Problems with the Prophets

What does it mean to claim that the prophetic literature is authoritative, inspired, and inerrant (if you like that word)?

Does it mean that the named prophet (say Amos) wrote a book now included in our Bible?

Does it mean that the named prophet (say Isaiah) personally proclaimed all of the oracles contained in a given book of our Bible?

Do the interpretations of the apostles and evangelists in the New Testament represent the intended meaning of the original human speaker?

Many concerns have been raised when it comes to the prophets. The book of Isaiah appears to contain the work of more than one speaker. A skeptic claims this undermines the truthfulness of Scripture and thus its authority for our faith. Many conservative Christians double down and defend the book as the work of one man in order to defend Scripture and shore up the foundations of our faith.

But is this really a hill to die on?

In the Lost World of Scripture John Walton and D. Brent Sandy dig into the concerns raised by the prophets. To begin with they consider the ancient cultural context of the prophets. John and Brent write:

The prophets whose oracles are collected into literary compositions differ from what is found in the ancient Near East in that they address the people more than the king and tend to take an adversarial position toward the administration, in contrast to the ancient Near Eastern prophets whose oracles tend to support and even legitimate the king. Despite this counter cultural role in Israel, a few of the prophets over the centuries came to be recognized as authority figures significant enough that their oracles were collected and woven into literary compositions. We should note that there were many prophets operating in Israel in all periods of the monarchy, … Only a select few had their oracles preserved. (p. 325)

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The End of the Flood

Well, perhaps not so much the end of the flood as the last post on the new book The Lost World of the Flood by Tremper Longman III and John Walton. As Old Testament scholars they have explored the ancient Near Eastern and biblical context of the flood narrative in Genesis 6-9. The book works through this context.

Tremper and John are convinced that the flood story has a real event behind it. They are also convinced that the author/compiler uses rhetorical hyperbole and figurative language in telling the story of the flood. Although the flood is portrayed as a global event, the flood itself need not have been a global. The universalizing language is an example of rhetorical hyperbole – a literary technique used in Scripture in a number of different places. Given the total absence of evidence for a global, flood they conclude that the flood was not global in extent. (Stephen Moshier, Professor of Geology at Wheaton contributes a chapter on the lack of evidence for a global flood.) The argument suggesting that worldwide flood stories support a global flood is also flawed. These stories are far from universal (they are rare to non-existent in regions where flooding doesn’t occur), they are very different in detail, and often make no reference to gods at all. Many of them can be traced back to the influence of the biblical story through Christian era missionary work. Continue reading

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Why the Rule of Faith?

Isn’t the Bible enough?

Well yes, but the two are not really separable.

I recently received a copy of a new book Early Christian Readings of Genesis One by Craig D. Allert due for release July 24th. The opening chapter of the book immediately caught my eye: Who are the Church Fathers and Why Should we Care? A great question – and Allert provides some great insights. The Protestant approach, at least for many of us, is rooted in sola scriptura – Scripture alone. There is an impression that our faith is founded on a book, a divine gift from above.

This isn’t exactly accurate though.

The canon of the New Testament was not settled until late in the fourth century AD and even this cannot be considered an absolutely firm date. It did not appear out of nowhere, but developed in the context of the church as the leaders considered the available writings and settled on those considered authoritative. That the Holy Spirit guided this process doesn’t change the human involvement or the role of the church. Faithful followers prayerfully considered the possible documents for inclusion.

What were the criteria? The most significant criterion is the rule of faith that Irenaus (ca. 130-202 AD) outlines in Against Heresies written sometime between 174 and 189 AD. (Source: Book 1, Ch. X CCEL)

The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith:

[She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them;

and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation;

and in the Holy Spirit, …

and the birth from a virgin, and the passion,

and the resurrection from the dead,

and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord,

and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him,

and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send … the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, … and may surround them with everlasting glory.

As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. …For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. … But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shineth everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth.

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Of Moldy Walls and Foreigners

As Christians know, the Bible is an important book. It is through Scripture that we learn about the mission of God in his people Israel. We realize that the Old Testament sets the stage for the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Jesus is God’s messiah, the faithful Israelite, king from the line of David. We should read it, study it, and be immersed in the story.

I’ve made it a habit for eight or so years now to listen to the Bible read aloud on my morning commute (streaming through the BibleGateway App works well). It is an enlightening practice. This week I’m listening to Leviticus and Numbers. Although I’ve known the major stories most of my life, there is much, especially in the Old Testament, that is generally ignored in our churches. It simply doesn’t seem relevant today. There are passages the purpose of which seems (to put it mildly) obscure. The laws in the Pentateuch, Exodus 25 to 31, 35 to 40; pretty much all of Leviticus (there is one narrative concerning the dedication of Aaron and the death of two of his sons), Numbers 5, 6, 19, (the census is also rather boring) and several passages in Deuteronomy are among the passages often overlooked in our churches. (The image is of Moses ca. 840 AD receiving the law and reading the law: source)

Some of the laws, we agree, still apply today. The ten commandments (a.k.a. ten words) for example.

Some seem to apply only to another time long past. The laws concerning sacrifices and festivals fall into this category.

Some offend our modern sensibilities. Why should an accused wife be tested with bitter water?

Others simply seem bizarre. Why all the concern with moldy walls?

For some there is no evidence they were ever obeyed. The year of Jubilee and the freeing of slaves fall into this category.

John Walton and D. Brent Sandy (The Lost World of Scripture) suggest that the primary purpose of the Old Testament legal literature was revelation. The revelation of God and his character. The establishment of a stable, just, and merciful people of God. [Square brackets delineate my clarifications in the following quotes.]

[T]he general literary context for the legal collections of the Pentateuch is related to the covenant. In this case the illocution [the intent of the words] becomes stipulations of a covenant agreement rather than legislation of a society. (p. 220)

The consequence of the laws in the Pentateuch is to shape and form a people who will be holy.

The literature of the Pentateuch, with its covenantal context, carries the perlocution [anticipated response by the audience] for Israel that they should adhere to the torah so that they might remain in covenant relationship with Yahweh and that he might remain dwelling in their midst. … [T]hey will be keeping the covenant to the extent that they are holy as Yahweh their God is holy. The ultimate perlocution is not justice or obedience, those are only stops on the way to holiness. (p. 220)

How then should Christians understand and keep the laws?

The legal sayings in the Pentateuch revealed the character of Yahweh, and the character of Yahweh has not changed. Believers still have the obligation to reflect that character as they seek to be holy as God is holy. Jesus, as God in the flesh, embodied the character of God, and so revelation through the legal sayings is fulfilled in him, and through him we see how we are to respond to those legal sayings. The authority of the legal sayings is found in the revelation they offer of the character of God and the way they serve as guides to holiness. None of the locutions [words] (“jot and tittle”) will pass away until the ultimate illocutions are fulfilled in the outworking of the ultimately intended perlocutions. (p. 221)

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The Most Challenging Passage

I have long felt that the most challenging passage in Scripture is found at the beginning of Genesis 6.

When human beings began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.”

The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown. (v. 1-4)

The most challenging, that is, to the insistence that Genesis 1-11 is intended as a narrative of past history.

Tremper Longman and John Walton admit that this is a tough passage to interpret. In his commentary on Genesis John calls it “one of the thorniest in Old Testament interpretation.” Who are the “sons of God” and why were their relationships with the daughters of humans wrong? (And as an aside, how did the Nephilim survive the flood?) Many interpretations have been advanced over the years and both Tremper and John outline some of these in their commentaries on Genesis (NIVAC: Genesis; The Story of God: Genesis). Tremper leans toward the idea that the sons of God are angels while John seems to favor the connection with heroic tyrant kings of old. Another possibility raised is that the sons of God are descendants of Seth and the daughters of humans were from the line of Cain. In The Lost World of the Flood John and Tremper suggest some connections with Mesopotamian texts and stories and admit that we simply cannot know for sure the background of this particular passage.

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Our Biggest Stumbling Block

I’ve been quite busy this last week – so I’m posting a lightly edited repeat of an older post. This is one I really think we need to take to heart. Quite awhile ago now Alister McGrath published a short book well worth reading: Doubting: Growing Through the Uncertainties of Faith. At one point in this book he makes the following observation:

It is very common for Christians to find themselves isolated at work or ridiculed for their faith. They are conscious of the fact that their faith marks them out as “abnormal” in the eyes of their colleagues. It’s almost as though they have to apologize for believing in God. Christian values and presuppositions are gradually being squeezed out of every area of modern Western culture. Many Christians find the new aggressiveness of secular culture deeply disturbing. It seems to call their faith into question. At best the world seems indifferent to their faith; at worst, it treats it as absurd. p. 118

This was true when Alister first published this book in 2007 but it is even more true today. This paragraph provides a very good description of the world in which I live. It is becoming harder to stand up as a Christian. Although this isn’t a completely new development. It was true in the early 20th century, it was true as I grew up, and it is true today. But there is also little doubt but that the trend is intensifying. The assault on Christian faith is significant.

But there is a new development, or at least a development that seems new to me. The aggressiveness of the secular culture is magnified in response to the image that Christians have in this culture. Christians, especially conservative Christians (evangelicals and/or fundamentalists) are viewed as a judgmental and negative people with a conservative political agenda, who feel the poor and alien deserve their fate, justify violence, oppress and harass women, hate gays, fight among themselves, distrust scientists, use deceit, dishonesty, and lies to get their message across, and often do it for personal gain – either money or power. This is a bit of an overstatement – I have not met anyone who gives all of these reasons, most are focused on only one or two. But there is still a real image problem. And frankly, there is ample ammunition for many of these views. I originally wrote this post in 2012 and six year later the situation has grown significantly worse. Unless Christian response changes, I don’t see it getting better any time soon.

I have been asked how I can be a Christian, and the conflict between science and religion, belief in the supernatural, is part of the question – but it isn’t the biggest issue. The bigger issues are those related to oppression, especially what comes across as oppression of women or arrogant disregard for the downtrodden and displaced (including the widow and orphan and the foreigners among us).

How can I be a Christian? The correct answer, I suppose, is by the grace of God through the power of the Spirit. I think this is true – but it isn’t the whole story. The whole story has to be fleshed out by the details – and the details include the the church and the mission of the church. Frankly, unless the church returns to the Bible it will continue to get worse.

Start in the Old Testament where concern for justice and mercy, including concern for the poor, including the widow and orphan and the foreigner is prominent. The prophets make this abundantly clear, although it comes up in other places as well (like Exodus). Micah 6:8 is a good summary.

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

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Setting the Stage

Genesis 1-11 is primeval history and theological history. It plays an important role in the narrative of Genesis. It sets the stage for what is to come … Abraham, Israel, the kingdoms and prophets, exile and return, the front story for the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus and now the church. John Walton and Tremper Longman agree that the stories in the primeval history have roots in historical happenings, but the details of the events themselves are of less importance that the use they are put to in the narrative. The stories are rhetorically shaped using figurative language for a theological purpose.

The story of the flood in Genesis 6-9 takes the chaos humankind had made of the world and institutes a restart. “God uses non-order (the waters) to eliminate disorder (pervasive violence) and then reestablishes optimal order (even as he recognizes that disorder remains[Gen 8:21]). ” (p. 118)

Of course, the continuing disorder through human disobedience and violence remains a problem. Neither creation or the flood do-over result in humanity in perpetual union with God. The primeval history with its pattern of disorder, punishment, and grace sets the stage for God’s covenant relationship with Israel. “Genesis 1-11 serves as an essential introduction to the covenant. It explains the need for a covenant and helps put it in perspective to establish what the covenant is all about.” (p. 119).

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