Shuck and Jive

Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

How We Use the Bible


Here be the latest in Conversations with Bob! Bob on the Bible!


John,

A very kind introduction. Thanks. I doubt any members of my congregation are reading this, although they are welcome to do so and can get here through the congregation’s website to my blog and so to your blog. But I have to say that I don’t think what we’re talking about would hold their interest. My poor wife sometimes listens to what I have written to you and I know she does so out of love and not out of interest. But I am glad others participate and wish more in the Church in general and the PCUSA in particular would read and comment.

First a few comments on text in the Old Testament and human prehistory.

I agree with you that we have to understand that the texts of the Torah, (and later documents too like the Deuternomic documents, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings), were placed in their final forms during exilic and post exilic times. I suspect I place more trust in the truth of the stories in the sense that I think they speak in part of events that actually happened. I think I place more trust in the faithful transmission of oral tradition than you do. I think there Abraham, Sarah and their offspring really existed. I know I cannot prove this historically. I also think there was an exodus from Egypt, but don’t think that all Israelites left Egypt. I think they ran into a lot of relatives in Canaan and started to take over the highlands in the interior. Now, if you asked me if the events happened exactly as written in their final form I would say no. I’m fairly certain that they were modified to fit theological explanations. So I suggest that the texts were not made up and written during the exile and the post-exilic period. I think there was a long period of oral transmission, maybe as long as 800 years, followed by a time when individual stories were written down. Then there were those who gathered the stories and edited them together and those gatherings were later edited together as well.

I do agree that there is little independent record that supports the Biblical material from the time of the patriarchs down through the time of the exile. There are tantalizing archeological artifacts that cause great controversy in the archeological community. I don’t claim to be an expert but there does seem to be agreement that there are Assyrian and Babylonian records that speak about the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Records of earlier periods are much more controversial. And certainly there are no independent records that speak to the existence of the patriarchs or of the exodus.

I suspect that the mistrust of oral tradition is an enlightenment prejudice that thinks that modernity is naturally better than pre-modernity. Some cultures, including some Native American cultures required strict memorization of the tribes’ history, word for word memorization. I can’t say if this was the tradition in Israelite oral tradition or not. I’m just unwilling to criticize oral tradition simply because it’s oral. Writers make mistakes too. Look at the various ancient texts of the New Testament and even the differences between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Masoretic text!

We do agree partly on human evolution and development of culture. My obviously inadequate study of human origins suggests that human ancestors appeared between 3.6 and 3 million years ago. I would disagree with you, if I understand you, about the critical time of agricultural settlement as a time that affects the text of the Bible. First, while I am sure there was a great deal of conflict between agricultural communities and hunter/gatherer tribes I am fairly certain that humans fought and killed each other before the beginning of agricultural settlements. I can’t prove this but I suspect hunters fought each other over hunting grounds. I don’t think human prehistory falls so neatly into the empire/oppressed dichotomy. Second I don’t think the Biblical editors intended to talk about life around 4,000 BC. That particular date was selected by Bishop Usher sometime in the 1700’s I think. I don’t think that the ages listed in the patriarchal period and the pre-patriarchal periods tell us anything about the amount of time those periods covered. I think the name lists in Genesis serve more as markers between saga cycles and that the age of the various people had a theological message not a chronological message. So I find your use of the time period of 4,000 BC as a basis for a theme in the Bible to be unlikely. I think it more likely that the stories tell us about settled agricultural communities and their conflicts with shepherding tribes.

On to the questions you asked:

  • What is the character of God? I think we discover the character of God in the Biblical narrative. I do believe that we learn more about the character of God as we move through the Bible. I believe in progressive revelation. Thus I would use the teachings of Jesus to evaluate the claims about the character of God in Joshua.
  • Following that, what does it mean to be in right relationship with God and with one another? I think this one is very simple to say but terribly difficult to do. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself.” I don’t think this is possible without knowing the character of God, best seen in God’s self revelation in Jesus Christ. And I don’t think it is possible outside of a redemptive relationship with God through Jesus. Finally I think that humans will continually fail at this until Jesus returns.
  • Following that, if we do use the creation, fall, redemption schema, what did that mean for the various authors as well as the final product (canon). Here I think we have two problems. The first is the intention of the authors/editors. Again I think that this falls into the area of progressive revelation. Clearly the person(s) that put Genesis in its final form believed that God had created a perfect universe (creation) in the sense that there was no evil in it. Then humans came along and messed up that perfect universe, or at least their little part of it. Now, we have to take evolution into account here and I do think that the Church as a whole has failed to do so in any meaningful way. We either end up with process theology which offers little hope to humanity and the earth in my opinion or we have people who say evolution didn’t happen. I’m willing to say that I don’t know what happened, but things sure are messed up and God through God’s election of Israel and later through coming to earth in the person of Jesus is trying to fix things.
  • Finally, what might it mean for us today? I am trying to get at these questions. This I think will be a very long conversation so I will save it for another individual post. I will say that the previous question began to move us from the question of what the writers/editors meant to say to how we apply what they meant to say and this question is explicitly about application. In other words we have moved from exegesis to hermeneutics.

Finally I agree with you, in part, about the purpose of the Bible. God was hard at work from the Big Bang through the development of life on earth and into the times when people began to record their thoughts through writing. Very little of this is in the Bible. Why? From the Big Bang down through Lucy, (the 3 million year old almost human found in Africa) God wasn’t doing things that had anything to do with us. I mean, I love dinosaurs and all the work spent digging up their fossils but God’s relationship with the dinosaurs is none of our business. If there is life in other solar systems God’s relationship with those life forms is none of our business. Not yet anyway. It may become our business if we can last long enough as a race to move off this pebble in the sky. And if there are other universes, well I suspect we won’t be able to go to them during my lifetime.

An historical opinion: writing only takes place in settled communities. Only after a society has a fixed place to live is there time to develop a code for recording thoughts and yes, only when that society has developed social classes. You need a class with enough leisure time to invent writing or at least a class that wants to keep records. The idea that everyone should learn to read and write is a very recent idea, begun by Presbyterians! (So everyone could read the Bible but also so that we could all study God’s wonderful universe.)

I don’t think creation happened in 7 days but most of it sure is wonderful

Fall is much more than violence although violence is one of the results. The Fall begins with disobedience to and separation from God which then divides human from human which ultimately results in violence. And along the way we have nasty words, rumors, attempts to dominate through words, stealing without violence and envy, all of which can end with physical violence. The others we might call precursors to violence.

Redemption includes justice but also forgiveness and shalom.

I have volume after volume in my study on creation fall and redemption so I don’t think my answers are extensive or sufficient.

Grace and Peace

Bob

7 comments:

  1. Pastor Bob,

    **“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself.” I don’t think this is possible without knowing the character of God, best seen in God’s self revelation in Jesus Christ. And I don’t think it is possible outside of a redemptive relationship with God through Jesus. Finally I think that humans will continually fail at this until Jesus returns.**

    When you say that it's impossible without the relationship ... are you saying both are impossible? Because I would disagree with the second, as I do believe, and have seen, that it's possible to love one's neighbor as oneself even while being an atheist.

    Although I would also disagree with the first as well. I suspect our disagreement would stem from your belief (please tell me if I'm not understanding correctly) that God is only revealed through Jesus Christ, and so if someone who is not a Christian did love God, they are only loving a shadow of God, at best.

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  2. heather

    Wow you are as polite as John and I are!

    You may already know this, but let me say it anyway: the first line you quoted is a quote from Jesus. And Jesus was quoting from Deuteronomy, (the first part), and Leviticus (the second part). The first part in Hebrew reads "You shall love YHWH elohim with all your heart, etc." Thus the quote is not about any god but specifically the God of Israel. The quote is from Deuteronomy 6. The verse right before it reads, "Hear o Israel YHWH your God YHWH is one." Thus the claim is exclusive, saying that there is one and only one God, the God of Israel whom you shall love with all your heart and mind and strength.

    As to your question about seeing this through Jesus my answer would be yes. If Jesus is the one sufficient revelation of God, and the Bible point to Jesus and thus also reveals God, then Jesus is the lens through which one discovers how to love God with heart mind and strength.

    Your first question is actually more complicated. Do non-Christians sometimes (maybe often) love their neighbors as themselves more than Christians do? Of course! Becoming a Christian doesn't automatically make one perfect. And one of the important cautions about people who say they are Christians is that some tend to think that being a Christian is a honor or a reward for goodness and thus think themselves better than others. Being a Christian is a call to service to God through service to others. Christians should, over time, become better at loving others as themselves than other people, partly because knowing God through God's revelation in Jesus is the true path to knowing yourself, (That's a rather loose quote from the beginning of Calvin's Institutes,) and partly because they don't have to worry about pleasing God because they already know that God loves, accepts and forgives them in Jesus. Also how does one learn what love truly is? One learns to love neighbor best when one sees the neighbor as someone beloved by God and also knows Gods commands and thus can best love and serve neighbor.

    When I think of loving neighbors I think of St. Francis who went out specifically to lepers and washed, kissed and bandaged their wounds. True love of neighbor is loving the neighbor as we would wish to be loved. Thus Francis loved lepers enough to treat them as humans, as people beloved by God even though he believed he took a great risk of contracting the disease by loving and caring for them.

    Nevertheless there will always be people who, Christian or not, have a gift from God to love others.

    Good questions!

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  3. You guys should consider writing a dialogical layman's dogmatics together.

    A side note from my undergraduate years studying cultural anthropology: oral cultures very often have more consistent transmission than written cultures. This is because oral cultures tend to be traditional societies that place more value on the past than the future, whereas literate cultures tend to be more progressive. For example it has been observed that geneologies and ancestries get handed down from generation to generation among Australian aborigines without a single name lost or changed in as long as 7 generations. Similarly with poetry and songs. There is good reason to think that the oral traditions which scripture is based on are very old. However, once it was written down the documents went through a great deal of redaction and editing - evidence that the literate class which was doing the recording was more progressive and less inclined to feel restricted to the oral tradition.

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  4. aric

    Thanks! That was exactly my point!

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  5. God was hard at work from the Big Bang through the development of life on earth and into the times when people began to record their thoughts through writing. Very little of this is in the Bible. Why? From the Big Bang down through Lucy, (the 3 million year old almost human found in Africa) God wasn’t doing things that had anything to do with us.

    It seems to me that there is a readily apparent reason why the Bible doesn't address the evolution of the universe from the time of the Big Bang until 4000 BC--the writers of the Bible had absolutely no concept of the universe that even remotely matches what we now know. They had no idea of a Big Bang, they had no idea of the scale of the universe, they had no idea that the earth was not the center of the universe. They didn't know that stars are giant thermonuclear furnaces that formed during the evolution of the universe; they didn't know that the earth formed a few billion years ago, and that live evolved after that over a period of billions of years.

    It seems to me that one of the ways that progressive revelation proceeds is through our understanding of nature. Now that we have a better idea of how nature works, we also have a better idea of how God works through nature. God doesn't fold his arms and blink his eyes and presto! create something new out of thin air. Instead, we know that God is patient, working through natural processes that take sometimes billions of years. The Biblical writers simply never had a clue about this.

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  7. Then humans came along and messed up that perfect universe, or at least their little part of it. Now, we have to take evolution into account here and I do think that the Church as a whole has failed to do so in any meaningful way. We either end up with process theology which offers little hope to humanity and the earth in my opinion or we have people who say evolution didn’t happen.

    I think that this dark view of humanity is particularly difficult for me to swallow. This is the kind of negativity that I find so off putting about many strains of Protestantism. One can compare humans to an absolute standard, against which we cannot measure up, and that makes us out to be this terrible, awful species. Sorry, I don't buy it. We are a problematic species, to be sure, complex and capable of great evil, but also capable of great good.

    As for the integration of evolution, it is true that Christianity needs to address it. The beauty of process theology is that it synthesizes evolution and creation seamlessly in the way that traditional theism does not. This relates to the point in my previous comment about how our understanding of nature has led us to a greater understanding of God's activity; we now realize that creation is a continuing process that takes billions of years--and process theology integrates this understanding directly into its thinking.

    As for process theology offering no hope for humanity, I obviously disagree. I think that if you have this horribly negative view of humanity, and you think that only by dint of coercive divine force can things be made "right", then you are going to approach the persuasively loving God of process theology from a pessimistic viewpoint. But personally, I think that once we realize that persuasion rather than coercion epitomizes Divine virtue, we have the basis of incredible optimism and hope. Process theology tell us that God has acted as a persuasive lure over billions of years, gently and lovingly coaxing the universe towards greater states of self-awareness, higher degrees of experience, and even to the point where loving beings can exist on this out of the way planet. The idea that God could do that through the processes of the universe is a testimony to the power of persuasion. The idea of God as creative-responsive love is a testimony to the power of such love to call forth this amazing universe.

    Far from us "messing up" the universe, I think that we are simply part and parcel of it, doing the best we can with our limited abilities as finite, conscious creatures. The fact that God is on our side, constantly calling out to us, luring us forward is far from a source of despair, but a cause for celebration. If God has managed to take the universe this amazing distance from the Big Bang, then creative-responsive and persuasive love is very powerful indeed.

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