Sunday, April 22, 2012

Minimalist and maximalist views of scripture


Lately, I’ve been reflecting on how the Church regards and uses Scripture (e.g., cf. Ethical Musings: Read the Bible? Maybe not and Ethical Musings: When we encourage Bible reading).

Those reflections prompted me to take a fresh look at what Episcopal clergy say they believe with respect to Scripture in their ordination vows.

Candidates for ordination as Bishops, Priests, and Deacons vow:

I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation (Book of Common Prayer, Ordination: Bishop, p. 514; Priest, p. 526; Deacon, p. 538)

Bishops promise:

·         Bishop Will you be faithful in prayer, and in the study of Holy Scripture, that you may have the mind of Christ?

·         Answer I will, for he is my help. (Book of Common Prayer, Ordination: Bishop, p. 517)

Priests and Deacons make a slightly different promise:

·         Bishop Will you be diligent in the reading and study of the Holy Scriptures, and in seeking the knowledge of such things as may make you a stronger and more able minister of Christ?

·         Answer I will. (Book of Common Prayer, Priest, p. 532; Deacon, p. 544)

One approach, consistent with those vows and promises, regards Scripture from a minimalist perspective, i.e., containing everything necessary for salvation because the Bible is a window through which God's light shines.

A second approach, also consistent with those vows and promises, regards Scripture from a maximalist perspective, i.e., every word in the Bible is from God and is therefore, in some way and at least at certain times, revelatory. Of course, an even more radically maximalist perspective is to view each word of the text (if only we had the original!) as the verbatim word of God. Although some Christian fundamentalists adhere to this view, in general the view is more congruent with Islam than Christianity.

Between those two approaches is a spectrum of variants that differ in degree between the minimalist and maximalist approaches.

I find this perspective intriguing. First, minimalist, and maximalist language removes the inherent value judgments that sometimes impedes communication between people with different theological views.

Second, different understandings of the authority of Scripture often explain why people can read the same book, even the same passage, and derive radically different messages. The debates about the ordination of women and the morality of gay sex illustrate this.

Third, and most importantly, few Christians really hold anything approaching a maximalist understanding of the Bible’s authority, regardless of what they think or claim they believe. If more Christians really believed in the maximalist position, then these Christians would devote time daily to studying the Bible and adhere to more of its teachings (not just popular ones but unpopular ones, e.g., stoning blasphemers and exiling menstruating women to the community’s fringe). Radical Christian communities, such as Sojourner’s in Washington, DC, would be the norm and not the exception.

Actions speak louder than words. I strongly believe that most Christians, regardless of avowed theological persuasion, are in fact much closer to a minimalist view of Scripture than to a maximalist view.

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