A Response to the Fellowship’s recent paper on Theology – on Scripture
The Fellowship of Presbyterians has published online a document it calls a “Draft of the Theology of the Fellowship of Presbyterians and the New Reformed Body,” posted on Dec. 7, 2011 for review. They are inviting feedback, acknowledging that this is a draft form. These are not initial thoughts. They have been reviewed by “25 first readers who offered thoughtful critique as this draft developed.” So I would like to weigh in on a part of the draft dealing with scripture.
The document says:
“The spirit will never prompt our conscience to conclusions that are at odds with the scriptures that he has inspired.”
I know some of the people whose theological positions line up with the Fellowship’s views. I know them to be smart, thoughtful, careful, scholarly, and deeply committed Christians. That is why it frustrates me when statements like the one above are put out that are far more nuanced than they appear. People without the benefit of theological study (formal or not) usually read such statements in their simple form and think they mean things that the ones writing them know that they do not mean. I do not believe anyone is trying to hoodwink anybody, nevertheless, our churches are full of faithful believers who have no idea how complex we know that interpreting scripture is. Those of us who have had the blessing of time and resources to study know, for example, how nuanced the word “inspired” is. A person could spend years reading everything written on that one word alone. But the complexity goes way beyond that one word. Having written the sentence above, the authors have thought long and hard about issues that scripture speaks to that they feel no qualms of conscience being “at odds with.” The list of such issues, to limit it to the New Testament for the moment, could include:
Women being silent in the church, not teaching men, hair length, hair style (braids) and head coverings, jewelry restrictions (gold and pearls), family structure (submission of wives to husbands, calling them “Lord”), slavery (no problem), divorce (the various perspectives of Jesus, Paul, Micah, Genesis, Deuteronomy, and the current issues like spouse abuse), not to mention figures of speech (pluck out eyes, etc.).
But it goes even deeper. Consider the issue of violence in the bible.
Should we not be “at odds with” and even horrified by the baby-killing, head-smashing, bloody rocks of Spirit-inspired Psalm 137? How is this sentiment of utter brutal vengeance compatible with the blessed life our Lord Jesus taught us to live? How can this be an example of “the merciful” who will “be shown mercy”? How can it exemplify the actions of “the meek” who will “inherit the earth”? How can it be the goal of “the peacemakers” who will be called “the children of God”? Even if all this vengeance is a understood as a pain-cry for justice (at least, justice in the sense of “an even score”), how can it be the satisfaction of a “hunger and thirst for justice/righteousness”? Is it not rather a demand for “turnabout” as “fair-play” rather than justice as righteousness (dikaiosune) which, if anything, cannot create the conditions for future vengeance, as this Psalm certainly does?
Psalm 18 was the morning lectionary Psalm which I read the day I first saw the Fellowship’s theological statement. The Psalmist praises God our Rock who comes to our rescue. That much we can embrace. But the psalm goes into dark places from which decent people should keep their distance. The Psalmist praises the God he prays to for helping him in specific ways:
34 He trains my hands for war,
so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.
35 You have given me the shield of your salvation,
and your right hand has supported me;
your help has made me great.
36 You gave me a wide place for my steps under me,
and my feet did not slip.
To what effect was all of this divine help?
37 I pursued my enemies and overtook them;
and did not turn back until they were consumed.
38 I struck them down, so that they were not able to rise;
they fell under my feet.
39 For you girded me with strength for the battle;
you made my assailants sink under me.
40 You made my enemies turn their backs to me,
and those who hated me I destroyed.
Who can read this without remembering the words of our Lord, that those who live by the sword will die by it as well? This psalm prays for the exact opposite of mercy, meekness and peacemaking. Even the enemy’s cry for help from our God, from YHWH, is unanswered – he gets stones for bread; snakes instead of fish for the asking.
41 They cried for help, but there was no one to save them
they cried to the LORD, but he did not answer them.
42 I beat them fine, like dust before the wind;
I cast them out like the mire of the streets.
It is right and good for us to sing the praise of the next verse:
46 The LORD lives! Blessed be my rock,
and exalted be the God of my salvation,
until the following verse comes; the verse that knows and tells why it is that God is so valuable and praise-worthy:
47 the God who gave me vengeance
and subdued peoples under me;
48 who delivered me from my enemies;
indeed, you exalted me above my adversaries;
“Vengeance is mine,” says the Psalmist, as he thanks God, for the help. The one who ends up in the exalted position, high and lifted up, turns out to be the one whose vengeance was successfully accomplished.
Were these the sentiments of the barbaric days in which violence was mistaken for goodness and brutal vengeance for justice? It would be easy to think so. It would be convenient to believe that these brutes of the ancient Near East simply had not achieved the level of civilization that we have attained. It would be nice to think that their entire perspective on violence as a means was far removed from ours. It would be convenient to believe that, but not possible, as we come to the very last line in this Psalm. It is a final line of praise, a final acknowledgement of God’s role in this bloody reprisal:
“you delivered me from the violent.”
From whom is God credited with providing deliverance? From the evil? From the wicked? From “the fool who says in his heart that there is no God”? No. The deliverance God is finally praised for is from “the violent.” From the ones who use violence as a means. Obviously, God would want to save me from such people as “the violent.” And how should he accomplish this great salvation? By authorizing my violence? By making me successful in my violent reprisals on my enemy?
The whole psalm collapses here under the weight of its own moral indignation. In those ancient, barbaric times, they understood full well that violence as a means was characteristic of the kind of people one needed God’s help against. “you delivered me from the violent.” “The violent” were the bad guys. That was understood back then, by the people who celebrated God’s assistance with their violence.
What do we do with these Psalms? Everybody concerned with theological statements is familiar enough with the bible to know that this Psalm is not an outlier, in fact it is characteristic of a perspective about violence we find frequently in the Old Testament. We have all read Joshua and Judges. We all hope that the Levite’s concubine was was already dead before he cut her up into twelve pieces, but the narrator of Judges 19 leaves us guessing. We all hope that there is a morally acceptable way to read of the world’s first mass genocide, the flood narrative; after all, there is a rainbow at the end of the story. Of course this kind of litany could be extended indefinitely. My point is only this: that I, as a believing Christian who wants to, and needs to hear God speaking through the written word, and everyone else in my shoes, has a huge amount of work to do to reconcile these texts with my/our understanding of the nature of God that we believe comes most completely from his incarnate Word-made-flesh, Jesus. And he was the one who taught us what the “blessed” life consists of, which is exactly the reason we have so much trouble these “texts of terror.”
So, it seems to me that making a short, pithy theological statement about how “The Spirit will never prompt our conscience to conclusions that are at odds with the scriptures that he has inspired” just implodes on itself.
How does the Spirit prompt our consciences? I pray that the Spirit would always and constantly prompt my conscience. My fear is that I am no better than anybody else in my sensitivity to the Spirit’s prompts. I am not at all sanguine about the fact that so many of my ancestors-in-faith were anti-Semitic, owned slaves, thought nothing at all of patriarchy, justified innumerable wars of aggression and expansion, up to an including the dispossession of the natives of the land I live in today. Every river around me still bears a native-American name. What sins, even gross horrors am I blind to that my descendants will see? I find no reason to think my generation will have any better track record than any of my predecessors’. I wish that the Spirit would prompt me to every single conclusion that is at odds with God’s perfect will. But my experience is that the Spirit’s work looks like (not is like, but appears to be) like the famous “moral arc of the universe” in that it is bent towards justice, but only in a long, slow, agonizingly inscrutable manner. It simply does not do anybody any good to say “The Spirit will never prompt our conscience to conclusions that are at odds with the scriptures that he has inspired”. I wish it were so simple. It isn’t simple at all.
By now, several people like Mark Noll have written extensively about the arguments for and against slavery in America. The people who wanted to justify slavery from the bible had a much easier time than those who believed the bible led them to oppose it. Both sides knew and used scripture in their arguments. The pro-slavery group had an easy time finding places in the bible in which people owned slaves without reproach, and where slaves were assumed and even regulated in the context of Torah. In fact nowhere in all of the bible, Old and New Testaments is slavery ever condemned. Rather, it appears as though a runaway slave, Onesimus is returned to his master (in Philemon – though I am aware of the current dispute about this reading of the situation). Unquestionably, the “house codes” in Ephesians and Colossians assume and regulate the institution of slavery in the Christian household. Paul even advises slaves in Corinth not to try to gain their freedom. The pro-slavery group had no problem finding support for their position in the bible.
Remarkably, the whole situation is reversed today. I know of no one who would argue in favor of the institution of slavery anymore. And yet, during the civil war era, those who argued against it had a tougher case to make. Their arguments were about the general sweep of the bible and the teachings of Jesus that seemed to be incompatible with slave-owning. Today, we would use the word “trajectory” to describe that same arc-like development of thought that leads to a conclusion far down the line from its point of origin, but in a manner totally consistent with the direction. Some people (probably most people) believe that the civil rights movement in America was simply following the same trajectory that the abolitionist were on in their day. We Presbyterians believe that the issue of the role of women in the church is similar. There are verses that say “no!” but we say “yes.” Are we at odds with the Spirit who inspired the scriptures? Or have we adopted a carefully nuanced understanding of the very nature of scripture that is able to affirm its “inspired” character and yet consider the historical horizon over which it could not see and the cultural horizon behind which it sat – as we all do still, though in a different time and place?
I am quite aware of the issues of the day in our church, especially abortion and homosexuality. My friends who share the perspective of the Fellowship take the conservative position opposing both abortion and homosexuality. I believe that their positions are totally sincere. I also believe that framing a doctrine of scripture the way the Fellowship draft does leads people to support their view. It seems so categorically true. How could the same Spirit who inspired the scriptures ever prompt a person to believe something at odds with scripture? And clearly scripture condemns homosexuality and abortion, right (well abortion, as it turns out, needs more than just the bible because, well, it’s quite complicated, as anybody my age is well aware, especially those who have read Randall Balmer’s Thy Kingdom Come: an Evangelical’s Lament. Balmer recounts the meetings of evangelical leaders that he was a part of in which in which the abortion issue was selected for its usefulness in pushing the conservative political agenda, in spite of the paucity of biblical material on the subject and over the objections of some who questioned its relevance.).
It is one thing for a casual church-attender to think that the church’s position on critical issues is simply cut-and-dried, black-or-white, either-or. But it is quite another thing for church leaders to present their highly nuanced, carefully constructed conclusions that take into consideration vast areas of difficulty as if they were the settled results of simple “prompts” of the Spirit. None of us has moral problems with braided hair in spite of clear New Testament prohibitions. What’s up with that? None of us is ready to condemn as unbiblical a prayer posture that does not include lifting up holy hands; on what basis? Culture? Really? The bible is so clear on these issues, right?
I want desperately to believe and practice what Jesus leads me to believe and practice. So I do my best to try to read and understand Jesus in the scriptures. I’m sure I miss more than I catch. But it seems to me that he frequently tried to get people to think in moral, not just biblical categories. He had no problem with his disciples plucking grain as they strolled across a field on the Sabbath. Were they “working on the Sabbath,” thus breaking one of the ten commandments? Jesus challenged his opponents to think about the Sabbath in moral terms: why was there such a thing as a Sabbath law? Was it not meant as a benefit to humans – who had been slaves of Pharaoh who never gave them a day of rest? Could we not say that people were not made for the Sabbath but the Sabbath for people? And the same reasoning is behind healing on the Sabbath which our Lord seemed to do quite a bit.
The Spirit inspired the bible, but that does not mean the bible is flat. Jesus is able to see the “weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith” which he takes as more significant than the regulations about spices, mint, dill and cumin. The question “who is my neighbor” in the vision of Jesus becomes “who was a neighbor to him?” All of the law and the prophets can be summed up by the golden rule: do to others as you would have others do to you.” Does not our Lord teach us to think theologically and morally beyond the “words on a page” way that his interlocutors approached scripture? Is the divorce issue settled just because there are verses in Deuteronomy that regulate it? Or is the whole question deeper than mere citations, requiring us to think past verses on a page to the whole point of human sexual bonding?
Here is the issue: the twenty-five people that reviewed the Fellowship’s theological draft, in addition to the ones who carefully wrote it, already know all of this. I did not feel the need to supply verse references for all of the biblical quotes and allusions in this response because I know that the Fellowship folks know exactly the texts I refer to; it’s their world. It’s my world too. It’s a complex world. It is a world that deserves forthright, nuanced statements about how people like us, living in our world today, need, benefit from and use scripture. Speaking of simple “prompts” of the Spirit is school-boy talk. Does the Spirit prompt all of us to divest from Fidelity Investments because they profit from Petro-China’s investments in Sudan’s genocidal government? The Board of Pensions doesn’t feel so prompted. What does that tell us? “Jesus is Jesus; but business is business?” Where does that leave us? Sheep or goats? It’s serious, but it’s not uncomplicated.
Here is my plea to the Fellowship: you may think, as I understand you to think, that the PCUSA has lost her way; that she has abandoned her center in favor of the spirit of the age, abandoned her faith in God’s word in favor of man’s opinions; that she has rejected faithfulness to the text of scripture, in favor of coziness with the agenda of the American liberal left. That is a conversation that needs to be conducted. Others will be anxious to know whether the other major spirit of the age, the spirit of the American political right, the spirit of stepping over the moral hazard of indolent Lazarus lying at the gate, is not at least as likely a temptation and at least as nefarious to faith in the God revealed in Jesus. But the test of whether or not either of those spirits have been followed is not whether we can all agree that “The spirit will never prompt our conscience to conclusions that are at odds with the scriptures that he has inspired.” Our women cut their hair, wear braids, pearls, gold, speak in church, even teach, even teach men who they do not call Lord, and who do not pray with hands upraised and who may wear their hair long. And nowhere in scripture is there a footnote or a flag saying “now this bit is just cultural so you can feel free to let it go later on.” The way it works in practice, for all of us, is that we believe the Spirit regularly prompts us to believe and practice things that are indeed at odds with the scriptures that he inspired. This is how it works for all of us, not some of us.
Rev. Steven D. Kurtz
Gulf Shores, AL
P.s. Joe Small just published an open letter in The Presbyterian Outlook on his role in the theology draft, clarifying that he is not in favor of or a part of any schism that may be coming.