Elyon and the ancient Hebrew poets

Elyon (‘God Most High’) is one of the biblical names for God. Not as common as Yahweh or El, but I think we need to look hard at the uncommon in the Bible – because rarities can characterize early as well as late texts.

This divine name, Elyon, always appears in the Bible in the most beautiful prophetic and poetic fragments; we never find it admixed with those tedious lines of racial narrative and high-priestly detail. I think poetry works better than prose to preserve a revelation in relatively unadulterated state. Its fixed structure is more resistant to redaction by later editors, because it is more difficult to adapt or change than a line of narrative.

The Elyon poetry is represented in strata of all three high watermarks in Israel’s recorded history of relation to God – from the time of Abraham (Gen 14:18), to that of Moses (Det 32:8), as well as David (2 Sam 22:14). It is used for God’s name in 11 of the Psalms. In fact the Elyon tradition extends down to the late Second Temple apocalyptic writings, where we read Daniel proclaiming that “the saints of Elyon shall receive the kingdom” (Dan 7:18).

And it doesn’t stop there; the evangelist Luke includes a tradition which identifies Jesus as ‘Son of Elyon’ (Lk 1:32) and the Baptist as ‘prophet of Elyon’ (1:76). Finally, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews ties is all together by linking the divine Son with the ‘order of Melchizedek’ (Heb 7:1). Remember Melchizedek was a bread-breaking and wine-sharing priest of Elyon who was ‘without generation’ – and we should not forget that he was the recipient of Abraham’s tithe (Gen 14:18).

So Elyon – the Most High – has a nice even spread of representation in the best poetic writing in the Bible. Like the more famous divine names, Jahweh and El, this Elyon takes its place as a distinct theological tradition of poet-prophets whose teaching stretched from the Patriarchal era to the days of the Savior himself.

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Hell a big deal with pagans – with Jews not so much

Finding evidence in ancient texts for a future place of punishment for the unrighteous is much easier and more straightforward in pagan literature than in the Bible.  In fact, references to anyplace resembling Evangelical or medieval Catholic concepts of Hell are almost non-existent in the Bible.  What little we think we find there is almost nil compared to what we find in Plato.

Plato thinks nothing of including in his chief dialogue a lengthy remark by the father of Polemarchus regarding the man’s own beliefs in “the tales of a world below and the punishment which is exacted there” (Republic 330d-331b). Cephalus is grateful that his wealth has afforded him

“no occasion to deceive or to defraud others, either intentionally or unintentionally; and he is not in any apprehension about offerings due to the gods or debts which he owes to men when he departs to the world below.”

He implies that an old man without wealth must be unhappy because:

“suspicions and alarms crowd thickly upon him, and he begins to reflect and consider what wrongs he has done to others.  And when he finds that the sum of his transgressions is great he will many a time like a child start up in his sleep for fear, and he is filled with dark forebodings.”

This place in The Republic is not the usual stop for scholars discussing afterlife concepts in Plato (see Republic X., Phaedo, the end of  Gorgias, etc.).  But evidence right here for widespread folk-beliefs about future punishment among the Greeks seems to me more ‘historical’ in the everyday sense and less rhetorical than elsewhere.  At least it is clear that in the fourth century BC the belief was already ancient enough to be a commonplace of casual discourse.

My advice is to avoid trying to squeeze Hell-doctrines out of Scripture.  And you evangelicals who admit of Greek influences in the primitive church take note.

Yesterday I found a post by fellow Christian blogger, neglitz, who I think is trying to be honest about the problem of afterlife concepts in Christianity and their meaning for evangelical religion.

I hope I can get something up soon about why a Biblical and textual challenge of Hell-concepts does not necessarily justify that other questionable doctrine of predestination – universalism.

Jesus was not illiterate, and he had reasons for not writing

[Revised 06 Mar 2011]

A year ago I mentioned that I thought arguments supporting the literacy of Jesus offered some surprising theological insights.  I touched on it again in May.  To me it is still a question with fascinating implications for the doctrines of faith, of spirit, of divine and secular history, and of the Word of God:

Granted a probability exists that Jesus was able to read and write – what might have been his reasons for deciding not to leave his own teachings, memoirs, etc., in written form?

My position has been that a literate Jesus could only have judged that the consequences of leaving such artifacts were potentially unfavorable for the spread of his Gospel.  That sounds paradoxical and counter-intuitive, but I think it is very interesting to ponder the negatives.

1.  Jesus was reluctant to quench the Spirit

What could possibly be wrong with sponsoring a permanently fossilized, absolute specimen of truth, to be revered by the surviving community even before his death (and resurrection)?  I hope you see my point.  I think Jesus is always looking ahead to the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost.  A permanent and authoritative text in his name would be the one immovable historical force most capable of frustrating the higher mission of the great truth-seeking Spirit which was to come.

Jesus might even have seen at first hand the power of supposedly inerrant ‘scriptures’ to frustrate new life – in the negative effects of prevailing Jewish attitudes toward their scriptures upon his own mission.

2. Jesus was unwilling to risk corruption of the text

We might also postulate self-censorship for Jesus on the grounds that he recognized that no writing of the period could actually be safe from corruption over time.  Here Jesus would be making a very canny move to frustrate any chance that a document carrying the absolute weight of his personal authority might nevertheless be edited, manipulated, or falsified by later copyists and well-meaning editors.

Conclusion

Two things may be inferred from this one very non-miraculous feature in the life of Christ – that he could read and write his native tongue.

(1) Jesus was depending on the Holy Spirit for a kind of assistance that would be compromised by perfect character portraits and a verbatim transmission of doctrine.

(2) Jesus took a negative view of the suitability of ‘historical’ records (even scripture) to be direct purveyors of his transcendent Truth.

NOTE:  I’m celebrating the blog’s 1-year anniversary by starting a policy of revisiting topics from year-ago posts.  I think attachment of a ‘second chapter’ to some of those topics will allow me to develop my thoughts in the light of a year’s growth.  It will also keep me honest in some of those cases where I promised a ‘continuation’ which never materialized.

Empyrean Dialogues 4 – The Mandate

While Moses briefs the Divine Son in the Empyrean prior to the Incarnation, the subject turns to the difficulties inherent in the Incarnation Mandate, and the possibility of rejection by Israel.

MOSES:  All the saints pray for Israel’s acceptance of your mission, Sire, but anyone can see Father’s mandate for your incarnation is bad news as far as priesthood and temple are concerned.

THE SON:  No question.  Father wants me to feature nothing less than the whole truth about his divine forgiveness.

MOSES:  So he’s clearly talking about a complete de-authorization of the temple system of atonement – both ritual and sacrifice.

THE SON:  You know yourself it wasn’t Father’s idea in the first place.

MOSES:  We had no temple – nor any of the current sacrifices – during the 40 years in the wilderness, Sire.

THE SON:  Right.  But what is left of the sacred record of such truths?

MOSES:  The Book of Amos, Sire.  End of Chapter 5.

THE SON:  Yeah great.  It’s going to be front-paged when I’m finished.

MOSES:  Don’t be too sure.  Sacrifice is an ancient meme.  What if they spin you as the new sacrifice?

THE SON:  Oh God.

MOSES:   I’m just sayin’.  Never mind.

THE SON:  We know it won’t be popular with the priests and scribes.

MOSES:  But the temple sacrifices are a lucrative business for some of the biggest names, Sire.  They can invoke the highest sanctions against you and could really hurt your overall numbers.

THE SON:  And it’s not just the temple, Mo.  Father wants a new Sabbath as well.

MOSES:  I saw that.  So the temple gets common cause with the synagogues against you.  Terrific.

THE SON:  A perfect storm.

MOSES:  But I understand why He’s upset about how that day of rest turned out – we set that day aside for the people in order to free them from man-made taboos, not to bind them.

THE SON:  Well He’s calling it all in.

MOSES:  Clearly.  This is the big one.  The saints are in awe of Father’s new dispensation. It looks like He’s preparing to shake both the highlands and the low places.

THE SON:  Even the very foundations of Jerusalem.  Nevertheless I’m getting one more chance to gather her under his wing.

MOSES:  Nice, except she believes she’s already there.

THE SON:  Yes, but I find this very real and present trust in God an irresistible quality in this people Israel.

MOSES:  It can’t be denied – even in the face of all their historic failures.

THE SON:  Their sublime trust in Father’s faithfulness has surpassed in power all human intellectual assent to beliefs about Him and His Anointed.

MOSES:  And always will.

THE SON:  In fact, the hope inspired by such trust is what forbids my knowing their final decision until they make it.

MOSES:  Sire, everybody here is thrilled by your sworn faithfulness and hopes you will be preaching forgiveness in the temple right down to the elders’ last possible moment of decision.

THE SON:  Count on it.

MOSES:  It’s just … You may never be able to convince them.  I know this people.

THE SON:  Nothing is impossible with God.

MOSES:  Maybe not, but I think Father is showing a lot of wisdom in featuring both an acceptance scenario and a rejection scenario.

THE SON:  The thing with that is either one of Father’s scenarios manifests His will for man in full.

MOSES:  Believe me, I think you’ll get a pretty good idea which one is in play before the end of your first year in public.

(to be continued)

Empyrean Dialogues:

1 – Annunciation

2 – Of Times and Seasons

3 – The Forerunner

Lustful looking – when is it sin and when is it not sin?

When Jimmy Carter confessed to adultery-of-the-heart in 1976 he uttered a commonplace (and false) assumption that an unexpressed desire is equivalent with actual sin:

Carter:  “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times [cites Matthew 5:27-28].  This is something that God recognizes that I will do and have done, and God forgives me for it… Because I’m just human and I’m tempted and Christ set some almost impossible standards for us.”

Impossible standards? Well yes, if Carter seriously believes that the profound teaching of Jesus at Mt. 5:27-28 applies to unexpressed desires, or to feelings of attraction or arousal in the act of looking at a woman. A little exegesis, however, should show that Carter has allowed a widespread misinterpretation of the Bible to create the illusion of impossible standards – and the illusion of sin.

I say give Jesus a break! Look for the true point of his teaching by seeking a true moral principle in connection with the true Biblical meaning, and not in a ridiculous evangelical can of corn like ‘psychological sin.’

In Mt. 5:28 Jesus’ meaning comes to us on the back of two Greek words: blepon, watching or looking on; and epithymesai, evil desire, lust, covetousness.  But these two words possess a common meaning tone that make it impossible to equate adultery with every feeling of desire at the sight of a woman’s beauty.

First, look at the scripture meanings generally conveyed by forms of the Greek word epithymesai:

Epithymesai is rarely used of a merely passive desire – it always gets or seeks its fill of its object – it’s not just an empty wish that you had something that was someone else’s – it’s the way the wicked covet other people’s fields before they seize them, as in Micah 2:2, cf. Ex 15:9, where we read, “My desire shall have its fill”

Not only does Epithymesai enthrall the subject, it finds ways of testing its object to see if it will deliver its craving unto it, as in Ps 78:18, “demanding the food they craved” (as a test)

It requires the hands to reach out and get a hold on its object, implied in Prov 21:25-26, “desires kill the sluggard, for his hands do not choose to do anything”

The key to understanding this kind of desire is that it is not random or unconscious or accidental but is headstrong and has a selfish plan of conquest, like the “stubborn hearts” in Ps 81:12, “which follow their own counsel” (see also Ex. 20:17; Ps. 10:3; Acts 20:33; Col. 3:5; 1Tim 6:9-10; Jas.  1:14-15; 2 Pet 1:4).

Now look at the second word, blepon.

In three significant places in the Greek Old Testament, the word used by Jesus is not used to signify ‘looking upon’ nakedness:

Gen 3:7 – blepon is not used where there is a need to express the way Adam and Eve ‘look upon’ each other’s nakedness after the fall.

Gen 9:22-23 – blepon is not used to express the way Ham ‘looked upon’ the nakedness of his father Noah.

2 Sam 11:2 – blepon is not used to express the way David ‘looked upon’ the nakedness of Bathsheeba.

Check it out. The word family chosen by ‘the 70’ wise translators was idein and not blepon.

Why?  Because blepon is used in OT and NT not so much for a ‘seeing’ of things in front of you in space but more often for a foreseeing of things, a looking ahead to a situation that is not yet realized in time, such as things seen in a vision – or in a wicked plan (like a seduction).

So Jesus was indeed talking about a sin that is committed in the heart before it has been enacted, but it involves the kind of looking forward with wicked desire to possess that implies overt action with intent to seduce or allure someone, and not simply the childish indulgence of ‘a look.’

But beware, because Jesus has chosen his words so well that they clearly imply that this flirtatious action with intent to seduce is ‘adultery’ even in cases when it is unsuccessful.  If the targeted partner rejects your tacit invitation, or if your aims are frustrated by the least miscellaneous condition or event – Jesus is saying that is still adultery.  You’re liable even if you failed in your aim.

I think this is quite a serious and godly warning against sin, and doubly effective, since it applies to women as well as to men.

What about pornography?  Well there are issues of involvement that make it sin, but I would argue it is not mortal sin on the level of adultery.  Comments about that?

(to be continued)

Empyrean Dialogues – 2

Moses has greeted the Son in the divine Empyrean prior to the incarnation.  The prophet has suggested a review of future ‘possibilities’ – since the Father has not yet unequivocally revealed whether Israel shall accept or reject his Anointed.

The Son:  It’s just as you say, Moses – our Father’s counsel of mystery with regard to Israel’s reception of my mission extends even to myself.

Moses:  Many of the saints marvel, Sire, that you are no less ‘in the dark’ than the rest of us on this issue which seems so central to your success.

The Son:  I hope it will not offend the saints to learn that our ‘success’ is not dependent upon either acceptance or rejection by the Jews.

Moses:  Right.  On the other hand, many of us take the view that Father’s decision reflects material conditions perfectly.

The Son:  Well it would be disingenuous of me to offer peace to the world through Israel without my sincere hope of her acceptance of Father’s actual terms.

Moses:  Exactly.  In view of the ambiguity of Israel’s prophetic record regarding his Anointed, the feeling is that – depending on how they read it – the Jews could go either way.

The Son:  But these unfortunate ambiguities mean we can only hope that Israel will find and choose the thin but golden thread revealing Father’s true will.

Moses:  Don’t look at me, Sire.  You know I have not vouched for the clarity of their sacred history for over 400 years – not since the Priestly re-write during the exile.

The Son:  And it is not my intention to sort that problem out for them, Moses.  Father and I are going with the current textus receptus.

Moses:  So you must fearlessly feature the new over the top of the old, and desire their complete acceptance of your mission. 

The Son:  There you have both sides of the issue in a nutshell.

Moses:  It always comes down to human free will, doesn’t it Sire?

The Son:  That, and the authority of Scripture.    But I will not see my mission descend to acrimonious debate over the twin unfathomables of written history and editorial fictions.

Moses:  Verily.  I agree that literary criticism of their scriptures would be a fool’s game at this point.

The Son:  On that – and the rest – I am completely one with Father.

Moses:  How did I know? – – But speaking of unfathomables, Sire, things have been recently complicated by a kind of pre-millennial, futurist thing that has been ‘in the wind’ down there at least since Daniel.

The Son:  Actually since Malachi

Moses:  All those guys.  We’re seeing a lot of ‘end-time’ writers lately featuring rather violent scenarios about the Day of the Lord.

The Son:  There has been a certain amount of informed and disinformed anticipation of my coming.  It seems it couldn’t be helped.

Moses:  Well the more recent apocalypses have hooked up with certain miscues in the canonical texts to create a frothy boil in the minds of many of your people.

The Son:  We’ve seen it, and heard it in their prayers.

Moses:  I trust, Sire, that in holy prayer Father will steer your human mind clear of these vain eschatological desires.  But I worry that the Forerunner may not be spared from entertaining such thoughts.  Can we talk a little about that?

[to be continued]

Empyrean Dialogues – 1

How I accidentally saw the Torah through Wellhausen’s eyes

“In my early student days I was attracted by the stories of Saul and David, Ahab and Elijah; the discourses of Amos and Isaiah laid strong hold on me, and I read myself well into the prophetic and historical books of the Old Testament…  

“Finally I took courage and made my way through Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers … But it was in vain that I looked for the light which these books were to shed on the historical and prophetical books…  Even where there were points of contact between them, differences also made themselves felt, and I found it impossible to give a candid decision in favor of the greater antiquity of the books of Mosaic Law…”

(Julius Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Israel, 2nd 1883, ET 1885, p. 3)

It so happened that only a month ago and by accident I set myself a roughly similar ‘reverse course’ of reading in the Bible as described above – histories and prophecies first and Pentateuch second.  When by chance last week I read the above observation by Wellhausen, I recognized a certain ‘feasibility’ in his conclusion.

My reading had started with a desire to examine the parallels and differences between Chronicles and Samuel/Kings (which in some cases are remarkable).  After getting through these books twice apiece, I read the non-narrative portion of Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah to see if their teachings could be found in the histories I had just completed (not much).  I turned to Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers to check their textual relations to Deuteronomy (interesting).  Before finishing I made a quick once-through of Joshua and Judges.

This unconscious preparation had me poised to see in the hint from Wellhausen the truth of this old critical hypothesis: that precious little of the specific practices and laws of Leviticus, Numbers, and Exodus, are present (or even alluded to) in the prophetic record or histories of the period between Joshua and Josiah.

It’s not patently obvious that any of the Kings of Israel or Judah or any of their priests and prophets knew of these alleged books of Mosaic law in the form in which they have come down to us.  What then?  Can the Torah be a work of post-exilic Judaism (5th-6th cent. BC) which only utilizes favorable bits of ancient Hebrew history (and constructs other favorable bits), to give a final, ‘received’ form that is no earlier than the Babylonian exile?

“In the course of a casual visit in Gottingen in the summer of 1867, I learned through Ritschl that Karl Heinrich Graf placed the books of the Mosaic Law later than the Prophets, and, almost without knowing his reasons for the hypothesis, I was prepared to accept it; I readily acknowledged to myself the possibility of understanding Hebrew antiquity without the book of the Torah.” (Ibid)

Note:  The idea is not that the Exodus, or Mt. Sinai or the wilderness never happened – only that our version of these events are those of a much later theological mind.

What do Christian theologies look like without an inerrant Bible?

Recent publication of a book by Thom Stark has got my attention because it looks like it treats of the issue of scripture inerrancy by a method that is much more constructive than the kind of anti-Christian rantings we expect from Bart Ehrman or Sam Harris, or John Loftus.

I’m not sure – but short reviews of The Human Faces of God and a revealing interview of Stark give me reason to hope.

It was a recent two-part review by Kevin at Diglotting which got my attention in the first place.  Meanwhile Steve at Undeception has been busy in the same vein, and both writers have me thinking a little more systematically about the question: ‘What would we expect to see in a good Christian theology that explicitly rejects the dogma of Bible inerrancy?’ 

It’s no secret that many theologies have been written without support of the dogma of Bible inerrancy.  And I think all of the good ones have argued for a concept of Bible authority in which scripture remains normative for theology in a foundational sense.  Martin Kahler, C.S. Lewis, Karl Barth, Dorothy Sayers, H.R. Neibuhr,  Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer – I believe all these thinkers and more have stressed the authority of the Bible without defending its inerrancy.  We see here a ‘Doctrine of Scripture’ or there a ‘Doctrine of Revelation’ or a ‘Doctrine of the Word of God’ which give greater breadth to a more mature and more promising theological approach to the Bible than the irrational restraints of inerrancy allow.

I notice that these kinds of theologies all tend to show greater development of the role of Christ himself  as Word of God – rather than alleging that the letter is identical with ‘the Word.’  And I think the question of the Holy Spirit’s testimony to Christ will see much-needed development any time the Bible is purged from the fetishism of inerrancy.  Because a theology’s rejection of the dogma of inerrancy should not change its need to treat constructively of inspiration.  The Spirit’s role in inspiring our fallible reading of the Bible becomes just as important and just as interesting as its role in inspiring the original (fallible) writer.

Evangelicals need quickly to see this as the new world of honest religion – it doesn’t signify the end of the world for faith.  Faith remains the key to our salvation by the grace of God.  The current drama – what looks to be the fast-approaching end of the dogma of Bible inerrancy – would not even be necessary if it hadn’t been for the proliferation of so much fundamentalism among Evangelicals in North America during the 19th and 20th centuries – while the issues of working with a fallible text were being treated by responsible thinkers in the religious mainstream.

History, inerrancy, and failed eschatology – III

The first and second parts of this series described the moral and intellectual dilemmas created by the inerrancy principle.  This third and final post describes a spiritual problem.

“All men know that ‘to err is human,’ and a mere man who received and gave forth an infallible word of the Lord must be, for the time, not himself, not at home in his own brain and senses – in other words, beside himself.  Human values could not be brought forward as tests of such revelation; and human reason could have no power to criticize it.”  (Lily Dougal, The Lord of Thought, 1922, p.19-20)

Neither Dougal nor I would discount the value of honest humility in the face of religious texts alleged to be revealed.  But uncritical belief in a massive plenary inspiration does not truly ‘humble’ the mind in any spiritual sense of the word.  What takes place instead is an unnecessary belittling of the mind’s reasoning powers – unnecessary because it requires a surrender of reason in scientific and moral realms where reason has legitimate powers and jurisdiction.  The premature surrender of reason only frees the mind to wickedly indulge its craving for certainty amid systems of authoritative ‘facts.’

“Contradiction between man’s highest ideal and what he conceived God to be, felt even when not admitted to open-eyed consciousness, produced necessarily a complex system of doctrine at variance with the plain man’s reason and values” (p.39)

Where historical contradictions and immoral assertions about God are not submitted to the process of doubt and discernment, an unreasonable theology is easily elevated to a position independent of both reason and living faith.  This kind of believing mind is worshipping its own convictions as if they were a type of certainty.

 “With such inconsistency in his God, if man is to be truly religious it must be by exercising his affections and imagination upon the only attributes of this complex and inconsistent God that do not contradict human values.” (pp.40)

This kind of guilty ‘cherry picking’ is the only spiritual outlet for the inerrancy principle.  But it tends to encourage an emotional approach to God which is completely distrustful of a reasonable criticism of scripture.

“That is precisely what the best of the Jews did, what the saints of every religion founded on an ancient and closed revelation must do, with the result that emotion is supposed to find God where reason can produce only skepticism.”

For the ‘seer’ unable to take the emotional high ground of the ‘saint,’ the mind has no ground for carrying out its duty to discern the difference between sacred and profane history.

“in a nation believing in such revelation, man’s values and reasons were held to be on a level inferior to his religious visions…”

Dougal argues that the result was a failure of religious visions – the embarrassment of Jewish eschatology.  The apocalyptic prophets lowered their views to match their canonical texts and missed the truth of God’s shalom in Christ for Israel and the world.

History, inerrancy, and failed eschatology – II

In this series I’m featuring an old argument by English theologian Lily Dougal that belief in the inerrancy of their canonical scriptures caused the Jewish apocalyptic schools from Daniel to John the Baptist to be dead wrong about the plan of God and his imminent action in Christ. (The Lord of Thought, 1922, p. 18ff).

Dougal sees the adverse influence of belief in inerrant scriptures to be threefold:  moral, intellectual, and spiritual.  My first post introduced the moral dilemma created by a principle which tends to equalize diverse texts of unequal moral value.  The apocalyptic writers beheld the God of blessings and woes who had been written into the scriptures by the Deuteronomist, and turned around and ‘predicted’ a very predictable day of blessings and woes for the whole world.  These would-be seers were unable to see the imminent revelation of a new truth – that God and the Christ of God were beings dominated by self-giving love for both saint and sinner.

The second part of Dougal’s argument moves from the moral to the intellectual realm and shows how the belief that the Jewish canonical scriptures were all-truth played its part in making a ruin of the efforts of these would-be prophets to correctly see and ‘call’ the Incarnation.

“The paradox created by contradictory statements, to all of which equal value must be assigned, creates mental confusion…  The sacred scripture taught God’s love, but its history of the past was self-contradictory; the laws laid down in it were not consistent with each other” (p.18,19)

The idea is that the principle of inerrancy does not enhance but disqualifies and disables a believer’s god-given power of discrimination between fact and fiction, truth and error, good and evil.  It disallows the right of faith to go out on a limb with a teaching that might change everything.  Instead it magnifies the need to pay lip service to infallibility with energetic rationalizations and harmonies of the discrepancies and contradictions which inevitably arise among texts originating at different times in the history of Israel.

The eschatological schools might have benefited from an insightful cherry-picking of superior texts but were prevented by that fatal corollary to inerrancy which disallows intelligent eclecticism.   And so they completely missed the singular truth that the coming kingdom was opposed to the majority viewpoint of the canon.

“Reason never quails before the realization that knowledge is inadequate, that there is more to know about the object of research than is, or apparently can be, known.  It is only before contradiction that reason quails, and thus has always quailed and been unable to accept the God of an ancient and final revelation.”  (p.39)

Great verb, ‘quail’ – perfect for depicting stunned inaction, human reason gone to hiding in the bush.  In my third post I will say more about the flight from reason which so often belittles the religious mind unnecessarily, putting it in thrall to its own idols of infallibility.

Fundamentalism and theological modernism – both wrong?

Jesus is recorded to have remarked that his theological opponents had struck an attitude toward himself and his teachings that was so utterly inadequate that he called it seeing without seeing and hearing without hearing.  It is not unusual that a religious teaching  which makes a life-changing truth available to one mind can appear to another, differently-oriented mind as paradoxical or self-contradictory or crazy or even heretical.  The opponents of Jesus were blind and deaf to teacher and message because they looked and listened not with a spiritual outlook but with an almost positivistic reference to the ‘facts’ they thought they saw in their sacred texts.  This essentially material outlook revealed to them not spiritual results but empirical findings – most importantly, that his unusual mission did not resemble the mission of the Messiah as represented in their inerrant scripture.

Does this same rationalized positivism of texts and times characterize the dominant evangelical hermeneutic of the past century or more?  Maybe that’s what I find so irritating about evangelical commentaries.  Oddly, I find the same sort of inappropriate positivism and rationalism in much of the hermeneutic of theological modernism, and it is equally irritating.

I was helped to a better view of this surprising commonality by an interesting paraphrase of Stanley Hauerwas I saw Thursday in a guest post over on Marc Cortez’ blog  where the discussion goes on into today.

“fundamentalism and theological modernism are simply different sides of the same radical modernist coin. Both embrace the paradigms of Enlightenment empiricism and rationalism too seriously (Hauerwas affirms this) – theological liberalism tries to keep the faith by cutting out all the things that don’t fit into the empirical and/or rational modes, whereas fundamentalism tries to defend them using the tools of empiricism and rationalism to the nth degree. Both end up embracing rationalism and empiricism as the first order basis or “metaphysic” as such, upon which to build a worldview. This is what led the fundamentalist strain in evangelicalism, according to Hauerwas, to make “Sola Scriptura” equal to “Sola Text.”

If Hauerwas has been accurately paraphrased, his opinion is that the inerrancy principle requires a special, guarded form of the so-called literal-grammatical-historical method which amounts to a positivistic empiricism of the text in conjunction with a fanciful rationalization of discrepancies and contradictions – all of which, in the spiritual inadequacy of its positivism, shares an enlightenment-age pedigree with the unbeliever’s hermeneutic of suspicion.

The rejection of Jesus by scribe and elder was accomplished in the very presence of his person and mission by a simultaneous resort to both a hermeneutic of inerrancy and a hermeneutic of suspicion – another indication that these two are sides of “the same coin.”

History and inerrancy – around the blogosphere

Casting about for the like-minded this afternoon, I was gratified to find a link to Pete Enns’ series on The Book of Chronicles and the problem with literalism at BioLogos.  Pete discusses the role of the Chronicler’s messianic history in ‘setting up’ Jesus to be misunderstood,

The postexilic Israelites were yearning for a king to rule and guide them as the people of God. …For the Chronicler, that means a king who will honor temple worship, follow the law, teach the people to do likewise, and be God’s instrument for reestablishing Israel’s national glory among the nations… This messianic expectation is the context of Jesus’ coming, and what does he do? Not what his followers expected.  Jesus …is not like the kings of Samuel/Kings. He is not even like the idealized king of Chronicles. He …did not fulfill the messianic expectation of Chronicles; he transformed it.

Pete’s series is a good one.  I owe the link to Daniel Kirk, doing his own excellent series on inerrancy and history over at  Storied Theology, where we read: 

“For me, the question of “inerrancy” versus not, or the question of how “historical” the Gospels are, or the question of whether or not we should harmonize different passages pushes in this direction: When we push for inerrancy, harmonizations, and historicity, we show that we have a fundamentally different desire for what these texts might give us than the biblical writers themselves had when they composed them.”

I note that comments at both sites have a fair share of that wonderful tendency of inerrancy buffs to offer fantastic harmonizations of discrepancies in the texts.

In my own previous post, I attempt to expose the principle of Bible inerrancy as anti-prophetic  with the help of Lily Dougal’s 1922 criticism of the Jewish eschatological schools.  I don’t deny that these pre-Christian seers seemed to grasp that something of cosmic significance was brewing in the not-distant future for the God of Israel.  But they all blundered into gross error with respect to the nature of God’s coming king and kingdom, and fell to depicting scenes of great cruelty and destructive disaster for the enemies of God and his people.  All were proved wrong by history.  The irony of Dougal’s hypothesis cannot be missed – the apocalyptic writers erred because they labored under mistaken notions of inerrancy.  They were betrayed by their belief in the infallible trustworthiness of the Jewish scriptures to which they turned for guidance.

Meanwhile, Steve over at Undeception has been reflecting on his own journey out of the inerrancy cults.

“certainty in either direction is simply not in the cards. The dichotomy is not between doubt and faith — doubt is the qualifier that distinguishes a reasonable faith from an altogether blind faith — but between acknowledged and unacknowledged uncertainty. Christians and avowed atheists alike are simply going about their delusions of certainty in a different way. Christians who refuse to peek under the cover are not exercising faith but fear: fear of having to deal with uncertainty.  When former believers who embrace a thorough atheism as though it were the only option other than fundamentalist/evangelical Christianity, they are not exercising healthy skepticism”

History, inerrancy, and failed eschatology – I

Not all learning disorders are inherited.  We commonly see persons with otherwise high-functioning minds and no adverse family history who are selectively disabled in music, art, mathematics, etc.  And we often find an acute narrowness of mind in selected areas of philosophy, politics and theology (including atheists with impossibly narrow views of theism).

Few would contend with the idea that some of these selective kinds of disabilities can be acquired in the course of the thinker’s learning experience.  Just as work-related disabilities are acquired as a result of bad work habits and unsafe conditions, we can easily imagine that adverse or unsound circumstances in the inner and outer learning environment of mind can contribute to temporary or permanent disabilities in mental work.

English theological writer Lily Dougal used a concept of acquired learning disability to answer the question, Why was the eschatology of post-exilic Judaism so wrong in its depiction of God’s coming kingdom?  Dougal argued that, for these apocalyptic writers, history and doctrine had combined to create an unhealthy environment for the kinds of mental work involved in truth-seeking.  Error overwhelmed truth in the minds of these Jews because their work was burdened by false principles of knowledge.  Above all, it was the dogma of scripture inerrancy  which most dominated and disabled (and ultimately embarrassed) the spirituality of the Jewish eschatological schools.

Dougal argued that the inerrancy principle ruined Judaism’s prophetic power because it tends to (1) demoralize, (2) confuse, and (3) belittle the human mind.

(1) Scripture inerrancy demoralizes the mind.  The principle of inerrancy is fatal to the morality of any religion – but especially those whose writings extend over a long history of spiritual development.

“The sacred scripture taught God’s love, but … within it there were the noblest visions of goodness and mercy, together with savage conceptions of deified cruelty… God in his relation to man was seen, not simply as the best and wisest being of whom man could conceive, but as a mixture of good and evil, and therefore hostile not merely to all those things to which man at his best was hostile, but also to much that was best in man.”  (Dougal & Emmet, The Lord of Thought, 1922, pp 18, 19, 39.)

The mind looking for inspiration from religious texts held to be inerrant is liable to apprehend all inspiration at a common par value.  This equalizing tendency contributes a source of drag on the highest teachings of any tradition.  It may compromise the balance of good in an individual’s moral compass.  It may even threaten the moral destiny of an entire religious body, rendering it unable to discern a turning point in history, when God offers the gift of a new light which transcends some point of earlier inspiration.

Next up (continuing with Dougal’s analysis): 

(2) The principle of scripture inerrancy confuses the mind by magnifying the importance of discrepancies and contradictions.

(3) The principle of scripture inerrancy belittles the mind by encouraging a fantastic view of inspiration and forcing the mind to create incredible rationalizations and harmonies to resolve its contradictions.

How faith in Jesus can trump faith in scripture

“Our aim in the present study is to show that Jesus did not expect a speedy and supernatural destruction of the world.” (Lily Dougal and Cyril Emmet, The Lord of Thought, from the Preface, dated Sept. 1922).

At the time of their writing, these two New Testament critics were very much alarmed at a growing bias in NT criticism.  “It is now widely held that the whole thought of Jesus was governed by the belief that the end of the world was very near, or, at least, that this belief was a confusing element in his outlook.”  Of course the authors were discussing a 15-year trend inaugurated by Albert Schweitzer’s 1906 book, Von Reimarus zu Wrede (The Quest of the Historical Jesus).

Schweitzer had claimed that the teaching of Jesus is inconsistent with itself except when everything is viewed from the perspective of a thorough-going eschatological frame of mind.  Except the problem with his view is that it makes Jesus inconsistent with reality – because some scripture texts make Jesus wrong about the proximity of the end, and his return in glory.

Dougal and Emmet agree with Schweitzer that the eschatological teachings attributed to Jesus are inconsistent with his higher teachings, but they reject Schweitzer’s means of achieving consistency for Jesus.  Schweitzer, they argue, has only created his own false pattern of consistency in Jesus teaching, “by forcing upon all his sayings and parables an interpretation in harmony with the more fanatical Judaism of his time.”  (p.2)

They offer a solution which can only alienate both fundamentalists and moderns:

“Considering the circumstances in which the Gospels were compiled, it is more becoming for us, in the first instance, to suspect the records of inaccuracy than to assume that the inconsistency lay with Jesus.” (p.9)

I’m fine with the authors’ rejection of plenary inspiration.  Trouble is, they imply a new principle which skeptical critics are sure to hate – the principle of an inerrant Jesus  But I like it! 

“In the history of any one of the canonized Christian saints, when sayings and acts are attributed to him or her which to us appear inconsistent and unworthy, our first proceeding is to suspect the accuracy of the narrator … on the hypothesis that the inspiration of the saint for goodness and wisdom was greater than the inspiration for accuracy enjoyed by the disciple.” (p.7-8)

Seriously, a hermeneutic principle like inerrant Jesus is unapologetically faithful – only it requires that our faith in the perfection of Jesus trumps our belief in the perfection of scripture.  There’s bound to be difficulty discriminating the inerrancy of Jesus from the inaccuracy of apostles and gospel writers.  But the result for eschatology is an important one – the axiomatic rejection of a merely human Jesus who is either self-contradictory or  a fanatic and delusional Jew yields refreshing fruit in a healthy critical skepticism regarding all assertions or allusions in scripture which suggest that a destructive end-of-the world scenario is a necessary adjunct to the true Gospel.