October 21, 2017

iMonk Classic: A Conversation in God’s Kitchen (3)

Medieval_baker

Part three of Michael Spencer’s classic essay on the Bible addresses the subject of interpretation. Read part 1, part 2.

• • •

Third, How do I Interpret the Bible?

Ever think of the Bible as….a grocery store? I worked at grocery stores for a long time. People come into the store with their grocery lists, and they know what they are looking for. They need some bananas, ice cream, a case of root beer, a head of lettuce. They run up and down the aisles finding what they want, find everything on the list, check out and go home.

That’s how evangelicals increasingly approach the Bible. They have a list of what they need. Parenting principles. Verses for healing. Advice for marriage. Rules for children. Stories to inspire. Challenges to give. Information on Heaven. Predictions of the future. We run into the “Bible” looking for these things, and when we find them, we leave.

This “grocery store” view of the Bible is built on the idea that the Bible is an inspired “library” of true information. A “magic book” as some have called it, where passages contain unquestionable information and authoritative rules. This approach to the Bible is flattering to the human ability to catalog information, and it is used in many churches to build confidence that the use of scripture puts a person on a foundation of absolute certainty.

In this approach, interpretation is important, and good interpretation is common. But the problem is fundamental. Scripture is not a grocery store. It’s not a place to run in and find principles for parenting or prophecies about the future, even though the conversation contains discussions about these things.

No, the Bible is a cooking show. And if we are going to interpret any part of scripture correctly, we need to get out of the store- the encyclopedia of true things in a magic book- and get to the kitchen.

And, amazingly, here we are! If you look on the counter, you will see all the ingredients for a cake. This cake is really going to be magnificent, and we have all the ingredients to mix together and create this wonderful creation. Eggs. Flour. Salt. Sugar. Butter. Vanilla. And many other bowls of ingredients.

All these ingredients, of course, are the contents of the Bible. The eggs are Genesis 1-3. The flour is Leviticus. The salt is Proverbs. The sugar is Psalms. And so on. These are good ingredients. Crucial ingredients. Now…we need to ask an important question: What are we baking?

Baker 2The cake the Bible is baking is Jesus Christ, the mediator of our salvation, and the Gospel that comes in him.

There are people who like eggs. There are, I suppose people who like to eat flour. There are other things you can make with these ingredients besides the cake. But if you follow the conversation/recipe, this cake will turn out to be Jesus, the Lamb of God, the bread of Life, the salvation of the world. The cake scripture is baking is Jesus. If you recognize that cake for what it is, and eat it believing, you will be saved.

Using this analogy, we must interpret the Bible backwards. Reading it forward is fine and necessary. Interpreting forward is legal, but far from adequate. We must get to the Gospels. We must get to John 1 and Revelation 4 and 5 and Romans 1:1-4. We must get to Jesus, and then we can read Genesis 1 rightly. We can read it without Jesus, and do a lot of good or make a huge mess. But we will be missing the point of every part of scripture if we don’t interpret with Jesus in mind.

II Corinthians 3:4 But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. 15 Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. 16 But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.Galatians 3:10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” 12 But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.” 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

Galatians 3:22 But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. 23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.

One of the first times I brought out my thoughts on this approach to the Bible was at a seminar for local pastors, where I was asked to teach Genesis 1-11. I am sure most of the men in the room were ready for the usual approach to Genesis, with lots of hat-tipping to the creation-evolution controversy and explanations for how these events could “really happen.”

Instead, I said that Jesus was the one for whom and by whom all things were made. I said Jesus was in the beginning with God. I said we are made in God’s image, in a way similar to the way Jesus is the image of the invisible God, and that this is why Jesus is made like us so he can save us. I said Christ came to destroy the works of the devil. I said Jesus loves us when we are cast out of paradise, and he left paradise for us. I said Abel was a picture of Jesus, and his offering a portrait of faith. I said the ark was Christ, and the flood the wrath of God Jesus endured for our sake. And so on, for four hours.

At the end, one man said I was trying to be “provocative”. Let’s hope so, because the grocery store approach to Genesis is boring me and turns preachers of the Gospel into lecturers in creation science.

smoo6b bakerWhy can’t we preach Christ Jesus from Genesis? Why do we talk about the length of days and the location of Eden and whether women should submit, when the whole story exists to send us to Jesus to be clothed in his righteousness? Do we really think God wanted us to have a book of inspired science and trivia? I need a savior, not a set of facts. As Robert Capon says, if the world could be saved by good advice, it would have been saved ten minutes after Moses came back from Mt. Sinai.

When I read Leviticus, I interpret it through Jesus. He is the sacrifice. He is the thief who is punished. He is the adulterer who is stoned to death. Jesus is the priest, the altar, the sacrifice and the temple. The good news is we don’t live in Leviticus any more. We live in a New Covenant where the threats of Sinai have been fulfilled at the Cross, and a new covenant in His blood is now available to anyone, of any nation, who believes in Jesus as Lord.

The first Christians didn’t use the grocery store method. They but it all together and said “Christ!” They found every part of scripture was, in fact, an ingredient in allowing us to see and understand the bread of life.

It is important to remember that Jesus’ existence isn’t determined by the Bible. He doesn’t need it to be God. We need it to know God. We need the language, the pictures, the law, the examples….the whole recipe that gives us Jesus and the Gospel. We need the whole Bible so we can start to understand Christ, his person and work, his Gospel and what faith means. All the complexities of the great conversation are for our understanding of Jesus and the Gospel. When we interpret, we need to avoid literalism and find Christ, who is the truest of all truths. Literalism that lessens the saturation of the scriptures by Christ is as bad as liberal criticism that denies Christ.

So Biblical interpretation is part understanding the conversation, and part of understanding the final Word spoken and speaking. When we can hear the final Word in the words and images of the text of scripture, then we are getting it.

Comments

  1. Why do we talk about the length of days and the location of Eden and whether women should submit, when the whole story exists to send us to Jesus to be clothed in his righteousness? Do we really think God wanted us to have a book of inspired science and trivia?

    Given the questions evangelicals ask, and the books they write and read, and the issues they fight for? As Doctor Peter Venkman would say, “I’d call that a big ‘Yes’…”

  2. Christiane says:

    a sincere thank-you to imonk for the notice of Father Benedict’s passing (on ‘Recommended Reading’ section)

    I always felt that there was something very special about Benedict Groeschel as many others have also noticed,
    and I am both saddened by our loss of him, and gladdened that he is beyond all suffering and safely in the Presence of Our Lord.
    Thanks again. Now I’ll be able to catch the vigil service and the funeral mass thanks to imonk’s heads-up.

  3. I am hungry. Why must I eat? Is this the perfect bread that fuels and fulfills me in all my need? The one who stands at the hearth has He looked so at my rising in the morning to make me the break fast that I have long for all my life.

    This incredible love. I know it. I feel it. I get to live it and it grows within me. It is what I seek. How to better. I will find it. This One He is faithful. He changes my heart and being. Yes I am a human being. I love you Lord.

  4. “There are other things you can make with these ingredients besides the cake”

    How often that becomes true. It all makes me think of the saying that is so widely accepted – you can’t eat your cake and have it too. On the face of it that seems so true…. you eat it, and it’s gone. But the two verbs can be seen as a sequence of actions, so that using the ingredients properly you can indeed have cake, and the whole process and reason of that is to eat it.

  5. Hearing the Word of God, whether it is from the bible or any other source, is a life generating event. To genuinely hear it (they have ears but do not hear) is to be cognizant or knowing and of course knowing, in the biblical sense, is to be in union. To hear the word is to be in union like the branch to the vine, to be joined to it. It is one of those spiritual truths that is at odds with common logic. We think of activity as bringing life but God simply speaks. “Let there be light” and there is light. Some have tried to board that train without paying for their ticket. They run around speaking things, like their personal wealth, into existence and claiming this thing and that for Jesus. That, unfortunately, is a twisted attempt at bypassing the cross and staying in the shallow end. By and large, our job is to do the hearing. If we remain in union by doing that, when it comes time for us to speak something into existence there will be light.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      They run around speaking things, like their personal wealth, into existence and claiming this thing and that for Jesus. That, unfortunately, is a twisted attempt at bypassing the cross and staying in the shallow end

      Name It and Claim It is Magick. The Secret with a Christian coat of paint.

      “Abracadabra” = slurred Aramaic for “I Speak and It Is So.”

      • Witchcraft and the like you might say.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          You’re not the only one to notice that.

          The difference between Magick and Religion is that with Magick, the mortal sorcerer is the one calling the shots and controlling the supernatural beings/forces.

          • Yup!

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            Recently I’ve been going through a manuscript by one of my writing partners — a nonfiction collection of stories handed down in his family history. Including a section on family ghost stories and PA Dutch tales of folk-magic and witchcraft.

            Here’s his comment on the last:

            “The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses, mostly classic European ritual magic, which included invocations and demon summonings to find wealth, get revenge, and compel the love of women. As some scholars have pointed out, classic ritual magic was essentially a fancy way of ringing up room service!”

  6. I know that this interpreting the Bible backwards from Jesus is the only way I’m able to go, clumsily and inexpertly as I do. I can not read, and have never experienced, the Old Testament texts as presenting the clear voice of God, infallibly delivered without error (although some texts clearly echo the close experience and voice of God, and these are hauntingly evocative, even when embedded in textual details that give rise to ethical qualms and other doubts). Yet Jesus, according to the New Testament, pointed back to these texts and the histories they give as the ground upon which he spoke his message and did his work, so I follow the direction that his finger points in, and I do what I can, along with the Church, to re-occupy old Canaan as the horizon of the new eschaton. Fundamentalist inerrantists believe they can do otherwise, but I do not number myself among them.

    Two things should perhaps be pointed out in relationship to such Jesus-backward reading of the Old Testament:

    1) Just as the Church reads the history of Israel as given in the Old Testament backward from the perspective of Jesus, I believe that the post-resurrection Church interpreted, and experienced, the life of Jesus backward from the experience of the resurrection, and from within the community that formed around the memory of that experience and the conviction that Jesus was still mysteriously and intimately involved with its life.

    2) Somewhere in his Letters and Papers From Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote something about it being wrong, even un-Christian, to want to get to the New Testament too soon, as if we could just sidestep all the violence, lies, deceit and manipulation, and the host of other sins, done in the name of the God whom Jesus Christ claimed as his Father. If the reason we are reading backward from Jesus is to avoid the disorientation involved in those OT texts themselves, or to squelch the surface, and sometimes deeper, tension between the details of the narrative thrust of those texts and the main narrative thrust of the New Testament, then we are making a big mistake.

    It’s the kind of mistake that divorces the Old Testament, and Jewish experience, in its own right, from the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and from the experience of the Christian community, as if these do not have a right to exist and speak in their own authoritative voice apart from what came later. This is the ground upon which classic Christian antisemitism grew and metastasized through the centuries, and it’s a temptation for both progressive and conservative Christian theologians and biblical interpreters today, whenever they do not allow the Old Testament texts to speak in their own Jewish right and authority, however disorienting that might be for us Christians and our understanding of the OT and for the comprehensiveness and consistency of our theology. Living with this tension, and this paradox, is necessary if we want to keep, or re-establish, touch (Editorial note: I was going to use the word “connection” here, but thought better of it after yesterday’s rant [Insert smiley face HERE]) with the uniquely Jewish experience given in the Old Testament, and the uniquely Jewish character of our Lord, Jesus Christ. “Salvation is from the Jews.” That’s why it’s wrong to want to get to the New Testament too soon, as Bonhoeffer wrote.

    • Have you read much of OT scholar Walter Bruggeman? I think you’d find him kindred.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Divorcing the OT from NT, separating Jesus from his Jewishness and Jewish background, was what led to Christian anti-Semitism and Pogroms.

      • Yes, and the charges of deicide and blood libel. Also, denial that Judaism is a religion in its own right.

        All are the gravest of errors, and have led to untold suffering.

  7. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    That’s how evangelicals increasingly approach the Bible. They have a list of what they need. Parenting principles. Verses for healing. Advice for marriage. Rules for children. Stories to inspire. Challenges to give. Information on Heaven. Predictions of the future. We run into the “Bible” looking for these things, and when we find them, we leave.

    Or a rulebook or operator’s manual that’s only consulted as-needed. Chapter-and-Verse to find the section needed. Facts and Checklists, Law Codes and Regulations to be obeyed (or loopholes found), nothing more. Do it all right and you get a gold star and perfect score.

    Chaplain Mike once theorized that the paradigm shift of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution caused a shift in how the Bible was viewed: from Old Stories of God and Man (the cooking show) to a Spiritual Engineering Manual of FACT, FACT, FACT.

    • I used to teach an advanced exegesis class and we’d spend a day talking about preaching the text. I challenged (or invited the students to reconsider) the conventional homiletical approach of raising a thematic question/concern in the introduction which is then answered/addressed in the body of the sermon. I’d tell my students, “When you preach, you are not only preaching a message, you are preaching a method.” This sort of sermon teaches people that the way to approach scripture is to ask your question (or establish your topic) first, then find a passage that answers that question or addresses that topic.

      I’m not saying I have easy answers as to how to do it differently. But it’s important to keep in mind that how they hear you preach is how they think you prepare.

  8. Randy Thompson says:

    If the Bible is approached as one approaches a grocery store, then the flashy end aisle displays are the proof texts, which too often prevent one from seeing what else might be offered down the aisle somewhere. Bad Bible teaching focuses on these end aisle displays, as does bad Bible reading.

  9. Instead, I said that Jesus was the one for whom and by whom all things were made. I said Jesus was in the beginning with God. I said we are made in God’s image, in a way similar to the way Jesus is the image of the invisible God, and that this is why Jesus is made like us so he can save us. I said Christ came to destroy the works of the devil. I said Jesus loves us when we are cast out of paradise, and he left paradise for us. I said Abel was a picture of Jesus, and his offering a portrait of faith. I said the ark was Christ, and the flood the wrath of God Jesus endured for our sake

    Why is the ark Jesus? and why is Abel’s offering a portrait of faith? This clearly wasn’t the original storytellers’ intentions; nor does it seem to be the reason why these stories were remembered and retold. Concerning the Ark story, I like Rob Bell’s interpretation – that it’s a story about an old tribal God who, like all the others, decides to flood the earth in response to all its wickedness.. only this God promises never to do it again. And he wants to live in covenant, in relationship with us. A primitive, bloody story that is also progressive and beautiful.

    I get Michel’s main point, about not using the bible as a grocery list, but sometimes the attempt to see Jesus in the OT’s specific images, or details seems forced and unconvincing.Quite apart from the fact that a lot of the ‘prophecies’ don’t seem to really be about Jesus (eg, Psalm 16 in Acts 2)

    Though I’m open to be proved wrong here. Perhaps there are other ways of seeing Jesus in the OT?

    • First para. was supposed to be in a little quote box thing. Not quite sure how to do that.

    • flatrocker says:

      Ben,
      From a Catholic perspective, the ark is not Jesus. The OT ark is what carried the covenant of the Word of God. But the ark itself is just the vessel and not God. This OT typology becomes important when we look to the NT and the ark of the new covenant. This is why Catholics (and EO’s) place such prominence on Mary as she becomes the ark of the New Covenant carrying the living Word of God.

    • imo, a lot of xtians (over the ages) have gotten very carried away with typology. It creates tremendous problems (again, imo) that have led to great evils committed against Jewish people and their religion, as well as doing violence to the texts, in refusing to read them as they are.

  10. About 60 years ago, some scholars were noting that the early Church Fathers interpreted the Bible on four levels, (and that therefore the same held true for all medieval literature, which required a fourfold interpretation.) For instance, “Jonah in the whale’s belly allegorically anticipating Christ’s descent into hell prior to his resurrection.”

    http://public.wsu.edu/~delahoyd/medieval/exegesis.html

    It seems to me that by saying “we will be missing the point of every part of scripture if we don’t interpret it with Jesus in mind,” Michael is proposing something of the same approach to the Bible. Apart from the problems of anti-semitism, which have already been pointed out, I really don’t think it works. As Ben says, “This clearly wasn’t the original storytellers’ intentions; nor does it seem to be the reason why these stories were remembered and retold.” And I question whether a Christian who reads and enjoys the story of Jonah as (1) a good, funny story, and (2) an example of God’s mercy as contrasted to very human crabiness, is going to be further enlightened or inspired by viewing the tale as anticipating Christ’s decnt into hell.