Twice in the last few weeks I have seen posts that pitted Scripture against the Holy Spirit. In both cases the statement was worded in such a way as to say that the individual was going to trust the moving of the Spirit over (and in one contrary to Scripture). These were posts I did not feel comfortable engaging directly, but I feel strongly that I should in some way at least speak to this mindset. Part of the reason I did not speak out is because the intent of these posts was to confront a shallow interpretation of Scripture that needed to be confronted and partially because I did not feel it was an appropriate time for me to engage. This is a disturbing concept for me because it shows little concern for the role of Scripture in the life of the Christian.
To begin with, we must identify the purpose and origin of Scripture within Christian theology. The Church has always taught that those books collectively called the Bible are inspired by the Holy Spirit and those who penned the words were experiencing God’s presence as they did so. If we accept this theology then Scripture fills at least two roles for us. First, it becomes a standard by which we measure our lives, that is it is a measure of righteousness which we can use to measure our lives. Further, Scripture becomes a measure by which we can recognize the moving of the Holy Spirit in our own lives. Believing this has a profound consequence that we must recognize that the Holy Spirit will never say anything to us that is completely contradictory to Scripture. Any individual who thinks their encounter with the Spirit justifies leaving Scripture behind is discounting the speaking of the Spirit to the Church as a whole. This view highlights personal experience over collective experience to a level that is completely inappropriate.
That said, I want to highlight what I think was actually behind the words which were said and how we as Christians can better articulate this sentiment. First, I think these individuals were reacting against literalist, and in at least one instance wrong, interpretations of specific passages. I have some sympathy for this fact because I understand how people can abuse specific translations to make them say more than (or other than) the Scripture’s intent. So in both cases the person was actually saying, “I reject your interpretation of this passage.” Though I have respect for this sentiment, the language was certainly inappropriate because it gives the impression that either Scripture is no different than other sources of wisdom or that we can reject passages because of personal disagreement. Neither of these options is valid for a Christian committed to continuing the witness of the Church. In these and many other instances I have witnessed the two who are disagreeing both share the same flawed reading of the text, and that one dimensional reading has led to the fundamentalist saying it must be accepted this way no matter what, and the other saying the Bible is wrong. But neither has truly engaged the depth of the text or its meaning.
I want to illustrate what I mean with what I have struggled with in the text of Scripture, specifically many of the violent passages of the Old Testament, particularly those that display God as violent and almost blood thirsty. At first, I simply accepted these passages, reading the passages with a narrow or shallow thought, the Bible says it so it must be true. Then as I began to take seriously the pacifist claims of Jesus in the New Testament I began to simply dismiss these Old Testament passages. My mindset was the same as those who say, “You can keep Scripture I’ll take the Holy Spirit”. I did not have room in my mind for such passages because I was unwilling to critique my own thinking and allow that perhaps what I was hearing from the Holy Spirit is not the whole of the picture. My theology of God’s interaction in the world was too small and based on an either or fallacy, either God had to be violent or a pacifist these two systems are mutually exclusive. During this time, I would have been someone who said, “The Holy Spirit has revealed… and thus we can lay aside these portions of Scripture.”
The reality is my dismissive mentality actually impoverished me, it made me less able to actually understand and relate to God’s character. I admit that like those who I have seen making similar comments my mindset was in part due to engaging those who simply counseled accept the text and move on. For me this changed when I began to engage authors who genuinely wanted to maintain the inspiration of the text and who would not allow a simplistic depiction of God to triumph (read more about the issue here). What I came to recognize is that God wants to hold humanity to a very high standard– we often refer to this as righteousness or holiness. But while God’s ideal is very high there are times we are incapable of meeting that ideal, this is a reality of human limitation. To put this back into my situation, God’s ideal is pacifism and harmony within humanity, but humanity is so marred by sin we are incapable of living up to this standard. And because of this we sometimes drag God down into our own issues, or more precisely worded God decides to enter our struggles and participate with the humans God loves. Basically what I learned is that there are standards to which we are called, but that these must be balanced with the reality of sin in this world. I may be capable of living up to any particular standard but my brother or sister may not.
How does this relate back to the beginning situation? In both of the cases the individuals saying they would follow the Holy Spirit were rejecting specific portions of Scripture because they could not understand how those portions related to their picture of God. Rather than live in the tension of the Scripture or seek out wisdom they chose to simply unhitch themselves from that portion of Scripture. This is fundamentally a mistake, not that every little issue in Scripture can be perfectly harmonized, but there is a humility in saying, “That verse seems to disagree with my understanding of God.” The dismissal of Scripture in favor of the Spirit either reflects a hubris that one knows God completely or an unwillingness to engage with difficulties. Neither of these attitudes will lead to growth and only foster discord. May each one of us continue to see the value in all Scripture and humbly seek the wisdom the Spirit has given to others.