This is the fourth post in the series “Getting Our Bearings.” Want to check out the previous posts? No problem. Just click one of the following links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.
Years ago while I was serving a parish in St. Louis, a local funeral home director contacted me about doing a burial service. A man advanced in years had died. As a younger person he had attended the Episcopal Church in his home far away, but he had not been a member of one of the local Episcopal congregations and none of his surviving family attended an Episcopal church.
On the morning of the funeral, I greeted people as they arrived. A couple of days prior to the service I had met with a few family members to plan the service, but as people gathered to give their final respects I found myself meeting sons and daughters, grandchildren and nieces, siblings and nephews, old colleagues and caretakers for the first time.
Just before we began, a woman in her late forties appeared. She thought to push her way around me without acknowledging me.
Seeing that the aisle we both occupied was too narrow to avoid my greeting, she tilted her head back, pointed her chin at me, looked down the bridge of her nose, and snapped, “I am a Charismatic Episcopalian. We believe in the Bible.”
Without another word, she whipped her head around to the front of the room and marched to an open pew. I had the vague feeling that I needed to wipe spittle from my face. But time was pressing, so I quickly recovered and led the gathered mourners in worship.
Reflecting on the exchange later that afternoon, I realized that the woman was a member of the Charismatic Episcopal Church. While this denomination does not trace its origins to a split with the Episcopal Church, it has become home for some former Episcopalians who took issue with various progressive positions taken by General Convention.
When she said, “We believe in the Bible,” she implied that I do not. In her view, the progressive posture of our church could only be justified by ignoring and even blatantly disregarding Holy Scripture. In other words, she accused me of rejecting the authority of Scripture.
Contrary to my hasty critic’s assumption, I do believe in the Bible. Just like the rest of the Episcopal Church. But my critic and I apparently mean vastly different things when we say that.
So, let me turn to a few observations about how Episcopalians believe the Bible. Whole books are written on this subject, so what I say here is not meant to be exhaustive or systematic, only suggestive. In that spirit, please consider the following points:
- Some people assume that accepting the authority of Scripture requires a literal reading of the text. In other words, sometimes people confuse attachment to reading the Bible in a certain way (or, more technically, commitment to a certain hermeneutic) with acknowledging the authority of Scripture.
- Reading the Bible means interpreting the Bible. Some passages are clearly more difficult to interpret than others, but whenever we read we are interpreting.
- Interpretation is not up to each individual. It is not merely subjective or always relative to each reader. And yet interpretation is an art and not a science. Equally faithful people can arrive at differing interpretations.
- Passages of the Bible are laden with what Paul Ricoeur called surplus meaning. There is always more than what any one of us happen to find at any particular time, so we need to hear from each other.
- The Word of God is Jesus. Jesus is the perfect revelation of God. We encounter Jesus through the words of the Bible, but this is an interpretive process. Whatever we read in the Bible should be read through the lens of Jesus.
- Acknowledging the authority of Scripture is not a simple matter of reading a manual and following the instructions contained in it. Instead, we acknowledge the authority of Scripture by submitting to what we hear God telling us through it.
- Biblical texts are historically distant texts written in ancient languages. In addition to facing the challenges of translation, interpretation requires an imaginative leap into a historical, cultural, and social context not our own. We must first see what a passage could have meant to the original readers before we discern together what God is saying to us with that passage in our very different context.
- Meaning arises from context. We do violence to the Biblical text—and most likely to other people—when we use passages ripped from their context for our own argumentative, polemical, or ideological purposes. The definitive context is the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.