Can We “Idolize” the Bible?

For something to be “real” it helps if you can touch it, see it or taste it. 

But can one touch faith, see faith or taste faith?

Of course the answer is no.  Yet faith is an important basis of the Christian religion.  “We look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” [Corinthians 4: 18].

Despite Corinthians 4:18, people still seem to need to “see” the cross, taste the sacraments, view statues of the Saints and gaze upon the beautiful cathedrals.   The tangible can be very important for the believer.  Tangible objects can be very inspiring.

But what about God’s word, The Bible? 

Peter Gomes feels that many Christians make The Bible an object of “veneration” and ascribe to it the glory due to God. Many refer to it as “God’s word” as if God dictated it personally to the writers of Scripture [indeed some Christians do see it that way].  They feel it is much more than just a book.

What is the problem in all of this?  Gomes states that idolatry is the problem.  Moses returned from Mount Sinai with the tablets of the law directly from God only to find his people worshipping a golden calf.  He was furious with Aaron (who was left in charge), but Aaron had just given the Israelites a tangible manifestation to worship.  They thought they needed that; God thought otherwise.  God wanted to destroy them all for their ingratitude, but Moses saved them with his powerful petitions on their behalf.  He was so angry that he broke the tablets and destroyed the calf.  After all, the second commandment refers to idolatry: “you shall not make idols.”

Where do Christians (as a people) begin to get it wrong with our faith representations?  Gomes points to Christian greats like John Calvin who felt that reading The Bible could inspire ordinary people to love and obey God.  They no longer needed to be inspired by magnificent buildings with stories told in beautiful stained glass.  Increases in world literacy and printing meant they could read for themselves.  The Bible should be enough.  Martin Luther adopted the slogan sola scripture [by Scripture alone} to emphasize the importance of reading God’s word for the ordinary believer. 

Some would say “problem solved”, but I am not sure.  Is there any guarantee that one reader of Scripture (making his or her own interpretation) will come to the same conclusion as another?  It is best not to be naive; of course there is no guarantee of that.  The Roman Catholic Church has tried for years to grapple with this problem.   Their policy is that outside of priests, bishops and the Pope, The Bible could not really be understood except with teachings of the church.  For them, this makes The Bible an “inaccessible book” for the average Christian with Roman Catholic clergy having a monopoly on the interpretation of Scripture.   The Catholic Church has always been fearful of what it refers to as the “shifting sands of private judgement.”

Martin Luther seized on this attitude with his words sola scriptura, feeling that each believer should have a right to interpret Scripture for themselves.  Roman Catholic comment on Luther says “each one should be able to make for himself a religion which suited his feelings.  And the Bible, open before every literate man and women to interpret for themselves, was attractive bait for adherents.”*

Gomes feels that such harsh criticism of Protestant goals for Bible reading is uncalled for but one has to admit that sola scriptura may lead to some wrong-headed approaches to The Bible.  Even well-meaning Protestants can get locked-in on meanings that are marginally supported by Scripture.   Once they are “locked-in,” coupled with the feeling that The Bible belongs to God, individuals are prone to give into the temptation to elevate personal interpretations into “I know God said this” and “I know God means this” statements. 

It is so difficult for some people to back off of strong statements of “faith” when those statements are based on sacred symbols on a page.  Maybe there should be a balance between extremes.  Somewhere between making The Bible a Holy Book that God dictated to Holy Men and The Bible is just a book of suggestions by well-meaning men two thousand years ago is a proper approach to Scripture.  I read The Bible as God’s word, but I never forget that I read it with my 2023 lens on the page.  I don’t understand Biblical context from many years ago in a foreign culture so I may consult scholars to help me with meaning. I have been around many Christians who do not want to admit that one “jot or tittle”** is open to outside interpretation.  They are definite in what God’s word means and they are positive that their acts based on their faith in The Book are 100% correct.

For Gomes that is bibliolatry, worshipping God’s word so much that The Word becomes an idol.  It leads to what I call “closemindedness” and what closeminded people declare in the name of God and in the pursuit of good can cause more harm than good.

I end with a story that Gomes recounts of a friend of his who went to a small Christian college in the south.  A pastor came to chapel one day and began his sermon with a lesson from his Bible.  He then closed the book and threw it out of the nearby open chancel window and said “Well there goes your God!”

What was his point?  He was trying to illustrate that God is certainly in The Bible but one must not make God the Bible.  God is much bigger than that, but in the absence of a visible God, man is always tempted to make something visible a God substitute.  A Bible is meant to direct our senses and our spirits to the invisible spiritual qualities of our God but Gomes is right, “idolatry is a problem.”

 Even if the object of idolatry is God’s word.

*from Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture

**reference to Matthew 5:18 [correct to the smallest detail].

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Introduction to “The Three Temptations”

Peter Gomes begins chapter two of The Good Book  with a warning: “it is not just trendy theologians or liberal Christian bishops who get into trouble over its interpretation [The Bible’s].”  We can all get into trouble. 

In my previous post, I commented on the process of interpretation and I evaluated Gomes’ ideas on interpretation.  In my experience I agree with his thoughts, a word in any book is a symbol meant to represent some thing and as readers, we take those symbols and try to make meaning from them.  Symbols represent things.  Some words elicit complex responses, while others elicit much simpler responses.  It would be naïve to say that words mean the same things to all people.  Common sense applied to the writing of symbols and reading of symbols would tell us all that writers are individuals attempting to transmit meaning and readers are diverse individuals attempting to decode symbols.  It is often not a simple process.

What makes this whole discussion more intense is when we think of interpretation as it applies to God’s Word.

After opening chapter two with this general discussion, Gomes gets more specific in a section he entitles “The Danger of Interpretation.”  When we think about symbols representing things, how do we respond to someone who uses the word “danger.”  That is a word that elicits a complex response.  It catches attention.

Let’s go further.  Gomes writes that there is great irony regarding the serious nature of Bible study.  The more people study, the more they are tempted to obscure its meaning, pervert its meaning and lose correct meaning entirely.  He writes: “The temptation to see in the Bible only the Bible, and to see no further than our own understanding of what we see, has frequently led to an idolatry of Scripture as dangerous and perverse as any blandishment of Satan in the Garden or in the wilderness.”  What does he mean here?  Anytime we read a book we bring our own experience to the reading.  We can’t help but do this; experience is our lens through which we interpret.  It seems to me that we should acknowledge this.

Let me see if I can provide an example of this process using a book that is much less Divine.  Recently my book club read a book by Amor Towles entitled A Gentleman in Moscow .  Without spoiling the book for any reader of this post, this novel is set in the early twentieth century and it deals with the life of a Russian aristocrat who is under long-term house arrest in a lavish Moscow hotel.  This man’s knowledge of the tasteful life of aristocratic society is amazing, his acute sensitivity, his ability to find the right word for any occasion, his sense of upper class behavior and all the accoutrements that go along with that lifestyle.  I plunged headlong into the book and I soon found myself afloat in a world that I could not relate to but I enjoyed it anyway.  I read along as well as I could, making sense the best that I could.

But what if the book I am reading is The Bible, a book that many regard as “powerful.”   Gomes writes “we want that power for ourselves, to order our lives by it and to make sense of the world in which we find ourselves” [35].

What do we do to this Divine Book?  Like any book, we bring our experience to the reading.  We bring our lens through which we interpret the meaning of the words.

Gomes says this leads to “temptations” and he pinpoints three ways that serious Bible readers are tempted:  first, we worship The Bible, making it an object of veneration.  Secondly, we worship the text, making the letter of The Bible more important than the spirit.  Thirdly we worship our culture and we force the Bible to conform to the prevailing values of our times.  He labels these bibliolatry, literalism and culturism.  Each plays a part in interpreting the Bible.  Each can lead to “dangerous” interpretations.

As I decide to comment on a book, I try to find divisions within the work to break it apart.  That allows me to tackle parts that are digestible for me as commentator and digestible for anyone who reads my blog. 

Something tells me to slow down and take some time with bibliolatry, literalism and culturism.  These ideas may be foundational for the arguments that Gomes will make later in his book.  I should not skim over them.

In my next post I will turn my attention to bibliolatry, an attitude that I can easily find in some of my Christian friends. 

Let us keep in mind that whether the topic is bibliolatry, literalism or culturism, Gomes feels that they are all three forms of idolatry, “all related and equally dangerous” [35].

Let me use his words to end on a strong note: these temptations “violate the first commandment, and they violate the believer just as Adam and Eve were violated, and just as Satan would have violated Jesus in the wilderness if he could have” [Gomes, 35].

Next post: “bibliolatry.”

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To Read is to Interpret…

“To read is to interpret”…

This goes without saying.  Anyone who reads a symbol that represents a thought is “interpreting”.  Anyone who reads this post right now is doing likewise.

Peter Gomes begins Chapter 2 in his book entitled The Good Book with the warning that “it is not just trendy theologians or liberal Christian bishops who get into trouble over its interpretation.”  We all do.

This is at best a tricky process.  When we read we have the text and of course we have the author.  That author has a meaning that he or she is trying to communicate.  It is our jobs as readers to “tease out” the meaning that is in the text, but we bring our backgrounds and our skills to the job.  This relationship is what Gomes calls the “interpretive triangle,” between author, text and reader and it is what makes meaning differ from person to person.  If you have attended a book club and have attempted to discuss an author’s intent, it quickly becomes obvious that any two people may not see the same thing in the symbols on the page.

How does this apply to “teasing” meaning from God’s word?  As an English major, I am very aware of textual criticism of literary works, where expert critics comment on novels, theatre and poetry trying to help the reader understand authorial meaning on a much deeper level.  Biblical criticism and interpretation have been applied to The Bible in a like manner*.  This critical material about The Bible is readily available even though some refuse to consult this work, preferring to rely on their own personal interpretation.   After all, the Bible comes from God through humans.  Gomes writes “The commands of God are absolute, yet the historic context of the writings appears to relativize certain elements.  The divine message must be clear, yet many passages seem ambiguous.  We are dependent on the Spirit for instruction yet scholarship is surely necessary” [29].

Who then needs interpretation? Gomes says “We do.”  In the Methodist Church tradition, John Wesley felt that understanding Scripture was a four-fold process which was dubbed the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” which pointed to Scripture as the core of understanding The Bible itself.  But in addition, Wesley felt a person’s ability to think or reason had a place in the comprehension process.  Everyone brings their life experience to The Text and Wesley admitted that.  Finally, he felt that a tradition of study of The Bible was useful.  He knew that for many years, scholars applied their skills to understanding the Biblical text and to ignore all of their work was folly.  Yet “there are many devout and sincere Christians for whom the notion of interpretation in Scripture is anathema” [31].  I have heard some of their claims that The Bible is clear and plain in its meaning.  A common phrase these folks like to use is “The Bible says what it means and means what it says.”  This simplistic view denies what symbols on the page mean and how meaning can vary from one person to another.  This view denies the fact that ideas that were written in Old and New Testament times can be hard to understand today without some help with understanding Biblical context. 

If a reader of the Bible will admit it, what happened to Jesus when He expounded on Old Testament Scripture?  Some liked His interpretation but some did not.  His meanings upset the “experts” of His day so much that they had to find a way to silence Him permanently.  Gomes writes “today, the congregation would simply fire the preacher.”

I am doing a Sunday school series on the Parables of Jesus and as I move through the Parables, they are often deeper than merely surface meaning.  Even the Disciples missed the meaning of some of Jesus’ teaching. 

I find it interesting that Gomes points to the story of the eunuch on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza.**  Philip encounters the man on the side of the road as he was trying to understand a scroll of Isaiah.  The man was at a loss, admitting “How can I [understand], unless someone guides me.”  Phillip began interpreting the Scriptures and the man was so impressed that he asked to be baptized on the spot, which Phillip gladly did. 

Gomes feels that interpretation is what drives understanding of The Bible.  Whether one turns to other people for instruction, to works of interpretation or even decides to dig out the meaning on their own, interpretation is still at play.  It is the nature of reading the symbol on the page. 

For me there is a lot of trust in the process of reading.  I call on God to help me understand His Word.  I submit myself to Him and ask Him to speak personally as I read His word.  I ask Him to open my eyes to what the text is saying. I ask for wisdom as I seek to interpret the text.  I ask for the ability to apply His truth to areas of my life that need His touch.  Gomes writes that he encourages his students to “Trust the text.  Trust themselves.  Trust the people.  Trust the Spirit.” 

I like his language when he continues on the idea of trust: “We can trust the Bible to be a window into the complexity of the human and the divine.  These words are trustworthy and true not because they correspond to verifiable fact and scientific data, but because they speak with a perceptive, truthful accuracy of the hearts and minds of men and women very much like ourselves” [34-35].

In focusing on reading and interpretation, the tendency is to wonder what differences can occur between author, text and reader.  But do we spend enough time thinking about good communication between the three elements in “the interpretative triangle.”  Can accurate messages be passed along from Bible writers to humans today?  I think they can.  The Bible is full of timeless information that can communicate truth. 

Gomes says it best, “because it comes from the truth which we call God.”

*This discipline is referred to as hermeneutics.

**Acts 8: 26-40.

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Public, Dynamic and Living*

When someone enters the place where I worship, I often wonder what they notice first of all.  If they enter through the front of the sanctuary, there are two sets of double doors opening to the center of the church.  If it is a sunny day, the beautiful windows may catch a visitor’s attention.  Maybe the large cross at the center of the church, suspended from the ceiling will become apparent.**  But beneath that cross is God’s Word, The Bible displayed on an ornate stand, open for all to see and read.

Peter Gomes feels the public nature of The Bible is a major factor in understanding its use as well as two other words:  dynamic and inclusive.  As I comment on the last part of chapter 1 entitled “What’s It All About,” I will touch on all three words.

Most people would not quibble with the word public.  Many churches display The Bible in a prominent place, a sacred place in the center of the church.  Gomes says it is as if the church is trying to communicate that this book is a “treasure for the people.” 

Historically The Bible is read from the pulpit, where a pastor will then expound on selected Scripture [some feel this is what “makes” a sermon].    In ancient days, the public recitation of Scripture was necessary since scrolls of Scripture were not available for ownership by hardly anyone.

The public nature of The Bible is intended to impact public life.  Christians are not just expected to read God’s Word, they are also expected to behave publicly like Christians according to The Book’s precepts.  Gomes points out that this attitude has caused tension throughout history as Christian behaviors often clash with cultural norms.  Christians are expected to live in this world while not being a part of it.  Our allegiance is to God’s Kingdom [see John 18: 36 as Jesus defends His Kingdom to Pontius Pilate].  Likewise, “The Bible is a public book, and as such will always give offense.  Christians who take The Bible seriously have to be prepared for that” [Gomes, 20].

Besides being public, Gomes describes The Bible as a “living text.”  At first glance this seems to be a reference to the Holy Spirit that animates the pages of the Bible.  This is the force that gives The Bible its power.  Then Gomes says “The dynamic quality of Scripture has to do with the fact that while the text itself does not change, we readers change; it is not that we adapt ourselves to the world of the Bible and play at re-creating it as in a pageant or tableau ‘long ago and far away.’  Rather, it is that the text actually adapts itself to our capacity to hear it” [20].

Gomes refers to this as a “Pentecostal” experience, akin to the Holy Spirit manifesting itself to the believers in the book of Acts.  Those people understood what was happening in that room, “they understood in their own languages: not a paraphrase, not a delayed interpretation, not even a translation; they understood in their own language” [21].  For Gomes this means that readers of The Bible don’t need to be confused by the ancient context, just read The Bible in our contemporary context.  Our understanding of God’s Word evolves and transforms just as we evolve and transform.  To a certain extent I understand what he is saying but context [when it is known and applied] can add layered textures to Scripture.  This morning I taught a Sunday school class on the “Parable of the Ten Minas” from Luke 19: 11-27.  The parable on the surface is about doing God’s work with the gifts that He provides us all, but a layered meaning which does not hurt understanding is that the parable is also about King Archelaus, who was cruel to the Jews.  The reader should not be confused and think the king in this Scripture is Jesus.

Sometimes context can be confusing but just saying context is not important and never trying to understand it may lead to interpretations that miss the mark, interpretations that are a bit too “creative.”

This concern for The Bible as a living text leads into Gomes’ third point that The Bible is an “inclusive word.”  Gomes says The Bible “has the power to draw all people unto itself.”  Certainly the organic nature of Christianity is a testament to this.  The Scriptures moved beyond the Middle-East to the whole of the Roman world and thanks to the efforts of many, The Bible has saturated the world, making it a perennial “best seller”.

So Gomes is correct in saying that when Jesus said “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give your rest” He is including all, “the poor, the discriminated against, persons of color, homosexuals, women and all persons beyond the conventional definitions of Western civilization.”  I find it interesting that he picks African people who are enslaved by American landowners as examples of those that God offers rest.  “One of the great paradoxes of race in America is the fact that the religion of the oppressor, Christianity, became the religion of the oppressed and the means of their liberation” 23].  If Christianity in America depended only upon white Christians, there would be no right-minded black Christians.  God reached out to an enslaved people and gave them a means to survive slavery and a means to dream of a better life.   You can bet when they read their Bibles, they felt “included”.

In thinking of the Bible, Gomes feels that its public nature, it dynamic nature and it living nature make it the Book that it is.  It is deserving of a place at the center of worship, it is deserving of a place in the center of a Christian’s life.

In Chapter 1 of The Good Book, Gomes has written about how Christians do not have much familiarity with God’s Word and most Christians do not have much knowledge about how The Bible was “constructed.”  How do we cure this problem?  Read God’s Book appreciating its public, dynamic and inclusive nature.  An appreciation of the construction of The Bible is nice but not necessary.  Those three basic factors Gomes discusses will serve “as landmarks, points of departure and of return” and they will guide us as we open God’s Word.

They will be enough…

*Due to widespread damage from wind storms and resulting power outages,  St. John Studies is being published later than usual this week.


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The Construction of the Bible…

I am a country boy who loves school.  I love paper, pencils and ink pens.  I love books, reading them, seeing them on shelves and carrying them around.  I was a kid in elementary school who ached to go to middle school, then high school and then college.   Every level of education fascinated me, the challenge of it, until I became an English major in college and enrolled in English 304.

My parents raised me as a church-going kid.  We lived twelve miles from our church but we got up on Sunday and made the trip.  Dad, Mom and my two brothers.  My church [like most] was not heavy on doctrine.  Theology was not the subject of Sunday school.  I grew up thinking the Bible was a “super-important” book that was written by God.

That idea was eventually replaced by the more realistic idea that men actually wrote the Bible but God directed their minds and their pens, until English 304.

English 304 was required of all English majors at my college.  It was called simply “The History of English.”  When I enrolled in it, I did not know what I was getting into other than the woman professor who taught it had a reputation for making it very hard.  It was a meticulous study, focusing on the process of how we have the works of literature that we have today.  It was obvious to me that my professor considered the Bible a “work of literature” not God’s “super-important” book. 

She delved into what happens to books as they are written and printed.  Each work of literature has its own history [as did the Bible]. 

Peter Gomes discusses this in less detail in the section of The Good Book  entitled “The Construction of Scripture.”  The Bible is not a book but a collection of books, a library of books.  The Bible has come together over a period of centuries by a long editorial process.  My professor emphasized the human element of this process.  The writers were human, the publishers human, the printers human and of course readers of The Book are human.   Many Christians like to think of the process of the writing of the Bible as divine.  My professor loved to emphasize the printing of books quite a lot, pointing out the many errors made in printing which may have changed the meaning of the author [e.g. The Odyssey by Homer].

This country boy began to consider that this may have happened to God’s Book.  My doubts were a long way from my upbringing, where an older lady in my church declared of her Bible that she believed every word; all the words came from God.  “The Bible says what it means and means what it says!”  That was her view of 2nd Timothy 3: 16-17 “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

This was the first time I recall having doubts about the infallibility of God’s word [a horrible heresy at the time, I thought].  Gomes and other writers have no problem with the “messy” way the Bible has come about.  I am reading a book by the more “liberal” pastor [Adam Hamilton*] who points to the Christian idea that there are thirty five books in the Old Testament, the Catholic idea that there are forty-six, the Eastern Orthodox idea that there are fifty and the Jewish idea that there are twenty-four.  Who is right?  How can different faiths disagree so much about the number of books in the Old Testament?

All this disagreement about the “canon” is really about which books made it into the Bible and which books did not.  Obviously [as we see above] various faiths cannot agree upon what books should be included.    Hamilton points to the Jewish need for books that are better for reading aloud in the synagogue.  Gomes feels that the Old Testament used by the Jews is a collection of books “of proven worth, self-consciously composed, collected and preserved as the repository of wisdom both human and divine…reveal[ing] the nature of the people who wrote and collected them, and the nature of their god” [Gomes, 15].

When it comes to the “Christian’s Book” (The New Testament) the story is a bit different.  The New Testament was written mostly by Jews who drew upon the Old Testament heavily as they penned their thoughts about Jesus and their faith.  In His ministry, Jesus drew upon Old Testament Scripture as well  because He knew it. 

The history of The Bible is not as simple as many Christians would imagine.  It is my hope that this information does not destroy someone’s faith.  As Hamilton reports, the books of the New Testament may have been written in the First Century but that does not mean that the New Testament emerged organically at that point in time.  If wealthy church leaders like Marcion [around 140 AD] had not had an interest in creating a collection of documents, we might not have the New Testament.  With his wealth and his motivation, New Testament documents were gathered.  Christian leaders like Justin Martyr had a tremendous impact as he defended the Christian faith when it was under attack in the middle of the 2nd Century.   A student of Martyr named Tatian created a document called the Diatessaron which means made of four, combining the four Gospels.  By the end of the fourth century there was still no book called the New Testament but theologians were getting interested in making a Testament the “official” word of the Christian faith.   They began the process with a series of councils devoted to developing the canon of the New Testament.  The first council was the Council of Carthage in 397.   Several councils have convened over the years to bring the New Testament to where it is today.  According to Hamilton, several criteria were uppermost in leaders’ minds as they considered the canon: usefulness, [helpful to the churches who needed the New Testament], consistency [the document created must be consistent with the faith that was being expounded in church], association [given books of the New Testament needed to be associated with first-generation church leaders] and finally acceptance [books that were circulated widely and found widespread acceptance were deemed more acceptable].

Now we get to the criterion that is uppermost in the minds of believers who tend toward Biblical inerrancy [i.e. all is true in the bible or all is false].  Many believe the Bible to be the inspired word of God and in the minds of the “conservative” believers**, this idea is uppermost.  The New Testament may not have been written by Jesus’ followers right after He went to heaven, but as believers, theologians and church leaders who worked with the available texts, were all inspired by God.  Could we say that inspiration can be objectively identified?  The answer is no.  We can’t say exactly what inspiration is.  But could inspiration from God be subjectively experienced?  Yes it could and that experience could have guided the construction of the New Testament.  Many believe it did.

English 304 did have an impact on me.  It made we wonder if the Bible was the “super-important” book that was written by God.   Maybe I was being naïve as I considered the Bible being written in a simple way.  The construction of Scripture was not simple; it was very complicated but that does not mean that God did not manifest Himself in the process; indeed, maybe God even controlled or influenced the process every step of the way.

Even though humans touched the Biblical text (in my mind) that does not devalue the Bible.  We can hear Him speaking through the words.  God can guide our Holy Spirit and inspire us with His words, His teaching, His reproving, His correcting and His training of us in righteousness. 

Instead of focusing on the human element of Scripture construction, I prefer to attend to the first part of 2nd Timothy 3: 16-17: “All Scripture is inspired by God.”  We may not actually know what Paul meant when he used the word “inspired”  but when I think of the word, I think of times when I transcend my limitations, I find the power to shake off a lax lifestyle and do better than I ever thought possible. Yes there have been times when God’s word inspired me to live a better life.

I can only speak for myself; I really do credit God’s word, His Bible.

*I hate to label a pastor as “liberal” but maybe it helps to orient the reader to the pastor’s attitude regarding doctrine.  Hamilton’s book is entitled Making Sense of the Bible.

**Again, I hate to label believers as “conservative” but maybe it helps with orientation.

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The Pastor’s Lament…

“Not long after I became a Christian, I went back to the church in which I had been raised.  Although it was considered a Christian denomination, Bible reading was never emphasized.  As I entered the front door, Bible in hand, and made my way through the foyer, people looked at me as if I were some sort of extraterrestrial being.  ‘Why are you bringing in one of those things?’ someone asked.  I thought What am I supposed to carry?  A coloring book?  It dawned on me that of all the places that should welcome and foster a study of the Bible, it would be a church.”*

As Christians we are known as “the people of The Book.”

But are we?

Peter Gomes opens his first chapter in The Good Book  with an admission.  Very few Christians really read The Bible.

As a teacher of thirty-six years, I continually assigned readings out of textbooks and I got very used to facing students who did not read their assignments.  I would throw out “softball” questions and see so many blank stares that I got discouraged.  Sometimes students would lower their heads and when I saw the tops of heads, I knew what they meant: “don’t ask me.”  As an adult Sunday school teacher, the same problem is common.  I ask simple questions and it is obvious that class members are not prepared.  The problem in a church is that adult Christians do not like being confronted with questions they cannot answer [it calls their dedication to their faith into question].

Gomes cites poll after poll that reports The Bible as a best seller but joke after joke to support the idea that we don’t read our “best seller.”  I found it amusing that 10 percent of Christians polled thought Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.  Sixteen percent felt there was a book in The Bible written by the Apostle Thomas.  Thirty-eight percent thought the Old and New Testaments were written a few years after Jesus’ death.

Let’s back up a bit and defend the ordinary person’s inability to read The Bible.  It is a daunting task, to read a book that really is a library of books, written by many people over many years for many purposes.  Also some books in the Old Testament are extremely hard to read [e.g. Leviticus].  Leviticus has endless details about rituals which seem so bizarre to today’s reader.

There are well-intentioned study guides for The Bible but it is hard to avoid guides that go the extremes.  It seems that a lot of authors write on a second-grade level or expound on The Bible as one would who is trying to dazzle a group of graduate school seminary students.  It is hard to find that “sweet spot” commentary that explains in an adult manner without overwhelming inquisitive Christians with too much information.  Gomes is frank in his assessment:  “Contemporary Christians tend to avoid complexity as being hazardous to their faith.”

Don’t get me wrong, The Bible is difficult to read and many have started The Book with good intentions only to get bogged down in Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.   My church** has touted a Bible study that has books, study aids and a series of films explaining the most sophisticated contemporary Biblical scholarship.  But as one who worked with Christian Education for many, many years, people are just not that excited about dedicating nine months to a Bible study, meeting every week with assignments to read every day.

Gomes cites a pastor friend of his who admitted “The church is in bad shape when the only person who knows anything about the Bible is the pastor” [11].  Today with all the devices that are there to divide our attention, we spend countless hours playing computer games, watching streaming services or scrolling through social media platforms.  Read a book; “Nah, I don’t have the time.”  Read The Bible: …[silence, we think to ourselves “Not a chance”]. 

Bible study actually involves the study of The Bible.  Gomes writes that Bible study requires work, intelligence and discipline.  Leaders of Bible studies need to be “encouragers” because making people feel guilty about their inability to read God’s Word is not the best way to get people to open their Bibles.  Leaders of Bible studies need to keep their groups focused on Scripture.  That may sound strange but many times I have asked questions only to find that students reply with a personal story.  One personal story can stimulate another and another and pretty soon, Bible study becomes a session in Alcoholics Anonymous or some other exercise in healing and therapy.  It is important to tie comments back to actual Scripture.  It is important to do this in an positive way.  Gomes knows that there is a place for support groups but to let a Bible study become a support group is a inappropriate. “To say a Bible study is a Bible study [when it is not] is to perpetuate a fiction.” [12].

There are a lot of great reasons to read a Bible.  There are very few reasons not to not read it.  We encounter God in those pages.  The Bible is solace for a hurting person.  The Bible speaks to our Holy Spirit, giving us life guidance, a sense about how to live a righteous life. 

As I began this post with a story from Pastor Skip Heitzig, I end this post with another story from Pastor Charles Stanley.  He tells the story of “Cousin Ed.”  Cousin Ed has recently passed and in the process of executing his will, the executor calls you and informs you that your loving cousin has left you a considerable amount of money.  There is one catch; you have to fill out a lengthy and complicated form.  You get the multi-page form and begin filling it out and soon come to the conclusion that is so complex that you cannot understand it.  What are you going to do?  Are you going to call the executor and say I can’t claim the money.  It is too hard for me to understand the form; I have to let my money go.  No, you will find a way to fill out the paperwork; you will work hard to find a way to comprehend the form.  You will get motivated. You know that it will benefit you monetarily.***  Will Bible study benefit you?  Bible study will give you a purpose for living.  Bible study will solve mysteries of life, like creation, suffering heaven and hell.  The Bible gives you the keys to a successful life, a successful marriage and successful familial relationships. Should you get motivated to read it?

Is a there really a good excuse not to read The Bible?

I can’t think of any goodexcuses. 

Let me leave you with this scenario.  The pastor is in the pulpit and is reading his Scriptural text for his sermon.  The congregation is looking at him, nodding their heads.  As he is reading, a large percentage of the congregation is mouthing the words of the text.  They know the Bible that well.

That church is in good shape.  Almost everyone knows the Scripture; they know their bibles.


*Skip Heitzig  Study the Bible and Enjoy It

**The Disciple Bible Study Series

*** Charles Stanley,  The Wonderful Spirit-filled Life

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Soli Deo Gloria

Apologia: “A formal written defense of one’s opinion or conduct.”

This is the title for the front matter for Peter Gomes’ book entitled The Good Book.

Since I have been a Christian, I have encountered the word apologetics and I know that theologians who reason that Christianity is a “logical” faith are called apologists.   

Gomes introduces the reader to his book and claims that his main intent of the Good Book is to get people to take the Bible seriously.  He does not feel that people should “trivialize” the Bible, nor should they “idolize” it.  Either approach (he feels) will cause the reader to “miss its dynamic, living and transforming quality.” 

For people who need some “spiritual” foundation for a chaotic lifestyle, the Bible can be that foundation but there is  catch:  they have to commit to knowing as much about The Book as they can.  Too often people are too lazy in their approach to God’s word or too “simpleminded” in their understanding. 

Gomes’ Apologia is based on the idea that “true” Christians should have serious consideration for the Bible.  He wants Christians to let it “enter into us” and most especially, he has an affinity for those who have been excluded from the faith because the Bible has been used against them.

He claims to be an apologist for serious Bible reading.

I have to also wonder if he considers himself one of those people who feel they have been excluded from the faith because the Bible has been used against them.  After all, Gomes was a homosexual.

Surely as the pastor to Harvard he found a supportive environment.  Some think of Harvard as a “liberal” stronghold; Gomes himself refers to Harvard as “godless Harvard.”  In my previous post [“Who Was Peter Gomes?”] I stated that that Gomes was a homosexual and for some, there is a feeling that his sexual preference and life occupation are incompatible.  Pastor and homosexual cannot be one and the same.

Or can they?

This is the crux of the argument that is at the forefront of the United Methodist Church today.*  Of course it is much more complex than that.  The guidelines for the UMC are published in what is called The Book of Discipline and the official stance of the UMC regarding homosexuality is that homosexual marriage is prohibited within the church.   Clergy that officiate a same-sex wedding are performing a punishable offense within the church.  Coming out as an LGBTQ+ minister is prohibited and in 1971, the first UMC minister was defrocked for being openly gay. 

The Book of Discipline reads “the United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”   With a statement like that [taken out of context of course] the church has struggled to enforce its own guidelines.  Over the years, clergy performing same-sex marriages have not been disciplined and ministers who have openly declared their homosexuality have not been defrocked. 

As a reader of the Bible I have found support for the stance stated in the Book of Discipline in Leviticus 18: 22, Leviticus 20:13, Genesis 19: 1-11 [the story of Sodom and Gomorrah].  Others point to Judges 19: 22, an instance of homosexual rape.  Of course we have Romans 1: 20-32, 1 Corinthians 6: 9-11 and 1 Timothy 1: 8-15, all New Testament Scriptures that strongly discourage homosexual behavior.

Let’s stop my discussion of the United Methodist Church and its struggle over this issue because I need to refocus on Peter Gomes and how he felt about Christianity and homosexuality.  When he declared his sexual orientation, he “stunned” the Harvard community, but he felt he had to be honest about his sexuality.  He did not lose his appointment as minister at Harvard’s Memorial church.  He merely continued his long career until his death in 2011 at the age of sixty-eight.

In his Apologia Gomes writes about the Christian life.  The Christian by nature does not live a life that is in sync with the world.  “Christians hold allegiance to something out of harmony with it” [xii].  The Christian advances truth not by “postulates, formulas or bone-crushing logic” but in the “living flesh of human beings.”  He points to Jesus Christ as the “ultimate apologist” because His faith led Him to be the sublime example of the best life.  He had the power to be our best human example of godly man. 

Gomes is reading the same Bible I am reading and yet he feels he can live a life that contradicts the Scriptures cited above.  Not only is there contradiction but he calls for a serious reading of Scripture [“My apologia is an argument in favor of taking the Bible seriously”].  Some would say that a serious reader would see that his lifestyle is unacceptable due to a “serious reading” of the aforementioned Scriptures. 

I imagine that Gomes wants the reader to see that he is Christian and his life example is that of an apologist.  His character and actions [public and private] are designed to exhibit Christian principles and therefore further the Kingdom of God. He is much, much more than a sexual preference.

As I have stated, I begin my series about the issue of the role of the LGBTQ+ person in the church with Gomes because his book is the longest of the three** that will be discussed, not because I favor one view over another. However as I read the front matter of The Good Book, I know that Gomes’ plan for his book is to defend his interpretation of Scripture [his “serious reading”].  Even though he does not get into that discussion, he is an LGBTQ+ pastor and he is laying groundwork for that interpretation later on in his book.  Even though he does not hold himself up as a shining example of “an exemplary Christian” it may be implied in his words [or maybe I am wrong in that regard?]. 

Will he successfully defend his position regarding the Bible?  I plan to be as honest as I can be in evaluating his arguments.  Will he successfully defend his position regarding his vocation and his lifestyle?  I plan to be as honest as I can be in evaluating his arguments.

Gomes ends his Apologia with a reference to Johann Sebastian Bach, who used to write the Latin words Soli Deo Gloria on the first page of every composition.  That expression means “glory to God alone.”

I find it interesting that Gomes writes “I adopt his device as my own” [xv].

*I am a Methodist

**Kevin DeYoung, What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality?;  Preston Sprinkle  People to Be Loved

Disclaimer:  I am a learner like you.  I am not a seminary trained theologian.  I have a PhD in communication but not in theology.  I am a Sunday School teacher.  I do have a “natural curiosity” about my faith.  I want to learn more and through my learning, I want to grow closer to God.  I volunteer in several places at my church but I am not a paid staff member.  Officially, I do not represent the church.  As Thom Rainer would say, I try to be a good “Church Member” but that is really all I am–a member of the church, like you.

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Who Was Peter Gomes?*

He was born May 22, 1942 and passed away on February 28, 2011.  He was an American preacher and theologian, a professor at Harvard Divinity School and Minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church, highly regarded as one of America’s great preachers. 

Gomes was born in Plymouth Massachusetts, the only child of Orissa and Peter Lobo Gomes.   His father was from the Cape Verde Islands and his mother was African-American.  He was baptized a Roman Catholic but later became an American Baptist.  He was ordained by the First Baptist church of Plymouth and after a two-year tenure at Tuskegee Institute, he returned to Harvard where he became a professor and minister. 

In 1979 Gomes was listed in Time Magazine as “one of the stars of the American church pulpit”, fulfilling preaching and lecturing engagements throughout the United States and the United Kingdom.  He published ten volumes of sermons as well as numerous articles and papers.  He had two best-selling books, The Good Book and The Book of Wisdom for Daily Living.

Gomes was a registered Republican for most of his life, offering up prayers at the inaugurations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.  According to those who knew him, he was never easy to label.   Conservative evangelicals criticized the liberalism he displayed during his tenure at Harvard’s Memorial Church yet one of his most cherished photos in his office was his picture of the Reverend Billy Graham.

Gomes has stated that “one can read into the Bible almost any interpretation of morality…for its passages had been used to defend slavery, and the liberation of slaves, to support racism, anti-Semitism and patriotism, to enshrine a dominance of men over women and to condemn homosexuality as immoral.”  He once described himself as a “cultural conservative” but in 1991 he “stunned” the Harvard Community and made national news when he came out as a homosexual.  In 1991 the Harvard campus was beginning a long process of understanding the role that gay people have within society and Gomes said “I don’t like being the main exhibit, but this was an unusual set of circumstances, in that I felt I had a particular resource that nobody else there possessed.  I have always been seen as a black man but now I’m seen as a black gay man—the Yankee part, the Republican part, the Harvard type—all that stuff confuses people who have a single stereotypical lens.”

Gomes was highly regarded by many.  He was named Clergyman of the Year by the organization Religion in Life.  He was named “one of the seven most distinguished preachers in America” by Time Magazine .  He received thirty-nine honorary degrees and was an Honorary Fellow of Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge.   Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates writes “no one epitomized all that is good about Harvard more than Peter J. Gomes.”   William Graham, dean of the Harvard Divinity School says “Peter has been a powerful presence in the University for more than four decades.”  

As I transition from the works of John Stott to the complex discussion of the role of LGBTQ+ people in the church, the first book I will turn to is Gomes’ book The Good Book.  The practical reason is that Gomes’ book is sixteen chapters long and the other two are 10 [DeYoung] and 13 [Sprinkle].**

My denomination is struggling with this issue, with 1,800 churches choosing to disaffiliate with the United Methodist Church over this very issue.***

The goal is to learn, to understand this issue, acknowledging that it is too complex to encapsulate in just three books, but I am going to try anyhow.  My process is to go from one book to another, keeping readers focused on the process by referring to where I am in the discussion.

In my next post, I will begin with the front matter of The Good Book what Gomes calls “Apologia.”

*Peter John Gomes also just happens to be the first author in this new series dedicated to understanding the role of LGBTQ+ people in the church.  Gomes was homosexual.

**Kevin DeYoung, What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality?;  Preston Sprinkle  People to Be Loved

***as of December 7, 2022…

Disclaimer:  I am a learner like you.  I am not a seminary trained theologian.  I have a PhD in communication but not in theology.  I am a Sunday School teacher.  I do have a “natural curiosity” about my faith.  I want to learn more and through my learning, I want to grow closer to God.  I volunteer in several places at my church but I am not a paid staff member.  Officially, I do not represent the church.  As Thom Rainer would say, I try to be a good “Church Member” but that is really all I am–a member of the church, like you.

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How do I end a series of comments on an author’s work and begin another series?  How do I switch from one book to another or in the case of John Stott, how do I switch from two books to another book?  Since December 2014 (when I started St. John Studies), I have transitioned from one book to another twelve times. 

It is not easy.  Leaving John Stott to go to another book is like leaving an old friend.   There was a time when I truly needed his book Basic Christianity.  Reading his fundamental explanation was helpful since I was a new Christian.  When I was commenting on his complex book The Cross of Christ, I thought it would be good to contrast the complex with the basic.  It worked for me; maybe some readers got something out of this approach too.  I never know.

Now it is time to move on and as I move on, I am taking on a topic that is very controversial today, a topic that is having an impact on my church; what role should LGBTQIA+  people play in the United Methodist Church?

How do I plan to work with this topic?  I hope to have a balanced discussion of these ideas from a “conservative” approach to the topic [Kevin DeYoung] to a “balanced” approach [Preston Sprinkle] to a “liberal” approach [Peter Gomes]. *

The goal is to learn, to understand this issue, acknowledging that it is too complex to encapsulate in just three books, but I am going to try anyhow.  My process is to go from one book to another, keeping readers focused on the process by referring to where I am in the discussion.  At times it may seem like the “liberal” approach gets too much attention, but Gomes’ book is sixteen chapters long and the other two are 10 [DeYoung]  and 13 [Sprinkle].

Right now, people in the United Methodist Church are reacting to this topic by disaffiliating from the UMC because they fear that the church is getting too open to acceptance of the LGBTQIA+ community, but is it?**  Why all the uproar over the topic anyhow?  I had a substitute pastor deliver a sermon before my church and she bemoaned the impact this discussion was having on the United Methodist Church.  I remember her saying how concerned she was because this issue was “breaking” her church.

With this as a background, I will try to navigate through this topic the best that I can.  At times I may touch on some points that are enlightening; at other times I may not do an adequate job.  The latter is not my intent. 

One thing I can say about this issue.  It is on the minds and hearts of many Methodists right now and will continue to be a matter of concern for many days ahead.  Also, it should be a matter that all Christians take up; we need to figure out how we feel about this community of people.  For my church,  the motto for evangelism has been for many years “Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Open Doors.”

Does that motto mean something or is it meaningless?

We will see…***

*Kevin DeYoung, What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality?;  Preston Sprinkle  People to Be Loved;  Peter Gomes  The Good Book.

**see video:

*** Disclaimer:  I am a learner like you.  I am not a seminary trained theologian.  I have a PhD in communication but not in theology.  I am a Sunday School teacher.  I do have a “natural curiosity” about my faith.  I want to learn more and through my learning, I want to grow closer to God.  I volunteer in several places at my church but  I am not a paid staff member.  Officially, I do not represent the church.  As Thom Rainer would say, I try to be a good “Church Member” but that is really all I am–a member of the church, like you.

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Authentic Slaves of the Father

The date today is January 18, 2023. 

I began writing on the teachings of John Stott on October 25, 2020.  I have never commented on two books by one author at the same time, but I did that with John Stott.  The Cross of Christ was Stott’s crowning achievement, a book highly regarded by theologians, a dense discussion of the symbol at the heart of the Christian faith, the cross of Jesus Christ.  Basic Christianity was a book written early in Stott’s career, a book defining the fundamental claims of the faith.  I found Basic to be a book that dealt with those fundamentals in a solid and intellectually satisfying manner.  I needed that discussion when I became a born-again believer.  Over the past two and a half years, I have written 126 posts on both books, section by section, transitioning from the simpler book to the more complex book until I am where I am today: writing the last post I will ever write about the writing of John Stott.  Stott concludes his book [The Cross]with the seventh affirmation from the Book of  Galatians.  Those seven affirmations were Stott’s way of wrapping up all of the main points of The Cross of Christ.*

The seventh affirmation concerns the cross and boasting [Galatians 6: 14].  The Scripture reads: “May I never boast except in the cross of Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.”  

What does this mean?  The key word here is boast and we often don’t think of that word in a good light.  In his effort to define it, Stott says we have no English equivalent for the Greek word kauchomai.  He uses the terms glory in, trust in, rejoice in, revel in or live for.  He thinks “to boast in” means to “fill our horizons, engross our attention and absorb our time and energy.”  Paul’s use of boast may mean he feels he is obsessed with something.  Stott then turns to his interpretation of Galatians and states “Pauls’ obsession was with Christ and His cross” [340].  Should Paul be obsessed by the cross?  Stott says that the cross was certainly the most important thought on the mind of Jesus and the cross has always been central to the faith of the Christian church. 

My guess is that Stott believes Paul was justified in his obsession.

Stott presents two reasons he feels that Paul’s obsession is not really harmful.  The cross is man’s way of acceptance with God.  It is the only means we have of standing before a just and holy God.  Some may think  they do so much holy work that they don’t have to rely on Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross, but to trust in our own merits is a mistake.  We can’t earn our way to heaven without God’s grace.    Secondly, to boast in the cross is to see life as “the pattern of our self-denial.”  What this means is that Christ crucified the world when He went to His death [He denied the values of the world [materialism, vanity and hypocrisy].  Jesus preached that we should turn from these kinds of values.   We need to take up our own cross, not live with what Scripture calls “desires of the flesh.”  As He practiced self-denial, we should do likewise.

I find it interesting that Stott makes his closing comments on The Cross in theological order, not chronological.  The cross is the “ground of our justification.”  Christ has rescued us from the “evil of the present age” and redeemed us from the curse of the law.  The cross is “the means of our sanctification.”  We have been crucified with Christ, our fallen nature has been crucified and the world has been crucified to us.  The cross is “the object of our boasting.”  As previously discussed, Paul’s world was “in orbit” around the cross.  “It filled his vision, illumined his life, warmed his spirit.”  Stott writes “our perspective should be the same” [341].

I find it interesting that Stott feels that if the cross is not central in these four spheres to us, “then we deserve to have applied to us that most terrible of all descriptions, ‘the enemy of the cross of Christ.’” [341].   He points to four very negative attitudes we can have: self- righteousness, self-indulgence, self-advertisement and self-glorification.  These personal “distortions” make us enemies of the cross.

Stott turns to Paul and his writings in Galatians because Paul is a devoted friend of the cross.  Stott characterizes Paul as closely identifying with it and suffering physical persecution for it.  In Galations 6: 17 he writes “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.”

Maybe this is the main point of the whole book [The Cross of Christ ], that as Christians we should bear some wounds and scars.

In that way, the world will know we are authentic slaves of The Father.      

*The last post from Basic Christianity was October 6, 2022:  “Thanks Professor Stott: You Answer so Many Questions.”

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