Editor’s Note: The following essay is one in a series dealing with topics of interest and importance to Presbyterians. Author Johnson explains: “The report from the General Assembly Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church provides us both the occasion and the urgency for theological dialogue within the PC(USA). This and succeeding essays are offered as a constructive effort in that direction.”
These essays have cited the Bible regularly as source and norm for the substance of each essay. The time has come to discuss the Bible directly, especially how different people can get different meanings from the same text. The competing interpretations are enough to shake our confidence in the Bible as “our only rule of faith and obedience” (Westminster LC q. 3, Book of Confessions., 7.113). As a people of the Book, we cannot leave the field to the cynicism around, among, or within us. This essay covers how the Bible functions powerfully among us with the help of three circles: the Word and the words, Word and Spirit, the Word then and the Word now. My aim is to reaffirm some basic, Reformed views of the Bible and point a way beyond the roadblocks that beset us in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
The Bible is the Word of God. It tells us who God is, what God’s saving mercy is to a sinful humanity, and what God’s purposes are for our lives going forward. The Bible is thus God’s Word, because it comes from God, conveys the miracle of God’s speech to humankind, and interprets all of created life in the light of God’s on-going, gracious activity. The Bible functions as God’s Word above all at the center of our worship, wherever the Bible is exercised for preaching and sacraments among the gathered community, including congregations, presbyteries, synods, and general assemblies. The Bible functions as God’s Word at the center of our reflective meditations, when we study the Bible in groups, in our homes, or on our own. For a confessional church like the PC(USA), the Bible also functions in the governing bodies of the Church, when Presbyterians make decisions about their lives, work, and witness in the light of God’s Word.
Our first circle asks how do the words of the Bible connect with the Bible as Word?
The Bible is written with specific words to be taken seriously as they stand: Hebrew words in the Old Testament, Greek words in the New Testament, and English(+) words when we translate and transpose the words of the Gospel into our language. Obviously there is no Word of God without the words of the Bible, one-by-one. Just as obviously the words in a jumble without some coherence make no sense, much less sense for life. Something, namely, the Word with a capital “W,” has to draw all the words together, focus their meaning, and present them in their wholeness. Now, the Word, or whole, is going to be more than the sum of the words, or parts, in the same way a puzzle put together into a grand picture is more than the jumble of pieces in a box, and a human life is more than the sum of its body parts or moments in time. The Word and the words thus form a circle. We cannot say which one comes first. The Word cannot be reduced to the words or the words to the Word. Yet we cannot have one without the other.
The Bible itself names the Word of God, which pulls together the sense of its words. Jesus Christ is the Word that is God (John 1:1), the Word through whom all things were made (John 1:2-3), the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth (John 1:14). The words of the Old Testament all point forward to Jesus Christ. The words of the New Testament all point back to Jesus Christ. And Jesus Christ elevates all these writings to a true, authentic revelation–or Word–of the living God.
Word and Spirit comprise a second circle. According to the Bible and the Presbyterian confessions, both the Word of God and the words of the Book require the Spirit of God to make them powerful. “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit,” says Paul (I Cor. 12:3, NRSV), and again: “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life“ (II Cor. 3:5, ibid.). According to the Westminster Confession, “notwithstanding [the perfections of Scripture], our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts” (Book of Confessions, 6.005). The Spirit is essential to producing the Bible: the Bible comes from God by the inspiration of the Spirit. The Spirit is also essential to making the Bible powerful: the Bible is what it is because God makes it so, by the illumination of the same Spirit that produced it. The Spirit, that is, urges us to read or hear the words of Scripture, helps us understand these words in connection with the Word of God, and leads us to take both the Word and the words to heart, making them effective in our lives. Word and Spirit thus form a circle. We cannot tell which one comes first, the Word or the Spirit. The Word cannot be reduced to the Spirit or the Spirit to the Word. Yet we cannot have one without the other. The Word of God, which is Jesus Christ, and the Spirit of God work together to make the words of the Bible powerful for human life.
The Word then and the Word now comprise a third circle. When we interpret the Bible, we often bog down in rules or techniques. At one end are the techniques of Bible study, i.e., research into historical and social contexts, word meanings, and the clear sense of the text. At the other end are rules for “applying” the text to life today or drawing doctrinal conclusions. We spend too little time, in my estimation, reflecting on what happens between these two poles. From now to then we move from the ever-present concern for life today into the biblical text written for people in another time and place. From then to now we move from immersion in the life and times of these ancient people back to our own. For a wide consensus of preachers, scholars, and theologians, my research tells me, the main task of biblical interpretation today is to bridge the historical gap between then and now, them and us, the ancient people-times-and-settings of the biblical text and ours today.
The task entails a circle from the Word now–the Book in our hands–to the Word then–the Book at its points of origin–and back again. Once again, the circle cannot be reduced to one part alone, it’s not obvious which part comes first, yet we cannot have one part without the others.
Amazingly, faithful Christians in the 20th century found a number of ways to navigate this circle of interpretation … and proclaim the Gospel today with the same power it had at the time of God’s self-revelation. They use four strategies, which I will illustrate using Luke 15:1-7, the parable of the lost sheep.
The first strategy transposes the text of Scripture into a timeless truth. For one option, classical liberalism, each individual is of infinite value to God the great shepherd, who risks everything to search for the one lost sheep “until he finds it” (v 4): such at its best is our human experience of God. This approach fits Adolph Harnack, Harry Emerson Fosdick, and Paul Tillich. For another option, classical conservatism (now called fundamentalism) the human condition is always that of a lost sinner in need of salvation, which God provides through Jesus Christ if only we repent (v 7). This approach is visible in J. Gresham Machen, George W. Truett, Carl F.H. Henry, and Millard Erickson. Notice how this strategy filters out the non-essential, historically irrelevant material and holds on to the vital, enduring truths of the Gospel. The similarity of the two–timeless truths–is as striking as the dissimilarity–the accents on the human experience of God and the drama of salvation respectively. The other strategies and options cannot be so easily identified as either liberal or conservative.
A second strategy is the reverse of the first, to immerse modern people in the revelatory experience of the original text. One option uses literary-historical tools to recreate the experience of the lost sheep being found by the shepherd, so that people today can share the profound experience of God’s boundless, ineffable mercy (v 4c). C.H. Dodd, Samuel Terrien, Will Wilimon, and Walter Wink reflect this approach. Another option highlights the sheep’s identity as one who was lost, found, and now belongs to God along with the rest of the flock down through the ages (v 6c). Ernst Troeltsch and Lewis Smedes reflect this approach. Every detail of the text is indispensable for both options in this strategy. These, too, filter out the essential from the non-essential.
A third strategy looks for a common point of reference between then and now, since the people and situations of the text are very different from people and situations today. For one option, pointing to God who is “the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow” (Heb. 13:8), God is a God of joy, who rejoices in seeking and finding lost sheep (v 5). This approach describes Karl Barth, Paul Scherer, and Frederick Buechner. Another option, sharing with the Bible a common interest in humanity-under-God, contrasts the authentic humanity of lost-and-found sinners who repent and the inauthentic humanity of the 99 righteous persons who need no repentance: the contrast clarifies the choices we face in our own lives (vv 7,1-2). This approach belongs to Rudolf Bultmann and Davie Napier. The filtering effect works here, too.
A fourth strategy looks for similarities between then and now, either in historical situations or in the impact the word patterns of the text can make upon people’s lives. Since, for one option, the historical situation of lost sinners today is similar to that of people in Jesus’ day, then what Jesus did reaching out to the lost in his day is also what Jesus does among the lost in our day (vv 4, 1-2). Gerhard Von Rad, Billy Graham, Edmund Steimle, and James Forbes typify this approach. For another option the impact of Jesus on sinners and Pharisees was strikingly different–joy in heaven for the one being found, self-righteous grumbling for the 99 others (vv 7, 1-2): retelling the parable should have the same profound impact upon people today. Fred Craddock, Thomas G. Long, and Sally McFague model this approach. These approaches also filter the interpretive process.
What are we to make of these four strategies and the different results they produce for the same passage? They are all honest attempts by faithful Christians to interpret the Bible as the Word of God for our time. All four strategies (and options) work effectively. Significantly, all interpreters of Scripture use an identifiable pattern–one of these or some other–to trace the circle between the Word then and the Word now. All such patterns filter the meaning of the text: they shape what we look for on the way from now to then, and, in the power of the Spirit, they let the true Gospel through to us on the way from then to now.
Within the limits of this essay I can only observe: the lines that separate one interpretive filter from another clarify enormously the biblical passages and the theological issues in dispute among us. In my estimation, discerning which filters are actually in use among us is crucial to clear, honest, theological discourse and careful decision-making within the PC(USA) right now.
Overall, the conviction holds, notwithstanding modern cynicism: the Bible is by God’s own action the Word of God for us today. As a community committed to Jesus Christ and to one another in him, the PC(USA) is not finished with the Bible any more than God is finished with the PC(USA). With the Bible, the Word of God, as “a lamp to our feet and a light to our pathway” (Psalm 119:105), Presbyterians can trust the Lord to lead us through our current impasse.
Merwyn S. Johnson currently is professor of historical and systematic theology emeritus at Erskine Theological Seminary, Due West, S.C., and visiting professor of theology at Union-PSCE in Charlotte, N.C.