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Handling the Texts

  

There are common presuppositions that everyone brings towards reading the Scriptures that are entirely unwarranted. These are brought by both those who have faith in the Scriptures, and those who wish to invalidate them. And both views need light shed on them. I hope to use some of NT Wright’s introductory “The New Testament and the People of God” in helping us understand these issues.

In the New Testament field, some critics have made a great song and dance about the fact that the details of Jesus’ life, or the fact of his resurrection, cannot be proved ‘scientifically’; philosophical rigour should compel them to admit that the same problem pertains to the vast range of ordinary human knowledge, including the implicit claim that knowledge requires empirical verification.

Of course we’ve covered that topic on our blog here before.  The empirical “requirement” foisted on Christianity falls flat on its face when it has to deal with our every day lives.  Next, attacks usually turn to the bias of the writers of the Scriptures.

… all history involves selection, arrangement, and so on, and that the idea of a ‘neutral’ or ‘objective’ history is a figment of post-Enlightenment imagination.

They often declare that we can’t trust biased writers, only objective ones.  But there is no objectivity – and again the philosophers would agree with us.  Oddly enough, they’re selecting which philosophy they’ll apply in their attacks instead of taking a comprehensive whole package.  Only with the idea that everything can be taken apart into its own neat category (which we’ll get to) would things even appear to be ‘neutral’.  But even the bias of being neutral is a bias.  We have to recognize our biases – especially our own as readers of faith.

The New Testament, I suggest, must be read so as to be understood, read within appropriate contexts, within an acoustic which will allow its full overtones to be heard. It must be read with as little distortion as possible, and with as much sensitivity as possible to its different levels of meaning. It must be read so that the stories, and the Story, which it tells can be heard as stories, not as rambling ways of declaring unstoried ‘ideas’. It must be read without the assumption that we know what it is going to say, and without the arrogance that assumes that ‘we’ – whichever group that might be – already have ancestral rights over this or that passage, book, or writer.

As we inherit this text, it is not our own.  We didn’t write it, and we don’t get to declare its meaning.  The texts declare its own meaning to us.  We can’t take the Story, the Gospel, the overarching Narrative of Scripture apart into little pieces of timeless truth.  It is a story, and is meant to be read and understood as one.  The Scriptures aren’t a number of spiritual bullet points, timeless truths, wrapped in characters and stories waiting to be dug out and cleaned off.

Here is the paradox that lies at the heart of this whole project. Although the Enlightenment began as, among other things, a critique of orthodox Christianity, it can function, and in many ways has functioned, as a means of recalling Christianity to genuine history, to its necessary roots. Much Christianity is afraid of history, frightened that if we really find out what happened in the first century our faith will collapse. But without historical enquiry there is no check on Christianity’s propensity to remake Jesus, never mind the Christian god, in its own image. Equally, much Christianity is afraid of scholarly learning, and in so far as the Enlightenment programme was an intellectual venture, Christianity has responded with the simplicities of faith. But, granted that learning without love is sterile and dry, enthusiasm without learning can easily become blind arrogance. Again, much Christianity has been afraid of reducing a supernatural faith to rationalist categories. But the sharp distinction between the ‘supernatural’ and the ‘rational’ is itself a product of Enlightenment thinking, and to emphasize the ‘supernatural’ at the expense of the ‘rational’ or ‘natural’ is itself to capitulate to the Enlightenment worldview at a deeper level than if we were merely to endorse, rather than marginalize, a post-Enlightenment rationalist programme.

If Christianity is historical – and surely it is – why would we be afraid to go backwards in that history?  And if Christianity is true to reality, and reality is complex, why would we be  afraid to learn about that complexity?  Moreover, we can’t split apart, as everyone wants to do, “natural” from “supernatural” as if it is the only pure way – this is a mental construct, not a reality.  And in reality they belong together.  Therefore the shunning of ‘natural’ in favor of ‘supernatural’, as Wright points out, is to fundamentally agree with the attacks leveled against us.

If the Christian claims for the Net Testament are anywhere near the truth, we cannot see it as a safe garden into which Christians can retreat from their contemporary world. It must function as part of the challenge and address of the creator god to the contemporary world.

Moreover, the message of Christianity is not an individual, private message.  It is a public message, for the world.  The history recorded in the Scriptures testify that God acted in public.  When he healed, it was out in front of everyone.  When miracles happened, they were seen and felt.  And that when the Kingdom comes, it will be public for all peoples.  Nothing about this Story is intensely, or mainly private.

Again many of the common approaches by both sides need improvement.  And I’ve found that the Story approach is by far the most powerful to understand what is happening in these texts.  But, it must be tempered with the historical understanding of that time.  With that said, this approach will only deepen our understanding of God, Jesus, and the Church.

17 Responses to “Handling the Texts”

  1. on 18 Aug 2008 at 7:40 amRandy

    I was reading some of N.T.Wrights sermons just this morning. I was disturbed to read his belief that Christ as all who die, went immediately to heaven to be with God. His belief in “immediate life after death” caused me to be more careful and look more closely at all his beliefs for I can find no scriptural basis for believing in “life after death” except upon the return of Christ at the end of this age.

  2. on 18 Aug 2008 at 8:41 amJohnO

    Randy, I entirely agree with you. However, in recent interviews and lectures he downplays this idea of “immediate life after death”, and in the NY Times, almost to the point of saying that the Scriptures do not support such an idea.

  3. on 18 Aug 2008 at 8:57 amTim

    I think that the differences between what he believes and what most on this forum believe are quite subtle, but he uses language that raises red flags for most of us.

    If you read his latest book, I think that you will find that what JohnO says is true. He clearly states that the popular notion of immortal souls fellowshipping with God in heaven is false.

    The best analogy that I have found is also included in Wright’s latest book. It comes from John Polkinghorne in which our bodies are like “hardware” and our souls are like “software. So that when we die, our “software” returns to God until it can be downloaded to our new “hardware.”

    I apologize if this is an unfamiliar analogy. (It makes perfect sense to me!) The point is that something that defines who we are returns to God upon our death so that it can be used to reconstruct us at the resurrection. Most on this forum would agree that this something is unconscious (i.e. the soul sleep doctrine).

    It is important to focus on what Wright is saying and try to understand his terminology in the context of his arguments.

  4. on 18 Aug 2008 at 10:30 amJohnO

    I think eccliesiastes tells us that the ‘something’ is the “breath”, the animating property of God that returns to him. That, in no way, is our personality or “us”, let alone some part of us that is conscious.

  5. on 18 Aug 2008 at 10:51 amTim

    JohnO,

    That is what I thought for over 30 years, but then I had to ask myself the question: what happens to my personality when I die?

    The scriptures say that we will be known as we are known (a paraphrase, I think). How is this knowledge going to be recreated, unless it is somehow “with God” in the period between my death and resurrection?

    If I am going to be resurrected as me, something about me must exist for it to be resurrected as me?

    How can who I am, my identity, be destroyed yet I can also be resurrected as me!

    Jesus’ identity (who he was, his personality) did not seem to me to have been destroyed in the three days that he was in the grave.

    I admit that this is all purely speculation on my part, but I really find traditional conditional immortality doctrine unsatisfying in answering these questions. I do not disagree with what you say about ecclesiastes, but I am talking about something different here.

  6. on 18 Aug 2008 at 12:12 pmRon S.

    Tim,

    I right there with you on the computer hardware analogy! But I would change software to be more of a “data storage” concept. I think some people might think of a software program as possibly being able to be in USE- running somewhere else (e.g. on a different “machine” in heaven) and this is obviously not the case with eccliesiastes statement of the dead knowing “nothing”.

    IMO the animating spark of life – God’s “breath” (ruach) that returns to Him “who gave it” (originally given to Adam at his creation and is passed down the human chain when sperm meets egg) has some kind of data storage built into that lifeforce that is a record of everything that we were (logically why it needs to return to God).

    To me that is an easy explanation (at least for us technologically advanced humans of today) of how God remembers every detail about us. Then when He sends Jesus back to ressurrect us at the end of the age from the dust, that data gets instantly re-installed into our harddrives (our brains) and we are once again alive with everything that made us who we were.

    I feel that makes pretty good, logical sense with what Scripture tell us.

  7. on 18 Aug 2008 at 1:17 pmJohnO

    Right, it is different.

    Jesus’ identity (who he was, his personality) did not seem to me to have been destroyed in the three days that he was in the grave.

    This is just an argument of definition. If death means that his personality was destroyed, then it was, until it was recreated three days later. If death does not mean his personality was destroyed, but rather unconscious, or conscious, then it was not. Barring the Catholic interpretation that Jesus lived and acted in Hades, preaching the Gospel to the saints there (who were also conscious), I don’t see the NT coming down with either side of the definition.

    NT Wright seems to skirt both sides of this. One, he says that our personality is not destroyed, but rather, like being unconscious, or at times he seems to suggest that they are conscious (if I remember a side comment of his about the prayers of the saints in Revelation). And that we go to Hades/Sheol, the grave. Which he would say was (increasingly?, solidly?) being understood by Judaism(s) in the first century as the state of the dead. He would also amend that to say that those who died in faith, instead of being in Sheol, would be with God and Christ, the referent of “Abraham’s bosom” (abiding in the promise, a remnant of Israel, etc.)

    This seems to be a slightly different topic than Conditional Immortality. Though, the moniker “life after death” doesn’t apply well, because if you’re unconscious you can’t do anything – what kind of life is that? And, life and death are usually held to be opposites, but if death just results in life – what kind of opposite is that? I think these inconsistencies are just a part of Wright’s attempt to capitulate to the lay-person. Hence his moniker “life after life after death”, as an attempt to forget the entire middle part as unimportant (which, on a scholarly level, he does very well).

    So, does our usual “death is sleep” as per Jesus’ metaphor about Lazarus fit with Wright’s definition? I think, tentatively, yes. Just so long as death does not mean living somewhere else, being conscious, I think we’re on the same page. And we can debate the “location” (Hades/Sheol/Abraham’s bosom) as ‘literal’, or metaphor for remaining within the promise of God (I have a feeling Wright would come down with a “yes, both” answer, whereas I would have the metaphor answer).

    I hope that wasn’t too long 🙂

  8. on 19 Aug 2008 at 7:16 amTim

    Ron,

    You said it better than I did!

    I do not want to make too much about this. My point is that it is possible (and imperative) to use everyday analogies (modern day parables) to simply describe concepts that theologians make way too complicated.

    We had a discussion in Sunday School last weekend about parables and how in a non-agrarian society, we must first explain agriculture before explaining the parable of the sower! This is missing the point! We should make our own parables and analogies, as we see them, to make the gospel relevant and intelligible to modern-day seekers.

    I think that this is one of the major problems with the trinity. It was cast in fourth century philosophies that not even the theologians understand fully. I think the ones that do understand it are the ones that are backing away from it as essential for salvation.

    Well done!

  9. on 19 Aug 2008 at 7:21 amTim

    JohnO,

    Very insightful. I think what we are seeing in NT Wright is someone who is in the process of changing a very deeply held view about a very orthodox and traditional position. There is still some vestiges of the old language and thoughts in his exposition.

    I have talked to and heard several people give an explanation of what they believe about life after death and it is almost 100% in agreement with the conditional immortality / annihilationist position; yet, they will say things like, “when I get to heaven.”

    Old phrases are hard to shed.

    I’ve had the same experience with many trinitarians, in fact. We will go point-by-point through the arguments for the unitarian position with a lot of agreement, and then they will turn around and say that “Jesus is God.”

    It can be frustrating …

  10. on 19 Aug 2008 at 9:56 amSean

    On the parable of the seed & sower, how about this:

    The Parable of the Commercial

    A commercial about feeding the poor kids in Africa was played during the Superbowl at halftime. Some people saw it but they had their TV on mute so that they did not understand it completely. Others saw it and felt compassion and began to give money monthly to the cause but when they were mocked by their friends, they decided to stop giving. Still others saw it, started sending money but after some time decided to spend the money on setting up a retirement fund instead. Last of all, some saw it, and sent money faithfully for a lifetime, some $30 a month, some $60 a month and some $100 a month.

    The commercial is the word of the kingdom. The first group were those who did not understand it when it was preached to them. The second group are those who understood the message but in time of persecution fell away. The third group are those who began to live a Christian life but then the pleasures of this world stole the message out of their hearts. The last group are those who heard the gospel, understood it, accepted it, held it fast, and then bore fruit a lifetime to varying degrees.

  11. on 19 Aug 2008 at 12:04 pmBrian

    I really wonder if the way to go is to make up our own parables. Although we (or at least some of us) live in a non agrarian society, I don’t think it’s that hard to get the idea of a seed and a plant. Is it that hard to explain the basics of a seed and a plant? Sean, even in your parable it seems like it doesn’t quite make the point as simply and as fully as when Jesus told his parable. At the end of your explanation you describe a bearing of fruit which of course doen not really fit with your parable.

    I’m reminded of reading about some Bible translation for some group of people who held the pig in great esteem and so they translated the “Lamb of God” as the “Pig of God” What’s wrong with just explaining what Biblical terms mean?

    We live in a day and time where we are constantly being told that we need to understand other people from around the world. These folks all have different cultures and ways of thinking, and yet I am capable of understanding them as I take the time to learn about their history and culture. Is it really any harder to understand these same things when it comes to the Bible? Using our own analogies and parables may help us understand the Biblical analogies and parables, but they certainly cannot replace them.

  12. on 19 Aug 2008 at 12:46 pmMark

    Brian,

    I agree. The commercial analogy doesn’t carry the factor of the message being something that grows in you to produce fruit, the way the seed parable does. I think anybody that ever planted a seed in a cup of dirt for a grade school science project understands the concept of seeds growing. It’s not that complicated.

  13. on 19 Aug 2008 at 2:41 pmWolfgang

    Hello Tim,

    you mentioned above:

    We had a discussion in Sunday School last weekend about parables and how in a non-agrarian society, we must first explain agriculture before explaining the parable of the sower! This is missing the point! We should make our own parables and analogies, as we see them, to make the gospel relevant and intelligible to modern-day seekers.

    I would say that making up our own parables and analogies would be missing the point! I’ve heard plenty of “modern interpreter and preacher made parables” over the decades, and I would say that (perhaps unfortunately?) most of then were off the mark and at times had nothing to do with the message conveyed in the biblical parable they tried to replace! Those “made up our own parables” rather often displayed that the truth and point of the original parable had not been understood in the first place, so that it was no wonder that the self made parable missed the poiint!

    Explaining the historical and cultural background of what we read in the Scriptures so that a reader may understand what they read is the correct way to go in order to be able to arrive at a true understanding of what we read. If we want to understand what is written in the Scriptures, we can’t replace what is written there with our own writings …. if one wanted to at least be consistent, one should then totally re-write the book, because ALL OF IT (and not only parables) was written in a different historical setting, in a different cultural setting, etc … and the results would be a large variety of totally different modern day Bibles, because even in the same language some people may live in a country and farm setting, others live in a city block setting, some folks experience the tropical rain forests as their home while others have never seen a forest and only know a few shrubs and lots if snow and ice all year long.

    It seems to me that with the Bible (as with any other writing) a true understanding can only be arrived at by learning to understand what is written there correctly, and that may involve having to first learn something about the times, locations, people and their culture that are part of the writing we are reading

    Cheers,
    Wolfgang

  14. on 19 Aug 2008 at 3:33 pmJohnO

    The ironic thing about this discussion about whether we should make our own parables, is that Jesus, the apostles, and disciples over the centuries, clearly answered yes. Without that answer, we wouldn’t have these parables.

  15. on 19 Aug 2008 at 4:02 pmSean

    Man! See if I ever try to compose another parable. Just kidding. Perhaps we would do better to not replace the biblical parables with our own but do what they did–teach truth through fresh parables. This avoid mis-representing what they have said while at the same time capitalizing on the fact that the parable or story is one of the most effective modes of communication (just look at TV and movies).

  16. on 19 Aug 2008 at 5:06 pmJohnO

    Well, I know it’s been two weeks since my last post – but I’m working on a bit of a series, about just that – story. So, hopefully, I can articulate this next week (that’s why I haven’t posted, just cant find the way to say it yet)

  17. on 19 Aug 2008 at 6:03 pmBrian

    JohnO wrote: “The ironic thing about this discussion about whether we should make our own parables, is that Jesus, the apostles, and disciples over the centuries, clearly answered yes. Without that answer, we wouldn’t have these parables.”

    I never really thought of Jesus making his own parables. My understanding is that Jesus communicated what the Father wanted Jesus to communicate. I’ve never pictured Jesus sitting around thinking about how he’s figured out that He’s the Messiah so he needs to explain things differently so then he thought about a seed and a plant and said to himself “That’s good, I like that. I’ll have to talk about that the next time a get a chance.” I have certainly come up with my own analogies to help explain the concepts presented in the scriptures, but my analogies are not a part of the Scriptures. I have rarely if ever used my own parables because we don’t use parables as a normal way to communicate ideas and so I find it enough of a challenge to not mess up the parables that are in the Scriptures without coming up with my own. They would only probably caues more confusion. I believe that the parables that Jesus spoke are a part of Scripture and that the parables that Jesus taught were not only for those people presently in his audience but even for us as disciples of Jesus today.

    I can’t help but think that how someone approaches this topic has, in part, something to do with what one’s attitude is about the Bible — how we got the Bible, how was it that God was able to work within the writers of the Scriptures and what that means in terms of the text that we have today.

  

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