Two - Scripture and Tradition Picture

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Chapter Two - Scripture and Tradition

I am monotheistic. I am a man of The Book like all other Jews, Christians and Muslims. We profess belief in the God of the Christian Old Testament, the Torah. This God, though he begins as “we” in one of the Genesis creation stories, eventually reveals himself as “I am” by Exodus. This is the simplest and most moving statement of godhood I have encountered. Our God is the great “I Am.” He exists because he says so. He exists in a way that defines existence. His existence allows and supports the existence of everything else in some hidden but meaningful way. His is the ultimate paradox of self-reference as he is the uncreated creator of all. Defining questions about a God somehow outside of space and time lead to no useable answers. Explaining the unexplainable is like point particle physics equations requiring division by zero. The answer given is not “infinity” but rather “undefined.” Christians call questions that lead to non-answers “mysteries.” The God of Adam, Abraham, Job (and Jesus) is mysterious. And, as Job discovered, God won’t answer direct questions directly.

This leaves the Bible and church tradition as the primary source material available for believers. I am troubled by the Bible. Stories have contradictory messages. In some tales God regrets his actions or changes his mind. Most troubling to me are the stories where I think God does not act in a moral way.

In 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21, David sins somehow by conducting a census of Israel. (Remember that God is not against a census of Israel in principle. He commanded Moses to conduct the first census in Numbers 1.) God gives David a choice of punishment; for his nation David must choose three years of famine, three months of losses to his military foes, or three days of pestilence. David chooses the three days and God kills seventy thousand of His chosen people.

Today we are likely to feel more responsibility for our children than for our parents. We would be ready to violate the commandment to honor our parents if it significantly conflicted with our duties toward our young children. Could a test of belief and priority really be a willingness to kill one’s own son as Abraham is commanded? My personal morality does not allow me to contemplate such an act except in extremely contrived conditions and certainly not to prove my belief in God. I would be better prepared to kill myself first.

Nor, can I accept that a moral actor would instruct His people to kill every man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey of a competing society as God does in 1 Samuel 15.

Read sometime Judges 19 and 20. Consider the unfaithful concubine raped to death while her husband slept. Read of the vengeance the other tribes imposed on the tribe of Benjamin for preventing revenge for this act. Then read chapter 21 and think about the doom of the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead and the fate of the daughters of Shiloh.

As a Christian, I also profess belief in the New Testament. It too has its problems. Paul, in Romans 13, teaches that Christians should not resist governing authorities because God has appointed them. What about Nero, Hitler, Stalin, or Sadam? Paul enjoins women to be silent in church. Paul tells slaves to be submissive to their masters. Several writers promise the imminent return of Christ.

In Romans 9, Paul discusses God’s unconstrained freedom of choice. God chooses to love Jacob and hate Esau in the womb. According to Paul, God told Moses “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” Paul poses the natural question how can God blame us when it is He who chooses. Paul’s answer is another question reminiscent of Job. “Who are you, O man, to talk back to God?” Paul reminds that the potter need have no regard for the desires of the clay.

Yet the Gospels also include some of the most beautiful and uplifting writing in history. They define love and brotherhood, duty and calling, forgiveness and salvation.

I realize that the earth was created significantly more than six thousand years ago. The geological record cannot have been created as some sort of joke puzzle by God. Likewise, the Bible has a real history as well. It would be no help to faith to think that the Bible was created by God and passed unfiltered to us today, with its challenges and contradictions seemingly created to defeat our belief in a good God. I have studied about the many writers and compilers of the Old and New Testaments. I also have read how certain writings became canon while others did not. The compilation of our Bible was a halting, haphazard, and very human process. Our written record of God’s work appears distinctly and disturbingly shaped by its passage through so many human minds. Could I just accept those verses which appeal to me and ignore the rest as so many churches seem to do in their lectionaries? Could I just let God off the hook of responsibility and select only those stories that make me feel comfortable as “my” Bible?

I generally reject fundamentalist biblical exegesis which seems to argue obscurum per obscuribus; trying to clarify the obscure by increasing obscurity. No amount of fundamentalist apology has eroded the basis of my conclusion that the God represented by the Bible is, at times, far from all-powerful, just, or loving. This is not a misreading, the Bible is specific. But intellectual honesty requires me to conclude that it is overly relativistic to accept or reject scripture as God inspired based solely on my current comfort level with the message. I want an intellectually defensible mechanism that will allow me to use the whole Bible and other writings without so much logical twisting and twirling. Otherwise I am simply substituting myself as the human editor in place of another.

It once was the church that struggled with the uncomfortable implications of scripture. As these disputes were resolved, their compromises became our traditions. Church tradition has evolved from the days of the early Christians. It attempts to reconcile Bible teaching and the culture in which the church operates. Tradition responds to the desires of the world by establishing a hierarchical priesthood, instituting sacraments, writing creeds, and creating those other administrative tools that maintain the temporal church structures. The Nicene Creed itself is as carefully crafted as the densest legal document. Words are chosen very carefully to exactly define what we must and must not believe. It is tradition that creates orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Tradition accretes to itself layers of explanation and practice that obscure the real message. Often when this rust builds too thick, a Martin Luther rebels.

Luther properly rejected the doctrine that only trained clerics could read and interpret the Bible. But what a mess has resulted. New denominations proliferated, each with its own tradition centering on a particular reading of a particular part of the Bible. In their formative writings, denominations stress predestination, or biblical fundamentalism, or reform, or adult baptism, or what have you. The resulting doctrines are so twisted by their attempts to explain away the problems that they have neither cohesiveness nor authority. Mainstream Protestant churches often eliminate the problems by ignoring their own traditions. Today an American Methodist is likely to feel quite at home in any number of other churches. We all seem to ignore the uncomfortable twining of our roots. But if honesty causes us to look deeper, we find the contradictions. How can a seeker cut through the tangle?

One possible approach available through Methodism is to use the filter of the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.” (This is not exclusive to Methodism; for example, the Presbyterian Church has a “trilateral.”) Using the quadrilateral, I can draw from scripture, tradition, experience and reason. When all are in equal tension I can aim for some centering integration.

The centering is scattershot, of course. It doesn’t give me precise prescriptive answers. When one source is clearly out of balance, I may reject its teachings, even when the rejected teaching is canonical scripture.

I also can use the quadrilateral to reject certain traditions (such as sacraments being available only from ordained clergy), when they are clearly unbiblical (Ephesians 4:11-13) and against reason. When it is my own reasoning that is clearly out of equilibrium, that also can be explored. Direct personal experience, however, is very difficult to reject.

I have no trouble therefore in denying the historicity of the Bible. As the great systematic theologian, Paul Tillich wrote in his Dynamics of Faith: “All mythological elements in the Bible, the doctrine and liturgy, should be recognized as mythological, but they should be maintained in their symbolic form and not replaced by scientific substitutes. For there is no substitute for the use of symbols and myths, they are the language of faith.” Myths are understood as symbols that point beyond themselves. I understand that no story about God, no human statement, can encompass reality. Symbols are all we can grasp and it is our job to make these symbols as transparent as possible.

A trap is to assume that everything that I encounter in my physical and intellectual life is designed for me. From most devout to complete atheist, we often personalize the world. We personalize disasters, crime, accidents and coincidences. This is in part because we who share the Judeo-Christian tradition have a special sense of history as a directional narrative. We maintain that it is a story, our story, which has an Author and a meaningful plot arc. I must remember that it is our story, not just my story, and I am not the protagonist in every chapter. Therefore not every Bible story may be meant for me. I read, understand and apply as I can. Remembering that the language is symbolic, I try to look through the Bible and liturgy toward the truth they symbolize.

Our practice of religion should allow a transparency so that the Ultimate may show through. Sects that insist on Biblical or Koranical literalism worry overly much about the signs that should be pointing the way and too little about the destination. They have lowered their sights from the real concern. This understanding informs my reading of the Testaments and provides the scale by which I weigh and interpret particular bits of scripture.

We tell Bible stories to children as though they were historically real. When a believer matures he will put aside literal realism and reach for the deeper symbolic reality. Not all believers mature, and I must remember that it is not my personal responsibility to challenge them. But when someone comes to the question, we should be ready to point toward the answers.
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