Institute on Religion and Democracy
December 13, 1999
God's revelation is found through various interpretations of the Bible, and not directly in the Bible itself, agreed most scholars at a "consultation" sponsored by two agencies of the United Methodist Church.
Five United Methodist scholars addressed the consultation on the "authority of Scripture and the nature of God's revelation" sponsored by the Board of Discipleship and the Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns (CCUIC) on December 7-9 in Nashville.
The 33 participants included Bishops Roy Sano of Los Angeles, Ann Sherer of Missouri, Fritz Mutti of Kansas, and Ken Carder of Nashville, General Secretary Bruce Robbins of CCUIC, and General Secretary Ezra Earl Jones of the Board of Discipleship.
Also among the participants were several prominent evangelical leaders, including Michigan pastor Les Longden, Joy Moore of Asbury Seminary, Billy Abraham of Perkins School of Theology and Stuart Greene, who heads the Council on Evangelism. Longden, Moore and Abraham are affiliated with the Confessing Movement, a United Methodist renewal organization that advocates a return to "classical" Christianity.
Three of the five scholars who presented papers spoke from a liberal perspective. One called himself a centrist. And the fifth scholar seemed to be in the moderate camp as well. None of the presenters identified themselves as conservative.
Perhaps the most provocative among the three liberal scholars was David Lull, who through the end of this will direct Bible translation for the National Council of Churches. Lull admitted he came of age during the 1960s and accordingly viewed "authority" suspiciously. In his view, "authorities" oppressed women, supported the Vietnam War, put corporate profits ahead of workers and the environment, and are today still defending "racism, sexism, militarism, and economism."
Lull believes the Bible is "pluriform," or containing many meanings. He disagrees with the traditional understanding of Scripture as containing "univocal" propositions called "doctrines." The Bible does not focus on literal events but on remembrances in idealized forms, he claimed.
Not surprisingly, Lull distinguished between the Jesus of "history" and the Jesus of the Scripture. He also discerned a distance between the historical Paul and the letters that the Bible assigns to Paul. As a translator, Lull said the text of the Bible has no "plain sense" since so many versions of it exist. Compromises between the original language and the modern language inevitably corrupt the text, he said. Even differences between modern translations make speaking about a single Bible difficult.
Lull implied that traditional understandings of the Virgin Birth or the Atonement theory of Christ's death are based, at least in part, on possibly faulty translations of the Bible. For example, he said Isaiah 7:14, which is traditionally used as a prophecy of Christ's birth, in its original Hebrew speaks of a young woman, not necessarily a virgin, conceiving a child. He complained that too often pre-conceived notions about Christian doctrine have corrupted the subsequent translation of key texts.
The original texts of the Bible are "relatively fluid and can be molded into different and even competing doctrinal formulae," Lull surmised. To make his point, Lull claimed the Bible at times endorses polygamy, slavery, the subjugation of women, and anti-Jewish polemics.
Lull tried to make a case that the Biblical text does not uniformly condemn homosexual practice but instead targets male prostitution or other forms of exploitative sex. He said the Scriptures are silent about "same-sex relationships based on mutual love and a life-long monogamous commitment."
A broad concept of God's "revelation" will embrace most if not all the opinions on controversial issues dividing the church today, Lull said. Appeals to the authority of Scripture to settle disputes will not work because there is no "one true answer" as to what's God's revelation is.
In response to a question, Lull said he believes tradition, reason and experience can override Scripture. "Revelation" is found in Jesus Christ. The text of the Bible, which he said is a product of church tradition, should be judged on that basis. "God didn't write the Bible and then die," he noted as he urged openness to new understandings of revelation as guided by the Holy Spirit.
He claimed that persons who spoke of God as "Sophia" were more biblical than their critics, as the "wisdom" literature of the Old Testament and some Apocryphal books would justify it. Sophia is a Greek word for wisdom.
Lull complained of critics who tried to silence advocates of feminist theology as were found at the 1993 Re-Imagining Conference. Besides defending the "theological legitimacy" of Re-Imagining's attempts to "reinterpret" the significance of Jesus Christ's death, Lull also defended the participation of United Methodists clergy in the Jesus Seminar.
Mostly agreeing with Lull's understanding of a multi-voiced Scripture was Delwin Brown of United Methodist Iliff School of Theology in Denver. Identifying himself as a "process theologian," he called the Bible a "vital pluralism." He claimed that the Scripture is both authoritarian and liberationist, hierarchial and egalitarian, supportive of both adoptionist and pre-existence Christologies, while supportive and rejecting of equality between men and women.
The Bible's mulitiplicity of contradictory voices, or "polyphony," gives the Bible its power, Brown offered. He lamented that Christianity had adopted a Roman view of authority that presents an "objective standard of measurement that validates all that conforms to it."
In contrast, Brown said the Bible commends "creativity," not conformity. There are many legitimately differing voices within Christianity, he insisted. Some may be more marginal than others, but none of the voices "demonstrably and for all time trumps the others."
Conservative theologians strive so to argue that the Bible speaks in a single voice because of their "enthrallment" with authority and conformity. A more durable view of the faith sees the Bible within a larger canon of "stories, texts, rituals, doctrines" that are "porous" and "fluid."
In responding to a question, Brown said he favored homosexual "marriage" but accepts the validity of arguments against it. "I don't want to throw those people out," he said of same-sex marriage opponents. "Legitimate pluralism must include [people who advocate] the rejection of pluralism," he admitted.
Brown also said that "other people in other [religious] traditions can be saved through their own resources," as he rejected a part of the Methodist Articles of Religion that he fears make Jesus Christ the only way to salvation.
"In some important ways, Protestantism, was mistaken," Brown concluded. "The divine voice is as much song, dance, smell, image, object and action as it is divine word." The Bible's "plurivocity" or "manifold voices" should be seen as a mark of vitality, not division, he suggested.
Wesley Ariarajah of United Methodist Drew School of Theology in New Jersey continued on this theme in his paper. He argued that Christians should not have a "narrow" understanding of revelation as dictated words of God, as orthodox Muslims view the Qur'an. Instead, "revelation" happens in the process of interpreting the Bible. Each interpreter therefore could have a distinct revelation.
Ariarajah contrasted Christian claims that the Bible is infallible or that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation with Hindu perspectives on Hindu Scriptures. Hindus are not preoccupied with proving the factuality of their texts but look to them as "windows into something deeper and more profound."
The Bible speaks for itself, without claims of inspiration, inerrancy or infallibility, he said. The Christian community needs to be liberated from the "power mentality" and its anxiety to "control" by building "impenetrable theological fortresses" around their doctrines.
A "static" view of the Bible that clings to the "exacts words of the bible as constitutive of revelation" would make the Bible a "dead letter." In contrast, Third World "contextual" theologies discern divine revelation only by applying Scripture to their historical situation. He said that theologians in Latin America read the Bible in the context of "massive oppression." They received a "new revelation" by understanding the Bible as a testament of solidarity with oppressed people.
Similarly, Korean liberationists who were imprisoned for opposing South Korea's autocratic government shared the suffering of the "masses" and awoke to a new reading of the Scripture. This new reading recognized the "oppressed masses" as the "bearers of the messianic message" and God's solidarity with them.
Concepts of Scriptural authority, when not applied to the actual historical contexts, have been used to justify slavery, apartheid, dictatorship and the subjugation of women, Ariarajah recalled. For these reasons he said Third World Christians are suspicious of simple appeals to the Bible as "authoritative."
Wesley claimed that the New Testament was a product of the Christian community rather than a "mystic" creation. The early church did not adopt the books of the Scripture because they understood them to be "revealed," "inspired" or "inerrant." Apart from the community, the Scripture would have no authority. Third World theologians have recognized this "creative relationship" between scripture and community.
They therefore insist that the "historical cultural context" is equally important to the historic Scriptures for "doing theology," Ariarajah said. They are similar to the ancient Hebrews, who also discovered "new revelations" about God as they moved from one historical context to the other.
Ariarajah claims that Third World Christians insist that "revelation" not be tied down to Scripture. For them, the Bible is one part of a wider revelation of God who continues to reveal. We are led into new understandings of God's revelation as we seek to discern God's will in specific historical contexts, new discoveries in science, and growing dissatisfaction with modernity.
"I have big difficulties with the verbal inspiration of the Bible," he said in response to a question. "How can parts of the Book of Joshua be the inspired Word of God," he asked as he pointed to that book's description of God ordering the Hebrews to kill their enemies in battle.
Rebekah Miles of Perkins School of Theology in Dallas declined to declare fully her own theological preference. Her paper was mostly descriptive, outlining the differences between three different ways to interpret the Bible. The first is propositional, which emphasizes the objective truth of Scripture. The second is transformational, which more liberally focuses on Scripture's' power to change lives. And the third is narrativist, which examines God's character and how God works through communities.
Miles suggested that these three schools of thought could learn from each other and all had substantive roles in Christian history. Her colleague from Perkins School of Theology, Scott Jones, mostly discussed the propositional understanding of Scripture as extolled by John Wesley.
According to Jones, Wesley believed that the Bible stands alone as the final authority for Christian practice and doctrine. And Wesley believed that the Bible is infallible. Although the founder of Methodism clearly employed reason, tradition and experience to understand Scripture, he understood they were themselves subordinate to Scripture's authority.
Jones insisted that playing one part of the so-called Wesleyan "Quadrilateral" against another is "thoroughly non-Wesleyan." Wesley never imagined that reason, tradition or experience could together or separately ever contradict the "plain sense of the Bible." And Wesley believed in the unity of all truth, which always points to the divine origin of the Bible.
In his paper, Jones quoted the following from Wesley: "Nay, if there be any mistakes in the Bible, there may as well be a thousand. If there be one falsehood in that book, it did not come from the God of truth."
Wesley believed in accepting the literal meaning of Scripture, unless it implies an absurdity or a contradiction. In that case, an allegorical or metaphorical sense would be God's intent. But Wesley thought the Bible was clear in its main points. For Wesley, the Bible's primary message was centered on original sin, justification by faith, and sanctification.
Jones said that Wesley's views on biblical inspiration and inerrancy are "untenable" today. But he believes Wesley's main themes are still relevant. Wesleyans should still maintain a high view of Scripture's authority. And they should see the Bible as a message primarily about individual salvation. "While those who discern other themes may in fact be Christians, they have forfeited the claim of being Wesleyans," Jones declared.
Wesleyans must also include the doctrines of sin, justification and sanctification within their understanding of salvation, Jones said. And faithfulness to Wesley "must lead us to a greater faithfulness, to the word of God as contained in the Scriptures," he concluded.
Later, in response to a question, Jones said the church needs a better doctrine of divine revelation than what Wesley offered. Scripture is a "messy mixture" of the divine and human, Jones said. Explaining his own perspective, Jones insisted he was not a conservative but stands in the "extreme center" of the church. "Evangelical groups in my conference have made clear that I'm not one of them," he affirmed
During discussion about the papers from Jones and the four other theologians, Bishop Roy Sano observed about the dialogue that, "We've come out of missile silos and we've started seeing each other as people." The bishop said both sides of the theological spectrum were beginning to see Jesus alive in their debating opponents.
"We who are liberals shouldn't pretend we're in the majority," Sano continued. "We're in the minority. We're no longer mainline. We're sideline. Evangelicals are in the majority." But Sano also said that the desire for a "single norm" in the church is the product of white European culture when threatened by "diversity."
Bishop Fritz Mutti urged that "fundamentalists" within the United Methodist Church be included in the church's "conversation" about theology. And Bishop Ann Sherer pointed out that the church has consensus on some issues, such as race, but a "simple majority" on other issues, in an apparent reference to homosexuality. She asked for caution before "cracking down" on an issue on which consensus is missing. "I'm not sure the church should mimic the secular legal process although there are clear boundaries on sexual conduct," she said.
Les Longden, an evangelical pastor from Lansing, Michigan, expressed concern that "diversity" was replacing the role of the Holy Spirit in the interpretation of Scripture. In responding to Delwin Brown's paper specifically, he complained there was no mention of human sinners, just human "searchers."
Longden also took strong issue with claims by David Lull that biblical scholars agree that the Bible does not condemn all homosexual behavior. "You're characterizing conservatives as ignorant and uninformed," he said. "I'm not stupid. It's not an issue of biblical scholarship. I've done my homework too." Lull denied he was denigrating conservative who oppose homosexual practice.
Similarly, Billy Abraham complained about Wesley Ariarajah's "pejorative" characterization of conservative Third World Christians whom Ariarajah implied were unduly influenced by Western missionaries. "Can't people speak for themselves?" Abraham asked.
Ariarajah responded that he hoped Christians would "release" the Bible from claims about inspiration, just as he said Buddhists and Hindus have done with their scriptures without undervaluing their importance. This would help us relate to the Bible in a more creative way," he said.
Stuart Greene, a Georgia pastor, expressed concern that the new interpretations of Scripture would lead inevitably to questions about the Virgin Birth, Resurrection and Incarnation, which would surely "upset more people back home."
And Joy Moore said she wished there had been more discussion about how some scholars identify "revelation" or even advocate openness to new revelation. Like Greene, she worried that these new definitions would detract from the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and negate the importance of His Atonement.