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Theologians

We Are All Theologians Now

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One of the most fascinating post-Obergefell dynamics is the number of negative posts I have seen on social media about the Bible. Most of them highlight difficult passages of the Old Testament, but a fair number highlight tough sections of the New Testament as well. The logic of the criticisms can be grouped into a handful of categories:

1. The Bible was written by flawed humans, therefore it is flawed and not of divine origin.

2. The Bible was written a long time ago, therefore it is naive, outmoded, and irrelevant.

3. The Bible condones various atrocities, prejudices, and dubious ethics, therefore it is unenlightened and unreliable.

Now for the record, I think this whole storm of Biblical criticism is fantastic because it is an opportunity for clarification and discussion. And in that spirit I would like to offer two relatively brief trains of thought. First, I will briefly respond to the listed objections, and second, I will offer some thoughts on how to approach the Biblical text more fruitfully.

1. Response about flawed humanity – The very beginning of the Bible makes some startling claims, but one of the most critical is that humans are made in the image of God. In fact, even though it goes on to teach that humans fell away from God, that did not change the fact that they were made in God’s image (Genesis 9:6). Being made in God’s image means a lot of things that we can’t get into here. But one of the things it most certainly points to is that humans function like pointers to and symbols of the Creator. In other worldviews, humans are not understood from this vantage point. So to understand how God’s self-revelation can legitimately be passed through humans, one has to first understand the special place of dignity, symbolism, and communication that humans have in the Biblical program. In other words, by the Bible’s very own testimony about the nature of humanity, God’s self-disclosure via humanity is not only possible – but by design. Much more could be said about this, but it is a critical starting point. One may not agree that humans are made in God’s image – but one cannot accuse the Bible of being internally inconsistent on this point.

2. Response about age of Bible – Let’s start with a point of agreement. The Bible actually makes claims about the nature of its age and progressive revelation over time – and goes so far as to admit that many features of its revelation were temporary in nature (Hebrews 1:1ff). One of the most obvious is that the sacrificial system of the Old Testament was symbolic of the need for substitutionary atonement… pointing to the need for God’s ultimate Presence and Provision. Other examples abound, but the principle is correct at one level. Many dynamics and instructions of the Bible were not permanent and were for a special purpose at a particular time. But now to the disagreement… Yes, the Bible is old, so what? The age of something doesn’t de facto speak to its irrelevance. Do I even need to prove this point with examples? Are the works of Shakespeare worthless because they are old? Or are certain aspects of his work ageless? Isn’t it amazing that the Bible was endured and thrived for over 2,000 years? Doesn’t that kind of perseverance among disparate communities over the face of the earth deserve a little respect? A little curiosity? I think so…

3. Response about questionable and inconsistent ethics – Now here’s where things get juicy. Some issues are easier to navigate than others, to be honest. There are some gritty parts and pieces that don’t go down easy. We’ll get to those in a moment. But let’s start with an observation – these kinds of passages trigger all of us to engage in the enterprise of interpretation and theology. And that’s a good thing, but it is also a rigorous and complex thing. Simply highlighting a particular issue as if there is no credible or compelling explanation for its existence is naive and superficial. If there is one thing I have learned in life, sometimes hard questions get hard answers. Not everything is self-evident or emotionally comfortable. So when we come to these kinds of issues we should give the texts and ourselves a little air to breathe. Reading texts in their full context – and even in the their full Biblical context takes some time and thought. If you don’t have time for that, that is fine. But perhaps vociferous criticism along these lines should be dropped in favor of more self-effacing ignorance or agnosticism.

Unfortunately, none of these responses really solve any of the particular squabbles people have about apparent sexism, inconsistent moral standards, condoning of atrocities, etc. And trying to respond to each one or a particular example is beyond the scope of this post. But I thought it might be interesting to put a few interpretive principles on the table for people to chew on. Maybe some light can be shed by sharing a few tools of the trade, if you will…

A. Scripture interprets Scripture – One of the things that makes the Bible so interesting is that it has very dense motifs, themes, symbols, and structures that are echoed over-and-over again. It becomes apparent with some study that the Biblical writers were often leveraging material that earlier or contemporary Biblical writers used. So to understand a particular issue or passage, it isn’t enough to simply point to one verse. That verse lives in a holistic textual and interpretive ecosystem that deserves attention. An atomistic approach just isn’t legitimate in this kind of literature.

B. Distinction between descriptive and prescriptive – In almost any kind of literature we have to distinguish between observations about what happened (descriptive) versus instructions about what should happen (prescriptive). So for example, polygamy happened for various reasons we won’t get into here. That is a descriptive fact of the Biblical texts. However, polygamy is not given or condoned as a moral prescription. In fact, monogamy is the consistent prescription of the Bible. We’re not taking time here to unpack this issue in detail, we’re just highlighting the interpretive principle.

C. Explicit interprets implicit – There are some places where explicit prescriptive instruction is given about a behavior or about the interpretation of another Biblical text. We see this a lot with the Apostle Paul in the New Testament. His letters almost work like a running commentary and explanation of the Old Testament narrative. In the absence of explicit teaching or commentary, certain implicit principles are certainly present and legitimate. However, explicit instruction and interpretation always carry the day when an implicit principle is in doubt.

D. Later revelation interprets earlier revelation – The Bible’s own testimony about itself is that its revelation was progressive over time. One of the reasons it offers for this dynamic is that humanity matures over time. This is important because as noted earlier in this post, certain instructions were temporary in nature. The Mosaic covenant included civil laws for the nation-state of Israel. But even Moses predicted the breaking of Mosaic covenant and the coming of a prophet greater than himself. So the specific civil codes for the nation-state of Israel were never meant to be eternal or ageless. This raises many difficult and awesome questions because after all, Jesus said not one “jot or tittle” of the law would pass away until heaven and earth pass away (Matthew 5:18). But again, this is a theological problem with huge cash value for people willing to dive into it. Jesus was often enigmatic and scandalous – heck, that is what got him killed. I don’t see these things as prima facie reasons to give up in frustration. No, these are the high pay-off areas where interpretive diligence carries serious weight.

E. Jesus is the interpretive key – Jesus taught that the whole Old Testament pointed to Him (Luke 24). The other apostles echoed this teaching in their writings. Seeing this isn’t always easy at first because it means becoming familiar with a way of reading ancient literature most of us have never learned or experienced. But I’m telling you, when you start to see how it works – it is stunning. Hey, don’t take my word for it. Take Jesus’ word for it – this was His teaching, not something I’m making up.

F. Be open to letting your sensibilities be shocked and reshaped – Tim Keller once quipped, “If your god never disagrees with you, you might just be worshiping an idealized version of yourself.” It doesn’t even seem like further commentary on that is necessary.

And that is probably a good place to stop for now. Perhaps I will tackle some of the more difficult passages people like to cite in future posts. Stay tuned…

 

One response to “We Are All Theologians Now”

  1. Steve says:

    Looking forward to see some thoughts on those specific difficult texts :)

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