Theology Sermon #6—Dt 4:1-8; Ps 19:7-11; Mt 22:36-40; 2 Tim 3:16-17
Ted Grimsrud – Shalom Mennonite Congregation – March 18, 2007
Word association: “Scripture”
Back in 1971 when I first began going to church as a teenager, I attended Elkton Bible Baptist Church in Oregon. We were a Bible-centered church. We saw the Bible as the perfect book, the Word of God that provided clear direction for life. God speaks to us directly through the Bible – when we open the Bible, we open ourselves to God.
Most people in that church had beautiful Bibles with supple leather covers. They looked like no other kind of book. And they were well used. Conversations and prayers were punctuated with Bible verses – in the King James version. This sense of certainty of our access to clear, authoritative direction straight from God had great appeal for me. The reason I had turned to faith was that I wanted answers, I wanted to know the truth. And it seemed like I had found it.
You simply did not question the authority of the Bible. That was one of the first lessons I was taught. I realize now that along with this message of the authority of the Bible, I was also taught to respect human authority. My job as a Christian was not to think and ask questions; my job was to listen and obey – listen to God, for sure, but to recognize that the voice of God comes through the authoritative Bible; and, practically just as important, through the authoritative preacher. Our congregation was very much centered around our pastor. He would preach every Sunday morning, every Sunday evening, and every Wednesday evening. Straight from the Bible.
So, if I had asked the question back then, “how does God communicate?” I would have had a simple and obvious answer – God communicates through the words of the Bible, each word fully inspired, each word fully authoritative. If I had been honest and at least a little bit self aware, I would also have admitted that sometimes it was hard for me to understand each word of the Bible – so I was thankful to have an authoritative preacher to help me hear the Bible better and know how I should obey it.
The question behind the question of how God communicates is the question of why God communicates – what is the point of God’s self-disclosure, what purposes does God’s communication serve?
Now, our preacher was a kind man, not abusive or exploitative. He wasn’t really on a power trip. Rather, he was a sincere believer following the path that seemed best to him and his congregation. But this is the message I got from him (and others in the church) about why God communicates (which I now believe is pretty much the opposite of the Bible’s actual message): God communicates to us, I learned, in order to take us out of the world. The reason God speaks through the Bible is tell us how to have our souls saved and to tell us how Jesus will return and take us away to heaven with him.
I took this very seriously. When I went to college, I agonized a bit over whether I should stay in college or not, since I expected Jesus to return soon; at one point someone convinced me that the rapture would happen in 1981. Surely my ambivalence about staying in college had nothing to do with the “Cs” I received my first term.
So I read the Bible as a collection of verses that one way or another all support the same basic idea – get saved and get out of here. One of the study aids I was given was a set of cards with Bible verses about salvation to memorize. These verses were yanked totally out of context and then put together to give the path to salvation.
It is interesting how selective the use of proof texts was, though. We had verses that helped us know that drinking alcohol was a terrible sin – a person really couldn’t be a Christian and a drinker. But what about the verse, “a little wine is good for the stomach” or the story of Jesus miraculously providing wine for the wedding at Cana? Well, they didn’t really say what they seemed to say – when Jesus turned the water into wine, he was actually turning it into unfermented grape juice – which is surely what Paul had in mind as well when he commended wine as a digestive aid. It was many years, before I came to question the authoritative teaching I was given concerning alcohol.
As I look back now, it seems a bit ironic to think of the first step I took toward rethinking my view of the Bible. When I went to college, someone recommended I get this new translation that had just come out, the New International Version. Now I know that the NIV was created as a theologically conservative alternative to the Revised Standard Version. But to me then it was kind of radical – because the first printings of the New Testament looked just like a regular book. Hard cover, a couple of hundred pages long, just a single column per page with regular-sized print. When I showed it to a friend in my Baptist congregation he gasped in shock. It looked just like any other book. I still didn’t think of the Bible as a human book, but the door had been opened.
All along, though, I struggled with Bible study. I believed with all my heart what I was taught about how important the Bible was, and that it was God’s Word, that it was without error, that it was the source of the absolutes we need for knowing God’s will. But it just wasn’t interesting to me. I tried and tried to read it. I kept journals and struggled to memorize the important salvation verses. I attended these seminars called “Walk Through the Bible” that helped us learn the names of the books of the Bible and all sorts of interesting tidbits that would help us keep things straight – like how long it took the hundreds of thousands of Hebrews to walk across the Red Sea at the Exodus. But the Bible just didn’t catch my imagination.
I realize now that for this kind of Christianity, the real issue that mattered is the idea of a Holy Book. What was important was our doctrine of the Bible (not really its content). The issue was authority. Christianity, as I first learned of it, was basically a religion of authority, of security, of certainty. For my church, what mattered was a sense of having the truth, of having a point of safety in the midst of a crazy and uncertain world. The Bible helps provide a sense of security – since the God of all has spoken to us directly and completely reliably in this book, we can simply turn to it and know exactly what’s going on and have perfect assurance that we are on the winning side.
The key turning point for my theology came when I became a pacifist. My pacifism did not emerge from my reading of the Bible; it was more a kind of mystical awareness, an inner sense of clarity emerging out of a sense of the human costs of violence during the Vietnam War era.
However, I certainly still believed in the Bible. I had to make sense of my pacifism biblically. It just so happened that within a few months of my pacifist turn, I discovered the writings of John Howard Yoder, and then other Mennonite thinkers such as Guy Hershberger and Millard Lind. During this exciting time of growth, I would definitely have still advocated for an inerrant Bible. My own inner awareness seemed to match the teaching of the Bible – as made clear by Yoder and the others.
Another issue that I cared about at this time was women in church and society. I became convinced that women should be affirmed in church leadership, and I supported egalitarian relationships. So I now disagreed with my fellow evangelical Christians in being a pacifist and being a feminist. But I was certain I had the Bible on my side. I taught a class and wrote a 100-page manuscript arguing for biblical feminism.
I did not think I had to change my view of the Bible to hold to my new progressive views. I still believe that, actually, but I have changed my view of the Bible anyhow.
I found a new clarity in the midst of vicious debates that swept the North American evangelical community over the issue of biblical inerrancy in the 1970s. I entered these debates fully on the side of an error-free Bible. But then I read a book called The Battle for the Bible that changed my views.
Ironically, that book argued vehemently in favor of inerrancy – but when I finished it, I had abandoned that view. It was my pacifism that made the difference. I became very suspicious of an argument that seemed so hostile, even violent. In my suspicion, I was then opened to see the logical and practical problems with the way I had always thought of the Bible. My concerns were deepened when we went through an election in our hometown that ended up denying equal rights to gay people – and our evangelical friends used their inerrant Bible as a basis for a lot of hostility.
So I was ready to go to seminary and learn a new way of thinking of God’s communication. Having a chance to study with John Howard Yoder and Millard Lind helped me incredibly. I saw that they were profoundly people of faith, deeply committed to the Bible and to peacemaking. But it was a whole different kind of Bible for them.
Most of all, what mattered about the Bible for my teachers was its witness to Jesus’ command to love God and neighbor. The Bible witnesses to this call to love by telling a story – a bunch of stories, of course, but stories that fit together (loosely!) in pointing to one great story. This one great story tells of God’s love that created us all with the freedom to resist that love, that remains committed even when we do resist, and continues to persuade us to trust in that love and find healing.
This was a whole new perspective than the wrathful God, fearful humanity, get saved and get out of here, isolated proof-text, defensive and obligation oriented approach to the Bible I had learned. The Bible became much more interesting to me. It told about the challenges of living life here and now, in history, with real human sorrows and joys, failures and successes, struggles and moments of peace. The Bible became a source of encouragement, but also something to be questioned and argued with. Something truly human – in the best sense of that term. A genuine conversation.
I also came to understand God’s revelation being everywhere. The Bible itself is not this revelation. I’ll say that again. The Bible itself is not this revelation. The Bible witnesses to God’s self-disclosure in creation. It witnesses to God’s self-disclosure in the history of God’s people. It witnesses to God’s self-disclosure in the human heart and in human relationships.
I now believe that, for Christians, the Bible matters because how it helps us interpret God’s self-disclosures that come to us in all of life. We understand the big story of the Bible, and the various little stories, as helping us discern how God communicates, what God communicates, and why God communicates.
How does God communicate? Through our senses, through our relationships, through the physical world we live in. But we have to have eyes to see and ears to hear in order to recognize the communication as from God – and to respond to it. Maybe we could think of God’s self-disclosure as being like radio signals that always bombard us, but need a receiver to be heard.
All these signals need to be sorted through. How do we know what precisely God is communicating? This is where the Bible comes in. We find in the Bible a clear sense of what kind of things God wants to communicate. I spoke earlier in my series of sermons about doing theology as if Jesus matters. Jesus certainly matters for discerning God’s self-disclosure. The story of Jesus tells us that what matters most to God is love, caring for others, challenging injustice, seeking wholeness.
The Bible is not a substitute for our experience and our discernment and our taking responsibility for learning and acting and listening and thinking. The Bible does not let us off the hook and give us some kind of magical basis to avoid the complexities of life. Not at all. Rather, the Bible is best seen as a stimulus for experiencing and discerning and learning and acting and listening and thinking.
The Bible is meant to help us be more faithfully human, more ourselves, as we become more conformed to the purposes God has for us in life.
Why does God communicate? Because God wants us to grow in love. God wants us to learn truth. God wants us to find the power and hope we need to help transform the world. God wants us to join in God’s work of healing.