Isaiah 40:6-8 ESV
Reading from Theodore Parker, “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity”
Every once in a while, there are those seminal pieces of religious literature—be it a book, an article, or a sermon—that over time prove to be important milestones or watersheds in religious thought. Such pieces can result in turning religious thinking in a whole new direction. And such pieces not only become public documents to which an entire religious community looks back upon and remembers. They can become personal markers for individual students of religion as well. Perhaps you can think of a religious book, article, or sermon that proved to be eye-opening, perhaps a turning point in your own religious thought.
Once such religious piece that served both of these functions was the sermon by American clergyman Theodore Parker titled “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity.” It was also a piece that helped propel forward the cause of liberal Christianity. But it was a piece that proved to be an eye-opening and thought-altering piece for me as well.
Theodore Parker was an early 19th century Christian Unitarian and Transcendentalist who led in theological and biblical studies reforms. He became nationally known and was friends with the likes of Ralph W. Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, William Lloyd Garrison, and Julia Ward Howe, and his thought influenced Abraham Lincoln and other notables of his day.
“The Transient and Permanent in Christianity” was delivered as a minister’s ordination sermon. In it Parker addressed two primary points: the transient and the permanent in the Bible, and the transient and the permanent in the Christian religion itself. It is the first section that deals with the Bible that is the subject for today.
Parker’s sermon fell into my life at a time when I was beginning the struggle of moving away from a conservative Reformed theology and mildly literal interpretation of the Bible to a more progressive theology and less literal interpretation of the Bible. And what Parker’s sermon also did for me was help me to realize that not all books or pages or verses of the Bible are created equally. As we read the Bible, we come to realize that there are many chapters, pages, and verses that are based upon the culture, beliefs, weaknesses, biases, prejudices, and the archaic, pre-scientific worldview of the people who wrote them. As Parker points out, such pages of the Bible are transitory in nature. They are dated. Their time has passed. In no way, shape, nor form can some words of the Bible be counted as the “eternal Word of God” and have bearing upon the lives we live today.
Yet, that having been said, the other side of the coin is there are select words to be found in the Bible that can be deemed eternal, what some would call “the eternal word of God.” Allow me to illustrate. A few years ago, Mary Lou’s sister and brother-in-law, who have a summer home in Rangeley, Maine, took us to a mountain stream where people go to pan for flakes of gold. You see, centuries ago, the glaciers pushed gold southward into Maine where much of it ended up in the mountain streams. Most of the gold has long since been panned out of the streams, but every now and then a tiny gold pebble or gold flakes can be found by those who have the patience to look for them. One way you do it is carefully remove rocks in little coves, swirls, and such, and then scoop up a pan full of the sand and water and shake it and swirl it just right so that the gold—if there is any—is separated from the sand and other substances.
Well, I have long looked at studying the Bible that way. It has become a powerful metaphor for me. And I suppose that Theodore Parker helped me in my understanding to do so. The Bible is full of gold nuggets that are there for the taking. But often they must be discovered and separated from the other materials of the Bible where they are embedded. For instance, much of the Hebrew book of Leviticus was temporal and related to the culture and beliefs of the day in which the materials were written. Such things as purity laws and not sewing two different kinds of seeds together in your field, or not mixing two kinds of fabric like cotton and wool in the same garment have little importance or meaning to us today. And all the instructions about appropriate kinds of sacrifices to be presented on the altar—both animal and vegetable—all of that was culture and time period related.
But then if you look hard enough in the book of Leviticus, you find a few timeless gold nuggets among the temporal; verses such as “You shall not steal” (19:11); “You shall do no injustice in court” (19:15); and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18), a verse quoted by Jesus as being one of the two most important verses in the entire Old Testament, and also quoted by the Apostle Paul as summing up the entire Jewish Law. Then in the book of Deuteronomy, there is the second verse that Jesus cited as being one of the two most important in the Hebrew Bible: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5).
The same is true when we turn to the Hebrew prophets. There is much material in the prophetic books—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, Micah, and so on—that was temporal and applied solely to the people of their day. But then if you dig under enough stones in those prophetic books you will discover some wonderful gold nuggets that are universal in their appeal and have stood the test of time. For instance, in the prophet Micah we find that timeless verse: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). In Amos we find that timeless and universal gold nugget that propelled forward the Civil Rights Movement: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). In Isaiah we find, “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7). Finally, in the prophet Malachi we read, “Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us?” (Malachi 2:10). Such are some of the universal and timeless gold nuggets to be mined from the Hebrew Scriptures, or what is commonly called the Old Testament.
But the same principle holds true when we turn to the New Testament. We also find a lot of material in the books of the New Testament that was written from a first-century worldview, that was culturally and provincially-bound, that was tied to the particular communities to which they were written. We have to sift through the opinions and biases of the writers, and ancient, pre-scientific beliefs in order to discover those universal words that will stand the test of time. Jesus’ “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12) is a timeless gem, a variation of which is found in other world religions. Paul’s so-called “love chapter” in 1 Corinthians 13 is unsurpassed in timeless beauty; the chapter ends, “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). And the unknown writer of the letter to the Ephesians gave us this gem, reminding us of the importance of always “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 5:14).
The Bible is a complex book; or should I say, complex set of books? We are so fortunate that we have had scholars like preacher Theodore Parker who understood this and in many ways was a man ahead of his time. And we are also so fortunate that we have today scholars such as Amy Jill-Levine, Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, John Shelby Spong, Bart Ehrman, and others who have devoted their lives to biblical scholarship and who help us understand the complexities and intricacies of the Bible and the cultures and world in which the books of the Bible were produced.
But at the same time, there are many rich gems to be gleaned from the pages of the Bible for scholars and non-scholars alike—for those who are willing to search for the eternal and universal gold nuggets among the temporal and provincial. May it be so for each of us throughout this season of Lent—finding the universal among the temporal in the Bible. Amen.