I suggested in my previous ACT 3 Weekly article (October 1, 2012) that Acts 15 gives us good reason to see how Christian theology and practice can move beyond the bare reading of biblical texts.
The Problem of the Purist
By nature I tend to be a purist. I love baseball. I’ve loved it since I was a child. I understand the nuances and rhythms of the game. I also have a hard time adapting to things like the DH (Designated Hitter). Frankly, I hate the DH! I am also struggling with the expanded post-season playoff system. When it comes to baseball I am a purist without really trying to be one. Maybe that comes with my age but I think I tended to be a baseball purist in my youth. I wanted to see things clearly and not mess this great game up with too many changes. Baseball is a game of statistics and the more you mess with the sport the less meaningful these statistics become. Purists have to be right when it comes to baseball debates! I say so.
My purist impulse is strong. But is was even stronger when it came to my faith and the role of the Bible. I grew up on the B-I-B-L-E. I was taught that every question I had could, ultimately, be answered by the Bible or at least by a good and necessary inference from the Bible. I was further taught that the way to arrive at a right understanding of the Bible was to use the right tools. These tools can be learned and good seminaries give them to you. If you study the text, compare it with other texts, then carefully and meticulously exegete the meaning of the words, understand the grammar, syntax and sentence structure, you could pretty clearly determine what God was saying. I learned this method very well. I did not question it because it seemed consistent with my purist “Bible only” impulse.
A purist desires that an item remain true to its essence and free from adulterating or diluting influences. This sounds pretty noble to me, especially as a firm adherent to the primary role that Scripture plays in daily Christian life. The word purist may be used either as a pejorative or complimentary term, depending on the context. According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary the term dates from 1706 and is defined as “a person who adheres strictly and often excessively to a tradition,” especially “one preoccupied with the purity of a language and its protection from the use of foreign or altered forms.” I am using the term in this original sense when I refer to how to understand the Bible. I saw no place for any source of Christian understanding but the “Bible only.” So long as the Bible was interpreted by fairly rigid principles I could get the real meaning of the text and then apply it consistently, with a little help from teachers I esteemed highly. I would have said, to put this very simply, “Stick to the Bible and you will never go astray!”
The Work (Voice) of the Holy Spirit
As we saw last week (Acts 15), the Spirit of God is active in the life of the church and the world. His voice cannot be reduced to the “Bible alone.” This statement strikes fear in many hearts.
We find proof of this in Acts 15:16-18, where we have a quotation from Amos that was spoken by James, to the church in Jerusalem. Here is the way Luke records this text as delivered by James:
6 After this I will return
and rebuild David’s fallen tent.
Its ruins I will rebuild,
and I will restore it,
17 that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord,
even all the Gentiles who bear my name,
says the Lord, who does these things—
18 things known from long ago.
If you go back to Amos 9:12, where James got this text, you discover that Amos envisions a time when “all the nations” will become involved in bearing the name of the Lord. Most biblical scholars agree that Amos had in mind a time when the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants would be fulfilled in the Messiah. The Messiah would reign over Israel’s former enemies. Edom is symbolic of those enemies, thus the phrase in Amos that says they, “may possess the remnant of Edom.”
In Acts 15 James says that the Messiah, whom they all believed was Jesus of Nazareth, would come to “rebuild David’s fallen tent” so that the “rest of humanity may seek the Lord . . . even all the Gentiles who bear my name.” Some read this as a three-fold sequence about how the end times will unfold in distinct stages. I think the better reading is far less specific and far less problematic. James is simply saying that God’s intent all along was to save Gentiles! (This simpler reading is much more consistent with the context in Acts 15.)
So what is going on here is “a dialogue” with Scripture that takes an Old Testament prophetic text and turns it into a clear command about the evangelization of Gentiles and the inclusion of non-Jews in the church without their having to adopt Jewish life and practice. This is not in the text but the dialogue resulted in this correct conclusion.
The decision made by the leaders, and the church, was a consensus one that they reached in the ministry of the Spirit. But I suggest that this could not have been done on the basis of a biblical text alone. The text in Amos was important in the dialogue but the Spirit “pushed” the early church to move beyond what the Bible literally said. In addition, the cultural context suggests, at least to faithful readers of the Old Testament, that the decision they reached could not have been based on the “Bible only.”
The Spirit Cannot Be Controlled
Old Testament scholar Peter Enns rightly suggests that if the Holy Spirit is bound by the “Bible only,” then the Spirit can be controlled by our exegesis. He believes this is “the temptation for all Christian demagogues.” I believe this narrative proves his point. And I believe churches are littered by the damage caused by demagogues who use this “Bible only” approach.
The Holy Spirit is not limited to Bible texts. This is not to say the Holy Spirit works against the text. It is to say that we cannot control the Spirit by our exegesis. When we try to control the text we create classrooms, and then we call these class meetings the church at worship and prayer. I know this firsthand because I did this as a preacher. I believed that my role was to study the text carefully, preach precisely, and then try to never utter one word that went beyond the “meaning” of the words I had studied in the Bible. The church I led became an active listening audience as I expounded the correct understanding of the Bible week-by-week. I was sure that I had the answers, or could find the right answer, so long as I could appeal to my correct understanding of the Bible. My understanding was rooted in the certainty of a modern understanding of facts and how they can all be added together to create the sum total of what we call the truth.
All Knowledge Is Not in the Scripture Itself
Pete Enns suggests, based on his review of Kent Sparks’ new book, Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), that Sparks is on to something when he says there are four voices that we need to heed in understanding the Bible. First,he says there is the voice of the Holy Spirit. Second, there is the voice of the cosmos (“the heavens declare the glory of God,” Psalm 19). Says Enns, “The implication for Sparks is that every area of human inquiry ‘may provide vital resources for theological reflection.’ He then applies this to the on-going debate among some Christians over evolution.” Scripture is not seeking to give us every type of knowledge, thus we do not need to challenge every scientific theory or hypothesis with a “Bible only” response.
The third voice is the voice of tradition (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 1 Corinthians 11:2). This voice reminds us that no single authoritarian voice, denomination, or pastor speaks for God with fullness. Rather, we have (Sparks) “a family of closely related traditions that have different but overlapping judgments about Scripture, theology, and Christian experience” (Sacred Word, 127). This is, frankly, a liberating truth to me at this stage of my life.
Finally, we have the voice of experience. Sparks intends this in the broadest sense to include things like religious experience (mysticism comes to mind) and the experience of everyday life. Experience, understood in this way, clearly welcomes the Holy Spirit into the everyday living of our lives. Peter Enns concludes, “Our theological reflections are never divorced from who we are.” Amen!
If this seems dangerous, that’s because it is! Radicals can use this thinking to go off the rails in a heartbeat. Recent Protestant history is littered with such train wrecks. But I believe that there is an equally grave danger in the “Bible only” view. One of the dangers is to create authority figures who “know” what God requires and what we should all believe because they study the Bible and explain clearly what it means.
In Protestant tradition there have been two highly developed ways of saying the same thing that I have sought to explain in these last two articles. One is called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (Scripture, tradition, reason and experience). The other is the Anglican three-legged stool (Scripture, reason and tradition). In both of these traditions Scripture was always kept in the highest place, but the wisdom of not falling into the “Bible only” trap is evident here. I believe it is this kind of Christian thinking about the Bible and tradition that we must regain if we are to use the Scriptures properly in the active life of Christians and the modern church.