Over the last month I’ve listened to more members of the church here preaching than usual and I’ve been struck by the variety and how they preach differently to me. Some of this is down to character, the impact of ministerial formation and the fact that I preach on average once a week. But I wonder if there are other things at work here as well:
1. Understanding truth. Ultimately I believe things are true because they are grounded in the character of God; science works because creation reflects the consistency of God’s character. Propositions are only true to the extent they reflect the character of God and notions of a distinction between objective and subjective truth don’t compute because there is no objective place to stand. Therefore the idea of standing on truth, as if truth were some external object, makes no sense to me.
2. Reading the Bible. Linked to my understanding of truth is my reading of Scripture; primarily as a narrative which witnesses to the character of God (I accept Scripture contains a variety of types of writing, not all of it narrative, but this is a blog not an article). Particular verses of Scripture have meaning because of the way they unveil God and their place in the wider co-text. Thus a string of Bible verses feels to me like a random collection of mosaic tiles tossed into a box, clearly you can build a picture with them but that doesn’t help you see the place they had in the original mosaic; and any ‘authority’ those verses have is linked to their original context. (there are other questions about the role of community in Biblical interpretation and of meaning being constructed by the hearer of course). This may seem a little abstract but it fundamentally changes how you preach; I hope my preaching is like a light shining through a stained glass window, enabling people to meet with the God whose Scripture is illuminated.
3. Holy Spirit. Historically the church here has seen itself standing on both word and spirit, thinking of them as two pillars that need balancing for the church to grow in a healthy manner. The problem with this is that it sets Word and Spirit as being somehow in competition, or at least in distinct categories. But surely it is the same Holy Spirit who comes as ‘another’ after Jesus who caused Scripture to be written and collated, the same Holy Spirit who inspired the church to accept these books as canonical, the same Holy Spirit who helps us interpret them, and the same Holy Spirit who is working through the preaching to speak the word of God to us. I prefer the Trinitarian image of Irenaeus, who spoke about the Son and Spirit as the two hands of God; which I think offers a more helpful model encouraging us to be attentive to both Christology and Pneumatology whilst seeing them as part of the wider life of God.
4. Creation. We don’t give enough attention to creation, nor to the fact that we are created beings. More attention to this would help prevent some charismatic excess by reminding us that the things we experience are felt, believed and understood by human persons. As human persons our understanding is affected by our culture, history, mental state and so much more. As human persons the grace of God is mediated to us in a wide variety of ways, but this probably doesn’t include unmediated immediacy. In simple terms this suggests that our experience of God is never undiluted, but is always coloured by our humanity. Thus what we did and experienced in the 1980’s was filtered by the culture of the time, likewise what we experience today.
This is not to suggest any of the sermons I’ve listened to were wrong (those members of the church who also read this blog please note); nor to suggest that my way of understanding these things is better though I’m my less humble moments I have a high enough sense of my own opinions to think they are!
Yet I wonder if the way we link and fit together these four areas shows a generational divide. If your adult life has been lived in an environment where reason predominated, where truth was something you checked out you will tend to see church teaching a bit like medicine which you can give to someone to take. This way of understanding truth means that you will be comfortable with Scripture verses having a life of their own and will see Scripture, Holy Spirit, Church, creation as separate (albeit linked) objects distinct from your own subjective experience. By contrast the more of your adult life has been lived in an environment which believes truth is socially constructed, is suspicious of all claims of authority and expects fluidity and fragmentation you will tend to read Scripture as story and value networks over content.