Veiling women and the word of God

Arab woman with veil

Arab woman with veil

Last week I raised the question of progressive revelation within the Bible. I noted that Christians generally acknowledge that the New Testament reveals God in a fuller way than does the Old Testament. (This statement obviously requires qualification. Martin Luther, for instance, believed that parts of the OT reveal Christ while parts of the NT do not, at least directly. So, the relation of the NT to the OT is complicated.)

I also argued that even within the NT we should distinguish among passages. Some reveal God and God’s will more fully than do others. As a practical consideration, this means that, if we ask whether women can and should be ordained into the church’s ministry, we take Galatians 3:28 (In Christ there is neither male nor female) as our rule instead of passages such as 1 Timothy 2 (I do not allow a woman to teach or have authority or a man [or, her husband]).

This argument suggests that some NT passages are problematic. The Christian community has no problem admitting that there are parts of the OT that represent problems–I’ve mentioned Ps. 137, for example, with its approval of those who would kill Babylonian infants. But are there NT texts that are similarly problematic?

This is a hard question. Because the Christian church believes that the NT represents (or at least bears witness to) the ultimate revelation of God, it is very difficult for us to admit that it contains unworthy or problematic ideas.

However, if we are honest, we will admit that there are NT passages that are embarrassing. Take, for instance, Paul’s insistence (in 1 Cor. 11) that women must wear a veil when they pray and prophesy publicly, along with the curious notion that, while males are the image of God, females are the image of males. Although Paul’s words made perfect sense and had an important pastoral function in first century Greco-Roman-Jewish culture, I think it would be a mistake today for us to insist that Christian women wear a veil when they pray or prophesy in public. Likewise, the idea that males are the image of God, while females somehow are images of males strikes us today as very odd.

Faced with these sorts of texts, we might be tempted to fall back on the belief that the New Testament is the words of God, and that if 1 Cor. 11 is out of step with modern sensibilities, then too bad for those sensibilities–we must obey God even if it means rejecting contemporary culture.

It is true that being faithful to our Christian calling will sometimes require us to reject some aspect of our culture. Part of the church’s task is to identify those features of contemporary culture that are destructive and to bring speak prophetically against them.

But can we really say that wearing the veil represents God’s everlasting will, so that Christians today, in our culture, must resist any attempt to remove the veil?

Most Christians never face this issue because, let’s be honest, few Christians read the Bible and it would be the unusual pastor who chose to preach from 1 Cor. 11. Even Christians who do read the Bible find it easy to miss Paul’s words about veiling. 1 Cor. 11 is a scriptural back alley known to few, most Christians keeping to the well-known parts of the Bible such as Proverbs and Psalms.

Nonetheless, Paul’s words about veiling are indeed in the New Testament and we are obliged to come to terms with it. What is problematic is not just the insistence on veiling, but also and most important the fact that it is set within an odd, hierarchical framework: Women must wear the veil because they are the image of males.

This is one of those places where the intelligent Christian should just acknowledge that here, as occasionally elsewhere in the NT, the author’s cultural horizon has managed to appear in the text. It’s like Deuteronomy’s stipulation that females captured in battle must be allowed one month to mourn their parents before an Israelite is allowed to marry them. This law betrays all sorts of cultural presuppositions that are questionable. We would surely not want to simply adopt it as God’s will just because it is in the Bible. In the same way, Paul’s words about veiling represent a cultural legacy that Paul shared. This legacy is foreign to our culture. More important, there is no reason to identify it with God’s will. It is a particular way in which God’s people, in the past, worked out their understanding of God’s will. We can honor their efforts without identifying their understanding of God’s will with God’s will itself.

Of course, once we acknowledge that the Bible, and even the NT, contains culturally relative ideas and practices, we invite the criticism that we have thereby stripped the Bible of all authority. How can the Bible be the word of God if it is or contains culturally-bound human thoughts.

The problem with the question is that is assumes that the word of God must be culturally-neutral–that it any statement, belief, or practice that reflects human culture cannot be or contain the word of God. If we begin with a different of God’s word, however–if we begin with the assumption that God’s word is always joined to and expressed in culturally-relative human words, then both the Bible and the relation of the Bible to the word of God look very different.

Progressive Revelation?

I’ve received a request to write a 1000 word essay on “progressive revelation” for the Global Wesleyan Dictionary of Biblical Theology, so I’m turning my thoughts to that topic.

For many Christians, “progressive revelation” has a sinister meaning, conjuring up images of Joseph Smith receiving the book of Mormon from the angel Moroni. The fear is that someone will come along with a teaching that claims to improve on or replace the Bible.

There is, however, a sense in which all Christians accept the notion of progressive revelation, for surely every Christian believes that the New Testament goes beyond the Old Testament–that the OT is incomplete without the NT (granting that the NT is incomplete without the OT) and that the complete revelation of God is not found until we get to the NT’s witness to Jesus.

This much is not controversial among Christians. But is there progressive revelation in the NT? Do parts of the NT express God’s revelation more profoundly than do others?

This consideration is forced on us for two reasons. First, on any given topic, the NT may well exhibit more than one view. Second, the moral teaching of some NT passages is problematic.

As to the first point (that on any given topic, the NT may well exhibit more than one view): Take, for instance, the NT attitudes toward women in ministry. Romans 16 mentions two women who seem to have responsible positions of authority in the church: Prisca (16:3) and Junia (16:7). We meet Prisca, with her husband Aquila, in Acts 18. Like Paul, they have an apostolic ministry–they travel and preach. In Romans 16, Paul calls them co-workers. Junia is likewise said to be prominent among the apostles. It seems, then, that in the circles in which Paul traveled, there were female apostles. But elsewhere in the NT, there is much less enthusiasm for women in authoritative ministry. 1 Timothy 2 most famously prohibits women from teaching or exercising authority over men. Considerable energy has been spent in recent years trying to show that this passage doesn’t really contain this prohibition (I’m thinking about groups like Christians for Biblical Equality), but I’m not convinced.

What is most likely happening is that, as the church moved into the late first and second centuries, there was a felt need to move the church in a socially conservative direction. There were, in the 2d century, varieties of Christianity that were socially radical, calling, for example, for Christians to be celibate and renounce marriage (as in the “Acts of Paul and Thecla”). These groups found support in Paul’s letters (notably 1 Cor. 7) and in the example of people like Prisca and Junia. For various reasons, mainstream Christianity felt the need to steer away from this radicalism and toward social values typical of Greco-Roman society–hence 1 Timothy’s prohibition of women having authority and various NT passages (such Ephesians and Colossians) trying earnestly to subordinate wives to husbands.

We thus have a multiplicity of teachings in the NT on this subject. This is just an example. Take the eating of food sacrificed to idols: We have Paul’s view in 1 Corinthians, which amounts to allowing such eating under certain conditions, and also the view of Revelation, which issues a categorical prohibition of such eating. The NT, then, often offers more than one view of a subject.

For Christians who want to take the Bible seriously as a witness to God’s revelation, this presents a puzzle. How can we do justice to the NT’s teaching if there is disagreement on a given point? As noted, some Christians have developed ingenious arguments to show that the NT really does uniformly allow women to teach and have authority. However, these arguments are quite strained and really result from the fervent desire to show that the NT has a single, uniform teaching in spite of its multiplicity of authors and contexts.

It seems to me to be more intellectually and spiritually honest to acknowledge that, in the NT, we see the early Christians trying to understand God’s revelation in a variety of situations. The second century conservative reaction to Christian radicalism (seen in Ephesians, Colossians, 1 Timothy and elsewhere) is perfectly understandable, given the fact that the Christian movement was increasingly receiving negative attention from the Roman Empire–Christians did not want to invite unnecessary scrutiny from imperial officials and thus wanted to appear as normal as possible.

For us today, trying to live Christianly, the question is, what should our attitude toward women and authority be? And, how do we honor the NT’s teaching(s)?

My suggestion is that we allow that, just as the NT represents a fuller revelation of God than does the OT, so some NT passages represent a fuller revelation of God than do some others. Paul’s favorable attitude toward female apostles is, I argue, more in tune with Galatians 3:28 (In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, they are not male and female) than is a passage like 1 Timothy 2, with its prohibition of women in positions of authority, even though we can honor 1 Timothy as a response to a particular situation in the late 1st/early 2d century.

In my next journal entry I’ll address the second point that I raised above (that the moral teaching of some NT passages is problematic) and perhaps also speak to the question, how do we determine that one NT passage is a fuller expression of revelation than is another.

Practicing discernment and discrimination

Last week I discussed Ps 137, with its celebration of those who would smash the heads of Babylonian infants.  I stated that such a sentiment is unworthy of God.  I think that in previous journal entries I implied that the book of Joshua’s depiction of God commanding the slaughter of men, women, children, and animals is not the sort of thing that we should attribute to God.

This assertion raises the question of human judgment in the reading of scripture.  If we listen to radio and television preachers, we hear loud declarations that we must take the Bible simply as the word of God and that we humans are not allowed to pass judgment on the Bible.  In their view, the words of the Bible are God’s words and we must submit to them.

It doesn’t take long to discover that even television and radio preacher exercise plenty of human judgment in determining the meaning of scripture and that, like the rest of us, they are prepared to ignore or explain away numerous passages that are difficult.

But the question remains: Are we permitted to use human judgment in our reading and interpreting the Bible?  If so, how do we exercise that judgment responsibly and reverently?

Texts such as Ps. 137 force this issue upon us.  Does anyone seriously believe that God approves the killing of Babylonian babies?  Or, take the New Testament’s solemn prohibition of braided hair for women (in 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Peter 3).  Do we really think that God has a moral objection to braided hair?  Admittedly, some Christians have believed so, but it is increasingly difficult to find Christians who believe braided hair to be a problem.

When I present these matters to university freshman in Bible courses, inevitably the question arises, How are we to discern the authoritative word of God in these passages?  What is God telling us in Ps. 137?  How are we to determine the enduring purpose of 1 Timothy 2?

For Christians who take the Bible seriously, the best response to these questions is to read each text in light of God’s total revelation.  This means, for example, judging the Old Testament by the New Testament.  The New Testament writings themselves do this, as when Paul declares that the purity laws of the Old Testament are not binding on Gentile Christians.

But we don’t even have to set the NT over against the OT.  Leviticus 19:18 commands Israelites to love their neighbors and 19:33-34 commands Israelites to love foreigners.  When we read Ps. 137, no matter how much we empathize with the desire for revenge expressed there, we have to judge that this desire falls short of the command to love.

In other words, if we are to read the Bible responsibly, we must discriminate between passages.  Biblical passages, taken individually, do not all possess the same degree of authority.  The prohibition of braided hair simply does not have the sort of authority that the command to love the neighbor possesses.

More carefully stated, responsible interpretation steps away from a focus on individual texts in the Bible and instead asks about the direction of God’s revelation in the Bible.  As my colleague Michael Lodahl has stated, even in the NT’s teaching about love there is development: In John’s gospel and letters, Christians are commanded to love one another; in Luke’s gospel, we must love the neighbor; in Matthew’s gospel, we are to love the enemy.  To grasp God’s revelation, we must see how John’s gospel and letters do not express the full will of God and that Matthew’s gospel represents a more profound revelation of God’s will.

What we have here is a dialog among early Christians about the proper object of love.  John’s community, feeling itself threatened by various enemies, lays the emphasis on loving other members of the community.  Luke’s gospel, without denying the importance of loving each other, wants us to love the neighbor, even if he or she is a Samaritan.  Matthew’s gospel furthers the dialog by telling us to love indiscriminately, as God love (Matthew 5:48).

It is similar to the OT’s dialog about blessing.  Proverbs tells us that the righteous will be live a blessed life.  There is something commonsensical about this–those who abide by God’s commands will often live well and prosper.  But the book of Job insists that Proverbs’ theology is not the whole story.  Sometimes, perhaps often, the righteous do not prosper but instead suffer.  Proverbs and Job, then, constitute a dialog, or part of a dialog that persists throughout the Bible and into the Christian era.  It would be a mistake to take either Proverbs or Job or any other part of scripture to be the full revelation of God.  Instead, it becomes necessary to interpret each part as part of an ongoing dialog that extends to today.  We today are invited to listen in on this dialog and, having learned from it, to live responsibly for God and to contribute to the ongoing dialog among God’s people.

Psalm 137 and Infanticide

In my last two or three journal posts, I wrote about biblical narratives that seem to be about one thing but are in fact about something else–narratives in which the meaning that lies on the surface of the texts differs from the original purpose of the text.

The genocide passages in Joshua, for instance, seem to describe historical events in 1200s or 1300s B.C. But the purpose of these passages is not to transmit knowledge of historical events. It is instead to urge post-exilic Israel (in the 300s and 400s B.C.) to maintain separation from its pagan neighbors. So, we have to distinguish the literal meaning of the text (what the words of the text say–in this case, the story that they narrate) from the purpose of the text.

Likewise, the Gospel of John’s sweeping declarations that the Jews sought to kill Jesus seems, on the surface, to portray historical facts in the ministry of Jesus (in the 30s A.D.) , but in fact its purpose is to encourage Jewish followers of Jesus in the final decades of the first century A.D. to be public in their faith, even if it meant having to leave the synagogue. Once again, there is a difference between the text’s literal, seemingly historical meaning (its statements about “the Jews”) and its purpose, which is not to narrate historical events but to encourage Jewish Christians several centuries after the death of Jesus.

In passages such as these, the Christian community is interested in the purpose of texts, not in the events that they seem to describe. Our focus has to be on the purpose, because the narrated events did not happen, at least as narrated. While the leaders of the temple in Jerusalem were hostile to Jesus, many Jews supported Jesus. And there is no evidence whatsoever that Israel ever destroyed the Canaanite population prior to occupying the land. The book of Judges is adamant that such destruction did not take place.

In today’s journal post I want to talk about a different sort of biblical text whose literal-historical meaning is not the meaning that God intends for us. Take, for example, Psalm 137.

This psalm is written in the Babylonian exile (500s B.C.) and expresses the feelings of anger and pain that Jews in the exile felt. You will not hear many sermons preached from this psalm, for it ends on a shocking note:

O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock! (verses 8-9 [NRSV])

Like John’s characterization of “the Jews,” Ps. 137 is problematic, but for a different reason. Unlike Joshua or John’s gospel, there is in Ps. 137 no distinction between literal meaning and purpose. The purpose is to express feelings of anger and pain and the words of the psalm do just that. The problem of this psalm lies in its blessing upon those who would smash the heads of Babylonian infants.

In what sense is Ps. 137 the word of God? Most Christians will be uncomfortable thinking that these words express God’s sentiments–that God was using the psalmist as a mouthpiece to utter God’s own wishes. But it is just a difficult to call these words God’s word because God inspired them and caused them to be written. Jews in exile in Babylon did not need divine inspiration in order to feel and express pain and anger.

What, then, does it mean to say that Ps. 137 is God’s word? How can these human, all too human words of anger and hatred be the word of God?

We can get some perspective on this matter if we focus, not on this psalm, but on the themes of this psalm in the context of the entire Bible. The desire for revenge and expressions of malice are common in the Bible, as are hopes, fears, and joy. In passages such as Ps. 137, we do not hear God in any direct way. Instead, we are hearing a Jew of the exile cry out to God from a situation of pain and injustice. In this psalm God is silent; humans speak.

But in fact God is speaking in silence, for the Bible is a dialog between God and God’s people. Sometimes people express thanks for God; at other times, they express anger and frustration. Sometimes God responds; sometimes God does not respond. Sometimes God speaks directly; at other times God is silent.

In Ps. 137 God does not speak. God listens to the exiled Jews pouring out their pain and anger. Their feelings fall short of the love of enemy of which Matthew’s gospel speaks. But God does not interrupt or correct. God listens.

Ps. 137 is the word of God because it is an integral part of the Bible, in which God speaks, but also listens. God’s word, in other words, is dialogical. God’s word is not pure address. It is God speaking and God listening, for in listening, God draws human speech into God’s own word. The human words become a part of God’s word.

We don’t have to pretend, then, that Ps. 137 expresses God’s sentiments or wishes–that God blesses those who smash the heads of Babylonian infants against the rocks. We only have to acknowledge that the word of God is God’s address that also includes humankind’s response to the divine address.

Just as in the incarnation of the eternal word, so in the Bible the divine embraces the human.

The “Jews” in John’s Gospel

We are entering election season; hyperbolic rhetoric is already fills the political air like humidity in the South.

We all know that often political rhetoric often seems to be about one thing but is really about something else–it has a subtext that is known but not talked about. Discussions about immigration are, for some people, about the United State’s loss of sovereignty and status.  For others they are about the loss of American identity as hordes of people not like us storm our borders. Talk about the Common Core is about more than just educational theory. It is also about state and local rights, about apocalyptic fears of big governments, and about the place of the United States in the world. Debates about the Confederate flag encode beliefs about heroism and racism.

This phenomenon, of discourse seeming to be about one thing but actually being about something else, is quite common. Think of the film, “Wizard of Oz.” It seems to be about a dream, but it is also about, or perhaps mainly about, the struggles of 1930s America to come to terms with a society moving from a predominantly rural culture to an urban culture. It expresses a nostalgic preference for farm (Kansas) over city (the Emerald City)–Dorothy finds her home only when she leaves the city and returns to the farm.

Or think of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. At one level they are escapist entertainment with no literary pretensions. But they are also expressions of the 1950s feeling that United Kingdom had lost its pre-eminent status as a world power and was subservient to the United States. James Bond represents the literary reversal of all that: He single-handedly and repeatedly saves western civilization with only token help from Britain’s allies. The novels are thus commentaries the British establishment’s desire for status and meaning in a world of super-powers.

Or, consider the Gary Cooper film, High Noon, in which the sheriff has to face a group of criminals alone, his fellow-townspeople finding excuses to avoid helping him. It is generally recognized that this film is an indictment of the political atmosphere surrounding the hearings, in the 1950s, of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, in which many people were unjustly accused of being communists and had careers and lives ruined while their friends and colleagues did little or nothing to stop the lunacy.

This phenomenon helps us understand the subject of my previous journal entry. That entry described the Old Testament’s affirmation that God had commanded Israel to destroy the native inhabitants of the land of Canaan and (in the book of Joshua) its description of that destruction. I pointed out that in fact nothing of the sort actually happened, as the book of Judges acknowledges, and that the narrative in Joshua is a projection backwards into history of what Israel wished had happened. After the Babylonian exile, with Israel small and threatened by its members marrying outside the Jewish community, a narrative about destruction symbolized the need for separation and identity.

This phenomenon is found in the New Testament as well. In John’s gospel, there is a feature of the narrative that is odd, disturbing, and historically impossible. It is John’s way of referring to “the Jews.” Here are some examples:

• John 5:10 So the Jews said to the man who had been cured, “It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.”
• John 5:16 Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath.
• John 7:13 Yet no one would speak openly about him for fear of the Jews.
• John 9:22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.
• John 18:14 Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people.
• John 5:18 the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.
• John 7:1 the Jews were looking for an opportunity to kill him.
• John 10:31 The Jews took up stones again to stone him.

What is odd is that the gospel makes it seem that the entire Jewish nation rose up in opposition to Jesus. “The Jews took up stones again to stone him.” This is historically absurd. Jesus and his followers were Jews. In fact, virtually every character in this gospel is a Jew. John’s monolithic portrait of “the Jews” as a group acting in unison against Jesus is not historically accurate.

John’s gospel even acknowledges that “many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus” (John 12:11), telling the reader that “the Jews” were not a homogeneous group uniformly opposed to Jesus. Why then does it insist on saying that “the Jews were looking for an opportunity to kill him”?

What we have here is a projection into the narrative of a reality at work when the gospel was written. John’s gospel is usually dated to the late first century. We know that this was the period when, in Judea and Galilee, there was growing tension between the Jewish Christian community and the synagogue. Prior to this time in that part of the world, Christians were Jews and seem to have maintained a relationship with the larger Jewish community and its synagogues. But in the late first century tension and alienation emerged, so that increasingly Jewish Christians did not feel welcome in the synagogue.

John’s gospel is written in this context. In chapter 9, the blind man’s parents are fearful of being cast out of the synagogue if they seem favorable to Jesus.  What we are reading is an expression of the fears of Jewish Christians in the last decades of the first century, not a description of historical fact during the ministry of Jesus. “The Jews,” in John’s gospel, represent, not the historical people whom Jesus encountered, but the leadership of the synagogues decades later, a leadership that, from John’s perspective, was hostile to Jesus’ followers.

John’s gospel has thus projected the fears and anxieties of the 80s and 90s A.D. backward into the narrative about Jesus, just as the book of Joshua projects the fears and anxieties of Israel in the 400s and 300s B.C. backward in time.

Recognizing that John’s gospel is engaging in deliberate anachronism is important, because otherwise we might be tempted to agree with the many generations of Christians who blamed “the Jews” for killing Jesus and thus justified their persecution of Jews. Without intending to do so, John’s gospel laid the foundation for Christian hatred of Jews, just as the book of Joshua justified the launching of crusades against unbelievers.

By recognizing these books’ use of deliberate anachronism, we can perhaps avoid unchristian feelings and actions.

Of Genocide, Joshua, and the Jewish Community after the Exile

So far, my posts in this journal have been fairly abstract, dealing with the question of whether or not we should think of God’s revelation in terms of the transmission of facts, data, information. In the last hundred or so years, militant Fundamentalism has said Yes with a very loud voice. The result has been absurd claims about the Bible’s creation stories and a hostile attitude toward scientific accounts of origins. But militant Fundamentalists are not alone in saying Yes, even if most Christians are not as strident in their affirmation. Many, probably most, in the Christian tradition would answer Yes. As I noted in an earlier post, the authority and truth of the Bible seems to require that it be a communication of truths from God.

My concern in denying this claim is to do understand the Bible as well as to avoid attributing unworthy attributes to God. To make my point, I want to consider the passages in Joshua in which God commands Israel to exterminate the inhabitants of the land.

Deuteronomy 7:2 and Joshua 11:19-20

Dt. 7:2 commands Israel, when it enters the promised land, to defeat and utterly destroy the inhabitants, showing them no mercy. 7:3 tells Israel not to intermarry with the inhabitants, a curious command if they’ve already been destroyed–who would be left to marry? The book of Joshua narrates the execution of this command. According to Joshua 11:19-20, God hardened the hearts of the locals, prompting them to fight Joshua and Israel, with the result that were exterminated and received no mercy.

There are several problems with these passages:
• I’ve already noted the oddity of commanding Israel not to intermarry with the pagans who were supposed to have been destroyed.
• I for one don’t want to believe that God commanded Israel to kill all of the men, women, and children of the land.
• The book of Judges contradicts the book of Joshua by showing in great detail that, Joshua notwithstanding, Israel did not exterminate the locals. Of course, Judges laments this fact, wishing that Israel had done so, but it nonetheless records Israel’s failure to do so, thus contradicting the claims of Joshua.

This is all very strange if Joshua is a bunch of historical facts that God communicated to the biblical writer(s).

But everything makes more sense if we attend to Dt. 7:3, with its prohibition of intermarriage. At what point in Israel’s history was there anxiety about intermarriage with pagans? It was in the post-exilic community (400s B.C. and later). Both Ezra and Nehemiah rail against intermarriage because it seems to threaten the well-being of the community.

What we have in Dt. 7:2 and in Joshua are the concerns of the Jewish community, small and feeling threatened after the Babylonian exile, expressing its fears in a historical narrative about its past. Dt. 7:2 and Joshua do not, therefore, represent historical facts or the command of God. They represent instead an expression of the Jewish community’s struggle to survive and to be faithful to God, an expression given narrative form. It’s as though post-exilic Israel were saying, “If only our ancestors had exterminated the pagans, then we would not have to worry about our sons marrying the local pagan girls.”

The Old Testament’s talk about extermination, in other words, does not directly reflect God’s wishes, but is instead a violent way of talking about the Jewish community’s need for purity and separation from its pagan neighbors, especially after the Babylonian exile.

The lesson to draw from this is that, in the Bible, we have to distinguish 1) the historical and grammatical meaning of passages (the “literal” meaning) from 2) the actual meaning. In Joshua, the historical meaning seems to be a reference to historical events. The problem is that, according to Judges, these events did not take place (as Joshua claims they did), at least not nearly as thoroughly as Joshua narrates. The actual meaning relates to the post-exilic community’s understanding of itself in relation to its pagan neighbors and its need to enact separation and prevent intermarriage.

The distinction between the historical meaning and the actual meaning explains why allegorical methods have been so popular in Christian history. Most Christians have felt that there is something more to these stories than just historical narration.

So, to the extent that the Bible contains information in these sorts of narratives, it is information about the struggles of the community to come to terms with its situation. But this is not the communication of information from God. The Bible is, accordingly, best thought of as the record of a dialog among God’s people as they struggle to understand their calling and to be faithful to God.

Next week I want to use the same approach in dealing with those passages in John’s gospel that characterize all Jews as persecuting Jesus and hating the disciples. I’ll make the point that here, as in Joshua, the struggles of the community have been projected back onto the time of Jesus, so that the actual meaning has to do with the Christian situation in the last decades of the first century.

As always, comments are welcome.

The Word of God and Spirit

I want to begin where I ended my last journal entry and ask, Why is it important to affirm that the Word of God, i. e., revelation, is something other than information?

It is important to do so because information is inert; it cannot save us. It is true that we can make use of information for our good. If I am on a diet and learn that a piece of bread contains 100 calories, I may be deterred from eating it. If I am told that investing in a certain way will increase my wealth, I can use that information. But information, in itself, does nothing. It is simply available for use.

Contrast this with the Bible’s affirmations about the Word of God. It is living and active; it works; it accomplishes God’s purpose. Information is not living and active; it does no work; alone, it accomplishes nothing. It thus cannot save us.

The living and active quality of the Word of God explains why the Bible associates the Word with Spirit. Consider these texts:

  • John 6:63: It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.
  • Psalm 33:6: By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath [literally Spirit or spirit, ruach] of his mouth.

Consider also how Word and Spirit are coordinated in Genesis 1: God speaks the creative word; the Spirit of God rushes over the void.

The coordination of Word and Spirit explains as well the Gospel of John’s teaching that, after Jesus (who is the Word of God) returns to heaven, the Spirit will continue the ministry of the Word: the Spirit will teach the disciples everything, reminding them of what Jesus has said (John 14:26) and will guide the disciples into the truth (John 16:13).

These texts tell us that the Word of God is spirit-ual; filled with the Spirit of God. Because the Spirit is creative, the Word is creative. That is what it means to say that the Word is living and active. Information may be interesting, useful, and important, but it cannot be filled with God’s Spirit. It cannot save us.

It is important to deny that the Word of God is information for another reason, one that bears on the way in which we read and interpret the Bible. For too long, Christians have treated the Bible as though it were a big encyclopedia of true statements–as though God wanted us to know some facts and caused the biblical writers to write those facts for our benefit. The result of this approach has been crazy and unsustainable interpretations of the Bible’s creation stories, as well as astonishingly stupid interpretations of the Bible’s eschatology. It all comes from treating the Bible as a huge store of facts, instead of approaching it as the principal way in which the living and active Word of God comes to us with creative and saving power.

So, we honor the Word of God when we receive its saving, transforming power–when we hear its message of judgment and deliverance. We do not honor it by ascribing to it the sort of petty truth that facts possess.

Revelation, Information, and Action

For more than a hundred years, Christians in America have debated the nature of scripture. Terms such as “Evangelical,” “Fundamentalist,” and “Liberal” get thrown around, marking various stances. Two years ago my church, the Church of the Nazarene, felt compelled to issue a statement on the nature of the Bible.

I’m very happy that my church does not share the Fundamentalists’ view of the Bible; however, official statements go only so far. We all have built-in assumption that may get in the way of our understanding the Bible. Some of those assumptions relate to the idea of the word of God.

The Christian tradition identifies the Bible as the word of God. This is the ground of the Bible’s authority. It is not “cleverly devised myths” (2 Peter 1:16 [all biblical quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version]) or a “human word” (1 Thessalonians 2:13), but God’s declaration.

So, if we are to understand the concept of scripture, we have to answer the question, What is the word of God?

In our culture, we usually use words to convey information; the transfer of information is a critical matter. That is why universities have academic departments of communication. The president of the United States has a press secretary to manage the flow of information. Most tellingly, we have “information technology.” This shows us that information is so important in our culture that we have made it the object of technical expertise.

We are thus tempted to identify the word of God with the communication of information. In other words, we easily assume that the Bible reveals facts that God wants us to know–that God has lodged information in the Bible and told us to locate that information by reading, just as a journalist may publish an article because he or she wants the public to know some important information.

However, when we identify the word of God with the communication of information, we are projecting a modern understanding of “word” onto the Bible. It is very easy and natural for us to engage in this sort of projection. For example, in my experience of teaching, I have seen how difficult it is for us, who live in a culture that celebrates individuality, to see that people in biblical times lived in collectivist societies–the primary reality was the group; individuals had existence and meaning only because they belonged to a group. Faced with this collectivist culture, so different from ours, we normally just project onto the Bible our individualistic understanding of church and salvation.

So, it is not surprising that, when we hear the phrase “word of God,” we immediately assume that God’s word performs exactly the same function that words perform in our culture.

But what did “word of God” mean for the biblical writers?

Here are some biblical texts that speak about the word of God:

Isaiah 55:10-11
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

Hebrews 4:12: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

The first chapter of Genesis

1 Thessalonians 2:13 “We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.”

These texts declare that the word of God is another name for God’s acting: God creates by speaking; God’s word is at work in believers; it accomplishes God’s purpose; it is living and active, dividing and judging. In these texts the word of God is not about communicating information. It is instead the expression and means of God’s creative power. That is why the ultimate manifestation of the word is Jesus Christ, the word become flesh.

The lesson for us is that, when we affirm that the Bible is the word of God, we are affirming that the Bible is an instrument of God’s creative and saving power. It really isn’t an encyclopedia of facts that God has revealed.