Sermon preached June 2, 2013
Texts: II Timothy 3:16-17; II Peter 3:14-18
In 1616 Galileo went to Rome to persuade the Church authorities that the view he seemed convinced was correct – namely, that the sun was the center of the universe around which the earth rotated, a view proposed earlier by Copernicus, Galileo went to Rome to convince them of this view and that this view was not in contradiction to the Bible.
The Church, at the time, declared Galileo wrong. A verse such as Psalm 104:5, which can be translated “you set the earth on its foundations, so that it shall never be moved” was considered evidence that the earth did not move. A papal decree was issued declaring the idea that the sun was the center of the universe around which the earth revolved “all together contrary to Holy Scriptures.” Books propagating this viewpoint were banned. Galileo was told not to teach this viewpoint, except as an erroneous mathematical theory. Apparently he did not succeed, because in 1633 he was brought back to Rome and put on trial. He was convicted as being “vehemently suspect of heresy” and placed under house arrest, where he remained until his death in 1642.
That the earth revolves around the sun is all together contrary to Holy Scriptures. The Bible might be a problem for us. Here are a couple of sentences from a biblical scholar. The Bible is a profoundly problematic collection of books in many senses – religious, cultural, political, intellectual, moral, ethical and aesthetic…. If reading the Bible does not raise profound problems for you as a modern reader, then check with your doctor and enquire about the symptoms of brain-death. (Robert Carroll, The Bible as a Problem for Christianity, 2)
Strong words, but perhaps necessary ones. If we are honest with ourselves, the Bible is a book we struggle with. We struggle with its age. We struggle with its variety. We struggle to understand it. In some parts we struggle to stay awake for it. And in some of the parts that seem kind of clear, we struggle with what we read there. We can get stuck in our struggle with the Bible. Sometimes we find the Bible used in downright embarrassing ways.
This past week was the meeting of Minnesota United Methodists known as Annual Conference. You would not be surprised that one of the topics discussed was same-sex marriage. While an Annual Conference does not have the authority to change the overall denominational policy about same-sex marriage, which I wrote about in our most recent newsletter, we still debate, and we can make recommendations to the policy-making body of the church. In the debate in St. Cloud, a layperson from a Twin Cities church said something like: “You cannot read the Bible and say that homosexuality is not a sin. It is a sin. You cannot cherry-pick the Bible.” I could not help but notice, though, that this man was clean shaven, something prohibited in Leviticus, but that’s a future sermon. In a debate about divesting from a certain company because of its providing the Israeli government with helicopters used against Palestinians in defense of settlements, one gentleman rose to say that we cannot go against the Bible, and in the Bible the Israelis are God’s chosen people, and that this is the land God promised them.
The Bible is a struggle, and we can get stuck in it.
Part of our problem is in the claim the Bible makes for itself, or rather, certain understandings of this claim. II Timothy 3:16-17: All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. We speak of the Bible as a uniquely inspired book. What does that mean? For a lot of folks it translates into a view of the Bible as inerrant, and its writers so moved by God that they are infallible. Such folks argue strongly that this is the only true Christian position. Anything less is vehemently suspect of heresy.
If this is the claim of the Bible and the church, we have problems. Certain interpretations of Scripture, taken literally, don’t work well with our understanding of the world. Galileo was more right about the universe than the church of his time. We have seen the earth from space, and Copernicus and Galileo were basically right about it. The church, through Pope John Paul II has admitted mistakes were made in Galileo’s trial. Pope John Paul II did that in 1992. Not exactly scientific discovery at lightening speed.
But I don’t think inerrancy makes sense. Here is a difficult quote from another biblical scholar, difficult but important. This position bristles with difficulties. Human discourse cannot, in principle or in fact, adequately comprehend its subject matter. And all human language changes in meaning and reference over time. It is virtually impossible to say what might constitute a perpetually inerrant statement, much less how such things as poems, parables, or myths might be wholly inerrant since they are not propositional to being with. The problem of how divine inerrancy could characterize essentially limited, perspectival, and linguistically constrained human discourse seems rationally insurmountable. (Sandra Schneiders, “Inspiration and Revelation” in New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible) What this scholar is trying to say is that language changes over time. At one time to be moved in one’s bowels was an expression for compassion, now it is reason to take immodium. Statements are couched in words, language. What would a perpetually inerrant statement look like?
Inerrancy, as an understanding of inspiration doesn’t make a lot of sense, but not to worry, I don’t think that is even the claim of the Bible. II Peter 3:15b-16: So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. Paul wrote according to the wisdom given him – Paul wrote. There is a recognition here that the biblical authors were human persons, writing from the wisdom given them. Inspired, but not infallible – their language can even be confusing.
This summer we are going to be looking at sticky scriptures, Bible passages that have been a problem for someone, perhaps for many. I wanted to do this to help you get unstuck, or prevent us from getting stuck on these. In a Bible with sticky scriptures, how might we avoid getting stuck? I want to touch on some general principles we will use this summer.
We begin by admitting that the Bible can be problematic. We need not kid ourselves about this. The Bible is a difficult book on many levels. It is boring in places. It is confusing in places. It is beautiful in places. Its language leaves us awestruck in places. The Bible is a tough book, yet a wonderful and beautiful book.
We avoid getting stuck when we hold together both the idea of the Bible being Spirit-inspired and human. There has been a great deal of scholarly research on authorship, and the context in which many of the books of the Bible were authored, and this is helpful information. It can help make the text come alive for us, if we are willing to search out that information. And if the authors were human, perhaps some of their cultural and intellectual ideas are part of what’s in the Bible. In the Bible God works as God always has, with human beings. God works with the world as it is, but to try and move it to a different place. That different place may be a place that goes beyond some of the cultural and intellectual imaginings of the Bible’s authors.
We avoid getting stuck by reading the parts in light of the whole. If something of God’s story is being told in the Bible, is there a direction to the story? If the direction is love and justice, peace and righteousness, might we criticize some readings of the Bible that lend themselves to injustice, hatred, selfishness, narrowness?
And if something of God’s story is being told in the Bible, for Christians the center of that story is in Jesus. “For in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:19). Jesus could be pretty hard on the religious authorities of his day. He often challenged the unloving interpretations of the biblical texts of his time. Not getting stuck with a difficult Bible means being willing to read the Bible with this Spirit of Jesus.
So we are going to tackle some particular Bible passages this summer, and I want to do that with the basic unsticking principles in mind. I want to tell you, though, my goal here is not to engage in an intellectual exercise which results in us holding the Bible at arm’s length, safe from its power. I want this work to be soul work, which is in part mind work – but also heart work, and vision work. You see, I want us to not get stuck so that we can open this Bible and at the same time open our hearts, open our minds to the Spirit of God which still uses these words to communicate God’s amazing, transforming love. I want us to meet the God the Bible writers are writing about.
The same man who wrote about the Bible being profoundly problematic, also writes: If you can tolerate contradiction and contrariety and can handle hyperbolic drive and chaotic manipulation of metaphor, then the Bible will burn your mind. (Carroll, 147) We want our minds to burn and our hearts to be aflame.
In other words, All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. The point of inspiration is not the production of an inerrant text. God continues to use the Bible to try and grow more loving lives. The tragedy of getting stuck with difficult Bible passages is not that we need to struggle with intellectual difficulty. That struggle is o.k. The tragedy comes when we get so stuck that we stop growing in love, that our relationship with God gets stifled. Amen.