A side note: This is Coming Out Christian’s 100th post! When I launched the blog in December 2010, I never dreamed it would come this far. It began as a way of unpacking my own thoughts and feelings about what I’d been going through during the previous several years… but I didn’t know if anyone would actually read it. I’m so thankful for the small community we’ve made here. I continue to be so encouraged by your comments and emails. Love and peace to each and every one of you… and may we all continue to grow in our faith! -Mandy
Last week, I wrote about my journey away from Biblical literalism. I don’t write about religious studies in excess, primarily because I’m not a Biblical scholar. I have not attended divinity school, and I have no doctorate in religious studies. But all of us are theologians, aren’t we? When we read scripture, when we dissect it, when we discuss it with others… we become students of theology. The big question is: what do we do with the information we learn? How do we make sense of it? How does it affect us? Last week, we looked briefly at the historical-critical approach. This method can tell us a lot about the historical backdrop of the Bible, who did (or didn’t) write our most beloved books and letters, and the undeniable vast differences in our many manuscripts. But today, let’s look at what biblical historical criticism can’t do for us.
As with all spiritual matters, Christianity is faith-based; and the textbook definition of faith is “belief that is not based on proof”. We simply cannot know certain things. Writings of Josephus and other ancient secular historians prove that Jesus existed, that he was arrested, and that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate. Yet, if you’re looking for historical (non-canonical) proof of many details of Jesus’ life, including his virgin birth, his resurrection, and his ascension… you won’t find it. But does that mean these things did not happen? Everyone’s answer will be different. But I choose to believe that they did. But just hypothetically, let’s say that none of these things actually happened. Let’s say that the Adoptionist theory that was rejected by the Council of Nicea is actually correct: that Jesus was born fully human and was adopted by God at his baptism. Would that change things? It doesn’t have to. What I know is this: Jesus is my refuge, my peace, my salvation. He is, in the most real sense, my Savior. I don’t know how. I don’t know the logistics. I cannot explain it. But he is how I make sense of this world. He is my connection with my Creator. And so I choose faith.
The story of the adulterous woman was not included in the earliest manuscripts. Maybe it happened exactly as John described it. Maybe the story—passed down by oral tradition—changed slightly over the years. Or maybe it didn’t happen at all. Does this matter? To be honest, when I first discovered this, I was angered. I felt as though I’d been lied to. After all, it was possible that one of my all-time favorite stories from the Gospels never happened. But this is where our personal experience becomes vital. If Jesus is indeed alive and living today, and if we commune with him on a daily basis… wouldn’t we be familiar with the nature of his character? “You who is without sin throw the first stone”… this is absolutely congruent with the Jesus that I know. After I realized that, the question of whether or not it actually happened became less important.
I do not believe that the New Testament writers had impure intentions. I believe they were just like us… trying to make sense of the world in which they were living. I believe they did their best to convey the messages they deemed important. They were—as we are now—doing their best to live a life of righteousness and faith. They have left for us a precious gift… a glimpse into the ancient world when Jesus himself strolled the shores of Galilee. I cannot tell you how you should interpret the Bible. But I can share one approach that has helped me immensely. It is neither historical-grammatical (as used by Biblical literalists) nor historical-critical (as used by Biblical liberals), but in my opinion, gently falls somewhere in the happy middle. This method is called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. (Although I attend a Methodist church, I am not a self-proclaimed Methodist. However, I have become a proponent of this method.) The Wesleyan Quadrilateral suggests that there are four aspects of theological reflection: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. All four of these things work together to help us make sense of our sacred texts.
We are all on a journey. Some of us believe very different things. But all of us are searching for truth. The best thing we can do is to love each other along the way. The rest will fall into place.