Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Elevating (Parts of) Scripture

Since my wife is in the ordination process there, I've been spending a lot of time in an Episcopal Church lately. Since I've spent most of my life as a Presbyterian, it's safe to say that there have been a few differences in how Episcopalians worship compared to what I'm used to. One prominent part of every Episcopalian worship gathering is the reading from the book of the Gospels. A large, ornate book is brought down the middle of the congregation, and raised up high while prayers are being made (sung, usually). Then the book is opened and read.

Of course, I'm not unbiased. This form of high liturgy makes me somewhat uncomfortable. But as an evangelical Christian who believes in the authority of Scripture, I have no theological problem with the practice. With one exception.

There are other Scripture passages read during the service, as well. But none of them get the "full exaltation" treatment. This is only done for the reading from the Gospels (that is to say; Matthew, Mark, Luke or John; as opposed to the other 62 books of the Bible).

But it's not like Episcopalians are the only Christians that elevate (in their case, literally!) some portions of the Bible above others. And I'm not talking about the Catholic church, either. Check out this article by Tony Campolo (itself a response to a Christianity Today article written by Stan Guthrie for the October 2007 issue, but when I first wrote this response, I hadn't yet read it. See further notes at the end), where he discusses the popularity of "red letter" editions of the Bible. Campolo quotes Guthrie as saying the following:
Though I own several Bibles with the words of Christ in red, I've always found the concept a bit iffy. After all, we evangelicals believe in the plenary, or full, inspiration of Scripture, don't we? Setting off Jesus' sayings this way seems to imply that they are more holy than what is printed in ordinary black ink. ...[I]f all Scripture is God-breathed, then in principle Jesus' inscripturated statements are no more God's word to us than are those from Peter, Paul, and Mary - or Ezekiel.
As may be assumed by what I said earlier, I tend to agree with Guthrie's reasoning. However, Campolo gives a strong argument for why many Christians do, and should, consider Jesus' words with greater priority. For example:
[W]e believe the morality in the red letters of Jesus transcends that found in the black letters set down in the Pentateuch, and I'm surprised you don't agree. After all, Stan, didn't Jesus himself make this same point in the Sermon on the Mount, when he said his teachings about marriage and divorce were to replace what Moses taught?
Apparently, both Guthrie's original article and Campolo's response have certain political implications, but those aren't my concern here (indeed, I wonder at Guthrie's apparent assumption that those who invoke the "red letters" tend to be on the political left, given how many conservatives I know also like these versions). Campolo is certainly correct in his reasoning that Jesus himself gave teachings that he explicitly put above the teachings received from earlier Scripture.

I'm not quite sure that Jesus is saying that Moses was wrong or being replaced, however. Rather, he explains Moses' intentions, and states a "higher" way. He doesn't replace what Moses taught, exactly. He transcends it (to use Campolo's own word from earlier in the paragraph). What Moses taught is still important, and should still be taken seriously (in the case of divorce, Jesus references Deuteronomy 24:1, where the words "because he finds something indecent about her" are important. An indication the she has been unfaithful, perhaps). Even more, Jesus at several points shows how teachers of his day had misinterpreted those earlier Scriptures, and he tries to put them "back on track" (there does seem to be indication that some teachers in Jesus' day took those same words: "because he finds something indecent about her," as an indication that a husband could divorce a wife for any reason at all. He only need not like her anymore. Jesus suggests that this teaching is not in keeping with God's intentions).

Campolo's other examples strike me a similarly flawed. When he asks "Don't you think [Jesus's] words about loving our enemies and doing good to those who hurt us represent a higher morality than the 'eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth' kind of justice that we find in the Hebrew Testament?", I can't help but wonder if Campolo is unaware of the interpretation that the "eye for an eye" bit is in fact a limiting factor in a society where vengeance could cycle out of control (i.e., "Yes, you are allowed justice for a wrong done against you. But the punishment must fit the crime"). Of course, it may well be that Campolo is fully aware of this interpretation, but considers the "love your enemies" command to a be a "higher morality," and I'm not sure I disagree. But neither do I think that "loving one's enemies" and "seeking justice" are mutually exclusive.

In the end, though, I think Campolo is right in his basic premise. Whether we are conscious about it or not, Christians do give Jesus' words a certain priority, and rightly so. As Campolo suggests, we do filter other passages of Scripture through the lens of Jesus' teachings. To use the previous example, we are kept from misunderstanding God's intentions for marriage/divorce as written in the Deuteronomy passage by what Jesus had to say about that passage in Matthew 5:31.

However, I still stop short of the more explicit elevation of parts of the Bible (even Jesus' words) over other parts. I just can't get around the idea that such practices imply that the "non-red" parts of the Bible have been diminished, which I don't think is appropriate. The non-red parts of the Bible are still important, and certainly haven't been "canceled out" by Jesus' life and teaching. I wouldn't mind seeing a worship gathering where the whole Bible is brought out before the congregation and lifted up amidst prayer and singing. I think that would be kind of cool.

UPDATE: October 11, 2007 - Christianity Today has since posted Guthrie's article, followed by an edited version of Campolo's response. Apparently, the parts of Guthrie's article that Campolo didn't quote are almost entirely on the political issues I had no interest in dealing with here. I'm saddened by that fact. I think that there are some interesting issues of biblical interpretation raised here, but fear that they are completely lost amidst the political bickering.

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