Voices of Progressive Christianity: The Good Book

November 18, 2012


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
Nov. 18, 2012

“Voices of Progressive Christianity… The Good Book”
Hebrews 5:12-14; II Timothy 3:14-17

Through the ages, the church and its people have looked to the Bible for guidance, comfort, strength, and challenge. The Bible is the Holy Book of the Christian faith and I’ve often seen it used as a beautiful coffee table decoration.
Today, I want to continue our series on the Voices of Progressive Christianity and take a look at Peter Gomes “The Good Book; Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart”. Gomes was the Dean of the Chapel at Harvard, an accomplished scholar, and preached the inaugural sermon for the 1st President Bush.
I want to hit briefly on:
• What is the Bible all about?
• How is it inspired?
• How is it used?
• What does it say to us?
As progressive Christians, we’re often good at saying what we DON’T believe. Hopefully, this sermon will help us with saying what we DO believe.
Gomes observes that “many Christian adults live their lives off a second-rate second-grade Sunday school education, and that the more they hear of the Bible in church, the less they feel they know about it.” Pg. 6
To answer “What’s the Bible all about?” one needs to remember that the Bible is a library of 66 different books written in a variety of genres over many centuries. Gomes describes the Bible as a “public book”, belonging to a community of believers, a treasure held in common. It has an oral origin and the only way people became acquainted with the Bible was to hear it in the company of others, read aloud by one who could do so. These were public stories that communicated public truths in the most public of ways. He acknowledges that this means the Bible will invariably produce conflict which Christians cannot avoid. But it isn’t necessarily a private book, and to read it as such is a bit arrogant. Pg. 19
Let’s explore “How is the Bible inspired?” Perhaps we can agree that the Bible is inspired, if for no other reason that it has lasted so long and is a best-seller. Yet, for some, the Bible is nothing more than an irrelevant, archaic book with paper-thin pages that has little significance in daily life. For others, it is a set of rigid rules, petrified by time and used to defend against the threat of change.
The Hebrew people of 3-4 thousand years ago questioned how divine writing was inspired. Our word “inspiration” comes from the Latin noun inspiratio and from the verb inspirare. It means “to breathe into” as if to instill something in the heart of mind of someone. To say that scripture is inspired is to say that God’s breath gives life to the reader through the words. Inspiration has little if anything to do with the more recent movement to take the Bible literally or to say that it is fallible.
Gomes addresses his book “to those who either trivialize (the Bible) or idolize it, and who thereby miss its dynamic, living, and transforming quality.” Pg. xi
He also notes that “intelligent people seem to know less and less about the Bible and religious people revere it and will defend it to the death but seldom read it with any industry or imagination.” Pg. xii
Part of the reason for his observation, I think, is that we tend to grow away from the sweet theology of songs like:
• “The B-I-B-L-E, yes, that’s the book for me…”
• Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so…”
But we often don’t grow and mature past these thoughts. And when the rosy thoughts of childhood don’t work for us anymore, we abandon the Bible altogether. Progressives are often quoted as saying that we don’t believe in Bible inerrancy. Instead, let’s say it from another angle – we DO believe that scripture is inspired because God’s breath gives life to us through the written word.
To think about “How is the Bible used?” Gomes tells of how the Bible was used to promote temperance. Proverbs 20:1 states, “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler; and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.” The temperance movement in the nineteenth century played an ugly role in using the Bible for anti-Catholicism and chauvinism. Because the Roman Catholics used wine in the mass, there were rampant accusations of drunken priests and habitual drunk parishioners.
Contrastly, the Bible also indicates that the first miracle attributed to Jesus is the one when he turned water into wine. And later, Paul tells Timothy “no longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” (I Timothy 5:23) I know that some of you claim your own doctor has said something similar. We’ll just go with that.
This illustration of use and misuse of the Bible for a public issue demands a context in how we use the Bible. Gomes suggests 3 basic strategies:
1. Everything that the Bible describes is not necessarily to be permitted or approved of. The patriarchs, for instance, practiced polygamy.
2. To be Biblical may mean to move beyond the Bible itself to the larger principles that can be derived from the faith of which the Bible is a part. Principles over practice, so to speak. We need to see beyond the diversions of the individual Biblical texts and look into the far more complex lessons taught in its pages.
3. Finally, we must understand the Bible not as a thing in and of itself but as a part and the Christian faith. Said Gomes, “we must seek after the lively Christian principles that transcend the particularities of the Bible situation and with which we understand both those situations and our own.
Pg. 82
II Timothy 3: 14-17 says it this way: “Stick with what you learned and believed, sure of the integrity of your teachers – why, you took in the sacred Scriptures with your mother’s milk! There’s nothing like the written word of God for showing you the way in Christ Jesus. Every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another – showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God’s way. Through the Word we are put together and shaped up for the tasks God has for us.” (The Message)
So, what does the Bible say to us today? Gomes answers: “What makes the bible interesting and compelling is the company of human beings who through its pages play their parts in the drama of the human and the divine. In the sense that Bible stories tell our story, the human story in relationship to the divine, they are true. They are not true because they are in the Bible; they are in the Bible because they are true to the experience of men and of women.” Pg. 185
The Bible gives us examples of people who have gone before us and their stories of suffering, joy, evil, temptation, wealth, science and mystery. From these stories we glean a sense of being something more than just ourselves in this time and place. We learn and grow, knowing the parallels and perils of others throughout time. We understand what is and what can be. We can put our lives into the stories, our voices into the songs, our celebrations into the centuries, and recognize the truth that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves. We learn about God and God’s people. We laugh and cry with those who are our spiritual ancestors.
John 1 tells us that the “word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The Bible is not only the account of those who have come to know something of the transcendent love and power of the living God; the Bible also assures us that their experience of these things may in some measure be ours as well. “The Bible… is a precious record of human people’s exchanges and transactions with their holy book and with the Holy One. To read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest, to listen to and for the word of God, is to take seriously the invitation and the command of Hebrews 12: 25, ‘See that you do not refuse the Divine who is speaking.’” Pg. 352
Gomes call the Bible “the lively oracles of God”. “The hope of the Good Book then is that it will help us to find a good life, a life that brings us nearer to God and to one another. It is this that animates us and encourages us to use our minds and trust our hearts. These lively oracles of God are a living word, from a living God for a needy people. It is indeed the Good Book.” Pg. 347
So, how does one best use the Bible? Well, by using it. Reading it. Interacting with it. Loving it. By not taking it literally; but by taking it very seriously.

Bible References

  • Hebrews 5:12 - 14
  • 2 Timothy 3:14 - 17