A recent correspondent put two questions to me. One was about whether the Bible has a plot. It’s often thought that it does. This plot is often presented as constituting “salvation history.” I not infrequently hear people saying something like, “The Bible made no sense to me at all until I learned to see it in terms of salvation history.” By “salvation history,” they mean the sequence of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. Whatever else the Bible says, it says this. So goes this way of reading the Bible. But does it? That was my question. My answer was and is that such approaches are reductionistic—simplifications of what the Bible is and says. If you would like to pursue why I think that way, see my earlier posts, entitled, Does the Bible Have a Plot?” and “Does the Bible Have a Plot? II.”
The second line of questions pursued by my correspondent were aimed at another, related claim I made in my earlier posts, the claim that the Bible is essentially an old and long conversation. This claim goes against a common assumption among many readers of the Bible. Readers assume that the Bible like a modern textbook will agree with itself in all of its parts. If one biblical text appears to disagree with another, the interpreter must figure out how to bring the two texts into alignment with each other. A number of strategies have been devised to do just that. I would love to explore some these strategies, but I’ll not distract us here from the main point by describing the many ways exegetes have found to bring the various parts of the Bible into alignment. I’m sure you have heard many of them from the pulpit.
But this claim—the claim that the Bible can be harmonized across its breadth—is manifestly not true. There are many parts of the Bible that simply don’t agree with each other. This is not a problem unless we make it problem. I should probably repeat that last sentence: this is not a problem unless we make it a problem. We make it a problem when decide that the Bible must be a certain kind of book in order to fit with our theology. But consider what we are doing when we do this. We are not beginning with the Bible, asking what kind of book it is, and approaching it in ways appropriate to the kind of text it actually is; we are demanding for our own theological reasons that the Bible be what in fact it is not, and when the Bible doesn’t correspond to our theological expectations, we take out our exegetical crowbar and force the Bible into agreement with us.
Actually, it’s worse than this. Preachers are expressly taught to preach not the Bible but the system—whatever system they have learned. Take the system that is most often mentioned in my world. As I mentioned above, it’s usually described in terms of four plot points: creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. It’s this system—this “salvation history”—that preachers are expected to preach. Say a preacher has taken on the task of preaching through the cycle of biblical stories about Jacob. These stories are filled with rich human and theological insights, and they have an interesting literary arc. I hope some time in this blog to dive into this material. It’s really quite wonderful. But our theologically trained preacher has been told that she or he is not to preach the stories themselves with all their pathos and humor but rather about how these stories fit into salvation history. If the preacher doesn’t end the sermon with Jesus and, even better, with the cross of Jesus, the sermon is not “Christian.” I’ve heard candidates for the ministry skewered in their ordination exams for getting so carried away with the text that they forget to preach the system.
This is errant nonsense. But it’s how the Bible is taught in seminaries and colleges. It starts with the idea that the Bible basically teaches a system—hence, “systematic theology.” And part of that system is that the Bible teaches the same thing in every part or, at least, every part of the Bible can be made to agree with every other part. In the end, the range of biblical reflection on life and God and history and you and me is lost. The delight is lost.
The delight of the Bible is found not in a system but in the conversation. Take the biblical conversation over whether children can be held responsible for the sins of their parents. In the self-disclosing speech of God in Exodus 34:6-7, the Lord YHWH says that indeed he does hold children responsible for the sins of their parents: “Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” Compare this to Ezekiel 18:1-4 (see also Jeremiah 31:29-30):
The word of the Lord came to me: “What do you people mean by quoting this proverb about the land of Israel: ‘The parents eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’?
As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel. For everyone belongs to me, the parent as well as the child—both alike belong to me. The one who sins is the one who will die.
We are still having this conversation. Should we who have benefitted from white privilege be held responsible for the sins of our ancestors who held slaves and perpetuated a racist system in the years since the abolition of slavery? These are not easy questions. They require nuanced thought. We might begin by exploring the biblical conservation. We will not be well-served in this by tamping down the difference between Exodus and Ezekiel.
I could point to many other such conversations across the pages of the Bible, but this brief introduction puts us in position to begin to respond to the question put to me by my correspondent: if the Bible is conversational, presenting more than one point of view, how do we decide what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s true and what’s false? If the Bible is a conversation, does it say anything at all.
To answer that question, we will have to explore this idea of biblical conversation in a bit more detail. I’ll begin that task in the next post. In that post and the one following, I’ll work my way towards a conversation about sexual ethics, which is what lies behind my correspondent’s question. Just what should Christians hold on to in these challenging times? There’s much to be said, I think, but before I get there allow me to add one more time what this project—my blog—is about.
It’s about the Bible, about loving it and reading it in ways that permit the riches of the Bible to emerge from our reading. The Bible is the Word of God. Saying so creates an expectation, an expectation that reading the Bible increase our knowledge of God, of who God is and what it means to serve God. The testimony of the church over its 2,000-year history is that the Bible fulfills this expectation. It has for me. But you won’t get to what the Bible has to teach us by imposing a theological system on it. All you will get by that method is confirmation of what you already think.