Sunday, October 14, 2012

The (Holy) Bible and (Christian) Theology

Listening to the Gospel reading this morning from Mark 10 about the young man who went away sad after Jesus told him to sell everything he had and give to the poor inspired some reflection on the difficulties we have understanding scripture and formulating a cohesive theology from it.  A couple of things I learned in three years of seminary training are that there is a difference between Bible study and Theology study and that either, carelessly done, can easily lead to questionable conclusions.

Study of the Bible, a compilation of writings of various genres produced over a period of a thousand years or so and covering a much longer time has to be done text by text.  In other words, if one desires to study a selection from the Gospel of John, one must focus on the earliest possible version of that text, and that text alone, in the original language, paying close attention to several factors:
  1. Genre, form, and structure of the text.
  2. Literary context: What comes before and after and why?
  3. Historical and cultural context.
  4. Key words and phrases and their meanings at the time of writing.
  5. Translation difficulties and uncertainties.
  6. Writer and audience identification, purpose of the writer and meaning to the audience.
  7. And, for persons of faith, what the application today is.

(One who wants to undertake such a study shouldn't worry too much about that original language thing because there are excellent commentaries which thoroughly explore the translation issues and many versions of the Bible which lay out various translation options.)

It is failure to follow such a Bible study regimen that leads to theological errors such as applying Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Him…,” to personal and self serving accomplishment, seeing St. Paul’s 1 Corinthians 9 comparison of the spiritual life to that of an athlete as an endorsement of success for ones football team, or understanding the Leviticus sexual code as a good guide for behavior and punishment in the 21st century.  Sloppy Bible study tends to lead to emphasis on the Great Commission at the expense of The Greatest Commandments, or vice versa, focus on faith at the expense of works, or vice versa, and focus on the bye and bye at the expense of the here and how, or vice versa.  It almost always misses the big picture, the forest, due to excessive focus on the details, the trees, or weeds.

Theology, on the other hand, still uses but de-emphasizes the details of a particular text and, for Christians, seeks to identify broad themes running through the whole of Scripture.  What can we learn from The Holy Bible about God, creation, the universe, and humankind, about good and evil, about life and death and living and dying, about salvation and condemnation?  Are we to subscribe to a theology of prosperity or one of poverty, chastity and obedience, to a theology of just “me and Jesus,” or a theology of the Church as the Body of Christ, each of us members of it, to a theology of social justice and liberation or a theology of personal generosity and service?  Should our theology be one of “Focus on the Family,” or of focus on The Family of God?  Shall we depend on good works, or on our personal faith, or on the faithfulness of God?

Without informed guidance and prayerful study, even with a serious attempt to focus on the big picture, the forest, our theologies can easily be skewed in  wrong or overly simplistic directions by possibly well-meaning but misguided smooth talkers making logical or emotional appeals.  There are plenty of examples of that in recent history as outlined in Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion which I wrote about a few weeks ago.

Sometimes we mistakenly (Romans 12:2) look to societal trends to help us understand and tinker with our theologies.  But, with some scriptural support (1 Timothy 3:15) serious Christians often depend on the Church to interpret or help interpret the scriptures and keep us on a sound theological basis.

And, we sometimes find that the surprising answer from the Church to a difficult either-or theological issue is not one or the other but both-and.

Here is a definition that links Christian theology and Bible study and includes the role of The Church.

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