Ever since I became "cyberspatially active" in church affairs--first on the HoB/D about six years ago, then in the blogsphere some 18 months ago--I've been on a quest of sorts. I'm hunting for the elusive Alpha Issue. The catalyst for our angst, of course, is sex--specifically, whether any church has the license to expand the notion of marriage to include same-sex couples, and, if so, whether it may prudently exercise such license at the present time.
But is it really just about sex? My intuition all along has told me that it is not. I have had a sense that there are other issues over which pretty much the same people would break along pretty much the same lines. For instance, in the fall of 2005 there was a long thread on the HoB/D about whether congenital disabilities--e.g. blindness, deafness, and the like--participate in the order of creation purely conceived ("That's the way God made me") or whether they participate in that aspect of creation which the Christian theological tradition names as "fallen''--in effect, then, the order of Sin. (The implication here is certainly not that a congenital disability is a direct sign of a person's sinfulness, and still less a punishment for that sinfulness, but that the condition is a sign not of God's "very good" creation, but of the grip that Sin has on that creation.)
To my mild astonishment, commenters who had a reputation for conservative views on the sexuality issue tended uniformly to assess congenital disabilities as evidence of the Fall, while those who carried the "progressive" banner uniformly lined up behind the "God made me that way" placard. Interesting, to be sure. But what does it mean? What is the underlying mindset that, if we could isolate and identify it, could become a universal marker--a predictive sign--for one's position on a range of different concrete issues?
I still don't know. But once in a while I see another telltale sign of the existence of such an Alpha Issue. Today's news included the announcement of the publication of God, Gays, & the Church: Human Sexuality in Christian Thinking. The publisher's internet blurb contained this excerpt from the foreword by the Bishop of Winchester (Michael Scott-Joynt):
‘With Christians in every century including our own, and in every part of the world, I should want to continue to say that every Christian is called to have her or his “experience” conformed to the teachings of Scripture, and then to those of the “great tradition” of the Church down the centuries’ .
As soon as this quote hit the HoB/D, many on the port side of the vessel got rather agitated. The venerable (not by ecclesiastical honor, but in a generic sense) Tom Woodward, a retired priest in the Diocese of the Rio Grande, offered the following (which I quote with his permission):
With all due respect to the Bishop of Winchester, he fails to make three crucial distinctions.
The first is that there are a lot of "teachings of Scripture" which are beneath the dignity of the people of God and the people we are called to serve.
The second, of course, is that it is probably more precise and more helpful to indicate that the teachings are of the authors and sources of the various books of the Bible, not of "Scripture, itself."
Third, both Jesus and Paul point to experience as one of the marks for how we are to judge holiness. In fact, while we hold Scripture in highest regard, Jesus would hold most Scriptural admonitions to the standards of the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:2ff) and the standard of agape love (pretty much the whole of John and the Johannine epistles). Paul, as has often been noted, in Galatians 5 and other places, insists on a subjective test for the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Is this revealing, or what? I thought it was, at any rate, and here's why: Few would disagree that the Bible is simultaneously one book (if for no other reason than it is published in one volume) and many books (at least 66 distinct documents--more when you count the Apocrypha and stil more when you welcome scholarly speculation about multiple authorship of some of them). The Christian community has always maintained a belief that the Holy Scripture is in some way divinely-inspired (God-breathed)--both the individual texts and the compilation of the whole. At the same time, in no era--particularly in the last two or three centuries--has the church been entirely reticent about acknowledging the particular character imparted to the biblical documents by the fact that they are the work of quite human authors, who were subject to all the limitations associated with humanity.
We may all realize that the reality of one and the reality of many need to be held in a sort of dialectical tension. Well, perhaps not everybody, as you can see here:
What a stand-up guy! He don't need no stinkin' dialectical tension--for him, the Bible is one book and God wrote it (standing up, no doubt).
But there are others--including my friend Fr Woodward, perhaps?--who might prefer, for reasons of didactic clarity, to suffer the inconvenience of having each of the biblical documents published under separate cover--a respectable book in the case of the Psalms or Ezekiel, a couple of sticky notes in the case of III John--and who bristle at phrases like "the Bible says" or "scriptural teaching."
I must confess that, having been initially formed as a "fundagelical"--if not all the way on the one book end of the spectrum, at least in that general neighborhood--in my riper years, by way of either reaction or compensation, I do tend to say "as St Paul writes to the Romans" rather than "as the Bible says in the Book of Romans." My preaching has been enlivened by a disciplined resistance to the temptation to harmonize the gospels, but rather to let the idiosyncratic voice of each of the Evangelists speak for itself. I am not scandalized by the insights of biblical criticism. The notion that not every word attributed to Jesus in the gospels necessarily passed his lips does not shake my faith.
But I never fail to be struck afresh on a regular basis by how the Bible--yes, the Bible--is bound by a golden thread, a coherent meta-narrative, that bespeaks a single energizing Spirit, a unified Voice. The "authentic" words of Jesus in the gospels are not more authoritative than those "composed" by the Evangelist. Colossians is no less authoritative because it may be pseudonymous while Galatians must be taken more seriously because it is indisputably Pauline. Still less are the epistles less binding on my conscience than are the gospels. It is the whole Bible that stands in judgment over the Church's teaching and practice.
So, what I'm wondering is this: Can the way one speaks of Scripture serve as a consistent predictor of how one will come down on other issues, including the issue du jour? When we hear exclusively many books language, are we probably talking to a "progressive"? And when hear predominantly one book language, are we most likely in the presence of a "reasserter"?
I realize I have raised more hermeneutical questions than I have answered. (Hermeneutics, by the way, refers to the over-arching governing principles by which one interprets the Bible.) But am I getting warmer? Have I smelled the breath of the Ideological Sasquatch?