I was raised in a milieu of strict literal biblicism. The King James Version of the Bible said what it meant and meant what it said! If one compared the authority of the Bible with that of the Encyclopedia Britannica as might happen in high school, the encyclopedia did not have a chance. A vague evolutionary perspective was presented in science classes, but the issue was not pushed. It had not been that many years since the Scopes trial in Tennessee, and public high school teachers in Virginia did not risk offending the faithful. The most that might be conceded by our church leaders was that the six days of creation may have been longer periods of time, but even that compromise with literal meaning raised suspicions of liberalism.
In the church community, Bishop George R. Brunk, who had adopted the premillennialist prophetic hermeneutic as the most literal, common sense interpretation of Scripture, was the scholarly authority. Indeed, to this day I think that I can almost reproduce from memory the premillennial prophetic chart designed by J. B. Smith, which
G. R. B. used. His Ready Scriptural Reasons, Rightly Dividing the Scriptures, and his quarterly periodical, the Sword and Trumpet in which he tried to out-do the Fundamentalists at their own game provided my early theological fare.
The standard definitions of inspiration and revelation, which we were taught in college Bible classes, were worded in such a way as to avoid the concept of dictation while at the same time affirming a divinely controlled process of communication that produced an error free text in the original biblical documents. The basic work of the Holy Spirit in the past was the
inspiration of Scripture, and in the present it is the illumination of the spiritual mind to properly understand that inspired text. One did not expect any new
revelation, which was equated with the inspired biblical text, only the illumination of the text.
This template was still firmly in place well into the 1950s in our Mennonite church colleges when I began to teach in the Bible department at Goshen. Indeed it was not formally revised in the (Old) Mennonite circles until the 1963 Confession of Faith although certain aspects of the theory had been under discussion and modification for at least the previous decade.
I have begun with this background because it provides the backdrop for crucial changes in my own thinking. I should point out at the beginning that the issue for me was not so much the authority of Scripture as the semantic nature of its text. Semantics relates to the meaning and use of language. But of course differences in one’s semantic point of view affect the nature and application of its authority.
It became clear to me in my study of the early church that even Christian leaders of late antiquity did not base biblical authority on an inerrant text. In fact, Origen (ca. 185-254 A. D.) used the errors that he perceived at the literal historical level to demonstrate the necessity for an allegorical, or spiritual, interpretation of Scripture. Further, I came to understand that the very nature of the communication process makes language a questionable tool for an inerrant transmission of ideas. Meaning depends on both the speaker/writer and the hearer/reader. Thus over centuries of time historical changes in context were bound to affect the meaning of scriptural texts. There was no way in which a
literal text could preserve an inerrant original meaning as the reading and interpretation of the Bible crossed centuries and cultures.
Of course this did not come as an immediate revelation. My special interest in graduate school was Christian thought, and as I studied the historical development of Christian theology I came to see the significance of the concept of historical revelation in contrast, for example, to the Islamic oracular concept. God’s revelation came as a self-disclosure of divine nature, presence, and activity in Yahweh’s interaction with Israel culminating in Jesus as the Messiah. Thus Jesus stands as the climax and norm for revelation, not the Bible. And Jesus left his Holy Spirit to continue his own revelatory mission, not the Bible. The Bible is the record and witness to this self-revealing interaction up through the coming of Jesus and the establishing of an apostolic witness. Although we know the Jesus of history through the historical record, we come to know Jesus as the authentic Word of God through the work of the Spirit. Thus we must learn to read the Bible in the light of the Spirit’s continuing disclosure of Jesus and not vice versa.
This in turn led me to a different understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit in the production and use of Scripture. The Spirit
inspires both the recording and the authentic understanding of what is written. The Spirit enabled (inspired) the original disciples to recognize the significance of the crucified and resurrected Jesus. This same Spirit inspires the authentic contextualization of the biblical message as it is translated across cultures. Thus we may speak of the Bible as
Holy Spirit inspired when it is understood and used to authentically promote the spirit/Spirit of Jesus.
The Holy Spirit does not produce an inspired text that henceforth will be the revelation for God’s people. As the
executive of revelation, to use a phrase from B. B. Warfield, the Spirit is God’s self-disclosing presence with God’s people. (This is not, of course, to imply that the Spirit is not universally present and active as creative sustainer in the universe.) The Spirit is in fact the Reality in which
we live and move and have our being as Paul put it in Acts 18, and
revelation is this ongoing self-disclosing, interactive Presence making itself known in historical personal-social relationship. It should not be equated with an inspired written text.
This new understanding of the dynamic relation of Spirit and word freed me to read the Bible from varying cultural perspectives as I taught in the Asian context. I required a new criterion for evaluating contemporary interpretations of Scripture. The old norm was
orthodoxy, namely, faithfulness to the great western tradition of the church. The new norm was
authenticity, namely, faithfulness to the spirit/Spirit of Christ. Of course, the tradition of the church dare not be lightly dismissed, but it is not the final authority! For example, the orthodox concept of
Trinity needs to be taken seriously, but not as a Procrustean bed into which all theological statements about God, Jesus, and the Spirit must arbitrarily fit.
A second area of change in my theological outlook relates to the church as a social community. What does it mean from a sociological perspective to be the
body of Christ, a
colony of heaven, or
salt of the earth in the midst of a secular society?
I was raised in a
Mennonite Colony that was a self-sustaining community of Pennsylvania Dutch Mennonites who had migrated to southern Virginia at the end of the nineteenth century. Tidewater Virginia was an English, post-plantation society and economy, and the
Dutch group functioned as a sectarian socio-economic community within it. The church house and farm home of the bishop were literally and symbolically at its geographic center. In the 1940s when the church was exploring anew what it meant to be
in the world but not of the world, it became one sociological type for the
Mennonite Community movement.
My changing perspective here was from a sectarian-denominational model of church community, not to institutional ecumenism, but to a grassroots ecumenism. I was and am convinced that a
kingdom model of church requires a grassroots pattern of ecumenical fellowship after the model of the Church of the Savior, communities like Clarence Jordan’s Koinonia Farm in Georgia, and the Sojourners community in Washington, D.C. It was with such a pattern in mind that I wrote The Community of the Spirit (1974) and The Authentic Witness (1979).
Today I tend to view the church as a community of the Spirit and define its unity as sharing a common concern, purpose, and commitment, rather than a uniform pattern of ideological belief and social practice. Its concern is to embody and promote the reconciliation of humanity to God and each other that was exemplified in the ministry of Jesus. Its purpose and function are to infiltrate society with the spirit/Spirit of Jesus. Thus it is to function as a phalanx of what Clarence Jordan called the
God movement (
the rule/kingdom of God). It is to be a dynamic unit of the kingdom movement united by a common commitment and loyalty to Jesus Christ as Lord. Its goal is not uniformity but unity of purpose in a common cause. This, of course, raises the question of what Miroslav Volf calls
exclusion and embrace, but it sets quite different, non-sectarian lines of discrimination and demarcation.
It is perhaps understandable then, that I find myself conflicted about the institutional developments in the Mennonite churches of North America during the recent decades. Not because I do not applaud broader fellowship and cooperation, but because I see so little authentic movement at the grassroots level to promote the personal-social goal of God’s kingdom on earth. Instead of a movement connected by common spiritual and social concern based on the teaching and example of Christ, we seem to be developing a denominational institution based on doctrinal uniformity and political accommodation. And yet at the same time I write this I am fully aware that some organizational form of the religious group is necessary, and I applaud the efforts of colleagues to impregnate the institutional forms with seminal life.
When my thoughts turn to God I find that increasingly I am working with different metaphors than I did earlier. The metaphor of God as a transcendent king and controlling power of the universe, which so dominates our hymnody and popular thought, no longer seems satisfactory to me. The technical term
panentheism, which has become more widely used during the past half century, seems more adequate to image God’s relation to the universe. It indicates that God’s being and the universe are not conceived as absolutely disparate like they are in the Neo-platonic view of transcendence adapted by evangelical Christian theologians. On the one hand, it affirms that there is a relatedness and interdependence, while at the same time affirming that the universe accessible to empirical science is not all there is to God, as classic pantheism implies. God is not contained in or ultimately thwarted by the material universe. Christians know God as both the immanent person-creating dynamic and transcendent enlightening presence most clearly revealed in Jesus Christ.
The metaphor of parent--I still prefer
Father, which I have always limbically associated with my mother--still seems useful to me as a symbol of unindulgent guidance, approval, and comfort. But I find myself thinking more in the vocabulary of eternal Light and Life, the terms used in John 1: 1-5. God is the indestructible Life and unquenchable Light of humankind. This unstoppable dynamic continues creating and enlightening personal spiritual life in spite of the darkness and violent opposition. And the great mystery is that this divine Energy operates nonviolently, not as a violent controlling Power. The God of Jesus Christ is the
God of Peace.
This brings me to the concept of peace where my journey has been from
nonviolence, from sectarian
nonconformity expressed in withdrawal from a violent world to an involved noncooperation and nonviolent action in and for that world. I take the truism that there is no real peace without justice much more seriously than earlier. I am convinced that Jesus meant for us to be peacemakers and not just peaceable. Salt, as someone has put it, is not intended to be stored in a saltshaker.
And this brings me to my changed understanding of Jesus and his relation to society, law, and the politics of forgiveness. I have for many years been impressed with the significance of the general concept of Jesus’ humanity for a theological evaluation of his role as messiah, but I now begin to understand the significance of his Jewishness. He was a Jewish male fully involved in his society and culture, and was conditioned by its assumptions, wisdom teachings, and rabbinical traditions.
This, as I now understand it, has important hermeneutical ramifications for the interpretation of his message and example. The cross is not to be understood as an example of absolute nonresistance to systemic violence, thus requiring withdrawal from the world. Rather, working within the broad assumptions of the Jewish wisdom tradition, it models a strategy of non-retaliatory confrontation of social evil and violence. Obviously the politics of such a position will need to be developed in each local culture, but the basic gestalt remains unchanged.
All this brings me to a fundamentally different paradigm for understanding miracles. We are so dominated by empirical notions of reality that we forget that the definition of miracle is not necessarily limited to physical and material dimensions. Miracles, simply put, are acts of God that change the human situation for the better.
When I view Jesus within the strictures of his cultural conditioning, I begin to see that he himself is the embodiment, or incarnation of miracle. It is precisely his life, death, and resurrection that are the miracle! Comprehending this through the inspiration of the Spirit, the writers of the Gospels represented his very entry into the world as a physical anomaly, which we in our empiricistic mind set have latched onto as the
miracle of incarnation.
There are a number of miracles recounted in the birth narratives. One is the resignation of a frightened and uncomprehending Mary to God’s plan when it meant her own social disgrace. Another is the willingness of Joseph to defy social tradition and stand by Mary in quiet confidence that God was at work creating a new thing! Still another and more profound miracle is that the boy Jesus should have survived in such a social situation to become the
Son of God! Each of the stories makes this same point, namely, that this one born of Mary is indeed God’s Messiah, as unlikely and impossible as it may seem! It is he who embodies the miracle of God’s forgiveness; and through participation in his way of forgiveness, as St. Francis puts it, we are forgiven.