“The Word of God”
Comments on Bishop Spong’s: The Sins of Scripture.
Ever since first grade, reading has been a big love in my life. Part of my passion comes from reading authors whose outlook I don’t really share. Bishop Spong, a liberal Episcopal churchman, has written articulate and provocative books that make one ponder one’s easy assumptions about many theological matters, including the Bible. He rightly points out that there are difficult passages scattered here and there in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the New Testament.
The condemnation of homosexuality is one of the most notorious passages. The invectives are bitter. For example, Leviticus 20:13, “If a man lies with a man as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall be put to death; their blood be upon them.” At a New York City Gay Pride Parade, some time ago, a hate demonstrator carried a sign proclaiming: “God said ‘fags should die’ (Leviticus 20).” Chilling, isn’t it? Spong wonders how could God condemn sexual orientation? His special question asked of all Christians who love the Bible, “How can it be called the Word of God?” Many of us who are devoted to the Bible are upended by savage references like Leviticus 20 and ponder his question.
I agree that these invectives are terrible and I know how Bishop Spong feels about it. He cares passionately for all people and seeks to create a brotherhood of love among the angry, disillusioned, and hurting of the world. I respect his perspective and in many ways identify with him. But, for me, the Bible is the “Word of God.”
My ministry has been nourished in a small denomination where evangelism, worship, fellowship, and Bible Study are personal and loving. Our denomination has always been open to questions and valued freedom of inquiry. But you “dassn’t” go too far! The Bible is the center of our worship, preaching, discussion, personal behavior, and fellowship and it remains so even as I struggle openly with questions like these. However, I am moved more by images and stories than by issues. The Bible speaks to me in the stories of people in situations more than through moral propositions.
My mentor at North Park Seminary, Dean Eric Hawkinson, could take outrageous passages from the Bible, address them with fresh, creative vision, and let in new sunlight for living! His earthiness got to us as he wrestled with questions. At a Youth Conference, he told us about a Professor who fondled the Bible in his hands as though it were his life, which it was—the Word of God. Dean Hawkinson’s understanding of the Bible was dear to his life. Even so, the Bible is a very human book. Some passages of Scriptures are so embarrassing you would be ashamed to read them in public.
The confession of the Apostle Paul in Romans 7 is revealing. “We know that the law is spiritual but I am not. I am unspiritual, the purchased slave of sin. I do not even acknowledge my own actions as mine. For what I do is not what I want to do, but what I detest but if what I do is against my will, it means I agree with the law and hold it to be admirable, but as things are, it is no longer I that perform the action, but sin that lodges in me” (Romans 7: 14, The New English Bible). That is an outrageous confession, and it provides a clue to the difference between Bishop Spong’s perspective and mine.
Ambiguous and self-contradictory behavior which all of us experience is not often remedied by nobly stated ideals nor by visions of the future filled with the love Jesus. Often kind and loving concern for the hurting, rejected, and maligned is crushed! We get tripped up in spite of ourselves. We are involved in the unyielding struggle with sin and love and so facing who we are leads us to the cross. Mr. Spong has a different view of the cross. In his view, the incarnation shows us God’s infinite love and is not much concerned with the need of desperate sinners. Thus, if we could understand God’s love and practice it with all people everywhere, it would change the world. Bishop Spong, himself, is a very loving person and he practices love where the hurts are and he heals many social hurts.
For me, though, the cross and the resurrection are utterly central in dealing with our humanness. Joseph Sittler, my former professor, said in a class at the University of Chicago Divinity School, “Every chink of human existence is Christocentric.” That bowled me over! Elsewhere he has written about the cross as cruciform existence. His preaching elucidated that conviction.
As I see it, what we look for is the Great Story! A story gets to our gut while mere idealism passes over the problem. God is involved in our self-contradicting problems and our self-accusing struggle with “sin, flesh, and the devil.” He loves us just as we are and opens a way through his cruciform love and raises us up with some old healers—forgiveness, atonement, and the grace of new life.
So I favor the inclusive title: The Word of God. N.T Wright, former professor at Cambridge and Oxford, said, “Writing a book about the Bible is like building a castle in front of the Matterhorn.” He saw the Old Testament and New as two cohesive love stories called “The Word of God.” Swimming in deep water such as this is somewhat suffocating, but I have to confess with Gilbert Keith Chesterton: “I am the man who with utmost daring discovered what had been discovered.”