Thursday, February 28, 2008

Salvation and Faith: The place of Scripture

In the discussion over the last three posts, one area that we have not raised has been what our attitude to Holy Scripture is and to what extent that attitude is significant to salvation. None of the scriptural passages we have offered so far refer to scripture directly in relation to what is expected of us in order to gain salvation.

For instance, qfc suggested:

"and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"
“Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength...You shall love your neighbour as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these."

Susan also gave us:

“Love is patient and kind.
Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude.
Love does not demand its own way.
Love is not irritable, and it keeps no record of when it has been wronged.
It is never glad about injustice, but rejoices whenever truth wins out.
Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.”

And there were many others. The thing is that none of them gave us acceptance of the Bible as a creedal statement or condition of faith.

So, Dear Friends, over to you once again: are there such Scriptural injunctions? Is salvation conditional on our acceptance of scripture? If so, what level of acceptance?

It seems to me that there are four basic ways of understanding scripture.

•Not to believe any of it (which isn’t much of an option for those professing a Christian faith).

•To take a Fundamentalist approach and argue that scripture is inspired literal truth and is to be accepted as the Word of God without question or interpretation.

•To follow a Conservative line which suggests that the Bible is the word of God filtered by the cultural and historical context of those who felt inspired to express their views.

•To accept a Liberal interpretation which says that the Bible contains the word of God and which also recognises allegory and myth as valid literary Biblical genres.

Let’s have a look at the incident where Jesus heals a blind man.

“As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answered, "Neither did this man sin, nor his parents; but, that the works of God might be revealed in him. I must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day. The night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world." When he had said this, he spat on the ground, made mud with the saliva, anointed the blind man's eyes with the mud, and said to him, "Go, wash in the pool of Siloam" (which means "Sent"). So he went away, washed, and came back seeing. The neighbours therefore, and those who saw that he was blind before, said, "Isn't this he who sat and begged?" Others were saying, "It is he." Still others were saying, "He looks like him." He said, "I am he." They therefore were asking him, "How were your eyes opened?" He answered, "A man called Jesus made mud, anointed my eyes, and said to me, 'Go to the pool of Siloam, and wash.' So I went away and washed, and I received sight." Then they asked him, "Where is he?"
He said, "I don't know."
John 9.1-12

•If you take the atheist option the whole thing is a fable with no basis in truth.

•The Fundamentalist position says that if it is in the Bible it must have happened exactly as it says: Jesus had the power to heal from God and the cure of the blind man was a Messianic sign. The story reminds us that Jesus can heal our spiritual blindness too.

•The Conservative might say that there are many similar stories of Jesus healing the blind so it is likely this happened. Jesus had the power to heal and possibly used forces we do not understand, or by suspending the laws of nature. The story also clearly has a spiritual meaning which is probably secondary to the fact that Jesus revealed his power.

•The Liberal could well claim that while Jesus might have used paranormal powers what is more important is the inner meaning of the story. They might see it as being more of a parable than an event because it is trying to express the idea that we are all spiritually blind from birth because of our sin. An encounter with Jesus can change all that because it makes us see things in a new way and that is the true miracle.

And of course we can slip between the cracks and oscillate between ideas being Liberal over some passages and quite fundamentalist over others.

My own view, for what it is worth, is that we cannot simply lay the Old and New Testament worlds across our contemporary world, as a kind of divine blueprint, and attempt to make our world conform in every detail to the ancient near East of biblical times. We cannot ignore differences of time, culture, language, knowledge and perception. Every age is, by its nature, contingent. The Bible itself provides much evidence of radical changes in belief and ethics in response to changing times and circumstances. This fact alone shows that the text of the Bible is not transhistorical nor transcultural.

The love and judgement of God alone are changeless. Men and women and the histories they create are certainly not. Our perceptions and expectations of the deepest human relationships have changed very considerably over the centuries as our understanding of what it means to be human has developed. How many conservative evangelicals today model their marriages on Old Testament law or on New Testament precepts which prescribe a subservient role for women? They rightly ignore much else in the legal codes and social conventions found in the Bible.

Jewish society in Biblical times had a consensus that a great many things were wrong, and others right, as set out very comprehensively throughout Leviticus. We don’t tend to accept them as such now, despite our claims of obedience to scripture, and despite the very clear and severe penalties ascribed to the wide range of prohibited activities. Let’s remember, too, that polygamy was accepted in the Old Testament, yet that is inconvenient to our view of Biblical morality and so can somehow simply be swept aside without discussion. According to Leviticus 25, I may own slaves and yet no Christian I know would sanction that although it is scriptural and accepted in the New Testament too. St. Paul, as you know, refers to it more than once without seeming to challenge it. What conclusion do we draw?

So, ignoring the atheist viewpoint, which of the other three viewpoints above reflects a belief in the inerrant word of God? Do they all in their own way? Is our attitude to scripture determinative of salvation?