Scripture—Picking and Choosing

November 8, 2017 § 13 Comments

In a comment on a recent post, Patricia Dallmann pointed out that, in quoting Matthew 18:20—“Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them”—I left out what she felt was the most important part: “in my name”. So I did.

I have for decades now been trying to chart a way for myself (and for liberal Quakerism) that honors our tradition while selectively letting go of it. I’ve been picking and choosing in the way I read the Bible.

One of the things I’m letting go of is the traditional Christian “name theology”. Name theology—the power of the name of God—has a long and deep history in the Jewish tradition and it made a stark and decisive turn in the dark years between the Babylonian captivity (roughly 587–525 BCE) and the Maccabean revolt in 165 BCE. It became increasingly magico-religious, the kind of thinking that believes that the bread and wine actually turn into Christ’s body and blood when the bell rings.

Of course, name theology is also about confession. By invoking Jesus’ name, Matthew is saying, unless you believe in Jesus, you can’t expect him to show up. I suspect that this is Patricia’s point.

But is it true? Is Matthew right? Or are we even reading the real words of Jesus here, or something Matthew wrote? Or maybe some piece of tradition that Matthew inherited, but who knows where that came from? How would we know any of this? Where’s the benchmark, the test for biblical authority, in this case, or in any case?

I am choosing to leave the name thing out in this case. The name theology feels to me like the tradition speaking, and not Jesus himself. But who knows?

We are all of us always picking and choosing when it comes to the Bible. This is one of the things that makes the biblical argument against homosexuality so twisted. Those folks are just picking and choosing, only they won’t admit it.

For instance: Jesus commanded his disciples to call no one father, to wash each other’s feet, and to go out and buy some swords. The Roman church calls its priests father; only the Brethren wash feet; and we Quakers don’t buy swords. In the South, of course, lots of Christians buy their Glocks.

Now fundamentalists will insist that they take the Bible literally. But it is literally impossible to take the Bible literally. For one thing, one third of it is poetry and taking poetry literally is ludicrous by definition.

For another thing, we’re all reading somebody’s translation. Whose translation are you taking literally? The NIV and the modern, reader-friendly translations favored by evangelicals are the very worst at getting things right.

For a third thing, the manuscript traditions vary quite a lot, especially in some cases. For Acts, the differences amount to hundreds of words. Mark is famously missing its original ending and the tradition took three different tries at finishing it. The version used in our Bibles usually includes all three endings. We have no idea what Mark originally wrote.

Then there’s lacunae—holes in the manuscripts we do have. The word or phrase just isn’t there. Translators do the best they can to make up something that makes sense.

Or unique words that have no known cognates . . . we have no idea what these words mean. Again, translators try to use context to fill in the gap.

We are all always picking and choosing, even when we don’t know it. The best we can do is be honest about that and try to justify the decisions we make.

The problem with that is that then you have to study the Bible. Deeply. I have. But most Friends don’t read Bible commentaries for fun like I do. But why should they if they don’t want to?

And that doesn’t really do you much good in the end, anyway. You still end up picking and choosing. For the deeper you go, the more you realize you don’t know. And the deeper you go, the more complex things get; the Bible is the most self-referential library on earth—1500 years of writers and editors and redactors looking at what went before and then adding to it. Virtually every passage has hidden resonances and echoes.

My point is that the Bible is an unreliable foundation for religious life. At least until something in it has been confirmed by our own experience, until the Holy Spirit opens it up to us. Which the Spirit can do, and has always done. For the Bible has also repeatedly demonstrated its value as an aid to faithful religious life, its weirdness, opaqueness, vagueness, contradictions, confusions, resonances, and echoes notwithstanding.

Its a paradox.

I can see that I have more to say about the role of the Bible in our religious lives. I started in two other directions before ending up in this one. Had to stop somewhere.


§ 13 Responses to Scripture—Picking and Choosing

  • […] Note: Some of this material first appeared as comments on Steven Davison’s blog post, Scripture–Picking and Choosing. […]

  • JW Spear, Sr. says:

    It is not that Jesus will not show up if you do not believe in him, he is always there. It is simply if you do not believe in him you will not recognize that. he is present

  • Steve wrote: “At least until something in it [the Bible] has been confirmed by our own experience, until the Holy Spirit opens it up to us. Which the Spirit can do, and has always done.”

    These statements are the ones closest to honoring the truth in this post. The other “directions” (those to which you first turned) build intellectual castles in the air, suitable for inhabitation by the Prince of the air.

    I wonder if you felt more grounded when you wrote the above few sentences than when you displayed your intellect’s accumulated knowledge and self-serving speculation. If you did, your heart can discern the difference between truth and self-deceit, and employing and following that discernment to honor what is right and true prepares one for receiving knowledge of God and Jesus Christ, whom he sends. Affirmation of this principle follows in this quotation from Penington:

    That in the heart which is contrary to sin, which discovereth sin, which witnesseth against sin, and is drawing the mind from it, furnishing those with a new and holy ability, who wait upon the Lord in it,–that, that is the thing, though in ever so little a seed or low measure. Now he that minds this, hearkens to this, turns from what this, in its pure, unerring light shows to be evil, follows, in the will, strength, and ability which is of this, what this shows to be good, he receives it; and waiting upon it, and becoming daily subject to it, shall grow up in it, increase in the knowledge of it, and acquaintance with it, and receive of it daily more and more. And thus the man whose way was vile, whose heart was naught, formed in wickedness, filled with corruption, daily bringing forth sin and fruits unto death, shall find these (by the pure light, and holy instructions of life) daily purged out of him, and Christ formed in him, and the holy fruits of righteousness brought forth through his vessel, by the power and Spirit of Christ, to the glory of God the Father.

    And then being in Christ, being in the principle of his life, and acting therein, here is peace in the soul, rest to it from its enemies and God’s judgments, and acceptance with the Father in what the soul thus is and works.

    But then the world will persecute and hate exceedingly; because this soul, who thus submits to God, and is thus changed by him, is not of the world, but of the Father, which begat it in Christ, and formed it in his image and likeness.

    Likewise in this light the eyes are opened to read the Scriptures, and to understand therein the conditions of the people and saints of the Most High in former generations, and how the wicked spirit wrought then, to oppose the truth and people of God, and to draw men into deceit. Yea, and many other ways the Scriptures are exceeding sweet and useful, being read in that which gives the true sense and understanding of them.

    But let him that once putteth his hand to the plow (beginning to feel somewhat of God, and to subject unto it, and so to taste of the peace and pureness of it) never look back to the world, nor mind the temptations and oppositions he will meet with from that nature and spirit, either in himself or others; for if he do, he will never be able to travel on, but rather consult with flesh and blood, and so return back into Egypt, and lose the crown which is laid up for those who pass on through the wilderness, through the trials, through the temptations, through the wants, through the various exercises, to their journey’s end (Works, III, 58-59).

  • Greg Robie says:

    This name claiming stuff, it is true Is professions engaged ’till we’re blue But the walk that is taken Claims the name not forsaken …or the truth we’d prefer just ain’t true?


    sNAILmALEnotHAIL …but pace’n myself

    life is for learning so all my failures must mean that I’m wicked smart

    !END >

  • dwmckay says:

    Friend Isaac Penington, writing in a letter from Aylesworth Jail in 1665 had scruples about “professors” praying in the name of Jesus (though perhaps not the same scruples this present generation may find.

    A second thing, wherein professors grievously mistake, is, about praying in the name of Christ; in which name, he that asketh receiveth; and out of which, there is no right asking of the Father. They think that praying in the name of Christ consists in using some outward words; as, “Do this for thy Son’s sake,” or “We beg of thee in Christ’s name;” whereas, that in the heart which knoweth not the Father may use such words; and that which is taught of the Father to pray, and prayeth in the Son, may not be led to use those words. The name, wherein the asking and acceptance is, is living; and he that prayeth in the motion of the Spirit, and in the power and virtue of the son’s life, he prayeth in the name, and his voice is owned of the Father; and not the other, who hath learned in his own will, time, and spirit to use those words relative to the Son.

  • treegestalt says:

    What is reliable in the Bible as a foundation for religious life — is not the details but the context it implies from beginning to end — that the One who makes Heaven and Earth also creates us in ‘His’ image (that is, as conscious living, thinking, loving sentient beings) and persistently works to communicate with us

    despite our inherent difficulty — being finite beings — in taking in the full meaning of what we’re being taught, in imagining the perspective in which a Being of unbounded power, knowledge and wisdom sees us and loves us.

    As if we were parakeets trying to feed the ear of our favorite human, people typically mistake what God needs or demands of us — projecting our human insecurities, arrogance, impatience and judgemental bent upon God (as if God were limited as we are, were subject to traits we only suffer from due to our fragility, immaturity, ignorance.)

    So people repeatedly, throughout the Bible, expect that God wants what they’d want in God’s place. God keeps instead providing new and unexpected developments.

    The people who wrote this stuff didn’t get it all correctly; we haven’t gotten it all correctly; developments continue to develop, mercies continue to overwhelm beyond all appearances and expectations.

  • Hi, Steve. I appreciate what you say about picking and choosing as we read the Bible. For example, I delight in choosing “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8, 4:16) over “[God is] like a mighty man that shouteth by reason of wine” (Ps 78:65 kjv). I have real trouble with worshiping an angry drunk. I delight in a Savior who teaches “love your enemies” (Matt 5:44, Luke 6:27) and persuades me that He is of one will with His Father (John 4:34, 5:30, 6:38, 10:30, etc.); but a god who throws “the fearful” into the lake of fire (Rev 21:8 kjv) after making me fearful by telling me so just makes me feel crazy with terror, and does nothing to persuade me that I should worship it.

    But we have a Holy Spirit who will open the Scriptures for us for the asking. And I’m praying that the Holy Spirit make clear to you, to me, and to all of us what we’re to make of the phrase “in my name” in Matthew 18:20.

    To dismiss that phrase as a whimsical addition by some well-meaning scribe suffering under the delusion of “magico-religious name theology” would be premature. We should know from the Scriptures themselves that the name of Jesus can’t be effectively used as a magical abracadabra by just anybody (like the sons of Sceva, Acts 19:14). But there is a real difference between two or three worshipers gathering “in Jesus’ name,” i.e., in love for Him, in obedience to Him who told them to gather, or in hopes that He will join them and bless their gathering, and two or three worshipers “just gathering.” Those that “just gather” and hope for beneficial results, without a readiness to lay down self-will, are making an idolaters’ god out of their own gathering, and I’ve suspected that all too many Jesus-shunning Quakers do just this, with the result that they get fruitless worship and shallow vocal ministry.

    On the other hand, I think that such is the power of the grace of the living Jesus Christ that if two or three well-meaning souls gathered together in the name of the Lord Krishna, or the Divine Mother, or some other name — but *meaning* the All-good One, before whom they lay down their own wills, Jesus might be there in the midst of them as surely as He is in the midst of gathered Christians. I can’t know this, but I can’t rule it out. Therefore it behooves me to treat all worshipers of the All-good One, whatever the language of their faith-tradition, as fellow-members of my household of faith until I receive a revelation to the contrary.

    But I would not dare gather by twos or threes without caring whether we were gathering in Jesus’ name, and then expect Jesus to be among us and bless us. Would we expect Him to be in the midst of us if we were gathering in the name of the National Rifle Association or the Ku Klux Klan?

  • Ellis Hein says:

    As I see it, there are two ways to understand the “in my name” portion of the Matthew 18:20 passage. You have talked about one understanding, which I am convinced has nothing to do with the meaning of the passage. The other way to understand that passage would be “Where ever two or three are gathered together in my authority, there am I in the midst of them.” You are right that the “in my name” phrase is used as a magic incantation or an attempt to make God do what we want.

    There are 22 incidents of the phrase “in my name” in the King James Bible. Some of those probably are better understood as actually “in my name,” but most have to do with speaking or acting in the authority of the Almighty God. The first occurrence is in Deut. 18:19, speaking about the prophet like Moses God is promising to raise up. This passage illustrates the change of understanding when one phrase or the other is used. I quote it here using “authority”. “And it shall come to pass, that whosoever will not hearken unto my words which he shall speak in my [authority], I will require it of him.”

    Anyone can invoke the name of Jesus Christ or God, and many do in all manner of circumstances. But to speak or to act in his authority implies prior arrangements and an existing relationship that makes such a thing possible. You can’t speak in the authority of the U.S. government without having that obligation conferred to you by some commission. What would it mean to hear this prophet raised by God who speaks the words of God in God’s authority?
    What would it change if two or three are gathered in the authority of Jesus Christ? What would happen if you request anything from the Father in Jesus’ authority? These are questions I sense need to be answered. I will wait, hoping to read your answers.

    • I agree that “in my name” is about authority, especially in Matthew 18:20. I had missed that aspect in my post. I think that was in the back of my mind when I wrote about confession, that to speak or act with the authority of Jesus necessarily means confessing him, that is, in his time (and probably in Matthew’s time), joining his community and following his gospel.

      Since then Christians have mostly transferred this authority from direct experience of Jesus to the Bible and the confession of creed. For we Friends—or at least for me—this authority means speaking and acting as a community under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, what I call the spirit of Christ. What I’ve been exploring in my series on Jesus, the Christ, and I is whether the spirit of Christ, the spirit in which we sometimes find ourselves gathered in the gathered meeting, is fussy about our connecting it directly to the Jesus of the gospels.

      As I’ve said before, very rarely I think has this gathering spirit of Christ presented itself to the meeting, to the collective worshipping community, with a “name tag” on, announcing itself as the Jesus Christ of the gospels. Regarding even the gathered meetings of early Friends, I suspect that the worshippers just assumed it would be Jesus Christ gathering them—for who else would it be? In other words, “in my name” is a matter of faith.

      Is this faith necessary to foster the communion we seek? Is Jesus Christ real, a sentient spiritual entity or soul who was the same soul whose life we read about in the gospels? If so, then does he insist that we believe all that before he will join us in worship? Why would he do that? I am asking this genuinely, not sarcastically. And how would we know the answers to these questions? Without being able to ask that spirit directly, we have to fall back on our reading of Scripture. Now we’re back where we started, conferring authority on ancient texts whose authority rests—on itself.

      • treegestalt says:

        “Authority” in this context should presumably come from prayer.

        That is, if reading the Bible is like overhearing the human end of a Divine phone call, then to pray is to actually get on the line and join the conversation — where we can, while we’re at it, ask God the meaning we should gain from a passage now, rather than merely asking what other people on this end have heard (which is sometimes worthwhile, but not like going direct to the Source. If there is one Authority the BIble points to, in the Hebrew and the Christian collections: Authority doesn’t rest with theologians, but with God — who can communicate for Godself. And wants our participation.)

      • Ellis Hein says:

        I want to get back to my three questions, because I sense that these are central to what we are discussing.

        What would it mean to hear this prophet raised by God who speaks the words of God in God’s authority?

        What would it change if two or three are gathered in the authority of Jesus Christ?

        What would happen if you request anything from the Father in Jesus’ authority?

        George Fox had a lot to say about the offices or actions of Christ Jesus; chief among his offices was his fulfillment of the prophet-like-Moses promise of Deut. 18. At the mountain, in Deut. 5, the people have heard the voice of God speaking from the cloud and have seen the fire. They cry out, “if we hear this voice any longer, we shall die.” They request that Moses be the intermediary between them and God. Even though God says they have spoken well, he mourns over them saying, “Oh! That my people had such a heart in them that they would fear me always and obey my commandments that it may be well with them and with their sons forever.” However, God does not leave them in this comfortable zone of no direct contact with his voice. Moses tells them that God has humbled them and let them be hungry that they may know and understand that man “does not live by bread alone. But by every word proceeding out of the mouth of God shall man live.” (Deut. 8:3) This is the import of the prophet like Moses speaking with the authority of God. Jesus picks up on that theme in John 6:63 saying “The flesh profits nothing, the breath gives life. The words I speak/have spoken to you these are breath, these are life.”

        When Fox had come to the end of all his resources and was on the point of despair he received an opening that was central to his preparation for a life of ministry and was central to all that his ministry was about. He wrote in his journal: “And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do; then, Oh! then I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.’ When I heard it, my heart did leap for joy. Then the Lord let me see why there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition, namely, that I might give him all the glory. For all are concluded under sin, and shut up in unbelief, as I had been, that Jesus Christ might have preeminence, who enlightens, and gives grace, faith, and power. Thus when God doth work, who shall let it? This I knew experimentally. My desires after the Lord grew stronger, and zeal in the pure knowledge of God, and of Christ alone, without the help of any man, book, or writing. For though I read the scriptures that spake of Christ and of God, yet I knew him not but by revelation, as he who hath the key did open, and as the Father of life drew me to his son by his spirit.” (Works of Fox, Vol. 1, p.74)

        There are several things about this passage that are remarkable, but I only mention the following. First is identification of Christ Jesus as the one who can speak to Fox’s condition. Second is Fox’s growth in the “pure knowledge of God, and of Christ alone, without the help of any man, book, or writing…I knew him not but by revelation.” Third is a substantial portion of that “knowing by revelation” occurred as “the Father of life drew me to his son by his spirit.”

        Now, when Fox was preaching to people such as at Firbank Chapel, the principal component of his message was: “I declared God’s everlasting truth and word of life…directing all to the spirit of God in themselves; that they might be turned from the darkness to the light, and believe in it, that they might become the children of it, and might be turned from the power of satan unto God; and by the spirit of truth might be led into all truth, and sensibly understand the words of the prophets, of Christ, and of the apostles; and might all come to know Christ to be their teacher to instruct them, their counsellor to direct them, their shepherd to feed them, their bishop to oversee them, and their prophet to open divine mysteries to them; and might know their bodies to be prepared, sanctified, and made fit temples for God and Christ to dwell in. In the openings of the heavenly life, I opened unto them the prophets, and the figures and shadows, and directed them to Christ, the substance…” (Works of Fox, Vol. 1, pp. 142-143)

        In his Sermon XIV, Stephen Crisp stated: “How do we like that government, to be ruled by the devil, and to be led captive, and to be made to do his will, and to rebel against God that gave us our life, and breath, and being?…I hope we do none of us like it. It was so with me; and they that are under the tyrannical government of satan, have many cries and wishes in their souls, that they were freed and delivered from it, and brought under the government and obedience of Christ Jesus…” and “…when you have come to my experience, to know this as I have done, then I hope you will seek after that, and you will see good reason for it; and you will then come to this profession, if the Lord puts not forth his Almighty Power, I must then perish, for there is no other power can deliver me. When you come to know this…you must wait for the revelation of that power that will take you off from all trust and confidence that you have ever had in any thing else:…When a man or woman comes to this pass, that they have nothing to rely upon but the Lord, then they will meet together to wait upon the Lord: And this was the first ground or motive of our setting up meetings;…we should use them as poor desolate helpless people that are broken off from all their own confidence and trust, and have nothing to rely upon but the mercy and goodness of God; and if he pleaseth to reveal his power among us, we know that he is able to save us.” (Scripture Truths Demonstrated, pp. 158, 159)

        This was the foundation upon which the Quaker movement was built; a building solidly fitted and joined together in and by the revelation of Jesus Christ present among them fulfilling all his offices. When the early Friends gathered, two or three or hundreds, they knew they were gathered in Jesus’ authority because they experienced him in their midst performing his functions or offices among and within them. It was this experience that validated the scripture rather than scripture validating their meeting.

        Today, many Liberal Quakers speak of “the Spirit,” but ask yourself, “By what authority does this spirit deny Jesus Christ and his functions in the midst? Can this be the same, unchangeable spirit that Fox testified drew him to Christ Jesus, to know Jesus present in the midst in all his offices?”

      • treegestalt says:

        Was that a rhetorical question? I actually don’t hear many Friends denying Jesus Christ; as a matter of fact I couldn’t say I’ve ever heard any of us do so.

        I would say that the Spirit, so far as we know it, is far less concerned with credentials than with substance — with speaking to people as Jesus in fact did: in whatever condition they’re in, with the beliefs they currently have, and their limited interest in changing these, yet still bringing them towards God by love.

  • Bill Samuel says:

    Early Friends believed you couldn’t understand the scripture without being in the spirit which brought forth the scripture. And they believed that spirit came alive in the person of Jesus Christ, whom they experienced as a living force transforming their lives.

    Fox before his convincement went around to many priests and tried to find the truth through talking to them. But he found they didn’t have the real experience, so they couldn’t help them. Book learning wouldn’t do it. You must actually experience the living Christ. Once you do, then scripture can open up to you.

    You have indicated that this personal experience hasn’t happened to you. So you really struggle. And the things you cite about the Bible weigh heavily on you – because the living Christ has not lifted that weight from you.

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