My one year at the first seminary I attended was perhaps the most formative time of theological change in my life. The seminary itself was in the midst of a redefinition and realigning of its commitments and leanings, and so points and counterpoints accompanied by passions were thick in the air. My views on Scripture—and the theology that resulted from it—shaped and shifted during that year in a tumult of my own process of redefinition and realigning.
I remember being part of a very conservative church in Philadelphia at the time. As I had become closer to one of the elders in particular–a prominent and nationally-known speaker and performer–he watched me as I wrestled with the Bible I knew I loved. He eventually moved on to work at another church in another part of the country, but his parting words to me were clear enough; he said, “Paul, remember: skepticism is not a virtue.”
I’ve watched similar things play out in a lot of seminarians over the years. Inevitably, even if you go to the most conservative seminary in the world, you will be confronted with some hard truths about the messiness of our faith’s history and writings. As the seminarian figures out what precisely they think about these things, the people and leaders around them who aren’t necessarily on the journey with them can feel far or frustrated. It can be incredibly lonely (further alienating the seminarian from the broader non-seminary community of faith—but that’s another post for another day).
What mindset can we carry into our seminary years that will help us go through this process well?
Often times, Evangelicals and theological “progressives” both end up devaluing the Bible and not truly respecting it or being “married” to it. There is a reductionism of both sides as they use various techniques to keep the Bible at arm’s length so they don’t really have to deal with it as it is. Both ways of approaching the Scriptures try and offer “safety” from the Bible’s difficulty, but real life-giving engagement is never safe. Being aware of this tendency and watching for it in yourself is the first step as we wrestle.
God names his people—in both Testaments—“Israel”, which is Hebrew for “he wrestles with God”. Wrestling with God and his revelation is who we are, and we should embrace this identity fully.
But this “wrestling” with Scripture is not employing skepticism for skepticism’s sake; it’s more than that. It’s opening yourself up to something (and some One) that might not meet your expectations. Just as in any truly healthy relationship it’s in this intra-relational difficulty–and the grace that follows it–that a true strengthening of the relationship is found. It reminds me of this Compline prayer out of the Book of Common Prayer:
O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgment,
and light rises up in darkness for the godly:
Grant us, in all our doubts and uncertainties,
the grace to ask what you would have us to do,
that the Spirit of wisdom may save us from all false choices,
and that in your light we may see light,
and in your straight path may not stumble;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
In “all our doubts and uncertainties” about the Bible, we often think we are destined to either naive fundamentalism, or soul-sucking cynicism and “liberalism”. As the prayer puts it, these are “false choices” that only the Spirit can keep us from.
You should feel free to take seriously the “messiness” of Scripture and let it mess with your head. Only those that love Scripture can genuinely be affected by its difficulties, rather than simply, on one hand, de-valuing and dismissing it, or, on the other, spending your life trying to breathlessly defend it and resolve all its inexplicable tensions.
But here’s the hardest part, and it confounds both of the right-left extremes: we don’t go to Scripture to find–or even form–the sense of authority that we will then ascribe to those words. Our allegiance and commitment to the Bible is a presupposition that we bring to the Bible.
If we are fully anchored in our faith in the God that speaks, then the Bible can be the messy, painful thing it is, and it can shake us, but we won’t be smashed upon the waves. Because our hope, ultimately does not rest in those words on those pages, but beyond them.
As the Catholic Catechism beautifully puts it:
Still, the Christian faith is not a “religion of the book.” Christianity is the religion of the “Word” of God, a word which is “not a written and mute word, but the Word is incarnate and living”. If the Scriptures are not to remain a dead letter, Christ, the eternal Word of the living God, must, through the Holy Spirit, “open [our] minds to understand the Scriptures.”
If the Word has met us, the Book will be our love–no matter how hard that love might be at times.