I think one important concept that each of us has to make a decision on is the relationship between Bible and culture. It’s sort of a chicken-and-the-egg situation. Which came first? Did the Jewish culture determine the basic viewpoints behind what’s written in the Bible or did the teachings that were encapsulated in the Bible shape the Jewish culture?
This question comes into play in many discussions, but it’s at the forefront of the discussion about gender. Does the Bible say what it says about male leadership because it was produced by a patriarchal society? Or did the Jewish culture become patriarchal based on what God instructed them?
I haven’t encountered anything that moves me away from the second position. I think we see enough queens and priestesses in the ancient world to know that Jewish society could have been much more gender inclusive than it was. I believe that they didn’t move in that direction because they were so instructed by God.
Don’t really mean to make this about gender. The principle has much wider application. Is the Bible nothing more than a reflection of the culture in which it was written? Or does the Bible present inspired teachings that helped shape the culture which first received it?
I think culture shaped how the thoughts of the Bible were presented, the language that was used, the specific examples that were given… but I believe the teachings originated with God.
To some people, it sounded like I was criticizing the New Testament writers yesterday. That wasn’t what I intended. My point is that they used the Old Testament in special ways that aren’t the normal way I think we should treat the text. I think they could do that because they had a level of inspiration that we don’t have.
Another concept that comes into play is that of double fulfillment of prophecy, as numerous prophecies in the Bible are applied more than once. I hold that out as a possibility for many New Testament prophecies, like those about the fall of Jerusalem or the apocalyptic visions of Revelation. Could some of those things also apply to end times? Quite possibly. But I don’t feel that I have the guidance from God to allow me to determine which prophecies fall into that category, the category of double fulfillment.
What are your thoughts?
I want to get back to some of my musings on inspiration, canon, and how we view the biblical text. I find one complicating factor in all of this the way in which the New Testament writers used the Old Testament. They violate most of the principles of biblical interpretation that I use.
- The New Testament writers seem to value the words of the Old Testament above the intention of the original author. Take Paul’s argument in Galatians 3:16 for example:
Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.
Frankly, if anyone tried to use that reasoning in a discussion with me, I’d merely laugh away their argument. Look at the promise from the book of Genesis:
“I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted.” (Genesis 13:16)
In context, it’s obvious that offspring is meant to refer to Abraham’s descendants. But Paul could ignore the original meaning and focus on the wording itself.
- The New Testament writers paid little attention to context. Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1 (“out of Egypt I called my son”) to refer to Joseph and Mary taking Jesus from Egypt to Nazareth ignores the fact that Hosea is referring back to the exodus from Egypt, not forward.
- The New Testament writers freely spiritualized Old Testament passages. When Paul talks about the Israelites drinking water in the wilderness, he says, “For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.” (1 Corinthians 10:4) There’s nothing in the Old Testament accounts that suggests that there was a single rock that followed them in the wilderness, nor that the rock was anything more than an actual rock.
- The New Testament writers sometimes made points based off one translation of the text that couldn’t be made using other translations. There are myriad occasions in which the version quoted is the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament, while the Hebrew version says something quite different. (A good listing can be found on this page, though it’s presented in a slightly argumentative way)
My solution has been to say that the New Testament writers were inspired in a way that I’m not, so they could do things with the text that I can’t. But that doesn’t keep these things from complicating how we view inspiration.
I’ve avoiding diving too deeply into the subject of inspiration. On the one hand, I find it hard to pin down my own thoughts on the matter. On the other, I know that as we begin delineating what God does and doesn’t do, it’s very easy to lapse into error. Finite man is able to accurately define an infinite being.
Maybe it’s best to start with a couple of things I don’t believe:
- I don’t believe in divine dictation. That is, I don’t believe that the Holy Spirit whispered in the ears of the biblical writers the word-for-word texts they were to record. There is too much humanity in the Bible for me to believe such a thing. Why would we have four gospels if that were the case?
- I don’t believe in a purely man-made Bible. I believe that there was divine intervention in the creation and preservation of the biblical text.
Now let’s try some affirmations:
- I believe the Bible is the product of God’s people under God’s guidance. I don’t believe the views and attitudes expressed in the Bible to be “secular” nor sinful.
- I believe the Bible was created within a specific context and reflects that context. The Bible did not drop down out of the sky, nor was it written by a group of people who lived in isolation from their own situation. The fact that the Bible was written in at least three different languages illustrates that point.
- I believe that the biblical teachings (even when not in written form) defined the religious culture of God’s people rather than vice versa. In other words, I believe the Jews didn’t eat pork because God told them not to, not that they put that into the Law because they weren’t pork eaters.
So that’s a start. Give me some feedback, share some of your thoughts, and we’ll continue this discussion.
Somehow I got to thinking about my freshman speech class. Back in the day we used a book by James McCroskey which focused on the idea of credibility, the degree to which listeners see a speaker to be believable and to which they accept the speaker’s message. McCroskey saw communication as a flow of rising and falling credibility; you could almost describe credibility as an account in which you deposit and withdraw.
As I did, I realized that the subject of credibility applies to biblical writers. Some people don’t view Old Testament writers as particularly credible, for example. These skeptics feel that the writers were merely conveying mythologies that explained certain happenings; by this view, what’s written may or may not have happened. All that matters is that the writers found the stories and writings to be useful for their purposes.
Many others today doubt Paul’s credibility. You hear people talk about valuing Jesus over Paul or saying things like “that was just Paul’s view.” For some, Paul’s writings are merely a historical curiosity, giving us a glimpse into the thoughts of a leader from the first century, but offering nothing of substance to the church of today. Maybe no one would express things in those exact terms, but it’s the idea that is conveyed to many.
I continue to have a high view of Scripture. I believe that God’s Spirit was at work in the compilation process of the text, as well as the preservation of that text. I think we have what we have for a reason. Because of that, I approach every text asking myself, “Why do we have this?”
There is a human element to the Bible. The Bible even presents some ideas that are nothing more than that, like the arguments presented by Job’s friends. But I also believe the Bible to be a highly credible witness (impeccably credible) to the things that God wants his people to know. We work with literary criticism, historical context, and numerous other tools as we deal with the text, but we never lose sight of the fact that this collection of books is much more than a human creation.
I believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God.