Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Bible commands us...

Disclaimer: here's a fundamental set of assumptions that I've been operating under for the past year just to try them out. I've thought about it enough that I'm comfortable sharing it in public, but not so much that I'd put it in a theology textbook quite yet. Here goes:

If you hang out in Christian circles for very long, you'll find that there's a never-ending discussion about which Biblical commands are "universal" and which ones are merely "cultural." This came up in a recent discussion I had, and I thought both readers of my blog might find my response interesting. That particular discussion had to do with a discussion over 1 Corinthians 14 and whether women could be in teaching ministry over men (I know, it's 2009) and honesty requires me to admit I was making my point perhaps a bit too forcefully. Still, the issue framed a major difference in the way we viewed Scripture, and I thought I'd write about it here. My friend Adam G. said:
I guess one thing that those on the opposite side from you . . . find a little scary is that if you dismiss the issue as purely a localized, historically-restricted, cultural issue being addressed, then that may become a slippery slope of saying that *everything* of theological significance with which you disagree is just Paul addressing a cultural issue.

Somewhat tongue-in-cheek here, but I think that Adam radically underestimates the degree of heresy that I'm willing to promote. We're working from completely different paradigms of how we're supposed to understand the Bible. I don't just believe that the stuff I DISAGREE WITH is localized, history-restricted, and cultural. I think EVERYTHING is localized, history-restricted, and cultural.

  • "Do not murder?" Localized, history-restricted, and cultural.
  • "Take a little wine for your stomach?" Localized, history-restricted, and cultural.
  • "If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him?" Localized, history-restricted, and cultural.
  • "You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you?" Localized, history-restricted, and cultural.

The Bible isn't one big rulebook that we categorize in order to find commands. Each one of these statements is given at a specific time, by a specific person, to a specific person, for a specific situation. Each one of these commands is localized. Every one is given at a specific point in history. Every one of them is cultural.

ON THE OTHER HAND... (i.e., don't hang me yet)

I think EVERYTHING in the Bible is universal. I take Paul pretty seriously when he says ALL Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness. So I think the dietary commands are universal. I think the Levitical purity commands are universal. I think the "eye for an eye" commands are universal. I think the "no tattooes" and "don't wear gold jewelry" and "don't wear cloth with two types of thread" and "don't have sex with farm animals" commands are all universal. I think the "women should be silent" stuff is universal. Every command God gives in the Bible applies to us today. Every description of God's preferences and personality is just as true today as it was the day it was written (since God does not change).

Here's the catch: it just doesn't necessarily apply to us in the way it applied to its original recipients (which, I need not remind remind you, we are not). As far as I can tell, I'm living in harmony with every one of the commands listed in this post, and I write this as I wear a gold ring, a comfortable poly-blend cloth shirt, and digest a carnitas burrito.

Look, if someone inspired by God went out of there way to say a certain behavior is wrong, and God saw fit to put that in the Bible, then why in the world would you say it doesn't pertain to you? That it doesn't, in some way, express God's heart?

The question that must always be asked about any command, though, is this: What's actually being revealed about God's heart, here? The dietary commands: does God really dislike pigs, or is he trying to get Israel to avoid (then-common, now-extinct) occult practices tied into the consumption of certain meats? Take the "eye for an eye" commands, for example. People get bent out of shape about how they enable vengeance, but pretty much all interpreters agree that they actually exist to prevent, not allow, the escalation of conflict. If everybody followed "an eye for an eye" we could never have a situation like this:

Neither woman is interested in getting even... each wants to get even, plus a little. Limiting their retribution means that the situation can't be escalated. God's heart is ultimately that we forgive (Jesus had a bit to say about this), but the short-term goal is to prevent escalation.

So in my opinion, the question "Are the instructions in this passage universal or cultural" is a false choice. Rather, when faced with any Scriptural command, we should immediately ask two questions:

1. In what ways is this command limited?
2. In what ways is is it universal?

And we should acknowledge that each command we find is both.


Fresh Dirt said...

This is right on. Before I got to the end of your first paragraph I was already thinking... it's both! Keep up the good work and good debating!

Bryan D said...

The misunderstanding of the nature of Bible (indeed, the nature of texts) is the most crippling disease facing evangelical churches today. For too long the assumption you note about how the Bible ought to function within Christianity have been allow to fester in a bile of uncritical thinking.

So what if Paul wrote that "all writings" come from God? The best case scenario for seekers of proof texts in which Paul is possibly, magically, referring to a "Bible" which does not exist is also the worst case scenario—an utter catch 22.

The ironies of all ironies, of course, is that Christ dies to liberate people from the guilt incurred by commands and we turn, then, to a new "testament" with all new commands. If anything at all applies in the epistles to contemporary Christianity it's the imprecation "You foolish Galatians!"

Someone told me very recently that the reason to celebrate the Lord's Supper is that "we" are commanded to. Without even stopping to criticize the seamless and shameful magical appropriation of words spoken 2000 years ago, I must say that I could not think of a worse reason to take the sacrament! I approve much more of those who take it thinking it's the potion that will get them into heaven. What ever happened to anamnesis?

Christ died in order that the separation of man and God would be done away with and what has man done but invent another law to act as barrier once again.

This is my caveat. But you're completely right, of course, in saying that the definition between commands which ought to be followed and commands which need not be followed is an entirely artificial. "What?" is such a useless question for Christians and "Which?" is even worse. When will we rediscover "why?" and "how?"

It is because I take the Bible so seriously and believe it is an ultimately meaningful anthology that I am so dismissive at the attempts to establish its authority which actually devalue it and absolutely scorn those who would reduce it to a code book. If demanding that believers grow closer to God and not depend some legal proxy makes me a heretic in this day and age then I'll go happily to the stake.