Thoughts on loving Scripture from a Revisionist Evangelical
Kate Massey is vicar of St Paul's Church, Stockingford, in Warwickshire. She is also a member of General Synod and a co-covenor of Inclusive Evangelicals.
The road to Emmaus is an intriguing story. The part which puzzled me for many years was the fact that the disciples on the road were so downcast. This was the afternoon of Easter Day. The women had been to the tomb. It was empty. But there is no “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” on the Emmaus road. No, there is bewilderment and continued dismay. Why were they so slow to believe? Why was the empty tomb not yet good news? Why were they so sad?
Jesus could not be the Messiah because he had not fulfilled his expectations of what a Messiah should do. Their understanding of Scripture and their inherited tradition were quite clear. And this was what was behind the dismay and despair of those disciples in that story. Something had clearly happened. There was an empty tomb. There had even been sightings of Jesus. But Jesus could not be the Messiah because Jesus had DIED. And not just any death, but a despised and cursed death of a slave, the most humiliating end imaginable. Their hopes for him, for themselves, for all Israel were for nothing because Jesus was not the Christ.
But of course, he was. And over the course of a long journey, this stranger, opened the Scriptures to them. They learned to read their sacred texts with fresh eyes. They learned that the Messiah was always meant to suffer and die. Where their understanding of Scripture had denied the actions of God, with the guidance of Jesus, these same Scriptures now revealed it. Their fresh understanding of all God had done, was accompanied by a fresh relationship with the writings which formed their faith and informed their life.
I have been called a revisionist at times in my life – and usually as a dismissal, if not as an insult. But the Christian gospel is revisionist! By the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, by the leading, guidance and grace of God, we see our texts with fresh eyes and find liberation, salvation, hope and a love beyond our imaginings! The redemption promised to Israel is the redemption of all creation, the conquering Messiah conquers not temporal invading armies but the eternal powers of death and hell. God’s will and God’s purposes continually surprise us with their scope and generosity.
And over the years, the Church has – through the guidance of the Holy Spirit – gradually revised some of its understandings of Scriptures in the light of ongoing revelation. Our changing position on slavery and women are the classic recent examples. But what about things like contraception, suicide, remarriage after divorce, death of the unbaptised…? We continue to map out the scope and generosity of God’s grace and we cannot yet find its extent.
I deeply deeply love the Bible. It has been my authoritative guide for over 40 years. But in devotional reading and study, I have only scratched the surface of its riches, and it regularly surprises me with new glimpses of grace and new challenges to holiness. I expect it will continue to do so. The Scriptures that those first followers of Jesus loved and lived by certainly surprised them. But in their following of this unexpected Messiah, they are absolutely clear that they are not departing from their inherited faith nor jettisoning their authoritative texts. Throughout the book of Acts, the New Testament letters and even in the Nicene Creed, we find this refrain: “in accordance with the Scriptures…” They stand firmly in the tradition passed down from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – they just see things with a new perspective.
Now, I am not comparing one’s affirmation (or otherwise) of same sex relationships with our acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord. There is quite simply no comparison. My point is merely that Scripture is both revelation and something we continue to understand in the light of God’s ongoing revelation. In revising our understanding of what Scripture might be saying to us about certain issues, we are not dismissing Scripture but engaging with it, valuing it, learning from it and allowing it to live as it continues to point to the Living Word, Jesus Christ.
The next question is how we do that responsibly and well – but that is beyond the scope of a single blog. I will try to address it in others! All I want to argue for now is that it is possible to love Scripture, sit under its authority and change your understanding of what it might be saying regarding same sex relationships. And to do so is not some sort of sell-out of our evangelical principles, but rather it is to have the highest possible view of the Bible when we engage with Scripture as a living text – truly inspired – and find it continuously surprises us with its grace.