Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Metatheology, Part II: Biography, not Textbook

Previously I explored the fundamental question, "What is truth?" and concluded that, rather mysteriously, God as most fully revealed in Jesus Christ is both the Word of God and the truth. I hope to keep working out more implications of these bare conclusions for years. For now, though, this provides a somewhat-stable base from which to consider the next question:

What is the purpose of the Bible?

Again, this is an utterly basic question for anyone wishing to "do" theology in a Christian context. The expectations we bring to a book will shape how we experience it. If we read an advanced algebra text expecting it to be a gripping page-turner, we will (most likely) be disappointed.  If we read Twilight hoping to learn something and have our perception of the world shaken, we will probably pick up some terribly shallow values. If we approach Moby Dick as a book on human hubris, or the tragedy of monomaniacal obsession, or high-seas adventure, or 19th-century whaling practices, we will come away from it with correspondingly different conclusions. As the book becomes less straightforward, the expectations we bring into it become more and more influential to the conclusions we draw from it. There is no better example of this than the Bible.

A popular view of the Bible in America, which Christian Smith's book The Bible Made Impossible critiques, is that the Bible is the straightforward, unique transmission from God to us made to instruct and guide us through life--a divine handbook for all of life's difficulties, questions, and uncertainties. Smith gives dozens of examples of slogans and mission statements that treat the Bible as a sort of instruction manual for life and "Biblical" guides to everything from stress management to gardening. Smith pretty well shows how silly and me-centered this view of the Bible is, so I won't deal with it further.

A more mature, but not unrelated purpose of the Bible with a much stronger theological grounding is that the Bible is the written Word of God given through human authors to teach Christians how and what to believe, especially concerning the salvation we have through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Or, in a nutshell, the purpose of the Bible is to teach correct belief about and in God, or to set the standard of what Christians must believe; to disbelieve scripture is to disbelieve God. Just as we learn about math in a math textbook, in the Bible and the Bible alone we learn about who God is, how He reveals Himself to us, and what His will for us is. This article describes the Bible as settings the boundaries for belief and experience of God which faithful Christians must not cross; "the Scriptures are our final authority because the Scriptures are what God says."

For me, this looked like viewing the Bible as our only fully trustworthy source for a complete, coherent theology (view of God) and for the truth in which I, as a Christian, believed. My goal was to assemble all of the "raw data" of scripture into a structured, contradiction-free body of knowledge about God. The Bible as a source of true belief does not make reading it a purely inward or theoretical venture, because the Christian life is supposed to be founded on true belief in God. Since I will spend much more time on this view and it may not closely resemble your own belief on the purpose of the Bible, let me give some examples of how I see it.

A common way in which we discern whether people and churches are really "Christian" is if they believe the words of the Bible, and especially the main point of the Bible, also known as the "Gospel". We speak of submission to the "authority of scripture"; that is, authority as the Word of God to tell us how to believe and live. If someone does not submit to this authority and disbelieves or disputes the words of the Bible, no matter how "Christian" their life seems, we rest assured that their profession of faith is hollow and view them as "nonbelievers". If we hear a Christian teaching we consider to be false, we call it "unbiblical"--the Bible is our litmus test for discerning true belief from false. "For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart." (Hebrews 4:12)

Another common term in Protestantism is the terms "open-hand" and "closed-hand" to separate differences of doctrine that will be tolerated among the attendance of a church or between churches or denominations. Open-handed issues are those about which the Bible's teaching is sufficiently open that multiple views are allowed and considered equally biblical. Closed-hand issues are those which the Bible teaches unambiguously, and differences of doctrine about them are considered to be a rejection of the truth taught in scripture worth dividing over in order to protect the truth. (Of course, various denominations disagree on the answers to many of these issues or which issues are closed-hand) If someone deliberately disagrees with a closed-hand issue, they are thought of (if not branded) as unorthodox or a heretic and seen as not only wrong or misinformed, but dangerous because of their refusal to believe the Bible. Again, in this view the function of the Bible is to teach God's truth and inspire correct belief, and disagreement with what it teaches is treated as a rejection of what God has to say.

Or consider the whole discipline of systematic theology. In his well-known book of the same name, Wayne Grudem defines it as "any study that answers the question, 'What does the whole Bible teach us today?' on any given topic." Through systematic theology we can arrive at doctrine, which is "what the whole Bible teaches us today about some particular topic." He says "the emphasis of systematic theology is on what God wants us to believe and know" which is in a symbiotic relationship with more practical disciplines like Christian ethics where the emphasis is on attitudes and doing. So in this model, the Bible shows us what to value, what attitudes to take, and ultimately how to live by being correctly interpreted into sound belief through the lens of theology.

I don't like making totalizing statements, but I must here: I suspect that your own view of the purpose of the Bible comes down to something similar to this: that it is to inspire right belief (orthodoxy) in the person of God and the truth of the Gospel, which is the basis for the Christian life of faith. Don't be too quick to conclude that your take on the Bible is nothing like this. If it really does differ significantly, I'd love to hear what it is in a comment.

The Bible itself does not offer any kind of totalizing mission statement to hand us its purpose on a silver platter. So if you take nothing else from this post, please hear this: your belief about the purpose of the Bible is not a necessary truth read out of the Bible, but an (unavoidable) assumption taken into it, open to revision by the Bible itself, at least. The remainder of this post is to describe what this revision looks like for me.

Warning Signs

I would hope that all evangelicals at least feel a bit uneasy dividing with other professing Christians over doctrinal matters, but they have little trouble feeling justified in doing so because of the Biblical precedent for doing so. There are repeated calls to guard your doctrine (1 Timothy 4:16) against false teachings and beware of false teachers (Galatians 1:6-10, 1 Timothy 1:3-7, 6:3-10, 2 Timothy 3:1-9, Titus 3:9-11, 2 Peter 2, 1 John 2:18-27, 2 John 7-11, Jude 3-23), with specific instructions to:
  • "Let him be eternally condemned!" (Galatians 1:8,10) In other words, tell false teachers to go to Hell!
  • Command them not to teach false doctrines any longer (1 Timothy 1:3)
  • Avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, arguments and quarrels about the law (Titus 3:9); warn a divisive person twice and, if he doesn't listen, "have nothing to do with him". (v10)
  • No specific commands in 2 Peter 2, but i can almost picture him frothing at the mouth while delivering this rant against false teachers.
  • "See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you" (1 John 2:24)
  • "Watch out that you do not lose what you have worked for" (2 John 8); do not welcome anyone who does not profess the teaching of Christ or allow him into your house (v10)
  • "And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh." (Jude 23-24)
These verses seem pretty stern about false teachers who make their way into the fellowship of the church and teach false doctrine, up to and including suspending the command of love toward them (which John talks about extensively in his first epistle) and telling them to go to Hell for the protection of doctrine. Shouldn't we be just as concerned for the truth of the Bible today?

Well, there is one small detail that should affect our understanding of these passages: there was no Bible to defend when these letters were written. Not the New Testament, at least. Early Christian churches would have been lucky to have a subset of the gospels and epistles by the end of the first century as they had just begun to be circulated and copied, and they weren't compiled into anything resembling a New Testament canon until hundreds of years later. What, then, was the basis of the doctrine Paul was so emphatic about guarding? Why were the Judaizers wrong to teach that early Christians had to obey the Mosaic law to be saved, when all the scripture available at the time (the Old Testament) supported their teaching? With no New Testament, what was the litmus test for deciding whom to throw out of the church as a false teacher? Heck, no New Testament books at all were written for two decades after Christ's resurrection; did the churches preach only from the Old Testament until then and ignore everything Jesus had said and done because it wasn't yet within the bounds of scripture?

A Different Kind of Knowledge

This reasoning led me to realize that the early church got along just fine (and is still used as an example today) despite having no New Testament canon. Which leads me to believe that the Bible can't be as central to Christian doctrine as it is made out to be. What I think served as the focal point of their doctrine was the thing that made the apostles unique: not the ability to write scripture (their letters wouldn't become scripture until later), but direct, revelatory knowledge (personal, not factual) of Jesus, which they were able to pass on. If, as I pontificated last time, Jesus really is the Word of God and the Truth (even if the churches didn't yet have the gospel of John to tell them so), this is so unsurprising as to be almost predictable--if anything about the "truth-trinity" as I'm going to call it is predictable.

But direct personal experience dies with the holders of its memory, which I think is why the New Testament had to be written to effectively crystallize the knowledge of the apostles and other early church leaders. Several posts ago, I hypothesized that "maybe the purpose of the Bible is to allow future generations of Christians to have that same experience of the cross on which all of history turns." This theory was incredibly compelling when I first arrived at it and I have become even more convinced of it since.

So, a bit more clearly, I would now say that the purpose of scripture is not primarily to tell Christians what to believe, but to allow them to encounter Christ. This is very similar to the "Christocentric hermeneutic" I was so skeptical about at first. I am not saying that the Bible has nothing to do with correct belief--only that it has a deeper and greater purpose: the knowledge of the Truth. This knowledge, not the scripture itself, is the center for our doctrine, just as it was for the first-century church.

Correct belief is an outworking of this knowledge, not the goal we actively pursue in studying scripture. The Bible-as-doctrine view mistakes a penultimate purpose of the Bible (orthodoxy) for the "whole show" (conformity to Christ's image). In his new book Prototype, Jonathan Martin of Renovatus Church asks, "What if the ultimate goal of everything Jesus said and did was not just to get us to believe certain things about Him, but to become like Him?" I would add that Jesus probably wanted us to do more than cling to His exact words (as we have received them), seek to live according to them as closely as possible, and refuse to venture beyond them, which was much more like what the Pharisees were doing with the Law and the Prophets and which was what ultimately blinded them to who He was. I think it's equally possible for an excessive focus on the scripture can blind us to Jesus showing up today.

I see this as a great relief. If the purpose of the Bible is to transmit correct belief, then in light of what Christian Smith calls "pervasive interpretive pluralism"--all the myriad conclusions God-loving Christians have come to from reading the same book with no goal other than to understand it--it has failed miserably. And indeed, if theological correctness were its purpose, God's method for giving it to us through human authors in a distant cultural context and countless of fallible scribes and translators over three thousand years makes no sense. Why not dictate it in every language necessary, Muhammad-style, or reveal it all through visions or divine skywriting? Why not give it all at once? The only source for our knowledge of God seems a bit too important to entrust to so many human hands (we're still not totally sure what the original Greek New Testament said)!

At the risk of becoming just as much a mouthpiece for John's theology as others are for Paul's, he explicitly confirms this purpose for his own gospel, at least: "But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." (John 20:31) We must rule out the possibility that the purpose of God's word has failed because of pervasive interpretive pluralism; more on that next post. Belief in Jesus and life in His name--that's something that transcends denominational lines and doctrinal divisions!

1 comment:

  1. Scot McKnight nails the existence of a Christianity behind and before the New Testament: "The gospel gave rise to the New Testament not the New Testament to the gospel."