When misconceived, faith hardens into rigid formulations held to be eternal and immutable truths. Then Christians live “by the book,” but without the Spirit who brings to life the book’s witness to the redemptive truth of God. Biblically, faith is a living relational matter of growing trust inspired and renewed by hope. Truly, faith and hope sustain each other back and forth, and both are living, relational matters. Our trust is not in having the right answers or the perfect commandments but in the living God who has committed to being our God, God with us. So, faith and certainty are opposites, not synonyms. Doubt can draw us closer to Christ and strengthen our faith more than certainty can. Doubt questions God’s promises and struggles with the difficulties of continuing to trust; certainty (or, as I like to say, certitude) takes possession of truths as principles and holds them as a shield against all questions, especially the believer’s own. But I need to question both the content of my beliefs and the integrity of my own faith. The prophet Jeremiah tries valiantly but in vain to break through his people’s religious certitude so they can learn to trust God and seek God’s ways, loving justice and mercy rather than their own security and self-assurance.
Trust needs a source and a living mainstay, and hope needs felt reasons to continue hoping for what is not yet seen or attained and cannot be verified empirically. Both faith and hope need a teacher who is also a guide, and it certainly helps to have companions along the way.
All my life I have studied the Bible, reading it both devotionally and critically. It is familiar territory for me but ever new, often correcting or expanding what I had thought I understood. But the book is not itself the truth of God I can hold in my hand, for God’s truth is always and forever God’s, not mine or the church’s to possess or master. For this reason, our Presbyterian (PCUSA) ordination vow that speaks of our relation to the Bible contains a crucial phrase without which it would become false and idolatrous:
Do you accept the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the church universal, and God’s word to you?
Actually, there are two crucial phrases in the question. The first is, “by the Holy Spirit.” Without the Spirit, the Bible is easily weaponized to foment quarrels within and among the churches, to suppress the vulnerable and victimized, and to “lay down the law” not only in a church but in a society or nation. Whenever the Bible is used as a weapon against the vulnerable, it has been snatched away from the Spirit of God and has no truth in it, except its denied truth which seeks to rise up to correct those so misusing it do evil in its name.
The second phrase without which the question’s call to be guided, led, and corrected by the Bible would be falsified is, “witness to Jesus Christ.” He is for us the truth of God, the Word made flesh. Some Christians are quick to claim they “have Jesus.” No, not if “have” implies possession. We cannot possess any other person and certainly not that person. He is always “Thou” confronting my “I,” as Martin Buber insists. Faith in him is always relational, and so it is my trust in another I cannot control and to whom I am accountable. If I grab a Bible verse, perhaps a commandment from Leviticus or an admonition from a New Testament epistle, to use as a weapon against someone I wish to condemn, repress, or exclude, I am misrepresenting Jesus Christ and tearing the Bible away from the Spirit of God.
Christendom (imperial Christianity) demanded that the Bible and the doctrines of the church support its authorities and powers. So the faith was made imperious, and for that reason the people it long suppressed now speak out against Christianity and sometimes call for its demise. I agree that it is high time for imperious Christianity to pass away, for Christendom in all its forms (including its unofficial but culturally powerful establishment in the United States, the “Christian nation”) to be cast off so the followers of Jesus Christ can respond to his call to follow him on the way of redemptive love, the way of the cross.
As I look again, I see that this ordination vow about the Bible has a third phrase that matters greatly, “in the church universal.” I cannot go forward alone. We need the whole church, the people who trust and hope in Jesus Christ, to find our way forward. Yes, that church will be smaller than we have thought, as cultural Christians depart and our children are no longer automatically and often carelessly initiated into the identity of Christian. Beyond Christendom, following the way will become costly to Jesus’ disciples because being Christian will no longer grant power, prestige, privilege or even acceptance; it will not be the norm. It was never meant to be the norm. Neither was it ever to hold the power to dictate norms to societies. So, the individualized and almost privatized Christianity popular among Americans will not provide what we need if we are to be more than vaguely “spiritual,” whatever that word means for people who want convenience and good feelings about themselves. As the word “universal” suggests, we need people of other cultures, experiences, and histories to help us find our way together.
The Bible is not always pleasant reading, and I’m not talking about its bloody and brutal stories of warfare in the ancient world, but about its continuing challenges to my way of thinking and living. I do know that if I find that Bible affirms all my opinions, practices, and prejudices, I’m doing something wrong in the way I read it. If what I get from the Bible is a whole matched set of authoritative declarations about the way everybody ought to live and think, I have made of the Bible an authoritative witness, without the Spirit of God, to my ego and will to dominance.
Humility must rise above our desire for authority. Compassion must outstrip our wish for correctness. Wonder at the grace of God must overcome our pretenses to being in the know about God and other people. Service must outrun the churches’ thirst for success and prosperity. For love does not conquer all; it conquers us, and then we can go forward without power but with the quiet strength that comes from faith and hope.