In my local charity shop earlier this week, I encountered a large volume called A Portable Seminary. Curious I opened it up to see how two or three years (as it used to be!) of residential training could be crammed into a single volume. The title also suggested that one who finished the book would have an overview of theology at ‘Master’s Level’. Although my initial thought was to leave the book on the shelf, my curiosity has sent me back to buy it although the experience of reading it is making me thoroughly depressed.
In the first place, the whole volume begins with a short chapter on the doctrine of Scripture. Part of this is written by a dinosaur of conservative theory, Carl Henry. As is typical of this kind of reasoning, the arguments go round in circles. The Bible says that it is ‘God-breathed’ or inspired and so this argument for its absolute authority is taken as a fundament. it is a similar argument to the idea that we can ‘know’ that an individual is not a liar because he declares this to be the case. All arguments about the cultural context and accuracy of Scripture can be wished away because of the utter reliability of God’s word in the text. Before we go on to look at the Bible is actually dealt with, we should pause at this point to consider the way the conservative ‘creed’ is set out in this book. If there were a such a thing as a creed based on this book, it would begin with a statement I believe, not in God, but in the Bible. I remember an evangelical joking about the doctrine of the Trinity. He said that for evangelicals, the three persons were God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Bible. From the Portable Seminary, we might deduce that for some conservative Christians, the Bible was the first person of the Trinity.
The book does remind the reader that it does not offer a substitute for a proper college-based training. But even having made this apology for the lack of depth in some of the material, the sections on the Bible are extremely thin. By contrast the doctrine sections and even the summaries of Church history and other religions have some substance, even if you disagree with much of it But to return to the summaries of the books of the Bible. The overarching authority of Scripture enables the unwitting reader to assume that God revealed the entire first five books of the Bible to Moses, apart from the account of his death. The Pauline authorship of Ephesians is assumed without discussion. The Gospel of John, summarised in a single page, is an account of the ministry seen from his ‘inner circle’. After surveying the New Testament in 20 pages, the reader is directed to just three books for further reading, two of which contain the word ‘survey’ in the title.
I have long held a theory that the only way that it is possible to hold on to a theory of ‘plenary inspiration’ for the Bible is by not actually studying it at depth. In a book of 707 pages, to give 20 pages to the whole New Testament is totally out of proportion. Needless to say the Bible does play a major part in the book in being quoted constantly to support different areas of theology and doctrine. That is perhaps the way to characterise the use of the Bible by conservative Christians. The Bible is a mine from which to extract ‘treasure’ which supports doctrines that you already hold. I am reading another document off the net which shows the cavalier way that biblical texts are misread to support the ideas of shepherding or ‘covering’ as it is sometimes called. This will form a separate post in due course.
To summarise my brief perusal of this massive tome, is to see something of the way the ‘system’ works. The Bible is placed on a pedestal. Once that ‘worship’ is inculcated in a congregation, the task of creating a system of teaching that they will be forced to follow, can begin. To repeat what I said on the gay issue in a previous post, this topic is in fact of minor interest to the totality of Scripture. Nevertheless it has become important because, for political reasons, conservative Christians in leadership have chosen to make it so. Having coerced their congregations to ‘worship’ Holy Scripture, even the obscure passages that speak about gay topics can be blown up to take on an immense importance.
To repeat points made elsewhere, the Bible is being used in this and other works as a tool for control. By discouraging study of the Bible as having an integrity of its own, people are being conditioned to seeing it only as a source of authority for those in the pulpit. No one is allowed to question pronouncements from the pulpit, because the ‘the Bible says’ has become the final word in every discussion. The way I studied scripture is to see that, before you can extract teachings from it, the text must be allow to speak for itself in its cultural and historical context. Not to do that is to distort it and render it ultimately meaningless and empty. Having owned the Portable Seminary for a full 24 hours, I am thinking of taking it back to the shop where I found it. The only thing holding me back is the thought that some unwitting Christian might actually believe that Christianity can really be learnt in the way!