Friday, February 8, 2013

Of Contexts and Continuity: Interpreting the Jots and Tittles of the Bible Accurately

People consider me a stickler when it comes to being precise in one's exegesis. I suppose I'm that way because I grew up among cults and was able to see that the smallest misunderstanding concerning what a text was saying often led to a huge misunderstanding of what theology we should take away from that text.

I've commented before about the misuse of the Sermon on the Mount by pacifists. I had a conversation with Scot McKnight a few years ago about the fact that he was ignoring the context in order to support his preconceived ideas that were largely gained from a dispensational/pacifist tradition that interprets the text in discontinuity with the Old Testament rather than, according to Jesus' very words in the sermon, in continuity with it.

As I've been reading Dr. Enns' blog, he keeps using this same misunderstanding of the text as the means to critique the Old Testament.

Today, he commented on some nut who acted like he was the Lord Jesus leaving a comment on his blog; but although deserving, perhaps, the tone of the response it received by Dr. Enns, one has to note the irony in that both this guy AND Dr. Enns are making absolute statements and speaking for Jesus. Both are putting words in Jesus' mouth--one by pretending to be Jesus and the other by taking Jesus out of context and not permitting Him to speak for Himself.

For instance, he states:

You see—if I may, knowing who you can’t wait to judge us–some of us who are really trying to pay attention to your book get very confused about what exactly it wants from us. For example, why did you and God say in one part of the Bible that killing our enemies–even women and children–was your will, but then, you and God change your mind about all that in other parts (the parts where you are speaking, Jesus)? Also, please clarify, if you would, that part about smashing the heads of Babylonian babies against the rocks, and also the part where drowning everyone on earth was the best way to deal with sin way early in the book you wrote, but later you took a very different approach.

This all assumes that Dr. Enns has gotten Jesus right in the SofM, and yet, the context is very clear that Dr. Enns has not gotten Him right. In my conversation with McKnight years ago, he ended up ignoring my arguments from context and just gave me the "we all have different interpretations" thing. I suppose Dr. Enns might do the same, but that, of course, is a cop out. We're not left to imagine what the context might be. It's right there in front of us. Jesus says that His purpose is not to go against the commandments of the OT, that whoever annuls even the smallest part of the law will be considered least in the kingdom of God, and that those who practice lawlessness rather than God's law will be cast off from Him. He then proceeds to reject interpretive traditions based upon their limiting the applications of the Old Testament law rather than seeking to apply them to every situation in life.

So I have to ask, What's left of this claim that Jesus and God say one thing in part of the Bible and then something different in another part? A major emphasis of the New Testament is that Jesus is coming back to deliver His people by slaughtering all of His enemies and casting them into outer darkness/the gehenna of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. That sounds pretty much in continuity to what God does in the Old Testament with Israel's enemies. So where is the discontinuity? 

Now, of course, the Church isn't physical Israel. That's another one of the important points of the New Testament. It is spiritual Israel, but the physical aspect is eschatological and so Christians wait for that fulfillment in resurrection and glorification. But that's not God acting in two different ways. That's God working with two different groups of people in two different situations for two different purposes. 

If I "command" my older son to go catch a fish for dinner back when we lived by a pond, it would be absurd to suggest that my younger son now should need to obey that same command even though we now live in a desert and we get our fish now from the grocery store. It would be equally absurd for someone to suggest that I've changed somehow--that one presentation of me is in discontinuity with the other. We're not talking about different Gods and Jesuses when it comes to what the Old Testament commands and what Jesus commands in His interpreting the Old Testament. We're talking about different contexts and different programs; but the one program is virtually the same as the other, i.e., God commands us to destroy chaos among us as He continues to do the same. The difference is that the Church isn't a physical nation that carries the sword because our conquering King, our Divine Warrior, is conquering sin within us first and then will return to do the rest--and that "rest" looks very much like the Canaanite conquest applied to the entire earth (in fact, the NT presents it as such).

 So I think the burden of proof rests on the pacifists, who clearly feel they must appeal to neo-errancy in order to make their arguments. They are making the same mistake that many have made throughout church history when allegorizing the conquest accounts, but a far more grievous error when concluding that the Old Testament is wrong in its depiction of God. The former may be a wayward orthodoxy, the latter a Marcionite heresy. And all of it due to ignoring the context of what Jesus actually says in one particular passage, even a single verse that says, "love your enemies." So much destruction is found in the misinterpretation of those three little words.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Bryan!

    I have contacted you on facebook a few times concerning a topic I am currently writing on. So, good to connect with you once again!

    I believe the just war or pacifist argument is an unnecessary argument. Like you have said, scripture is a unified whole and this is the key to the puzzle.
    In the old Testament there were ceremonial laws that dealt with death and impurity. Anytime a person touched and handled a dead body they were considered impure until they were restored to purity. This impurity was highly contagious and was even airborne in a contained environment like a home. Most people outright dismiss the purity laws but they were a critical object lesson that taught morality. This impurity would be transferred to the dead bodies of a battlefield-even if it was a righteous justified war commanded by God. The same would apply to an execution team handling a dead body-even though it would be immoral not to execute a murderer. Self defense is justified but would also infect a person with impurity. Death is infectious and the current situation in iraq is proof of just how infectious nature of death, which keeps begetting more death which started long ago in this conflict.Nobody makes a clain to fight a war based on fighting an unjust war. Sometimes we need to look two steps ahead to avoid conflict. In the case of an intruder, maybe buying a dog. When public executions were celebrations of death, soon after they gave the rope even to petty crimes. Pacifism cannot be defended because it isn't the reality we live in, but it should be a sought after ideal because we were never created to kill each other. Of course, we cannot follow these ceremonial laws in ritual, but by their spiritual intent which is written on our hearts