The Role of the Bible in the Church of the Future (On the Road to Easter, #7)

Dear Kathryn:

I know you are eager to explore some of the specific topics and issues where my current thinking shows marked change from the positions I held a few years ago. I am too. Before we go there, however, just a bit more about the change in my attitude toward the Bible.

The Bible, especially the New Testament, is really the church’s book. The church produced it, in the sense that real human beings, presumably active in the life of the early church, wrote the documents that have been compiled into the form we have today. They each wrote at a particular moment in history, and their thinking was shaped by the political, religious, and cultural influences of their day.

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.

All truth is God’s truth, Kathryn. You heard me say that in class many times. I still believe it. While God can and does speak to us through the biblical text, God’s truth is not limited to the Bible, nor is the Bible the final word in areas where the body of knowledge continues to expand and comprehension continues to evolve. We need to be careful not to impose a first-century worldview on a twenty-first century world (and vice-versa). This is why Bible teachers and biblical interpreters need to be students of history, science, literature, psychology, sociology, etc., along with theology. (It is also why I argue for a liberal arts degree as the academic foundation for those who serve the church as its clergy.)

I grew up in a religious environment that believed the end of the world was near and that the literal, physical return of Jesus to the earth was imminent. I recall one prominent teacher from the 1970s who faced the predicament of how to manage the long-term investment of his royalties from a book he wrote predicting the rapture of the church in the very near future.

But here we are, forty years later. And despite the ranting of politicians to the contrary, things are getting better—albeit slowly, even incrementally, in many ways. Worldwide poverty rates are in decline. Disease is less prevalent and less devastating than it used to be. There are challenges—racism, terrorism, climate change, etc.—but overall there is reason to be hopeful and encouraged by the prospects for the future.

What if the church is around for another 100 or 500 years? Given the pace of change in the past 100 years, we cannot possibly imagine what the world will look like 100 years from now. And yet, if the world still stands, the church will need to be the agent of the kingdom then as it is now. How will the Bible serve the world as the church’s book in the twenty-second century?

Conservatives have mistakenly interpreted their ability to attract large crowds to their church services, along with the simultaneous decline of numbers among “mainline” denominational churches, as evidence that conservative theology is the same as orthodoxy. The mainline is dying, so the theory goes, because “liberal” theology lacks vitality and vibrancy and cannot give life. Both of those assumptions are wrong.

For a variety of reasons, some of which I will try to expound as our exchange of email continues, I predict a resurgence in progressive (or “liberal”) Christianity. The mainline denominations may not survive, but the vision of a Christian faith which they have advocated, albeit ineptly in many ways, will endure. The church of the twenty-second century will look more like the progressive communities that are just now emerging than the mainstream evangelical mega-churches of today. It will be more of a community than a fortress. It will be marked more by hope than by fear.

Think of it like this (and this is not original with me, although I wish it were). Could it be that scripture is less a set of fixed and final propositional truths and more an invitation into the right conversations? Could it be that the early church was an infant, not an archetype? That is what I am coming to believe, more and more.

Thanks for engaging in this conversation with me, Kathryn. I look forward to your next email. Feel free to comment as well as to ask your questions. I am a fellow-pilgrim, not an expert. We’re all in this together.

Best,

Arthur

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