Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Penned, Pinned, or Patronized – the Word of God and Human Presumption

By Revd Barbara Messner.

“We believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be the Word of God written and to contain all things necessary for salvation. The Bible is to be translated, read, preached, taught and obeyed in its plain and canonical sense, respectful of the church’s historic and consensual reading.” (Jerusalen Declaration, Item 2)
Finding a Place in the Spectrum of Opinion on Biblical Authority
Presumably, for those who subscribe to the Jerusalem Declaration, Item 2 states why the Bible is held to have authority and what that authority requires in proclamation, study and life choices. Different understandings of biblical authority are central to present issues of conflict in the Anglican Communion, particularly those around human sexuality, and therefore it seems appropriate for me as a priest to reflect on what I understand biblical authority to mean, and how I seek to be faithful to that authority in my teaching and study, preaching and values. Labelling my own theological perspective as moderately progressive, I ask myself where my notion of biblical authority sits alongside the Jerusalem Declaration statement, and also alongside some of the more extreme progressive views in reaction to which the Jerusalem Declaration has been formulated. Where’s the rub at either end, and where’s the area of overlap for me?

Scripture “Penned” vs. the Freedom of God’s Word to Speak
At one end of the spectrum of views on biblical authority, I feel uncomfortable with a narrow focus on what is “written” and “plain sense” in drawing boundaries and putting up protection around perceived truth. I believe the mystery of the action of the Word of God is undervalued by what Rowan Williams calls an “appeal to what is commonly taken to be the ‘literal sense of Scripture’ (i.e. particular clusters of quotations)” (Williams 2000, 57). To some, the model of transmission implied by the phrase “the word of God written” is one in which Scripture is seen as being “penned” by scribes who are virtually taking dictation. Even if that were an appropriate model, human error in a fallen world would influence the accuracy of reception and recording of the message. I believe the process of inspiration, while a work of the Spirit of God, is mediated through flawed human beings and expressed in the thought forms of sinful human societies. I also believe that the Word God spoke and the Word of God continues to speak afresh through Scripture are works of grace, but that does not invalidate a hermeneutic of suspicion. Scripture itself records various calls to repent of distortions of emphasis, and to reclaim awareness of what God requires. Hosea 14:1, 2 suggests continual repentance and conversion for human words in relationship to God: ‘Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. Take words with you and return to the Lord; say to him, “Take away all guilt; accept that which is good and we will offer the fruit of our lips.”(NRSV 1989, 739) Ironically, this call to conversion of words follows what feminist theologians might call a ‘text of terror’ in Hosea 13: 16, a call to ethnic cleansing in Samaria in which “their little ones shall be dashed to pieces, and their pregnant women ripped open.”(NRSV 1989, 739) Surely in the compassionate example of Christ we have authority to be suspicious of any claim that such sentiments are the word of God written! Another question about “the word of God written” is whether the word of God is primarily experienced as spoken and heard, or intuitively apprehended, in the dialogue of an “I/thou” relationship, with Scripture written in a secondary stage, to express for a wider audience what was revealed. Certainly, the Spirit guides both processes but the emphasis on what is written needs to be widened to include the influence of the aural/oral genesis and intended use of Scripture, but also to explore theologically how God speaks through Scripture. What God speaks is a unique event for each person and community, while also having universal implications. Karl Barth reflects on this aspect of God’s Word in a subsection entitled “The Word of God as the Speech of God”: God always has something specific to say to each man (sic), something that applies to him and to him alone. The real content of God’s speech or the real will of the speaking person of God is not in any sense, then, to be construed and reproduced by us as a general truth. As readers of Scripture and hearers of proclamation we can and must, of course, work with certain general conceptual materials, apparently repeating or anticipating what God has said to this or that man or will say to this or that man. There is obviously no other way in which we can remind ourselves or others of the Word of God that came then and will one day come again. We may do this in words of our own coining or in Scripture quotations. But in so doing we have always to bear in mind that these materials are our own work and are not to be confused with the concrete fullness of the Word of God itself which we recall and for which we wait, but only point to it. What God said and what God will say is always quite different from what we can and must say to ourselves and others about its content. Not only the word of preaching heard as God’s Word but even the word of Scripture through which God speaks to us becomes in fact quite different when it passes from God’s lips to our ears and lips. It becomes the Word of God recollected and expected by us in faith, and the Word which was spoken and will be spoken again by God stands over against it afresh in strict sovereignty. (Barth 1975, 140, 141)

Scripture “Pinned”, vs. the Dialectic of the Canon
One view of how we are to receive and obey Scripture seems to hold biblical truths pinned, like collected butterflies, accompanied by certified identifications of what is “plain sense” or “consensual reading”. Communal study and reflection involve a respectful understanding of the historic readings and canonical parameters of Scripture. However, because of the multi-valence evident in the canon itself and in historic readings, I take issue with the phrases “plain sense” and “consensual reading”. In their singular form, they seem to claim more than we have any justification to claim in our encounters with Scripture, and risk turning our particular understanding of Scripture into an idol. The power of the Word of God to connect with us whoever and wherever and whenever we are is manifested in diversity. We hear God speak to us through Scripture despite our preferred cognitive styles, our cultural conditioning, our history or ethnic roots. In Scripture we see different traditions given space and respect side by side; but we also encounter contrasting viewpoints, from conventional to radical, from legalistic to poetic, from royalist to egalitarian. Gerd Theissen comments on the dialectical nature of Scriptural variety:
Now one might say the entire Bible varies the same message to suit the situation. Different circumstances demand different responses. But this (moderately) harmonizing approach cannot be sustained. In the Bible, every voice evokes a countervoice. The book of Jonah dissents from nationalistic prophecy, the pessimism of Ecclesiastes attacks classical wisdom, Jesus’ “But I say to you” in the Sermon on the Mount corrects the revelation at Sinai, the Gospel of Matthew criticizes the Gospel of Mark by depicting Jesus as an observant Jew. The Bible includes internal dialogue, the interpretation of which continues to this day in different denominations and schools of thought. Its internal differences legitimize the diversity of Christianity; its unity legitimizes ecumenical dialogue. (Thiessen 2007, 75)

Scripture Patronized
In the interests of even-handedness, let me express disquiet with voices at the other end of the spectrum of opinion on biblical authority. By entitling a book Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Spong (1991, title) claims the Bible needs rescuing, which to me seems as presumptuous as believing the Bible needs protecting from purveyors of “false gospel” which “undermines the authority of God’s Word written” (Global Anglican Future Statement 2008, 1). For me, the authority of the Bible is upheld by its consonance with the revelation of God in Jesus Christ and can be neither undermined nor rescued. I don’t agree with Spong that “the people of this twentieth-and twenty-first-century world of science and technology will not long take seriously a faith story that is proclaimed inside the fantastic symbols of a premodern world, especially if the popular voices of that faith story insist on a literalistic acceptance and interpretation of those symbols.” (1991, 133). While having some sympathy with the concluding clause in that quote, I believe Spong attributes too little significance to the universal meaning of archetypal and poetic spiritual symbols, let alone to God’s power to speak.
I don’t believe the Bible can be explained without remainder as a “human product – the product of two ancient communities” (Borg 2001, 22). Borg dismisses the possibility that the Bible can be seen as “both divine and human” because “it only compounds the confusion” (2001, 26). Borg claims that “affirming that the Bible is both divine and human leads to an attempt to separate the divine parts from the human parts – as if some of it comes from God and some is a human product.” (2001, 27) Nevertheless, we have a precedent for the Word of God incarnate in Jesus Christ being seen as fully human and fully divine, and disentangling which bits are which has been regarded as heretical. We create more problems than we solve by eliminating the divine dimension of inspiration: we can’t describe how revelation operates through Scripture or how the Word of God is heard in minds and hearts at a level that goes beyond human words written on a page.

Seeking Middle Ground

Having begun from what I consider a patronizingly human perspective, Borg does try to reclaim the sacredness and authority of Scripture in ways that I find helpful. He speaks of the Bible as “Sacrament of the Sacred”, “a means of grace” (Borg 2001, 31). Grace is pure free gift from God, and for me sacrament implies an experience of the living presence of Jesus Christ, not just a memory of human interaction with Jesus in the past. Borg himself describes a sacrament as being “commonly defined as a mediator of the sacred, a vehicle by which God becomes present, a means through which the Spirit is experienced.”(2001, 31) For me, this goes beyond a record of “the response of two ancient communities to their experience of God” (Borg 2001, 24). It is a relational experience of God here and now that we can expect in our encounter with Scripture, particularly as heard and reflected on communally when we gather as the body of Christ. Somehow, despite labelling the Bible as a human product, Borg arrives at an understanding of the Bible as “divine self-disclosure”, “the revelation of God” (2001, 34). He does so by reinstating an understanding of Scripture ‘as the Word of God (capital W and singular), not as the words of God (lowercase w and plural)’ (Borg 2001, 33). He suggests that ‘the use of the capital W and the singular suggests a different meaning. Namely, “Word” is being used in a metaphorical and nonliteral sense’ (Borg 2001 33). As he goes on to say, there are advantages to a metaphorical understanding, in that metaphors ‘resonate with more than one nuance of meaning’ (Borg 2001, 33). The metaphorical understanding is certainly vital to the ‘surplus of meaning’ which Borg rightly attributes to a ‘religious classic’ (2001, 51). Rowan Williams, on the other hand offers a complex and nuanced argument that reinstates the meaning of ‘literal’ in the sense of ‘diachronic’ styles of reading, experienced ‘as a movement in time’ (Williams 2000, 45,46). Rather than applying ‘literal’ to ‘a univocally descriptive and exact representation of particular sequences of ‘fact’ (2000, 48), Williams says “‘literal’ exegesis has a particularly strong stake in the realities of conflict. The movement of our canonical texts is frequently a quite explicit response to or rebuttal of some other position within the same canonical framework” (2000, 53). Although we need to take into account the human dimension, its cultural conditioning and its fallibility, I believe we also need to take seriously the work of the Spirit in inspiration, in the formation of the canon, and in the continuing and ever fresh event of the Word of God speaking to us through Scripture. I see both extremes of view on biblical authority being subject to human presumption, which seems to be trying to limit the transcendence and freedom of action of God’s Word. As Karl Barth says, The fact that God’s own address becomes an event in the human word of the Bible is, however, God’s affair and not ours. This is what we mean when we call the Bible God’s Word. We confess and acknowledge therewith that the recollection of God’s past revelation, without which the enterprise of Church proclamation would be impossible, is just as much God’s grace and gift as is the actualisation of our own proclamation needs. It is not in our own power to make this recollection, not even in the form of our grasping at the Bible. Only when and as the Bible grasps at us, when we are thus reminded, is this recollection achieved. If this takes place, if the Bible speaks to us thus of promise, if the prophets and apostles tell us what they have to tell us, if their word imposes itself on us and if the Church in its confrontation with the Bible thus becomes again and again what it is, all this is God’s decision and not ours, all this is grace and not our work. The Bible is God’s Word to the extent that God causes it to be His Word, to the extent that He speaks through it. (Barth 1975, 109) If there is one agenda to this paper, it is an appeal to seek that kind of humility in relation to the authority of the Word of God. We need to beware of our tendencies to grasp at the Bible to control it and own it. Let us allow God to speak to us through the Bible in God’s freedom and grace, without any presumptuous pre-empting of what it is we might hear.

Priestly Vows and Biblical Authority
The chief area of overlap between my views on biblical authority and that of the Jerusalem Declaration Statement 2 is in the phrase “to contain all things necessary for salvation”, a similar phrase to that which I accepted in one of my priestly vows. The Ordinal for priests asks us to state that we “are convinced that the Holy Scriptures contain all doctrine necessary for eternal salvation through Jesus Christ,” and that we will teach “nothing as essential to salvation which cannot be demonstrated from the Scriptures.” (The Anglican Church of Australia 1995, 794) So all we need is in there and nothing essential is missing, but that is not the same as claiming there is some one right understanding that is “plain sense” and about which there is a consensus across cultures and across history. In fact, the vows we take as deacons affirm a multi-faceted view of Scripture. As we agree that we “wholeheartedly accept the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments”, we are also encouraged to see them as “given by the Spirit to convey in many and varied ways the revelation of God which is fulfilled in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (The Anglican Church of Australia 1995, 786)
I find the approach to Scripture advocated and agreed to in the Ordinal to have priorities that I fully endorse and nuances that open up a breadth of approaches. There is an emphasis on “the good news of God’s love” and “the transforming love of Jesus” (The Anglican Church of Australia 1995, 785). I see love as central to the revelation of who God is, God’s Word as seen in Jesus. The responses to be encouraged in ourselves and others are not in the form of certainties in the mind but that “hearts be opened to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly in the presence of God” (The Anglican Church of Australia 1995, 785). The indication of whether or not we are responding to God’s Word is not in some rightness of interpretation or in legalistic obedience, but in bearing spiritual fruit in transformed lives, in justice, mercy, humility, and an open heart. We are encouraged to “study the Scriptures wholeheartedly, reflecting with God’s people upon their meaning, so that your ministry and life may be shaped by Christ” (The Anglican Church of Australia 1995, 794). By such a communal process, the Word of God acts upon us.

Church History and Biblical Authority

Surely, the desire to pin Scripture down to one acceptable meaning has been demonstrated by church history to be presumptuous, in other words based on presuming a particular human viewpoint or preconception. Consider the differences of opinion about Scripture on different sides and among different strands of the Reformation. The Catholic Church claimed that the Holy Spirit as teacher and guide and the unbroken transmission of apostolic authority represented in the papacy and the magisterium sanctioned the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible as the one and only consensual reading. Erasmus, inspired by the classical scholarship of the Renaissance, returned to a range of early sources for his Greek version. Luther and other Reform leaders, influenced by a nascent nationalism, translated and printed and popularized Scripture in vernacular languages. The meaning of passages shifted through all these permutations, and anyone who could read was suddenly empowered to encounter the Bible without the mediation of a Church-authorized expert. People from Anabaptists to Catholics were martyred for their refusal to recant on an interpretation of key passages which defined their particular understanding of who Jesus was in their lives. When given a choice between death in authenticity and life compliant with an opposing authority, many saw the Jesus-inspired choice to be dying true to their understanding of revelation. They were victims of those who believed themselves to have authority to protect the Bible from how people read it by enforcing some consensus, or by killing off as heretical any challenge.
Historic readings have done an about face on some issues of social justice. Over the centuries, plain sense and consensual reading of some passages were used to justify slavery and the subordination of women, although other passages supported those who demanded social justice in those two areas of concern. I believe a similar engagement with different voices in Scripture needs to be undertaken with respect to the issue of homosexuality. As a woman whose right to follow my sense of call into the priesthood would once have been (and by some still is) regarded as a violation of plain sense and of an historic and consensual reading of Scripture, I am particularly grateful to those Biblical scholars whose readings challenged the way the Bible was once read, reclaimed those passages which portrayed the leadership and ministry of women, and encouraged a hermeneutic of suspicion towards parts of Scripture enshrining patriarchal attitudes.

The Vicious Circle of Reacting to One Another Defensively

It seems to me that both extremes of opinion on biblical authority are reacting to a caricature of the other. If only we could stop fighting about what truth is, and judge it by its fruit in people’s lives, as the Bible encourages us to do, then we might find common ground in the revelation of the God of love, shared in stories of transformation. For instance, I believe that Spong is genuine when he says: “I love the Bible. When I was a parish priest, I used an adult Bible class to excite and empower my congregation, and as the primary means of evangelization….This love of the Bible was a gift to me from the fundamentalism of my Presbyterian mother. I honour fundamentalism’s demand that the Bible be taken seriously.” (1991, 247) This is the sort of respect for one another’s views that we need to hear, a respect based on story.
We also need to hear each other’s pain in encountering the anger of the other extreme. Spong writes: ‘One irate reader of a newspaper article wrote that he was praying that the next plane I took would crash, carrying me to my grave. The next time I boarded a flight I felt I should stop at the front of the plane and say, “Folks, there’s something you need to know before this plane takes off.” If I did so, it might result in a wider seat selection.’(1991, 4) Can we avoid such dangerous polarization on both sides? Surely, biblical authority means that the Word of God will be heard in Scripture and recognized in the good news of Jesus Christ, despite us, as well as in partnership with us. Our human desire to protect and control by the building of outraged defences and signing of legalistic declarations will ultimately be as ineffectual as our rescue attempts based on patronizing anthropocentrism, blinkered rational materialism, or sceptical superiority. Maybe we all need to listen to a biblical pronouncement on human presumption in Deuteronomy 18: 21, 22: ‘You may say to yourself, “How can we recognize a word that the Lord has not spoken?” If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously, do not be frightened by it.” (NRSV 1989, 153) Barbara Messner March 2009


Barth, Karl. 1975. Church Dogmatics. Vol. I, The Doctrine of the Word of God. Part I, ed. and tr. G.W. Bromiley, ed. T.F. Torrance. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.

Borg, Marcus. 2001. Reading the Bible Again for the First Time. HarperSanFrancisco.

Spong, John Shelby. 1991. Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. HarperSanFrancisco.

The Anglican Church of Australia. 1995. A Prayer Book for Australia. NSW: Broughton Books.

The Holy Bible. New Revised Standard Version.1989. Grand Rapids, Michigan, Zondervan.

Theissen, Gerd. 2007. The Bible and Contemporary Culture. tr. David E. Green. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Williams, Rowan. 2000. “The Discipline of Scripture”, in On Christian Theology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.


  1. Thanks Barbara for your paper and for all the ideas it prompts.

    I liked the phrase: "What God speaks is a unique event for each person and community, while also having universal implications." For it illustrates both the wonder and complexity of biblical experience and interpretation.

    One thought I have used in sermons for people to consider that when we read the bible (specifically the Gospels) we are experiencing the intersection of three stories: The story of Jesus; the story of the community that recorded that story of Jesus and our own story in the light of those stories. For me that is why it is the living word rather than just words about something from long ago. Because it is about real experience of life, for me, for communities of faith, for Jesus.

    Perhaps for this reason, as you said "the bible grasps at us." Or as Luther said, who perhaps you were referring to, said "The bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold on me."

    I agree that humility must be present in all reading of scipture. For there are many acts in current day and in history which revolt me that are done in the name of Scripture, from the war on Terror, to the KKK, apartheid, violent protests outside abortion clinics, to say nothing of the crusades, slave trade etc.. NOt much humility in those interpretations. As you say, by their fruits...

    I was reminded of a great parable by Edrward Hays called "The Prophet". In it, the priest, Old Father Finny kisses the lectionary at Mass right at the spot that reads: "Praise to You Lord Jesus Christ" and the word "You" comes off on his lips and remains there for the rest of his life. Unable to speak and feeling something like a freak the priest has to visit his bishop. The bishop rightly recognises not a useless priest unable to fulfill his duties, but rather a prophet who bears the word of God. He invites the priest to live with him and accompany him in his ministry - A sign of God's presence and love. When the old priest is dying the word dissolves from his lips and he finds himself able to speak again. As the archbishop sits beside him the priest opens his mouth and says: "You".

    The bible may contain all things necessary for salvation and fair swag of extras besides. But in all of that it has the power to draw from us faith, worship and service. Where it is abused and used to justify acts and attitudes against the kingdom, then we pray that prohets of humility may arise.

    sorry to not be more scholarly.



  2. Thanks, Andrew, for reflecting on the themes of wonder and complexity and the response of humility, and thanks especially for the Luther quote and the Edward Hays parable. Sometimes, I wish I could attain a silence with "You" printed on it, having just written something full of wordiness on the Word!
    Regards from Barbara Messner

  3. Hi Barb, I admire your courage in the face of increasing hostility to anything but the "plain view" of scripture to write this paper and stand by your convictions. Thank you. Ken

  4. Thanks Barbara, I like your criticism of "Plain sense" because you are right to claim that we have the "plain sense" of Scripture is really like claiming that we have the "Plain sense" of the Holy Spirit, which is almost like claiming that we know all there is to know about God and to make ourselves out to be God in turn.

    Scripture is to be wrestled with and for us in turn to be inspired by it, in our relationship with God.

  5. Barbara MessnerSunday, April 19, 2009

    Ken, I really appreciated the opportunity to write the paper because it helped me to clarify what my convictions are, rather than just react against a position. I seek the middle ground almost as a spiritual stance, and I enjoyed exploring what that middle ground might be, how I reflect in it, and how I preach from it.
    Stephen, I agree that it is about wrestling and inspiration and relationship, and the freedom of God to be God and us not to be. There's a lot more I want to explore in this, maybe in further study at some point - especially the interaction between the Spirit and inspiration, and what that means in Scripture and in preaching, but also in artistic Christian expressions of various sorts. Is the Muse and the Holy Spirit one and the same? Is Truth beauty, and vice versa? I like Warren's sense that there is an awareness of interconnection and beauty to discerning spiritual and theological truth.