Thursday, July 18, 2013

Theology Outside the Bible?

Personal memories leading into reflection on Christopher Bryan's book And God Spoke: 
Is God like this?  (Maxfield Parrish illustration, 1909)
The Authority of the Bible for the Church Today
(New York: Cowley Publications, 2002).

Where does theology come from?  If only from the Bible, then there's really no such thing: call it "bibliology" or something like that.  But wouldn't theology apart from Scripture dissolve into "whatever?"   Professor Christopher Bryan of the School of Theology at the University of the South has considered the extent to which theology is contained by the covers of the Bible in his short multi-chapter 146-page essay And God Spoke.  His ultimate answer goes along just fine with what I learned before I was 20, mostly from people who made no claims to Biblical literacy.

First, there was Dad's answer to my question about God and magic.  Even before I first saw Bewitched and I Dream of Jeanie (I recall the premiere around 1966), I was deeply into tales of witches, sorcerers, genies, fairies, and any others who could manipulate the physical world by waving wands or saying some magic words.  I looked longingly at Maxfield Parrish's illustrations of The Arabian Nights before I could read a word. So I wanted God to give me a little bit of that stuff, and I prayed for magical powers pretty intensely.  But when I asked Dad about God's magic, he deflected the question: "I don't think God would call what He does 'magic.' ... Maybe, 'power?'" No churchgoer, though he did once consider touring with a gospel quartet, Dad was tentative about all matters of faith, right up to the year he died. But his answer was what I needed to hear.  From then on, I honored the distinction between magic and power

A great deal of what I hear down here in the Bible belt sounds to me like "magic," praying to God the Genie to grant wishes.  Thanks to Dad, I knew before age ten that God transcends wish fulfillment. 

Around the same time, when my efforts to clean up the play room ended in the collapse of my sister's toy doll bed, I sarcastically prayed aloud, "Oh, thank you, God!"  My older sister told on me, and Mom, who also had no background in churchgoing, told me to respect God's name by not bringing Him into my own little accidents and incidents.  Recently, I heard a teenager say that God had some mysterious reason for "giving cancer" to her.  That's just the flip side of little-kid's wish fulfillment: misfortune as God's mysterious plan for us.   In place of that, I'd say, God's plan for us is to deal with whatever happens as God incarnate had to do.

Just for a few months, I attended Sunday school at a Methodist church, around age 10.  When one of us asked the volunteer Sunday school teacher what it means to be created "in God's image," she, too, gave some tentative answers.  It couldn't mean that God looks like us.  It must mean that we share some elements of God's nature.   She ventured one specific example:  "He's our Creator; we are creative, too."  Her answer was good, and I also liked the approach.  That's theology not from Scripture yet compatible with it.

Finally, there's the lesson that encapsulates all of Bryan's book in a phrase.  I went to Duke thinking of myself as a fundamentalist, comfortable at Bible studies, reader of C.S.Lewis, writer of long evangelical letters to skeptical friends.  Then I met a guy who used Scripture in arguments to prove that nothing I believed would save me (or my most admired friends) from Hell, and I'd have to join his church and get it right.  I'd argued, for example, that Jesus from the cross told a thief, "Today, you'll be with me in Paradise" though the thief never did the things this young man insisted I must do.  The young man smiled, "Ah, but he was forgiven under the old covenant.  Look here in Scripture, and you'll see that the new covenant didn't begin until three o'clock, when Jesus died." 

I told all this to Kendrick, a leader among Roman Catholic students, nearly my opposite and someone who always challenged me in a good way. I'll always remember how Kendrick heard my whole anguished rundown of Scriptural anxieties up to that bit about the new covenant.  We were walking across Duke's East Campus quad to the dining hall.  He didn't pause in his walk, but he threw his head back and laughed at the blue sky.  "My God," he said, "is not that petty."

Bryan's book reaches that same conclusion.   Stated more positively, the Church's strong sense of God's nature and God's will for us is bigger than the Bible, and predates the Bible by centuries. The Bible is a library, not a book, and its dozens of authors had different purposes. Its writers do not make a consistent story.  Yet, taken as a whole, the books of the Bible comport with that sense of God's nature that developed before the book, a sense that has continued to develop among the faithful in this institution called "the Church."

So, theology is not limited to the study of Scripture, but grounded in it; and it cannot be "whatever you want," because it's a general sense reached by the Church, not just today, but over time. 

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