In My Own Language

Its Bible Sunday in New Zealand this weekend, and I'm looking forward to writing the sermon, even though its been a messy week with a family member being admitted to hospital. I'm looking forward to getting stuck into the message, because preaching on the Bible is one of my favourite topics. Of course every sermon I prepare is founded on the Bible, but I especially like the opportunity to preach on the role of the Scriptures in our daily life. Paul told Timothy that the Scripture is "profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness." of course he was referring at that stage to the Hebrew Scriptures but evangelicals today apply the teaching to the New Testament Canon as well.

However I think its sad that churches today don't regularly read the scriptures at worship, and sermons often tend to be on a theme rather than a passage of the Bible. As a Presbyterian by heritage and a Baptist in my current role, I find that deeply disturbing. Our forbears in faith fought, sometimes to the death, for us to have the right the read the scriptures in our own language, and that is a privilege and a responsibility. A privilege because we who speak English (and 450 other languages) are blessed to have the whole Bible in our native tongue, while speakers of 6450 other languages do not, despite the best efforts of sterling organisations like the Bible Society. And a responsibility because God who has chosen to reveal himself to the world in Jesus Christ, the living Word, also uses the written Word that bears witness to Christ and to the Holy Spirit's involvement in our world, to speak into our lives.

Christians have a variety of perspectives on the notion of Scripture as "the Word of God." At one end of the spectrum is an extreme literalism, which says that every word of scripture (in its original languages) is divinely given, to the extent that the Bible is totally without error - the Inerrancy Viewpoint. This view is held by many good and faithful Christians, including some in our own church, but to my mind it does require some linguistic contortions; see, for example, books like Bible Difficulties Explained, which assumes that we have to "explain" every Bible inconsistency. Did Jesus heal one blind man or two? Did he say to take a staff or not to? In what order did the temptations of Christ occur? These matters are presented by the four gospel writers in differing ways, just as the multiple witnesses to a traffic accident often "see" quite differently. For me, these differences bear testimony to the thoroughly human writers God used in his revelation of himself, and encourages me that he uses my human talents too. Clearly I do not hold to the Inerrancy point of view. At the other end of the spectrum is an extreme liberalism or naturalism, which sees the Bible as just one of a number of inspiring historical texts, such as the Bhagavadgita. Among Christians, echoes of this view can be detected in those who see the writers of the Bible as Spirit-filled believers whose words are not qualitatively different than the inspiring words of a Spirit-guided follower of Jesus today.

However that view, I believe, takes no cognisance of what the Bible writers, and Jesus himself, say about Scriptures, and of the role of the Holy Spirit in the determination of the Biblical Canon - the array of books accorded the status of Scripture by the early church. Prolonged and contentious though that debate was, it was a response to the Church Fathers' conviction that there should be a New Testament Canon, and that there are writings which are given to play a special role in God's revelation of his will for our lives. We do believe God speaks our language. So where do I stand on this inspiration continuum, between the two poles of literalism and naturalism?

I have to confess to being somewhat contextual on this issue. If I am writing a sermon for a group of Baptists, that is a different theological context than leading devotions for a Church School Trust Board. If I am leading an Alpha group, I may use the Bible differently than I do in my personal devotions. But overall. I guess I hold to the view described by evangelical theologians Boyd and Eddy as the Infallibility View, which is that the written Word is unfailingly trustworthy in matters of faith and practice. That leaves open a number of areas such as the mechanism of Creation, which I confess will be one of the first questions I ask the Lord when I see him face to face - having in my callow youth failed a university Zoology paper by answering evolution questions with verses from the Bible and quotes from The Genesis Flood. I am not so dogmatic now but I still have big issues with the Science I was taught.

That said, I am not a "young earth" literalist, and my grandson and I have no problems learning about dinosaurs and other prehistoric events, even though there is little wiggle room for these in the literal biblical record. My theology focusses on the integrity of the Bible as revealing God's purposes for salvation. As such it may contain factual errors (did dead bodies really break out of tombs as Matthew says, or is this his typical hyperbole?) and perplexing discrepancies (when did Jesus cleanse the Temple? how many women washed his feet with their hair?) But it perfectly reveals what humans need to know about God in huis redemptive love, through Jesus Christ. As an evangelical, I tend to hold to traditional views of authorship and date, unlike my colleagues who follow Karl Barth, in suggesting divine inspiration occurs in us as we encounter Christ in the Word. My tradition uses the expression the Scriptures "contain the Word of God", not to literalistically imply that some words are therefore not God's, but to acknowledge the mystery of the Scriptures and the need for the Spirit's help in interpretation.

While researching my sermon, which is probably going to be called "God is the Hero" (of the metanarrative that is salvation history) I have found a great article by NT Wright, Bishop of Durham, on the Authority of the Bible. I have only skimmed it so far, but intend to read it thoroughly today - so by next week I may have modified or at least reframed my theology of Scripture! One point that grabbed my attention was Wright's critique of evangelicals who use the Bible "like an unsorted edition of Daily Light." Daily Light, you may know, is a devotional book compiled by nineteenth-century Christian bookstore owner Samuel Bagster, who with his children set about linking individual Scripture verses, by theme, in a daily format. I love this little book and God has been gracious to speak to me from it many times, but it is no substitiute for conscious methodical study of the scriptures. So when Tom Wright mentions using the Bible this way - as if it were an unsorted collection of "neat little devotional chunks" - I know what he means. To do so does violence to the concept of Biblical genre and to the reality of history. It is unhelpful and unsafe to use the Bible like a 'Pick'n'mix bar' and simply select favourite verses that represent a theme or a particular view. Christians who do so often have little grasp of the grand story of Scripture - the big, deep "creation, fall, redemption" story. And that makes it hard for them them to see God in the unfamiliar territory of the Word, as well as in their favourite loci.

Wright says the authority of the Scripture is founded in the authority of God, and that, I guess, is why I think the Bible's central message is that "God is the Hero". While the understanding of God's story as found in Scripture can guide us infallibly into relationship with him, and enable us to grow into the likeness of Chirst, we should be wary of making the Bible more than it really is - of Bibliolatry. One English church leader (Paul Beasley-Murray) warns Baptists today not to "imprison Gods word in cages of orthodoxy", and reminds us that it was a Baptist who first said "God has still more light and truth to break forth from his Word" (eighteenth-century Separatist John Robinson). Our Protestant traditions are based on a radical re-reading of the Scriptures which brought dire conflict with the received wisdom of the day. God still speaks our language; we should be open to the power of scripture to disturb and challenge us.

Bible Society research shows 68% of New Zealanders own a Bible, but only 25% ever read it, and even fewer say it influences their daily lives. Those who identidy themselves as Chrstian read the Bible more often but even so, 41% of Christians who own a Bible (there are some here who do not!!) only read it occasionally. And 60% of Kiwi Christians never discuss the Bible with others! Bible Sunday is an opportunity for churches to give thanks for the Scriptures, to recognise their importance and to encourage their use. Lets do that, but lets allow the written Word to speak into our lives, and not simply exploit it as the slave of our favourite personal convictions.

To Chew Over: Where does your view of Scripture lie on the inspiration continuum? What is God saying to you today about using the Bible to get to know "the Hero"?

Holy words long preserved
For our walk in this world.
They resound with God's own heart.
O let the ancient words impart.
Words of life, words of hope,
Give us strength, help us cope.
In this world, where'er we roam,
Ancient words will guide us home.

Ancient words, ever true,
Changing me and changing you.
We have come with open hearts.
O let the ancient words impart.

Holy words of our faith
Handed down to this age
Came to us through sacrifice.
O heed the faithful words of Christ!
Holy words long preserved
For our walk in this world.
They resound with God's own heart.
O let the ancient words impart.
Michael W Smith.