The Hinge Special Edition_Northern Province Synod, Interpreting Scripture in the Moravian Church

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The HINGE International Theological Dialog for the Moravian Church

Special Issue for the Northern Province Synod Interpreting Scripture in the Moravian Church Introduction..........................................................1 Frank Crouch........................................................3 Craig Atwood......................................................25 Guiding Principles of Biblical Interpretation.............................37

Special Issue: June 2014

The HINGE Special Issue: June 2014 The Hinge is a forum for theological discussion in the Moravian Church. Views and opinions expressed in articles published in The Hinge are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial board or the official positions of the Moravian Church and its agencies. You are welcome to submit letters and articles for consideration for publication. One of the early offices of the Moravian Church in Bethlehem, Pa., was that of the Hinge: The office of the Hinge requires that the brother who holds it look after everything and bring troublesome factors within the congregation into mutual accord without their first having to be taken up publicly in the congregation council. — September 1742, The Bethlehem Diary, vol. 1, tr. by Kenneth Hamilton, p. 80. The Hinge journal is intended also to be a mainspring in the life of the contemporary Moravian Church, causing us to move, think, and grow. Above all, it is to open doors in our church. The Hinge is published with the assistance of the Center for Moravian Studies of Moravian Theological Seminary, 1200 Main St. Bethlehem, PA 18018, and all rights are reserved. Recent issues of The Hinge may be found at www. Articles in The Hinge may not be republished or posted on the Internet without the express permission of the author and the editor of The Hinge. Articles may be duplicated according to “Fair Use” rules, which allow for discussion in church classes and similar forums. The hinge illustration was provided by Todd Tyson of Kernersville, NC. Cover design was provided by Colleen Marsh of Bethlehem, PA.

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Notes from the Editors The Hinge is a forum for theological discussion and growth within the Moravian Church. As we state within our cover page, “it is to be an instrument (perhaps a ministerial?) for opening doors in our church.” In this special Synod issue of The Hinge we present to you the “Guiding Principles of Biblical Interpretation” and a continuing conversation with two of our leading scholars and teachers in our contemporary Moravian Church today, the Rev. Dr. Frank Crouch and the Rev. Dr. Craig Atwood. Developed in November 2011 by the Interprovincial Faith and Order Commission of the Moravian Church and adopted by the Northern and Southern Provincial Elders’ Conferences in the spring of 2012, the “Guiding Principles” are a rich resource for understanding both our historical and current practice of Biblical interpretation. James Baldwin once wrote these words to his nephew, who was growing up in Harlem’s ghetto and struggling to find himself and his place in the world. “Know whence you came. If you know from whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go” (“The Fire Next Time.” The Price of the Ticket, St. Martin’s Press, 1985, pg. 335). The Guiding Principles begin with the place from which we have come. In our theological and religious history as Moravians, it orientates us to what our forebears taught about Scriptural interpretation and our general understanding of the role of Scripture in ministering (or guiding) us to the essentials of our faith. Yet this document also asks us to examine from where we have come. What is our lens or our hermeneutics (a fancy theological term meaning the way we interpret) that we employ in understanding Scripture? Baldwin writes to remind his nephew that he must understand the situation he was born into and the lens that he has to understand his world, as a young black man in 1960’s Harlem. His background, his family, and his experiences all will affect how he interprets his world. Our background, our families, and our experiences will equally affect how we interpret Scripture. There is no shedding of such lens of interpretation—it would be easier to shed our own skin. There is only the knowledge from whence we have come—and the understanding that our readings of Scripture will always be an interpretation. Therefore, we read these words, first in the Guiding Principles and later as Dr. Crouch expands on them, “Given our human contexts and experiences, we affirm that every reading of Scripture is an act of interpretation.” And we start here: can we acknowledge from whence we came and can we acknowledge that our interpretation—however eloquent, Spirit-inspired or well-reasoned it may be—is still an act of interpretation? Sometimes this is the hardest place to start—within our own interpretations. Yet starting from this point, we then move forward to examine why we interpret the way we do and the larger themes where the Spirit is guiding us, as Dr. Crouch writes, “toward lives of increasing faith, love, and hope.” We present this issue of The Hinge with the hope that these reflections and interpretations will open the door in guiding us to a greater understanding of our


Interpreting Scripture in the Moravian Church

humble role in listening, reflecting and bearing out the Holy Spirit’s love and guidance in how we live our lives and organize our churches. Because of the timing of this year’s Synod, unlike our typical Hinge format, there are no responses to the article or Dr. Crouch’s or Dr. Atwood’s pieces. We would welcome your response to any piece in this special edition for consideration of publication in a future issue of The Hinge. Responses may be sent to Rev. Dr. Craig Atwood at If you would like to subscribe to The Hinge, send a $30 check payable to: The Hinge c/o Jane Burcaw Moravian Theological Seminary 1200 Main Street Bethlehem, PA 18018

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Applying the “Guiding Principles of Biblical Interpretation” to Moravian Decisions Related to Full Inclusion of Gay and Lesbian Persons in the Life of the Church Frank L. Crouch I am a Moravian, a long-time student of scripture, and I seek to follow Christ in my life and work. Although I serve under call at Moravian Theological Seminary, I do not speak for the Seminary or any other agency of the Moravian Church.1 The views expressed here are my own. In advance of the June 2014 Northern Province Synod, a number of different resolutions have been widely distributed regarding ordination of and unions between gay and lesbian persons. Since these resolutions generally use scripture to support their positions, it seems worthwhile to explore the understandings of biblical authority found in official, Moravian documents. As a framework for discerning how scripture speaks—and does not speak—to the question of full inclusion of gay and lesbian persons in the life of the Church,2 this essay utilizes: •

Statements about scripture found in “The Ground of the Unity” and “The Essential Features of the Unity.”3 The Ground and Essential Features have served as the worldwide Moravian Church’s primary doctrinal statements since their 1957 adoption and 1995 revision by Unity Synod. Principles for interpreting scripture outlined in “Guiding Principles of Biblical Interpretation.” This document was developed by the Frank Crouch is the Dean Interprovincial Faith and Order & Vice President of Moravian Commission and approved by the Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, PA. Northern and Southern Provincial Elders Conferences in 2012.4

1 “Moravian Church” is commonly used in North America in place of the official name, “Unitas Fratrum.” 2 For reasons not entirely clear to me, although four groups are commonly connected under the acronym LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender), the Moravian Church is considering only the LG portion of that grouping. 3 “The Ground of the Unity, A doctrinal statement adopted by the Unity Synod of the Unitas Fratrum, or Moravian Church, held at Dar es Salaam, Tanzania August 13 to 25, 1995.” This statement has two parts, The Ground of the Unity and Essential Features of the Unity. Both appear in the Church Order of the Unitas Fratrum and in Northern and Southern Province Books of Order. The Essential Features section is under-utilized and often missing when the Ground of the Unity is published. Hereafter, they will be referred to as Ground and Essential Features and can be found together at 4 The “Guiding Principles of Biblical Interpretation” (hereafter called Guiding Principles) are reprinted in this volume, pp. 37. Some elements of this essay are also present in “Violence Against Women, A Moravian Understanding of Biblical Authority” (forthcoming from The Unity Women’s Desk).


Interpreting Scripture in the Moravian Church

In the course of the essay, I also introduce factors influencing interpretation that are not explicitly mentioned in the Guiding Principles but that play a significant role in current discussions. Two issues particularly influence my approach and the essay moves toward their discussion at the end: •

The role of the Spirit in transforming individuals and communities and how we might interpret Jesus’ proclamation in John, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come” ( Jn. 16:12-13). How to understand the Ground of the Unity’s statement that scripture serves as our “sole standard.”5 In this matter, we will look at how that statement in the Ground stands up to another statement that follows soon after, that the Moravian Church “maintains that all creeds formulated by the Christian Church stand in need of constant testing in the light of the Holy Scriptures.”6 As important as the Ground is, it does not have the status of the creeds, and, thus, even more requires a testing of its own. What does Scripture say about using scripture as the “sole” standard?

Starting Points

(1) The Guiding Principles begin with a historical overview of the progressive clarification of scripture and essentials in official Moravian statements. Despite differences in wording or emphasis in different times, a core of “essentials” have remained central to our proclamation for over five centuries: As Moravians, we understand that Scripture: • Points us to Christ so that we can find our answers in Him. • Ministers (along with the Sacraments, preaching, etc.) to the divine and human essentials of our faith—that the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, creates, redeems and sanctifies us; and we respond in faith, love and hope.7 These core essentials will serve as a touchstone throughout the essay. (2) In addition, the Ground affirms, “Scripture is the sole standard of the doctrine and faith of the Unitas Fratrum and therefore shapes our life.” Moravians read scripture through a lens that focuses (1) on how God in Christ and through the Spirit continues to create, save, and transform, and (2) how we are called to respond with faith, love, and hope. It is commonly stated that this cluster of beliefs constitutes 5 6 7

Ground, “God’s Word and Doctrine.” Ground, “Creeds and Confessions.” Guiding Principles, p. 5.

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the “essentials” of our understanding and our witness. But, to call them merely a cluster of beliefs misrepresents a Moravian approach to life and scripture. These beliefs do represent the core witness of scripture, but, more importantly, scripture points to these as core realities of creation that existed before scripture and exist beyond scripture. When the Ground goes on to say that we recognize “the Word of the Cross as the center of Holy Scriptures and of all preaching of the Gospel” it is not saying that the Word of the Cross is true because it is in the Bible. It is saying that the Bible is true because it points us to this essential reality of God’s work through Christ and the Spirit in all of creation. I was not part of the Faith and Order Commission’s decisions in developing the Guiding Principles, but the document expresses a similar understanding when it states, “From the earliest days of our history, Moravians have held the Word of God in highest esteem. Yet we have always made it clear that the written word points and directs us not to itself, but to the Word made flesh, that is, Jesus Christ” (p. 1). And “it is not Scripture and our conformity to a particular interpretation of it that unites us, but rather Christ, our Chief Elder, who holds us together by keeping us all close to Him” (p. 5). This understanding seems consistent with the testimony of scripture itself, particularly in the Gospel of John. In John, Jesus debates some of his opponents, saying, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” ( Jn 5:39-40).8 Scripture serves primarily to point us to the work of God as it was, as it is, and as it will be. It is possible for us to become so focused on the work of God as it was that we miss the work of God as it now is and will be. The God who makes all things new frequently must prod us to keep up with what God is doing now or will do next. We live in constant tension between faithfulness to the “old, old story” and openness to the times when God is “going to do something in your days that you would never believe, even if someone told you” (Acts 13:41, Habakuk 1:5). We can be so focused on scripture that we end up like Jesus’ opponents in John: Jesus speaks and acts. Some see and find themselves changed. Others, blinded by their own certainty, seek to score points off the fact that scripture does not say the Messiah comes from Galilee. Regardless of what Jesus does, they point to scripture as a basis for rejecting him ( Jn 7:40-52). All must balance a sense of certainty with an awareness of our immense capacity for error (1 Cor. 8:2, 13:8-12; Jn 9:39-41; Isaiah 55:8-9). (3) The “essentials” of scripture as expressed in the Guiding Principles (p. 4 above) correspond well with the most important emphases of our proclamation as outlined in the Essential Features:

8 Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture references come from THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.


Interpreting Scripture in the Moravian Church

The Unitas Fratrum considers it to be its mission to emphasize especially the following truths from the fullness of the Word of God: • The word of the cross as the testimony of the Lord who was crucified for us and who rose again (1Cor. 1:18, 30); • The word of reconciliation as God making peace with His whole creation (1John 2:2); • The word of personal union with the Savior as the vitalizing and molding power of the believer’s life ( John 15:5); • The word of love between one another as the fellowship of members brought about by Jesus Christ, the Head of His Church (Eph. 4:15, 16).9 The four truths stated here use different terminology from the “essentials” mentioned above, but they follow the same pattern. God in Christ saves and gives life. God creates and seeks reconciliation and peace with and within all of creation. Through our personal union with Christ, the Spirit gives life and shapes (“molds”) our lives.10 These realities, in turn, call us to a life marked by love for one another as people called together by Christ. Based on these understandings, we will seek to discern the ways that scripture, Christ, and the Spirit call or do not call us to draw sharp dividing lines on the basis of the categories “heterosexual,” “homosexual,” “gay,” or “lesbian.”

Describing the Principles “Varying degrees of clarity”

Time and space do not allow consideration of all the Guiding Principles’ guidelines, so discussion will focus on the most relevant. In the section called “Guiding Principles for the Interpretation of Scripture,” the list begins with the statement quoted on page 4 above, “As Moravians we understand that Scripture points us to Christ,” etc. We have already discussed that at some length. After noting that Scripture includes both Old and New Testaments, the list continues: We affirm that not all texts are equally clear. With Zinzendorf, we affirm that scriptural passages have varying degrees of clarity: • Basic truths about salvation (that are clear) • Matters of knowledge that require historical understanding • Mysteries that remain uncertain (even for those with the tools)11 It may seem to some that such a view undermines the authority or sacredness of all scripture. However, one is hard pressed to defend the idea that every verse in the 9 Ground, ch. II, “The Vocation of the Unitas Fratrum and Its Congregations,” par. 100.b, cited in Guiding Principles, pl. 5, ftnt. 19. 10 The “truths” do not use the word “Spirit,” but John 15:5, cited as the source of this emphasis, appears in the midst of a context that begins and ends with talk of the Spirit ( John 14:15 – 15:27). 11 Guiding Principles, pp. 5 – 6.

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Bible is equally authoritative. In fact, we do not see all verses in scripture exercising the same authority. How many people have viewed “No longer drink only water, but take a little wine for the sake of your stomach” (1 Tim 5:23) as the core text guiding their life, as opposed to what Christ identified as “the first and great commandment”—“Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength”12 or the “second” commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”13 Likewise, the Apostle Paul’s exclamation, “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” (Gal 5:12, NRSV)14 has less authority than “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Gal. 5:6, NIV). Both statements were prompted by the same issue and sit only six verses apart, but they have hardly exercised the same authority. The differing authority lies in the extent to which each clearly connects us to the Triune God’s life-giving love and guides us toward lives of increasing faith, love, and hope. From the earliest Christians until now, we have faced tumultuous debates over the enduring authority of different passages of scripture. The debates have been further complicated by a parallel history of viewing our own traditions, interpretations, and customs as if they represent a divinely ordained order of things (see Isaiah 29:13-4; Mark 7:6-8; Col. 2:8). Two thousand years ago, the Apostle Paul proclaimed that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female” (Gal 3:28). That verse proclaims a new understanding of the order of creation at odds with other biblical passages. Galatians 3:28 has served as one witness to essential, eternal truths in three major changes in the church’s life. In these three matters, the church reassessed long-standing interpretations of certain scriptures in light of the fullness of the Word of God and the leading of the Spirit: •

• •

It took early Christians a few decades to begin to undo distinctions between Jew and Gentile. Those who sought to keep Gentiles out had powerful scriptural testimony on their side (e.g., Gen. 17:9-15; Lev. 11; Acts 15:1-5). It took 19 centuries to stop believing it was right to have masters and slaves and to stop using the Bible to “justify” those categories (e.g., Lev. 25:44-46; Eph 6:5; Col. 4:1; Titus 2:9-10). It took 20 centuries to gain a foothold for the idea that the statement, “there is no longer male and female” indicates that “men are not greater than women and should not be treated as if they are.”15

12 Deut 6:5, 10:12, 11:1, 13:3, 30:6; Joshua 22:5; Mt 22:37; Mk 12:30, Lk 10:27 13 Lev 19:18; Mt 19:19, 22:39; Mk 12:31; Lk 10:27; Rom 13:9; Gal 5:14; James 2:8 14 In this case, the NRSV (New Revised Standard Version) more rawly and accurately translates the Greek. 15 That idea has still only secured a foothold (some still point to 1 Tim. 2:8-15; 1 Pet. 3:1-7; 1 Cor. 14:33b40, etc.) Even among Christians, those who ordain women still constitute, at most, only a third of the Christian world. A 2011 Pew Foundation report shows almost 2.2 billion Christians in the world, with close to 2/3 being Catholic and Orthodox, who don’t ordain women. This does not include numbers for Protestant churches that also do not ordain women (


Interpreting Scripture in the Moravian Church

As these conflicts unfolded, some Christians found themselves in a tiny minority. Minority and majority pitted some scriptures against others, eventually leading to a scriptural impasse, with neither side able to penetrate the other’s scriptural fortress. We find ourselves in that position again today. The Guiding Principles’ distinctions between “varying degrees of clarity” in scripture represent guidelines that at times have served the church well in breaking through that kind of impasse. The Principles distinguish between scriptures that clearly connect with the Bible’s essential witness to salvation and those that represent the witness of a particular historical period. This distinction resembles a similar, centuries-old distinction between eternal and temporary laws in scripture or between the moral (or eternal) precepts of the gospel and the ritual (or ceremonial) laws of the Old Testament. As helpful as the distinctions can be, however, they prompt two words of caution: • First, the distinctions are usually clearer in retrospect than in the midst of a debate. No one in the church today would argue that either God or scripture support slavery, but in the mid-19th century that conflict erupted into war. The debates rage most fiercely when what was once considered eternal law gets questioned by people claiming that God calls for new actions and understandings.

Another example: Early Christians disagreed over inclusion of Gentiles in the church, which hinged on whether scriptures related to dietary laws and circumcision retained essential authority. Two thousand years have obscured the intensity of the disagreement, as if what seems obvious now should have been obvious to all at the time. The Christians who supported those practices could point to scriptures connecting dietary laws to the deliverance of Israel, the holiness of God, and the holiness of God’s people (Lev. 11:4347). They could also connect circumcision to an eternal covenant between God and God’s people (Gen. 17:9-14). They saw those passages as clear warrant for accusing the other side of violating the eternal will of God. On the other hand, those who supported eliminating the practices tied their position to different scriptures and/or to the ministry of Jesus (e.g., Mark 7:1-19; Gal. 5:1-18; Acts 15:1-21). The new understandings advocated by Paul and expressed in Mark seem obvious now but were bitterly contested then. Eventually, as we shall see, the scriptural interpretations seen to be in accord with the actions of the living God prevailed. Second, distinctions between eternal and temporary, moral and ceremonial often betray a false dichotomy between the core

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witness of the Old Testament and of the New Testament. The verses noted above, used in support of slavery or limitations of the role of women, come from both testaments. The creating, saving, transforming power of God that ultimately settles these debates finds profound witness throughout all of scripture. They work in tandem. Thus, we can say that (1) the Guiding Principles make a helpful distinction between essential and historically-conditioned parts of scripture (a distinction, as just noted, that we find in scripture itself ), and (2) history shows that it is unlikely that the distinction will, by itself, settle the current questions. Both sides claim their passages are more eternal than the other’s, or each claims that the other side misinterprets scripture. So, what else does the Guiding Principles document offer as a guide?

“Every reading of Scripture … is an … interpretation”

The Guiding Principles list as another of the “considerations for interpretation” the assertion that “Given our human contexts and experiences, we affirm that every reading of Scripture is an act of interpretation.”16 This “consideration” is more contested than the Guiding Principles imply. Many, knowingly or unknowingly, equate their interpretation of biblical texts with the text itself. We can become so familiar with a particular interpretation that it becomes hard to imagine how anyone could understand the text differently. Our interpretation can seem to be, obviously, what the text means. An Orthodox priest once said, “Protestants don’t believe that in communion the bread is the real body of Christ, even though scripture is clear, ‘This IS my body.’” A Baptist pastor once said, “The bread isn’t Christ’s body. It’s a symbol; like if I said (holding a pen) ‘this pen is my car’ and (moving a pencil toward the pen) ‘this pencil is the car that hit my car.’ Clearly symbolic.” Knowingly or unknowingly, both interpret Jesus’ words on the basis of their context, experience, worldview, etc. The text is open to both interpretations, and neither reading can be settled on the basis of simple definitions or grammar. At an even more basic level, the same can be said for translations. Often, they differ not because one is correct and the other is wrong but because one translator emphasizes a particular definition or nuance differently or understands a context differently. Words have multiple meanings, and translators must constantly choose among them, interpreting as they go. For example, Jesus’ statement to Nicodemus can be translated as “You must be born again,” born “anew,” or “from above” ( John 3:3). The Greek word, “anothen,” is correctly translated in all three cases. Translators make a choice, and sometimes note alternative possibilities. Both the NIV and NRSV note alternative translations for this verse, but the NIV picks “anew” as the first choice, and the NRSV picks “from above.” If readers do not check the notes, they get a narrower sense (interpretation) of the word than what is in the Greek. 16

Guiding Principles, p. 6.


Interpreting Scripture in the Moravian Church

Likewise, the Greek word, “sōzō,” can be translated as “save,” “heal,” “make well,” “rescue,” etc. In both the NIV and the NRSV translations of Luke, Jesus ends the encounter with the woman who anointed his feet by saying, “Your faith has saved you” (7:50). In both versions, Jesus ends the encounter with the Samaritan leper by saying, “Your faith has made you well” (19:17). In translation, Jesus’ words are different. In the original Greek, Jesus’ words are identical. English does not have one word that has the same full range of meaning as “sōzō.” The translations are technically correct, but the interpretive choices of the translators narrow the meaning of the Greek, and cause an English reader to miss the larger sense of the original text. Every translation inevitably both translates and interprets. In two of the key passages invoked in the current debate, the realities of translation/interpretation play a major role (1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim 1:8-11). Translators significantly disagree over the most appropriate choice among definitions for two Greek words in the original text: “malakos” and “arsenokoitēs.” One can see the range of possibilities by looking at several translations of 1 Cor. 6:9, which the NIV translates as “do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? … Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men.”17 In other translations, one finds the NIV’s last phrase—“men who have sex with men”—translated as “effeminate” and “abusers of themselves with mankind” (KJV), “sexual perverts” (RSV), or “male prostitutes, sodomites” (NRSV). Likewise, when the NIV translates 1 Timothy’s list of “lawbreakers and rebels” for whom the Law was made, it includes “murderers, the sexually immoral, those practicing homosexuality [arsenkoitēs], slave traders, liars and perjurers” (1 Tim 1:8-11). Other versions translate the word arsenkoitēs as “them that defile themselves with mankind” (KJV) or “sodomites” (RSV, NRSV). Published studies of those two words cover a broad range of historical, cultural contexts and the approval or disapproval of a wide range of behavior. Within their ancient contexts these terms had broad and uncertain connotations that applied both to heterosexual and homosexual behavior. Further, at times, they referred to actions with more of an economic than a sexual sense. Dale Martin offers a thorough analysis of Greco-Roman literature for their range of meanings. He concludes that the meanings cannot be precisely determined and have too broad a range to limit them to the actions of gay or lesbian persons.18 A critique of Martin by Gary Jepsen concludes that although Martin may cast some doubt on the idea that the terms are limited to 17 “Men having sex with men” translates the plural forms of malakos and arsenkoitēs. For their rationale, see Michael Gryboski, “Latest NIV Bible Translation Clearer on Homosexual Sins, Says Theologian,” Christian Post, January 4, 2012, 18 Dale Martin, “Arsenokoités and Malakos: Meanings and Consequences,” Reproduced from Biblical Ethics & Homosexuality: Listening to Scripture, edited by Robert L. Brawley. © 1996 Westminster John Knox Pressés-and-malakos-meanings-and-consequences. Martin does not limit his discussion to determining exact meanings but also critiques approaches that overlook an interpreter’s own ideological bias or assumptions and apply scripture to ethical decisions as if one is reading the text as it is rather than through one’s own lens. As discussed above, I would say, in disagreement with Martin, that scripture expresses certain essential precepts as part of both Old and New Testament understandings of life (e.g., love God and neighbor), and also agree that how we apply those precepts to various situations will reveal our own biases, contexts, worldview, etc.

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gay and lesbian acts, it also “may” be the case or be “reasonable to assume” that they are.19 Jepsen’s approach seems an insufficient basis for ethics, policies, or doctrines. The level of condemnation directed at gay and lesbian persons, based on these passages, would call for a clearer, firmer foundation than what “may” be the case or what one might assume. So, we return to the principle that all reading (and translation) of scripture is an interpretation. In this case, potential bias on both sides makes the waters too muddy. No clarity exists for what these words meant in their original language, much less what they mean in English. Therefore, the extent to which the passages containing these words apply to the lives of gay, lesbian, and/or heterosexual persons is equally unclear. One can argue, as a minimal statement, that a survey of the research related to the words does not clearly demonstrate that they single out gay or lesbian persons as a special class of wrongdoers. The NIV unjustifiably narrows the range of meanings found in the original contexts and limits translation to specific same-gender acts. The NRSV more justifiably reflects the terms’ broader connotations and uses words whose range of meaning is not limited to same gender acts.20 However, both translations are seriously hampered by a lack of clarity in the original texts. This calls into question the authority of these passages in this debate. They lack any “plain sense” to justify specific reference to specific people. Their “essential” role, as proclaimed loudly and often by many, stands in need of serious reassessment. With respect to either the NIV or the NRSV translation, as the saying goes, “Do not condemn the judgment of another because it differs from your own. You may both be wrong.”21

Interpreting “in light of all Scripture”

The Guiding Principles’ list continues: “Given the diverse witness of Scripture, we believe that any particular scriptural text must be interpreted in light of all Scripture.” This accords with the admonition in the Essential Features that the four truths we emphasize are drawn from the “fullness of the Word of God” (p. 6, above). No single verse or set of verses can significantly shape the church’s life and practice unless they accord with Scripture’s essential proclamation. They must be understood in their own contexts, in the context of Scripture’s overall witness, and in the context of God’s work in the world. Earlier discussions (p. 7-8) of the dynamics at work when opposing sides pit scriptures against each other illustrate: (1) Our use of scripture can go awry and become its own source of error, and (2) Sorting out how to understand certain verses in light of other verses is not in and of itself a bad thing. In important ways, using scripture as a guide for interpreting scripture constitutes a key component 19 Gary R. Jepsen, “Dale Martin’s ‘arsenokoites and malakos’ tried and found wanting,” http://www.’s+%22arsenokoites+and+malakos%22+tried+and+found+wanting.-a0153025991. 20 Merriam-Webster defines sodomy as “anal or oral copulation with a member of the same or opposite sex; also: copulation with an animal” 21 Source unknown, commonly attributed to Dandamis (or Dandemis), a 3rd or 4th century BCE Indian Brahmin, reported to have encountered Alexander the Great.


Interpreting Scripture in the Moravian Church

of discerning when to hold on to established ways and when to let go and follow new paths. The New Testament’s quotations of the Old Testament, pro and con on different issues, serve as ample testimony of the value of that dynamic, as individuals and communities seek to grow in faith, love, and hope. Thus, we turn to examining in light of all Scripture other passages invoked in the current debate. Rather than rehearsing the full array of arguments typically used to show the passages condemning or not condemning gay and lesbian behavior, I will provide links to typical presentations of both sides. We will explore how the “fullness of the Word of God” helps us discern the extent to which the passages adhere to essentials of salvation or reveal that they are more tied to a particular time of history or culture. The same process used by the church to distinguish the fullness of the Word of God with respect to Gentiles, slaves, and women can help us in this current discussion. Romans 1:18-3222 The key observation for this discussion centers on the description of the actions as “unnatural.” The passage clearly condemns “all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (1:18), particularly “since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them”—not in scripture, but in creation (1:19). “Although they knew God,” they did not glorify God as God, “but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened” to the point that they “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” (1:21-24). Left by God to their own devices, “even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another” (1:26-7). In the context of this abandonment of God for the sake of idols, they are described as “filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy” (1:29-31). Although the passage condemns the actions described in verses 26-7, it also connects these actions to people who abandon God for the worship of idols (1:18-25). Since the passage flows with one line of thought from 1:18-32, to argue that verses 26-7 describe gay and lesbian persons is also to argue that scripture says that gay and lesbian persons, as a category of human beings, are described as well by verses 29-31. However, one can make that claim only by pulling verses out of context and ignoring the opening description of falling into idol worship. The resulting interpretation

22 For arguments that Romans condemns homosexuality: Greg Koukl, “Romans 1 and Homosexuality,” Stand to Reason blog site, or Robin Schumacher, “Does Romans 1 Condemn Homosexuality?,” The Confident Christian blog site, http://blogs. For arguments that it does not: Kathy Baldock, Romans 1: 26 – 32 | To Whom Was This Directed?,” romans-127-28/ or David Eck, “Romans 1:26-27 Idolatry and Abusive Forms of Sex,” http://jesuslovesgays.blogspot. com/2011/08/romans-126-27-idolatry-and-abusive.html

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reduces a powerful warning against abandoning God in our own culture23 into a distorted motivation for condemning people and unjustly describing them in terms usually reserved for Nazis, mass murderers, sadists, and serial killers. Most people I’ve met who see verses 26-7 as describing gay and lesbian persons would recoil at the idea that a consistent reading of the passage requires that they describe them also with the closing verses. On the basis of the overall context, the most defensible reading calls for dropping the passage as relevant for this debate. And, one can say that for an additional reason as well. Returning to the fact that the passage describes the actions as “unnatural,” it is worthwhile to examine that term in light of another passage to see if it reveals a historical/cultural bias. In Romans 1:16-7, we find the Greek word “physikos,” used to describe things that are “according to the natural order” and a phrase using a form of the word “physis” (nature) to say that something is “against nature” or “against the natural order.” English translations accurately convey the Greek with the words “natural” and “unnatural.” In this case, as opposed to the discussion of “malakos” and “arsenokoitēs” above, accuracy of translation is not the issue. Here the issue centers on what people in that day (or at least Paul) considered as “natural” or “unnatural.” The passage does not go into detail about exactly how the women and men exchanged “natural” for “unnatural” acts, but it leaves no doubt as to Paul’s view of them as being against the natural order of things. On the other hand, in 1 Corinthians 11:14-6 Paul states, “Does not the very nature of things [physis] teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.” Paul asserts that long hair on a man (and short hair on a woman) is not in accord with nature and would not be acceptable in churches of God. This idea is ignored in the pictures of Jesus with long hair hanging in churches around the world. It overlooks the fact that according to its nature, if left uncut, a man’s hair will grow long. It seems to fit more into the category of culturally or historically conditioned beliefs, not matters essential for salvation. If one were to argue that Romans describes gay and lesbian acts as unnatural and, thus, permanently assigns them to the category of abandonment of the ways of God, then what should one do with this argument in 1 Corinthians? Would the same permanent condemnation fall on men with long hair? The church discerned that certain scriptural teachings about dietary laws, circumcision, slavery, and women24 no longer exercise authority in the life and practice of individuals and communities of faith. To no small degree on the basis of scripture itself, it seems likely that these passages invoked as authorities in the area of human sexuality—1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim 1:8-11; Romans 1:18-32— should also cease 23 For example, by worshiping contemporary idols such as money, possessions, financial security, or status— with their accompanying media and advertising images. 24 As noted above, the question of the role of women remains contested outside the Moravian Church (and often within the Moravian Church), as opposed to the other issues.


Interpreting Scripture in the Moravian Church

to be considered authoritative over the church’s life and practice. As will be argued, other scripture passages more directly connect to the essentials of life and salvation, and those other passages offer more authority and better guidance in the current controversy. Genesis 19:1-1125 Similarly, the larger biblical context also undercuts the oftproclaimed clarity and authority of another passage invoked in this debate. The story of the men of Sodom’s desire to have sex with the (male) angelic visitors receives a great deal of emphasis as a condemnation of homosexuality. Clearly, Sodom’s desires receive disapproval throughout the Bible. However, Sodom’s sin seems to lie in the fact that the men did not merely want to have sex with men. They wanted to rape them. The gang outside the door shows no consideration for the wishes of the males inside. (Nor does Lot show any consideration for the wishes of the women inside when he offers them up for the men outside to do with them as they wished.) Thus, to use this story to define what it means to be homosexual is only as defensible as it would be to use Lot’s response as an indicator of what it means to be heterosexual. Further, and more importantly, in the context of the whole of scripture, subsequent descriptions of the sins of Sodom do not focus on homosexuality at all: •

Isaiah first compares the sin of Israel to the sin of Sodom in terms of meaningless sacrifices, ritual observances, and prayers (1:9-15). The people’s “hands are full of blood” and actions are wrong and evil because they need to “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (1:15b-17). Later in Isaiah, the wicked residents of Jerusalem and Judah “parade their sin like Sodom” by plundering the poor, “crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor,” with the city’s sexually immoral residents being, not homosexual, but “haughty” women walking around “flirting with their eyes, strutting along with swaying hips, with ornaments jingling on their ankles” (Isaiah 3:8-17). Jeremiah focuses on idolatry and the “adulterous” practices of turning away from God to serve idols. “Both prophet and priest are godless; even in my temple I find their wickedness,” declares the Lord … They prophesied by Baal and led my people Israel astray … They are all like Sodom to me; the people of Jerusalem are like Gomorrah” ( Jeremiah 23:8-14). Again, the crime is abandoning God and turning to idols, without mention of unnatural sexual relationships. Ezekiel, like Isaiah, focuses on the people’s treatment of the poor: “‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters

25 For arguments that Gen. 19 condemns homosexuality: Ann Lamont, “Homosexual Behavior vs. the Bible,” For arguments that it does not: Sean Isler, St John’s MCC Community Website, “Bible Abuse Directed at Homosexuals,” BibleAbuse/Genesis.php.

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were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.” Again, Sodom serves as a symbol of depravity, deserving condemnation, but in terms of their material wealth and disregard for the poor. In the New Testament, Jude and 2 Peter 2:1-16—which significantly mirror each other—both mention people who had secretly slipped into the community of faith, spread false teachings—even denied Jesus Christ as Lord, and spread the seeds of immorality ( Jude 3-4; 2 Pet 2:1-3). Both books describe the false teachers as “ungodly,” “defiant,” “grumblers and faultfinders” who “follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage” ( Jude 14-16; 2 Pet 2:14-16). Both books predict that these false teachers will suffer the same fate as Sodom and Gomorrah, with Jude specifically tying the actions of Sodom to the people giving “themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion” ( Jude 7; 2 Pet 2:4-10). Again, the actions of Sodom are disapproved. And, again, as in the prophets, their immoral actions as described in Jude and 2 Peter are not limited to their sexuality, particularly not to homosexuality. As it does in Isaiah, the sexual immorality mentioned in Jude could refer to, or at least include, actions that encourage women to act immorally.

The larger scriptural context does not support using Genesis 19 or the city of Sodom as a condemnation directed at and limited to all actions of men wanting to have sex with men. Leviticus 18:22, 20:1326 Taken out of context, these verses seem to state an unequivocal condemnation of homosexuality (though, literally, not of sex between women): “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable” (Lev. 18:22). “‘If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable” (Lev. 20:13). However, again, using the Guiding Principles, these verses cannot simply be taken out of their context. They must be considered within their own context and the larger context of scripture. Some appeal to the verses’ context to uphold them as an enduring condemnation of homosexuality by arguing that these verses are part of the “eternal” moral code. They are preceded (in Lev. 20) by the admonition, “Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am the Lord your God. Keep my decrees and follow them. I am the Lord, who makes you holy” (Lev. 20: 7-8). However:

26 For arguments that these condemn homosexuality: Matt Slick, “Leviticus 18:22, 20:13, and a ‘man who lies with a man,’” For arguments that they do not: Life Journey Church, “Israel’s Holiness Code (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13),”


Interpreting Scripture in the Moravian Church

In between that admonition and the condemnation of a man having sex with a man lies the statement, “Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.” (Lev 20:9). Just as I have never met a Christian who advocates for slavery based on biblical statements accepting it, I have never met a Christian who used this verse as a basis for advocating that a child should be killed for cursing his or her parents. I have heard people who uphold Leviticus’ condemnation of sex between men say the statement about children is “obviously” not meant to be taken literally. I agree, but I do not know why this part of the holiness code is “obviously” dismissed, while surrounding verses in the immediate context are seen to retain their force. Further, the dietary laws in Leviticus 11, as noted above (p. 8), are connected to a similar admonition: “I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. Do not make yourselves unclean by any creature that moves along the ground. I am the Lord, who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy” (11:44-45). Yet, in the end those dietary laws were seen as not having enduring force. The admonition in Lev. 19:2, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy,” is followed by the statement, “The wages of a hired worker shall not remain with you all night until the morning” (also Deut. 24:14-5). Land must not be sold in perpetuity—it belongs to God, not to the people (Lev 25:23). One should not loan money at interest to a brother or to a poor person (Deut 23:19, Lev. 25:25-7). If statements about men having sex with men remain in force, why do not these others?

On the basis of classifying these as superseded ceremonial laws,27 many (if they’re even aware of them) excuse the fact that employers, bankers, homeowners, and people depending on interest-based growth in pension funds ignore these admonitions. That does not concern me as much as refusal to admit that portions of scripture related to dietary laws, circumcision, slavery, wages, property, lending money at interest, and the role of women—in Old and New Testament—have been red-lined, crossed out as superseded by more “essential” passages or realities that better express the ongoing work of the Spirit among the people of God. As the Guiding Principles imply, the Bible itself bears witness to a distinction between scriptures that remain enduring and essential and those that remain in the Bible but no longer have the same authority as they once possessed. 27 Many add the category of “judicial” laws that lost their force after the fall of Israel (e.g., see ftnt 28, Matt Slick), but the differentiation between the categories seems arbitrary at best. For example, in that article, being just with the poor (Lev. 19:15) “expired with the demise of the Jewish civil government.” Practically all the prophets would disagree (see p. 10 above and

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The question remains: if this distinction between differing scriptures has validity, how did/do believers and communities of faith come to know that any particular distinction accords with the ways of God? The question points to a significant omission in the Guiding Prinicples’ final summary. The Guiding Principles’ opening pages note the role of the Spirit at several points: • • •

“Through the Holy Spirit the recognition of God’s will for salvation in the Bible is revealed completely and clearly” (p. 3, citing the Ground). “While the role of Scripture has not changed, God continues to be revealed to Christians of good faith. The Holy Spirit guides God’s people into all truth, dynamic truth” (p. 4). “Our faith and order must be formulated under Scripture and the Holy Spirit” (p. 5).

These three statements about the role of the Spirit do not result in a corresponding acknowledgment of the role of the Spirit in the final list of “Guiding Principles for the interpretation of Scripture” (pp. 4-5).

The Spirit’s Role in Shaping the doctrine, faith, and life of the Moravian Church (or all believers)

We return to the issues raised at the beginning: If we believe that the Spirit of God guides the church, how and when does that happen? What is the role of the Spirit in transforming individuals and communities? How might we interpret Jesus’ proclamation in John, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come” ( Jn. 16:12-13)? Proclamation of the Spirit’s role throughout creation and in the life of God’s people permeates scripture, from the opening of Genesis to the closing of Revelation and at many points in between.28 Moravian doctrinal statements point to the role of the Spirit as well. Even with scripture officially standing as our “sole standard,” it seems safe to say that in the midst of the current scriptural impasse with respect to gay and lesbian persons, we are not left to our own devices to see, in our limited veiw, which side can out-Bible the other. In fact, in the Bible, the Spirit plays the key role in guidance, wisdom, prophesy, teaching, knowledge, and discernment (see ftnt 28), particularly discernment between when to hold fast and when to let go of longstanding traditions and practices ( Jn. 16:12-13). One particular section of scripture—Acts 10-15—dwells at length on how the early church discerned whether or not Gentiles could be full members of the church 28 Gen 1:1-2; Rev 22:17; Psa 139:7; Isa 44:3, 59:1; Eze 36:26-8; Joel 2:28-9; Zech 4:6; Matt 10:16-22 (parallels in Mk 13:9-11; Lk 12:11-12); John 14:15-26, 15:26-16:5; Rom 12; 1 Cor 12; etc.


Interpreting Scripture in the Moravian Church

without first accepting all of the Law.29 Some key points to keep in mind before we explore those chapters in Acts: • • •

As noted above, this conflict also had a scriptural impasse at its center (pp. 7-8). Today, some say the inclusion of Gentiles was not a new teaching, since it is proclaimed in the Old Testament that all peoples will be blessed and become people of God. Saying that it was not new, however, misses the significance of the fierce debate over dietary laws and circumcision. What Paul and others proclaimed was new, because it was new to say that in order to be part of the people of God, Gentiles did not have to change their eating habits or be circumcised—two key marks of Judaism and the people of God as described in the Law. These new claims could not be traced back to an unambiguous teaching from the ministry of Jesus. The Gospel of Mark’s declaration that all foods are clean is offered as an interpretation of a parable, not as a direct quotation from Jesus (Mark 7:14-9).30 Paul gives extended arguments and rationale for his positions rather than simply saying “Jesus and the Bible say it is okay,”31 because the weight of tradition and scriptural evidence—if taken literally as word of God—seemed to be against him. It is important to note (1) as recounted in Acts, many factors influenced the resolution, including citations of scripture as one factor among many, and (2) scripture did not function as a trump card that over-ruled everything else. According to scripture, in this crucial decision about doctrine and practice, scripture did not serve as the sole standard or cast the deciding vote. The Spirit of God did.

In quick summary, according to Acts 10-11 and 15, the main factors playing a role in resolving this major conflict in the earliest Christian communities included the following: •

The key players in this story were a Jewish-born Apostle Peter and a Gentile named Cornelius, described as one who was devout, feared God, gave alms to the poor, and prayed constantly (10:1-2). Cornelius’ character, spiritual depth, generosity toward

29 Margaret Leinbach wrote a helpful analysis of these chapters as a guide for discernment in the midst of conflict, an article worth being taken seriously in the current debate: “A Model for Church Discernment,” The Hinge 18:1 (Fall 2011): 2-13. My use of Acts is more specific to how it might apply to a scriptural impasse. 30 The story ends with a participial phrase most commonly translated as an interpretation of Jesus’ words— “Jesus declared” all foods clean, not “I declare” all foods clean. 31 Dietary Laws in Rom 14:9-23; 1Cor 8:1-13, 10:14-33; Gal 2:11-16; Circumcision in Rom 2:25-9, 4:1-12; 1 Cor 7:17-20; Gal 2:1-21, 3:1-29, 5:1-15, 6:12-16.

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the poor, and deliberate communion with God mattered because he did not fit the stereotype of what Gentiles were supposed to be like. The letter to the Ephesians gives one view of Gentiles: “So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed” (Eph 4:17-19). In addition, 1 Peter admonishes its readers to stop doing “what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry” (1 Pet 4:3). Cornelius’ life already broke the stereotypes, but some tried to use scripture to keep him out. The qualities cited in Acts would not have been enough to bring him in as a Gentile. Beyond any confession of faith in Christ or demonstration of the power of the Spirit, he would have been expected to change further, to act in non-Gentile ways according to the Law of Moses, observing dietary laws and circumcision (Acts 10:25-9, 11:1-3, 15:1-5; Gal 2:11-14). •

Visions, direct revelations from God, moved the process of resolution forward and influenced the decision makers (10:37, 9-16, 11:4-10, 11-14). North American Moravians, many overly influenced by rationalistic, post-Enlightenment culture, do not customarily talk about dreams and visions as channels of communication from God. In my experience, that approach dismisses out of hand an array of spiritual experiences that have played powerful, but often unspoken, roles in people’s lives. This is not to say that every dream, vision, or spiritual experience should be accepted at face value as true. Even Peter needed to ponder his experience to see what it might mean, if anything (10:17-9). Fear of ridicule or embarrassment or of being accused of lacking sophistication leads people to be quiet about these experiences and diminishes our church’s ability to remain open to important, nonrational ways to discern truth. God uses non-rational aspects of our being as a means of breaking through to show us new possibilities of being.32

32 “Non-rational” is not the same thing as “irrational.” Dreams, visions, art, music, stories, etc., can move us toward truth in their own ways, distinct from logic and reason alone. From Jacob’s ladder (Gen 28:10-7) to David’s Saul-soothing music (1 Sam 16:21-3) to a bewildered Joseph’s dream about Mary’s impending delivery of a child (Mat


Interpreting Scripture in the Moravian Church

Scripture doesn’t work as a “trump card.” When Peter responds to the vision in the midst of the experience, he uses his scriptural grounding to justify refusal to do as he is told, acting as if the vision serves as a test of a hungry man’s faithfulness to God (10:9-20, 11:5-10). When the voice says “do not call anything impure that God has called clean,” Peter played the scriptural trump card to answer, “but God is the one who called this unclean. Haven’t you read Leviticus 11? I’ve never eaten unclean food.” But the scriptural trump card is brushed aside, and the voice says, implicitly, “Leviticus 11 might call these things unclean, but God is telling you now that they are clean.” In order to tell people things they were not ready to hear before and to lead people into all truth, God will not let our interpretation of scripture stop God from acting in ways that call for new understanding and practices. God communicated a new thing with the matter of Gentiles, which engendered a new understanding of passages about diet and circumcision. It happened again with passages about slavery. It happened again with passages about women. The church today faces a disputed question—Is God doing something new again with passages about gay and lesbian persons in relation to God and in relation to their roles in God’s church?

The question was decided by individual and communal experiences of the Holy Spirit, leading them to new understanding, establishing the action of God as the ultimate standard of life and practice. Chapters 10-11 and 15 in Acts mention the role of the Spirit ten times.33 The Spirit’s actions provide final confirmation of Peter’s new insight, and the Spirit sets the standard for the community’s subsequent life and practice: •

The Spirit’s actions convince Peter to baptize Cornelius and his household. “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, ‘Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as

1:18-25) to Peter’s vision of the cascading sheet of clean and unclean animals (Acts 10:3-7) to the Macdonian’s dreambased call to Paul (Acts 16:6-10), not to mention the strange imagery and dreamlike “logic” and narrative of the books of Daniel and Revelation (Dan 7:1-28; Rev 1:9-20, etc.), scripture offers abundant testimony to this non-rational component of spiritual life. 33 Acts 10:19, 38, 44, 45, 47; 11:12, 15, 16; 15:8, 28

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we have.’ So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days” (10:44-8). The Spirit’s action is the deciding factor when Peter defends the baptism of Cornelius to skeptics in Jerusalem: “‘As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?’ When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life’” (11: 15-8). The Spirit’s actions, again, serve as the decisive factor when Peter defends the baptisms to the apostles and elders at the Jerusalem Council: “Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.’ The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: ‘Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.’” (15:5-12).

James’ decisive pronouncement that follows from Peter’s accounts connects the Spirit’s actions to scripture. In all the key issues mentioned before (Gentiles, slavery, women) the Spirit does not do away with scripture altogether. It’s not all or nothing, as if a reduction in authority in one part of scripture reduces or eliminates the authority of all of scripture. At least that’s not how James portrays it. He cites both the action of the Spirit and a passage of scripture as authoritative for eliminating a practice called for by Leviticus 11: When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: ‘After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, that the


Interpreting Scripture in the Moravian Church

rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things’ — things known from long ago. “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood” (15: 13-9). As James reviews the whole of scripture, he cites, not Leviticus 11, but Amos 9:11 and Isaiah 45:21 as bearing witness to the core essentials of scripture because they bear witness to God’s movement in their midst. The essentials of scripture become clear to the extent that they bear witness to God’s ongoing actions of creation, salvation, and transformation. Although all three passages remain in scripture, only the last two are ultimately seen to retain enduring authority for the church. The Spirit has led God’s followers deeper into truth.

Concluding Unscientific Postscript34

If we use two different parts of the Ground to interpret how it serves as a reliable guide to discerning doctrine and practice, the Ground’s statement that scripture is the sole standard must be understood as being qualified by the Ground’s own insistence on testing everything in light of scripture. The reading of Acts 10-15 and John 16 show that scripture itself does not hold scripture as the “sole” standard. Those passages demonstrate scripture’s role of serving as a witness to the ultimate standard, the actions of the Spirit as it guides the church. So, to the extent to which a passage in scripture bears witness to that action of the Spirit, it retains enduring authority. Now, lest I be accused of saying that we get to pick and choose the parts of scripture we like and the parts of scripture that we do not like: I emphasize that decisions about which scriptures have enduring authority are not based on a desire to escape God’s claim on our lives. Just the opposite. They are based on a desire for the Spirit to claim our lives, regardless of how that claim might disrupt existing beliefs or practices. Self-interest can lead astray those who seek to hold on to old ways just as much as it can lead astray those who seek something new. As the Apostle Paul says, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God” (Rom 8:26-7). Like Jesus’ opponents in John 7, persons on both sides of the scriptural impasse can be so sure that they DO know how to pray as they ought, that, deafened by their own certainty, they do not hear the Spirit interceding for them and for others. Once 34 all time.

The section heading comes from the title of a book by Søren Kierkegaard, one of the great book-titlers of

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we have lined up all the scripture passages and built our biblical fortresses, the most essential witness of scripture calls us to get over ourselves and our interests. We are simply called to discern how best to respond to God’s actions in our midst. In John 9, Jesus says, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind” (9:39). Some of his opponents, depending on their long-standing interpretation of certain passages of scripture “heard him say this and asked, “What? Are we blind too?” Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains” (9:40-1). Neither clinging to the old nor clamoring for the new will get us to deeper truth. We only get there by letting the Spirit guide us in the way we should go, whether that way is what we expect or not. So, based on the above discussion, I offer my views about how scripture speaks to the role of gay and lesbian persons in the life of the church. Your own results may vary, but as I read the Guiding Principles, study scripture, and seek to see and understand the work of the Spirit among us, I say: •

The kinds of discernment involved in these difficult and divisive debates require us to weigh a host of factors—scripture; prayer; the character, integrity, and faithfulness of key persons actively engaged in the debate; visions, dreams, and other spiritual experiences; the wisdom of individuals and the collective wisdom of the community. All of these constitute essential elements helping us to discern truth based on the actions of the most Essential guide: the creating, saving, and transforming power of the Spirit at work in individuals and communities of faith. The Guiding Principles’ distinction between scriptures that bear witness to the core essentials of God’s work in the world and scriptures that reflect significant historical/cultural factors is amply demonstrated within scripture itself or within the ongoing history of the people of God. The church’s doctrines and practices changed as the Spirit led to new understandings of scriptures related to (1) inclusion of Gentiles (an inclusion from which all of us benefit who did not convert from Judaism) and reduction in authority of scriptures related to dietary laws and circumcision, (2) the abolition of slavery, and reduction in authority of scriptures related to acceptance and approval of slavery, and (3) the role of women in the church and the reduction in authority of scriptures related to constraining women’s roles simply on the basis of the fact that they are women. Scripture passages often invoked as essential, authoritative portions of the word of God that condemn the lifestyle and practices of gay and lesbian person do not withstand scrutiny when explored in


Interpreting Scripture in the Moravian Church

their own historical/cultural contexts, their immediate contexts in scripture, and/or the larger, essential witness of scripture. The church said that scriptural admonitions related to dietary laws, circumcision, and slavery are no longer binding on followers of Christ. This discernment was reached in the absence of an explicit word of Jesus Christ specifically addressing the topics and in the face of a multitude of scriptures that explicitly required or upheld those practices as consistent with the ways of God. When confronted with a biblical impasse in the midst of controversy over the faith and practice of the people of God, scripture tells us to let the actions of the Spirit in our midst lead us toward all truth and guide our actions toward each other. Understanding in any other way the Ground’s statement that scripture serves as our sole standard violates scripture’s own core testimony. Following the later, qualifying statement in the Ground that we must test everything in the light of scripture, we stay most faithful to both the Ground and scripture by letting the Spirit lead us deeper into truth in ways that we might not have been ready to see and hear before. Following the witness of the Gospel of John and Acts 10-15 as applied to the full inclusion of gay and lesbian persons in the life of the church, if “the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning … [and we] remember what the Lord had said: “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit,” then ”if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who [are we] to think that [we] could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:15-8). The Spirit leads us into new and deeper truth, even if long-standing traditions and interpretations of scripture have told us otherwise. If gay and lesbian persons demonstrate the same gifts of the Spirit as the apostles, as the larger group of original disciples, as Gentiles, as slaves, and as women, then our response to that creating, saving, transforming work of God would be to welcome them into all the same roles as these others. It’s what the Spirit and the Bible tell us to do.

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How Moravians Read the Bible in the Past Craig D. Atwood Introduction

This paper was written for a workshop on Scripture at the Eastern District Conference in 2011. My co-leader for the workshop was Dr. Ben Wright of Lehigh University who is a Moravian and a biblical scholar. I can claim to be only one of those things, but I was asked to address the issue of how Moravians have read the Bible through the centuries. Is it possible to identify a Moravian approach to Scripture that can continue to guide the church? We had a very good discussion in the workshop, and I was gratified that some of that discussion proved helpful to those who prepared the “Guiding Principles of Biblical Interpretation.” For this special issue of The Hinge we thought it might be helpful to include the whole paper.


To begin with, it is important that we remember just how seriously our spiritual ancestors took the Bible. In some cases this was literally a matter of life and death for them. Religion can be a very dangerous thing. I often remind Moravians that every year in July we remember the death of John Hus who was condemned for heresy by the Council of Constance. Every year on July 6 we should remember that disputes over Scripture can lead to violence. It is hard to imagine today, but in the 1400s anyone who rejected the official teachings and practices of the Catholic Church could be arrested, tortured, and killed. It would be nice if we could say that the people doing the torturing and killing in the name of the Church did not believe in the Bible, but they did. The bishops and the inquisitors of the Catholic Church justified their actions by quoting Scripture. They knew the Bible, but they believed that the decisions of church councils and popes should be equal in authority to Scriptures. At his trial, Hus insisted instead that the Scriptures should be the final authority in the church rather than the opinions of popes, theologians, and lawyers. The Catholic Church was so afraid of what could happen if people were allowed to interpret the Bible on their own without the authoritative teaching of theologians and bishops that they executed Hus. Hus could have saved his life at any point simply by agreeing with the church’s teachings rather than insisting on his interpretation of Scripture, but he chose not to. Craig Atwood is a presbyter in Hus’s life was profoundly shaped by the the Moravian Church, serves as teachings of Jesus and the story of his execution the Director of the Center for Moravian Studies and teaches by the Roman Empire. Hus was convinced that Moravian Theology at Moravian the church of his day was abusing the teachings Theological Seminary. of Jesus and using the power of the Church


Interpreting Scripture in the Moravian Church

to abuse and oppress people. Rather than proclaiming the Good News of salvation in Christ, priests were vexing people’s souls with sermons about the sufferings of purgatory in order to sell people indulgences that promised release from suffering in the afterlife. Monks were manufacturing miracles like bleeding paintings of Christ so that pilgrims would make pilgrimage to shrines (and give gifts). Many bishops lived lives that deserved condemnation rather than veneration, but when Hus tried to reform the church he was attacked and condemned as a heretic. He believed it was better to die as a witness to the truth than to conform to lies and corruption. Hus died singing because he believed that he would live with Christ in heaven. When Moravians talk about our lives being shaped by the Scriptures, keep in mind that for Hus this included the idea of dying for the truth. Hus’s followers continued his reformation after his death. They proclaimed that the Law of Christ was superior to the law of popes and cardinals, and the symbol of their rebellion was the chalice used in Holy Communion. For years the Catholic Church forbade lay persons to drink from the chalice even though Jesus said “drink of this all of you.” The Hussites believed that this was an egregious example of the institutional church defying the clear teachings of Jesus. They read the Bible simply and believed that Jesus meant it when he said “drink of this all of you.” Today it is easy to dismiss this as a minor disagreement over biblical interpretation, but it was a hot issue in 1414 when a priest named Jakoubek let lay people – even women – drink from the same chalice as the priest. The government of Bohemia killed hundreds of people simply because they drank from the chalice in violation of the decrees of the Council of Constance. The pope and emperor launched five crusades against the Hussites in an attempt to exterminate everyone who claimed that the Bible was a greater authority than the pope. These crusades convinced the Hussites that the Catholic Church was the Church of the Antichrist rather than the Church of Christ. It did not matter how much people quoted Scripture if their actions were contrary to Scripture. If the Church sent soldiers to kill people to protect their way of life and their standard of living, it was no longer Christian. Since the Hussites believed that Scripture should be the touchstone for authentic Christian teaching, it must be provided in the language of the people and made available to everyone who professed faith in Christ. This was a radical concept in the 15th and 16th century. For centuries the Church had insisted that the sacred Scripture should be read only in the sacred languages of Latin or Greek, but the Hussites believed that God’s Word can be understood by the people. However, the fact that they were willing to translate the Bible meant that they did not view the words of the Bible themselves as sacred. It was the revelation within the Scripture that was sacred. Every man, woman, and child should be taught to read and understand the Gospels because Christ wants all of his followers to have faith in him and live according to his teachings.

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The Unity of the Brethren


The Czech Reformation continued through many trials for years after the martyrdom of Hus. Fifty years after Hus’s death a small group of men and women formed a covenant community in the village of Kunvald in eastern Bohemia. They were led by Gregory the Patriarch who had never been ordained a priest. Nor did Gregory have a degree in theology. He did not call his little community a church since that word referred to the large institutional church. “Church” meant the institution that was part of the government. The Church was the institution that collected tithes by force and compelled people to attend worship. Gregory’s fellowship was a voluntary community of brothers and sisters who wanted to shape their lives according to the teachings of the New Testament. They called themselves the Unity of Brethren. Like the first Christians they were to be brothers and sisters united in their devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ. The Brethren disagreed with other Hussites because they felt that obedience to the Law of Christ meant much more than simply drinking wine in Holy Communion. They insisted that Christians should follow all of the teachings of Jesus in the Bible. The Sermon on the Mount is the clearest expression of Jesus’ teachings for his followers, and the Brethren believed that Jesus’ instructions are still binding on his followers. Gregory was influenced by the writings of a lay theologian named Peter Chelčicky. Peter was much more radical than Hus in his reading of Scripture and his call for a complete reform of the church. Peter argued that the church of the apostles was the purest expression of Christianity, and all churches should try to live up to that ideal. He proclaimed that the New Testament provides a description of the church living under the Law of Christ. Peter regarded the Old Testament as an inferior and incomplete revelation that must be read only in light of the New Testament. The kingship of Christ has replaced the flawed kingship of David. Old Testament laws regarding secular authority and war were abolished by Christ and replaced by his Law of Love.1 Peter completely rejected the idea that secular authority should enforce the laws of the church. Christians should live according to the New Covenant, which is based on radical love rather than fear. Peter wrote: If the Law has been commuted, and if we are liberated from the Law of death through the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, and subjected to the Law of love, then let us see on what foundation power can be placed in Christ’s faith. If he had wanted people to cut each other up, to hang, drown, and burn each other, and otherwise pour out human blood for his Law, then that

1 Murray Wagner, Peter Chelčický: A Radical Separatist in Hussite Bohemia (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1983), 86-89.


Interpreting Scripture in the Moravian Church

Old Law could also have stood unchanged, with the same bloody deeds as before.2 In other words, Christians must look first and foremost to the teachings of Jesus, not the old law of Moses. Peter subordinated the old revelation of Moses and the prophets to the new revelation in Jesus Christ. Jesus was greater than Moses. Peter did not get rid of the Old Testament, but he knew that the Old Testament can be a very dangerous book if taken too literally. He knew that the Church often used the Old Testament to justify killing people, maiming people, and frightening people with stories of the wrath of God. A young noble by the name of Gregory read Peter’s writings in the 1450s, and he resolved that he would live according to the Law of Christ. Gregory and his followers broke completely with the established church when they ordained their own priests in 1467. They also wrote their own hymns and confessions of faith, established a strict church discipline, and established schools. They tried to recreate the church of the apostles as seen in the New Testament. This was the origin of the Unitas Fratrum, which we call the Moravian Church today. Christ was the “one thing necessary” for the Brethren because through Christ humans know God, are saved from sin and death, and learn the law of love. The New Testament was to be preferred in matters of faith and practice because it “neither condemns to death … nor coerces anyone to fulfill its commandments, but rather with loving patience calls for repentance, leaving the impenitent to the last judgment.”3 The Brethren did not reject the Old Testament, but they valued the wisdom literature of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes much more than the books of the Mosaic law and the bloody history of the Israelite kings. The Brethren believed that Christ is the Word of God in human flesh. This means that Christ is the revelation of the invisible God in human form. Scripture should point beyond itself to God and should lead people into a faithful relationship with Christ.4

Scripture as Ministerial

The Brethren made an important distinction between things that are essential to salvation; those that minister to salvation; and those that are incidental. The essentials are just that. They are essential. Without the essentials, nothing else matters. The Brethren decided that there are only six essential things. God creates. God 2 Peter Chelčicky, “On the Triple Division of Society,” tr. and ed. Howard Kaminsky, in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History 1 (University of Nebraska Press, 1964), 105-179, here 139-140. 3 Peter Brock, The Political and Social Doctrines of the Unity of the Czech Brethren in the Fifteenth and Early Sixteenth Centuries. Vol. 11 of Slavistic Printings and Reprintings. Ed. by Cornelis H. van Schooneveld (The Hague: Mouton & Co., 1957), 86. 4 Paul Ricouer, “The ‘Sacred Text’ and the Community,” in Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, and Imagination, ed. Mark I. Wallace, tr. by David Pellauer (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1995), 68-74 discusses the crucial difference between the Bible as an authoritative text and as a sacred object. The Bible has authority because it is the defining text for the community and its life. “Preaching is the permanent reinterpretation of the text that is regarded as grounding the community; therefore, for the community to address itself to another text would be to make a decision concerning its social identity.”

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redeems. God sanctifies. Humans respond to God’s work with Faith, Love, and Hope. Those are the essentials. God is the one who creates, redeems, and sanctifies, not the church. The work of the believer is in the realm of faith, love, and hope. It does not matter how brilliant your theology is or how accurate your translation of the Bible is or how successful your church is; if it does not demonstrate faith, love, and hope, it is not a church. Many things that churches think are essential were considered “ministerial” by the Brethren because they minister or serve what is essential. Baptism, Holy Communion, confession, the priesthood, worship, and church discipline were all ministerial. Ministerials are very important because they communicate what is essential. The ministerials are sacred because they point to what is truly sacred, but they are not sacred in themselves. One way to think about this is to ask: what happens if the Inquisition burns down your church, kills your priest, and throws you in prison? Have you lost your salvation or do you still have what is essential: faith, love, and hope? Or, on the other hand, if you have a beautiful church with great music and inspiring preaching but do not have faith, love, and hope, what do you have? It often comes as a surprise to Moravians to learn that the founders of our church viewed Scripture as ministerial rather than essential. The great Moravian theologian Luke of Prague said: “the Word of God is the first, greatest, and most necessary ministerial thing.”5 It was the basis of all other ministerial things, which get their holiness from the Word, but it is still ministerial. The Brethren believed that the Word of God can not simply be equated to the words of the Bible. The true Word of God is the gospel of Christ and his commandments, not the mere words of Scripture. Luke, like Gregory and the first Brethren, believed that the Word of God is more clearly seen in the New Testament than the Old. The New Testament is the foundation of true faith without which no one can come to God. Calling Scripture a ministerial did not diminish the status of Scripture, but it made it possible to translate Scripture and to read it intelligently. Scripture is holy because it points people to Christ. But it is Christ, not the written Bible that is essential. The Bible is the guiding rule of faith. Luke taught pastors and teachers to distinguish “between the external writing of the law, with ink on paper or parchment, and the external reading of it, and the internal truths contained in it.”6 Luke instructed preachers to pay close attention to four things when interpreting a passage: when was it written, where was it written, to whom was it written, and why was it written.7 Was a particular passage written in ancient Israel in the time of the Mosaic Law or was it written in the time of the early church and the Law of Love? The essential teachings of the Bible are illuminated through the Holy

5 6 here 38. 7

Joseph Müller, Geschichte der Böhmischen Brüder, 3 vols. (Herrnhut: Missionsbuchhandlung, 1931) I:462. Quoted by C. Daniel Crews, “Luke of Prague: Theologian of the Unity,” The Hinge 12:3 (2005), 21-54, Quoted by Müller, Geschichte der böhmische Brüder, I:462.


Interpreting Scripture in the Moravian Church

Spirit within the community of faith rather than in classrooms and libraries, according to Luke.8 One of the most important Moravian confessions of faith was published in 1535. It begins with a statement on the authority of Scripture.9 This was the first Christian confession of faith to begin with a discussion of Scripture. Our forebears in faith said that the apostolic writings “should be preferred to the writings of anyone else as sacred to profane writings and divine to human ones.” It is interesting that the catechism defines Scripture as those writings “received by the fathers and endowed with canonical authority,” thus acknowledging that the canon of Scripture was determined by the early church rather than given directly by the apostles. The Confession of 1535 insists that Scripture be translated into modern languages rather than being treated like an arcane text for the intellectual elite. It should be “understood by all” and believed “implicitly and simply.” Scripture was inspired, not dictated, by God “through the instrumentality chiefly of Peter and Paul.”


One of the most important Moravian thinkers was John Amos Comenius who lived during a time of intense religious violence. In the 1600s Protestants fought Catholics; Lutherans fought Calvinists; Puritans fought Anglicans, but Comenius urged Christians to recognize that moderation is an important part of Christian faith. Satan works by inflaming unholy passions and pushing people to extremes of rationalism empty of faith or fanatical devotion devoid of reason. “We must therefore oppose Satan by keeping to a middle course 1. between neglect and abuse of the Scriptures, 2. between a life of profanity and one of superstition, 3. between neglect of discipline and harmful rigidity.”10 He also argued that if the path ahead is uncertain, it is safer to keep to the middle so that you can move to the right or left as needed without becoming lost. Comenius examined many of the doctrinal issues that were dividing Christians of his day and concluded that some of them could not be decided on the basis of Scripture alone. He blamed theologians, who seemed to think that “to know simply Christ seems too simple a theology,” for the disputes and divisions among Christians.11 He reminded his readers that Satan was “a sophist” who was always offering arguments, just like a theologian. On the question of justification by faith or works, for example, the apostles Paul and James clearly disagree in the Bible. Comenius concluded that both faith and works are necessary.12 Rather than fighting over this, Christians should follow both Paul and James: “As Paul praises faith, you must put 8 Erhard Peschke, Kirche und Welt in der Theologie der Böhmischen Brüder Vom Mittelalter zur Reformation (Berlin: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 1981), 170. 9 Jaroslav Pelikan and Valerie Hotchkiss, Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition, 3 vol. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), I:801-802. 10 John Amos Comenius, Panorthosia or Universal Reform, ch. 19-26, tr. A. M. O. Dobbie (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993), 204. 11 Comenius, Unum Necessarium, tr. Vernon Nelson (B.D. thesis: Moravian Theological Seminary, Bethlehem, 1958, ), 97. 12 Comenius, Panorthosia, 13-133,

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your trust in our beloved Saviour with all your heart. As James recommends works, you must do everything with a pure heart.”13 Comenius believed that true Christianity is simple, profound and powerful.14 Politicians, priests, and lawyers create needless perplexity and complication. Comenius pointed out that the first religion was that of Abraham: “to believe in one God, to obey one God, to hope for life from God the fount of life.” He also quoted Micah 6:8 (“to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God”) as a summary of true religion. “See, this was the whole of religion before the law and under the law, to grasp God by faith, to embrace God with love, and to hold God by hope.”15 Comenius insisted that the Bible is the great fountain of divine truth and guidance, but it has to be studied carefully. Comenius urged people to apply reason to the study of Scripture. A Bible student starts “by learning all the biblical history,” but he or she must go beyond this to perceive “the true meaning of these three articles: faith, love, hope.”16 The ultimate goal of reading the Bible and being part of the community of faith is to become a renewed creation: a man or woman “created according to God, in justice and holiness of truth.”17 Simplicity in doctrine does not mean stupidity; nor does trust in God mean turning away from human responsibility. Faith and reason, service and devotion, love and reconciliation, realism and hope were united in Comenius’ thought, just as they were in the teaching of the Brethren from the beginning. Comenius continually refined the Unity’s theological heritage by insisting that Christianity is not a matter of wrangling over the mysteries of salvation; it is a discipleship that allows a clearminded commitment to social justice, personal integrity, interpersonal forgiveness, and sacrificial love. The one thing needful, for Comenius, was the Christ who provides a “paradise of the heart” in the midst of confusion and frustration by leading believers out of self-centeredness and greed into universal love and justice.


As you probably know, the Moravian Church was reborn in the 1720s on the estate of Count Zinzendorf. He was one of the most creative theologians of modern times, and his ideas continue to shape the Moravian Church. Zinzendorf loved the Bible and labored to translate the New Testament from Greek into modern German. One of his great innovations was taking individual verses of Scripture out of context and using them as “watchwords” for the day. Today these verses are chosen by lot, but originally Zinzendorf selected them personally. He wanted people to take the words of Scripture into their hearts and minds and let the words of the Bible guide their actions and attitudes. Moravian liturgies, especially in Zinzendorf ’s day, were composed primarily of Bible verses or paraphrases. Moravians were expected to know their 13 14 15 16 17

Comenius, Panorthosia, 142. Comenius, Unum Necessarium, 64. Comenius, Unum Necessarium, 88-89. Comenius, Unum Necessarium, 73. Comenius, Unum Necessarium, 74.


Interpreting Scripture in the Moravian Church

Bibles so intimately that they would understand references to Elisha or the daughters of Philip. He noted that it is important for readers of the Bible to recognize that Paul and Peter were both Christians and yet had different things to say about Jesus. The Bible does not speak objectively as a uniform and authoritative expression of a single viewpoint, and it is wrong for preachers or theologians to try to force it to do so. The Bible includes a number of voices speaking out of their own experience; therefore the personal histories and personalities of the biblical authors shape their expression of revelation.18 The diversity in the Bible should not make us uncomfortable because it increases the Bible’s usefulness for the church. Zinzendorf agreed with modern biblical scholars that the Gospel of John was written last, but this makes it superior to the others. He claimed that the Holy Spirit had more time to reveal the truth about Jesus to John than the other apostles.19 But John should not simply replace Mark. Each of the gospels is necessary even if John is the key to understanding the whole Bible. The key to understanding Zinzendorf ’s approach to the Bible is his idea of religion of the heart. He believed that true religion is a matter of the heart or soul, not the mind alone. He did not have much sympathy for those who get wrapped up in the most obscure parts of the Bible and ignore what is clear. He claimed that the prophets sometimes received dark and confusing revelations, which “even they had no clear concept of it in the understanding.”20 Even more provocatively, Zinzendorf openly acknowledged that the Bible is flawed in its historical details and lacks the artificial beauty of the classics. The Bible is not a perfect book, but this only proves that it is true to God’s purpose and to human life.21 God let the authors speak out of their own experience. Zinzendorf argues that it is a terrible error, perhaps even a sin, to try to force the Bible to speak with a single voice, or to “improve” it. The fact that the Bible has so many errors (scarcely a book today would be published with as many) is, for me at least, an unassailable proof for its divinity. Why? It was so much the desire of the Lord that not a syllable in the divine teaching of the Holy Scriptures be altered.22 Zinzendorf valued the Old Testament more highly than the original Moravians did, but he agreed with them that the Old Testament must be interpreted through the New Testament. He claimed that the Old Testament also reveals God the Son because YHWH was the Son not the Father. Zinzendorf believed that the Bible teaches that 18 Zinzendorf, Wundenlitanei Homilien, reproduced in Zinzendorf, Hauptschriften in sechs Bänden, vol. 3 (hereafter ZH), ed. by Erich Beyreuther and Gerhard Meyer (Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1962), 145. 19 Erich Beyreuther, Studien zur Theologie Zinzendorfs (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Kries Moers, 1962), 38; Zinzendorf, Einundzwanzig Diskurse (ZH 6), 101. 20 Zinzendorf, Der öffentlichen Gemeinreden im Jahr 1747 (ZH 4), Anhang 2, 18. 21 “Therefore it is a great thing that the Holy Scripture was brought together with a great heavenly wisdom out of a hundred pieces, and their proper purpose is not at all to run together a series of thoughts in a flowing connection, like a system. Instead it [concerns] faith matters which concern the ground point of our blessedness and way of life.” Gemeinreden, part 2, Introduction, p. 2-3 (unnumbered). 22 Zinzendorf, Wünden Reden, 144.

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Christ is the Creator.23 In Pennsylvania Zinzendorf preached: “In the Old Testament people knew about no other God at all except our Lord Jesus, who at that time was called Jehovah.”24 The first chapter of the Gospel of John clearly paints Jesus as the preexistent logos who is the creative force in the universe. Zinzendorf also accepted the tradition that Isaiah 9:6 is a messianic prophecy, especially the idea that the messiah would be called “almighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.” In short, the Old Testament reveals Christ as God in human form. Zinzendorf points to other passages of the New Testament that explicitly or implicitly identify Christ as the Creator (e.g. Heb. 1:8 f., Col. 1:16) in order to show that those who deny that Christ is the Creator are denying the plain truth of scripture. The Creator was incarnate in Jesus. Indeed, when they [the theologians] ask us for a single axiom from which we derive with our doctrine all other principles; when they ask us for the two chief lines of the Bible without which the Bible is and remains a chaos of nonsense; when they ask I say, the two chief propositions upon which scriptural doctrine stands and falls: the first is that there is a Savior, and the second is that the Savior is the Creator.25 The doctrine of Christ as Creator was so important to Zinzendorf that he dared publicly to disagree with the Apostle Paul who in I Corinthians 15:24 subordinates the Son to the Father.26 Since the Savior is the Creator, there is no separation between creator and redeemer. The same God who made human creatures also came to redeem them. We can debate the merits of Zinzendorf ’s theology another time, but the idea that Christ is the creator was part of Moravian doctrine well into the 19th century. Spangenberg included it in his Idea Fidei Fratrum. The important thing for our discussion this morning is that Zinzendorf and his followers had a clear method for making sense of the Bible. Christ is the Word of God who was incarnate. We read the Bible through the mind of the redeemer. The Bible is a living book of revelation because Christ is a living presence in the community of faith.

The Moravians in the 18th century

The Moravians in Herrnhut tried to create a new Christian community based on the teachings of the New Testament rather than simply following tradition. This meant that they ordained women to offices in the church since women were among the disciples, apostles, and elders of the early church. They called each other “brother” and “sister” and insisted that clergy are servants rather than lords. They exchanged the Kiss of Peace and shared in lovefeast and footwashing. They believed that Christ had made 23 Zinzendorf, Kinder Reden, reproduced in Erich Beyreuther, ed. Ergänzungsbände zu den Hauptschriften (hereafter ZE), vol. 6 (Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1964), 411-412; Beyreuther, Studien, 11 f. 24 Zinzendorf, A Collection of Sermons from Zinzendorf ’s Pennsylvania Journey (hereafter, Pennsylvania Sermons), tr. Julie Weber, ed. Craig D. Atwood (Bethlehem, Pa.: Moravian Publication Office, 2001), 19. 25 Zinzendorf, Gemeinreden, 153-154. 26 Zinzendorf, Einundzwanzig Diskurse (ZH 6), 96.


Interpreting Scripture in the Moravian Church

all people, not just white people, and that Christ had purchased all people through his blood. This meant that slaves and Indians were brothers and sisters who were to be loved not exploited. The first worship service in the new sanctuary of the Salem church in North Carolina in 1771 gives you some idea of just how radical the Moravian’s interpretation of the New Testament was. An African named Sam was baptized, given the new name Johann Samuel, and received into the congregation with a kiss given by the white pastor.27Can you imagine anywhere else in America where a white man would kiss a black man publicly and call him brother? The limits of the Moravian view of Scripture, though, were also evident in that service. Sam remained a slave after his baptism. Spangenberg was less provocative than Zinzendorf, but he also acknowledged that the canon of Scripture was determined by the bishops of the early church. He believed that both testaments provide reliable information about the nature of God and God’s will for human beings, but he rejected the notion that the Holy Spirit dictated the Bible verbatim. Like Zinzendorf, he asserted that the Holy Spirit let each author write according to his own natural ability and knowledge. “If they gave him only their heart, and were willing to be led and governed by his Holy Spirit, for all the purposes he had with them, he then left all the rest to take its own natural course, as far as there was nothing sinful in it.”28 This is a far cry from theories of “plenary inspiration” that assert that the biblical authors were mere stenographers of the Spirit.29 He viewed the Bible as the source of doctrine and moral instruction and was not all concerned over the historical issues raised by critical study of the Bible.30 He wanted people to focus on the central teaching of the Bible: redemption through Christ. Spangenberg asserted that those who have accepted their redemption in Christ are empowered to live by an ethic of love. With the help of the Holy Spirit, they will be able to love their neighbors and so fulfill the demands of the Decalogue. His love ethic has radical potential since all humans are our neighbors. Followers of Christ must love all people “whether friends or foes, whether of the same religious persuasion” or not. “We must be obliged to say, Thou shalt love all men as thyself, whether converted or unconverted, whether Christians, Jews, Turks, Pagans, or by whatever name they may be called.”31 This is the great message of the Bible. The opposite of love is hatred, which is the desire to harm others or to rejoice in the harm that they suffer. Spangenberg insisted: “hatred against any man is therefore not compatible with a heart that has experienced Jesus to be its Saviour.”32 He is 27 Jon Sensbach, A Separate Canaan: The Making of an Afro-American World in North Carolina, 1763-1840 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 83. 28 August Gottlieb Spangenberg, Idea fidei fratrum oder kurzer Begriff der christlicher Lehre in den evangelische Brüdergemeinden (Barby, 1782). The version quoted throughout this paper is An Exposition of Christian Doctrine, as Taught in the Protestant Church of the United Brethren, or, Unitas Fratrum, tr. and ed. by Benjamin LaTrobe, 3rd English edition (Winston-Salem, NC: Moravian Church Board of Christian Education, 1959), 42. 29 Spangenberg, Idea fidei fratrum, 42. 30 Hans Frei, Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1974), 38-40. 31 Spangenberg, Idea fidei fratrum, 360-361. 32 Spangenberg, Idea fidei fratrum, 361.

The Hinge: International Theological Dialog for the Moravian Church


intolerant of hatred, calling it a “notorious work of the flesh” that will prevent a person from entering the Kingdom of God. It is part of the fallen condition of humankind that must be overcome by grace. Sanctification is characterized by love for all people. This love must include the love of one’s enemies. “Now, if any one loves his enemy, then he not only seeks to avoid whatever might hurt him; but he is also inclined, and earnestly intent upon doing every thing to the utmost of his power, to the furtherance of that which can be of service to him.”33 In other words, if your reading of the Bible leads you to hate anyone, then you are probably doing it wrong. You may be reading the Bible without the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

19th and 20th centuries

After the death of Zinzendorf, the Moravian Church grew more conservative theologically and socially. The church’s leaders were profoundly frightened by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution in Europe. In America, they were also afraid of the emotionalism of the Second Great Awakening and the rationalism of Christian liberals. General synod approved four Chief Doctrines in the late 18th century. By the end of the 19th century the number of Chief Doctrines had been expanded to eight. Americans sometimes called these eight doctrines the eight essentials, but that is a misnomer. Interestingly, the Bible itself was not one of the eight chief doctrines, but it was the basis for them all. The Holy Scripture of the Old and New Testaments are and shall remain the only rule of our faith and practice. We venerate them as God’s Word, which he spake to mankind of old time in the Prophets and, at last, in His Son and by his Apostles to instruct us unto salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. We are convinced that all truths that declare the will of God for our salvation are fully contained therein.34 In 1911 the following paragraph was added to the Church Order of the Unitas Fratrum. We hold fast to our genuine Moravian view, that it is not our business to determine what the Holy Scriptures have left undetermined or to contend about mysteries impenetrable to human reason. We would keep steadily in sight the aim set before us by the apostle Paul, Eph. 4:13, 14, that we may “all attain unto the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a full-grown man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we may be no longer children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine.” At the same time, we would never forget that every human 33 Spangenberg, Idea fidei fratrum, 365. 34 William Schwarze, “History of Moravian College and Theological Seminary,” Transactions of the Moravian Historical Society 8 (1909): 59-352, here Appendix A, p. 306.


Interpreting Scripture in the Moravian Church

system of doctrine remains imperfect, for, as the same apostle says, I Cor. 13:9: “We know in part.�35 This was the basis for the statement we now have in the Ground of the Unity. Although the Moravians grew more conservative over time, they did not jump on the fundamentalist bandwagon.


Over the centuries the church has been remarkably consistent in its teaching on the Bible even if specific doctrines and practices have changed. What can we say about the Moravian approach to the Bible over the past six hundred years? 1) The Bible is authoritative for the teaching and practice of the Moravian Church. Congregational worship, church doctrine, and Christian ethics should be grounded in the witness of the New Testament. 2) Both the Old and New Testament are divine revelation, but the New should be used to interpret the Old, not the other way around. We are first and foremost followers of Christ. We cannot truly understand the revelation of God without experiencing Christ who is the Word of God in human form. Jesus is our guide for interpreting the whole Bible. 3) The Bible is a complicated and confusing book that does not provide a clear system of doctrine. The Bible was written over several centuries by many different people, each of whom was inspired in different ways by God. It is important to focus on the central message of the Bible rather than getting lost in obscurities. 4) The central story of the Bible is that humans are made by a loving God who wants us to be happy and healthy, but we are corrupted by sin, hatred, greed, and the fear of death. We cannot save ourselves, but God took on human form in order to redeem us from sin, death, and the power of the devil. Jesus Christ is the living Word of God who is the full revelation of God for humankind, and we can be united with Christ in love. Through Christ and the Holy Spirit we are able to live as God would have us live. We will never be perfect, but we can learn to love and serve. 5) The Bible is a book about liberation from sin, hatred, and death. It teaches us that all people are our neighbors and our brothers and our sisters. It is unholy to justify hatred, abuse, and oppression by quoting Scripture. 6) We should expect different people and different churches to interpret the Bible in different ways. The differences are less important than what unites us as followers of Jesus. 35 Church Order (Moravian Publication Office, 1911), II, I, 2.

The Hinge: International Theological Dialog for the Moravian Church


Guiding Principles of Biblical Interpretation Prepared by the Interprovincial Faith and Order Commission November 2, 2011 Amended and Adopted by the Southern Province Provincial Elders’ Conference March 5, 2012 Amended and Adopted by the Northern Province Provincial Elders’ Conference April 12, 2012 When the Scriptures we cherish Then the soul is full of light But that light will quickly vanish, When of Jesus we lose sight1 From the Ground of the Unity, we affirm the following

God’s Word and Doctrine

“The Triune God as revealed in the Holy Scripture of the Old and New Testaments is the only source of our life and salvation; and this Scripture is the sole standard of the doctrine and faith of the Unitas Fratrum and therefore shapes our life. The Unitas Fratrum recognizes the Word of the Cross as the center of Holy Scripture and of all preaching of the Gospel, and it sees its primary mission, and its reason for being, to consist in bearing witness to this joyful message. We ask our Lord for power never to stray from this. The Unitas Fratrum takes part in the continual search for sound doctrine. In interpreting Scripture and in the communication of doctrine in the Church, we look to two millennia of ecumenical Christian tradition and the wisdom of our Moravian forebears in the faith to guide us as we pray for fuller understanding and ever clearer proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But just as the Holy Scripture does not contain any doctrinal system, so the Unitas Fratrum also has not developed any of its own because it knows that the mystery of Jesus Christ, which is attested to in the Bible, cannot be comprehended completely by any human mind or expressed completely in any human statement. Also it is true that through the Holy Spirit the recognition of God’s will for salvation in the Bible is revealed completely and clearly.” 1 Moravian Book of Worship (Bethlehem, Pa.: Moravian Church in North America, 1995), 717. A revision of the text of hymn 717.


Interpreting Scripture in the Moravian Church

From the earliest days of our history, Moravians have held the Word of God in highest esteem. Yet we have always made it clear that the written word points and directs us not to itself, but to the Word made flesh, that is, Jesus Christ. A hymn of the Bohemian Brethren expresses that relationship beautifully: The word of God which ne’er shall cease, proclaims free pardon, grace and peace, salvation shows in Christ alone, the perfect will of God makes known.2 John Hus was willing to give his life because of his conviction that the church of his time was not following the will of God as revealed in Scripture. Yet, his dying words were directed to the living Word as he sang, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” In 1419, four years after Hus’s death, the Hussite league declared as one of the Four Articles of Prague, that “the living word in dialogue between the preacher and the congregation is the real expression of faith.” They spoke of it as the “prophetic and apostolic message of the Word of God,” and said that it should be preached freely and in the vernacular of the people. Peter Chelcicky preached that people should “accept the simple words of Scripture and believe above all in the example of Christ.”3 In 1457, a group of Hussites, led by Gregory, distinguished themselves as “Brethren of the Law of Christ,” and in 1464 they passed a resolution affirming that this law of Christ was shown through the Bible. By the late 1400’s, the Brethren were making an important distinction between the essentials and those things that ministered to the essentials. The Bible was considered to be a ministerial, but the great Moravian theologian, Luke of Prague, called it “that first, greatest and most necessary ministerial thing.”4 The Apology written by the Unitas Fratrum in 1503 stated that the “Word of God is the ministrative by which God is made known.”5 While Moravians have always valued the totality of Scripture (the Hebrew Bible as well as the New Testament) there was a tendency to interpret the writings of the Old Testament in light of the Gospels and the letters of the New Testament. The Confessions of Faith formulated in 1535 said that the “apostolic writings should be preferred over others as sacred to profane and divine to human.”6 Moravians also sought to read Scripture with both mind and heart. In the 1500’s, Jon Blahoslav emphasized the importance of the mind (serious study of Scripture) but affirmed that all great knowledge was to no avail if it is not guided by true piety. In the 1600’s, Jon Amos Comenius observed the two extremes of faithless 2 Ibid., 509. Verse 1 of hymn 509. 3 Janel R. Rice, “The Biblical View of the Ancient Unitas Fratrum,” The Hinge: A Journal of Christian Thought for the Moravian Church 13:3, (2006), 3. 4 Ibid., 4. 5 Craig Atwood, “How Moravians Have Read the Bible in the Past,” Eastern District of the Northern Province (Eastern District Conference of the Northern Province of the Moravian Church in North America, 2011), 3. 6 Rice, 4.

The Hinge: International Theological Dialog for the Moravian Church


rationalism and fanatical, unreasonable devotion.7 He proposed that there must be a “middle course” between the neglect of Scripture and the abuse of Scripture.8 The combination of knowledge and piety could be seen in his life and can serve as a model for Moravians today. In the 1700’s, Zinzendorf reinforced the distinction between the “written word” and the “living word” (Christ). He did not speak of the Bible as the “Divine Book” but rather spoke of the “divine truth in the book.”9 For Zinzendorf, the starting point had to be Jesus Christ. He believed that once one came to know the Savior, then the Savior would reveal the truth about the Fatherand the Spirit. And, he said, “that to which the Savior did not lead was not necessary for salvation.”10 With this in mind, Zinzendorf affirmed different degrees of clarity within Scripture: basic truths about salvation (these are clear); matters of knowledge that require historical understanding; and mysteries that remain uncertain (even for those with the interpretive tools). Spangenberg expressed his views on the nature of Scripture, saying that the Holy Spirit did not dictate the words to the authors but rather led them as they wrote according to their own abilities and knowledge. Like Zinzendorf, he believed that the central theme of Scripture was redemption through Christ.11 As the Renewed Moravian Church began to expand and “go into all the world,” more clarification and definition of our core beliefs was vital to maintain a common Moravian identity in geographically diverse mission. General Synods (now known as Unity Synods) often discussed and dealt with theological issues and attempted to formulate statements that reflected the belief of the church. In the late 1700s, a General Synod approved a statement of four “points” to which several more were eventually added. The General Synod in 1818 stated that “Holy Scripture is the ground of our teaching and the only rule of our faith and life.”12 The 1879 General Synod added the final two of the eight cardinal “truths.”13 7 Ibid., 5. 8 Atwood, 4. 9 Keith Stanley, “Moravians and Scripture,” The Hinge: A Journal of Christian Thought for the Moravian Church 13:3, (2006), 30. 10 Tracy Pryor, “Zinzendorf ’s View of Scripture,” The Hinge: A Journal of Christian Thought for the Moravian Church 13:3, (2006), 11. 11 Atwood, 8. 12 Arthur Freeman, “Understanding of Scripture in the Moravian Church,” (Northern Province of the Moravian Church in North America, 1994), 8. 13 C. Daniel Crews, in his book, “Confessing Our Unity in Christ,” explains that, at the 1775 General Synod, the “chief axiom” was expressed in a hymn by Zinzendorf: “that whoe’er believeth in Christ’s redemption may find grace and a complete exemption from serving sin. Four “points” were agreed upon: the atoning sacrifice and satisfaction of Jesus for us; the universal depravity of humanity; the divinity of Jesus; and the doctrine of the Holy Spirit and the operations of grace. In 1818, these were rearranged and a fifth point was added, resulting in: universal depravity of humanity; divinity and incarnation of Jesus; atoning sacrifice of Jesus; the Holy Spirit and the operation of grace; and the fruits of faith. The 1857 General Synod added (between the first and second points) a sixth point: the love of God the Father. This Synod also affirmed the “mysteries of Scripture.” In 1879 the final two points were added (the fellowship of believers with one another; the second coming of our Lord in glory, and the resurrection of the dead unto life or unto judgment), resulting in the eight cardinal “truths:” In the 1950s John Groenfeldt referred to these truths as the eight “essentials.”


Interpreting Scripture in the Moravian Church

In 1909, a crisis arose concerning questions of Biblical authority as new theological ideas were being discussed at the German Province’s Theological Seminary. Many felt that it was important to affirm perceived Moravian theological boundaries in order to preserve what they considered to be orthodoxy. While it was agreed that new ideas could be discussed and studied, the General Synod of 1914 made it a point to reaffirm the eight cardinal doctrines and also formulated a statement about the authority of Scripture: “the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are and shall remain the only rule of our faith and practice.” The Synod also declared that “we are convinced that all truths that declare the will of God for our salvation are fully contained therein.” They affirmed the “genuine Moravian view” that “it is not our business to determine what the Holy Scriptures have left undetermined or to contend about mysteries impenetrable to human reason.”14 Around that same time, Augustus Schulze, President of Moravian College and Theological Seminary, published his Christian Doctrine. This book of systematic theology does not contain a chapter on Hermeneutics or Biblical Interpretation, but rather a section in the introduction entitled “The Bible as the Standard of Christian Doctrine.” This seems to be in keeping with the historical Moravian view that Scripture is the means but not the end—the “ministerial” but not the “essential.” The Moravian Church continued to grow and expand throughout the world. As provinces developed and formulated their own rules and regulations for church order, it was important that there be principles that would apply to the church in all contexts and cultures. The 1954 Continental Synod (Germany) appointed a committee to test the reforming of the principles for church order. During the next two years they drafted a document that was approved by the Synods of the East and West Continental Districts in June 1956 and then taken to the 1957 General Synod.15 The document was reviewed and affirmed by the Doctrinal Committee (who gave it the name, “Ground of the Unity”) and then approved by the General Synod.16 In December, 1993, the bishops residing in the Northern Province wrote a pastoral letter in which they stated that, “while the role of Scripture has not changed, God continues to be revealed to Christians of good faith. The Holy Spirit guides God’s people into all truth, dynamic truth.”17 The bishops proposed a modification of the phrase (in the Ground of the Unity), “only source and rule,” to “primary source and rule.” After discussion and some adaptation of this statement, it was proposed at the 1994 Northern Province Synod that the former statement in the Ground of the Unity, “The Holy Scriptures of both the Old and New Testament are and abide the only source and rule of faith, doctrine and life of the Unitas Fratrum,” be replaced with, “the Triune God as attested to in the Holy Scripture of the Old and New Testaments is the only source of our life and salvation and this Scripture is the sole standard of 14 Atwood, 8. 15 This was the first General Synod held outside of Continental Europe and the first to include former mission provinces. 16 Freeman, 10. 17 Ibid., 11.

The Hinge: International Theological Dialog for the Moravian Church


the doctrine and faith of the Unitas Fratrum and therefore shapes our life.”18 With this change, the ground of the Unity became more consistent with Luke of Prague in asserting that the “Triune God” rather than the Scriptures is our source of salvation. This revised statement was affirmed by the Northern Province Synod and submitted to the Unity Synod of 1995 in Dar Es Salaam, where it was adopted. In more recent years, many Moravians (Daniel Crews, Craig Atwood, Frank Crouch, Art Freeman, Janel Rice, Tracy Pryor, Amy Gohdes-Luhman, Gary Kinkel, Riddick Weber, Lynnette Delbridge, Ben Wright, Worth Green, among others) have written articles, papers, letters and other documents that have addressed in one way or another the topic of Biblical Interpretation. All of these voices, while speaking from different contexts and with somewhat varying perspectives, seem to affirm what has been affirmed throughout our history: that as Moravians, proclaiming Christ and Him crucified as our confession of faith, and believing that the Triune God as revealed in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments is the only source of our life and salvation, we do not believe that Jesus points us to Scripture so that we can find the answers there, but rather that Scripture points us to Jesus so that we can find the answers in him. As a church we must be attentive to God’s Word (the word of the cross, the word of reconciliation, the word of personal union with the Savior, the word of love between one another),19 and our faith and order must be formulated under Scripture and the Holy Spirit.20 Yet, it is not Scripture and our conformity to a particular interpretation of it that unites us, but rather Christ, our Chief Elder, who holds us together by keeping us all close to Him. With this narrative of the history of interpretation of Scripture in the Moravian Church in mind, we offer some guiding principles of scriptural interpretation. Before doing so, we share our hopes for this important task of the people of the Moravian Church in North America. Our hopes for the Moravian Church as we interpret Holy Scripture: • • •

That our efforts be grounded in faithfulness to the centrality of Christ, the way of the cross, and obedience to the word of God. That we proceed with openness to the leading and grace of the Triune God, not presuming in advance the outcome of our study and discernment together. That understanding a Moravian way of interpreting Scripture is of value to our life and work and the Moravian church every day, in every situation. More specifically, understanding how we interpret Scripture is critical when disagreement arises among us.

18 For a broader understanding of the context see the histories recommended in the bibliography. 19 “The Ground of the Unity,” ed. The Unity Synod of the Unitas Fratrum or Moravian Church (Dar es Salaam, Tanzania: 1995), chapter 2, paragraph 100b. 20 “American Moravian Church’s Liturgy for the Ordination of a Deacon,” Provincial Elder’s Conference (Moravian Church in North America, 2006), Question 5.


Interpreting Scripture in the Moravian Church

That such understanding and work strengthen our Christian fellowship with each other as Moravians (individuals, congregations, provinces), grounded in a recognition that, ultimately, our unity as Moravians is rooted in our affirmation of Christ, our crucified and risen Lord. That we have strength, patience, and love as we live, work, and worship together in community.

Guiding Principles for the interpretation of Scripture: •

As Moravians, we understand that Scripture: • Points us to Christ so that we can find our answers in Him. • Ministers (along with the Sacraments, preaching, etc.) to the divine and human essentials of our faith–that the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, creates, redeems and sanctifies us; and we respond in faith, love and hope. Scripture, as a whole, is the sum of many parts. • Scripture includes the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament • We affirm that not all texts are equally clear. With Zinzendorf, we affirm that scriptural passages have varying degrees of clarity: • Basic truths about salvation (that are clear) • Matters of knowledge that require historical understanding • Mysteries that remain uncertain (even for those with the tools) We note considerations for interpretation: • Given our human contexts and experiences, we affirm that every reading of Scripture is an act of interpretation. • Scripture is interpreted in a variety of ways: literal, metaphorical, historical, contextual, rhetorical, etc. We affirm that no one way is the prescribed way. • Given the diverse witness of Scripture, we believe that any particular scriptural text must be interpreted in light of all Scripture. • Our interpretation of Scripture is guided by heart and mind, piety and rationality,doing and thinking. Faithful interpretation acknowledges: • The historical context out of which the texts arose.21 • The contemporary cultural and global contexts out of which questions of interpretation arise (including scientific, archeological, and other forms of knowledge.)

21 C. Daniel Crews, “Luke of Prague: Theologian of the Unity (1997 Moses Lectures),” The Hinge: A Journal of Christian Thought for the Moravian Church 12:3, no. (1997).

The Hinge: International Theological Dialog for the Moravian Church

In this work, we affirm the importance to Moravians of relationships to each other and God, and assert that biblical interpretation happens most faithfully in conversation and fellowship with one another, not as individuals (or even as individual congregations or provinces.)

As we interpret Scripture together, we acknowledge that: •

Given the mystery of God, we cannot predict in advance the final result of our search for truth. Refraining from starting with a specific end in mind is aided by acknowledging that we come to the text and task with presuppositions. By naming our presuppositions, we deepen our ability to discern meaning and truth in the Holy Scriptures. Even with shared principles of interpretation, we realize that individuals, congregations and provinces of the Moravian Church may draw different conclusions.



Interpreting Scripture in the Moravian Church

Sources Cited 2006.

“American Moravian Church’s Liturgy for the Ordination of a Deacon.” Moravian Church in North America,

Atwood, Craig. “How Moravians Have Read the Bible in the Past.” Eastern District Conference of the Northern Province of the Moravian Church in North America, 2011. Crews, C. Daniel. “Luke of Prague: Theologian of the Unity (1997 Moses Lectures).” The Hinge: A Journal of Christian Thought for the Moravian Church12:3 (1997). Freeman, Arthur. “Understanding of Scripture in the Moravian Church.” Northern Province of the Moravian Church in North America, 1994. “The Ground of the Unity.” edited by The Unity Synod of the Unitas Fratrum or Moravian Church. Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, 1995. Moravian Church in North America. Moravian Book of Worship. Bethlehem, Pa.: Moravian Church in North America, 1995. Pryor, Tracy. “Zinzendorf ’s View of Scripture.” The Hinge: A Journal of Christian Thought for the Moravian Church 13:3 (2006): 8. Rice, Janel R. “The Biblical View of the Ancient Unitas Fratrum.” The Hinge: A Journal of Christian Thought for the Moravian Church 13:3 (2006): 7. Stanley, Keith. “Moravians and Scripture.” The Hinge: A Journal of Christian Thought for the Moravian Church 13:3 (2006): 6.

Other Resources

Crews, C. Daniel. “Confessing Our Unity in Christ: A Historical and Theological Background to the Ground of the Unity.” For presentation to the Southern Province Ministers ’ Association; Published at request of Provincial Elder’s Conference, Southern Province, 1994. Crouch, Frank. “Changing Interpretive Keys.” Unpublished lecture notes, 20xx. Crouch, Frank. “How to Avoid Winning the Argument and Losing your Soul.” The Hinge: A Journal of Christian Thought for the Moravian Church 10:3 (2003-2004). Delbridge, Mary Lynnette. “Reading the New Testament.” The Hinge: A Journal of Christian Thought for the Moravian Church 13:3 (2006). Freeman, Arthur. “Resources for Reading the Bible.” Unpublished lectures at Moravian Theological Seminary, circa 1996. Gohdes-Luhman, Amy. “God Revealed: Sacred Conversations.” The Hinge: A Journal of Christian Thought for the Moravian Church, 13:3 (2006). Schulze, Augustus. Christian Doctrine and Systematic Theology. Bethlehem: Times Publishing Company, 1914. Wright, Benjamin G. “Biblical Interpretation in the Modern World.” Eastern District Conference of the Northern Province of the Moravian Church in North America, 2011. Various articles in the September 1993 edition of The Moravian.

For Further Reading in Moravian History

Atwood, Craig D. The Theology of the Czech Brethren from Hus to Comenius. University Park, PA.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009. Crews, C. Daniel. “This We Most Certainly Believe: Thoughts on Moravian Theology,” 2005. De Schweinitz, Edmund. The History of the Church Known as the Unitas Fratrum, or, the Unity of the Brethren, Founded by the Followers of John Hus, the Bohemian Reformer and Martyr. Bethlehem, PA: Moravian Publication Concern, 1901 [c1885]. Freeman, Arthur J. An Ecumenical Theology of the Heart: the Theology of Count Nicholas Ludwig Von Zinzendorf. Bethlehem, Pa. ; Winston-Salem, N.C.: Moravian Church in America, 1998. Hamilton, J. Taylor. History of the Moravian Church; the Renewed Unitas Fratrum, 1722-1957, Edited by Kenneth G. Hamilton. Bethlehem, PA: Interprovincial Board of Christian Education, Moravian Church in America, 1967. Hutton, J. E. “A History of the Moravian Church.” In Short History of the Moravian Church., edited by J. E. Hutton. London: Moravian Publication Office, 1909. Schattschneider, Allen W. Through Five Hundred Years: A Popular History of the Moravian Church, Beginning with the Story of the Ancient Unitas Fratrum, Edited by Moravian Church Interprovincial Board of Christian Education. Bethlehem, PA: Comenius Press, 1956. Weinlick, John R. The Moravian Church through the Ages. Bethlehem, PA and Winston-Salem, NC: The Moravian Church of America, 1996.

Editorial Board Craig Atwood, Hans Beat Motel, Jane Burcaw, Zach Dease, Laura Gordon, Sam Gray, Sarah Grove, Joe Nicholas, Justin Rabbach, Janel Rice, Mike Riess, David Schattschneider, Volker Schultz, Neil Thomlinson, Livingstone Thompson, Peter Vogt Co-Editors: Craig Atwood, Janel Rice

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