authority of scripture

This post is an abbreviated version of a post on my own blog.  The fuller version can be found here: http://mattfrizzell.com/2013/11/10/the-authority-of-scripture-or-how-not-to-read-it/

I’m teaching Restoration Scripture this semester at Graceland University.   When I teach this upper division undergraduate course, I spend more time thinking about the role of scripture in normal life more than I usually do .

I teach Restoration Scripture in a way that brings knowledge about scripture together with critical thinking about truth and authority.  I attempt to help students think critically about scripture, yet have respect for its tradition.  The point is to develop a creative openness to scripture.  I believe my approach fits well with Community of Christ’s Statement on Scripture.   It’s a relational approach in which students combine critical thinking and respect for its purpose as a communal authority.  This allows scripture to become a tool with which to think, imagine, feel, and learn the Spirit at work in the church and its sacred writings, present day and in the past.  It takes more time, effort, and discipline to think about scripture this way.  But, it is also what connects scripture with lived-life in community with others in an intellectually honest and life-giving way.

Putting practical questions first, we start by asking the implicit question, “What is scripture good for?”  This question is important because many young adults simply haven’t developed an understanding of scripture outside their personal exposure (or lack of exposure) to it.  Like us, they see how too many Christians obsess over religion and scriptural authority in a way that alienates others. Christianity that worships the authority of scripture has alienated many of us from what it means to be Christian.  The humble call to walk and learn from the person and work of Jesus is quickly lost.  This is even truer with young adults in my experience.

bible-silentThe problem is that most Christians get way too caught up in the “what” of scripture.   More fundamentalist and conservative Christians do it by overemphasizing the literal word and authority of the Bible.  Liberal Christians and pan-religious folk do it when they dispense with scripture by labeling it as personal devotional material, simply stories and moral teaching, or irrelevant historical documents.    When “what scripture is” becomes more important than what scripture points to, the “who” of scripture is eclipsed.  The message and purpose of scripture are lost.

The future of scripture will grow out of a fuller understanding of its past.   Interestingly, Restoration Scripture lends itself well to this approach. Community of Christ has an open canon of scripture that evolves.  (Other traditions also have an evolving understanding of scripture and its interpretation; its the canonization of new scriptural material that makes the Community of Christ unique.)  With all the traps and dangers of having an open canon of scripture, it also has its advantages.  The same traps and dangers that come with an open canon also illuminate the all-to-human processes from which the scriptures come. Because of historical proximity, the emergence of Restoration scripture helps us appreciate how scripture emerges as crystalizations of collective (and collected) human experience.  They do not drop out of the sky or emerge pristine out of an arc or from the ground.  Scriptures are products of divine-human encounter.  They are a human endeavor.  They come out of the circumstances that created them and carried them to us.  And, they testify of God’s activity midst human experience in ultimate proportions.   “God,” in scripture, is a sign and object of ultimate meaning.

When we read scripture, we commune with the dead.  We glean their wisdom and read their witness of ultimate concern in their lives.  In scripture, diverse voices and circumstances come together to convey a semblance of God’s active presence in the mess and mystery of life.   They are stories and life-lessons of survival, life’s search for meaning, the waxing and waning of civilizations, war and peace, and life and death.  All come to us through scripture.

Scripture is also a particular kind of literature.  It is literature that personifies God.   In scripture, God is personified because God and human beings constantly interact.  They fight, deny, adore, return, struggle with and depend deeply on God.  God is strangely present and beyond these entanglements.  God is wily and faithful, powerful and vulnerable.  God is vengeful and gracious.  God is the beginning and the end, whose name is simply “I am.”  (Exodus 3:14)  This God communes with human beings and  is terribly interested in our lives and welfare.  God persistently reaches out to us at great personal expense.

When we approach scripture with narrow personal interests or uncritical assumptions about its authority and content, so much gets lost.   Any reader can slip right past the message within scripture, finding only what they set out to find. This is how we approach restaurants and government – expecting to get what we’re promised and what we want.    But approaching scripture this way avoids a deeper relationship.  I avoids questions about who it comes from, to whom it testifies, and who it’s for.  So much of what scripture is comes from our relationship with it.

Practically, scripture contains wisdom of the ancients and a living message for today.   The ancient church is always also us and not us.  The faith community that practices reading and discerning scripture together will be shaped by its message.  Reading scripture together is a particular experience that shapes a common memory and a community.    This living memory is lived and repeated in the sacraments and rituals that shape the community.  This approach to scripture gets much closer to its purpose and message.   Jacob wrestled with God; I wrestle with God.  Jesus was baptized; I was baptized.   The disciples broke bread and drank in Jesus; we break bread and drink in Jesus.   Job suffered and searched for meaning; we suffer and search for meaning.   Israel longed for a messiah; we do, too.

jesus gift bagsConsumer culture tends to make us think that religious resources are actually spiritual consumer goods.   This, too, influences how we see scripture.    Consuming scripture goes beyond using scripture as personal devotional material.   Scripture becomes only good for “what I get out of it” and “what it means to me.”    This diminishes the community-shaping power of scripture.   But, it can also lead to abusing it.    When scripture is a consumer good, it’s authority is in what I can get out of it.   In an anxious world, we have all seen alarmists and charlatans use scripture to propagate fear, manipulate persons, and create false security.   Used as a consumer good, the ultimate nature of the human problems and difficulties addressed in scripture can become a weapon.   Consumer culture does not cultivate a relationship with scripture or shape the kind of community its message conveys.

Practical wisdom leads to an understanding of scripture that liberates us from extreme and uninformed approaches.   What is scripture good for?  It’s good for reading.  It’s good for reading in community with others.  The authority of scripture is not in literal truth or infallibility.  Nor is the authority of scripture limited to what you or I can get out of it for our own benefit.  The authority of scripture lies in our ability to encounter, grasp, and be changed by its message.  In scripture, diverse voices and circumstances come together to convey God’s active presence in the mess and mystery of life.   The stories, testimonies, and life-lessons of survival, our search for meaning, the waxing and waning of civilizations, war and peace, and life and death all come to us through scripture.   Reading it together forms relationships and a common memory of stories, life-lessons, and language to express the meaning and mystery of life – which otherwise is nearly impossible for us to express.  Read this way, scriptures do not exert authority.  Their authority is evident.

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We’re Still Listening

I’m a believer in the Restoration. I do not subscribe to a conservative story that Joseph Smith Jr. restored an ancient church, but I’m a believer that many blessings, customs, and ordinances of the past were “restored.”

joseph-smith-first-visionI often find myself in dialogue with other believers of the Restoration; I listen intently to what they believe is the most significant blessing of the restoration. (Please feel free to share below what you believe is the most significant blessing) I enjoy the dialogue because to me the Restoration is a journey not an event. The principles of the Restoration are the same, but our understanding of those principles is ever changing.

Following the death of the apostles, there was a movement to canonize the apostolic writings. Many of the writings out there were not apostolic in origin, but drew upon the inspiration of their ministry. For centuries, debate and discussion took place on what should be considered scripture and what shouldn’t.  By the end of the 16th Century, most Christian communities had canonized their scriptures and closed their canons.

Essentially, the Christian world had found their scripture and believed that no further dialogue was needed.

The Restoration changed this thinking. The early church adopted the concept that God has revealed in the past and he has more to reveal. The coming forth of the Book of Mormon was significant. Not just because of the witness that it bore, but because it helped prepare the early saints for the coming of additional scripture.

I have found it to be a delight that the spirit of the Restoration is alive in Community of Christ. God continues to speak to us just as he did in Moses’ time, Christ’s time, and Joseph Smith’s time. Community of Christ has been blessed with the revelation that has been given. Over the last 180+ years the church has seen: Women ordained to the priesthood, two temples built, an open communion policy, an opening of the priesthood and sacrament of marriage to our gay brothers and sisters (this has only been accepted in some counties) and so many other blessings which have resulted from our continual dialogue with God.

President Grant McMurray in Section 161:1b counseled the church to “Be faithful to the spirit of the Restoration, mindful that it is a spirit of adventure, openness, and searching…”

I’m happy to testify that the Community of Christ is continuing to live the spirit of the Restoration. I believe that the biggest blessing from the Restoration is the opening up of the heavens and the continuing dialogue between us and our God. May we all continue to be faithful to the Restoration’s spirit!

For Churches Interested in Supporting Peace in Northern Uganda

Due to the sudden interest in the conflicts in Central Africa, particularly Uganda, caused by the highly problematic film from Invisible Children, I am sure that many congregations are showing interest in supporting peacebuilding in the region.

I have compiled a list of better ways to donate money and stand in solidarity with the people of Uganda.

Would a CofC Bishop Get Arrested for Occupy Wall Street?

I was at Duarte Square, Lower Manhattan, this afternoon as retired Episcopal Bishop George Packard, and several other clergy were arrested supporting Occupy Wall Street’s attempt to start a new occupation on land owned by Trinity Church Wall Street. For a video of him talking with protestors in the back of an NYPD paddywagon, click here.

“I am still baffled that the Episcopal Church of which I have been a member all my life could not–through Trinity–find some way to embrace these thousands of young people in our very diminishing ranks,” said Bishop Packard, the former bishop for the armed services, on his blog, Occupied Bishop.

Packard is not the only high-ranking Episcopal leader who has supported the movement. In an open letter to Occupy Wall Street, anti-apartheid hero Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town and former Deacon at Trinity Church, said:

“Injustice, unfairness, and the strangle hold of greed which has beset humanity in our times must be answered with a resounding, ‘No!’ You are that answer. I write this to you not many miles away from the houses of the poor in my country. It pains me despite all the progress we have made. You see, the heartbeat of what you are asking for–that those who have too much must wake up to the cries of their brothers and sisters who have so little–beats in me and all South Africans who believe in justice.”

To watch a video of interfaith leaders addressing the Occupiers at Duarte Square today, click here.

Do you think Community of Christ clergy should join the Occupy Movement? How should the church more generally interact with the Occupy Movement?

[Updated 19 December 2011]

Do we need an Occupy C of C Movement? A Response

[This thoughtful post was written by Jim Craft, in response to the earlier post by Matthew Bolton: “How Should the Church Interact with the Occupy Movement?” — Ed.]

During the last few months, we have been bombarded with images of fellow citizens camped out in public parks around the nation. Most of the attention has focused on a group in Manhattan which is called “Occupy Wall Street”. This group has taken their grievances to the people they feel are responsible for whatever ills society is suffering from today, Wall Street.

What I have noticed is that the message isn’t entirely clear. When the protests first started, I was listening to a broadcast from Dave Ramsey while driving back to my office from a rural courthouse. Mr. Ramsey was having audience members who identified with the Occupy movement call in and explain what and why they were protesting or considering themselves members of this group. There was absolutely no clear consensus among ANY of the callers why they were protesting, other than they were just “mad” about the way things were going for them. Almost none of them could explain the economic injustices they were protesting, or even what they were experiencing.

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How Should the Church Interact with the Occupy Movement?

…it is incumbent upon the Saints … to be in the world but not of it, … using the things of this world in the manner designed of God, that the places where they occupy may shine as Zion, the redeemed of the Lord. Condensed from Community of Christ Doctrine and Covenants 128:8b, 8c.

And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves. And He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a robbers den.” Matthew 21:12-16.

“It’s time to invite the Occupy Movement to church!” says Jim Wallis of Sojourners, who this week called for the creation of a “church sanctuary for the Occupy Movement.

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