While affirming the centrality of Holy Scripture in Reformed thinking, theologian Dawn Devries debunks the internecine connection in today’s church made between the literal words on the page and revelation of the Living God. She understands such “biblicism” as “one of the besetting sins of Reformed theology.”1
She finds such explicit literalism equating words to The Word is mutually destructive, limiting the authenticity of a text in its own context and the power of the Divine to interact with our context. In Devries’ view, it is in the experience of Christian worship, specifically the “Word event” known as preaching, whereby Canonical Scripture becomes the “means of grace through which God’s Word is ever and anew received in the Christian community.”2 Therefore, the experience of reading and interpreting the Bible in Christian worship is sacramental: “human elements consecrated to a special use by the power of the Holy Spirit … are the means through which the hearers receive the Word of God.”3
Operating in accordance with this premise of Devries, the fecundity of another Reformed notion of interpreting Scripture with Scripture becomes all the more poignant. Recently, those close to me have articulated an opinion that issues like human sexuality are not reflective of the larger aims of the Church Universal to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a world suffering from issues like rampant food, health, and ecological crises.
Certainly, no one should undermine efforts to alleviate the suffering of individuals in other parts of the world or for that matter in this country. Yet, if the interpretation of Canonical texts within corporate worship — our preaching of the Word — is considered sacramental, then the interplay between texts can be thought of as embodied in the dialogue between members of the body of Christ. Instead of the notion that our debates in the American mainline church are distracting or irrelevant, the Divine can be thought of as Incarnate in the discussion between dissenting yet faithful believers.
This is what I mean:
Imagine a concrete analogy — an elder of the PC(USA) stands before his parish and invokes the Prayer for Illumination. The elder proceeds to read Exodus 21: 24, the famous “eye for an eye … tooth for a tooth” lex taliones passage. Then, the Minister of Word and Sacrament rises and she reads from the Gospel of Matthew to all who would have ears to hear: You have heard it said … but I say to you … float up from the pulpit and out to the Living Body of Christ.
In the Antitheses of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-48), the Church of the 21st century has a written record of Holy Scripture in direct contradiction with Holy Scripture. Yet, we believe that a Divine will is nonetheless expressed, pointing beyond the literal words written on a page to a Spirit (ruah) expressed in the interaction between different Jewish cultures across time and space.
Likewise, in that PC(USA) congregation, the same Holy Spirit is called to illumine the hearts and minds of the same people gathered to hear these different texts. Then, surely we can claim that the same Spirit yearns to vivify the thoughts and conversations across theologies and ideologies. Sola Scriptura is therefore not a battering ram to pin opponents against the wall, but an invitation to participate in an engaging dialogue that stems from our common worship together.
Congregations then should not be running away from each other, tearing presbyteries apart, but running towards each other, thereby building up our denomination. Instead of a hindrance, theological differences can actually be perceived as the vehicle towards unity, if only people are willing to climb aboard and worship together. Instead of lobbing jabs over the ideological fence, let us meet at the House of Prayer!
Therefore, this plea is addressed to publications on different ends of the ideological spectrum in our shared denomination with the conviction that God is in the interaction between both members of the Covenant Network and of the Layman. Surely, the reader knows of a Presbyterian church in the area with the reputation for being “liberal” and another deemed as “conservative.” What would happen if the reader visited each church on consecutive Sunday mornings?
Further still, the reader can ask others to do the same, convicted, not in what the outcome will be, but in that God will be there with us – Emmanuel. Though literally referenced in Isaiah 7: 14 and 8: 8, the belief that “God is with us” is a faith claim lived out in conversation between different communities united by worship of the same God: ordinary human institutions made sacramental by the Divine revelation. By viewing Scripture within this larger goal, may the Triune God help us to truly see the world around us as intended: treating our neighbor as we would like to be treated.
And let us begin this important work by worshipping together.
A Note from (Ruach Editor) David Lindsay: Andrew Taylor-Troutman is a final level Master of Divinity student at Union-PSCE in Richmond, Va. Both within and beyond the campus community, Andrew values opportunities to lead workshops on multiculturalism and interfaith issues. Prior to seminary, Andrew served as a director of youth ministry in North Carolina.
1Dawn Devries, “‘Ever to Be Reformed According to the Word of God’: Can the Scripture Principle Be Redeemed for Feminist Theology?” Feminist and Womanist Essays in Reformed Dogmatics eds. Amy Plantinga Pauw and Serene Jones (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006) p. 42
2Devries, p. 52