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NT Wright on Genesis (RJS)

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Late last week the BioLogos blog Science and the Sacred posted another video clip featuring NT Wright. In this clip he discusses the dating of Genesis 1-3 and what he sees as the impact of these texts on first century Judaism and the early Christians. This clip struck me as interesting in the context of our vigorous discussion of Brian McLaren’s new book “A New Kind of Christianity” on Monday as well as the context of our general discussion of science and faith.

How important is Gen 1-3 for understanding the gospel? which, of course, leads us to consider the question: What is the gospel of Jesus Christ?

Starting about 1:55 in the clip Wright says:

… the big story which is there is that humans are given their identity as wonderful creatures within a wonderful God-given world, and that nevertheless they blow it. That Israel was called to be the people through whom God would remake and redo that project and they had blown it as well, which kind of then sets you up for the question what happens next. And unless you’ve got that double picture in mind there is all sorts of stuff in Matthew Mark Luke John Acts, Paul, etc. which you just never understand.

The OT is essential to understand the gospel. The point of Genesis is not the age of the earth or the snake and tree. There is a functionality, a message, which transcends the literal narrative. Those who worry about dismissing Genesis as “ANE myth” do well to be concerned. There is a theme beginning in Genesis 2 and 3 – repeated many times throughout the OT – of failure and exile, failure and consequence. This is the backdrop for the story of the gospel.  Without this backdrop nothing makes sense. 

So as I see it at this time the idea that gospel is God’s peaceable kingdom established through the power of love is right – but does not dig deep enough. The kingdom is not established through the power of love, but through the power of His love. The gospel is that God through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus did for us what we were unable to do for ourselves – he broke this cycle of failure, took the consequence. This is what enables the inauguration of the kingdom of God.

The understanding we develop from studying God’s creation may change the way we interpret the framework for telling this story in Genesis – but it doesn’t change the story or the history leading up to the incarnation.

What do you think? What is the functionality of Genesis and how does it inform our understanding of the gospel?

If you wish to contact me you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net



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Darryl

posted March 4, 2010 at 7:50 am


As usual, Wright being his most excellent self! I am embarrassed to admit I had not quite considered the Genesis story in this manner. I’ve always viewed the motif of the Hebrew Scriptures as being “Exodus” as “Gospel” is NT motif. But this understanding of the Genesis creation/Fall story makes wonderful sense!



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joe Palmer

posted March 4, 2010 at 8:37 am


Scott my freshman year of college an old man who was a former contractor, taught me this less on in our study of Old Testament survey. He didn’t just teach us the books, authors, dates, and themes. He pounded into our dull brain the theme of Israel losing God’s blessing due to disobedience. I have never forgotten that lesson, nor that man. Thankfully as well he taught us that God loved us and wanted to bless us.
Joe Palmer
http://www.joepalmer.wordpress.com



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T

posted March 4, 2010 at 8:43 am


Well, to follow Wright’s logic, then, the gospel would have something to do with the exile being over and the restoration of not only relationship but also vocation as co-laborer with and through God in the world/land/garden towards his ends.
I tend to agree with this, though I wonder how many would consider this “legalism” in light of Scot’s post.



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pds

posted March 4, 2010 at 9:11 am


http://thedesignspectrum.wordpress.com/
Sure, but as he notes, part of the Gospel is that we were created and are sustained by a loving Father who had love, meaning, purpose, design and salvation in mind for us. God is actively involved in all aspects of his creation.



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Bob Robinson

posted March 4, 2010 at 9:13 am


vanguardchurch.blogspot.com
Harvie Conn, in his book Evangelism: Doing Justice and Preaching Grace, argues that the gospel’s “Great Commission” is actually the recapitulation of the “Cultural Mandate” found in Genesis 1 and 2.



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Marcus

posted March 4, 2010 at 9:50 am


Hi Bob, that’s a really good point! The biggest contribution to my thought from Greg Beale’s book on the temple was that Adam and Eve’s role was to expand the Garden and thus expand the presence of God throughout the entire earth. Seeing the tie to the NT is helpful. The missio dei hasn’t changed. As my teacher, Dr. Graham Cole puts it (he says this at least twice per class), the divine project is, ‘to secure God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule living God’s way in God’s holy and loving presence.’



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RJS

posted March 4, 2010 at 10:09 am


Bob,
Perhaps I shall have to read Conn – this has not been on my (far too long and growing) reading list.
I was thinking about this in context of the vigorous discussion of McLaren’s book on Thursday – and the idea of an evolving human understanding of God reflected in scripture. While perhaps true on some level, it misses the real point of the entire OT story – from Genesis through the prophets and the return from exile and rebuilding of the Temple. The OT story seems characterized by a recurring theme of failure and consequence – there is a brokenness in any human endeavor that simply cannot be overcome humanly.
But – Marcus, isn’t the divine project expressed as ‘to secure God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule living God’s way in God’s holy and loving presence.’ really insufficient, at least as commonly understood? Without an understanding of “God’s People” rooted in Gen 1-3 it often devolves into some strange remnant theology; without an understanding of the underlying justice themes reflected in love for others and care for the weak and powerless “living in God’s way” becomes a travesty. The divine project is for the entire creation.



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Ted Weis

posted March 4, 2010 at 10:15 am


“There is a theme beginning in Genesis 2 and 3 – repeated many times throughout the OT – of failure and exile, failure and consequence. This is the backdrop for the story of the gospel. Without this backdrop nothing makes sense.”
This is an excellent summary of the OT story!



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John W Frye

posted March 4, 2010 at 10:53 am


RJS,
The provocative ending comments by Tom Wright caught my attention the most. As a scientist who follows Jesus, would you say that scientists (Christian or not) are asking the Bible to answer questions it was never created to answer, i.e., how long the days were, how old the earth is, etc.?
John



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Josh M

posted March 4, 2010 at 11:33 am


RJS,
I believe you’ve captured the heart of the matter. It would be interesting to hear how you would further unpack the necessity of Christ’s incarnation, cross and resurrection as the solution we could not and cannot provide ourselves.
Maybe you and Brian should co-author his next book together! ;-)



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Jeff Veitch

posted March 4, 2010 at 11:36 am


John,
I would add that historians, theologians, and many other readers are asking those same questions. Let’s not forget that biblical studies and theology are using scientific methods to arrive at their understandings. Which is part of Wright’s point, stepping back and looking at a narrative development in the Scriptures means we have to set aside some of our more “scientific” questions and answer them within the greater narrative arch. We can ask those questions of Scripture but we must be ready to deal with the texts without forcing the answers we want.



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RJS

posted March 4, 2010 at 11:45 am


John,
In the context of the science and faith discussion – I think Tom Wright is dead on here. When the discussion concerns days and order of creation, the historicity of a walking, talking snake, and looking for a missing rib, … we are asking questions of the text that it was never designed to answer. It was designed and written to answer a different set of questions. We won’t see the story unless we see the questions.
To move a little farther from Wright’s comments, into my thinking … It isn’t interpretation of Genesis within its intent and time that leads off the track of orthodoxy … it is misinterpretation of the story that leads off the narrow path – starts down the “slippery slope”
Preserving a literal interpretation of Genesis is worthless unless we read the right story – and if we read the right story it doesn’t ultimately matter if we see Genesis as literal or mytho-historical.



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Alan K

posted March 4, 2010 at 11:51 am


What is the gospel of Jesus Christ? Most certainly the answer is in the question. The good news is Jesus Christ.



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JHM

posted March 4, 2010 at 11:57 am


RJS,
Honestly, I was a little underwhelmed by Wright’s video in the science-and-faith context. I doubt that many Christians would disagree with Tom’s bringing out of an overarching theme or “layer of meaning”. I think people still want to know “How’d God do it?” in addition to the “What does it all mean?” question. In that sense I don’t think Wright is actually tackling the question, he’s just saying it doesn’t matter. But of course it does matter or places like BioLogos and Answers in Genesis wouldn’t exist.
So I liked the video, I like N.T. Wright’s thinking, but I didn’t see how it really does anything for the current science-and-faith discussion.



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John W Frye

posted March 4, 2010 at 12:02 pm


Jeff (#11) and RJS (#12),
Thank you both for your informative responses. As a pastor it is becoming clearer to me that those like myself in the theological/ biblical disciplines in their honorable intent to defend the faith, protect the Bible, argue for God, correlate faith and science, etc. venture into distorting the Bible into a document that neither God intended nor the human authors ever imagined.



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Marcus

posted March 4, 2010 at 12:03 pm


RJS #7,
I think that you ask a good question and I agree that Cole’s definition can be misconstrued with devastating effect. What’s needed, though, in my opinion, is clear definition of what each element means. Of course ‘living God’s way’ means living in imitation of Christ, which means living a sacrificial life in service of others, not in subjugation of others.
There are a couple of places where I want to push back, maybe not completely against what you’re saying but against a trend I notice developing. Yes God is redeeming all of creation, but any definition of the missio dei needs to include God’s purposes before the fall (I do believe that we need some concept of a historical fall even though I don’t believe in a historical Adam and Eve), so it can’t be understood purely in terms of redemption, whether understood as redemption of individuals or all of creation.
I would also like to suggest that while God is in the process of redeeming all of creation, the central point of the project is us. We are God’s image bearers, not anything else in creation so to me it seems right to place logical priority (again without neglecting the social and cosmic implications of redemption) on what God has done and is doing because of his great love for us.



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Jeff Cook

posted March 4, 2010 at 12:10 pm


It seems to me the pictures of a garden in disarray that is suddenly filled with new life is Jesus primary metaphor what God is doing in our world (Mt 13, 20, etc). He is taking something severely damage and re-creating it.
The gospel is simply ?Jesus is Lord.? And what is he Lord of ?the whole garden, and because he is in charge things are suddenly being transformed by his recreating power.
Because Genesis is primarily a picture of how God makes the world, Jesus used tis picture to depict for his audience who he was and what he was doing: primarily he is the God who hovers over the chaos and speaks, and everything is reorder. Jesus is the one bringing about the ?new creation.? The Palingenesia. You see that image of Jesus hovering over the water and speaking frequently (Mark 4:1, 35-39, 6:45-51 among others)?this is where our focus should be?that is why Genesis 1-2 are important.



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William Cheriegate

posted March 4, 2010 at 12:23 pm


The proper focus should never be on dates or even the location of events but rather the stories themselves. Let’s focus on the narrative of Genesis and not so much on the age of the Earth.
6,000 years or millions? Eden in modern Iraq? The main point is what Brian described today on his book review response: “Wrath means God’s displeasure that allows people to experience the consequences of their negative actions.”
So it was with Adam and Eve, so it was throughout the OT, so it was in Jesus. Luke 19:44 … you did not recognize the time of your visitation.
The violence and wrath on the nation was the consequence of their refusal of the way of Jesus. Same on Romans 1.



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RJS

posted March 4, 2010 at 12:41 pm


JHM,
I think it could do something for the science-faith dialogue on two fronts.
The first is what I tried to say in #12 – it makes the argument that the precise interpretation is genuinely something over which we can differ – the story – the faith does not hang on one specific interpretation.
The second is that it suggests an understanding of Genesis 2-3 more along the lines of Walton’s discussion of Genesis 1. I don’t mean the specifics of Walton’s thesis, but the idea that modern science is not cast in opposition to the inspiration or intent of the original author. After all – no one claims that we are always inspired in our reading of scripture – only that scripture is from God.
If the story is clear it does it matter if people misinterpret details, today or in the past? Misinterpretation has always happened and will always happen and not only in Genesis.



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AHH

posted March 4, 2010 at 12:46 pm


JHM #14 comments:
I think people still want to know “How’d God do it?” in addition to the “What does it all mean?” question. In that sense I don’t think Wright is actually tackling the question, he’s just saying it doesn’t matter. But of course it does matter or places like BioLogos and Answers in Genesis wouldn’t exist.
I think “it doesn’t matter” (how God did it) is exactly the point. Sure, many people “still want to know,” but the point is that, while such a desire to know may be natural curiosity, any answers one finds via such curiosity (whether by scientific exploration or attempts at interpreting Scripture) are irrelevant to the story and therefore to our faith.
Of course the “how” does matter to Answers in Genesis, but that’s because they operate under a hermeneutic that insists Scripture speak to questions it isn’t trying to answer.
As for BioLogos, I think they would agree that “it doesn’t matter” (theologically) — BioLogos would have no reason to exist were it not for the many Christians who follow the lead of AIG and much of the ID movement in insisting that certain answers for “how God did it” are not acceptable. Unfortunately for our witness to the scientifically literate, the answers these groups rule out are those best supported by the evidence within God’s creation, producing a need for a group like BioLogos to try and minimize the damage.



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Darren King

posted March 4, 2010 at 1:26 pm


Sometimes we need to be content that certain answers just aren’t available to us. At some point human beings – especially religious ones – began assuming it was their right to know everything. Not only is this too much to expect, but its actually impossible. We are finite creatures. Beloved? Yes… But FINITE.
I just finished reading Wright’s “Evil and the Justice of God”. Great book – I highly recommend it. One point that Wright makes in the book, on several occasions, is that when it comes to the question of where evil came from in the first place, we just don’t know. He went on to state that this means A.) The Bible doesn’t tell us, and B.) It’s probably well beyond our ability to comprehend, anyway.
Let me tell you, it was wonderful and cathartic to read a Christian commenter, especially one as well-known and well-respected as the Bishop of Durham, saying so. I just DO NOT understand why so many Christians assume it is our God-given right to know everything about everything. Once again: 1.) Its not our right, 2.) Its not possible.



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EricG

posted March 4, 2010 at 1:28 pm


(Some questions from a relatively uninformed, but curious person:)
Wright says in the video that he is less interested in the timing of when Genesis was written, and more interested in how people just before Jesus’s time would have interpreted the Genesis story. I’d imagine he would say the same thing about other parts of the OT like Isaiah, which plays a large role in his narrative theology, but is subject to a lot of critical scholarship (scholarship some of which he probably accepts). I like that idea as a way to resolve some of the historical questions about the OT, if it works. But can someone explain to me a little more why Wright thinks that what people around Jesus’s time thought matters more than whether something is historically true? On its face, for example, it would seem like Wright’s view of the grand narrative would require seeing certain aspects of the Fall as actual literal history — e.g., that the “groaning” of creation, Romans 8 (which he emphasizes), really did come about because of human sin (even though science seems to demonstrate that some groaning of creation was going on long before the Fall). Similarly, don’t his views require that the prophecies toward the end of Isaiah were actual prophecies of Isaiah (even though many would doubt that, as I understand it)? We can’t just say that what people thought at the time of Jesus is the only thing that matters, can we? Maybe I’m reading too much into what the video says, but how would he resolve these issues?



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Eddie

posted March 4, 2010 at 1:35 pm


Absolutely wonderful comments. I agree with the assertion that AIG and people like them have missed the whole point.
John Walton’s Fabulous book The Lost World Of Genesis One speaks to this functionality and I am quite taken by what he has to say.
Wright seems to get everything right except his eschatology which is inconsistant with everything else he believes. He sees the scripture in context until he gets to that, and then he falls in line with all the other Kool-aid drinkers of TV preaching ilk.



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Marcus

posted March 4, 2010 at 1:44 pm


Hi EricG,
I’m curious. What specifically about Wright’s eschatology do you disagree with?



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Marcus

posted March 4, 2010 at 1:49 pm


Sorry my previous comment should have been directed at Eddie #23.



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David Johnson

posted March 4, 2010 at 2:07 pm


>
I think that what Wright is saying is not that it doesn’t matter, but that Genesis doesn’t answer the question. When we come with the question of “How’d God do it?”, we need to see that Genesis doesn’t answer the question.



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joanne

posted March 4, 2010 at 2:17 pm


I think if one reads the story without theological presuppositions as a story Moses is telling to the children of Israel to help them remain true to the God of Israel. (by story i am not suggesting it has no truth)
It is a story of two people, who represent all of us in some way. They are being tempted by the wise sounding serpents around them to follow after other gods. It is a story to remind the people of God to keep their side of the Covenant. Remaining faithful to the Covenant meant they would stay in the land and prosper in the peace of God. To fall prey to the gods of the nations around them would mean they would break Covenant and lose the land give to them.
We are each one ADam and each one Eve and we will be tempted to follow gods other than the one true God. We must remain faithful to the One God.
My belief.



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JHM

posted March 4, 2010 at 2:18 pm


RJS (#19)
I agree with your first point when we’re talking what’s important to the Gospel and the basics of the faith. I do however think that how one views the details of Genesis can be quite important to a person’s faith, for example how one considers things like the origin and nature of evil in the world. So absolutely Wright is right (hehe) that the importance to the Gospel is the meaning of the Genesis story, not the details of the implementation. But maybe let’s not say it doesn’t matter *at all*.
My personal concern with the Wright/Walton/Enns type view is that it seems to at least significantly value meaning over reality. What I mean is that they suggest that the meaning one takes from a Biblical story is much more important than the reality of that story ever taking place. This may be fine for non-essential doctrines but I have big issues if it gets applied to say, the Resurrection. What I’m missing is:
1) How does this not (taken to its extreme) turn the Bible into a fairy tale in the sense of being nothing more than a very creative and useful moral story without any objective reality to it?
2) Because Wright/Walton/Enns *do* believe in the historicity of Jesus and his death/burial/resurrection, by what method do they distinguish between “real history” and “mytho-history” in the Bible?
This newer understanding seems very interesting and has lots of potential so don’t think I’m being critical just because, but my conservative brain has a hard time making it work without dropping some mental framework that I’m loath to abandon just yet.



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JHM

posted March 4, 2010 at 2:23 pm


AHH (#20)
You said:
“Of course the “how” does matter to Answers in Genesis, but that’s because they operate under a hermeneutic that insists Scripture speak to questions it isn’t trying to answer.”
I’m curious, how do we know what Scripture isn’t trying to answer? Is it because the seeming answers it gives don’t fit with other things see, or because we go into reading it with the idea that it only answers certain questions, or is it from Scripture itself perhaps? I’m not really sure, but it seems just a tad restrictive to declare “Yeah, but we know the God who created the Universe doesn’t want to answer those types of questions.”



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Michael W. Kruse

posted March 4, 2010 at 2:28 pm


I like Wright’s take here but I tend not to be as persuaded by his exile/restoration emphasis. Not that it isn’t there but rather I think he over emphasizes it.
Genesis 1-2 tell us who we are and what our mission is. We are created as God’s icons … representatives of his authority … on the earth. Following John Walton, the earth is God’s temple and we are his functionaries in the temple. We are to fill his temple (the earth) … both physically and in terms of bringing it to completeness, which includes the cultural mandate. Our mission is shalom-filled relationship with God and each other, and dominion over the earth. We were created as material beings for a material world.
Genesis three says we blew the mission. Seeking to become more than we are we become something less. Relationship is broken and the land is not being filled and fulfilled by God’s functionaries. The story of scripture is God’s mission to rectify this disaster.
Christopher Wright uses a helpful diagram in the “Mission of God.” He draws a triangle. At the top he writes “God.” At one lower corner he writes “Israel.” At the other lower corner he writes “the Land.” But this triangle is inside a larger triangle with them touching at the apex. It too has God at the top. But at lower corner where “Israel” was written in the first triangle is written “Humanity.” At the other lower corner is written “the Earth.” The redemptive mission of God is to expand the first triangle until it perfectly fills the larger triangle … “Israel” expands to become identical to “humanity” and “the land” expands to become identical to “the earth.”
At the end of the story, the earth is filled and fulfilled, God is on his throne, God’s functionaries are at work living out their call to dominion in material world.
Here is a key point in all this. The creation/dominion mandate is permanent while the redemption mandates of forming loving witnessing communities and doing evangelism are temporary. The end with consummation of the new creation. The redemption mandates are about the restoration relationships with God and others, and the recovery of the creation/dominion mandate.
The emphasis on exile, while clearly present, if taken in isolation can tend to focus on what we are being delivered from. I think C. Wright’s contribution helps us focus on what we were created to be and on what are being restored to. Everything is grounded in how we handle these first chapters in Genesis.



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Darren King

posted March 4, 2010 at 3:12 pm


@ Marcus,
My guess is that when Eddie mentions a problem with Wright’s eschatology, he may be referring to the fact that while Wright allows for all sorts of contextualization-qualification when interpreting other parts of scripture, when it comes to Revelation and other eschatalogical texts, he tends to rely on the text in a rather literal way – as a *factual* representation of future events.
If that’s what Marcus is on about, I agree that this is a rather peculiar (perhaps even inconsistent) tendency within Wright’s work.



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R Hampton

posted March 4, 2010 at 3:43 pm


JHM,
In the event that my previous comment is not approved, here’s the short version. The actual newer understanding is the Biblical literalism favored by American Conservative Protestants, due in large part to Karl Barth’s rejection of Natural Revelation (a fundamental component of traditional Christianity theology).



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RJS

posted March 4, 2010 at 4:07 pm


JHM (#28),
You might find Mark Roberts’s book Can We Trust the Gospels? a helpful place to start on some of these issues. There are other books worth reading as well (NT Wright’s big three for example – especially Jesus and the Victory of God and Resurrection of the Son of God) but those are huge – I’d recommend Roberts as a start.



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Marcus

posted March 4, 2010 at 4:20 pm


Darren #31,
I think I’m still not tracking. Literal in what sense? He’s a far cry away from a ‘left behind’ eschatology if that’s what you’re getting at. Is it his belief in God’s triumph over evil or a resurrection, or a new heavens and new earth at the end? Is he so literal at those points?



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Marcus

posted March 4, 2010 at 4:27 pm


Hi JHM,
I think you ask an excellent question. I think that the way to answer it is genre. For example, the early church made a big deal out of the resurrection as a historical event, not just in the gospels but in the epistles and Acts as well. This fact tells us that we have to treat the resurrection accounts, at minimum, as stylized history. The genre is some sort of history. For other parts of the Bible, e.g., Genesis 1-11 or Jonah, the genre seems to be something other than “real” history as you term it. Does that help?



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RJS

posted March 4, 2010 at 4:33 pm


The book I referenced (#33) looks at the reliability of the gospels as history, biography in the context of the first century literature and our view of first century literature. Then as Marcus points out we have Acts, the writings of Paul and the entire early church – Wright gets into much of this in the books I referenced. There are other good books as well – Larry Hurtado’s Lord Jesus Christ and Bauckham’s The Eyewitnesses to name just two.
Linking the gospels, the resurrection, and Genesis doesn’t make much sense – the texts have different form, arose in different contexts, and served different purposes.



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JHM

posted March 4, 2010 at 4:48 pm


RJS (#33 & #36)
Thanks for the book references! With so much stuff flying about it’s hard to know what to read (there’s only so much time one can spend reading when it’s not in their career field)
I wonder about your statement “served different purposes”, though. I can understand different forms and contexts, but it seems to me that “different purposes” suggests that we know what the true purposes are a priori.
Many on the conservative, more literal side, would suggest that the purpose is to document (within context and genre) the very real interaction of God with humanity. For instance, I don’t have much of a problem in saying that Genesis 1-11 is somewhat mythic and shows great parallels to ANE mythology, but my mind immediately jumps to “that’s because they’re all talking about the same space-time events” not “therefore the details don’t matter”.



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Jeremy

posted March 4, 2010 at 4:48 pm


JHM (28),
Wright isn’t going to play fast and loose with what can and cannot be taken literally. Mostly, as I understand it (I’ve only read parts of his larger works), he’s basing it largely on how things are written. It is clear to most when reading the gospels that the authors are attempting to retell a historical event. However, the beginning of Genesis follows a poetic form that appears to be after something else entirely.
Considering the Bible is not a monolithic text written by a single author or even within a short time frame, it seems to me that it’s not that difficult to challenge the historical necessity of one part of the text without challenging another.



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Jeremy

posted March 4, 2010 at 5:07 pm


Also, I don’t think the determination of intent has to be a priori. That would put any interpretation outside of tautologies beyond reach. (Heck, since language is entirely a posteori, even tautologies are impossible a priori..)



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JHM

posted March 4, 2010 at 5:22 pm


Jeremy (#39)
Good point. My concern is something along the lines of “Genesis 1-11 has a different purpose because what it says doesn’t fit with our current scientific understanding”. This is where I think N.T. Wright’s video is certainly interesting in the sense of bringing out parallels in Scripture that maybe we hadn’t thought of before (I hadn’t really, but it fits together nicely), *but* that doesn’t mean we get a pass on trying to figure out why Genesis 1-11 doesn’t match current science.



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RJS

posted March 4, 2010 at 5:59 pm


JHM,
Some of the books I listed are long and academic. Roberts’s is a good starting point though for the question you asked. NT Wright’s “The Last Word” is short and quite good as well – this deals with the view of scripture as authoritative.
There is only so much time for reading – but several years ago, maybe six or seven or so, I decided I needed to be able to take as defensible an approach toward faith as toward my field so I started getting up an hour earlier in the morning and spending about an hour reading and studying with that goal in mind. This didn’t make for fast progress – but it did make for eventual and steady progress.



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Michael W. Kruse

posted March 4, 2010 at 6:22 pm


#40 JHM
“My concern is something along the lines of “Genesis 1-11 has a different purpose because what it says doesn’t fit with our current scientific understanding”.”
And I would say that my greater concern is along the lines that “Genesis 1-11 has a different purpose from what ANE authors intended because it doesn’t fit with our post-Enlightenment “just the facts” historical understanding.”
The beginning question is not with scientific analysis or our culture’s mode of accounting for history. It begins with the genre, the author(s), and the audience. What was their context and how did this genre work in that context? Then we move out from there.



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JHM

posted March 4, 2010 at 6:31 pm


RJS (#41)
Thanks for the encouragement. The “I needed to be able to take as defensible an approach toward faith as toward my field” really hit me once I defended my dissertation. It was like “oh my, now I really am a scientist, what am I gonna do about evolution?”.
I’m so very thankful for this blog and for the BioLogos guys as well. I never really thought people could be this faithful to both science and Scripture.



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JHM

posted March 4, 2010 at 6:42 pm


#42 Michael
That is a good point. However, this is one area that I’m still working on understanding better.
I’ve always understood it to be that we should seek first and foremost what God intended and, importantly here, that could be different from what even the person who actual had the pen intended. This is where the inspiration/inerrancy thing kicks in. So what the author’s context and audience where is important, but still secondary. Your view of inspiration would seem to be perhaps that what God intended and what the physical author intended overlap completely?



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AHH

posted March 4, 2010 at 7:05 pm


Quoting JHM quoting me:
You said:
“Of course the “how” does matter to Answers in Genesis, but that’s because they operate under a hermeneutic that insists Scripture speak to questions it isn’t trying to answer.”
I’m curious, how do we know what Scripture isn’t trying to answer?

That’s an excellent question (to which you have already gotten some good responses) and I was sloppy in the way I phrased that. I think we can distinguish two issues:
1) AIG has a bad hermeneutic in that it insists that ALL such passages MUST be interpreted in a literal scientific way. So their problem is a preconception about what the Scripture is trying to answer before they even look at the text and its context. It is not necessarily wrong to think a particular passage is trying to answer scientific questions — the problem comes when that is imposed from outside as a requirement on Scripture.
2) Then one has the specific issue of whether Scripture is trying to answer scientific questions in Genesis 1-3. As others have mentioned, that requires looking at context, literary genre, etc. In addition to Wright, the work of John Walton, Conrad Hyers, Pete Enns, and Kent Sparks (I’m sure I’m leaving people out) is good for looking at what questions these passages are (and are not) addressing.
One can also make the observation that what is said in these passages about the physical world always corresponds to the common understanding of the time (which was sometimes wrong — the solid “firmament” holding back the waters above being a prime example), suggesting that what is really being revealed is in other areas.



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Jeremy

posted March 4, 2010 at 7:42 pm


JHM #44,
I don’t think inspiration or inerrancy saves us from improper interpretation as neither extend to the reader. I also think you need to examine your questions from the other angle. Interestingly, I think your questions actually turn in ways you’re not considering, which would be a non-literal interpretation of the text.
The author probably very well believed that God created the universe in 7 days. We don’t expect a whole lot in understanding of the material universe from someone 3-4,000 years ago. However, as we look on it from the view of history, science and the rest of scripture, it seems to us that what God is saying isn’t as shallow as a history lesson. The perceivable purpose of Genesis survives whatever the author thought he was saying.



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Jeff Straka

posted March 4, 2010 at 9:16 pm


NT Wright poses an interesting concept of considering those reading Genesis 1-3 around the time of Jesus – gift, blowing it, exile, and them connecting it to their immediate history. Well then what would they have done with the story of Noah shortly following it, where God destroys life on the planet with a few exceptions? Or Sodom and Gomorrah where God destroys the cities over some bad hospitality (and apparently forgetting about the deal he had just made with Abraham)? How would those stories be understood?



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Michael W. Kruse

posted March 4, 2010 at 10:08 pm


JHM #44
Here are some of my thoughts.
How did the books of the Bible become canon? My understanding is that he OT developed over centuries. There is editorial work present in the texts (some of it inconsistent.) Some books were likely written at later dates than they way the text is written might suggest (not uncommon for the culture.) I don?t hold to the idea that God dictated each word nor do I think the books are without factual error or inconsistencies. Similar issues pertain to NT books. That is irrelevant to their purpose.
Over centuries, the people of God interacted with these texts. The Spirit of God gave discernment over time to the worshiping community to see the authority that resided with each text. It appears that the period over which this developed for the OT was several centuries and roughly three centuries for Christians. During the first two centuries of the church the driving question was whether or not each text carried authority with worshiping communities from all places throughout the church, not authorship. Preoccupation with those issues came later. With both Testaments, we do not have people assigning authority to texts but rather, through the Spirit, people surrendering to the authority the texts carry. Thus, little discrepancies and inconsistencies do not undermine Scripture?s authority. No need to be defensive about every jot and tittle, and those that believe they have undermined the Scripture by finding such problems are in error. The people of God closest in time to the events of the Bible averred that these texts have authority and based on this and the witness of the Spirit we can trust the Scriptures.
God ALWAYS communicates and acts within a context. While some things may be able to be lifted from their context and transferred with ease into our context they were not written to our context. In all of Scripture we are ?listening in? on a conversation that occurred in other contexts and that original context has to be present with us (as best it can be) in our reading.
Imagine a father answering his four year old daughter?s question about where she came from. He will likely tell her something like, ?Mommy and Daddy loved each other very much. They wanted to share their love with someone else. Daddy put a seed in Mommy?s tummy. That seed became you and when you had grown strong enough to be on your own, out of Mommy?s tummy you came. It was the most wonderful day of Mommy and Daddy?s life.?
A few years later this little girl is in biology class at school . She learns about sexual intercourse, sperm and eggs, cell division, etc. Should she now conclude that her father lied to her or that her father was in error? No. Her father explained her origins in a way that gave her identity and security, and in a way a four your old mind could comprehend. He entered into her context.
Thus, when God revealed basic facts of human identity and purpose in a way pre-literate, pre-scientific humanity could comprehend, did God mislead ancient folks? For example, did he deceive in letting them believe the world was formed in seven 24 hour days? Is the Bible in error? No. This wasn?t relevant to what was being revealed. Thus, God being who he is, entered the context and communicated in ways that were meaningful to the people. That is always the way God communicates. Thus, we must always keep in mind that we are ?listening in? and appreciate the context of what we are listening to.



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Trav

posted March 4, 2010 at 10:19 pm


RJS (#41), that’s a real encouragement to me since I’ve been thinking of doing the same thing. I do a bit of reading, but nowhere near as much as I’d like.



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Jeff Straka

posted March 5, 2010 at 7:50 am


One thing I question about Wright’s proposition on the view of Genesis around the time of Jesus: why doesn’t Jesus seem to make use of it in his stories and teachings? Why does he, instead, seem to make use of the prophets and psalms?



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RJS

posted March 5, 2010 at 10:10 am


Jeff,
It seems to me that Jesus makes a good deal of use of the story of failure and consequence and then links it to redemption and kingdom. He does not use every OT example of this story. His use of Psalms and especially the prophets is along this line isn’t it? The fact that he doesn’t explicitly link Adam and Eve or any other specific story to this theme doesn’t eliminate the connection.



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JHM

posted March 5, 2010 at 10:30 am


Michael (#48) and Jeremy (#46)
Thanks for taking the time to discuss this issue. I can see where you guys are coming from but here’s where I get a little uneasy:
Jeremy said:
“The perceivable purpose of Genesis survives whatever the author thought he was saying.”
and Michael said:
“I don?t hold to the idea that God dictated each word nor do I think the books are without factual error or inconsistencies. Similar issues pertain to NT books. That is irrelevant to their purpose.”
This sounds to me like you’re saying that the veracity of the Bible is of no importance and it is only the “message”, which is determined via Church tradition and the Holy Spirit that matters. Let me know if I’m characterizing that wrong.
My concern with this view of Scripture is that it seems incredibly subjective, abstract, and prone to error. If it literally doesn’t matter what the Biblical authors thought they were writing I can’t help but wonder why we should care what it says at all and just turn to some sort of mystical experiential faith that has no grounding in reality at all. That’s definitely the extreme end and I’m not questioning you guys personally, but it doesn’t seem like a great idea to go down that road from my perspective.



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Jeff Straka

posted March 5, 2010 at 10:35 am


Another question that my “Bible Breakfast” group wondered about this morning: would the people in Jesus’ day understood these stories as literal, historical events, or would they have understood the genre of allegory/myth? It came up as we were reading this Sunday’s lectionary passage, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, where examples of a “smiting God” during the time of the Exodus were given as a warning. Would they have thought of these stories as literal events? In other words, would these middle-eastern ears have listened to these stories DIFFERENTLY than our Western ears (where we like to still call the gospels “eye-witness accounts” as if we were listening to news reporters)?



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JHM

posted March 5, 2010 at 10:42 am


Michael (#48)
Now what if, when the little girl asks here dad where she came from, he starts talking about how a stork flew in to their house one day and dropped her in their lap? Or what if he launches into a grand fable that has no connection with reality at all?
It is one thing to limit how detailed a picture you tell someone (as you did in your examples) but it’s another to say something that’s just plain not true. In your example both ways of explaining were completely true and accurate, they both ways of describing real actual events.
As much as I like to see NT Wright give us new, maybe higher meaning to the Creation account, I don’t think it must follow that “therefore the details don’t matter”.
I have no problem with Genesis being similar. It seems appropriate to talk about the poetic aspects of Genesis 1-3 or the phenomenological viewpoint of the ANE people. My issue is more in saying that they are mythic stories that are not based on actual space-time events and are only meaningful in a broad, overarching theological sense.



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JHM

posted March 5, 2010 at 10:53 am


sigh, sadly I made an editorial mistake in #54 and the last 2 paragraphs should be flipped.



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Dana Ames

posted March 5, 2010 at 11:49 am


JHM,
the way I think about it is, Truth is a “bigger thing” than mere data. Wright gives an analogy elsewhere: If you trace a dot-to-dot page randomly, you may not get the picture that’s supposed to be there. True, you do follow numbers, but it’s the connections between the numbers that give the picture.
With Michael’s example, we could add a third narrative, that of a biologist/geneticist, who could give the story in terms of all the multiple fine details of DNA/RNA, the unzipping of the double helix, chemical and other cellular reactions/chains of events that happen at the beginning of the life of a human. When you look at the narratives of the father, the teacher and the scientist, they are all there under the “umbrella” of Truth. Each has a different focus and/or purpose, but they are all there together.
Now, if all three narratives are known, viewed, compared and combined to come up with the Meaning, the stork will have no room to land, should it come flying by.
It is only in the last few hundred years that people have insisted on the exact correlation of written facts/data as the framework for “truth”. But Truth and Meaning are “bigger” things than mere correlation of facts/data. That’s why the typical “infallible/inerrant” doctrine of scripture actually makes scripture/Meaning/connections/God *smaller*.
Dana



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AHH

posted March 5, 2010 at 11:56 am


JHM #52,
You are bringing up big issues (about which big books have been written), but I would just observe that it is worth asking whether our modern ideas of “veracity” are appropriate expectations to place on Scripture, or whether, in the ancient context where the inspired texts were given, what it means for a text to speak truthfully looked a little different from what our modern minds tend to want. That is at the heart of the inerrancy debate — many would say that “inerrancy” subjects the texts to demands of Enlightenment rationalism that would have been foreign to the Biblical writers.



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Michael W. Kruse

posted March 5, 2010 at 2:47 pm


#55 JHM
I hate it when that happens. :-)
#54
I come back again to the question of how did Ancient Near East (ANE) culture communicate about origins and how things came to function as they do? Their stories … to us … seem very close to the Stork story. But they aren’t simply nice stories. They are cosmological/theological narratives that shape how the people seem themselves in relation to the gods, to the forces of nature, to their rulers, and to each other. For ANE culture, these narratives conveyed accurate cosmological/theological truth. You wrote:
“It is one thing to limit how detailed a picture you tell someone (as you did in your examples) but it’s another to say something that’s just plain not true.”
And I think we might say that the ANE stories were not true from a modern historical lens of wanting to the factual events of the past. But is this the only way they can be true? I’d suggest they were VERY true for the people in their culture because the accurately communicated how the world works and why it should work that way. They weren’t post-Enlightenment Westerners looking for historical facts.
God chooses to enter into Ancient Near Eastern culture. What means should God use to communicate truths about himself? Will he use our post-Enlightenment modes of thinking or will God use modes communication and thinking of the ANE? I suggest he does the latter.
There are many similarities between the Genesis account and the ANE stories but there are critical “innovations.” For instance, most ANE stories have the gods emerging from a primordial ooze … something exists prior to the gods. Genesis gives no such origins for God … God simply IS. The Genesis account has God assigning the sun, moon, stars, and every other aspect of nature their functions. Message: God is above and behind all these other entities that are attributed deity status. Also, the ANE stories tend to portray capricious and lazy gods creating humanity to be slaves. The Genesis God creates humanity above all other beings and commissions humanity as co-regents to exercise dominion over creation. Genesis offers the truth of who God is by entering the genres and modes of thinking of the people God was seeking out.
All that said, I don’t think the Genesis 1 and 2 accounts are utterly divorced from some sort of historical reality. In some sense we are not what God intended. Exactly how that came to be from a factual-historical view may never be known to us. That’s okay. God does not owe us an accounting of every aspect of what has happened. He reveals only that which is necessary for us to know and we know we are sinners in need of redemption and the world is not as God intended. Through the life, death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus we have salvation and the hope of a new creation.



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R Hampton

posted March 5, 2010 at 3:31 pm


JHM,
In answer to your concern “with this view of Scripture is that it seems incredibly subjective, abstract, and prone to error.” is this statement by the Pope in September 2008:
Pope Benedict XVI warned last week against fundamentalists’ literal interpretations of the Bible. The pontiff told a gathering of intellectuals and academics in Paris that the structure of the Bible “excludes by its nature everything that today is known as fundamentalism. In effect, the word of God can never simply be equated with the letter of the text,” Benedict said.
If you are wondering why the Roman Catholic Church believes that literalism is a false understanding of the Bible, this is why:
The use of the Bible, the conception of the Church and pastoral practice are all correlated. When the Holy Spirit creates harmony between the Scriptures and the community, this correlation is properly achieved. Consequently, respecting the interior need which moves the community to encounter the Word of God is very important. At the same time, certain tendencies must be held in check, e.g., an exaggerated spontaneity, overly subjective experiences and superstitious practices. Attention also needs to focus on what the scriptural text is saying, reflecting on it so as to understand its literal sense before applying it to life.
This is not always easy, because of the risk of fundamentalism. This phenomenon affects anthropology, sociology and psychology, but, it is applied in a particular way to the reading of the Bible and its subsequent interpretation of the world. In Bible reading, fundamentalism takes refuge in literalism and refuses to take into consideration the historical dimension of biblical revelation. It is thus unable to fully accept the Incarnation itself. This kind of interpretation is winning more and more adherents…even among Catholics. It demands an unshakable adherence to rigid doctrinal points of view and imposes, as the only source of teaching for Christian life and salvation, a reading of the Bible which rejects all questioning and any kind of critical research”.
The extreme form of this type of tendency exists in the sects, where Scripture is isolated from the dynamic and life-giving action of the Spirit. As a result, the community atrophies and is no longer a living body, but becomes a closed group which does not admit inner differences and plurality and displays an aggressive attitude towards ways of thinking differing from its own.



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RickK

posted March 5, 2010 at 5:32 pm


“It demands an unshakable adherence to rigid doctrinal points of view and imposes, as the only source of teaching for Christian life and salvation, a reading of the Bible which rejects all questioning and any kind of critical research”
Yep. The Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution convinced people that things CAN be known, that complex things can be built based on well understood cause and effect, and that certainty is possible. So a faith open to “questioning and critical research” is a faith that lacks certainty. Combine that with growing anti-intellectualism worldwide, and you have a recipe for the growth of fundamentalist, literalist religions.
People are losing respect for “expertise”, for hard-won knowledge and understanding, for the benefits of education on any topic – be it religion, science, history, whatever. Whether you are a naturalist skeptic, or a religious person who believes there is more to faith than just the printed word of the Book, this anti-intellectual, anti-critical thinking trend is quite disturbing.
The candle in the dark that Thomas Ady and (much later) Carl Sagan refer to is definitely starting to flicker.



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JHM

posted March 5, 2010 at 9:15 pm


Dana #56
You said:
‘Truth is a “bigger thing” than mere data’
I don’t have a problem understanding that there’s more to it than data, but I don’t think that means the data is meaningless either.
@Everybody
The common theme here is the gentle rebuke “yeah, but you’re just using your Enlightenment driven rationalism to interpret ANE texts”. Certainly I think many Evangelicals and Creationists do tend to think through a rationalist/literalist framework, but that’s not exactly what I’m talking about.
My concern or quandary is sort of a “what’s next?”. Do we all need a PhD in ANE studies to understand what God’s trying to say in the OT? This is a real practical concern if I can’t trust that I can really just sit down with my Bible anymore and understand it. It’s not that I’m lazy but it feels like this means my interpretation or understanding of Scripture now lays in the hands of fallible, corruptible, biased people rather than Scripture itself. At least with the more traditional Reformation view I have only myself to blame for bad interpretation! :-)
I’m also concerned with “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”. I understand why it’s important to see how the original authors and readers would understand a text and the ANE context within which it was “birthed”, but I still don’t like seeing things like “the details don’t matter” or “the big picture is the only purpose”. I’m especially leery about the extreme end of this thinking that drains any claim of physical or objective truth from the Bible and leaves only “Jesus the moral teacher” and “God as our actualized selves”. So I think there indeed needs to be some balance. I think Michael (#58) said it so good I’ll repeat it again:
“In some sense we are not what God intended. Exactly how that came to be from a factual-historical view may never be known to us. That’s okay. God does not owe us an accounting of every aspect of what has happened. He reveals only that which is necessary for us to know and we know we are sinners in need of redemption and the world is not as God intended. Through the life, death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus we have salvation and the hope of a new creation.”
Amen!



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Dana Ames

posted March 5, 2010 at 9:51 pm


Amen- no argument from me on that :)
Dana



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Jeremy

posted March 5, 2010 at 10:45 pm


JHM,
Ahhhh now I see what you’re getting at a little better. Yeah, I totally agree that we have to be careful to not make things too obscure or hard to understand, and really need to exercise discernment when engaging in critical examination or deciding what’s applicable today. I get a bit antsy myself when we start talking about how this works out when something makes us uncomfortable or is culturally unacceptable to us.
I don’t follow that “details don’t matter” connects to “Jesus as a moral teacher” though. I don’t think the two quite make it since that is decidedly more than anything to do with details. I think you’re connecting inspiration and “truth” to “fact”…the only problem there is the gospels themselves dash any hope of truth relying on fact since they all tell the same stories with distinctly different details. (ie, Matthew 20, Mark 10, Luke 18)
Obviously, one could go entirely too far with this, but that’s a danger in anything. You don’t need a PhD to understand anything said so far (I haven’t even finished my bachelors), and I’d be really worried if someone told you there was something you did need one for. It seems to me though that part of pursuing God is asking “what were you trying to say?” which leads to examining more than just the words on the page. What did the author think it meant? What were the cultural references? What were the actual words used and what do they mean?
I don’t think you need to spend a ton on books or an expensive education. It’s just down to exploring and seeking. I’ve been continually amazed at the depth of meaning things have taken when I’ve done that, and I’m not just talking controversial stuff.
The gentle rebuke (which I’m not sure ‘rebuke’ is the right word here since it implies something of a hand slap) isn’t in saying details are irrelevant. It’s in saying that your worldview is not arbiter of what scripture MUST talk like to be true or inspired (or even inerrant). Scripture was written first to those in the time of its creation and secondly to the rest of us. That’s not to say that you need some crazy education to get anything from it (anyone who says that is leading you off into cult land), but that trying to force ancient texts into speaking on our ‘level’ is going to leave a lot of richness and depth still hidden in the field.
Am I understanding you correctly?



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Jeremy

posted March 5, 2010 at 10:50 pm


oh and I actually agree with your last post, if that got lost in there somewhere.



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