Going Beyond the Bible

by Colin Morris.

Neil Richardson has proposed that instead of getting back to the Bible we should go forward with the Bible.  Neil knows much more about New Testament studies than I do, but I’m not sure how far forward we can go with the New Testament, given that most of its writers believed their world was about to pass away.  Surely, the New Testament authors did not imagine they were writing for the ages, but about something startlingly new?  They thought they were on the verge of an explosive intervention into history that would transform or abolish it.

So over the centuries we have used homiletical and exegetical ingenuity to apply words and incidents from a world-view over two millennia old to societies that in succeeding centuries have lived through not one but several volcanic periods, including the Copernican, industrial and scientific revolutions, each with great intellectual and practical consequences.

Many of the great moral and social issues that affect our lives have taken us far beyond the Bible, sometimes in direct opposition to its teaching.  The abolition of slavery, battles for liberty, democracy and human rights, especially those of women, the rise and consequences of systems such as capitalism, globalisation and climatic threats to the earth’s survival have become clamant as a result of rapid cultural, political and scientific changes.

Certainly, radical Christians have been and are on the front line in many of these battles, sometimes against the opposition of Church officialdom claiming the Bible’s authority for its status quo attitudes.

Granted, on the premise that human nature does not change, the conquest of evil and the need for redemption offered through the teaching and sacrifice of Jesus are as relevant as they ever were.  The transformative power of divine love and forgiveness is perennial. The Bible is bang up to the minute about that.

But what if human nature is about to change or at least to be changed?  I barely achieved School Certificate level Science, but from what I understand about what I read, we are in the early days of a cognitive revolution that will challenge key theological assertions implied in the Bible such as the nature of human identity and freedom of the human will.

Scientists are at work re-engineering the human brain by re-writing its genetic codes, re-wiring its circuits and altering its chemical balance.  Projects devoted to the development of artificial intelligence, the dramatic extension of life expectancy and the manipulation of DNA to change human characteristics are under way. Perhaps the most revolutionary is the attempt to devise a direct two-way brain-computer interface. The aim is to download the entire contents of the brain onto the internet and use it to link several brains to each other, with unpredictable consequences for our understanding of human consciousness and identity.    It is already possible to use brain scans that reveal a person’s choices or decisions before he or she is aware of making them, raising puzzling questions about free will.

We cannot console ourselves that such things are just fantasies or at least vague possibilities which lie far into the future, for scientists measure the future in decades and not in centuries. The internet went from one man’s bright idea to world-wide availability in less than 20 years.

The Biblical world fades further and further into the distance, and we probably know as much about Jesus of Nazareth as we will ever know, as an immensely significant historical personality, whose memory is constantly refreshed liturgically by our prayers, hymns and bible readings.

But Christianity has never depended on knowing Jesus as ‘he was at the time.’  Paul testifies to that.  The Resurrection transformed the historical Jesus into the Christ of confessional testimony who, unlike the Galilean preacher, has never been historically confined, so that two thousands of years on, Dietrich Bonhoeffer could ask, ‘Who is Christ for us today?” with the implication that ‘Christ’ is the changing pattern of our relationship to the living God as the times change.

The American theologian Tom Driver described the Christ of the Church as ‘a composite of the experiences and expectations of all who gather in Christ’s name, and not only those who are priests, preachers, theologians and others gifted with office and fine words.’ (1)

As the Cognitive Revolution gains momentum we can barely imagine what form these  ‘expectations and experiences’ of Christ might take.  I hope that somewhere in academia there are suitably qualified scholars working on a Christology for the future.

 

(1) Driver, Christ in a Changing World, p 31, SCM, 1981

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5 thoughts on “Going Beyond the Bible”

  1. Should we place the Bible forward or behind (going back to the Bible)? It is an interesting point but misleading as in both cases we would be embracing a gap between us and the Scriptures. We also are in the risk of putting a gap between us and the world by limiting are horizon to two dimensions. I believe the theological reflection/dance involves at least three persons: Bible, the World and Us. All three are part of God’s creation but the three are only parts of God’s project and they need to be taken together not in isolation. Us as Humans are evolving … nothing new but a confirmation that creation is an ongoing move toward God ‘s Kingdom.
    Let’s embracing the divine dance following the “guiding light of God”.

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  2. You can see your argument with the continuing use by the Church of the nativity stories. Lord Donald Soper argued against the nativity stories in the Methodist Recorder in December 1993 & yet we still carry on. Morner Booker in ‘Studying the New Testament,’ said that most Christians do not believe that the birth narratives are not historical truth, but theologians do? I think its the other way round. The narritives are now on a par with Father Xmas &we have the three wise men thrown in to prove who Jesus is from an astrological standpoint! Really in this new century, we should be preaching Christ of this age, with the intellect given to us by God! Dont get me started on the second coming narratives! Christ comes to us as he did to Paul, so it would be his billionth plus coming. Christmas is everyday for someone & for us everyday should be Advent.

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    1. I would appreciate if Colin Morris would contextualize what he said about Jesus in the context of the nefarious trans Atlantic slave in Africans? As I am convinced that there can be no theology, moral Christianity outside of the context of the slave trade that was invented and executed by so-called Christian Nations.

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  3. Neil Richardson is quite right that the moral significance of the Bible can never depend on ‘going back’ to the Bible, its world view, its originating culture, etc. This is not even possible despite illusions to the contrary in some Christian quarters. But I resist Colin Morris’ implication that changes in human life and culture will somehow leave the Bible behind as if it is but baggage no longer necessary. The moral significance of scripture lies in the ongoing interaction of entire communities, local and global, that carry an identity shaped by interaction with biblical traditions over several millennia into new arenas where new issues present themselves (as has happened through all those revolutionary events and changes Morris partially lists). We never encounter the Bible unmediated. Our choices depend on judgments about witnesses with biblical roots that endure, prove creative and productive, honor God’s creation, build up rather than tear down, “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” Of course, we never agree on how or what, which is why this is a community thing and should avoid authoritarian judgments that imply finality in one voiced opinion. The authority of scripture for Christians lies in its originating primacy (all Christians are connected to its originating witness) but scripture alone is never sufficient for moral identity or decisions. The dialogue must be wide and rich and it is in that dialogue that scripture makes its witness and contribution, but through all those revolutions Colin Morris lists the value of scripture as a foundational part of the dialogue has been affirmed by our most generative witnesses and leaders (Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, John XXIII, Francis, Tutu). None of these are without flaws and blind spots, but each labored in their moment to speak faithfully and prophetically even as the world changed around them. I think that is what we must do. This places the Bible not so much in the past or the future but in our faithful and corporate present.

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