Tuesday, October 07, 2008

I am afraid for how we read the Bible.

"Sound byte culture" may very well have begun with the Protestant Reformation, with Martin Luther's solas: sola scriptura, sola fides, sola gratia. Another great Lutheran sound byte out there is his naming the Book of James an "epistle of straw".
Of course we all know that sound bytes tend to be terrible things. They divorce the information that you are receiving from the context in which is was first pronounced, and possibly, thus, from the information's meaning.

This summer I had a thorough discussion on the epistle of James with a seminary student from DTS who was interning at the time with a campus ministry at LSU. He had the unlucky task of preaching at a Sunday night meeting on James 2. His explanation of the faith/works passage that night was much like those I've heard for years in the Baptist church: 'works don't save you, but they're something you do because you are saved'. (It's very similar to the equally useless Baptist explanation of baptism.) Well, our discussion was driven by my noting the fact that James seems to disagree with this statement. James says "faith without works is dead." He clearly implies that such a faith won't save a man (:14). Regardless, the Baptist church, in my experience, has always said: "No, no; there's faith, and that saves. Then there works, and the person with faith is going to work. . . they're just going to."

This is a sound byte gone afoul. Martin Luther may have said "sola fides", but, whether we read him to find this or not, he absolutely qualifies "fides".

When the blessed James and the apostle [Paul, referring to Gal. 5:6 and Rom. 2:13] say that man is justified by works, they are disputing the false conception of those who contended that a faith without works would be sufficient. However, the apostle does not say that faith is without its characteristic works-for then there would be no faith at all since 'activity reveals the nature of a thing' according to philosophers-but that it justifies without the works of the Law. Therefore justification does not require the works of the Law; but it does require a living faith, which performs its works.

It's from a sermon of his.
A living faith. Is it just me, or isn't that exactly what James is talking about?
Yet we try to water down James's statement, to "read it through Paul", all the while missing what Paul means because we've already missed what Luther meant, and we're "reading" Paul through Luther.
As it turns out, Luther is in perfect agreement with me on James 2: James is contrasting two different concepts of faith; one is a dead pistis that won't save, and the other is a saving pistis-works combination. This combination is 'living faith'--James is forcing us to redefine "faith" here, or at least "faith" in our popular usage ("it's by grace you have been saved through faith..").

BUT, even if Luther and I disagreed, we still have a bigger, fundamental problem here: people are reading the scriptures through Luther. You could insert "Calvin", "Wright", or whomever you want right there.
We're reading through Luther (although in this case it's a bad conception of Luther), and then we're disregarding what the text actually says to fit the interpretation.

Please tell me you see the problem here.

4 comments:

Josh said...

Good thoughts, Nance. I agree that context makes all the difference when interpreting Scripture (and in interpreting lots of other things).

Your post reminded me of something I just read in chapter one of "The Cost of Discipleship" (you'll probably recognize it):

"When he spoke of grace, Luther always implied as a corollary that it cost him his own life, the life which was now for the first time subjected to the absolute obedience of Christ. Only so could he speak of grace. Luther had said that grace alone can save; his followers took up his doctrine and repeated it word for word. But they left out its invariable corollary, the obligation of discipleship. There was no need for Luther always to mention that corollary explicitly for he always spoke as one who had been led by grace to the strictest following of Christ. Judged by the standard of Luther's doctrine, that of his followers was unassailable, and yet their orthodoxy spelt the end and destruction of the Reformation as the revelation on earth of the costly grace of God. The justification of the sinner in the world degenerated into the justification of sin and the world. Costly grace was turned into cheap grace without discipleship."

The last bit is arguably hyperbolic, but the point stands. "Sola gratia" is true - until we lose a proper understanding of said "gratia" and substitute something else in its place.

Nance said...

Wow, thanks for that Josh. It never ceases to amaze me, what I see that I've not seen in reading things.

Daniel McLain Hixon said...

I wonder if we might add to Josh's point that we lost Luther's idea of "losing our whole life to Christ" and substituted "have a conversion experience" this happened when Wesley's (and others') evangelicalism was leathally combined with a soft-Calvinist/Baptist "once saved always saved" doctrine (which of course, Wesley did not hold, since he held that a life of sanctification was necessary for final salvation, quoting Hebrews "without holiness no one will see the Lord" and NOT reading that as if it said "without the imputed righteousness we get at our conversion experience no one will see Him" as contemporary evangelicals seem wont to do).

Now perhaps we substitute something else even for that.

It may be too that with regard to the word 'faith' we read Paul and James in light of pop-figures, top 40 songs, and Disney movies and so on.

It seems to me that Luther and you and I and the Council of Trent are all very close on the relation of faith and works. As Paul says in Galatians "neither circumcision nor uncircumcision count for anything, but only faith working by love." There is no final salvation without love. For love - in so far as it necessarily means communion with the Holy Trinity by the work of Christ and the continuing work of the Spirit (according to 1 John 4) - is the very meaning of "eternal life" (according to John 17).

Daniel McLain Hixon said...

But back to your general point about how we read the Bible, I think it is unavoidable that we will read it through those theologians (or would-be theologians) that we are familiar with. I have simply argued we must therefore endeavor to familiarize ourselves with the broadest possible sampling of the whole Christian Tradition to develop a sort of intuitive sense of the whole Church's teaching - since Christ promises that the Spirit will lead the whole church.

Fortunately, many of the best theologians that many people read are precisely those who themselves have attempted to do so (always with less than perfect success of course). SO whether I am reading Luther or Lewis or Aquinas or Wesley or Calvin or Athanasius - I am reading in all of these cases someone who came before me and was in turn also listening to those who came before him.

I suspect that this is less true of Modern theologians (18th-20th centuries), but even for them it is often true. I wonder if it may also be less true for Dark-Age (6th-10th centuries) thinkers in the West as at least some of them wrote in a context more isolated from the broader tradition.