Wednesday, March 12, 2014

It's just a matter of discipleship

I've been led down a road I never thought to find myself on. Earlier in this blog, I have questioned everything to do with inerrancy, I have questioned Paul's approach to patriarchal authority based on Jesus' words as reported by Matthew, and I've argued against using the phrase "Word of God" as a way of referring to the Bible -- because the Bible itself almost always uses it to refer to prophecy or the Gospel and not to a writing in existence at the time when the phrase, "Word of God", is used. But now I find myself, in my cross-grained, ornery way, defending the Old Testament more than I ever thought I would. And of course it's because I'm taking an opposing view to a something I see as a popular trend. I have no defence for  this. I do not know what drives me to always take a different tack to arguments for this or that idea. I only know that I do it.

So here's the impetus for this particular post. During a previously mentioned Facebook discussion about God's wrath, a couple of propositions were put forward about how to treat parts of the Old Testament. One of them writes off all instances of wrath as a mere metaphor, implying that the perceptions of God of the people of the time of the Old Testament were frequently innately wrong. Another was that actually much of the writings generally attributed to Moses were actually created during the Babylonian exile, a bit of higher-critical legerdemain to absolve that great man of all those acts that we find distasteful and evil, but which I've argued make perfect sense in the times when they occurred. And ultimately we were enjoined to make the Gospels our lens to view all of the other writings of the Bible, a proposition that I thoroughly agree with, but the working out of which I find I differ wildly.

Because here's the deal. Jesus, the main player in the Gospels, our example, the Rabbi on whom the proper imitation of our discipleship is focused, really does not seem to treat the Old Testament in any similar way to these approaches. Take the Sermon on the Mount. After the Beatitudes, he introduces all the rest of it with a disclaimer, namely, "I have not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfil them." And the people listening to those words would have heard that as meaning the same collection of writings that Christians refer to as the Old Testament. And in its context, this is not a throwaway statement, nor is it an idle threat. Jesus proceeds to examine, broaden and deepen various Old Testament concepts and laws. He even affirms the idea of just penalties for specific sins, and shockingly introduces the hyperbole (I hope it's hyperbole!) of preemptive and prophylactic penalties ("if your ___ causes you to sin, cut it off!")

I'd like to take this purpose statement ("I have... come... to fulfil [the law and the prophets]) out of its context, and ask the question, what does it mean to fulfil the Law and the Prophets. Three things come to mind: (and really none of this is original material.) 1) to actually successfully obey them, 2) to set them into their intended larger context and thus to 3) complete our understanding of them. And this is what I see Jesus doing throughout his teachings and works. It's not how the approaches I mention above strike me, at least not the write off of what we don't like and the higher criticism. They seem like abolishment. The third approach needs some further comment.

What does it mean that the Gospels are the lens through which we view the rest of the Bible? Well hopefully the Gospels will help us make actual sense of the rest of the Bible, but in the case of the Old Testament, it's a two way street. You see, I'm under the delusion that God was teaching the world about himself all through the Old Testament, and doing a good job of it, too. So when Jesus appears on the scene his task is not to undo all that has gone before, but to bring together all the threads and complete the task. By this I mean that no basic Old Testament concept is left on the cutting room floor. It all is part of the story. The mercy we receive through the cross is perfectly understood against the backdrop of the punishment we deserve, which we could only have known about from the Old Testament. To me (switching metaphors) it looks a contrast between two stages. One puts the cross in the centre of a new stage with a white backdrop and says "We didn't always know this, but now we know." The other (my preference, obviously) a stage with the cross at the centre and a backdrop which depicts all of that which has gone before, from which we can make sense of an entire flow of history in both directions -- the cross making sense of history and history making sense of the cross...

Well this at any rate, I think is what I think not abolishing but fulfilling the law looks like.

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