Chapter 6: The Tradition, The Bible, and Preaching

Preaching the Gospel
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 6: The Tradition, The Bible, and Preaching

There can be no doubt that for centuries the Bible has been not only the major source-book for theological development in the Christian tradition but also -- and more immediately relevant to this book -- it has been the point of reference for the proclamation of Jesus Christ. Before the New Testament was put together, from the oral traditions about Jesus and the letters and other material known in the primitive Christian community, appeal was made to the Old Testament, that is the Jewish Scriptures, for predictions of and a way for interpreting the significance of Jesus. For this reason, it will be disturbing to some readers when I say that in my view, and I think that of all informed persons in the theological world, the basic point of reference is the tradition itself. The Bible is part of that tradition but by no means all of it. This theme will be developed in the present chapter.

Protestant and Reformed denominations have tended to regard the Scriptures in isolation from the ongoing tradition of the Church. On the other hand, pre-Vatican II Roman Catholics tended to see the Bible and ‘Tradition’ (capitalized to indicate the great stress put upon it) as equally authoritative, although in our own time that Council’s bringing the two into a unity has made considerable difference. Among the Eastern Orthodox, who in this respect as in so many others seem to have adopted a more appropriate position, the Bible is seen in the fashion I have just indicated as the proper one for us today: as part of the ‘holy tradition’ of the Christian Church, to be read in the light of that tradition and not taken in separation from it as a unique and independent source-book for Christian faith. All this has had its affect upon preaching. The so-called ‘conservative evangelical’ in one way and the ‘liberal Protestant’ in another way have been so dependent upon the scriptural material that they have regarded it almost as if it had been dropped from heaven; like ‘Topsy’ in the negro story, it has been taken as if it had no parentage and no association with anything else.

One of the strangest phenomena of our own day has been the reappearance in so many parts of the world, especially in North America of course, of a biblical literalism which is very similar to the ‘Fundamentalism’ which was prevalent in the United States during the first few decades of this century. There are some distinguished and competent thinkers and writers in those circles, to be sure, but by-and-large the support for it has come either from ignorant laypeople who find its authoritative manner of speaking emotionally appealing or from those who belong to what might be called reactionary conservatism and who are annoyed by much that is found in the modern world and eager to return to ‘the old time religion.’ One of the reasons for this is doubtless the fear that freedom is a dangerous thing and can lead to all manner of abuse and error. Erich Fromm wrote a book about ‘escape from freedom’, in which he noted that for a great many people this constitutes an escape which they welcome because it delivers them from the need to think for themselves. To turn to the Bible and find in it an answer to all possible questions is an easy escape; many take it. I have been horrified to see how in a university setting some of the best students in the natural sciences want just such an infallible authority for anything not done in the laboratory. When a question is raised which for most people demands careful thought and responsible personal decision, people like that will very often simply quote a passage from the Scriptures, frequently in no way directly relevant to the matter under discussion and when relevant only valuable in the context of another age and under other conditions than those which are ours today.

But I need not continue in this vein. There is a problem here; it is inescapable and must be faced and answered. That problem is simply how in our own day we can use the Bible intelligently and responsibly, not least in the work which is the preacher’s in proclaiming the meaning of the originating event of Christian faith. In attempting to look at that issue I must begin with a very brief summary of what has happened to the Bible, thanks to a hundred years of careful critical study by experts who have brought to their study all the resources available, including linguistic, historical, literary, and many other types of knowledge.

After many years of historical criticism, in which the interest was in dating the various pieces of biblical material, there came literary criticism, in order to establish the relationship between these pieces -- in the New Testament especially with respect to the four gospels. Then there was a detailed study of the ‘forms’, the smaller bits which have been put together in the various biblical books to form some semblance of unity. More recently, redaction criticism has become almost an industry, with attention to the presuppositions, the understanding of faith, and the editorial activity of those who combined things more or less in their present form. Now we hear much about ‘canonical’ criticism, whose purpose is to see why and how the given material has been used to establish a series of ‘authorized’ or ‘canonical’ books which the Christian Church has accepted as constituting the Bible as we know it today. If the reader is not acquainted with this long period of study, with its agreements and disagreements as found among scholars, there are scores of relatively popular works which will provide the necessary information.

For our purpose the important aspect is simply that in view of this long period of investigation we are able to look at the Bible in a much more intelligent fashion, without assuming that it is ‘all of a piece’. Hence it is possible to do what Pope Pius XII urged in his encyclical Divino Afflatu: to read history, where it is present, as history although written of course in the fashion thought right at the time; and to recognize and study poetry as poetry, legend as legend, myth as myth, moral teaching as moral teaching. There is perhaps some surprise that it was a Roman Catholic pontiff who put this so plainly and commended it so earnestly, without for a moment denying the proper authority attached to ‘Holy Writ.’ What he said was of course familiar in non-Catholic circles for a long time; yet the way in which he said it, with the consequences of that pronouncement in his own communion, is an indication of a growing consensus about the right place and real significance of Scripture in the Christian tradition. Note that I have just written ‘in the Christian tradition.’ For the truth is that while the Bible and more particularly the New Testament gives us an invaluable mass of material about the formative period in Christian history, it does not stand alone. Liturgies, collections of prayers, theological statements, moral teaching, and much else are included in the general and developing tradition of the Church. The Bible, because it is concerned with the formative period, has a certain normative quality which the Christian centuries have both recognized and employed as a way of discovering continuity in faith, worship, and life, a continuity which has its special focus in what was set down from the oral traditions which told how Jesus was ‘remembered’, and in the light of the experience of his Spirit (I am using here a valuable point made by Professor John Knox in several of his books about the New Testament and the early Church) revealed the way in which the post-resurrection community understood and handed on what it had been taught.

In consequence, we can now see that what we have in the New Testament is what I have called throughout this book ‘the witness of apostolic faith’, while the Old Testament has its particular Christian significance in giving us the background of the event of Jesus Christ in the religious faith, worship, and teaching about God’s will and way in the world as these were set forth in the Jewish scriptures which then became part of the Christian Bible. This apostolic witness is the basic datum with which the preacher has to deal. It may be possible, although always with uncertainty and the need for modification, to get behind that witness; but this is much more an exercise of biblical scholarship than directly relevant to the task of the preacher -- or, for that matter, the work of the Christian theologian.

I have argued elsewhere that the preacher like the theologian must begin with this apostolic witness. But he cannot stop there. The tradition has gone on through the centuries and whatever else may be said about it that tradition is inescapable. It gives us today a continuing awareness of how the importance of Jesus, as I have put it earlier, has been interpreted and related to the rest of the knowledge men and women have had about themselves, their world, and their destiny. Furthermore, the Christian community exists in the contemporary world in which Christian people have their own specific experience and grasp of what this tradition, grounded in the apostolic witness to the originating event, can mean to them. Thus the preacher always must bear in mind that he or she is not simply ‘expounding the Bible’; he or she is also working with the development of Christian faith down the centuries and with the fashion in which that faith speaks directly to people in our own time. This task is very demanding; and that is why it is so necessary that the preacher be informed, so far as this is possible for him or her, about what has gone on m the past, quite as much as what speaks meaningfully to present-day thought and experience.

I am sure, for my part, that the sort of approach which is required in the light of what has just been said gives to the Bible a value that was not known in an earlier time. The necessity for working along such lines is not something to be regretted, although unfortunately many conservatives seem to feel this about it. Rather, it is to be welcomed with enthusiasm, precisely because it makes the scriptural material so much more readily comprehensible. This is another instance, although with extended application, of the truth of Benjamin Jowett’s famous comment in the middle of the last century that if we read the Bible as we would read any other collection of ancient writings, we shall find that it is not just like any other collection. On the contrary it has its own specialty, because when it is so read we are made sharers in the earliest witness and are brought to grasp that witness more adequately and intimately.

In what sense, then, can we talk about ‘the inspiration of the Bible?’ Here we shall profit from following the thought of R. P. Hanson, who in several recent essays and one or two books has urged that talk about ‘inspiration’ has come to be very problematical for us. But the Bible remains, he says, irreplaceable precisely because it gives us that primitive witness and brings us to the point where we must decide whether or not we can and should accept as our own the reality which is there set forth. Granted that we may not find the terminology once used very attractive; granted that we must engage in our own interpretation in the light of the rest of the tradition and with due regard for contemporary experience and understanding, the total impact of the Bible is not shaken nor is its essential contribution to the Christian development of faith, as also of worship and moral discernment, to be thought to be in question. Thus the preacher need have no hesitation in doing what he or she was exhorted to do at ordination: apply himself or herself to the study of Scripture, so that the deepest reality of the abiding gospel may be grasped and conveyed through proclamation to the men and women to whom that proclamation is addressed. I wish now to give an account, inadequate because of necessary brevity, of what the biblical story as a whole has to tell us. Here is what Karl Barth has taught us to consider a great ‘saga’, but one that is not fictional nor imaginary but grounded in happenings in the world and in the manner in which those happenings were seen and expressed through a long period from the earliest days of the Jewish people down to and through the specific occurrences in Palestine which are associated with Jesus Christ.

We begin with the very early days. Jewish tribes wandered in the desert regions of Arabia and thereabouts, rather like the Bedouin known to us today. They worshipped local deities whose dwelling-places were on hills, at springs, in oases, and other ‘holy’ places: they were plainly polytheists. As years went by, they came to think that there was a chief among the gods, whom they called Jahweh. He was not the only divine reality but he was their god who revealed himself particularly in wonderful acts, such as earthquakes, storms, tribal warfare, and the like. For centuries, probably, this went on. Then a group of these Semites wandered into Egypt, where they were put in bondage and made to do manual work for their Egyptian overlords. They suffered oppression yet they had no way of securing their freedom. But there appeared a leader, known to us in their inherited tales as Moses. With him as their spokesman, they sought release from their bondage: and when this was not given, a band of them fled from Egypt, with militia in pursuit. At some spot where they were obliged to cross marshy land, they managed to get over without harm but their pursuers were mired and gave up the chase.

As the years went by, these tribesmen came to believe that their god, who was superior to all other divine beings, had brought about their deliverance. He was a god of power, who had previously shown himself in ‘mighty acts’ but who now had crowned all these by a great deliverance for his chosen people. As a god of power, then, he was a god also concerned for justice; the Jews’ cause was indeed just and they had been delivered from oppression and pursuit through what they believed to be his intervention. For some considerable time they wandered about in what was probably the Sinaitic peninsula; then they began an invasion of Palestine, which was not too remote from their former haunts. By a slow process of penetration, represented in their saga as much more a single expedition of conquest, they entered Palestine where they found a distantly related population who long before had occupied that land. This population still worshipped gods in high places and shrines; the gods were the baalim, who were responsible for the fertility of the rich land which they inhabited but were also the gods concerned with human fertility. Hence the worship had about it a somewhat sexual aspect which horrified the invaders.

During their slow conquest of Palestine, the religious ideas of the Jews were influenced by what went on in Canaan, as they called Palestine. It was a place to which their god had led them and it was their task to bring him and his cult to a position of dominance. None the less, the Jahweh who had been primarily the god of storm and marvel, as well as the god who was their strong defender, came to be interpreted as also the god of ‘seedtime and harvest, summer and winter’, as much the lord of the ordinary forces of nature and life as the god of catastrophic action, The process of assimilation went on, with a gradual supplanting of the baalim by Jahweh; and in the end the god of the Jews entirely supplanted the non-Jewish deities. What had begun as a sort of polytheism went through a stage of henotheism (One god as their god, without entirely denying the existence of other deities), until at last a genuine mono theism was established. This was largely through the so-called prophets, charismatic leaders who were devoted to Jahweh, spoke on his behalf, condemned any alien deities, and labored to establish him as the one and only god with whom humankind had to deal.

What was more, the god who had been concerned with justice in defending the Jewish tribes was now seen as interested in justice within and among the people whom he was believed to have chosen as his own, They were in ‘covenant’ with him; their conduct must be a reflection of his purposes and must manifest aquity, honesty, right dealings, and the rejection of everything that was contrary to his holy will. At this point we may see not only a genuine mono theism but an ethical mono theism.

With much back-sliding, which was disobedience to Jahweh and which merited divine punishment, there was nevertheless a slow development of purer and more exalted notions of Jahweh and his character and activity in the world. Later prophetic voices began to speak with even more vigor about the divine righteousness. And that righteousness was interpreted, in such great figures as Jeremiah, Hosea, and the two or three men whose oracles have been put together in the Old Testament book we call Isaiah, as resting back upon and expressing the divine chesed -- the faithful loving-mercy of Jahweh not only for his own people but for all the peoples of the earth. The entire story is given to us in the Old Testament material, including as it does much genuine history as well as a good deal of legend and myth, not to speak of poetic expressions of the relationship between Jahweh and humankind but with reference also to non-Jewish races and nations.

In the suffering which followed from invasions by Assyrians, Babylonians, and finally by Romans, with an interlude in which there was a Greek hegemony under the successors of Alexander the Great, this Jewish religious faith was enriched and deepened. It reached its highest expression in the prophets just mentioned and in the hymn-book of the Temple in Jerusalem, the Psalter. It also found in synagogue-worship, in which in the towns and villages the people gathered on Saturdays to praise their Lord and to receive instruction, a more direct and intimate religious awareness than had been possible in the formal Temple-worship at the central shrine in Jerusalem.

Out of this long-developing background and in the context of the highly ethical Judaism of the latter part of the pre-Christian period, there appeared another prophetic figure. This was Jesus, a man from the north in Galilee. Jesus taught and acted for the God of his own people, In what he said and did there was an expression both in word and act of the ‘faithful loving-mercy’ of Jahweh. His very person was later remembered as having been an embodiment or an enactment of that chesed He spoke about and he acted for Jahweh as sheer Love; but the Love which Jahweh was must be understood as adamant and demanding as well as gracious and forgiving. After a period of about thirty years, Jesus was arrested by the leaders of the people and tried before them as a blasphemer; evidently he had spoken about God in so familiar and intimate a manner that these leaders were scandalized and regarded him as a threat to their position and authority. Handed over to the occupying Roman authorities of the time as a rebel and as one who imperilled the peace and good order of the land, he was put to death.

This was not the end of the story, however. Those who had been his disciples were convinced by what they took to be ‘infallible signs’ that he had been raised from death by God. Others were drawn to the company of the disciples and within a very short time there was a new community which eventually was called ‘Christian’, since its members were ‘the Messiah’s flock’, so to say. Soon some of the leading men of that company traveled into the surrounding Graeco-Roman world, chief among them of course Paul of Tarsus. Within the space of twenty or thirty years, the ‘good news’ about Jesus was being proclaimed in many parts of the Roman Empire. And with this spreading of the story, inevitably the philosophical and religious ideas prevalent in that Roman world were employed to interpret the significance of this Jesus and what had been accomplished through him. It is this whole complex of fact and belief which we have reported to us in the apostolic witness. However various were the attempts to speak about him and his achievement, the essential assertion was that in the event of Jesus Christ, they were sure there had been a decisive and focal disclosure of the divine reality known to the Jews as Jahweh and to others under various more Greek and hence more philosophical terms.

What it came down to was the proclamation that in what had happened in and through the Man of Nazareth and Calvary was a vivid disclosure of the one God and a powerful release of that God’s power in the world. What Jesus had said and done not only told others about God; it was a human existence, in all its integrity, in which God had acted and wrought, so that within a hundred years, at the most, Jesus himself was described as an act of God. In him divinity and humanity were genuinely united; his human existence was the organon (as Athanasius later put it in the early years of the fourth century) for God in the outgoing world-ward expression of the divine reality.

From that point on, the Christian tradition has dared to assert boldly that the event from which it took its origin is indeed marked by both speciality and decisiveness. In the idiom which grew up in Christian theological circles and was widely accepted -- after a long period of discussion and controversy -- Jesus was styled the incarnation of God and the means by which atonement or deliverance from sin and death was made possible for humankind.

I do not apologize for this lengthy -- although in fact far too brief -- retelling of the saga which the Bible presents to us. For it is this whole story which brings us to the moment of decision. The Christian proclamation is based upon it; it is, indeed, a way in which that proclamation is given both historical grounding and contemporary relevance. But of course it raises problems. It is with some of those problems or issues that the next chapter will deal, always in the context of the preaching which is so integral to the continuing tradition of Christian faith, worship, and life. And that tradition dares to insist that the story which I have been telling in its human and historical shape is the other side of another story -- the story of God’s unceasing concern for and activity in and upon the created order and more especially for, in, and upon the men and women whose existence is in that created order.