Being Not Sure About the Bible

How Being Not Sure Impacts Preaching

I continue to be fascinated by John Suk’s journey. For me the benefit of John’s exodus is the opportunity he creates to compare some of his thought to my own. Since we are products of the same tradition (although I’m sure his growing up in Canada was quite different from me in Paterson) it’s fun to watch the moves he makes.

He recently did a sermon on couples cohabitating rather than marrying. One of the lines that stuck out to me was “So while I’d never say that living together is wrong—I’d add that making promises is beautiful, and great strategy for nurturing attachment.”

What’s interesting about the line for me is how it obviously and self-consciously departs from what you would expect from a typical evangelical sermon which would likely say “living together is wrong because God in the Bible teaches us that this arrangement should be reserved for those who formally marry before God and the state. This is God’s revealed standard for us and we know it because he told it to us in his Word, the Bible.”

The Bible in the Middle

If you read John’s book “Not Sure” the difference between these two sermons is not a surprise. A big piece of what John’s no longer sure about has to do with the Bible, and of course John is not alone in his skepticism. Pastors publicly embracing their skepticism about the Bible and other aspects of traditional Christianity seems a popular topic for book sellers. 

It isn’t a mystery why the Bible becomes the epicenter for this epistemological conflict. One of the most helpful things for understanding this I discovered in a little piece written by Mark Noll for the Biologos website entitled “15 Reasons Why Evangelicals Fear Evolution”.  Here’s the money quote for this subject.

In the effort to build churches with forms and assumptions that fit the new American nation, most of Europe’s traditional authorities came under severe attack.  The great exception was the Bible.  Passages from Scripture had been invoked everywhere during the Revolution, though often in symbolic ways (like referring to the British Parliament as “Egypt” and George Washington as “Moses”) rather than in deciding whether the Revolution was a just war.  In the early republic, the great engine of the revival preaching that proved so successful for Methodists, Baptists, and many others was the Bible.  Scripture was preached by itinerants and by regular clergy; it was the basis for organizing churches on the frontier and maintaining stability in settled regions.  In the absence of well-developed social institutions or government structures, the King James Version of the Bible was the closest thing to a universal cultural authority.  And because the Bible was the people’s book, which all who could read might appropriate for themselves, it almost completely escaped the suspicion that fell upon the other mainstays of historical European Christianity.

It is important to restate the sequence that undergirded the attitudes that took firm hold in early American history. Conventions in biblical interpretation were not worked out in academic isolation but were agents of tremendous public power forged in the crucible of practical necessity. A democratic, populist, and literal hermeneutic was the interpretive strategy that evangelical Protestants exploited to win the new republic for Christ. The social transformation that resulted seemed to validate the evangelicals’ approach to Scripture. For reaching the unreached with the Christian message, for organizing congregations and building churches, for creating agencies to construct and reform society, reliance on the Bible alone, literally interpreted, worked wonders.

If embracing a way of reading the Bible afforded communal certainty, having that certainty surrounding the Bible break down similarly produces doubt and a break from the community the retains the ideal.

To say this isn’t to say the tradition that John and I share, brought across the Atlantic from the Netherlands was soft on the Bible. The Dutch had their own tangle over liberalism that is was part of the forming of the CRC. You can’t read a document like the Heidelberg Catechism and not see the continued themes of the Reformational cry “sola scriptura” echoing throughout.

Statements We Are Willing to Make and Why

What I am interested in is why we are willing to publicly say some things and not others especially as preachers and why. A big piece of this will be about how we feel about the Bible and why. John is not sure about some things he used to be more sure about. Our stock “evangelical preacher” remains sure about some of those things that John doubts. John, however, is sure about other things, like that he would never say that living together is wrong. He is more sure that torture is wrong and that “attachment” is important.

This will not simply be about John, what he is sure of and what he isn’t, but about what and why preachers feel sure enough about to speak about publicly.

We won’t fixate on John Suk for too long. We’ll bring in the yoga teacher and Reza Aslan as well. More to come.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in CRC, philosophical reflection and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Being Not Sure About the Bible

  1. John Suk says:

    Why are we willing to publicly say some things and not others, especially as preachers? Good question–different from why do we believe what we do. I suppose we may be willing to say some things publicly because we believe the Bible teaches those things, as you suggest. In one corner of the Reformed tradition, some people even seem to say that as a preacher it your responsibility to say “thus says the Lord,” with authority because “he who hears you hears me” (James Daane seems to think some of God’s sovereignty rubs off on preachers, though my experience with many poor preachers would suggest otherwise).

    I’d make a case for more humility in the pulpit–two kinds. First, the humility that is willing to avoid all versions of the “superlative error,” (that is, preaching using phrases like: “the most basic,” “the most important,” “the central,” “the quintessential truth,”–no sermon ought to have more than one superlative in it, and only very rarely one related to a truth claim).

    And second, sermons ought to be places where the preacher is willing to own up to his or her own fallibility and lack of certainty. After all, we’ve all heard enough preachers say the stupidest things as if they were the word of God. We’re all on a journey. Pick any sermon you (or I) preached in our first year out of seminary, reread it, and consider–would I ever say that again? Sometimes, I suppose, yes. But usually (for me at least) never!

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