Galileo and the Two Books: The Bible and Scientific Knowledge

July 19, 2016

The Bible has a lot to say about the natural world, but what does it say? I’m not asking, “Which words does it use and which sentences does it contain?” but instead “When the Bible talks about the natural world, what is the nature of its discourse?”

As I discussed in a previous journal entry, the Bible talks about the natural world in its relation to human beings.  I offered the example of Proverbs 30:24-28, where moral lessons are drawn from animal behavior.  In contrast to scientific knowledge, in which things are studied in ways that abstract from the human experience of them, in the Bible things are often presented according to the ways in which we experience them.  Scientifically, it would be absurd to claim that ants are wise (as Proverbs 30 does); but it is also true that we (or at least ancient people did) experience them as wise.

Consider Genesis 1:24-25, where God creates land animals.  They are organized into three groups: cattle, wild animals, and creeping things.  This is hardly a scientific taxonomy.  Instead, it divides animals into groups according to their relationships to human beings: animals suitable for eating and sacrificing, dangerous animals, and miscellaneous other animals that are neither edible nor dangerous.  It’s obvious that human concerns–Which animals are for eating? Which animals may eat us?–have driven this description.  It’s senseless to try to read a scientific motivation into it.

The Bible thus sometimes describes natural things from the perspective of the way in which we experience them..  Scientific knowledge, on the contrary, results from trying to minimize, or even eliminate, human subjectivity from knowledge.

So, I now want to look at a couple of other passages:

You have made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows its time for setting (Psalm 104:19, NRSV)

And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years (Genesis 1:14, NRSV)

Ptolemaicsystem-small

In these passages, sun, moon, and stars are described, once again, according to their importance for human beings.  They exist to determine the calendar.  Absent is any scientific interest in what they are made of or why or how they move.  The celestial bodies are important because they serve a purpose that is vital to human beings.

To conclude: I started this series with a discussion of Galileo’s view that science and the Bible cannot conflict because they are about different things: science is about things in nature, the Bible describes the way of salvation.  This view is, I think, wrong.

It’s not that the Bible is not interested in the natural world, but instead that the Bible talks about the world from a certain perspective.  That perspective is human interest.  The Bible portrays the natural world in so far as it bears on matters of human concern or provides an illustration of something that humans are interested in.

There are several lessons to draw from these observations:

  • First, contrary to the view of Fundamentalists, the Bible does not provide us with scientific knowledge.  Attempts to extract information that can inform scientific views is fruitless.  Fundamentalists’ fantasies about using Genesis to construct an alternative science is hopelessly misguided.
  • Second, Galileo’s view that the Bible is about salvation is overly narrow.  The Bible is too big to be contained by any single category.
  • Third, the Bible can perform a useful service for us by reminding us that there is more than one way to know something.  In our culture, it is not uncommon to hear representatives of the scientific community claiming, expressly or implicitly, that scientific knowledge is the gold standard of knowledge, and perhaps the only sort of knowledge that deserves the name.  The Bible’s attitude toward nature reminds us that there are varieties of knowledge, differing ways in which we may relate to things in the world.  The scientific project provides us with one way, but it is preposterous to imagine that it is the only or the best sort of knowledge.

This is where (some) scientists and Fundamentalists both go wrong–assuming that there is one sort of knowledge.  Some scientists, armed with this belief, criticize and reject the Bible for failing to exhibit this knowledge.  Fundamentalists, with the same belief, try heroically but futilely to squeeze the Bible into a scientific mold.

In our current cultural situation, in which rationality is increasingly channeled into one course–science–it is good to be reminded that we relate to worldly objects in many ways.  Scientific knowledge is only one of those ways.

Galileo: The Man Who Made the Bible Safe for Science (continued)

July 1, 2016

Scientists as workIn my journal entry of June 28, I discussed Galileo’s notion of the two books, viz., the Bible and the book of Nature.  Galileo’s goal was to prevent theological and ecclesiastical inference in scientific research.

Pictured: Scientists at work, happily free from ecclesiastical interference

 

To achieve his goal, Galileo limited the message of the Bible to one issue, salvation.  As he said in his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany:

The Holy Ghost did not intend to teach us whether heaven moves or stands still, whether its shape is spherical or like a discus or extended in a plane, nor whether the earth is located at its center or off to one side. . . .  Now if the Holy Spirit has purposely neglected to teach us propositions of this sort as irrelevant to the highest goal (that is, to our salvation), how can anyone affirm that it is obligatory to take sides on them, that one belief is required by faith, while the other side is erroneous? Can an opinion be heretical and yet have no concern with the salvation of souls? Can the Holy Ghost be asserted not to have intended teaching us something that does concern our salvation?

NOMA

A modern form of this view was offered by Stephen J. Gould.  Gould advanced the notion of non-overlapping magisteria.  Gould, neither a Christian nor a theist, discovered at some point in his life that not all Christians were anti-scientific dolts.  In particular, he seemed appreciative of John Paul II’s efforts to reduce the tension between the scientific community and the theological community.  In response, Gould articulated the NOMA principle, a sort of division of labor between science and religion.  In Gould’s words:

If religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions properly under the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world’s empirical constitution. This mutual humility has important practical consequences in a world of such diverse passions.

The truce between science and theology thus called allows each to work undisturbed by the other.  Fuzzy but sincere lines of demarcation are established between the domain of science and that of theology.  Each agrees to work its own side of the street:

The lack of conflict between science and religion arises from a lack of overlap between their respective domains of professional expertise—science in the empirical constitution of the universe, and religion in the search for proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives.

Two circles black white 2

Non-overlapping Magisteria

Gould’s view represents a vast improvement on the idiotic picture that many scientists seem to have of theology’s relation to science, a picture of unrelenting hostility caused by thick-headed religious believers who willfully refuse to accept the results of science.

Distinguishing, as Gould does, the domains of theology from those of science performs a practical service.  As the long, sad, and baffling history of biblical creationism has shown, trying to extract scientific knowledge and theories from the Bible is futile. It is, moreover, a hindrance to the scientific enterprise when adopted into scientific education.

At the same time, I’m not convinced of the wisdom of limiting the Bible so one-dimensionally to matters of salvation.  Gould’s approach gives us a workable strategy for reducing conflict between science and theology, but can the Bible so easily be restricted to “proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives”?

Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_ProjectHere’s what I’m getting at: the Bible (mainly the Old Testament) makes assertions about the non-human portions of the universe: sun, moon, and stars; animals; natural forces and processes; and so on.  Only Fundamentalists want to continue the preposterous agenda of squeezing scientific information from these biblical assertions. But are such assertions one and all expressions of “proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives”?

Here’s a good cliffhanger on which to end.  More to come shortly.

Progressive Revelation

Work in progressThe
Christian faith affirms the reality of progressive revelation; without it, the New Testament would be, not new, but only a different version of the Old Testament. For Christians, the New Testament bears witness to a revelation that is more complete than what we find in the Old Testament. And even in the New Testament we can see some developing insight into revelation, as when the church, after considerable discussion, came to see that God does not require male Gentile converts to be circumcised.

What usually worries us about the idea of progressive revelation is the possibility that there could be a revelation more ultimate than Jesus Christ or a witness to revelation more ultimate than the New Testament. The Church of Latter Day Saints, for instance, professes to have a revelation that goes beyond and adds to the revelation of Christ to which the New Testament bears witness. Muslim theology claims that Mohammed received from God the ultimate revelation that gives the true interpretation of Jesus Christ’s significance. It is these sorts of beliefs that make the idea of progressive revelation problematic.

Jesus Christ is the
ultimate revelation of God

It is a bedrock element of the Christian faith that there is no revelation more ultimate than Jesus Christ and no witness to that revelation more ultimate than the New Testament. The basis of this belief is the affirmation that Jesus Christ is the
Logos, the word of God, incarnate. Before Jesus Christ there were many preliminary expressions of the word of God, such as Moses’ law or the declarations of the Old Testament’s prophets, but Jesus Christ is the word of God itself, and not merely an expression of that word. It is also a fundamental conviction of the Christian faith that the New Testament is the unsurpassable witness to the revelation of Jesus Christ and is so because it rests on the testimony of Jesus’ apostles.

However, revelation is not only something sent but is also something received. Revelation that is not received by human eyes and ears and minds is not yet revelation. There can, accordingly, be a development in the human understanding of revelation–a growing awareness of the implications of revelation. So, although in one sense no revelation can surpass Jesus Christ and the New Testament’s witness to Jesus Christ, there is a developing history in which God’s revelation is understood with increasing insight.

The possibility of such a developing history is grounded in the fact that the revelation of Jesus requires the illumination of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit teaches disciples (John 14:26) and guides them into the truth (John 16:13). This Johannine theme reminds us that revelation must be received and that our minds must be suitably disposed by the Spirit to receive it. History shows us that the Spirit’s attempt to lead the church into truth is progressive, even if the pace of progress is frustratingly slow and uneven.

WAR & CONFLICT BOOK ERA:  CIVIL WAR/BACKGROUND:  SLAVERY & ABOLITIONISM

For example, take the practice of slavery. Paul wrote (in Galatians 3:28) that in Christ there is neither slave nor free person. The revelation of Jesus Christ, in other words, means that God is overcoming the distinction between slave and free. Yet the New Testament writers took slavery as a fact of life. They did not and, in their cultural situation, could not envision an end to slavery. But over the centuries, the Christian church came to understand that slavery is contrary to God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. It took more than 1800 years, but the Spirit finally succeeded in helping the church grasp this important truth. There has thus been progressive insight in the meaning and implications of revelation. Or, take the ordination of women into the ministry of the church. It took Christian churches more than 1800 years to grasp the point that the oneness of men and women in Christ implies the propriety of ordaining women. Most churches still do not acknowledge this point, but some do. Finally, consider the centuries-long Christian belief that the Bible teaches that the earth lies at the center of the universe. It took the labors of astronomers to convince the Christian community otherwise. In this case, astronomy was useful in helping Christians gain insight into what God’s revelation teaches and what it does not teach.

These examples show us that revelation is one thing and the human understanding of revelation, of its meaning, significance, and consequences, is another thing. It is good for us not to confuse the two. When we forget this distinction, we identify our finite, fallible interpretations of scripture with the declaration of scripture itself; we think that our understanding of revelation is revelation itself.

There is no such thing
as generic revelation

What about the phenomenon of Christian prophecy? We read of prophets in the New Testament (e.g., Acts 11:27; Acts 13:1; Acts 15:32; Acts 21:9-11; 1 Corinthians 14:29). These prophets may deliver a revelation (1 Corinthians 14:6, 26, 30). Do these new revelations transcend the revelation of Jesus Christ? The book of Revelation shows us that such utterances of Christian prophets are new revelations, but are not thereby progressive revelations. They do not constitute a revelation beyond Jesus Christ, but they are fresh occasions of revelation in new contexts. Because revelation must received and because this reception always takes place in particular historical and cultural circumstances, there is no such thing as generic revelation. Revelation is always the intersection of God’s speech and human situation. That is why we read the repeated refrain in Revelation, “Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (e.g., 2:7; 2:11). The revelation of Jesus Christ is, in a sense, a treasure. Those who are trained for the kingdom of God can bring from it both what is new and what is old (Matthew 13:52). Expressed differently, the Spirit of God may have a new word to speak to the church–new because the church dwells in ever-changing contexts that require fresh adaptations of the revelation of Jesus Christ.

Three theses on biblical prophecy

prophecy chart

A Chart Explaining Biblical Prophecy and Its Fulfillment

I
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:

First,
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.

Second,
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.

Third,
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.

 

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.