WHAT KIND OF BOOK IS THE BIBLE? (4/6)

The Quest for “a Foundation-laying Biblical Theology of Human Sexuality”

In the previous two posts (well, three, if you count the ‘Read This First’ introduction) in this series (“The Quest for ‘a Foundation-laying Biblical Theology of Human Sexuality”), I looked, first, at how a new report on human sexuality, commissioned by Synod 2016 of the Christian Reformed Church, handles the biblical materials that they, the study committee believe are relevant for formulating “a foundation-laying biblical theology of human sexuality and, second, at some of the assumptions that the committee brought to the table in approaching the Bible. In looking at the latter in the text just previous to this one, I examined the idea—common among Reformed theologians—that the Bible has a plot. The study committee on human sexuality assumes that it does. The plotline assumed by the committee is creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. What’s curious about this plotline is that the first two movements occupy only the first few chapters of the Bible, chapters which are not much mentioned in the rest of the Bible. But these chapters, Genesis 1-3, in this view take on enormous importance. This is especially true because people who follow this train of thought think of redemption as the restoration of an originally pristine creation. This notion more than almost anything else in committee’s view of human sexuality fits ill with modern ideas about the way that culture evolves over time. What’s more, it would seem to fit ill with the Bible (see, for example, John H. Walton and his careful exegesis of Genesis 1-3 in The Lost World of Adam and Eve; Walton, by the way is committee to biblical inerrancy) and its sprawling complexity. In this post, the third in the series, I will take a look at that complexity, asking the question, what kind of book is the Bible? 

What kind of book is the Bible? Already, in that question there is an assumption: that the Bible is a book. That the Bible is a book may seem obvious. You can go to your local independent bookstore and buy a Bible. It fits in your hand. It comes within covers. It’s a book.

But it wasn’t always a book. The first biblical codices—books, by another name—were ordered up by Emperor Constantine in the early fourth century BCE. Before that, there were scrolls. What constituted scripture were collections of these scrolls. Jeremiah was a book. Matthew was a book. The scriptures were not themselves a book but a collection of books. Collections can vary from place to place. This is why the history of the canonization of the Bible is so complicated. There was no need to draw sharp lines about which books were in and which were out until you have the idea of putting all the books together between covers. You could make a list about which books were in and which were not (see, for example, the Muratorian Canon), but someone else can make another list. It’s the invention of the codex that forced the question of which books were scripture and which were not.

That said, some collections of scrolls were meant to be read together; others not so much. Take the collection that Christians call the “Old Testament” (with some disagreement among Christian groups still about which books should be included in the collection). In the New Testament, the Old Testament is known as the Law and the Prophets. The “law” part of the Old Testament are the books at the beginning of our Bible, Genesis through Deuteronomy, Torah. The Prophets are the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel (actually one book), 1 and 2 Kings (also one book), Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the collection of the twelve, so-called, “minor prophets,” Hosea through Malachi. No Ruth, Daniel, or Lamentations in this collection, as there is in the Bible as we Christians now have it (which is based on the Greek translation known as the Septuagint). The rest of the Old Testament, everything from Job to Esther were grouped together in the Hebrew canon as simply (other) “writings.”

The most important of these canonical collections is the first, Torah, Genesis through Deuteronomy. But on reading these five books, it’s immediately clear that they fall into two groups: Genesis through Numbers, which read together, and Deuteronomy, which shares themes and literary style not with the first four books but with the first four books of the second collection, Joshua through Kings. All of this—how the books came together and how they are related to each other—has been and continues be hotly debated among scholars. My point is not to get into the weeds on how the Bible was collected but simply to note that the relationships among the various books are complicated.

What complicates it even further is that there is evidence within some of the books of multiple sources. Genesis, for example, seems to have been collected and edited from at least two collections of traditions, now known in scholarly circles as P and not-P, which is why we have two, quite distinct, creation stories at the beginning of the Bible (Genesis 1:1-2:4a, P and Genesis 2:4b-3:22, not P).

All of this speaks to the kind of book the Bible is. It’s not a book in which everything fits neatly together. If God had wanted to give us such a book, he could have given us something that resembled the standard books of theology that we read when I was in seminary. In these standard books of theology, everything was organized by theme, and every part of a given book agrees with every other part of the same book. The Bible is not like that at all. What characterizes the Bible is not thematic consistency or a single plotline; what characterizes the Bible is a conversation. The books of the Bible are in conversation with each other. Sometimes the conversation is one part of the Bible picking up on and agreeing with another, as when, for example Paul quotes from Isaiah, but at other times the conversation is seeing things from different points of view, as for example, when James apparently in the face of Paul says, “Faith without works is dead.”

Once we see that the Bible is a series of voices in conversation with each other, we realize that what’s important is not to make every part of the Bible agree with every other part, so that Ecclesiastes, to take one example, has to be made to agree with, say, Proverbs. What’s important is to keep the conversation going. The impulse in theological circles is to try to reduce the complexity of the Bible. If one book of the Bible says one thing and another something different, these interpreters think that it is their job to choose one or the other or to force them to agree with each other, what is known as “harmonization.”

Let give an example from the Old Testament. In Genesis 1:2, we learn that when God began creating the heavens and the earth, “the earth was an empty wilderness, darkness was over the face of the deep, and the divine spirit wafted over the face of the water.” And, then, God calls light into existence: “Let there be light, and there was light.” These are carefully chosen words, and we have to interpret them carefully. According to Genesis, God creates the light but not the darkness. The darkness is already there. This is not accidental. It’s speaking to a controversy about whether God causes evil or not. Genesis 1 says that God does not. The darkness—the forces of chaos—are already there.

Not so says Isaiah 45, where we have God saying, “I am the LORD; there is no other, the one who creates light and the one who creates darkness.” The next couple of clauses make clear what is at stake by adding, “the one who makes things right [shalom] and the one who makes things that are not right [ra`]; I do all these things” (Isaiah 6-7). For Genesis the darkness—evil—is what exists apart from the creative power of God. This is a view of evil adopted by many theologians in Christian history that makes evil the lack of good. It’s not something that is created; it is the absence of God’s creative power. But there is another point of view, also found among theologians, which claims that what we regard as evil is in reality not outside of but within the will of God.

These are two different ways of thinking about the relationship between God and evil. The one is found in Genesis 1:2; the other, stated in a way that seems to be a direct denial of Genesis 1:2, in Isaiah 45:6-7. The style of biblical interpretation that grew up in the aftermath of the Reformation says that we have to choose one of these or other, and having chosen, find a way to explain why one of the texts does not really say what it seems to say. But what if the Bible is not that kind of book. What if the Bible, instead of being a book of systematic theology is a conversation in which both the writers of Genesis and of Isaiah have their say, and we are asked to join the conversation? As indeed we do. At every funeral I’ve attended there is someone who says that this death was the will of God, and another who says that the same death was not the will of God at all but the result of evil. What if the testimony of the Holy Spirit in scripture is not that we don’t have to choose one of these points of view but, rather, embrace the conversation? What if the divine truth is more complicated than we can easily package up in our theologies? What is the Bible is calling us to honor each other in this conversation?

Once we see the Bible as conversation, the idea of going looking for the biblical theology of human sexuality can be seen for what it is, an attempt to impose a certain reading on the Bible even when the Bible contains no such thing. And in that case, calling such a reading “biblical” is a power play. It’s an attempt to say, see, the Bible agrees with me on this. It’s not an exploration of what the Bible says—entering the biblical conversation—but an attempt to cut off the conversation, and it’s to this that I object. I want not to be less biblical but more biblical.

The Bible invites our engagement, argument, passionate disagreement. It is precisely through our engagement with the text of the Bible, our arguments and our passionate disagreements, that the Spirit of God works to bring the church into fuller truth (John 16:13). This has always been the way of the church. The Bible contains a long, beautiful, sometimes contentious conversation over centuries; it invites us to join the conversation.

But when one goes looking for the biblical theology of human sexuality, what happens is precisely what has always happened in such cases: the Bible no longer matters. The text, the words, the subtle ways the writers of the Bible make their points no longer matter. What matters is what a group of interpreters say the Bible says. A new priesthood is set up, a priesthood of the biblical scholars.

Indeed, the study committee has suggested in its report that what they say is not only just what the Bible says, but that no one who believes the Bible can disagree with them. Asked whether their findings have the status of (the Reformed) confessions, whether agreement with their finding should therefore be enforced by the provisions of church discipline against those who hold office in the denomination, they answer yes. Ironically, by this procedure, a church dedicated to the idea that it is by the Bible alone that such issues should be decided, sola scriptura, sets up a powerful new priesthood. In the next of these posts, it’s that irony that I will explore in more detail.

Clayton Libolt

Published by Clay Libolt

On me, see the front page of the website.

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