Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Old and New Testaments

Just a quick note.... received a nice email from Chris Seay who made it clear he wasn't angry, just trying not to give his critics ammunition against his church, which I'm sure in some narrow-minded circles isn't even considered Christian. I told him I was big fan of his work (which is true) and offered to respond to his critics, profanely if needed. I appreciated him taking the time to dialogue, via the digital media.

Just another quick note.... one of my favorite authors, and I think probably one of the most important thinkers (who was actually a practitioner) about the post-modern church, Brian McLaren, is coming to Asbury this Friday. He and Steve Chalke will be guest lecturers as part of a "J-term" class (J-term here at ATS is an accelerated term, kind of like what is offered in the summer, only it occurs in early January) focused on looking at the future of the Christian church. Have read most, if not all, of McLaren's books, and consider his latest work, The Secret Message of Jesus, to be his finest offering yet.

McLaren, if you've never heard of him, is a post-modern, post-protestant, post-evangelical pastor (and I'm sure he'd say he was a number of other post-sorts of things), who once held near and dear the kinds of things that matter to evangelical pastors until one day, he woke up, and realized that maybe he just didn't believe some of that stuff any more. Issues like the Creation/Evolution question, what was at the time indifference to environment issues on the part of Evangelical community, issues of human sexuality, and probably most controversial, the issue of the afterlife - particularly Hell - had him asking lots of questions that gnawed at his soul. In recent years he's come to some very different conclusions about these above listed issues, and others, making him a hero and villain to many in the Christian community. But he believes, with all that he is, that the thinking he, and others like him, are engaging on these issues and how they end up shaping the Christian community will have a long-lasting, important, and ultimately positive effect on the church.

To be honest, I thought McLaren coming to Asbury's campus was, well, a curious choice. The current Provost (kind of a fancy term for the person who is the Dean of all the Deans of all the schools on a campus... if that makes any sense), Bill Arnold, who is teaching our Biblical Interpretation Class has never really heard of McLaren... and I'm pretty sure if he had, he'd have raised a few eyebrows about him coming here. I mean, if you don't sign a statement saying that you won't drink alcohol while enrolled at Asbury, you can't enroll. McLaren's main character in his groundbreaking "New Kind of Christian" series, Neo, drinks Pete's Wicked Ale throughout the series, and conducts a worship service on a boat on an open bar. JC McPheeters has to be rolling over in his grave.

And that's just a mild example of how far apart McLaren is from the dominant thinking among faculty on this campus on more substantial issues like the Doctrines of Atonement, Salvation, and the Infallibility of Scripture.

Anyhow, I'm looking forward to hearing the guy speak Friday evening, all day Saturday, and then in a private session with the BP's next Wednesday (yeah.... nothing like being a pampered Beeson Pastor. How do you go back to the real world after you've been treated like a VIP for eleven months?). I've very much looked forward to hearing him think out loud. You can bet that the first question I'll ask, if I get a chance, will be "What does personal holiness look like for a Christian in a post-modern era?" That ought to get the party started, nicely.

Now on with the post...

Have you ever wondered why God seems to act one way in the Old Testament, and another way in the New? I mean, in the Old Testament he punishes King Saul for not slaughtering every man, woman, and child in a battle as He ordered before it started. God brings plagues of frogs, turns water into blood, and obliterates the sun from the sky for a number of days in a display of terrifying power. He also is convinced, many times by many different people, not to visit destruction on his people in times of anger. He appears in a pillar of fire, a burning bush, and a finger writing on a wall.

Compare that in the New Testament where the most destructive supernatural thing that happens is Jesus cursing a fig tree bearing no fruit to never bear any fruit. Barriers get broken down for women, gentiles, and children to be treated with respect. And even His own son gets abused, mistreated, and killed, and there is no retaliation whatsoever. The eye-for-an-eye God becomes the one that celebrates hated Samaritans and turning the other cheek.

So the question is this..... What do you think changes over the course of biblical history - the nature of God or humanity's perception of God?

This is the question that started our Biblical Interpretation class, which seeks to, among other things, help figure out the relationship between the Testaments, maybe in the process providing a framework with which a pastor can preach from Old Testament texts as confidently as they do New Testament ones.

The discussion around the above question was pretty fascinating to me, personally. Dr. Arnold takes the position that the Old Testament, while containing a number of different genres of literature within, contains within it history to be trusted (even as going as far as claiming that Israel, not Greece, is the father of modern history). He also took the stance that God probably did present himself differently, primarily in terms of how he communicated and related to humanity, in the Old Testament period than the New. That's an oversimplification of what he said... we was much more nuanced and sophisticated than I just made him sound. But his basic evangelical orientation, which puts great emphasis on a more literal interpretation of the text really shown through in his presentation.

And what did I think?

Well, years ago in a undergraduate religion course taught by an atheist at a state university, I tumbled down the rabbit hole that is the a skeptic's reading of the biblical text as more a mythological posit to explain how the world operates sans any true scientific, rational understanding of the creation. For a good many years, probably until midway through seminary, I was convinced that the further back you go in the Old Testament, the more mythology (and I mean mythology in a negative sense, not the sense of C.S. Lewis or JRR Tolkien who believed in the power of mythology to convey great truth about life in this world, and the God who created it) it contained. The Creation narratives, Tower of Babel, Noah and the Flood, and even the characters from Abraham up until (but not including) David, who can't be substantiated by any outside source from that period of history, were narrative, not historical, characters. After spending a couple of semesters with Albert Camus, Sigmund Freud, and some wicked smart atheists, talking snakes, people who lived to be over a thousand years old, and an ark carrying every animal on the planet, just seemed way to fanciful to be believed.

Then in seminary, I read a great book, The History of Israel, by John Bright. Bright has been one of the seminal scholars on the subject of not just ancient biblical history, but ancient world history as a whole. In his book, Bright came to the conclusion that while he had no way (at that time) of verifying the existence of Abraham, Issac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, or any of the Judges, that the power of that history on the Israelites long-term, the accuracy of oral history in cultures that pass down history orally until (and beyond the day when) they develop a way of writing that language down, the evidence of a Semitic community in Egypt, and the number of other times in Israel's later history outside sources could confirm the history in the OT as being accurate (the OT is one of one of the most valuable sources of ancient history we have today), led him to believe that most likely that at least from the time of Abram, we were probably studying actual history of actual people.

Bright went further in discussing pre-Abram biblical text, by asserting that the first twelve chapters of Genesis seemed to have parallels in other Mesopotamian cultures. Other nation states and cultures, for example, had creation and flood narratives, something I had learned at Miami from the atheists, but Bright pointed out that the purpose or point of the OT narrative was markedly different in these two particular narratives than their neighbors. Specifically, humanity was created on purpose by a God who wanted humans around, not as some by-product of gods interacting with one another producing humans as some sort of mistake. From the beginning of the OT, humanity and God interact with one another in a relational sort of way, which is different, very different, than the understanding of how gods and people interact in other cultures at that particular time... and really throughout history.

Oh... that and there's only one God, not more than one, which is more than a little unique.

Think, for a moment, what the nature of the relationship was between the gods on Mount Olympus and humans in the Greek mythology you studied in high school. Humanity is created as a by-product of a great war between the Titans and the gods. The gods pretty much use humans for their purposes, and more often and not those purposes are not all that good. Humans are in the way, and the treatment of the gods to humans is largely unpredictable. This is a pretty good glimpse into the dominant worldview for a very long period of history. Compare that with what you know about the God of the OT, and you get a sense of how different these ideas are. It's remarkable really!

This led Bright to conclude that even if these narratives were really nothing more than just a Hebraic re-interpretation of the mythological texts passed to them by their neighbors, they still contained a train of thought that was unique and distinctive in that world, forming the foundational ideas enabling this monotheistic religion to continue to form and develop.

For me, personally, this kind of righted my ship, and got me thinking beyond the literal truth of scripture, which I had always just accepted as a child, to the truth of scripture, which is a more powerful idea. That people recorded their experience with God, or what had been told to them about God, and over time developing this very unique kind of impression of why we were created, what we're supposed to do now that we're here, and now that should be accomplished. That this tradition has continued over thousands of years, largely without the benefit of some sort of strong temporal political champion (remember that Israel's history is thousands of years longer than the age of Christendom), is in and of itself, astounding.

And the impact it has had on the world, immeasurable.

So, in conclusion, I think that humanity's understanding of who God is and how God works does change over the course of biblical history, but I don't discount the idea that God incarnated in different cultural eras in ways that could be understood by those particular people.

Now, that's a typical answer from a theological moderate... isn't it.

More on this later.


chad said...

great post.

I was around for friday's session, glad to see others are blogging on this

Shannon said...

can't wait to hear your thoughts on meeting and talking with mclaren. i would love to get the chance to sit down with him and ask him some questions.