Shuck and Jive

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Nitty Gritty on the Good Book

I know you have been waiting, checking back every few minutes for the next installment of Conversations with Bob! To satisfy your desire, my response:

Thanks Bob for your last response!

I won't belabor the point about the Word of God and get on to its authority and interpretation, although I think we may need to keep coming back to it. Before I do that, I want to clarify my comment on ecocide. You wrote:

While we humans may think we are so important, the earth did fine without us and could do so again. wonder if our concern about ecocide is not really a concern about preserving an environment in which humans in our current state of evolution can live.

Yes, I agree. In fact, we could get wiped out by a meteor or any number of other things beyond our control. However, this is a unique point in history, in which humankind could actually end life on Earth, human and otherwise. If that happens, Earth will continue to spin on its axis. No humans or other species aboard. We cannot control what we cannot control. But we must control what we can.

This to me is a religious/spiritual issue, and why I am so stubborn about a non-escapist theology. It is why I find theories of afterlife so irresponsible. I just want to scream: "Forget about going to heaven or hell, or being reincarnated, or following the light. It is none of your concern! This Earth is your concern! Future generations are your concern!"

End of rant.

On to the Bible. We may have some disagreements. It may be a matter of nuance, perhaps more. Let me say what I can say about the Bible (that is the 66 texts the Protestants call the Bible). This opens up the question of whether or not the Roman Catholic or Orthodox canons are "the Bible" or whether or not the Hebrew Scriptures are "The Bible." But leaving that aside, for now, here is what I can say:

1) The Bible is unique. No other book is like it.
2) It is authoritative for the synagogue and church, according to each worshiping community's respective canon. These are collections that we have said we have found valuable.
3) I can affirm, for instance, my ordination vow regarding it, "God's word to you." Yes. We may differ in our interpretation of that phrase and that vow.
4) I have no idea what "God's word" really could possibly mean in any objective sense. It appears to be an anthropomorphism that I simply cannot get my head around. I have a hard time wondering what it means to say "God" for that matter.
5) It is a book, like every book, written by, for and to human beings.
6) YHWH is a character of the Hebrew Scriptures as Jesus the Christ is a character in the New Testament.
7) It is the central text of Western Civilization.
8) It has some wonderful stories. It has some horrifying stories. It has some inspiring theology. It has some horrific theology.
9) The characters, including YHWH and Jesus, are products of human imagination. For example, the stories surrounding Jesus were an attempt to speak of his significance rather than historical reportage.
10) With all of that, the Bible has a way of drawing me into its tale and confronting me with its strange new world--a world that would be if YHWH/Jesus had fully transformed our hearts, minds, and wills.
11) I think my interpretive grid is a combination of my needs, what the world needs, and what the text says. It is a complicated hermeneutical circle as you mentioned.
12) I don't see the Hebrew Scriptures concerned at all about Creation, Fall, Redemption. Frankly, I really see more than that happening in the New Testament as well. That is a later Christian grid placed upon the texts. I don't think we are stuck with Augustine or Paul, for that matter. I think we are always in the process of reinterpreting.

Bob, that could be a way in which we see things from a different angle. I am more interested in re-interpreting than you might be, even if that re-interpretation calls some central doctrines of the church into question. To me that is what sola scriptura is all about!

You asked me:

So tell me, are we saying the same thing when I say there are no bad texts but only bad interpretations and you say there are bad texts but good and bad is determined by how we interpret them?
We may or may not be saying the same thing, but we could end up with similar results on many important topics!


  1. As always, a fascinating conversation. Between the Rapture Countdown and Conversations with Bob, this may well be one of the most important Presbyterian blogs on the net!

    If I may, I'd like to expand on several of the points you made, John:

    I have always liked the alternative rendering of the beautiful opening of John 1 by using an alternative translation of the Greek Λογος (logos) from the usual "Word". Logos can also mean "idea":

    In the beginning was the Idea, and the Idea was with God, and the Idea was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. [...] And the Idea became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (NRSV, alt)

    To hearken back to Barth & Rogers, the "Word" or "Idea" of God is Christ, and Christ is revealed to us by Scripture. The Bible, having been transcribed and translated by human hand, is an imperfect revelation of the perfect Logos, Christ. Scripture is the best, most authoritative witness we have to God. Are their other witnesses to God? I admit my inadequacy to answer with any sense of authority, but I trust that if any exist, I would have to treat them as secondary to the witness given by Scripture. Again, I don't know if it's a matter of identifying and weeding out "good" and "bad" texts, but of remembering that like John in Grunewald's Crucifixion, the Bible points not to itself but to Christ.

    Certainly the "story arc" of creation, fall, redemption is a recurring theme in the OT, and is in fact summarized in Judges 2.11-9. God creates man (in this context, the Israelites), man rebels against God, man suffers the consequences, God has pity and sends a Judge in the name of mercy, man is restored (at least until the judge dies and all hell breaks loose again). Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, we see the pattern: Cain murders Abel but is marked and protected by God; mankind sins but God saves creation through Noah; Moses murders the Egyptian and goes into exile, encounters the burning bush, and eventually leads the Israelites to freedom; Job is initially blessed but falls (in this case, not through any apparent act of his own) and is later restored; the people sin despite the prophets' warnings, the Babylonians send Israel into exile, but they get home and rebuild the temple; the Jews begin worshipping the Greek gods, Judas Maccabeus comes and routs the Hellenic Jews and Antiochus and the temple is restored (and the oil burns for eight days). In a larger view, God creates man, man rebels against God (Adam eating the fruit), man is punished, God acts to redeem man first through the covenant with Abraham and later with the promise of the Messiah. I understand that I'm taking this from a Christian perspective, but I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of Jewish scholars would agree with the recurring creation-fall-redemption theme in the Hebrew scriptures.

  2. Thanks Flycandler!

    I appreciate your comments and your praise for Shuck and Jive!

    I think the defining issue for the scriptures has to do with the question whether or not God and humanity are inherently violent or non-violent.

    This is the ambiguous nature of the scriptures themselves. It is also a question of how power is used. Is power expressed non-violently or violently?

    There are themes and texts that legitimize violence and those that show what I think to be the revelatory Word or Idea of non-violence.

  3. It's a very good point--there is a palpable tension in the Bible between violence and nonviolence, even arguably within Jesus himself ("He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword" versus "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.")

    I think that ultimately, everything in the Bible has to be taken in the context of the greatest commandments: love God, love neighbor. By using Jesus (to paraphrase Jack Rogers paraphrasing Karl Barth) as our lens for interpretation of Scripture. Christ himself said that "on this hangs all the law, and the prophets". If you have to explain in concise terms to someone what the fundamental moral teaching of Christianity is, it ought to be "love God and neighbor".

    If nothing else, it is remarkable that out of all that gory history in the Bible, all the genocide and the wickedness and oppression of the children of Israel, there emerges the Prince of Peace, "the Idea...full of grace and truth." The message of hope: that even a world as crazy as ours can be redeemed.