I began this post with the intention of writing about text and trajectory on the basis of John 14. I’ll do so in the next post in this series. But as I got into it, I realized I need to clear some ground. Along the way I wrote and discarded material on the history of biblical interpretation, on 2 Peter 1:19-21, on Benjamin Sommer’s reading of the Sinai stories, on John 14:8 and following, and more. Perhaps some of this will see the light of day in future posts, but for now I decided to start not with the Bible but with The Little Prince.
Recently, on a whim, I reread The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupe̒ry. If you have not read it, take my recommendation and do so. It’s quite wonderful, a children’s book that brings delight even to this sometimes jaded 75-year-old. It’s a book about wonder and seeing and loving and more. The Little Prince does give two pieces of solid advice. One is spoken first by a fox. It’s this: “Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.” The second is a warning: “Children, watch out for baobabs.”
The second one might surprise you. On our planet, baobabs are not much of a problem. We have the room. But on the Little Prince’s tiny asteroid, if baobabs are not pulled up before they begin to grow, they will take over and eventually split the little world into pieces.
As you realize, it’s not baobabs that Saint-Exupe̒ry has in mind. The book was written in the 1940s. There were plenty of baobabs about, ready to take over the planet. There still are. As the Little Prince says, one can’t be too careful about baobabs.
The Little Prince is now about 80 years old. It’s still read and loved by children and adults alike. It’s a wise book, full of lessons, but with the exception of the warning about baobabs, it’s never didactic. It’s written to delight, not to instruct, except as delight itself becomes instruction. We learn to see the world through the eyes of the little prince, and seeing the world as he sees it, we are challenged to change.
I’m sure that in the 1940s there were many pedestrian books written for children, full of what seemed at the time important lessons about life. They are forgotten because that’s all that they were. They could not transcend their own time. As time and circumstances changed, the lessons grew dusty and irrelevant.
I give you this as a parable. Which of these kinds of books are more like the Bible? You will say, The Little Prince, a story full of imagination and wisdom and delight. And you will be right. But here’s the wonder. In much of popular Christianity, at least in the sort of evangelical Christianity with which I grew up, what is taught about the Bible is that it is less like The Little Prince and more like those pedestrian didactic books we have gladly forgotten. These interpreters would drain the Bible of its imagination and wonder and playfulness and instead make it into a book full of “important things” you need to learn. This post is an attempt to retrieve the Bible from those who read the Bible in that way, who lack the imagination to read it well.
Start with a story. The story is of Jacob, the ancient ancestor whose very name means, “heel-grabber,” someone who will trip you up if he has the chance, a clever rogue. But this incident in the Jacob story is near the end. His heel tripping days are over. (Well, mostly over; he has one last trick up his sleeve.) Jacob has at last made it back to his homeland. He is about to meet his brother Esau who once threatened to kill him. He’s afraid that Esau is about to make good on the threat. He has placed his family and possessions on the other side of the Jabbok. Alone, a man comes and wrestles with Jacob until morning (Genesis 32:22-32).
The man is never identified except perhaps at the end when Jacob calls the name of the place “Peniel,” “Face [or “Presence”] of God,” and says in explanation, “I have seen God face-to-face, and my life has been spared” (Genesis 32:31). There is no explanation in the text about where the man came from and where he goes at the end. At the beginning, he’s there; at the end, he disappears. No coming or going. No name.
So, who is the man? In the story, Jacob asks his name, but the man refuses to give it. So who is he? Is this man in fact God? Why then is called simply an ‘îš, a “man?” And if God, why is he unable to prevail over Jacob? And why when the sun comes up does he have to plead for Jacob to let him go? And why, when Jacob refuses to let him go until the man blesses him, does he give Jacob a new name, Israel, saying of the new name, “You have wrestled with God and humans, and you have won?” Can one win against God?
The story invites many interpretations. Is this Jacob’s Gethsemane, where he struggles in prayer and works his way towards his misson—a destiny caught in a new name? I’ve preached such. Is it a metaphor for that the struggle with God that many recognize as part of the life of faith? I’ve preached that, too.
G. Sujin Pak in a recent Calvin University January Series lecture presents still another alternative (https://calvin.edu/directory/series/g-sujin-pak). In the writings of the church fathers, the man is sometimes identified as Christ, the Logos, the divine Word, the one who is both divine and human: “You have wrestled with God and humans . . ..” In this interpretation, it becomes a story about wrestling with the Word—not just the Word made flesh but the Word made scripture. The word written.
Pak noted that sometimes the Word seems to resist giving its blessing to the reader. One has to hang on, persist, until the morning dawns (note in this regard 2 Peter 1:19, which may have this passage in mind). But if one hangs on, you, the reader will receive not just a blessing but a new identity—a new name (see Revelation 2:17). And perhaps as a mark of your struggles, a limp.
Does the story in fact mean this? Yes. And what of those other meanings, ways of parsing the text? Yes to those, too. The story is written for just such ponderings. The writer purposely withholds crucial information. Where does the man come from? The text gives us not a clue. Who is the man? The text gives us only enough to prompt our imagination but not enough to settle on a definitive interpretation. It’s as if the writer were saying, “Come, ponder this a while,” and if we are wise, we do.
And while we are asking questions, allow me another, perhaps the one you have been asking all along: Is this story factual? Was there in fact a Jacob who wrestled with a stranger near the Jabbok at some definite moment in time and who from that moment received a new name and a tendency to hip issues? Did this happen in just this way?
No one can say that it didn’t. Or, that it did. What we are given in this case and in every other one like it are two kinds of answers. One kind of answer is the one that scholars are likely to give. They look at what evidence they have. In this case, that’s very little. There’s no way to date Jacob, for example. And they also look at how such literature typically works, not only in Israel, but in the cultures surrounding Israel. Looking at all these clues, external to the text and internal, many, if not most scholars would judge the Jacob stories to have little in the way of factual information about an earlier “patriarchal” time. They are traditions that reflect not so much the time of “Jacob” as the time in which they were written. They are family stories.
What’s more—this is important—it doesn’t much matter whether these stories convey factual information. The stories are not about history; they are about Yhwh and the people of Israel and their life together. In my series on the Jacob story, I explore in more detail how that works.
But there is another way to answer the question that we are asking. Not on the basis of the evidence we have, but, a priori, because the story must be factually true or, alternatively, must not be factually true. The first of these is the position of the inerrantist camp. Because this is Word of God, they argue, it must be factually true. Evidence to the contrary doesn’t matter. This is the explicit position of the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, a pseudo-creedal statement published in 1978 by a consortium of evangelical leaders. Article XII reads:
WE AFFIRM that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit. WE DENY that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. (https://defendinginerrancy.com/chicago-statements/)
(That last sentence is poorly written and capable of being misinterpreted. They mean that what the Bible says about history and science is also inerrant, not the reverse.) For inerrantists, the story of Jacob must be factually true in all its particulars simply because it is Bible, and the Bible cannot contain errors of any kind, whether historical, scientific, or anything else. (The other point of view, that the Jacob story cannot be factual, is often based on the assumption that the such stories require belief in miracles—I don’t think this story does—and that miracles don’t happen. We should reject both of these a priori claims, but for my purpose here it’s the first of these, the position of the inerrantists, that requires further attention.)
The inerrantist point of view requires our attention here because it drives a common way of interpreting the Bible among evangelicals that not only declares the Jacob story to be, a priori, factual, but the Bible to be a didactic book, a book less like The Little Prince and more like those long-forgotten didactic children’s stories that present the conventional wisdom of the age in which they were written. The Bible is written, so this point of view goes, to teach us something. About what? The inerrantists (and others) take the Bible to be a set of factual statements about divine history, about the implications of that history, and about the sort of right and wrong that is baked into creation—what many assume the Bible should be.
Let’s explore this a bit. Look at another of the Chicago Statements, this one the 1982 Statement on Hermeneutics. Article VI of the Statement claims “that the Bible expresses God’s truth in propositional statements, and we declare that biblical truth is both objective and absolute.” “Propositional,” “objective,” and “absolute.” You will note that none of these appear to describe the story we’ve been considering, Jacob’s wrestle with the stranger. If what the Bible ultimately gives us are objective and absolute propositions, what are the propositions generated by this story?
I take it that those who interpret the Bible in this way would say that what the text declares is that it happened in just this way, and this revelation of God is a piece with other revelations of God leading up to Jesus, the definitive revelation of God—what is sometimes called “a redemptive-historical” approach to the Bible (and to preaching). But if that is what this text is about, why is written in the way it is written with so much openness to differing interpretations? Or so I’ve suggested. The writers and signers of the Chicago Statement would differ. They say, “The meaning expressed in each biblical text is single, definite and fixed” (Article VII).
Note that what’s being attempted here is a move from the reader to the text. The text, the Statement declares, is self-interpreting. The Bible has only one interpretation, and that this interpretation is plain and open. The biblical author intends one thing and one alone. Good readers will get this right because this is simply what the Bible says. They call this “grammatical-historical” interpretation.
We know, of course, that these things are not true of the Bible, at least, not on the surface of things. The Bible says different things in different places. And in different ways. And the Bible is intensely literary. The Bible often says things that assert and subvert an interpretation at the same time.
But the Chicago Statements have a way around these awkward facts. They say that the Bible itself tells us what the correct interpretation is. In addition to a what a specific text might say, the Bible gives us a set of directions that tell us what the text can and cannot mean and whether a given text still applies today. Control beliefs.
In the introduction to the Statement on Hermeneutics, the late J.I. Packer gives an illuminating illustration these control beliefs:
To fail to see how a particular application of an absolute principle has been culturally determined (for instance, as most would agree, Paul’s command that Christians greet each other with a kiss) and to treat a revealed absolute as culturally relative (for instance, as again most would agree, God’s prohibition in the Pentateuch of homosexual activity) would both be mistakes. Though cultural developments, including conventional values and latter-day social change, may legitimately challenge traditional ways of applying biblical principles, they may not be used either to modify those principles in themselves or to evade their application altogether.
This is a remarkable statement. Packer says that we know that we can safely ignore Paul’s command to greet each other with a kiss because “most would agree” that it is “culturally relative” and, in the same way, we know that we are required to obey as “a revealed absolute” the Leviticus proscription against homosexual sex because, again, “most would agree” that it is indeed a biblical absolute. But who are these “most” who agree? And why are they the arbiters of interpretation?
In fact, not everyone does agree. Alexander Schmemann, for example, a leading writer on worship in the Orthodox tradition, would care to differ on the matter of the kiss. He says that it is “one of the fundamental acts of Christian liturgy.” And I along with others have written extensively on why the Old Testament passages on homosexuality should not be applied to same sex relationships in our time (and perhaps should not have been applied in any other time). We are apparently not part of the “most.”
So what does this come to? Review with me again the central strands of this way of reading the Bible. The writers and signers of the Chicago Statements claim that the Bible is essentially propositional—a set of declarations about theology and ethics and, along the way, about history and science, and that all of these are always and in every way true. Further, each text has a single meaning, which seems to mean that each text is reducible to a single take-away, one set of propositions. But these propositions are not all equal. Some are embedded in ancient culture in a way that others are not. How does one know which ones are cultural and which ones are not? The answer is that “most would agree.” But who are the “most” who “agree?” They turn out to be people like Packer who are committed to a certain theological (and cultural) way of thinking—in Packer’s case, late 20th century evangelicalism. If this seems circular, it is.
The claim made by the Chicago Statements is that they are simply reading the plain text of the Bible is given the lie by this process. They—the writers and signers of the Statements—come with assumptions about what the Bible can mean, ruling out any meanings that conflict with this (prior) standard. They agree that the Bible is not telling us to greet each other with a kiss but that homosexuality is always wrong. Decisions about which of these statements are applicable for us today and which are not does not arise straightforwardly out of the text of the Bible; they arise out late 20th century evangelical culture and commitments.
In following this line of thinking, they have turned the Bible into an essentially didactic book that everywhere says the same thing. This is hugely damaging. Gone is any sense that the Bible invites us into an old and still flourishing conversation in which, say, 2 Kings says one thing about the fall of Jerusalem and Job quite another, and 2nd Isaiah something completely new. Or that Matthew gives us Jesus as the new Moses, and John gives Jesus as the wisdom teacher, each telling the story in different ways. They have found a way to make sure the Bible teaches what “most” agree is what the Bible should teach. This is hardly reading the Bible for the plain text.
But is there an alternative to this way of reading the Bible? Don’t we always bring to the Bible our assumptions and prejudices, and then find them in the text? Is this not simply the infamous “hermeneutical circle?” It is and we do, but I believe that there is a better way to read the Bible, a way that acknowledges the diversity of the Bible and the diversity of its readers. And in acknowledging the diversity of both, opens us to new interpretations and to new perspectives on the world.
It’s this way of reading the Bible that I will take up in the next post, the companion to this one. I call this way of reading “Text and Trajectory.” It has deep roots in the way the ancient pre-Reformation church read the Bible. But that’s for the next time. Until then, read the Bible with delight and wonder and an eye for the way the Bible subverts what everyone takes to be its meaning. And along the way, take a look at The Little Prince. You’ll be glad you did.