On the Occasion of Pastor Nancy Petty’s 20th Anniversary at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church
In a recent telephone conversation Nancy Petty reflected on major emphases that have shaped her ministry across 20 years at Pullen Church. She focused on theological conversation from a feminist perspective. Numerous questions peppered her reflections: What is God-talk? What is a theological narrative? What role does feminism play in shaping theology? What is theology calling the church to be and do in this day?
Questions posed by Nancy stayed with me long after our phone conversation ended. Dogging my thoughts, they brought me repeatedly to the Bible. (You, no doubt, are not surprised.) Now the Bible itself is not a theological manual, but it is our textbook for faith. Much too messy for systematic thinking, it witnesses to the complexities of life. It puts theology at the crossroads, to challenge, convict, and comfort. Sensitive to Nancy’s interests in transformative theology, let us this morning ponder the Bible as it speaks from the past into the present.
The Discovery of a Scroll
We begin with the world’s first archaeological discovery – not potshards, not remnants of towns, towers, or fortifications, but literature – a scroll found in the temple of Jerusalem during the reign, in the seventh century BCE, of the Judean king Josiah (2 Kings 22:1-10). As part of bringing about reforms in the land, Josiah ordered that the temple be cleaned and repaired. In the process, workers discovered the scroll, perhaps discarded as trash. It purported to be a copy of the covenant and law given by God to Moses on Mount Horeb (Sinai) so many centuries ago – yet with differences.
When the scroll was read to King Josiah, he responded with great consternation because it contained words of divine wrath against the kingdom. Josiah ordered that the scroll be vetted. Is it authentic or a fraud? To get an answer, the king appointed a committee of five men to consult a prophet. Now this committee did not go to Jeremiah or Zephaniah or any other male authority of the time. Instead, it went to a woman: Huldah the prophet. (Think of that in the ancient world and even in our world!) The men consulted a woman, who herself was a prophet.
Little do we know about Huldah, except that she was the recognized theological authority in this matter. She declared the scroll authentic. “All the words of the scroll that the king of Judah has read,” she said, are indeed what God says. The discovered scroll was a genuine theological document (2 Kings 22:11-20). The immediate effect of its validation led to a religious reformation in the land, with political consequences. Though the reformation did not last, the scroll held significance beyond this immediate incident. In rendering her judgment, Huldah validated the text that in centuries to come would grow, through a long and complicated process, into the Bible we now have. Never forget: A woman initiated scripture – for weal and/or for woe.
What hath Huldah wrought? For sure, the canonization of theology. God-talk initiates scripture to inform faith. Theology is at work. But what specifically do we know about the scroll? From where did it come? Can we still identify it? Truncated answers to these and other questions bring us to the book of Deuteronomy. For centuries prior to the discovery of the scroll, faithful groups of Yahweh worshippers residing in the northern kingdom of Israel preserved in oral speech interpretations of the covenant and law that God had made with Israel at Mount Sinai – the covenant and law we now find in the book of Exodus. Across time, these worshippers turned their oral interpretations into a “second law,” i.e., Deuteronomy. When their northern kingdom was destroyed (721 BCE), they put these oral interpretations in writing and fled with them to the south kingdom of Judah. There they deposited them for safe keeping in the Jerusalem temple.
But why a “second law,” if we have the first law – the law in Exodus? Again, theology gives an answer. God-talk moves and changes with times and seasons. Its work is never finished. Simply put, the discovered scroll updated the Sinai covenant, enabling it to instruct later generations. After all, memories are short. New occasions teach new duties. Changing situations require new words about old words. No sacred text is ever completed and fossilized. (Accordingly, even as Nancy preaches every Sunday, so theology lives to transform and be transformed.) Let us trace this dynamic, in part, from Deuteronomy to the Gospels.
Transformative Theology in Deuteronomy and Matthew
As transformative theology, Deuteronomy takes the covenantal traditions of Exodus and appropriates them for new times and seasons. Keeping Moses as primary speaker, it presents the past not as finished but as flowing into the present and future. On one occasion (Deut 5:1-4) Moses makes the audacious claim that the covenant at Sinai was not for the ancestors (as most certainly it was) but for the present generation. He moves the past into the present. “The Lord,” he says, “made a covenant with us who are alive this day . . . not with our ancestors but with us ….” On another occasion, Moses quotes God as saying that the covenant is made not only with those who are alive this day but also with “those who are not here this day” (Deut 29:14) This wondrous blending of past, present, and future sketches a literary and theological journey that enriches our human quest for stability and adaptability amid the flux of the world, for change amid continuity, and for God’s presence amid infinite variety.
The journey continues throughout the Bible. With a close link to Deuteronomy, the gospel of Matthew participates. The connection occurs just after the baptism of Jesus (Mt 3:13-17), when the Spirit of God marks him as beloved only to lead him into temptation. As ancient Israel wandered forty years in the wilderness, so now Jesus, son of Israel, fasts forty days and forty nights in the wilderness. At the point of famishing, the tempter comes (Mt 4:1-11).
“If you are the son of God,” says the tempter, “command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Seemingly this challenge gives Jesus a wonderful opportunity to authenticate himself, to show that by his fruits we shall know him (cf.Mt 7:16). But Jesus understands differently. He knows that the narrative of the wanderings shows that in the wilderness God alone provides food (Exod 16:1-35). Here the tempter would undercut the sacred traditions; he would discredit or dismiss them. In answering him, Jesus, who knows his Bible, reaches back into the book of Deuteronomy to cite a text that dispels the temptation. “It is written,” quotes Jesus, “‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (cf.Deut 8:3). From Deuteronomy Jesus chooses a text that brings him release from temptation. He appropriates ancient scripture to make it work for good in his own setting.
Now the devil is no slouch, especially not a theological slouch. If Jesus can quote from the Bible to support his point of view, the devil can do likewise. Tit for tat. After all, one text deserves another. Modeling, yet mocking Jesus, the devil tries again. He quotes from the book of Psalms: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down [from the pinnacle of the temple], for it is written, ‘God will command angels concerning you and on their heads they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” (Ps 11:11-12). Here the devil thumps the Bible for his own purpose to defeat the mission of Jesus. And what does Jesus do? He sees through the theological ruse to quote again from the book of Deuteronomy: “Again, it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Deut 6:16). If the devil uses the Bible for tempting, for baiting, for mocking, Jesus uses it for blessing.
The third time around, the devil drops his proof-text strategy to assert his own power: “All the kingdoms of the world I will give to you,” he says to Jesus, “if you will fall down and worship me.” But Jesus stays the course. He quotes Deuteronomy: “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only God’” (Deut 6:13). Three times Jesus makes theological moves based on the book of Deuteronomy. He plucks texts from the past to sustain his mission in the present. Jesus gives us theology at work, even as Deuteronomy has already done with the traditions of Exodus.
Stability, Adaptability, Persistence
Yet the theological moves that Jesus has made are not automatic, mechanical, or rote. The Bible itself is no talisman – or taliswoman. It offers neither all the answers (nor all the questions); nor does it offer only the good, the true, and the right. The Bible knows of violence and evil, of hurts and anger, of machinations and manipulations. These negative features belong to both Testaments (should anyone here think that the so-called “New Testament” is superior). Indeed, the Bible comes to us full of struggles, battles, contradictions, and problems. It teems with multiple voices and views. It is a dangerous and difficult book as well as a comforting and compelling one. In short, it can be used to curse as well as to bless. We the readers make the difference.
For certain, no matter how much we try, the Bible will not go away. It endures, from Huldah’s decree (and even earlier) to this morning at Pullen Church. The Bible’s hold on Western civilization in art, architecture, music, literature, ethics, ritual, politics, and other public discourse extends now into a third millennium. On issues threatening our nation, our churches, or the world, people enlist the Bible to support what they deem right or wrong. Abortion, race, ethnicity, sexuality, marriage, immigration, ordination, technology, euthanasia, surrogacy, tobacco, drugs, guns, capital punishment, the economic downturn, and always 9/11 – on and on goes the list with one group lining up ammunition to use against another from this foundational text of Western civilization – this textbook of faith. Repeatedly, we experience a veritable war of words without end – a babble about the Bible.
In pondering the resulting theological mess, we would do well to consider the morality of reading: the ethical responsibility incumbent upon all who wrestle with the Bible, upon all who proclaim the gospel of good news. That ethical responsibility, as Deuteronomy eloquently testifies, is to choose rightly. Speaking for God, Moses declares: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (Deut 30:19-20).
Choosing the texts that make for life requires the church to reinterpret the past for the present as it looks toward the future. This theological imperative does not mean, however, that we read the Bible through, make a list of those texts we consider blessings and those we deem curses, throw away the latter list, and advocate the former. That attempt would be naïve, destructive, and, indeed, impossible. Indeed, a text that curses today in one setting may bless tomorrow in another. [Cite here the horrendous example of Judges 19 as both curse and blessing, depending upon the perspectives and experiences that different readers bring to it. Tell the relevant story.] Our task, day by day, congregation by congregation, is to choose those texts that make for life.
If we think the task too difficult, if we would shrink from so awesome a responsibility, we learn, again from Deuteronomy, that we cannot. So speaks God: “This commandment that I am commanding you this day is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe” (Deut 30:11-20).
What burden and blessing Deuteronomy places upon people of faith, from then to now. What threat and reassurance it offers. What an unending responsibility it espouses. In pondering this theological work, let us remember its narrative origins: the discarded or hidden scroll discovered in the temple of Jerusalem, the scroll deemed authentic by Huldah the prophet, the scroll from which Jesus quoted to shape his own ministry; the scroll whose point of view, whose theological message, blends past, present, and future.
As I reflected in past weeks on Nancy’s ministry at Pullen and her commitment to solid, feminist, and transformative theology, my mind jumped to the Bible as we have explored it this morning. But now, in conclusion, I move to a familiar, though modified, jingle. As we know, “man works ‘til set of sun; but Hildah’s work is never done.” If you do not believe that theology is always at work, ask Nancy – the theologian across 20 years at Pullen Church. All blessings on her ministry.