God is the Source of Life (3)

Sources for the Way

When we begin to ask the question, How did he give life? we are almost overwhelmed by the scale, variety and richness of the material available to us. The short answer is that Jesus gave life in every possible way, that he gave a life that was abundant in every possible way, and that he gave this life through the power of the Holy Spirit which was at work in him, and which was poured out on his disciples, as his gift, after his departure.

The rather longer answer is given in the Christian Scriptures. Four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke-Acts and John, written by first or second generation Christians. Fourteen epistles written by the great early missionary, Paul, or those who were profoundly influenced by him. Four epistles written by other apostolic leaders in the early Church - James, Peter and Jude. And four documents - three epistles and the book of Revelation - written by the author of John's Gospel, or those working in his tradition.

Such diversity is a sign of the life Jesus invested in those around him, and a sign, too, of the life they continued to engender for themselves and others. Though the early Church was anxious to attribute the Christian Scriptures to named apostles wherever possible, several of the documents are written by second generation Christians - those who never met Jesus in the flesh, but who believed in him due to the testimony of the initial group of witnesses. The earliest of the Gospels is generally considered to have been written in the aftermath of the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, about forty years after Jesus' death. Yet the interval was filled with Christian activity - not least the missionary journeys of Paul and his companions, who left behind some vibrant letters. In other words, those early decades were filled with Christian life, with Christians practising the Way that Jesus had taught them, catching up their families, friends and neighbours in their excitement, teaching one another, training one another to share the Good News. All this activity, Jesus set in motion. His impact on a wide range of people, and the way that this interest was extended and deepened over time is itself a factor that we must take into account.

But there is no doubt that the diversity of this impact causes difficulties for us. For anyone wanting to pay serious attention to Scripture, the divergences, conflations and contradictions between the various documents are bewildering. They raise the problem as to how we read the text.

Firstly, the complexity of the documents in themselves and in their relationships to one another, has given rise to an immense wealth of comment and scholarship over the past century and more. These days it is almost impossible to keep track of the latest developments in New Testament studies because it has fragmented into a cluster of highly specialised fields. Further, the gulf between the theories of the most radical Christian thinkers and the presuppositions of the most conservative Christians, especially those who have no understanding of Biblical scholarship, is so vast as to be unbridgeable. The two extremes do not even share a language in which to speak to one another.

Consequently, the assumptions I have made about the dating and authorship of the various documents would be regarded by many as unjustifiably conservative, and by others as dangerously radical. Nevertheless, it is impossible to write about the Christian Scriptures without taking a position and making assumptions of some kind. So in the end, I have formed views which make most sense in the light of my primary concern: practical spirituality and in particular, the elucidation of spiritual dynamics.

Secondly, what scholars often do not understand is the way in which this diversity of opinion amongst academics, and the possibility that there might be a similar diversity of opinion within the text of Scripture itself, is very unsettling for many ordinary people in the pews. As ministers, we encourage our people to do Bible study, but the more they immerse themselves in the analysis and comparison of similar or parallel passages, the more likely they are to conclude that in reading any single story, we simply cannot be certain how accurately the writer has set down the actual words that Jesus spoke on a particular occasion. Brought up to reverence literacy and to rely on the truth of what they see written down, this diversity seems dangerously close to unreliability. If they cannot trust the word as it is written, how are they to trust it at all? And if they cannot trust it at all, how can they have faith in what it is telling us about Jesus?

Of course those of us who have had some training in Biblical studies or theology are equipped to help them sort out some of the complexities, but by doing so we run the risk of giving people the message that the water is too deep and the current too swift for them to navigate the course themselves. Without wishing to disable them, we find ourselves increasing their tendency towards a "Tell us what it says, tell us what it means, tell us what we have to do" culture. What we need are ways to honour the diversity of Scripture whilst handling the fear that this diversity arouses in many ordinary Christians. For it is this fear that feeds the more intransigent and intolerant forms of conservatism, where people decide that the only way to know for certain what God requires of us is to resist any investigation or interrogation of the text at all.

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