At my recent dissertation defense, my primary advisor made some observations at points that called into question my theological commitments. He wondered if I might be a legalist, a Barthian (I’m not sure which is worse to him), and on a few occasions suggested that I held Catholic positions. I may or may not be a legalist and a Barthian (I don’t think I’m either, though have been in previous lives and may still be recovering), and there are worse things to be than a Catholic, like being a fundamentalist or a Yankees fan. But I think he missed me here. I don’t think I’m a Catholic.
He made this association in light of statements I made concerning Scripture. I’m a “beyond the sacred page” kind of guy. This is an original line from the old hymn, “Break, Thou, The Bread of Life.” In Churches of Christ we took editorial liberties and changed the lyric to “within the sacred page, we seek Thee, Lord.” We couldn’t have anything beyond Scripture, namely our understanding of Scripture, determining the faith and practice of the church. Ours was a very restrictive version of the Protestant credo, Sola Scriptura (scripture only).
Though there are very sophisticated understandings of sola scriptura that make room for tradition and experience, the bare notion of scripture alone simply doesn’t reflect how we actually read Scripture, or how Scripture has functioned. We have other sources of authority as we interpret Scripture whether we recognize them or not.
The Catholic alternative would be to allow tradition a similar authority to Scripture. But this doesn’t represent my view. I’m not a creeds guy. I appreciate them and think Christians should know them, but I think of them more as contextual statements of faith necessary for their day and enlightening for ours, but not as boundary statments within which the church is to do or test their theology.
I do believe, however, that “beyond the sacred page” God still speaks and that this can and does push the church beyond statements found in Scripture. Some of these are fairly obvious. Most of us think Galileo is a more authoritative source on whether or not the earth rotates around the sun than Scripture. And I think I could get concensus that slavery is wrong, period, even though Scripture never says that and assumes it as a part of the world it addresses. We could multiply these easily. But here let’s just say that sometimes we take as “gospel” things the first Christians didn’t and recognize that God’s word is bigger than the page.
So, what do we trust or how do we make our way given this more dynamic view of God’s word? In my opinion, not primarily through a proliferation of other texts (creeds, confessions, canon law, etc), what we might call the Catholic option. But rather through a throughgoing belief in the living presence of God, the Holy Spirit, accompanied by a set of practices designed to “discern the spirits” within communities of faith. In this, I don’t have so much a Catholic view of Scripture as a charismatic one.
And I think, in this, I’m like the earliest Christians. It’s pretty common these days to find biblical scholars suggesting that the inclusion of the Gentiles as Gentiles into the covenant promises of God was not a conlusion one would likely reach by simply reading the OT. The conclusions reached by the Jerusalem conference (Acts 15) do not come through a careful exposition of OT texts, but through the Spirit led experiences of Peter, Cornelius, Paul and Barnabas that pushed the first Christians beyond the sacred page to a new realization of the work of God. Their statement of faith, “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us,” reflects their deepest belief about what transpired through the events surrounding the Jerusalem conference.
Some of you will be quick to point out that James, in announcing the decision of the council, quotes the OT. Indeed, he does. And its important to notice how Scripture functions here. The texts he cites do not argue that the Gentiles will be received into the covenants as Gentiles. They function less as pillars of an argument, then they do as a re-appropriation of Scripture which can now be read differently, truly, in light of these new circumstances.
Richard Hays has demonstrated that this is precisely how the Gospel writers use the OT. They are “reading backwards” in light of their understandings of what God has done in and through Jesus Christ. Texts are re-appropriated and given new significance so that both understandings of Jesus and the OT texts are enhanced and mutually enriching. What explains this dynamic reading of Scripture? God is a living God, Jesus is raised from the dead and alive in his church through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. They were charismatics.
I don’t think this necessarily will turn you into a holy roller pentecostal, though it might (it’s a dangerous thing, biblically speaking, to limit what the Holy Spirit might do). So far, I’m not. And I’m pretty sure that a good many pentecostals would be uncomfortable with the view of Scripture provided here. Ironically, some of them read Scripture in ways that would not require an active Holy Spirit. But these days, the only way I can make sense of a whole host of issues is through a robust understanding of the Holy Spirit. So, I’m not much of a pentecostal, but I’m trying to be more throughly charismatic, and I think you should be too.
I’m currently reading Amos Yong’s, The Spirit Poured Out on All Flesh, and find myself in large agreement with what I’m reading, confirmation of my “charismatic” views. I’m so pleased that Amos is coming to Streaming, Oct 8-10, along with Leonard Allen, Jerry Taylor, Mallory Wycoff and others. You should be there as well.