“What kind of authority does the Bible have for us?” asked Karoline Lewis, one of the keynote presenters at the “Biblical Authority Conversations” on April 23-25. The Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary, she joined with Jason Barnhart, director of Brethren Research and Resourcing for the Brethren Church’s denominational office, in leading a group of about 100 Church of the Brethren ministers and lay people at a meeting called by the midwestern districts.
With an overall theme of “The Bible I Cherish and that Challenges,” Lewis and Barnhart led the group through times of instruction followed by times of “table talk” in which participants engaged in lively conversation. Facilitating table conversation, and giving background on Brethren heritage and practice regarding the Bible, were Bethany Seminary professors Denise Kettering Lane and Dan Ulrich. Lane also reviewed the 1979 Annual Conference paper on biblical authority.
“It’s one thing to say the Bible has authority...but what kind?” Lewis pressed the group that gathered at the Hueston Woods state park in western Ohio. Often what happens in conversations around biblical authority is the dominance of an unquestioning attitude characterized by the statement: “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” Lewis noted this approach as “a circular argument,” basically that “the Bible is authoritative because it’s the Bible.” She invited the group to ask why and how the Bible is authoritative. She and Barnhart explained various approaches to biblical authority, various understandings of how to read the Bible, and demonstrated a reading of a passage from her favorite gospel, the book of John.
Among the questions posed for conversation in small group at round tables: What is in the Bible and what parts do you care about? When was the last time you really thought about what the Bible means to you? What kind of authority does the Bible have for you, personally? How do you define and understand that authority?
Barnhart led a session on cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias, noting that each person has picked up attitudes from the popular culture and inevitably “we read the Bible through those lenses,” he said. People read the Bible in part “because of some experience I’ve had in my life. That experience has informed how you read the Bible,” he said. “The problem comes when our biases aren’t checked.”
He also asked the group to consider what to do when encountering people who read the Bible differently, calling it a key Christian witness. “When we encounter people who read things differently we get this thing called cognitive dissonance.... I’m looking at the same text as you are looking at, and I am not reading that at all. It is in that moment that our witness really begins. You don’t have much of a witness when you are alone reading the Bible.”
“Biblical Authority Conversations” was sponsored by the midwestern districts of the Church of the Brethren and planned by their district executives: Beth Sollenberger, South Central Indiana District and Michigan District; Kevin Kessler, Illinois and Wisconsin District; Torin Eikler, Northern Indiana District; Kris Hawk, Northern Ohio District; and David Shetler, Southern Ohio District. Also supporting the event was the Ministry Excellence Project. The event was hosted at Hueston Woods, a state park lodge and conference center in western Ohio.
Michaela Alphonse of Miami (Fla.) First Church of the Brethren preached for the opening worship service, and Ted Swartz of Ted and Co. performed “The Big Story” for an evening entertainment.
At the end of two days of intense conversation, some consensus seemed to emerge from the leadership of Lewis, Barnhart, Ulrich, Kettering Lane, and the district executives: The Bible is important to Brethren. The Bible has a lot to teach us today. Reading and studying the Bible together with others is crucial to our faith.
Some questions rose to the top as well: Are our disagreements with each other in the church still about biblical interpretation, inspiration, and authority? Or are they about how we have allowed the culture to dictate the way we approach the Bible?
-- Frank Ramirez and Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford contributed to this report.