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Global Platform on theological reflection and analysis 2008

The theme, The Bible, Crisis and Catastrophe, was chosen because Christians use the Bible to interpret crises and catastrophes in many different ways.

24 November 2008

Report of the WCC GPTR 2008 meeting

29 September - 1 October 2008

The Bible, Crisis and Catastrophe

The theme of the 2008 Global Platform, The Bible, Crisis and Catastrophe,

was chosen because Christians use the Bible to interpret crises and catastrophes in many different ways. The Bible is used to promote a range of responses from passive acceptance through to challenge to work for change. In all of these the Bible is often used very selectively to support particular positions.  The challenge for the ecumenical movement faced in the 2008 Global Platform is how we read the Bible responsibly in its own terms and responsively towards the crises and catastrophes that confront us.

The meeting, as part of the 2008 Global Platform process, brought together a diverse group of participants with appropriate experience and knowledge to spend three days actually doing theological reflection and analysis on the theme. The process was designed to actively engage the participants so that we were all contributors rather than only being responders to the input of a few. The intended outcome was not to produce an agreed statement or report but to share this experience in order to encourage such theological reflection and analysis in the ecumenical movement.

Following an initial discussion on how participants used the Bible in their own contexts, we engaged with three case studies – Christian Zionism, climate change and HIV/AIDS. These had been chosen for the widely different positions Christians take on them, supported by reference to the Bible. Rather than caricaturing the use of the Bible by those who think very differently about these issues, we wanted to be self-critical of our own practice.

Information about the case studies and a record of the meeting are available on the Global Platform’s web forum - http://www.oikoumene.org/?id=5666. This report focuses on what we learnt from them for our reading the Bible, rather than recording our observations on the issues themselves.

Christian Zionism stands apart from the other two issues as it is created by a particular reading of the Bible, although it gains prominence by being supportive of powerful political interests. It raises some fundamental questions for Biblical interpretation, for example: the relationship between the Old and New Testaments; literal versus allegorical or spiritual interpretation; the relative value placed on prophecy, law, history, wisdom and mysticism; entering into dialogue with the text and the internal dialectic of the Bible; recovering the voices overlaid and obscured by interpretation; the significance of the position of a text within the canon of the Bible. One particular issue is how to challenge some presuppositions of Christian Zionism and yet to take the Jews seriously as people of faith. We noted how vested interests control the interpretation of the Bible. How do churches with great possessions and influence, for whom the idea of being dispossessed is offensive, read scriptures which have emerged from a people who were dispossessed?   We also noted how people in the churches are rarely encouraged to exercise and develop their own hermeneutical skills.

Climate change presents us with the question of how we can use the Bible to address an urgent situation with hope. In reading Genesis, some say that the promise of God was only not to destroy the earth by water. This leaves it open for destruction by other means, eg fire. They may also use the promise to deny the need for human action. In the prophets there is a close relationship between human sin and the natural world. Looking at Jonah, we may put ourselves into the role of Jonah but what if we are Nineveh where the human and natural community were challenged changed their behaviour. Are scientists Jonah for us? Jonah highlights the difference between prophecy and prediction. Jonah offers prediction which proves to be wrong. However his prophecy is effective. In the wisdom literature, Job is confronted by God’s question ‘did you create?’ to which the expected answer was ‘no’. However, today humanity can in some areas answer ‘yes’. The tradition of lament presents God’s cry of lament for the earth which need not be read as a curse of the earth. The Biblical tradition of lament can be seen in protest. Apocalyptic books are often thought to be anti-environmental. The world of nature is a part of God’s way of responding to the situation of an oppressive empire as in Daniel. We can read it as more about the end of an unjust empire than the end of the created order. The plagues in Revelation, echoing Exodus, can be read as nature participating in judgment - as a call to repentance with the intention of transformation and renewal rather than destruction. Again, the end of empire, not the created order

Even though some texts present difficulties (2 Peter 3, for example, appears to encourage destruction of the earth by fire, which could be understood in terms of global warming),  we should wrestle with them rather than ignore them. There is also the danger of a battle of interpretations that does not get us anywhere. We cannot only take an issue like climate change and look for how the Bible may help us, we can also read texts (eg given to us in a lectionary) and be open to how each may speak to the issues that confront us. How do we read the Bible with a sense of urgency but without fatalism?

For HIV/AIDS, the case study was introduced from inside the experience. Personal testimony illustrated how in different congregations the Bible could be used to reject and condemn or to promote healing and the love of the person with HIV/AIDS for who they are. Several of the issues relating to the use of the Bible are covered in relation to the earlier case studies and so will not be repeated here. The argument that God causes suffering as a punishment for sin can be seen as a Biblical justification for prevailing attitudes rather than the source of them. The good news for the HIV/AIDS sufferer is that for everyone, as in John 3.16. Pastors and leaders need more help in their theological training in using the Bible in their preaching and pastoral practice and in helping people in their own reading. The Bible can help us explore the difference between healing and cure. How do we relate biblical world views (eg demonic forces) to modern world views? How does the Bible affirm life, rather than deny it?

Following the case studies, the participants devoted an afternoon working in groups and all together to reflect on what had emerged on using the Bible. Some principles began to emerge which are described in a fuller form towards the end of this report. Three additional issues were named that did not explicitly emerge in the discussion in the case studies: the significance of the experience the person/community as a starting point for engaging with the Bible; the Bible in the context of sacred books normative for other religious communities; understanding what we do to the Bible in reading it and what the Bible does to us in reading it.

In order to test and develop the emerging ideas from the case studies and the subsequent reflection, we decided to change the proposed programme and actually undertake some Bible study. Three groups were formed, each to engage with one passage – Jonah 3&4; Mark 13.1-27; Luke 16.19-31.

In the Bible study we tried to apply some of the principles we had discussed, using our own critical reflections and interpretations from our various faith standpoints and social locations. Some of the groups used an approach of asking the questions: with whom do you read? What is the action in the text? What experiences and emotions does the text evoke in you? What traces of culture do you see in the text? In their analysis of the Bible study session, all the groups reported very positively on the significant benefit of engaging with the Bible together with people from different traditions and cultures. It helped participants to have new insights beyond their usual interpretation.

The reports back from these led to a further time of reflection from which the following principles emerged. Although we have listed them as 10 separate principles they inevitably relate closely to each other.

  1. The key hermeneutical principle to be adopted in reading biblical texts is that our readings should be ‘life affirming’. We believe that there is ample justification for such a hermeneutic offered within the Bible itself, for example Jesus’ comment in Mark when asked himself to exegete scripture that ‘He is God not of the dead, but of the living’ (Mark 12.27), and the clearly stated purpose of the Gospel of John ‘These are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.’ (John 20.31). Near the end of the Book of Deuteronomy a choice was offered, which still applies to God’s people today: ‘See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity… Choose life.’ (Deuteronomy 30.15,19). The salvific life offered by scripture can be compared to a series of buoys guiding us to safety on a path through the waters. We believe that God’s will of ‘life’, not simply for human beings, but for the whole of creation (Genesis 9.16), is a fundamental given which we can use to monitor our reading of the Bible as a whole.
  2. Our reading of biblical texts needs to be self reflective and self-critical. We need to be honest about the presuppositions and prejudices, both individual and communal, that we bring to our understanding of scripture. We are (whether we wish to be or not) shaped  by and deeply embedded in a specific set of social, cultural, ecclesial, economic and political realities and these provide the lens through which we tend to view and interpret biblical texts. We must not use biblical texts uncritically to reinforce our own particular concerns.  For example, we need to recognise that the insecurities of modernity are a significant factor which has led to the popularity of particular ‘apocalyptic’ readings of scripture, such as ‘the rapture’.
  3. In response to the issues raised in point 2 we note that it is important to read scripture in community, as well as individually. Such communal reading may take a variety of forms. It will include the communal reading of scripture as part of worship, but also communal study of biblical texts. We believe that it is beneficial to seek diversity in such communities of reading: our own experience of reading biblical texts during this Global Platform has been much enhanced by the geographical, cultural, age-related and ecclesial spread of the participants (we also regretted the lack of linguistic diversity in the group, or at least at the meeting.). We also note that on occasion it can be helpful to read and study our own biblical texts in the presence of people of other faiths, to allow their insights to inform and challenge our own. (See further on the nature of ‘communities of reading’ under point 7 below.)
  4. In our reading we also need to allow the diversity of voices in both Testaments to be heard. We acknowledge the importance of taking seriously the biblical canon as a whole. We welcome the diversity that this implies, for example the fact that we have four canonical Gospels suggests that the early church’s experience of Jesus was so overwhelming that it was felt impossible for any one single voice to capture and express the intensity of this experience. The principle of canonicity is especially helpful when we are required to interpret difficult or ‘toxic’ texts. It is essential to view them within the wider parameters of the whole of scripture. However we also note that there is sometimes a danger of forgetting that we have two Testaments within this canon; that there is a tendency in some Christian circles either to ignore the Old Testament, or to interpret it in a narrowly ‘Christological’ way. This we believe offers us an inadequate expression of the whole biblical metanarrative. We suggest that just as Christians are normally willing to interpret and critique the Old Testament in the light of the New, so it is also important to interpret the New in the light of the Old. For example in relation to issues such as climate change it is crucial not  to allow texts such as 2 Peter 3.12 to be read without also taking account of the predominant Old Testament motif that the visible creation is ‘good’ and willed by God. Conversely we found it helpful in our study of Jonah both to read the Old Testament text in the light of the Gospel references to the ‘sign of Jonah’, and to realise that the understanding of the meaning of this sign differed between Matthew and Luke, the two Gospels which refer to it.
  5. A vital principle for our reading of and engagement with biblical texts is that our intepretations should inspire us to action, to work towards structural change and qualitative differences in the life of human beings. Reading needs to be transformative both of ourselves and of the societies in which we live, work and worship. We read texts in the light of and in the power of the Holy Spirit. The story of Jacob’s wrestling with the angel (Genesis 32.22-32) seems to be used in scripture as a metaphor for how the people of God understood their vocation: it is only as Jacob ‘wrestles’ both with the divine reality and the need for reconciliation with his brother Esau, and is wounded and transformed by the struggle, that he can be granted a new name and enter on upon his role as founding ancestor of God’s people. Similarly the image of ‘wrestling’ both with scripture and the realities around us is a useful one to remember as we seek to place ourselves under the authority of scripture, to become both transformed ourselves and discover the means of being agents of transformation.
  6. A key principle for interpretation is that the right application of scripture does not remove human responsibility. Because of the nature of our ‘case studies’, especially Christian Zionism and climate change, we gave particular attention to the theme of biblical prophecy. We suggest that it is unhelpful and inaccurate to regard biblical prophecy as simply predictive in a narrowly predestinarian sense. The prophets’ visions of future judgement were always to call people to deep repentance and to offer an alternative to the disasters that would otherwise fall upon them. The prophets indeed placed their listeners in a risky situation – but the risk was inviting them into an open relationship with God. The book of Jonah offers a startling example of this: the repentance of the people of Ninevah in response to Jonah’s brief words averts the disaster that Jonah predicted was going to take place. It does not however make Jonah’s prophecy any less ‘true’.  Biblical prophecy seeks to open up history rather than close it down, and to enable us through our repentance and response to undertake the ‘hopeful responsibility’ of helping to shape that future. Revelation’s vision of a new heaven and a new heaven (Revelation 21–22) is a call to action not an invitation to passivity.
  7. Linked to the previous point we also noted that a primary feature of biblical prophecy is its determination to speak to and critique oppressive power structures. This liberative element more significant than any predictive one. This offers an important principle for interpretation. Prophecy is not fatalism, but seeks to promote active hope about the possibility of changing cultures of domination and exclusion. In our reading of both the Old Testament and the New we need to take this seriously. Jesus’ manifesto in his sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth, in which he locates himself and his ministry in succession to the prophets of the Old Testament, makes this very clear. Jesus speaks sharply of ‘Today’ rather than a future either near or distant, and overtly proclaims ‘release to the captives’ (Luke 4.16-21).  In our world of the present in which the concept of ‘Empire’ is a dominant force, we need to bear this in mind as we seek to use scripture prophetically when confronted by the issues of today.
  8. However we are also aware of the insidiousness of ‘Empire’; how in using such a term we may be succumbing to the agenda of those who are tainted by empire even as they seek to oppose it. The canonical prophets, and those in the New Testament who stand in their footsteps, were themselves marginalised people in their world and society. Bearing this in mind we believe that a significant principle in biblical interpretation is the need to privilege reading through the eyes of young people and the marginalised. In the Book of Exodus God refers particularly to hearing the ‘cry’ of the marginalised in that context (Exodus 22.23) It is legitimate to suggest that a similar privileging today would allow special weight to the reading of scripture by those who are the outsiders of today. The process of reading requires us to engage in an ongoing critique of the authority under which we ourselves operate, as well as the ‘powers and principalities’ that we are seeking to address. The community of authentic biblical interpreters cannot be static, rather it needs to be prepared continually to be reformed and through this shift  to witness in its own life to the transforming power of scripture.
  9. We believe that the motif of a spiral, used frequently in educational methodology, offers a significant guiding principle for biblical reading and interpretation. It is an ongoing process in which worship, study, experience and action all need to play a part. All exist in a continuous dialectic with each other, so that we cannot talk about the beginning or end of the spiral. Just as biblical study needs to lead to transforming action, so the experience we gain through such action should lead us back to the biblical text and re-read it in the light of what we have learned, both from our action and our prayer. Orthodox spirituality refers to discovering a ‘treasure store’; which takes us ever deeper into the life and desires of God.  The continuing quest of biblical interpretation needs to be carried out in the spirit and excitement of those who have found an inexhaustible treasure.
  10. Finally, and drawing together all the previous points, we would want to suggest that the possibility of inexhaustibility of meaning is in itself a critical principle for biblical interpretation. Previous generations of biblical scholarship focused on delving into biblical texts and discovering their original – and one – meaning. More recently it has been appreciated that implicit in interpretation is a process of communication between text and reader and that this inevitably means that multifarious meanings of a biblical text are not only possible but actually speak of the richness of canonical scripture. In the light of the topics we reflected on at the Global latform, we would therefore perhaps want to suggest that when people are sure that their, and only their, interpretation of a biblical text is a correct one – that might actually in itself call in question the validity of their interpretation!

The 2008 Global Platform for theological reflection and analysis has demonstrated the power and the value of  the theme The Bible, Crisis and Catastrophe. However, theological reflection on using the Bible in crisis and catastrophe should not come out of an abstract consideration of what we offer here but out of an active engagement with the Bible together. We offer our process and these principles to encourage you and to offer some starting points for your own theological reflection.

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