Constitution or Conversation?

I am reading Brian McLaren’s new book A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith as part of a book group in discussion with University students and scholars. One thing about this book – it makes a great conversation starter. McLaren nails it with his ten questions. These may not be the only questions confronting  Christians, but they are certainly among the most significant.

The second big question posed by McLaren, The Authority Question, is one we have posed and considered from multiple directions on this blog: What is the nature, role, and purpose of scripture?  I will give a set of links later in the post for those newer to the blog who would like to read some of the earlier conversations, for now this post, The Bible and Knowledge 2, gives a sketch of my current thoughts on the nature and role scripture. Scot’s book The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible considers the same questions and fleshes out his thoughts on the subject.

McLaren, from a background as an English teacher and pastor, sketches a similar, perhaps useful, approach to scripture. He emphasizes scripture as community library and conversation, contrasting this with the view of scripture as constitution. The Bible is “the library of a culture and community – the culture and community of people who trace their history back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” (p. 81) We get into trouble when we read scripture as constitution – we need to enter the story.

… revelation doesn’t simply happen in statements. It happens in conversations and arguments that take place within and among communities of people who share the same essential questions across generations. Revelation accumulates in the relationships, interactions, and interplay between statements.  (p. 91)

Is the idea of the authority of scripture in conversation and community library a helpful one? What are the benefits or potential shortcomings?

More on this approach, taking it a little further:

To say that the Word (the message, meaning, or revelation) of God is in the biblical text, then, does not mean that you can extract verses or statements from the text at will and call them “God’s words.” It means that if we enter the text together and feel the flow of its arguments, get stuck in its points of tension, and struggle with its unfolding plot in al its twists and turns, God’s revelation can happen to us. We can reach the point that Job and his company did at the end of the book, where, after a lot of conflicted human talk and a conspicuously long divine silence, we finally hear God’s voice. (p. 19)

If the Bible is revelation through conversation and community library how does this impact the way we view the story and the elements of the story? Among other things, McLaren suggests that it can mean that the revelation of the nature of God is imperfect in places, and this accounts for the portrayal of God as violent or capricious or one among many in parts of the OT. “[F]or Christians, the Bible’s highest value is in revealing Jesus, who gives us the highest, deepest, and most mature view of the character of the living God.” (p. 115)

I am intrigued by the idea of the Bible as conversation and community library. This is consistent with the idea that scripture is the lamp that reveals God – not the foundation on which we stand. I also like the idea that the Bible’s highest value is in revealing Jesus – we should have a Christ-centered reading of both OT and NT. It is interesting though, part of McLaren’s argument against other views of scripture, especially the constitution view, is that they allow scripture to be twisted in a horrible fashion. Examples are seen in the use of scripture to defend slavery and support war. I don’t see how McLaren’s approach to the Bible as conversation and community library is any less prone to interpretation through the lens of human wish-fulfillment. In fact, it seems as though McLaren molds his interpretation to fit his conception of God, and his conception of Jesus. This is not unique. Calvin used accommodation to accomplish a similar goal – if a passage seemed to reveal a God that did not fit Calvin’s conception of God (eg. God changing his mind) it is an example of accommodation – God accommodated his revelation to human perspective (see his commentary on Genesis 6 for a particularly pointed example). With McLaren, if a passage doesn’t present the proper view of a God of peace, love, and justice – then it is an immature picture of God. We are working toward the mature view.

At times Biblical interpretation seems something of a quagmire where soft ground and traps abound. This is overly cynical, but still there is an ever present danger of reading into the text. We must rely on the leading of the Holy Spirit – not an objective, incontrovertible, written word.

What do you think? Is the view of scripture as conversation and community library useful? Is there a way to approach scripture that allows it to be what it is – and is immune to interpretation as human wish-fulfillment? Or is this danger just part of the package as we approach scripture from a finite human perspective?

Some previous posts on scripture as authority (there are probably more – but this is a start):

Bible and Authority Revisited 2

Bible and Authority Revisited

God Science and Evolution

The Primacy of Scripture and The Fall

The Bible and Authority

The Bible and Knowledge 5

The Bible and Knowledge 4

The Bible and Knowledge 3

The Bible and Knowledge 2

The Bible and Knowledge 1

Enns, Sparks, Arnold and Chapman on the OT

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