We all have a tendency to jump on a text or a passage of Scripture as supporting our viewpoint. Sobering that no theology is ‘water-tight’, as they all leak! (Mine, and yours I suspect, don’t leak excessive amounts, but all those others!!!) We are very uncomfortable with contradictions, even coming across ‘contradictions’ that we reduce to ‘differences of view’, are not easy to live with. I certainly think that tensions, and differences of view, exist within Scripture. A classic example is that of the monarchy. In Judges (a pre-monarchial period but written post-monarchial) we read, ‘In those days there was no king in the land and everyone did what was right in their own eyes’. That is a clear pro-monarchial perspective. It clashes with the ‘we want a king’ confrontation between Samuel and the people (1 Sam. 8) where the request is clearly set as a rejection of God. Two diametrically opposed views, not two easily reconcilable positions. (Although I like to read the Judges verses differently, they were not written the way I like to read them!)(1) If the Judges approach is the right one then Samuel certainly did not hear God; or if he heard God the Judges take on things is totally inadequate!
Another example of the creative tension within Scripture are the three wisdom books of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes. Proverbs is ever so clear and lays out principles that do not seem to have any exceptions; at the other end of the spectrum is Ecclesiastes! Not a book to cheer one up on a bad day as it will simply confirm that ‘everything is vanity’. In the middle sits Job, from the culture described and the language uses it is situated around the time of Abraham. A God-fearer (almost certainly a non-Jew) where the combined wisdom of the three ‘friends’ just does not cut it with his situation. I am glad all three are in the Bible, for we have to let them sit together and allow there to be a trialogue that pushes boundaries.
This should alert us that for the writers of Scripture (or perhaps we should say the editors and collators) were not threatened by such disagreement. Internal disagreement is present. Are the Scriptures pro- or anti- kingship? Well the answer is it is both. So now what do we do? We have to dig deeper, for the invitation is to us as to what viewpoint we take, and why. We probably don’t welcome that.
We want answers (the tree of knowledge of good and evil?) but the Scriptures desire to help us walk the path of life.
When God breathed into Scripture the result is a ‘usefulness’:
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16).
What a great word! We want it to say more than that. But if Scripture is not responded to in a way that enables it to be useful in helping me be conformed to the image of Jesus I am probably missing it somewhere. If it confirms my ‘rightness’ but it does not help me be conformed to Jesus, I am mis-using what was intended to be useful.
That breath of God of course is what came into Adam (as human, not simply as male, so the term ‘humanity’ is appropriate) and with it came a commission. That commission was to be useful, useful in tending to all of creation and creating a shape where God could find a permanent home (ohhhhhh, just a small question pops up here: is God in creation (or at least is that the eschatological vision) or is creation in God?, and of course small questions never shut down other options!).
How much weight?
There are Scriptures that we like to place weight on. And in what follows please do not assume that in suggesting that they probably cannot sustain the weight we have placed on them that I take a view that the weight cannot rest elsewhere.
‘I am’ Scriptures taken to mean that Jesus was claiming divinity. They probably do point in that direction but they are certainly not, by themselves, sufficient. ‘Claiming equality with God’, the accusation made by the Jews is also used to suggest that Jesus saw himself as divine. If Jesus claimed equal status with God that does not mean he claimed that he was divine, but functioning directly on behalf of God. I am not arguing that Jesus was not divine(!), simply that we all have a tendency to place more weight on the texts that seem to suit our viewpoint. To show that Jesus was understood (and understood himself) as a unique servant of God is clear… At that level he was the representative of Israel (also termed ‘son of God’), the unique servant. But we can push further: worship to Jesus offered by Jews; the times in Revelation that a singular verb / adjective is used (wrongly grammatically) to apply to Jesus and to God, as if they are one Person; the outpouring of the Spirit in Acts, something God would do… those probably can take more weight.
‘Jesus is the way…’ as being a Scripture that implies only those who are explicitly Christian know God. But the text does not indicate that Jesus is the way to know God, but the way to know who this God is, who can be known. It is not that only in Jesus is truth found, but that in Jesus there is no lie, no untruth included nor mixed in with the truth.
Likewise claiming that all need to be born again (used once by Jesus, and again used in 1 Peter), as there is no other name under heaven through which salvation comes. But, but, but that is addressed to Jews, and as such brings clarity that, those who were naturally born within a certain race and therefore believed that they were certainly included, need such a birth ‘from above’; they cannot rely on any other name (and in the context, as throughout the Gospels, the name of Abraham).(2)
‘Hell’ Scriptures… Jesus spoke about hell, where the fire does not go out, but it seems that when Jesus gave those warnings they were addressed to to all who do not go his way with regard to the impending doom of Rome’s destruction of the city of Jerusalem. We cannot easily take the warnings and suggest that they are addressing some post ‘eternal’ judgement event. We should read them in their context. Language such as ‘repent and believe in me’ was common language and we read that Josephus used exactly that phrase when warning a young man to abandon his path of picking up arms to fight the Romans. ‘Repent, change your mind, and abandon the path your are on’ was his message; his message was certainly not one that was calling him to a spiritual experience. In the context hell was indeed going to be the experience for those who did not go Jesus’ way, and he used the language of ‘Gehenna’ (hell), referring to the valley outside Jerusalem where the rubbish was burned and where ‘the fire was not quenched’. Maybe Jesus believed in the hell that many evangelicals proclaim but we do not seem to get an idea whether he believed that or not based on what he is quoted as saying. Indeed the Scriptures are somewhat silent on Jesus’ beliefs about the eternal fate of those who rejected what we might term the ‘Gospel’.
There are many other examples that could be given. It is just annoying that we are not backed up at every point in our beliefs. Or maybe it is annoying that the Scriptures are there to help me be transformed?
(1) I like the text when it says what I like it to say! No king in the land - great; everyone now with their own sight, because of ‘all knowing the Lord’ so they pursue what they are seeing. Now it reads so well, but not what the writer / editors intended.
(2) Acts 4:12 ‘no other name’ has to be read in the context of Peter speaking to Jews pre-Gentile mission. We might make the words of the verse universal in its application but the text needs to be read first in its highly provocative context. Jesus, or an appeal to the patriarchs. This is why a historical-narrative reading of the text is important, and makes more sense of the two-stage mission in Acts, to the Jew then to the Gentile, and also makes sense of Paul’s repeated phrase (e.g. Rom. 1: 18; 2:10) of ’to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Gentile)).