One more post on an issue that is really a burr under my saddle. Hopefully I can get this out of my system with this entry.
Was the apostle Paul a moral monster? Did he, in his teaching, leave a group of Christians to practice something that he knew was wrong, indeed was sinful? Did he, by writing a letter (or better, letters) exacerbate that error by the thousands, perhaps millions, of mislead disciples? These are serious questions, and in the discussions that are so prevalent in the church today these questions must at least be asked.
The argument that I object to so strenuously, and that was presented in all earnestness by a young man in Bible class yesterday, goes something like this: the apostle Paul knew certain behaviors were wrong, or at the very least were sub-Christian in nature, but because of the prevailing culture in the communities in which he was trying to preach, he faced a dilemma. He could either teach what he knew to be true (and later proved that he knew was true) and risk upsetting the mores of the people that he was trying to teach; or he could swallow his tongue, actually support the unjust and ungodly behavior in the hopes that he could teach them about Christ without raising their self-defense mechanisms. In other words, the apostle Paul actively condoned certain behaviors, even though he knew them to be against God’s will, so that he could teach the people about Jesus.
I have three huge, nay, monstrous, objections to this line of thinking.
1. To suggest this behavior means that Paul violated his own integrity. When you teach something that you believe to be true, and later find to be false, you are guilty of an error of fact, but your integrity is not affected (assuming you correct your mistake). But, when you teach something you know is false in order to achieve another goal you have violated the very basic aspect of integrity. It does not matter the ultimate goal here – you are guilty of the theory of “the end justifies the means.” That theory treats your students as mere pawns in helping you achieve your status. It is fundamentally demeaning to those you are trying to teach. It is philosophically corrupt as well as theologically corrupt. When your students find out that you have not only lied to them, but lied to achieve an ulterior goal, they will not only lose respect for you, but also for the subject about which you are attempting to teach them. For someone to suggest that Paul knew a behavior was wrong (or conversely, that it was blessed by God) and then for him to condone it (or conversely, that he condemned that which God had blessed) makes Paul out to be the worst of deceivers.
2. To suggest that Paul knew a behavior to be wrong, yet taught so as to condone it meant that not only did he teach his audience error, but he taught it is okay to promote that error if the situation demanded it. A student learns not only the content of lessons, but the method and the philosophy behind those lessons as well. For Paul to say, “Listen, I know full well that behavior ‘X’ is wrong, but I’m going to bless practicing it as a command of God so that I can get my point across” was to teach his audience that it is perfectly okay to lie if there is an “acceptable” ulterior motive. Conversely, if Paul knew a behavior was perfectly acceptable to God, yet taught that it was a sin, then the lesson is clear – our teaching is pure regardless of the content so long as we have a “pure” motive behind our erroneous content.
3. If Paul knew a behavior was wrong, and yet taught in such a manner as to condone it meant that he violated a much higher standard of honesty: he falsely involved the activity of the Holy Spirit. Paul did not just say, “Behavior ‘X’ is wrong because our culture says it is wrong and so we should avoid it” he said, “Behavior ‘X’ is wrong because it is condemned in the written word of God.” Likewise, when Paul blessed a certain behavior he used God’s word to verify that claim. Thus, and make no mistake about this, if Paul knew a certain behavior was wrong, and he condoned that behavior by appealing to God’s word, then he is guilty of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. It is one thing to teach a lie under your own authority. When you knowingly and intentionally invoke God’s name in your lie you have violated the very nature of the true God.
I really know of no other way to state this. If Paul knew a behavior was wrong (or, that a behavior was acceptable to God) and yet he taught and wrote in such a way as to promote that sinful behavior (or, on the flip side, he taught and wrote that an acceptable lifestyle was sinful before God) then he (1) violated his own integrity, (2) taught and promoted that others could violate their integrity if the situation demanded it, and (3) by invoking the word of God to defend his arguments (which he knew were false) he blasphemed the Holy Spirit.
What would we think of a preacher today who taught what he knew was a lie, taught others to practice the same lie, and invoked God’s name and God’s word to support his lies? I would call him a moral monster – a reprobate in the fullest sense of the term.
Why should we think the apostle Paul to be any less of a moral monster?
(BTW – if Paul was thoroughly ignorant of the error of his way the issue is not thereby resolved. It simply makes Paul to be, in the words of C.S. Lewis, a pathetic lunatic – someone who was greatly deluded and someone whose rantings are to be steadfastly avoided.)
Brothers and sisters, fellow exegetes and preachers, before we go around spouting off that Paul only taught that such-and-such behavior was right because the culture of his day demanded it; or that such-and-such behavior was sinful because the culture of his day demanded it even though he knew the opposite to be true let us stop and ask a critical question – What does that behavior turn the apostle Paul into?
I cannot accept the moral morass into which that argument places the apostle Paul. The apostle Paul may be many things: confusing, obtuse, opaque, bewildering, hyperbolic – just to name a few. But a moral monster?
In regard to my last post on the inspiration of Scripture a good friend posed the question of what I believe about “progressive revelation,” the idea (if I understand it correctly) that God speaks to successive cultures in ways that are meaningful to that culture that would have been meaningless to previous cultures.
I suppose I have to begin where I most frequently begin, and that is by asking what is meant exactly by that term, and how is the person using it? I would accept, for instance, that God “progressively” revealed His nature throughout history culminating in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. I believe this because I believe it is a sound biblical concept, taught most explicitly in the book of Hebrews. (“In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son…” Heb. 1:1, RSV) In this sense “progressive” can mean both chronology and content.
If, however, the idea is that God, acting through the Holy Spirit, continued to modify or “progress” his revelation even during the writing of the New Testament then I have to say “No, in no way do I accept the idea of ‘progressive’ revelation.” I have a number of reasons for making this stand.
1. In order to accept that God revealed some truths early in the writing of the New Testament, and a fuller, more complete, and more “Divine” expression at a later date we must have an air-tight, definitive, unimpeachable sequence of the composition of the New Testament writings. At least at this stage of our knowledge that is simply beyond us. But, having said that, I believe this is one of the major and “unsurvivable” errors of progressive revelationists. They want to suggest that one writing of Paul has more weight, or is more inspired, or is more authoritative, than other writings of Paul due to this concept of “progressive revelation.” But one of the primary writings that they identify as being “more progressive” is uniformly understood to be written earlier than the writings that these interpreters want to dismiss. Therefore, Paul was not a progressive thinker, but a regressive thinker, and if he was writing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, then that ultimately makes God to be a regressive source of inspiration.
Why, having come up with God’s ultimate adjudication that there is no difference whatsoever between male and female in Galatians, would Paul then revert to the rejected and unworthy teaching that women must submit themselves to men, and that men are to exercise spiritual leadership in both the home and the church? (Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians, Timothy, Titus, and also Peter as well) It makes no logical, nor specifically does it make any theological, sense.
2. The writing of the New Testament occurred in a relatively compressed timeframe. From the death of Jesus to the death of Paul was a period of about 35 years, give or take a few. The time frame from the conversion of Paul until his death is even more tightly compressed. That means if Paul was to experience any “progressive” revelation it would have had to occur very quickly, and yet even though we can see Paul’s writing change (as any writer changes over a period of 25-30 years), his fundamental theology never does. So, exactly when does this “progression” take place? I just do not see the chronology that allows for this change to occur – and combined with point #1 above I simply cannot accept the concept that Paul “progressed” from one idea (male spiritual leadership) to another, radically different one (no gender separation at all, men and women are allowed to serve equally).
3. Taken to its ultimate extreme, those who argue the most vociferously for “progressive revelation” would have to accept the concept of an open canon. Why, if God worked in the first century to “progressively reveal” his complete will, would he stop with the death of the last apostle? If a person argues that God needed to progressively reveal himself throughout the writing of the New Testament, and at the same time argues for a closed canon, it seems to me that person is arguing out of both sides of his/her mouth. After all, cultures and society did not stop evolving in 100 A.D., so it seems to me that it would be incumbent upon God to keep on revealing his will “progressively” if he was to keep up with technology and other issues.
4. Clearly, the early church fathers rejected the idea of an “open canon.” I am not knowledgeable enough about the church fathers to know what their opinion was regarding “progressive revelation,” but they had the sense enough to figure out that God spoke through his apostles, and when they died the canon of authoritative Scripture was closed. We have what we need for spiritual guidance, through the knowledge of Jesus, and that is enough (2 Peter 1:3).
Now, I must say that not every person who is an egalitarian believes in the concept of “progressive revelation.” These folks interest me, in a confused sort of way. I’m not exactly sure how they work around the passages that clearly teach male spiritual leadership (both directly and indirectly). Well, that is not exactly true – I read about it all the time but I still cannot get my head around it. They have to (1) remove or dismiss clear passages that contradict their conclusion, (2) redefine words that mean what they do not want them to mean and (3) appeal to obscure references and emotional arguments that tend to obfuscate more than clarify. I also know that they HAVE to put 99 out of their 100 eggs in the Galatians 3:28 basket. As I have said ad nauseum, that is taking one passage out of context and is exegetically impossible to defend.
Thus hath the knuckle-dragging Troglodyte spoken.
I have previously discussed this subject here, but in light of recent articles I feel a need to reiterate some propositions that I feel are fundamental [foundational, necessary].
- Our understanding of the concept of inspiration is the beginning, not the end, of our understanding of Scripture. It is a fundamental presupposition. That is to say we do not read a passage of Scripture and then decide whether it is inspired or not. It is either inspired or it is not, and that reality was established long before we came to the text.
- We cannot “cherry-pick” those passages we like or that support our personal or cultural norms and declare those to be authoritative and inspired, and then relegate other passages, often in the same book and sometimes within the same chapter, as being “culturally limited” and therefore non-authoritative and non-inspired. If a section of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians is his own creation, to be limited strictly to the church in Corinth and having absolutely no continuing authority, then the content of ALL of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians are limited strictly to the church in Corinth and none of what he had to say to that church has any validity beyond the death of the last Corinthian church member.
- Although God used human beings to “put pen to paper and write the Bible,” if we understand the concept of inspiration to go back to the deity of God himself, we cannot excuse certain writings as being a “mistake” or a “misunderstanding” or a “limitation of the author” due to cultural biases. If we persist in doing so what we are ultimately saying is that God Himself misunderstood His own intents and purposes, that God Himself perpetuated these mistakes, and that God Himself is limited by the cultural norms that man created, and therefore in an incredible twist on Biblical theology, God is now limited by man.
- Please note: I am not speaking of every cultural expression of an authoritative principle, but I am speaking of the obedience to that principle itself. For example, I can already see people disagree with me and say, “oh, yeah, wise guy, what about the ‘holy kiss’ and the ‘wearing of the veil.'” Those were cultural expressions of a biblical principle – the love and fellowship of Christians and the submission of female to male in matters of spiritual guidance. To answer a snarky question posed to me in another place, no, my wife does not call me ‘Lord’ (the example of Sarah to Abraham). But she does look to me for spiritual leadership, and she submits to the all-male leadership in our congregation. Cultural expressions may change, biblical truth does not.
I really do not see any other way around these, what I consider to be “self-evident,” propositions. I could certainly be wrong – I’ve been wrong more times than I care to admit. But I simply do not see how we can say we have a “high view of Scripture” and then in the next breath or paragraph say (or write), “of course, Paul is limited by his culture here, so we can disregard what this passage appears to communicate.” Inspiration simply does not work that way.
I see this most frequently in the discussion on women’s role and authority in the church, but I might also say it extends to other subjects. The most common exegetical fallacy that I read and hear today is this, “Galatians 3:28 is God’s first and final declaration on the equality of men and women, period, and anything and everything that appears to contradict this verse is culturally biased and therefore inconsequential in the teaching of the church today.”
One verse, taken horribly out of context, is the definitive statement on one given subject, and many more addresses on the subject, penned by different authors, which just happen to be written after the verse in question, are mistakes, misunderstandings or intentional lies.
Wow. If that is a person’s concept of a high view of Scripture, I sure would hate to hear what his or her low view of Scripture would be.
I have been reading on this subject quite extensively lately, and to be honest I am growing weary of the subterfuge of those who are trying to promote a radical feminist agenda on the church. If you promote egalitarianism, fine – don’t let me stop you. But at the same time do not promote yourself as an advocate of conservative biblical inspiration. Come right out and be honest with yourself and your readers. State your position clearly – Paul was NOT inspired, we CANNOT trust what he wrote to be the mind of God, the words he wrote are merely suggestive and not authoritative, we in the 21st century are NOT bound to follow his or any other New Testament teaching if it conflicts with what we want it to mean.
But, at the same time, just remember that your logic must apply to Galatians 3:28 as well.
I am in the midst of working through a text-book that I (hopefully) will be using in a class this fall on the subject of interpreting Scripture. The book is entitled, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible by J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays. So far I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the Book and I really hope that I have enough students to teach the class. Perhaps in the future I will write a more in-depth review, but I came across a very helpful distinction the other day and I wanted to share it, and if by sharing it more people are interested in reading the book then so much the better.
To begin, let me use a situation from real life. In my work as a minister I have come across many people who are honestly, but hopelessly, lost when it comes to the concept of interpreting Scripture. They have heard so many sermons and so many classes in which the preacher or teacher says something like, “we do not interpret Scripture, we just read Scripture,” or “we interpret Scripture literally, other religions invent methods of interpretation to support their man-made ideas.” So, many church members blithely go about their business thinking either that they do not ever join in the process of interpreting the Bible, or they assume, because they have been told repeatedly that they do so, that they interpret the Bible in a “pure” and literal sense.
One poor soul is so convinced of this that every time he reads the book of Revelation after an election he has to completely re-establish his interpretation because the identity of his anti-Christ has changed. In a small way if it were not so sad it would be comical. But it is not comical at all – it is very, very sad.
To be perfectly blunt: it is impossible to interpret the Bible in a “pure” literal sense. To use just one simple illustration, if everyone was to do so, after the first sin involving the use of sight a person would have to pluck out their right eye, and after the second sin involving sight they would have to pluck out their left eye. After the first sin involving a hand or a finger the person would have to chop off their right hand, and after the second sin they would have to chop off their left hand (Matthew 5:27-30). Now, how many church members do you see who have plucked out one eye, let alone both? How many have cut off one hand, let alone both? And yet are they going to suggest they have NEVER sinned with their eyes or their hands? What about gossips? Would it not be a “literal” application that a gossip would have to cut their tongue out? Hmmm.
Or take Jesus’ description of himself. Taken literally, we should look for a great big huge gate to descend from the clouds when Jesus returns. Oops, make that a grape-vine. Oops, make that a loaf of bread. Oops, make that a valiant warrior riding a white horse. Rats. I just cannot keep all those literal descriptions straight.
The point is when we attempt to interpret the Bible literally we get into all kinds of silly messes. And I have not even touched the hem of the garment that is called the Apocalypse. While I will not for a moment deny that the Bible is true and faithful in its message, I will argue that the writers of the books of the Bible used a wide variety of writing styles and techniques and we must be aware of those styles and techniques or we will distort and even negate the ultimate truth of the Bible.
Here is where the authors of the book Grasping God’s Word have hit on a timely phrase. They correctly point out that we should not attempt to interpret the Bible according to its literal meaning but according to its literary meaning. So, if we are reading poetry we understand that God is not literally a shepherd, but that there are several aspects of a shepherd that can be applied to our God. Jesus is not literally a door or a gate, but that image suggests something about the person and work of Jesus that we need to think seriously about. Jesus can use hyperbole (exaggeration) and irony (sarcasm’s weaker cousin) and we do not need to believe that the Pharisees were literally a bunch of snakes.
The strange thing is, as I see it, that we do this with the most obvious examples (Ps. 23, Matt. 5) but when it comes to more complex issues we want to revert back to “literal only.” Thus, when Paul exclaims, “Don’t you have houses to eat in?” (1 Cor. 11:22) he must mean that eating food at a church assembly is forever condemned. Except, in the first century the overwhelming evidence is that the Christians met together in homes! There simply was no “church building” to ban the use of communal meals. If Paul was banning the use of eating in places of assembly, he was therefore banning the eating of food in houses, the very thing that he appears to command in 1 Cor. 11:22! If we take every statement in the letters of Paul literally we move from the sublime to the absurd in a heartbeat!
I really do not blame many people for the confusion they experience when they come to difficult passages and for the helplessness they feel in trying to make sense of the verses. Many preachers and teachers – who should have known far better – have led these people into a black hole. Those who teach and preach today need to work remedially to untangle the web of deceit that has already been spun, and we need to preach and teach and model healthy, biblical forms of interpretation. That means, unfortunately, that bad theology needs to be exposed and, if needed, forcefully refuted. But all things must be done in love.
And, never forget my Undeniable Truth for Theological Reflection #1. All interpreters must come to the Bible in an attitude of humility. We may have an incorrect grasp on a biblical truth, so let us be careful about surgically removing a splinter from someone’s eye when we have a 2×4 in our own eye.
That’s a figure of speech, folks.
I want to return to the image that I have used for so many of my early posts, and the image for which this blog is named. Just for a moment I want to talk about the importance of using six main instruments in the process of flying in instrument weather conditions (abbreviated as IMC).
When flying in weather in which there is no outside reference to the horizon a pilot has to depend upon 6 primary instruments. (Technically there can be several others, but I will limit my comments to the process of keeping the plane where you want it to stay). As the pilot transitions into the landing phase of flight another set of instruments comes into play, making the process even more complicated. In modern aircraft several of these instruments may be projected on one visual screen (a “glass cockpit”) but I was never fortunate enough to fly in one of those.
The six main instruments pilots use in IMC are the airspeed indicator, the artificial horizon (attitude indicator), the altimeter, the rate of climb (or descent) indicator, the turn coordinator (or turn-and-bank indicator), and the heading indicator. These instruments are made of different components (either gyros or some other system) and are powered from different sources (either a vacuum system connected to the pitot-static system or electricity). All six instruments must be kept in a constant “scan” or serious problems can develop. The reason for the different construction and the different power systems is so that if the electric fails, or a gyro breaks, or the pitot-static system ices over the pilot still can keep the plan flying and can actually land safely.
The six primary instruments provide a system of redundancy so that if one instrument or even an entire system should fail, the other instruments not affected can be used for safe flight. Now, to be sure, an instrument failure constitutes an “in flight emergency” and the number one goal is to get the landing gear on the asphalt a soon as possible, but pilots practice flying by what is referred to as “partial panel” all the time, just so they can learn to use various instruments to keep themselves alive. For example, the airspeed indicator, the rate of climb indicator, and the altimeter can all be used to verify whether the plane is in a climb or a descent. The turn coordinator and the heading indicator (as well as the compass) tell the pilot if the wings are level or if the plane is turning. All of this information is displayed on the artificial horizon – so it is frequently used as the “fixated” instrument. But it is also prone to fail – I’ve had several fail on me, but luckily they always went out in visual flight conditions.
The trick is not to “fixate” on one single instrument. If you do, and that instrument fails, you can kill yourself and your passengers in a hurry. Even if that instrument is working properly, if you fixate on it you can still kill yourself and your passengers in a hurry if you are not paying attention to what your other primary flight instruments are telling you.
What in the world does this have to do with theology?
Today, as in every age, many theologians have decided that all they need for their system of theology is a reliance on a single verse of Scripture. I call this, profoundly enough, Single Verse Theology. I am very familiar with single verse theology because I am a part of the church that many have accused of only using Acts 2:38 for our theology of baptism. I do not feel like this is a fair accusation, and I can demonstrate that baptism is taught in virtually every book of the New Testament. However I will grant one argument: we have certainly fixated on Acts 2:38. That is a weakness in our theological history. But we are far, far from being alone in the single verse theology crowd.
- The “saved by grace through faith” crowd uses Ephesians 2:8 as their single verse. No other verse of Scripture needs to be quoted nor studied – Ephesians 2:8 trumps everything.
- Roman Catholics point to Matthew 16:18 as the “single verse” that justifies their teaching of the primacy of Peter.
- 1 Corinthians 11:22 is used to justify those who do not allow food in the church building. Actually, all they need is the first phrase of the verse.
- Hebrews 10:4 is quoted by those who believe that the sins of the pre-Christian faithful were “rolled forward” until the cross, because it is obvious (to them) that no one could be forgiven without the death of Jesus.
- Those who are agitating for women to take over the role of spiritual leadership in the church point exclusively to Galatians 3:28 for their reason of existence.
It does not matter to the proponents of these single verse theology proponents that many other passages of Scripture can be used to counter-balance these verses. I do not deny that any of them are in the text, although I certainly deny that they are always being used by their defenders as the context in which they are found dictates that they should be used. So really what we have here is not simply the reliance upon a single verse for an entire theology, but frequently a misuse of that single verse.
The point is not that these are bad, “satanic” verses that need to be cut out of our Scriptures. The point is that they need to be read in context, and also in light of many other passages of Scripture that show another aspect of the truth of God’s word. For example, I believe completely that Christians are saved by grace through faith. I believe that because Paul teaches us that in Ephesians 2:8. But I also believe that baptism is an essential response of that faith, and that it is in the rite of baptism that we are saved (1 Peter 3:21, and that dreaded Acts 2:38 passage among many others). I believe that Peter had a special place among the 12, but that no single apostle had the “primacy” of all the rest (the book of Acts and Paul’s rebuke of Peter in the book of Galatians teaches us that), and that Matthew 16:18 in no way teaches an unending apostolic succession. You cannot read Hebrews 10:4 in the way it is frequently used if you have read Leviticus 4-6 (10 times in these chapters we are told the priest will make atonement and the guilty party will be forgiven. I don’t make these things up, folks. Read it for yourself). And finally, Galatians 3:28 is a wonderful statement of equality of salvation within the body of Christ, but it has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with service in the church or responsibilities of spiritual leadership. Other passages in 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians and 1 Timothy and Titus ARE specifically dealing with the responsibilities of spiritual leadership. These passages cannot be ignored or explained away simply because Paul says in Galatians 3:28 that there are no multiple layers or ranks of blessedness when it comes to our salvation in Christ.
Fixation on a single instrument has killed many pilots. It is dangerous even in good conditions. When systems or instruments fail it is almost always fatal. Single verse theology is dangerous even when the verse is used in context and is correctly defined. When that verse is taken out of context, or when that verse is bent or twisted to fit a theologians cultural understanding, that single verse theology becomes fatal. Remember, Satan quoted Scripture to Jesus during his 40 days of temptation. Simply being able to find a verse in the Bible that supports your opinion does not mean that you have discovered that God has blessed your position.
It is a far safer exercise to find out what God has said throughout his history of salvation that has to bear on a specific subject. Difficult, yes; time consuming, for sure; frustrating (because we are so frequently challenged to amend our position) absolutely! But if you want to keep your wings level and your nose flying straight and you want to land your little aircraft safely on the ground that never shifts, it is the only way to fly.
Keep your scan going. Lose the single verse theology. Fly safely, with every instrument you can possibly use to make sure you are hearing the true, and entire, Word of God, and not the lie of the evil one.
One thing I can say about Postmodernists – they sure love to talk about culture. Everything, it would appear, is connected to and limited by one’s place of birth, and especially one’s time of birth. If you were born in a patriarchal age, you were doomed to slave under a patriarchy. However, if you were born in the late 20th or early 21st century you are blessed to be an egalitarian – and a postmodern as icing on the cake.
Postmoderns do not like anything to be authoritarian, but they are especially opposed to having an ancient text provide any type of authority. For disciples of Christ this poses somewhat of a dilemma – because Jesus certainly used an ancient text (the books we refer to as the “Old Testament”) as an authority in his life. It was not a “god,” but it certainly contained the words of the true and living God; and he used the Torah not only as example but as it was designed – as a light for his feet.
Those who wish to claim a Christian lifestyle while challenging the role of the written text have come up with some ingenious methods to deal with the texts that, at least on the surface, appear to be authoritarian. Many simply deny that they belong in the canon that we call the Bible. (The word canon itself means “rule,” implying authority.) Thus, for many the letters that we call the “Pastoral Epistles” (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) were not written by the apostle Paul as the texts claim, therefore they are not authoritarian for the life of the disciple today. Others, while not willing to remove entire books, will remove certain verses within those books.
Finally, the “trump card” that many Postmoderns use is the “culture card.” Briefly stated, this argument posits that, because the authors of these ancient texts lived in times so far removed from our advanced culture, the texts they wrote cannot possibly be thought of as being an authority for our life today. Thus, these exegetes can keep the objectionable books in the canon, but they simply ignore the verses that have been found to be patriarchal, homophobic, capitalistic, militaristic – the list is almost inexhaustible. In the Postmodern setting the text is not the judge of the reader or listener, the reader or listener is the judge (and far too often, the executioner) of the text.
The Postmodern interpreter can do wonders with certain texts by pointing out the cultural differences between the time period of the various biblical authors and our own, but they have a significant problem when they come to the letter we know as 1 Corinthians. This letter is also a major point of emphasis for Postmodern interpreters, as they have issues with the apostle Paul’s apparent homophobia and male chauvinism. Thus, the letter of 1 Corinthians provides both a test case, and, in my opinion, the rock on which the ship of Postmodernism founders.
As I see it, in order for Postmodern exegetes to win the battle of interpretations they must prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that the ancient texts of the Bible were written for one specific audience, and that the only way for the texts to be valuable today is if they are “re-contextualized” to meet modern (or, better yet, Postmodern) sensibilities. On this point I will offer partial agreement. Especially in regard to the writings in the New Testament I will agree completely that they were written as “occasional” pieces – they were written to address specific questions or issues in concrete situations. However, that is where the Postmodern ends his or her exegesis, and it is at that point that I offer my strongest disagreement. And, as evidence exhibit “A,” I offer the letter of 1 Corinthians.
In terms of specific situations, we can learn that the letter we know as 1 Corinthians was written to the church of God in Corinth in approximately the middle of the first century. It’s author, destination, and approximate date are among the least debated in New Testament studies. Paul specifically mentions the issues that “occasioned” the writing of the letter – division, sexual immorality, issues of congregational life and spiritual giftedness. Therefore, the “concrete” and specific questions that the letter addresses are not to be debated. We could argue, if we so desired, that the answers that Paul gives to these issues and questions were to be used solely by the congregation in Corinth and only during the time period the original readers were alive. That is the path that Postmodern interpreters want us to walk. That would be a very easy conclusion to make – and in fact it is argued by a great many brilliant minds.
The only problem is, as I see it, the whole argument is destroyed by the text of the letter itself. Four times in the letter Paul tells the Corinthian disciples that what he is writing to them (and what he has taught them previously in person) is what he teaches “everywhere and in every place” (see 4:17, 7:17, 11:16 and 14:35). That means that in Jewish Jerusalem, in Gentile Ephesus, in Greek Athens and Corinth, and soon to be in Latin Rome Paul preached the same message and made the same points. Across multiple cultural platforms and in reaction to multiple socio-economic and political situations Paul did not “contextualize” the content of his message, although he may have contextualized the manner in which he presented it. The mode of communication may change, the content cannot be changed.
I once heard a lecture by an individual whose classical scholarship cannot be questioned. He is perhaps one of the finest scholars the Churches of Christ have produced. He was lecturing, oddly enough, on the letter of 1 Corinthians. I will never forget his conclusion. He stated that the doctrine of the living church should never be limited by the aberrations of the first century congregations to which the bulk of the New Testament was written. I was dumbfounded. If the doctrine of the church cannot be limited by the writings of the apostles to address those very aberrations, to what can we appeal for the formation and limitation of our doctrine? I had not heard of “postmodernism” at that point in my life but I have come to understand that speech in an entirely different light now than when I first heard it. What I understand now is that this scholar, who in my estimation is beyond questioning in his knowledge of the Greek language and the history of the New Testament, came to a conclusion that was in direct opposition to the words of the text. Therefore the ancient text had to be “re-contextualized” to fit his new conclusion. All he had to do was anchor 1 Corinthians to the city of Corinth in the first century, and he could advocate basically any interpretation he wished.
I have no problem accepting the fact that our Bible, and the New Testament in particular, was written by very human beings in concrete, specific situations. I would even argue that is true of the Old Testament as well. I have been taught and I believe that the more we come to understand those cultures and time periods in which our ancient texts were written we can understand and interpret the books more faithfully. I am all for learning more about the ancient world in which our Bible was written.
But I refuse to accept the conclusion that we are to leave our Bibles in the dust of those ancient civilizations. The writers of the New Testament certainly did not think that the texts of the Torah were to be left in the musty caves of Mesopotamia, Egypt or Arabia. Those texts were alive and brought life to the early church. So today, we do not abandon our New Testaments on the pillars of ancient Rome, Ephesus or Jerusalem. The text is living, it speaks to today – the spirit of God is breathing out of the text just as surely and the Spirit of God was breathed into it as it was first written. The heresy of the Postmodernist is that of turning the living and active Word of God into a dead and decaying clump of leather, papyrus or clay.
Surely we need to speak God’s word in a manner that is appropriate to the audience that is called to hear it. We must not transport our western culture into places where it would be harmful and confusing to do so. And we must be careful not to read into the text concepts that are not there, but that we wish were there, due to our specific culture and issues.
But the content of God’s revealed word is not up for negotiation. God does not change his mind simply because the calendar changes or because the reader moves from a democratic culture to a dictatorial one, or from a patriarchal culture to a matriarchal culture. God’s will and His words are eternal.
And that is a situation the Postmodernist simply cannot contextualize.
Let me begin by reviewing UTFTR # 9:
9. In regard to the point above, it is especially important if you are unable to read the original languages to refer to as many translations of the Scriptures as you possibly can. To limit your study to one translation is to limit yourself to one perspective, one set of translation principles. Reading from multiple translations allows for other ideas and concepts to inform your final conclusions.
The “point above” was UTFTR # 8, which in a nutshell stated that unless we do some very serious study, and use the tools of language translation and proper exegesis as they were intended, we get ourselves into all kinds of theological quicksand. We end up with very firmly held and very devout convictions which cannot be substantiated and, when someone who knows better comes along, makes us look really stupid. At that point we can either (a) admit our error and change our viewpoint (this is painful to do and something that most Americans refuse to do) or we (b) entrench ourselves in our firmly held positions and end up looking even more stupid. Imagine the people in Galileo’s day who just absolutely, positively, beyond any shadow of a doubt knew that the sun revolved around the earth because that is what the Bible said it did. I fear today we have the same mindset in the church, although not on the same subject.
But, at the same time, I hear people say, “Wait a minute! You are just another one of those eggheaded academic elitists who throw eight-cylinder words around just to prove you are in the approved theological gang. I don’t know Greek, couldn’t recognize Hebrew if my life depended on it, and actually couldn’t care less if I did or didn’t. How am I supposed to do all this exachesus stuff?”
That is actually a fair comment and legitimate question. Let me try to explain, and I will rely on UTFTR # 9 as a way to get myself out of the corner I have painted myself into.
To begin with, I am not a Greek scholar, and my Hebrew skills are even lower. I love studying these foreign languages, and I recognize their value and so I try to do my best in working with them, but I am far from claiming proficiency. I will always remember a statement my first year Greek teacher said at the end of our painful year together. He said, “Gentlemen, you now know just enough Greek to go out and be dangerous. Please do not use what you do not know to impress people who know even less.” THAT is a great motto for any study, but particularly in regards to theological studies.
So, how is the non-professional, non-Greek or Hebrew reading, non-specialist supposed to be able to make the distinctions that readers of the original languages are able to make? In a way it is very simple, and with our digital reading platforms it is even getting easier.
The answer is to buy, read, and use as many translations of the Bible as you can. But first, be aware that there are basically three main translation principles that are used, and it does no good if you have 10 translations that use the same principle. As you read multiple translations, make sure you have a variety of translations that use these different principles. Here, as briefly as I can, is a summary of those principles:
1. Formal, or “literal” – In this theory the words and grammatical structure in the source language (Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek) are brought over into the receptor language (in our case, English) is as close a 1 = 1 equivalence as possible. Words are uniformly translated the same way, even though they may be used in varying contexts and over a significantly lengthy period of time. Idiomatic expressions are translated verbatim, even though the meaning can, and sometimes does, get “lost in translation.”
If we drew a line on a whiteboard, we could put this theory on the extreme left side of the board. On the extreme left of the left would be what is called an “interlinear translation.” This is a publication that has a line of Hebrew or Greek, and then directly under it a slavish word-for-word translation of each part of the sentence. No effort is made to make the translation a coherent English sentence. These can be a help to those who are learning a new language, but they make for really ugly public reading texts. Moving to the right of our extreme would be a translation such as the New American Standard Bible. The NASB is frequently and loudly proclaimed as the most “literal” translation available. This obscures the fact that even the NASB takes certain liberties in moving from the source to the receptor language, and you must read the introduction to notice how they do this.
2. On the far right hand side of our continuum would be the “dynamic” translation theory, and to the extreme right of the right would be the paraphrase. The dynamic translation theory recognizes that words change meaning over time, that much of what happens in language cannot be limited to specific words, and that often times you have to translate entire idioms in order to effectively communicate the message. A paraphrase goes one step further, and is usually the product of a single individual who writes what he or she thinks the text communicates, and while it may be based on the original text, it differs not only in word selection but sometimes it differs significantly in terms of interpretation. The New Living Translation is an example of a dynamic translation, and The Message by Eugene Peterson is a paraphrase. Be careful! The Message is marketed as a translation, but that is a very elastic term in regard to Peterson’s work. It is a paraphrase and should be marketed as such.
Just a hint: if a translation does not have a concordance available, it probably is a dynamic translation. Because the same source word is translated by a variety of receptor words (or sometimes even complete phrases), it is impossible to compile an accurate concordance. This is not always true, but it is a great “first hint” that a translation is either a formal or dynamic translation.
3. Somewhere in the middle between our ultra-literal “formal” translations and our ultra “dynamic” translations are a whole host of other translations that take a position closer to, but not absolutely committed to, either one of these extremes. The Revised Standard Version and the English Standard Version lean toward the “formal” translation theory, the Contemporary English Bible is closer to the “dynamic” side of the continuum. Be very careful with the New International Version. The early NIV was an attempt to incorporate some of the concepts of dynamic translational theory, but was (despite its cultured critics) a fairly strong formal translation. The latest publication of the NIV has moved significantly toward the dynamic theory, to the extent that I cannot recommend it with the same confidence that I do the “old” NIV. The NRSV is likewise an update of the “old” RSV, and is an attempt to be gender neutral, but its parentage is clearly in the formal or neo-formal translation theory.
Clearly, an individual will have a personal preference. When I was preaching I used the NIV almost exclusively because it has a very readable format in terms of public reading. Translations that are good for private study often do not come across very well from the pulpit (i.e. the NASB uses archaic grammatical forms, and unless you have an NASB in front of you, it can be difficult to follow). I like the ESV (largely because of it RSV parentage) because it is a little easier to read, but it has strong “formal” roots. Equally, I love reading the NLT in my private, devotional reading, but I would be very hesitant to use the NLT in an in-depth Bible study because it leans heavily toward the “dynamic” translational theory. However, if I was studying with a person who had no knowledge of the Bible and was nervous about KJV “Holy Ghost” language, I would reach for the NLT and tell them the story of God and His Son.
My point in this post is this: if you do not know the original languages, and you cannot afford a library of critical commentaries to explain what is going on, you can achieve much the same results simply by purchasing several different translations of the Bible (or downloading them onto your digital platform). Use an interlinear or the NASB for a strong formal translation. Add the RSV, NRSV or ESV. Add the HCSB or CEB. And, buy the NLT or Peterson’s The Message. Compare verses to verses, paragraphs to paragraphs and chapters to chapters. Pay special attention to the footnotes! You will be able to pick up on translational difficulties, see how the various translation teams make their various choices, and will get a more rounded understanding of the message that God has provided for us.
And the very best part of doing this kind of study is that you do not have to become an eggheaded academic elitist!
(This picture is of “Bear,” one of my best Bible study assistants. Sadly, Bear passed away several years ago, but this post is in his honor.)
This installment to my reflections upon my reflections follows very closely to numbers 4 and 5, so if you have not already consulted my page of 15 Undeniable Truths you might want to do so now, or perhaps read my post explaining numbers 4 and 5.
So, here is Undeniable Truth For Theological Reflection #6:
6. However, the study of Scripture is not for the lazy. The original texts were written in three ancient languages and the youngest of these manuscripts is now approaching 2,000 years of age. We must be extraordinarily careful in the study of Scripture that we do not read our historical situation (culture, biases, feelings) back into the original texts.
Whoo Boy. If there was ever a philosophical or theological topic that simply screams for caution it would be this one. The problem is (as I see it, of course), that everyone is guilty of violating this truth in some degree or another at some time or another. There are some who are more aware of their predilection to doing this, and they are more willing to confess it when it happens. But there are many others who can only see this fault in others. They blithely go about wallowing in the same sty, but they can only see the mud on the other pig.
Before we progress any further, please remind yourself of Undeniable Truth For Theological Reflection # 1.
There are many ways to read our personal situation back into the original texts. Males read the Bible as if everyone was a male. Females do the same, only as if everyone was a female. Americans are particularly guilty of reading the Bible as if everyone lived in a democratic Republic. Capitalists read capitalism into every biblical transaction, and Socialists do the same. The poor and oppressed read poverty and oppression into every saga, while the rich and the free only see prosperity and freedom. Calvinists see John Calvin on every page of the Bible, and Arminians are just as convinced that only Jacob Arminius can be found in Sacred Writ. The GLBT alphabet soup mishmash can find all the evidence they need that God fully endorses the GLBT lifestyle, meanwhile the hyper-puritans are not sure that sex can even be found in the Bible at all. Fundamentalist creationists are quite positive they can date the creation of the world all the way down to year, month and day, while evolutionary creationists are equally certain that Moses and Charles Darwin are both equally correct. Hmm. As the trout once said to the salmon, something is fishy here.
Is the Bible that disjunctive? Can God be guilty of both fully endorsing homosexuality while at the same time condemning homosexual sex acts? Is God both a Calvinist and an Arminian? Does God sanctify both capitalism and socialism? Can God be both a Marxist and a little “r” republican?
Sometimes the situation is comical. Sometimes it is serious, but with a little reflection we can catch ourselves and correct the mistake. And sometimes the sin is so grievous that it takes generations to repair the damage, if it is possible at all. I am thinking here primarily of the German Christians in the early 1930’s who so totally identified Jesus as the prototypical Aryan that they used his name to further their program to exterminate the Jews. The very sad truth is that there are many alive today even within the Lord’s church who would agree with these monsters. The way to the heart of Christ is narrow indeed, and there will be few that find it.
As I write this post I am limited by several “accidents” of birth. I am a male, I am of Anglo-Franco descent, I was born in the United States (well, nominally – I was born in Santa Fe N.M. and we are a strange breed) and I have been raised my entire life in a church that has a very high view of Scripture. I am married, and I have the glorious joy of raising one of the most precious little girls that has ever graced this earth. By virtue of my parent’s love and sacrifice I have received a college education, and through a quirk of life’s twists and turns I have also earned all of my certificates and ratings to be a commercial airplane pilot. Every one of these “accidents” or later developments puts me in a category with more or fewer people. And, all of these “accidents” or developments tends to color the way I read and interpret Scripture. I must be aware of these facts and deal with them openly and honestly. In my most humble but undeniably true opinion, for me to do otherwise would be to distort the meaning of the text.
The only way I can do this is, as I stated it in my “15 Truths” is to be extraordinarily careful as we study the text of the Bible. We must force ourselves to read Moses and Isaiah and Matthew and Paul and Peter as Moses and Isaiah and Matthew and Paul and Peter intended us to read their words. While John Calvin or Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Paul Smith might have something important to say about the 10 Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount, I have to read the words of Moses or the words of Jesus as they were given and received. That means I must work to understand the original languages and the historical situation of each book of the Bible, and of each epoch covered by the biblical writers. Moving forward (and I will have more to say about this in the near future) we must also see how these words have been interpreted by others in different times and in different cultural contexts.
By placing ourselves under the text, and by wrestling with the manner in which others have read and understood the Scriptures we reduce the likelihood of reading our own biases back into the text, and we simultaneously increase the possibility of understanding what the original writer intended. In other words, we allow the text to set the agenda, and we are able to allow the text to critique and correct our agendas.
I do not want to suggest that modern situations do not call for a deeper reading and a critical study of the text. For example: the American slave trade, the system of Apartheid in South Africa, the American Civil Rights Movement, the oppression and murder of the Jews in Nazi Germany – many human rights tragedies have been exposed and corrected by a fresh reading of Scripture. The American Restoration Movement is itself a testament both of the ability of men and women in a particular historical situation to return to a “primitive” understanding of Scripture and of the blind spots that make it difficult for men and women in a particular historical context to completely extricate their biases from their interpretations. The exact same thing can be said of John Calvin, Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (my particular hero), Billy Graham or Paul Smith.
Humility, careful study, being aware of our own blind spots and emotional tendencies – these are all necessary skills in studying the Bible. Honestly, I just wish I could herd all of these cats (and others) into the same corral.
That’s why the study of theology is so frustrating and so entertaining at the same time!