David Runcorn examines how we understand the Bible and how new truths ‘break forth’
This article was published in the September to December 2021 edition of Rapport magazine.
On 6 September 1620, a boat called Mayflower set sail from Plymouth for America. Among those on board were Puritan pilgrims seeking a new home and freedom. They had been enduring sustained persecution in England for their beliefs. Before they left, pastor John Robinson preached these words to them on the dockside.
‘I charge you before God … that you follow me no further than you have seen me follow the Lord Jesus Christ. If God reveals anything to you by any other instrument of His, be as ready to receive it as you were to receive any truth by my ministry, for I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth yet to break forth out of His Holy Word.’
There is remarkable confidence and hopefulness in his words. He calls them to be open and trusting in the face of the unknown. Here is a faith for setting sail with, for making new discoveries. As they follow Christ, with Bibles open, there will always be more to be revealed. Christian faith is always forward-looking.
What Robinson said about God’s ‘Holy Word’ is much loved and oft quoted. ‘Breaking forth’ suggests a dynamic energy at work that cannot be confined or hemmed in. ‘Yet more truth’ tells us there is always newness to be revealed out of what is already given. It is never complete. So the relationship of the faithful to the Scriptures is also to be open and trusting. Our understanding is never exhausted. In every time and place, more will be breaking forth to guide us through the challenges and questions we are facing. This is a bold claim.
The Bible is spoken of as an open, energising Word, accompanying us on the journey into the new. In anxious times it is tempting to look there for more authoritative statements – ‘the Bible says’. We’re in challenging and anxious times right now and internally and externally the church and its people are facing some difficult questions, and asking, ‘Where is God in all this and what’s He saying to us?’ But what we think Scripture is saying depends a great deal on understanding how it says it. And that means understanding what kind of revelation and authority the Bible is.
In recent years there has been a renewed awareness of just how much of the Bible is story, narrative and conversation. Rather than being a book of rules and instructions – the Scriptures reveal a God who is constantly journeying with, and in dialogue with His people, and they with Him. In this model of dialogue and narrative the Bible texts and writers are also in conversation with each other across different times and places. For example, with very few exceptions, the New Testament writers (and Jesus Himself) never quote from or allude to Old Testament texts without adapting them, literally and/or theologically. Within the Scriptures continual conversations (and arguments) are going on, through which new understanding is discerned. This means that then, as now, there are different convictions about how the Bible is interpreted and understood among the people of God. In the New Testament the most painful division was between what Jews and Gentiles believed that Scripture required of them. So there is nothing new in a faithful church holding strongly differing views on what Scripture teaches.
Likewise, our discipleship and obedience is informed and shaped by a continuing process of reading, discussing and interpreting the Bible together. The conversation continues. In Having Words with God: the Bible as Conversation, Karl Allen Kuhn says:
‘It is not only the words of Scripture that matter (and they matter very much). The dynamic, on-going sacred dialogue that Scripture reflects and calls believers to take part in is equally essential to biblical faith.’
Jesus Himself illustrates this in His exchange with the young man who asked Him ‘What must I do …?’ Jesus does not give him an answer. He asks him questions in return. ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there? What does the text say? How do you understand what it asks of you and your life?’ And then, as so often at those moments when we would prefer a definitive pronouncement from Jesus, He tells a story. ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho …’ (Luke 10.30-37).
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has noted that in the first five books in the Old Testament (the Torah) there are 613 commands. But there is no Hebrew word for ‘obey’. Modern Hebrew had to create a word for outright obedience. The words used are shema and lishmoa. They express a call to ‘hear’, ‘listen’, ‘reflect’, ‘understand’. Torah means ‘instruction’ or ‘teaching’ rather than ‘law’. It is educative rather than just prescriptive. Its purpose is to form God’s people into living together in community. So, Sacks suggested, God’s gift of the Bible demands more from us than just submission or compliance, ‘He seeks something other and greater than obedience – namely responsibility’. English translations miss this by nearly always translating those words ‘obey’.
This is not a new to us, actually. A dialogical approach has always been the way the church has sought a discerning and responsible wisdom from Scripture.
To take some obvious examples:
- if we do not call divorced and remarried people adulterers
- if we show no concern over hair length, head covering in worship
- if women now teach and lead in full partnership with men in the church
- if we use contraception to manage the size of our families
- if we do not exclude disabled people from worship or ministry
- if we do not apply the death penalty for sabbath breaking or for dishonouring our parents
… we have already moved beyond what ‘the Bible says’. In a process still involving disagreement we have been taking responsibility for how we apply the ancient Scriptures to our lives, under the guidance of the Spirit. We would say that further understanding has ‘broken forth’ as we have done so. A responsible reading of the Word, in this sense, has led us beyond the precise or literal text of the Word at times.
Down through history, with the Bible open, God’s people have continually faced new questions. We have often resisted at first but then (with critical intelligence and varying degrees of graciousness) have engaged with the emerging insights of cosmology, evolution, biology, social sciences, psychology, medical research and much else. Each conversation has required reconsideration of what kind of revelation the Bible actually is, the nature of its authority, and how it speaks into the fresh insights and experiences each generation encounters. This has not been without attempts to stay in defended biblical bubbles. Galileo’s discoveries about the universe were denounced by the church on the basis of a certain reading of Scripture.
The Bible-loving Victorian naturalist, Philip Gosse, refused to believe the clear evidence that fossils and geology offered, of an ancient, evolving world. He believed the Bible taught that God made the world complete, in a moment, but with all the appearance of age – such as rock strata, tree rings and even a navel for Adam!
The unsettling and exciting process of re-examining, re-interpreting and re-applying long held convictions under the compelling of the Spirit, and of new understanding breaking forth in the light of contemporary questions, is not a task we are unfamiliar with. In fact, our understanding of Scripture requires it. The latest of these is the extended and conflicted debate about human sexuality in today’s church. But many of the issues listed above were, in their time, as strongly contested and divisive as this one.
A dialogical approach invites a communal reading and discernment. It welcomes all voices. It does not require everyone’s agreement. It is the way the people of God seek a shared understanding. A dialogical approach also offers ways of reading the Scriptures for wisdom about issues that it:
a) originally addresses in more than one way and in very different contexts
b) does not directly address at all, or
c) might not even recognise or understand within its own world – but that are a pressing concern in ours.
A dialogical approach is a work of trust that the Holy Spirit speaks through Scripture and the reflections of the whole people of God.
I am someone who loves teaching and preaching. But wherever I can now I seek conversation – gathering and exploring together around the open Word in the midst of a changing and uncertain world. I am grateful that Lee Abbey is a place where that can happen.
Living in Love and Faith (LLF) is an example of this. As many will know, it is the remarkable resource created by the Church of England to offer people a way of exploring our understanding of human identity, sexuality and relationships. Central to its approach is the place of story and testimony and conversation. In doing this it is following the example of Scripture.
LLF is offering a way of seeking a ‘responsibly’ biblical understanding of a very significant issue in our church and world today. But as it does so, it is modelling creative ways of understanding how we approach the Bible as a whole. Through it all we are seeking the mind of Christ together. There are courses running around the country over the coming months. If you have the opportunity, I do encourage you to join one. LLF is not designed to promote a certain viewpoint – but to share discernment and understanding together as we seek the guidance of Word and Spirit.
With our Bibles open we too are on a voyage into the new. And with Christ and His Word there will be yet more truth breaking forth.
There always is.
Lee Abbey Devon Chaplain 1982–1988.
David now lives in Tiverton, and is a speaker, author and spiritual director.