Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Book and the Tradition

I have to admit something here. I am a Detroit Lion fan. That does not matter much to religion discussions but lately I see an interesting parallel. Some of you may know that there is a lot of discussion around a strange call by the referee that decided Sunday's game. The details are here if you want more background but what I wanted to talk about does not require knowing the whole issue. What I found interesting is that there is a huge gap between what the NFL rule book actually says and the way referees and NFL officials talk about the rule. That is there is an understanding among NFL people that the rule is to be interpreted a certain way. For example, they all talk about completing the process of the catch. Those exact words are quoted by many people. But those words are not in the rulebook. Nothing like it is. So what we have is an interpretive tradition growing up among football people that this rule should be understood in this way. To the point where they use phrases like "the rule is" to describe these understandings. This is despite the fact that many of the same people say their intuition tells them the rule should not be interpreted that way. That plays like this one feel smelly. They even talk about changing the "complete the process" rule. The one that isn't in the rulebook.

Of course the parallel is to the use of the bible alone versus the bible and tradition. A football game is something infinitely simpler than the life of the church. The rulebook is reviewed for possible amendment every year so it has a much better chance of anticipating every question that will come up during a game. So I would think refereeing a football game should be something that can be done by the book. But it turns out that is not the case. Even then the book is not enough and interpretive traditions grow to fill the gap. There is an authority, the league, to affirm certain interpretations and to reject others so it all works.

The fact that such an authority is needed is quite instructive. It shows that no faith can be based on the bible alone. It simply contradicts common sense and human experience. People want it to be true. They assert it strongly and repeatedly. It is just isn't possible to actually do it. Especially since the book was never designed to be a rulebook. The NFL rulebook was designed to address all questions and still does not do a complete job. The bible is not designed that way. You can't go to the section on Sunday morning worship and see what it says on what should or should not happen. The NFL book has a section specifically on when a football should be ruled as caught and when it should be ruled as dropped. Even having that it fails. How can the bible do what it makes no attempt to do and what is humanly impossible?

The response might be that it is humanly impossible but we are talking about God. But God does not do things just because you want Him to. He is God. He gets to work His way. Does God want His church to work in a way that is completely contrary to all other human experience? In some ways He does. But in those ways He makes that clear. I think of servant leadership. Jesus wants church leaders to be servants and not dictators. He says that. Does He ever say we are to use scripture against our leaders? Does He ever tell the apostles they will be replaced by a book? This is not God's idea. This is something man has imposed on God. You must work though scripture alone because that is my terms of discipleship. So we are demanding a huge miracle from God in saying the bible must do for my Christian life what no book ever does for any human endeavor.

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