Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Static or Dynamic?

How shall we approach and understand Holy Scripture? I wish this were an easy question but alas it is a question which divides Christianity into quite unfortunate camps each with varying answers to the question, each with its own set of interpretive guidelines (hermeneutic). The historic position of the Episcopal Church, springing as it does from Anglican heritage, is that faith and belief must be based upon a dynamic tension between Holy Scripture, tradition (the magisterium or historic teaching of the Church) and reason. Exalting one aspect of this trinity of tests for faith and belief over the others has proved throughout the five hundred years or so of Anglican teaching to be folly, and has resulted more than once in schism. Those who wish to rely solely upon Holy Scripture have found themselves to be at odds with those who prefer to emphasize the traditions of the church Catholic. There were reasons for the Acts of Uniformity and of Supremacy in 1559 -- people were losing their lives. Here in the United States, several hundred years later The Reformed Episcopal Church was born of the tensions between the Protestant influences and what today we call the Oxford Movement. As I write these thoughts the Archbishop of Canterbury has expressed concerns about the ability of the Anglican Communion to sustain the differing expressions of faith and belief which currently exist under the Anglican umbrella -- expressions of faith which appear to be based upon differing biblical hermeneutics.

It is my presupposition that our understanding of Holy Scripture must be dynamic. It is insufficient except as an historic exercise to read sacred scripture through the eyes of the Abrahamic Hebrews, or of the Mosaic Hebrews, or of the Diasporic Hebrews, or even of the Apostolic Hebrews at the time of Jesus. It is not sufficient to think that the Christians present for the great 4th century Councils of the church were more understanding in their approach to sacred writ than are we today. To the contrary, we have many more hundreds of years of both information and learning to apply to Holy Scripture than did the Patristics. I write not just about the availability of technology which enables and enhances learning, but also of the discovery of ancient manuscripts unavailable to earlier ages -- scrolls, codexes and other resources which help to inform our study. We can compare and analyze sources, texts and apocryphal materials in ways unknown and undreamed by our ancestors in the faith.

There is a translation of Holy Scripture entitled, "The Way". Apart from the fact the Holy Scripture does not need a new name, I find that appellation to be disconcerting, even heart-breaking. It suggests that there is a single way to the exclusion of all others not only in matters of faith, but also in matters of text. Such an assumption is nonsense. There is no "once and for all time" meaning to sacred scripture, no one "way", but rather a developing understanding which taxes not only our ability to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest, but also our ability to reason and be faithful in our time to the examples of Jesus. To think otherwise is to suggest that the Holy Spirit no longer moves in our midst, that divine revelation has ended and that, indeed, God is no longer active in our lives. It is antithetical to belief in God to posit that divine revelation ended with the finalization of the canon of scripture as we know it today. Similarly, it is nothing less than idolatrous to suggest that several verses from the Bible designed to address the living of life in a different age and time obtain today in the face of vastly differing circumstances, and often it flies in the face of the teachings of Jesus, himself. (I have often wondered why those who call themselves biblically fundamental Christians take such delight in eating bacon with their eggs.) It is critically important to study the messages of the various books which comprise the Bible in the contexts of their development. With regard to the Tenach, in order to understand any given passage, we must ask, at a minimum, from what part of Hebrew history does the writing come, what issues are being addressed, and what form of literary writing is being used? With regard to the Christian Testament, shall not we inform our understanding with information about authorship, date of creation and comparisons with other readily available historic data?

As the database of knowledge expands, our approach to Holy Scripture must remain dynamic. We have nothing to fear and everything to gain by learning all we can not only about the forefathers of our faith but also about the sacred writings which inform us even today. To be ordained in the Episcopal Church, one must profess a wonderfully expressed affirmation about the Bible, in essence that Holy Scripture contains all things necessary for salvation. I believe that today just as I did when I affirmed it thirty seven years ago. To affirm that, however, is not to say that everything in Holy Scripture is necessary for salvation, or to suggest that we should stop reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting the Bible with every tool at our disposal. Those of us who wish to follow "the way" must of necessity approach Scripture, to borrow a turn of phrase from the United Methodists' 2001 campaign, with open hearts and open minds, ever aware of the grace and power of the Spirit continually to inform our faith and belief.

The only credible answer to the question is: "dynamic"