On October 18, 2016, I preached this sermon in Oxnam Chapel on the campus of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC where I serve as a member of the faculty. I was reminded of it recently when a student asked me how to approach the bible with a lens of appreciation rather than a lens of suspicion. I hope it is helpful to him and to others as we re-capture, or further establish, our love for the scriptures.
“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” (2 Tim. 3:14-15)
I’m honored to speak before you today. It’s not as though I don’t speak in front of groups at the Seminary on a regular basis, but there is something special, perhaps terrifying, about speaking to the community gathered for worship that makes it different than giving a lecture on some aspect of church history.
That said, I have to warn you that I’m not a preacher. I’m a lecturer. And so although there will be no quiz after the sermon, I can’t promise that aspects of the sermon might not sound like a professor trying to act the part of a preacher. I still remember my childhood pastor telling me that if I ever did want to become a preacher that the way to do it was to start preaching. So maybe after a few more decades of sporadic preaching, I might get there at some point.
Church history is my field, it’s where I’m comfortable, but it’s also more than that for me. Some of you have heard me describe church history as finding out about the extended family we have as believers. But I would also like to argue that church history is about listening to the Church throughout the ages, embracing the accumulated wisdom of those who have gone before, sitting at the feet of those who sit at the feet of Jesus, and learning from them what the Scriptures (the Church’s book) might be saying to us even now.
I live within a worldview that refuses to see the dead as past, their insights as out-of-date, their voices as silenced.
In the words, of G. K. Chesterton, that great wit of 19th c. Britain, I refuse to accept the “tyranny of the present,” especially as it relates to the Bible.
And so when I was asked to preach, I looked at the Sunday lectionary readings and lo and behold, the words of St. Paul to St. Timothy, appointed for this most recent Sunday leapt off of the pages of Scripture. They leapt, in part, because they are a rousing reminder that the faith once delivered to the saints, once given, once offered, did not start with us, nor will it end with us. It didn’t even start with the people to whom Paul was writing. It comes, this gospel, this good news, from God himself as gift. Not, of course, a passive gift, but one that must be kept, must be embraced, must be lived in order for us to receive its fullness.
St. Paul was writing to his junior colleague and reminding him that the faith once delivered, and once accomplished in Jesus’ death and resurrection, was one worth embracing, yet within that embrace its also contains a corrective element.
More than a sign-post, scripture was, and is, both the rudder and the ship, scripture is, in fact, God-breathed.
The Wesleys firmly understood this. One can’t go for more than a few words in either John’s writings or Charles’ hymns without encountering a scriptural reference or allusion. One Charles Wesley scholar once joked that if every copy of the scriptures were lost, we could piece them back together again simply from the hymns of Mr. Wesley. The brothers were said to have bathed in scripture, not literally of course, but pouring over it continually to encounter the wisdom of God. In the prayers of the Church of England’s Prayer Book, they heard the scriptures both read and often the basis of the words of the prayers themselves.
It’s this combination of scripture study and prayer that is always the bedrock of revival, the means by which it appears, at least historically, for the Holy Spirit to find a welcome in the Church and to unleash the fires of renewal.
I still remember fondly the first time I ever stepped into John Wesley’s prayer room in his home in London. The room, a small room off of his bedroom, was where Wesley would begin his days in prayer. It’s been called “the powerhouse of Methodism” and you can see why. Wesley would pour himself out in prayer to the Father. Being a Wesley scholar has its perks because I was given keys to the house and the next day I was able to spend time in that room without the tour guides, praying for friends and family, for the Church.
But for Wesley, the renewal that he was a part of, the renewal that was at the center of his work, and likely in many of his prayers, would not have been possible without the foundation of the scriptures. In the beginning of Wesley’s Notes Upon the New Testament, essentially an early version of a study bible, he wrote that:
“Concerning the Scriptures in general, it may be observed, the word of the living God . . . which remaineth for ever: of which, though heaven and earth pass away, one jot or tittle shall not pass away. The Scripture . . . of the Old and New Testament, is a most solid and precious system of Divine truth. Every part thereof is worthy of God; and all together are one entire body, wherein is no defect, no excess. It is the fountain of heavenly wisdom, which they who are able to taste, prefer to all writings of men, however wise, or learned, or holy.”
In this, Wesley was no different from church leaders who went before him. The scripture, this fountain of heavenly wisdom, was something that St. John of Damascus spoke about when he wrote that, “To search the sacred Scripture is very good and most profitable for the soul. For, ‘like a tree which is planted near the running waters,’ so does the soul watered by sacred Scripture also grow hearty and bear fruit in due season.”
Or when St. John Chrysostom, the Golden Mouthed, so named because of his wonderful sermons, described the scriptures as the teaching authority of Christ himself, now that Christ has ascended to the Father. Or Augustine, who argued that the Scriptures must serve as our corrective, that when there is conflict between our will and the words of Scripture, it is our will, not Scripture, that must change for holiness and spiritual maturity to take place.
But we could spend all day listening to quotations from the Church Fathers and Mothers, the Doctors of the Church, or the Wesleys, but what is it that unites the Church’s approach to the Scripture throughout time? What has it meant for the community of the faithful to follow the Scriptures, to embrace these words to Timothy that claim that “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”
I’ve come to believe that at the core of this long-term approach is something I think best described as a hermeneutic of appreciation as opposed to a hermeneutic of suspicion. It is to come to Scripture as the gift of God that it is, rather than a collection of texts to be challenged. This hermeneutic of appreciation is an approach to Scripture that seeks not the warrant of scripture to justify our preconceived notions or opinions, but an approach to Scripture that seeks nothing but the face of God and the way of salvation.
In the English Church tradition this has been described as “meditating on the Scriptures,” being formed by Scripture rather than expecting Scripture to be conformed by us. And this is at the root of Paul’s argument. The point of his argument for the inspiration of Scripture is that it is a means of holiness. But holiness is not our being told we’re right, but our being renewed, transformed, in the image of the Son of God. And I think it’s here where Scripture serves a dual purpose, because not only does it call us to holiness, but it is the only authoritative source for what that holiness looks like.
It’s too often the case that we have come to believe that we can define our own story. Phrases such as “my truth” or “my reality,” I’m afraid, are more than simple awkward slogans, but are rather indicative of an self-centered mindset that defines everything, including truth and reality, from the vantage point of the individual and his or her perceived experience.
This is one of our contemporary heresies and it’s finding its way into the church, the idea that we can find our identity, or determine our identity, in anything other than the story of God’s calling of the people of Israel and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
John Calvin, although as a staunch Wesleyan I’m not always the first to sing his praises, was absolutely correct when he described the human heart as a factory of idols. Attempts at self-definition or even to declare God in ways contrary to his revelation, simply prove Calvin right, but even more so prove our continued need for the bible.
Let me put it this way, if God, Father, Son, and Spirit, must fit within our ideological framework, or if we imagine that Jesus simply looks like we would if transported to 1st century Palestine, we’ve lost our way.
The God who calls a small and seemingly insignificant people to be his mouth-piece in the world, the God who comes as a helpless child, born of a Virgin, the God who eat and drinks with sinners, the God who dies as a criminal, the God who began a revolution in a graveyard, the God who calls men and women throughout all ages who the world would never think to put in positions of leadership, will never fit within the expectations of humanity.
But how do we approach the Bible? For the Bible is the means by which God’s story is still told. The history of the Church, and of its scriptures, is full of the wholesome use of the Scriptures, but it can also provide us with ways to avoid. When I think of the early 20th c. Scope’s Monkey Trial, I’m reminded of ways in which we’ve forgotten how to approach scripture. In terms of that famous trial that seemed to pit science vs. religion, religion vs. science, everyone lost. The progressives lost because ultimately they made themselves the point of the story and slipped into idolatry. Their learning became the foundation of their own faith and they elevated human achievement and aspiration to a form of what Wesley would call “practical atheism,” living in the world as though God doesn’t exist.
Likewise, the fundamentalists failed because they made the bible an idol, or at least their own interpretation of it. They slipped away from public life and created a subculture that ignored the role that God’s people must play in the public arena to remind the world not only of God’s love but of his call for justice. Both groups failed because they failed to understand that the Bible transcends the interests of modernity. The bible is neither a textbook nor simply a moral guide. Inspired by the Spirit who inspired its authors the Bible is nothing less than God’s word to us, a transforming word.
St. Paul makes this point in the lesson, when he describes Scripture as God-breathed, yes, but ultimately a means by which the believer is made righteous because it conveys to us the story of the God ultimately revealed in Jesus. It’s neither a matter of does and don’ts, nor a matter of self-justification, but rather a means of grace, a channel of God’s power.
As St. John Chrysostom said, “the Scripture is given: that the person of God may be rendered complete by it. Without this they cannot grow to maturity.”
I’ve come to believe that a faithful approach to scripture is a basic element within a truly Christian life. It’s a basic matter, it’s a matter that needs to be taken up before one can move on to other aspects of the faith. J. D. Walt rightly argues that we spend too much time focused on the first part of salvation, the getting saved, justification by faith, etc., but how can we move onto the second half of the story, the new birth and sanctification, if we don’t know the basic story of God’s saving work? Or worse yet, if we still believe that we can define it ourselves. For Wesley, as he wrote in The Character of a Methodist, belief in the inspiration of Scripture is a basic Christian belief, in fact one that defines believers from non-believers.
I will end today with a personal story, a testimony if you will, because I did not always have a healthy approach to the Bible. As a teenager I was a classic fundamentalist. I reveled in it. I wasn’t raised that way, but for me the bible was my arsenal and I could take on the principalities and powers with my black leather, gilt-edged study bible. And then I met Peter Gomes, the ironic preacher to Harvard University and he opened my eyes to what he rightly termed my “bibliolatry.” The bible had become an idol for me.
But I swung to the opposite extreme, essentially to another form of fundamentalism, but of a liberal variety. The bible was my arsenal still. Both forms missed the point, because my lens, although a different hue, was still the locus of authority. At no point did I realize that Scripture was the authority and not me. And in the process, through seminary and doctoral work, while I retained an affinity for the orthodox faith (you can’t read Wesley on any regular basis and stray from orthodoxy) I had finally come to the point where my love for the Scriptures had grown cold, where I imagined that I didn’t need them, and so I rarely cracked open a bible at all.
It was a Presbyterian from New York who finally awakened me to realize the treasure I had right in front of me, still in black leather, still with gilt edging. I read with tears from this Reformed pastor and it was like scales falling off of my eyes. I had a treasure, a priceless treasure right in front of me, calling me to holiness and showing me what holiness actually looks like.
What I needed was not a post-fundamentalist perspective, either right or left, nor a post-liberal or post-post-liberal perspective, I needed to approach the Scriptures with arms open wide that I might hear the words of my Savoir, that I might hear, actually hear the message of the Gospel faithfully transmitted that names my sinfulness, yes, but even more so provides the remedy for that sinfulness. I needed to hear, to actually hear, the words of Jesus saying “I love you, I died for you, and you will be a new creation in me!” I needed to encounter the Christ conveyed in the pages of Scripture, to be enlivened by His Spirit, to be able to cry out in the words of the Bible, “Abba, Father.”
Friends, never loose your love for the Scriptures. Never deny yourself the treasure you hold in your hands. For it contains the words of life, the words of the Savior, the word of God. Amen.
Ryan N. Danker