August 6, 2009

Faithful Questioning

Some humorous and some meaty quotes on asking questions and Christian scholarship, from James K.A. Smith in his interview at the often-excellent Through a Glass Darkly blog:

  • The tipping point was a sermon I preached entitled "Trivial Pursuits: Or, Things That Bother Us that Don’t Bother Jesus."
  • I also have some letters in my files from my former Bible college professors in which they describe me as a "student of Judas Iscariot."
  • I guess I would be hesitant to set up these two different worlds–the "questioning" world of Christian scholarship and the "confessing" world of the church. I think there’s inseparable intermingling here. Or let me put it this way: every question is its own kind of confession. Even our questions are articulated from somewhere, on the basis of something–however tenuous. And some of our best confessions are questions: Why, O Lord? How long, O Lord? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? As I think about it, the confessions are not boundaries that mark the limits of questioning; rather, the creeds and confessions are the guardrails that enable us to lean out and over the precipice, asking the hard questions.
  • Our churches often are not comfortable with fostering an ethos of curiosity and questioning, even though God is not at all frightened by such things. Again, I think it’s important for Christian scholars to model what faithful questioning looks like.
I'm no scholar, but I think that advice applies to the rest of us, too.

August 5, 2009

How Necessary Is the Bible?

There has never been a time in history at which we have all had the same Bible.

Ponder that one for a moment.

Setting aside that fact, consider that millions of believers both throughout history and today have lacked some or all of what Christians now call the Bible. The "New Testament church" did. The masses before the printing press (c. 1440). Much of the underground church still does. Many who have been imprisoned. Many who are poor, or blind, or infirm. Those who are illiterate. Those without a Bible in their own language (200 million people, at present). Those without a written language, even.

If the emphasis (or even overemphasis) placed on the written scriptures by some parts of the modern Christian church is correct, and if the near-legalistic expectation of "personal" Bible studyeven if only for a trivial number of minutes or verses per dayis correct, then several questions come to mind regarding those who go and have gone without, those already in the prophesied "famine of the Word," as some might call it: What is their Christian life focused on? How are they to truly know God or hear his voice? And if faith comes by hearing, and hearing (by?) the word of God, then on what basis can they come to faith in the first place? Are they inevitably stunted in their spiritual growth, compared to those who have the complete Bible? Weaker brothers and sisters, to be pitied, perhaps?

It seems that we should conclude thusly.

And if we insist that any challenge a specific passage of scripture presents can be made sense of by "the whole Bible," and that the whole Bible is required for proper understanding of (any of? much of?) its contents, then what must we conclude about those without the whole Bible, now and throughout history? And those without any Bible? That these unfortunates are doomed to misinterpretation and misunderstanding on "all matters of faith and practice"? Even on essentials, such as ... the Trinity; the relationship between sin, faith, grace, and works; or the nature of their own relationship to God?

It seems that we should conclude thusly.

And what if our own favorite translation of the Bible contains mistakes? Or if, someday, we were to find the autographs (the original books of the Bible), written in the very hands of the original authors and/or scribesdepending on your view of how the Bible was writtenand different from any of the manuscript witnesses (the later copies of the books), from which all of our various and varied translations have been made? Should we conclude that we have not hadhave never hadthe true "Word of God"? That nobody has ever had the correct Bible?

It seems that we should conclude thusly. That we the privileged, despite our feast of Bibles and Bible study tools, have actually been in a similar position to those who lived before the closing of the canon, or those behind the Iron Curtain, or those with no Bible in their own language. That we didn't have every answer at our fingertips. That we didn't have every last word. We should conclude that some of our opinions may have been misguided, some of our emphases misplaced. We should conclude that some of our knowledge, our certainty was actually error, or naivety. Or perhaps even arrogance.

And what would this mean about Godif he has allowed all of us to wander in such imperfect light?

Or what would it mean about the Bibleif a perfect, loving, and holy God has not thought it necessary to provide one complete, uniform, and error-free Bible for all of us and for all of this time?

Despair not, gentle reader! More on this topic later.