Friday, December 20, 2019

What's Good about the Church?

In many ways the current age is tending toward a post-Christian era. One indicator of this turn of affairs is the large number of those who have joined the Church Alumni Association (CAA). People who are part of the CAA have either quit the church or their participation in formal religious activities has taken a far backseat in their lives. This is not something new. Even at the dawn of the Christian era there were those who, for one reason or another, abandoned what we know historically as the traditional Christian community.1 Church leaders labeled such people apostates (Heb 6:4-6), but we do not know how these folk thought of themselves or what they thought of the traditional Christian communities they left behind, because they left no records. A few are even named; for example, Demas is mentioned positively as a companion of Paul (Col 4:14; Philemon 24), but he is also remembered negatively as having “forsaken” Paul and the Pauline church (2 Tim 4:16).2

            The situation of the CAA raises the question: how does one maintain a connection to the Christian tradition when one no longer considers oneself a traditional Christian in terms of the fourth century confessions and creeds of the church, which are still universally used to define mainstream Christianity? Naturally, there is a prior question: why would one even want to stay connected to the traditional Christian community, when one acknowledges that one is no longer traditionally Christian in terms of the church’s confessions and creeds?

            Pondering an answer to the “why” question leads me to three personal observations in defense of staying connected to the church. In my case the church is my heritage. I grew up in the church; it has played a major part in my adult life and forms the basis of who I am today. No one can completely escape their own history. I can no more shake the church out of my system than I can shake off my southern accent and Mississippi upbringing. Church, southern accent, and the Mississippi Delta in part define who I have become. For good or ill I will always be a Baptist “Delta boy,” although I have been exposed to strange and novel ideas, traveled a bit in the Western world, and lived for a spell in some exotic places.3 Even “progressive Christians” who, in their more extreme forms have abandoned traditional Christology and Theology, have remained traditional in terms of their ecclesiology—that is, they still hold on to the idea of the church as a positive social institution for housing their activities; however, they reorient the significance and meaning of the ordinances (baptism and Eucharist). In a sense progressive Christians are still a part of the ecclesiastical scene in society as churches that compete with traditional Christian forms of the church.

            As a responsible citizen of these United States, I have an interest in seeing the traditional church succeed. For all its ills and imperfections, warts and blemishes it aims to be a positive force in human society. The Gospel of Matthew (5:13-14) cites Jesus as telling his followers “You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world” (Gospel of the Savior 1:4; compare Matt 5:13-14). Salt is a well-known preservative that enhances the flavors of the ingredients of food—it helps food taste more like itself. And light is essentially necessary for life in a world that becomes dark every 12 hours. This directive of Jesus is frequently translated into humanitarian service that is quite apart from their primary religious function. Who would not want to be associated in some way with an institution that aims for the betterment of human life, society, and culture, even if it often misses the mark? A major focus of many progressive churches is “justice in the social order”—something progressive Christians learned from the traditional Christianity from which they have emerged.

            As an educator, what I find best about the church, however, is that as an institution it sets aside one day a week to ponder human values, ethics, and life’s eternal verities (if such there be).4 It encourages church members to reflect on societal issues and on what one might consider life’s “enduring mysteries” (that is to say: things beyond the material aspects of life). There is no other institution in society that makes such a focus a weekly event. To be sure, one can also find a similar focus in university classes in philosophy and religious studies but such classes end every quarter or semester—and not everyone is able to go to the university. The church, however, is open every week. Because of the iconic role of the Bible in Western culture, weekly Bible study provides the focus for reflecting on such issues.

What in your view is good about the church that you can express in non-confessional “secular” language?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1By this I mean to say the communities of those authors whose writings have found their way into the New Testament.  There were nontraditional communities in the earliest period who claimed the term “Christian” for themselves, although they were very different in thought from the traditional communities—like the author of the Gospel of Philip for example.
2Three others are Hymenaus, Alexander, and Philetus (1 Tim 1:20; 2 Tim 4:16).
3The term “Delta boy” was coined (so far as I know) by the Rev. Dr. Buddy Shurden, another Delta boy.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Is the Bible Inspired?

While searching for Baptist churches online in the Kansas City Northland, I ran across this statement of one church’s belief about the Bible:

We believe the Holy Scriptures, consisting of Old and New Testaments only, to be the plenary, verbally inspired word of God, inerrant in the original manuscripts, authoritative, infallible and God-breathed…1

That is to say: the writings of the early Christians are without error and infallible because they are “inspired” (i.e., God breathed). Is that true do you suppose? The idea that this high status is extended only to the “autographs” (i.e., original texts) of the biblical texts is a tacit recognition that the Bible we use in church on Sunday morning is not inspired and hence is not without error or infallible. What we use in church are not the autographs (i.e., the original author’s copy of a text), but are copies of the autographs. In fact they are reconstructions by Modern scholars. Here is a shocking datum: no two ancient copies of the some 5000 ancient Greek manuscripts surviving from antiquity, virtually all dating from the 3rd century and later, agree alike in all particulars. Most textual critics work with the assumption, however, that the original readings of the autograph of a given biblical text are there somewhere among all the copies of a given text that survived from antiquity, but no one knows exactly what those readings were. Nevertheless text critics imagine they are restoring biblical texts to the “original autographs.” What they achieve, however, are the earliest probable exemplars. The texts of the Bible we use in church are imperfect copies of the original autographs.

Second Timothy 3:16, however, claims that “all scripture is inspired by God.”2 Is that true do you suppose? The term “inspired by God” (theopneustos) is only used this once in the New Testament, but there are a few scattered instances of its use in “pagan” literature. The “sacred writings” (2 Tim 3:15) for which this claim is made is probably the Hebrew Old Testament (cf. 2 Tim 2:19; 2 Tim 5:18). The term “all” or “every,” however, suggests to my ear that the author of this text may have had other individual writings in mind not limited to the Hebrew Old Testament. It could not have been the “New Testament,” however, which did not exist as a recognizable collection when Second Timothy was written.

The really odd thing is that not even God can inspire a text, unless s/he uses an eraser and rewrites the text with the divine quill. That is because texts are inanimate things. Of course, God can inspire the authors of texts to write, but they are still hampered by their abilities and life situations, and the written product will reflect the abilities and inabilities of the author. Nevertheless, any text (no matter how poorly written) has an innate potential for inspiring readers, but when inspiration occurs, it is caused by the reader’s response to the text. In other words, it is the reader that is inspired, not the text. I cannot think of any text that everyone would agree has an innate identifiable quality that can be described as “inspiration,” and that includes the Bible. Although I find First Corinthians 13 to be an inspiring text, that does not make the chapter inspired, for others may disagree, and I am unable to explicitly quantify “inspiration.” The Bible also contains texts that are not inspiring. In my view 1Tim 2:8-15 is an example of an uninspiring text because of its clear hatred of women.3

When we talk about “inspired” texts, we are actually describing how we respond to the text rather than to some aspect of the text. Whereas one may claim that the Bible is “God-breathed,” another may make that claim, for example, for the Book of Mormon because it was given to Joseph Smith by an angel—just as Moses received the Torah (Gal 3:19, Acts 7:38, 53; Heb 2:2; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 15.5.3).4

What claims does your church make for the Bible?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

2See Hedrick, “Revelation and Meaning,” Wry Thoughts about Religion, Saturday, August 31. 2013:
3Misogyny is the appropriate expression to describe such views as this text contains.
4See Hedrick, “How did Moses Come by the Torah,” Wry Thoughts about Religion, Tuesday, September 30, 2014.