Sunday Meditations: Application

If we take seriously the historical parameters of a passage, can it speak to us outside of that specific situation?

One of the advantages of an approach that pares away the historical particulars of a passage to get an abstract, “timeless” truth is that it’s very easy to drop that truth into virtually any situation.  If the point of the story of David and Goliath is “you’ll win all your battles, no matter how difficult, if you trust God,” then you can easily apply that truth to a wide variety of circumstances across time and individuals.  The actual experience of Israel in her battles would suggest that this truth needs to be at least a little conditional, but you see what I mean.

By peeling away the historical specifics of a passage to get to an abstraction, we now have fodder for both sermons and personal Bible reading.  And self-help books.  And greeting cards.  It’s easy.

Take, for instance, Jeremiah 29:11:

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

Jeremiah 29:11 (NRSV)

If we take this from the moorings of its particular historical situation, the text as a basic principle can easily be used to give comfort and optimism in all kinds of situations, ranging from high school graduation to a first job to buying a new house to planting a new church or even trying to decide on the right brand of peanut butter.  No matter who we are or what our situation is, God has plans for our welfare to give us a hopeful future.

A good question is, though, is there any good reason to assume this is what God intends for us to take away from this text?  Is this the reason it was included in the canon?  Did the faithful community receive this writing for this purpose – a repository for abstract truths with no particular referent?

If we look to the historical situation surrounding the text, this is a word from God to the exiles in Babylon.  Prophets are claiming to speak in YHWH’s name that their deliverance will come right away, and Jeremiah is out to correct this notion.  The deliverance will not come right away, but it will come.  Therefore, the exiles should make the best of their current situation and persevere in faithfulness, carrying with them the hope that their deliverance will come, because God has plans for Israel – plans for her welfare and a good future, and not her exile, assimilation, or destruction.

When we read Jeremiah 29:11 in its context, this begins to rock our boat a little, because clearly this text was meant for a particular group of people at a particular time, and by rights has no immediate relevance to anyone who isn’t an Israeli captive of Babylon in the time of Jeremiah’s words (or the following seventy years).

So, on the one hand, we have a way of looking at the text where the historical setting is just window dressing.  The actual meaning of the text has nothing to do with its original author or audience, transcends all historical particulars, and can be used for any situation that might in any sense fall under the umbrella of the abstract truth.

On the other hand, we have a way of looking at the text where the historical setting is like a concrete wall around the meaning.  Anyone who isn’t an Israelite captive of Babylon at that time is not the intended recipient of the text, and the text would have no meaning for anyone outside of that group.

Are these our only options?

I think we can get some direction from the New Testament use of the Old Testament.

It should be noted that, when talking to Gentiles, Paul and the Apostles (great band name) do not really appeal to the Old Testament.  They talk about things like unknown gods and what has been made clear in nature and truths expressed in pagan poetry – things with which the Gentiles have a point of reference.  It’s not that they never mention the Old Testament to Gentiles; it’s just that by far and away their use of the Old Testament is for specifically Jewish groups or letters to groups that have both Jew and Gentile in them.

Part of that may be explained by the simple fact that the Gentiles wouldn’t know the Old Testament, but I would guess a larger portion of that is explained by the fact that the Gentiles have no relationship to the Old Testament.  The Torah is not their covenant.  The kingdom was not their kingdom.  The temple was not their temple.  The exile was not their exile.  In a very real sense, the Old Testament does not apply to them in any kind of direct way.  Yet, the apostles will announce the good news of the kingdom and Jesus to them, and they come to believe and receive the Holy Spirit.

The reason I point this out is that it may very well be that we assume all biblical texts have to be relevant to us, but maybe that assumption is wrong.  Maybe it’s ok to say that a lot of that text just isn’t directly pertinent to our present circumstances, and it doesn’t have to be.

I don’t think we need to resign ourselves to that, but I do think we need to be ok with it.  The assumption that a text has something to say to us is just that – an assumption.  We need to let the Bible tell us what it has to say and to whom and not dictate that to the Bible in advance.

But when the New Testament does use the Old Testament, it does give us some windows into how a text might speak to other communities past its own boundaries.

Take, for instance, Matthew’s use of Jeremiah 31:15.

I’m not going to repeat everything I said when I talked about that passage, but the upshot is that Jeremiah 31 (continuing the train of thought in Jeremiah 29, in fact) is about the destiny of the Babylonian exiles.  Ramah was the city where Israelite captives were processed and shipped off to Babylon.  The prophet uses the image of weeping in Ramah for having to witness the loss of Israel’s sons, but her weeping will come to an end when the Lord brings an end to the exile and brings the children back.

Matthew uses this passage to talk about Herod killing Israelite children in an attempt to preemptively murder the newborn King of the Jews.

From a strict historical boundary, this use does not make a lot of sense.  Ramah is not Bethlehem.  The Israelites in the exile were not being murdered.  And so on.

But it doesn’t work well from an abstract truth perspective, either.  Matthew does not take Jeremiah 31:15 as, “Whenever you are sad about something, God will help you,” and that’s why it applies to the story of Jesus’ birth.

The reason Matthew can use Jeremiah with a straight face is because he sees Israel in captivity, and Herod’s predations are a rather dramatic and literal removing of Israel’s sons by those in power.  This is a tragedy for Israel.  There is weeping.  But it is the weeping before the promised hope.  This is the tragedy that comes before deliverance.  Matthew sees an end to captivity that Jesus will bring, and so, for him, Jeremiah’s prophecy about Ramah is an ideal descriptor.  In fact, he is counting on his readers’ knowledge of the Ramah passage to get his meaning across.  He is importing the meaning of the Ramah prophecy and using it to explain Israel’s present circumstances in his writing.

Or take for example Jesus beginning to quote Psalm 22 from the cross (also in Matthew’s gospel).  If Psalm 22 could only possibly be about David’s experience as a beleaguered king of Israel, then this would not make sense.  David did not die on a cross, for instance.

However, the abstract truth tack doesn’t work well, either.  Jesus didn’t look at Psalm 22 and go, “Here’s a Psalm about feeling like God has left you.  We all feel that way, sometimes.  Well, that’s how I feel now, so I think I’ll quote it.”  And in that vein, I should add that Psalm 22 is not a prophecy of the crucifixion, either.  It’s not like Jesus is mentally thumbing through the Old Testament scriptures he hasn’t fulfilled yet and came up with Psalm 22.

Psalm 22 is about Israel’s king who, despite his faithfulness, is surrounded by enemies who seek his destruction.  He is thoroughly distraught over this.  But he remembers how God delivered him in the past, so he will remain faithful.  Because of this, God will save him, and future generations will proclaim it, and God will have dominion over all nations.  Even the dead will serve Him and generations yet unborn into the future.

It is this meaning that Jesus brings forward into his own circumstances.  He is Israel’s king who, despite his faithfulness, is distraught and surrounded by enemies.  It is he who is in dire straits.  But he remembers the faithfulness of God and will remain steadfast hoping in the help of the Lord.  God will save him, and countless future generations will proclaim it.  God will rule the nations.  Even the dead will rise up.

Jesus’ use of Psalm 22 is not independent of its historical meaning – it thoroughly depends on its historical meaning.  Once you understand what Psalm 22 means for David and Israel, then you are in a prime position to understand what it has to say in Jesus’ circumstances.

This is where I’m at so far on the issue of how biblical texts can speak into circumstances beyond their own.  If we can get our arms around what the text is communicating in its home environment, we can take that meaning and transpose it for circumstances beyond the original.  But that activity is grounded in the original meaning, not an abstraction.

So, Jeremiah 29:11?  Perhaps I might send that to a group of Chinese Christians in prison for having an underground church.  Perhaps I might remind them that their forefathers, too, were in captivity, and it looked hopeless, and they wanted with all their hearts to be released immediately.  But God made a way for them to be cared for in the present because of His plans for their future.  Not every Israelite saw that day, but that day came, nonetheless, and that hope was meant to sustain them in their captivity.

But as liberating as high school graduation might feel, I’m not sure I’m on solid ground applying Jeremiah to it.

Sunday Meditations: Prepackaged Theology

“The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.”

When you see this passage, what does it make you think of?

For many of us raised in an evangelical household, “salvation” is a key word that means something along the lines of, “a spiritual conversion experience whereby you accept Jesus as Lord of your life and, in exchange, your sins are forgiven and you will not go to Hell when you die, but instead will receive the joys of Heaven that Jesus earned on your behalf.”

But the passage I quoted above is from Exodus 15:2.  It is the song that the Israelites sing after crossing the sea and being delivered from the Egyptians.  Salvation in Exodus 15:2 is neither a spiritual experience nor a conversion nor are Heaven nor Hell involved.  It is a historically concrete deliverance from an actual oppressor.

In Judges 15:18, Samson refers to the “great salvation you have granted by the hand of your servant,” by which he means the event where he held a pass against a thousand Philistines by himself – Philistines who were rulers over Judah.  In Deuteronomy 32:15, God is called the Rock of [Jeshrun’s] salvation, which does not mean that God provided a spiritual conversion experience for them, but rather led them out of the wilderness and protected them.

My point is this: the word “salvation” does not have a uniform referent in Scripture; it means whatever the context dictates.  If we read every passage in the Bible that talks about “salvation” as describing a spiritual conversion experience that lets you go to Heaven when you die, we actually miss the meaning of a rather large amount of passages.

Well, perhaps the Old Testament is an earthly picture of spiritual realities.  By the time we get to the New Testament, surely everywhere it talks about salvation, it means saying the prayer and accepting Jesus, right?

Well, in 1 Peter 1:3-12, Peter writes to people already converted about a salvation that is to be revealed in the future, when their faith results in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.  He’s not saying that, in the future, they’ll accept Jesus into their hearts.  He’s saying in the future, Jesus Christ will be revealed, and the faithful on that day will be saved as the outcome of their ongoing faith.

In Revelation 12:10, a loud voice in heaven proclaims that the salvation of God has come because Satan and his angels were cast out of heaven.  There’s no conversion.  There’s no accepting anyone as lord of anyone’s life.  There’s the objective, transhuman event of Satan being defeated, and this is the “salvation of God.”

My point isn’t that “salvation” never means something individual or spiritual, my point is that if we begin with a concept of what salvation means in our heads and we take it to the Bible, we’re going to see our concept everywhere whether it’s what the passage means by it or not, and by doing so, we are simply going to see a reflection of our own brains rather than listen to what a passage is saying.

Let’s take another example – the Word of God.

Recently, I read an article (on addiction recovery, no less) that used Psalm 119 – which talks extensively about God’s Word, and also talks about salvation in verse 41 – as an exhortation to use the Bible to guide us in all of our decisions.  The capstone verse is, of course, 105: “Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path.”

However, it is impossible that Psalm 119 is referring to the Bible.  None of the New Testament had been written, yet, nor was most of the Old Testament.  No canons existed of any kind.  If the psalmist was referring to a written scripture, then they are referring to the Law (which features heavily in Psalm 119), and if David wrote Psalm 119, he’s referring to the version of the Law that predated the existence of the Temple, so something a little more like Exodus and a little less like Deuteronomy.

So, the irony here is that the one thing Psalm 119 most likely means when it talks about God’s Word is the one part of the Bible that Christians no longer think is applicable.

Likewise, in Acts 19, mention is made twice of “the word of the Lord,” but it cannot mean the Bible because the Bible didn’t exist when Acts 19 was written.  It appears that in both 19:10 and 19:20, the “word of the Lord” is the message that Paul is proclaiming about the kingdom having come with Jesus as king and the ramifications of that for the audience.

If I can tread a little bit into choppy waters, 2 Timothy 3:16 cannot mean the Bible.  At best, it means the Old Testament, and that doesn’t even get us started into the assumptions we import into “inspired by God” or “useful for.”

Once again, my point is not to deconstruct evangelical notions of biblical authority (although I wouldn’t mind taking a crack at that), but my point is that we read these texts with pre-existing ideas in our head about what the text has to mean.  We read it, we see the meaning we bring to it, and instead of the text communicating to us, it is instead confirming what we already thought to begin with.

I picked on two examples, but you can certainly come up with your own.  Virtually any topic that has ever been a chapter heading in a systematic theology textbook is a prime candidate, not to mention our pet pseudo-theological categories like “the Antichrist” or “the Rapture.”  We already have a theological understanding of these topics, so when we look at passages that mention them, we assume that they mean what we mean.  The meaning we have in our heads is what we see in the text.  In this way, the Bible becomes about our questions, our concerns, and our theological understanding.  Without even consciously meaning to, we find ourselves going to the Bible – not to hear what it has to say, but to find new locations for what we already think we know.

Our theology is often our meta-narrative for making cohesive sense out of the Scriptures.  However much we like to pretend that our theology is a product of the Scriptures, this is rarely the case.  Our theological understanding usually precedes our reading of the Scriptures, even if that theological knowledge was obtained through cultural osmosis.  I’ll bet most American non-Christians could recite for you key tenets of Christianity, whether those tenets actually came from any Scriptures or not.

This even colors our ability to critique theology against the Scripture, because even if we go to the Bible to see if a teaching is true, we already have the teaching in our heads.  We are now looking in the Bible for the areas that, we believe, speak to the notion in our heads, and 9 times out of 10, if our bias is to confirm the idea, we’ll find it in the Bible, and if our bias is to reject the idea, we won’t, or at least we will relegate those passages to “less clear” texts in favor of the texts that contain our view, which are “clear texts” and thus to be given greater weight.

Some of my friends have heard me suggest (and have been greatly disturbed by it) that we should take the Bible out of circulation for a while, then bring it back when it has become an unknown book, again.  I don’t really think we ought to do this, but it is the fact that we think we know what the Bible teaches that is often our obstacle to hearing it.  If the Bible were some strange, ancient work we were all seeing for the first time without any preconceived ideas about its nature or authorship or content, would we ever get out of it our current evangelical commitments?  Perhaps some, perhaps not others.  I doubt any would go completely unchanged.

At the same time, I don’t think the solution is to ignore centuries of theology as if everything anyone has ever said was wrong.  The church has, over time, tried to make sense of the Bible in her own day and age, and those efforts are worthy of respect and attention.

The history of theology brings us into a great cloud of witnesses – elders who have gone before us wrestling with the Scriptures and bringing their own voices into the testimony.  But we also have to understand that all such activity is also a product of history and culture and debate, as is our current theological activity.  There are no parts of our modern theological story that represent some unbroken line of pure teaching straight from the mouth of Jesus, and this has never been true in the history of theology, even with the people who heard Jesus directly.  In fact, it is our belief that what we have in our heads does come straight from Jesus that impairs our ability to hear Jesus – we just assume he means what we mean.

Perhaps, as a thought experiment, we might assume that a passage in the Bible doesn’t mean anything like what we think.  Perhaps, instead of assuming we have basically got everything straight and just need to fine tune our beliefs, we should allow God the freedom to oppose every belief we have.  Maybe instead of looking at biblical teaching as a familiar landscape we like to hang out in, we should look at it as uncharted territory that has strange and beautiful features to yield that we overlook because we aren’t looking for them.

Maybe then, just maybe, we will quit telling the Bible what it says and what it has to be and what it has to do for us and let it tell us.

Sunday Meditations: Trusting History

The other night, I rewatched the movie “8 Mile.”  If you haven’t seen it, it’s a portrayal of a portion of rapper Eminem’s life that captures the span between when he was just eking out an existence and and when he finally engaged the path to becoming what the world knows him as, today.

The film stars Eminem and is no doubt based primarily on information that he supplied, himself, as well as testimony from people who knew him back then.  In fact, his closest friend from that time period – the rapper Proof – was also in the movie playing “Lil Tic.”

At the same time, the film is not a documentary, nor is it a collection of videos made of Eminem during that time of his life.  It is a dramatic representation of that time in retrospect.  As such, critical decisions were made about what material to include and exclude.  Some events were probably shortened from the recounted version or perhaps even had some things added to help them make more sense.  In fact, the aforementioned Proof is portrayed in the movie as “Future” played by Mekhi Phifer.

Let that sink in for a minute.  Eminem’s actual friend does not play himself in the movie; he plays someone else.

It is reasonable to expect that, to tell this story effectively, not everything in it happened in reality the way it is portrayed in the movie.  Did Eminem witness a rap battle by the food trucks at the plant where he worked?  Did he participate?  Were the raps in the movie the exact ones he heard?  Some crafting was necessary to tell the story in an intelligible manner and get the things across the filmmaker intended.

Knowing this – would you say that the film “8 Mile” is a completely untrustworthy ball of falsehoods that tells you nothing about the actual Eminem?  Or would you say that the film is trustworthy, but you have to accept it for what it is, which is a dramatization to get across certain points about the subject and not a live video feed or documentary?

Moving slightly closer to home, take the book Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi.  If you’ve not read the book, it’s a story about how a man raised in a particular faction of Islam eventually came to become a Christian, partly through his own experiences, partly through mystical dreams and visions, and partly through conversations with a Christian friend.

In the Prologue to this book, Qureshi writes:

Since we have entered the digital age, it is unfortunately and increasingly true that people exact inappropriately stringent standards on narrative biographies. By its very nature, a narrative biography must take certain liberties with the story it shares. Please do not expect cameralike accuracy! That is not the intent of this book, and to meet such standards, it would have to be a twenty-two-year-long video, most of which would bore even my mother to tears.

The words I have in quotations are rough approximations. A few of the conversations actually represent multiple meetings condensed into one. In some instances, stories are displaced in the timeline to fit the topical categorization. In other instances, people who were present in the conversation were left out of the narrative for the sake of clarity. All these devices are normal for narrative biographies; they are in fact normal for human mnemonics. Please read this book, and the narrative biographies it references, accordingly.

Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, p. 17

From his own admission, Qureshi has tampered with a “cameralike” reconstruction of events.  Some conversations are combined into one.  Some people who participated in them have been omitted.  Some events are portrayed out of sequence to match the thematic concerns of the book.  The quotes from others are not exact quotes, but are little dramatizations that portray the gist of what was said.

So, is Qureshi’s book an untrustworthy ball of falsehoods that can give us no reliable information about Islam, Christianity, or Qureshi’s experiences?  Or, is it a trustworthy book, but we have to keep in mind the nature of what we’re reading and what we expect from it?

These contemporary examples are illustrative of how virtually all ancient history was written by ancient historiographers.  There was no genre of “news reporting,” no science of journalism, and reproductive technologies like recorders and cameras did not exist creating the standards that we now have for the reproduction of events.

It just so happens that, as worldviews and technological capabilities of changed, we now have expectations of our accounts of the past that are, at least on the stage of world history, relatively new expectations.  We evaluate a source by how closely it matches the actual events it describes, not how clearly or effectively it communicated truths to us about the subject.  For us, accurate depiction is the truth, and any deviation from that is falsehood.

But even in our own expectations, we allow that, depending on genre and purpose, films like “8 Mile” and books like Qureshi’s do not exist for the purpose of giving us a bare and strict reporting of historical events.  They are telling a story to communicate truths.  The stories they tell aren’t completely fictitious, but neither are they what we’ve come to expect as “reporting.”  They are taking historical raw materials and shaping them and the presentation of them to serve the larger purpose of communicating their message.  And that’s the primary purpose – to communicate a message, not have the watcher or reader walk away with an encyclopedic knowledge of exactly what happened and when.  Not only do we accept this, we are comfortable with it.

Until we get to the Bible.

When we get to the Bible, a little switch gets thrown in our heads.  Now, against all reasonable expectations of the ancient world, we demand that every detail is a historically accurate representation of exactly what was said or happened.  And if it isn’t, then we can’t trust it.  I have had several people make this point to me, this week, with one person using language like “putting the Bible on trial” and “finding it guilty of manipulation.”

But is “8 Mile” an extended work in deception?  Is Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus an elaborate hoax?  Is the musical “Hamilton” to have the same level of historical credibility as “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” because Alexander Hamilton didn’t go around singing everything?  Of course not.  We recognize these presentations’ genres and purposes and the value we get from them is shaped by that.  We recognize that evaluating the musical “Hamilton” with the same criteria we use to evaluate a Fox News report would be inherently silly.  And if we were to hold up the musical “Hamilton” to Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, we wouldn’t say one was true and the other was false, or that one was accurate and the other was a hoax.  We would say one was a biography and one was a musical.

Until we get to the Bible.

When it comes to the Bible, we bring expectations to it.  For example, I might bring the expectation that the Bible is inerrant, and contradictions are errors, therefore there can be no contradictory presentations of events in the Bible.

So, when Matthew 27:54 depicts the Roman centurion at the crucifixion saying, “Truly this man was the Son of God,” and Luke 23:47 has him saying, “Surely this was a righteous man,” our expectations kick in.  Maybe we have two centurions, and they each said one of those things, and the gospel writers just picked one.  Maybe we have one centurion and he said both of those things, but the gospel writers just recorded one (for some reason).  We feel like we have to come up with some way to resolve the contradiction.

The one option that can’t be allowed is that there was “in reality” one centurion who said one thing, and Matthew’s gospel depicts it one way, and Luke’s gospel depicts it another way.  That would imply that one (or both) does not accurately reflect what was really said, and we can’t have that, because if there are any historical inaccuracies in the Bible (the way we would define them), then the Bible is just an untrustworthy pack of lies.

Well, if that’s where you’re at, I would encourage you to consider that there are more options available to us than “word for word accuracy” and “totally untrustworthy,” and we use those options with texts all the time.  I would encourage you, in fact, that the narrative books of the Old Testament, the Gospels, the book of Acts, etc. belong to ancient historiography and have truths they want to share with you that may best be served by doing things like compressing conversations, leaving people out, putting events out of order, etc.

After all, John’s gospel does not say it was written so that we would have an exact picture of exactly what happened when and who said what.  “But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31)

Sunday Meditations: Reading Forwards

Throughout my life, my relationship to the Old Testament has changed.

I grew up Free Will Baptist, which is what you might think of when you think of fundamentalist fire and brimstone sorts of churches (#NotAllFreeWillBaptists).  I was a licensed minister in this denomination at the ripe old age of seventeen.

In this climate, the Old Testament was a collection of stories to establish general moral truths or truths about God.  The story of David killing Goliath was to teach us that trusting in God means we can overcome big problems.  Or, alternately, that God uses the small and weak people of the world to do great things.  Although I don’t recall any sermons ever framing the issue this way, basically all Old Testament sermons came down to, “And the moral of the story is….”

When I became Reformed, the Old Testament became the conceptual building blocks for theology and doctrine.  Predestination.  Total depravity.  It’s all there in the proof texts of the Old Testament.

As time went on, I became exposed to the idea that the Old Testament pointed forward to Jesus.  It was still, secondarily, a stockpile of doctrinal proof texts, but now we read the Old Testament as a sort of allegory that really happened, and the meaning of the allegory was to portray the things revealed in the New Testament.  This is the basis behind the little rhyme, “The New is in the Old, concealed.  The Old is in the New, revealed.”

A key passage to understanding the Bible in this way was the Emmaus road story in Luke 24:13-27, which ends with, “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”

At any of those points, all of which I would say have a facet of truth to them, the Old Testament was never irrelevant, exactly, although it’s difficult to say that it was necessary.  All of those things I described could be supported just fine purely on New Testament scriptures.  The Old Testament was basically there for backup.  You could, in theory, hack out the Old Testament and just read the New Testament and still do just fine.  Although the flannelgraph industry would tank hard (if you get that joke, we probably have a lot in common).

These days, I’m at a point in my journey when it appears to me that the Old Testament lays down an important conceptual framework for understanding the New Testament.  In other words, we understand the New Testament best when we read forward from the Old Testament.

For instance, in 1 Corinthians 5:7, Paul refers to Christ as the Passover lamb.

One way to approach this concept is to take what we know about Jesus and read it back into the Passover account.  Let’s say, for example, someone has the typical evangelical understanding of original sin and penal substitionary atonement.  This is a big part of Jesus’ meaning, that he dies to take our place (sinners) under the destructive wrath of God.  So, when we look at the Passover account, we might see it the same way.  The Israelites sacrifice a lamb to substitute for their firstborn under the wrath of God that would rightly fall on their firstborn.  The Egyptians, who do not provide a substitute, have their firstborn slain.  In this way, the Passover becomes a picture, or foreshadowing, or type of what Christ has done.

But there are a couple of problems with this.

The first problem is that there is no evidence from the Exodus texts that God would have killed the firstborn of Israel or that the lamb was intended to be a substitute.  In fact, we read the exact opposite when Moses proclaims the last plague:

Moses said, “Thus says the Lord: About midnight I will go out through Egypt. Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the female slave who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the livestock. Then there will be a loud cry throughout the whole land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again. But not a dog shall growl at any of the Israelites—not at people, not at animals—so that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.

Exodus 11:4-7 (NRSV, emphasis mine)

God has no intention of harming the Israelites.

While the Israelites do kill and eat a lamb, and this vaguely looks like the sacrificial laws that will come later, they also eat unleavened bread.  The only function the lamb’s blood is said to provide is to identify the Israelite houses.

The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.

Exodus 12:13 (NRSV)

There is nothing that is said about the lamb being killed in the place of the Israelite firstborn.

When God institutes the Passover as a regularly occurring observance (presumably not to continue to substitute for the firstborn), here’s the rationale He gives:

And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this observance?’ you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.’” And the people bowed down and worshiped.

Exodus 12:26-27 (NRSV)

Why continue to observe the Passover?  Not as a substitution for your firstborn, but to make an offering to the Lord in gratitude for what He has done.

So, when we try to read back into the Passover from what we know about Jesus (or what we think we know about Jesus), we find we may be trying to force a square peg into a round hole, and if you have ever heard a sermon on a more prosaic Old Testament passage where someone has tried to force it to “point forward to Christ,” you have probably experienced this first hand.  And it comes from that basic vector of taking what you know about Jesus and trying to find it in the Old Testament.

But this brings us to our second problem – in 1 Corinthians, Paul is expecting us to understand his instruction on the basis of what we know about the Passover; he isn’t trying to get us to understand the Passover on the basis of his instruction.

The whole reason Paul thinks he can ground his command about sending the unfaithful out of congregations on Jesus being the Passover lamb is because he is depending on the knowledge the letter-reader already has about Passover.  He is expecting you to read forward.

“Remember the Passover when God said we would have nothing to do with leavened bread, and whoever did would be cut off from the community?  Well, that Passover is now.  Jesus was the sacrificed lamb.  Now we need to make sure our bread is unleavened as well.”

Regardless of the merits of Paul’s argumentation, it is clear that he expects us to bring to his instruction our knowledge of the Passover.  He isn’t trying to redefine the Passover in terms of what Jesus did.

And I would say that, at least for the most part, this describes any of the New Testament use of the Old Testament.  The writer expects us to bring our knowledge of the Old Testament to their words.  They aren’t trying to explain the Old Testament to us; they’re trying to explain what is currently going on by using what we know about the Old Testament.  In light of this, I would say it is very likely that this is what Jesus was doing on the road to Emmaus – not going through the Old Testament and going, “See this?  This isn’t what you thought.  This is really about me.”  But rather, “See this?  See what has happened for Israel in the past?  That’s what I’ve done, for you, now.”

Even when you take a look at the passages where Jesus or the apostles chastise their audience for not recognizing Jesus on the basis of the Old Testament, the criticism is not that they are failing to understand their Old Testament in new ways in light of Jesus; the criticism is that, knowing the Old Testament, they should have been the first to recognize Jesus and what he was doing.  Jesus is acting in the stream set up by the Old Testament, not establishing brand new categories that we are supposed to use to reinterpret the Old Testament.

Does that mean that Jesus does everything as expected?  No.  Does that mean that we shouldn’t read the Old Testament and connect it to Jesus?  I believe we should.

But I believe the Scriptures were given historically and progressively to God’s people for a reason.  I believe the Old Testament is indispensable.  It is in the Old Testament light that we see Jesus for who he truly is, and we run a serious risk of allowing our own theological constructions to control our Bible reading if we start with our understanding of Jesus and push it backwards into the Old Testament.

But, you know, check back with me in ten years and see where I’m at.

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.

Sunday Meditations: The Perspicuity of Scripture

Partially because of just natural friendships and partially because of online activity, I end up talking to a pretty good amount of atheists about Christianity (and atheism) and items germane.

The other day, a man who was being particularly obnoxious about his atheism (which just goes to show, we Christians haven’t cornered the market on obnoxious new converts) made the accusation that Jesus “lied” in Matthew 24:34:

“Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”

Matthew 24:34 (NRSV)

For those of you who don’t have this chapter memorized, this is the famous Olivet Discourse where Jesus describes the upcoming destruction of the Temple and sacking of Jerusalem by Rome.  This gentleman’s contention that was Jesus was predicting the end of the world and his physical return, and since this obviously didn’t happen in that generation, Jesus was lying.  Of course, he also said he didn’t believe Jesus ever existed, so I’m not 100% sure where he was going with all of this.

But, anyway, I pointed out that the “all these things” was about the Roman siege of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple, which began in the late 60s AD.  Jesus would have made this prediction in the 30s AD.  So, assuming this is a valid saying of Jesus (which you would have to do to accuse him of lying), it appears he did pretty well.

This man countered with the fact that the disciples had asked what the signs would be of the end of the age.  I proceeded to explain that age (Gr. aion) just means a period of time characterized by something.  For instance, in English, we refer to the Bronze Age and the Dark Ages.  It doesn’t even imply a long stretch of time, such as in Jonah 2:6, when the word describes a whopping three days.  An age is defined by a state of affairs, not a particular length of time, and the end of an age surely doesn’t mean the end of all history.

He countered with the idea that this was convoluted and not simple, and that Jesus’ audience wouldn’t have understood such a complicated explanation.

But here’s the kicker: it’s only complicated because of the way we understand those words, not the way the original audience would have understood them.

If we were first century Jews familiar with Greek and Aramaic and the expressions used in the idioms of the day as well as our own literature, this explanation wouldn’t be complicated at all.  In fact, it would be entirely unnecessary, because that would be your default way of understanding those terms.  If you said the aion or even the kosmos were coming to an end, you would actually need to explain that what you meant was the final end of the actual planet and its history, and not the end of the world situation as you knew it, which would be the common way at the time to use those words and ideas.

It is only because of centuries of distance, the Romanization of theology, and the rise of dispensationalism that we modern readers would read those terms the way we do.

I bring this up as an example.

There is a reasonably popular idea that a basic understanding of the Bible is simple to obtain – that anyone should be able to open it up and, especially with the New Testament, just grasp the basic ideas through a plain reading.

If we were first century Jews, or even first century Gentiles familiar with the Jews, I would completely agree with that.  The problem is, though, we aren’t.  We are separated from the original recipients of the Scriptures by about 2000 years for the New Testament, alone.  Further, many modern Bible readers are not Semitic and did not grow up in the Levant, so we are distant both geographically and culturally as well.

What we have, instead, are the Scriptures falling into the hands of Greco-Roman, Gentile theologians who are not only unfamiliar with Jewish theology – they are in many cases trying to actively excise it.  They make the Bible into a story about Greco-Roman philosophical interests like the immortality and transmigration of the soul and the cosmic battle between good and evil.  Through a series of councils, politics, and a fair amount of swords, this understanding becomes “Western orthodoxy” which is the default sandbox for both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.  In the East, things went a little differently, but not as much as you might think, considering many of the prominent early Eastern theologians were not Jews, but were also Gentiles.  We had to have a Bible that spoke to us about our concerns.

This understanding of the Bible dominated missionary activity and continues to do so to this day.

By the time this makes it to America, our culture doubles down by also narrowing it down to the individual.  So, now, the primary story of the Scriptures is about an individual’s sin and what will happen to that individual’s immortal soul when the body dies.

This becomes the central message of American missionaries by and large as well.

So, over the course of history, we move from writings that are sacred to Israel that spoke to their history, their concerns, their hopes, and their expectations, and we basically cut them loose altogether to put the Scriptures into a story that spoke to our history, our concerns, our hopes, and our expectations.  Instead of asking, “How do we fit into Israel’s story?” we ask, “What does the Bible mean to me?”  And it is because of these centuries of baggage that any explanation of a passage that hearkens back to the concerns of the original audience barely sounds comprehensible to us.

It’s like when you play Bach for someone who has listened to Top 40 all their life.  It barely even sounds like music to them.  Music is supposed to sound like verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus and mostly repeat four chords.  Anything that isn’t that doesn’t sound like music.

Now, I do want to make a distinction between trying to get at the Bible’s message versus how God might speak to us through the Bible devotionally.  We all get different things out of books, movies, songs, speeches – all the different things we’re exposed to in our lives.  Not only is the Bible not different in that regard, it also has demonstrated itself to be a vibrant source of people getting in touch with what they need to hear from God at a particular moment.  I don’t think we need to lobby against that, any more than we need to lobby against people listening to God in prayer or getting personal applications from sermons that the pastor never intended.

However, whatever someone gets out of the Bible that way personally is not what the Bible “means” in the sense of a text that God has brought into the world at the times of His choosing for the purposes of His choosing.  I might share with someone how a particular passage impacted me, today, but I’d better not confuse that with what the passage means, nor should I communicate that as something everyone else should get from the passage.

To understand the Bible as to what it means, what all those texts are about, etc. is actually neither simple nor clear for any of us, and it’s not the fault of the Bible; it’s the distance, backgrounds, etc. that keep us from being able to read the Bible the same way we read the newspaper.  The massive amounts of Christian sects and the sheer number of disagreements within those sects is empirical proof that the Bible is not clear to us, and we’re not doing anybody any favors by pretending that it is.

Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, were written in the very late 1500s – early 1600s.  So, here we have a Western author writing a mere 400 years ago.  Most of us can’t crack open one of Shakespeare’s plays with no frame of reference and get all the jokes, understand the political references, understand what the farcical elements mean, or even understand what’s going on at all.  The language, allusions, idioms, sense of humor, etc. come from another time.  We need help understanding them.  Yet, at one point, barely literate English hicks understood him just fine.

That was just 400 years ago in a Western culture.  The New Testament is five times that historical distance and, for many of us, was written from a completely different culture.  Few people would suggest all the meanings and nuances of Shakespeare are immediately apparent to your average modern American who reads his plays without any pre-existing knowledge.  And yet, we expect this will happen without fail for any modern reader who cracks open the Bible.

There is a differentiating factor – the Holy Spirit.  This is an important factor.  However, when we look at how the Holy Spirit has worked in the church through history, she does not seem to have been very interested in helping us all to understand the Bible.  Once again, well-meaning, Spirit-filled believers will have radically different ideas on many areas that the Bible addresses, or even what the Bible is to begin with.

It is possible this means that understanding the Bible is not very important to the life of the church, and we should think through that.  If we all agree that followers of Christ are supposed to be baptized, but we all disagree on the age people should be baptized, or how we baptize, or whether infants can be baptized, it is possible that understanding those things is just not important.  I don’t know that I can sign off on that train of thought, but it is a possibility.  Perhaps we place too much emphasis on the Bible – which the first century church didn’t even have – and not enough on listening to the Spirit – which the first century church did constantly.

But assuming the Bible is important and what the biblical texts mean are important, we have to own up to the fact that the Spirit is largely content to let us hash that out among ourselves, and there seems to be virtually no correlation between someone being a Spirit-filled Christian and their ability to understand the Bible very well.  I understand that may not “sound” right, but empirically, that’s the case.  People can live and die very spiritually mature in Christ and be used by God to accomplish some amazing things and have understandings of the Bible that would have been utterly foreign to the original audience.

New Christians do not understand the Bible when they read it for the first time.  In fact, I’d go so far to say that any modern reader (with possibly the exception of a very self aware Jewish person who grew up in Judea) is automatically wrong if they just read the Bible plainly, because they will invest those words and concepts with categories that fit the way they understand and use language and replace the concerns and hopes of the people who wrote and received the Scriptures with their own – most of which don’t even come close to being on the biblical authors’ radar.

Yes, it’s true that the earliest followers were just plain, uneducated folk, but they were plain, uneducated, first century Judean folk – not plain, uneducated, 21st century American white guys.  Those two people groups are not the same.  Those two people groups are not coming to those words the same way.

This is why I think a hopeful trajectory for modern missiology (and in this vein, Christian Associates is possibly leading the way in taking this to heart) is not just to understand that modern Western cultural appropriations of Scripture are bound to be wrong, but to understand that all modern appropriations of Scripture are bound to be wrong.  It’s not enough to de-Americanize doctrine; we have to de-everyoneize doctrine.  We have to plumb the depths of the Bible’s world and get our Jewish Jesus back.  God chose Israel and gave her the prophets, the Messiah, and the Spirit (at first), and we need to get inside her head to understand her Scriptures so we can find our true place and the world’s true place within them.

And I believe that effort has a lot to say about our current story; that’s largely what this online devotional project is all about.  But it is neither straightforward nor easy.