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Issues Facing Missions Today: 2. Biblical Illiteracy in the Western Church: (a) The Loss of a Concern for Biblical Authority Among Theologians

Issues Facing Missions Today: 2a. Biblical Illiteracy in the Western Church: The Loss of a Concern for Biblical Authority Among Theologians

Introduction

The strangest thing happened on the way to the twenty-first century: the Western Church became Biblically illiterate.  This has a direct and dramatic effect on its mission in the world.

The point being made here is not at all new.  In recent years, I have heard the conversation repeatedly being made in Europe, America, and South Africa.  There may be wonderful exceptions to this all over the world, but one challenge missions faces is a fairly massive element of the Church being biblically illiterate.  How can we possibly go about the mission of the Church if we are Biblically illiterate?

Just how did this state of affairs come about?  Studying ‘cause’ is challenging.  What I present here are analyses that should contribute to a new strategy to re-establish Biblical literacy even if they fail to explain the causes fully.

In this post, I will discuss the loss of a concern for Biblical authority among many theologians.  This is, necessarily, a more theological discussion.

 ‘An Old Bitch Gone in the Tooth’

Ezra Pound, speaking of soldiers who died for Western civilization, described the West as ‘an old bitch gone in the teeth:’[1]

There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization.

I think that he got this wrong, or at least his eulogy came a little too early for the West.  Yet these words fit well when directed at the oldline denominations that are no longer able to stand up and guard or hunt.  They are left in a smiling heap of tired bones by the hearth, wise but worthless, and having nothing more to offer the world.

We have the oldline denominations to thank for the loss of a concern for Biblical authority in many Western Christian circles and, to some extent, in those non-Western regions where they have had influence.  For example, the challenge of Biblical authority is keenly felt among world-wide Anglicans as their Western seats of power have unseated Scripture as the final authority in matters of faith and practice. 

Just look at the struggle among Anglicans in South Africa to address the social realities this country faces from a Biblical perspective: Biblical training for ministry is minimal or even non-existent, some bishops openly oppose Scripture as authoritative, and social agendas in society at large determine the theology and practices of the Church.  The Anglican Church in South Africa is struggling to have a Christian identity.  British Anglican theologians outside the Evangelical movement, by and large, have nothing to offer their mature daughter church, except their encouragement for South African Anglicans to be free from restrictive authorities that once were the sources of Christian identity—the Bible in particular.

For Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, Scripture does not contain revelation in itself; it rather generates revelation in the Christian community’s experience.[2]  Relocating authority in a community also emphasises the notion that it is, by its very nature, not static but dynamic.  It is dialogical and therefore always diverse

This suggestion (on what is it based?) has an eerie ring to it.  One might well recall the first theological dialogue in Scripture.  ‘Look, Eve,’ said the serpent in the Garden of Eden, ‘the problem you are facing in this place is that you are approaching revelation from an author-oriented perspective.  As long as you do so, you will be subjecting yourself to a hierarchical—may I even say ‘patriarchal’?—approach to interpretation.  You presently see revelation as objective truth to be unveiled by an authoritative author, God, rather than as subjective truth that you yourself construct.  You and Adam need a community-oriented approach, whereby ‘right and wrong’ will be in your power to discover, not God’s power to determine.  God is, frankly, afraid that if you begin to determine right and wrong as interpreters you will have the same authority that he has as the author of this garden.  Have a bite.’

The loss of Biblical authority to community authority has been given a positive face by many interpreters in the past decades.  As Stephen Sykes avers, ‘Christian identity is…not a state but a process; a process, moreover, which entails the restlessness of a dialectic, impelled by criticism.’[3]  Robin Gill finds this perspective encouraging for Great Britain: it allows the Church as community to embrace diversity and process in moral issues rather than seek to come to a definitive position.[4]  Gerald West finds this encouraging for Africa.  He insists that contextual Bible studies, wherein participants allow themselves to be partially constituted by each other’s subjectivities, need to connect interpretation with social commitments.  West suggests the following three steps to accomplish this:[5]

1.       Commitment to Liberation: Be committed to the experience of the poor and marginalised.
2.       Commitment to Postmodernism: Turn from finding the elusive ‘right’ reading to the ‘useful’ reading.  Shift from ‘epistemology to ethics, truth to practices, foundations to consequences.’[6]
3.       Commitment to Reader-Response Criticism: Realize that the reader ‘creates’ meaning and does not merely ‘receive’ it.

The Search for a Dynamic View of Revelation

The need for something dynamic in Biblical revelation found an initial resting place in narrative theology.  Thirty-two years ago, George Stroup, writing on how narrative theology had given an answer to this need over the previous ten years, pointed out that there was a crisis over the identity of Christian community.  He identified four symptoms of this crisis:[7]

…the curious status of the Bible in the church’s life, the church’s loss of its theological tradition, the absence of theological reflection at all levels of the church’s life, and the inability of many Christians to make sense out of their personal identity by means of Christian faith.

Each of these symptoms can be related to the problem of Biblical illiteracy, but for Stroup the primary missing piece was the dynamic dimension of narrative in Scripture, theology, church life, and personal identity.  The narrative move on the theological chessboard, however, only postponed checkmate.  It was a good move in many ways, but it missed the fact that the power of a narrative is in its ability to change the reader, not in the reader’s ability to find multiple uses for a narrative.

For L. Gregory Jones and Stephen Fowl, the dynamic dimension of narrative theology was primarily located in the interpreting community.  We need to identify the readers’ interpretive interests rather than fret over identifying the author’s intentions when looking for the meaning of a text: [8]

Rather than pursue this illusory quest for the meaning of a text, we recommend that we think in terms of 'interpretive interests' … Once we acknowledge the plurality of interpretive interests, we need not treat alternative interpretations as failed attempts to discover the meaning of a text.

The historians among us may recall any number of attempts of the Church through the ages to declare ‘failed attempts’ of interpretation to be heresy.  Theologians are now pawn stars, reselling these failed attempts as valuable, alternative, previously discarded theologies and practices.  They are now valued, alternative, interpretive interests of past communities.

The dynamic element such postmodern approaches to the Bible and its authority are seeking need not, however, be located in an undermining of Biblical authority and revelation.  The dynamic element in interpretation needs to be found in the work of Christ and the Spirit in the interpreters, the teachers, and worshipers. 

In Col. 3, for example, sexual immorality as Paul understood it from his Biblical (Old Testament) reading is still sexual immorality for the Christian community in his day; it is not redefined for a different cultural context in a different era by a community that holds the keys to the Kingdom apart from God’s Biblical revelation.  Paul does not offer a license to the Christian community to come up with its own sexual standards in its own cultural and historical context.  Sexual immorality is never redefined in the early Church over against what the Old Testament had always said it was.  What is new is the dynamic power of Christ working in believers such that they are able to 'put to death'--through Christ's death--such sin, for they can now 'put on'--like a new robe after their baptism into Christ--the life of our resurrected Lord (Col. 3.5ff).  Just how does a Christian hermeneutic affirm that readers play a role in interpretation?  They need to read with an understanding that the life-transforming power of Christ spoken of in the text is a life-transforming power for them.

As Gordon Fee writes,[9]

…the aim of exegesis [is] to produce in our lives and the lives of others true Spirituality, in which God's people live in fellowship with the eternal and living God, and thus in keeping with God's own purposes in the world.  But in order to do that effectively, true 'Spirituality' must precede exegesis as well as flow from it.

The Problem of Static, Rationalistic, Evangelical Theologies

This point brings the present argument back home.  By no means are all Evangelical theologies static and rationalistic.  Yet not a few Evangelicals have affirmed the authority of Scripture only to find modernistic or rationalistic ways of denying the power of God among us today.  Grace is, on such views, all about forgiveness and not also about the transforming work of God.  Christian counseling is offered as the solution to struggles in discipleship rather than the power of the Spirit to change lives.  Miracles are relegated to a past phase of Church history, ending with the apostolic era nearly two thousand years ago.  Justification is so neatly packaged apart from sanctification that the latter is merely a life expressing gratitude for the certainty of the former.  Christian theology is a set of doctrines to be affirmed rather than an encounter with the living God.  Prayer is merely an ordained link in the chain of God’s predetermined plan rather than a powerful intercession for God to make a difference in our lives.  Such Evangelicals may know the Scriptures, but they do not know the power of God.  They affirm the authority of Scripture only to deny the divine power of which it speaks.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the first responsibility for Biblical illiteracy, then, is to be laid at the feet of the theologians (among whom I stand!), with their crafty ways of denying Biblical authority.  This is not only true among the hospice theologians of the dying oldline denominations.  It is also true of the Enlightenment-driven Evangelical theologians who would locate the power of God in the text of Scripture alone and not also in God’s powerful ministry among his people in our own day.  Both remove the Bible a great distance from the life of believers.  This contributes to Biblical illiteracy in the Church.  In turn, the mission of the Church is undermined in a world that longs to hear from God and to know Jesus’ resurrection power.




[1] Ezra Pound, ‘Hugh Selwyn Moberly,’ V.
[2] Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), p. 134f.
[3] +Stephen Sykes, The Identity of Christianity (London: SPCK, 1984), p. 134.
[4] +Robin Gill, Churchgoing and Christian Ethics, New Studies in Christian Ethics 15 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
[5] +Gerald West, ‘Reading the Bible Differently: Giving Shape to the Discourse of the Dominated,’ Semeia 73 (1996): 21-41.
[6] Quote in Gerald West, Reading the Bible Differently, p. 27, from Cornel West, Prophetic Fragments (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988): 270-1.
[7] George W. Stroup, The Promise of Narrative Theology (London: SCM Press, 1984; 1st publ. John Knox Press, 1981), p. 24.
[8] Stephen E. Fowl and L. Gregory Jones, Reading in Communion: Scripture and Ethics in Christian Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), pp. 15f.
[9] Gordon Fee, 'Exegesis and Spirituality: Completing the Circle,' in his Listening to the Spirit in the Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), p. 6.