Friday, February 3, 2012

Presbyterian Christian Educators and the final word of God

Update In a Footnote at end.
The Presbyterian News Service posted an article, “Read Your Own Story into the Bible Story APCE Told,” about the 2012 conference of the Association of Presbyterian Christian Educators (APCE), "God's Suprising Wonders." The main speaker for the event was Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, the author of many children’s books on spirituality and a new book for adults, God’s Echo: Exploring Scripture with Midrash.

Mary Margaret Flannagan, author of the PNS article, wrote that Sasso “focused on the Jewish tradition of midrash, which she defined as “approaching Scripture as if God was actually talking to us.” And yet Flannagan reports that the speaker stated “What God intended was for each generation to read its story into the text. The Bible is not the final word, but the first word. We should not take it literally, but seriously.” [1](Italics mine)While Sasso’s statement is undoubtedly not the view of all Rabbis concerning the Hebrew Bible, Midrash or the Talmud, which contains midrash, it is absolutely contradictory to Christian Theology. And there is a reason rooted in the very center of Christianity.

Jewish midrash, which was originally rabbinic oral commentary on Hebrew Scripture, is filled with wisdom, mysticism, scholarly thought and stories. Its history and content is complex. Reading midrash may certainly be helpful for Christian study of the Scripture with this in mind: there are two kinds of midrash. There is aggada which has to do with narrative and uses stories, sometimes metaphorically, and halakah which has to do with the interpretation of the law. If this is understood, midrash may be helpful to the Christian reading in order to understand some of the ways early Rabbis viewed various biblical texts and stories.

However, Sasso’s view that the Bible is not the final word is a clear misunderstanding of the Christian faith. Her view cannot be used by an orthodox Christian. In her book God’s Echo, Sasso uses a midrash understanding of the first light that God created, which is viewed as a primordial light that may or may not be hidden, to see the souls of all people as a part of that light. But for the Christian, Jesus, the uncreated One, is the light of the world, which will still be shining when the sun and stars no longer shine.

The prologue to the gospel of John explains that Jesus is the true light whose life gives light to humanity. (John 1:4) Jesus himself, at the festival of light, declares himself to be the light of the world. It is Christ who opens, fulfills and finishes the words and promises of God.

The Christian must take into account God’s final word, Jesus Christ. In the book of Hebrews there is clarification:
God, after he spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom also he made the world.
On the mountain of transfiguration the Father spoke in the presence of the disciples—“This is My Son, My chosen One; listen to Him.” (Luke 9:35b) The eternal Son of the Father is the second person of the Trinity; the Bible is the word of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Bible is the first word and the last word because it is God’s word.

We do not read our own story into the Scripture; instead God takes his word and through the Holy Spirit molds and shapes our own broken stories to conform to his will."For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” (Romans 15:4) (Also 2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21.)

In the PNS article Flannagan additionally stated, “Almost echoing the Reformed tradition’s motto, (ecclesia semper reformanda) ―”Reformed and always being reformed by the word of God” ― Sasso dared APCE participants to expect God to engage the community in new ways each time they read Scripture.” Flannagan is making a rather opinionated editorial comment which really needs to be addressed or sorted out.

The motto “Reformed and always being reformed by the word of God” does not mean being met with new truths or revelations; rather it means turning back to the truth of Scripture. The Reformation was not the discovery of new truths but the recovery of the Truth. The Reformers returned to justification by faith, grace and the authority of Scripture. In a time when leadership had turned to tyranny they returned to the priesthood of the believer. In a time when the sacraments were sometimes given as magical rites minus the word the reformers placed the pure word of God with the sacraments. In a time when Pope and Priests too often lived immoral lives they returned to proper church discipline.

The Holy Spirit may open blind or dimming eyes to scriptural truth they have not yet discovered-Christ’s redeeming death, the place of repentance in the life of the believer, the call to be transformed, but it is old truth newly discovered by a needy person. By the study of Scripture the Church may be turned toward a ministry they have yet to consider, but it has always been there in God’s word—feeding the poor, caring for prisoners, giving water to the thirsty, saving those being led away to death, proclaiming the good news.

True Christian Educators are called to equip the children of God with the word of God. We need such educators today to turn the Church back to the authority of the word and the Lordship of Christ.

[1] In a tweet on Sasso's sermon: "#Midrash: Lot's wife turns to look @ the city with compassion. Pillar of salt = a pile of tears, not punishment 4 looking back." This is how using the Bible as only the first word works out. It changes the word of God to make it say what it does not say.


will spotts said...

Viola -
I have mixed feelings about this. As you know, I share your profound distaste for the irresponsible and insupportable readings this philosophy is used to mask. Many times people want to either add their emphases or do away with biblical concepts they don't like - and this slippery reading methodology encourages that.

At the same time, there is some truth in it - not in the philosophy, but the practice. We Do read our stories into the text. We do look for points of contact. The stories sometimes speak directly to us and our situations in a way that direct statement would not work.

We also see new truths. All truths are 'old truths' in the sense that they were present and we were the ones who had to relearn them. Every time I read the Bible (or most times) I see new things. THEY were always there. I didn't see them before, or notice them, or pay attention.

will spotts said...

The reason I mention this is that I think a person will read this article or hear the presentation and perhaps not grasp the difference.

The difference is this: we've all seen numerous instances of people dishonestly reading scripture to get a predetermined, desired result. Many of us have, at times, done this. The dishonesty in the reading is the telling thing. It is about finding a nice sounding way to lie to ourselves and to others.

On the other hand, the text can be engaged in novel ways with integrity. And we do learn or discover new understandings. Sometimes these even conflict with our prior understanings. But if the new thing is genuinely true, it will have always been there. We just didn't understand it before.

Will Spotts
North East, MD

Viola Larson said...

"But if the new thing is genuinely true, it will have always been there. We just didn't understand it before."

I think this is what I was saying. Maybe I just didn't say it the right way. But more importantly The Bible is always the last word as well as the first.

will spotts said...

I agree with your summation. I think we just approached the question from different ends.

Karen Wagner said...

As one who attended APCE I was excited by Rabbi Sasso's plenary and by midrash in reading the text but also in allowing the text to question and read you. I feel that when we look to see where God is at work in the text, and wonder why details have been left out - people's names, like Lot's wife - or why details have been included.

Another example she used was that the first letter of the Ten Commandments is an aleph, a letter that has no sound but is the beginning of sound, and that represents the beginning of conversation with God.

Preachers for years have wondered where we fit into the story? In the prodigal son are we the younger brother or the elder brother? Where do we see our lives in the midst of Scripture.

Scripture is the living Word of God. If we don't allow for new possibilities to arise then it is words on a page. The Holy Spirit moves and new interpretations come to light that can be tested by the community.

Viola Larson said...

Hi Karen, I would like to hear more about your experience.

Also I noted that someone else had tweeted this: "#Midrash: Lot's wife turns to look @ the city with compassion. Pillar of salt = a pile of tears, not punishment 4 looking back."

Is that what you heard and do you agree with using the scripture that way?

Karen Wagner said...

Hi Viola,

What you posted from Twitter "#Midrash: Lot's wife turns to look @ the city with compassion. Pillar of salt = a pile of tears, not punishment 4 looking back." is what I heard and I tweeted something similar.

I was fascinated with the concept of a pillar of salt equating to a pile of tears. Rabbi Sasso also told a story of a concentration camp survivor who when separated from his parents, turned to see them marched to the crematorium and was reduced to a "pile of tears."

I honestly had never thought about the text in that way and I am fascinated with the process of Midrash. It takes Scripture seriously, but asks questions of the text, much like many of the children that I work with would ask. I think it is one method of opening up the Scripture to be shown more of God's glory.

Please understand that I don't think the Bible can mean anything we want it to mean, but I think there can be multiple interpretations and sometimes it is simply because we are different every time we approach the text.

Rabbi Sasso used examples from several of her children's books. My favorite I think was Cain and Abel and that the mark on Cain's head was the Hebrew letter that is used for "and" as a reminder that Cain is his brother's keeper - that is about others. Not in the text, but certainly in line with God's sense of community seen throughout the Bible.


Viola Larson said...

Thanks for explaining more, but I very bothered by the idea of Lot's wife's compassion versus God's judgment on someone who longed for a wicked city. On the other hand I understand the idea of Cain with ‘and’ written on his head that does not change the meaning of the text. However, I have always understood that mark to be a sign of grace since God put it there for Cain’s protection.

In O.T. Testament at Seminary I learned that the Jewish Scholars often think of Isaac as a martyr in the story of him being almost offered as a sacrifice. That doesn't change the meaning of the text and fits with the Christian understanding that the story is not just Jewish history but also a picture of Jesus' sacrifice for sin. But I can't accept changing the meaning of the text.
It is always God's word.