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April 18, 2005



To be honest, Caroline, I find this a very frustrating series of posts. :-) On the one hand, this feels like a (better and clearer) reflection of some of the things I've been thinking about (but failing to articulate) for quite some time.

Yet, OTOH, like all good discussion points, it raises far more quetions for me than it answers.

So, if this seems like one big critical dismissal, it's not. This is me seeking to examine my own views and see how they might be better improved and/or expressed.

"If we read with submissive wonder (rather than authoritative understanding)? Do you think that we'd have enough time to tell others off for their errors?"

That gets to the heart of my problem. I think this risks being too individualistic and not half as practical as it first seemed.

What if my wondrous submission to scripture lead me to want to challenge injutice and oppression? And does it not encourage me to help friends struggling with numerous issues. That can surely denegrate into moralistic interfering, but there are other alternatives besides individualistic mysticism.

In a comment on your last post, you wrote:

"I also guess that my opposition to Bush and Blairs' assault on Iraq wouldn't come from the Bible. To come to such a conclusion would require me to do things to the text (ignoring some bits, contextualising other bits) that I feel unqualified to do."

For me, that's precisely where it comes from. Not so much from individual texts or "what the Bible teaches" as much as from the character that is built amongst a community of disciples living in submission to his word. It's precisely because I see *Jesus* as the Word of God that I feel compelled to "ignore" some bits. But that's probably another post! :-)

Anyway, thanks for making me think. But I am still left with these questions over how we avoid a self-interested individualism and how we can stand under scripture in such a way that it is enabled to speak authoritatively on ethical issues.


Graham, as I wrote this post I wondered if I was giving an impression of mystical individualism. I certainly don't want to do that, it's just the way that the post grew in the typing.

Like you, I find in the scriptures injunctions to act politically, like you my political opposition to the war in Iraq grows out of what I have learned of God in scripture. To me the bible is clear about our relational humanity that precludes the kind of power abuse I saw in that invasion and that I see in the conservative governments I see throughout the world (including ones that call themselves Labour). As I read the bible it seems that the actions I need to take in order to be faithful to the God of Scripture are clear (well, not really, but sometimes it gets clear for a moment! :-)


My thoughts are not God's thoughts, I see in as in a mirror only dimly and in part, and so I'll hang back from judging other's reading of the bible as false. I may disagree with their conclusions about sexuality, about prosperity, about who is and who is not a Christian, but I will give them the space to believe it. I may offer alternative views but the Bible's authority is for me to provoke me into Christlikeness. I will not claim authority over others.

Sadly, we see in the worldwide church too many who claim such an authority over others because of the bible.

Now I'm NOT saying that anything goes. I will submit my readings of scripture to others I will allow (encourage?) others to contribute to and challenge actions I find provoked by scripture.

So, for example, I have come across Anabaptists who have helped me attend more to Jesus teaching (like many I have focused for too long on his death and resurrection). Celtic Christians have encouraged me to attend to spending time with God.

Oh dear, this still sound much more individual that I want it to. I suspect that I will need more comments to help me unpack the paradox in my method. It is a paradox that takes scriptural authority as contextual, of the moment and action focused - that hints at individualism. Whilst, at the same time understandable only within the historically emergent in the body of Christ.

Oh dear, my lack of theology is causing me to struggle here. Any help from others?

andy gr

I don't think this line is necessarily 'mystically individualistic'. What if you said 'I am a member of a community that God has called into being in order to transform the earth. However, we're a bit muddled and demotivated when it comes to effecting this transformation. God's normal way of getting us going is to provoke us into action by the rhetorical power of Scripture. Of course, sometimes only one of us will be provoked in this way, and everyone else will say 'no, it doesn't do that to me,' and we'll let the issue lie. But - wonderfully, through the power of the Spirit - sometimes the fire will spread from one of us to another to another and the whole body will be provoked and redirected. It will be life-giving and empowering, and we'll change the world.'

What do you think?


With a blog title "A difference that makes a difference" you can guess that I'm all in favour of making that difference. :-)

That is, I think, the crucial point of reading the bible provocatively, an attention to what God is calling us to do rather than what we should believe.

"But - wonderfully... sometimes the fire will spread.." oh Amen amen!



I don't think I fully understand graham's concern...

"And does it not encourage me to help friends struggling with numerous issues. That can surely denegrate into moralistic interfering..."

Challenging injustice and oppression + Helping friends = moralistic interfering

What am I missing?

"how [do] we avoid a self-interested individualism and... stand under scripture in such a way that it is enabled to speak authoritatively on ethical issues."

Are you asking how you can avoid the confusion and mess of speaking and offering righteousness into the actual lives of others? Are you saying that speaking on "ethical issues" is superior to that? Do you prefer the abstractions to Flesh and Blood?

I sincerely hope that I do NOT understand what you are saying.

I think I agree with andy in that righteousness should be caught not taught. Teaching it in the form of rules and how-to's and suggestions and commandments is just not very effective against the stubborn butt-headisms of the lowest common denominator. But when the Narrative has created the collective values of a group and that group simply lives as if they are real, then others who come into that group catch on. Immersion.

We have an institution here in my town that "houses" kids who have been removed from their homes for one reason or another. Abusive parents, jailed parents, whatever. And the level of character degradation in these kids varies wildly. Some are innocents who just fell through the cracks. Some are crack addicts. Some have been sexually molested. Some sexually molest. They are all thrown in together. This institution is perpetually hiring adult supervisors for these kids. What happens is that the adults catch the sickness that the kids have because the adults are immersed into their world. These adults burn out faster than generic light bulbs and quit. I've met more than a few people who have gone into that place wanting to make a difference in the lives of abused kids and have come out... well, different.

Have I muddied it all even further? I think I'm too tired now to sort it out all the way. I'll come back later and have a fresh look.

graham old

That's a helpful response, Andy, thanks. I guess I'm just wondering about those moments when that individual thinks s/he's heard from God and the community disagrees. How then did s/he hear and what authority does the community have to discern or correct the hearing?

Isn't there here a risk that the individual places his or her own powers of discernment as the true authority?

On the whole, I love this approach, I really do! (And I *think* Caroline knows that?) I think it just needs some tweaking, but I'm not certain where or how.


for the life of me, I cannot understand your response to my response! So, it's safe to say that we are not communicating with each other very well. :-)

My concern with Caroline's approach (and I've noted somewhere that it is an approach very similar to my own) is that it can risk making the Bible just about what God tells me to do. Whereas, ISTM, the Bible has a lot to say about who and how WE should be, what we should do and what we should invite/challenge others to do.


No no no Graham, I really wouldn't want that individualistic take put on my approach to the bible. Because I read the bible through a mirror dimly I will take my reading to others to check. As I read and 'hear' God's provocative command to go and do ... I will attend to whether others will come with me and, if not, I will pause a while to see if it's me or them that needs to listen a while longer.

You use interesting words "invite/challenge", perhaps another way of saying "Provocative Authority" of scripture would be to say the Invitational Authority of scripture. I like that. In talking about either type of authority I only want to set up a contrast with a final authority that permits people not to challenge/invite but command.

But I think the reason why I stick with Provocative Authority is that I also want to emphasise that I can't just approach the bible as it's master and treat it as any old text. I want to acknowledge that I see myself as, in some way, "under the Word", beholden to it's authority over me.


Hi graham.

I checked in at your blog for a few to see if I could get inside your head and figure out what the heck is goin' on here. I'm sure I've got it wrong, but I still don't think I get it.

It seems as if you are drawing unnecessary distinctions to me. Of course (!?) the community helps one discern what one has intuited from reading the Bible. Isn't this the Hierarchy of Authority given to us as a way of checking to see if we've got it right?

1. God
2. Bible & Community or Church & Tradition (which depending on your definition includes Bible and Community)

I think the Church, esp Evangelicalism, has drifted of course on this issue. I think Caroline is making a course correction. That's all. Isn't it?

I'm struggling through "God in Search of Man" by Abraham Heschel right now. (Struggling because he's a modern and I'm not anymore and I've been trying to stop thinking in this way, but he has some interesting ways of integrating mod with other stuff so I'm hangin' on...) On page 182-183 he describes what he calls a "Responsive Interpretation".

He pitches it against the pet peeve false dichotomy of the day of literal vs. figurative. First he defines his terms:

"To take a word literally means to reproduce in our mind an idea which the word denotes and with which it is definitely associated in our memory. It is apparent that only descriptive words can be taken literally.

To take a descriptive word figuratively is to assume that the author is speaking double talk; saying one thing, he means another. It is apparent that only meaphoric expressions must be taken figuratively.

Indicative words must be taken responsively. In order to understand them we must part with preconceived meanings; cliches are of no avail. They are not portraits but clues, serving us as guides, suggesting a line of thinking."

Then he gets to the point:

"This indeed is our situation in regard to a statement such as 'God spoke.' It refers to an idea that is not at home in the mind, and the only way to understand its meaning is by responding to it. We must adapt our minds to a meaning unheard of before. The word is but a clue; the real burden of understanding is upon the mind and soul of the reader."

I read this last night after reading Caroline's posts on this subject. I had a light bulb experience. What makes all this even more provocative is that this guy is not a Christian. He is Jewish and while the smell of Christ is wafting off the pages of his writings, he did not become a believer. NGXST!! That last paragraph is a kicker! I can just hear Jesus talking to Nicodemus about being born again and he's struggling to figure out how to understand that...

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