Thursday, May 15, 2014

What We Mean by Authority Pt. 2

Yesterday I looked at two common ways that people interpret the Constitution. They are very different from each other, but in both cases they look at the Constitution as the primary source of authority for law in the United States. Debate on the 2nd Amendment is a good example of how the differences translate into policy.

Now let's look at the same two modes of interpretation - Strict Constructionalism and Living Constitution (or Loose Constructionalism) and apply them to the Bible.

Strict Constructionalism
In it's strictest form this is the "The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it!" bumper sticker. That's not an entirely fair way to describe what many people who follow this model actually believe. A fairer approach is this: The Bible is the Word of God. It is inspired by the Holy Spirit. It is the only reliable guide for orthodoxy and orthopraxy. So while the Bible must be interpreted, we should use Scripture to interpret Scripture, and follow the plain meaning of the text whenever possible. Example: Physical intimacy between same sex partners is explicitly forbidden multiple times in the Bible. Even if isolated arguments can be made that some passages don't say what they seem to say (like Sodom and Gomorrah's sin was hospitality not sex) when we look at Scripture as a whole the condemnation is clear. The words mean what they say and the Bible means what it says.

Loose Constructionalism (another name for Living Constitution used yesterday)
Just as in the interpretation of the Constitution, the loose approach starts by acknowledging that the text has ultimate authority. I hear very few pro-LGBT indviduals talk about just throwing the Bible out because it doesn't say what we want it to say. The Bible is our starting point. But instead of starting with the specific words of the text, we start with the big picture. The Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit, but it is also written by human hands. For example, when the Psalmist says, "Happy is...he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks" the Psalmist is faithfully recording his own thoughts, not the heart of God. The Bible consists of Spirit-inspired words about God and God's people that point us to Christ, the Word of God (The Bible never actually calls itself the Word of God but in John it does refer to Christ as the Word). It is the most faithful witness that we have to who God is and so can be called God's Word even as we acknowledge it primarily points to something beyond itself. Example: The big picture that clearly comes through the Bible is that God is Love and we are to fully love God and each other. The Bible is the starting point for understanding what love means. Given what we know about humans through both reason and experience it is difficult to reconcile the apparent statements condemning homosexual practice with the life experiences of gay and lesbian partners. Because Scripture is authoritative we do not simply dismiss it. Instead, we read more carefully, search for the core message of what God is trying to communicate, consider the context in which various passages are written, and try to discover if reconciliation of reason and experience with Scripture can happen.

Which one is right?
What we need to notice is that if two people are talking to each other, one coming from each of these perspectives, they will mostly talk past each other. The first will say "This is what the Bible says!" and the second will say "But this is what the Bible means!" and they both may very well be right at the same time. Certainly they will not agree with each other. Just like two Supreme Court justices can look at the same Constitution and come to very different conclusions while agreeing that it is the basis for their decision, so too may two Christians look at the same Bible, or even a particular passage of the Bible, and come to very different conclusions while agreeing that the Bible is the basis for their decision.

Why does any of this matter?
For a number of reasons, many of which are articulated very well in Matthew Vine's new book God and the Gay Christian, I am persuaded that the traditional reading of Scripture as condemning the "practice" of homosexuality is not God's intent. I say that as someone who is equally persuaded that Scripture is our best, most authoritative, and most inspired witness to God. As a United Methodist, my understanding of Scripture is not at all in conflict with our Doctrinal Standards and General Rules. We do have a standard that the Bible "is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice." We do not have a standard about how Scripture functions as authoritative.

The real issue facing the United Methodist Church and many others is not sex, as the media would have us believe. It is not whether or not Scripture is authoritative as the "conservative" wing would have us believe. The real issue is whether or not the United Methodist Church is prepared to now demand uniformity in how we understand Scripture to be authoritative. I don't think we want to walk down that road. I want a Board of Ordained Ministry to ask a candidate "What is the significance of the creation story to you?" without the candidate fearing that believing in a 6-day creation or believing in evolution will automatically disqualify him or her from candidacy. I want to be able to preach on the woman at the well and know that in three more years I may have moved to another church and another pastor can preach that same story in the same pulpit from a different perspective and still be respected. I want to search, explore, and love Scripture without being told that we already know all the answers are - no more questions need to be asked. That's when we stop learning, and learning is a vital part of any relationship - especially our relationship with God. I don't want to be in that denomination. I want to be in this one, where there is space for the non-essentials and fidelity to the essentials. The way that we interpret Scripture is not one of the essentials. It never has been May it always be so.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

What We Mean by Authority Pt.1

"It's about the authority of Scripture!" silently yells one writer on a Facebook forum. "If only the people who don't believe Scripture is authoritative would leave the denomination then we could get back about the business of the Church!" There's only one problem (no, the problem is not that the speaker is a Fundamentalist. We have some in the UMC, I've talked with a few, but I think their numbers are very small). The problem is I haven't met the Christian who says the Bible is not authoritative. There are certainly many who would call Scripture an authority instead of the authority (ultimately I think we all do this, but that's a topic for another day), but we all believe in the authority of Scripture. What the speaker really should say, and perhaps the question that all of us in the United Methodist Church if not all of Christianity should be asking ourselves, "It's about how Scripture is authoritative!" That's something we could have a good Church fight about!

First, let me illustrate why it's about "how", not "if" Scripture is authoritative by analogy with the U.S. Constitution. Every Supreme Court Justice considers the Constitution to be authoritative. They have to - they are sworn to uphold it. But we have lots of 5-4 decisions. Why? Because Justices (and all of us, really) think of the Constitution in different ways. There are several different frameworks for interpreting the Constitution and lots of literature you can find online about each of them. To simplify, let's look at two:

Strict Constructionism
In a nutshell, "The Constitution says it, I believe it, that settles it." The text says what it says and unless an amendment is passed that changes the content of the Constitution the courts must enforce the letter of the law. This view tends to be upheld by more "conservative" justices although if we're honest probably most people will hold to it when it best suits their preferences. Example: The 2nd Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms. No law may be passed that abridges this right, period.

Living Constitution
The opposite of strict constructionism is the Living Constitution. This model says that while the principles of the Constitution remain sound, following the letter of the law can actually sometimes work against the overall purpose. What matters most aren't the words, but the concepts behind the words. As society changes, then, so to must the particular ways that we live out our Constitution. This view tends to be upheld by more "liberal" judges and is why we often hear of "liberal, activist judges legislating from the bench." Example: The authors of the Constitution never could have conceived of weapons that could fire dozens of rounds every minute. The 2nd Amendment is an important protection, but one that has to be understood in the context of muskets instead of machine guns. In the new context the rules must change.

Notice in both cases proponents appeal to the Constitution as their primary authority. They "believe in" the Constitution. But the way in which they appeal to it for authority is different. Tomorrow we'll flip the page and see what happens when we apply these principles of interpretation to Scripture.