Which Word Do You Mean?

Posted: June 26, 2013 in Church of the Brethren, Theology

The holy scriptures

 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me a New Testament; I was thirsty and you gave me a book; I was a stranger and you stood on the corner quoting scripture at me, I needed clothes and you gave me pages, I was sick and you read from your Bible, I was in prison and you posted the Ten Commandments on the wall to transform my actions.”

What this obvious satirical passage illustrates is the phenomenon that has emerged within Evangelical Christianity. A strange theological interpretation set out to answer what was a seemingly low view of scripture. Unfortunately, what occurred was the reactive elevation of scripture to a point that it confuses the written word (outer word) with the Living Word (Jesus). Now I know there probably are already some objections to my characterization of this development. Please let me explain. When we confuse these two very different entities, one being inspired writings that point to Jesus, and the other being the living divine Word (Son) of God who is Jesus, we encroach upon a practice that God speaks strongly against throughout scripture, namely, idolatry. There is a distinct difference between worshiping Jesus as the Word of God and exalting scripture to an equal place as the Divine Word.

I believe the crux is twofold lying within the merging of scriptural inspiration with scriptural authority and defining scriptural inspiration as verbal inspiration. The latter asserting that God dictated word for word what the transcriptionists were to put down on papyrus (or whatever other material they may have used). The implication of this convergence and extreme theological development shifted the emphasis from what is written to the writing itself. Interestingly enough it seems the early church was more concerned with the telling of divine reconciliation, its effects upon the contemporary community in terms of ethical living and the eschatological trajectory (the hoped for future) toward which it directed its readers’ (and hearers’) attention. Such a theological assumption blurs this essential differentiation.

Second, the real danger we face with such a belief is that we miss the fundamental (I know it’s a scary word) moral of the story—loving God and loving our neighbors (within Jesus’ expanded definition of neighbors). While idolatry is nothing to take lightly, the New Testament speaks very strongly about those who treat others unjustly, especially the “least of these” even out of misguided ignorance. In fact in each gospel Jesus uses strong language of judgment when addressing these issues. While scripture is essential (and authoritative) in the formation and discipleship of believers, it is not to be mistaken for the Divine Word who came to inaugurate God’s kingdom of love, mercy, and justice.

Even as I’m preparing to travel to the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference in Charlotte, a topic essentially connected to this will appear before the delegate body this year. What is unfortunate is that so many Brethren have embraced liberal (both conservative and progressive) theology (born from the enlightenment) that when it comes time for us to talk about it, they won’t even realize that the divide between their views of scriptural authority is a result of the same philosophical starting points (which includes the Cartesian ego). In my humble opinion it would be nice for us to adopt a post-liberal approach which affirms scripture as authoritative not based upon extrinsic evidence but upon the intrinsic nature of the divine metanarrative. After all, the power of scripture is in the great love story of the creating God who loves, redeems and saves his/hers (obviously pronouns are not adequately sensitive to the issues of gender) creation. But that is just me, and this is just the restart of an old conversation. My hope is that we can move beyond the same old endless circle we run in.

  1. Scott Holland says:

    Andy, Although you might have political and pragmatic reasons for identifying the lovely hermeneutic you articulate here as firmly “post-liberal,” you must know that much liberal theology of the 20th and 21st centuries likewise affirm the spiritual, story-shaped, metaphorical and poetic approach to scripture you recommend as the best hermeneutical path forward.

    To enter conversation with BRF one must present one’s Conservative Brethren Card. To converse deeply with BMC one’s Brethren Card must affirm that sex is more about justice than the Beloved. Unfortunately, to do sustained table-talk with the NuDunkers one’s Brethren Card must be boldly stamped with the “Post-Liberal” identity-politics signifier.

    In so doing you exile hundreds, perhaps thousands, in the denomination from the conversation.

    • Andrew says:

      Thanks Scott for your comment. I hear your concern and caution. However, this is one of the systemic dysfunctions of our fellowship. Not the theological points you make, but the fact that there can be no meaningful conversation if we all don’t agree. It has been argued that an essential part of the so called brethren hermeneutic is conversation; that we are a hermeneutical community and interpret in community. That assumes that there will be differences of opinion. I made explicit in the blog that this will be a conversation. So, when one party disagrees with the other (claiming to be alienated) the conversation is instantly closed. It has a real feel of the disagreeing parties (whether brf, bmc or any other party) asserting power over the others to control or manipulate the conversation. I may be naive but I am hoping for more from our fellowship.

      • Scott Holland says:

        Andy, I think I’m suggesting that the “post-liberal” dogma and designation of the NuDunkers itself only warmly invites fellow camp-followers into the conversation since it deliberately mis-re-presents liberalism and further suggests that, unlike liberals and conservatives alike, it speaks from a new and improved, more unbiased vision and voice. Is it possible that one feels alienated from the many denominational intramural language contests not because of honest disagreements but because of deliberate mis-re-presentation?

    • (At the risk of further detracting from the helpful content of the above post, I think an important question is being raised here…)

      I’m not sure it’s fair to say that NuDunkers have unequivocally or univocally said that the group is “officially” post-liberal. That’s certainly an intellectual perspective that Josh, Andy, and I are fairly unapologetic about thinking is helpful, but I’ll let the others speak for themselves.

      And it’s kind of a risky move, Scott, to say that post-liberalism “deliberately mis-re-presents liberalism” or that its somehow unbiased.

      It’s been my desire for NuDunkers from the start to create hospitable space for theological conversation, and this is something that I think the current “circle of hosts” in NuDunkers can universally say “yes” to, despite some other differences we may have, including on things like post-liberalism.

      So the emphasis here is on love, welcome, and hospitality in the midst of our intellectual, topical conversations. – This being something that the academy is notoriously bad at. (c.f. Josh’s post on the scholarly virtue that is often lost: http://www.theologystudio.org/content/the-virtues-of-the-scholar-discretion)

      • Andrew says:


        I appreciate you questions but am curious about a couple of things. First, while I am appreciative (especially hermeneutically) of the post-liberal movement, I don’t entirely fit into that category either. I think the NuDunkers as a group are more diverse than you give credit. We have consistently expressed our desire for welcoming hospitality and intentionally avoid exclusion due to difference in opinions. The expressed purpose of this is to provide an arena for theological conversation by means of internet media. Because someone doesn’t agree with someone and they feel uncomfortable in that, doesn’t mean they are being excluded. As long as we are open to conversation and treat each other with respect and dignity (loving others) then we are fulfilling our purpose.

        Secondly, I am wondering about the NuDunkers’ “deliberate mis-re-presents” liberalism? What I wrote in my blog is based upon a widely accepted argument put forward by Nancey Murphy referring to the shared philosophical foundations of liberalism and fundamentalism. Perhaps I created confusion with my use of terms. When I used liberalism theology I was referring to the general category of enlightenment theology. Post-modernity itself has demonstrated that the foundations of modernity are wanting and it is nothing more than a hyper-expression of modernity. One of the most troubling effects of such theology is the emphasis upon the individual to the exclusion of the community. Dana is correct in her observation and comment. It was not my intention to misrepresent it, but I am unashamedly critical of it for a number of reasons I won’t get into in this comment.

  2. Ben says:

    People seek certainty and control when confronted with the uncertain. When confronted with the mysteriousness and grand scale of God, and a faith that requires yielding control and grounding certainty in that yielding, it seems common for people to seek certainty and control on epic (and often tragic) scales. I don’t think that is new. For me, that is the underlying narrative of the Old Testament – how a people focused on sacrifice to the exclusion of mercy. How a people attempted to find certainty and control in words rather than in God. That discussion can be for another day.

  3. danacassell says:

    Truthfully, I sincerely doubt that there are hundreds, much less thousands, of members of the Church of the Brethren who care much about the particular professional language of liberal v. post-liberal theological perspectives.

    On the other hand, there are certainly thousands of Brethren (descending as I type upon Charlotte, NC, banking capital of the South, an exercise in Cartesian ego writ large onto an economic system – how’s that for some theological perspective prejudice?) who care about how to read Scripture together.

    Andy, I very much like your question: which Word do we mean when we talk about the Word of God? I take it that your point in naming a liberal perspective – one in which, by all accounts, the interpretive power of the individual is emphasized – was to point out how we might miss the opportunity to practice a communal hermeneutic focusing on a living Christ and a dynamic church-as-body-of-Christ even in our differences. Wanna make that comment at the microphone, Brother Hamilton?

  4. David Smith says:

    Like Dana, I like the question posed on the differerences between the word and the Word. I find it curious (perhaps its coincidence or my own exposure) that the push to deify scripture or at least mandate its inerrancy has become more fervent as Islam and our awareness of it has increased. It seems that many of the things being advocated are identical to the mainstream Islamic view of the Quran (inerrant, dictated by God, unchanged).

    I also agree with those above that bringing even the word post-liberal (not to mention the whole theology) to the discussion is like touching the third rail for either the progressive or conservative sides as it implies that they are inadequate. Not the best starting point for conversation.

    And you are correct that we (urgently) need to find some transcendence in how we view the authority of scripture. Is recognizing that we do all agree that the Bible has authority in our lives, regardless of how we understand how it came to be enough? Also that we do all agree on the inerrancy that God’s Truth is being revealed, even if we don’t agree on the inerrancy of the vocabulary or the Truth’s application?

    You would think that with all the books and sermons Christianity has generated, and continues to generate daily, we would finally come to realize that Christianity exists as the witness of a plethora of voices and experiences, instead of seeing them as supporting opposing truth claims. But we never learn.

    • Andrew says:

      David, welcome to the conversation. Thanks for the comment. The curious parallel you point out is interesting. However, the cultures in which these two forms of fundamentalism emerged are quite different. I’ll need to think on it more. It might make a good conversation piece sometime.

      Regarding the idea that “post-liberal” is somehow not the best starting point is correct. But that is not what I am posing. If we look at this in terms of a conversation with various perspectives, then to say one is off limits is akin to shutting down the conversation. That “post-liberal” theology critiques fundamentalism and progressivism is no different than how they each critique the other. In other words, would I be taken anymore seriously by a fundamentalist if I were progressive or vice versa? This is the crux of the issue. In order to have a conversation the parties involved must own their disagreements and critiques of each other. In the process, dignity and respect must be honored. Moreover, it is necessary for the parties to make space and listen to the others in order to have a fruitful conversation. This is my point. We need the communal hermeneutic of conversation to move beyond. Adding a third alternative perspective to the conversation should not be seen as threatening.

  5. Scott Holland says:

    Thanks, Andy, for the reply. Perhaps all the theological short-hand is the problem. I don’t fully accept the thesis of the shared foundations of liberalism and fundamentalism. Murphy’s thesis does provide a splendid apologetic for Fuller Evangelicalism and other missional types but the story is more complicated than this for those of us who work out of a tradition of political and theological liberalism, always attentive to the postmodern turn as both a corrective and supplement. For example, in an upcoming BTS class on “Modernity, Postmodernity & Belief,” we will be reading Voltaire’s novel, “Candide.” Students will see that the great Enlightenment philosopher is not as flatly modern as our new theological short-hand might lead us to believe. James the Anabaptist even gets good press in “Candide.”

    Many Brethren realize the Enlightenment gave us a more robust understanding of democracy and the rule of constitutional law, science, medicine, bio-historical epistemology and yes, the great, dare I say sacred, value of the individual in a world of tribes, clans, collectives, political & ecclesial totalities and colonizing super-egos. This is hardly analogical with the foundations of fundamentalism. Further, some of us with years of pastoral experience would suggest that only a church that gives individuals space and freedom can build a healthy community. [The corrective to the Enlightenment excesses, if I may share my bias, is not post-liberalism but Radical Pietism on the path to Romanticism].

    Nevertheless, I liked and agreed with your hermeneutical work in the post. So, “liberals” and Romantics can appreciate your theology. It offers faithful ways around the fights some are planning for The Authority of Scripture paper. However, the consistent NuDunker short-hand rant against liberalism makes me, and other liberals, finally conclude “this is not our conversation nor community.” It truly appears that you, Brockway and Gumm are seeking to set up one more special interest group in the denomination, with a very identifiable ideology, that is one or two notches above BRF or B4BA on the Dunker totem pole. But hey, it’s a free country and a free church as they say. [I know Cassell & Stone are also in your circle but their writing seems marked by a different tone and texture].

    I assume that all you NuDunkers are now in Carolina, except perhaps Gumm? Brian seems to be the Outlaw Brethren in your group and I like that. He can profitably pick up his Fender in Iowa and go to Carolina in his mind.

    • Yes, Scott, I’ll be continuing my life-long streak of not attending AC; one of those naughty Brethren that Bowman documents in his sociological research. And while my ministerial work becomes ever more formalized in my district, and I will almost certainly have to attend the “big meeting” at some point in the near future – there does seem to be virtue in being an outlier here in the hinterlands of Brethrendom, and I hope to keep that mostly intact.

      That kind of outlier status includes an intellectual dimension, which for me has been post-liberal streams of thought. But my English lit background also makes me (strangely!) warm to your more literary approach and love of Romanticism (Cavell’s work hovers on my reading horizon, which should give you a grin.) – So we all have our rants; you yours, me mine. I just try to do as Andy indicated and “own (my) disagreements and critiques of each other” and love and honor the dignity of my intellectual “enemies.” (I use that strong term in a light sense; hence the scare quotes.)

      And to do this all in virtual, social media? Wow – that’s hard. We’re hoping to model it, though, and so far I think we’re doing a decent job. (Including here.)

      And thanks for the song suggestion. I think I’ll call up some J.T. now…

  6. Scott Holland says:

    Brian, Do read Cavell but also read Peter Dula’s book on Cavell if you have not already. It is excellent! Also watch for an exchange between Dula, Holland and others forthcoming in the Fall issue of Conrad Grebel Review. I heard Taylor and Carol King sing “Carolina” in concert last year. This month I was up on the Hudson for Pete Seeger’s 94th birthday event with much music making and storytelling. Some fine storytelling on the African origins of the banjo with musical examples of the evolution of its music in America. I shall make this a new part of cross cultural competency for BTS students. Seriously.

    At 93, Seeger wrote his first explicit God song, although he has many implicit God songs, implicit because he says, “God, like poetry, is what often gets lost in the translation.” You can find it on YouTube under God’s Counting on You” by Pete Seeger.

    Like you, only in Carolina in my mind, Scott

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