As people of the United Church of Christ, affirming our Statement of Faith, we seek within the Church Universal to participate in God's mission and to follow the way of the crucified and risen Christ.
Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are called and commit ourselves:
To praise God, confess our sin, and joyfully accept God's forgiveness;
To proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our suffering world;
To embody God's Love for all people;
To hear and give voice to creation's cry for justice and peace;
To name and confront the powers of evil within and among us;
To repent our silence and complicity with the forces of chaos and death;
To preach and teach with the power of the living Word;
To join oppressed and troubled people in the struggle for liberation;
To work for justice, healing, and wholeness of life;
To embrace the unity of Christ's church;
To discern and celebrate the present and coming reign of God.
About this testimony
The UCC Statement of Mission, 1987, was drafted by a churchwide conference on mission in Houston, Texas, in which representatives from all communities in the church—including evangelicals, liberals, and others—tried to find common ground. The statement was affirmed by General Synod XVI later that year.
The United Church of Christ acknowledges as its sole head, Jesus Christ, Son of God and Savior. It acknowledges as kindred in Christ all who share in this confession. It looks to the Word of God in the Scriptures, and to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, to prosper its creative and redemptive work in the world. It claims as its own the faith of the historic Church expressed in the ancient creeds and reclaimed in the basic insights of the Protestant Reformers. It affirms the responsibility of the Church in each generation to make this faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God. In accordance with the teaching of our Lord and the practice prevailing among evangelical Christians, it recognizes two sacraments: Baptism and the Lord's Supper or Holy Communion.
About this testimony
Adopted at the uniting General Synod of 1957, the Preamble of the Constitution of the United Church of Christ represents the core of the theological consensus that brought the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Churches together in covenant.
In view of the errors of the "German Christians" and of the present Reich Church Administration, which are ravaging the Church and at the same time also shattering the unity of the German Evangelical Church, we confess the following evangelical truths:
1. "I am the Way and the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through me." John 14:6
"Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold through the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved." John 10:1,9
Jesus Christ, as he is attested to us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God whom we have to hear, and whom we have to trust and obey in life and in death.
We reject the false doctrine that the Church could and should recognize as a source of its proclamation, beyond and besides this one Word of God, yet other events, powers, historic figures and truths as God's revelation.
2. "Jesus Christ has been made wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption for us by God." 1 Cor. 1:30
As Jesus Christ is God's comforting pronouncement of the forgiveness of all our sins, so, with equal seriousness, he is also God's vigorous announcement of his claim upon our whole life. Through him there comes to us joyful liberation from the godless ties of this world for free, grateful service to his creatures.
We reject the false doctrine that there could be areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ but to other lords, areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.
3. "Let us, however, speak the truth in love, and in every respect grow into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body is joined together." Eph. 4:15-16
The Christian Church is the community of brethren in which, in Word and Sacrament, through the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ acts in the present as Lord. With both its faith and its obedience, with both its message and its order, it has to testify in the midst of the sinful world, as the Church of pardoned sinners, that it belongs to him alone and lives and may live by his comfort and under his direction alone, in expectation of his appearing.
We reject the false doctrine that the Church could have permission to hand over the form of its message and of its order to whatever it itself might wish or to the vicissitudes of the prevailing ideological and political convictions of the day.
4. "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to have authority over you must be your servant." Matt. 20:25-26
The various offices in the Church do not provide a basis for some to exercise authority over others but for the ministry [lit., "service"] with which the whole community has been entrusted and charged to be carried out.
We reject the false doctrine that, apart from this ministry, the Church could, and could have permission to, give itself or allow itself to be given special leaders [Führer] vested with ruling authority.
5. "Fear God. Honor the Emperor." 1 Pet. 2:17
Scripture tells us that by divine appointment the State, in this still unredeemed world in which also the Church is situated, has the task of maintaining justice and peace, so far as human discernment and human ability make this possible, by means of the threat and use of force. The Church acknowledges with gratitude and reverence toward God the benefit of this, his appointment. It draws attention to God's Dominion [Reich], God's commandment and justice, and with these the responsibility of those who rule and those who are ruled. It trusts and obeys the power of the Word, by which God upholds all things.
We reject the false doctrine that beyond its special commission the State should and could become the sole and total order of human life and so fulfil the vocation of the Church as well.
We reject the false doctrine that beyond its special commission the Church should and could take on the nature, tasks and dignity which belong to the State and thus become itself an organ of the State.
6. "See, I am with you always, to the end of the age." Matt. 28:20 "God's Word is not fettered." 2 Tim. 2:9
The Church's commission, which is the foundation of its freedom, consists in this: in Christ's stead, and so in the service of his own Word and work, to deliver all people, through preaching and sacrament, the message of the free grace of God.
We reject the false doctrine that with human vainglory the Church could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of self-chosen desires, purposes and plans.
The Confessing Synod of the German Evangelical Church declares that it sees in the acknowledgment of these truths and in the rejection of these errors the indispensable theological basis of the German Evangelical Church as a confederation of Confessing Churches. It calls upon all who can stand in solidarity with its Declaration to be mindful of these theological findings in all their decisions concerning Church and State. It appeals to all concerned to return to unity in faith, hope and love.
The Word of God will last for ever.
Adapted from Robert McAfee Brown, Kairos: Three Prophetic Challenges to the Church, published in 1990 by Wm. B. Eerdmans.
About this testimony
The Barmen Declaration, 1934, was a call to resistance against the theological claims of the Nazi state. Almost immediately after Hitler's seizure of power in 1933, Protestant Christians faced pressure to "aryanize" the Church, expel Jewish Christians from the ordained ministry and adopt the Nazi "Führer Principle" as the organizing principle of church government. In general, the churches succumbed to these pressures, and some Christians embraced them willingly. The pro-Nazi "German Christian" movement became a force in the church. They glorified Adolf Hitler as a "German prophet" and preached that racial consciousness was a source of revelation alongside the Bible. But many Christians in Germany—including Lutheran and Reformed, liberal and neo-orthodox—opposed the encroachment of Nazi ideology on the Church's proclamation. At Barmen, this emerging "Confessing Church" adopted a declaration drafted by Reformed theologian Karl Barth and Lutheran theologian Hans Asmussen, which expressly repudiated the claim that other powers apart from Christ could be sources of God's revelation. Not all Christians courageously resisted the regime, but many who did—like the Protestant pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Roman Catholic priest Bernhard Lichtenberg—were arrested and executed in concentration camps. The spirituality of the Barmen Declaration profoundly influenced many of the first generation of pastors and laypeople who formed the United Church of Christ in 1957.
(Revised Edition 1929)
The Evangelical Catechism was the product of Evangelical unionist efforts on the early Missouri frontier, successfully combining Lutheran and Reformed themes to express the ecumenical theology of German Evangelicals. It went through two major revisions in its history. In the 1860s, it was reorganized to shorten it from 219 questions to 137 questions and to make it more useful for instruction. (See vol. 4:53.) In the 1890s, Daniel Irion wrote a commentary on the 1867 revision (see vol. 4:54), and then in 1929 the catechism was revised again.
Walter Brueggemann notes that for most of its history the "catechism served an immigrant church in a particular cultural context." But as time went on the church changed along with its context and u adapted a very different notion of its relation to its cultural setting." Brueggemann suggests that we need to "value the catechism as our rootage without being subservient. It is a delicate matter to celebrate it faithfully without being locked in" (Walter Brueggemann, "The Evangelical Catechism Revisited: 1847-1972" [St. Louis, Mo.: Eden Publishing House, 1972], 13).
In the twentieth century, as the German Evangelical Church left its immigrant identity behind, the catechism finally changed. In 1929 a committee revised it to reflect more social action versus personal salvation perspectives. Although many of the scriptural citations and questions remained the same, the 1929 version changed the structure slightly, placing the Decalogue under the first article, on God's attributes. New answers were written for new questions (92-95 and 112-14) stressing a new perspective on God's dominion and a new explanation of why prayers are necessary and how we should pray.
The revisions, overall, were conservative—following the desire of the church to avoid unnecessary disturbance of those who had learned the old catechism, to avoid useless and time-robbing theological controversy, and to remain as faithful as possible to the highest values in Evangelical traditions.
1. What should be the chief concern of man?
Man's chief concern should be to seek after the Kingdom of God and his righteousness. Matt. 6:33, Matt. 16:26.
2. How do we obtain righteousness?
We obtain righteousness through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we are saved. Acts 16:31.
3. What then must we do to be saved?
We must believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. John 6:40.
4. Where are we told what we must do to be saved?
God has told us what we must do to be saved in his Word, the Holy Bible, which was written by men who were moved by the Holy Spirit. 2 Peter. 1:21; 2 Tim. 3:15-17; Ps. 119:105.
5. In what two ways has God in the Bible revealed his will toward man?
In the Bible God has revealed his will toward man by the Law and by the Gospel.
PART I: GOD AND HIS ATTRIBUTES
6. What has God revealed about himself in the Bible?
In the Bible God has revealed to us that he is One God, that he is Spirit, and that he is Life, Light, and Love. Deut. 6:4; John 4:24; 1 John 5:20; 1 John 1:5; 1 John 4:8.
7. What do we mean when we say: God is Life?
"God is Life" means that he is eternal, unchangeable, and ever present. God is eternal: Ps. 90:1-2; Rev. 1:8; Isa. 26:4. Unchangeable: Mai. 3:6. Jas. 1:17. Ever present: Jer. 23: 3-24; Acts 17:27-28; Ps. 139:7-10; Ps. 23:4.
8. What do we mean when we say that God is Light?
"God is Light" means that he is true, all-knowing, all-wise, holy, almighty, and just. God is true: Num. 23:19; 1 John 5:10; Ps. 119:89-90. All-knowing: Ps. 139:1-4; 1 Sam. 16:7; Matt. 6:8. All-wise: Isa. 55:8-9; Ps. 104:24; Rom. 8:28; 1 Pet. 5:7; Jas. 1:5. Holy: Lev. 19:2; Isa. 6:3; Rev. 15:4; 1 Pet. 1:15-16. Almighty: Gen. 17:1; Luke 1:37; Ps. 38:8-9; Isa. 40:26. Just: Ps. 145:17; Ps. 103:6; Ps. 5:4; Rom. 2:6. Isa. 41:10; Ps. 37:25.
9. What do we mean when we say: God is Love?
"God is Love" means that he is blessed, good, gracious, and merciful. God is blessed: 1 Tim. 6:15-16. Good: Ps. 145:9; Ps. 107:1; Ps. 36:5. Gracious and merciful: Ps. 103:8-10; Ps. 103:13; Ps. 103: 17-18; Lam. 3: 22- 23; 2 Chron. 30:9; Luke 6:36.
10. What mystery concerning God does the Bible reveal?
The Bible reveals to us the mystery that in the one God there are three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and that these three are one. Matt. 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:14; Matt. 3:16-17; Num. 6:24-26.
PART II: THE THREE ARTICLES OF THE CHRISTIAN FAITH
11. In what creed does the Christian Church confess its faith in the Triune God?
The Christian Church confesses its faith in the Triune God in the Apostles' Creed.
THE APOSTLES' CREED
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth: And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord: who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate: was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit; the one holy universal Christian Church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.
THE FIRST ARTICLE OF THE CHRISTIAN FAITH
12. What is the First Article of the Christian Faith?
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.
13. Of \vhat does the First Article of the Christian Faith treat?
The First Article of the Christian Faith treats of God the Father and of the work of creation.
14. What do we mean when we say, "God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth" ?
In the beginning God created heaven and earth by the power of his Word. Gen. 1:1; Ps. 33:6; Heb. 11:3.
15. How does God constantly prove himself to be the Creator?
God constantly proves himself to be the Creator by his fatherly providence, whereby he preserves and governs all things. Gen. 8:22. Ps. 145:15-16. Deut. 8:10. Matt. 6:25. Ps. 121:3-4. Gen. 50:20. Prov. 16:9.
16. What has God done for you?
I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that he has given me and still preserves my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses also food and clothing, home and family, and all my possessions.
17. What does God still do for you?
God daily and abundantly provides me with all the necessaries of life, protects and preserves me from all danger.
18. Why does God do this for you?
God does all this out of sheer fatherly and divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness on my part.
19. What do you owe God for all this?
For all this I am duty bound to thank, praise, serve, and obey him.
20. What are the angels?
The angels are ministering spirits who are sent forth by God to do his will. Ps. 103:20. Heb. 1:14. Ps. 91:11-12. Ps. 34:7. Luke 15:10.
21. Have all the angels always obeyed the will of God?
No; for many of the angels once sinned against God and were banished to hell as enemies of God and man. The chief among the evil spirits is called the devil, or satan. 2 Pet. 2:4. Eph. 6:12. 1 Pet. 5:8. Jas. 4:7.
22. What is the principal creature on earth?
The principal creature on earth is man, created in the image of God, so that we could know him and live in blessed fellowship with him. Gen. 1:27. Gen. 1:31.
23. Did man remain as he was created?
No; for our first parents fell away from God when they permitted satan to lead them into unbelief and disobedience. Read Genesis 3.
24. What were the sad consequences of this fall of man?
By this fall man lost the strength and beauty of God's image and came under the power of satan, sin, and death. This corruption has been transmitted from Adam to all mankind. Gen. 2:17. Gen. 3:17-19. Rom. 5:12. Rom. 7:14. 1 John 3:8.
25. What is man's condition since the fall?
Since the fall, man is not prepared to do good, but inclined to do evil. This inherited corruption is called original sin. Gen. 8:21. John 3:6. 1 John 1:8.
26. What is sin?
Sin is unbelief and disobedience in thought and desire, word and deed, whereby evil is done or good is neglected, whether thoughtlessly or willfully. Ps. 19:12. Matt. 15:18. Jas. 4:17. Luke 12:47. 1 Tim. 5:22.
27. What is the punishment of sin?
The punishment of sin is death, as it is written—Romans 6:23.
28. How manifold is this death?
This death is threefold: physical, spiritual, and eternal. Ps. 90:7-8. Matt. 10:28. Matt. 25:41. Eph. 2:1.
29. What did God in his mercy resolve to do to save mankind from sin and its punishment?
God in his mercy resolved from all eternity to save fallen mankind through his only begotten Son. 2 Tim. 1:9.
30. How did God prepare mankind for the coming of the Saviour?
God prepared mankind for the coming of the Saviour by the promises given in Paradise and to the patriarchs of Israel, by the Law delivered to Moses, by forms of worship in the Old Covenant, and by the preaching of the prophets. Gen. 3:15. Gen. 22:18. Gen. 49:10. Jer. 33:15-16. Mic. 5:2. Isa. 9:6. Acts 10:43.
THE LAW OF GOD
31. Where do we find the law of God in brief form?
We find the law of God briefly given in the Ten Commandments. (Exod. 20:1- 17; Deut. 5:6-21.)
32. What is the First Commandment?
"I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me."
33. What is meant by the First Commandment?
God forbids all idolatry and requires that we fear, love, and trust in him above all things. Eccles. 12:13. 1 John 5:3.
34. What is the Second Commandment?
"You shall not make yourself a graven image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the father upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments."
35. What is meant by the Second Commandment?
God forbids us to worship him in any image; He requires us to worship him as he has taught us in his Word and revealed himself to us in his Son Jesus Christ. Isa. 42:8. Isa. 40:18. John 1:18.
36. What is the Third Commandment?
"You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain."
37. What is meant by the Third Commandment?
God forbids that we profane or abuse his name by cursing, false swearing, witchcraft, or unnecessary oaths, and requires that we use his holy name with fear and reverence. Jas. 3:10. Lev. 19:12. Rom. 10:13. Ps. 50:15. Matt. 10:32-33. Ps. 92:1.
38. What is the Fourth Commandment?
"Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your manservant, or your maidservant, or your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it."
39. What is meant by the Fourth Commandment?
God requires that we hallow the Lord's Day by resting from worldly employment, by diligently going to church, and by using the day for the welfare of ourselves and others, and thus to the honor of God. Ezek. 20:20. Col. 3:16-17. Ps. 26:6-8. Heb. 10:25. Eccles. 5:1. Luke 11:28. Exod. 20:24.
40. What is the Fifth Commandment?
"Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the LORD your God gives you."
41. What is meant by the Fifth Commandment?
God requires that I always honor father and mother by loving, obeying, and serving them, and caring for them in sickness, need, and old age; likewise, that I should respect all who, in God's providence, are my superiors. Prov. 1:8. Eph. 6:1-3. Prov. 19:26. Prov. 30:17. Heb. 13:17 Rom. 13:1. Eph. 6:5-7. Acts 5:29.
42. What is the Sixth Commandment?
"You shall not kill."
43. What is meant by the Sixth Commandment?
God forbids not only murder, but every deed, word, and thought, whereby my own life or the life of my fellow-man is shortened or embittered; God requires that I help my fellow-man in every need and seek his welfare for this life and the life to come. Gen. 9:6. Rom. 12:19. Matt. 5:21,22.1 John 3:15. Matt. 5:44- 45. Eph. 4:32. Isa. 1:17. Matt 5:7. Prov. 24:1-2.
44. What is the Seventh Commandment?
"You shall not commit adultery."
45. What is meant by the Seventh Commandment?
God forbids the breaking of the marriage vow and requires all of us to be chaste in thought, word, and deed. Matt. 5:8. 1 Cor. 6:19-20. Prov. 4:23. 1 Cor. 3:17. Eph. 5:3-4. 1 Cor. 15:33.
46. What is the Eighth Commandment?
"You shall not steal."
47. What is meant by the Eighth Commandment?
God forbids not only robbery and theft, but all unfair and dishonest dealings, and requires that we should help to improve and protect our neighbor's possessions and livelihood. Hab. 2:9. Deut. 25:13-15. Deut. 27:17. Ps. 37:21. Jer. 22:13. Eph. 4:28. 1 Thess. 4:11-12. 2 Cor. 9:7.
48. What is the Ninth Commandment?
"You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor."
49. What is meant by the Ninth Commandment?
God forbids perjury, slander, and all manner of falsehood, and requires not only that we should be truthful and sincere in our lives, but also that we should protect the honor and good name of our fellow-man. Prov. 19:5. Ps. 34:13-14. Eph. 4:25. Lev. 19:16. Luke 6:37. Isa. 5:20. Phil. 4:8.
50. What is the Tenth Commandment?
"You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor's."
51. What is meant by the Tenth Commandment?
God forbids all evil lusts and desires for wrongful possession or enjoyment, and requires that we seek our joy in him and in his loving care for us. Jas. 1:14-15. Rom. 6:12. 1 John 2:15-17. Ps. 37:4.
52. What is the summary of the Ten Commandments?
"You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might." (Deut. 6:5.) "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Lev. 19:18.) "On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets." (Matt. 22:40.)
53. What does God declare concerning these Commandments?
God says: "Cursed be he who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them." (Deut. 27:26; Gal. 3:10.) "You shall therefore keep my statutes and my ordinances, by doing which a man shall live: I am the LORD." (Lev. 18:5; Luke 10:28.)
54. What is meant by this declaration?
God threatens to punish all who break his Commandments, but to those who keep them he promises grace and blessing. We should therefore fear to do wrong and seek to do God's will.
55. Have you, or has anyone, ever perfectly kept the Law of God?
No man has ever perfectly kept the Law of God. By nature we are inclined to evil and have in many ways disobeyed God's Commandments and therefore well deserve the curse of the Law. Ps. 130:3. Ps. 143:2. Rom. 3:20.
56. Can we in any way escape the curse of the Law and be saved?
We can escape the curse of the Law and be saved through the grace of God, by which the Gospel of Jesus Christ is given to us.
57. What has God in his grace and mercy done to save us?
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16.) But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. (Gal. 4:4-5.)
THE SECOND ARTICLE OF THE CHRISTIAN FAITH
58. What is the Second Article of the Christian Faith?
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only begotten son, our Lord: who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried, he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
59. Of what does the Second Article of the Christian Faith treat?
The Second Article treats of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and of the work of redemption.
60. Who is Jesus Christ?
Jesus Christ is true God and true man in one person, my Saviour, Redeemer, and Lord.
61. How does the Bible testify that Jesus Christ is true God?
In the Bible Jesus Christ is called God; furthermore, the Bible testifies to his divine nature and works, and demands divine honors for him. John 1:1-3. John 10:30. John 20:28. John 17:5. John 8:58. Matt. 11:27. John 5:21,26. Matt. 9:6. John 5:22-23. Col. 2:9. John 9:35-37.
62. How does the Bible testify that the Son of God became true man?
Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary; he thereby entered into human nature and became in all things as we are, yet without sin. Luke 1:35. John 1:14. Luke 2:52. Matt. 4:2. John 19:28. John 4:6. Luke 19:41. John 11:35. John 19:30.
63. How did Christ reveal himself as the Saviour before his death?
Christ revealed himself as the Saviour before his death by his holy life, in which he perfectly fulfilled the Law of God; by his preaching the forgiveness of sin through faith in him; by his miracles, which are all works of life. John 4:34. John 8:46. Mark 1:15. Luke 19:10. Acts 10:38. John 5:36.
64. Whereby did Christ accomplish our redemption?
Christ accomplished our redemption by his suffering and death, in which he endured, in our stead, the wrath of God against sin, thereby redeeming us from sin, satan, and death. Isa. 53:4. 2 Cor. 5:19. 2 Cor. 5:20. 2 Cor. 5:21. 1 Pet. 1:18-19. Titus 2:14. 2 Tim. 1:10. Col. 1:13-14. 1 John 3:16. 1 John 4:10.
65. Why was the death of Christ necessary for our redemption?
The death of Christ was necessary for our redemption because we, lost sinners, could be redeemed neither by teaching nor by example, but only by the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ in his suffering and death. 1 Cor. 2:2.1 Cor. 1:23- 24. John 1:29. Heb. 7:26-27. John 15:13.
66. Of what importance is Christ's burial?
Christ's burial is a testimony that he had really died.
67. What is meant when we say, "He descended into heir ?
This statement means that Jesus went to the place of departed spirits and brought them the message of salvation. 1 Pet. 3:18-20.
68. What does it mean to us that Jesus Christ arose from the dead?
The resurrection of Jesus Christ proves that he is the Son of God; that he is our Redeemer, in whom we have newness of life; and that we also shall be raised from the dead. Rom. 4:25. Rom. 1:4. 2 Cor. 5:15. 1 Cor. 15:17-18. 1 Cor. 15:20-21. Rom. 8:11. Rom. 6:4. John 11:25-26.
69. What does it mean to us that Christ ascended into heaven?
Forty days after his resurrection, Christ was visibly taken up into heaven, there to prepare a place for us. John 14:2-3. John 17:24. Read Acts 1:1-11.
70. What do we confess by the words "He sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty" ?
By these words we confess that the risen and ascended Christ is in heaven in the full power and glory of God. Ps. 110:1. Eph. 1:20-23. Rom. 8:33-34.
71. What do we confess with the words "From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead" ?
With these words we confess that Christ will come again on the last day with great power and glory to take into eternal life those who believe, and to deliver into eternal death those who do not believe. Acts 1:11. Luke 21:27-28. Matt. 25:31-32. 2 Cor. 5:10.
72. In which passage of Holy Scripture do we find the humiliation and the exaltation of Christ briefly described?
We find the humiliation and the exaltation of Christ briefly described in the passage Philippians 2:5-11.
73. A Summary of the Second Article of the Christian Faith.
1. Who is Jesus Christ?
I believe that Jesus Christ—true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary—is my Lord.
2. What did Christ do for you?
He has redeemed, purchased, and delivered me, a lost and condemned creature, from all sins, from death and from the power of satan.
3. How did he redeem you?
Not with silver or gold, but with his holy, precious blood, and with his innocent suffering and death.
4. To what purpose did he redeem you?
That I might be his own, live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as he is risen from the dead, lives and reigns in all eternity.
THE THIRD ARTICLE OF THE CHRISTIAN FAITH
74. What is the Third Article of the Christian Faith?
I believe in the Holy Spirit; the one holy universal Christian Church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.
75. Of what does the Third Article of the Christian Faith treat?
The Third Article of the Christian Faith treats of God the Holy Spirit and of the godly life which he makes possible.
76. What do we believe about the Holy Spirit?
We believe that the Holy Spirit is the third person in the Holy Trinity, with the Father and the Son, true and eternal God, a Lord and distributor of all gifts, who enables us to come to Christ, our Lord, and to remain with him forever.
77. By what means does the Holy Spirit do his work?
The Holy Spirit works through the Word of God and the Holy Sacraments, which are the means of grace. Jas. 1:21. Acts 2:38. 1 Cor. 10:16.
78. In what manner does the Holy Spirit lead us to Christ?
The Holy Spirit makes known to us the call of God to come to Christ; he teaches us how, because of our sin, we need Christ; he leads us by repentance and faith to accept and follow Christ; he enables us thus to begin and live the new life of a child of God. Heb. 3:7-8. John 15:26. John 14:26. Rom. 8:9, 14.
79. What is repentance?
True repentance consists in conviction of sin, sorrow for sin, confession and renunciation of sin, and longing for grace. Ps. 38:4. 2 Cor. 7:10. Matt. 5:4. Ps. 51:17.1 John 1:8-9. Jas. 5:16. Prov. 28:13. Isa. 55:7. Luke 19:8. Luke 15:18-19. Luke 18:13. Matt. 5:6.
80. What is faith?
Faith is complete trust in God and willing acceptance of his grace in Jesus Christ. Heb. 11:1. Heb. 11:6. Him. 1:15. John 6:40. John 6:68-69. Acts 16:31.
81. What does God do for us when we come to him in repentance and faith?
When we come to God in repentance and faith, he forgives us our sins for Jesus' sake, counts the merit of Christ as belonging to us, and accepts us as his children. This is justification. 1 John 3:1. Gal. 3:26. Rom. 3:23-24. Rom. 3:28. Eph. 2:8-9.
82. How does the Bible speak of the change in our life brought about by repentance and faith?
The Bible speaks of this change as being born again, or as being converted.
83. What does it mean to be born again?
To be born again means the beginning of the new life within us by the power of God's word and the sacrament of baptism. This is regeneration. John 3:3. John 3:5. Gal. 3:27. 1 Pet. 1:23.
84. What does it mean to be converted?
To be converted means to turn from the broad way of the sinful life and to enter the narrow way of the godly life. (This is conversion.) Matt. 7:13-14. Ezek. 33:11. Ezek. 18:21. 1 Pet. 2:25.
85. Whereby are we assured of our justification?
We are assured of our justification by the testimony of the Holy Spirit, as it is written Romans 8:15-16: For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, "Abba! Father!" It is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.
86. What is necessary for us to continue in the godly life?
In order that we may continue in the godly life, the Holy Spirit must daily transform and renew us in all our thoughts and actions and make us acceptable to God. This is sanctification. 1 John 5:4. 2 Cor. 5:17. 2 Pet. 3:18. 1 Pet. 2:1-2. Eph. 4:22-24. Phil. 3:12. Heb. 12:14. 1 Thess. 5:23.
87. What is meant by "Church" in the Apostles' Creed?
By the one holy universal Christian Church we mean the entire body of true Christians. John 17:20-21.
88. Why is the Church called "one" Church?
The Christian Church is called the "one" Church because it has one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, as it is written Ephesians 4:3-6.
89. Why is the Church called holy?
The church is called holy because the Holy Spirit works mightily in it by Word and Sacrament to the end that all its members shall be made holy. Eph. 5:25- 27. 1 Pet. 2:9.
90. Why is the Church called universal?
The Church is called universal because God has meant it for all men, and because everyone finds in it what he needs. John 10:26. Mark 16:15.
91. Why is the Church called the "Christian" Church?
The Church is called Christian because Christ alone in its foundation, its head, and its ideal. 1 Cor. 3:11. Col. 1:18. Eph. 4:13. Eph. 4:15.
92. What is the mission of the Church?
The mission of the Church is to extend the Kingdom of God, that is, to lead men to Christ and to establish Christian principles in every relation of life. Acts 1:8. Isa. 52:7. Rom. 10:14. Luke 9:2. Matt. 24:14. Luke 13:19. Matt. 13:33.
93. What is the Kingdom of God?
The Kingdom of God is the rule of God established in the hearts and lives of men. Luke 17:20-21. John 18:36. Luke 6:31. Luke 6:44-45. Matt. 5:16. Matt. 5:44^5.
94. Where did Christ set forth the principles of his Kingdom?
Christ set forth the principles of his Kingdom in the Sermon on the Mount. (Matthew, chapters 5-7. Luke, chapter 6, verses 20-49.)
95. Has the Church already become all that we confess concerning it?
The Church has indeed existed at all times as the true Church, but has frequently erred and been corrupted; its future perfection, however, is certain, according to God's promise. Matt. 16:18. Matt. 13:24-26.
96. What do we understand by the communion of saints?
By the communion of saints we understand that all Christians, as members of one body, should love and help one another in all things. 1 Cor. 12:12-13. Phil. 2:2^k 1 Cor. 12:26.
97. What do we mean by the words "I believe in the forgiveness of sins" ?
The forgiveness of sins is present in Christ for all mankind, and is offered by the grace of God to all sinners. Luke 24:46-47. Mark 3:28. 1 John 2:1-2. Isa. 1:18.
98. What do we understand by the resurrection of the body?
On the last day Christ will raise up all the dead, as it is written in John 5:28-29. 1 Cor. 15:42-44. Phil. 3:20-21. John 17:24. 2 Cor. 5:10.
99. What do we mean by the life everlasting?
By the life everlasting we mean that in the resurrection all children of God shall receive the glory of Christ in body and soul and shall abide with him forever. 1 John 3:2. 1 Cor. 13:12. Matt. 25:34. Isa. 35:10. Rev. 21:3-4.
100. A summary of the Third Article of the Christian Faith.
1. How do you become a true Christian?
I believe that I can not by my own reason or strength believe in my Lord Jesus Christ, or come to him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified and preserved me in the true faith.
2. Through what institution does the Holy Spirit work?
The Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, and preserves the whole Christian Church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.
3. What do you receive in the Church through the Holy Spirit?
In the Christian Church the Holy Spirit daily and abundantly forgives me and all believers all sins.
4. What is your hope for the future?
On the last day Christ will raise up me and all the dead and will give to me and all believers everlasting life. This is most certainly true.
PART III: PRAYER
101. What is prayer?
Prayer is the conversation of the heart with God for the purpose of praising him, asking him to supply the needs of ourselves and others, and thanking him for whatever he gives us. Ps. 19:14. Ps. 34:3. Ps. 103:1-4. Matt. 6:6. Matt. 7:7- 8. Matt. 18:19-20. Matt. 21:22. Ps. 92:1. 1 Tim. 2:1-2. 1 Thess. 5:17.
102. In what prayer has the Lord Jesus taught us how to pray?
Jesus taught us to pray in the Lord's Prayer: "Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; And forgive us our debts, As we also have forgiven our debtors; And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil." For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen. (Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 11:1^4.)
103. What is the meaning of "Our Father who art in heaven" ?
Our heavenly Father desires us and all his children to call upon him with cheerful confidence, as beloved children entreat a kind and affectionate father, knowing that he is both willing and able to help us. Matt. 7:9-11. John 16:27. Rom. 10:12. Ps. 121:1-2.
104. What do we pray for in the first petition: "Hallowed be thy name" ?
We pray in this petition that God's name may be kept holy among us as it is holy in itself. This is done when the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity, and we as the children of God lead a holy life in accordance with it. Ps. 72:18-19. Matt. 5:16.
105. What do we pray for in the second petition: "Thy kingdom come" ?
In the second petition we pray that we and all others may share in the Kingdom of God which was established by the redemption through Jesus Christ, and that its rule may be extended over all the world. Luke 17:20-21. Rev. 11:15. Compare Matt. 13:44, the parable of the mustard seed, and Matt. 13:45, the parable of the leaven.
106. What do we pray for in the third petition: "Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven" ?
In the third petition we pray that God's good and gracious will may be done by us and all men as cheerfully as it is done by the angels in heaven. 1 John 2:17. Rom. 12:2. Heb. 13:20-21.
107. What do we pray for in the fourth petition: "Give us this day our daily bread"?
In the fourth petition we look to God as the One who supplies the needs of our body as well as of our soul, and we ask him to make us truly thankful for these his gifts. Matt. 5:45. Ps. 145:15-16. Prov. 30:8-9. Matt. 6:34. Ps. 127:1-2. 2 Thess. 3:10. Deut. 8:10. Matt. 4:4.
108. What do we pray for in the fifth petition: "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors" ?
In the fifth petition we ask God for gracious forgiveness of our sins, and for willingness and strength to forgive others. Ps. 51:1-3. Matt. 6:14-15. Matt. 18:21-22.
109. What do we pray for in the sixth petition: "Lead us not into temptation" ?
In the sixth petition we pray that whenever we are tempted by satan, the world, and our flesh to do evil, God may protect and keep us from sinning. Jas. 1:13.1 Cor. 10:13. 1 Pet. 2:11. 1 John 5:4-5.
110. What do we pray for in the seventh petition: "But deliver us from evil" ?
In the seventh petition we pray that the heavenly Father may deliver us from every evil of body and soul; and finally, when our last hour has come, graciously take us from this world of sorrow to himself in heaven. John 17:15. 2 Tim. 4:18. Rom. 8:23.
111. What is the meaning of the closing words: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever?
By these closing words we mean to express our confidence that God will hear and answer our petitions; for he himself has commanded us thus to pray and promised that we shall be heard. Amen: That is, Yea, yea, it shall be so. 2 Cor. 1:20. Eph. 3:20.
112. Why is prayer necessary?
Prayer is necessary because God will give his grace and his Holy Spirit only to those who earnestly and without ceasing ask them of him and render thanks unto him. Luke 18:7-8. Luke 11:13. Ps. 55:16-17. Jas. 5:16.
113. How should we pray?
We should pray humbly because of our need and unworthiness; and yet with faith, believing that for the sake of Jesus Christ, our Lord, God. will certainly hear our prayer. Dan. 9:18. Matt. 21:22. John 15:7. Jas. 1:6.
114. Are all our prayers answered?
All prayers are answered either in the way we expect God to answer them or in the way God knows will be best for us. 2 Cor. 12:8-9. Ps. 40:1. Hab. 1:2. Gen. 32:26. Ps. 10:17.
PART IV: THE SACRAMENT OF HOLY BAPTISM
115. What is a sacrament?
A sacrament is a holy ordinance of the Church instituted by Christ himself in which by visible signs and means he imparts and preserves the new life.
116. How many sacraments has Christ instituted?
Christ has instituted two sacraments, Holy Baptism and the Lord's Supper.
117. With what words did Christ institute the sacrament of Holy Baptism?
Christ instituted the sacrament of Holy Baptism with words in Matthew 28:18-20.
118. What does God do for us in Holy Baptism?
In Holy Baptism God imparts the gift of the new life unto man, receives him into his fellowship as his child, and admits him as a member of the Christian Church.
119. What does Holy Baptism require of us?
Holy Baptism requires of us that we by daily repentance renounce all sinful longings and desires, and by faith arise to a new life. Rom. 6:3-4. Col. 3:9-10.
120. Why should little children be baptized?
Little children should be baptized because the new life is a gift of God's love, which little children need as much and are as able to receive as adults, for the Lord Jesus has promised unto them his Kingdom. Acts 2:39. Mark 10:13, 14, 16.
121. What does the baptism of children require of the parents?
The baptism of children requires of the parents that they help their children to grow in godly life by Christian teaching and training, by prayer and example. Matt. 28:20. Eph. 6:4.
122. What is confirmation?
Confirmation is the renewal of the baptismal covenant. The baptized children, having been instructed in the Christian faith, publicly confess their faith in their Saviour Jesus Christ, promise obedience to him until death, and are received by the Church into active membership.
PART V: THE SACRAMENT OF THE LORD'S SUPPER
123. With what words did Christ institute the sacrament of the Lord's Supper or Holy Communion?
The Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, "Take, eat; this is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way also he took a cup, after supper, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, "Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." Matt. 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20;! Cor. 11:23-25.
124. What are the visible signs and means of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper?
The visible signs and means of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper are bread and wine, partaken of by the communicant.
125. What is the Lord's Supper?
The Lord's Supper is the sacrament by which we receive the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ as the nourishment of our new life, strengthen the fellowship with Christ and all believers, and confess that he has died for us.
126. What blessings do we receive as we eat and drink in the Lords Supper?
As we eat and drink in the Lord's Supper we receive forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. For so it is written: Broken and shed for you for the remission of sins. John 6:51. John 6:55-56. Eph. 5:30. 1 Cor. 10:17.
127. On what condition do we receive the blessings of the Lords Supper?
We receive the blessings of the Lord's Supper only as we eat and drink with heartfelt repentance and true faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Cor. 11:28.2 Cor. 13:5. Ps. 139:23-24. 1 Cor. 11:27. 1 Cor. 11:29-30. Matt. 5:23-24.
128. What does our communion daily require of us?
Our communion requires that we daily keep in remembrance the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus, and that we consider well how hard it was for our Saviour to bear our sins and the sins of the whole world, and to gain eternal salvation for us by offering up his life and shedding his blood. And since our sins caused the Lord Jesus the greatest sufferings, yea bitter death, we should have no pleasure in sin, but earnestly flee and avoid it; and being reclaimed by our Saviour and Redeemer we should live, suffer and die to his honor, so that at all times and especially in the hour of death we may cheerfully and confidently say:
Lord Jesus, for thee I live,
for thee I suffer,
for thee I die!
Lord Jesus, thine will I be in life and death!
Grant me, 0 Lord, eternal salvation! Amen.
SOURCE: Evangelical Synod of North America, Evangelical Catechism, rev. ed. (St. Louis, Mo.: Eden Publishing House, 1957).
We believe in God the Father,
infinite in wisdom, goodness, and love,
and in Jesus Christ, his Son, our Lord and Savior,
who for us and for our salvation lived and died and rose again
and liveth evermore,
and in the Holy Spirit,
who taketh of the things of Christ
and revealeth them to us,
renewing, comforting, and inspiring the souls of men.
We are united in striving to know the will of God
as taught in the Holy Scriptures,
and in our purpose to walk in the ways of the Lord,
made known or to be made known to us.
We hold it to be the mission of the Church of Christ
to proclaim the Gospel to all mankind,
exalting the worship of the one true God,
and laboring for the progress of knowledge,
the promotion of justice, the reign of peace,
and the realization of human brotherhood.
Depending, as did our fathers, upon the continued guidance
of the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth,
we work and pray for the transformation of the world
into the Kingdom of God,
and we look with faith for the triumph of righteousness,
and the life everlasting.
We believe in the freedom and responsibility
of the individual soul, and the right of private judgment.
We hold to the autonomy of the local church
and its independence of all ecclesiastical control.
We cherish the fellowship of the churches,
united in district, state, and national bodies,
for counsel and cooperation in matters of common concern.
The Wider Fellowship
While affirming the liberty of our churches,
and the validity of our ministry,
we hold to the unity and catholicity of the Church of Christ,
and will unite with all its branches in hearty cooperation;
and will earnestly seek, so far as in us lies,
that the prayer of our Lord for his disciples may be answered,
that they all may be one.
The section on "Faith" is from the Book of Worship of the United Church of Christ. The Book of Worship is available from United Church Resources at 800-325-7061.
About this testimony
The Kansas City Statement was the most important affirmation of faith adopted by the Congregational Churches in the 20th century. In 1913, the churches' National Council met in Kansas City to affirm traditional congregationalist principles in a form that would meet the needs of the new century. The preamble of the new Constitution adopted then said the churches sought to reaffirm "the faith which our fathers confessed, which from age to age has found its expression in the historic creeds of the Church universal and of this communion." The Statement's form reflects both classical creeds received by Congregationalists from the catholic (universal) church and the confidence—inherited from the church's Puritan forebears—that God was in control of history and would lead humanity to a reign of justice, community and peace. Written on the eve of World War I, its belief in "the reign of peace," "the realization of human brotherhood" and "the transformation of the world into the Kingdom of God" are particularly poignant. But these are beliefs that echo down to the 21st century, and which the United Church of Christ still holds today—although not in the exclusively masculine terms of 1913.
Theology is the work of the whole Body of Christ—not only of ordained ministers or academic theologians. Everyone who loves Jesus Christ and tries to be faithful to the Gospel is a Christian theologian. We want the Theology Page to be useful to you in your growth in the faith.
Are wars ever just? A debate between two famous brothers
As our church and the world continue to struggle with issues of war and peace in the aftermath of Sept. 11, we present as a resource a debate between two of the theological parents of the United Church of Christ: the brothers Reinhold Niebuhr and H. Richard Niebuhr. Both theologians—who taught two generations of UCC pastors—reacted to the Japanese invasion of China with thoughtful but opposed interpretations of what the Christian faith requires in time of international conflict. The debate was aired in the pages of the Christian Century. Also included as a resource: a paper by UCC theologian Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite applying the Just War tradition to the war against Iraq, and General Synod's 1985 pronouncement on "Just Peace"—an alternative to "Just War."
Taking Bible Seriously
Three papers by on the authority of scripture in the church.
Should the church affirm vowed relationships by gay and lesbian couples?
The meaning today of the Cambridge Platform—a watershed event in the evolution of the congregational idea of church relationships.
Just War or Just Peace?
The classic debate by the Niebuhr brothers on just war, plus General Synod on "Just Peace."
The 2000 Dunkirk Colloquy in Dunkirk, New York, brought together members of the United Church of Christ for reflection and conversation on the authority of scripture for Christians. Keynote presenters included the Rev. John H. Thomas, General Minster and President of the United Church of Christ, and the Rev. Frederick Trost, Wisconsin Conference Minister. The Rev. Paul Hammer led Bible study.
The Bible both unites and divides us as a church. Our spiritual ancestors have never agreed, even in the first generations of the Christian community, about the right way to read and apply Scripture. Today, views in the UCC (like all other mainline denominations) range from conservative to liberal. Scripture often quoted by all sides in the ethical conflicts that divide us as well as many other churches. The Bible is God's gift to the church, to be read for our instruction and comfort, but we often use it as a hammer to strike down the arguments of our opponents, or even to exclude each other from the Body of Christ.
Right interpretation of Scripture necessarily includes right living, that is, we cannot hear God's word in the Bible if our minds and hearts are closed to each other. These were some of the issues that were explored at Dunkirk.
UCC President Thomas proposes a reading of the Bible that takes its origins seriously and is heard liturgically in the context of a community united in worship.
Fred Trost argues that when the Bible is taken seriously, ordinary people can do extraordinary things.
Paul Hammer finds the unity of the Bible enriched by its diversity.
Here is John Thomas' paper delivered at the Dunkirk Colloquy on October 10, 2000. Thomas is General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ.
Gary Dorsey is a journalist who spent a year watching, living with, and eventually growing to be a part of a congregation of the United Church of Christ in Connecticut. In his book about the experience titled, Congregation: The Journey Back to Church, he includes many delightful observations of the pastor and people of this ordinary and remarkable church. One Sunday morning, peering down from the balcony, he described the preacher as follows:
His hearing aid sounded off like a pitch pipe at times, and one Sunday. . . I noticed him speaking from a set of notes all typed in red. I realized that his jackhammer typing style finally had frayed the black ribbon on his Olympia, and rather than spending a dollar to replace it, he had jumped the cartridge to pound on the red side alone, making every word look like the scarlet verse of Jesus.
I may read Dorsey saying more than he intended, but his observation, playfully joining the preacher?s eccentricities with those familiar red letter editions of the Bible, provides me with a good starting point. Sometimes, here and there, now and then, when the preacher, accompanied by the Spirit, is able to take the Biblical text seriously enough, as well as the gathered community seriously enough, what emerges is not merely an oration, or a set of moral platitudes, or a ringing call to action, but the presence of the living Word itself, to which the Bible always points, but which it can never quite contain.
Many years before Dorsey, a more traditional theologian, Friedrich Schleiermacher, put it this way:
I am sure you will gladly testify, dear friends, that from the time you received the milk of the gospel in your first instruction in Christianity, right up until the present day, every such encounter with scripture was like a new, joyous, and powerful appearance of the Lord himself.
Schleiermacher?s enthusiasm may sound like wishful thinking to ears assaulted by the noise of our secular world at the dawn of a new century. Far too often in our own experience the Lord fails to appear, at least in ways that seem fresh, joyous, and powerful, and the scarlet verse remains what at one level it always is, the product of the eccentricities of pastors who are no better than the Christians sitting in the pews waiting for the concluding ?amen? that never seems to come soon enough! But a church that takes the Bible seriously always expects more, and sometimes receives it, which in the midst of our jaded world view and its scientific straightjacket is news that comes as a marvelous surprise, perhaps even as the Gospel itself. Like the discouraged disciples on the road to Emmaus, belief is mixed with unbelief, and even the skilled Biblical interpretation of the mysterious stranger does little to overcome cynicism in the face of dashed hopes and human tragedy . . . until. Until something happens and we get what we hadn?t quite dared to expect - the red type truly becomes the scarlet verse of Jesus, and the Lord himself appears with fresh, joyous power. So that the first word about taking the Bible seriously is expectation - approaching the text expecting more than mere written text, more than bare words to confront us. And while there is much more to be said about taking the Bible seriously in our day, perhaps this is the greatest challenge of all.
According to the Preamble to the Constitution of the United Church of Christ, ?we look to the word of God in the scriptures.? Another way to say this is that our expectation is an honoring of the Bible?s ?transparency.? Frederick Buechner uses the image of a picture window to describe this task:
If you look at a window, you see fly-specks, dust, the crack where Junior?s Frisbee hit it. If you look through a window, you see the world beyond. Something like this is the difference between those who see the Bible as a Holy Bore and those who see it as the Word of God which speaks out of the depths of an almost unimaginable past into the depths of ourselves.
In the line of the familiar hymn, ?Break now the bread of life,? we sing, ?beyond the sacred page, I seek you Lord.? Not apart from, but beyond or through the sacred page we seek the Lord and sometimes see God?s face. Taking the Bible seriously means recognizing its transparency, expecting to see beyond mere text to the mysterious presence. It is to see the Bible not as the ultimate object of faith in a kind of fundamentalist biblicism, nor as mere literature expressing pious religious themes or fixed moral values be they liberal or conservative, but as the penultimate instrument of mediation through which the ultimate living Word encounters us full of challenge, comfort, judgment, grace and truth. Encounters us, I hasten to emphasize, because this transparency works both ways, and allows the Word to ?see us for what we really are,? to see ?the depths of ourselves? as Buechner puts it.
To read the Bible expectantly, honoring its transparency, enables us to avoid what Walter Brueggemann and many others warn us about:
To say that the Bible mediates God is not to say that the Bible ?hands God over? to the reading community as possession or as prisoner. The reading community has been wont, on occasion, to imagine that it possessed or imprisoned the God of the Bible. Such a self-deception takes a Protestant form in bibliolatry and a Catholic form in magisterial infallibility.
Not only does this violate what Brueggemann describes as the ?elusive, odd character? of Yahweh which defies human definition, it also enables those in power, those in the ecclesial center, to use the Bible to violate or exploit those at the margins, an all too familiar approach to the Bible in our own day, an approach which, in the end, is far more cavalier than it is serious.
Both divine revelation and human disclosure
To begin taking the Bible seriously, then, is to approach it expectantly, to honor its transparency, and to discover that it not only discloses Yahweh, God, the Word made flesh, it also strips us bare before that same Word to portray us in all our grandeur and all our depravity. So in a peculiar way, the Bible is both divine revelation and human disclosure. Beyond the sacred page we seek you Lord. Yet beyond the sacred page, from the other side we might say, God also seeks us, and in so doing allows us to look over God?s shoulder, as it were, to see ourselves as God sees us. But in order to do this, we must first read the Bible, or perhaps better, we must listen to the Bible.
Taking the Bible seriously means to read it. This may sound like an incredibly mundane stating of the obvious, the kind of comment that elicits from our teenagers the marvelous rejoinder, ?Duh!? In one sense, of course, we do read the Bible. We read it in order to preach about it. We read it in order to seek answers to troubling question. We read it in order to justify our opinions, wielding it against our theological or ecclesial enemies like the ?sword? it used to be called in some conservative Christian circles. In other words, far too often our reading of the Bible is really an effort to make use of the Bible, and in the process the Bible tends to lose its transparency, becoming opaque or worse, a kind of mirror reflecting nothing more than our own devices and desires. The reading that takes the Bible seriously is of another sort altogether. It is a kind of attentiveness to the narrative in its broad sweep, and to its text in all its intricate detail, that makes of the Bible more of a companion than a tool, something we listen to, attend to long before there is anything we can ?do? with it, and long after its ?usefulness? has become dated. Jews catch something of this spirit in their worship when the scroll is taken from its place and paraded, even danced around the sanctuary like a long lost friend. The worshipers move to touch it, sometimes to kiss it. There is nothing magical in the mood; the scroll is no talisman. It is a friend to be embraced, a voice to be honored. ?In this scroll is the secret of our people?s life from Sinai until now,? the liturgy announces as the Torah is taken from the Ark. ?Its teaching is love and justice, goodness and hope. Freedom is its gift to all who treasure it.? ?Shema Yisrael. Hear, O Israel; the Lord is our God, the Lord is One! Our God is One; our Lord is great; holy is God?s name.?
Justo Gonz?lez suggests another dimension of the reading we are called to engage in when he describes the reading that takes place Sunday after Sunday in churches in poor barrios throughout the Western hemisphere. Unlike the modern historical critical reading, and the fundamentalist reaction to it, the reading he describes retains ?a sense,? he says, ?of the activity of God, of the openness of the universe, of the possibility of mystery.? In this reading the ?future is in control,? which means life, and the text, is ?constantly open to surprise, to astonishment, to real and radical revolution.? A reading that is ?open to astonishment? is how Gonz?lez puts it, an astonishment that
allows Hispanics today to read Scripture with a profound sense of connection with the people who actually wrote the text. We are well aware of the geographical and cultural distances that stand between us and the original writers and readers. But we leap across the distance by sharing a sense of astonishment, a sense of openness to God?s activity, that was very much part of the writing and the intended reading of the text.
This astonishment does not rule out close, critical readings of the text, and does not react in a fundamentalist form of literalism. But it moves beyond the modern reading to encounter the astonishment of the writers who themselves have been encountered by the amazing and liberating future of God.
Those who take the Bible seriously have grown acquainted with it, befriended it and like any good friend, look for it to tell them the truth, the hard truth, the whole truth, astonishing truth, the Gospel truth. The friend is not there to be used, manipulated or wielded like a set of tools or an armory of weapons. Nor is the friend there to lock the present into a comfortable and secure past. This ?friend,? this text is there to be heard, listened to, attended, embraced. Buechner, in his Beecher lectures at Yale, speaks of the prophet-preachers of the Bible. ?What do they say?? he asks.
They say things that are relevant, lacerating, profound, beautiful, spine-chilling, and more besides. They put words to both the wonder and the horror of the world, and the words can be looked up in the dictionary or the biblical commentary and can be interpreted, passed on, understood, but because these words are poetry, are image and symbol as well as meaning, are sound and rhythm, maybe above all are passion, they set echoes going the way a choir in a great cathedral does, only it is we who become the cathedral and in us that the words echo.
Truth echoes for those who take the Bible seriously. The truth of a God who knows what it means for a parent to see a beloved child go off to a far country, cut himself off from parents, squander opportunity and betray parental trust, and yet in the midst of all of that to stand at the door wanting only to embrace. The truth of an aging Sarah who has suffered all manner of indignity including her barrenness, a condition which seems only to mock the divine promise, yet a woman still ready to be told in the most unimaginable way that God remains faithful to God?s promise. The truth of Job whose life is destroyed before his eyes and who must then suffer the foolish advice of friends before discovering that God wants us not only to be faithful, but perhaps also to rail against the injustice of it all, even against the Creator of it all. The truth of a Jonah who cannot bear to offer the word of judgment for fear that it will be heeded, leaving the hated enemy spared. The truth of David, grown bored with governance, finding himself consumed by lust for Bathsheba and setting off a sequence of murder and lies that follow his dynasty from one generation to the next. The truth of a people liberated and of exiles sustained. The truth of a woman so overwhelmed with devotion for Jesus that she is willing to risk propriety and expose herself to criticism by anointing him in an act of extravagant intimacy. The truth of a man touted to be tough as nails and resolute as the rock he bears for a name, yet who finds himself weeping for the ease with which he denied what he had pledged to follow. The truth of bones living and of streets like gemstones lined with trees whose fruit is for the healing of the nations. The truth of a God who becomes vulnerable to the point of sharing in solidarity our deepest sorrow and being inflicted by the most profound wounds that our own journey into death might not be the last word and might never be traveled alone.
But what do we do?
None of this tells us exactly what we must do in a given circumstance. None of it enables us to definitively sort out the good from the bad, the worthy from the unworthy. It won?t solve our dilemmas over homosexuality or abortion or euthanasia or genetic engineering or the economy. In other words, none of it is terribly ?useful.? Indeed, it is often more like a confusing cacophony of conflicting testimony or, as Brueggemann puts it, of ?core testimony and countertestimony,? of ?hiddenness, ambiguity, and negativity.? It simply tells us the truth about the way we are with ourselves and with each other, the way we are with God, and above all the way God is with us. And those who take the Bible seriously hold these texts that issue forth in echoing voices like a companion, a friend, who means more than anyone or anything else because this friend tells us the truth. A companion, yes, but never an easy one, for the God, the Word seen through its transparency, who sees us through its transparency, is often, to use Brueggemann?s language, ?the Wild One who lives at the center of Israel?s life, who in sovereign severity will dispense with Israel and who with impervious resolve will begin again.?
To take the Bible seriously is to read the Bible before, or perhaps rather instead of, quickly rushing to make use of the Bible. We are, to use the old Reformed language, ?servants of the Word,? not masters of the Word, because the Bible is quite literally ?out of control.? Again, Brueggemann?s colorful rhetoric presses the point, summarizing in a recent article what he exhaustively articulates in his Old Testament theology:
The preacher stands up to make utterance about this odd, problematic God in a society that is flattened in a-theism, and has on her hands a quality of the irascible, the elusive, and the polyvalent. Almost none of this, moreover, is available to or recognized among most of our listeners. Because it is too unsettling and difficult, we tend to fall back on more familiar ground of safe practices, blessed ideologies, scholastic closures, or liberal crusades. Don?t we all!
Tamed. Proof-texted. The living Word is often preached to death and used to distraction, our own distraction that is, because we would rather be distracted from the truth not only about God but also about ourselves that this transparent text reveals. Read the Bible expectantly, honoring its transparency. And read the Bible, listening, attending, as one might attend a dear companion who can always be counted on to tell the truth.
Taking seriously the origins of the text
John de Gruchy, a Reformed theologian writing out of the context of the struggle for liberation in South Africa, offers a third dimension of what it means to take the Bible seriously, which is to recognize that ?the spectacles of Scripture require the eyes of social victims.? ?We need,? he writes, ?the spectacles of the victims of society in order to discern the liberating and living Word in Scripture itself.? This should come as no surprise; a serious reading or interpretation ought to take seriously the origins of the text itself which is to be found primarily within the experience of the enslaved, the nomad, the exile, the peasant, the imprisoned, and the persecuted and which is, for Christians, ultimately articulated from a center that can only be found in the Christ of Calvary, the Crucified One dying outside the gates. Without these ?spectacles? a kind of demonic and dangerous nearsightedness almost always occurs. Thus we are shamed by a history of entrenched white economic interests reading support in the text for slavery; we are humbled by the remembrance of powerful colonial interests reading support in the Bible for the physical, spiritual, and cultural genocide of indigenous peoples; we are confronted by the memory of Christendom in the West reading support for anti-Semitism in the text; we have men reading support in the text for the subordination and silencing of women. And on and on it goes.
I am not suggesting that there can be no serious, legitimate, or faithful interpretation of Scripture by those whose social location allows them to occupy the cultural centers, in other words by folk like most of you or like me. Nor would I suggest that those at the margin always get it right. The same Reformed tradition to which de Gruchy appeals in his argument would remind us of the need to have a healthy regard for the sin that is no respecter of persons. de Gruchy acknowledges that ?neither the poor nor other social victims automatically understand the Scriptures simply because of their social location or experience.? But what feminists have described as the ?hermeneutic of suspicion? needs to be brought to bear in any serious reading of the Bible. And we ought, I think, to be particularly nervous, and especially suspicious, when readings by those in the center disadvantage those at the margins. If there is, as many today recognize, a kind of ?preferential option for the poor? embedded in the Biblical text itself, then there may also be a ?preferential reading of the poor? to which anyone desiring to take the Bible seriously must attend. De Gruchy borrows a Lutheran phrase to make his Reformed argument:
We encounter the grace of the saving presence of God not in Word and sacrament isolated from human suffering and the struggle for justice, but ?in, with, and under? it. This is precisely where God?s grace was encountered by Israel and the early church, according to the biblical record. The Word of grace addressed the people in their historical struggle and journey; indeed, the Word gave redemptive, liberating meaning to that history.
There is, for this reason, a theological ?appropriateness,? even a moral brilliance in the fact that almost every service of daily evening prayer includes the Magnificat. We ought never come to the Scriptures without hearing Mary, and Hannah before her, singing of a God who ?scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. . . , brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. . . , filled the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty,? (Luke 2.51-53). Even if Mary doesn?t always get the ?first word? in the church?s liturgy, the church has rightly intuited that she must always get ?the last word!? And even if one is finally not persuaded that there are ?privileged readings? of the Bible, there can be no denying the fact that there is never a ?disinterested reading? of the Bible. The ?spectacles of social victims? warn us, ?beware!? Taking the Bible seriously, therefore, always requires a communal reading lest our own location blur our sight or distort our hearing of the living Word, and that community called Israel and the Church can never be narrowly construed lest our reading be done by a clique of the like-minded rather than the whole people of God in their rich and agonizing diversity. Moreover, that communal reading must be an ?engaged? reading or listening, shaped by the Cross that is not only to be found in the words of the text, but also in the world of human struggle.
When interpretations collide
To honor the Bible?s ?transparency,? expecting it to reveal a living Word to us even as it allows us to peer over God?s shoulder while God sees us for what and who we really are. To read the Bible before we try to use the Bible, allowing it to echo and resonate in astonishing ways with its ?irascible, elusive, polyvalent character.? To engage the text communally and ecumenically, acknowledging that the spectacles of Scripture, indeed the very origins of Scripture, require the eyes of social victims and that engaging the text must never, therefore, be separated from a passionate engagement with a suffering world. This is what I believe it means to ?take the Bible seriously.? And here, of course, is the rub, and the tremendous pain of the Church today. For there are many, including some in our own United Church of Christ, who ?take the Bible seriously? in very different ways. No doubt you have ?heard? them on the other side of my argument. But let me offer a recent personal experience as a kind of ?case study? to make their presence more obvious, cautioned by the recognition of course that you are hearing them through me and my own ?interested? reading of the text.
My participation in a religious leaders statement on issues related to human sexuality had particularly enraged one local church which, while already quite distanced from the wider fellowship of the United Church of Christ, now felt alienated enough that it determined that it would do more than send me a letter of protest. Under the leadership of their pastor, the church prepared a resolution for their Association to formally ?censure? me for my action and call on the United Church of Christ to ?repent? of its positions on homosexuality and reproductive choice. As a result, I spent an evening at a gathering of about two hundred members of this congregation along with representatives of other local churches in the Association. I was there to listen and in both a personal and representative way to make an ?account? of the positions held by our General Synod along with many others in our church, on these difficult questions. It was not, as you might imagine, an easy evening; we managed for the most part to retain a sense of respectfulness and civility, but just barely!
Many of the people at the meeting arrived carrying their Bibles. They were well acquainted with the six or seven passages in the Old and New Testaments around which the debates on homosexuality often center. We went back and forth over what is by now very familiar terrain on this well-cratered battlefield, for the most part to little avail. My effort to enlarge the conversation and, in my mind, enrich it with pastoral and theological dimensions was not only unpersuasive, but met with deep resistance and, at least in a few cases, open derision. Finally a young woman put the essential impasse in stark relief by standing with Bible in hand and challenged me with a question: ?Show me a verse.? Don?t talk about pastoral experience and challenge. Don?t waste our time with alternative readings of contested texts or with hermeneutical insights about Scripture interpreting and critiquing Scripture, or with historical illustrations about how the Church has often been led to reverse itself on matters of faith and practice, or even with theological reflection about the nature and meaning of baptism. ?Show me a verse,? which is to say from the perspective of that gathering, ?take the Bible seriously.? Show me a verse where it says that what you want to affirm is acceptable from the standpoint of the Bible.
I, of course, could not show them a verse. Nor would I, in part because that kind of exchange usually ends up in an ecclesiastical winner takes all battle where casualties abound and where the Bible is turned into a weapon in a way that, from my perspective, dishonors its integrity and its intent. In short, for me it is not a way to take the Bible seriously. This meant that most left the meeting that night confirmed in their conviction that neither I, nor many others in the United Church of Christ, take the Bible seriously. I, on the other hand, left the meeting for my drive to the airport and a late return home, yearning that my audience that night would also take the Bible seriously. Not that they weren?t, of course, in their own minds, taking it very seriously, very faithfully. To differ radically is not, at the same time, to imply a lack of respect, though of course that is, for many in our climate of alienation and distrust, a distinction that is hard to maintain. And, to be fair, I need to acknowledge that in lifting up this one comment—?show me a verse?—I may not do full justice to the depth or sophistication of my opponents? Biblical engagement. Nevertheless, I still yearn for a more ?serious? reading.
I wanted them to talk about the Bible in a way that pointed to its transparency, that moved beyond selected words and texts, which they clearly took very seriously, to allow the living and liberating Word to be encountered and which might allow all of us to see ourselves with greater clarity and honesty. The Bible was very much in view that night, and was the center of our conversation. But there was, at least for me, no sense of Presence ?in, with, and under? the texts in dispute. The book became opaque as the ?sacred page? became the ?end of discussion? rather than the doorway beyond which we ?seek God?s face.? I wanted them to take the Bible seriously.
I wanted us, together, to read the Bible that evening. Yes, to look at those six or seven verses; they?re there and cannot be ignored. But also to read, listen and attend to the rich narrative from creation to new creation, to the testimony and countertestimony that bears witness to an ?irascible, elusive, polyvalent? God who cannot and will not be contained, who will not be used, and who is constantly seen in the text breaking into the life of Israel and the Church in ways that judge the community for drawing its boundaries too close. I yearned for a reading that evoked astonishment, that leapt across geographic and cultural distances not in order to use ancient writers to answer modern or even post-modern questions, but to encourage in us an openness to God?s activity in our world that is as much about hospitality as it is about purity. I wanted the parables of welcome and embrace, of wedding feasts for unusual guests, the stories of an Ethiopian returning through the wilderness of Gaza, the dreams of what is unclean becoming clean, and the visions of glory coming into the city borne by the nations, the strangers - I wanted all of this to echo and resonate in our midst along with the words of judgment and the invitation to disciplined, covenant life. I wanted the Biblical witness to a just economy, to faithful stewardship of the earth, and its critique of militarism and power to be given at least an equal hearing as its admonitions about sexual behavior. The Bible was used all evening. But it didn?t seem to me as if we were really reading it, listening to it. Our gathering never achieved what Buechner described as a ?cathedral? in which the poetry, symbol, and image echoed. Ours was a tiny closet that night, where the words of life fell with a depressing thud. I wanted them to take the Bible seriously.
And perhaps most urgently of all, I wanted them to put on, with me, ?the spectacles of the poor,? or in our case that evening, the spectacles of those who were almost completely absent, or more likely silenced in that gathering. With the exception of one or two references to distant family members or coworkers who are gay, there was no real evidence of any serious engagement with or listening to gay and lesbian Christians as part of the Biblical discernment. This was a privileged, safe reading of texts from the secure centers of life in which the margins were afforded no voice. While my censurers of course vigorously disagreed with, even resented my suggestion of parallel situations, if felt to me like a discussion of the Bible and slavery, without any time on the agenda to hear the voices of the enslaved, like a discussion of the Bible and patriarchy without any time on the agenda to hear the voices of women, like the Bible and economics without any agenda time for the poor. Such readings always involve a set of lenses; there are no disinterested engagements with texts. Taking the Bible seriously requires, it seems to me, at least a recognition of our ?interest,? and a readiness to put on the ?spectacles of the poor? even if, in the end, we are not finally persuaded. I wanted my audience to take the Bible seriously just as much as they wanted me to take the Bible seriously.
Herein lies the anguish and the difficulty of church life today. It is obviously an ecumenical problem, but it is also, and perhaps most painfully, a problem within communions, fueling much of the contentious debate and deep estrangement that can be found in denomination after denomination. Most Christians believe they ?take the Bible seriously,? though we must admit the truth of one radio preacher I recently heard who said that ?the Bible is in danger of becoming America?s best selling coffee table book!? Most Christians believe the Bible has ?authority? in their lives. But in our widely divergent convictions and commitments about ?how? to take the Bible seriously, we are quick to deny seriousness to those with whom we disagree. And in our Protestant ethos, shaped by the sola scriptura principle of the Reformation, to claim that someone fails to take the Bible seriously is about as close to excommunication as we can get. This, in fact, was precisely what was at stake in the formal dialogue between the Reformed Church in America and the United Church of Christ initiated by those in the Reformed Church who desired to resist and then to abrogate the Lutheran-Reformed full communion relationship adopted by our two churches and the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The dialogue came to a hopeful conclusion, in spite of remaining differences that were and are significant, by saying the following:
The question was framed, ?How is it that two churches of the Reformed tradition, honoring and reading the same Scripture, can come to such different conclusions? By the end of [our dialogue] it was agreed by all participants that the Bible has been and continues to be the foundational guidance for our churches on the issue of homosexuality, though we come with differing hermeneutical and interpretive principles. Both sides agreed that both churches seek to take the Scripture seriously.
While the Report has been received by both churches, it is clear that its conclusions are not universally embraced, particularly in the Reformed Church in America where calls for distancing or dissolving the full communion relationship persist at each meeting of the General Synod. Behind all the other issues in dispute, the suspicion lingers: ?You don?t take the Bible seriously.?
Is there hope for moving beyond the impasse?
So we are left with the question, ?Is there any hope for moving beyond the impasse, or are we destined for a prolonged, bitter, and divisive ecclesial struggle in which the Bible becomes both the terrain and the weapon of battle?? Two things will help. First, we could concede that those who differ from us, who distrust our reading of the text and the implications we draw from it, are in fact attempting to take the Bible as seriously as we are. Condemnation has always been the first step toward division, and in our Protestant milieu dismissing the seriousness of another?s engagement with Scripture is the heaviest form of condemnation. Second, we could attempt, as I have attempted here, to give an account, literally to ?be accountable? to those who challenge us, sharing as candidly and as forthrightly as possible how the Bible speaks to us. In one sense that is what this lecture seeks to do for my accusers in the Association gathering. There are theologians, preachers, and Biblical scholars who would give a different and in many cases far more sophisticated accounting than mine. But each of us, I believe, is called to offer that account, to say to sisters and brothers in the faith, ?this is what it means for me to take the Bible seriously,? and of course, in that account, to evaluate, challenge, and critique the accounts of others. To concede that someone takes the Bible seriously is not the same thing as accepting any and all approaches as accurate, valid, helpful, or even faithful. Borrowing the ecumenical language of the Lutheran-Reformed dialogue, I assert that with mutual affirmation comes mutual admonition. I do respect the seriousness of those who gathered to dispute with me at the Association gathering. But I disagree with them sharply. Nevertheless, much will be advanced if we join at least the occasional affirmations to our frequent admonitions. All of this will help, but with the stakes so high, I suspect it will only help; it will certainly not solve our problems.
Ultimately I suspect what will be more important than resolving disputes over how different ones among us take the Bible seriously, will be a commitment to engage together in what I would like to call a liturgical reading of the Bible. A liturgical reading is not simply, or perhaps even primarily, a reading of the Bible in the sanctuary. It is a reading that occurs in the shared context of our Baptism, a recognition that we come to the Bible together as ?children of God, disciples of Christ, as members of the Church? and as a Body whose head is Christ in which no part can say to another, ?I have no need of you.? Thus, a liturgical reading resists privatized reading, reading that is always subject to the ?interest? of a particular location or station in life. A liturgical reading takes place around the communion table, which means we always read in the presence of Christ, crucified and risen, in the company of all the saints, and that in the sacrament our reading is done against the horizon of God?s rule and reign which is both signified and enacted in the breaking of the bread. A liturgical reading is always shaped by the Table?s re-presentation of God?s mission in which all will ultimately be reconciled in Christ. A liturgical reading takes place before the Cross which confronts us with our personal and corporate sin, sin that always twists and distorts our reading, even as it lifts our eyes to those who suffer in the world and, in so doing, invites us to read along with the slaves, the exiles, the nomads, and the peasants from whom the text has been received. In other words, a liturgical reading invites us to read with those who not only are able to be astonished, but with those whose oppression causes them to desire the astonishment that turns the world upside down.
A liturgical reading honors the seasons of our worship life, reading the text through the anticipation of Advent with its judgment and hope, the celebrations of Christmas with its sense of presence and fulfillment, the expansiveness of Epiphany with its global and cosmic dimensions, the penitence and discipline of Lent and the astonishing victory of Easter, and finally through the Spirited and ordinary weeks of Pentecost. Thus a liturgical reading rescues us from our personal preoccupations and exposes us to the whole of Scripture with the full array of Biblical themes. That is to say, a liturgical reading is a sustained reading, a reading not for the moment, or for resolution of the current dispute, but is a reading over time, engaged in by those who share the experience of grace, who know themselves to be in the Presence of the crucified and risen Christ, and who seek to be in solidarity with those whose poverty provides not rose colored glasses, but clarity about both the astonishing evil in the world and, even more, about God?s astonishing activity and amazing grace. In that kind of liturgical reading over time, even the unschooled and the eccentric, the flawed and the imperfect will discover that the words on the preacher?s page do become the scarlet verse of Jesus, and the daily encounter with scripture can be, as Schleiermacher said, ?a new, joyous, and powerful appearance of the Lord himself.?
At the Bar Mitzvah of a son or the Bat Mitzvah of a daughter, a Jewish parent is invited to pray:
Into our hands, O God, You have placed Your Torah, to be held high by parents and children, and taught by one generation to the next. Whatever has befallen us, our people have remained steadfast in loyalty to the Torah. It was carried into exile in the arms of parents that their children might not be deprived of their birthright. And now I pray that you, my child, will always be worthy of this inheritance. Take its teaching into your heart, and in turn pass it on to your children and those who come after you. May you be a faithful Jew, searching for wisdom and truth, working for justice and peace. Thus will you be among those who labor to bring nearer the day when the Lord shall be One, and His name shall be One.
Such is the prayer of all who would take the Bible seriously. May it be our prayer as well.
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).
"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!
Here is the introduction to the Bible study led by Dr. Paul Hammer—retired professor of biblical interpretation at Colgate-Rochester Divinity School in Rochester, N.Y.—at the 2000 Dunkirk Colloquy.
Where shall we begin Bible study? In one way, it is quite unbiblical to begin with the Bible. Biblical writers generally do not begin with an exegesis of texts, but with the reality of their situations. Then they tap into their traditions and texts to help them meet the situations they face in their faith communities and in their worlds.
As a former colleague of mine says, "The word became flesh, not text." ANd when it comes to texts, we know that no interpretation of a text can ever be absolutized, for the only Absolute is neither the Bible nor the Church but the living God.
One of my favorite stories about biblical interpretation is about two boys whose mothers were ministers. They were arguing about whose mother was the better preacher. Said the one, "My mother can take the same text and preach a different sermon each Sunday." "That's nothing," said the other. "My mother can take a different text and preach the same sermon each Sunday."
Perhaps there is a bit of truth in both. No text is ever exhausted by any one sermon. And every text finally points to the saving love of God for everyone in God's beloved world.
Bible's unity is enriched by its diversity
What I would like to do is to offer what I see as the interpretive or hermeneutical contexts generally of biblical writers themselves, though of course we cannot fit all these writers, who span a thousand years of Hebrew Christian history, into one mold. The diversity of biblical writers is quite amazing, but what would one expect from the multiple struggles they faced over such an extended period of time? Any biblical unity is enriched by such diversity.
Obviously, there is no one way to articulate such interpretive contexts, but I would suggest the following: a cosmic context, and ecclesial context, a canonical context, and evangelical context, and a pneumatic context.
First, a cosmic or world-embracing context. (Kosmos means "world.") Biblical writers embrace the realities of their worlds and their situations where they and their communities find themselves. Do they, like we, really have any other choice than to begin where we are?
Further, I find it instructive that the way in which the biblical writings are put together in our Bible places them in the context of creation in Genesis at the beginnning and of new creation in Revelation at the end. Thus the Bible as a whole has this cosmic or world-embracing context. As you and I come to this colloquy, we bring our cosmic contexts: our personal lives, our interpersonal relationships, our work, our leisure, our economics, our politics. We bring the glory and the tragedy of life in our world. We do our Bible study in a cosmic context.
Second, an ecclesial or a community-of-faith-participating context. (Ekklesia means the "called-out" assembly, the church.) Biblical writers were part of communities of faith, even when as prophetic persons they had to challenge their own communities. These faith communities were communities of worship, of instruction, of supportive fellowship, of wider mission in that cosmic context of which they were a part. Their life in an ecclesial context intended to guide and nourish and challenge them to be faithful in the larger cosmic contexts of their worlds.
We too bring to this colloquy our life in the faith communities of our churches, with their worship, their education, their fellowship, their ministries and missions. As early Christians prepared for their world-embracing mission, says Luke, "they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42).
Parenthetically, I find it interesting that here Luke says nothing about preaching! Life within the faith community calls for teaching. For Luke, preaching is for those who have yet to hear "the good news of great joy for all the people" (Luke 2:10). Someone once said that sometimes we seem to speak to the church as if it were the world and to the world as if it were the church.
Teaching is more for the ecclesial context. Preaching is more for the cosmic context. At any rate, we do our Bible study in an ecclesial context.
Third, a canonical or Bible-engaging context. Though the earliest biblical writers may not yet have had their scriptures, they did have their oral traditions. These traditions and the biblical writings that emerged from the communities of faith during a thousand years became canonical for Israel and the Church. From among other writings, these, taking several centuries of usage, finally became the canon or "measuring stick" to engage them again and again to inspire and challenge and keep them on course, though these writings hardly spoke with one voice as they engaged their ecclesial as well as their cosmic contexts.
In fact, an important aspect of the biblical writings is the way scripture can challenge scripture and point to an ongoing interpretive process. The canonical context points to both content and process, and thus the Bible canonizes both the writings themselves and the dynamically continuing process of interpretation. In Matthew's witness, Jesus himself carried on that process repeatedly with the words, "You have heard that it was said ... but I say to you." He can challenge ancient texts with fresh interpretive power. As we compare biblical writings, we can see this intepretive process continuing at many points. In other words, it is quite biblical to challenge the Bible. For example, we would certainly want to challenge this text: "Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rocks!" (Ps. 137:9).
It holds even for the Bible (as someone has said), "None of us is entirely useless. Even the worst of us can serve as horrible examples." The great authenticity of the Bible is that it's all there, the good and the bad, the glory and tragedy of human life. It's no put up job where everything fits into a simplistic mold. As we do Bible study, we do so in the canonical context of the whole Bible.
Fourth, an evangelical or gospel-happening context. Why bother with the Bible? Because the Bible as canon witnesses to the Word that became flesh, not text, that is, to the evangel, the "good news" of God's working in real human existence to touch it with creative and liberating and healing power. I am grateful that one of the uniting churches in the United Church of Christ bore the name "evangelical," which comes directly from the Greek word euangelion.
I am quite unhappy with those Christians who define themselves as the evangelicals, as if other Christians are not. All Christians are by definition evangelicals, for we all have our life in God's evangel, God's good news. Our life has to go on in an evangelical context.
We sometimes limit the evangel to what God has done in Jesus Christ, but Old Testament writers also use the term. More than five hundred years before the coming of Jesus, Isaiah writes, "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation" (Is. 52:7).
The whole Exodus event is "good news" for Israel. The Ten Commandments are preceded by the grace and good news of God's liberation. "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; (therefore) you shall have no other gods before me". (Ex. 20:2-3).
And it is striking that the Apostle Paul can interpret his scripture (our Old Testament) in this way: "And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, 'All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you'" (Gal. 3:8). What here is the good news for Paul? It is the good news of God's inclusiveness in the promise to Abraham.
An evangelical context means that we live with the expectation that good news will happen to people, to communities, to God's beloved world: that God's good news for the world will bring a deeper sense of faith and hope and love, of freedom and justice and peace, of grace and truth and glory—the glory of God's self-giving love in the cross of Jesus Christ.
We do our Bible study in an evangelical context, in the expectation that God's good news will take on flesh among us as we live together in our canonical, ecclesial and cosmic contexts.
Fifth, a pneumatic or Spirit-empowering context. Biblical writers speak of God's spirit or Holy Spirit in differing ways (Isaiah is not Jeremiah and Jeremiah is not Ezekial; Paul is not Luke and Luke is not John.) We need to let each speak for themselves. But generally, the Spirit of God takes the events of God's deeds in the past (creation, exodus, cross, resurrection) and makes them alive in the present with a foretaste of the future. The Spirit empowers the present with good news from the past and with pregnant hopes for the future.
But how does that happen? It happens in part with the gifts of the Spirit, the charismata with which the Spirit empowers the life of each person and enlivens the evangelical, canonical, ecclesial and cosmic contexts of our lives. We are empowered not only for our own inner spiritual life but for that work of the Spirit that meant for Isaiah and Jesus "good news to he poor ... release to the captives ... sight to the blind ... liberty to the oppressed" (Luke 4:18-19).
Again, some Christians have appropriated the word "charismatic" for themselves with their particular gifts of the Spirit. But from New Testament usage, all Christians are charismatics, for we all are blessed with various gifts of the Spirit and we need to value each one in mutuality and edification and mission together. We do our Bible study in a pneumatic context.
What does this mean for Sunday worship?
To conclude, let me try to put these five contexts into our worship on Sunday mornings. Are they part of the picture?
Well, any sound planning of worship is going to have to take into account the cosmic context of what is going on in the world around us and in the lives of those who come to worship. The worship itself is an expression of the ecclesial context, the gathering of that community of faith with the multiple aspects of its life. In the worship is the reading of the scriptures and their engagement in the sermon, thus expressing the canonical context. And what we hope will happen in the worship is that God's good news will touch us individually and corporately, the evangelical context. And then we hope that people will be empowered by the Spirit with gifts to go forth to live the good news, individually and corporately, and so let it impact the cosmic context of the week that lies ahead. Then back again next week.
Every Sunday is a time to be empowered by the Spirit, for the sake of good news, as we engage the Bible, in the community, in order to be faithful servants in God's beloved world.
As to our sermons, I like the story of the sexton who used to greet his pastor after the service in one of three ways. If the sermon was good he would say, "Pastor, today the sheep were fed." If it was a so-so sermon he would say, "Pastor, that was a difficult text." And if it was really lousy he would say, "Well, Pastor, today the hymns were well chosen." Given that my spouse is a musician, I've learned how important it is that the hymns be well chosen. Thank you all.