Wednesday, March 03, 2004

...In times of confusion...

Yesterday, the clergy of the diocese were offered a presentation entitled "The Authority of Scripture in Times of Confusion."

The presentation was given by John Koening, Professor of New Testament at General Theological Seminary, NYC. He previously taught at Princeton and Union Seminaries. Koenig is a graduate of Concordia Senior College (A.B.), Concordia Seminary in St. Louis (B.D.); and Union Theological Seminary in New York City (Th.D.)

Koenig has written six books. They include: New Testament Hospitality, Rediscovering New Testament Prayer and, most recently, The Feast of the World's Redemption.

He began his presentation by highlighting the current climate regarding claims to the authority of scripture. He summarized this climate with the phrase "a hermeneutic of suspicion and distrust." In this, he is referring to the variety of views of scriptural authority rather than the texts themselves. When anyone starts quoting scripture today, it is almost a requirement that one look up their credentials before giving their thoughts serious consideration. Where the writer stands in the Church on various issues has become the primary consideration.

There are currently two divergent views of scriptural authority. Koenig broke them up as the "Evangelical/Traditional" view and the "Progressive/Liberal" view. As was pointed out, these terms do not fully express the current diversity. As but one example, in the first half of the 20th century, there was a school of thought that was often labeled as "Liberal Evangelical," which felt that modern biblical scholarship was a tool that would enable evangelism. This view does not fit into the split offered by Koenig. But of course, there are two kinds of people in the world, aren't there? Those who split us up into two groups, and those who don't!

He defined the characteristics of the first group as those who see the bible as primarily a book of answers. It is unique, and cannot be categorized in the same manner as any other book, as it is "inspired." It is the different ways that this "inspiration" is defined that can be troublesome. The extreme view of the scriptures being inspired is appropriately called Fundamentalism; the text is infallible and inerrant.

The characteristics of the latter group were defined as those who see the scriptures functioning as a primary witness of the saving acts of God, and brings us into a participatory role in these acts. To say it another way, rather than an answer book, the bible is seen as a place where we meet God. The extreme view in this group would be that the bible is a "good book," among others, which offers a collection of Christian themes and helps us by inspiring us to practice these virtues. The troublesome area here becomes what to do with those parts that do not address these themes. Are they to be simply cut out or ignored? Beyond this, there is also something uncomfortable to me considering these themes as examples only; somehow that seems to not be enough when speaking of what happened in the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection. Something "new" happened, and it is not in the same category as the example left to us by Gandhi or Socrates. Still thinking about this. Maybe more on it another time.

Koenig then offered two images of how scriptural authority works for Christians. The first image was "savoring;" that we slowly "inwardly digest" the text. He emphasized patience and specific disciplines and practices that will facilitate in our "savoring;" specifically, Lectio Divina, among others.

One of the examples he used was Dame Julian of Norwich. He pointed out that her work is full of allusions to scripture, and stated that her visions had to be interpreted in the light of scripture. I'm not so sure if that example works for me.

My understanding of mysticism is that a mystic is both a conservative and a revolutionary simultaneously. The mystical experience is often beyond the confines of words and thoughts. To attempt to articulate this experience to others, one must use the terms and symbols of their tradition, as there are no other tools at hand. In this way, the mystic does indeed affirm the tradition. At the same time, the mystical experience pushes the boundaries of these same traditions, as they are rooted in an experience of the divine that is not limited by previous revelations.

I mention this because I feel as if the mystical tradition is one area that is too casually dismissed by those who insist that the "revealed truth" of the past must be considered more authorative than the revealed truth of those who encounter the living God today. Maybe more about that another time as well.

Another important point, to me, that Koenig mentioned was to emphasize once again the participatory aspect of reading scripture. Using the road to Emmaus account, he points out that Christ is with us as we engage the text; that in many ways, the scriptures have a sacramental place in the life of the community, that the Spirit within us, the same Spirit who "rolls through all things," becomes known through the process.

He also mentioned the importance of prophecy in the early Church; that there was a tradition of someone being "inspired" with an interpretation, and offering that to the community. This brings to mind my brief excursion into Pentecostalism when I was young. I think there are some serious problems with this use of prophecy. On the other hand, the term "prophetic" is often used to describe causes of social justice which actually have little to do with biblical interpretation. I was drawn to consider again the possibility that the mystics offer yet another form of prophecy, which would not necessarily be Pentecostal or from the Social Gospel. Hmmm....

His final image was "calling," a theme used often by Paul. We are a people called. The savoring leads to a recognition of the call, which is seen in the context of community (Romans 12). The text leads us to action; an exercise of the gifts given to the body. This resonated with me, as I have always considered the Church's primary role as "equipping the saints for ministry." The "inner nurture" aspect of this equipping needs to be done, but it seems to me that in many places, the nurturing has become primary; "we have to take care of ourselves first....," and of course, that care goes on indefinitely, with the member being just one more class, one more discipline, one more divine experience away from being ready for ministry.
That's a pet peeve of mine, as it can so easily deteriorate into a country club mentality.

Returning to Koenig's presentation; the afternoon was reserved for small group discussion. Sometimes I find Anglican clergy so frustrating. Everyone is sooooo careful not to offend anyone else, that any issues are tiptoed around; usually resulting in a very cerebral discussion, that is nice, but does not tap into the passion potential; at least it doesn't for me, the unapologetic INFP that I am.

My "hermeneutic of suspicion" was working overtime. I thought I detected an agenda in someone else's comments, and let my passion come out. Not wise for a new member of this particular clergy club I suppose. I did go and speak with the man afterwards, and apologized for any offense I may have given. I need to reflect on that internal passion, and why it seems to be so close to the surface lately. Maybe it's just paranoia? It feels like more. Maybe more on this as well another time.


I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

For by the grace given to me I bid every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith which God has assigned him.

- Romans 12:1-3

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