Principles for Reading Scripture for Disciples of Christ
******This is the third in a series of outtakes from an attempt at writing a book exploring theology in the context of the Disciples of Christ. This emerged from a "Theology 101" study we did at Central Woodward nearly eight years ago. This us the second excerpt from chapter two of the book titled: "Revelation and Our Knowledge of God." I am offering these as a discussion starter among fellow Disciples and others who are interested in the conversation (and perhaps I'll find the wherewithal to further develop the book).
If the Bible is one of the normative resources for doing theology, then how should we interpret this ancient document? I found the following four principles, elucidated by the late Disciples of Christ historian/theologian Ronald Osborn illuminating and helpful. As a historian, Osborn had an excellent grasp of the Disciple understanding of its context and purpose. He suggested that historically, Disciples have read the Bible with four mindsets in place: Reasonable, Empirical, Practical, and Ecumenical. Attending to these four mindsets should provide a way into the doctrinal and ethical conversations we are having as Christians.
A Reasonable Mind
We may be entering a postmodern era, where the authority of reason is more suspect, but the Disciples tradition was born into an Enlightenment context. Early Disciple leaders, Osborn reminds us, sought to embrace a faith and a reading of scripture that was both reasonable and sane. While they didn’t eliminate mystery, reason and the search for understanding stood at the forefront of the cause. This was especially true for Thomas and Alexander Campbell, who had been influenced by the Scottish Common Sense Realism of Thomas Reid and the philosophical ideas of John Locke. Thus, Osborn writes:
Disciples have taken pride in advocating a common sense religion. We seek an approach which is sane as well as biblical, rational as well as practical. Here is an understanding of the faith which our pioneer leaders could be readily explained to ordinary folk, and which they could embrace with their intelligence as well as their hearts. Sometimes we have made our little systems too tight, too simple. But the genius of the Disciples mentality has held that we do not love God as we ought unless we examine the claims of religion with rational minds. [Osborn, The Faith We Affirm, p. 16].
At times, rational religion can become stale and rigid, but if you understand the Disciple mindset in relationship to the alternatives of the day, it makes sense. Indeed, it still makes sense for many. But, if the Disciples tradition is an exemplar of Enlightenment faith, with an emphasis on reason, what does it mean for the church if the culture is moving into a post-Enlightenment phase?
An Empirical Mind
Osborn’s second principle follows upon the first. Ours is an empirical mind. It asks questions and seeks the facts. This may seem to run in contradiction to the definition of faith found in Hebrews 11:1: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (NRSV). The Campbells, however, were concerned that if faith became so focused on feelings and experience then the people would lack certainty of God's forgiveness and grace. This concern is noted by Osborn:
Many people ask: How do you know you are saved? Disciples insist that religious assurance is not a matter of feeling. Rather they contend that God has promised salvation to all who confess Jesus Christ and are baptized in faith and repentance. The highest form of spiritual experience offered by Christian faith is positive and objective, rather than mystical and charismatic. It centers in a public act, a corporate act, a visible action—the breaking of bread by the congregation gathered about the Lord's Table. (The Faith We Affirm, p. 19).
Today the questions that weigh heavily on our hearts might be different. The answers offered by the Campbells and Stone may no longer be adequate to the modern questions, especially among more progressive Christians.
The changes that have occurred since those early days include the way we read the Bible. Many Disciples, if not most, no longer look to the New Testament for a "divinely given constitution for the church." The Founders simply took what was written in the New Testament, especially in Acts, at face value, and assumed that this represented the universal practice of the first century church. That view is no longer tenable. But, if we follow their example, we will seek out the truth, asking honest questions of our faith. We won’t try to establish our faith in reaction to science and history, but in relationship to them.
A Pragmatic Mind
This third principle—the "pragmatic mind" —is interesting. Another way of putting it is to suggest that the Disciples sought to embrace a practical faith. Now, we hear a lot today about practical Bible teaching. Preachers and churches claim to offer a practical faith, a “purpose driven life,” but often this involves a mixture of pop psychology and biblical proof-texts. These proof-texts supposedly affirm their propositions, but these preachers are considered biblical, not because they wrestle with the biblical text, but because the preacher quotes a lot of scriptures. Osborn has something different in mind when he speaks of a pragmatic or a practical mind. The assumption here is that our engagement with Scripture should lead to us to put what we learn into practice. In a way, this is a riff on the second half of that old Disciple slogan— "Where the Scriptures speak we speak, where the Bible is silent we are silent." As we have looked at modern life, we’ve discovered that Scripture is often silent about the choices we must make, or at least, it offers no explicit guidance. And so, as Osborn points out, we developed what came to be called the "law of expediency.” He writes:
This meant that congregations have to use common sense and reflect on the lessons of experience. When the scriptures point to something we ought to do, but do not tell us how to do it, congregations need to decide on a course of action which seems most expedient. (The Faith We Affirm, p. 20).
In other words, we must ask the question—how do we put into practice the words spoken and written millennia ago?
An Ecumenical Mind
The Disciples have long been involved in the ecumenical movement. It is part of our ethos as a movement for Christian unity. Therefore, it is appropriate to ask the question our relationships with other Christians might influence our reading and application of Scripture? Ronald Osborn was not only a leading Disciple historian/theologian of the 50s, 60s, and 70s; he was also active in the ecumenical movement. Therefore, it shouldn't surprise anyone that he would enunciate an ecumenical dimension to our reading of the Scriptures. He writes that Disciples seek to "read the biblical message in the light of the common judgment of the whole Christian community and for the sake of the whole church." (Faith We Affirm, p. 21). He goes on to note that Disciples didn't decide what went into the Bible, and so we must listen to the voices of the historic church, which compiled this book and has passed it on from one generation to the next.
While Disciples have argued that Christian have the right to read the Scriptures for themselves, Osborn makes this important caveat, one that many Disciples may try to evade in their embrace of individualism:
Over against this right, however, we have balanced the admonition: No prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation" (2 Peter 1:20). We need to listen to the "common mind" of the church before we make up our own individual minds. (Faith We Affirm. 21).
In that regard, he points Disciples to the “Preamble to the Design,” which states that “Within the universal church we receive the gift of ministry and the light of scripture." This ecumenical witness comes to us in our conversations within the contemporary church, but it is also something passed on to us through history. It is a witness often called tradition—and it includes the creeds that Disciples have often set aside, at least as tests of fellowship.
If you compare Ronald Osborn’s four principles with the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, you’ll see a great similarity. Osborn has five principles—the first being Scripture, which he calls the “Biblical Mind.” The Wesleyan Quadrilateral, which is used within the Methodist tradition to provide guidance in matters of faith, suggests that we hear this word from God in four forms: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. These four forms are not considered equal in their value. For most Methodists, Scripture is preeminent. The other three offer context and interpretation for contemporary application. As for its use among Disciples, Michael Kinnamon and Jan Linn write:
The Bible is the authority, to which we have always made an appeal in times of controversy or debate, but this trustworthiness of the authority of scripture depends on the interplay between tradition, reason, and experience as it is interpreted. Each in its own way enhances our understanding of the biblical message. This is as it should be, since each plays a decisive role in the way all humans interpret the world. [Michael Kinnamon and Jan Linn, Disciples: Reclaiming Our Identity, Reforming Our Practice, (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2009), p. 32.]
It we receive the word of Scripture as our norm, and affirm its inspiration—its God-breathedness—that doesn't mean that it is without error or that we must read it flatly, as if its meaning and interpretation never changes.
Perhaps a greater question than inspiration is that of obedience. As Kinnamon and Linn note, abuses of power have led many of us to see obedience in a rather negative light. But they note that the Latin root for obedience has the meaning of listening. If this is true, then the call to obedience to biblical authority in the context of reason, tradition, and experience “means that as a community of faith we can "listen" to scripture as we are given minds and hearts to understand it.” [Kinnamon and Linn, Disciples, p. 36.]
The question that we must address is this: If we seek to be in conversation with God, how do we hear God’s voice? That question is followed by another – how do we know this is God’s voice? Traditionally, the Disciples have assumed, with the Campbells and with Stone, that it is through the Bible, and more specifically the New Testament that this word comes to us. When they came to this conclusion, the challenges to biblical authority were fewer. That is no longer true. We can’t just say— “The Bible says . . .” —and leave it at that. Instead, we would be better served to read the Scriptures in the light of reason (the mind), experience, and tradition (history and practice). It is in the interplay of these four voices that we can, it is assumed, hear the voice of God, so that we might know what is right and true, not just then, but today. Osborn’s terms may appear dated and inappropriate for today, but in many ways, he’s getting at the same thing. He recognizes that however we read and apply the biblical witness; we must do so with these other voices in mind.