This Thursday, May 25, is Ascension Day. On this day, we remember when, as the disciples watched, Jesus was taken out of their sight, and into heaven (Luke 24:50-51). In the Gospel reading for this day, Jesus tells his followers:
“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the Law from Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures (Luke 24:44-45).
Here, Jesus calls to mind all three parts of the Hebrew Bible: Torah (the Law, or the books of Moses), Nebi’im (the Prophets), and Kethubim (the Writings, including the Psalms). It seems unlikely that Jesus was speaking of specific texts pointing to himself. Rather it seems that the whole of Scripture finds its fulfillment–its truth–in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.
The truth of Scripture is much on my mind this week. The following is an open letter that I wrote, posted this week, responding to the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s statement, “The Bible is true.” I offer it for your consideration, particularly for my fellow United Methodist Christians as we prayerfully consider the future of our church.
Dear sisters and brothers,
As an Old Testament scholar who loves the Bible and whose ministry is devoted to studying and teaching Scripture, I have been most concerned about and interested by the middle of the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s tagline: “God is good, the Bible is true, promises should be kept.” Of course “the Bible is true,” if what we mean by that is that the Bible points us to Jesus, who is the truth (John 14:6). But people of faith often disagree on what particular Bible passages mean, or how they should best be applied. Does “the Bible is true” mean that only one way of reading Scripture leads to truth?
Rev. Jeff Greenway, a leader in the WCA, has recently posted a statement about Scripture on their web page, unpacking this claim (https://wesleyancovenant.org/the-bible-is-true/). His post indeed does seems to say, not only that the WCA’s reading of the Bible is the only right one, but that those who read the Bible differently don’t really care about the Bible at all. I do read the Bible differently than Rev. Greenway, yet I do love the Lord and the Bible—so I must say that I do not recognize myself in his post. Further, I do not believe that he, or anyone else in his movement, actually reads Scripture in the way that this post claims.
Rev. Greenway states, “The Bible clearly tells us that there are some things we should do, and some things we should not do, and consequences for both.” This is of course correct. But he goes on to say that “Somehow in the last forty years, our Western culture has decided that God’s Word and his will for us is no longer the truth.” Actually, however, questions about how to discern God’s will in Scripture began long before forty years ago. Some of those clear biblical statements are already called into question in the Bible itself, without denying either God or the force of God’s will. To take only two examples:
In Isaiah 56:3-5, the prophet includes eunuchs—men castrated by the Babylonians (see 2 Kings 20:18//Isaiah 39:7)—in the worshipping congregation, even though Deuteronomy 23:1 says that they are to be barred. The prophet does not deny the truth of God’s word, or the importance of the Law; rather, the heart and spirit of the Law (these are “eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, choose what I desire, and remain loyal to my covenant;” Isa 56:4 [CEB]) matters more to him than its letter.
In Matthew 5:21-48, Jesus says, six times, “You have heard it said,” quotes a passage from the Scriptures, and then declares, “but I say”—going so far as to set aside the law of retribution in Exodus 21:24, and the law concerning divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Yet Jesus too affirms the Law and the Prophets, saying “I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them” (Matt 5:17 [CEB]).
Rev. Greenway says of those who (like me) read the Bible differently, “Some believe that those Scriptures that no longer conform to the norms of modern society are obsolete and without meaning. In essence, they want the church to proclaim to the world that in some places in Scripture, God got it wrong.” Yet the texts we have just considered both reinterpreted the Law for a new context (the time after the return from exile in Isaiah, first-century Judea under Roman rule in Matthew) without declaring the Law “obsolete and without meaning,” or saying that “God got it wrong.”
Rev. Greenway quotes from the NIV of 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is God-breathed [the Greek has a rare word, theopneustos, usually translated “inspired by God”]”—implying that the words of Scripture are God’s actual words, fixed and unchangeable. But that is plainly not how Jesus, or the prophet, or anyone of faith in ancient times read Scripture. Indeed, as the rather modest claims the author of 2 Timothy actually makes about Scripture reveal, he did not mean to suggest this either: “Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful [not, note, perfect, or infallible, or unchangeable, but “useful”] for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good” (2 Tim 3:16 [CEB]).
Indeed, none of us (including Rev. Greenway) actually read Scripture in this literal sense, applying it uncritically to our lives. All of us interpret Scripture for our contexts, and apply it selectively. So, we Christians worship on Sunday because we choose to honor our Lord by worshipping on “the Lord’s day” (Rev 1:10), the day of Jesus’ resurrection—but in so doing (particularly if we do yard work on Saturday!), we violate Sabbath law (for example, Deut 5:12-15). If we enjoy ham or crab cakes, we violate dietary law (see Leviticus 11). If we accept or charge interest on loans, we violate some of the Bible’s fundamental economic principles (for example, Exod 22:25; Deut 23:19-20; Ezek 18:8). We Christians might dismissively say that that is all Old Testament stuff, and that we live by the New Testament —but then, we are even more caught in a bind! The Gospels advocate a lifestyle of radical renunciation of the world–how many of us are prepared to “go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor” (Matt 19:21)? Jesus, as we have noted, explicitly condemns divorce and re-marriage (Matt 5:31-32; see also Matt 19:3-9//Mark 10:1-12 and Luke 16:18), as does Paul (1 Cor 7:10-16). But our United Methodist Discipline upholds this practice—and how many of us truly believe that all divorced and remarried people are living in sin? The WCA affirms with all United Methodists the place of women in ordained ministry—but that too is a position contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture (for example, 1 Cor 14:33-36; 1 Tim 2:8-15). The point is that we can, and do, read and apply Scripture attentive to our context as well as the context of the biblical witness—without cheapening our respect or love for God or the Bible.
The unmentioned elephant in the room is hinted at by Rev. Greenway’s often stated “forty years” (with reference perhaps to the 1972 Book of Discipline, when the sentence, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching” [¶ 161F, p. 111] first appeared?). What is the church to do about LGBTQ persons: in our pews, in our pulpits, and more broadly, about the legalization of same-sex marriage in every state of our republic? We cannot simply point at the Bible and say “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” Consistency and honesty demand that we treat the biblical statements on this issue no differently than we do other texts. It is my prayer that we can study together, carefully and prayerfully, attentive as Rev. Greenway rightly says to our tradition, but also applying our God-given reason, and listening to the experiences of our sisters and brothers. We may not ever agree in full. But perhaps we can find sufficient concord in the Holy Spirit and Holy Scripture to recognize one another as sisters and brothers.
Pittsburgh Theological Seminary
From Bishop William Boyd Grove, who ordained me, and will always be my Bishop:
On this date, May 24, 1738, which is 280 years ago, John Wesley had his heart warming experience at a prayer meeting in Aldersgate Street in London. He wrote in his journal, ‘At a quarter before nine, while someone was reading Martin Luther’s Preface to the Letter to the Romans, I felt my heart strangely warmed, and did trust that Christ had saved me from the law of sin and death.’ That experience produced a harvest; the Methodist Movement and the Methodist Church.