Tuesday, September 29, 2009

On Contextualizing and Authority

This is another post that was originally written for my Christian Theology class at WFUSD. As I have done previously, I will include bibliographical information at the bottom of the post. Word of warning: this is the least favorite of the posts that I have written for the class to date. There was something about it that just didn't quite come together for me.


This past week readings from both Migliore and Ford touched on the place and authority of scripture in Christian theology. These readings grabbed me became the focus of my thought this week. I mentioned last week that I grew up in churches that, while they belonged to a mainline denomination, could very easily be considered “conservative evangelical” in their outlook. Like many similar churches a great deal of emphasis was placed on “scripture.” I place this in quotes due to the loaded way that this term was used in the churches of my youth. Often this emphasis was rooted almost entirely in certain passages that served to reenforce the conservative/fundamentalist doctrine that we were getting from other places. The truth be told, while I am sure that this is not true, I don't remember a sermon other than Christmas and Easter being preached from the gospels. There was a lot of Paul and a lot of “Old Testament,” but not a whole lot of Jesus.

The other side of my religious upbringing was what I got at home. Both of my parents were “progressives” before we ever heard that word. They certainly served as a counter-weight to the indoctrination that I was receiving at church. However, even at home the scriptures played a large role. Until I went to High School and there simply ceased to be time, every morning was started sitting around the table, reading the Upper Room devotion for the day with the scripture being read out of the red family RSV. When we would visit my great-grandmother in West Texas every meal was started by handing around little slips with different Bible verses on them. I knew that I had “grown up” when I was able to have my own to read to the table. Beyond these family rituals I saw both of my parents spend time every week preparing for Sunday School reading, studying, and pouring over whatever the passage was for that week. Thus, even from the two disparate strands of my religious education I saw the scriptures take a central role.

As I have gotten older and matured, both in life and in faith, a central struggle has been what role do the scriptures hold in my life and my theology. Can the scriptures be more than the literally read club that I saw in church, used to beat up people that don't fall into whatever orthodoxy the church tries and limits them to? After first leaving the church altogether and then spending time in the Unitarian-Universalists, what I have gradually come to believe is that the scriptures must hold a central place for us. They are what makes us, us. They are what roots us to the story of Jesus more than any tradition, doctrine, or creed. Without the scriptures the church becomes nothing more than an ethical debating society and a poor one at that, with no central narrative to tie us together. It is this centrality of the scripture in my faith that has lead me back to the term “evangelical” as a word that I feel more and more comfortable with to describe myself. I have often been told that I am being “too biblical” when making a point or having a discussion.

One place this position takes me is the tendency to quote and use scripture to frame my arguments. For an example of what I mean, look back at my entry from last week. Thus, when Craig pointed out the danger in “proof-texting” this week in class, I was forced to have a nice hard think about if that is what I was doing. Was I guilty of pulling passages out of context to “make my point?” This is not the first time that I have been confronted with this question. I have certainly been accused of doing it before, normally when the person that I was engaged with didn't like the conclusion that I was drawing! However, after the readings this week and reflecting on my use of scripture, I would make the argument that this is not what I do.

By definition, mine at least, proof-texting is taking a small passage out of its greater context to support or “prove” a theological point. Both Migliore and Ford give us hermeneutical guidelines that, while different, both revolve around that pesky old concept of context. Both Ford and Migliore make the point that there are multiple contexts of which the student of scripture needs to be aware. After recognizing and honoring these contexts as best she can, the student can begin to pull meaning from the texts. The recognition of these contexts creates a place where the meaning of the text gets deeper, richer, and more full, turning it from a cold, flat, black-words-on-a-white-page text into a text that truly speak to us about the fullness and wonder of G-d.

As we make the scripture central to our lives, both as individual people of faith and as members of a wider faith community, we need to ensure that we continue to honor these contexts, placing passages into their context and not stripping them out in such a way that the true import and meaning gets lost. This is what I try and do when ever I approach, use, and quote scripture. I recognize, and am fulling willing to admit, that I make mistakes. That I give passages meaning that someone else might not. I, like Migliore, am predisposed to seeing the greater context of scripture to be one of liberation and hope for all people and I admit that this might create a set of blinders that closes me off to other meanings that reside in the text. However, what I do know is that it is in placing scripture in its context and letting its Truth shape and form us as individuals and as a church to its “liberating message” (Migliore, 44) that we allow scripture to have its full authority.


Books Cited:

Ford, David. Theology: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford Univ. Press, 2000

Migliore, Daniel. Faith Seeking Understanding, 2nd edition. Eerdmans, 2004.

Also, I just wanted to give a shout out to my professor, Dr. Craig Atwood. He blogs at The Flaming Heretic? In case you are wandering, the name of the blog is reference to Jan Hus, the founder of the Moravian Tradition, of which Dr. Atwood is a part.

1 comment:

  1. Carter, mostly I do not like folks using scripture passages during a conversation unless it is in discussion of a particular passage. One reason is because my experience has been when people have addressed me with scripture it was to beat me over the head. Second, is purely a personal reason for me in that I cannot memorize. Have never been able to memorize anything with the exception of words to songs that I sing over and over again until they are embedded in my mind. As a child we use to have "sword drills" to learn the books of the bible. I always failed and to this day cannot go past Mathew, Mark, Luke and John. Believe you me I have tried and tried. Was in my senior play, just because they wanted every senior to be in it. I had two one-liners and I was still saying them over and over before I went on stage. There are so many times when I think of a passage that I have read and remembered by paraphrasing,etc. but longed to know where it was in the bible. I applaud your effort to try and make certaiin that you are not beating someone over the head when you quote scripture. I admire those who can memorize whole sections of the bible. I wish I could. For me, I do the best I can an try to live out what I have learned from scripture (I love my bible). When doing Lectio Divino, you in effect are taking passages out of context but it is a wonderful and powerful way for the passage to speak to you about God or God to speak through to you. So do not completely rule out the taking verses out of context. Good article. Thanks !!!