OK- I’m a sucker for a smart-ass challenge, but Jeffrey reckoned I should have answered the questions I asked here…
So, I’ll have a go.
But I have to say that these are working notes, not complete answers. If you want complex theology- go elsewhere…
Question 1- ‘Disputable matters’ (From Romans 14) can we agree to disagree, or is truth more important?
Strange beginning I suppose- it is just one small verse in the middle of one of Paul’s longest letters. But this letter is the one in which he repeatedly circles around the issue of reconciling the legalism of the Jewish people (and his own background as a legalist-in-chief) with the New Kingdom, and life amongst the gentile believers. But I had missed this verse until recently, and I it suggests a tolerance and respect for different views and emphases does it not?
So for may answer to this one- narrow understandings of anything should always be subordinate to LOVE.
Question 2- How did people manage in the pre-modern era, when the Bible as we know it either did not exist, or was not available?
Well who knows? They seemed to have their fair share of sects and heretical groups I think? Perhaps too theological power was very centralised- Rome and the rise of Christendom…
But it seems clear that faith was the meaningful centre of lives and communities WITHOUT universal or even widespread access to the Bible. Was faith less real, or less true? I do not think so- it just existed in a different time and place.
That is not to say that reform was unnecessary, or that the medieval world is what we want to get back to!
Question 3- Can you be a Christian and never have read the Bible?
Clearly you can. It does not say in the Bible that you need to read it to be a Christian does it? Even Paul talks about scripture being ‘useful’ for teaching and instruction- not necessary.
But why would you not read and study the Bible if you could, and you had any interest in God?
Question 4- Who decides/rules on interpretation of scripture? Do we look to history, and God’s revelation to Christians before us? Do we allow particular theological experts to make executive decisions in relation to Christian history? Or should the emphasis be on our own engagement with the text- and it’s life in our lives?
I think I kind of implied my answer in the way I framed the question! I feel skewed towards small theologies, worked out in community, according to the leading of the Holy Spirit, and in the respectful shadow of those people of faith who went before us.
Question 5- Is there a FINAL version of biblical truth? Did modernity almost get us there, with perhaps a bit of tinkering required, or is there a need to start again with some basics? Does every generation need to wrestle anew?
Again, I think you could guess where I am going. I do not think that we have any right to claim a final version of truth- any more than Calvin, or Luther could have done- or for that matter, Augustine. How about Paul then? Did he have everything sorted? (Sorry, not meaning to ask yet more questions…)
Question 6- Systematic theology- good or bad?
I am not really qualified to answer this- I am no expert. I suppose it depends on the system, and on the theologian. But most systems are sooner or later tested to destruction, unless they are adaptive and responsive. Does that make the syncretic, and thus heretical? I do not think so- again, if we read the modernist reforming fathers like Calvin and Luther- do we agree with everything they said?
Question 7- Truth- what did Jesus mean by this? Lessons from the Pharisees?
I do not think I can do justice to this one. He clearly had no time for the way the Pharisees did the truth thing- and what they did has always looked a lot like highly elaborate systematic theology to me. But he did say that ‘They shall know the truth and the truth shall set them free’. I can only ask more questions again…
Question 8- Scripture- ‘God breathed’? Does this mean the Bible, or something else, that we have TAKEN to mean just the Bible?
Paul was obviously not speaking about the Bible as we know it today, as this collection of books simply did not exist- it took another 1700 years to sort this out, more or less.
He was clearly talking about the OT- but this too appears to have had a variable canon. He may well have been talking about other books now lost to us, and others soon appeared to regard his letters as Scripture.
The view that God ordained the Canon of Scripture as a complete, harmonious and unified whole, without error or contradiction, sent down from heaven on golden cushions (like the Mormon golden plates) simply has never made sense to me. This is partly because the Bible is shot through with contradiction and mystery- it is this that often makes it so compelling, and what theologian have spent millions of hours trying to resolve.
The Bible also makes no such claims for itself.
Don’t get me wrong- I do not mean to devalue the Bible, just value it honestly and completely, not by creating a mystical distance that leads to placing it in a glass case, not your back pocket.
Question 9- CONTEXT- where you start from- does this affect what you see, even (or particularly) in the Bible? Are there contextual ways of understanding the words- for example in relation to divorce, or women covering their heads, or homosexuality- or is this a slippery slope to heresy?
Oh dear- the danger of Syncretism again…
I think though, I have come to a view that it is impossible not to read the Bible contextually- in both obvious and more subtle ways. The critique made of Christianity arising from modernity and the enlightenment is a powerful one- the suggestion that we needed the Bible to be a blueprint, measurable and dissectable- because this was the only way to contextualise it.
The question that is gaining so much air time is whether or not the new post modern context demands a new reading- a new understanding, or whether this should be resisted and defended against as accommodation to the spirit of the age.
I think we need both new and old readings- and the freedom to pursue both.
Question 10- AUTHORITY- what does this mean in terms of the Bible? Is the authority given to us, to interpret and understand in the light of the Spirit, or to the words themselves?
I am clear that the words have authority only as given to them by the Spirit of God. We revere the words in as much as they bring God closer to our understanding, and ope ourselves to letting him speak to us through them.
Jesus promised that he would send the Holy Spirit- he did not promise to send us a rule book that would be our guide for all things, for all time, did he? Was the promise of the Holy Spirit as a comforter and a guide just a temporary one until the Bible Canon was agreed? (There I go again with the questions….)
Question 11- When the Bible talks about the ‘Word of God’- what does it mean? Jesus, or the written words themselves?
I think it is clear that one of the names given to Jesus in the Bible is ‘Word of God’. The Bible never claims to be that- although some of its words are accredited directly to God. Some are clearly the words of men, in worship of God, or even questioning of God. Much is written in the forms and convention of Hebrew poetry, and the meanings conveyed by these forms, and the imagery intended, has not been passed into our understanding.
Using the term ‘God’s word’ to describe the Bible is a modernist thing. When it is called this thunderously by preachers wishing to imbue their own words with a heavenly authority, I am afraid I find myself wincing.
So- these are may working notes in answer to the questions. If you disagree- then you are right to. I am not suggesting that I have these things sorted out. I am engaged on a journey towards the origin of all things. How could I ever have grasped everything that is to be known about him- or even written about him in the Bible?