I was reading a book the other day which talked about rules. One of the reasons we may not want to allow exceptions about rules (in organizations) is because of liabilities. Moreover, it can also be that we do not discriminate. Even more, there is a clear guide for behavior. However, human life is a bit more complicated at times than policies can help with…at least if we follow them 100%. A good example is the case of the Madison East High School Security Guard being called the N word. As he was interacting with the students on the subject, he told them they cannot call him the word, and used the word to tell them they cannot call people that. Madison East has a no-tolerance policy on the use of the N-word. So…they fired him.
After some justified hoopla from the community, they did re-instate his job. Still, the event should never have happened. The policy should have allowed for rare events or innocent uses, or at least the power of leadership to distinguish between kinds of usage. They followed a no-tolerance policy that committed wrong.
The Bible is offering (in some senses) the same wisdom as the people of God wrestled through the content of the nature of God. It is of primary importance to remember though, that the Bible is not a rule book. Rather, it is primarily a book about salvation and the revelation of God to humanity. My own take on the whole ‘drama’ is that God is progressively revealing himself.
If we think about the history of human persons; there is something around 100,000-200,000 years of human history for people like us. Which means, if God is going to reveal himself to rational (big brain) creatures, he is going to have to wait a long time in the total history of the universe (14+ Billion Years). Moreover, if he is going to be able to get his message passed on in human communities through time, he is going to have to give credible revelation to a community even later in their history. They will have to be a social community of sorts, with developed language, and the realization of the importance of their interactions with the divine, and a credible way of passing that information on to the next generation.
And, even more…the codification of those interactions with the divine, or their history as a divine community, will need to be transmitted through physical means some time. All of this comes rather late in the history of Homo Sapiens. The Old Testament’s development is very near to these time periods. I said all of that to get to the point that God worked with Abraham as a people group sophisticated enough to receive and be his community, but primitive enough, that much of what they would do and say about God would need updating, or at least expanding over time…as to understand him fully.
Old Testament Laws: Old Testament Laws came about for the people of God to make their next large development as a community under God (the Mosaic laws coming 400+ years after Abraham). Those Laws were what the human community could come up with to best figure out a social, governmental, and religious community. Some of those laws, could only speak to the situation of Israel long ago. Whereas, other laws could transcend their times, such as “Thou shalt not murder.” These transcendent or semi-transcendent laws would be part of the moral core which would be transmitted forever.
To make things a bit more complicated…even the clear and eternal moral core is not without exemptions. I use the word exemption here and not exception, because I think it makes better sense of what is going on. An exemption is a situation or event that is exempt from the rule. The rule is not broken in such situations or during such events. For instance, killing in self-defense, or perhaps killing in a just-war, could be allowed and would not break the rule. We could add an accidental killing as well; which is something the Old Testament Mosaic code did try and figure out a solution to. They had safe locations for those who accidentally took the lives of others.
The complex system of the Mosaic Law would eventually be completed by a simpler code, such as Love God and Love neighbor…which would take place over time. Jesus can say the most important commandments are these, because at least the Israelite community, in developing their laws, (however perfectly or imperfectly) were really wrestling with the how to Love God and Neighbor. We can see that through the whole of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy.
Jesus’ point for the future community of his followers, is that even 613 laws, could not exhaust the ‘best ways of living’ on everything. Moreover, some of those laws were not final products of God’s will for His people. Some were temporary, until they would reach a new stage of maturity, eventually culminating in Jesus. By maturity, I mean receptive maturity. Namely, God was making them more responsible for their lives under Him. Not just resolving to live by 613 laws, but to apply the simple love God/humanity to all they do. Which, in some ways is a taller order, but also helps to deal with the complexity of the world. Islam itself offered a complex law code, which they are still bound by. But, Christianity was able to break free from that former way, which has certainly helped to adapt to each new era better.
There is one other complexity to add here. That same community which began in Abraham and became solidified in Moses, had a sacred traditional heritage of information that it passed on from generation to generation. And, later Israelite groups would often re-reflect upon some portion of sacred history. They would even offer a perspective on that sacred history. In other words, not always conveying it verbatim. Solomon is a good case in point.
Israel was divided, and so each community emphasized different aspects of Solomon’s reign. Both communities understands were placed in Scripture. Thus, the divisions between North and South actually allowed (or required) each community to choose to remember what they thought most important about their sacred history. I personally don’t find this problematic…even though it does disturb some Christians to know this. My reason for thinking this is not problematic, is because I think that even divisions in knowledge, can play a role for us as God’s people to wrestle toward how we will choose to be mature (the ultimate goal of the Bible) in Christ.
How shall we relate to God, knowing that past communities have not always done well? We could highlight Samson as a great case in point. Are we really supposed to celebrate Samson as a hero? In some sense I think yes. Israel found themselves in a difficult position and Samson helped them through. However, in another sense we should find his character and actions appalling. Why? Because when we come to know that God is just and loving, we will be able to round off those hard corners of Scripture with a final fuller picture. Yes, the earlier stuff will be judged ultimately incomplete because of the latter.
In a sense I am saying these earlier writers thought through the implication of their relationship with God and community in less than perfect ways. Moreover, God himself was pleased to ‘appropriate’ those writings to bring about his grander plan. Namely, that he would show himself more fully than he originally did and more fully than they originally thought/imagined. He would add flesh to his divinity and live among us. Jesus would come as the fully mature one. He is the superman if you will, giving his life for all.
This gets me to a very important distinction. One in which I originally saw in another context from Duns Scotus about logic, but which also applies to Scripture and its writer’s awareness of God. I find that some of the content in the Scriptures, especially plenty as is found in the Old Testament, is what could be termed ‘intramental’ thinking about God. Namely, the subjective self has come to grips with God or an experience with God, and they wrote down what that was in their community context and historical and theological writing styles. Much, if not most of these intramental understandings were incomplete. Namely, they could not speak in a final way about God. They were working with their limited understanding of who God was at that time.
However, when we get to Christ, we come to an extramental awareness of God. God’s ability to show himself and make himself known, is most fully done in Jesus Christ. Therefore, the fullest, and hence final revelation of God, is extramentally known in Jesus Christ. Namely, an objective or at least more objective awareness of God. Yes, this will be mediated through writers who must rely on their own eyes, ears, and hands. But, the original deposit of revelation in Jesus Christ is as objective as it comes. Christ really gave his life. Christ really resurrected physically etc.
All of that should enter us into the New Testament (of which you asked some good questions). The people of God there were still coming to grips with letting go of the Mosaic complex law code and identification of race with the people of God. You can see this in Acts 15 at the Jerusalem Council. When we reflect on the New Testament, much of which is identifying, and teaching about Jesus Christ. These earliest writings about the historical Jesus are as close the objective revelation himself that one can get, minus a direct experience with him. The Church considered the closest writings to be the most important to tell us from many an eyewitness or those close to the eyewitnesses about Jesus Christ. The value of the New Testament is its witness to Jesus Christ.
Now…to another distinction.
Universal Versus Local
Every writer in Scripture is not writing philosophy or a final ‘settled’ theology. They were by all means, addressing local situations with their knowledge rooted in the objective revelation. Much of the New Testament focused on local situations. Thus, when we get to passages on Head Coverings or we get to passages on women in ministry, we should be able to figure out if the situaton is local or univesal. In both the cases mentioned, they were local and hence temporal guidelines. I did a paper on the women in ministry, and there is one key word in Greek, which makes this whole ‘local’ thing very clear. It is “authority” which is authenteo. It is the only place this particular Greek word is used in the entire New Testament. There are other words used to convey authority. This one is unique. The word clearly conveys a local situation of power grabbing, and hence a local solution, of keeping silent while learning. Some more rigid churches come to the text here in somewhat flat ways and then universalize a local text. They do this in several places, and women in ministry is one of them.
Some of these churches fail to account for the classical use of rhetoric that was so prolific in the early centuries. Being that the Protestant Reformation began after the advent of the printing press, the Protestant heritage has, at least in some respects, not done justice to the classic use of rhetoric which illuminates such a distinction.
Immediate vs. Long Term
This is not entirely the same as local or universal. There is plenty of writing in the Epistle’s themselves, that are working on immediate needs. Head coverings is one of these, of which I have written much and spoke much. Sometimes we can see the fresh pastoral wisdom for that time, based on the objective truth of Jesus Christ as the unity of his organic body as it moves forward to further transformation. Paul’s reflections in Galatians about giving up the faith they so eagerly, at first, received. This is a reflection on the objective fact of salvation in Christ. The local and immediate need is the Galatian’s near apostasy. However, we can cross the bridge to our own times and have the same general conversation. See the following.
More Reflections on Scripture and Interpretation
There is a difference between our daily bread as we have talked about today and the correct interpretation of something. When we think of Scripture as the kind of text that conveys grace to the listener that forces the believer to ponder how to live their life in light of it; then one does not normally have to address the discrepancy’s. They are there to listen to God in the community of God. Thus, the worshipping community may be happy to enjoy what God has given through Scripture and not feel compelled to offer comprehensive explanations. The worshipping community, as a collective, typically starts from a point of trust in God who is ultimate, and uses Scripture to reflect on ways to relate to God, most fully in Jesus Christ. As you can see…I do like these things solved. But it is important to mention what I just did.
Even further, sometimes contradictions are purposefully used in ancient religious literature. The reason for this is to get the reader to the place where they realize the tension, and go to God himself, not for an answer exactly, but for His own being. The tension forces one beyond their own limits to the unlimited God. That being said…
For an examination of the Scriptures etc. those other questions about historical development, literalism, metaphor, analogy, and more really do matter. And, ultimately they matter for the worshipping community too. This matters for the worshipping community especially as related to Monday through Saturday. Sunday worship can be more about listening and reflecting and praising the divine…at least in practice. But, we go home and we ponder, ‘Do these texts even make sense’ or as many have pointed out, “I was told all these things by my more conservative congregation, and come to find out they were wrong.”
My own way of thinking about Interpretation accuracy has something to do with Bayesian probability and logic. Unless the literature genre of a given book is purposefully writing with emotion and unworried about contradiction (some of the Psalms or Song of Solomon), then I am looking for a view on the matter that assumes the author is not purposefully trying to offer contradictions, but actually trying to convey something to convince of an idea.
If this is the case, then I think we can weigh things out logically and see whose interpretation offers the best explanation of a given text (explanatory scope and power). One interpretation may fail to take into account a surrounding context or many other things. Thus, that lowers the likelihood that such an interpretation is correct. Like much of what we talk about in the realm of epistemology, there is much about our knowledge (epistemology being how we know what we know) that comes down to having the best arguments and evidence for a position. Thus, we can usually rule out some false interpretations just by them failing logically or contextually etc.
Beyond this, we should remember that there is a ton of clear stuff. Love your neighbor, Love God, honor your relationships,
What of different interpretations?
As much as there is a range of correct or near to correct interpretation in reality, guaranteeing every mind comes to such nearly accurate interpretations is a tall order. Some interpretations have been considered salvation essential. For instance, if Jesus Christ was not truly Divine and truly human, then he could not have died (human) nor offered a perfect sacrifice (divine). That has been considered absolutely essential. But, on other things, Augustine thought that God foresaw that there would be various interpretations. That those one’s that led to godliness, He allows and can see working together for a total plan to help mature the community of God. Yes, division takes place. This is not good or desirable; but at the same time, God is not surprised that humans with their own minds would have differences of interpretations. And…maybe there is enough light provided in Scripture by God, that it still can cause illumination even among the less fully true interpretations that people have all the time.
Admittedly, the project of getting ‘all of Scripture right’ is quite large. I for one lack the time to adequately investigate everything. Most readers may lack the time to investigate anything. At times this is where we rely on the idea that one can assume their view to be correct, so long as it is not contradicting other clear teachings, or as long as there are no clear defeaters. Defeaters are the kinds of ideas that can clearly overcome a previously held view that you have. If the defeater is valid and there are no clear counter-defeaters, you should begin to adjust your view. That is just being honest.
Doubts and Avoiding Avoiding Scripture
I think reading the Bible with doubts is ok. I think that this is part of the point of reading the Bible. That we morally wrestle with its content. I have been working on a book on some of these topics that you are asking questions about. I think the community of God must wrestle with the content in the Bible. Would God really command the killing of other people groups? Are we supposed to take that at face value? Or instead, does God expect us people who are alive after the cross, to see God in a fuller light? I don’t think it would be just/good of God to command something like that.
I already have the picture of perfect justice and perfect love on the cross, and therefore, even those older understandings of God are judged in light of that. I use some distinctions in logic to address this as mentioned earlier. There are intramental understandings and extramental understandings. Much of what we read in the Old Testament about God is intramental. Therefore, there is a more subjective quality to it. When we arrive at Jesus, we have an extramental example of God in human flesh. Thus, he is the ground for thinking about God finally.