By Greg Jones
The desire to engage with Scripture as a means of communicating with God has been a part of the Anglican tradition since Christianity came to the British isles in apostolic times. Even after the modern period began, with all its concern for historicity, objectivity and science, leading Anglicans like Samuel Taylor Coleridge proposed a 'third-way' of engaging the Bible for modern people, who are simultaneously open to the mystery and power of the Word of God in the Bible. Though Coleridge is primarily remembered today for his poetry, in his own time he was a leading Christian thinker and influential layperson. He was avowedly modern in his willingness to explore new ideas, but he also argued against the materialistic and rationalistic trends of his time.
In the late 1790's, Coleridge read some of the latest critical studies of the Bible coming out of Germany. Coleridge shared the historical understanding that the Bible was not dictated letter-by-letter by God himself. He knew the Bible was a collection of writings originally composed as all books are – by human beings. But as practicing Christian, Coleridge also experienced and believed that the Bible is not like all other books.
He argued that modern people should read the Bible with modern eyes – of course. He said, "to be rightly appreciated the Bible must be read like any other book." But, he said, "the reader with his mind thus open will soon come to realize that in reality it is not like any other book, since more fully than any other does it meet the needs of man's spiritual being."
Coleridge argued that the transformational power of the Word of God in the Bible is lively and active and will offer to open minded readers an experience of engaging with God in real life. In other words, for Coleridge the final evidence of the Bible's spiritual power to transform lives in a unique way is given experientially. He says, "I have perused the books of the Old and New Testaments, -- each book as a whole, and also as an integral part. And need I say that I have met everywhere more or less copious sources of truth, and power, and purifying impulses; -- that I have found words for my inmost thoughts, songs for my joy, utterances for my hidden griefs, and pleadings for my shame and feebleness."
It has been seen as prophetic that Coleridge was already calling for the Church to look beyond modernism's attitudes and approaches toward the Bible. Given that he was among the first of his generation to become acquainted with the critical methods which would prevail for the next two centuries, it is astounding that he was able to identify the shortcomings of the modernist approach so early.
Nearly two centuries later, in 1974, a Bible scholar in the United States named Walter Wink wrote a small book called The Bible in Human Transformation, arguing much the same way. The then shocking first sentence was, "historical biblical criticism is bankrupt." Wink argued that the prevailing method of engaging the Bible – across the protestant mainline at least – was "a form of scholarship gone to seed but which by sheer abundance of seeds, flourishes everywhere." Wink saw his critique of the modernist vision of the Bible as belonging to "a chorus of voices raised in the name of God and humanity."
To be clear, Wink acknowledged there was much of value to be taken from historical criticism of the Bible. But Wink's essential point was that the method itself was not particularly valuable for the primarily spiritual practice of communicating with the Word of God in the Bible. And it is this primary work of transforming human beings and the world in relationship with the living Christ that is the first business of the church.
Just as Coleridge decried the materialism and rationalism of his day, many Christians in recent generations have decried the imperialism – intellectual and physical – of Western Civilization in general. In the late 20th century a host of non-Western and feminist approaches have challenged the old certainties of Western modernism. Christians and newly empowered women around the world have begun to read the Scriptures through their own experiences of Christ in community, and they have offered a new vision and approach to the Bible that goes beyond rationalism. Certainly, William Stringfellow as a gay man in the 1950's and 1960's, who dedicated his work for the marginalized, and Verna Dozier an African-American woman, offered important perspectives on the Bible as they engaged it in faith. All of these prophetic voices – from Coleridge to Dozier -- pointed out deficiencies of the prevailing norms of Bible study in our church.
Well aware of these deficiencies, many believers in recent decades have sought to fill in the gaps left by the unliving and inactive vision of the Bible put forth by the guild of rationalist Bible scholars and clergy in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Many of us have looked to non-Western Christian practices to fill in the gaps, and some have looked to pre-Modern and even pre-Christian practices – in an effort to form a new-old synthesis. This explains why so many Episcopalians who are intentional in their practice of the Christian faith are drawing upon Celtic Christianity, the monastics, the early church, Judaism, African Christianity, and other far-ranging resources.
Some call this contemporary fascination with things both ancient and modern "postmodern" or "postcritical." I tend to see it as simply the natural variety of a Body of Christ which I believe is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. I believe the contemporary Episcopalian is called to draw upon all the resources of our ancient, global, multicultural and inclusive faith tradition – and that to do so will likely enrich our spiritual engagement with the Word of God in the Bible so long starved by the too dry attitudes of Western rationalism and modernity.
The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ("Greg") became a member of Christ's Body at St. Columba's in Washington, D.C., and he was educated at the University of North Carolina and the General Theological Seminary, where he is on the Board. He is the author of Beyond Da Vinci (Seabury Books, 2004). He blogs at fatherjones.com.