Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Why the Old Testament?

I'm super exited, interblag. This post is the beginning of what I plan to turn into a 3-part series in the next week or so. (Yeah, I'm moving up in the blogosphere) I'm going to pour out my thoughts on what has become a surprisingly thorny issue for Christians: the Old Testament. Yes, the first four-fifths of the Bible that so often get skipped over for the New Testament. This series was inspired partly by a conversation I had with my church's head pastor a few weeks ago (actually mostly just the third and final post) and partly by conversations I've seen between uninformed Christians and semi-informed atheists. A common pattern in these conversations I've seen is that atheists like to cite some...shall we say, "difficult" passages from the Old Testament in order to mock (no offense, but that really is what you're doing, and it's not very nice) them and demonstrate how absurd the Christian faith really is. Passages like these:
"When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do." - Exodus 21:7
 "Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death." - Exodus 30:15b
"You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your cattle breed with a different kind. You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor shall you wear a garment of cloth made with two kinds of material." - Leviticus 19:19
Or, of course:
"And all the cities of those kings, and all their kings, Joshua captured, and struck them with the edge of the sword, devoting them to destruction, just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded." - Joshua 11:12
You get the idea. What I can't stand isn't so much this, but the common response to such attacks: many Christians are willing to abandon the Old Testament rather than defend it--admit that maybe it isn't as authoritative as the New Testament, or that it's just a collection of stories not to be taken literally, or just ignore it altogether. If I may issue a call to the church, this is unacceptable. The rest of this post will be devoted to arguing why Christians can't just abandon the Old Testament if it has parts we or others don't like, and what we stand to lose if we do.

First, though, I want to explore some of the purposes of the Old Testament (OT hereafter). God's purposes for revealing Himself as He has are obviously beyond anyone's understanding, but I'll share the things that I've gotten from the OT.

First, the OT obviously provides a good deal of historical context. It really is a bunch of helpful stories--it's also much more than that, but it certainly isn't less. It teaches us that God created the heavens and the earth, the amazing stories of faith in the patriarchs' lives (Genesis), how the Israelites claimed (Joshua) and lived in the land God promised to them (Kings and Samuel), the decline and captivity of Israel (later in Kings), and how they came back afterward. (Ezra and Nehemiah). This is an incredibly quick summary and I skipped a lot, but the historical context provided by the OT is value. But if that's all you have, it isn't necessarily integral to our faith today--it's understandable that people who view the OT as "a collection of stories" are so willing to let it go.

But that isn't all the OT is. The main character of the OT isn't Abraham, or Moses, or David, or Isaiah, or even the Israelite nation as a whole--it's God. God is the one who got everything started, God who calls Abraham and promises to make him into a great nation, God who saves Joseph from his family and his family from famine, God who delivers the Israelites from Egypt and leads them for 40 years in the desert, God who enables their string of victories in claiming the promised land, God who leads and judges kings, God who casts the disobedient Israelites out of their land and brings them back again. In literary terms, God is the driving force behind the entire plot of the OT. And through it we get a picture of a God who is the same everywhere in the Bible--unbelievably holy and unable to tolerate evil, but loving, merciful, and compassionate nonetheless.

Another role the OT plays in the gospel message is that the Israelites are God's ultimate proof that it is impossible to be saved by works. (More on this concept next post) The Israelites are given an elaborate law and promised that anyone who does the things written in it will live (Leviticus 18:5) rather than die by the curse man lives under because of his sin. (Genesis 3:19) God performs countless signs and wonders in front of the Israelites, calls them "my people" (Exodus 7:16), turns them from a nation of slaves to a mighty nation, and continues to speak to and guide them through prophets for hundreds of years. They get a temple where God's presence resides and where they can actually come into His presence (1 Kings 9:3-4) and worship Him. It seems like a great deal; obey God and He will bless you (Deuteronomy 6:3) and you won't die. But even with all these things going for them, the Israelites pretty much act like whiny toddlers. After seeing God perform ten miraculous plagues on the Egyptians so they can escape, the Israelites complain that they've been brought out of Egypt to be killed (Exodus 14:10-12). When He delivers them from the Egyptian army by parting the freaking Red Sea, they complain that He did it so they could just die of hunger. (Exodus 16:3) When He miraculously provides food for them, they complain that they're going to die of thirst. (Exodus 17:3) And on it goes. The constant pattern throughout the books of history and prophecy is that the Israelites keep turning from the God who did all these things to worship other nations' gods, dumb idols that had done nothing for them and could do nothing. If the Israelites who had the words, presence, and mind-blowing miracles of God failed so miserably to keep the law and live, what chance do we have?

Finally, one other reason the OT is critical is the prophecies it gives, especially the messianic prophecies (those pertaining to Jesus). Isaiah 52-53 is the densest bit of messianic prophecy in the OT, telling us of God's "servant" who will be "exalted" despite being horribly scarred and disfigured, who will be "wounded for our transgressions", die "like a lamb that is led to the slaughter", who will die despite being innocent, yet who will live and see offspring, and will "make many to be accounted righteous, and...shall bear their iniquities." That's the gospel in the Old Testament. Other prophecies predict other details of Jesus' life, like that He will come out of Bethlehem (Micah 5:2) and Egypt (Hosea 11:1), that He would be born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14), and that He would enter Jerusalem on a donkey (Zechariah 9:9)--all of which are fulfilled in the gospels. These prophecies give us context for the New Testament and help us appreciate the coming of Christ all the more.

Enough for now on some of the virtues of having the Old Testament--what happens when we casually abandon it, admit that it might not be scripture or just ignore it? Well, the most important thing is that we also deny the New Testament and the Christian faith. (You didn't care about those either, did you?) The gospels refer to scripture quite a few times; the Greek root γραφή (graphē) used to mean the Old Testament is also used by Peter in 2 Peter 3:16 to refer to the letters of Paul. Keep in mind that as the letter was being written the only "scripture" the Jews would have had was the Old Testament (the "law and the prophets"). In Matthew 4 Jesus rebukes the devil by quoting from the OT; in context, the "word that comes from the mouth of God" He mentions in verse 4 is understood to mean the scriptures He is quoting from. Earlier in Matthew 1:22 an angel specifically says that God spoke through the words of Isaiah. Finally, in 2 Peter 1:19-21 reminds his readers that no "prophecy of scripture" (again with graphē) came about "by the will of man", but "men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit." In light of these verses, if the Old Testament isn't the very words of God, what is it? And why did everyone treat it with such reverence? It's ludicrous.

You also lose all the context I talked about above. Without the OT, particularly the messianic prophecies, we have no idea who Jesus the "son of man" is, or why He is going around healing people and claiming to be God. Why did He ride a donkey, for goodness' sake? And why did God have to die!? Sure, the epistles explain it, but we lose the firsthand reasons for it all--Jesus just comes out of the blue, no context. We lose the origin of the Israelite nation and the significance of Jerusalem and the temple. We lose the lineage of Christ--Matthew 1 becomes just a boring list of names rather than a testament to how God worked some of the most amazing and unlikely people into the story of His redemption. The entire OT is ramping up the excitement to the arrival of Christ.

We also have a skewed perspective of who God is by missing out on the amazing contrast between the awesome, perfectly holy, righteous just God we see in the OT and the personal, compassionate, humble, even suffering God we see in the NT--and the promise that God does not change (Malachi 3:6). These attributes aren't exclusive to the OT and NT, but God tends to show different sides of Himself in the OT and NT. Without the OT's constant reminders of God's holiness and justice, it's understandable that many Christians blindly assert their belief in a "God of love". (A true, but incomplete view) Finally, as a teaser for next time, we lose the significance of the new covenant brought about by Christ along with the old covenant that came before it. It all seems so random and arbitrary, and without the context of the OT we're likely to become ignorant of the "big picture" of God's redemptive plan and have trouble explaining the reasons between our faith and our doctrine. (Sound familiar?) Until then, may you find joy in all of God's words.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Biblical Contradictions

It's no secret that skeptics have found plenty of contradictions in the Bible. If you were unaware of this, I'll help get you started with a few examples:
  • Jesus is human (Luke 2:7) and God. (Romans 9:5)
  • Jesus grew weary (John 4:6), but God does not grow weary. (Isaiah 40:28)
  • Jesus "grew in wisdom" (Luke 2:52), but knew all things. (John 16:30)
  • Jesus died (Luke 24:36), but God is immortal. (Romans 1:23)
  • There is one God (Deuteronomy 6:4-5) in three persons (Matthew 28:19), each of whom is fully God (John 17, Romans 9:5, Psalm 139:7-8).
  • We are saved by our decision of faith alone (Ephesians 2:8-9), but God predestined those who were saved, to be saved before we existed. (Romans 8:29)
  • Paul permits women to pray and prophesy in church (1 Corinthians 11:5), but does not allow them to speak in church. (14:35)
  • From this past May: no one knows when the Son is coming back (Matthew 24:36), but we need not be surprised by His coming. (1 Thessalonians 5:4)
  • Jesus loved Lazarus and his family (John 11:5), but He purposely allowed him to die when he could certainly have healed him. (11:6) Even more interestingly, the ESV uses "so" instead of "yet" here.
  • The creation order in Genesis 1 appears to clash with the creation order in Genesis 2.
  • God gives His people specific laws on what they can and cannot eat (Leviticus 11, others), which He later (in a dream) tells Peter to disobey. (Acts 10)
And of course I'm only pointing out internal contradictions of the Bible, not times where it appears to contradict science, history, or common sense.

I could go through these one by one and offer my current understanding on how they fit together (except the creation order thing...ideas appreciated). But perhaps because of my CSci habit of finding patterns and rules, I'm instead going to talk about what I've learned from learning of and working through Biblical contradictions like these and others.

So, obviously if you go looking for contradictions in the Bible, you're going to find them; I've seen several sites run by skeptics with lists far more exhaustive than mine. But if you were looking for Biblical contradictions from the start, you probably didn't have a very high view of it to begin with and your views weren't changed, only perhaps reinforced.

But if you're wondering if the Bible might in fact be true (or if, like me, you believe it is), what do you make of scriptural difficulties? Well, if the whole Bible is true, then clearly these contradictions can't really be contradictions--not on the deeper, meaning level. The challenge then becomes: to find a way to interpret the Bible that resolves all the apparent contradictions, so that every verse, every word is true. I think this is the essence of what is meant by the saying, "scripture interprets scripture"--dynamically pitting apparently contradictory passages against each other in the context of the understood parts of scripture to find a way to make sense of them both.

For example:  much of what we know of the nature of Christ can be gleaned from the first four contradictions, the fifth is the doctrine of the Trinity, and the interpretation of the sixth leads people to either side of the predestination debate (already covered in detail). The contradiction about knowing when Christ will return tells us that we ought to be ready for Christ's return, rather than unprepared and thus surprised, and Jesus' curious treatment of Lazarus offers a challenging new perspective on how He loves us. In all these examples the knowledge we gain from resolving the apparent contradiction is greater than what we find in the bare passages. Being forced to reconcile two seemingly at-odds concepts forces us to search for a narrowly defined middle ground between them, with little room for speculation in the end.

In fact, beyond this idea of using contradictory passages to interpret each other, I would go even further to say that I think it works better than if God explicitly spelled everything out for us. This would make obsolete the responsibility we have to love God with all our mind by seeking an increasing understanding of Him; masters of theology would not write theological books (what would be the point?) but would simply refer back to the appropriate passage for everything (from a Bible that would likely be at least the size of an encyclopedia and that most people couldn't imagine even holding, much less reading). Memorizing scripture has a valuable place in believers' lives, but I'm thankful that there is much, much more to loving God with all my mind than that.

But this is all rather foolish speculation, because God is infinite and far above us (Isaiah 55:9), not able to be fully comprehended even when we see Him face to face. Even in the finite amount of Words He has spoken to us, which necessarily contain a dumbed-down description of who He really is, we should expect there to be difficulties, confusion, even apparent contradictions. But as I've attempted to explain above, this should not daunt anyone really set on knowing God. Christianity is not anti-intellectual--God transforms and renews our minds (Romans 12:2)--but we should be careful not to let our opinions and conclusions get in the way of Who really matters. If He is who He says He is, then He is much smarter than you and me.

If you look for contradictions in the Bible, you will surely find them. But, if you're willing to look past the difficulties you see in the Word to the One who spoke it, He will work with you to overcome them. This is taking up saving faith--setting aside arguments of doctrine and "religion" (whatever that entails for you) and running into the arms of a God who loves you enough to die for you.