On the Nature of Scripture

Before beginning, I would like to echo and affirm the convictions of Christian pastor and writer Brian McLaren concerning the Bible, so there are no misunderstandings about my own motivation in this conversation:

“I believe it (the Bible) is a gift from God, to benefit us in the most important way possible: equipping us so that we can benefit others, so that we can play our part in the ongoing mission of God. My regard for the Bible is higher than ever.” Pg.177 (McLaren, 2004)

As an evangelical Christian, I have seen for many years what can happen when a doctrine of the head replaces an encounter of the heart with the message of Jesus Christ, when faith is mistaken for intellectual assent rather than the constant awareness that Christ and his infinite love and grace are present in our hearts. The result is a hardhearted kind of moralizing rather than a spiritual transformation, with the chief practice being criticism rather than compassion, with moralism placed as an obstacle to grace. Yet this is the very same characteristic that Jesus set himself against. The doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture, which was adopted in the late 19th century, was meant to be a protection of orthodoxy, but it has too often been used to promote exclusiveness and moralism at the expense of the Spirit.

In my own circle of evangelical Christianity, Scripture is often treated as a legal document; much like the US Constitution is in secular government. Evangelical theologians do not admit any ambiguity of interpretation in the Bible and probably consider it a sin to suggest there is. What I have discovered by studying other traditions is that one’s interpretation of Scripture, to some extent, always involves an unconscious emphasis on some verses and a de-emphasis of others in order to support the accepted theology of the tradition which, in the case of evangelical Christianity, often goes back to the doctrines hammered out in the Reformation, such as justification through faith alone, the authority of Scripture alone, a closed canon, and so forth; whereas the Catholic Church, with its belief that tradition is as sacred as Scripture, including the statements made by all of the ecclesiastical councils, has accumulated a theological albatross that hangs around the neck of every Catholic theologian, who must argue in agreement with every statement of doctrine or face excommunication. Hans Kung is one of several great theologians in the 20th century who were excommunicated by the Catholic Church. Many of the major Catholic doctrines were formulated in the Counter-Reformation councils, most were meant to shore up the authority of the Catholic Church—for example, as the interpreter of the Bible–and rebuke those doctrines put forward by the Reformers. Both sides condemned the other. Today, the relationship is strained, at best.

What may be needed is a different paradigm to apply to the way we view Scripture and the nature of divine inspiration. This is where interreligious dialogue can often be helpful, because it can provide another set of spectacles with which to view the issues. Let’s look at how the Hindu’s view the divine inspiration of their Scriptures.

The Upanishads are the kernel of the Vedas, considered to be the breath of the eternal, divinely inspired. Some of them are written as stories, such as the Katha Upanishad, most others as description, often using metaphors. All are considered to be the result of the direct experience of God. In these scriptures, it is the experience of God that is paramount to any particular statement, so that ambiguity, or even seeming contradiction, is not problematic for the Hindu as it is for the Christian. Quoting from Frederick Manchester’s introduction to the Upanishads,

“They (The Upanishads) are to him (the Hindu), as nearly as any human document can be, the expression of divine truth. At the same time it would be a mistake to suppose that his allegiance to their authority is slavish or blind. If he believes them to be the word of God, it is because he believes their truth to be verifiable immediately, at any moment, in his own experience.” (Prabhavananda S. a., 2002).

While I am not suggesting that we apply this same viewpoint to the Bible, it illustrates that a different paradigm for interpreting Scripture may be possible, a view of the Bible other than a strictly logically coherent document, or a legalistic document, because the mind of God is so much greater and more incomprehensible than the mind of man. (Romans.11:33-34)

In order for evangelical Christians to find the new paradigm for interpreting Scripture, we must do some rather uncomfortable deconstruction of the old. The inerrancy doctrine of Scripture has handed to us a document that has been dictated word for word from the mouth of God. This would have required that God’s agency completely took over the Scripture writers in a way that they had no free will during the times they were writing Scripture, because obviously human beings are not “inerrant”. But this does not seem to correspond with what we know about God’s involvement in human affairs; God seems always to allow the free will agency of human beings to take place. This is the nature of God’s relationship to man. Nevertheless, we are taught to believe that, in the instances of the men writing and selecting Scripture, they were during those times, as it were, perfect, in other words, not human by definition.

Within the evangelical tradition, a person puts oneself under suspicion by examining this belief in the inerrancy of Scriptures because it is one of the five “fundamentals” of fundamentalism. There is not going to be a real conversation with most evangelical leaders about this subject, because acceptance of the inerrancy of Scripture, as it is defined today, is required for admittance into the club.

But it does not seem to have a theological basis, nor does it have a basis in Scripture itself. The inerrancy doctrine is something that was created by men, outside of the Bible; a human declaration about the nature of Scripture. Note what Brian McLaren says:

“Interestingly enough, when Scripture talks about itself, it doesn’t use the language we often use in our explanations of its value. For modern Western Christians, words like authority, inerrancy, infallibility, revelation, objective, absolute, and literal are crucial. Many churches or denominations won’t allow people to become members unless they use these words in their description of Scripture….Hardly anyone notices the irony of resorting to the authority of extra-biblical words and concepts to justify one’s belief in the Bible’s ultimate authority.”Pp.182-183 (McLaren, 2004)

Brian McLaren has suggested a narrative approach to the Bible: “We need to reclaim the Bible as narrative.”Pg.185 (McLaren, 2004)

“It helps turn the Bible back to what it is, not a look-it-up encyclopedia of timeless moral truths, but the unfolding narrative of God at work in a violent and sinful world, calling people, beginning with Abraham, into a new way of life.”Pg.190(McLaren, 2004)

Elsewhere, McLaren points out how at times the teaching of Jesus Christ directly contradicts, or at least replaces, the teachings of the Torah. (see Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, Zondervan: 2004 Pp.177-191, Chapter 10, “Why I Am Biblical” for a fuller discussion)

A biblical example of Jesus Christ superseding the Old Testament is in the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus refers to Deuteronomy 19:21:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”Matthew.5:38-39 (Zondervan NIV Study Bible, 2002)

Qualitatively, the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture is the same as that made by the Catholic Church about itself, that its decrees are infallible as a result of being under the agency of God, and it is the same as the argument for papal infallibility.

However, if we do not accept the doctrine that the Bible is a document that comes word for word out of God’s mouth, just as if he himself had penned it, won’t the sky fall down? Will we not see the end of Christianity? Is it not as if our Christian faith is a house of cards, and if you remove the card of the inerrancy of Scripture the entire structure will come falling down?

I don’t believe so. I believe that the Christian Testament, inspired as it is by God, is powerful and compelling as it is written, from which the message of Jesus Christ comes out with such power that it does not need this artifice which others before us believed it needed. I still maintain the belief in the “God-breathed” inspiration of the Bible, though my faith does not stand or fall on whether God created the world in six 24-hour days, nor do I have to deny that James disagreed with Paul regarding justification. (James.2:24)

At the end of John’s Gospel, he says that “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”John21:25 (The Holy Bible, New International Version, 1984). What the Hindu can remind us is that the Bible, as holy as it is, is but a pale reflection of the true God to which it is a testament. The Bible cannot accurately describe God because God is indescribable. “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” Romans11:33-34 (Zondervan NIV Study Bible, 2002) Our reverence for the Bible is correctly placed, but it must not become idolatry in the sense of substituting the testimony itself for the One who is testified about. Our faith is not in a doctrine but in the living Christ himself.

Doctrine is a second-generation experience, already once-removed from the original encounter with God. This is not to say that doctrine doesn’t have its place, but I believe that in my tradition doctrine has been overemphasized while the Spirit has been neglected. I have long been interested in the dynamic tension between doctrine and Spirit. Their relationship has been compared to that between the skeleton and the body (I don’t remember who to credit for this comparison) The skeleton is needed to give the body its shape, structure, support, and to facilitate movement. But doctrine without Spirit is like a skeleton without flesh and blood. It is dead; because, it is the Spirit that gives life, not doctrine. What needs to be communicated today is the living reality of Jesus Christ expressed through his life and teachings. We need to communicate what he said, what he did, and what we need to do about it.

Certainly it is understandable how important doctrine was to St. Paul, who was trying to understand his encounter with Jesus in the only terms he could, through his Jewish tradition and his training as a Pharisee. And so it is important to understand that, in interpreting Scripture, revelation takes place in a specific culture at a specific time in history. The truth of God is absolute, but cultural values are relative. At some point in history, such as Christ’s incarnation in the world, eternity breaks into the fabric of time and history, and into a specific culture. The finite resources of that time are the only means available with which to try to understand something as profound as the infinite love and grace that was brought by Jesus. Such love and grace was, in fact, scandalous, as was the intimacy of the way Jesus addressed his Heavenly Father, the sovereign Lord, as “Abba”.

Multiple readings of the book of Romans reveal how hard Paul worked to forge his doctrine of salvation and its relationship to the Jews. Paul needed to understand the death and resurrection of Jesus in terms of the Jewish sacrificial system of atonement through blood sacrifice. His testimony is true, but we shall also see other dimensions of Jesus, to be discussed elsewhere.

Yes, the New Testament writers worked very hard to convey their message. Look at the beginning of Luke:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theopholis, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”Luke1:1-4 (The Holy Bible, New International Version, 1984)

The italics above are mine to point out that there was human effort and human decision involved in the writing of the New Testament. God inspired it, but he did not write it.

Some might take this kind of statement as an attack on the authority of the Bible, but it is simply a proposal about the nature of divine inspiration in the Bible; more specifically, that divine inspiration is not the same as dictation (The Koran is believed to be dictated word for word to Mohamed by an angel of God). The Bible is indeed the word of God in the sense that it is an inspired testimony of man’s experience of God in history.

The doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture was a reaction against scientific theories such as evolution and also against Protestant Liberalism. It was adopted in 1895 by the Evangelical Alliance as one of the “five ‘fundamentals’ that could not be denied without falling into the error of liberalism.”Pg.257 (Gonzalez, 1985) A fallout of the inerrancy doctrine, as Justo L. Gonzalez has pointed out, is that, “While fundamentalism declared itself a defender of traditional orthodoxy, it gave rise to new interpretations of the Bible. Its emphasis on biblical inerrancy and its rejection of many of the conclusions of biblical scholars made it possible to juxtapose texts from different books of Scripture, and thus to develop new schemes outlining and explaining God’s actions, past, present, and future.”Pg.257 (Gonzalez, 1985)

However, the words “inerrant” and “infallible” are not even biblical, and I don’t even think that they are relevant to the conversation about the nature of divine inspiration. Moreover, these adjectives are only appropriately applied to God himself. Even Jesus was not comfortable being called “good’, much less “infallible” and “inerrant”. “‘Why do you call me good?’ Jesus answered. ‘No one is good—except God alone.'”Mark.10:18 (The Holy Bible, New International Version, 1984)

In talking about the Bible, we are not talking about a legal document such as the US Constitution or the vehicle code. And we are not talking about a scientific document. Although the Bible contains much history, we are not even talking about a historical document in the sense that history is judged today. The main emphasis of the Bible is man’s experience of, and relationship to, God, of God’s revelation to man in history and man’s response to God. The Bible, having been inspired by God, is the word of God, while the Word of God is Jesus Christ.

Returning to what we were saying about the difficulty to express infinite grace and love in terms of the history, time, and culture to which it has been broken into, Jesus knew this full well, and he took it into account in the teaching method he used, which was to speak in parables. “Jesus spoke all things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using parables.”Matt.13:34 (Zondervan NIV Study Bible, 2002) Jesus was constantly looking for ways to explain the kingdom of heaven so that people could relate it to things in their daily lives. In short, he used similes and metaphors because it is not possible to directly communicate the kingdom of heaven using words. So he said, “The kingdom of heaven is like this or like that…”

Among other things, Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to a farmer sowing seed (Matt.13:3-8), weeds in a farmer’s crop (Matt.13:24-30;36-42), a mustard seed (Matt.13:31-32), yeast in a batch of dough (Matt.13:33), a hidden treasure in a field (Matt.13:44), a pearl of great price (Matt.13:45), and a large catch of fish (Matt.13:47-50). Perhaps we need our own modern day parables in order to fire our imaginations. Jesus was trying to create a picture of something real and alive, and today we too often treat the parables as stories. Too often we move on to an epistle of Paul or the Gospel of John without giving enough thought to the teachings of Jesus concerning the kingdom of heaven among men.

In terms of the acknowledgement that the values of culture are conditional and relative, the fear of the evangelical Christian is that any concession to the relative value of culture will breach the dam of morality and let loose a flood of immoral anarchy into society. There is plenty of systemic immorality, such as the exploitation of the weak and corporate inhumanity to man, which has been given a wink and a nod by many evangelical leaders in past decades. It seems that this is an issue of the greatest magnitude in our world today.

One can speak of universal moral values in religion that in fact exist, such as not to lie, murder, steal, be unfaithful, or charge usury, not to make inordinate profits, and to take care of the needy, but I do not by saying this attempt to put all religions into a blender and make them all taste the same. I believe that the peaceful coexistence of religions is one of the most important challenges we face today, and that its biggest obstacle is exclusivism, but I also believe personally in the primacy and Lordship of Christ in all things. (This important discussion, and the paradox involved, is a subject for another discussion).

Moving forward, an essential consideration in the interpretation of Scripture is, above all: do not create any doctrine to harm the well-being of others or “deprive the poor of their rights,” Isaiah 10:2 (Zondervan NIV Study Bible, 2002) The most tragic mistake of evangelical Christians since the beginning of the eighties was to allow ourselves to be defined by what we were against and who we opposed. This has damaged our public image and our witness for Jesus Christ. Worse than this, it has damaged the image of Jesus Christ himself, because we have not properly represented who Jesus Christ stood for during his public ministry, which was the poor, the sick, and the needy. The people he associated with the most were “sinners and tax collectors”. Jesus Christ was not a moralist. He opposed the moralists of his day, which were the Pharisees. Similarly, as to the emerging Christian conversations now taking place, such as this one about the nature of Scripture, we must be mindful of how we treat one another. There have already been responses by some leaders that only continue to show Christianity in a poor light as the non-Christian world looks on.

I enjoy the “verse by verse” explication of the Bible in my own church, because it is both bibliocentric and Christocentric. However, due to the fact of my exposure to a variety of Christian traditions – among them being Pentecostal, Episcopal, Lutheran, Evangelical, Catholic, and Calvary – I am very much aware that every church and denomination uses its own pair of glasses in the reading of Scripture, and the less its experiential exposure to other traditions is, the more myopic the lens prescription. According to the ecumenical thinker Bede Griffiths, “The biblical revelation has to be seen in the context of history as a stage in the manifestation of the Word of God.” Pg.111 (Griffiths, 1977) Further, “No religion can now remain in isolation. The revelations of the Vedas, of the Buddhist Sutras, and the Koran, have to be evaluated in the light of the biblical revelation and of one another.”pg.112 (Griffiths, 1977)

This statement is somewhat of a bombshell for most evangelical Christians today, but the Christians of tomorrow are going to have to be conversant about world scripture and religions, not for the purpose of refutation, but for relationship and dialogue. The evangelism of tomorrow is going to be done with dialogue rather than preaching. The dialogue is going to be a conversation rather than a debate, and we are going to learn as much as teach. The foundation of evangelism will be relationship. The relationship is what my friend calls John the Baptist evangelism, preparing the way for the message of the Lord. I maintain that we as Christians can learn about other religions in an experiential way and to respect them without any compromise to our belief in the primacy and Lordship of Jesus Christ.

A complete re-examination of the Bible, a fresh rereading, is well worth it. But we cannot impose upon it our need for logical consistency or insist that there be no ambiguity. Scripture is a testimony that speaks above all to the human heart. In the story of the conversion of Zacchaeus, the tax collector from Jericho, the encounter with the presence of Jesus is the primary encounter. There was not a systematic theology preached by Jesus in the synoptic Gospels other than to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”Mark.12:30 (The Holy Bible, New International Version, 1984); and to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”Mark.12:31. (The Holy Bible, New International Version, 1984) According to James M. Somerville, “The kind of faith Jesus had was not based on deductive or inductive reason, neither did it consist in a blind acceptance of a set of doctrinal propositions. It was an orientation of the heart, suffused with loving trust in the wisdom and goodness of God, come what may.” (Somerville, 1997)

The doctrine of salvation, as we think of it today, developed after the resurrection of Jesus. However true it is—and I affirm that it is true—Jesus himself spoke of salvation in somewhat different terms in these three Gospels. It is as if he preached a doctrine of original forgiveness rather than original sin. Indeed, he forgave sins without even being asked. “Some men brought to him a paralytic, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.'”Matthew.9:2 (Zondervan NIV Study Bible, 2002) This is a paradox we can embrace joyfully. Such grace is scandalous for the very religious who equate salvation with legalism, but it ought not to scandalize us! The God of the religious is a lawyer; our God is a Savior.

In an evangelical Christian Interspirituality, the idea that the major religions are merely false doctrines is a paradigm that is obsolete on a globe where it is imperative that religions coexist peacefully for the sake of all humankind. Having studied other religions, I no longer see rival gods, but only God. A Muslim saying is that there is no God but God. In the book of Sirach of the Catholic Bible, it says, “There is no God but you.” The Svetasvatara Upanishad says, “The source of all scriptures thou art, and the source of all creeds.” Pg.125 (Prabhavananda S. a., 2002) How can this be? Truth comes to different cultures in different manifestations. Ecumenical writer Bede Griffiths says,

“But it is not possible to confine the Spirit to one scripture alone. We have to recognize the voice of the Spirit in every scripture and discover the hidden Source from which all scriptures come….Jesus spoke of it as the ‘kingdom of heaven’. This was the essential content of his message: ‘The kingdom of God is at hand.’ Mark.1:15. But what is the kingdom of God? Let us say that it means the divine life among men. This is the essential message of all religion. The infinite, transcendent, holy Mystery, which is what is signified by ‘God’ or ‘Heaven’, is present in the world, and has its kingdom, its reign, its dwelling among men. Is not this the message of all the scriptures? ‘This Brahman (God), this Self (indwelling Spirit), smaller than the small, greater than the great, is hidden in the heart of every creature.’ Svetasvatara Upanishad….’I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you will be my people.’ Leviticus.26:12….We have to meditate on these words in the heart, until the Truth shines out and enlightens us, until we experience the presence of God, the kingdom of heaven, within.” Pp.107-108 (Griffiths, 1977)

But doesn’t this view claim that all religions are the same? Not at all! There is a divine plan, preexistent in the Word: “A plan to be carried out in the fullness of time, to bring all things into one in him (Christ), in the heavens and on the earth.” Ephesians.1:9-10 (John A. Gurrieri, Executive Director, Bishop’s Committee on the Liturgy, 1988) It should be noted that the NIV translation, “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ”Ephesians.1:10b (The Holy Bible, New International Version, 1984) is somewhat misleading. The most correct translation from the Greek, although grammatically redundant, is, “to sum up all things in Christ, the things on (in) the heavens and the things on the earth, in him”Ephesians.1:10b (Brown, 1990) The NIV translation somewhat obscures the cosmic and universal nature of Christ’s salvation expressed in these verses. Jesus Christ the Word of God is the umbrella over all religion. Henri Le Saux wrote in his book, Prayer:

“Christian theology is at times so overwhelmed by the dazzling light of God’s revelation in history, as recorded in the Bible, that it almost forgets the splendor of his manifestation in the Cosmos. Yet Christ is the Lord of the Cosmos; indeed, it is only because he is this, that he is also the Lord of History. In him and through him all things were made (John 1:3); to him all things return, and in him all things subsist. In his image, as he is the image of the Father, all things have been created.

“The cosmic religions, which of course are unaware of Christ as the Lord of History, nevertheless worship him, without knowing his revealed Name, as the Lord of the Cosmos; and perhaps they are intermediaries through whom the Spirit is reminding Christians not to belittle this fundamental aspect of the mystery of Christ.”Pp.69-70 (LeSaux, 1967)

In his sermon in Athens:

“Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: ‘Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.'” Acts 17:22-23 (Zondervan NIV Study Bible, 2002)

Even if anonymously, the Christ of the Cosmos is present, to some extent, inasmuch as they contain truth, in other religions. You will recognize him when you meet an undeniable truth in world scripture. God is the source of Truth. He has rained it down variously around the globe in different times in history, culminating in Jesus Christ the Word of God. In some places it sprinkles and in other places it pours down.

“The heavens proclaim the glory of God

And the firmament shows forth the work of his hands.

Day unto day takes up the story

And night unto night makes known the message.”

Pg.132. Psalm.19:1-2. (John A. Gurrieri, Executive Director, Bishop’s Committee on the Liturgy, 1988)

We have said that the argument over the factual inerrancy of Scripture stems from an overly rationalistic reading of the Bible, and is in reality irrelevant to the nature of divine inspiration, and from inappropriately assigning characteristics that ought to be reserved for God alone. I would now propose that a very good paradigm for experiencing Scripture is in reality very old, something akin to the liturgy, experiencing Scripture prayerfully and meditatively more than intellectually.

M. Basil Pennington has pointed out that, “A purely rationalistic approach to the Sacred Scripture will always go astray.”Pg.99 (Pennington, 1998) One can become distracted by a debate about whether God created the world in six days measurable by a 24-hour rotation of the earth around its axis, and miss the point that God indeed create the universe and see how marvelous it is! One can get caught up in a propositional doctrine of salvation, and miss the wonder and awe the apostles felt at the resurrection of the Lord.

We evangelical Christians have become great explicators of Scripture. We use inductive and deductive techniques to study the Bible. What is needed today is for us to experience Scripture with our hearts and even our senses. “Taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Italics mine)Psalm.34:8 (Zondervan NIV Study Bible, 2002) We need to savor every word of Scripture and appreciate that it truly is the word of God.

Something that I learned about in the Catholic Church and that M. Basil Pennington writes about in LECTIO DIVINA, Renewing the Ancient Practice of Praying the Scriptures, is this very concept of praying and meditating on the Scriptures. This practice came out of the monastery movement, in which monks gathered together at specific times of the day to pray and sing a selection of Scriptures, primarily from the Psalms. This developed into a four-week cycle of Scripture selection which came to be known variously as the Breviary, the Prayer of the Church, the Liturgy of the Hours, or the Divine Hours. The first known cycle of the Psalter was recorded by St. Benedict in 550 AD. It is available today by the name of Christian Prayer and Shorter Christian Prayer. This is a great way to experience the Scriptures, and I still use it today in my daily devotions. Non-Catholics may wish to skip some of the specifically Catholic aspects of the Liturgy of the Hours, and still find in it a wonderful source for experiencing the Scriptures prayerfully. Otherwise, non-Catholics might enjoy Phyllis Tickle’s version, called The Divine Hours.

Many of the emerging Christian communities practice a liturgical experience of Scripture. Albert Nolan has noted the success of Taizé, an ecumenical retreat center in France, which attracts thousands of young people a year and employs liturgies without the preaching of doctrines or dogmas. He says, “There are long periods of silence, and the prayers, the songs, and the worship services are simple and quietly repetitive.”Pg.14 (Nolan, 2006)

We have become so accustomed to our analysis and explication of Scripture that it is all too easy to miss the Spirit of God that lives in God’s word. The practice of praying the Scriptures is a way to experience the Spirit of God that is contained in the Scriptures in the absence of—without interference from—intellectual analysis. Liturgy is worship, experience, and relationship rather than intellectual doctrine or theology. It brings the Scriptures down from the head into the heart. We may study the Psalms today, whereas the ancient Hebrews sang them or prayed them, and this is the purpose of liturgy. Liturgy is above all a matter of the heart; because, in the final analysis, we cannot think our way to God. We must come to God through love, by way of the heart.

Works Cited

Brown, R. K. (1990). The New Greek-English Interlinear New Testament. Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

Gonzalez, J. L. (1985). The Story of Christianity, Vol. 2. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Griffiths, B. (1977). Return to the Center. Springfield: Templegate Publishers.

John A. Gurrieri, Executive Director, Bishop’s Committee on the Liturgy. (1988). Christian Shorter Prayer. New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co.

LeSaux, H. (1967). Prayer. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.

New American Bible, St. Joseph Edition. (1992). New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co.

Nolan, A. (2006). Jesus Today. Maryknoll: Orbis books.

Pennington, M. B. (1998). Lectio Divina, Renewing the Ancient Practice of Praying the Scriptures. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Co.

Prabhavananda, S. a. (1995). Bhagavad-Gita. Hollywood: Barnes and Noble and Vedanta Society of So. Cal.

Prabhavananda, S. a. (2002). The Upanishads. New York: Signet Classic.

Satprakashananda, S. (1975). Hinduism and Christianity. St. Louis: Vedanta Society of St. Louis.

Somerville, J. M. (1997). The Mystical Sense of the Gospels. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Co.

The Holy Bible, New International Version. (1984). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Zondervan NIV Study Bible. (2002). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.


5 Responses to On the Nature of Scripture

  1. Well, welcome to the blogosphere! Seriously, what took you so long? If nothing else, it’s a great way to hone one’s thoughts. I find that if I’m not writing, I’m not really thinking, just kind of muttering to myself. And doing it in a blog, accessible to the whole wired world, forces me to be somewhat more accountable for those thoughts and how I present them. Lately though, I join on other’s work (like yours!) far more often than I do anything new –must get back at it.

    As to your post, I think we are on substantially the same page. My own roots are Baptist, then grafted on to Episcopal stock; first in the “renewal” or charismatic branch, in recent years more of the evangelical wing of that church. As you are likely aware, we are now in great agony relating to some of the same issues you raise. I find myself over the last decade or so describing myself as somewhat of a “reformation Anglican” meaning that I find great wisdom in the understanding and teaching of such men as Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley.

    As to the authority of Scripture, I take it as absolute that the Bible I hold in my hand contains the message God wants me to read, understand and absorb. I suppose this means, in part, that my view of inspiration applies as much to the editors, and those who recognized and defined the canon, as it does to the authors of the original autographs. Mostly, it means to me that, although I place a very high value on Scripture, I place a pretty low authority on *my understanding* of Scripture. I think that is one of the correctives to the worst of the inerrancy problems.
    As to reading the Bible as narrative, as story, I agree that it is a much-needed method. I discovered it only a few years ago, when our entire parish read through the entire Bible “cover to cover” in 90 days, then repeated the program a bit slower, in 180 days. But the narrative approach does not invalidate verse-by-verse exegesis. Both are needed.

    Well, back to work for me, I invite you to stop by my place and perhaps leave a thought or two. And welcome again!

  2. interspiritualchristian says:

    Eric, thank you for your comment. I visited your blog and left a comment about the important consideration of what hell might really mean–in short, what if hell is purgative? What if God’s grace is even more radical than we first believed and God will eventually save every person?

    As you can imagine, being in an evangelical church, I need a “safe place” to explore these various ideas! My wife says–only half-jokingly–that I may get us both excommunicated!

    There is an interesting book titled, IF GRACE IS TRUE–WHY GOD WILL SAVE EVERY PERSON, by Gulley & Mulholland.

    I hope that a few more people will read ON THE NATURE OF SCRIPTURE because, however one feels, the time has come for the subject to receive a reconsideration as Christianity enters what Phyllis Tickle calls a Second Reformation (see, THE GREAT EMERGENCE, by Philllis Tickle). It might also be good to visit the Emergent Village website, read some blogs, and listen to some podcasts posted on that site.

    God Bless.

  3. Thank you! I did read with interest your thoughtful response to my musings on how damnation squares with the idea that God is good.
    Perhaps like your experience, after my evangelical, or rather, Southern Baptist, entrée into the Christian world, it was rather refreshing tocome in to a branch of the Church where questions could be asked, and answers questioned. Unfortunately, as there is no safety in any human enterprise, I’ve discovered that there is a ditch on this side of the road, too. In far too much of my church, almost any answer can get a hearing, and be proclaimed valid, unless it presents itself to have something to say about actual truth. Experience is a good goal, objective truth is not.

    One phrase of yours continues to stretch me: and that has to do with what hell really is, and what is it’s purpose. Of course, part of the reason for the problem was presented by C.S. Lewis. In The Great Divorce, he puts it into the mouth of George MacDonald to say that ,

    the difficulty with describing hell is that the thing one is attempting to describe is so nearly nothing.

    I see it not so much as punishment as the natural consequences of one particular choice, that of preferring to cling to something other than the Light, Love and Truth He is and has for us. If, and the question implicit in that “if” remains, I reject God in favor of anything, at some point He has to hold my choice as effectual. Will any hold out for infinity? I don’t know. But it must be possible for me to do so, or humanity becomes a puppet rather than a self-giving lover. I suppose that any time being pursued by God across the ages may be referred to as a purgative state, as purgatory, although that comes a bit too near to salvation by something other than the merits of Christ for my taste.

    My vision of true hell is that state of existence remaining after God, and all his attributes save existence itself, have been withdrawn. And that withdrawal as a final salute to His imparted attribute of “causality,” wherein He gave us the authority to make decisions that bring about real change in the universe, in this case, the decision being a demand that reality not be what Reality is. Or, that “I AM be as I AM NOT”
    Purposefulness being one of the attributes of God, I cannot therefore assign purpose to true hell. It is utter meaninglessness.

    The second question raised, will anyone actually make such a horrible choice, or will God pursue and correct and woo until all are won, I would like to think positive. But I cannot, and for two reasons. The first is that “thinking positive” is a cover to my real desire that all this rhetoric about judgment and eternal consequences is way overstated. What I really want is reassurance that if I bump along reasonably well, and let others do the same, well then, God will somehow work it all out in the end. That is a very pleasant faith, and is in fact the highest point of our American civil religion. It has very little in common with the religion of the Bible. That faith is so tempting that when one of it’s teachings attracts me in contrast to the traditional teachings of Christendom, I need to become very suspicious.
    The second reason to reject the positive outlook of universal salvation is that Jesus does not seem to have believed nor taught it. Was he being hyperbolically severe when He taught so often about those left, or cast outside, in order to persuade us to flee an end would never actually come to that? Well, possibly. But again, when the plan reading of scripture convicts and warns me, and the comfortable reading involves great effort at “interpretizing” the words of Jesus, I think the smart money is on the plain reading.

    Well, long day and a late night.

  4. interspiritualchristian says:


    Thank you for your interesting comments concerning the issue of ultimate universal salvation as opposed to eternal damnation for some. I noticed that your view is that we all ought to have the choice to damn ourselves, so to speak. Our freedom of choice is a very modern and western idea, grounded in individualism. It might actually not be so traditional.

    Consider verses such as, “All the days ordained to me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”(Psalm.139:16b). Or, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.”(Ephesians.1:4-5)

    The Reformers were also ambiguous about free will. I believe that Luther wrote that, of his own will, he would not have chosen salvation without the grace given to him by God. I also believe that Calvin subscribed to an election that was essentially irresistable. A Christian universalism would simply expand the elect to include all.

    The other subject that Origen brought up in the second century is that God’s grace does not necessarily end with death. He believed that grace continues after death. Southern Baptist Clarence Jordan gives an example of God being in hot pursuit of someone and, bam, he gets hit by a freight train and dies. He hasn’t accepted the propositional doctrine of salvation yet. Does he go to hell for eternity? Jordan says, “What kind of God is that? A God whose purposes can be voided by a freight train? I can’t fit that in.”(IF GRACE IS TRUE, Gulley and Mulholland)

    Admittedly, this is a very controversial issue. Some folks–many in my own church–would be downright scandalized by the proposition that hell is not eternal. Think of it, they are more comfortable with the idea of the people who are not in the club simply being consigned eternally into hell.

    They are scandalized by that much grace. One woman asked her pastor, “What if I believe everybody will eventually be saved and I end up going to hell for it?” To which he replied, “What? You think God will damn you because you believed he has infinite grace?”

    God Bless.

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