“By Schisms Rent Asunder”

The words of the above title from the well-known hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation,” reflect the unfortunate history of the church: one schism after another until the church has become fragmented into a myriad of denominations, all claiming to follow in the footprints of Jesus, their Lord, yet unable to stay in line together .

Why?  Because there is a tendency to place conditions on membership.   And because there is no universal agreement on what constitutes the minimum requirement for being a Christian, people congregate with others of like mind.  Each group avows its version of Christianity to be the right one; and, of course, anyone can be a member…as long as they meet the conditions that are imposed by the group.

Ironic isn’t it?  All Jesus ever asked of his disciples was that they follow him.  He never asked them to believe any of the things that Christians insist that followers believe.  Jesus imposed nothing that would divide his followers, and yet the church has split numerous times because of a difference of opinion over beliefs, especially beliefs about Jesus.

There is one requirement, and only one, that is imposed upon Christians: that they follow Jesus’ way.  This allows for all Christians to be part of one diverse, but united, body.  Certainly, there will be differences of belief, but it is of no concern to Jesus.  He just wants us to be united in following him in doing the will of God, and this is all that counts.

Does this mean that beliefs are not important?  By no means!  Beliefs help us to follow, but this is all they are: tools to help us get the job done.  If another’s beliefs are different from mine, the only criteria I can use to evaluate them is whether or not they help that person to follow Jesus in doing the will of God.  Those same beliefs may not be helpful to me, but if they work for another, halleluiah!

If one’s beliefs bring about peace, justice and love in the world; if they help a person to live in the fullness of the life given by God, then no one can claim they are not appropriate.  If, on the other hand, they keep a person from living fully; if they impose burdens of fear and guilt; if they add to the discord and injustice in the world, then they must be challenged.

There are, unfortunately, too many of the latter kind of beliefs among what is popularly called Christianity.  I couldn’t even begin to list here all the utter rubbish that passes for Christianity.  One simply has to have faith the Truth will prevail in the end.  Unfortunately, some of the junk religion that is bandied about will do much damage in the meantime, much as the radical extremes of Islamic fundamentalism are doing elsewhere in the world.

We have much to learn from the diversity of Christian belief.  Sometimes one’s own perspective is restricted by one’s upbringing, church affiliations, experiences and education.  Another person’s own perspective can be invaluable, since it adds knowledge that would otherwise be forever outside one’s own line of sight.

There are hopeful signs.  The fragmentation of the church increased dramatically when people began to claim the Bible as an infallible external authority.  However, in recent times, as scholarly biblical criticism has become more widely acceptable and available to the lay person, this fragmentation has slowed and even begun to reverse itself in the unification of denominations, as has happened, for example, among the Methodists, Congregationalists and most of the Presbyterians here in Australia.

The Role of Scripture

Throughout the church, the Bible is regarded as normative for the faith, but there is much difference of opinion within the Church’s ranks about the nature of the Bible’s authority. Inevitably, differences of opinion between parts of the church boil down to differences in interpretation of the Bible.

There is a clear distinction between a ‘book’ religion” and a ‘living’ religion.  Islam is a book religion;. Mormonism is a book religion.  They are book religions because their followers believe that the contents of their holy books were dictated by a heavenly source and recorded verbatim by a human being, and thus they must be followed.  All that needs to be revealed is in the book, and so one need never look outside of it.

Judaism, on the other hand, is not a book religion.  Jews believe that they are living in salvation history, the action by God for God’s chosen people, and since history continues to happen, the revelation of God is ongoing.  Their holy scriptures are the records of this salvation history, but they can never be closed  (at least not until history ends).

Neither is Christianity a book religion.  Although the church accepts the Bible as normative for Christian belief, it recognises that God continues to reveal, continues to be incarnate in God’s children, continues to be active through the Holy Spirit and, therefore revelation cannot be contained in, or limited to, one book. 

The Uniting Church position on Scripture is similar to the other major denominations. The Basis of Union regularly uses the phrase, “we embrace the biblical witness” with regard to basic Christian affirmations, and notes that “we share with many Christian denominations a recognition of the authority of Scripture in matters of faith.”  Scripture reveals the “living core” of Christian practice, “illumined by tradition, vivified in corporate experience and confirmed by reason.” It says: “God’s eternal Word never has been, nor can be, exhaustively expressed in any single form of words.”.

The Bible is considered to be the “the primary criterion for Christian doctrine and, through it, the living Christ meets us in the experience of redeeming grace.”  I think this is essential to our understanding.  Words are fixed, and so a book religion is fixed; whereas Christianity is based on a living word, which we find in the living Christ, conveyed in part by the words of Scripture, but only when read with the participation of the Holy Spirit.  It is new every day.

The Roman Catholic church, among others, has always said authority resides in three places, of which Scripture is only one.  The others are the tradition of the Church and the action of the Holy Spirit in individuals. According to my Catholic sources, the Catholic Church considers the last of these as the most important.

Some notes on the nature of the authority of the Bible:

1. The authority of the Bible cannot be greater than that of Jesus, himself, as attested by the Bible.  Jesus doesn’t set himself up as an absolute external authority of perfect truth, so we cannot use the Bible this way. He regularly challenged the Pharisee’s literal interpretation of the Law in favour of human reason based on love.

2. The word, “Word”, in Aramaic (the language of Jesus) is dabhar, denoting a voluptuous, extravagant outpouring of creative energy.  It really has little to do with our English “word” in the literary sense in which we use it. The Bible is, of necessity, limited by human language, and therefore can be only a very, very limited exposition of God’s Word.  Human words just can’t come close to containing the Word, no matter how divinely inspired. There is much more yet to be revealed through the Holy Spirit, at work in individuals, as they ponder the words of the Bible.  The revelation of God is ongoing.

3. The Bible is a selection of 66 books, or writings, by many (often unknown) authors over the course of about 1200 -1500 years, chosen by the Church for its own self-regulation, providing a norm so as to prevent the basic tenets of the faith from straying wherever they might, i.e. the Church defined itself by beliefs based upon those writings it found to be appropriate to the beliefs already contained within its traditions.

4. The assertion that Scripture is an infallible, literal communication from God is a relatively new phenomenon; going back only to the 17th or 18th century.  Indeed, the major denominations hold, as a basic principle, that no doctrine shall be considered that does not have its origins in Scripture.  This certainly applies to the notion of scriptural infallibility, also, which has no scriptural warrant, and is not endorsed by the Uniting Church. To treat the Bible as literally infallible is an arbitrary decision, without grounding either in tradition or in Scripture.  Some people, in their journey of faith, understandably may want the sort of security and clarity offered by this view, so please don’t think I am saying that a literal understanding of the Bible is always unhelpful, but to hold on to such a black and white understanding indefinitely will be to miss out on the vast and varied colour offered by deeper study of Scripture.  

How to read the Bible?

There are two main approaches to Scripture, and we should use both.  

1. When we want to know what gave rise to our religion, what God did for his people in history, what God did in Jesus; when we want insights about the meaning of life found by early followers of Jesus, then we need to know:

  • why a given author wrote, 
  • his/her situation, 
  • the nature of his audience, 
  • how his/her words would have been received by the people of the time

In other words, we need to know the context of his writing.  For this reason we need the help of the dedicated people who have spent their lives studying the Scriptures, and so we turn to commentaries, of which there are many.  The United Methodist Book of Discipline neatly sums up this approach: “We properly read Scripture within the believing community, informed by the tradition… and we interpret individual texts in light of their place in the Bible as a whole…aided by scholarly inquiry and personal insight, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”

2. More often we just want a word for us in our time in our situation.  In this case, we often need only to reflect on the words in the Bible.  In meditating on a passage in silence, we can often gain an insight for our lives that the author never foresaw.  Here the message might be thought of as coming between the lines. The words of the text may evoke the living Word through the action of the Spirit within us.  Someone else will reflect on the same words and get an entirely different message, yet no less appropriate to his or her own situation. As we open our minds and hearts to the Word of God through the words of human beings inspired by the Holy Spirit, faith is born and nourished, our understanding is deepened, and the possibilities for transforming the world become apparent to us.

Bob Thomas