“My ground is the Bible. Yea, I am a Bible-bigot. I follow it in all things, both great and small.”
In too many UMC conversations, from worship to trustee meetings to bake sales, the Bible is little more than window dressing. Rather than living under the authority of God’s Word, we use it for our own ends. We piously reference Scripture, tacking it on to the end of this or that, when in truth neither this nor that have been informed by God or God’s story preserved in Scripture. At our best, Christians live in, through, and by the narrative of God’s self-gift in Christ. At our worst, we twist the story to make it serve our own purposes. The Bible is used to justify war, poverty, wealth, homophobia, abortion, quietism, and every other sin or vice imaginable. But, as Raneiro Cantalamessa suggests, our efforts to tame the text ultimately stand under the judgment of their Author:
“The Word of God revolts against being reduced to ideology. Ideology is what is left once the current from the Word of God has been cut off, once the word has been unplugged from the transcendent and personal reality of God, so that it is no longer the Word disposing of me and leading me where it chooses but I who am disposing of it and leading it where I choose. God will not tolerate his almighty Word being used to garnish a speech for this occasion or that, nor to cloak with divine authority speeches already composed and entirely human. In recent times we have seen where such tendency can lead. The gospel has been exploited in support of every kind of human project, from class war to the death of God. But this is all old hat…the gospel has been bent this way and that to say whatever happened to be socially fashionable at any given period.”
In United Methodist circles, it can be argued that the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral has contributed to this ‘bending’ of the gospel over the last several decades. Opinions vary as to whether Outler’s construct was defunct from the beginning or misunderstood and misapplied, but the results are the same: Scripture, despite efforts to re-narrate the Quadrilateral to the contrary, has become just one of four implicitly equal sources from which we can draw on for theological truth.
The result is rather like what we’ve seen in the The Episcopal Church: though our official liturgies and doctrinal standards speak in accord with the Church across time and space about the Triunity of God and the centrality of Christ, it is quite possible that the presiding clergy and any number of congregants may actually be worshiping the Giant Spaghetti Monster. God becomes whatever and wherever one finds meaning, and the only dogma recognized is that all dogma is stifling and harmful. This is not how Wesley, the “man of one book,” did it. His approach was much closer to what Cantalamessa, the official preacher to the Papal household, suggests:
“When dealing with the Church’s doctrinal and disciplinary problems, therefore, we need bravely to start out more often from the Word of God, especially as revealed in the New Testament, and stay bound to it, chained to it, certain that in this way we shall much more surely achieve our purpose, which is, in any question, to discover where the will of God lies.”
For too many, the Quadrilateral has meant (maybe) starting with Scripture and then going to to something a bit more flexible or likable. Cantalamessa, though, invites us to consider the radical alternative: treating God’s Word as God’s Word. We have traded true freedom for a bondage to our own fancies. Only in binding ourselves to Scripture are we truly free to hear, discern, and live out God’s will.
Source: Cantalamessa, Raneiro. The Mystery of God’s Word (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press 1994), 49-50.