Saturday, September 13, 2008

Disciples Values: The Interpretation Principle

2 Timothy 3:10-17

In 2009 we Disciples will celebrate our bicentennial. Yes, next year we will celebrate a faith tradition that was born on the frontier – that is, Western Pennsylvania. This new movement proclaimed a message of freedom and unity based on a return to New Testament Christianity. It elevated the laity and gave them permission to lead. And it grew quickly because it was non-traditional, flexible, and responsive to its environment. It even had a little of Daniel Boone and Davey Crockett in it, and if you don’t believe me, just remember that one of our early preachers went by the name – Racoon John Smith! This was a faith fit for the journey west. In many ways it was the missional movement of the early 19th century. We are the heirs of that movement, even as we learn to be missional today.

It was out of this frontier ferment that the movements of Barton Stone in Kentucky, and the Campbells in Ohio and Western Virginia, were born. And from these movements came several basic values and principles that define us and guide us as a people to this very day.
Over the next six Sundays we’re going to explore six principles that I believe define our movement. I must admit up front that these principles and values aren’t original to me. I’m borrowing them from Mark Toulouse’s thematic history of the Disciples – although I’m adding one of my own! We’re going to begin our journey by considering first the “interpretation principle.”

You’ve probably heard it said: “Well, it’s a matter of interpretation.” What we mean, when we say that, is that there’s more than one way of looking at something. It’s like figuring out the color of the paint on the wall. Is it purple or plum? Eggplant or violet? Paint color is one thing, but interpreting Scripture is another.

I’m often asked, maybe because I’m a pastor: “What do you believe about the Bible?” What they want to know is: What is your starting point? I must say that my answer often makes people uncomfortable. That’s because I try to steer the question away from a discussion of biblical authority to one of interpretation. I tell people that we Disciples believe that each individual has the freedom to read, interpret, and apply the Scriptures for themselves. We don’t have any creeds or a hierarchy that tells us how to read and understand these words. There are those for whom this is quite frightening, in large part because they’re not confident in their ability to read and interpret the Bible. But there are many others who find this approach inviting and refreshing. It can make things interesting sometimes, maybe even a bit chaotic, but it is a view that respects our ability to understand Scripture and apply it faithfully. The question is: are we willing to give our neighbor the same freedom so that we can live together in unity, even though we don’t agree on every point of interpretation?

This is an important point because, as our text reminds us, the Scriptures not only give us information about God, they provide the foundation for our faith. The Scriptures, we’re told, are "useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work." So how does this happen for us?

1. We must be clear about our assumptions concerning the Bible

Although we don’t have creeds, we do have some wonderful slogans that remind us to take the Bible seriously. One of them says: "We have no Creed but Christ, No book but the Bible.” Another one says: "Where the Scriptures speak we speak, Where the Scriptures are silent we are silent." What that means is that no one’s interpretation has priority over anyone else’s. It also means that the essentials of the Christian faith are few.

The Scriptures themselves speak of the Bible being for us the Word of God. When we seek to hear from God, we believe that we should turn to the Bible for that word. But in what way is it the Word of God? Did God dictate it? Well, no, these words that we find in Scripture were written by human beings who lived nearly two thousand years ago or more. As a text, it’s limited by human language, history, and experience – not just of its readers, but also its authors, who were very different from us. And yet, we still believe that if we’re willing to listen, God will speak to us through these words.

When it comes to reading and applying the words of Scripture, I believe we must come to this task with a deep sense of humility. That’s because Christians don’t usually divide over questions of biblical authority, they divide over how to interpret the Bible. I’ve heard people say about me, and about others: “She doesn’t believe in the Bible.” Usually, when someone says this, what that person means is – she doesn’t read the Bible the same way I do. It’s not so much a question of what it says, but how it reads. And so, while we Disciples believe that the Scriptures are our norm, we also believe that unity among Christians will only come when we give each other room to hear, interpret, and apply this word to our own lives.

If we’re going to do this successfully, then we must check our assumptions before we come to the Scriptures. We need to ask ourselves – much like a Supreme Court Justice reading the Constitution – what are my life experiences, biases, and ideologies that might affect the way I read it? After all, I am a well educated, white, middle-class, middle-aged male living in America. How does this identity color the way I read the text? As we ask these questions of ourselves, we’re invited to humbly consider how the life experiences of our neighbors might color their interpretation. How might an impoverished farmer living in sub-Saharan Africa read these words?

2. We should follow the general rules of literary interpretation when we read the Bible.

We must start by examining our own assumptions, and then when we begin to read the text, Alexander Campbell tells us: "If then God speaks in human language, must not his communications be submitted to the same rules of interpretation as all other verbal communication?" The Bible may be sacred to us, but when we read it, Campbell says, we should use the same principles and tools that we would use to read and understand any other piece of literature – especially when that piece of literature is at least two thousand years ago and was written in languages very different from our own.

If we’re going to read the Bible responsibly, we must take into consideration its proper historical, cultural, and literary context. I can’t just sit down, open up to a page, and read it as if it was written yesterday with me in mind. It will take a bit more work than that if we’re going to hear a word from God. But if we’re willing to take the time and read the Bible responsibly, then it’s possible that we’ll experience the presence of the living God in its pages. That is, I think, what Campbell meant when he wrote that "the Bible reading of all enlightened Christians generally terminates in a Sacred dialogue between the author and the reader." For Campbell, the author is both the original writer and the God who inspired that author. So, in essence, Campbell is inviting us to share with him in a conversation with God that will equip us for every good work.

3. We must recognize the limitations of private interpretation.

We are free to read, interpret, and apply the Scriptures for ourselves. This freedom is a wonderful gift of God, but there is a caveat. Just because I’m free doesn’t mean that I can do as I please! Not every interpretation of Scripture carries truth nor is every interpretation beneficial. Paul said this about freedom: “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are beneficial” (1 Cor. 10:23).

It’s important to remember that people have used Scripture to support all kinds of evil. Things like slavery, segregation, the suppression of women, anti-Semitism, apartheid, genocide, and more. We maybe free, but we need the community – the community of the church and the community of scholars – to help guide us as we read and apply these words to our lives. It is important that we accord to others the same freedom that we take for granted – and together we can seek to know the way of God. We can learn from each other, because it’s just possible that my reading is incomplete or even wrong. And ultimately it’s important that we don’t make our own personal interpretations a test of fellowship.

We live in a privileged age when personal ownership of a Bible is quite common. Not so long ago, owning a Bible was rare and people were dependent on others if they were going to hear and apply this word to their own lives. That’s no longer true, at least not in America. I would guess that most of us have several Bibles in our homes. It’s long been a best seller in this country. But amazingly, surveys tell us that most Americans are biblically illiterate – even though we have at our disposal all manner of new translations and study aids.

If we are to embrace the “Interpretation Principle,” then we must seek to recover this biblical literacy. If we’re to be true to our heritage then we must make, as Disciples Bible scholar Gene Boring suggests, "an intentional decision to become a Bible-Reading community of faith." We can read it at home, in church, in Bible Study. We can do it alone and with others. We can hear it read and expounded, we can debate it, and we can receive it. The good news, is that we are free to read, interpret, and live this word from God.

1. Alexander Campbell, Millennial Harbinger, 1832; quoted in Mark Toulouse, Joined In Discipleship, rev. ed., (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1997), 41.

2. Campbell quoted in Toulouse, Joined in Discipleship, 45.

3. Eugene Boring, Disciples and the Bible, (Chalice Press), 426.


Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church
Troy, MI
September 14, 2008

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