Rigby, C., Holding Faith: A Practical Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Part 1)
By: Lisa Bozarth Ozaeta
This is a collection of quotes from the book. These are Cynthia Rigby's words. I have simply given them structure and breviety.
Part One: SPEAKING OF GOD
HOW CAN WE SPEAK OF GOD?
The Doctrine of Revelation
THE MAGNITUDE OF GOD
no matter how big we think about God, God is bigger than that.
Paul puts this beautifully when he marvels that God is able to do “far beyond all that we could ask or imagine.”
This doesn’t mean that we don’t know anything about God, or that we can never say for sure what God is up to. But it does mean that there is always more that we don’t know—even about the things we do know
in C. S. Lewis’s story of Narnia, when the resurrected Aslan (the Christ figure, depicted as a lion) wakes up the girl Lucy (his disciple) by touching his tongue to her nose. “Aslan,” Lucy exclaims, “you’re bigger.” Aslan explains to Lucy that he has always been that size, but that her perception of his magnitude will grow with every year she doe
THE DRIVE TO KNOW AND THE RISK OF KNOWLEDGE
Human beings since the time of Eve and Adam have been driven by curiosity. We want to know things.
We are anxious for good reason—when we take a hard look at history, it is unclear whether knowledge is more
often capaciously shared in the interest of the good or leveraged harmfully to gain power, wealth, or prestige.
Understanding how our culture thinks about epistemology, or how we come to know, will help us make better sense of how we approach the knowledge of God.
There are scores of science-fiction stories, movies, and television shows leading up to the era of being concerned with what will happen if we gain too much knowledge that play with this theme of how we need to respect the vastness of what we are exploring, taking into account our limited capacities to absorb it all.
Science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s aimed, along these lines: (1) to recognize the limits of human knowledge; (2) to encourage humans to participate in knowledge bases bigger than themselves; and (3) to reassure humans that there are safeguards to the risks of pursuing knowledge that is beyond human capacities.
Sometimes science fiction stories of this era created certain rules that set perimeters in which explorations and pursuit of knowledge can more safely thrive.10 The science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov, for example, in 1950 created “The Three Laws of Robotics” intended to protect human beings even when they create technologies.
Do you tend to look for ways to plunge into mysteries, even when you are aware you will never completely understand them (like the kids in E.T., Ellie [at least eventually!]
Jesus’s hope, clearly, is that we will participate in that which is greater than ourselves.
Jesus knows and teaches that knowledge of God is not primarily something that is acquired in exchange for our hard work, or sacrifice, or good intentions. It is, rather, something that is experienced when we risk recognizing that we are in relationship with the God who is beyond our knowledge.
It is then, and only then, that we know the very God who at the same time remains beyond our capacity to know.
because the one who is unknowable has shared God’s own self with us.
HOW WE KNOW THE UNKNOWABLE
“If you understood,” he says, “it would not be God.”30 But he at the same time also testifies that the God who is beyond our understanding ceaselessly pursues relationship with us.
we have been inattentive to the most wondrous fact of all—that the God who is unknowable has chosen to know us.
Jesus does not compensate for God’s otherwise aloof and seemingly unloving character, nor does he bridge any sort of gap or chasm between us and God. Rather, Jesus reveals who God is, was, and always will be.
We can share, preach, teach, and live these things even though our understandings and testimony can never exhaust who God is and what God does.
One of the first and foremost things we can say about the God who reaches out to us is that this God has not left us behind.
What amazes her36 is that this God who is all-in-all is radically present with us in our particular lives and circumstances.
The God who is everywhere present is not present in general or as an observer only. The God who is everywhere present is the hands-on fashioner of each and every person, invested in each and every one of our days.
Why would a God who is all-powerful care about every sparrow that falls to the ground?41 Why
Admitting our incapacity to gain what matters most may be, for many of us, somewhat aggravating.
We have been shaped, after all, in a context that tells us we can “make it so”—
Like this engine-that-can once she really puts her mind to it, we too are often told we can overpower our own limitations if we concentrate hard enough on doing so.
So why shouldn’t we, hearing that finding our way to God is impossible, simply pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and vow to make the impossible happen, anyway?
revelation comes our way not in drips and drabs made manifest by our own best efforts, but as a pure, whole, and often unwieldy gift.
Divine revelation is an offering, by God,
Knowing God is not like doing a science project, where you test and hypothesize and examine results. It
Rather, it is more like receiving someone who wants to share life with us.
even though we cannot acquire knowledge of God by way of our own efforts—whether through good works, scientific inquiry, or artistic pursuits—God presents God’s own self to all kinds of people, on all kinds of spiritual journeys, and in many kinds of ways.
THE JOURNEY TO INTIMATE KNOWLEDGE
“God is not far from any of us,” Paul insists.66
God gives us our “life,” our “breath,” and “all things.”67
He emphasizes that revelation is accomplished by God, and not by us. He explains that revelation means that the God we thought is unknowable is knowable, grounded in the person of Jesus Christ.
“PARTICIPATING” IN THE GOD WHO IS NEAR TO US
A question for those of us who want to know God is: How do we—with Dionysius and Damaris—go about participating in this God Paul says is near to us?
Finding ways to conquer limits might be useful for accomplishing many things, but it is not a helpful strategy for knowing God. Just as problematic, however, is attempting to master our finitude by dramatically declaring that we know nothing of value.
In short, neither being a know-it-all nor throwing up one’s hands in a gesture of triumphant helplessness is really being very honest about the creaturely condition in which we find ourselves.
We actually know, and can relay, a great deal of what is true, not because we have the capacity to transcend our creaturely limits but because God has entered into these limits and shown us how beautifully they equip us to participate in the things that matter most.
TIP #1 FOR SPEAKING ABOUT THE INFINITE GOD: APPRECIATE ANALOGIES
How can we who are limited honestly believe we can understand and articulate something meaningful about the Reality that is beyond all understanding? If God is mystery, shouldn’t we leave well enough alone?
apophatic or following the via negativa—coming to know God by way of what cannot, rather than what can, be said.
kataphatic (active way) traditions than in apophatic ones. To say that the words we exchange when we participate in a Bible study, the words we share in when we engage in worship, and even the words we might hear when we go to a good
But it is to celebrate the fact that words, though they can never tell us everything, can often tell us something of value.
What could it possibly mean, they surely wondered, to say “the Word became flesh”?76 The Word (or logos) was thought to be not concrete and specific flesh, but the organizing principle of the universe.
Thomas Aquinas back in the twelfth century sought to give us the means to balance these concerns by articulating how all our language for God is analogical. It is not univocal, he argued, meaning that our words do not exhaust the reality they are meaning to reference. And it is also not equivocal, he said, reminding us that it is not the case our words have no relationship to what they are meaning to reference.
Our theological language reflects the fact that we know something true, but not everything, about the mystery that is God.
Let’s take the statement “God is love.” Thomas would remind us that this statement is not univocal, because whatever “God is love” actually means, the phrase itself is only a fraction of what God’s love is all about. But neither is the statement equivocal, precisely because “God is love” tells us something true and, even, transformative. It is an amazing and humbling thing that we can say things that are true about the God who will not be defined by any words or lack of words, but only by God’s very own self.
Calvin reminds us, in his commentary on Isaiah, that we can use the analogy of mother as well as father for God because “by no [one] metaphor . . . can [God’s] incomparable goodness be described.”
Karl Barth reminds us that the God who is our kind, nurturing, protective Father is at the same time not father in the sense that God’s fatherliness could never be determined or confined by earthly notions of fatherliness.83
Barth suggests, when considering what can be said rightly of God, it is best to work “from above to below,” rather than “from below to above.”84 When we call God “Father,” for example, we should consider what who God is tells us about the character of fatherhood, rather than what various versions of human fatherhood tell us about God.
TIP #2 FOR SPEAKING ABOUT THE INFINITE GOD: TALK ABOUT WHAT MATTERS
Focus less on how much we can say and more on testifying to how what we know matters.
Ascertain and articulate God’s revelation. Recognizing our limits, we know we can never understand it in any exhaustive sense. But, surprisingly enough, we can know what it’s about. I don’t understand God’s love—it is so very great—but I know it is about my
being claimed by God, my being held by God, and me having the capacity, therefore, to reach out and enter into mutual relationship to others.
TIP #3 FOR SPEAKING ABOUT THE INFINITE GOD: SAY SOMETHING ABOUT EVERYTHING
what we want to know most, I believe, is not everything about something, but something about everything.
We want someone to say something that makes sense of the cosmos, of creation, of God, of love, of suffering, of existence. We are impressed with those who know everything there is to know about the periodic table, but we also want someone to risk saying something meaningful
Who among us is willing to risk speaking about what matters most?
Theology is committed to knowing and saying something about everything. It is
As such, it is a discipline that risks engaging in conversations outside of its presumed expertise.
TO WHOM IS GOD DISCLOSED? GENERAL AND SPECIAL REVELATION
By general revelation, he is referring to how God is self-revealed equally and to everyone in the world shared by all of us—in nature, in our philosophies, and in the way we conceive and develop governmental, ethical, and social systems.
special revelation, Calvin is referencing how God reveals Godself to particular individuals in particular ways not common to everyone.
God chose to love Israel, the biblical witness attests, not because of any virtue or merit of their own, but just because God wanted to.90
others to reprobation or damnation.93 But it at the same
The Christian conviction that God continues calling particular people in particular ways reminds us, then, that the content of God’s self-disclosure is not only about who God is, but also about who we are.
THE STARTLING “SO WHAT?” OF SPECIAL REVELATION
changes everything because it undoes and remakes us from our very core.95 It is knowledge that is, arguably, nothing less than redemptive. Why is this? Because when we see ourselves as God sees us—as chosen, holy, and beloved—we carry ourselves in this world differently.96 When we see ourselves as God sees us, we seek to discern and articulate what matters most as those who are reminded that we matter, because God has entered into relationship with us. When we are reminded of our identity as God’s children, we gain
confidence that we can say something about everything, because we in a very real way have learned something that has changed everything for us. To know God, in fact, is to know something that makes a difference to everything.
The unknowable God, it would seem, has the propensity to reach out and be known to us in the many different kinds of spaces we create or experience in our lives—spaces characterized by rest or wonder; study or contemplation; suffering or challenge.
SCRIPTURE AS THE SPACE FOR KNOWING
As Barth reminds us—God can be seen wherever and however God chooses to self-disclose.
WHERE DO WE FIND THE RIGHT WORDS TO SAY?
The Doctrine of Scripture
Our goal in speaking of God, then, should not be to make statements that are only technically correct. Rather, we should also aim to articulate truths about God that can impact lives and transform the life of the world. Remembering
“AUTHORITY”: A RECOMMENDED EXERCISE
THE BIBLE TELLS ME SO?
also learn about God from our communities—from our churches and our families, from our friends and our teachers.
In addition to learning about God in the context of communities and their traditions, we might also learn of God by meditating on the natural world—standing in wonder (as Psalm 145, for example, puts it) of all God has made.
we might utilize our reason as we wonder about certain things, working
assess what words do and what words do not make sense to say of God.
Those who value reason often hold that we should be open to the data and insights of all disciplines when formulating theological claims.5 Liberationist scholars, including feminist, womanist, black, and Latin American liberation theologians, have emphasized that our experiences—both the context in which we have been formed and the stories that have shaped us—can never be laid to the side when we are interpreting other sources. Inevitably they
affect which figures we identify with when we read Scripture, for example, and whether we resonate with particular creeds and confessions or find them meaningless.
Many Protestant Christians, trying to take all of these sources into account, argue that the Bible is the norming norm, that is, that it should have a “higher status”
John Wesley, often helps people of faith conceptualize how multiple norms and sources come into play by using the image of a quadrilateral—with each of the four sides representing Bible, reason, tradition, and experience, respectively. (Since Methodists emphasize that the Bible has greater authority than the other three, the side representing it is often depicted as longer.)6
When it comes to speaking words about God, remembering that we can never gain mastery of the subject matter might be the most important preparation of all.
GENERAL REVELATION: RIGHT BEFORE OUR EYES (BUT TOUGH TO SEE!)
Paul is describing a problem with the human condition: we are unable to see, he explains, what is right before our eyes. “What can be known about God,”
Paul insists, is evident in “the things God has made.”7
Calvin, as we have seen, emphasizes humanity’s utter incapacity to access general revelation.
Thomas (12th c), however, thinks differently, teaching that human strides toward knowing God can certainly be made by way of general revelation.
Pascal (17th c) treats self-reflection as a form of general revelation, referring to the “infinite abyss” that we might, however unsuccessfully, try to satisfy with other things.11 John Wesley (18th c) believes
God extends prevenient grace to all people, as is evidenced in the fact that all have “some tendency toward life, some degree of salvation, the beginning of a deliverance from a blind, unfeeling heart, quite insensible of God and the things of God.”12
C. S. Lewis (20th c) comments, following this same trajectory, that “if I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”13 It is not surprising that Lewis, consistent with this statement, thought that helping people recognize their dissatisfaction could turn them toward belief.
Paul Tillich, a twentieth-century theologian, our “ultimate concern” is not what it should be, or even what we claim it is.15 Like Jesus’s friend Martha, we are “worried and distracted by many things” rather than attending to what matters most.16
Calvin has an answer to this, though it is, again, not the answer that every Christian thinker might give.
He thinks all of us are, as a consequence of the Fall, totally depraved.
By this he means not that we are worthless or beyond repair,
but that we are incapable, by virtue of our own will or wherewithal, of overriding the dullness that is symptomatic of our sin in order to perceive the God who is self-revealed all around us.
Theological ethicist Paul Lehmann explains, along these lines, that “total depravity . . . simply expresses the fact that whatever it takes to overcome the ethical predicament of humanity does not lie within the powers of humanity.
SPECIAL REVELATION: REFUSES TO LET US GO
Special revelation, when understood to name God’s gracious but persistent pursuit of us, is generally identified with specific acts of God intentionally breaking through our dullness to sharpen our perception of what really is.
The Bible is full of stories of God reaching out to heal the perception of those who have not yet seen, so they can know who God is and witness what God is up to in the world, understanding who they are and what their relationship is to God’s work.
The ways God reaches out are varied and, in many cases, surprising (and even bizarre!). God promises Abraham and Sarah that they will become parents of many descendants by taking Abraham out and showing him that sky full of stars.20
God charges Moses with an impossible mission by commanding him from out of a burning bush.21
God lets Joseph know his eleven brothers will one day bow down to him by speaking through a dream in which each of the brothers is represented by a bundle of wheat.22
God corrects Balaam by causing a donkey to talk.23
God calls Mary through a visitation by the angel Gabriel, telling her she is blessed to be the bearer of the Messiah.24
There are whispers outside of caves, and tablets brought down from mountains, and stars that shine over stables, and angels that sing glorious choruses for lowly shepherds; there are visions, and callings in the night, and descending doves and wrong-flowing water and consuming fire and pillars of salt and dew-resistant fleeces—all ways in which God says: I am here, you are in relationship to me; I am up to something, here’s how you are a part of it.
God, the one who stays in relationship to us as God did for our forebears, is an active participant in the life
God participates alongside us rather than dispassionately watching from outside.
That our God acts in and shapes this unfolding history is an aspect of our covenantal relationship with God, a part of the promise God has made never to abandon us.
The book that contains all of these stories is itself considered to be a vehicle of special revelation.
This is not only because it recounts specific stories about God’s claim on particular communities and particular people,
but because people of faith have consistently testified that they, through hearing these stories, have come to perceive their own place in the narrative of salvation.
The key to hearing God speak is not reading the Bible with a certain interpretive method, or learning Hebrew and Greek (the languages in which it was written), or praying beforehand, or being more deeply sincere or humble.
While all of these might be worthy goals for us to embrace freely and joyfully for their own sakes, they should never be undertaken as means to the end of knowing God. It should never in any way be suggested that we need to do a certain amount of grunt work if we are to reap the benefit or earn the reward of perceiving God.
To proceed in such a way would be to focus again on ourselves and our own achievements, rather than to revel in God’s bounteous gifts.
is probably true of most of us—right alongside of her—that we have at times felt dis-ease in relation to what we imagined were the most faithful spiritual practices. When this happens, it may help to remember that revelation is not a product of our own effort.
“Be still, and know that I am God!”
That said, Christians have through the last two millennia consistently testified that the Holy Spirit speaks to them through the stories and teachings in the biblical text, “revealing to their minds” and “sealing upon their hearts” the “knowledge
The Bible has a special place in the life of Christians because Christianity recognizes people have been changed when they read the words printed on its pages, when they listen to passages read and preached in worship and in Sunday school, and when they study and discuss the texts in Bible studies.
Calvin puts it, “The highest proof of Scripture derives in general from the fact that God in person speaks in it.”
LOOKING THROUGH THE “GLASSES” OF SCRIPTURE AND SEEING WHAT’S THERE
often missed, by those who agree with Calvin that knowledge of God cannot be gained apart from special revelation, is that special revelation, once it is received, allows us to discern God’s presence and work by way of general revelation.
In other words, once we recognize God “calling us by name”33 in particular ways (through the biblical witness, for example), we can look out at the beauty of a sunset (for example) and do more than wonder about the awesome intelligence
Special revelation leads him to marvel, all the more, that this God who claims him is the God of the “heavens . . . the moon and the stars.” And it is by way of marveling at God’s majestic work that the psalmist is brought to a deeper appreciation that he is known and cared for by God.
on our bedside tables is “spectacles.” Calvin describes the Bible as the eyeglasses through which we look in order to be able to see who God is and what God is up to in the world.
GIVING THE SPIRIT A “LEG UP”: THREE SUGGESTIONS
While revelation is initiated and accomplished by God, this does not mean we are merely passive recipients of it.
we may live intentionally as people of faith seeking understanding while still honoring God as sovereign actor.
First, if we are to be “people God can find” by way of the biblical witness, it will serve us well to think broadly about the genres and purposes of various biblical texts. We will benefit from considering figurative, as well as literal, meanings.
Second, it will be fruitful to make some considered decisions about how we engage multiple sources, as we seek to hear what God is saying to us.
Third and finally, when we read something in Scripture that seems completely incoherent or just plain wrong, keeping Christ at the center of our readings will make it possible to name real problems while at the same time honoring Scripture’s authority.
THINKING EXPANSIVELY ABOUT BIBLICAL MEANINGS
have found there is often an association made between reading the Bible literally and valuing its authority. I want to be clear: I reject this association.
To allow only for literal readings of the biblical texts is to limit the ways God can speak to us through the words of the Bible.
If, through engaging Scripture, we are seeking to know the God who is always greater than any of our knowledge, we will practice thinking expansively about the range of genres, histories, contexts, audiences, and writers that the Bible engages in conveying its stories and wisdom.
how we order the sources from which we draw as well as to the interpretive keys that lie at the center of our readings, will help us guard against imposing our own agendas in ways that inhibit us from hearing what the Bible genuinely has to say.
I was in college, that the idea that the Bible is literally without error is fairly new.
The problem with reading all passages of Scripture as though they are composed of literal facts is that it misses out on much of what the Bible has to offer, since not all passages were meant to be read and interpreted literally.
Genesis is a story that tells us far more than the blow-by-blow process for how the earth was created, for example.
It bears witness to the creative, playful power of God; the goodness of all that was made; the created harmony between humanity and God, humanity and nature, and men and woman that was God’s creative intention, but that somehow was lost.
The Genesis creation myth (with myth naming the genre of the story without compromising in any way on its truth) names sin for what it is: an aberration that is contrary to what God made, intends, or desires.
Sin is a problem, it says. A big problem.
And this is the problem the story of salvation addresses.
Any question about whether God literally made Eve out of Adam’s rib pales into comparison with the truth that God made Eve out of Adam’s rib, meaning that she is—and we all are, in relation to one another—bone of bone, flesh of flesh.
This matters, simply put, because it says something about everything. When I know you are bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh—I will love you as I love myself.
When each one of us knows they share bones and flesh with every other, violence will cease. Bodies will be valued, and fed, and protected. The wholeness and harmony that is God’s creative intention will be restored.
Whatever literal meaning the Bible’s creation stories have might be compared to a thimbleful of sea water in relation to the ocean of truth of which they are a part.
And to read them, interpret them, and make them our own is to participate in this truth.
It is to participate in this truth, again, with no fear of learning whatever can be learned from the biological sciences, open to gaining a clearer perception of God in the interplay of multiple sources.
One of the advantages of reading the Bible expansively rather than literally is, then, that doing so helps us see where and who we are in relation to what we are reading.
The thinker who first helped me think expansively, rather than only literally, about the biblical text is Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard is masterful at asking wonder questions in relation to Bible stories—both the beautiful ones and the difficult ones.
Reading the Bible as people of faith must surely entail our engaging it in such a way that we are transformed by it, and wondering and imagining are essential to the work of engagement that leads to such transformation.
then, I am suggesting that we think expansively about the biblical witness by approaching texts with a willingness to wonder and imagine.
we will wonder how each of the characters is feeling and how the story can possibly be synchronized both with the promise God earlier made to Abraham and Sarah,
and with the character of God as good. From there we might imagine, as Kierkegaard did, various scenarios that will help us make sense of the story.
If we are reading a different kind of text, say—Isaiah 40—on the other hand, we might stand in wonder in the face of a world where no one dies an untimely death and wolves are no threat to lambs.
Now, that world takes a lot of imagination to draw to mind! It is an example, truly, of what Barth referred to as the “strange new world within the Bible,”48
The point of this is not to be rigid, or even always to order sources in exactly the same way. It is, rather, to have enough of a sense of what we are about, when we make statements about God or invoke biblical authority, that we can make persuasive arguments for our beliefs and be in productive dialogue with others about our, and their, convictions.
If I can explain to a person with whom I am in conversation that the teachings of the church hold significant weight for me, when it comes to ascertaining what is meaningful or true, we will have a greater understanding of each other and why we disagree about something.
Where there is a problem being in dialogue with others about the most important things of all, it is often because we haven’t been up front about what rules of the game we are operating with, or we have changed our rules mid-course without warning.
Many Christians, looking to think more expansively about these verses in the context of the biblical witness, point out that “homosexuality,” in the biblical texts, was not associated with the monogamous, committed unions most Christian pro-LGBTQ supporters are rallying for today.
Bible speaks clearly about God’s love for all, and God’s desire that we love one another.
These central biblical themes, they hold, should be taken into consideration in developing biblical arguments for supporting LGBTQ persons.
To engage the Bible as the norming norm even as other norms and sources are brought into play would mean having a manifest commitment to thinking through insights drawn from other sources in relation to biblical readings.
While it is the privilege and responsibility of every person of faith to search the Scriptures for themselves, we don’t go at biblical interpretation alone. On the contrary, we join in our exploration of the biblical witness with Christian believers from all over the world and from down through the ages.
As we read, study, and explore we have all of these to turn to for conversation, insight, and guidance not only in relation to what the Bible has to say to various issues, but also to how multiple sources from real life come into play in relation to all our interpretations and discernings.
The Apostles’ Creed came into being in the first century of the church, when Christian believers were developing a liturgy for baptism as well as moving toward developing the doctrine of the Trinity.
The most recent confession to be adopted is the “Belhar Declaration.”51 Affirmed by the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa in 1986, Belhar speaks firmly against apartheid, drawing from the biblical witness in making a case for inclusion and equality.
Church traditions—including its creeds and confessions—can serve as helpful checks and balances to particular readings of Scripture.
God is triune. Interestingly, however, to hold that the Bible is the norming norm is to be open, at least in principle, to making adjustments even to our church traditions, if these traditions come to be understood as antithetical to Scripture.
My own church—the Presbyterian Church (USA)—is one of these churches. We reversed our thinking on women’s ordination in the late 1950s precisely because we read the Bible, again, and decided our earlier interpretation was wrong.
Remembering this, as well as other instances when churches have changed positions on issues in light of their study of Scripture (in relation to, for example, infant baptism, divorce, and slavery), it becomes clear that the point of honoring the primacy of Scripture is not only to guard us against idolizing our own experiences and traditions, but also to give us a way of working for social change consistent with the convictions of our faith.
When we know the biblical canon—when we know it so well its stories become our stories and we hear its teachings in relation to ourselves and our own lives—it will then serve as a ready-at-hand arbiter, inspiring us as we ponder what can be learned from experience, tradition, reason, and the other sources that feed our lives.
consistent with living into our identity as those who have been gifted by the grace of God.
What if we were to read Scripture habitually not because it is something we know we should do, or something we know we have to do in order to have any shot at living according to God’s will, but because we are excited and curious about knowing what it says, and receiving its benefits?
What if we thought of reading the Bible as a way into understanding ourselves, our communities, and the predicament of and hope for the world in which we live?
KEEPING CHRIST AT THE CENTER
A third way we can position ourselves to receive the gifts God desires to give us through Scripture is to keep Christ at the center of all our interpretations. A theological term for this is christocentrism.
This idea has often been identified, in Christian traditions, as the Rule of Love. Specifically, it argues that any interpretation that contradicts what we know of God’s love in the Gospel message of Jesus Christ must be rejected.
A Christ-centered approach might even serve as justification for reading some accounts of God’s actions more as a community’s limited interpretation of God’s role in an event and less as an historical account of how God actually acted.
keeping Christ at the center of our interpretation helps us stay open to hearing all that God has to teach us through Scripture by making it possible for us to trust the text enough to be productively suspicious of it.
A hermeneutic of suspicion is a method of interpreting biblical texts that welcomes and encourages us to think more expansively (including reading between the lines) when something seems off in what we are reading.
A classic example of this is given by Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in In Memory of Her. Schüssler Fiorenza points out, in the framing story to this book, that when the New Testament woman anoints Jesus’s feet with perfume and wipes them with her hair, Jesus promises that the story will be told in perpetuity, alongside the story of his death and resurrection, in memory of her.56
Applying the hermeneutic of suspicion, however, Schüssler Fiorenza notices that we do not know the name of this woman who is to be remembered. We know the name of the crook in the story—Judas—but we do not know hers! Schüssler Fiorenza goes on to hypothesize that Jesus must have wanted us to know the woman’s name, given what he said.
But it has been lost somewhere, she surmises, in the historical, patriarchal shuffle. Applying a hermeneutic of suspicion allows us to think more expansively about the story in ways that are inclusive and hope-full, particularly for women who have been excluded.
When we come to the Bible as though it has no central message, we tend to engage it as a kind of compendium of helpful resources that are compiled to address our questions and problems. There is a real danger we will treat it more as a blueprint or as a Fodor’s guide that is there to be gleaned from for our purposes than as a coherent narrative.
It is not the right human thoughts about God which form the content of the Bible, but the right divine thoughts about [human beings].
The Bible tells us not how we should talk with God but what [God] says to us; not the right relation in whichwe must place ourselves to [God], but the covenant which [God] has made with all who are Abraham’s spiritual children and which he has sealed once and for all in Jesus Christ.
Part of what Barth so beautifully implies here is that a Christ-centered approach to biblical study understands that the Bible is always inviting us to participate in its story rather than promising to be useful to ours.
We can read the Bible with the confidence, then, that we do not have to figure out how to in some way get underneath the words in order to benefit from the deeper meaning.
Whatever language study, historical study, and textual study we engage need not be devoted to dissecting words.
Rather, we can enjoy the range of words and genres that come into play, as we read, wondering at how they are used to convey truths that cannot be confined to words, even as Jesus is truly known in the flesh that also cannot contain him.
CONCLUSION: THE “RIGHT WORDS” TO SAY
It is from that vantage point that we live our lives not as know-it-alls, but as those determined to share something about everything in a world brimming with beauty, pain, and a perennial desire to know more.