Scripture, Tradition, and Reason (please, please, please include Reason!)
(Image credit to Tom Dodge at the Columbus Dispatch)
The Bible, and how to interpret it, is a repeated theme in my local Theology Pub (which is, well, a gathering in a pub where a few friends talk about theology), and Shayne's most recent post marks a nice segue into a blog on the topic. It's important that we talk about this because I think some people out there might be misconstruing things a bit. In reference to the sign above:
"It's not something that is really a shock if you're a scriptural person," said the Rev. Dave Allison, pastor of the 100-member church at Havens Corners and Reynoldsburg-New Albany roads. "We meant that as a loving warning to teens. … The Scriptures tell us that you should not do what the song tells you to do. The Scriptures are not ambiguous on this issue."(Why do I still associate myself with this lot of people? Right, right, it's important that we don't leave religion to the noisy fundamentalists...)
This sort of point is so crude and common and not worth the argument. But honestly though, what is a Christian to do with the inconvenient Bible? There are indeed verses that state relatively unambiguously that God doesn't like gay sex. There are also verses that state unambiguously that God will destroy you if you oppose Him, that liars will burn in Hell, that women shouldn't be in leadership, etc. etc. Is this a book that we should really be exposing our children to and holding up as the Word of God? My answer is yes and no, respectively.
The Bible is a compilation of writings that were produced for a variety of reasons in varied cultural contexts across 1600 years. The group of books included in the Christian Bible (the Canon) was set in the 4th century AD. In much of the Christian church today, that Canon is viewed as a sort of direct revelation from God--the core of what holds Christianity together, and the essential source of our understanding of who God is. In much of the Christian world, to be 'unbiblical' is to be un-Christian.
Honestly, I can only continue to call myself a Christian because I don't live in that world anymore: I'm an Anglican. If I remained a part of a denomination that held up Scripture as a direct communication from God to us, I'm sure that I'd eventually go be a Unitarian or Baha'i or just sleep in on Sundays. Anglicanism, as I understand and practice it, treats the Bible as source material for theology and practice, but allows reason to dictate belief. In the words of Jeremy Taylor, one of the 17th Century theological fathers of Anglicanism, 'Scripture, tradition, councils, and fathers, are the evidence in a question, but reason the judge.' Thanks, Jeremy. Even though I'm a Christian, if something is nonsense I don't have to believe it!
The thing that holds Anglicanism to Christian tradition is that, as J.T. pointed out, for us 'Scripture, tradition, councils, and fathers' are the place where we begin our search for God's truth. Who knows where we'll end up, but they are our starting place. If we're honest, no Christian can say anything more than that, and rigid dogmatism about the correctness of our own interpretation doesn't help anyone.
In today's American Church this might seem liberal and wishy-washy, but the fact is that whenever one views scripture as God's Word (with a capitol W), one reads it looking for absolute directives for life and theology. The problem is that the New Testament in particular is a series of stories and letters with conflicting accounts and conflicting teachings from a variety of authors. It's damned frustrating if you treat it like Divine Material, and what seems to generally happen is that you either eventually give up and chalk your lack of understanding up to mystery, or you end up proof-texting what you already believe (or what your church authority figure has told you to believe) with individual sentences from your favorite book. (If what I believe is from God, it must be true.)
I don't want to cop out intellectually, but it's also important to note that, because we're all limited persons, while our beliefs might be grounded in what scripture teaches they can never be absolute in their 'biblicalness'. When our friend Dave referred to 'a scriptural person' above, what he actually meant was 'a person who interprets several verses in the Bible in a literalistic, non-contextual, non-compromising fashion'. There will always be a variety of equally 'biblical' interpretations. It's a thick book with a lot of themes.
So, my encouragement is to take a deep breath and let it go. Recognize that the Bible can be good and holy and full of the Spirit of God without forcing you to hate the gays or believe that dinosaurs never existed or six other impossible things before breakfast. Can't the 'Word of God' be bigger than all that?