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.
Last year I shared with everyone what has become my favorite Bible reading schedule. The post received a fair amount of attention, and so, because this is the time of year in which people make their plans to read from the Bible every day, I thought I would repeat the basic plan, but perhaps shorter this time and maybe more to the point.
The plan calls for the reader to read through the Bible twice in a year. My own personal preference is to read from a formal translation once, and a dynamic translation the second time. This allows me to “hear” the text in slightly different ways. I have found this to be a most enjoyable manner in which to read the Bible.
A word of explanation and perhaps a bit of apologetic. There is a belief that one should only read very small sections of scripture, perhaps only a verse or a paragraph, per day. This verse or this story is then the source of quiet meditation and devotional thought – maybe as the topic for journaling. This is a wonderful way to absorb the message of the Bible. However, it has some serious drawbacks. By atomizing a verse or two per day the reader loses track of the grand narrative of the Bible. The Bible is, at its most basic level, a story. Now, I know there are many different forms of literature within the Bible, but they combine to create a tapestry of incredible complexity and diversity. A reader must never lose sight of this grand narrative. So, while I applaud this particular method of Bible reading, I would caution you not to make it your only method of Bible reading. In fact, if you so desired, you could follow the plan that I will describe and focus in on a single verse or short passage. Bible reading is not either/or. It should be both/and.
So, to follow the schedule I follow and read the Bible through twice in a give year, here is the basic outline:
- Read 5 chapters a day from Monday through Saturday from the Old Testament
- Read 2 chapters a day from Tuesday though Friday from the New Testament
- On Monday and Saturday read one chapter from the New Testament
- Each day read one Psalm
- When you arrive at Psalm 119, read two sections (16 verses) per day
This is the basic plan, and depending on the year, it takes a small amount of tweaking. I use an Excel spreadsheet and divide everything up so that I can follow it on a printed sheet of paper.
You will notice that there is nothing listed for Sundays. I use the “Daily Texts” published by the Moravian Brethren for the reading each Sunday. This reading consists of an Old Testament passage, a Psalm (or a section of a Psalm), a reading from a gospel and a reading from Acts or one of the Epistles.
That is my schedule – you can accept it, adjust it or just plain forget it. By halving it (2 1/2 chapters per day in the O.T., one chapter in the N.T.) you can adjust it to read the Bible through once in a year. Or, you can follow the Moravian Brethren’s reading schedule and read much smaller sections and read the Bible through once every three years. They do follow a sequential reading schedule, so the major flow of the text remains unbroken. That might be the perfect solution for those who would like to spend time in the text, but have limited time or limited attention spans.
The most important thing, to me anyway, is that we need to get back into the text. We need to become a people of the book once again. We cannot do that by saying, “yeah, I really need to read my Bible more often.” We can only do that by READING the Bible.
So, the best Bible reading schedule for you is the one you actually follow.
May God bless your time with his word in 2013!
I want to begin by thanking many of you for the comments and observations on my post yesterday. In one response the comment was made that it was “provocative” and I must admit to a certain degree of emotion as I wrote the piece. Sometimes I do my best thinking when I am really worked up about something. On another day I would have written differently, although I stand by what I have written absolutely.
What I want to stress is that I am not writing as a political pundit. This is not political for me. It is spiritual. Governments rise and fall, powers shift in an endless ocean of greed, hate, selfishness and rebellion. That will never change, no matter what we might think or write.
But if you believe in the God of the Bible you must also believe that this world is not everything that there is. There is something beyond us – a great unknown in which all will be made right and the lion will indeed lay down with the lamb. That Kingdom, that reign of peace and righteousness is promised to those who trust utterly in the God who made this world and the world to come. The Kingdom came near in the person of Jesus of Nazareth who showed us, in incarnate human form, what the Kingdom could be here on earth if we would but “trust and obey” the reign of the King.
Although God had revealed himself in many ways previous to the coming of Jesus, mankind always wanted something better. In the garden of Eden instead of glorying in the fact that he was made “in the image of God,” man decided that it was better to be “like God” and so he threw his deepest sense of humanity away – and he ended up neither “like God” nor in the image of God any longer. Throughout mankind’s long history he has been searching to regain that lost “image” and the best he can come up with are “images” of his god in the shape of animals or totems. In the history of Israel, God’s chosen people, this happened repeatedly, until God finally punished his people by sending them into exile. The punishment worked – you never read of Israel as a nation falling into idol worship following the return from Babylon.
In the decades immediately following the death of Jesus we can see in the pages of recorded history how deeply Jesus’ message of being “reborn” in the image of God affected his disciples. When the Roman authorities would attempt to force them to utter the words, “Caesar is Lord” the disciples would refuse, because when they made the “good confession” that “Jesus is Lord” they meant it. They could not mouth the words, even knowing they did not believe the words, because even the mere vocalization of the consonants and vowels would have been bowing the knee to an idol. Because of their abject refusal to do so, many lost their lives. Others had property confiscated, were beaten, or otherwise punished.
Today, now almost 2,000 years removed from the death of Jesus, his people who live in the United States are faced with another defining moment. I have been writing, in fits and starts, about how I have come to view the Constitution as a form of an idol, an “American Idol.” The events of 12/14/12 crystalized that observation in my mind. I have been deeply touched by the fact that several, perhaps many, others are waking up to the same realization. Perhaps they have held it for many years and I was simply unaware of it. I am personally horrified to realize how long I have been blind to this reality.
If the blind shall lead the blind, they both will fall into the pit. (Matthew 15:14)
I want people to wake up and realize that this is a spiritual problem, not a political one. Oh, and I do not mean putting prayer back into the schools or posting the 10 Commandments back on the walls of the court houses. What I am talking about is removing the idol from the hearts of Christians and putting Jesus back in His proper place.
In my limited discussions with radical gun advocates following the massacre in Newtown the only response I get is “my right to own any gun and any ammunition is guaranteed by the 2nd Amendment.” There is no logic applied, no connection to the Kingdom of God, certainly no submission to the Prince of Peace. Just a pathetic, ignorant, reflexive appeal to a brief and profoundly misunderstood phrase in a man made and deeply flawed piece of human governance. So there you have it. An idol, shaped out of cold steel, wood or perhaps composite materials, and shrouded in an ink stained piece of parchment. Just as the ancient idols needed to be nailed to the floor lest they fall over, this idol needs to be nailed to the floor with poor arguments (guns don’t kill people…if you take away all the guns, only criminals will have guns) lest they fall over and everyone can see how pitiful their gods really are.
I cannot believe I have been so blind. I was one of those people. I mouthed the words. What is worse, at one time I actually believed those words. God forgive me for my ignorance and my idolatry. Now, we are living in a culture in which the ownership of a gun and the defense of the same is made a defining feature of what it means to be a Christian. If you are against unlimited gun ownership you are against the Constitution, and since the Constitution is founded on Christian principles (so the argument goes, I profoundly disagree) ipso facto you cannot be a Christian.
“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight.” (Isaiah 5:20-21)
America has become so inwardly focused, so in love with its individualism that even the concept itself has become demonical. It has taken on a life of its own. America today is all about the one, the individual, my rights, my freedoms, my way of doing things. But the Scriptures teach us that the Kingdom of God is focused on the other! The primary other is God himself, but even here in our daily walk we are to consider others more highly than ourselves, we are to lift the loads of the other, we are to bind up the wounds of the other, we are to willingly surrender our rights so that the life of the other is made better. Our America is 180 degrees out of phase with the New Testament. We cannot support this American way of life and at the same time claim to be followers of the Crucified One. The cross itself is the pinnacle of selflessness, and it was in the shadow of the cross that the message of the Kingdom of God spread like a wildfire.
Therefore, it is my firm conviction that you cannot replace God’s word with a fallible, broken human document and at the same time claim to be His disciple. You cannot worship an idol and the true and living God.
“Choose this day whom you will serve, but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” (Joshua 24:15)
Some have responded that I am being too harsh – that I cannot equate equate unqualified defense of the 2nd Amendment (or the Constitution as a whole) with idolatry. To which I simply respond: What is your definition of an idol? An idol is anything that replaces our trust, our affection, our devotion to God.
“Jesus replied, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37, 38)
It is not political, people. It is spiritual. And, if it is spiritual, our eternal destiny hangs in the balance. Do not be mislead by fine sounding but inwardly rotten arguments. Idols have never worked. They will not work in the 21st century any better than they worked in the 8th century BC or the 1st century AD.
Please, for our children and our grandchildren – we must wake up!
There are times when you are walking out in a forest that you are so enthralled by the majesty and the immensity of your surroundings that you fail to see the tiny little blossoms and intricate little designs of the plants surrounding you. And, there are times when you happen to notice the tiny little blossoms and intricate designs of nature that you fail to notice the immensity of the forest in which you stand. Theological studies are similar in many ways.
There are times when we read the Scriptures that all we see are the commands, the “law” of God’s word. And, there are other times when all we can see is God’s grace, the “gospel” of God’s word. It is imperative, for healthy theology, to put both in proper perspective. Thus, Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection numbers 12 and 13:
12. Grace always precedes covenant. This is illustrated by the covenants of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Likewise, covenant always follows grace.
13. The practical work that flows from theology, then, must follow this pattern. We are drawn to God by his grace, but in order to thrive in a relationship with God we must be bound by God’s covenant.
Even though these are numbers 12 and 13, I have been aware of this inter-connection for many years before I created this list. I’m not really sure why they showed up so far down, I think originally they were higher, and as I added to my list these just got moved down. These truths are certainly evidence that “further down the list does not implicate lesser importance.” These truths are absolutely critical if we hope to apprehend the message of God’s word accurately.
When we look at the “forest,” the expansive message of God’s word from Genesis to Revelation we see God’s grace on every page, in every story. This is such an obvious truth that this is the only thing that some people see. They only see forgiveness, love, mercy, and the repeated attempts by God to reclaim his stubborn people.
When we stop and sit down and look around us, however, we notice all the little details of our theological world. These are the covenants that follow after the acts of grace that God freely gives his people. But, once again, some people only see these covenants, and somehow are oblivious to the greater forest around them. These people can tell you how many laws are in the Bible, and can recite a great many of them verbatim. If you mention the word “grace” to these people their first response is, “yes, but…”
The necessary move of theology is to hold both of these energizing components of Scripture in their proper relationship. Grace always precedes covenant, but covenant always follows grace. God never demands without first providing. However, God never provides without placing restrictions, or in Biblical language, a covenant.
God gave Adam a self-perpetuating garden. God demanded Adam to follow his instructions regarding the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
God gave Noah the sign of the rainbow, a sign of the covenant, God demanded that Noah and his descendants obey him completely.
God gave Moses and the Israelites freedom from the Egyptians, God demanded obedience to the Torah, his law for the Promised Land.
God gave all mankind the gift of his Son, God demands that we follow his Son in covenanted obedience.
This duality, this relationship can be described in different ways. One common way of looking at the relationship is the interconnection between law and gospel. Some religious people, even Christians, only see law in the Bible. For them the whole text of Scripture is one big list of “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots.” Other religious people only see gospel. “Christ has set us free” is their motto. One way that this bifurcation plays out is the separation between Old and New Testaments. The legalists in the bunch love to quote the Old Testament (especially when the verse they find is in their favor), the libertarians can only use the New Testament (and, obviously they studiously avoid the codes of ethical conduct listed in the epistles of Paul, Peter, James and John).
I wonder how much mischief has been wrought on God’s people when His story of creation, redemption and recreation was divided into “Old” and “New” Testaments, and then further subdivided into smaller and smaller sections. The trend toward becoming legalists is a dangerous one, and one that has been present literally from the day the Mosaic law was given. Jesus himself criticized the legalists of his day when he said, “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life” (Jn. 5:39). Two thoughts in that passage stand out to me. One is that the Jews searched the Scriptures, meaning that they spent much time in reading and study. Two, they thought they could find eternal life in a legalistic, “covenantal” reading of Scripture. Jesus confronted them on both ideas. Scripture should not be thought of as a compendium of law codes that need to be studiously “researched.” The Bible is a record of God’s interaction with His creation – which does include sections of law codes, but is far more than those law codes. And, most importantly, salvation is not found in the words of the text, but only in the blood of Christ. The words of the text point us to Christ, and they are authoritative (2 Tim. 3:16), but we cannot afford to put the cart in front of the horse.
But, lest we shed the mantle of legalism only to become libertarians, Jesus also confronted the “anything goes as long as you have the right motive” way of “gospel” or “grace only” thinking. No one could argue with the Samaritan woman’s desire to be pleasing to God, and yet Jesus clearly told her, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.” (Jn. 4:22) Later, Jesus would tell his disciples, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (Jn. 15:14) So much for “anything goes” theology. In fact, even a superficial reading of the gospel accounts reveals a Jesus that repeatedly challenges his hearers’ superficial understanding of God’s grace. Libertarians have been and will always be with us, but we must be careful not to slip into their moral and religious utopianism, no matter how attractive they may make it appear.
So, my bottom line – grace is everywhere and in everything in the Bible. Grace is God’s beginning and ending point. God created mankind with an act of total love and grace, and he will recreate us with that same love and grace. But, covenant always follows grace. If God created us to live in a “graceful” relationship with Him, we must understand that he places upon us certain restrictions and commands he expects us to follow. Obviously we can never follow them exactly or completely – here is where grace reenters the picture – but we certainly have the power to “obey the commands” (Jesus’ words!) that God has placed in front of us.
Grace and covenant, law and gospel. These are not opposing concepts, but complementary ones. The more we rightly apprehend and apply them, the fuller and more complete our walk with God will be. We will cease to be “dualistic” thinkers, only seeing things in one light or another, and we will truly become the worshippers in “spirit and truth” of which Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman.
For the most part I would assume that most of my 15 Undeniable Truths do not cause much controversy. A few arched eye brows maybe, but I have not had any real disagreement. If there is one that would cause someone to disagree with me it would be #7.
7. While some passages of the Bible may be open to more than one application, very few have more than one interpretation. Otherwise, Scripture would be meaningless.
There is actually quite a bit at stake here. In effect what I am saying is that, yes, Virginia, there is a correct interpretation of a passage of Scripture, and there are many incorrect interpretations. The Postmodernists are totally wrong, we can trust that there is one intended meaning for a text, and this “can’t we just all get along, I have my interpretation and you have yours” is just so much hot air.
Please note what I am NOT saying: I am NOT saying that I have a corner on the market and that I have figured out the correct interpretation for every verse in the Bible. I am not even going to say that every interpretation that I now hold about the texts that I have studied is ultimately correct. What I am saying is that I am either right or wrong, and I am willing to correct my wrong interpretations when I am confronted with new and compelling evidence.
Just as a little bit of evidence of the last point: I was recently introduced to an interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount that was very new to me. I am still analyzing it and seeing how it fits into the larger context of the gospel of Matthew, but let me say that right now it is a very compelling argument. It answers a lot of questions – although raising a few others – and I am impressed that it is based on a contextual study of the gospel of Matthew. If the authors who introduced this interpretation to me are correct it means that my prior views on the Sermon on the Mount are incorrect. Not totally without value, but incorrect none-the-less.
This is a hard pill for many disciples to swallow, whether they are just “lay members” of a congregation or ministers or teachers. Once we study a passage we tend to cling to our conclusions as if they are a life preserver and we are drowning. Much of this comes from our (unstated) belief that if we are wrong about the interpretation of any one single passage our salvation is somehow in danger. I have read the Bible through many, many times and I have not come across a verse yet that tells me that I have to be 100% correct about 100% of the texts of the Bible before I can be considered “worthy” to enter heaven. But this is a deeply held conviction never-the-less and it is one that we need to break.
Now, on to the second part of my “undeniable” truth: while a text only has one interpretation, it may have multiple applications. I see this primarily in the prophetic literature. Matthew certainly saw a “full” fillment of many prophetic texts in the life of Jesus. If you removed the passages from Ezekiel and Daniel out of the book of Revelation there would not be anything left of significance. The Holy Spirit, as he inspired the writers of our holy Scripture, certainly allowed for future generations to read the text in light of their own circumstances and make spiritual decisions accordingly. Notice how the apostles in the book of Acts read and applied various passages from the Old Testament to help them make critical decisions. That does not change the fact that the original meaning of the passage was for a people long dead and situations long resolved.
As a good example for us to consider in this post look at Mark 13, the “little apocalypse.” My current belief is that the entire chapter (and parallel passages in the other gospels) is focused completely on the destruction of Jerusalem, which occurred in AD 70. Whereas at one point I believed that Jesus was alternating between “end of Jerusalem” and “end of time” situations, I no longer believe that to be the case. I believe he was focused on what was going to happen when the Romans finally had enough of the Jewish insurrection and decided to put an end to it. However, can the message in Mark 13 be instructive about the “ultimate” end of time? Absolutely! It can be instructive but we should not depend upon it as determinative. That is what I mean that the text (Mk. 13) only has one interpretation but it can have several applications for subsequent generations.
Another key benefit we can derive from this truth. It keeps us from taking a term or an idea from one writing or from one time period and super-imposing it upon another writing or time period. This should be most obvious when we take a thought from the New Testament and make it fit in the Old Testament. But for my example here consider the term “anti-Christ” that John uses (1, 2 John) and the term “man of lawlessness” that Paul uses (2 Thessalonians). For countless people these terms are synonymous and refer to the same individual, but the texts in which they are found makes this association impossible. For John, the “antichrist” is simply the one who denied that Jesus came in the flesh. There is no mystical supernaturalism about him (or her) at all. Now, the “man of lawlessness” of Paul is slightly more mystical, as he must be “revealed,” but it is clear that Paul is not talking about an individual or a group of individuals who simply deny the divinity of Jesus the Christ. And, I might add here, neither is he the Pope, Adolf Hitler or Ronald Reagan.
Taken along with Undeniable Truths 4-6, Undeniable Truth #7 is significant. We must search for the correct interpretation of a given text, but we must do so humbly. We do so not to win debates or to beat up on our religious neighbors. We do so to feed our spirit, to teach us about our God and about his relationship with us, and about how we might better live our lives of discipleship with him. It is not about “getting it right,” but we want to get it right because God invested so much time, love and effort in getting the message to us. We dare not treat the Bible flippantly, or as a book of history or poetry that we can somehow master and control. We are to stand under the text, it is to control us, and we seek its truths not in order to defeat others, but that our own ego might be defeated by the loving discipline of our God.
Have you ever wondered about all of those regulations in the book of Leviticus regarding the “unintentional sin?” (Refer to Lev. 4 and 5 if you are curious.) I have often wondered about how one can sin unintentionally. I always thought that sin was an intentional violation of God’s will. Now, I can do a world of things unintentionally, so I get that part. I just have always struggled with the idea that if I do something unwittingly that it can be considered a sin. I’ve heard or read all the examples of speeding in a zone in which you did not know the speed limit, but on one level you generally know what is a safe and legal speed depending on where you are. And, second, being guilty of speeding in a zone where you did not know the speed has nothing to do with moral culpability. Ignorance may lead to a speeding ticket and a monetary fine, but it says nothing about your desire to obey traffic laws.
“Unintentional sin” however DOES speak of moral culpability. You are guilty before God of not only violating a written regulation, but also of a corrupt character. That is graphically illustrated because the only way to “justify” the sin was through the death of an innocent animal. If it were just a matter of ignorance and technical bookkeeping, a fine and a few hours of community service would have sufficed. Unintentional sin, in God’s eyes, was a major infraction not only of communal relations but also of divine-human relations.
This past week I thought I was doing something that I needed to do to get my computer to work in a certain way. I thought I was following the instructions on the screen. I wanted the computer to function at a different (and I thought higher) level. I hit the last click to restart my machine and the screen went blank. It never fully came back up. I tried to fix that and did get it to come back – with all of my data completely gone. Now, through the magic of a computer technician I have recovered many of my files, but the event was harrowing. It was all so “unintentional” and yet there was no denying my guilt and complicity in my near-disaster.
Is that what the writer of Leviticus was talking about? I am not sure I know the answer to that question. As I said, I wonder about those regulations, I do not have a firm, set-in-concrete answer. But this one thing I am absolutely certain of – God takes all sin deadly seriously. He does not give us a “walk” just because of our good intentions or our lack of specific knowledge of an issue. Has he provided for our “justification” when we become aware of our sin? Absolutely! Does the cross of Christ minimize or lessen the seriousness of unintentional sin? As the apostle Paul would say, “By no means!”
I believe that in our dominant Christian worldview today we have tried to skate past the concept of unintentional sin. We focus almost entirely upon “intentional sin” and we treat intentional sin in almost the same manner that the Old Testament writers treated unintentional sin. If you intentionally set out to commit adultery, divorce your spouse, get drunk, cheat on your taxes, lie, cheat, steal, etc., never mind…just repent with a whole heart after the deed has been done and God will square the books in the end. By way of contrast, in Leviticus intentional sin was met with immediate “excommunication” or the casting out from the assembly (meaning economic as well as spiritual punishment) all the way up to death of the perpetrator(s). How we have minimized the commission of blatant sin!
In Leviticus, when the sinner was made aware of his or her sin the course of action was not only to repent, but also to sacrifice. The restoration of the unintentional sinner was expensive, and it was intended to be. God was teaching his people about the importance of living a righteous life, and of making things right when you did something wrong, even if you were trying not to do something wrong in the first place. No excuses, no walks, no “just try harder next time.”
What does this have to say to us as spiritual mentors and leaders today when we recognize the “unintentional” sin in our life, and/or the lives of others?
Sometimes reading the Old Testament is a really scary proposition.
One of my great fears in even attempting to discuss a topic like this is that it is simply too complicated to cover in a readable blog-sized post. The material is too vast – and too richly contoured. But, having promised that I will attempt to do this, I will try my best to present my thoughts in as concise a manner while yet getting at the basics of what I want to communicate. Just be forwarned – I am not claiming comprehensiveness here. I know someone will find a verse, or ask a question that exceeds the scope of this post. It will be what it will be.
So, first, take a concordance keyed to your favorite translation and trace the usage of several key terms. Look for terms like “deliverance,” “deliver,” “save,” “salvation,” “redeem.” “oppress,” “oppression,” and related terms including past tenses and so forth. Now, armed with these texts, notice how many times in these verses God is the subject. It becomes a primary theme in the story of the Old Testament. (As an aside, make special note of how many times these terms are used in the Psalms, the record of the worshipful response of the people of God to the mighty acts of God. This is truly food for thought).
Now, notice in the contexts in which these terms are used, even with God as the subject, how many times God employs human beings as the method in which he saves, delivers, redeems, etc. It is absolutely true that God has delivered his people without the use of human intervention – Isaiah 37: 33-37 happens to come to mind as I read the story in my daily Bible reading recently. But the fact that God can deliver without the intervention of human beings only highlights the many places in which God uses humans to deliver, redeem, or save other people. Even in a story in which the miraculous power of God is clearly the focus of the story (i.e. the Gideon saga, Judges 6-8), God used Gideon and his soldiers as his agents to deliver his people.
I might mention here the exodus story which becomes THE story of redemption for the people of Israel. God could have simply wiped out the Egyptians in one cataclysmic burst of energy, but it was through the leading of Moses, Aaron and Joshua that God delivered his people. The miracles were evidences of God’s matchless power, but it was through the human intervention of these men that the people were led to freedom, and eventually conquered the promised land.
Notice also the story of Abram rescuing Lot in Genesis 14. On one level this is a minor story to relate, and yet it is in this story that we see one of the great themes of Scripture spelled out in minute detail. Pay attention to the pivotal paragraph:
One who had escaped came and reported this to Abram the Hebrew. Now Abram was living near the great trees of Mamre the Amorite, a brother of Eschol and Aner, all of whom were allied with Abram. When Abram heard that his relative had been taken captive, he called out the 318 trained men born in his household and went in pursuit as far as Dan. During the night Abram divided his men to attack them and he routed them, pursuing them as far as Hobah, north of Damascus. He recovered all the goods and brought back his relative Lot and his possessions, together with the women and the other people.” (Genesis 14:13-16, NIV)
Notice Abram had no “standing army,” but when he heard that his relative Lot had been taken captive he formed a military unit of trained men and went out and “redeemed” his relative by the use of military tactics. However, and this is a key point of this story, it is obvious that God is working through Abram at this point as the rest of the story relates the meeting of Abram with Melchizedek, an event that will be replayed in the Psalms and in the book of Hebrews as a major aspect of the ministry of Christ!
Here is the sum of my argument so far: I am convinced that one of the great themes of the Old Testament is that God desires peace, Hebrew shalom, for his people. As such he is concerned with anything that threatens that shalom, in particular the oppression of innocent people, and he is actively involved in freeing those oppressed people from whatever it is that is destroying them (sin or human captivity). One way that he does this is through miraculous powers which do not involve human agents. However, it is also clear he uses human agents to work with him in the process of releasing the bonds of the oppressed (see the repetitive cycle of events in the book of Judges). He also uses human agents to punish nations he wants punished, whether they be the nations conquered by Israel (Deut. 9:1-6) or the nation of Israel itself (Amos 2:4-16, Jer. 4:11-17 among many others).
What does this have to do with my understanding of pacifism in the 21st century? Just this: We must hold one of three opinions regarding the nature of God. One is that the stories in the Old Testament have no bearing on relating the true nature of God whatsoever; they were written by a bloodthirsty warrior people who wanted to justify their blood-lust and therefore turned the picture of their god into a mere reflection of their violent nature. Two is that God was somehow a violent warrior God in the Old Testament, but at the moment of the birth of that little baby in the stable in Bethlehem God had a major change of heart and suddenly became an absolute pacifist. Therefore we have not one God, but actually two Gods; the bloodthirsty, hateful and avenging God of the Old Testament, and the kind, meek, lowly and tender God of the New Testament. The third option is that God is unchanging, that what he reveals about his nature in the story of the Old Testament is the same nature that he has in the New Testament and therefore the same nature that he has today. If we do not understand that nature it is not because God is unfathomable (although, I would say that he certainly is beyond our comprehension), but that we have simply misread the nature of God due to our own prejudices.
We can still make a god out of our own wishes and desires, just as surely as Aaron formed that golden calf at the base of Mt. Sinai. We can make God to be a god of war (as all good Klingons and many Republicans would suggest) or we can make God to be an absolute pacifist who has never, ever, ever, even thought about the use of force (as all good Vulcans and many Democrats would agree).
The issue is not what we want, but what has God revealed about his nature. From the great themes of the Old Testament I am absolutely convinced that God is vitally and profoundly concerned with the well-being of humans on this earth; that he takes man’s inhuman activity against other men very seriously, and that either by his own powerful right arm, or by the sword of Abram or Gideon he acts to deliver people who are being oppressed.
Next, we turn to the New Testament to see if this image continues or is radically altered.
Okay, my apologies to Gilbert and Sullivan, but I am working through a series of sermons on Moses and I am impressed by how modern the story of Moses is for us. Here, in broad outline form, are some ideas that I will be exploring in the next few weeks (in sermon, not necessarily in this space) -
- God really did quite a bit of work preparing the world for Moses as much as preparing Moses for the world. I don’t want to give too much away, but reading behind the lines and between the lines shows us that God was not just working in the life of Moses, but he was working in and among several related families to make sure that the ministry of Moses would ultimately be successful.
- In our youth infatuated, instant satisfaction oriented world, it is both comforting and challenging to realize the length of time God spent in forging Moses’ steel. This in and of itself is worthy of a number of lessons, but I will try to keep this sermon to a manageable 2-3 hour time slot (hey, Alexander Campbell could preach that long extemporaneous!)
- When God gives the orders, he very rarely accepts excuses from the person to whom he gives the orders.
- Overcoming your enemies can in many situations be easier than overcoming your friends.
- The story of Moses is an exquisite snapshot into the collision between triumph and tragedy.
- Despite all of his flaws (which are writ large), Moses was still a great man of God and received one of the greatest funerals that was never witnessed.
Something else I noticed as I was outlining the lessons I would like to present: in the Old Testament Moses gets the bigger part of 4 entire books. The other two members of the great heroes of the Israelite faith (Abraham and David) only receive a few chapters. Yet, when we move to the New Testament, it is clearly Abraham and David that are in the minds of the writers and preachers. With the possible exception of the book of Hebrews, Moses receives only passing mention, and then it is mostly related to the law he mediated. I am not exactly sure what that means (if anything), but it sure got me to thinking, and it provides a nice little seed bed for some future meditations.
As my thoughts and sermons progress I may add some summaries to this space – we’ll see. In the meantime, read the story of Moses and listen to a fine performance of the Pirates of Penzance, the HMS Pinafore, or The Mikado. Great stuff!