I was up at dark-thirty this morning, working on a big pot of scratch-made chicken & dumplings (including the dumplings) for a Monday “soup group” of faculty and staff at Campbell, when I realized that I take considerable comfort in knowing how to cook.
I don’t claim to be a chef, don’t cook anything pretentious, and have never even smelled a truffle, but I can put a wide variety of wholesome foods on the table and all of them are, as we say in the South, “fit to eat.” Samuel might disagree if the dish involves split pea soup or any type of greens, but he eats most of what I cook, and he doesn’t go hungry.
Sometimes I use a recipe when cooking, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I start with someone else’s recipe and adapt it to my own tastes. Sometimes I experiment. I have yet to end up with anything I couldn’t eat, though there have been times when I was the only one who ate it — a reminder that the worth of a dish is tested by a larger community, not just my own tastes.
It occurred to me that my satisfaction in being able to cook for myself offers an apt metaphor for my deep commitment to preserving the historic Baptist freedom of the individual to read and interpret the scriptures for oneself.
After coming under fire in some quarters for my previous post, I’ve tried to analyze why it is that I cherish the right of individual interpretation so much. For one thing, I realized that, for 26 years as a pastor, nine years as a Baptist editor, and now as a professor of Old Testament, reading and interpreting scripture is a major aspect of what I do for a living — and what I teach my students to do. Whether writing sermons or commentaries, what I’m doing is an exercise in reading the scripture and prayerfully seeking to understand and explain it in an appropriate way.
I don’t do this in isolation, of course — I consult commentaries, lexical aids, and critical texts that have come from the hands and minds of a wide spectrum of authors who might be Presbyterian or Lutheran or Catholic or Jewish, who might be conservative or liberal, Calvinist or Arminian, and their insights are always helpful.
Once I’ve gathered and processed information from the broader faith community and have reached my own conclusions or suggestions about the meaning of a text, my ideas are then tested by the larger family of faith. Whether it’s one of my classes, a congregation, or the reading public, others can weigh my interpretation and judge whether it makes sense to them or not.
So, when I stand to defend the historic Baptist insistence on “the freedom and right of every Christian to interpret and apply scripture under the leadership of the Holy Spirit,” as stated in the current foundational statements of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina, I do so with an awareness that all such interpretations are both informed by and tested by the larger community. If I should come up with some sort of fringe idea, it won’t stand the test. If I offer a helpful insight, it may be accepted and appreciated. I don’t promote spiritual Lone Rangerism — but I acknowledge that the community consists of individuals, each of whom has not only the right but the responsibility to think and judge for himself or herself.
How thin I roll the dumplings, whether I use light or dark meat, and how much pepper I add to the broth may impact how much the other soup group members will like my culinary contribution today. Some may even debate whether my soupy version of chicken & dumplings even qualifies as soup — but with insights picked up from Mama Dip’s cookbook, conversations with other cooks, and my own past experience, I’ll offer it up for examination and consumption by the community. It’ll be up to them to judge whether to eat it, or not.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.