Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Perspicuous, puzzling, pleasant and painful passages: theological development across Scripture?

Prompted via an offline discussion of last week's post, I am going to continue digging into reflection on Scripture as the Word of God written.

Can we say, accurately and fairly, that the whole of Scripture is "God's Word written"?

Scripture, after all, is pretty much divisible into two kinds of passages: the perspicuous and puzzling (see last week's post on Psalm 17), and the perspicuous passages in turn could be divided into the pleasant (i.e. passages we like, which inspire and comfort us) and the painful (i.e. passages we do not like, for one reason or another, which are difficult to reconcile with our understanding of God and God's Word, as revealed in the pleasantly perspicuous passages).

Thus my interlocutor during the week mentioned passages I am calling "painful": 1 Samuel 15, Joshua 11 (passages about destruction of Israel's enemies) and 1 Timothy 2:13-15 (a passage with a dim view of Eve/women). There are many such passages.

We can, of course, attempt to respond by explaining such passages: they are not as bad as they seem ... the destructive talk was rhetoric, it never actually happened ... but even the best explainers among us have to admit that we are not going to deal with all such passages. My interlocutor's point was not whether we can minimise the number of such passages but whether the existence of even one such painful passage undermines generalised talk of Scripture as God's Word written.

Is it reasonable to speak of Scripture as God's written Word when it contains painful passages (i.e.  passages which raise the moral challenge of whether God is actually good) and puzzling passages (i.e. passages which raise the moral difficulty of why God communicates through words we do not understand)?

Note that this question is not an idle one for Anglicans because we are committed to reading Scripture in our public worship services, in our daily devotions when we follow Morning and Evening Prayer, and generally because of our commitment to Scripture through our constitution.

Thus, I remind myself and you, dear reader, of Article 6, "In the name of the holy Scripture we do understand those canonical Books of the Old and New Testaments, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church ..." and Article 20, "... And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God's Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another." The book we commonly call "the Bible" is the Scripture which is God's Word written.

What are we to say about the painful and the puzzling passages in Scripture: are they God's Word written, or not?

Another bit of inspiration for this post is a lovely three volume set of books which arrived at my front door this week: Robert Alter's three volume translation with commentary of The Hebrew Bible. Reading his superb apologia for why he is offering "yet another" translation, I was struck in a fresh way by the depth and width of the humanity (i.e. human authorship) of Scripture - a process across time, arising from community and experience, incorporating diverse sources and varied theologies.

In short, Scripture is NOT God's Word written because God dictated the words of Scripture in toto. (Clearly some of Scripture is a form of dictation because "thus saith the Lord" passages are composed with words the prophets believe have been dictated to them to say.) Whatever we make of the painful and puzzling passages of Scripture, we acknowledge that  the humanity of Scripture lies behind those passages and is expressed through them.

Then, reflecting further on the recognition of the humanity of Scripture, I suggest we need to account for the fact that Scripture's words are counted as "Scripture" by a community which received them. And the nature of that community has changed through the centuries. In the mists of time, for instance, the community of Israel received the Book of Judges as among its Scriptures, even though it includes the most horrible stories such as the story of Jephthah's Daughter (chapter 11).

In the not so misty period of ancient time, the Christian church has chosen to maintain such a story within its combination of Old and New Testaments. Yet dare any Christian today say that if we were compiling Scripture from scratch from ancient treasured documents for the edification of the church today, then we would include this dreadful story?

That is, our continuing reception of the Bible as the Scripture of the church (NT and OT), in continuity with the Scripture of ancient Israel (OT), involves some fancy theological footwork. We simply do not accept that the theology of Judges 11 (God blesses a man who takes a vow with tragic, terribly, terrifying consequences) is the final, completed - in the light of the whole of Scripture - theology of the church. Yet. Yet we do not expunge that chapter from the Scriptures we read, commend and reflect on. Why not? Why risk detriment to an understanding that Scripture is
God's Word written?

I suggest that we retain rather than exclude Judges 11 because a stubborn integrity acknowledges that in the history of God's people understanding who God is and what God is saying to us has developed over time as not only God has revealed more of himself but also as we have demonstrated capacity to receive more of that revelation. Even when God in Christ came into the world, there was a limited capacity to receive him as God's living and final Word (cf the gospels!! ... and the importance of Paul, on the one hand, and the writer of the Fourth Gospel on the other, in making sense of what God was saying in and through Jesus Christ). Judges 11 stands as witness to an impoverished and dangerous understanding of God's Word for that day but it stands in our Scripture as a witness to God's continuing patience with God's people as God spoke and spoke again to stubborn hearts and limited minds. As also do the prophets stand witness, in a different, centuries later era.

There is lots more to be said - books and books have been written on the topic, and by far better thinkers than myself -but I will stop here for now, with one final thought.

It is not necessarily the case that the latest writings to be written down which represent the greatest, clearest "Word" from God. The greatest, clearest Word is the message of divine mercy, grace, kindness and love. That message permeates Scripture. It is summed up in 1 John. God is love.


David Wilson said...

"We simply do not accept that the theology of Judges 11 (God blesses a man who takes a vow with tragic, terribly, terrifying consequences) is the final, completed - in the light of the whole of Scripture - theology of the church."

On re-reading Judges 11 I'm struggling to see how to read the passage as God blessing Jephthah. The Spirit of the Lord came upon him for the purpose of opposing the Ammonites. However, I can see in the text no commendation or approval of his tragic oath.

Perhaps the biggest clue about the event is in the last verse. The young women of Israel do not celebrate the victory of Jephthah over the Ammonites. Rather they spend four days commemorating his daughter.

In other words, this part of the story is about the tragic end of a young woman, and not about victory and blessing.

The letter to the Hebrews commends Jephthah as man of faith (evident in the way he addresses the Ammonites), but this parts of the roll-call of faith does say "weakness was turned to strength". The heroes of faith are no comic book heroes, or plaster saints. Their failings are all too evident.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi David
Fair observations but we are left with a God who proceeds to use a man who makes a vow with foreseeable, violent, tragic consequences.
I cannot see a Christian preacher today commending a Jephthah in his or her congregation who makes such a vow prior to doing some great thing for God.

Glen said...

Hi Peter,

A very quick reply to a complex issue; but perhaps the message of Numbers 11 is one that is reinforced in Acts 5; "God gave us one mouth and two ears". The book of Proverbs is very clear about the "MOUTH".Don't try to bargain with God and be very careful about making vows before Him and to Him. Maybe if he had opened his ears as wide as his mouth,was God saying to him,that there was no need to keep the vow [as with Abraham].The Anglican Church is littered with Bishops who have made vows which they have not kept.


Father Ron said...


Thank you for even daring to question the veracity of what is commonly known as 'sola-Scripturism' on your most interesting blog-site. I note here your comment on one of the '39 Articles' (which, as part of the protestant culture of the 16th.century, I now regard as the '39 Artifacts' because of their contextual historicity):

" Article 20, "... And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God's Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another." The book we commonly call "the Bible" is the Scripture which is God's Word written."

If one is meant to take the authenticity of both Old and New Testaments as legally binding - rather than a commentary on what the writer understood to be 'God's Word' to them at the time - (together with the 39 Arts.), then there is this very real problem of the presence of 'Internal Contradiction', which renders certain passages irreconcilable with the contemporary understanding of some others.

As just one instance of this, we see the difference between the
'Word of God' that counsels the killing of Israel's enemies; with the express injunction in the 10 Commandments that says "Thou shalt do no murder. And this occurs in just the Old Testament!

The explicit differences that occur in the apparent 'Word of God'
as interpreted in inter-Testamental literature must surely be solely attributable to the difference in the understanding of the writers - in their particular context and understanding of God's intention.

Even Saint Paul has given evidence of doubting his own understanding of a particular situation that he had wrongly discerned.

I think that Scripture, as a whole, had been given to us so that Christians may 'Read, learn and inwardly digest' them - in order to recognise and discern from them the history of God's people's struggle to understand the actions of God in their lives at the time.

Scripture - at it's very best - is an indispensable, historical guide to the ongoing contextual dialogue between humanity and its Creator. It's beginnings are lost in historical antiquity (still being researched); while it's vital relevance to Christianity today is best focussed on the 'New Commandment' ethos revealed by the teaching of the Holy Spirit in and through the Incarnate Life, Teaching, Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus Christ.

The Words in The Book are most useful to Christians as they reveal to us the explicit understanding of the 'Word-Made-Flesh' in Jesus.

Bryden Black said...

Hi Peter! I think many of your readers could save quite a lot of boot leather if they check out two glorious texts by John Webster: Holy Scripture - A Dogmatic Sketch, and The Domain of the Word - Scripture and Theological Reason. Frankly, imperative reading for anyone who wrestles with texts on behalf of others. They frame your dilemmas beautifully.

And if they are especially worried (as some might be ...), Daniel Hawk’s The Violence of the Biblical God - Canonical Narrative and Christian Faith does one of the better jobs at grasping this particular nettle. Enjoy David!

Yet in the end, your thread is never abstract; it pertains to specific texts and specific people. And often those who should be grasping certain nettles are often too precious in their selections, their avoidances even - which comment cuts in every possible direction. For canons within the canon are an unwise, imprudent, even dangerous tool - in the end ...!

Jean said...

Hi Peter

I have no doubt you are aware of the reading of said passage being equally likely to have inferred Jephtath’s daughter was dedicated to God and destined to be a virgin for life because of his hasty words, as opposed to being killed by her father. Such a human thing it is to offer thought-less promises in the light of possible success. Can God speak of such a man’s faith? Well, considering David is highly commended by God and yet committed adultery and had a man murdered, it appears so.

There are many passages I wrestle with in the Bible but do not seek to change. It is the not having understanding and not knowing when and if understanding will come. However, when I take the Bible as as a whole any less than God’s word it looses it’s power; taking into consideration that interpretation, translation, and literary genres all help in the comprehension of the ‘word’.

I guess the marvel of the astonishing knowledge and power and truth of scripture always overshadows the questions or doubts for me when I lack understanding or for those difficult passages. For example Job 38:31 refers to Pleiades and Orion being bound constellations; how if the knowledge was man centric could this have been possible when only in the last half a century has it been scientifically discovered that these constellations are bound? Why would God give a friend a word of knowledge from lamentations during a church service, using it to convince him that He is real, if that scripture was man’s words rather than His? Why would the Holy Spirit give me a word-picture of Jesus at the right-hand of the Father if the reference to this being so in scripture is mere analogy or a human attempt at comprehension?

Peter Carrell said...

Thanks for robust comments Everyone.
I shall have to hunt out my Webster ...
Jean: i do not see that inference in the reading. It looks pretty clear to me: Jephthah killed his daughter.
Note that I am NOT arguing for the removal of such difficult passages; I am exploring what it means to continue to include such passages in our conception of “God’s Word” - God’s message to humanity.

Jean said...

Hi Peter

Sure I get the point about difficult passages and how to view them as a part of God’s message in scripture - there are many difficult ones to choose. I did find it helpful some decades ago (shock, horror) when I grasped/learnt some of the OT passages in particular are narrative of ‘a happening’ and an ‘accounting’ if you like. And God’s approval or disapproval of what happens is not always given; at other times it is of course.

Difficult passages may put people off, like your friend until they continue seeking beyond them; over the years the biggest struggle or argument I have come across most frequently against the Bible/scripture is actually NT based and around comments such as, “How could God kill His own Son?”... or Christianity is arrogant because the Bible claims Jesus is the only “truth” (way to God). In many senses either by putting in a few ‘don’t knows’ around difficult passages or trying usually not successfully to explain why a claim to be the only truth isn’t at all arrogant when you are the Truth �� , I have not found what I say to make a lot of difference to those with the questions. Yet in a paradoxical kind of way, those I know down the track have come to faith those questions have eithered disappeared or do matter. Usually the difficult passages fall into the do not matter category. They might be still there but people’s faith are rarely based on them. It brings back thoughts of C.S. Lewis’s statement:
“The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man, the roles are quite reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge; if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty, and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that man is on the bench and God is in the dock.”
― C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics

The wisdom of the oath aside, the love in this passage is the love the daughter has for both God and her Father (a willingly sacrificial love). In the end too Jephthath, which I guess we find it harder to grasp in our cultural context, by choosing to keep the oath was giving up any chance of descendants in a time when people viewed oneself ‘living on’ through them.

FYI: I honestly thought you would be familiar with the alternative view of that passage simply because I think of you as always knowing more than I could possibly hope to ��. From what I have grasped at the reading of Jepthath’s daughter being required to be a virgin for life as opposed to being killed - the reasoning for this perspective has been based historically on a particular phrase that could have meant Jepthath promised to either make a burnt offering of (if the first thing he encountered was an animal) OR an offering or dedication to God if the first thing encountered was a person; as per obeying Leviticus laws against human sacrifice. People who hold this perspective see no other reason for his daughter ‘remaining a Virgin for life’ to be emphasised.

Take Care

Anonymous said...

Never agree that that there are only two kinds of anything.

But Christians of two temperaments lie awake at night.

Some are frustrated that their religion does not yet express the common sense of their incomparably good society, or at least of its avant garde. Others are anxious that said religion may be too much the self-congratulatory delusion of the said society and avant garde's self-congratulatory narcissism. After their sleepless nights, both kinds of insomniac wake up and perchance read their bibles.

The former is upset by anything on a sacred page that could not be approved for general distribution by a network executive, faculty committee, editorial board, communique drafting group, Babel public relations team, etc. In truth, holy writ often does relate something scandalous-- have you any idea, dear reader, how disgusting the idolatry at Peor actually was?-- but the limbic brain of the group-truther is most viscerally frightened that a non-compliant bible will incur the disapproval of his social peers. He takes his morning consolation chiefly from cheery passages of the Jefferson Bible that do not offend anyone.

To his surprise, the latter sort of insomniac is actually relieved to find that, here, there, and everywhere, the Holy Spirit has dared to conserve ideas that we, dwelling on the summit of wisdom, could not possibly have approved before publication. Narrow is the way, and strait is the gate-- "my ways are not as your ways and my thoughts are not as your thoughts"-- so the shadow in the wall that right-thinking people avoid may truly be the only door into the kingdom. After all, if a god does not show at least some independence of our conventional values, then how can we believe in his transcendence? No scandal, no difference; no difference, no dialogue; no dialogue, no faith; no faith, no meaning.

One cannot reason with a fearful mind.


Peter Carrell said...

Thank you Jean and BW.
1. Yes, we can and should be challenged as Christians whether our approach to the Bible as Scripture as the Word of God written is sufficiently embracing of the possibility of God being scandalous and of our being robustly but sensitively unembarrassed by our heritage in the deposit of the faith (whether we go back to Israel and, e.g., Jephthah, or back to the NT epistles and their language of God sacrificing God’s Son, etc).
2. Yes, we should be challenged by bridging the (cultural, historical, ethical, etc) gap between (so to speak) the mind of the Christian steeped in all the ways of theology and apologetics through 2000 years and the non-Christian mind which today (it seems) jumps very quickly to find the stumbling blocks in Scripture ahead of the open but narrow gate to God. Whether it is the questions of a fellow Christian (such as prompted my recent posts) or the questions of a non-Christian from the post-Christian world or (say) a Muslim (with the “standard” objections to the Christian account of Jesus), the gap is highlighted and the challenge lies before us.
A final observation (from a recent experience of Christians meeting together): it is possible for Christians to be thoroughly Christian while sitting comparatively lightly to Scripture, that is, while taking inspiration from a fairly narrow slice of the Bible and a fairly wide slice of experience of God at work among us in the present time.

Anonymous said...

So how do the insomniacs finally get some rest? By getting some courage.

The first sort of insomniac has misunderstood his problem: his godless social peers only care about what the Bible says when he stands with an open bible pointing at chapter and verse and tells them what to do. But the Bible is the Body's book, not the world's code of ethics. If the Bible is not a blueprint for The Secular World of Today-- and Christians do not believe that it is-- then its ineliminable weirdness is not a problem for those dwelling in that world, and they have no reason to look askance at our anxious insomniac on its account. Accepting that this is the solution requires of him the courage to accept that he is not socially important in the way that he was in Christendom.

Kindly note that, except as a *useful idiot* for militant secularisers, he cannot even be important in society by proclaiming that it is free to ignore the Bible because it is just for Christians. That is a half-falsehood, and telling it will keep him awake at night with an even bigger problem. His way to restful sleep is to discern which of the *two kingdoms* God is calling him to serve. If he cannot stop worlding the faithfulness of the Body, then the Lord may want him in the civil service instead of the church.

Of course, when the Body solves social problems within herself in a way faithful to her own identity in God, then his social peers may wonder how she did it. If and when that happens, the gospel has to be shared in a way that they will understand. That is a different sort of problem.


Anonymous said...

To be charitable to sleepless Christians of both kinds, let us compare the two sorts of insomnia.

The West after Christendom remorselessly reduces everything and everyone to some part in the global economic machine. In societies of that world, insomniac Christians of both temperaments have their fears-- ostracism and nihilism, respectively. The former dread waking up in a secular society because they doubt that they and their religion will be found useful enough for them to keep their old status and privileges in the morning. The latter worry that the Body and its book may not be meaningful enough to shape and inform lives being daily reduced to mere tools by the social system itself.

The two tug at the Body like a rope between them because the former identifies with that universal mechanisation and the latter resists it as impersonal and so inhumane. The former feels himself being forced out; the latter flails against being sucked in. Each smells the death of his kind of personhood, fears that he cannot survive it, and so pulls with all his might against his brother.

We are who we are, dear reader; your sympathy and mine will express that. But each of us should be clear that neither of insomnias is provoked by something unreal. Interestingly, liberals and conservatives both sense the loss of old status and privileges, and in some places That Topic has been a battle between their rival strategies for resisting that. And again, one can hear both liberal and conservative voices prophesying a life for the Body that is independent of the old Christendom and the new secular societies.

As psychological science would predict, positions taken online and here at ADU can be reduced very often to the commentator's personal tolerance for new experience-- low for conservatives, high for liberals. That tolerance apparently does influence the way persons prefer to respond to the end of Christendom. The former hold the line where Constantine last drew it or else retrieve models from the past; the latter rush ahead of the parade to lead it or seek emergent patterns in the kaleidoscope of the present. Either way, the fact that keeps insomniacs up at night is robustly independent of their mindsets.


Anonymous said...

So then, with malice toward none and charity for all, let us ponder those other insomniacs who are actually relieved that the Bible is such a weird book that none can understand it alone and unprepared.

Insomniacs who fear nihilism defend the strangeness of the Bible through a straightforward calculation: a Bible that made immediate sense to the casual contemporary reader would belong to the very machine that trains the minds of such readers, so that God could not use it save them from that mindset's threat of nihilism. Eventually, they too will need a way to apply the narrative of the conquest of Canaan to daily life in the Body, but in the short run it is immensely reassuring to them that the canonical Joshua did not propose to share Canaan under a multi-ethnic secular constitution, and because that consoling fact is the major point of the story, they do not weep for the Amalekites. This is not to say that the conquest narrative makes any more deep sense to these insomniacs than it does to those who read it as C20 history and are very troubled about those Amalekites. It is to say that they have a reasonable, if only a provisional, basis for their relief at the very biblical passages that keep their brothers up at night: it shows that the Bible is not a cog in the machine.

(Parenthetically, dear reader, please note that believers in other major religions might make-- indeed do make-- the same calculation about the Vedas, the Pali Canon, the Tao Te Ching, the Talmud, the Quran, etc. Hindus are truly happy that the diet prescribed in the Vedas depends on fresh produce that reduces their incidence of diabetes from the shelf-stable products of Western industry. Muslims are similarly happy that the Quranic prohibition on interest cannot be assimilated to the Western way of finance that they see chewing up the world. Likewise, practicing Jews are glad that the Talmudic rules for the Sabbath disrupt the 24/7 time that enslaves the working class of the West. And outside of the West, new believers in our own religion-- eg Chinese house church Christians-- find sanity in fierce adherence to precepts of chastity, just because they everywhere face a sexual chaos imitating the ways of the West. When the West was truly Christendom, it would have been odd-- although still sometimes justified-- to turn the Bible against its ways, but as things are today no book is seen as sacred that does not have some critical distance from the West.)

We can restate the insomniac case for the Bible's seeming craziness more positively. In the present moment of this aeon, the threat to our lives is nihilism-- lives unshaped and uninformed by meaning from God. Salvation is having our lives and desires reframed from mere function in the universal machine to personal meaning and love that enables not only virtues and gifts in us as realised persons, but also a communal life in the Body that anticipates the realised Kingdom, and just so is salt and light to others. The opposing view can be reduced to absurdity.

Now does the Bible fit the machine or the Kingdom? For the Bible to make the humdrum contemporary sense that some prefer, it would have to fit into the machine according to the machine's own dynamics. But if the Bible really were a cog in that machine, then it would not be an alternate to it as our salvation requires, and hence it would not enable our salvation. And since the Bible plainly does fit Christ, that would suggest that Christ too fits the machine. But if Christ fit that from which we must be saved, then he himself would not be saving us, which is absurd. QED.


Anonymous said...

Nevertheless even Christians who like the Bible's strangeness and do not fear social rejection on account of it do not always sleep well at night. We have said that the remedy for both sorts of insomnia is courage. What courage do Christians with this insomnia lack?

They wish to read the scriptures as God's address to them, despite the strangeness of the writings through which he has spoken-- good-- but they do not allow that oddness to expose their own mindset to the scrutiny and discernment of the Body where God speaks. It is not enough to recognise cultural difference and use it to explain the text (away?); one must also allow that difference to interrogate one's own cultural values. And although it is good to listen for God's voice from the sacred page, it is better to listen to the scriptures with the Body. Even the most adamant critic of our secular societies belongs to them, and needs to stand under the canon to understand its import. Even when we know we need challenge, we often lack the courage to accept it.

For a calm example, consider the law of levirate marriage (Deuteronomy xxv 5-10). In the New Testament canon for mission to Gentiles in the Roman world, it is explicitly mentioned only once (St Mark xii 18-24), which is hardly surprising. Never customary in ancient, medieval, or modern Europe, the institution has never been at home in the West. Nevertheless, it was taken very seriously in ancient Israel (Genesis xxxviii), and has been practiced elsewhere down to the present day. Where modern missionary Christians have dismantled the practice (eg Nigeria), they have left a responsibility for widows that the local society and church have not filled, but even there nobody so far proposes a revival. What then is there to consider?




On one hand, there is the strangeness itself. You, dear reader, can catalogue for yourself the many differences between the levirate ideal for these things and our contemporary Western ones. Having done that, your imagination can even begin to think about how lives in your own circle might have progressed had those you know acted from values implicit in these biblical narratives rather than from our own. Since the levirate ideal was also divine law, you will naturally also try to understand how it was plausible to the Jews that this ideal was an obligation from God. I wonder, and you may too, how far those who still practice levirate marriage today would resonate with our relationship to God and vice versa.

Since levirate marriage has connections to all the rest of what the Bible says about sex, gender, marriage, family, and inheritance, our reflections on that contrast of ideals will emerge again in other sites of conflict of the past century-- sexual desire, celibacy, birth control, separation and divorce, remarriage after divorce, sex before and after marriage, same sex marriage, and gender identity. At this stage, we attune ourselves to God's word written by evenhandedly letting each horizon prompt questions about the other until we can see ourselves as Judah and Tamar and host of others might see us. We are not judging cases or defining rules; we are establishing empathy and losing blinders.


Anonymous said...

On the other hand, as noted, there is the scrutiny and discernment of the Body.

The comparison of horizons just mentioned happens within the Body because, with the Father and the Son, the Holy Spirit mediates them across space and time, culture and language. The Holy Spirit called Moses and his people, gave them levirate marriage, brought Judah to Tamar to begin the Davidic lineage to Jesus, and then guarded their story through every step from some first recounting by firelight through myriad souls to your screen and mine.

Kindly note that this *communion of saints* includes not only an unknown editor sometime in Josiah's reign (641-609 BC) but everyone in Israel or the New Israel who has interpreted the text for the Body as you yourself have begun to do. It includes fathers, monastics, doctors, reformers, pastors, and very likely some rabbis and academics as well. If you find it strange for a text to have no author in the modern sense and ripples of significance unknown to its first scribe, then the Holy Spirit is beginning to open your eyes to its riches.

Anyway, in the longer timescale of the human genome, the emotional system of such higher apes as ourselves remains responsive to matters of procreation and lineage. Despite living in a very different social system, the ideal of levirate marriage makes sense to us, although we would never adopt it. We can understand Tamar's predicament, take pleasure in her daring stratagem, and with the nameless editor of Genesis, recognize Judah as a ruthless competitor, not only against his brother Joseph, but even against his son Er and Er's widow Tamar. Read long portions of Genesis aloud in a congregation sometime and you will hear gasps, giggles, and whispers when they make sense. Yes, "the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there," but what they do is coping with the realities we all know.

In the Body as St Paul knew it, disciples may sometimes have done just that after the breaking and meal and before the blessing and cup. Most likely, such a reading would have been less ceremonial than pentecostal, scripture influencing the final content and sound of prophecy and psalmody that the participants had prepared in advance. As the Lord himself did at St Mark xiv 62, expression may have mixed genres but surely praised him with motifs from apocalyptic and wisdom, the future then and the present now of life lived freely in YHWH. If the anxious Christian who fears nihilism finds his way to the Body where it is likewise attuned to that not yet and now, he can find the meaning and rest he seeks.


Peter Carrell said...

Thanks Bowman
The ways of God are mysterious, including his communication to us, but the mystery of that communication also assures us that God is committed to communicating with us. Thus, to paraphrase you above, may the Holy Spirit begin and continue to open our eyes to the Word's riches.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Peter, both for kind words about a reply that is far too long-- sorry-- and for the good points packed into your OP and 8:20.

Answering more briefly--

Out is out. The baptismal statement of faith-- and hence the natural decision point for those who are out-- is the creed.

In is in. For those who are in, the creed is also our first hermeneutical guide to the Bible as a whole and to the OT as a part.

This makes feet on the ground sense-- nobody can join the commonwealth of Moses so there is no value in arguing with its long-vanished inhabitants, but one can join the fellowship of the apostles and that fellowship's reading of the OT to understand Christ can be valuable. The faith that matters is the apostolic faith; the reading that matters is the one that apostolic faith discovers.

Educated minds today are schizoid about the scale of time. For some things, we adopt the scale of the human genome in which the Bible's ink is still wet and its authors right here, and for others the scale of Western culture in which a decade is an aeon, a millennium unimaginable, and the Bible's authors and meaning unknowable. But when we are thinking about stable human nature, it is the genome scale that matters. What C18 historicism eroded-- our confidence in the continuity of human experience-- C21 science has largely restored.

"It is possible for Christians to be thoroughly Christian while sitting comparatively lightly to Scripture, that is, while taking inspiration from a fairly narrow slice of the Bible and a fairly wide slice of experience of God at work among us in the present time."

I think that this is your reminder that detailed understanding of the whole canon, although valuable to the Body, is less necessary to persons and groups than a hearty acquaintance with God's self-communication and the ways of Providence.


Bryden Black said...

BTW Peter, the Foreword to Dan’s book by John Goldingay is almost worth the price of the book. In such a short space, he exposes many a disingenuous human set of questions we customarily put to the Scriptures (God in the Dock, indeed!). But until we have the humility to stop trying to master the text (back to Webster), approaching it all with “loving attention” (Barth) and a due “confidence” rather than an “abstract certitude” (Newbigin), as the key means of relating with God, we probably won’t get the point of many a supposed ‘troubling text’. Only when we dare to shift our frames of reference (dianoia again) might we begin to catch a genuine glimpse of the Divine Whirlwind, who seeks to meet with us. And frankly Dan Hawk’s done an amazing job ...

The basic issue (for me at least) is not insomnia (of any stripe), but rather that old age hoary chestnut of the significance of the transcendent God actually wanting/being able/being free to redeem from within his very own creation. For once embarking on such a venture (if we may so put it), the entanglements embroil God with an ever increasing number of dubious dilemmas (or so it would seem). The climax of course is the worst of all: the Chosen Covenant People’s very rejection - and inevitably (necessarily?) so! - of their Messiah and the Son of God becomes the very means of their, and the world’s redemption; our very rebellion is strangely the means of our ‘adoption’ ...

Little wonder that might keep some awake - if they were to ponder it for more than a nanosecond. Just about every ‘frame’ imaginable gets shattered ... “No eye has seen nor ear heard ... yet ...!” 1 Cor 1-2 (or shld that be 1-4; or 1-16; or 1 & 2 Cor in their entirety ...? That’s the trouble with any canonical approach - context; yet whose? God’s even?!).

PS. Your last re your hui @ September 1, 2019 at 8:20 AM: How on earth might any of us know whether you’re experiencing God in your midst as opposed to merely “Man in the loudest tones” (Barth, CD II.1)? KB’s remark comes in a most significant context re his addressing a host of folk with their ‘Christian God talk’ ...

PPS. Re yours @ September 2, 2019 at 9:08 PM and “Mystery”: I seriously hope you’ve also encountered the nice yet vital distinction between “positive mystery” (ala the likes of Eberhard Jüngel) and “negative mystery” (ala the likes of Karl Rahner). Everything depends upon the difference.

Anonymous said...

"The basic issue (for me at least) is not insomnia (of any stripe)..."

Bryden, your comment reads as the second insomnia commenting on the first one.

Since I myself worry more about nihilism than rejection, you will recognise that this response is in no way a criticism of what you say. In fact, it highlights one reason why I enjoy nearly all of your comments so much.

Personally, I distinguish the insomnias because, past a certain point, I cannot see another way to keep heated conversations about positions taken humane than to *respectfully* name the passions behind them. We do what we do until we rethink our motivations, and that requires that they be recognised in the first place.

When persons or churches ignore wise counsel to make what you or I regard as golden calves, it is usually because they have the first insomnia-- they are reluctant or terrified to be the first Christians since late antiquity to be looking in on the West from the outside of it. Can we agree-- I hope that we can-- that we would be very surprised if there were not many Christians who were apprehensive about this prospect?

This anxiety does not awaken persons of liberal and conservative temperaments with the same thoughts. They react in different ways to it so that we see these insomniacs on both sides of quarrels about GAFCON and That Topic. But the arresting fact is that the prospect can and does afflict persons of both temperaments.

Anxiety is a variety of fear, which actively interferes with straightforward thinking. Those with the first insomnia have a sort of checkpoint in the mind where ideas are searched for contraband that may lead to the social rejection that they, from calculation or terror or both, strive to avoid. It is that checkpoint that steadfastly rejects good advice like a teenager on the way to a party. (You and I have our checkpoints too, of course, but we search other smugglers to police a different black market. Are we rejecting any good advice?)

One cannot reason with someone who is afraid unless one holds his attention by addressing the fear itself. Providentially for those insomniacs who fear rejection, exile is a central theme of the canonical scriptures. The words about it there compass a wide range of situations, emotions, and rhetorics.

The Holy Spirit has equipped us to recognise their fear and to speak to it about God's Presence with them. To those consoled in exile by that Presence, our own vigilance against nihilism can probably make more sense.


Bryden Black said...

While I of course appreciate what you’re trying to convey via your insomniacal metaphors Bowman, my own interest is not in either party’s anxieties or fears - though some form of motivation will materialise in due course. For my interest is not exactly in either progressives/liberals or conservatives/traditionalists, nor in their various stripes and/or hybridisations. My own focus - and I was hoping that that might have been clearer (I’m not at all sure how you reached your diagnosis) in what I called my “basic issue” - has been front and centre Peter’s title, or rather a reframing of what so often triggers forms of those sentiments (which may indeed reveal motivations one way or another).

Many perceived quandaries regarding Scripture melt before the true intentions of Scripture: to relay the story of God’s purposes for his creation and in particular our place in those purposes. Of course along the way, we humans have devised many a purpose of our own, and notably out of the very religious bricks we think God has baked. But mostly they repeat Babel’s purposes, not God’s at all. For the Scriptures do NOT answer our own religious quests (you know that well enough!). Au contraire, it’s all about the Divine Quest. Yet that very Quest takes the form, has had to take the form, of having to engage with all the entanglements of our own pathetic quests - quests that in the end are so inverted and perverted that, as Dan Hawk displays rather well, violence in its many forms come to the fore. And, to repeat, the Climax of that Quest is the most violent of all ... Yet mysteriously (sic) it IS the very means of PEACE & RECONCILIATION. Such is the alchemy of divine wisdom and power (1 Cor 1).

For in the end my motivation has to do just with the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer (after Brant Pitre), as in say, Ezek 36:22-28. For the state of the church in many a western country bears a striking resemblance to that of Israel’s so forcefully given by the Lord God himself, the one who initiated and sustained the very first covenant himself. But as per any due figural reading of Scripture, so the church like Israel finds herself in exile and/or a valley of mere dry bones. Though she’s barely able to see it, so entangled has she become (via whatever ‘brands’ you may muster) in her own quests, traditional or avant garde, or whatever.

Just so, everything becomes a function of how we (are to) approach the written testimony of that Story. And to repeat and to conclude, rather a lot depends on whether we’ve allowed ourselves to be radically converted in our (religious) imaginations by that most Violent Climax of the Divine Quest. Or not ... And THAT will either truly keep one awake in the wee hours of the night, or ... grant an even richer sense of Ps 121!! [and yes; just in case some readers miss it, that too has its literary context!]

Anonymous said...

"This anxiety does not awaken persons of liberal and conservative temperaments with the same thoughts. They react in different ways to it so that we see these insomniacs on both sides of quarrels about GAFCON and That Topic. But the arresting fact is that the prospect can and does afflict persons of both temperaments." 9:56

"For my interest is not exactly in either progressives/liberals or conservatives/traditionalists, nor in their various stripes and/or hybridisations." 10:08

On that, we agree.