If there was ever a time in history when Christians were confused about what to believe, it is now. Looking back through the centuries of the church, we can find other times of confusion, so we are not alone in our own time as to what we should or should not believe.
In the beginning, there was perplexity as to whether it was Jesus or John the Baptist who was the true Messiah and, before that, there was bewilderment as to what or who the Messiah was at all.
Then, in the early days of Christianity, there was uncertainty about the place of Jesus in relation to God, and the Holy Spirit a mystification that still exists for many people. In the Middle Ages there arose new misunderstanding about Mary, the mother of Jesus, and it grew until there was almost a new faith altogether with Mary at the center of it and Jesus no more than a bit player.
There has been disorder about the place of the church in the Christian faith, and all kinds of revisions have taken place, with perhaps the most important being the sixteenth century Reformation in Europe, and the one in England that led to the establishment of the Anglican Church.
Now we have a new confusion to add to the old ones. This time it is over human sexuality and it is tied up (if I dare use such an expression) with beliefs in the Scriptures and whether or not they should be taken literally, and at face value, or if the Bible books have another meaning that is to be interpreted.
Many scholars and historians say it is right to say interpreted because they were not written to be understood at just their face value any more than the parables of Jesus. We can read the Bible in this way this of course but, if we do, say the textural scholars, we will lose the main point of the narrative.
Conservative Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics tend to take the fundamental approach — that what is written is true as it is presented. This makes the introduction of new ideas almost impossible, unless you can find a proof text somewhere in the Bible to support it.
That is rather a contradiction because, if it is new, then by definition, you cannot find it written out before. However, there can be new developments and ideas that no one has ever really thought about before, but whose antecedents are clearly there in Scripture.
It begs the question of what the Holy Spirit can contribute now, if it can never suggest an idea unless already scripted in the Bible.
Scholars of textural analysis and historians have more or less taken the liberal wing of the church along with them into believing that there is a whole new world of understanding in the Bible that we just haven’t seen before, because we were taking a too literal view of what was written. The writers, say these people, were a lot more clever than we have given them credit for and what they have written has a whole new depth of meaning that lies just below the surface of the words. To get to it, we need to know the conditions in which the stories and events were written. The downside to this is, that it is very easy to take a modern life-style such as same-sex unions and make some new-found text support it.
Almost certainly, the truth that history will later discover will lie somewhere in between the strict fundamental literal interpretation and the let’s make it fit what we want it to group.
Anglicanism is in danger of splitting down this line with few, if any, in the moderate middle to hold them together. The fundamentalists (I use the term lightly) promote the point that the saving grace of God can be found and proved in the Scriptures as they stand. In other words, all that one might need for salvation can be found in the Bible even if we read it at an uncritical level.
I would support them on this, but would also point out that further truths can also be discovered here that do not destroy the original texts. I might even go further and say that we can hold two versions of the same event in our head at the same time and the one does not diminish the other. Take the story of the three magi or wise men or three kings, depending on what tradition you follow. On one level three men did, in real time history, follow a star … or at least a light in the sky that may have been a comet … and they came to where Jesus was born and they offered gold, frankincense and myrrh, and believed they had found a wisdom greater than their own.
Goodness knows how many times we have heard that story, and it is a lovely thing, and I am not unhappy with it. However, there may be another explanation that we can take and make it replace the first or, as I prefer, lay it alongside as a commentary on the first.
To discover this second story, we have to know more about the writer, whoever he was. He appears to be writing for Jewish converts to Christianity … a mild form of Esseneism … who were living in Judah or maybe Samaria. The writer is anxious to establish his orthodoxy within the ancient prophesies of Judaism and shows, by means of a genealogy, that the Christ is of the House of David and that, like David, he will unite Judah and Israel (now called Samaria). He is saying that, to be Essene or Christian is also to be Jewish.
How was it then that not all Jews had followed the Messianic movement of the Essenes and Zealots? To answer this question, the writer of Matthew presents his readers with Herod, their king. A man, who along with his new impressive Temple and its priests, ought to know about a savior for their nation. Unfortunately, corruption and self-interest get in the way, and so God turns to the Gentiles and three magicians who are honestly seeking for the truth. They do not hesitate to worship the child, and this reinforces the ancient prophesies that, when the Messiah really does come, the wise of the gentiles will also submit to him.
How does the writer of Matthew know all this? Because he finds in the book of the prophet Isaiah (60:6) that All those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
In other words, the writer starts with the conclusion that he believes is the truth, and works it backwards and builds into his narrative the prophesies his readers are familiar with. He is condemning Herod and the Temple authorities who claim to know everything, but who have no faith, and who don’t want to disturb their fragile treaty with the Romans by which they live comfortably and well … and he sets them up as those who refuse to believe, while the pagans come and receive the salvation that was promised to them.
Thus we have a story plus now a commentary, or Midrash, that explains it, and from this we can see what it means for us. That, if we are wise and honest seekers after the light that leads to true knowledge, and if we persevere long enough we will discover it even though it may cost us our wealth (gold) and our work (frankincense). Furthermore, when we discover God’s wisdom we will find that God, in infancy, is greater than we are in the wisdom of our old age.