The Commission on the MCC Statement of Faith recently posted a very helpful and beautifully written article about the Scriptures. At the end of the article, they posed three questions to readers about the nature and function of sacred texts:
- How do you define/identify “sacred text”?
- What has been your experience with sacred texts and their use?
- What place do sacred texts have in your faith? In your relationship with God?
This second part of my reflection will attempt to give some sense of where I am in my own journey by answering the first question.I will answer the latter two in due course.
- How do you define/identify “sacred text”?
“Sacred text” and “Scripture” are not synonymous terms for me.
For me, the Protestant canon of Scripture is the text which is reliably “inspired by God…useful for teaching, correcting, rebuking, and training in righteousness [liberating justice] so that the [friend] of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). (I am always nervous when citing from the Pastoral Epistles, but maybe that’s just my own hangup.)
I realise that I come to this conclusion about canonicity because I was raised in a Protestant and Evangelical interpretive community, which sees itself as attempting to maintain the earliest available consensus of the Church.) I realise that other Christians (like Roman Catholics or Orthodox) have a broader canon that they accept as inspired, but I hope that this reality does not seriously compromise our ability to fellowship together or to do life-giving ecumenical theology.
I try to read Scripture by:
- centering the life of Jesus in the Gospels (which procedure is implied by standing for the reading of the Gospel in catholic Christian churches); and
- interpreting all pictures of God presented in Scripture and all human behaviours through his non-violent witness (I learned this from the Mennonites and from scholars like Rene Girard and others who teach non-violent atonement).
I do this precisely because I believe God is Jesus, God-in-flesh (John 1:14). I must subject my view of God to the Jesus test; in other words, I must have a Christ-like God in order to have a basically true understanding and trust in who God is.
It follows, for me, that because I am committed to having a relationship with Christ Jesus, that I may carefully, and always in community, quarrel with the Scriptures. (Many people resist this idea because they believe implicitly that Scripture functions according to legislative or judiciary metaphors, ie., Scripture is the final court of appeal, or is the Constitution of the churches. I prefer the metaphor of a community library or literary canon up for rigourous interpretation in a seminar. Using that metaphor, the argument becomes more about choosing the strands of the text that allow me to show Jesus most clearly to my own context.)
Because I believe their insights to be demonstrably biblical and explosively condusive to good theology and ethics, unashamedly I try to read Scripture from the “spinal column” of the Creeds called Apostles and Nicene. I believe that any Christian movement that explicitly disagrees with the Creeds disables their part of the Body of Christ and impairs the fulsome Christian experience of the people in their contexts. (I am comfortable using this harsh image precisely because I live with Cerebral Palsy.)
“Sacred texts,” for me, function the way that local prophecy does: in my context, but perhaps not in yours, texts that do not belong to the Protestant canon nevertheless illuminate it, and perhaps bring questions to it. So texts as various as:
- the hymn “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less”;
- books by N.T. Wright or Greg Boyd;
- the poem “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou; or
- the US television series Queer as Folk
are sacred to me because they confirm and deepen and provoke my understanding of the larger Story of which Jesus is Climax and Destination.
I feel able to identify these kinds of texts as sacred because when I engage with them, my primary experience is one of joy (or even glee!)–sometimes the experience is less specific, but I find myself talking about “being moved.” I feel as though my inner life is permanently a different shape because of the engagement.
But since I (or my local assembly) may have different texts that are meaningful, they must not be used as a primary basis for ecumenical theology–only the Scriptures have that primary place (and, I hope, an even stronger, Christ-like, and long-term effect on the shape of my–and our– bodily and spiritual dispositions).
In the next installment, I will turn to the Commission’s second question