I am sixty-five years old. I have to write that every once in a while just to remind myself that it’s true. I was baptized in a muddy river near Charleston, West Virginia, and became a member of Baptist church when I was eight years old. As a senior in high school, I sensed what I have always described as a call from God to devote my life to Christian ministry. I prepared for that role with diplomas from a Bible college, a Christian liberal arts college, and a theological seminary. Along the way, I have served as a pastor, a broadcaster, a writer, and a college instructor.
I grew up in fundamentalism, moved to a more inclusive evangelicalism as a young adult, served more than twenty-five years among Mennonites, and six years ago received the sacrament of confirmation in an Anglican church. In 1970, I was ordained a Baptist minister. In 1982, I was ordained in the Mennonite Church. In 2011, I was ordained an Anglican priest.
I mention all of that only to establish that I know a thing or two about Christian theology. I taught systematic theology for twelve years as a Bible college instructor. Until about seven years ago, I thought I had a handle on a belief system that I could explain in systematic, academic terms, in which I could find the answer to any question I might be asked about faith, religion, or metaphysics in general. I don’t think that anymore.
One day the engine that ran my theological system just seized up and stopped working. Or, to use a different metaphor, some bricks came loose from my theological foundation, and soon the entire superstructure began to buckle. Now, it wasn’t really that dramatic, but nearly so. (If you want to know all the factors that contributed to this set of circumstances, you’ll have to read this blog regularly or get a copy of the book I’m writing called A New Way of Seeing.)
I used to start my theology with the Bible, primarily the New Testament, and then I would assess people and their behavior in light of my interpretation of the scripture. Over time, however, I found that this approach made it possible—and maybe necessary—to pass judgment, build walls, and exclude people. People who behaved contrary to my interpretation and people who interpreted the text differently from me.
Now I begin with people and read the biblical text in light of those relationships. I find this approach encourages less judgment, more acceptance, and a greater potential for unity amid diversity. Since there was a church before there was a New Testament, I think I’m on pretty solid ground.
More important, Jesus always read the scripture through the lens of real people whom he knew and with whom he had some degree of relationship. He did not bring a static interpretation of the law to his relationships and then try to make people fit into it. I think this is why people listened to him teach and testified that he spoke as one who had authority.
In the past few years, I’ve tried to emulate Jesus’ model. I find that if I read the text through the lens of the people I know, I draw different conclusions than if I begin with the text and try to make it fit every situation in the same way. Or, as a friend of mine is fond of saying, the one with an experience is never at the mercy of the one with only an argument.
I have come to believe that the problem with a faith based on propositional doctrine is that it enables the possibility that one may affirm the “right” creedal formulation yet be insensitive and uncaring in relationships. I am moving toward a model of faith that prioritizes relationship—first with God, then with others—above doctrinal precision.
This is the third post I have written on the Bible and how my views have changed with regard to the interpretation, authority, and application of the biblical text. Here’s an example of how my “new way of seeing” links these themes in my approach to scripture.
Most scholars, including many conservatives, agree that the Bible assumes a pre-critical, pre-Enlightenment worldview when it speaks to matters of science (cosmology, astronomy, medicine, etc). Responsible interpretation of the biblical text requires us to keep that in mind. I now believe it is likely that a similar perspective applies to the Bible’s view of the social sciences as well. I’m surprised it took me so long to see that. I guess that’s why it’s called a pilgrimage.