Keeping Our Bearings

This week’s sermon comes from Proverbs 8:1-31, and addresses the question: “What do we do when the Bible gets heretical?” Blessings on you and your ministry this week. (Drew’s note: I drifted from the manuscript a little bit this week, the post is an attempt to faithfully represent what I said, with only minimal polishing to protect my vanity)

Keeping Our Bearings

When I was a Boy Scout we took a trip to a Civil War battlefield, Shiloh, in Tennessee, to do an orienteering course. That’s a compass course. They give you a list of bearings, and you are supposed to follow them and end up in the right place. At Shiloh the bearings all lead to monuments, and the list of bearings had a bunch of questions about the battle that could be answered easily if you were at the right monument.

Shiloh is an old battlefield, but you’d never know it just by looking. Almost all the evidence of what happened there is gone. The field of battle is just a field now; fortifications are now just little bumps under fence lines. In fact, if it weren’t for monuments indicating artillery positions, major advances, and important events, you’d never know it was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. The whole place has a sort of pristine grace to it. Big stately oaks, rolling meadows, deep hollows full of untouched woods.  I specifically remember a place called Bloody Pond, where someone later recalled that on the day of the battle it had turned red with soldiers’ blood. But when I visited it was tranquil and beautiful, duckweed floating on the surface undisturbed, right out of a postcard.

Reading scripture can be a little like this, we can wander around in its beauty, oblivious to the battles that were waged over it years ago. Some of these battles have been wars of words, disagreements that have more consequences than we’d like to admit; others have involved armies clashing on fields like Shiloh. I say this to tell you that the passage from Proverbs for today, this hymn of Wisdom and Creation, holds a history of controversy that touches on one of the essential questions for the church in the modern world: the interpretation of Scripture.

The question for today, at least as posed by this text, is what do we do when the Bible says something heretical?

The question sounds like a paradox, but it’s way more common than we’d like to admit. Take one of the central concepts of the Reformation, from Romans 3:28, “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” Salvation by faith alone. But listen to James 2:26: “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” No wonder Martin Luther called the book of James “An epistle of straw” and tried to have it taken out of the Bible. It’s heresy.

The problem of course, is not the Bible. It is that reading is an act of interpretation, and doctrine is an act of history.  When we read, we each come to the text with a different set of interpretational criteria, different cultural assumptions, different experiences that color the way we understand the text. Think of Amelia Bedelia “dressing a turkey” for Thanksgiving dinner. The words are the same, but one doubts her boss wanted her to put a blouse and bloomers on a Butterball.

And the doctrines that we hold developed over the course of history. Years of politics, economics, and culture have shaped what we believe. The persecution of the early church, the corruption of the Medieval/Renaissance church, the Great Awakening, the Holocaust, all of these have had significant effect on what we take the Bible to mean. The Trinity, for example, doesn’t appear in the Bible. It wasn’t fully formulated until nearly three hundred years after the birth of Christ, and without the heresies of Arius and Marcion it never would have achieved its current state.

And so it is on Trinity Sunday, that we run into things like Lady Wisdom, and her account of being present at Creation. The picture our passage paints for us is that of two persons present at Creation, God, and this female figure of Wisdom, who was beside him, like a master worker, from before God’s spirit moved across the waters of the deeps.

You can probably see how this would be a problem. A figure that existed from before creation, eternal and who also participated in the creation of the world seems awfully like another God.  Heresy.

And again, the problem isn’t the Bible. It’s that the ways we’ve been given to understand its meaning are ill-equipped to address its messiness. We’ve been taught that the Bible is the owner’s manual, an instruction book for life. The problem of course, is that if you’re anything like me, when you get a new owner’s manual, you flip through it for 30 seconds and then stick it in a drawer never to look at it again. Not to mention the fact that ¾ of the book is narrative. Can you imagine opening the owner’s manual to see what headlights you need for your car only to read a story about a road trip through the Rockies?

The Bible is not an owner’s manual. Nor is it a science textbook, a rule-book, or a self-help book. It is a collection of stories, sayings, hymns, letters, and a few genres that don’t exist anymore that was written over a thousand years by members of at least 8 different nations in more than 3 different languages that attempts to describe the indescribable, to tell us about God’s work in our world. It holds arguments, debates, polemics, contradictions, and yes, even a few things which when read literally are heretical. Its interpretation is shaped by thousands of years of history, and the experiences we bring with us when we read it.

Now I’m not going to pose a solution to this problem that Christians have struggled with for two thousand years. That would be ambitious, to say the least, and I’m not very confident that any one system can capture it. The Western world has been shaped and I would say limited by systematic thinking. We like to think everything works in a predictable, systematic way. We think if we just knew the rules beneath it all, we could bend the world to conform to our will, and that the Bible tells us the rules. There are thousands of books on Systematic Theology, as if there is some system, some way of understanding how to read the Bible and understand God that will suddenly make it all easy, predictable, and simple.

The problem is that easy, predictable, and simple are words that can almost never be used to describe reality. Life is messy, and terribly so. Our existence, by its nature, is unclear. Nothing ever follows the rules, and our lives hardly ever turn out the way they ought to. It is the incredibly frustrating and incredibly beautiful thing about the Bible, but its messy too. Parts of it were written by committee with strong and divided opinions.  It was written to Kings and to paupers, and everyone in between, for people who have everything and people who have nothing. Rather than attempting to capture a truth that is beyond our grasp, it points, tells, shows, and responds to that truth, and invites us to do the same.

The book and its varied meanings are simply too valuable for us to give them over to clarity, and speaks to such a large and diverse group of people in so many times and many places, the multiplicity of its meanings may be more valuable than their simplicity.

But thinking back to my time on the battlefields of Shiloh, I have a few observations that I’d like to make about how to keep our bearings in such a place as we are. First, be aware of what’s around you. One of the things they teach Boy Scouts is that if you keep your compass in the same pocket as your pocketknife, the magnetize blade can distort your compass readings.

The presence of a strong magnetic force can distort Scripture, even for us. The history of scriptural interpretation is a history of errors and sins, much like the rest of human history. It is not nearly as hard as you think to read wrong into the Bible, especially if you keep your faith in the same place you keep your anger, your hurt, or your prejudice. From “Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers,” which justified centuries of slavery and the belief that African-Americans are fundamentally inferior to other humans to Paul, who wrote, “Let ever person be subject to the governing authorities’ for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God,” which protected millennia of corrupt governments, and their collaborators, who all failed to remember that Paul wrote those words while in jail for resisting authority. It doesn’t take a strong magnet to turn a compass backwards. Just proximity.  Be aware of what’s around you.

Second, Check your bearings frequently. I remember talking with a friend about the challenge of Biblical interpretation, that Biblical literalism is mostly nonsense, but I struggle to find a clear rubric for how to shape my understanding of scripture alone. He reminded me of a couple of statements made in the confessions: From the Confession of 1967:

The one sufficient revelation of God is Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, to whom the Holy Spirit bears unique and authoritative witness through the Holy Scriptures, which are received and obeyed as the word of God written. The Scriptures are not a witness among others, but the witness without parallel.

I told him this wasn’t very useful. I was still looking for an instruction manual. But it delivers me to my next suggestion: check your bearings frequently. A small error in degree can be magnified over a thousand paces, and all of us will drift if we don’t continue to orient ourselves according to the deep truth that Scripture bears witness to God on earth.

Finally, the ground we tread is holy. It is holy through its innate beauty and truth, and through the millions of souls who have passed this way before. Do not let today’s battles, or yesterdays obscure the beauty of what’s within. Don’t let today’s weather interfere with the reality that we hold in our hands the story of humanity’s encounter with a holy mystery, an attempt to explain the inexplicable, to accept the unbelievable, to put into words a larger truth than language can hold. The ground we tread is both precious and perilous. Tread lightly.

These aren’t perfect answers, and they probably still won’t prevent us from all of the ways that we abuse scripture, using it as a weapon, or a fortune-teller, or an excuse. But hopefully what it will do, is give us the wisdom to seek out our own mistakes, the grace to admit them, and the courage to put ourselves back on the right path.


About Drew

I'm the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pitman, NJ. I love camping, rhetorical criticism, and classic movies. I'm passionate about God's love, and the messy, beautiful ways it shows itself in our communities every day.
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