The following commentary addresses the second point advanced by Myron S. Augsburger in “The Contemporary Relevance of the Anabaptist Faith” (Brethren in Christ History and Life, August 2000), which is: “Understanding of the Interpretive Significance of Progressive Revelation in God’s Word Written.”
I recently began a conversation within the core group of our young church plant about the Bible and the way we approach it. It was/is a fruitful and lively conversation, to say the least! I also think it is an invaluable conversation to have, especially as a church plant in the identity forming stages. The Bible is beyond important, obviously. Our approaches to the Bible, however, vary widely in the North American context of ours. Some of these approaches are more edifying than others. The approach advanced by Augsburger is the classic Anabaptist approach; it’s the one into which I invest much of my personal time, energy, and devotion.
Augsburger begins by identifying a very common approach to the Bible. He calls this popular approach the “flat” approach. Most evangelicals, he says, read the Bible as a flat book. In other words, evangelicals think that “full inspiration” means that each part is “equal in value as the word of God.” This “flat” approach results in a complete misunderstanding of how God communicates to humanity. “God’s communicative patters,” writes Augsburger, is all about “meeting any people where they are.” Said differently, the revelatory aspects of the Bible were communicated in very real cultural and historical settings. This opens the door to historical and cultural relativity, which produce real effects from which the Scriptures are not immune.
So, does historical and cultural relativity destroy divine inspiration or the revelatory aspects of the bible? No! It simply means we have to learn how to read the Bible. It means we have to become scripturally literate. It means we have to learn to differentiate between the culturally-relative and revelatory aspects of Scripture. It means we have to let go of the so-called factual bullet points we pass around and actually search for God and do the hard work of real-time application of the truth we discover along the way.
Augsburger offers a really great illustration (sourced from Bruce Waltke):
… both a one-dollar bill and a fifty-dollar bill are equally valid tenure but they do not have the same value, so with the passages in the Scripture. But beyond this the Anabaptist view emphasizes levels in the divine disclosure. His revelation carried persons forward one step at a time. In the story of Abraham it is significant that God called him but did not impose the full nature of his disclosure at one time. In the story God would appear and ask a certain thing. We read further discovering that Abraham did this. Then the Scripture says, “After that the Lord appeared to Abraham again.” We have the benefit of the “after that” in its largest dimension in that after Jesus came, everything is forever different.
I think any contemporary and literate reading of the Bible would include the above understanding in the read itself. It is not an optional hermeneutic; it is the essence of God’s revelation to us, in progressive disclosures set in time, culture, and history. We have to do the work and actually look at it all and differentiate between the culturally relative and the divine disclosures that surpass culture and history.
Augsburger closes his thoughts on this second point by emphasizing the practical ramifications of reading the Bible in this manner, by saying: “The significant aspect of this is that in structuring our patterns of expressing faith we find our [Anabaptist] norm of behavior in the New Testament as a responsible adult commitment, a covenant to be disciples, peace as a way of life, and more. We do not justify sub-Christian behavior by Old Testament patterns which were, so to speak, at the elementary school level when we are now at university level, as well as expressed in Willard Swartley’s book, Slavery, Sabbath, War and Women.”
I do not think it a stretch to say that this classic Anabaptist approach to the Bible resonates today. In fact, many, many people are already embracing it as a reasonable and constructive hermeneutic.