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Category Archives: Hermeneutics

Richard Rohr: learning from midrash

Richard Rohr reminds us of the ‘yes and no’ approach to Bible study, learned from Jewish tradition, where it was called midrash.  In community we learn from each other and respond to invitations to go in different directions by those in our midst.

Yes, And. by Richard Rohr

Yes, And. by Richard Rohr

Jewish Midrash

Thursday, January 9, 2014

I think we learned the Sic et Non approach in the early Christian period from our Jewish ancestors. They called it midrash. Midrash was a different way of coming to truth. It was simply where you get together and look at Scripture in an open—but faith-filled—way: It could mean this; it could mean that. It might challenge you in this direction; it might invite you in that direction. [1]

Jewish midrash extrapolated from the mere story to find its actual spiritual message. We all do the same when we read anyway, but Jesus and his Jewish people were much more honest and up front about this. Fundamentalists pretend they are giving the text total and literal authority, but then it always ends up looking like what people in that culture would want to believe anyway. (Remember, good Bible Christians in the U.S. Confederacy and in South Africa were quite sure the Scriptures justified oppression and enslavement of black people.)

To take the Scriptures seriously is not to take them literally. Literalism is invariably the lowest and least level of meaning. Serious reading of Scripture will allow you to find an ever-new spiritual meaning for the liberation of history, the liberation of the soul, and the liberation of God in every generation. Then the text is true on many levels, instead of trying to prove it is true on just the one simple, factual level. Sacred texts always maximize your possibilities for life and love, which is why we call them sacred. I am afraid we have for too long used the Bible merely to prove various church positions, which largely narrows their range and depth. Instead of transforming people, the Biblical texts became utilitarian and handy ammunition. [2]

[1] From Sic et Non; Yes, And webcast recording (MP3 download)

[2] Adapted from Yes, And . . . : Daily Meditations, p. x

Gateway to Silence:
Yes . . . and . . .

Of course, we make the association with women’s ministry (or lack thereof) in the Lutheran Church of Australia, in which this blog’s authors reside.   Decades of Bible study on this matter within our communion surely have given understanding that literal use of Scripture to prove various church position erodes its power to transform people. “Let darkness, failure, relapse, death, and woundedness (be) our primary teachers, rather than ideas or doctrines.

We can live with each other. In fact, we must. We are family – a family of diverse experience and world view. We can love each other and not pretend that we are identical. We are, after all, not so different to the sit-coms that have family seated around the Christmas table, rubbing up against each others prejudices and making faux pas to be laughed about in coming years.

By loving each other in our difference, we will grow together toward places yet unimagined.  God’s work is surely not complete – there is more in store for each of us.

 
 

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Pr Elizabeth Eaton, Bishop of the ELCA, interview on ABC America

Prior to Pr Elizabeth Eaton’s installation as Bishop of the ELCA in Chicago this weekend (recorded here), she gave an interview on America’s ABC TV network.  She touched on a number of topics but describes a Lutheran Church which reflects God’s unconditional embrace of everyone. We believe that the LCA is also called to witness to this astounding love and grace for all people.

Some of the interview is transcribed below.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America not only welcomes paradox (but) we embrace (it). We realise that God has created an incredibly diverse world and that diversity is a kind of a beauty and so we’re a church where everyone is welcome, we would say.  We also hold fast to this notion … that we’re loved by a God who wants to lavishly, unconditionally love every one of us. …  Since we have been loved in this way we are free then to love the world and serve the world. …

We believe that God loves us unconditionally.  God does not love us (as the Billy Joel song says) “Just the way we are”, God wants to call the best out of us.  And so in that freedom we think that we can take controversial decisions…When we say we welcome everyone, I think that’s very important. It was a costly decision for us (ordaining gay and lesbian pastors) but if it is the right decision then no cost is too high. But when we say we welcome everyone we also welcome those who disagrees with that decision.  They are fully members of our Church because we can agree on the cross of Jesus Christ. …

Lutherans have a specific way of reading the Bible.  We are not Biblical literalists – I mean, there are different lists of disciples, the mustard seed isn’t the smallest seed and it doesn’t mean that our Lord didn’t know what he was talking about, but whatever shows forth God’s love as it was revealed in Jesus Christ, that’s what key.  There’s a lot of stuff that is not as important.

 
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Posted by on October 7, 2013 in Hermeneutics, sociology, theology

 

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In response to Doug

Tanya and others at Synod 2013

Tanya Wittwer (fourth from the left)

Tanya Wittwer writes in reply to Doug, in the last post.

In a comment on a previous posting, Doug asked Karin, “Karen what do you mean God Him/Herself . Where do you get that idea from God is a she (sic). Yes you would like that wouldn’t you.”

None of the names and words we have for God can describe the totality of God, and perhaps none accurately describe any of the characteristics of God. The love of God is surely of a totally different dimension than love we can know as human beings.  The strength of God bears no relation to human strength. So all we have are metaphors.

Just a week or two back, the lectionary Gospel for the day included one of Jesus’ images for a searching God: the woman searching for the lost coin.  The church has had no difficulty in the images either side of this one (Luke 15:3-10 the caring shepherd, Luke 15:11-23 the waiting father), but the image of Luke 15:8-10 is rarely found in artwork, prayer or language for God.

The Hebrew Scripture reinforces the idea that God is beyond gender, with the words for the Holy Spirit (Ruach Hakodesh) and for God’s visible presence (Shekinah) being feminine terms. It is unfortunate that the English language does not make it easy for us to talk about God in language that avoids gendering.

One strong biblical feminine image is that of God the birthing creator.  In Isaiah 42:14, God says, “like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant,” and in Deuteronomy 32:18b “You forgot the God who gave you birth.” Often feminine and masculine images of God are found side by side, as in Job 38:28,29. Other passages portray God as the mother feeding her young, caring for her young children, cleaning us, clothing us, wiping away our tears (Isaiah 66:13). Matthew and Luke report Jesus’ longing to gather God’s people, as a hen gathering her chickens under her wings.

The incarnation was into a male body. But Jesus’ gender does not limit the Word to male embodiment.  The Word became human to save all humanity, and call all humanity into the reality of God’s reign, where we are united as one in Christ regardless of gender (Galatians 3:28).

One of the difficulties of the church having used only male language for God is that it seems many forget that our words reflect only images of God, and instead fall into the idolatry of creating God in the image of man.  Male naming and identification becomes part of legitimating the oppression of women.  Scripture tells us that “God created the earth creature [adam] in God’s own image, in the image of God they were created: male and female God created them.” (Genesis 1:27 – my translation). An important aspect of my pastoral work is inviting women to know clearly that they, too, are created in God’s image.

 
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Posted by on September 23, 2013 in Hermeneutics, theology, women's ordination

 

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Call me ‘apostate’

We are recently aware that some clergy and ALC students (future clergy) state that they would vote for women’s ordination if homosexuality was not an abomination.   Strange logic indeed, but of course the hope is that by blocking women’s ordination, the ordination of gay and lesbian people can also be blocked.

It is of some concern that pastors function under such reasoning.  The ethical base of such decision making is somewhat dubious. Restricting the giving of justice to one group of people because you are fearful of another group getting ahead would suggest a compromised values base and perhaps reflects a desire to manipulate one group in order to achieve aims with another group.  There is no room for continuing to support patriarchy in the name of impeding the leadership of homosexual people.  That is a debate that the LCA is yet to have, and yes, we do support the ordination of gay and lesbian peopel.  However, to delay justice to women is to deny them justice.

In response to the repeated claim that homosexuality is an abomination, it’s time that our theologically trained leadership showed a little more scholarship and wisdom.   These are people who have spent years studying Scripture.  They can do better than referring to ancient culture-bound phrases to prove their point.

Word Of A Woman reflects on this selective use of Scripture and how other texts are conveniently ignored.  Years of study at ALC should provide pastors with the theological skills to remain consistent in their use of Scripture.  Why is it not so?

I support several things the Bible calls an abomination and some it just says are wrong. GASP! Say it isn’t so!!! (I bet my friends from the beginning of the article probably also support some of these given I have seen their sideburns). That’s right lovelies, along with fully supporting my LGBTQ brothers and sisters, I also support:

  • Eating shellfish
  • Having sex with a woman (you are married to) who is on her period (if she is consenting, OBVIOUSLY)
  • The menswear look for ladies (hello, Diane Keaton)
  • Kilts for the dudes
  • Cutting your sideburns
  • Re-marrying someone you divorced (I have known several couples who have done this)
  • Marrying someone new after you get divorced
  • I am decidedly pro bacon, pepperoni, honeybaked ham, carnitas and pork chops.
  • Wearing clothing with more than one type of fiber
  • I am down with crop rotation (I come from several generations of farmers)
  • There is a bunch of stuff the Bible says you can’t touch, some are kind of gross but I am cool with you touching them (for instance I am for you touching a dead pig for the purposes of playing football)
  • Tattoos, even though I don’t have any
  • Long hair for men and short hair for women
  • Women praying with their heads uncovered
  • Women teaching men and/or boys and/or other women/girls (yes, even in church)
  • Women NOT being property of either father or husband or brother or dead husband’s brother
  • I am cool with it if you don’t want to marry your rapist
  • If your husband is getting mugged and you think you can stop things by grabbing the guys junk really hard…I promise I won’t cut off your hand
  • I won’t be mad if you don’t stone your kid for dishonoring you
  • I am even good with you working on Saturday or Sunday or even paying someone else to work by serving you lunch after church (I know I do)

Here is the thing, these two guys do not follow every instruction given in the Bible. They. Just. Don’t. They interpret. They pick and they choose. And I am sure they use all sorts of things to support their beliefs. So do I. So do I. I don’t know about you but when I read scripture, some things are crystal clear, some are blurry and some are downright opaque. The clearest thing I can find is that I am supposed to love God and love people, ALL PEOPLE. No if. No until. No unless. I just don’t think Jesus gives me another option.

BONUS: DID YOU NOTICE APOSTATE LITERALLY MEANS “RUNAWAY SLAVE” IN THE GREEK. I KIND OF LIKE THAT.

 
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Posted by on September 21, 2013 in Hermeneutics, theology, women's ordination

 

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Sermon on the Parameters We Prefer For Jesus to Work Under

Nadia Bolz-Weber lecture - Thursday, May 16

Nadia Bolz-Weber lecture – Thursday, May 16 (not when this sermon was preached) (Photo credit: LutherSeminary)

Pr Nadia Bolz Weber preaches about relaxing in Jesus’ grace. From Sarcastic Lutheran: the cranky spirituality of post-modern gal.

Audio link

Stories of churches denying your call to ministry because you fall outside the parameters of which gender is allowed to be ordained and stories of churches denying you the Eucharist because you fall outside the parameters of what kind of sexual orientation is allowed to receive the means of grace, and stories of churches denying you a place in community because you just weren’t sure if you believed in God and that falls outside the parameters of doctrinal purity – well, these kind of stories are sadly bordering on cliché around here. We hear them all the time.

So I’m really grateful that Jesus has always tended to disregard people’s preferred parameters for how he should do things, and that he always just seems to keep seeing people, touching them, healing them and then thumbing his nose at anyone who says he really should be more discerning about his cliental and his tactics.

Read more.

Audio link

 

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Choosing hell over a misogynist heaven

sense

We would not worship a God who is misogynist.  It doesn’t make sense.  It doesn’t matter what verses anyone may provide as proof – it just doesn’t make sense that God is misogynist.

We are not interested in arriving in heaven to find that women somehow have a different role. We would refuse to participate with cliques, patriarchs, theocracies, boys’ or girls’ clubs or tradition.

We are interested in equality before God.

But, you insist, the Bible doesn’t allow leadership from women.  While we disagree, we do concede that there are verses that can be used to sustain an argument to support your thesis. So, how do we arrive at consensus on this divisive issue?  We don’t, for the time being – we should just live with each other, despite the tension. Agree to disagree. Grow together, over the generations.

This issue need not divide us, like the many other issues that we rarely highlight, but on which we disagree.  For instance, we rarely talk about or expect miracle healing, speaking in tongues, the handling of scorpions (Luke.10.19), the drinking of poison and the handling of snakes (Mark 16:18)… and so on.  They are contentious and too strange, too divisive or too confusing.

Then there’s the ‘texts of terror’ in the Old Testament that we can’t attribute to the will of God. We just don’t believe that God condoned the terror in the Old Testament: the slavery, the abuse, the rape, the murder, the racism …  We don’t name the violence for what it is.  We avoid the issue.  It need not divide us.

We have a God who is much larger than we imagine: more loving, more compassionate, more gifting, more affirming, more justice-centred than we might ever imagine.  Let’s not bicker on our understanding, for, by any measure, our understanding will presumably be sadly incomplete.

Whatever the reason, the LCA, in its youthful almost adolescent years, has clung to simplistic Biblical understandings and literal translations.  Increasingly over the years, many of us have confessed certain things but experienced a growing unease with the position of the Church. It is time to bring our beliefs and theology into harmony.  It is time to embrace a larger theology, a larger view of God and a larger view of each other.

It is with thanks that we celebrate the installation of Bishop John Henderson, who has declared that his ministry will be one of listening. Only in allowing space for voices to be heard is there any possibility that the LCA will be able to respond faithfully to the issues of today, and the concerns of those who come its doors.

Reference and inspiration    Bishop Desmond Tutu

 

 

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“Should the Bible be interpreted literally?”

Fundamentalism

Image from Resurgence: A Ministry of Mars Hill Church

We confess that we are driven to distraction when engaging in conversation with those who claim that they interpret Scripture literally.  A literal interpretation of Scripture demands that every text is interpreted in the same manner.  The following quote highlights the difficulties of this approach:

Over the last several years I have wrestled extensively with what Phyllis Trible memorably called the “texts of terror” in the Bible. Texts that narrate slavery, genocide, assassination, beheading, cannibalism, rape, and many other heinous acts. Some of these texts depict Yahweh commanding, commending, or himself committing violent acts. In other texts the actions are of humans alone but the narrator develops an infuriating neutrality in his narration of them. (Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter [Judges 11:32, 34-40]  is perhaps the paradigm case of problematic narratival neutrality.)

People should be allowed to believe what they wish, however, there’s a certain piety of fundamentalism that’s hard to live with.  It’s a piety that insists we all should all hold the same simple, folksy interpretations that refute scholarly research and confirm church beliefs and customs.  I understand that fundamentalists feel the same frustrations with those of us who long for reform, but the difference is that we are calling for our Church to live with diversity of theology.

This post is largely a re-post of an excerpt of a webpage on the history of how Scripture has been interpreted. We found the origins of Fundamentalism interesting.  Certainly the Copernican theory of the planets orbiting the Sun (which Luther considered idiocy), Darwin’s theory of evolution and Higher Criticism presented major hurdles for the church. It looks like the ripples from these understandings are still impacting us today.

Should the Bible be interpreted literally?

Historical Background

The Middle Ages and earlier
Throughout most of the Christian era, Bible reading and Bible interpretation were confined to religious professionals. Until the fifteenth century, the Bible was available only in Latin. Even when the Bible was translated into other languages, the scarcity and high cost of Bibles kept them out of the hands of ordinary people. Availability of Bibles was also restricted by church officials1.

During this era, the Bible was interpreted according to church beliefs and traditions. There was little or no attempt made to determine the original meanings of the Scripture. Difficult passages “were interpreted as having a figurative meaning, so that they convey, through a kind of code, deeper truths about God, the spiritual life, or the church2.”

Sixteenth to eighteenth centuries
Galileo.
Christians have always believed the Bible is inspired by God and is authoritative on spiritual, moral and ethical matters. It wasn’t until science began to develop in the 16th century that questions and arguments arose about whether the Bible is also authoritative on scientific and historical matters.

The first major conflict was between the ancient view of the earth, as reflected in the Bible, and the Copernican theory, which held that the earth and the other planets revolve around the sun. The astronomer Galileo, using his telescope, found evidence to support the Copernican theory and began publishing his results in 1611. Church officials were alarmed because the Copernican theory seemed to contradict the Bible, and in 1616 Pope Paul V ordered Galileo to abandon the Copernican theory3.

Nineteenth and twentieth centuries
Darwin.
By the nineteenth century, most Christians had come to accept the Copernican theory of the universe because of overwhelming scientific evidence. But a new crisis arose with the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859. Darwin proposed that species of plants and animals evolved through a process of natural selection. Darwin observed that there were variations among individual plants and animals. He proposed that, in the struggle to survive, the better adapted individuals would be more likely to survive and reproduce their characteristics in succeeding generations. Thus, over many generations, species would change by a process of evolution. Further, the process was said to work automatically, seemingly leaving little room for Divine guidance or design.

Darwin’s theory was seen by some Christians as a direct attack on the story of creation in the Bible book of Genesis (Genesis 1:1-31). It also spawned a number of atheistic movements both within the natural sciences and the social sciences that saw the universe as created and ruled simply by the impersonal forces of nature. “Darwinism” became associated with atheism in the minds of many Christians, and rejection of all of Darwin’s theories became almost a creed for some Christians.

Higher Criticism. In the late eighteenth century, scholars began studying the Bible as literature rather than as divine revelation. New techniques of literary analysis, archaeology and linguistics were used to study the Bible. Some in this “Higher Criticism” movement asserted that the Bible stories were little more than mythology, and by the end of the nineteenth century these ideas had become quite popular4.

Fundamentalism. In 1910, in reaction to Higher Criticism and Darwinism, a group of Presbyterian theologians proposed five essential beliefs of Christianity:

  1. the inerrancy of Scripture,
  2. the virgin birth of Christ,
  3. Christ’s atonement for our sins on the cross,
  4. His bodily resurrection,
  5. the objective reality of His miracles.

These became known as the The Fundamentals. They were widely distributed and formed the basis of the Fundamentalist movement within Christianity5.Literal Bible interpretation. Many fundamentalists believed the Holy Spirit dictated the Bible to its human authors word-for-word. They reasoned that “inerrancy of Scripture” meant that everything in the Bible must be absolutely, literally, scientifically and historically true. Anything less would be unworthy of God. According to this view, the Bible, in all its detail, is inerrant on matters of history and science, as well as doctrine. Any apparent conflict between the Bible and another source (science, history, etc.) should be resolved in favor of the Bible because of its Divine origin.

Bible verses such as these are often quoted to support the literal view:

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: (KJV, 2nd Timothy 3:16)

But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. (NAS, 2nd Peter 1:20-21)

However, interpreting the entire Bible as literal divine revelation poses severe problems for serious Bible study. Besides the apparent conflicts with science and history, there is evidence within the Bible itself that it has both human and divine origins. Luke attributed his Gospel to his own research:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (NIV, Luke 1:1-4)

Paul’s letters (Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, etc.) were originally written as letters to churches he had founded, not as part of Scripture. They dealt not only with divine revelation but also with many mundane matters like disputes among church factions. Paul often stated his own personal opinions:

To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. (NIV, 1 Corinthians 7:12)

There is also evidence within the Bible that portions of it are intended to be interpreted figuratively rather than literally (John 16:25, Galatians 4:24, Revelation 1:20, 17:18, etc.)

References
1Herbert Lockyer, Sr., ed., Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1986, pp. 166-176.
2James L. Mays, ed., Harper’s Bible Commentary, Harper, 1988, pp. 8-9.
3Encyclopedia Americana, Americana Corporation, 1971, vol. 12, pp. 240-244
4Karen Armstrong, The Battle of God, Ballantine, 2000, pp. 95, 140.
5ibid., p. 171.               Source

 
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Posted by on July 12, 2013 in Hermeneutics, theology

 

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