THE MIRROR & THE TELESCOPE, PART I: TOWARDS A DUAL-SUBJECT APPROACH TO BIBLICAL REVELATION
Here is a trustworthy statement, worthy of full acceptance: The Bible is filled with lies, wickedness, and bad theology. [Pause] Now before you begin gathering wood to burn me as a heretic, it must be said that this sentence is an accurate assertion that any signer of the “Chicago Statement on Inerrancy” could affirm. Of course, there is some equivocation in the phrasing: I should say, “the Bible is filled with examples of lies, wickedness, and erroneous theology.”
We see lies in Scripture, accurately recounted, from the beginning until the end: in Genesis alone we see deception in the words of the serpent in the Garden, as well as from the mouths of Cain, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jacob’s sons, Potiphar’s wife, Joseph, and many more. Examples of wickedness in Scripture include murder, brutality, rape, gang rape, incest, incestuous rape, and attempted genocide. We may also find many examples of bad theology in the form of worship of idols (sometimes led by Israel’s leaders, such as Aaron in Ex. 32:4-5), false prophecies from those who claim to be true prophets of YHWH, and even the claim in Psalm 14:1 that “there is no God” (don’t worry, we’ll qualify this later).
The existence of these elements in the Bible is unquestionable; however, the purpose they serve in the text may sometimes perplex the thoughtful reader, particularly when one considers the classic concept of Scripture as “revelation.” Most Christian definitions of “revelation” look similar to what we find in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology: “the term is used primarily of God’s communication to humans of divine truth, that is, his manifestation of himself or his will.”
The question then is how do examples of lies, wickedness, and bad theology serve to reveal a “manifestation” of God or his will to us? How does the presence of these disturbing aspects in the written “Word of God” act as divine self-disclosure? In order to answer that question, I would like to argue that the Bible actually has two subjects of its revelation: God and humanity (see footnote 1 below). To use an analogy, Scripture acts as a mirror and telescope: it is a mirror that accurately depicts and evaluates the human condition; and it is also a telescope, revealing the transcendent, eternally “other” Divine Being. And ultimately, Christ serves as the mirror in the telescope, perfectly imaging near to us the fullness of God in heaven.
While many treatises on revelation focus primarily on the Divine subject, there are some theologians who have noted the significance of the divinely inspired revelation of the human subject in Scripture. Ben Witherington poses the idea that “maybe the Bible is meant to be as much a revelation of human character as of divine character, and how the two do and should interact.” (Living Word, 24) Although this is more of an aside for Witherington, his comments touch upon the need for students of Scripture to reconsider what it is exactly that we see the inspired Word as revealing to us: only God’s nature, or humanity’s as well.
I believe that we need to make more of Witherington’s conjecture that the Bible is indeed “as much” about humanity as it is about God, for the simple reason that as we consider the whole of Scripture, we see that large sections, particularly in the historical works and poetry of the Hebrew Scriptures, focus much more on revealing humanity than divinity. For instance, God tells Job’s friends that “they have not spoken of me what is right” (Job 42:7); does this then cast much of this book’s contents into theological suspicion? Being that the reader has seen what caused Job’s suffering in the prologue, we know at the very least that their accusations against Job are faulty—what about their theological ideas? Could it be that Job’s friends serve as examples of bad theology, but they speak in ways which still accurately reveal authentic human perspectives? This example suggests that we must distinguish in Scripture between theological source material (what we can say about God) and anthropological source material (how we see human beliefs and experiences depicted). Furthermore, we must differentiate accurate theological ideas from erroneous ones (i.e. persons may say something about God in Scripture, but it does not mean it is true), as well as between accurate or positive anthropological material (including those Biblical figures we should emulate) and false ideas about or negative examples of humanity. (Footnote 2)
[In Part II, we will explore why it is that humans would need revelation about…humans.]
- Of course there are more subjects in Scripture, such as animal and plant life, the cosmos, angelic beings, etc. but God and humanity are clearly the primary subjects of revelation
- It must be said that the Bible exists as more than informational “source material;” it also “performs” God’s covenantal actions (as Kevin VanHoozer has suggested) as well as transforming us into people who are “on mission” with God to heal and redeem the whole creation (as N.T. Wright has proposed).
See PART IV for Works Cited