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Mark Naylor M.Th.

Strange condition for Church membership

A friend of ours was chatting about his experience attending membership classes at his church.  He mentioned that one part of the statement of faith requires members to affirm that the Genesis story is not to “be accepted allegorically or figuratively.”  He did not have a problem with this, but I find it an odd condition for church membership on a number of levels.  There are, of course, historical reasons for this restriction in the interest of protecting the integrity of the Bible as God’s infallible revelation.  However, because the statement of faith does make it clear that the Bible is God’s infallible word, it seems unhelpful and problematic to demand a particular hermeneutic for a specific passage of Scripture.

To accept these claims about Genesis, the new believer would need to be acquainted with the historical struggle for the integrity of the Bible, as well as an understanding of literary genres.  I suspect that the average believer, let alone a new Christian, does not understand the different genres used in the Bible.  It seems misplaced to demand that people affirm that a passage of Scripture belongs to a particular genre.  The important issue of the integrity of God’s revelation has been obscured by peripheral and unnecessary demands concerning genre.

In his stimulating book, Inspiration and Incarnation, Peter Enns claims that the controversy between theological liberals and conservatives is based on a false dichotomy.  The liberal believes that the first chapters of Genesis do not match modern standards for historical writing and, therefore, are not inspired.  The conservative believes the Bible is God’s inspired word and, therefore, those chapters must live up to modern standards for historical writing.  Enns’ suggestion is that the conservative assumption of inspiration is the correct one, but he questions the assumption of both liberals and conservatives that the genre of modern historical writing should be the standard by which the Bible is viewed. Instead, the Bible needs to be read according to the cultural context within which it was written (p. 49).

Determining the genre of the first chapters of Genesis requires a high level of hermeneutical and exegetical expertise. It is puzzling to me why a church would put such demands on a new Christian seeking baptism and church membership.  I do think that a confession of faith is needed for membership, but it should focus on the essentials while allowing for ignorance about peripheral issues.

I am not asking that the Pandora’s box of revising official statements of faith be opened.  Instead, I would encourage discernment about the use of those statements when dealing with new believers.  I wonder if the reluctance of some to take on church membership is, in part, due to peripheral issues that they do not have the expertise to understand.  If people have become excited about following Jesus, a requirement that they subscribe to one side or another in ongoing controversies could act as a (figurative and allegorical) bucket of cold water on their faith.

 

2 Responses to “Strange condition for Church membership”


  • Mark,

    Thanks for your reflections.

    The matter of literal as opposed to allegorical/figurative is one of those battlegrounds where the casualties are frighteningly appalling and overly frequent because of “friendly fire.” It boggles me that folks so seldom take into account the fact that the Bible contains a virtual library of different genres (history, poetry, allegory, parable, gospel, etc.), each of which must be carefully and respectly read on its own terms and not any other.

    That all Scripture is God-breathed is most clear; that we should flatten our reading of Scripture by ignoring the breathtaking variety of genres of the Bible is, quite simply, absurd.

    I think the Bible translator and reformer William Tyndale put the hermeneutical task very well on this issue in his tract entitled, “The Obedience of a Christian Man” (1525):

    “Thou shalt understand, therefore, that the Scripture hath but one sense, which is the literal sense. And that literal sense is the root and ground of all, and the anchor that never faileth, whereunto if thou cleave thou canst never err, or go out of the way. Neverthelater, the Scripture useth proverbs, similitudes, riddles, or allegories, as all other speeches do; but that which the proverb, similitude, riddle, or allegory signifieth is ever the literal sense which thou must seek out diligently.”

    [The Works of the English Reformers: William Tyndale and John Frith, Thomas Russell, ed. (London: Ebenezer Palmer, 1831), volume 2:339]. [http://books.google.com/books?id=o1ssQGn1UvEC accessed May 4, 2009]

    So, if I understand Tyndale right, if one does not attend most carefully to and take account of the genre of the portion of Scripture one is reading, one will NOT obtain the literal sense. To put it another way, Tyndale seems to be saying that one must go through the figure, as it were, to embrace the literal sense.

    Tyndale was most wise and astute. But, sadly, you will recall that he himself became the victim of “unfriendly fire.” His final words were a prayer to heaven that God would be merciful to open up blind eyes.

    …and so it goes.

  • Each day I become more aware and joyfully amazed at the depth of what I don’t know. Thank you for being a student all your life so that new students like me may learn from Professors who now profess what they’ve learned as students! In Christ, Deb

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