Review II: Why I am a United Methodist – “Because the Bible is Our Book”

As you may have seen from the previous post, I was a bit concerned given the name of this chapter: “Because the Bible is Our Book.” I expected the stereotypical “ad fontes” “sola scriptura” arguments. However, my reaction is surprisingly mixed. Bishop Willimon does start out from a similar position, but he (eventually) moves beyond them.

Bishop Willimon starts out by quoting from our Book of Discipline:

“United Methodists share with other Christians the conviction that Scripture is the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine. Through Scripture the living Christ meets us.” (Page 33)

Scripture is very clearly a product of Church Tradition. This fact is really beyond debate. Although I suppose some people might argue that once the Bible was created it became the highest standard, even above Tradition. But that’s another argument for another day. The Bible is an important product, perhaps one of the most important products, but it does not exist in a vacuum. The Scripture exists within an understanding created by the Church and by the Liturgy. Separated from this, the Bible becomes distorted and too easily misunderstood. Second, I’m not sure what the Discipline is referring to by saying that Christ “meets” us through the Scripture. Does this mean that we can experience Christ through Scripture? That we can feel close to God and understand something of Christianity? Of course we can. We can also experience Christ through a myriad of other mediums. We can experience Christ in a sunset. At a most basic level, we can meet Christ anywhere.

But perhaps the Discipline means “meets” in a higher understanding. As in, we meet Christ in a special way through Scripture. In the Scripture we encounter a revelation from God. That is also true, but once again I would say that the Scripture does not stand alone here. It stands with the Church and her Liturgy. It stands with the Sacraments. At least Bishop Willimon is not making a “sola scriptura” argument, rather a “prima scriptura.” Yet there are still problems with prima scriptura. I think it introduces an artificial split between the Bible and the rest of the life of the Church.

I do often appreciate Bishop Willimon’s sense of humor though:

“You may think that the toughest task of a Christian is serving on your Church’s Finance Committee without losing your faith.” (Page 37)

Regarding the Bible, Bishop Willimon goes on to say:

The Bible is a “context, the vantage point from which Christians move to answer our questions.” (Page 38)

I have to say that I only partially agree. I think a book, even the Bible, is perhaps not enough to give us a context and a vantage point. Again, I think the Bible has to be firmly located within the life of the Church. That means somehow within the 2.000 year Tradition. At the very least, engaging with the Tradition (even if not accepting all of it) serves to give a denomination and its members a full vantage point. Hundreds if not thousands of denominations claim to take only the Bible as their vantage point and yet cannot agree. That is why it needs to be contextualized and the context is the community of believer, both present and past.

I think the problem comes down to where we place the Bible in relation to the Church. When we see the Bible as a product of the Church, then it is the Church that is imbued with authority. However, if we see the Bible as somehow being “higher” than the Church (which created it) then the Bible becomes the sole authority. Yet, this opens up the can of worms that has led to the proliferation of thousands of denominations making similar claims about the authority of the Bible and yet vehemently disagreeing on what it actually says.

“The Bible is not so much a roadsign at an intersection as a collision. When reading the Bible… we come to a head-on collision with our preconceptions and limited, self-centered opinions.” (Page 39)

I really liked this point. Too often we can see the Bible as being something familiar. We can forget just how much of a challenge it is to so many of our assumptions. God’s self-revelation (in all forms) is always an absolute challenge to our way of thinking.

“Our main problem is not to ‘clean up’ the Bible so that it is worthy of being affirmed by a skeptical modern world. Rather, our chief task is the formation of a faithful people worthy of the Bible… The modern mind likes to think of itself as open-minded. In reality, the modern mind has flattened the universe to a one-dimensional, human-centered reality where what might be is usually defined on the basis of what already is and the primary human task is adjustment to the status quo rather than open-minded imagining of a new heaven and a new earth.”(Page 40)

I can see why Bishop Willimon has been named one of the best preachers in America. This thought from him is simply brilliant. He then follows this up with a great story about a young man who came to him doubting about the virgin birth. This was Bishop Willimon’s response:

“Well, what is it? Tuesday? I seem to believe in the virgin birth today, but who knows where I’ll be on Wednesday? The point is not what you or I happen to believe, it’s what the church believes, the Bible asserts. Relax, maybe it will come to you when you are older… Look, I hate to tell you, but the virgin birth is not the strangest thing we are going to ask you to believe… Next we’re going to ask you to turn the other cheek rather than turn violent, to look across a communion table and believe these strangers are sisters and brothers, to start thinking that the poor and the outcast are really royalty. We start you out on the virgin birth because we think if you can believe that without choking, we can eventually get you to swallow the really important, really essential stuff about Jesus.” (Pages 40-41)

Again, a great bit of Bishop Willimon’s preaching combined with his humor. I’m also glad to see the introduction of the Church here in the scope of belief. I think Bishop Willimon is also making a very good point here about individual belief in relationship to the Church. Sometimes every one of us maybe has some doubts about particular doctrines. We may be no longer sure we believe in the virgin birth or any of the other parts of the creeds. But rather than seeing that as a moment of losing our faith altogether, we should instead re-focus. Everyone doubts. It’s part of being human.

At the same time it’s not all about us as individuals. The Church is about community. As Bishop Willimon points out here (finally!) it’s what the Church believes. And if we’re committed to the Church, the community, rather than our own egos then we should just relax. Maybe it will come to us later. Especially since we too frequently think in the extreme short-term, especially if we feel we are experiencing a crisis of faith. So, while it may at first come across as flippant, I think Bishop Willimon is actually making a profound statement about the Church as a community of commitment.

“The truly Wesleyan biblical question is not, How can we create the Bible to suit our limitations? but rather, How can we create a church which will enable us to overcome our limitations when dealing with the Bible?” (Page 42)

This, I think, is foundational for the branches of Christianity that accept Tradition and it rather boggles my mind that Bishop Willimon only introduces the Church at the end of his chapter on the Bible. This should be of utmost importance to Methodism, but it seems more peripheral. Or, perhaps currently, it is seen more as an issue of bureaucracy and church structuring rather than as a foundational part of Christianity. Why does this point comes at the end of the chapter? I really think it should be the other way around.

Until you reach the point where he finally mentions the Church, this book could be any number of generally Protestant works on why a person should be a Christian. Up until this point Bishop Willimon’s arguments were not much different than any other “me and my Bible” views. This is a view that is fundamentally flawed. And that’s not just a Anglican/Catholic/Orthodox position either. The Mennonite church also believes that the Bible should be interpreted within the faith community. And the Mennonites are heirs to the Radical Reformation rather than the Magisterial Reformation. Once the Church is mentioned, it at least places Methodism near the ranks of Traditional Christianity. At least on paper it does so…

So it’s rather interesting to me that Bishop Willimon starts out this chapter by recalling a conversation where a Methodist and a Baptist claim that it doesn’t much matter what you believe, just as long as you sincerely believe it. Perhaps this is a stylistic choice on Bishop Willimon’s part? Build up to the Church? But it left me wondering throughout most of the chapter until the Church finally gets mentioned. Because until the Church is brought into the equation there’s no point about the importance of the Bible that cannot also lend itself to the “believe what you want to believe” view. No one doubts the sincerity of, say, the Southern Baptist Conference. But what makes their interpretation of the Bible any more valid than that of the Unitarians? That is why I think the Church and Tradition (which is tied inseparably to the Church) are foundationally important.

Thankfully Bishop Willimon gets to the importance of the Church by the end of the chapter. But it seemed a rather brief treatment and left me wanting more. Nevertheless, Bishop Willimon’s call here needs to be a call that Methodists start taking seriously once again. I followed the last General Conference (our major denomination-wide conference that takes place every four years) and one of my friends gave an overall impression of the conference that feels far too apt:

“General Conference 2012: Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.”

It saddens me, but I can’t disagree with that assessment. And I can’t help but think that Bishop Willimon’s challenge here, a challenge to reconnect with the community of faith, would certainly turn things around. It could help us to refocus on the essentials and maybe pick up that bit of the Wesleyan quadrilateral that we seem to have abandoned; Tradition.

Next segment: “Because Religion is Practical.”

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~ by crossingthebosporus on August 29, 2012.

7 Responses to “Review II: Why I am a United Methodist – “Because the Bible is Our Book””

  1. This is a great series already – I like Bishop Willimon, he’s my sort of guy. Some of those comments are just so acute – I shall Google him and follow him up – thank you for this. What a richness there turns out to be on your own door step 🙂

    • Isn’t there some saying about how every time we go out, we always end back up at our own doorstep? But hopefully wise for it…

      I have another book of Willimon’s that my wife tells me is good, “Who Will Be Saved?” It’s currently sitting on my pile to read after enjoying (although not always agreeing with) this current book.

    • The really strange thing about this exercise is that it somehow got me back into examining the other theological direction into which I’m occasionally pulled, which is the completely opposite direction of Mennonite theology. As I subtly mentioned in this post. Maybe it’s my heritage (Anabaptist ancestors) but I also find a lot of what Mennonite theologians say deeply compelling. Such is the theme of my life, being stuck in the middle between two very compelling and convincing arguments.

      I don’t always agree with Mennonite theology, but then again it shouldn’t be about what we personally find suitable to ourselves. And I remind myself that I don’t always agree with some aspects of Catholicism/Orthodoxy either. So maybe Methodism really is a middle ground for me to balance these two contradictory theological impulses upon?

      At any rate, the next chapter of Willimon’s book “Because Religion is Practical” should appease that Mennonite side of me!

      • I’ll look forward to reading it. Sometimes, and this is clearly one of them, it is good to explore one’ own Tradtion thoroughly 🙂

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