The Liberating Word The Rediscovery Of The Bible

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The 1960s initiated a period of self-criticism and renewal in many areas of Christian life and thought, leading to shifts in Christian consciousness of a very profound kind. One key area was the recovery of biblical wholeness. In these years new translations of the Bible became popular, and, for the first time for centuries, readings from the Old Testament became an established feature of the eucharistic liturgy. These, and other factors, were important in bringing about a renewal of biblical study, not least among oppressed and marginalized communities in the Third World. The birth of liberation theology at the end of the 1960s was closely connected with the reading of the Bible as a collective enterprise within a context of worship and reflection on concrete experience. This rediscovery of the Bible as a resource for people in struggle has been a major element in nourishing a spirituality of resistance and liberation in many parts of the world. While the rhetoric of liberation has been associated particularly with Latin America, the movement which has developed there since about 1968 has many parallels, some of them going back to an earlier age.

The biblical revival has undermined many established positions and raised the level of awareness of Christians in relation to the world. We can speak of a new biblical consciousness during these years. Attention to the biblical narrative led to a realization of the unity of worship, common life and struggle for justice which was bound to call into question the simplistic individualism of earlier approaches both to biblical study and to spirituality. William Stringfellow, a powerful influence on the growing Christian radicalism in the United States in these years, expressed it in this way:

The biblical topic is politics. The Bible is about the politics of fallen creation and the politics of redemption; the politics of the nations, institutions, ideologies and causes of this world and the politics of the Kingdom of God; the politics of Babylon and the politics of Jerusalem; the politics of the Antichrist and the politics of Jesus Christ; the politics of the demonic powers and principalities and the politics of the timely judgment of God as sovereign; the politics of death and the politics of life; apocalyptic politics and eschatological politics.

(Stringfellow 1973:14-15)

In another study, Stringfellow turned his attention to biblical spirituality:

There is no biblical spirituality to be found in a vacuum cut off from the remainder of humanity within the totality of creation. Indeed biblical spirituality is significantly about the restoration or renewal of these relationships throughout the realm of created life.. .From a biblical perspective.. .the assertion of some species of so—called spirituality which is privatised and nonpolitical or antipolitical is simply nonsense.

(Stringfellow 1984:20, 21)

The new attention to the Bible has led to a recovery of the central biblical concern with holiness and justice. The holy God has been rediscovered as the God of justice. Justice and salvation are interlocked (Isa. 45:21-4; 46:12-13, etc.) To do justice is to know the Lord (Jer. 22:15-16). Communion with

God, according to the prophets, is incompatible with injustice and oppression. Those who sell the righteous for silver and the poor for a pair of sandals, and who trample the poor into the dust, are the objects of prophetic condemnation (Amos 2:6ff), as are those who decree unjust laws and embody oppression in legislation (Isa. 10:1). Many Christians have read these words with a new urgency and have tried to relate them to their contemporary context. They have sought to live within a biblical world-view.

Again, the realization that it is impossible to sever Jesus from his Jewish roots has led to a new emphasis on the centrality of the Kingdom of God and of the proclamation of Jubilee (in Judaism, a time of periodic social renewal) in Jesus' teaching, and therefore to a move away from the personal and inward interpretations which had affected much earlier biblical study (see Luke 4:18f). Books such as John Howard Yoder's The Politics of Jesus (1972) have had a profound effect, particularly among the newer breed of evangelicals, while Norman Perrin's work on the Kingdom of God (Perrin 1963) affected other sections of the Church. So the nature of the Gospel itself has come under scrutiny, for much conventional preaching, including evangelical preaching, has not been a proclamation of the Kingdom of God with any kind of social dimension.

Closer attention to the biblical record has also led to a stronger sense of the koinonia hagion, the common life of the holy, and indeed of the holiness of the common. In early Christian thought, nothing was common or unclean (Acts 10:14-15). Here the revival of interest in the koinonia of the apostolic Church ran in parallel with the liturgical movement and the renewal of eucharistic sensibility which was also occurring during the 1960s. After centuries of decay and distortion, Christians of many traditions came to discover their character as a community bound together by the apostolic doctrine, common life, the breaking of the bread, and prayer (Acts 2:42). Twentieth-century Christians, after centuries of Constantinian ideology, came to see themselves as being very close to the life of the early Christian community.

One of the most striking features of early Christian spirituality is its social and corporate perspective. Rarely if ever do the New Testament writers concern themselves with personal spirituality or with the fate of the soul in isolation from that of the community, the soma Christou (body of Christ), which is so central to the theology of Paul (1 Cor. 12; Rom. 12). Here it is difficult to overemphasize the influence of John Robinson's small work The Body (1961) in which he showed the centrality of this idea to Paul's theological outlook. The entire concentration of Paul's writing is on the body, the community, the social movement towards fullness of life in Christ within a new creation. The phrase en Christo, in Christ, is used 164 times in Paul's writings. To be en Christo is to be part of a redeemed community, a new order of being. Christians are one body in Christ (Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor. 10:17; 12:12). This Christian community is constituted and manifested in the life of the eucharistic assembly, the gathering of disciples who meet to break bread and drink wine together, but, more importantly, to share life in its fullness beyond the assembly.

So a reading of the New Testament has led to a reorientation of the very foundations of spirituality. Spirituality is not a private relationship with God in isolation: it is to know Christ and the power of his resurrection (Phil. 3: 10) within a community which shares his life. Holiness is social. We die together and we live together (Rom. 14:8). We are to be transfigured (2 Cor. 3:17; Rom. 12:2) by our incorporation into a new creation. Later work by such writers as Gottwald, Brueggemann, and Wink (Gottwald 1979, 1983; Brueggemann 1978, 1985, 1991; Wink 1984, 1986, 1992) has led to a deeper engagement with such areas as the theme of liberation in the history of Israel, the prophetic imagination and prophetic witness, and the place of the contemporary struggle with principalities and powers.

It is clear that, while it is not the only influence, the rediscovery of the Bible has been an important factor in the renewal of spirituality in its social and political aspects. Many people have come to realize that 'when the Bible speaks of God, it is almost always in political language' (Cox 1969:21).

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