Taking the Bible seriously: Fred Trost

Here is the Rev. Frederick R. Trost’s paper delivered at the Dunkirk Colloquy in 2000. Trost was the founding convenor of Confessing Christ and is the former President and Conference Minister of the UCC’s Wisconsin Conference.

I bring greetings to you all, grateful for this opportunity to be together in this place. I appreciate the work that Andy Armstrong has done in preparing the way for this colloquy and for the support many of you have given to the Confessing Christ project in the United Church of Christ.

It is a joy to be with you and with John Thomas, Debbie Schueneman, Robert Chase and Paul Hammer as well. Paul and I have been friends, “Since the days of our youth.” I remember coming to the Dunkirk Conference ground when I was a child. My brothers and I looked forward to summer vacations here under the auspices of the former West New York Synod of the Evangelical and Reformed Church, which also decided to ordain me. It is more than fifty years since I was here last and I am reminded of people like Frederick Frankenfeld (for whom I was named), Paul M. Scroeder, Julius Kuck, Otto Reller and others to whom we looked up when we were young.

Any one of you could speak eloquently to the issue we are exploring together, “Taking the Bible Seriously,” for we are, laity and clergy, sisters and brothers in the faith of the church. Each of us and all of us together have been summoned and united by baptism into the work of the Church. We are co-laborers in the vineyards planted by God. Our lives are meant to be a joyful, glad and happy response, despite every weakness and contradiction, to the fact that “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” Every difference we face, every issue among us, should be seen in this light. With the great variety of gifts and background, theology and ways of interpreting the Gospel, we are one in Christ Jesus.

There is, perhaps, no more difficult vocation in the world than the one entrusted to us, nor one more happy, than that of those who allow themselves to be humbled in the service of the Word. I believe I speak for many in simply thanking God for who you are. As D. T. Niles put it in former times, workers in the vineyard, bearers of the Good News, we are fundamentally, “Beggars,” each one of us, telling other beggars where to get food.

Let us pray: Grant us, O Lord, to pass this day in gladness and peace, without stumbling and without stain, that, reaching the eventide victorious over all temptation, we may praise you,, the Eternal God, who governs all things. We give you hearty thanks for the rest of the past night, and for the gift of a new day, with its opportunities of pleasing you. Grant that we may so pass its hours in the perfect freedom of your service, that as evening comes we may again give thanks unto you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Mosarabic Sacramentary, Daybreak. Office of the Easter Church, Doberstein, 20).

Three stories

“Taking the Bible seriously.” I’d like to begin by telling you three brief tales of the church, each rooted in the crucible of the 20th century:

First, a story you know perhaps, and one of my favorite tales of the church, a story about the community of believers at Le Chambon in France. It is a tale I have heard many times over the years and never tire of enjoying.

For as long as anyone could remember, the community of faith in the region of Le Chambon had gathered every week as the Word was spoken. The congregation at Le Chambon was small, unknown, overlooked by many. But prayers were said and songs were sung among these French Reformed Protestants from one season to the next. The years passed in quietness, for the most part.

Then, about the year 1940, things changed. Children began arriving together with their guardians, at the railroad station. Jewish children. They were fleeing the crucible to the east. They were in search of refuge. At first, the communities in and around Le Chambon did not know what to do with them. It was, at the time, against the law to receive a Jewish child.

The communities decided to break the law. It is said that from 1940 to 1943, there was not a wine cellar in all of Le Chambon in which was not hidden a Jewish child, not a hay stack under which was not hidden a Jewish child, not an attic in which was not hidden a Jewish child.

At the time of the month when the moon grew dark, the consistory and other members of the community would gather together all the Jewish children place them in their hay wagons, and transport them across the frontier to sanctuaries in Switzerland, to freedom and to life. In this manner, it is said, the lives of several thousand Jewish children were saved.

In 1943, the pastor and leading elders of the community at Le Chambon were arrested. Pastor Andre Trocmþ was asked by his interrogators, “Why did you break the law?”, “Why did you accept the Jewish children?” To which he is said to have replied: “We did it because we wanted to be with Jesus.”

“Let me say, parenthetically here, that we often struggle among ourselves not because we know the Bible so well, but because we do not know the Bible well enough. Not because we take the Bible so seriously, but because we do not take the Bible seriously enough.”

Taking the Bible seriously!

Second, an account from the same period of a sermon of Clemens August, Count von Galen, Roman Catholic Bishop of Mônster. He, too, took the Bible seriously. It was Bishop von Galen who, Reichsleiter Martin Bormann suggested should be taken into custody and hanged because of his resistance to the government. Their plan was to kill all epileptic and other exceptional children and adults who lived within the diocese of Mônster and elsewhere in the land.

It as Bishop von Galen who proposed that all the farmers living across the countryside of Westphalia take into their homes or find a place in their barns, all the exceptional children and adults being cared for in Church related institutions, then daring the government to come and try to find them.

In a famous sermon preached in the Liebfrauenkirche in Mônster on July 20, 1941, the Bishop exhorted the congregation to take the Bible seriously; to live by faith unafraid.

Remain strong, he said. “At the moment we are the anvil rather than the hammer… Ask the blacksmith and hear what he says. The object which is forged on the on the anvil receives its form not alone from the hammer, but also from the anvil. The anvil cannot and need to strike back; it must only be firm… If it is sufficiently tough and firm,… The anvil usually lasts longer than the hammer. However hard the hammer strikes, the anvil stands quietly and firmly in place and will long continue to shape the objects forged on it.”

The Bishop summoned the congregation to resistance. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer was saying about the same time, it is the obligation of those who take the Bible seriously and who seek to live as Easter people, to open their mouths for the voiceless. (Proverbs 31:8)

“The service of the Church has to be given to those who suffer violence and injustice. The Church takes to itself all the sufferers, all the forsaken, of every party and of every status. Here, the decision will really be made whether we are still the Church of the present Christ.” (Bonhoeffer, Finkenwalde, “No Rusty Swords,” 325)

There is no way to take the Bible seriously without accepting the blows of the hammer, and allowing our faith to be shaped like objects forged upon the anvil of the Word.

Taking the Bible seriously.

Third a tale from the Apartheid years in South Africa where despite the blows of the hammer, little Christian communities shaped by the Word, sang their songs of faith. It was in the season of Advent, as Christmas approached. The community gathered in the tiny village to which it had been exiled and the people sang their advent hymns and Christmas carols.

The government was offended. The police ordered the people to stop. Hymn-sings were prohibited. The government deemed them acts of “disturbing the peace.”

The people went to their homes and at night, in silence, lit a candle and placed it on the window sill. IN every home in the village a candle gave its light. Again, the government was offended. Police were sent to every house. They ordered the candles snuffed out. Then the people refused, the police entered the homes of the people and blew the candles out themselves.

The next night, the people lit their candles again, this time not just one candle but many. There was not a window in the village from which did not shine a candle into the night. It is said the dark night sky above flowed with candlelight.

The police backed away, embarrassed by the thought of entering every house in the village and having to bend down to blow out a thousand candles.

Taking the Bible seriously.

Not a program

Taking the Bible seriously is not a program of some kind. It is not a curriculum. It is not a directive from some source far away. It is not a strategy to solve our problems. It is not a suggestion easily made. It has consequences. It is the simple act of faithful people, done for generations, sometimes at a risk, enabling the Church to make its way through time and events with a song on its lips, often in the face of the laughter and derision of the world. The reality is, hammer blows are struck from time to time.

This belongs to taking the Bible seriously.

I shall always remember the face of Archbishop Oscar Romero. There is a portrait that hangs above his grave inside the cathedral in San Salvador. The gentle face of this “pastor of the poor,’ is not the only thing that stands out in the painting those who have knelt inside the cathedral recall seeing two other things: first, the hands of the Bishop, calloused by good works, are folded in prayer. Second, the Bible is in front of him.

This belongs to taking the Bible seriously.

The fact is, despite all the changes that take place in the Church from one generation to the next, our vocation as Christians remains the same: we are to proclaim the Gospel in the Word and Deed as witnesses to the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. Let the hammer strike where it may.

“The theology,” Karl Barth observed, “there is the question as to the source of the Word, that is, exegesis, and the shape of the Word, that is, (so-called) practical theology. Between them stands dogmatics” (a nasty word in some circles). Dogmatics asks the question, “What are we to think and say?” “What should the content of the Christian proclamation be?” To do theology is to engage in conversation with the Word of God. It is at the heart of our vocation as pastors and as members of congregations. We all do it somewhat well, even very well at times, or somewhat badly, even very badly at times. But we all do it.

A few years ago, we built a new Conference Center in Wisconsin. The Conference staff works there and the Churches gather there to think and pray. When we built the Conference Center, we said to our architect, we have but two requirements: one, there should be skylights throughout the building so we might do our work with light that comes from beyond us. Two, we should have many windows in the building; windows that open wide to the world.

We placed a baptismal font at the entrance to the building so people are reminded of their baptism. In the chapel area, where many of our larger meetings are held, we placed a communion table, a cross and the Bible. The only way the community can look out into he world is through the table. And through that cross and, at the very center, the Bible.

Outside the building, we mounted a large, bronze church bell that had rung for nearly one hundred years from the steeple of one of our inner city churches. We placed it not far from the front door, so that when people leave their work at the conference center, they are reminded of their vocation to “make a joyful noise” in the world; “to sere the Lord with gladness,” that is, … to take the Bible seriously.

But the Bible is more than “light from above’ or a reminder of our vocation “to lift our voices” in the world.

Where the Church is alive, where it lights its candles and allows itself to be shaped on the anvil of the Word of God, it will always have to “re-assess itself by the standard of the Holy Scriptures.” (Barth)

The Bible is, in a sense, a measuring-stick, a ruler, if you will.

Despite some contemporary notions of faith, it is not the evidence of our thoughts that matter when it comes to the faith of the church. It is not even the deep longings of our hearts that count the most. What the Bible offers the Church is the evidence of the Apostles and Prophets, “God’s self-evidence.” (Barth, “Against the Stream”).

The faith of the Church is a gift in which “we become free to hear the word of Grace which God has spoken in Jesus Christ. Our subjective faith lives by its object.” (Barth)

What is of interest to those who seek to live by faith is not me and my faith, but the One in whom I believe and the miraculous fact that should stun us all, namely, that “God is gracious to us.”

God is telling us in the Bible that “I am gracious to you.” This is the Word of God and is the central concept of all Christian thinking. Where do we hear this Word of God? To know Jesus Christ is to be met by the graciousness of God.

To take the Bible seriously is to allow this Word to be spoken to us.

It is the Good News that the publican in the temple has a future and a hope. It is the Gospel that all of us who are acquainted with “the far country,” are also the recipients of a robe, a ring, and slippers.

Each of us who takes to his or her lips the ancient prayer, “Lord be merciful to me, a sinner,” is close to the very heart of this. Close to the astonishing fact that grace abounds! This is what the angels are singing about in the face of the dark night, into the howling winds of the “bleak midwinter.” And this is why the shepherds return to their fields, bewildered but rejoicing.

To take the Bible seriously is to believe this; to accept the astonishing, bewildering, miraculous, absurd, liberating truth…. Despite everything, God is in love with us all!

The Word that incarnates God’s grace is the one whom the second article of the Apostles’ Creed confesses; the one with whom the very first question of the Heidelberg Catechism is concerned; the one whom Herod the King understood better than almost anyone else (and was afraid).

The gracious Word of God, which is the main theme of the Bible, meets the world (according to Luke 2), in that stable in Bethlehem. Christian faith is the welcome to the embrace people give to the fact of Immanuel, God with us. Jesus Christ is present in this world for our good. In him, God chooses to meet us, embrace us, judge us, confront us. This meeting, this embrace, this judgment, this confrontation is a gift. It is why the church has always prayed, and in its most faithful moments opened the Bible and said, “Come Holy Spirit!

Pointing away from ourselves to Jesus

To take the Bible seriously is to trust in the act of the faithfulness of another, namely, the act of God. It is to this act that the Bible points. To take the Bible seriously is to trust that God is here for us. It is to live in this certainty.

Faith points to this fact. We are like John the Baptist. In Matthias Greunewald’s Crucifixion from the time of the Reformation, his index finger points away from himself to the cross, to the Lamb of God. That is our calling too.

Louise’s and my son, Paul Gerhardt, is an artist, a painter. Often his themes are the themes of faith. Recently, he was in Haiti helping to establish a food program among desperately poor children.

Paul sent us a letter describing a visit he made to a Catholic orphanage in Haiti. The orphanage was filled with little children, he wrote, almost all of them sitting or lying in their cribs, crying, reaching out for someone to hold them.

“I stumbled past row after row of those cribs,” he said to us, “in a sea of tears. I was numbed by it all. Finally, I summoned the strength to take one of the fragile children into my arms. Then, I lifted up another and walked outside into the sunshine. I began to sing little songs to the children. Though they could not understand the words, they smiled with the melody. I did this for more than an hour. Then I returned the children to their cribs and said good-bye. As I was about to leave, I was captured by a little girl, about two years old. She stood out because of all the children, she was the only one who was able to smile. She stood in her crib, motioning to me and pointing way from herself, to a little boy whose tears were insatiable. I went to him and held him close to me. The little girl continued to smile. I set him down. She motioned to me again, pointing me to another child who wanted to be held. I thought of John the Baptist,” Paul wrote.

To take the Bible seriously is to point, with whatever gifts we may have, away from ourselves to Jesus.

This, as you know is not always easy. There is a lovely story told of one of the great music conductors of the past century who was leading a magnificent orchestra in one of the Beethoven symphonies. A newspaper reporter noticed that tears poured down the conductor’s cheeks as the symphony was played. After the concert, he asked the great man “Why?” “Maestro, why were you weeping?” To which the great man is said to have replied, “I weep because I cannot make the music sound the way I hear it in my heart.”

It is not always easy to “play the music” of the Gospel or to do our theological work.

Preaching fairy tales

In a remarkable essay by Kurt Scharf, he writes of the temptation of the church to be too generous, to open, too tolerant of the many winds that blow about us. Bishop Scharf mentions how, as a young theological student, he (and many others), lost respect for church leadership because they seemed to have no standards or expectations when it came to the teaching office of the pastor.

The nave of this Church, he said, had become a forum of human opinions, where just about anything was acceptable, so long as one held the belief deep within his or her heart. “In the first years of parish ministry,” he writes, “I became acquainted with a neighboring pastor who had written a book of sermons based on Grimm’s fairy tales. These sermons were popular in my association and it was not uncommon to hear preaching on Sunday morning about Snow White or Dornroeschen” (or Jack in the Beanstalk). The pastors searched for truths and for relevance and popularity anywhere they thought they might find it, including the poetry of Goethe and the dramas of Schiller, but not in Scripture. (See Eberhard Bethge, U. A. “Kirche in Preussen: Gestalten und Geschichte,” 178-180)

Taking the Bible seriously:
      When the Church takes the Bible seriously, it will not trouble itself with “religious virtuosity” or with efforts to construct communities of the “morally elite.”

Where the Church takes the Bible seriously, it will acknowledge that the Bible is Holy because it was written for the unholy. It will understand that the witness of the Bible is not that we, despite everything, believe, but that God, despite everything, keeps faith.

Where the Church takes the Bible seriously, Karl Barth observed, Christ always leads the way and the church follows. Christ always speaks and the Church merely answers. Where the Church takes the Bible seriously, the community knows that it belongs not to itself but to him. This is why in the “Evangelical Catechism,” in response to the question, “What does thy daily communion require of thee?” the newest member of the congregation would respond, “Lord, Jesus, for thee I live, for thee I suffer, for thee I die. Thine will I be in life and in death. Grant me, O Lord, eternal salvation.

Where the Church takes the Bible seriously, it will understand itself as the lowest, poorest, meanest, weakest thing that can possible exist, gathered around a manger and a cross, and also as the highest, riches, most radiant of communities, an Easter people.

Where the Church takes the Bible seriously, its members neither esteem, nor admire, or revere one another, but simply love each other. They accept each other in his or her place, exactly as she or he is, because the community understands the judgment and grace of God.

Where the Church takes the Bible seriously, it is impossible for its members to face one another with any ultimate reservations. It is a community in which people help one another, not with the intent of doing good or showing how selfless they are, or to give God pleasure or to make a public impression, but because they have a common cause. They hold a basin in one hand and a towel in the other.

Where the Church takes the Bible seriously, it summons the courage to challenge, to break the idols, to shatter callousness. It refuses to allow itself to achieve respectability by the grace of society. It will struggle not to allow love to be replaced by habit, ignoring the crisis of today because of the splendor of the past. It will understand itself as a response to life, to passion, to the cross, to the resurrection, resisting moods or fads and insisting on good thinking. It will have empathy for the prophets, who saw a single act of injustice as a disaster, even though it is incapable of emulating them. It will confess that theological work among people of faith can only take place in relation to Auschwitz and in a context in which the clouds formed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain with us. (Cf. Abraham Joshua Heschel).

Where the Church takes the Bible seriously, it sits at Jesus’ feet like Mary. It knows that no one belongs to it by virtue of one’s religious experience, but rather, it knows it is already called together, united, and governed by the Word of its master, or it is not the church at all. (Cf. Karl Barth, “Against the Stream.”)

Where the Church takes the Bible seriously, the members of the community will bear one another’s burdens, seeking to live life from the Gospel in relation to the Word made flesh, as provisional heralds, as representatives of those who do not yet know Jesus Christ.

Where the Church takes the Bible seriously, it believes that God who was in Christ does not cease to live for us, and so the Church lives in anticipation, in hope, expecting surprises.

Where the church takes the Bible seriously, it confesses God with us. “If its poverty lead it into temptation, it will confess Christ was poorer. Should it become grieved by disbelief, it will confess that Jesus was tempted, just as we. It will know that whenever one is in a position of weakness, he or she shares God’s life.” (Bonhoeffer).

Where the Church takes the Bible seriously, it sees a great light, though it is still a community walking in darkness. It therefore leaves behind all self-satisfaction, but also all brooding and despair over the enigmas of the present. It knows that it serves God by serving its neighbors in the world, wherever they are, whatever language they speak, or politics they profess or race to which they trace their roots. Its mission is not to say “no” but to say “yes.” That God is not against us, but for us. (Cf. Barth)

Textual criticism only reveals the surface

In April, 1936, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to his brother-in-law, Rudiger Schleicher (who was later to perish with Bonhoeffer for his role in the conspiracy). In this letter, Bonhoeffer speaks of the necessity of taking the Bible seriously. It is to believe that in the Bible it is God who speaks to us. Textual criticism belongs to biblical study, but it can only reveal the “surface of the Bible, not what is within it.” Bonhoeffer asks an insightful question: “When a dear friend speaks a word to us, do we subject it to analysis? No, we simply accept it, and then it resonates inside us for days. The word of someone we love opens itself up to us the more we ‘ponder it in our hearts,’ as Mary did. In the same way, we should carry the word of the Bible around with us. We will only be happy in our reading of the Bible when we dare to approach it as the means by which God really speaks to us, the God who loves us and will not leave us with our questions unanswered.” (Bonhoeffer, “Meditation on the Word.” 44).

To take the Bible seriously is to understand that my knowledge of God does not originate either in my own experience or the insights which I bring from within myself, but that it is based on God’s revelation of God’s own Word. It is to frankly acknowledge that either I am the one who determines the place in which I will find God, or I allow God to determine the place where God will find me. God tells me where God is to be found. “If it is I who say where God will be” Bonhoeffer wrote to his brother-in-law, “I will always find there a God who in some way corresponds to me, is agreeable to me, fits in with my nature.”

But if it’s God who says where (God) will be, then that will truly be a place which at first is not agreeable to me at all, which does not fit so well with me. That place is the cross of Christ. And whoever will find God there must draw near to the cross in the manner which the Sermon on the Mount requires. That does not correspond to our nature at all… But this is the message of the Bible… The entire Bible then, is the Word in which God allows (Godself) to be found by us. Not a place which is agreeable to us or makes sense to us… But instead a place which is strange to us and contrary to our nature. Yet, the very place in which God has decided to meet us. (Ibid, 45)

To take the Bible seriously is to understand that our God is a suffering God. “It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in (the world)… It is to know that being with and for others is the way in which (we are) formed in Christ.” (Bonhoeffer)

I close with a little advice from one who has come before us (Christian Lendi-Wolf, in Doberstein, Minister’s Prayer Book, 326) [I believe, incidently, that we should remain in conversation with those who have come before us, not only the witnesses of the prophets and apostles, but those frail human beings who believed before we were born. There is an important conversation, as Archbishop Romero observed, that constantly takes place between the “Ecclesia Militans” and the “Ecclesia Triumphans” and we should pay attention to it.]

In a letter to a young student, this one who has come before us seems to sigh as he says

so you want to be a pastor of souls? Absolutely necessary for this ministry is a mirror. But you, I know, are not fond of gazing into a mirror. And yet there are a lot of people who like to stand in front of a mirror because they are pleased with themselves. (I speak) rather (of) that unerring mirror. And what more salutary could happen to us than this? His gaze kills our pride.

Only a humble (person) can really be a pastor… Only a fighter can be a real pastor. The Lord’s presence promises us forgiveness and gives us the courage again and again to make a new beginning… His Word is a call of alarm that keeps us from stiffening into self-satisfied security… The mirror of God preserves us from being phony paragons. Real pastoral care requires truth. And that’s what God’s mirror gives us, in order that we… may care for others with unflinching and joyful hearts.

Friederich Schleiermacher often signed his letters and other documents with the words “student der theologie” (student of theology). This remarkable teacher, the most influential of the theologians of his time, remained a student to the end of his days. As I prepare for retirement after nearly forty years as a pastor, my hope and prayer for you and for the United Church of Christ is that you might sign everything you say and do with the statement, “We have sought in this and in all other things simply to be a ‘student of the Word’.”

I thought last evening as the four women in the string quartet played their music so joyfully, what it would be like were each of us to remain, all our days, so happily engaged in the Scripture set before us, paying attention to the “notes,” and even with the mistakes we would invariably make allowing the music to resonate deep into our being, looking up from time to time and taking direction from the first violin.

“Jesu Juva,” Bach would write at the beginning of his compositions—”Jesus, help me.” And at the end of the many of them, the words, “Soli Deo Gloria” (“To the Glory of God alone”).

May it also be so with each of us!