For Mainline Christian Clergy

Roger, in his early 90s, was the reader for the day at the United Church of the San Juans. The lesson was the story of King David seducing Bathsheba after deliberately sending her husband to his death at the front line of a raging battle. After closing the Bible, Roger said something like the usual “the word of God for the people of God” and then added, “and as far as I’m concerned, you can have it”, walking back to his seat, a disgusted look on his face, with a few scattered chuckles from the congregation.

Roger’s counterpart outside church is a modern person with a cell phone in her hand, reading headlines about space travel, artificial intelligence, and designer babies, and the Christian headline is: the Bible is the word of God that tells us Jesus died for our sins. Does she care? I don’t think so.

This simple combination of “the Bible is the word of God” and “Jesus died for your sins” is what the public thinks lie at the core of Christian faith. I remember being told at Union Theological Seminary in 1963 that what we were learning would take 50 years to trickle down to the church membership. I’m sure it has trickled down somewhere, but it certainly has not entered the minds of the mainstream public, who still think that the church is stuck in the Middle Ages. As membership slips away, reactions from the various churches are manifold: better evangelism, more Christian babies, more church buildings in strategic locations, when what we need is a new headline, a new public perception of what Christianity is all about.

The key is how we talk about the Bible. In my experience, the occasion has been rare when a preacher offers preliminary comments such as: this didn’t really happen, but…or…this is the gospel writer’s interpretation… or…the myth tells us…Are we afraid to offer a scholarly approach? Are we afraid to offend the conservatives among us? Are we really not sure in our own mind? We attempt to accommodate modern advance even as we are in part shaped by what we learned in seminary classrooms years ago. We today are like a country doctor struggling to keep up with the latest research while still attending everyone, hesitating to part with the tried and true and unwilling to offer effective treatment to those who refuse it. What to keep and what to leave behind can be an agonizing dilemma, but we all need to answer this question: what kind of authority does the Bible have, and where did that authority come from?

As we all know, there have been and are many varied answers to those questions. The fundamentalist answer is that the Bible is inerrant or infallible in every way. That kind of certainty doesn’t seem to be working too well for those churches, who are losing members just like the mainliners. Most of us in the mainline denominations reject this deification of scripture. We know that the assertion of biblical inerrancy is a relatively recent phenomenon that originated within Protestant Orthodoxy immediately after the Reformers died. Even Luther himself would have thrown out and and thrown away the books of James and Revelation. Although one of the Reformation battlecries was sola scriptura, it was counterweight to papal authority and not an affirmation of inerrancy. The Enlightenment brought critical scholarship to all sorts of documents, and the question for the church was the extent to which that critical examination should apply also to scripture. The fundamentalist answer was none at all. A more enlightened answer has been less definitive.

The origin of the canon seems shrouded in secrecy. The creation of a list of those books that were to be included in the Bible was an ill-defined process that seems to have depended more on the personal power of certain ecclesiastical personages than on democratic church councils. Even today there is disagreement about what constitutes the canon, just as there was disagreement in the earliest church. First century Jews did not agree on the content of their scripture, and certainly the letters of Paul, beseeching the recipients to think and behave in a certain way, were not intended to be holy writ. Critical scholarship, therefore, is not attacking a firm and long held belief in the divine origin of the books of the Bible, but is offering instead greater insight into the meaning of these books. It is our task to listen critically to the results of modern research, and also to share it. Whether it’s on a late night tv program, a cocktail party, preparing a sermon, or counseling a friend, we need to honestly share the fact that the Bible was not inerrantly dictated by God. For example:

If someone asks why there are two creation stories in Genesis, the answer is simple. The Pentateuch is comprised of four sources that have been woven together, each source with its own specific point of view, and a final redactor with his/her point of view. Two of these sources had their own creation story.

If someone asks if God really gave the 10 commandments to Moses on Mt Sinai, the answer could include recent findings of archaeology that suggest that the original Hebrews were hill people in Canaan who coveted and then invaded the more fertile plains along the coast. They were not descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They were not slaves in Egypt. There was no Exodus, no wandering in the wilderness, no Moses, and no promise from YHWH to his people. It seemed radical 50 years ago to discover that the Red Sea was actually a sea of reeds through which a small group of Hebrew slaves escaped Pharaoh’s chariots. The latest evidence is infinitely more radical, but radicality is cause for consideration and study, not rejection.

If someone asks why a family member died at such an early age, they may wonder about Job, and how it all worked out so well for him. Most likely, what they don’t know is that the prologue and epilogue are different from the main poem, in which Job’s agony remains unanswered and unresolved.

The impact of critical scholarship extends equally to the New Testament.

Someone asks why the first three gospels sometimes sound so similar, and sometimes so different, presenting the perfect opportunity to explain how the synoptic gospels came to be. And as with the sources of the Pentateuch, the various gospel sources each have their own perspective, not always agreeing.

I have had people say that they can’t stand Paul’s anti woman attitude. They are surprised when I explain that in these letters we need to differentiate between what Paul actually wrote and what was later added and attributed to him by others. It is clear that the later patriarchal church hierarchy, as epitomized in Timothy and Titus, managed to insert a few lines into Paul’s letters about how women must be subservient to men, whereas Paul himself believed in full equality.

While engaged in this conversation, it’s easy to add that the Jesus Seminar study of the Book of Acts concludes that the book comes not from the first century, but the second, and is historically either unreliable or just plain wrong. Given that much of it purports to offer biographical data about Paul, the implication is that any life of Paul should be based on his letters, and not on Acts.

Others may wonder about the harmony/disharmony in the early church, or whether Jesus was actually born of a virgin, or rose physically from the dead, or whether there were other gospels that are not included in the Bible…and they deserve an answer. Those who still come to church deserve an answer. And the person on the street, that person also deserves an answer.

The challenge is obvious. First of all, each of us must process new research for ourselves. What do I believe, and what do I not believe? How open am I? And then, independently of how we answer those issues, we still need to figure out how to share modern scholarship with others. Scholars spend their lives trying to figure out what the Christian narrative is all about. Our task is at least to learn and understand and share. If we expect anyone to listen, we need a new headline. There are more people like Roger than we think.

Review & Commentary