve.    If our denomination is not splitting, it is at least flaking off at the right edge.      There are a significant number of congregations leaving.   I think a question to ask is,
"Why?  Why are these congregations leaving?"
A second question to ask is,
"What can we learn from this?"
The congregations that are leaving are telling us why.    This is from the Layman about the First Presbyterian Church of Orlando:
The 2011 approval of Amendment 10A and the passage of the new Form of Government (nFOG) topped the list of factors leading to FPCO’s departure in what many similar churches see as symptoms of a serious underlying problem in the denomination: variant views of the authority of Scripture.
 You saw what I saw, right?  
...a serious underlying problem in the denomination: variant views of the authority of Scripture.
Yeah, that is what I saw, too.  Authority of Scripture.

We all know that we are supposed to affirm, at least by vow and theory, that the Bible is authoritative, the Word of God.   But what does that mean?   Is it communication from a divine being?   Those leaving the church complain that the PC(USA) doesn't believe this anymore. The liberals and moderates complain that that isn't the case.  They say they believe in the authority of scripture.  

I am nobody's judge, but I would have to side with the conservatives on this one.   Now I know I am the 1% (See this chart).    In 2008 1% of pastors checked this box, "The Bible is not the word of God."   That would be me.  I am a proud one-percenter. 

I am one of the few PC(USA) clergy (at least that I know about), who admits publicly that the Bible is not a communication from a divine being.  I can play with metaphors, like "Word of God" like the rest of my colleagues to get through the vows, but there is nothing in the Bible, nor is the Bible as a whole, special revelation.  

Now I cannot prove that a divine being, spirit, or presence didn't hover over, blow upon, or otherwise inspire the various authors, but, is it necessary to think so?   Isn't it interesting enough that human beings came up with it?

I know we are not supposed to say that.   In fact, we clergy in particular are supposed to work our tails off and tie ourselves in knots to find a way to affirm the authority of scripture.   But it is getting tedious, isn't it?  It is getting harder and harder to defend the incredible.   

I cannot think of one good thing that comes from this notion.   I can certainly name a number of harmful things that have come from it.  This is not an abstract theological point I am bringing up.

Churches are splitting over this.   Gay and lesbian people have been denied ordination because of the authority of scripture.    For many, the Bible trumps science regarding how humans arrived.   The authority of scripture gives people a pass to do things or say things that they could never do or say if they had to rely on reason and logic to make their case. 

There is a reason for the doctrine of biblical authority.  That reason is power.  It is the power to control access to institutional goods. I think it might be a good time for us to admit to what we don't believe or do believe.  There is reason for the institution to seek clarity on this.

I think it is time for the PC(USA) to revisit all of its beliefs, but this is a good place to start.   The churches are telling us that they are leaving because of "variant views of the authority of scripture."  I think we should believe them when they say that.    

I think that people on the left have been leaving the church for a lot longer.  These are the folks who in decades past might have been part of a mainline church such as the PC(USA) but no longer find it credible.  Bishop Spong calls them the church alumni association.    If you want a snapshot of who these folks are, listen to my interview with Sarah Sentilles

What can we learn from this?

I am going to ask some questions and write some posts about the authority of scripture.  I want to know:
  1. What is meant by the phrase, "the authority of scripture"?
  2. How is the Bible authoritative?
  3. Why should the PC(USA) continue to affirm this doctrine?
  4. What is lost or gained if we let it go?
Please give me your best reasons, colleagues.   If you know of articles, books, or blog posts, that you find convincing, please let me know.    Make your own case.  At the very least, the Presbyterian Church website could include an article in the "What Presbyterians Believe" section that might address the above questions.

I still stand by what I wrote in 2005:
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.
To be clear, I am not so concerned about keeping the people on the right who are leaving.  Those on the right see the issue as the authority of scripture.  It is time for the rest of us to admit that, dismiss the doctrine, and move into the future.


  1. While it is, I suppose, polite to try to take them at their word that they're not leaving because of 10A, I find it incredibly hard to do so.

    They threaten for 30 years to leave if LGBT people can get ordained. LGBT people can get ordained. Now a few of them are leaving. Seems pretty obvious to me.

    But let's, as you have done, give them the benefit of the doubt about their reasons. The problem with that is that they don't actually understand the phrase "authority of Scripture." What they mean is that we're supposed to worship the Bible (the old G.60106B language is pretty clear about living in obedience to Scripture rather than in obedience to God.)

    So, even if it is about what they say it is about, it really isn't. :)

    I don't have a problem with the authority of Scripture. But I do have a problem with BFTSs who want to proclaim themselves Bishops and crown the Book of Order as their Pope.

    It is the existential nature of fundamentalism that whenever a fundy uses the term "authority of Scripture" what they mean is "Authority of ME."

  2. I am one of the few PC(USA) clergy (at least that I know about), who admits publicly that the Bible is not a communication from a divine being.

    Wow, thanks for admitting this. You constantly amaze me!

    I have never believed that Scripture has to be either historically true or Divinely written to be eternally relevant.

  3. Several of your recent posts have got my mind jogging but now serving a congregation in your old neck of the woods, the task of preaching particularily interests me. I suppose I tend to use the Bible as the context for conversation, that whether the text holds up or fails to in its assertions, it invaraibly seems to hit on some basic human concern that is worth digging into. In that the Bible, as a common language (or common background, or at least a source we can work through given our history in the west) provides a basis to together wrestle over big questions. I wonder if i skirt the authority question or not but some food for thought

  4. People who are always harping on biblical authority consider themselves to be biblical authorities,and it's more about their authority than the Bible.

  5. Love your project. The question that needs answering is "What is our authority for living and dying and seeking meaning about it all?" Some people would be willing to abandon revelation and divinity if they thought they could land softly somewhere else. Wisdom isn't sufficient for many people. Where else does authority for us lie?

  6. Reverend Sax question is right-on. Second part: What becomes of the church? Who gets to call themselves "Christian"?

    These are the questions raging today, along with the "authority of scripture" -- like, whose scripture? Hafiz? Rumi? Black Elk? Bill Moyers?

    Courage in the struggle, John. One of these days I'll drive down I-81 and knock on your door!

  7. Thanks all.

    I think one task of religion might be to encourage one another to create, refine, and trust an internal moral compass. Most of us have one and can somehow manage to have a meaningful life without submitting to self-proclaimed prophets who will happily tell us God's Word.

    I would also say that there are people who cannot tell right from wrong without an external authority promising either rewards or punishments. I would encourage them to join this new Presbyterian denomination. The downside of that is that when external authorities tell you what is right from wrong and demand obedience, you can end up with oppression. Be careful to whom you hand your autonomy.

    As far as soft landings are concerned, I cannot guarantee that. There comes a point at which not jumping is simply no longer working and you jump whether the landing is soft or hard.

    That is a great question @Rev Sax and definitely worth a chapter in what looks like an upcoming book!

  8. "one task of religion" -- excellent point. I've copied it out and saved it for later.

  9. @Dwight


    Just to state again, my issue is first the theological claim put on the collection, Word of God, that assumes it somehow has an authority that is not of this world or is somehow superior to other writings in kind.

    Second, the claim that the Bible (or its authors) are automatically authoritative about any topic, needs to be challenged. I say anything in the Bible (and in any literature) is open to critique.

    That said, yes, the Bible obviously gets a hearing because it is the dominant text of Western history and has influence today. It would be foolish to ignore the Bible. Not necessarily because it is wise, but because it is influential.

    But again, it is particular to a history and a culture. It does not speak of the human condition in an all-encompassing way, but of particular patriarchal cultural history.

    Even with all of that, I find interesting stuff there. I find the Bible an excellent tool to engage the congregation about meaning and commitments. That comes not from acquiescing to it, but by reading it critically.

    That is what you are doing!

    That is what most of us do in a practical way. I think it is time to say it.

  10. @Sea Raven

    One of the ways I undermine the authority of scripture in my church is to use other writings and label them SCRIPTURE in the bulletin.

  11. @benthinken and @Alan

    The "authority of scripture" crowd is arguably concerned with power. If your opinion is weak bang on the pulpit and shout like hell or offer a prooftext from the Bible and say it is God's opinion, not yours.

    What frustrates me about liberals and moderates is that they play the game as the fundies have set it up. The fundies come up with some nonsense (about biblical sexuality or whatever) and then come up with a bunch of stupid rules about how we should deny equality to some people in the present.

    That is beyond absurd. And the liberals and moderates play along, debating them and parsing Greek verbs about what "the Bible says" about this.

    On one level, I get that. You don't want these biblical authors slandered and misused without a fight.

    On another level, because it was written by human beings in a particular time and place and with values and motivations conditioned by their knowledge, culture, and worldview, they wrote stuff that we wisely reject.

    Metaphors such as Word of God and doctrines such as authority of scripture make it difficult to provide a critique of and a rejection of the viewpoints of some of these authors (unless, of couse, we nuance those metaphors and doctrines). That freedom to provide critique and to reject is something we need to do on order to fulfill what I think is an important task of religion, to help people develop an internal moral compass.

  12. I have often said that the PCUSA was imprisoned by "Word of God" theology that we received first from Westminster Confession and then from Barth. Westminster begins with scripture -- everything we know comes from scripture first! Barth turned that on its head by saying, no, Christ comes first - he is the Word of God, scripture is the "Word of God written." And our sermons are "the Word of God proclaimed." The conservatives don't really buy this from Barth. But what if we could more clearly identify and express what it is in the gospel or in "Christ" (the myth and the historical person) that might be somehow essential to us and formative of everything else.

    As I hear and read Spong and Borg, they play the "love" card. It's a little squishy for me, unless it is stated in the form of a justice foundation.

    I like your "task of religion." And in the world as it is today we have to enlarge the canon to all scriptural traditions, supplemented by wisdom from many sources, as you do in your church (and as the Unitarians do).

    The ultimate problem for us is: Is this enough without the magic to hold together communities like churches? Or do they require higher authorities based on fear?

  13. Well, I would say that the difference between the fundies and the liberals/moderates who argue with them is that, in the end, even if the liberals/moderates disagree with your take on "the authority of scripture" they liberals (and heck, even the *truly* orthodox) don't really have a problem living in the same church you're in.

    It's just the fundies who cannot tolerate a scintilla of difference in any way, ever and find difference so intollerable that they're willing to upend their churches because of the mere possibility that someone they've never met who lives a thousand miles away might be saying something with which they disagree.

  14. @Alan


    @Rev Sax

    The ultimate problem for us is: Is this enough without the magic to hold together communities like churches? Or do they require higher authorities based on fear?

    I ask that same question often.

  15. Your "task of religion" with its trust in "an internal moral compass" is right on. I think all we ever need for life is already there inside us, all the time. We can learn to trust it. I've often wondered if what we call "God" is not simply Jung's "collective unconscious." That place where we are interconnected; all one. Perhaps it is something that nourishes and sustains all of us.

  16. Why I don't share your theology...well I guess you can still call it that, at least you are brave enough to lay what you believe open to the public. I would much rather deal with an openly liberal pastor rather then a pretend consertive.

  17. Thanks @MrsReverenddoctor

    I appreciate that!