Saturday, July 21, 2007

Judging the Word of God

So now I'm reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Creation and Fall. Through his commentary on the first chapter of Genesis, I was rather unimpressed. He had a couple of sharp ideas about knowing God as Creator vs. knowing God apart from creation, but a lot of it was very philosophical. It sort of reminded me of St. Augustine's theories of memory in the Confessions. That is, I couldn't make any sense of it.

But when he gets into the Yahwist material, his commentary really comes alive. This is the Bonhoeffer I've come to love. When he gets to the serpent's question to Eve ("Did God really say...?"), he is at the heart of discipleship. Here's what Bonhoeffer has to say about judging the concrete word of God:
What is the real evil in this question? It is not that a question as such is asked. It is that this question already contains the wrong answer. It is that with this question the basic attitude of the creature toward the Creator comes under attack. It requires humankind to sit in judgment on God's word instead of simply listening to it and doing it. And this is achieved by proposing that, on the basis of an idea, a principle, or some prior knowledge about God, humankind should now pass judgment on the concrete word of God. But where human beings use a principle, an idea of God, as a weapon to fight against the concrete word of God, there they are from the outset already right; at that point they have become God's master, they have left the path of obedience, they have withdrawn from being addressed by God.
This is brilliant. He exposes the human tendency to put ideas about God above God. My trouble is, what is this concrete word of God? Many would say it is obviously the Bible, but it seems to me that ideas about the inerrancy of the Bible can and do become precisely the sort of idea or principle that we use to judge God. Specifically, when anyone says they are strictly following the Bible as the word of God, they are almost always in the position that Bonhoeffer here describes as "from the outset already right." That is, their position is fixed, and the word of God becomes a prop to demonstrate the rightness of their position.

On the other hand, the liberal position which tends to take a principle like "love your neighbor as yourself" as the baseline for all Christian behavior fits directly in the pattern Bonhoeffer lays out. We take this position of knowing that God is love and use it as the standard by which we judge God. If God doesn't in our estimation meet this standard, then we put aside what God says, and "at that point [we] have become God's master."

This is where the story of Abraham and Isaac comes to the fore. Suppose Abraham had said, "Surely God would never ask me to kill Isaac. Therefore, I will not do what God seems to have asked of me." But Abraham is put forward as a model of faith precisely because he obeyed God rather than judging God's word. But notice that Abraham did not read this command in scripture.

So what does that leave us? Adam and Eve and Abraham in these examples have a direct word from God. It is precisely this sort of word that Abraham obeys and this sort of word that the serpent calls into question. But do we receive this sort of word from God? Certainly not in the literal Biblical sense, but I think we do receive leading from God. That is, I'm pretty sure from time to time God is leading me. But God doesn't lead me in such a way that I could set out a systematic ethics or set doctrinal policy. It's more a leading to a direct act like, "Help this person" or "listen to what she is saying."

And here, I think I've come into the problem of the institutional church. The institutional church necessarily sets policies and principles which we must abide by, but when the direction in which we are led to act comes into conflict with the leading we feel from God (I don't think I need to give anyone in the ELCA an example) then we must decide for ourselves whether it is right to obey God or obey men.

But what I get out of all of this is that while we do need guidelines and principles, we must be prepared to drop them at a moment's notice to obey the leading of God in any direction whatsoever.

Here's what Bonhoeffer says immediately following what I quoted above:
In other words, in this question what is possible is played off against what is reality, and what is possible undermines what is reality. In the relation of human beings to God, however, there are no possibilities: there is only reality. There is no "let me first..."; there is only the commandment and obedience.
So what do you think? Am I understanding this correctly?


Jeremy said...

This is the same problem I have had since I read Forde on "The Normative Character of Scripture." And, no, I've not come to any conclusions.

Andy said...

Hi Jeremy,

Thanks for the link to the Forde article.

For my money the best insight in the article was in the footnote where he quoted J.L. Marytn as saying, "Paul wrote Galatians in the confidence that God intended to cause a certain event to occur in the Galatian congregations when Paul's messenger read the letter aloud to them....The author we see in the course of reading Galatians is a man who does theology by writing in such a way as to anticipate a theological event." Forde develops the idea that the authority of the text is in the effect it has when it is heard, but then it seems he goes on to suggest how it can have a canned sort of authority for an institutional body.

I see Forde's first point as being consonant with what I get out of Bonhoeffer -- the authority of the text is simply in the Word that God speaks to the hearer through it. Of course, the preacher and teacher in the Church has a secondary problem to worry about, but ultimately I think we need to trust in the activity of God even there.

Pastor Eric said...

You bring up an interesting question "What is the concrete Word of God?" When Zechariah questioned the angel after being told he would have a son, Zechariah was made unable to speak until John was born. He questioned the "concrete Word of God".

But today what is that Word? I think that we have to worry when a person or the institutional church claims to have THE concrete Word of God. This claims seeks to claim power for itself and not for the sake of God.

For me, the concrete Word of God first comes through scriture and through the preached word in my life at a certian point in time. The Holy Spirit speaks to my heart. The problem is that sometimes I am not listening. Maybe it is our "not listening" that forces one to ask questions about the "concrete Word of God". Maybe...

Andy said...

I think you're right, Eric. The concrete word of God comes to us through scripture and through preaching, and it seems to come to us individually. Consequently, I think we need to regard all fixed rules as penultimate at best.