As I alluded to in a recent blog post, my wife Amy and I recently hosted three ‘theology-themed’ evening services at our local Church, South West London Vineyard. This is the edited text of the talk we prepared together, and I gave, for the second evening. You can find the first one, engaging with the question of ‘What even is theology for?’ on my blog too.
Theology Evening Service Week 2
Intro – let’s intelligently read the Bible
Questions and contradictions are at the heart of what it means to do theology. This is because, as we see constantly in the Gospels, people are curious. They ask questions – of Jesus, of themselves, of each other.
I’m sure you know the amazing story of the catch of miraculous fish:
In Luke 5:1-4, we read some of the words of Jesus:
“One day, as the crowds were pressing close to him to hear the word of God, Jesus was standing by the lake of Gennesaret. He saw two boats moored by the land; the fishermen had gone ashore and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats – it was Simon’s – and asked him to put out a little way from the land. Then he sat down in the boat and began to teach the crowd. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deeper part, and let down your nets for a catch.’”.
The story goes on as we expect it to. The disciples are obedient, a miracle happens, everyone follows Jesus. As I’m sure you know, different stories of and about Jesus appear in different Gospels. Somtimes, they appear to contradict each other. A story of a miraculous catch of fish also appears in John 21. Except that, in John 21:4-6, the story goes a bit differently:
“Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” “No,” they answered. He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.”
Did you spot that – Jesus calls out to the disciples who aren’t in the deep part, they are near the shore. The story goes the same way – and the teaching point is the same – but the details are different. So which is ‘true’? Which accurately represents the same event? Or is it two separate events? How do we square this seeming contradiction?
Now I’ve started with this contradiction because, actually, it isn’t one. And I’m not totally convinced that most of the so-called contradictions in the Bible are actually contradictions. You see, I gave you a clue by telling you the chapter and verse. These are descriptions of two different events – bracketing the ministry of Jesus. Bluntly put, in Luke 5 Jesus’ ministry is just starting, and this is part of the call to the disciples. In John 21, this is after the Resurrection. Jesus has died, and come back to life. He’s calling to mind an episode from earlier in his earthly ministry – but it is a different event. Two things to say about this ‘contradiction’. Firstly, we need to be careful that we don’t take someone’s sense of how bible passages relate to each other as cast iron. I implied that they are related, that they might be the same event, that we needed to rationalise what was going on. The reality is somewhat different. Secondly, we need to remember that the Bible is always revealing more and more of the Kingdom of God. In Luke 5, Jesus’ ministry is just beginning – and he’s showing us what this Kingdom looks like – an invitation to everyone to put out into deeper water, and see what God will do.
I’ve been fascinated by so-called contradictions in the Bible since I was young. As an over-zealous young Christian teenager, I once found a website that listed 331 contradictions in the bible. Inspired, probably not by the Holy Spirit, I thought I should try and reconcile all of them.
I manage to get to 9.
This was as far as Genesis 2, which, if you know your Bible, is not that far.
I’ve recently found another website that has over 475. It also has really nice infographics. From a Kingdom perspective, I think this is really exciting – even atheists are wrestling with the Bible!
So, some of the bigger questions we had after last week – and we are still gathering them, if you wan’t to give them to us via text or on a bit of paper – revolved around the idea of contradictions in the Bible or questions about how we read and interpret it:
Did Adam have a belly button?
If only Adam and Eve were created by God directly, are we all products of incest? (It is worth noting with this one that there are loads of potential answers, as we explored earlier)
Thorny issues – homosexuality, marriage, divorce?
The violent God of the Old Testament and the loving God of the New Testament?
Those are some really big questions. in order to engage with them, we need to accept that it will take a bit of work and a bit of time. One image that I like to use is of an old railway track. There are thee elements to this: first you have two metal rails running off into the distance. In the case of this picture, the distance looks quite nice – that is deliberate, the destination is always worth it. You’ve also got sleepers – they short, horizontal wooden blocks that span between the two rails. Our job is to move along the two rails. In this picture, in terms of what I’m saying, the sleepers are different theologians, leaders, biblical commentators, mystics, etc. Often their insights move between the two rails – because good theology is connected, and gives shape and structure to our journey. Together, as we get towards the greater understanding of the mind of Christ, we will rely on these two rails as we go further up and further in. I am just going to briefly outline what these two rails are, and then we will open it up to some discussion.
Track One – Kingdom Theology
Learning to know Jesus, and to become like him, is the goal of the Christian life. And if we truly want to be like Jesus, we must understand his most important, overarching, and integrating message about the world – his message of the kingdom of God. Earlier Amy mentioned our theological foundations – in the Vineyard and lots of other churches with whom we are friendly, this biblical theology of the Kingdom of God, is fundamental to the way we approach this stuff.
In Mark 1:14-15, we read these powerful words: “… Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” From the moment Jesus shows up on the scene in Israel, he begins to proclaim the reality of what he called the “kingdom of God.” Through stories and metaphors, miracles and healings, Jesus sends out one important declaration to anyone who will listen: The kingdom of God is breaking into this world – and it changes everything.
What we in the Vineyard mean by the Kingdom of God is a complex thing distilled into something simple. One of the founding fathers of the Vineyard, John Wimber, was very influenced by a flawed but thoughtful scholar, George Eldon Ladd, who gave us this idea that ‘the kingdom is now but not yet’. But what is the kingdom itself? In biblical terms, the Kingdom of God is the dynamic and active rule and reign of God. In practical terms, it is learning to see the world, and wider creation, as it really is – a space into which God’s creating and re-creating love is constantly expanding and renewing, challenging and changing, and all embodied in the person of Jesus.
For an introduction to Kingdom theology from a Vineyard perspective, I recommended last week Derek Morphew’s little book ‘Breakthrough’. Kingdom Theology offers a brilliant way to read and interpret the Bible – constantly forcing our perspective back to what God is doing, challenging us to view the Bible as being trustworthy and interpretation as the more messy part, and reminding us of the activity of God in the past, the now, and the not yet. Like the Bible, the theology of the Kingdom of God is like a kaleidoscope of colour through which we are trying to view everything that has happened, is happening, and will happen. It gives us a fun view, but leaves us being not necessarily sure where to start.
Track Two – thoughtful hermeneutics
The second track is a bit more complex. But, at the same time, it is probably easier to get our heads round. Hermeneutics, simply defined, is ‘the branch of knowledge that deals with interpretation, especially of the Bible or literary texts’. The Bible itself encourages us, in the words of Paul to Timothy, a young leader, to think about how we think about and use the Bible. In the context of teaching about how to engage with false teachers, Paul encourages Timothy to ‘correctly handle the word of truth’. In a formal sense, this is a bit like the difference between training to be a doctor, and first aid. Both are concerned with properly handling human health – one taking seven years, the other taking a day to learn. They don’t invalidate each other – which is why it is important that no-one hears the message that you need to study for seven years in order to interpret the Bible properly. But it does help to know some key ideas, some key themes, and have a clue about what is going on.
There a range of schools of thought about the best way to ‘do’ hermeneutics’, and I’ll recommend a book that covers five key ones later. In that book, the authors note the importance of five different methods, and the lessons they can teach us. Briefly, whenever we read a Biblical text, we will do a better job of working out what it means if we know something about the Author and their context and intent, can see and know something about the kind of text it is (letter? story? myth? law? history? prophecy?) and also recognise that we are reading it as people of faith, and as people of faith we are not reading it just for this moment, but for our whole lives. For now, because time is short, let me just offer two different approaches that I’ve found helpful, and that I *think* Amy will also agree with.
Firstly, canonical interpretation. This reminds us of the importance of two things. Firstly, that the Bible is not one book with a simple to follow storyline, but rather a rich and complex library that needs to be read all together. Secondly, the Bible is a book with one ultimate author and one ultimate subject – but written by a range of people, and read and interpreted a range of people – who are all a part of the family of God. As Brevard Childs put it, “the canonical scriptures do not serve as a frozen deposit of tradition or doctrine, but a living vehicle through which the will of God is perceived”. As a church called to a living faith, we should resonate with this idea of reading the whole Bible, together, to try and work out together what things mean.
Secondly, remembering the two horizons. One of my favourite theological thinkers is a British evangelical Anglican called Anthony Thiselton [photo]. I was lucky to be briefly taught by him, and he has written major and important books on systematic theology, hermeneutics, new testament commentary, ethics, philosophy, and so on, as well as teaching at Nottingham, running a theological college, and serving on Government ethics committees. Thiselton’s first ‘big book’ was the snoringly named ‘The Two Horizons. New Testament Hermeneutics and Philosophical Description with Special Reference to Heidegger, Bultmann, Gadamer and Wittgenstein’. If you’ve never heard of most of those guys, or the words, don’t worry. The idea is simple – when we look at a beautiful view, we have a horizon. But the Bible is bigger than that. When we are looking at the Bible we have to see two horizons – the world of the original author and text, and also recognise the world we find ourselves in. Our biases. Our weaknesses. Our own questions. We cannot think, merely because we are the ones living now that we have a better handle on what the Bible means than those who have gone before or those who are yet to come. To go back to the train tracks analogy, we are just one sleeper on The Way. As an aside, this places us all, and all our questions, on equal ground. Just because someone like Richard Dawkins shouts louder that the Bible is immoral, doesn’t make his perspective even remotely valid, if we want to think carefully together.
The Two Tracks – how to engage with contradictions
I hope that makes some sense. As a brief reminder, before we start our discussion, we need to shape our thinking in terms of the kingdom of god and thoughtful hermeneutics. We submit our reading of the Bible to the unfolding storyline of Jesus – and we remember to do this together, with the whole Bible, remembering the two horizons. These tools can help us to approach some of the contradictions in the Bible, or questions and tricky passages that don’t, in a simple reading, make sense.
Trying out the tracks – a classic ‘contradiction’
One of the questions from last time was about The violent God of the Old Testament and the loving God of the New Testament?
I love this question. Not least because it has been asked ever since people tried to follow Jesus (and taking it as a controlling theme for reading the Bible was actually condemned as a heresy, called ‘Marcionism’ after one of the main proponents of it)
This is a really important question. Firstly, however, I’d want to push back. I actually think it might be slightly fairer to the Bible to recognise that both the Old and New Testaments are pretty full of violence, and pretty full of love. Secondly, I would want to observe that Jesus, who identifies himself as and reveals himself as God, subverts our idea of what love and violence both mean on the Cross. There, in imagery rich with political challenge, Old Testament foreshadowing and religious symbolism, God himself in an act of love undergoes the most violent form of punishment the most powerful empire in the world at that time could devise. And, at the same time, Christians believe, all the sin and pain and hurt and death and evil that humans before, then and now and not yet have ever and will ever commit, was piled on him, in order that he might take it away.
The Kingdom of God is a theme that runs through the Bible – a theme that constantly proclaims the goodness of God, whether in the Old or New Testament. When we read the Bible from a Kingdom perspective, rather than a perspective of fear, we see things there we didn’t see before. It also gives us images, like warfare, to understand what is going on. God’s Kingdom is coming, but it is not yet fully here. The war is won, but there is mop-up action going on. The Old Testament also foreshadows the person of Jesus, as both crucified king and political revolutionary. The blend of violence and love is not so easy to disentangle from what God is doing. And ultimately the Kingdom of God is about the King, Jesus. And this God-King is so unlike the other kings. He is there in the wrestling with us as Jacob. He is silent yet acting in the almost atheistic book of Esther. He is whispering to us in Song of Songs and the Psalms. His hand is over the tumultuous history that includes Sodom and Gomorroah, the Seven Plagues, and the suicidal thoughts of followers of God like Job and Samson. The Kingdom of God is always breaking in, always probing the edges of the worst of pain and evil. And then Jesus comes, announcing, proclaiming and demonstrating it. Whilst simultaneously affirming the Old Testament narrative and identifying himself as the God from part 1.
To use the hermeneutics word again, we need to be very careful. Firstly, we need to be mindful that Christians and Jesus himself loved and respected the Old Testament. We do not replace but fulfil the promises of God. God’s plan for the world, detailed and almost derailed, is completed and celebrated and expanded and discussed amongst God’s people. We cannot throw away the Old Testament without throwing away the roots and food of Jesus’ message. We also need to be wary, as C. S. Lewis reminds us, of the dangers of chronological snobbery. For example, the great New Testament command, the so-called ‘Golden Rule’, ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ does not burst out of Jesus’ human lips. It actually comes from Leviticus 19:18. To dismiss the Old Testament as the deranged dreams of a violent God is a dangerous thing – without it we would know less of God’s Father-love for his children, less of Jesus’ place in the grand drama of time, less of the Holy Spirit’s wild and powerful embrace of all of creation into a joyful dance of renewal.
The ‘contradiction’ between an ‘Old Testament God of Wrath’ and a ‘New Testament God of Love’ is a great set of questions to ask. But ultimately it is based on a disuniting, Jesus-ignoring, Bible-diminishing, ivory tower perspective. A careful theological engagement with the Bible, in a community like this, inviting the Holy Spirit, can give us the tools to patiently engage with the so-called contradictions in the Bible, and lead us further up and further into the glorious riches of God, the wonderful depths of God that the Spirit is constantly exploring, and into more intimate and honest worship of Jesus.
I recommended a few books – links will take you to reviews.
- Conrad Gempf – How to Like Paul Again
- Biblical Hermenutics: Five Views
- William Webb – Slaves, Women and Homosexuals