This is the third in a series of posts responding to questions put to me by readers of my earlier series of posts I grouped together under the general title, “The Quest for “A Foundation-Laying Biblical Theology of Human Sexuality.” All are available on the website.
The questions were broadly about two claims I made in the earlier posts. One was that the Bible cannot be reduced to a simple plot, as if reading the Bible is like reading detective fiction. What’s crucial in detective fiction is not the writing, the text itself; what’s important is the plot. In the case of the Bible, the plot often said to be a narrative arc involving, in order, creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. This sort of plot-based reading is not, I claimed against what might be regarded as conventional wisdom in Reformed circles, so much reading the Bible as the imposition of a frameworks on it.
One of the reasons that reading the Bible for the plot doesn’t work is that the Bible contains a congeries of voices in conversation with each other, one commenting directly or indirectly on another. I laid out a bit of this idea in the post just previous to this one, entitled, “The Conversation.” In that post I described some of what I mean by saying the Bible is a conversation—not all of what should be said, to be sure, but enough of it, I hope, for readers to get the idea.
Saying the Bible is a conversation raises a question: if the Bible is a conversation in which different voices offer differing and sometimes opposing points-of-view, does the Bible as the Bible say anything at all? Is it simply a catalogue of opinions about various things? Is there, to cut to the theological chase, a word from God in all this?
A recent respondent challenged me this way: “It seems to me, on your view, that if you reject the harmonizing approach, then you would have to say that ‘perhaps in this case, it is this biblical book that has it wrong, and this other biblical book is right.’ How does this not tear away the authority and inspiration of the Bible? How does this not end up as a free-for-all?” It’s to those questions—good questions all—that this post is addressed.
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The Bible is a conversation with many voices. In a brilliant book, Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015) Benjamin Sommer, professor of Bible at Jewish Theological Seminary, ponders how the revelation of God at Sinai is portrayed in the Hebrew scriptures. What did God actually say from the mountain? Were there words? Or just thunder? And if words, what were they? The whole of the Ten Commandments? Or just the opening? By teasing out the various voices contained within the texts of Exodus and Deuteronomy, Sommer elicits an ancient conversation—an argument, really–about whether God spoke directly to the Israelites or whether God’s words were indirect, mediated through Moses or through the Aaronic priesthood or in some other way.
This conversation about how God speaks did not come to an end at the boundary of the canon, whether Jewish or Christian. We still ask, how does God speak to us? As Christians, we believe that the definitive revelation of God is Jesus Christ, but how does that revelation come to those of us who live more than 2,000 years after his life, death, and resurrection. Through scripture? Surely. Through the Spirit of the Risen Lord in the church? Yes, although exactly what that means has been much discussed. Directly to individual Christians? Perhaps, though, this has always been questioned, if not generally then in individual cases. Lately in evangelical circles, this once controversial idea seems to have become more commonly accepted. You frequently hear people saying now what would not have been said in the churches in which I grew up: “The Lord told me. . .” Are these people in fact hearing the word of the Lord or only their own voices? And how do we decide? In other words, how does God speak from the mountain?
Were we in the same room, we might spend a pleasant hour or two discussing these issues: where is God speaking to us today? Where are people claiming divine authority, but God has not spoken? Those are interesting questions, but not my point here. My point is that this conversation about how God speaks will always be with us. There is no single answer to these questions. The Bible does not so much settle the issue as raise it for us in a variety of ways and places. If that is true, how do we decide or, better, how do we discuss this issue and others like it in the light of the Bible? It’s those questions—especially the second of these, how we discuss important issues in the light of the Bible—that is at the heart of what I would like to propose in the remainder of this post.
Allow me to lay out my answers to those questions in four brief programmatic statements.
1. If we are to take the Bible seriously not just as a book but as scripture, as Word of God, our conversation must be embedded in the scriptural conversation. What I mean by “embedded” is that the Bible provides us with language, metaphor, and story for our discussion. If we are committed to the Bible, we must be committed to seeing the world through the words and metaphors and images of the Bible.
Take, for example, the story of the creation of the first human in Genesis 2. The language is of dust and breath: “The Lord God shaped a human from the dust of the ground and breathed into its nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living being.” The subject in this story is what it means to be human. Humans are two things the story tells us: dust of the earth and breath of God. This is by no means the end of the conversation. Over the course of its pages, the Bible says many other things about what it means to be human, but here in this text we have been given two crucial terms, “dust” and “breath,” that can and should structure our continued conversation. What are “dust” and “breath” in this story?
In some future blog post, I would like to explore with you what “dust” and “breath” mean in Genesis 2:7, but that’s for another time. My point here is that the Bible gives us a language and metaphors that can and should structure our discussion about what it means to be human. And by doing so, the Bible sets parameters around our discussion.
Terms other than “dust” and “breath” can and have been proposed. In the ancient Mesopotamian myth Atraḫasīs, for example, humans are said to have been created from the blood of a rebel god. It’s an interesting metaphor. It suggests that we have in us the blood of the gods. Interesting, but it’s not our metaphor, those of us who hold the Bible to be Word of God. In the biblical metaphor, we are not of the sky but of the earth, dust, brought to life by the breath of God, but not—the story is very scrupulous about this—divine in any sense. No blood of the gods in our veins, the Bible says. It says it, specifically, against the idea expressed in Mesopotamian myth.
You get the idea. If we are to be biblical, our conversation about what it means to be human, among other things, must be embedded in the language of the biblical story. The language and metaphors of the Bible require extension, discussion, additional conversation, but they represent a kind of boundary. It’s as if the Bible says, start here.
There’s more to be said, but enough for now. Let’s move on to the second of my statements.
2. The second statement has to do with the Bible, how it holds together: The Bible holds together around two large conversations, and these two conversations, one in the Old Testament and one in the New, are in conversation with each other. Let me explain what I mean.
The Old Testament begins to hold together for us if we see that it constitutes in a very broad way a conversation based in the experience of a single event, the fall of Jerusalem and the accompanying destruction of the temple of YHWH in 587 BCE. The narrative at the heart of the Old Testament, its backbone, so to speak, articulated in the stretch of books from Genesis through Kings, is written from that perspective, from the end, asking not only what went wrong but what God—YHWH—had and still has in mind for Israel.
The core theme of this narrative is expressed in Exodus 19:5-6: “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The story is of a people called by a singular God, YHWH, to be a priestly people—a people whose very existence witnesses to and manifests the presence of YHWH in the world. The narrative tells us that in this task Israel has failed and deserves the wrath of God.
Around this theme are collected, in addition to the central narrative, the prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the book of the Twelve. The prophets articulate the same core idea (see, for example, Hosea 11 and Amos 3), but the prophets also open the conversation towards hope in passages like Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 37 and many others.
There’s more. Coming at about the same time are two quite different approaches to the suffering of Jerusalem and the ancient people of Israel. One is the book of Job. Job is a long discourse about why the innocent suffer. In this discourse, Job’s friends represent the point of view found in the books of Kings and the prophets: we suffer because we sin. Job questions this idea and proposes—at least seems to propose; the book is complicated—an answer that takes into account the presence of forces larger than human life. Leviathan and all that.
Another alternative point of view, the most sublime of them all, is tucked away in the book of Isaiah, especially chapters 40-55. In this approach, suffering is not simply something that happens to Israel (Job) or happens only because Israel has lost its way (Kings and the prophets) but becomes the heart of the mission of Israel (Isaiah 53). In this Isaiah anticipates the New Testament.
The rest of the books in the Old Testament fit around this central conversation rather like planets around the sun, but a full description of that is for another time. What’s important for now is to draw attention to a second great structuring conversation that draws out the central meaning of this first conversation. The second conversation is found in—constitutes—the New Testament and its conversation about Jesus, who he is, his life, death, and resurrection, and about the new people of God gathered in his name. This second conversation turns out to be the same conversation as before but at a different pitch. At the center of it is another event that signals failure and judgment: the cross of Jesus Christ. The conversation is about how to understand this event. Contrary to what is sometimes asserted, there is not a single explanation for the cross in the New Testament, no one “theory of atonement.” In this, the story of Israel plays out once again in terms of the one who is Messiah, anointed for the sake of his people.
3. I’ll leave it there for now. We have enough material before us to suggest a third statement central to this way of reading the Bible: The biblical conversation has a direction.
This may sound like I’m going back on what I said in earlier posts about whether the Bible has a plot. What I claimed in those posts is that the idea that one can describe the Bible theologically in terms of the flow from creation to fall to redemption and to consummation doesn’t really describe the shape of the Bible. It doesn’t have that plot.
But does it have a plot at all? What it has, I think, are materials for a plot. For Christians, these materials are centrally the story of Jesus, cross and resurrection. And these materials are immersed in, in conversation with, the story of Israel. This story has a direction: the direction is toward the heart of God. The conversation or conversations of the Old and New Testaments deepen into new understandings of who God is and what God is doing in the world.
Our task as Christian theologians (with Luther, I think that every Christian is called to be a theologian) is to tell that story. We must in our telling of the story do justice to the materials for the story as laid out in scripture: Israel, Jesus, Church, and more. We can’t substitute our own materials, something often done in popular Christianity. And we also have to take account of the direction of the conversation toward an increasingly profound and capacious understanding of who God is and what it means to be a child of God. The problem with much of Bible reading is that ignores the directionality of the conversation.
4. Again, there’s more to be said, but I’ll hurry on the fourth and last statement: The conversation begun in the pages of the Bible continues. One of my correspondents asked the canny question: if the Bible is a conversation, who are the conversation partners? I didn’t think I answered his question adequately or even coherently at the time, but perhaps now I can.
Note first in regard to this that the inner biblical conversation is matched by a conversation outside of the Bible. The canon—the list of books that we consider Bible (which varies some from Christian communion to Christian communion)—sets parameters for the conservation in the Bible. Ecclesiastes is part of the conversation in a way that 1 Enoch is not, even though 1 Enoch was an important and early attempt to read the Bible in Hellenistic times, just as Ecclesiastes was. 1 Enoch, an elaborate interpretation and expansion of Genesis 6:1-4 was, apparently, a step too far (although it is part of the canon recognized by Tewahedo churches in Ethiopia and Eritrea).
We come up against the same issue with the likes of the Gospel of Thomas. Thomas is an early saying-source gospel in which Jesus is represented as a spiritual sage. Interesting as it is, it also was, apparently, a step too far.
The same setting of boundaries is true for the continuing conversation in the church. It is broad, but there are limits, edges. If the early church included those who followed James as well as those who followed Paul, it drew the line at what is now called Gnosticism (see 1 John). There is what we might call a canonical line for the post-biblical conversation that runs through Irenaeus but not Valentinus, Athanasius but not Arius, and on through the history of the church. It’s this great but bounded tradition I call “The Cathedral” (see my post with that title).
But if all of this seems a little too abstract and theological, I will in the next post give it some practical application. The question hovering above everything I have been writing lately is what we should say to the questions raised in our culture about human sexuality? How does the Bible guide us? It’s to that that I will turn to next in the last post in this short series, a post I’ll call “The Bible and Sex.” Stay tuned.