Doing violence to the text… with theology

I’ve written at length about scripture before, especially the ways we can do violence to the text.

Still, I don’t think my previous post goes far enough. I’m coming to wonder if one of the primary ways we do violence to the text is with cultural and (this is hard to write, but couldn’t it be true?) theological imperialism.

That is to say… can we ask more of the text than it is prepared or was intended to convey?

Take for instance the doctrine of Sola Scriptura and verbal plenary inspiration in a bundle. Not simply the classic sola scriptura, that scripture is the final authority on doctrine and salvation (that’s not something I wish to argue with), but the sort of hyper-sola scriptura that I find all too common these days, that says, in the words of that great oracle, Wikipedia, “it is self-authenticating, clear to the rational reader, its own interpreter, and sufficient of itself to be the final authority of Christian doctrine.”

This almost certainly can’t be the case. The first and most troubling problem with this statement is that scripture itself does not demand it. You would think, if the Bible was to be a self-authenticating, self-interpreting book, someone, somewhere in the Bible itself would demand that scripture do either of those things. Same thing with verbal plenary inspiration: It’s an invention, by humans, to hold scripture to a higher standard that scripture holds itself. Again, if the Bible is supposedly inspired this way, should it not insist at some point, that this is the case?

I think we tend towards this self-interpretation especially by imposing doctrines on Old Testament narrative texts, especially in Genesis. We find it uncomfortable to say that God changed his mind (multiple times with Moses and threatening to wipe out Israel), or didn’t know something until it happened (when he tested Abraham with the sacrifice of his son), or even when he presents himself as the most powerful God of many gods (right at the beginning of the Ten Commandments and in many other places).

We have to somehow reconcile this account of Yahweh’s seemingly capricious nature, where Moses has to argue God down from the ledge, so as not to see his reputation destroyed, with our more sophisticated and nuanced understand of God as revealed later in scripture. We can do this by viewing this whole production as sort of a stage play that God plays out with Moses (rather unfairly to Moses, it would seem: Who would want to have to bargain with a God that just decimated the land of Egypt?) while the real God is behind the scenes as omniscient and omnipresent and omnipotent as always. But that seems a lot of trouble for no real reward.

Maybe it’s easier to say that God reveals himself this way for a reason, and that he chose to do so in a particular polytheistic context and culture is more important than trying to square away all the theologies. That is to say, God is telling a story, and that story is not about our modern theology of God. Instead it’s about conveying something to the children of Israel. Perhaps that something is that God is more powerful that whatever gods may be, regardless of whether those gods actually exist. Or something else to that effect. What if God’s intent in telling the story is more important to them (and to us!) than obsessive-compulsively reciting doctrinal propositions?

I’d hold that this reading of scripture is more faithful to the text than a reading that tries to shoehorn something in there that doesn’t really belong.

Then we have to wrestle with more of Genesis that seems terribly quaint, now that we have science and a view of natural processes that seems designed to exclude a creator altogether. A seven day creation? A world-wide flood?

This is where cultural imperialism comes in: We seem to forget that the scripture were not written to us though they may have been written for us.

I know that we have doctrines (creationism; so-called “literal” interpretations of Genesis) that seem to be the most faithful understanding of scripture possible–after all, if scripture interprets scripture, and if scripture is self-authenticating, there’s nowhere else we can turn to understand these passages–but I’m inclined to believe these doctrines are modern inventions by modern humans with modern worldviews. In that way we have done violence to the text, by imposing our own scientific and material worldview on a passage that clearly asks for no such thing and in fact demands otherwise.

I’m not going to go into a deep discussion about how I think about the creation and the flood and so on (let me just say that I do believe in a literal six day creation period, but I also believe the earth is very old, and that our current scientific paradigm of evolution seems a good way to explain life on earth). But I think it’s important to know how the ancient Israelites would have understood this text, especially when it comes to the idea of “creation”. After all, when God reveals himself to a particular culture, he sets out to reveal himself, not correct their science. Or even give the a concept of science in a culture that would have none. God isn’t trying to be incomprehensible.

The ancient Israelites would have understood the idea of “creation” very differently from us. We seem mostly preoccupied with material origins (our ontology is primarily material), while the ancient Israelites lived in a pre-scientific world that was concerned with functional origins. That isn’t to say that God isn’t involved in material origins, how the universe came to be and such. Scripture is clear that anything that exists exists because God caused it to exist.

However Genesis 1 & 2 give a very structured account of how God sets up a system that functions with mankind as his vice-regent and then on the seventh day enters his temple, the cosmos, to assume control of normal operations. This plays very much into the Israelites’ (and other ancient near east cultures’) cosmology, or their concept of the cosmos.

The point isn’t that the Big Bang did or did not happen. Presumably it did (or so we think, currently). That’s an entirely different discussion from Genesis 1 & 2 and would not have seemed entirely important to ancient Israel. They really did think the earth rested on pillars, that there was a great sea above the dome of the sky, which was hold back by an entirely solid firmament, etc. God didn’t see fit to correct that idea. He instead used that idea, that cosmology, to illustrate a point that Israel would have found much more salient: God is in control, he makes the world function, and he does it all for the benefit of mankind.

Ancient Israelites wouldn’t have cared (or wouldn’t have understood) how old the earth was. They wouldn’t have been interested in whether or not God created light in transit, created the earth to look frighteningly old for some reason, whether fossils and strata were created during the flood or not, etc, etc. That’s not the point at all.

If God were to write us a Genesis 1 & 2 today, I can almost guarantee he would write it a different way. After all, we understand science, and we care very much more about the physical, material origin of the universe than we do about the functioning of it (which we, rather oddly, call the “natural” world, apply laws to, edge God out of, and live our lives as practical deists). But he didn’t, and I’m pretty sure he won’t.

That said, the point of Genesis 1 & 2 is still valid. The universe that we see, functioning the way we see it, has purpose. It exists for a reason, it had a beginning, and it will have an end.

That reason, we find out, is God’s glory. And isn’t that, after all this talk, the most important thing?