Sermon for St. George’s Chapel, October 21, 2007 – Pentecost XXI (P. 24C)
The scripture readings set for Sunday, October 21 in the American B.C.P are:
Genesis: 32.3-8 & 22-30
II Timothy: 3.14 – 4.5
St. Luke: 18.1-8a
The story of the wrestling Jacob is so full of possible sermon themes that I found it hard not to begin work on it. On the other hand, the gospel reading did not seem so promising. It is not one of the more vivid parables relayed to us by Luke, and in light of work on the parables by scholars like C. H. Dodd, Joachim Jeremias and Eta Linnemann one has to wonder whether its original intention was to teach perseverance in prayer; after all, Mt. 6.7 tells us mê battalogêsête, ‘don’t use repetitious prayers’. Moreover, the whole issue of intercessory prayer is skating on thin ice (see my posting of Saturday, July 28 – The Use of Praying), and, so, I turned to the Epistle.
The set reading is a continuation of sections from the Pastoral Epistles, which, though still announced as by St. Paul, are probably not. II Timothy 3.16 together with
II Peter 1.21 have been regarded as key texts by those who have fought for a theory of plenary verbal inspiration. David R. Law in the recently published Christianity: The Complete Guide (Ed. John Bowden, London 2005, pp 629ff.) has an excellent short article on “Inspiration”. He notes that it was in the era of “Protestant orthodoxy” (c. 1600-1750) that this theory received a great deal of attention. Another very busy period was the latter part of the 19th century in the writings of the Princeton Seminary Calvinists. The claim that the doctrine, with particular emphasis on the inerrancy of the text, is taught by the bible seems to be a perfect of example of a circular argument: these key texts say that the words of the bible are inerrant, and since they are written by biblical authors, the key texts themselves must be inerrant. Law writes: “The Protestant concern with the inerrancy of scripture is a consequence of the doctrine of sola scriptura. Since for Protestantism the only legitimate foundation for theology is the Bible, this foundation had to be made absolutely secure”. (p. 630).
Conservative Reaction to Historical Criticism
Another crucial factor in the conservative position, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, was an increasing fear in the latter part of the 19th century of scientific and historical study. In the Roman Catholic sphere this took the form of fierce opposition to democratic movements and the institution of the “anti-Modernist Oath”, required at ordination of all R.C. priests well into the 20th century. In Protestant circles, it led to the issuing of the The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth, a series of booklets published in the U.S. betwen1910 and 1915.
The sermon, which now follows, is over-long, though many members of the congregation assured me that they would have been happy to have another thirty minutes. It is also, inevitably I think, over-simplified. There are, after all, problems with historical method, and alternative ways to think about biblical inspiration that do not involve ideas of plenary verbal inspiration. All this, however, would have added much more than thirty minutes and would have made the sermon even more like a lecture than it already is.
Whenever we open a bible, we are faced by a challenge, but the reading from the Letter to Timothy raises the question about the status and use of scripture quite explicitly.
What precisely is the challenge? Very briefly put it is: How do we understand the biblical message in 2007? How doe we read the accounts that imply a world-view that is, and indeed for several centuries has been, untenable?
The N.T. writers fairly often refer to the sacred books as “the scriptures”, or in Greek, the writings, and it is cleat that they mean the sacred writings of the Hebrews, what we call the O.T. It is clear that the earliest Christians accepted the Rabbinic view that God spoke through the Prophets, and, of course, that included Moses. Today’s epistle speaks of the “writing(s)” and refers to them as “inspired”; a literal rendering of the Greek would be, “breathed by God”.
Within the historical context of the first century C.E., all this made sense. It was the normal view of the divine throughout the world that the gods spoke directly to people, that they directed events in a singularly ‘hands-on’ way and that, furthermore various rituals, prayers and holy people could interact with the divine forces to change the weather, to heal people or to kill them, and, in short, to ameliorate any conceivable divine action. Of course, within Judaism there was a different view of God: for the Jews there was only one God, whose name was Yahweh, and he was not a capricious God. Nevertheless, the principle remained that Yahweh directly orchestrated all the natural phenomena of weather, farming, and human health and wealth.
It is a vast over-simplification, but in the most general sense true, that this view of the world lasted for almost 1500 years. A good example would be the history of what meteorologists call the “little ice age” which lasted for over four hundred years. During the early centuries of the second millennium, famine became endemic in N. Europe, and millions died. Contemporary science suggests three possible causes for the frigid summers and almost arctic winters: a reduction of radiation from the sun; a significant increase in volcanic activity or, paradoxically, the previous warming period that poured vast quantities of fresh water into the Atlantic, cutting off the warming currents. The one explanation that is unacceptable today is the one given at the time based on the world view which the writers of the biblical books shared: the terrible crop losses were the result of the activity of the devil operating through witches, (and of course, passages of the O.T. demanded the death penalty for witches). Perhaps as many as two thousand people were executed as witches accused of causing the withering of crops and the devastation of the herds. It is another aspect of this same world-view that the vast majority of those murdered were women.
Origen & Allegory
Before the 15th century, reading the bible was not without problems. That there were challenges is not in doubt. A very early one was to question why the Hebrew bible was part of the Christian scriptures. It has, after all, a remarkable number of stories that seem to negate the picture of God we find in the teaching of Jesus, for example, the approval of genocide of Canaanite peoples in order for the Hebrews to inherit the promised land, and long lists of forbidden foods; the latter was a particular stumbling block for the early Christians since they knew that Jesus had “declared all foods clean”. (Mk. 7). An early theologian called Origen commented at the beginning of the third century that if the dimensions of Noah’s ark were accurate, there would be room to take onboard only two elephants and their food supply for the duration of the flood. The escape from these conundrums was provided by that same Origen. He stressed the undoubted spiritual nature of the writings, and said that very often the surface, obvious meaning, was not primary; what mattered was the inner, spiritual significance. In short, he claimed that the bible writings were one big Allegory whose hidden meanings we had to tease out. Shell-fish became quite OK for Christians because what the book of Leviticus was really telling us was that sins of the flesh are like limpets that once attached stick hard, and that is what we must avoid. All the early commentators treated the parables in this way: the Priest and the Levite in the story of the Good Samaritan are not there because it is a realistic story, a scene that any traveler might have witnessed. Rather they represent the priestly class of the Hebrews, superseded by Christ. The oil and the wine are not (as , in fact, they were), the normal first-aid kit of the first century, but the sacraments of the Eucharist and anointing.
About five hundred years ago, the intellectual climate began to change. Long-accepted formulae began to be questioned. It is not necessary to trace out the course of the scientific revolution that began with a new examination of the vast universe around us and moved on to the discover the miniscule universe within us. Parallel to, and closely linked with the scientific revolution was a revolution in how history is to be understood. Sources have to be checked, early MSS have to be examined, and obvious prejudices of the writers have to be taken into account: these factors and many others, it was realized, are essential for understanding the past, rather than merely creating an ideological account of it. Thus as the scientific advances exposed more and more problems with the biblical text, (like the impossibility of the earth’s being a mere 4004 years old), the study of history provided a new way of reading the scriptures. It became clear that the Bible is not a coherent single document. It is a collection of different texts, composed, revised, re-written by dozens of often anonymous authors spanning nine centuries. But it also became clear that we could trace growth in how we might think about God. We were not forced to continue to hold early ideas of a God directing every minute detail of the material universe or as leader in wars of extinction.
Centrality of Rule of God in teaching of Jesus
Above all, we could take a new look at the teaching of Jesus. To take one quite central factor, we were no longer forced to hear the parables as allegories. We understood that they are stories that try to get across a central point. The details are not important in themselves, as, say in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels; they are there because that is how the story goes. This approach made it clear that Jesus’ teaching centers firmly on the coming of the Kingdom of God, the Rule of God. It was those disciples who heard the teaching and passed it on to the next generation that formed the community within which they believed (and still do believe) that the living Jesus continues to operate. At its best (which has not been all that often) the Church has lived by and held up for the world a view of God as loving and suffering with humanity.
How Envisage God?
This revolution in the understanding of the bible involves abandoning older views of God, and I think that it may well be this factor rather than a slavish insistence on the absolute accuracy of the biblical text that lies behind much contemporary fundamentalism. To have a god who continually manipulates our environment, a god to whom we can send a message asking for a situation to be altered (be it the removal of a terminal disease or the lack of a parking place when shopping), may be much more comforting than having One who is love incarnate, and who, instead of changing things, agrees to suffer along with us giving us new life based on love rather than power.
Finally, of course, this approach to the bible requires us to abandon the older view of the divine inspiration of the scriptures, which, you may recall, was my starting point. Instead of a mechanical view where God uses the writers as a kind of ventriloquist’s dummy, we need to envisage the writer as a member of a believing community, who as a representative of that community is deeply in touch with the divine and who often in poetry, tries to put into words the meaning of the divine for human life.
We stand within that community and we share the faith that Jesus inspired in those first intimate disciples that the Rule of the God of love is the ultimate reality of the universe. Because of the insights of historical study, we understand the words of Jesus in today’s gospel not as asking God to do things for us that he hadn’t noticed we needed, but as an unshakeable faith that God wills “quickly to grant justice” to all humankind.