A Few Observations about Holiness

SeparationI am teaching a course, The Doctrine of Holiness.  It’s a seminar, so students are presenting.  Since I want someday to write a book about holiness, I decided to keep track of ideas and insights this semester.  Here are some thoughts I’ve had about holiness as I’ve listened to the presentations this week:


The Bible contains a dialog about holiness and separation.  On one hand, there are plenty of texts that assert the importance of separating the holy people of God from the pagan world–think of Ezra demanding that Jewish men divorce their non-Jewish wives (Ezra 10).  On the other hand, there are passages that are less concerned with separation and instead emphasize God’s desire for inclusion.  Ruth, for instance, was from Moab and thus not part of the holy people, yet she plays a vital role in the history of salvation.

This dialog within the Bible insists on two points: 1) God’s people must be ethically separate from and different from their pagan neighbors and 2) God’s project in the world is to demolish walls of separation.

The book of Acts is suggestive in this regard.  It abounds with gratuitous uses of holy: the prophets are holy (3:21), the temple is holy (21:28), angels are holy (10:22), and so on. Holiness in these contexts implies difference and separation.  At the same time, one of the lead items in Acts’ agenda is to erase the distinction between Jews and Gentiles–Peter says that we are to call no one, even Gentiles, unclean or unholy.  So, Acts simultaneously emphasizes holy people and things and their distinctiveness and also subverts the distinction between the holy and the profane, between the clean and the unclean.  Is Acts saying that every person is holy and clean? Is there no distinction between the holy and the profane?

Luke’s gospel has something to say about this as well.  It contains several episodes that involve a reversal of expectation:

  • Take the parable about the person giving a banquet who discovers that none of the invited guests can attend (14:16-24).  Enraged, the host orders his slaves to round up people who would otherwise be unworthy of such a banquet–the poor, the crippled, the blind, and so on.  This parable is about membership in the holy people of God. At the beginning of the story, we assume that the attenders will be those with social standing; but at the end, we realize that it is the unworthy who have been selected. The holy people thus comes to consist of the unworthy, while the worthy folks are de-selected.
  • Or, take Jesus’ harangue against the Pharisees in 11:37-44.  The Pharisees want every Jew to live in a priest-like state of purity; they try as hard as they can to remain pure.  But Jesus declares that they are like unmarked graves–they are an unwitting source of defilement.  Thinking that they are upholding standards of purity, it turns out that they defile anyone whom they contact.
  • In the parable of the Pharisee and the publican (18:9-14), it is the publican who is declared to be righteous, not the Pharisee.

These parables make it difficult to know what separation means.  As the parable of the Good Samaritan shows, knowing who is and who isn’t a member of the holy people can be difficult to determine.

Three theses on biblical prophecy

prophecy chart

A Chart Explaining Biblical Prophecy and Its Fulfillment

have taught the same adult Sunday School class for more than ten years.  From time to time we have studied the Bible’s prophetic writings.  I remember distinctly when we studied the Old Testament’s minor prophets.  A recurring experience of the members of the class was exasperation as, week after week, they failed to find any prophecy in these prophets.  They expected to find in these writings detailed predictions about Jesus Christ and the end of the world.

What they instead found was discourse about the problems of ancient Jews.  For instance, Haggai harangues Israel about its failure to rebuild the temple after its destruction by the Babylonians.  Amos keeps relating God’s demand that Israel practice justice for the poor.  Where is the prophecy? The assumption was that prophecy is prediction about things in the prophets’ distant future and that there is an exact correspondence between prophetic word and historical fulfillment.

In response, over the years I have developed three theses about prophecy in the Bible:

biblical prophecy operates within a fairly near time horizon–the anticipated time between prophetic word and fulfillment is at most a matter of decades, not centuries or millennia.  Thus:

  • Isaiah 1-11 is speaking about most directly about the war between Judah and Israel.  Its hopes for a king who will rule in righteousness (7:10-16 [the sign of Immanuel], 9:1-7, 11:1-9) relate to the son of the current king, Ahaz, not to a messianic figure hundreds of years in the future.
  • Ezekiel’s promise that God would give to Israel a new heart and spirit (36:25-27) is a hope bound up with the return from exile in Babylon.  The book of Ezekiel thus expects a fulfillment within a few years.
  • The book of Revelation is best understood as a warning to Christian churches to maintain moral and spiritual distance from the Roman empire and Greco-Roman culture.
Prophecy is a response to
the immediate situation.

In short, biblical prophecy is a response to the prophet’s immediate situation, whether war with Israel, Babylonian exile, or the Roman empire.  This is not everything that we must say about prophecy, but it is the first thing.  We gain nothing by pretending that the prophets were talking about events in the year 2016.

prophecy often is not fulfilled according to the time expectations of the prophet and usually not in the manner expected.

  • Isaiah’s hopes that Ahaz’ son would be an ideal king of righteousness were dashed.
  • Ezekiel’s hopes for a renewal of Israel were not fulfilled, at least to the extent that he hoped.
  • Prophecies about the restoration of Jerusalem after the exile were fulfilled in part–Jerusalem was indeed rebuilt after the Babylonian destruction–but not to the degree that oracles such as Isaiah 2:2-4 would lead us to expect.

Additionally, sometimes prophecy is simply not fulfilled.  Ezekiel’s prophecy that God would destroy Tyre by the hand of Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon (chapter 26) did not happen, as the book of Ezekiel admits in 29:17-20.  Babylon simply didn’t have the military might to get the job done.  Likewise, Daniel’s prophecy that the kingdom of God would be established 490 years after the decree to rebuild the temple did not come about.  Indeed, we are still waiting for the fulfillment of that promise.

Prophecy’s fulfillment
is always deferred

To appreciate biblical prophecy, we must acknowledge that the complete fulfillment of its hopes are usually deferred to the indefinite future.  This is why hope is an essential virtue of the Christian life, and why the concept of the future is of such importance.

the prophetic word is capable of multiple partial fulfillments in different times.  The prophetic word contains a fullness of meaning that is not exhausted in any particular time, short of the eschatological fulfillment.  The prophetic word is thus potent–full of potentiality, capable of speaking, not only to its own time but to future times as well.  The book of Revelation, for instance, although initially relating to the threat posed by the Roman Empire, has the power to speak to Christians of every generation.

The fulfillment of prophecy, therefore, develops over time, as the initial word is re-actualized in new settings.  The task of Christian preaching and teaching is to use the Bible’s prophetic writings in order to discern our situation today, and then to let those writings speak words of judgment and comfort to the church.


“Pictures at an Exhibition” and Theology


Modeste Mussorgsky 1839-1881

Two nights ago Terrie and I heard a presentation of Modeste Mussorgsky’s “Pictures from an Exhibition” by the San Diego Symphony.

(Here’s a Youtube link to a performance:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oN2j-5ZB3ZQ).

The piece itself was well worth the price of admission.  It’s very stirring and uses the full range of an orchestra’s resources.  But what was especially fascinating was that the performance was preceded by an hour long presentation about the piece–the composer, the circumstances of the composition (it was an homage to a deceased friend, an artist), what Mussorgsky was trying to accomplish, and the process by which Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) transformed Mussorgsky’s piano piece into an orchestral arrangement.  The talk was interspersed with bits of “Pictures” illustrating points made by the talk.  There was also extensive use of photos and paintings.

While listening to this well-executed presentation, I was irresistibly drawn to the idea of presenting theology in a comparable way.

What the symphony’s presentation reminded me is that music is always the product of a particular situation–in it the composer is trying to accomplish something.  It may be a technical musical issue or it may be the expression of a feeling or desire or it may be the need to make a public statement, but music is never simply an instance of supposedly eternal laws of musical composition.  The music always arises out of the composer’s life and circumstances.

Theology, like music, always arises
out of particular circumstances

The same is true of Christian theology.  There is a great temptation to assume that theology–true theology–never changes because it is simply putting into human words the eternal word of God. What this assumption overlooks is what becomes obvious to anyone who teaches theology, namely that it is not an abstract system of ideas but is instead the verbalization of the theologian’s struggle with God.  The theology of the greatest of modern theologians (easy examples include Søren Kierkegaard and Karl Barth) gives abundant testimony to this fact, but it is true as well of theologians such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther and Friedrich Schleiermacher.  Too often the logical form of theology masks the existential circumstances of its composition.  When this happens we have a theology that is something to be learned in the way in which school children learn the multiplication tables.

Theology is not a
timeless system of ideas.

What the Mussorgsky presentation suggested to me is that perhaps the best way to present theology is not the traditional mode (a plodding journey through ideas in an artificially logical form) but is instead biographical and circumstantial–an approach that takes seriously the situation of the theologian and, of course, the communities of which he or she is a part.

Coincidently, I’m teaching this semester two sections of a general education course, The Christian Tradition. I had already decided to take a mostly biographical approach this semester, focusing on the lives of Augustine, six medieval Catholic women, Martin Luther, and John Wesley. My hope is that students will feel the urgency and greatness of Christian thought by seeing its connection to living human beings.  Of course, given our culture’s aversion to history, I face a daunting task.  But the presentation of “Pictures from an Exhibition” gives me some hope.

Prohibition and Apocalyptic Politics

Temperance Parade 1919

Temperance Parade, 1919.   www.floridamemory.com/items/show/139961

Last Sunday I watched some of the Ken Burns’ documentary about the history of Prohibition (http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/prohibition/). It’s another top-notch production like his series on the Civil War.  What especially interested me was the portion dealing with the leaders of the Temperance Movement.  The documentary claims that Prohibition in some form might have succeeded if the leaders of the Temperance Movement had been willing to compromise on some points.  Instead, they adopted an uncompromising stance and as a result not only saw the end of Prohibition but also contributed to the rise of organized crime in America.

The documentary illustrated the inflexibility of the Temperance leaders, as well as the harsh rhetoric that they used for their cause.  This rhetoric was aimed not only at those urging an end to Prohibition, but also against Catholics, immigrants, and urban-dwellers.  The Temperance Movement, in other words, saw the fight not only as a battle against liquor but also against everything that seemed to be responsible for America’s moral decline.  It was, in other words, a crusade on behalf of rural, conservative America against urban, changing America.

(This point was reinforced for me when, around Christmastime, I was watching the Wizard of Oz [1939] with my granddaughter, Juliette.  One of the big themes of this film is that, although the city [Oz] seems to be a utopia, home is really rural [Dorothy’s farm in Kansas].  Here’s the there’s-no-place-like-home scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PweYu0v9_ks.  The Wizard of Oz is in one sense a parable about the struggle of rural America to assert its importance in the face of growing urbanization.)

This episode of Burns’ documentary about Prohibition makes it clear that little has changed in American politics: We still have a highly conservative, rural Evangelical voice that is inflexible in its politics and fearful of urbanites, immigrants, and everything else that is different from traditional rural culture.  This voice is governed by apocalyptic anxiety about big government and cultural decadence and it is no surprise that Donald Trump is making inroads into this portion of American society.  Its apocalyptic theology makes it easy for it to see politics and culture as a battle of good vs. evil, of truth vs. error, of right vs. wrong.

That is why one of the challenges facing American Christianity today is coming to terms with Christianity’s apocalyptic heritage–its centrality to the Christian message and also its capacity for distortion and misuse.

Narrative and truth

Another experience from teaching New Testament to undergraduates.

I’m trying to help students get the point that in the NT, the narrative serves truth. This sounds innocent enough until we see how it operates in the gospels.

For instance, in Mark’s gospel (chapter 10) Jesus heals a blind man. In Matthew’s gospel (c. 20) Jesus heals two blind men in exactly the same circumstances (outside Jericho, etc.). In Mark’s gospel (c. 5) Jesus casts a demon out of one man who lives among tombs; in Matthew’s version (c. 8) Jesus heals two demoniacs in exactly the same circumstances.

Or, in Matthew and Luke, Jesus heals the son of a centurion. The climax of the story is Jesus’ statement that he has not found this man’s sort of faith even in Israel. In John’s gospel, in a similar story, Jesus performs the same healing but says that people will not believe unless they see signs and wonders.

There are perfectly good explanations for these discrepancies. Matthew’s gospel doubles the number of people healed because, in the Jewish law, two witnesses are required to establish the truth of a matter. Matthew has employed Mark’s stories to say, not only that Jesus can do amazing works of power, but also that there are reliable witnesses to Jesus, thus establishing his validity as the son of God and king of Israel.

Matthew and Luke use the story of the centurion to show that the kingdom of God extends to Gentiles, even to Roman centurions–everyone is invited into the kingdom. Being Jewish does not give one an inside track; even pagans can show exemplary faith. But John’s gospel has a different theological agenda. It wants to show that belief based on miracles is misplaced. The only sound basis of faith is testimony (like the woman by the well’s testimony in chapter 5). So John’s gospel uses the story to make a different theological point.

The gospel writers, in other words, exercise some flexibility when they narrate the Jesus story. They don’t shy away from changing details in the narrative in order to preach their message.

This flexibility is shocking to a culture accustomed to journalistic standards of accuracy. But these standards are not an immutable law; they are simply a cultural prejudice by which we today operate. Ancient cultures knew nothing of this standard and, I suspect, would be surprised by our devotion to it. Although I think that journalistic accuracy is a very good thing, it is a mistake to insist that another culture, such as the Bible’s culture, abide by our 21st century standards.

Part of helping students on this point is to get them to see the importance of treating the NT as they would treat another culture, with its own norms, values, and standards. To appreciate the NT requires that we enter into its cultural world and, at least temporarily, set aside our culture.

The narrative serves truth.

This means that the narration is not an end in itself. The gospel writers show no tendency whatsoever to narrate historical facts just because they are historical. On the contrary, they use and manipulate facts in the service of the message. As Norman Mailer said in an interview, “Something can be true and still be fiction” (http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5775/the-art-of-fiction-no-193-norman-mailer).

To put it differently, the sort of truth that the gospels are interested in is not a matter of relating historical facts just for the sake of recording facts. Did Jesus heal one or two blind men? One or two demoniacs? Whatever the historical reality (which of course we can never know), the gospels’ truth does not reside in the facts. It lives instead in the liberating message that the gospels teach.

This is the truth that the narrative serves.

So, it is a mistake to think that Christianity’s primary relationship is to historical events. Theological fundamentalisms having always sought to establish a direct link between the Christian faith and history–the Exodus, the resurrection of Jesus, and so on. But the truth is that Christianity’s primary relationship is not to history but to a book, a story. This book has, I’m sure, some complex relation to the history that it narrates, but there is much about this relation that we can never know.

Christianity is accordingly a religion of a book, a text, a story. Its concern with historical facts is a matter of, at most, secondary concern.

That is why historical narration serves truth.

The Incarnational Paradox of the Bible

How does God’s word relate to human words? How does God speak in the Bible?

I am currently teaching two sections of a freshman course, New Testament History and Religion. On Wednesday we covered the portions of Luke’s gospel that deal with wealth and contrasted them with what 1 Timothy 6 says about wealth. Luke’s gospel has an uncompromising stance against the wealthy, while 1 Timothy 6 allows for wealthy Christians but urges them to be generous.

One thing I have noticed in teaching the Bible to undergraduates: there is a twofold challenge:

1. The first is getting students to acknowledge and appreciate the contextual nature of the biblical writings. Students easily see this when it comes to passages such as 1 Cor. 11 (where Paul commands Christian women to wear the veil when the pray) or 1 Timothy 2 (which forbids braided hair for women). But they struggle with the thesis that every passage in the Bible is rooted in its cultural-political context–that the biblical writers were not immune to influences from the culture in which they dwelled.

2. The other struggle is this: once students acknowledge the contextual nature of the Bible, there is a temptation, which is constantly reinforced by the general tendency of modern culture, to regard the Bible as irrelevant for us today because of its contextual nature. The reasoning goes: if what the New Testament says about veils and braids is rooted in its ancient culture, then who knows what else is irrelevant to us today? As a result, it becomes easy for students to ignore Luke’s gospels’ words about wealth precisely because they’ve grasped the contextual nature of these texts.

3. This twofold results from the central paradox of the Bible, which is also the paradox of the incarnation: how does the divine relate to the human? Jesus is not simply God appearing in the world. Jesus is God appearing in the world as a human being. By analogy, the Bible is not simply the Word of God spoken in human history. Just as the humanity of Christ is not merely a vehicle for the appearance of the divinity, so the Bible’s humanity is more than a vehicle for the Word of God. It is the Word of God spoken in and through the human words. As Jesus Christ is the inseparable union of divine nature and human nature, so in the Bible we find the Word of God only in its union with human words. The presence of the Word of God in the Bible does not nullify the humanity of the human words.

4. There is, in other words, no Word of God that floats above culturally conditioned human words. We hear the Word of God only by listening to the human words of the Bible. The Bible is culturally relative. And not just parts of it, but the totality. Whether it is Paul’s words about wearing the veil and not braiding the hair, or Jesus’s words about discipleship, the Bible’s words are immersed in the ancient world.

5. But this immersion does not prevent us from hearing the Word of God, anymore than Jesus’ being a first century Galilean prevents us from seeing him as the son of God. In the case of Jesus, it requires us to see that Jesus’ being is not a zero-sum game, in which the more divinity he possesses the less humanity he possesses. On the contrary, in Jesus the divine and the human do not compete. By analogy, we should not see the Word of God and the human word as competing, as though the more divine the Bible is the less human it is. On the contrary, God’s being embraces human being; God’s word embraces the human word.

6. This Christological meditation on the Bible does not solve concrete questions, such as, “What does Luke’s gospel say to us today about wealth?” But it does mean that this gospel can speak the Word of God while being a culturally conditioned human word.

A Sermon on Encountering the Word of God

Here is a sermon that I recently delivered.  It’s about the circumstances of life in which we can hear God speak.  It’s an exposition of Luke 9:58-62 (let the dead bury the dead) and a story about my encounter with a homeless couple, an encounter that, I think, put me in the same situation as the man who wanted to follow Jesus but just wanted to bury his father first.

The Unsettling Encounter with the Word of God

This semester I am teaching a course, BIB 101 Old Testament History and Religion. Today I introduced a unit on the prophets. At the same time, students have a weekly assignment to read the book of Amos and write about what they’ve learned.

Today, while talking about the prophets, a student asked whether the prophets’ words were God’s words. It’s a perfect question to ask. Unfortunately, it’s not the right time in the course to give a good response–I want students to do more reading of the biblical text before we get to that student’s question. So, I gave a few vague, preliminary words, indicating that we would address this issue more fully in a few weeks.

So, what is the relation of God’s word to prophets’ words? What is the word of God? As I’ve been saying in these posts, the word of God is not information–it is not intellectual content. The truth is, we don’t need God to reveal truths such as are found in the Bible. The truths of the book of Proverbs, profound as they are (“Like a roaring lion or a charging bear is a wicked ruler over a poor people [Prov. 28:15]), do not require divine revelation. They are truths that everyone knows. Not even the prophets’ words–their denunciation of inequity and lack of justice and faithlessness to God–need divine revelation. Many in ancient Israel must have felt what the prophets declared. We thus don’t need God to give us information or even insight. The prophets could discern evil and denounce it without a special divine gift of information.

It is better to say that the word of God is God’s use of human words to effect God’s purpose. The word of God is an event in which we encounter God. As we hear or read the prophets’ words, which are genuinely their words, God confronts us with words of judgment and grace.

For instance, take the man (in Luke’s gospel, chapter 9) who wanted to follow Jesus, but who first wanted to bury his dead father. Jesus told him to let the dead bury the dead. In this confrontation with Jesus and his strange words, the word of God happened: this man and those who read and hear this story are confronted with the demand of the kingdom of God, a demand that differs from and takes precedence over the demands of conventional morality. In this confrontation, they are judged but also receive grace. It is similar with the ruler (Luke 18) who obeyed all of God’s commands, but is taken aback when Jesus tells him to give away all of his money. Jesus is here not presenting an addition to the law or commanding a new law. Like Paul (Philippians 3), the ruler was blameless according to the demands of the law. Jesus was not about increasing the burden of the law. Instead, in Jesus’ words the ruler experienced the challenging encounter with God. He was judged (he was the inadequacy of obeying the law) but also received grace (he was invited to follow Jesus). The word of God is the encounter, the disturbing confrontation with God that unsettles our conventions and assumptions about what it means to follow God.

It is important to emphasize the existential meaning of the word of God because doing so defines human beings as beings who are addressed by God. There are many ways of defining humans–biologically, psychologically, sociologically, and so on. But theologically considered, we are hearers–or potential hearers–of the word of God. Thus in Job 38, God confronts Job: “I will question you, and you shall declare to me” (38:3). In the world of the Bible, humans are responsible to God–we are called upon to respond to God’s address. Sometimes God commands; sometimes God questions. To be human is to receive the divine command or question and to respond.
This is why it is important not to equate the word of God with communications of information. The speech of God is not the imparting of information or truths of which we are ignorant. To think in this way is to reduce God to the status of divine encyclopedia. Encyclopedias are good, but they cannot judge and offer grace.  They cannot save.

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.