We have some odd ways of saying and doing things. Driving south from Ballina today, we came to a sign on the top of a hill announcing "Dirty Creek Range". Only Melbourne could have a "High Street Road". In Adelaide, if you park in the wrong place near the Festival Centre, a sign warns that you are liable to an "expiation fee" of $120. Well, in Queensland where I come from, we don't have any such peculiarities, eh?
Pioneers on a wagon train headed west became apprehensive when they saw a lot of fire and smoke in the distance. Then they noticed Indians wearing war-paint observing them from the hilltops.
As night fell, the pioneers drew the wagons into a circle, built a bonfire and kept their guns handy. Two of the men were keeping guard through the night when suddenly they heard the loud beating of Indian drums – PUM-pum-pum-pum, PUM-pum-pum-pum.
"Listen," one of the men said nervously, crabbing the other one by the arm. "I don't like the sound of those drums." From out of the darkness came an Indian voice: "Yeah, well, it's not our regular drummer."
There is a little rhyme that goes like this:
Some men die by shrapnel,
Some go down in flames.
But most men perish inch by inch
playing little games.
That won't scan properly if we replace "men" by "persons", but I am sure the anonymous poet would accept it as also applicable to women! The whole point is, I guess, that what we may want to call "little games" can have dire consequences.
The question of how to live and of how we relate to the God who created us is of vital importance. There are those in our community who would question whether there really is a God, while others consider the question to be of no importance to how they live their lives.
The topic before us is "Reclaiming the Bible for the Uniting Church". The theme assumes something important about the Bible, that Book which is a whole library of books – the collection of writings which together form the biblion, the Book, the Bible. That, by the way, is one of the key issues of our time. Do we have a Bible any more, or just a collection of writings?
At the heart of the historic Christian faith is an affirmation that God has revealed himself. The Bible is not the record of the human intellect's exploration for ultimate meaning, nor of the human psyche's search for personal and emotional fulfilment and satisfaction, nor of the human spirit's quest for spiritual enlightenment.
If God has made himself known, then we are all called (whether Aussies or Eskimos) to that one sure source of knowledge of him. As John Wesley wrote in the introduction to his Forty-Four Sermons (1793),
I want to know one thing – the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God Himself has condescended to teach the way; for this very end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri. Here then I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone: only God is here. In His presence I open, I read His book; for this end, to find the way to heaven. Is there a doubt concerning the meaning of what I read? Does anything appear dark or intricate? I lift up my heart to the Father of Lights: "Lord, is it not Thy word, 'If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God'? Thou 'givest liberally, and upbraidest not.' Thou hast said, 'If any be willing to do Thy will, he shall know.' I am willing to do, let me know, Thy will." I then search after and consider parallel passages of Scripture, "comparing spiritual things with spiritual." I meditate thereon with all the attention and earnestness of which my mind is capable. If any doubt still remains, I consult those who are experienced in the things of God; and then the writings whereby, being dead, they yet speak. And what I thus learn, that I teach.1
The same conviction about the Bible was expressed by the Westminster Divines in 1643:
… The authority of the Holy Scripture… dependeth not on the testimony of any man or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof… Our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness, by and with the Word, in our hearts… Nothing is at any time to be added – whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men… The Church is finally to appeal to them… The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself…2
The same emphasis in similar words comes through in the Savoy Declaration (1658), most of whose authors had been at Westminster.
The Basis of Union also lists two earlier reformation witnesses to which the Uniting Church will listen - the Scots Confession of Faith (1560), approved by the Scottish Parliament, which remained the confession of the Scottish Reformed Church until the adoption of the Westminster Confession of Faith in 1647, and the Heidelberg Catechism (1563). The Uniting Church "will commit her ministers and instructors to study these statements, so that the congregation of Christ's people may again and again be reminded of the grace which justifies them through faith, of the centrality of the person and work of Christ the justifier, and of the need for a constant appeal to Holy Scripture."3
The Uniting Church comes from three traditions which have all placed strong emphasis on the authority of Scripture. Alongside "the need for constant appeal to Holy Scripture", para 10 notes two strong emphases which have come from these traditions – "the grace which justifies [Christ's people] through faith" and "the centrality of the person and work of Christ the justifier".
Para 5 of the Basis affirms that
The Uniting Church acknowledges that the Church has received the books of the Old and New Testaments as unique prophetic and apostolic testimony, in which she hears the Word of God and by which her faith is nourished and regulated. When the Church preaches Jesus Christ, her message is controlled by the Biblical witnesses. The Word of God on whom man's salvation depends is to be heard and known from Scripture appropriated in the worshipping and witnessing life of the Church. The Uniting Church lays upon her members the serious duty of reading the Scriptures, commits her ministers to preach from these and to administer the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper as effective signs of the Gospel set forth in the Scriptures.4
We may well ask, What is meant by "the Church has received the books of the Old and New Testaments…"? In what sense does the Church "hear the Word of God" in the Scriptures? By what means is the Word of God "heard and known from Scripture"? What is meant by saying that the Church's message is "controlled by the Biblical witnesses"?
Davis McCaughey in his Commentary on the Basis of Union seemed unwilling to spell out specifically the answers to some of these questions.
The authority of scripture is in a sense indirect. The books of the Old and New Testaments contain the witness of prophet (here clearly implying the whole of the Old Testament) and of apostle (implying the whole of the New): as the Church listens to these voices, she hears a Voice not of human origin, the Word of God. She knows herself to be addressed: faith is quickened, obedience is made possible. Her life is nourished and regulated. She can recognise no authority which transcends this .5
Those of us from within the conservative evangelical tradition have probably never been entirely happy with para 5, not so much in what it says, but in what it fails to say about the Scriptures. There is no clear, direct statement that the Bible is the Word of God, such as the earlier documents from the three uniting Churches have affirmed. The reference to divine revelation in Scripture is more oblique than we would have liked. In this it reflects something of the neo-orthodoxy of the age in which it was produced. Nevertheless, we recognise that it contains some very positive elements.
It is in the Old and New Testaments that the Church "hears the Word of God and by which her faith and obedience are nourished and regulated." Davis McCaughey has noted, "She can recognise no authority which transcends this" because here "faith is nourished and obedience is made possible."
So, "when the Church preaches Jesus Christ, her message is controlled by the Biblical witnesses." We recognise that, on the one hand, the preached message is far more than a reciting of Biblical narrative/texts, and that, on the other, the Christian faith in Christ and experience of his love and saving grace go far beyond a conviction about events of 2000 years ago and a trust in the same narrative/texts. But that message, act of faith and subsequent experience are "controlled by the Biblical witnesses." In other words, the Bible itself is the standard and test of the authenticity of the preached word and the Christian faith and life. This means, for instance, that if we hear someone saying that their immoral lifestyle is OK because some "still small voice" told them so, we know that such teaching and lifestyle are declared by our Basis to be unacceptable, since it is not "controlled by the Biblical witnesses."
But, it is argued, Jesus himself is "the Word of God on whom our salvation depends." Yes, and that Word, Jesus, is "to be heard and known from the Scriptures." In consequence, our members have "the serious duty of reading the Scriptures and ministers are "to preach from these and to administer the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper as effective signs of the Gospel set forth in the Scriptures."
Erosion of Biblical Authority in the Church
From these statements we should expect the Uniting Church to be strongly based on Biblical authority in worship, witness and service. We should expect the Gospel to be offered in all our communities with clarity, urgency and passion. We should expect Uniting Church congregations in most parts of the country to be vital, warm and growing. Yet we see the Uniting Church in decline, facing a crisis over the very issue of whether we are bound by ethical principles which are quite clearly and unswervingly taught in both Testaments.
I am sure we all know the story of the frog experiment – drop a frog into a pot of boiling water and it will jump out to safety; drop a frog into a pot of cold water and slowly bring it to the boil and the frog will die.
Like the frog in the warming water, this situation has been creeping up on us for more than a hundred years. By and large, the Church has been blissfully unaware of and unconcerned by the danger into which we were getting ourselves – until suddenly, with the onslaught of the present sexuality debate, the alarm bells have begun to ring.
To those of us who gave warning thirty or more years ago, the answer of a famous Queensland politician was given, "Don't you worry about that!" Some thought that we were simply obscurantist. Others believed us to be unduly alarmist. But now, as the saying has it, "The chickens have come home to roost" and many ministers who have avoided identifying with the evangelicals are now saying, "I increasingly see that this is where my convictions lie." And many lay persons who haven't known the meaning of words like "liberal" and "evangelical" in the modern church are learning theological discrimination from their native spiritual discernment.
Para 11 of the Basis acknowledges our debt to faithful and scholarly interpreters.
The Uniting Church acknowledges that God has never left his Church without faithful and scholarly interpreters of Scripture, or without those who have reflected deeply upon, and acted trustingly in obedience to, his living Word. In particular she enters into the inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiry which has characterised recent centuries, and thanks God for the knowledge of his ways with men which are open to an informed faith. She lives within a world-wide fellowship of Churches in which she will learn to sharpen her understanding of the will and purpose of God by contact with contemporary thought. Within that fellowship she also stands in relation to contemporary societies in ways which will help her to understand her own nature and mission. She thanks God for the continuing witness and service of evangelist, of scholar, of prophet and of martyr. She prays that she may be ready when occasion demands to confess her Lord in fresh words and deeds.6
There is much to be learned from "the inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiry which has characterised recent centuries." I recall an evangelical of my younger years commenting to me that he had got through theological college with his evangelical faith intact by closing his mind. That ought not to be so. There is a great deal to learn, even from those with whom we disagree.
I did New Testament honours under a liberal Baptist scholar who had studied under C.H. Dodd. I recall an assignment I did on "The Righteousness of God in Romans". As was his custom, he annotated my work on a separate sheet of paper, entering into dialogue with what I had written. "So you see," he concluded, "you disagree with C.H. Dodd" – and gave me a good mark. I appreciated that thoroughness and fairness. I learned a great deal from him, even though I disagreed with his premises and conclusions on a number of occasions. He taught me to think and to discriminate – to learn that there are helpful and unhelpful liberal scholars, and also that there are excellent evangelical scholars and others whose scholarship is poor.
But now the Uniting Church is in disarray. Suddenly we recognise that a shift of major proportions has taken place. We have called ourselves "a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal… On the way Christ feeds her with Word and Sacraments, and she has the gift of the Spirit in order that she may not lose her way". Yet it seems that we have in fact lost our way anyhow! We have mislaid our guidebook and the claim we lay to a guiding Spirit seems more and more like whistling in the dark. We urgently need to reclaim the Bible for the Uniting Church.7
If we are to reclaim the Bible, it is important to understand several factors that have led to this situation where we no longer have the Bible as an effective authority in the life of the Uniting Church.
A group of American scholars have produced a series of essays under the title Reclaiming the Bible for the Church8 – based on addresses given at a theological conference of that same theme in June 1994. These scholars come from different seminaries and colleges and represent a range of mainstream denominations. It is clear that several of these scholars face in their own denominations a crisis of Biblical authority similar to our own with controversy over homosexuality as the issue that has raised the alarm. I have found their work helpful, even where I do not directly quote them.
One of the effects of the literary, historical and scientific enquiry into the Scriptures has been in how we view the Bible as a whole. In fact, we tend these days, not to view it as a whole at all. Brevard S. Childs makes this observation:
The Christian Church is unanimous in affirming that its Scriptures consist of two parts, an Old and a New Testament. The church made the boldest possible move in laying claim to the Jewish Scriptures as part of its own canon. For two centuries the early church had only the Scriptures of the synagogue for its own normative writings. It continued to receive them as authoritative, and it joined them to its evangelical traditions both in written and oral form. Moreover, it is crucial understand that the church did not adopt the Jewish Scriptures as merely background to the New Testament, but it made the theological claim that the Jewish Scriptures, that is, the Old or Former Testament, bore witness to Jesus Christ.9
Our Assembly Task Group on Jewish-Christian Relations had made such a simple gesture to the Jews, referring to the Old Testament as the "Hebrew Scriptures" and agreeing to call our years B.C.E. and C.E. Those simple actions of good-will represent a profound theological shift.
Elizabeth Achtemeier draws attention to a number of correspondences between Israel and the church. She goes on to say:
And so the Old Testament becomes for the church its own story by which it knows who it is, by which it is warned, by which it is guided and sustained, and through which it can believe that God is faithful to his Word.
The Old Testament is our story, by virtue of God's act in Jesus Christ. Which means, to go further, that the Old Testament now speaks to us as Israel. It is not only in a scheme of promise and fulfilment that we now hear the Old Testament – a scheme that some have tried to impose on the entire lectionary. No, the Old Testament now speaks both its words of judgment and grace to us as it once spoke to Israel, because we too are now the Israel of God…10
However, the effect of the literary, historical and scientific enquiry has gone further than this. Not only has the Bible been divided into the Jewish section and the Christian section, but we are left with a collection of historical documents, not a single book, the Bible, a very human work, not the very Word of God. Robert W. Jenson speaks out sharply about the way scholars tend to view this collection, but beware! While reaping the benefits of legitimate literary, historical and scientific enquiry into the Scriptures, it is all too easy for any of us to slip into this fragmented view of the Bible.
The volume we call the Bible is a collection of documents. The single book exists because the church in her specific mission assembled a certain selection of documents from the very ancient Near East and from first-century Mediterranean antiquity…
Where the church's calling to speak the gospel is not shared, the binding of these particular documents between one cover becomes a historical accident of no hermeneutical significance. The drastically misnamed Society for Biblical Literature is not essentially more interested in documents in the canon than in similar documents outside the canon. For them, the formation of the canon was the project of an ancient religious movement, through which these valuable objects of historical research and opportunities for hermeneutical virtuosity were luckily preserved for scholarly ex-Christians from which to make a living.
Therefore when folk who do not follow the gospel turn their attention to the Bible, the one book immediately disintegrates into its component parts, splitting first into Hebrew Scripture and New Testament and then into traditions, redactions, and so forth – to which fragments the heathen may be entirely welcome.11
Jenson makes this further incisive observation
The techniques of historical-critical reading are not the essence of the matter. What constitutes modernity's upsetting relation to old texts is not techniques but a policy: that of maintaining critical awareness of historical difference. There is, for example, a vast span of history between Julius Caesar and Bill Clinton. Premodern societies experience such time separation as exactly what binds persons and events together in a common world, so that Clinton might well read the Gallic Wars to help with his current problems, on the assumption that both he and Caesar are in the business of politics. Modernity's "historical consciousness," per contra, experiences that time as a separation, so that Clinton and Caesar are each in their own historical world and the possibility of Caesar advising Clinton is problematic.
Historical consciousness, which is the dynamic at the heart of historical-critical reading, keeps the historical distance open. Historical-critical reading maintains awareness of the distance between Caesar and Clinton or between Moses and what the Deuteronomists made of Moses or between the historical Jesus and us. Why should that have been an affliction for the faith? I suggest: because of a simple but profound mistake. It has been supposed that in the case of Scripture the historical distance kept open is between the story Scripture tells and us, or to put it another way, between the community of Israel and the primal church on the one hand and us on the other. On this supposition we of course must have the same problem relating to Scripture as Clinton has relating to Caesar.
But this is a boner, for we, in our time now, are merely, living the latest part of the very story Scripture tells; alternatively, the community from which Scripture comes and which is its immediate community of interpretation is simply the same community, the church, that we are. Between us and Scripture there simply is no historical distance to be kept open.12
Karl P. Donfried expresses concern at the extent to which there is "frequent dependence on the behavioural sciences as an authority in the moral arena". He asks, "Must not those who stand in the biblical tradition be at least suspicious that what is declared as 'normal' in these human endeavours might also be warped by the power of sin?" He goes on to say:
Given, then, this false hermeneutical starting point and the failure to view Scripture as a unified whole and a fruitful source of the church's moral teaching, there is a widespread tendency to play 'First-Century Bible Land,' that is, to pick and choose those texts that fit the ideology being developed and to discard those texts that contradict it as obsolete, time-conditioned, or belonging to Jewish or Hellenistic baggage that can be jettisoned. Again,. it is necessary to insist that it is not the historical-critical approach that is primarily at fault, but, rather, the hermeneutic that appropriates and interprets its results.13
These writers are not blaming the historical-critical approach itself, but the hermeneutical assumptions that we derive from it – as well as the divine right which some scholars, viewing the Bible merely as a collection of historical human documents, have taken to themselves the right to dictate what the church may or may not believe. Jenson makes the valuable comment:
It is the parish clergy, not the academics, whose labour to read the text closely, and assumption of the struggle that means in the parish, will maintain the authority of Scripture, and whose failure to read the text closely will undercut the authority of Scripture.14
Too often we have been over-awed by scholarship. In practice we have put the scholar above the Word rather than under the Word, greatly reducing Biblical authority. The scholar has become the master of our exegesis, rather than its servant. Having placed the scholar above the Word, I also place myself above the Word, taking to myself the right, not so much to understand, interpret and apply what the Bible says, but to decide for myself what is the Word behind the Bible and then to modify it in response to my present situation.
This shift opens the Church to all manners of aberrant theologies. This becomes the drive behind the Marxist-inspired theologies of liberation and feminism. The comment of Elizabeth Achtemeier at this point is very pertinent:
The radical feminists among us – and I emphasise the word "radical," because we must always distinguish between feminism as fairness and radical feminism as ideology – have abandoned any thought of an authoritative canon and replaced it with reliance on their own subjective experiences, shared in their communities called Women-church. The Scriptures are, they say, simply ancient documents, born out of the customs and traditions of ancient patriarchal societies, and then assembled and interpreted solely by males. And so all of that patriarchalism and androcentrism is to be rejected by liberated twentieth-century females, they say, who find their goddess in all things and indeed in themselves and in their sexuality. Said a radical feminist on the Duke University campus some time ago, "Women do not need to be redeemed; they just need to be affirmed." But the real tragedy is that some American church leaders and clergy, who have lost their canon, have agreed with such nonsense.15
That last sentence makes a vital point. The liberal view of the Scriptures has been working away in the church for over a hundred years to the point where the Church has now become susceptible to radical changes in moral values that would have been unthinkable to an earlier generation of liberal ministers.
Reclaiming the Bible
There are undoubtedly a number of other factors which have contributed to our present situation in which loss of Biblical authority has been so graphically laid before us. We need also to acknowledge the ways in which our own mishandling of Scripture has contributed to a loss of confidence in the Biblical message and loss of ability to apply it to current issues.
We can just as easily fall into the trap of looking for the word behind the Word – sometimes by an over-use or misuse of allegory and typology, appeal to texts out of context, finding helpful "words from the Lord" for edification and encouragement without ever teaching people to discover what is really there… In the course of the present debate, there have been those who have told us, "I don't read the Bible literally. I simply take it seriously." But we cannot take it seriously unless we accept it as "Bible" – the Word of the Lord, not simply a collection of writings, nor a collection of inspired and inspiring texts – unless we note with care the words in which it is written, and thereby respond to the Lord of the Word. As I have written elsewhere,
As we seek the mind of the Lord on the major issues facing the Church today, we need to address consciously what is clearly written and what the Lord has clearly said through history and prophecy and through the historical incarnation of the Son of God and the inspired apostolic word. If we contend against the loose use which others might make of Scripture, we need to eschew our own loose use of Scripture! Perhaps we are not self-critical enough to recognise what we do as being "loose use". It has always been easier to see the speck of dust in a brother's eye than the log in our own.16
How then are we to reclaim the Bible for the Uniting Church? Because this situation has developed over a long period of time, there is no simple "quick-fix" answer to that question. Hopefully, the recognition of some of the factors that have led to the present crisis will itself help to chart the way ahead.
We need to take careful stock of where we have come from, where we are and where we are going. Many times in Scripture we are called to remember. The Lord's people were called to "Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn" (Is. 51.1). Whenever we celebrate communion, we are eating and drinking "in remembrance of me." Paul adds, "For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (1 Cor. 11.21-23). At the heart of the Christian faith and life is what God has done. Communion is more than "remembrance", yet, like all the Christian faith and life, is founded on what God has done in the death of his Son. That is the source of what God by his Holy Spirit is doing now. And it is the guarantee of what God will bring to completion at the second coming of Christ.
We need unashamedly to reclaim the high Biblical ground in the Church. The heritage of the Uniting Church is Biblical – we need to say so, and call on that heritage. Do you believe the Bible is the Word of God? Don't hedge around. Don't hesitate. Live by it. Speak it out. But be sure you are biblically literate. Promote Biblical literacy among all members of our congregations.
We need to regain control of theological education. Peter Bentley's Summary of Responses to the Interim Report on Sexuality notes that 88% of members were against that Report. It also notes that only 68% of responding ministers were against the report – 70% of male ministers, 19% of female ministers. That is telling us something about theological training – the erosion caused by liberal theology over 100 years and by liberation and feminist theology in more recent times.
As Bible-believing groups within the Uniting Church – evangelical and renewal – we need to be more aware of one another, praying for one another by name, caring for and supporting one another, networking with one another… We need to humble ourselves under God and his Word – not seeking to build our own kingdom, but only God's kingdom and his glory. This will involve discovering people with expertise in a variety of important areas. None of us has to do it all, but we all need to be equipped and ready to contribute our gifts.
Reflect on these words from 1 Thess. 5.23-24, "May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it."
God has called each one of us. The task seems (as it must also have seemed to the first apostles) impossible, but the Christian life is about being available to God so that he can continue to do his work in and through us.
1 John Wesley, Forty-Four Sermons, Introduction.
2 Westminster Confession of Faith, I.
3 Basis, para 10.
4 Basis, para 5.
5 J. Davis McCaughey in his Commentary on the Basis of Union, pp. 29-30.
6 Basis of Union, para 11.
7 Basis, para 3.
8 Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (eds), Reclaiming the Bible for the Church (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1995.)
9 Brevard S. Childs, "On Reclaiming the Bible for Christian Theology", Reclaiming the Bible, p. 12.
10 Elizabeth Achtemeier, "The Canon as the Voice of the Living God", Reclaiming the Bible, p. 127.
11 Robert W. Jenson, "Hermeneutics and the Life of the Church", Reclaiming the Bible, pp. 89-90.
12 ibid., pp. 103-104.
13 Karl P. Donfried, "Alien Hermeneutics and the Misappropriation of Scripture", Reclaiming the Bible, p. 32.
14 op. cit., p. 95.
15 op. cit., p. 121.
16 Peter J. Blackburn, "Word and Spirit – Authority in the Uniting Church in Australia" in The Cutting Edge, 2 , p. 6 (NFFR, 1996).