A people of the book

A people of the book
Michael Kinnamon
Michael Kinnamon

"We hold the centrality of scripture, recognizing that each person has the freedom — and the responsibility — to study God’s word within the community of the church.”

Surveys tell us that people today often join a congregation because of its youth program or location, without knowing much about the theological heritage behind it. Disciples have always held that we are Christians first, related by the blood of Christ to others in his body. But we are also Christians with distinctive gifts to offer to the wider church. This series explores these gifts, this particular heritage we have received from our Disciples ancestors and continue to work out in our own generation.

A crucial dimension of Disciples identity for the past 200 years is that we are “a people of the book.” Alexander Campbell and other founders of our movement insisted that knowledge of the Bible is essential for Christian discipleship. This idea was taken seriously by our forebears. “As one reads the works and personal letters of the first three generations of Disciples,” writes Professor Gene Boring in Disciples and the Bible, “one cannot help but be struck by how well they knew the content of the Bible. They not only knew isolated verses and stories; they knew the story line as a whole, and it formed the framework for their own life’s story.”

Disciples, of course, are by no means unique in this emphasis on the authority of scripture; but we have been unusual in our confidence that lay Christians can read the Bible with discernment, if given basic instruction in how to do so. Campbell realized that the Bible, as a human testimony to God’s mighty acts, must be interpreted; in Christianity Restored, he set forth seven rules to guide the process. He rejected the assumption that only the specially trained can understand the Bible’s “hidden meaning.” The task of interpreting scripture belongs not just to clergy but to the whole community of faith.

Looking at our church today, I have to say that we took to heart the first part of Campbell’s idea, but not the second. We have, indeed, freed ourselves from the authoritative guidance of bishops and creeds; but we have not, for the most part, accepted the responsibility to be a biblically literate people.

Again, this is not unique to Disciples. Studies show that a large percentage of Americans affirm in principle the authority of scripture, but fewer than half can name the authors of the gospels or say who delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Worse, three-quarters believe that the Bible says, “God helps those who help themselves” — a notion that undergirds “the American way” but that is completely at odds with the gospels' central emphasis on God’s gift of unmerited grace. As church historian Martin Marty puts it, the Bible has become an icon, a sacred object that is revered but not studied. And when this happens, the Bible is often used as a club to beat up on ideological opponents, with people quoting isolated passages in order to reinforce predetermined prejudices.

This disease may afflict all churches in this culture, but Disciples, having disavowed other authorities, are particularly susceptible to it. Either we study God’s word together — carefully, intelligently, thoroughly — or we have no basis for our common life.

I need to add that, in recent years, we have witnessed an unfortunate split in the church. Those who emphasize the authority of scripture in our lives have often sounded as if there is only one way that scripture can be interpreted — theirs. Such narrowness has led others who are open to different perspectives to become wary of emphasizing scripture lest it become a bolster for intolerance. But surely this is a false dichotomy. Disciples, at our best, have known that scripture is wonderfully, richly diverse — that there are ways of being faithful, biblical people to which we alone won’t do justice.

That only underscores, however, the importance of really knowing the Bible and of joining our interpretations of it in the ongoing dialogue of the whole community. The Vision Team has served us well in lifting up this mark of our identity.

DisciplesWorld has asked Michael Kinnamon to explore a new Disciples Identity Statement in this column. The statement is a work in progress from the 21st Century Vision Team, an advisory group to General Minister and President Sharon E. Watkins.