Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Testing Scripture, by John Polkinghorne

Chapter Three

1.  The Bible is not really a book but a library. It has within it a variety of different genres: poetry, prose, story, history, laws, letters, and so on. Part of a proper respect for Scripture is to be aware of this issue of genre. The sad irony of so-called ‘creationism’, based on a fundamentalist biblical literalism, is that in fact it abuses the very text that it seeks to respect, missing the point of what is written by mistaking its genre.

- Give examples of where “creationism” generates conflicts in our culture.

2.  Over the centuries, many have seen the unique human capacity for rational thinking as forming the core of the divine image. However, I doubt whether this really gets to the heart of the matter. Surely that image is to be found in the mentally handicapped as well as in the academically brilliant. Its presence is the theological basis for a fundamental belief in the worth of every individual human being. To my mind, it is the love of God bestowed on each individual, and the implicit ability to be aware of the divine presence, that constitute the essence of the imago dei.

- How does “awareness of the divine presence” present opportunity to explore this divine relationship of love of God and love of neighbor?

3.  The greatest of all the wisdom writings is surely the book of Job, a profound tale of human suffering. For 37 chapters, calamities fall on Job and he and his friends argue about the significance of the terrible things that have happened to him and his family. The friends assert that he must have offended God by his sins and so he is receiving just punishment. Job protests his innocence and longs to be able to appear directly before God to mount his defense and make his just protest. Then, suddenly, God is there.

- What happens to Job next?  What allows him to change his attitude?

4.  The wisdom writers were what we might today call ‘natural theologians.’ That is to say, they were seeking to learn something of God through general experience, without overt appeal to the particularities of specific revelatory events. While this approach is valid, it has its limitations. Its appeal to limited forms of experience can only yield limited insight.

- Where do we see such attempts today?  What are the consequences?

5.  Returning to the opening chapters of Genesis, it is time to look at chapter 3, the story of the Fall. Once again we have to recognize that we are dealing with the genre of myth. I do not believe that the chapter is the historical account of a single disastrous ancestral act, but it is a story conveying truth about the relationship between God and humanity. Read in a literal way, the story would clearly be incompatible with well-established knowledge given us by the scientific study of the past.  Once the story’s mythic power is released from bondage to a fundamentalist reading, it becomes full of insight of a kind that can be seen as complementary to the insights afforded us by science.

- Amen!  How do you understand and apply this alliance between the power of biblical myth and the urgency of ever-unveiling scientific insight?

6.  The Fall is indeed a fall ‘upward’, the gaining of knowledge, but it is an error to suppose that humans can thereby attain equality with their Creator, so that they can then live their lives independently of God. This declaration of complete human autonomy, the assertion that we can simply ‘do it my way’, is the root meaning of sin. The refusal to acknowledge that we are creatures in need of the grace of our Creator is the source of subsequent human sins, those deeds of selfishness and deceit that mar our lives as the result of believing the false claim to be completely independent of the assistance of divine grace.

- How does this definition of the Fall explain the persistence of sin?

7.  This turning from God did not bring biological death into the world, for that had been there for many millions of years before there were any hominids. What it did bring was what we may call ‘mortality’, human sadness and bitterness at the inevitability of death and decay. Alienation from God brought the bitterness of mortality, but the relation of humanity to God has been restored in the atonement (at-one-ment) brought by Jesus Christ, in whom the life of humanity and the life of divinity are both present and the broken link is mended.

- Ahhh…divine restoration!  What “broken links” have yet to be mended?

8.  The discussion of this chapter will serve, I hope, to illustrate how ancient religious wisdom and modern scientific knowledge can blend in a way that does justice to the valid insights of both. This is possible because Scripture is not a dead deposit of unchanging meaning, the repository of assertions that have to be accepted at face value without question, but a living spring from which new truths and insight can be expected to continue to flow.

- What a refreshing view of Scripture!  How is it a “living spring” for you?

Monday, January 18, 2016

Testing Scripture, by John Polkinghorne

Chapter Two

1. “How can we square this picture of a vengeful God with the one given us by Jesus, who tells us to love our enemies? The simple answer is that we cannot. I believe that response to this dilemma demands the recognition that the record of revelation contained in Scripture is one of a developing understanding of the divine will and nature, continuously growing over time but never complete, and quite primitive in its earliest stages. Only slowly and falteringly could progress be made in Israel towards gaining a fuller comprehension of the reality of God.”

- How does Polkinghorne’s explanation provide a sensible description of scripture’s eventual development?

2. “Clearly very great development had taken place in between Joshua and Second Isaiah, and who can doubt that it had resulted from a deeper and truer understanding of God and God’s ways? Accepting this enables us to acknowledge the crudities and atrocities present in early Scripture without being driven to discard belief in the spiritual value of the Bible. We can recognize within it an unfolding process of insight and understanding as God’s nature was progressively revealed.”

- How does this development mirror our personal growth in faith?

3. “This developmental perspective on Scripture also helps to explain many of the apparent contradictions present in its pages. Often passages in the canonical text, presented as if they were a unity, have in fact been formed by intermingling material drawn from a variety of sources, composed at different times and, therefore, reflecting different stages of development. In Israel there was a continual reworking of key narratives, a task which extended over centuries. The process of identifying and dating the sources involved is a matter of scholarly activity and debate.

- How does this apply to the creation accounts in Genesis 1 & 2?

4. “The Old Testament contains material spanning perhaps a thousand years, but the New Testament is much more temporally compact. I believe that all, or almost all, of its books were written before the end of the first century. Probably the earliest Christian writing available to us is Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, composed about the year 50. (The crucifixion was in either 30 or 33.) There would have been a preceding period of oral transmission in a culture where this skill was commonly and carefully exercised, and possibly there were some early written sources now lost to us.”

- How are the Old and New Testaments similar and dissimilar?

5. “It is significant that the Church preserved the multiple perspectives offered by the four Gospels, rather than attempting a conflated harmonization. It was soon recognized that the Gospel of John had a different character from the other three.”

- How do you understand the arrangement of the synoptic gospels (first three gospels) compared to John’s gospel?

6. “Perhaps the strangest book of the New Testament is the Revelation of John. In fact, because of this it had some difficulty in gaining a place in the canon. Revelation illustrates the mixed character of Scripture as hope and horror mingle in its pages. There are deeply moving pictures of the worship of heaven (ch. 4 etc.). There is a profoundly hopeful conclusion (21.1–22.7). But there are also terrifyingly brutal descriptions of divinely inflicted punishment (the sequences of seals, trumpets and plagues in chapters 6–10 and 16), presented as manifestations of the wrath of God. The failure of subsequent generations to recognize that these apocalyptic images of divine vengeance arose in the particular context of a time of intense persecution, and that they should be evaluated as human responses to that situation rather than as unalterable expressions of the timeless divine will, has had a baleful influence on much subsequent Christian thinking. No book of the New Testament has been more unfortunate in its interpretation and influence than Revelation.”

- Describe your experience with reading Revelation. 

7. “The unfolding process of developing theological understanding that we find in the Bible has continued beyond the confines of Scripture itself. The fundamental experiences and insights of the New Testament period led eventually to the Christological and Trinitarian conclusions of the Church Councils of the fourth and fifth centuries. The Fathers had sought to draw the boundaries within which they believed orthodox Christian thinking needed to be contained if it were to be a true witness, but there has remained a need for further exploration and reflection. Those who believe in the continuing work of the Holy Spirit (John 16.13) will not find this surprising. The role of development, within Scripture and after it, depends upon the fact that revelational disclosure is primarily personal rather than propositional, living and not petrified.”

- How is the Holy Spirit continuing this “revelational disclosure” through the Church today? 

- How do you understand your role?

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Testing Scripture, by John Polkinghorne

Chapter One

1.  “To use an analogy that comes naturally to me as a scientist, the Bible is not the ultimate textbook in which one can look up ready-made answers to all the big questions, but is more like a laboratory notebook, in which are recorded critical historical experiences through which aspects of the divine will and nature have been most accessibly revealed. I believe that the nature of divine revelation is not the mysterious transmission of infallible propositions which are to be accepted without question, but the record of persons and events through which the divine will and nature have been most transparently made known.”

- How does Polkinghorne’s perspective on scripture align with yours?  How does it compare with the position of other churches?

2.  “The Word of God uttered to humanity is not a written text but a life lived, a painful and shameful death accepted, and the divine faithfulness vindicated through the great act of Christ’s resurrection. Scripture contains witness to the incarnate Word, but it is not the Word himself. Its testimony is that ‘The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only Son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1.14).”

- How is this definition most useful in confronting the various misinterpretations and abuses surrounding The Word?

3.  “A central task for the Christian interpreter of Scripture is to discern what in the Bible has lasting truthful authority, rightly commanding the continuing respect of successive generations, and what is simply time-bound cultural expression, demanding no necessary continuing allegiance from us today.”

- Where do people get hung up on this task today? 
- How does one acquire such necessary discernment skills?

4.  “In the early Christian centuries, the Church Fathers often sought to recognize four levels of meaning present in the Bible, essentially the literal, the moral, the symbolic and the spiritual.”

- Define each of these and then discuss their relevance and application in both ancient and current times.

6.  “The notion of an inerrant text is inappropriately idolatrous, but merely to regard Scripture as an antiquarian deposit that does not need to be taken too seriously today would be an equally grave mistake. Scripture, together with the worshipping experience of the Church and its accumulated traditions of insight, as well as the exercise of our God-given powers of reason, together form the context for Christian thinking and living.”

- How does the first statement identify cultural norms today?
- How does the second statement align with your faith journey?