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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Bound to the Word
February 14, 2013

Do you accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments
to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative
witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal,
and God’s Word to you?

Again, as we saw last week with the vow confessing Jesus Christ, this ordination vow is deeply personal. Is God’s Word to all something you receive as God’s word to you personally?

The question is not, Do you believe that the Scriptures are God’s Word? – as though we might believe them to be something else. We are being asked here not to decide something, but to receive something. One might affirm that the Bible is God’s Word, yet ignore it; conversely, one might regard it as something other than a divine Word, yet live by its precepts. The church calls its officers personally to receive and to obey the Scriptures as God’s Word, not merely to affirm them abstractly as such.

This vow offers no technical account of exactly how the Bible is God’s Word. It simply traces some major contours of a highly complex doctrine: 1. It references only the Old and New Testaments, not other writings; 2. The Holy Spirit speaks through Scripture; 3. Scriptures are the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ; 4. Scripture speaks God’s Word to each of us personally.

When I hear someone proclaim “The Bible says…” I immediately flash to a picture of the young Billy Graham with one hand pointing to heaven and the other holding high a large soft-leather bound open Bible. In so doing, he was embodying what Jesus claimed, that the Scriptures testify to Jesus personally. In raising the Bible and pointing to the Risen Lord, Billy Graham was taking a single action – and that is the same action all church officers promise to take. We promise that we will not speak of Jesus without pointing to the Bible, and we will not speak of the Bible without pointing to Jesus.

Karl Barth famously said that the preacher ought always have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. He did not mean to grant them equal weight, only to point out that the Word we hear in Scripture cannot be sundered from the Word who came to dwell in the World (John 1:14). If I am to receive the Bible as God’s Word to me, I have to connect it to the world around me.

I try in my ministry to embody this principle: All of the Bible has to do with all of life. As I follow the lectionary, both in daily readings and in Sunday preaching, I always seek to connect today’s passages with today’s life circumstances. Over decades of lectionary preaching, I have not yet found a single instance where the texts for the day did not have a powerful Word from God for the situation at hand – whether we are mourning a major tragedy like 9/11, celebrating a presidential election, or marking a special local event. All of Scripture illumines all of life.

The corollary is equally true: All of life has to do with all of the Bible. There is nothing in my life that is exempted from being tested and reformed according to the Word of God. In my ordination vow, I promise to spread my entire life before Scripture, and let my life thereby become more fully conformed to God’s will.

My first call is to receive Scripture as God’s Word to me, rather than to declare what it requires of you. While honesty to our vows binds us all inescapably to the word of Scripture, we need to accept the reality that the way in which we hear God speaking to us through Scripture may vary from person to person, community to community, or time to time. One of the marvels of Scripture is that each time God’s people open it, they hear God speaking anew. “Indeed, the word of God is living and active…” (Hebrews 4:12).

As we engage Scripture, we expect to receive a Word from God that is personal and current – it is for me, today. I may hear something entirely new next time I read this text – and you might hear something different still. I grasp more fully this living Word by hearing how God’s Spirit has taught you as you have listened to Scripture, and you might learn something conversely from me as well. It is a personal word, to be sure – not just for me but for you also. Yet ultimately it is a communal word. I hear God’s Word most fully when I pay attention not only to what I have heard Scripture say to me, but also to what God’s Spirit may have said to you through that same text. When we hear God’s Word in company with one another, we thereby open ourselves more fully to being reformed by God’s Word, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Listening with you to God’s Word,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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