How should I act? vs What should I believe?

In my recent readings of the Bible I keep butting up against these two questions:

  1. How should I act?
  2. What should I believe?

If I ask the first question, almost every passage has some advice (sometimes conflicting, but that’s wisdom for you). If I ask the second question, I sometimes get something, and most of the time I get nothing.

This isn’t new, either. The Old Testament is full of commands about how to live and not much about what to believe.

I’m not saying there isn’t anything that the Bible says I need to believe. There is much of that. I’m not drifting into some sort of formless post-Christian heresy here.

If I go to scripture and ask, How do I love God? There’s an answer for that. How do I love his people? Answer for that. How do I live in a world full of corruption and evil? Answered.

If I go to scripture and ask, Should I be into infant baptism? No answer. Should I believe in a rapture? No answer. What interpretive framework should I use to accurately interpret Revelation? No answer. All these points of data that we would love to have… no answer. Why is that?

I think what I’m saying is that the Bible’s theological framework is very sparse compared to ours. Where we tend to build theological walls, the Bible only really gives us a theological framework centred on Jesus.

He fulfils the Old and brings in the New. This is true for testaments and people.

* * *

As a postscript (I added this after publishing the initial post), yes, I am worried that I’m making a distinction without a difference here. The problem I’ve always had with orthodoxy and orthopraxy is I’ve always been told and assumed that they are different sides of the same coin. But when I looked at it again later I had to ask… how? How does being a paedobaptist or a preterist or any of those other Ps really affect your life? I mean, at that doctrinal granularity, it there really a difference one way or the other?

I mean, I know some people (obviously people who have a stake in the Tiny Doctrine game) will try to say these things do make a difference, and maybe on some indefinite macro level they do, but I’ve never seen it. On the ground, at congregational level, Reformed and Presbyterian and Baptist and Pentacostal and Anglican and Catholic are pretty similar. There are the faithful, there are the faithless; there are givers and receivers; there are blessers, there are cursers; there are consumers, there are producers.

So maybe, just maybe, if these doctrinal things don’t make that much of a difference… maybe they’re not so important after all? This isn’t science. Maybe it’s just not important that we define all the things.

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?

Doing justice to the text

One thing I struggle with–a thing I think I’ll always struggle with–is how to do justice to scripture. More to the point, how am I getting in the way? Am I imposing my own biases on it? Is my worldview filtering something out that should be left in or vice versa?

This is where the sort of casual interpretation of scripture I see so much of can do real damage, real violence to what the text is trying to convey. There’s a reason a lot of deep study goes into reading and (one hopes) preaching. A plain-text reading of scripture, asking “what does it mean?” by looking at the words and gleaning from that, isn’t enough.

On the other hand, there’s a violence that can be done to the text by over-interpretation. I understand that scripture interprets scripture, as any hermeneutics student worth his or her salt can tell you, but there’s a great danger in reducing the revealed word of God to a bunch of propositional statements (especially the ones you’re already inclined to agree with) and then filtering the text through those statements. Anyone who’s ever even casually glanced at systematics should notice this: Both Calvinist and Arminian scholars do exactly the same thing with different verses. You minimise when necessary to the detriment of a holistic understanding. It’s not enough to, for instance, elevate passages that speak of predestination and use them as proof texts to filter out passages that speak (clearly and plainly) of free will and choice.

Usually around this point someone starts talking about balance. I’m going to leave that alone for now, but I hate talking about balance and moderation and pendulums and ditches one can fall into. Casual interpretation and systematics aren’t points on a spectrum. A person can’t place himself squarely in the middle of those two concepts and drift off to sleep.

In fact, I think the most pressing interpretive question is not simply “what does the text say” or “what does the text mean” but instead “what did the author intend” and “how would his listeners have taken that”.

As you can see, we’re going to need to become students of history and not just students of scripture as scripture in some Platonic, isolated, hermetically sealed sort of way. The Bible was written in a certain place at a certain time by people with a certain worldview.

And we think very differently from them. Even in something as foundational as cosmology, a first-century Jew (for instance) would have a very different concept of what the universe looks like from us today with computers and telescopes. Where we accept (with the notable exception of a few very loud crackpots on the internet) that the earth is round, that it goes around the sun, and that the universe is a very, very large place, a first-century Jew might have said that the sky was curved like a dome that rests on the pillars of the earth, all of which kept out the great seas upon which the world floated. Something like that.

When we ask modern questions about the science of a Great Flood, such as “where did all that water come from?”, we’re asking a question that brings into very fine resolution the differences between us and them. For the writer of Genesis, this is obvious. The water came from the great deep. The oceans beneath the world. For us, it’s an unsettling question as there’s simply not that much water on the earth. How we view the Great Flood and how Old Testament Jews might view it are two separate things. Where we might very easily conclude that the Great Flood is an event with little historical basis, they would have viewed is as a quite literal event.

Consider even directionality. The idea that heaven is up and hell is down is for the most part figurative speech for us today. We don’t actually think heaven is up in the sky, and we don’t think that hell is in the centre of the earth. When we talk about direction we’re using distinctly Jewish language without realising it but omitting the Jewish literal meaning. When the Hebrews talked about heaven being up and hell being down, they meant it literally. Heaven was in the sky, hell was in the depths of the earth.

This is the curse of language in the Bible: We use scriptural language, attach our own meaning to it, and forget what the original authors might have meant.

Worldview is like that. Sometimes I think that worldview is like looking through a stained glass window. It’s very easy to see the picture you’ve become accustomed to seeing instead of the real world beyond the glass.

Take for instance the now-infamous Love passage in 1 Corinthians 13. Paul sets up a bunch of ridiculous situations (no-one has ever spoken with the tongues of men and angels) and uses the hyperbole to make a point.

What we tend to see in that passage is Paul asking us to find a balance between love and other things, much like one might want to find a balance between work and life. Except of course that nowhere in the passage does Paul, the writer, ask us to find balance. He just says, “Have love”. Any reading, any exposition that tries to read balance into the passage does great violence to the text. It simple doesn’t say that. Our brains, steeped in Platonic concepts of the spiritual vs the physical, read that concept into the text.

In fact, I’d be hard pressed to find a chapter, verse, or book in the Bible that asks for balance. I’m pretty sure a bunch of religious leaders thought Jesus was a little off-balance with his teachings. He doesn’t seem like a guy caught up with the idea of finding an acceptable ratio of riches to kingdom seeking, if you know what I mean.

There are so many things that we do this to. Faith and works becomes faith vs works. Truth and love becomes truth vs love. We flatten the scripture out. We make the Bible two-dimensional. We read a pendulum swing into the text. But of course we can’t do that. You can’t position yourself directly between love and faith (wherever that might be) and figure you’ll be okay. You can’t speak a little bit of truth and a little bit of love and think you’ve done a good job. Truth must be infused with love, and love must be informed by truth. Faith and works don’t get separated. You have both or you have neither. The difference between saying both-and and either-or is quite a big one, and an important one.

It’s the difference between saying “I have a soul and I have a body”, which is really just a statement of account, or a schematic, and saying “I am a soul and a body”, which is a statement of identity and really a lot closer to the truth. You don’t get to separate your soul from your body. Even at the end of times, there will be a resurrection. God’s design always include physicality. Wherever Jesus is now, in heaven, sitting at the right hand of God, you can feel his scars because he has a body. It’s a glorified body, but it’s a body. This is a radically different picture of heaven from our harps-and-wings version. And it’s an important difference. Ignoring the difference or talking about heaven as a place we go to when we die does, again, a great deal of violence to heaven as reality, earth as reality, and their eventual coming together as the culmination of Jesus’ work on the Cross and our work of kingdom building here on earth.

I don’t think I can say it better than CS Lewis did, though. When Eustace says that stars in our world are great balls of gas and fire, Ramandu tells him that yes, that’s what they’re made of, but that’s not what they are. You do violence to a star by considering it as the sum of its components, reading your own scientific-based worldview onto the existence of stars. They are, after all, more than you can see just by looking.

The same, I think, can be said of the scriptures. It’s why, after all these years, it’s such a fascinating book.