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How Do We Read the Word of a Free God?

Alexander J. McKelway. The Freedom of God and Human Liberation. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990.

[An Installment of the “Read Me” Project; discussions of earlier chapters of McKelway’s book are here and here.]

The project of The Freedom of God and Human Liberation is to demonstrate that only divine freedom provides an adequate ground for the project of human liberation, and to identify some of the important implications of that divine freedom. Those implications will affect our own concrete efforts to pursue human liberation.

Cover of Alexander J. McKelway The Freedom of God and Human Liberation

In chapter 4, “The Liberating Word,” McKelway turns his attention to the implications of God’s absolute and distinctive freedom for Christians’ relationship with the Bible, the word of God. These implications pose a profound challenge to ordinary readings of Scripture. A similar, maybe even more profound, challenge arises in chapter 5, in relation to “Liberating Theology.” In both cases – the case of Scripture and its interpretation, and the case of theological commitments – it appears that the most profound implication of God’s freedom is that it undermines almost all humanly-grounded certainties.

Of course, it’s not news to say “the world is uncertain.” It’s not even news to say something like “Christians walk by faith and not by sight.” But what I, myself, realize in reading McKelway’s slim tome is just how much I, myself, unbeknownst to myself, have sought in Christianity something other than the underlying truth of Jesus’ warning to his unnamed would-be follower: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20)

I didn’t realize how deep my desire has been to find a formula, a touchstone, that works as a solid theological resting place, a kind of recipe for religious certainty. I didn’t realize it, that is, until I read McKelway’s book, and could not stop thinking about it, and in thinking about it have had to recognize: one implication of this theology of divine freedom is that such a resting place won’t exist for us – at least, not anywhere this side of the eschaton.

If we are going to follow Jesus Christ, we really cannot say, in advance, what route we are going to take.

I arrive at this conclusion about McKelway’s theology after reading and re-reading these two chapters, on Scripture and theology, in particular. They seem sure to outrage, or at least annoy, just about every Christian I’ve ever met who has used some theological position or other as a criterion for the faithfulness of their own practice of Christianity. That is to say, just about every Christian I’ve ever met, including myself.

When it comes to Scripture, McKelway analyzes the “freedom of the Word of God” as having a freedom that “corresponds” to the way God is free. That is, Scripture, insofar as it is the Word of God, is 1) free for us, 2) free in itself, 3) free from other being, and 4) free from its ways of being for us (54).

From this structure, he goes on to develop several implications. Scripture is free “for us” as human language, an accessible human text. A really human text, not a magically inhuman, special, other-than-human one.

It is free “in itself” by depending for its revelatory character not on any of the specific human words in the text, but on the free decision of God, as manifest in the witness of the Holy Spirit. It’s the witness of the Holy Spirit, not anything intrinsic to the text itself, that makes the reading of the text “become” the Word of God for us. We count on that happening, though, because we trust the God who [we know] has revealed and still reveals himself to us through Scripture.

We count on it happening, in particular, in spite of the flaws and limitations of the specific human words of the human document that is Scripture – that’s what it means for the Word of God in Scripture to be free “from other being.” It’s not constrained by the constraints of the text.

And in its “freedom from its [way of] being for us,” it is “self-correcting,” able to guide its readers away from the distorted readings of the text that its human limits impose, and into more expansive, unexpected, liberating ones.

What this all seems to boil down to is this: many criteria that people have used to help guide their reading of Scripture are quite simply off the table, as illegitimate restrictions on the divine freedom incarnate in the Bible as the Word of God.

Inerrancy is off the table, for instance, according to McKelway.

Some believe that endowing biblical language with the divine perfection of inerrancy enhances its freedom and power. Such a view, however, is docetic and denies the freedom of the word by denying its capacity to take on human form (55, 56).

If God can speak through a book, God can speak through a book with mistakes in it. Even obvious ones.

Various a priori hermeneutical criteria are off the table, too, according to McKelway. We don’t get to ignore the texts that are full of flawed, limited, problematic stuff, or write them off as incapable of conveying a liberating message. In particular, he argues that we can’t simply use our theological or ideological commitments as criteria. For instance, we may eschew violence, and we may be right to do so, but that still doesn’t permit us to reject the possibility that God can communicate with us even through the frankly cruel, gratuitously violent parts of the human text of the Bible. (e.g., 2 Samuel 8.)

Such an approach forfeits the liberating power of the Bible by rejecting the fallible human character of scripture that shows it to be the free word of a free God for us (56).

I don’t think McKelway is saying here that the various flaws, limits, and problematic stuff in the text will, in themselves, be redemptive or exemplary for us. He would not, I don’t think, suggest that following David’s example with the Moabites would be something for us to do under any foreseeable circumstances. Instead, he seems to be saying that we can still hear – maybe only faintly, but still – a witness to God’s redemptive activity even in the flawed, limited, human text we have, as we have it.

So, changing the flawed, limited, human text we have, “fixing it up” to bring it more in line with what we’ve concluded it should say, according to our best available theology, is also off the table.

When from time to time the Bible becomes the word of God, it is delivered from the nexus of cause and effect that determines all other texts. … In contrast to other writing, the Bible as employed by the word of God is freed from the concepts and values of its authors – concepts the best of which were limited and the worst of which were vicious. We have already called attention to this form of biblical freedom when we noted that, in spite of the indisputable racism, sexism, and violence that informs much of scripture, it has nonetheless proven to be the liberating word in human history (60).

Instead, we have to take the Bible as it is, warts and all. We can’t perfect it by substituting better words, of our own choosing, for its words. McKelway has in mind here the specific example of feminist efforts to render the text in inclusive language. But he would presumably have something similar to say about other linguistic fetishes, like the idea that God can only communicate in 16th century English. The Bible “shows itself free equally from its own errors and our corrections by bearing witness to the liberating power of God. … As witness to the Word, the words of the Bible possess the necessary freedom to be self-corrective” (63).

This self-corrective feature is what McKelway identifies as the Bible’s freedom from its specific way or form of being for us. What he seems to mean by “self-correction” in the Bible is that reading the Bible itself surfaces limitations in the text, untenable conclusions based on one part of Scripture, wider meanings that we hadn’t noticed until recently, and so on. The Bible itself will point us to its own limitations, and through those, will point us in the direction of the liberating word of God.

The self-correction of scripture is manifest whenever the limitation of its human form is overcome without denying that form. In ever-changing contexts, the Bible directs our attention to other meanings in its text which shed new light on old meanings redeeming them for the gospel of God (64).

McKelway uses gendered language for God as an extended example here. Yes, the Bible uses gendered language for God, since neither Hebrew nor Greek (nor English, for that matter) allow people to refer to personal realities without using gendered terms. In these languages, all personal realities are simultaneously gendered realities. And yes, this has given rise to patriarchal human institutions, that have drawn on that gendered text for their support and justification. And yes, Mary Daly was to some extent justified by the historical effects of these institutions in saying “If God is male, then the male is God.” But nevertheless, the Bible corrects itself on this score, by indicating rather plainly in various places that God transcends human gender. If McKelway were being a little more flat-footed about this than he is, he could even come right out and say something like “this self-correction allows an ancient text that rather relentlessly depicts God in terms of masculine gender to communicate authentically about the living God, who cannot properly be identified with ‘man’ and whose literary masculinity does not in itself underwrite any particular ecclesial structure.”

At this point, I’m inclined to notice that it took time – a mighty long time – for human beings to take that particular self-correction seriously in the concrete life of the patriarchally institutionalized church.

McKelway would probably say something about the significance of sin at that point. I would agree with him about that.

Even so, it seems to have been especially easy to miss some of the self-correcting features of the Biblical text before we had the particular theological instruments that made it possible for some readers of Scripture to look for, find and communicate them, and before there was a cultural context that supported other people’s ability to find that reading persuasive. The Bible wasn’t automatically or immediately self-corrective in that particular way. That Biblical “self”-correction required a whole lot of help from the context in which the Bible was being read.

At a minimum, that suggests to me that we human Bible readers might be – indeed, probably are – missing some other Biblical self-corrections, even now.

In other words, if what it means for the Bible to be “self-authenticating” and “self-correcting” is that some indeterminate number of centuries down the road a generation of Bible readers yet unborn will finally see how our present readings of Scripture support and justify the specific ways we systematically and without a second thought deny our neighbors’ freedom and dignity, we probably ought never take for granted that we are reading the Bible “right.”

Our chronic vulnerability to sincere error seems to be an ineluctable implication of McKelway’s discussion.

We humans are probably tempted to seek some safeguards against that error in our theological and institutional commitments, precisely because of our sense of that chronic vulnerability. One of the things we try to obtain with and through theology is a kind of clarity about what has led people to go wrong in the past. What mistakes to avoid. What principles would constitute an improvement.

At this point in his discussion, then, McKelway’s sense of what theology can do for us and what it cannot might feel particularly disheartening. Theology can be liberating, but the kind of theology on which we tend to rely for certainty doesn’t seem to be what McKelway has in mind.

In McKelway’s view, liberating theology needs to meet a couple of requirements: it will be committed to and involved in the struggle for human liberation, and it will be committed to the revelation of the liberating will of God in Jesus Christ.

That, in turn, means that liberating theology will have no other allegiances or authorities, whether ideological or academic or cultural or institutional. Because no other criterion – neither Marxism-Leninism, nor free market capitalism, nor feminism, nor traditionalism, nor consumerist relevance, nor minimalist purity, nor Enlightenment rationalism, nor Thomist orthodoxy, nor any other conceivable a priori criterion of authenticity or correctness – constitutes a reliable touchstone for the liberating will of God in Jesus Christ. Only God is God, and God is free enough to surprise us, over and over again.

As a result, McKelway’s assessment of the threats to genuinely liberating theology, like his discussion of the freedom of Scripture, are likely to outrage or at least annoy just about all the Christians anyone knows, right, left, and center. On the right,

… in the case of theology it has long been clear that beneath fundamentalism’s claim of independence from philosophy there lies an unwavering, if not primitive, ideological empiricism which holds the word of God hostage to its own peculiar rules of evidence. … Fundamentalist empiricism may be labeled ‘ideological’ because it refuses to accept the axiom of uniformity upon which modern science is based and places in its stead a mythic conception of divine activity – and it may be labeled ‘primitive’ because it is unaware of having done so (75).

But before the “liberals” and “progressives” in McKelway’s audience start high-fiving one another, they’ll have to contend with his analysis of the way academic trends fuel a lust for new, innovative ideas that may or may not have anything to do with God’s revelation in Christ; of the illegitimacy of the imposition of prescriptions for what theological language can be regarded as acceptable; and of the ways self-interest sometimes masquerades as theoretical progress (78-79).

In essence, McKelway challenges the durable usefulness and validity of any finite theological criterion, apart from Jesus Christ.

It is, I hope “of course,” hard to quarrel with McKelway about this! But, at this point in his discussion, we might be tempted to ask how we will recognize the liberating will of God in Jesus Christ, when what we have to go on are our possibly flawed and bumbling readings of Scripture, our flawed and quite possibly oppressive institutional traditions and practices, and our own and our communities’ fitful and sinfully unreliable apprehensions of the movement of the Holy Spirit.

More precisely – I suspect, what we are probably tempted to ask, what I am coming to realize that I, myself, am tempted to ask – is how we will recognize the liberating will of God in Jesus Christ for sure under those conditions.

Maybe disappointingly, I think McKelway is pretty clear that we won’t.

What we will do instead is recognize the liberating will of God in Jesus Christ fitfully, imperfectly, sometimes with blinding clarity and more often dimly, as if “through a glass darkly.” What we will do is what we have always done, over and over again: the best we can, with what we’ve got, making mistakes, having to accept forgiveness for those mistakes, while continuing to return again and again “to the triune God in whom alone real possibilities for freedom are found” (84).

A liberating theology will have the courage, even the audacity, to claim for itself the free grace of a free God. It will confess its culpability and sin. It will not gloss over its past and present failures, but it will in faith claim for itself the righteousness of God which it proclaims on behalf of the oppressed … A liberating theology responsive to the freedom of God, a freedom which acts in love, liberating men and women from oppression, will exhibit the courage of faith – a faith which rejects all other authority and any other righteousness and justice than that which God alone empowers and inspires (86-7).

I really like this book. I really like this theology. It’s exciting. It’s hopeful. But it’s sure not for anyone who really likes to “know stuff.” Except, maybe, besides “Christ, and him crucified.” And, risen.

interior of book tower in Prague Municipal Library
Now what?

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