Did you read Scripture (publicly) today? (pt. 2)

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In my first post reflecting upon the importance of “public reading of Scripture” as part of the Pauline triad mentioned in 1 Tim 4:13, namely, reading, preaching, teaching, it was assumed that in the first instance, “public” reading meant reading Holy Scripture in the context of corporate worship. That is, “public” was assumed to mean “ecclesial” (literally, reading in the context of churchly gatherings). Now I have no doubt that Paul intended this at a very minimum. But is that the only implication? In other words, is the reading of Scripture necessarily an event limited to Christian gathering, or are there other ways in which Scripture itself can become part of a larger, decidedly, non-ecclesial public hearing? 

On the one hand, it may be possible to accomplish public reading of Scripture in a very direct way. Direct applications of public reading of Scripture might include reading the Bible to any and all who may listen (or even to those who do not) in public settings (e.g., on the street corner, over the radio waves, at the bus-stop, on the steps of Parliament, or who knows where and how else creative minds may accomplish this). Some evangelical mission organizations, like HCJB, have included public Bible reading as part of their ministry for years. Interestingly enough, Bob Seale (a good friend and theological father to me), pointed out to me today that in the coming week, the entire Bible will be read continuously over Italian state radio at the prompting of Pope Benedict XVI and at the outset of a synod of 200 bishops to discuss the place of Scripture in the world today. (Read more about it here and here and here.) Talk about taking the directive to being devoted to the public reading of Scripture!

On the other hand, as important and effective as these direct options for public reading of Scripture may be, I also want to suggest that public reading of Scripture may enter into the public hearing also in more indirect, and therefore somewhat more subversive, ways as well. When I was teaching my Truth and Method class a couple of weeks ago, we spent some time reflecting on the nature of ecclesial confession, guided in part by Eberhard Busch’s important lecture delivered on the 70th anniversary of the Barmen Declaration.

Now for those of you who are a bit fuzzy on what a “confession” is, let me simply say that it is not the same as a statement of faith, a doctrinal statement, or a creed, and certainly not the same as a “vision statement” or “statement of values” that so many churches seem to have adopted as of late. (You might guess that I’m not overly thrilled with these latter concepts, but that’s a whole different post!) As Busch puts it, a confession is first and foremost a confession of the Christ of Scripture (and not particular doctrines concerning Christ), and secondly, a confession is a declaration that “stands in the service of action, which is more powerful than the situation in which it is being confessed, and thus is not bound to it.” (182). This is in contrast to a reaction where a text is bound to the situation which gives the delcaration its impetus (and which therefore binds it more closely to that time and situation). Such texts usually appear as “statements” upon a particular issue and as such, usually are necessarily reactive in nature. In contrast, as Busch beautifully put it, a confession (such as the Barmen Declaration) is not timeless, but it is also not timebound. (182)  

As important as all that Busch says (and really, you have to read the article), what is crucial to this present discussion is to notice the structure of the Barmen confession (and many other confessions, for that matter). That is, as a genre, a theological confession has three essential parts: 1) a text of Scripture; 2) A positive affirmation following from the Scripture; 3) A denial or rejection as a corollary or follow-up of what is affirmed.  In this latter part–the rejection part of the confession–Busch notes that the “Yes” of a confession’s affirmation always brings with it, whether implicitly or explicitly, a “No” indicating that which must rejected. In other words, you cannot say “Yes” to something without explicitly or implicitly saying “No” to something else. The problem is, I think, is that we often want to say yes without saying no. Granted, our job is primarily to say Yes in Jesus (cf. 2 Cor 1:20), but we can never neglect to say the “no’s” that our “Yes” necessarily implies. You cannot, for example, eat of the table of the Lord, and partake also of the table of demons (1 Cor 10:21).

 Now as important as all that Busch had to say in the article, it dawned on me during my class that the structure of a Churchly Confession corresponds, more or less, to the Pauline triad of reading, preaching, and teaching commanded in 1 Tim 4:13. That is, a confession moves from Scripture (=reading) to affirmation (=preaching, i.e., the “positive” proclamation of what Christ has accomplished) to negation (=teaching, i.e., distinction between truth and error in doctrine, and by which we properly live our lives before God. Notice the corresponding emphasis on “life and doctrine” in 1 Tim 4:16). So in other words, Paul is saying to Timothy that the church will not neglect its essential mission whenever she understands herself primarily as confessors in this threefold way: 1) Showing in every way possible that Scripture is our formal authority for all matters of life and doctrine, i.e., actually reading Scripture before and in the context of preaching and teaching and debating and wherever else questions about what a Christian  believes, says, or does arises; 2) Proclaiming in every way possible that Jesus Christ is our material authority–our actual authority and Lord, and not only ours (the Churches) but Lord of the whole world at every level, including the political; and 3) showing in every way possible that a “Yes” to Christ means a “No” to many other gods, that to confess Christ also means to reject and renounce those things which do not cohere with Scripture as that by whom we come to obey Jesus Christ. (This last part is probably the most uncomfortable notion of all, especially for us Canadians who tend never to want to reject anyone or anything for the sake of some kind of deference to universal notions of tolerance and respect.)

But how does “confession” accomplish the reading of Scripture “publicly” and indirectly and subversively? As I think of many of the “moral” debates which Canadians have and are facing in public policy debates, I want to suggest that as valuable as it may be to find a common ground with other religious groups, or even in political concepts such as freedom or rights, the Christian church must not fail to take her stance as a people who are 1) guided by a Holy authoritative Book, 2)  who are unashamedly willing to publicly identify herself with Jesus Christ; and 3) who humbly but firmly reject gods, ideologies, ideas, and ways of living that are explicitly anti-Christ.  That is, we fail to ensure that Scripture is heard publicly when our strategy for having a voice in the public forum seeks primarily a common ground with other non-Christians (as important as common grounds may be) rather than primarily and unabashedly affirming that we are who we are as people bound to obedience to the Christ of Holy Scripture. If we happen to have common ground, fine and good. But this is a consequence and a product, not a starting point for Christian speech in the political realm.  And perhaps one of the ways we can begin to learn how to do this is to recover and relearn and begin to call for a truly evangelical confession that is more concerned about proclaiming Christ than reacting to the situations in which we continually find ourselves. In so doing, we will likely not accomplish a “timeless” Christian confession, but we may also find that we are less “time-bound” to the winds of the endless political and public policy discussions which we find ourselves so often reacting to.

Let me also say that to its credit, evangelicals in Canada may actually be in a better position actually to begin to move toward writing such a series of confessions than any other Christian religious grouping. Evangelicals, we say? They can’t agree on anything, we are told. Well let me say (and I’m certainly not the first, but I will say it boldly): Balderdash!! This is a lie that we evangelicals are continually told about ourselves and which is simply not true. True, we can’t always agree on doctrine, but if there is a common commitment to Christ, this is no where better illustrated than in evangelicals’ ability to work together and cooperate when it comes to mission. Indeed, the whole “evangelical parachurch” culture (John Stackhouse, Jr. has been an important voice noting this), as quirky and theologically problematic as it may be, is nevertheless living proof that evangelicals, when it comes to confessing Christ, are able to look past many of our differences and act in as a unified way as any WCC ecumenist could wish. Why? Because evangelicals have always held Scripture up as our authority (even if our doctrines of Scripture are sometimes a bit contrived) and we have always wanted to point people to Jesus (even if our own following of him is also lacking and lukewarm at times), and we have always been concerned about right doctrine (even if sometimes we have allowed this to become the dominant issue even over following Jesus). Perhaps it is time to start asking, Will the evangelical Church in Canada fulfill her mission by a threefold commitment to reading, preaching, and teaching, particularly as we think about the important function that an otherwise largely unexplored theological genre among evangelicals–the confession–might play in making God’s Word (written and living and preached) heard in the public sphere?

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2 thoughts on “Did you read Scripture (publicly) today? (pt. 2)

  1. Tim Bulkeley has a couple of interesting posts prompted by the Pope’s public reading of Scripture.
    Re: reading, preaching, teaching–the “no as well as yes” part of the latter got me thinking that there’s an interesting parallel to Lonergan’s functional specialties. For him, research-history-dialectic is mapped to experiencing-understanding-judging. I’m not sure that preaching should be viewed as history, except maybe in the sense of “This is how the church has historically understood this passage . . .” but there might be something interesting to explore there.

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