Strasbourg has been described as the “ultimate European city” where France and Germany collide. This should really come as no surprise though since the Rhine River is at the city’s edge acting as the only divider between these two countries. If you go into the city center though, there is another collision that you might just recognize – the collision of theology. In one moment, you might enter the sanctuary of St. Thomas where the Reformer Martin Bucer preached and then turn around to view the pulpit of John Calvin at the Church of St. Nicolas. And while they had similar views of the Eucharist (departing from Luther and Zwingli), we cannot ignore the writings of Calvin that spoke of Bucer’s theological short comings. Again, the collision of theology. Perhaps the great theologian H. Richard Niebuhr was right after all about what he calls “the enduring problem”. Niebuhr would write in his work Christ and Culture: “…more frequently the debate about Christ and culture is carried out amongst Christians and in the hidden depths of the individual conscience, not as a struggle and accommodation of belief with unbelief, but as the reconciliation of faith with faith.
That reconciliation of faith with faith; that can be on interesting conversation. It just so happens that I was walking the cobble stone streets of that “ultimate European city” talking to a self-described evangelical pastor from California named Larry around the issues of ordination that the Presbyterian Church (USA) has struggled with in years past. Larry, finding out that I hold a much more inclusive ordination standard than he, asked me, “Is that Biblical?” My response was, “Larry, I tend to ask, ‘Is it theological?’” His response was simply: “You are from the Reformed tradition. Then what about Sola Scriptura?” He had to go and invoke that one didn’t he?
So, what about Sola Scriptura – that long held Reformed understanding (ascribed to Martin Luther specifically) that we live “by scripture alone”? What about the doctrine that claims that the Bible contains all the knowledge that is necessary for holiness and salvation? What about the fact that the opening statements of the Second Helvetic Confession state that, “We believe and confess that the canonical Scriptures of the holy prophets and apostles of both Testaments to be the true Word of God, and to have sufficient authority of themselves, not of men.”? What about the reality that John Calvin himself felt that the scriptures are actually “spectacles” to see the world with? As theologian Garrett Green would observe about Calvin metaphor, “The scriptures are not something that we look at, but rather look through, lenses that refocus what we see into an intelligible pattern.” Is not the logical conclusion of all of this that the Bible is self-authenticating, clear to the reader, its own interpreter (“scripture interprets scripture”), and sufficient of itself to be the final authority of all the doctrines of Christianity? I would have to say no.
As a person who is ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA), my personal context for ordination and beyond recognizes that responsibility and authority specifically within the bounds of ordered ministry are to be understood Christologically. To look at the first five ordination questions is to recognize that there is a clear understanding of the hierarchy of authority that embody an understanding for the entire church. And instead of starting with the scriptures, our launching point is instead Jesus Christ. We are to live in obedience to Christ under the authority of scripture guided by the confessions governed by the church’s polity within a collegial ministry. This order is faithful and explicit: Christ, scripture, confessions, polity, ministry. This is not an ordering that is open for manipulation.
Because of this, we acknowledge the reality that the scriptures might just be that which we look through to “refocus what we see into an intelligible pattern”. More importantly though, we recognize that Christ must be the “spectacles” which we look through to read and apply those texts. Yes, Sola Scriptura is still alive and well in the “Reformed Project” (term used by Dr. Michael Jenkins, President of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary). Let us never forget though that this was never intended to be applied in isolation as this is but one of a group of “solas” of the Reformers. Solus Christus (through Christ alone) stands within the same company and according to my theological understanding of authority, must remain the prelude of this concert of movement in the reading and application of the Bible.
So…if Christ is to be the lenses (the “spectacles”) that we look through in order to read the Bible, what must be taken into consideration about Christ? Realizing that this is a question that could easily produce a laundry list of theological opinions, allow me to simply lift up three thoughts built upon a certain foundation. The foundation that I would offer my musings is actually something that a colleague of mine told me in a passing conversation. The Reverend Chandler Stokes looked at me and stated one day over breakfast, “The Bible was neither intended to exclude nor wound anyone.” (This is pretty self explanatory!) The thoughts that I would build upon that are in concern for: the virtues of Christ, the community of Christ, and the Spirit of Christ.
THE VIRTUES OF CHRIST:
We can talk about many virtues that the incarnation into consideration at such a junction as this. The virtue of hope, the virtue of freedom, the virtue of obedience, the virtue of humility, etc. To return to the thoughts of H. Richard Niebuhr though, “There is no virtue save the love that is in Christ, inextricably combined with faith and hope. From this all other excellence flows.” Couple this with the theology of the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 13), if we do not read the scriptures and apply them looking through the lens of Christ’s love, then we are nothing more than we are “a clanging gong…a clashing cymbal…nothing…receiving no benefit whatsoever.” To read and apply the scriptures through that particular prescription…well…from this all other excellence flows.
THE COMMUNITY OF CHRIST:
I was once running on the beach one evening when I passed by a couple walking in the surf. For some odd reason, the male portion of the duo yelled at me, “One is a lonely number.” I was tempted to yell something (anything) in return, but deep down inside, I could not disagree with him. One is a lonely number.
The only portion of the creation narrative that seems to be amiss is the realization that humanity was never meant to be in isolation. Thus we are born into families, we learn to cultivate friendships, and we live and move and have our being in community. And when we gather in worship and in sacrament, we are the very bride of Christ, the kirk, the church. Therefore, if we do not read the scriptures and apply them looking through the lens of Christ’s community, then we run the risk of the Bible becoming an idol to be worship in our individualistic arrogance instead of a testimony to a community that makes claim to a way of being in the world. This becomes the pilgrimage that all of creation is invited to join in together. Remember, one really is a lonely number.
THE SPIRIT OF CHRIST:
This is perhaps the easiest to write about but the hardest to live into. This very tension is revealed as two realities can be excavated from the very scriptures that we read and apply. Yes, it does say in 2 Timothy that all scripture is “God breathed” (the very language lifted up in the breath of life into humanity). It also states in the Pentateuch that “the secret things belong to the Lord our God.” (Deuteronomy 29:29) These two tensions would naturally lead to the reality that the Bible does not in fact contain everything about God and yet there is something unique about what has been breathed within those sixty six books bound together by some leather fabric. And to take the tension into consideration, what are we as a community, guided by the values of Christ, meant to conceive by all of this?
Maybe we need to simply hold onto the reality of Emmanuel (God with us) who our confessions claim was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit where the Word became flesh by the word and the will of God. In the thoughts of the theologian Shirley Guthrie, this is not so much about the deity of Jesus but more about the humanity of God. The conception by the power of the Spirit reveals to us the very humanness of the Creator of the universe becomes the launching point for that very Spirit of the holy. With this reality, it is not so much about a community arguing over scripture and its application but instead living as the “koinonia” that is forever seeking its own sense of wholeness (salvation) that is only a gift of the Creator. The Word becoming flesh in the midst of that “koinonia” by the word and the will and the Spirit of God in Jesus Christ is the ultimate spectacle that we look through in order to not only understand in new and fresh ways but bring to fruition and application that tension of “God breathed” and “the secrets of the Lord.”
Now…with all that having been stated, my prayer is that this somehow makes sense…makes you think…makes you respond…but ultimately…gives you a little more permission to be free. I am reminded of the quote from Red (Morgan Freeman) in the movie The Shawshank Redemption. “I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singin’ about…I like to think they were singin’ about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you those voices soared, higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapping into our drab little cage and made these walls dissolve away…and for the briefest of moments, every last man at Shawshank felt free.” May you be free to look at the scriptures through a new set of glasses. May you be free to soar higher and farther in the beauty of God beyond where you would dare to dream. May you even for the briefest of moments, as you pour over you reading and applications of the scriptures feel free…
Through daily avenues of pastoring the Pleasant Ridge Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, extended leadership nationally within the Presbyterian Church (USA), and keeping up with the choreography of a family, Nicholas is always in “permanent beta” – forever a work in progress. Having grown up mainly in the Atlanta, Georgia area, as well as being a “cradle to grave” Presbyterian, Nicholas attended Berry College (Rome, Georgia) receiving a Bachelor of Arts in Religion and Philosophy. This was followed by a Master of Divinity from Columbia Theological Seminary (Atlanta, Georgia) and a first call as the Associate Pastor of Youth and Mission at the First Presbyterian Church of Sumter, South Carolina. Jump ahead a decade, which included meeting his lovely spouse Christa on a plane, a second call to Avon Lake Presbyterian Church (Cleveland, Ohio), a Doctor of Ministry from the Graduate Theological Foundation (South Bend, Indiana), two amazing children, and a third call to his current church, Nicholas is still in starting mode. Nicholas Yoda is always reflecting, rethinking, and reforming.