Bible Scholar Marcus Borg and me at the Western Christian Educators Conference, October 2011. Marcus Borg presented material from his book Speaking Christian, and I was there to work the Cokesbury book display (I also got to be present at all of Marcus Borg’s presentations).
© 2012 Lee Karl Palo
Disclaimer: The following represents the opinion of Lee Karl Palo, and does not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Cokesbury or the United Methodist Publishing House.
What exactly does “Paradigm One” mean? “One” represents the first, a place to start from. The word “paradigm” alludes to a prevailing theory or understanding in more of a scientific manner. Biblical interpretation is like a science (see T.F. Torrance’s work). The popularization of the word “paradigm” by Thomas S. Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) also can hint at the revolutionary nature of Paradigm One. A disciplined study of the Bible, in its ancient context, with a strong commitment to follow wherever it leads, regardless of cost to the dogmas of the past, is the essence of Paradigm One.
What is Paradigm One? To put it simply, it is a return to the Bible. But why, one may ask, would there be need of a new term for a “return to the Bible?” There have certainly been times in the past where people have talked about returning to the Bible, even giving names to such a thing. For Martin Luther it was “Only Scripture,” for John Wesley it was being a “Man of One Book.” Later on, when many common understandings of scripture were challenged, there were efforts to go back to the “fundamentals” of the faith. Of course, one of those “fundamentals” was the Bible. The “fundamental” definition of the Bible had to do with the Bible’s perfection—that the Bible had no errors in the original compositions (copyists of scripture were acknowledged not to be as perfect as the divinely-possessed authors).
The reality is that Christians of all persuasions still hold the Bible in high regard, whether or not they talk about the nature of the Bible’s authority. We all read the Bible and think there is profound wisdom there for life, and even the possibility of an encounter with the divine! For many of us it seems rather silly to have to define the authority of the Bible, it is by default the church’s book. The significance of the Bible to the life of the church is beyond question.
Do we all read it in the same ways? Absolutely not. From the Wesleyan tradition of the Christian faith, of which I am a part, we try to be honest about how Biblical interpretation works. The “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” is a description and confession about the source of our beliefs. We admit the centrality of scripture, but the Bible never stands on its own. It doesn’t interpret itself for us. We have to do the work of interpretation, and we do this through our tradition, our reason, and our experience. It isn’t so much that we ought to do the work of interpretation in this manner, rather we cannot avoid doing it this way. Other traditions of the Christian Faith acknowledge this as well, particularly those in “Mainline” denominations.
So what is “Paradigm One?” Paradigm One is a description of where things are going in the church. Looking at statistics, it doesn’t take a genius to see that Christianity is in trouble. Churches are in decline. There are, however, many people who are optimistic about the future of the faith. There is talk of “revival,” of “awakening,” of “emergence.” However the terms are defined, those who employ those terms (like Diana Butler Bass and Phyllis Tickle, for example), while uncertain about the shape of things to come, are certain that Christianity will be around in the future. Paradigm One is a positive way forward for the church.
Aside from being published by HarperCollins, what do N.T. Wright, Marcus Borg, Bart Ehrman, Rob Bell, Amy-Jill Levine, and Ben Witherington III all have in common with each other? Theologically, they are a diverse group of people. With Bart Ehrman, one wonders if the word “theological” any longer applies. A passion for understanding scripture as best as possible, in light of its ancient context, is what they all share in common. To get closer to the true meaning of the Bible, assuming that its most accurate meaning is to be found in relation to the Bible’s ancient context, is the task of Paradigm One.
The Bible is the Church’s book. The doctrines of the Church are all connected to it. But what happens when a more detailed study of the Bible in its ancient context undermines some of the traditional beliefs of the Church? Paradigm One places understanding of the Bible in its ancient context above any commitment to a certain traditional belief of the Church. Generally speaking this doesn’t mean an outright rejection of Church dogma, rather it means the reworking and reformulating of that dogma in light of a better understanding of scripture. For many within the church, this reexamination of scripture can feel traumatic toward one’s faith.
Is the church experiencing this kind of traumatic upheaval of dogma from an emphasis on the Bible’s ancient context? Recent controversies are evidence of the momentum of Paradigm One. N.T. Wright wrote the book Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision as a reply to some of his critics (particularly John Piper) who were concerned about the result of his Biblical scholarship in a direction called the “new perspective on Paul.” This “new perspective” seemed to undermine Wright’s critics’ understanding of the doctrine of justification. Rob Bell’s book Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived ignited a firestorm of controversy for Bell’s questioning of just how much Biblical support certain concepts of Hell really have. Sensing that many of the English words no longer accurately translate the Hebrew and Greek of the Bible, Marcus Borg wrote the book Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power—And How They Can Be Restored to remedy the situation—connecting our words to their more ancient meaning.
Whether the Christianities of the future will emphasize ritual practice over doctrinal assent is a false trail. It is the transformation of the content of the Christian faith, not the rejection of its content, that will bring about the next great revival/awakening. God may be never-changing, but our understanding of God certainly does change. The content of the Christian faith of the future will be based on scripture, but it will be transformed by a better understanding of the ancient messages of the Bible.
Welcome to Paradigm One.
© 2012 Lee Karl Palo: Permission to “share” this on Facebook only. It is not to be reproduced or distributed in any other manner without the consent of the author.