by the Rev. Matthew Dutton-Gillett
I have read with interest the comments that have been made on my original essay
on The Episcopal Majority. I give thanks for all those who commented. I am always happy when something I write or preach produces further thought and discussion.
And, of course, it's always amusing when some declare me a heretic. After all, some of the greatest thinkers in Christian history (and I am certainly not a great thinker!) have been honored with that label. There were even those who found Jesus to be a heretic relative to the dominant religious ideas of his time. I hope, however, that the day may come when we avoid dismissing one another with such labels.
I want to address a few points that have been raised in some of the comments on that earlier essay
. I hope I do not sound defensive, because that is not my intention. I want to contribute, as we all are, to this on-going conversation that is such an important part of our life together.Faithfulness
The first point has to do with my own faithfulness to the vows I took when I was ordained, in which I affirmed my belief that the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God, and contain all things necessary to salvation. That is a vow I took seriously then, and continue to take seriously now.
However, I do not understand that vow to mean that the Word of God is to be found only
in the pages of the Bible. After all, in John's Gospel we find Jesus assuring us that there are many more things that we need to know, but which will only be revealed to us when we are able to receive them.
We also find, at the opening of that same Gospel, that Jesus is declared to be the Word made flesh, who dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.
If we insist that the Word of God is to be found only
in the Bible, then we deny the incarnation, because we make it impossible for the Word to have been enfleshed in Jesus. We confine the Word to the written text of the Bible.
That approach also would seem to deny Jesus' own counsel that there are things yet to be revealed to us, things that are not contained within the gospels. Unless, of course, we assume that the sum total of these things yet to be revealed was given to the church before the close of the New Testament canon – an assumption that I find unwarranted and difficult to substantiate. I agree completely that the Bible contains all things necessary to salvation – but clearly that does not mean that everything
in the Bible is necessary to salvation. And never in Christian history (until recent days) has it been suggested that this is so.Experience?
I am surprised by the suggestion that Christianity is not an experiential religion – that Jesus can only reliably be met in the pages of the gospels and not in the experience of the individual believer. To borrow a line from St. Paul, if that is true, then we of all people are most to be pitied. Do we not proclaim that Christ is risen, and therefore alive? Do we not say that Christians are called to a personal relationship
with God through Christ? And do we not proclaim that it is through this very relationship that we receive the gift of salvation?
Nowhere in the Bible, nor in the tradition of the church, is it ever said that we are saved through our relationship with a written text. The Bible introduces us to God. It introduces us to the person of Jesus, and it shows us who Jesus is. The Bible is like a good and trusted friend who introduces us to the most important relationship we will ever have. It is the beginning. It is a constant point of reference. But it is not the end.
Through the Scriptures, through the sacramental life of the church, the Holy Spirit enters into our lives and pulls us into relationship with the living Christ. And that relationship is
experiential. What else could it be?
After all, St. Paul himself was not converted to Christ by reading Scripture, though his knowledge of the Hebrew Bible was certainly an important preparation for his conversion. He was converted through a personal, experiential encounter with the Risen Christ, who reached into his life and transformed it completely.
St. Paul's own contributions to the New Testament are some of the fruits of that experience. Are we to say that such encounters are no longer possible? Are we to deny that Christ reaches into our lives today to bring about transformation?
To do so would be to deny that it is possible to have a personal relationship with God through Christ. And if that is so, then the proclamation of Christ as risen and alive becomes empty and meaningless.
Some people seem to think that acknowledging an active relationship with the living Christ opens the door to all manner of subjectivity. They seem concerned that we all might insist that our individual points of view are fruits of our own encounters with Christ. As we survey the variety of points of view that exist among Christian people, we could reach the conclusion that Christ is schizophrenic – that he can't seem to make up his mind.
There are two observations to be made about this problem.
First, there must assuredly be some continuity between our experience of the risen Christ and the Jesus who is proclaimed in the gospels. If we find a radical disconnect between the claims of individual believers based on their experience of Christ and the Jesus revealed in the gospels, then certainly we must question whether the individual believer is indeed "hearing" Christ authentically in his or her own life. This is, in part, why the church has always felt that the common decisions of councils are more reliable than those of individuals. Even the Roman church endorsed the idea of conciliarism until the establishment of papal infallibility (a relatively recent development in church history).
Second, we acknowledge that human beings are broken creatures. When Christ speaks to our souls, his voice must pass through our own brokenness; in that process, it is subject to distortion.
Acknowledging this reality means that we must practice careful discernment when we seek to understand the movement of the Spirit in our own lives, seeking to avoid confusing divine truth with our own personal opinions or prejudices. This, again, is why the church has stressed the importance of councils, believing that groups of believers have a better chance of avoiding these errors than do individuals. This does not mean, however, that councils are incapable of error. It simply means we have a better chance of discerning God's will together than we do on our own.Discernment and the Bible
When it comes to the Bible, we can see the experiential relationship between Christ and his church at work. I trust we can all agree that the Bible did not fall out of heaven, written by the finger of God in the King James Version. The Bible was created over time, by human beings who wrote of their own personal
experiences with God and with Jesus, as well as of the experiences of the communities to which they belonged. The Bible would have no value whatsoever if there were not real personal and communal experiences that lay behind the texts.
Many if not most of the biblical authors did not even set out to write "Holy Scripture." That status was conferred upon their writings by representatives of the communities to which they belonged.
This means that the Bible belongs to the people of God, and that we have the right and indeed the obligation to interpret its meaning.
Judaism has always appreciated this obligation with respect to its scriptural inheritance, which explains the multitude of (often conflicting) rabbinical commentaries on the Hebrew Bible that coexist side by side in the same volume.
When it comes to the issue of homosexuality, I am constantly intrigued by the argument that we must condemn homosexual behavior as sinful because there are biblical texts which seem to say that it is so. Why, then, does the church permit divorce, when Jesus makes it clear that divorce is permissible only when one party to the marriage has been sexually unfaithful? Why do we not keep kosher, when the Bible clearly says that we should? There are a host of biblically condemned behaviors that we have decided do not deserve condemnation, and there are things permitted in the Bible that we have decided should not be permitted. These have been catalogued by a number of people over the years.
Acknowledging this should be sufficient to demonstrate that it is never enough simply to say that the Bible forbids or permits something. We must take seriously what the Bible says about any given issue, but seldom is that sufficient to settle an issue. Why? Because our relationship as individuals and as a church with Christ continues to grow and mature. The Spirit still moves among us.
The early church accepted certain texts into the canon of Scripture and rejected others based on the faith experience of those entrusted with the task of discernment. Those early church leaders also took into account the faith experiences of the communities and people they represented. That is, those who established the canon took into account the texts that were being honored as sacred by early Christian people and communities. So, too, we must continue to grapple with the received sacred texts of our faith, seeking to understand where the voice of God sounds clearly and where that voice has been distorted by the broken humanity of the biblical authors.
We must exercise the same discernment with respect to our tradition, seeking to understand where the voice of God seems to be clearly speaking and where that voice has been distorted by the brokenness of the church. As Barbara Crafton pointed out in her essay
, it is the ongoing practice of careful discernment applied to both the Bible and our tradition that has led to the ordination of women, the rehabilitation of the diaconate, and a host of other changes in the life of the church that have been broadly (if not universally) accepted.
This practice of discernment is indeed a messy thing. All of us wish it were a neat, clear process. But it is not. It never has been, and it never will be. It is, therefore, a process that all of us should approach in humility, realizing that as convinced as we are of our own interpretations, we can never be completely certain that the voice of Christ that we hear reverberating within our souls is free from the distortion that is surely a part of each of us as human beings.
We are bound to offer to our sisters and brothers the fruits of our own discernment. But those should never be offered in order to heap contempt and condemnation upon others. Rather, they should be offered as a contribution to a larger conversation, one that is bound to lead us together to greater – if not perfect – clarity. Unfortunately, if segments of the church choose to withdraw from this conversation or decline to engage with it constructively, then that greater clarity will be even harder to achieve.
To borrow yet another line from St. Paul, we continue to work out our own salvation in fear and trembling.
May God have mercy upon us all.About the Author: The Rev. Matthew Dutton-Gillett is rector of St. Elizabeth's Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, and he served as an Alternate Deputy from East Tennessee in the 2006 General Convention. He is author of "It's Really Not about Sex," published earlier on this site.