Tag Archive | Ben Witherington

The Mirror & the Telescope, Part IV

THE MIRROR & THE TELESCOPE, PART IV:  THE HERMENEUTICAL KEY

The dual subject view of biblical revelation obviously raises questions of how we should understand what the Bible is disclosing to us and how we may use Scripture to theological ends.  Witherington proposes that, in reading Scripture, we need to ask the question “in what sense, and in regard to what subject, is this text telling the truth?” He sees value in distinguishing between genres as a starting point for understanding the subject of revelation:  “In oracles [prophetic words], we can expect the will and character of God to be most clearly reflected.  Prayers and songs that come from the human heart may well tell us the truth about ourselves rather than about God’s character.  And narratives can reveal both of these sorts of truths.” (25) While this is moving in the direction of the approach I am advocating, I’m not certain that these broad strokes are completely helpful.  First, prayers and songs may indeed reveal God’s nature or plans, not merely human experience.  Second, Witherington’s generic distinctions still leave the largest portions of Scripture, which are narratives, in an ambiguous position.  Finally, sometimes we find false prophets speaking in oracles, so even the trustworthiness of prophecies require some level of discernment.

Pinnock points to the classical rule of context in hermeneutics:  “We must pay attention to who is speaking and what is being said to us in each place [in the Bible].” (84) However, if we put our confidence exclusively in the character of the speakers, we may find that sometimes those who are opposed to God may end up revealing truth (e.g. the pagan prophet Balaam in Numbers 22-24 or the Jewish high priest Caiaphas in John 11:49-52) while those who are God’s prophets may utter something questionable.  An example of this is found in Aaron’s commendation for the Hebrews to worship the golden calf he had fashioned as YHWH.  We also find in Habakkuk 1:2 and 1:13 an example where the prophet, speaking in an oracle, says that God does not listen to his cries for help and that God’s “eyes are too pure to behold evil, and…cannot look on wrongdoing.”  Although we may say this reflects a human emotion or desire to lift up God’s holiness, it is uttered in a form where we would expect it to be theologically accurate—yet we can see that God did hear Habakkuk’s cries and in fact does see evil and wrongdoing.  So sometimes where we may expect to find corrupt fallible humanity, we may actually discover divine truth; where we expect to hear God’s perfect voice, we may find the truth of human longing, pain, or other experiences.

Sometimes, even an ass can speak the truth (painting by Rembrandt)

Though this dual-subject theory of revelation adds a great deal of tension to our biblical interpretive strategies, there does exist a key that may help us understand and clarify the revelation of humanity and divinity in Scripture:  the God-man, Jesus Christ.  As we saw in the original analogy of the mirror and the telescope, we may see Jesus as the mirror in the telescope—perfect humanity who is near to us, revealing the perfect divinity of the transcendent Godhead who is far off.  Pinnock uses this analogy himself as he proclaims, “in Jesus Christ, the divine nature is mirrored.”  In a lengthier quote, he says

Jesus Christ is and must be the centerpiece of the Christian revelation, because in Jesus God entered our world within the parameters of a human life…The Scriptures exist to bear witness to him (John 5:39), and he is the sum and substance of their message.  No mere emissary of the prophetic sort, the Son is God incarnate, dwelling among us, the revelation of God without peer.  Of all the forms of revelation, this is the best. (Scripture Principle, 36)

As we consider the human and divine subjects in the totality of Scripture, we can measure them against the One who was perfectly human—understanding our experiences and tendencies while remaining sinless—and who was also perfectly divine—the “reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Heb. 1:3).  So, for instance, when we look at Psalm 137 and wonder if smashing babies’ heads against rocks represents God’s desire for humans, we can look at the words and actions of Jesus who commanded us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44) and who, “when he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten” (1 Peter 2:23).  As Jesus exemplified true humanity, we can derive our understanding of the anthropological ideal from him and discern whether other Scriptures reveal true examples of fallen human behavior or examples of redeemed human character which we should emulate.

By the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit, we must undertake the project of properly understanding revelation as God both making himself known to us, as well as revealing the truth of our own humanity to us, by using Christ himself as the hermeneutical key to distinguish between what is true of humanity and what is true of God (and conversely, what is false about both).  While this is not a simple operation, I believe that this provides the best basis we have for understanding the anthropological and theological dimensions of Scripture.  How do we do this exactly?  I’m not fully sure.  This is indeed the experiment which I am seeking to undertake:  re-reading the whole Bible, Old and New Testaments, and discerning between human and divine subjects, with Christ as the hermeneutical touchstone (while also necessarily leaving room for some unanswerable, ambiguous passages along the way).

In his book, Incarnation & Inspiration, Peter Enns describes what he calls a “Christotelic hermeneutic” for reading the Old Testament (which deals with the New Testament use of the OT).  I echo the sentiments he shares about pursuing his method as I contemplate the dual-subject approach outlined above; he writes that a coherent reading of the OT using his hermeneutic “is not achieved by following a few simple rules of exegesis.  It is to be sought after, over a long period of time, in community with other Christians, with humility and patience.” (170) I would love to read alongside any others who are willing to consider this approach and together rediscover, perhaps more accurately, what the Bible has to say about God and humanity in its pages.

Works Cited:

  • Donald Bloesch, Holy Scripture: Revelation, Inspiration & Interpretation, (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1994).
  • Peter Enns, Inspiration & Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005).
  • Carl F.H. Henry, “Revelation, Special,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology 2nd ed., ed. Walter A. Elwell, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 1021.
  • I. Howard Marshall, Biblical Inspiration, (1982; repr., Vancouver, BC: Regent College Publishing, 2004).
  • Clark H. Pinnock and Barry L. Callen, The Scripture Principle: Reclaiming the Full Authority of the Bible 3rd ed., (1984; Lexington, KY: Emeth Press, 2009).
  • Ben Witherington III, The Living Word of God: Rethinking the Theology of the Bible, (Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2007).
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The Mirror & the Telescope, Part III

THE MIRROR & THE TELESCOPE, PART III:  EXAMPLES OF DISTINGUISHING BETWEEN DIVINE & HUMAN SUBJECTS

We will now consider several biblical passages in light of the dual-subject approach to Scripture.  In Psalm 137:8-9, an exilic or post-exilic author writes:  “O daughter Babylon, you devastator!  Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!  Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”  We must ask whether this text reveals to us theological source material that we may to develop a doctrine of God’s severity in paying back evildoers, or if it reveals anthropological source material in which we primarily see the human desire for brutal retributive justice (if not merely revenge)?

"By the Rivers of Babylon" by Eugène Delacroix

This passage in particular was what stimulated Witherington’s observation that Scripture may “be as much a revelation of human character as of divine character,” in that, we must consider how this text “comports with the idea of a God who loves all humankind and is especially concerned for the weak, the vulnerable, and the young.” (Living Word, 24) Witherington’s thought process hints at a hermeneutical key we will explore subsequently, but we may for now say that there is evidence to suggest that the divinely inspired author of Psalm 137 was revealing human nature to us rather than depicting God’s attributes.

Dealing with this passage in terms of anthropological source material, we must then ask whether it represents a revelation of positive human character that God is commending, or whether it is a negative attribute that is merely being accurately recorded.  To determine where this passage falls, we could see if the author had cited God’s approval of this desire for revenge; if so, then we may consider this a model of human behavior that God finds acceptable.  However, we do not see this, so without this divine endorsement, we must remain ambiguous toward the text:  it may be a legitimate human response to evil, or it may represent an attitude that is contrary to God’s will for humanity.  Overall, we can say that God certainly allows humans to express their feelings of anger, even in the extreme.  Also, this text reveals to us historical background on the plight of the Jews in exile—their experience must have been incredibly dreadful to elicit such a monstrous response.

Let us consider another example, from Psalm 13, which evinces a more specific claim about God that we must discern as being either theologically absolute or an example of human experience.  The author, presumably David, cries out, “How long, O LORD?  Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me? (Ps. 13:1).  Do we see this as theological source material from which we can develop a theology of God’s “hiddenness”—was David correct in asserting that God was hiding from him?  Had God indeed forgotten him, not literally, but relationally? Or does this reveal an anthropological picture of David’s experience of feeling like God was hiding from him and that God had forgotten about him?

There is more ambiguity here, due to the fact that many Christian thinkers (e.g. Luther, St. John of the Cross) see evidence for a theology of God’s hiddenness in the pages of Scripture.  While we cannot rule this out as being true of God, it does seem obvious that the passage is primarily speaking of David’s experience of feeling and thinking particular emotions and thoughts, so it would be safe to say this reveals more about the human subject than the divine.

We may wonder, then, if Psalm 13 is actually more about an experience of human perception than divine actuality, could we say the same about Psalm 139, where David makes claims that have been used to support a number of theological doctrines:  God’s omniscience (“Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely” v. 4), omnipresence (“Where can I go from your spirit?  Or where can I flee from your presence?” v.7), and human predestination (“In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them yet existed” v. 16).  Could all of these examples reveal David’s human sense of God’s intimate involvement in his life without necessarily being absolutely true of God’s being or plans?

One could ask the rather blunt question of David:  how exactly do you know all of these things?  What access do you have to God’s mind to comment upon what he knows?  Have you been to heaven or Sheol, or have you seen God’s book in which your days are numbered?  We can logically assume that none of these questions could be answered positively to support David’s assertions and yet we also find no evidence that David has actually been told these things by God, as we see in other parts of Scripture where it is claimed that “the Word of the LORD” came upon an author.  This is an argument from silence going in both directions—we don’t know whether God revealed these things to David or not, though they do seem in line with other theological claims we see in Scripture.  Ultimately, there is tension, particularly in a genre like lyrical poetry, between being able to clearly discern what is reliable theological source material and what are examples of human experience (such as doubt, fear, or anger) that contribute to an inspired and accurate anthropology.

We could also look beyond claims or statements in poetical works to accounts and narratives in Scripture in order to raise questions of whether the Bible is telling us about humanity or God.  For instance, when Noah curses Canaan to become “lowest of slaves” to his brothers in Genesis 9:25, do we take it to be the case that God approves of this curse, which was later used to promote racism and the practice of enslaving Africans (who were purported to be the sons of Ham)?  It is interesting to note from the text that Noah does ask God to bless Shem and Japheth and make Canaan their slaves (Gen. 9:26-27)—but we do not see evidence of whether God endorses Noah’s curse or not.

"Noah Curses Ham for His Mockery" by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

From a human perspective, we can see that Noah is angry, embarrassed, and struggling with a hangover—it would be natural for him to lash out at his son, as many of us would do in this situation.  We must not assume that merely because God commends a biblical actor at some points in the Bible that it means everything they do subsequent to that time is approved by God.  Noah’s reaction may clearly serve as anthropological source material, but to put a divine stamp of approval upon this curse is not necessarily justified from the text.  So why should we allow critics to place the blame of Christian use of this verse to support racism on God (even though the identification of blacks with the sons of Ham is nowhere in the text as well)?  Noah spoke the curse and we have no reason of which I am aware to believe God fulfilled it.  This stands in contrast with God’s specific promise to Abram to “bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse” (Gen. 12:3).

[In Part IV, we will consider the problem of discerning between the two subjects in biblical interpretation.]

The Mirror & the Telescope, Part I

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.”

Now I know how Joan of Arc felt...as the flames rose to her Roman nose.

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.

How a reflecting telescope works...

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.]

Footnotes:

  1. 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
  2. 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