Sunday Meditations: Stories vs. Doctrine

Yes, it’s a Sunday Meditation on a Monday.

I’d started to write the Sunday Meditation on Sunday.  It was about ancient historiography and how their practices and expectations were different from modern historiography.  I was comparing and contrasting Suetonius’ and Plutarch’s accounts of the early career of Julius Caesar to illustrate a point, and somewhere along the line, I got completely bored with my own thoughts.  Nothing like an extended comparison of the reasons Caesar was in Bithynia to make you go, “Why am I doing this, again?”

Rather than fish, I decided to cut bait.

Instead, I want to reflect on how truth is communicated in the Bible and what implications this has for its interpretation and usage.

Christians generally refer to the Bible as the Word of God, but if pressed, will say that Jesus is the Word of God.  But I wonder if we really appreciate the difference in that distinction.  Books communicate propositions; people live lives.

By maintaining that the Bible is the Word of God, we are saying it is a body of propositions that God produced, communicated, transmitted to readers.  Sort of like a song my kids picked up from church.  “A perfect book / Is what it took / for God to get a message to us.”

But is it what it took for God to get a message to us, and if so, what does it mean for Jesus to be the Word of God?  Because Jesus is not a book.  He certainly communicated propositions, but when John calls Jesus the logos of God, he does not seem to mean that Jesus was basically a Bible that talked.

It was the entire life and person of Jesus that was the Word.  Jesus was someone you could know – someone you could observe.  Yes, there were teachings, but his actions, values, how he spent his time, what and whom he cared about, how he responded in different situations – all these things are parts of what it means for a person to be the Word as opposed to a book.  A book cannot communicate in that way.

And when we look at the biblical writings, we find that the propositions in them are not abstract doctrinal treatises, but rather stories.  They communicate their truths through the trials and tribulations and victories and experiences of a people with their God.  God’s truth is incarnate in their experiences.

Even what we might think of as more doctrinally-oriented writings like Paul’s epistles….  Paul does not write a book for the church in Rome; he writes a letter to them.  In this letter, he addresses their issues and experiences and tries to give coherence to it.  This is very multifaceted, to be sure, in how Paul does this, but when we read the letter to the Romans, we are seeing something occur in a church’s story – a story we largely get to know from the letter, itself.  In Paul’s letter, we can see the things that were dividing that church and how those divisions were manifest.  We can see what they were and weren’t teaching.  We can see where their struggles were, what kinds of pressures they faced, and how that was going.  We can also see Paul’s hopes for them.  We see comforting as well as correction.

But the thing that makes all of these facets cohere is that they are in response to the Roman church’s lived-out experience.  Paul did not sit down to write a theology book on justification by faith and send it to the church in Rome as beta readers.  He wrote a letter to them, sharing, explaining, and in a sense participating in and becoming an event in their lived-out experience.

So, if Jesus the person is meant to be our primary referent for God’s communication, and biblical writings are in some sense a referent for God’s communication, it seems to me that the primary purpose of the statements in the Bible are not primarily to communicate abstract truths to which we all aspire, but rather to share an experience with us and illuminate that experience.  Ultimately, they are trying to shine a light on how we’ve understood our own experiences and stories and comfort us, challenge us, correct us, and heal us with that knowledge.

And the interesting thing is we see this happening in the Bible itself.  In one place, we read the laws about sacrifices (which change over time, incidentally, according to the differences in Israel’s situation) and holy days and festivals, and then we see the prophets decrying these exact things.

From Isaiah 1:

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?

Well, You did.  Um, right?

Well, as it turns out, even something as fundamental to Old Testament Israel as animal sacrifice does not, in the end, seem so fundamental.

If we take, say, the Levitical laws on sacrifices and Isaiah 1 as “truths about God” or “doctrines of God” or even (I’m going to get in trouble here – please don’t ever quote me on this) “propositional revelation of God,” this is a problem.  How do you reconcile the fact that God did ask for these sacrifices and seemed to have some pretty strong ideas about them with a passage where He explicitly says that He doesn’t like sacrifices and who asked you to bring them, anyway?

But when we look at the story and the lived out experience of the people who are recording these things,  we see in one place a nation in the Levant who takes it as a matter of course that you offer sacrifices to your god.  Everyone does this with abandon all around you.  Some even offer their children.  All of this is to buy the favor of your god, manipulate him, prove your dedication, etc.

We find that, against such a setting, the Levitical laws extremely restrict this practice, limiting the sacrifices to specific occasions and to the same animals the Israelites eat as food.  In fact, if you decide to just start killing whatever animals are at hand, severe penalties await you.

By the time we get to Isaiah 1, we have a nation oppressed by itself.  The leaders do not care about justice or mercy.  They fleece the poor.  They have created a kingdom that looks just like every other corrupt kingdom in existence.  Oh!  But they keep the sacrifices coming.

It is at this point that God basically throws up His hands and says, “Guys, what the hell?  You’re terrible to one another!  The very people who are supposed to make sure everyone is cared for and treated fairly are the ones exploiting the weak and the poor!  And now you bring me this?  You think I want your goats?  I don’t want your goats.  I never needed your %*!@ goats!  That was for you!  What I want from you is justice and mercy, not you killing a bunch of ^$*% goats all the time!  Who on earth would ever care about that?  Holy Me in Heaven would you just put down the goat and start showing some shalom?”

Ok, God probably would not say it quite like that, but that’s the sentiment.

And so by following the story, we are learning about God and ourselves through a sort of osmosis.  It’s not that the propositions aren’t important; it’s that their purposes are a lot less direct than, “Here’s what to believe about God.”  It’s why the early rabbis can be so insistent on the holiness and authority of the text and yet say things about the texts that can seem to be kind of disconnected from them.

Maybe, and I’m only saying maybe, the fact that Jesus is a person and not a book gives us important clues about the hermeneutics we bring to the book.

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