Core convictions

Convictions_Matter_Cross_cropHoliness as biblical spirituality

The Salvation Army’s first doctrine is concerned with the Bible, a remarkable book that has had a profound impact throughout the world. Its language has made its way into public discourse, and themes of its stories are recreated in novels, film, painting and music.

For instance, when we say somebody has seen “the writing on the wall,” we have alluded to the Book of Daniel; Micah’s words, “They shall beat swords into ploughshares,” have been inscribed into the United Nations building in New York; Rembrandt painted many biblical scenes, such as “The Return of the Prodigal”; and jazz pianist Dave Brubeck composed “Forty Days,” based on Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness. The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, so central to Christian faith, have had a remarkable influence in our world.

On the other hand, the Bible has also come under suspicion in the 21st century. Its importance can no longer be assumed. Its language is seldom recognized or understood today. Indeed its portrayal of God is seen by some as problematic. To examine The Salvation Army’s core convictions, we need to first understand this first doctrine and how it contributes to our understanding and practice of holiness.

While we acknowledge the thoroughly human hand in the biblical writings, this first doctrine also expresses that  “All scripture is inspired by God” (2 Tim. 3:16). Literally it means that Scripture is “God-breathed.” This doesn’t imply that the biblical writers were passive recorders; they were in fact fully engaged in the composition. Yet so was the Spirit of God.

The Christian Bible is not a haphazard collection of individual texts; it is shaped as a narrative. It begins with the phrase, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1) and concludes with John of Patmos’s vision: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1). Each individual book can be properly understood only in light of the greater story, which centers on the person of Jesus of Nazareth. We need to ask, however, what role should the Bible play in shaping our lives now?

When the Apostle Paul expressed his conviction that “All scripture is inspired by God,” he went on to say that it “is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (See 2 Tim. 3:16). The Bible exists not simply to inform but to form. John and Charles Wesley affirmed this conviction when they set out to renew the Church of England in the 18th century through the Methodist Movement. They became convinced that God had called the Methodists to “spread scriptural holiness throughout the land.”

But what of the 21st century? A close look at our own age suggests that there is renewed interest in spirituality in western culture. From a Christian perspective, spirituality is best understood as our lived experience of God. The spirituality suggested by this doctrine is a biblical spirituality. The Christian Scriptures show us what it is like to live in relationship with God, who is disclosed in the biblical story. This is biblical spirituality. With this in mind, I want to suggest there are at least four practices that help to cultivate holiness understood as biblical spirituality: we are to read, pray, preach and perform the Bible as Scripture.

There are many ways to read the Bible, just as there are many ways to read the script of a play. A theater critic will read the script one way, and an actor will read the script another way. Salvationists come to the Bible for the purpose of hearing God address us in the 21st century. The Bible is an ancient text, but it is also God’s contemporary word to us. Thus we read the Bible with a view of understanding our world through its world. Convinced that words create worlds, we read the Bible slowly and prayerfully, paying attention to such words as grace, wilderness, atonement, covenant, holiness, hope and salvation. We do not assume that our culture’s use of these words means the same thing when used in the Bible.

We also pay attention to the story worlds of the Bible. Through these stories we envision what it means for us to meet with God as friend with friend, as did Moses (See Ex. 32-34). We imagine a world where Jesus washes our feet with basin and towel, just as he did the feet of his disciples, even over their protests (See John 13:1-20). These stories, and others, give us a glimpse into the character of God and what it means to relate to God today as disciple and friend. They are, however, not just examples; they are models for us to imitate.

For this reason we not only read the Bible personally, we read the Bible in community. The Bible is the church’s book and is intended to be read in the meeting of God’s people. This first doctrine points to the practice of reading the Bible as Scripture in order to be formed in biblical holiness.

Second, we will learn to pray the Scriptures as we practice biblical spirituality. This is not to say that prayer is limited only to the texts of the Bible, but there are spiritual disciplines that draw on Scripture as we pray. For instance, the Lord’s Prayer is drawn from the Gospels, and the benediction spoken by Moses in Numbers is used often in worship, as is Paul’s closing benediction to the Corinthian church (See Matt. 6:9-13; Num. 6:24-26; 2 Cor. 13:13).

While much of the Bible lends itself to prayer, this is especially true of the Psalms. There are times of tragedy or joy when we can’t seem to find words to pray. Praying the Psalms can help us in those moments. They utter lament with images that voice our own losses; they praise with resounding chords that take us out of our superficiality; they question God in ways we are reluctant to address him; they express trust in ways that we find difficult.

As we seek scriptural holiness we will attend to the practice of preaching biblically. The Salvation Army places an emphasis on preaching in its worship, given its roots in the Reformation. But preaching has come upon hard times in our culture. “Don’t preach at me,” tends to mean, “Don’t criticize me.” The depiction of preaching in television and movies often deals with stereotypes and seldom does justice to good preaching in the Bible or in the Christian tradition.

Because the Bible is read publicly in our worship, sermons play an important role. In Fred Craddock’s view in his book, “Preaching,” “Preaching brings the Scriptures forward as a living voice in the congregation. Biblical texts have a future as well as a past, and preaching seeks to fulfill that future by continuing the conversation of the text into the present.”

There is a point to the Bible being organized from Genesis to Revelation. The spirituality that the Bible portrays has its twists and turns, but it moves toward a goal, as does our personal spirituality. We will learn much about spirituality from preaching Esther, Ecclesiastes and Ephesians. But we will also want to preach with the biblical plot in mind. Biblical holiness has a story, and we do well to keep its overall plot in mind as we prepare to preach it.

Finally, we will learn to practice holiness as biblical spirituality as we perform the Scriptures. L. Gregory Jones expressed it this way in “Formed and Transformed by Scripture,” “With Christ as our true teacher, we are called to become people of character, a holy people, who perform the Scriptures wisely and faithfully so that God may be at home in our midst.” Certainly there are dangers in thinking of the Christian life as performance; it can too often imply lack of sincerity. But we also use the word to describe the way cars drive on the highway, or Olympic athletes compete during the Games. In other words, the notion of performance has to do with the way we take scripts and bring them to life.

Salvationists have performed biblical texts artistically, as with John Larsson and John Gowans’ musicals, but this image of performance goes beyond our worship into lived faith. Jesus began his public ministry by reading from Isaiah, and then went about freeing the oppressed and embodying the Year of Jubilee. In other words, Jesus performed the Scriptures in his public ministry. A wise and faithful performance of the Bible will make God’s saving grace visible in our world.

Salvationists thus have an important heritage that values the Christian Scriptures. Our commitment to scriptural holiness lies at the heart of our identity. This is who we are. This core conviction matters. We are practitioners of biblical spirituality. The Salvationist tradition is important; our personal experiences are valued; but the integrity of our spirituality will be governed by the degree to which it really is a scriptural holiness. In the song “Ancient Words” by Lynn Deshazo, the composition reflects the transforming influence of the Bible. It’s an appropriate prayer as we approach Scripture, and prepare our hearts to hear it as the Word of God:

Holy word long preserved for our walk in this world;
They resound with God’s own heart, O, let the ancient words impart;
Words of life, words of hope, give us strength, help us cope;
In this world where e’er we roam, Ancient words will guide us home.

 Ancient words, ever true, changing me, and changing you;
We have come with open hearts, O let the ancient words impart. 

Holy words of our faith handed down to this age,
Came to us through sacrifice; O heed the faithful words of Christ;
Holy words long preserved for our walk in this world;
They resound with God’s own heart; O let the ancient words impart.