Book Review – Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament (John H. Walton)

John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006) 334 pages plus and appendix listing Ancient Near Eastern gods.

I like some books because they are rich and satisfying. I like some books because they challenge and goad me. I like some books because they explain in far greater detail or provide the evidence for what I already intuitively believe to be true. I like some books because when I finish with them I consider myself to be a wiser, or at least more knowledgable person. This book by John Walton elevates each of those reasons to heights I rarely experience.

In phraseology of common digital conversation, My. Mind. Is. Blown.

Many books written on subjects as esoteric as Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) thought can be, and are, so specialized that they are virtually opaque to the average reader. Thankfully, this is NOT one of those books. I do have to admit to a certain degree of eyes-glazed-over and bewildered response to part 2  of the book (a summary of the literature of the ANE) because in my very limited exposure to such literature, it all seemed so repetitive. However, the remaining sections of the book (and the first, for that matter) are simply wonderful in terms of content, ease-of-reading, and application.

A couple of disclaimers are appropriate: first, if you are looking for a book that simply equates the Old Testament with ANE literature, you will be horribly disappointed. Second, if you are looking for a book that proves the Old Testament has nothing in common with ANE literature, you will be horribly disappointed. What Walton sets out to do, and in my opinion accomplishes with great success, is to demonstrate both the similarities and differences between the Old Testament and ANE thought. Here the reader must take careful notice of the title: this is book that examines the Old Testament in light of the conceptual world of the ANE.

I believe one way modern people view the Old Testament is through the idea that the Israelites lived in a protective bubble – that God’s covenant with Abraham through Moses and extending through David and the monarchy somehow protected and insulated the writing of the Old Testament from any outside influences. What Walton demonstrates is that while there are marked differences between Israelite culture and the surrounding nations, the authors of the Old Testament were fully aware of the thought world in which they existed, and that this familiarity shows up in in the text of the Old Testament. By more fully understanding the conceptual thought world of the ANE, both the similarities and the differences between the pagan cultures and the Israelites becomes more explicit.

While my “book reviews” are not actual reviews in the technical sense of the term, I do want to share one aspect of the book that I thoroughly appreciated. Walton devotes the majority of each chapter to the thought world of the ANE (hence, the title of the book). However, within each chapter he pauses to draw attention to a specific aspect of the Old Testament that has a bearing on the subject at hand. These discussions are set off in a grayed-out “side-bar” type of arrangement, and come with their own footnotes. In a pure lecture format, it is as if Walton is stepping back from his main topic and saying, “Okay, that is what the thought of the ANE is, now let’s see how the Old Testament either reflects, or does not reflect, this particular aspect of ANE thought.” While the basic text provides the meat and potatoes of the book, these shorter illustrations provide the icing on the cake, so to speak.

I have honestly rarely been so engrossed in a technical book to the point that I did not want to put it down, and actually looked forward to continue my reading. Maybe I am a nut (okay, that point is not up for debate), but this book was just that good. If I was an instructor in a course of Old Testament study, this book would be mandatory reading. I assure you, if you take Walton’s thesis seriously, you will never read the Old Testament the same way you have always read it (unless, of course, you already accepted Walton’s thesis without knowing it.)

Do not be put off by the technical nature of the subject. This book is easily understandable. All foreign language words are transliterated into English, and if I can follow the author’s train of thought with my embarrassingly limited understanding of ANE literature, anyone can. With all of the usual caveats duly noted (“you are not going to agree with everything the author says,” etc., etc.), I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I so wish I had this material presented to me when I was either in my undergraduate or graduate studies. But, I am thankful I have it now, and I plan on making further examination of this material a point of emphasis in my continued growth in biblical studies.

Definitions – “Church”

The word “church” illustrates what has to be one of the greatest, yet possibly most misunderstood, issues in dealing with translation and interpretation processes – some words can obtain such significant (and unintended) secondary meanings that the primary meaning is often obscured or completely erased. It happens frequently (the word “baptize” is another example) and the results can be profound. There is, however, a simple remedy (I like simple – I specialize in simple – I am simple minded).

The derivation of the word “church” is complex – I will leave it to the reader to search the internet for the history of the word. For this space suffice it to say that the word comes to us from the Greek via the Latin and German and thence to the Old English, and ultimately to the King James Version and thus to virtually every English translation. However, the great-grandparent in Greek is really just a very simple word that means “assembly.” For proof of this consider Acts 19:32, 39, and 41 – where the word is used to describe a near riot, a political/judicial meeting, and an large gathering of people (the same riotous group found in v. 32).

First, a little history. When the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek, there were two words that could be used for the idea of assembly, and sometimes congregation. One is the word from which we get our synagogue, the other was ekklesia. By the time of the first century, the word synagogue had a secondary meaning attached – the specific meeting place of Jews. The other word, ekklesia, did not acquire this “theological” freight, and therefore was the natural word for the authors of the New Testament to use in order that the New Testament assembly of Christians would not be confused with the Old Covenant meeting of Jews. (Significant note: the word synagogue IS used in James 2:2 in reference to a Christian assembly – the word is actually translated instead of being transliterated – which just goes to prove my point by way of a different direction.) There is no “Holy Spirit” meaning attached to the Greek word ekklesia – the word that ultimately ends up being translated as “church” in our English translations.

The problem is that the English word “church” has become so overloaded with theological, confessional, and even denominational freight as to be almost useless. To a Roman Catholic the word refers to the entire Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church. To many Protestants, the word refers to the “invisible” church which would include believers of every stripe, color, and description (never mind that many of the creeds that define these groups are diametrically opposed to one or more of the others). To a great many others, the word “church” simply refers to a building – “. . . bye mom, I’m going to the church to play some basketball . . . ” (which, sadly calls for another blog post, but that will have to wait).

What is my simple solution? Let’s retire the word “church” to a nice pasture somewhere where it can live out its remaining days in peace and tranquility, and replace it with the idea for which it was originally intended to convey, and that is “assembly,” “gathering,” or perhaps even “congregation” (although, even that last option comes with some extraneous meanings attached).

Notice, just one simple (that word again) example that has some fairly significant hermeneutical implications. In the modern worship wars over the “role” of women, one problematic text is 1 Corinthians 14. As simply (arrrgh) as I can explain it, the argument is that because Paul seemingly allows women to pray in public in 11:1-16, the apparent prohibition against women speaking in chapter 14 must be modified in some form or fashion (either softening it, or by eliminating it altogether). But this interpretation falls apart when it is recognized that Paul makes a significant change in 11:17 – prior to v. 17 there is no mention of a public gathering at all (the reference in v. 16 to churches of God is a rebuttal to the Corinthian view that theirs is the preferred practice!) But at v. 17 Paul starts talking about the public assembly of the Corinthian Christians – in chapter 11 his topic is that of the Lord’s Supper. In chapter 14 he continues with the assembly language, but this time in regard to manifestations of the Spirit – notably the speaking in tongues. Consider the following –

14:4 – the one who speaks to the assembly must do so for the edification of the people assembled.
14:5 – interpretation of tongues is necessary for the edification of the assembly.
14:12 – the gifts of the Spirit are to build up the assembly.
14:19 – Paul would rather speak five intelligible words in the assembly than ten thousand unintelligible words.
14:23 – when the whole assembly comes together . . .
14:26 – when you come together (the word ekklesia is not used here).
14:28 – if there is no interpreter in the assembly, let the tongue speaker be silent.
14:33 – as is the customary practice in every assembly of the saints.
14:34 – the women are to remain silent in the assembly.
14:35 – for it is shameful for a woman to speak in the assembly.

In every verse listed above (except for v. 26) the word ekklesia is used for the idea of assembly or gathering. The argument made by egalitarians (those arguing for complete equality of women in public worship) is that Paul establishes his basic teaching in chapter 11, and only modifies it in chapter 14 to limit obnoxious or unruly women taking over the worship. As I said, this argument cannot be sustained because (a) Paul never mentions the appropriateness of women praying in the public assembly in chapter 11; and (b) he repeatedly and specifically ties his teaching, which includes the limitation of women speaking (and therefore exercising authority over men) in chapter 14 to the assembly of the Christians! This is in perfect agreement with his teaching in 1 Timothy 2:12. The entire discussion changes significantly if we eliminate the heavily freighted (and therefore susceptible to twisting) concept of “church” with the very simple (arrrgh) usage of the word assembly.

There really is nothing wrong with the word, “church,” if we understand it as it was intended. But, the meanings of words change, and what was understood 200 or more years ago is frequently not the meaning of the word today. Try this experiment – every time you read the word “church” in your English Bible, substitute the word “assembly” and see if the meaning is not clarified – or at least a richer meaning is thereby provided (yes, even Matthew 16:18!).

The Gordian Knot of Hermeneutics

I have been pondering something so much lately I have a headache. Mind you, my mental capacity could never be described as excessive, and it is dwindling by the year – but still, I have a couple of synapses that are still firing.

My conundrum is this: how can people who hold to virtually the same concept of the inspiration and trustworthiness of Scripture come to such varied, and sometimes even diametrically opposed, interpretations of some passages of that Scripture? I get it that classic liberals and hard-core fundamentalists should be at each others’ throats. But what disturbs me is that I have acquaintances who, at least on a surface level, agree that the Bible is the inspired and authoritative word of God, and they and I are so far apart on some issues that we cannot even worship together.

As Ricky would say to Lucy, “‘Splain me.”

What I have decided is that the problem is not one’s view of inspiration (although, at one level it might certainly be). It is certainly not one’s love for the Bible, or for Jesus, or for his church. The problem, as I see it, is the issue of hermeneutics.

Hermeneutics is one of those words for which there are probably as many definitions as there are individuals who use it. For me there is a very simple definition, although some might find it lacking: hermeneutics is the process by which we apply, or interpret, Scripture. It is differentiated from exegesis in that exegesis is the process by which we determine what the passage meant in its original, historic context. Therefore, while some disagreements are narrowly focused on matters of exegesis (meanings of words, aspects of grammar, specific details of historical setting), I am growing more convinced that it is actually the process by which we selectively apply Scripture that is the cause of most problems.

As honestly as I can say it, we are all hermeneutical sinners. We all violate certain hermeneutical principles that we demand others obey. None of us are entirely, perfectly consistent. All of us selectively use or dismiss passages that support or challenge our interpretation. All of us come to the Bible with preconceptions (even believing that the Bible is the inspired word of God is a preconception!) None of us are entirely successful in removing, or bracketing out, those preconceptions. Some are certainly better than others, but the minute you declare perfection you have just violated the principle of approaching the Scripture in humility.

In other words, in the immortal  words of Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

I reflect on this as I consider an interview conducted with Ken Ham, he of the Noah’s Ark museum and a staunch believer in “young earth” (approximately 6,000 years old) creationism. He said in so many words that if Christians challenge the “literalness” of Genesis, they have no means of supporting their doctrine.

Well, I hate to burst Ken Ham’s bubble, but I am one of the committed believers in the divine and authoritative inspiration of Scripture, and I cannot now, nor will I in the foreseeable future, ever accept the conclusion that the Bible scientifically proves the earth to be not much older than 6,000 years. It may, in absolute fact, only be that old. That is not my main disagreement with Ham. What I object to, in the most emphatic of ways possible, is the proposition that we can use the Bible as some sort of a chronological textbook to ascertain the age of the earth. This number was first arrived at through the prodigious effort of Church of Ireland Archbishop James Ussher (d. 1656), who determined that the earth was created on October 23, 4004 B.C. (I have seen the book which documents Ussher’s work – it is ponderous!) The problem with this, and many other efforts to date the age of the earth, is that you have to depend on genealogical lists that were compiled, not as literal, physical lines of lineage, but for specific political and/or theological reasons. That, and then you have to work with some incredibly difficult comparisons and computations of ancient calendars (which, if I remember correctly, comprises the bulk of Ussher’s work).

For evidence, I offer two genealogies. One, the lineage of Zadok, found in 1 Chronicles 6:1-15 and in a much abbreviated form in 1 Chronicles 9:11, and in Ezra 7:1-5. The genealogy in Ezra has a six generation gap – which is interesting in and of itself, but is even more interesting if it is true that the author of the books of the Chronicles was Ezra himself, as many scholars believe. Now, if you want to argue that the list in 1 Chronicles 6 is the full and complete list, go ahead. But here is the problem: the list in Ezra 7 is just as inspired, and just as authoritative, and just as theologically important for Ezra’s readers as the list in 1 Chronicles was for those original readers, and the two lists are significantly different! You cannot elevate the Chronicles list as being more historically accurate without denigrating the historical accuracy of the Ezra list. Yet, if you accept that both lists are inspired and accurate for the purpose for which the author’s intended, you have just accepted my premise – you cannot use the biblical genealogies as scientifically perfect specimens of biological lineage. (Critical exegetical note here: the word “father” in ancient Semitic languages can mean anything from one’s own specific human father to a grandfather, or even more remote male relative. Here is where exegesis can, and should, inform hermeneutics).

The second genealogy is far better known – that of Jesus in Matthew 1 and Luke 3. Even a cursory glance reveals significant differences between the two lists. These differences have been summarily dismissed as the result of the Matthean genealogy being that of Joseph, and the Lukan genealogy as being that of Mary. I will wager a year’s salary to anyone who can prove to me from Scripture that Luke intends his genealogy to be through Mary and not Joseph! It cannot be done, and I have tried every which way from Tuesday to do it. The only way you can arrive at that conclusion is to assume it from the beginning – and as I compare the two lists that is just not a valid assumption, for while they have significant differences, they share a remarkable level of agreement.

But, let’s say I am wrong (and that would not be the first, or the last time), so let’s look at Mathew’s genealogy more closely: he has arranged it in three groups of 14. This in itself lends toward a theological, and not purely historical, arrangement. But look even more closely: in the first two sections there are 14 generations, the first beginning with Abraham, the second beginning with Solomon. But the only way you can come up with 14 in the third set is to count Jeconiah twice – once as the last generation in the second section and once as the first generation of the third set. (David is not so counted in the second group). I’m not making this up – you can count for yourself and, besides, it has been documented and discussed thoroughly in critical commentaries. So – are the lists false? Did Matthew not know his history or his theology? NO! and NO! But he did create his “genealogy” with a specific purpose in mind, and if we are going to stand under Scripture instead of standing over Scripture, we must first accept Matthew’s listing as being different from Luke’s, and then proceed to attempt to determine the historical and theological reasons for the discrepancies.

Artificially harmonizing differing accounts in Scripture in order to prove a debatable theory is dishonest. To do so, and then to demand that everyone accept your conclusion, is even more than dishonest. Those who do so to gain a following do great damage to the cause of seeking the truth.

So, how are we going to untie the “Gordian Knot” of hermeneutics? I’m afraid that solution is beyond my limited mental capacity. There is one thing about which I am absolutely convinced, however: no Christian should be afraid of seeking the truth of any matter. God has nothing to fear from human inquiry.

Let us begin with a proper posture before the text, however, and remember we stand under it, not over it!

Luke 22:35-38

In the seemingly never-ending debate over guns and gun ownership and how to curb gun violence, one passage of Scripture keeps showing up. There are some remarkable aspects to this passage, and I have been working for some time on how to properly interpret and apply the passage. I have come to the conclusion that there is one interpretation that I emphatically reject, one interpretation that makes sense on one level, but which I ultimately conclude is not satisfactory, and then I have my own tentative (as much as I can be tentative) interpretation.

To begin, let us put the passage before us:

And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered wit the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment. And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.” (Luke 22:35-38, ESV)

Let me begin with the interpretation that I flatly reject. It has been suggested that this passage provides clear support for the concept of arming oneself to the teeth for the purpose of self-protection. I simply cannot accept that interpretation for this passage. I have a number of reasons for making that statement.

  1. This teaching of Jesus is only found in one gospel, and in only one place. I am exceedingly nervous about single-text theology, and anytime anyone wants to build a huge platform on one single text I get suspicious – even if I am leaning toward accepting the conclusion of what is being discussed.
  2. In regard to the above point, when single-text interpretation is necessary, a person must always ask, “Is there (or are there) any text(s) that teach the opposite of what I believe this text is teaching?” In this case I believe there is not just one, but actually a number, of texts that refute the above interpretation. (1) Matthew 5:39, which the ESV translates as “But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil…” That phrase is better translated, “Do not resist by evil means*.” Jesus clearly resisted evil people! The apostles resisted evil people, and Christians of all generations have resisted evil people in their world. But Jesus never used the evil tactics of the individuals he was resisting – same with the disciples. Using a sword to defeat a sword would be in clear violation of Matthew 5:39. (2)  Matthew 26:52 – “Those who take the sword will perish by the sword.” If Jesus wanted his disciples to be armed, he certainly prohibited the use of those weapons. (3) John 18:36 – “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not of this world.” Swords are weapons to defend worldly kingdoms – either personal or national. Jesus repudiated the idea that his kingdom was this-worldly. So there are actually a number of passages that contradict the interpretation that Jesus was condoning the use of weapons for self-protection.
  3. The book of Acts, the letters of Paul, James, and Peter, and subsequent church history demonstrate the dozens, if not hundreds, of ways in which the disciples of Christ submitted to abuse and even martyrdom rather than defend themselves with offensive weapons.

So, if Jesus was not condoning the use of weapons for self-defense, what was he doing? I now turn to the interpretation that at least on one level makes sense, but on further reflection just does not convince me. That is that Jesus was making sure there was at least one sword among the eleven remaining disciples so that the prophecy of Isaiah 53:12 could be fulfilled. After all, isn’t this the interpretation that Jesus himself provided? Well, yes and no.

First, there is no indication anywhere in any of the gospels – especially Luke – that the disciples were included in the arrest or trial of Jesus. How could he be “numbered with the transgressors” if the disciples were not considered to be “transgressors”? Second, consider the context of the saying – it was well after dark on the night of one of the highest feast days of the Jews. Where in the world would any of them be able to “sell his cloak and buy a sword?” But if the saying was meant to be in fulfillment of Isaiah 53:12 it would have to be fulfilled that night – Jesus could hardly be considered to be “numbered with the transgressors” if his disciples went out and bought a bunch of swords weeks or even days after his death. And, just to carry that thought one step further – where exactly were they supposed to by such swords? The Romans? Jewish zealots? The local pawn shop? Third, the events of the evening flatly contradict the idea that Jesus was arrested for insurrection. No charge of armed rebellion was brought against Jesus – treason yes (before Pilate), but armed rebellion, no. In fact, the attempt to do so strikes me like that of a Monty Python skit:

Accuser – “This man is an anarchist. His slave chopped off the ear of your servant!”
Chief Priest (examining the ear of his servant) – “He did?”
Accuser – “. . . well, yes, . . . but then this terrorist put it back on .”
Chief Priest – “Thanks a lot!”

It just seems to me that Luke is far too precise an author to make these kinds of factual, and even theological, mistakes. So, while I believe wholeheartedly that Jesus was reminding his disciples of the prophecy of Isaiah 53, I just do not think he was using his disciples as the “transgressors” to which the prophecy referred. So, if not option number two, is there a third choice? I believe there is.

I believe that this exchange between Jesus and his disciples was recorded by Luke to demonstrate (1) Jesus’s acceptance of his immediate fate, and (2) the disciples continued misunderstanding of not only Old Covenant prophecy, but Jesus’s own explicit teaching.

I have already said that I do not believe Jesus was somehow surrendering his disciples to use the weapons of the world to defend themselves. In point of fact, in John 15-16 Jesus makes it clear that when the Holy Spirit would be given to the disciples, they would be better armed and protected than even when he, Jesus, was present with them. I reject the idea that the “transgressors” with whom Jesus was to be numbered were the disciples – I believe that the two thieves/robbers with whom Jesus was crucified fulfilled Isaiah 53. If those two options are removed, and if we grant that Luke was a precise and deliberate author (guided by the Holy Spirit, no less) then we have to explore the idea that what Luke recorded in 22:35-38 was an ironic conversation, one that the disciples utterly, completely, misunderstood.

As one last, but I believe significant, bit of evidence, I suggest that Jesus’s response – “It is enough” has enough biblical background to support this interpretation. Consider Genesis 45:28, Deuteronomy 3:26, 1 Kings 19:4, 1 Chronicles 21:15. In these texts the expression is used as a command to stop the conversation – a point of absurdity had been reached and there was no sense in continuing any further. The disciples response, “Looky here, Jesus, we have two swords!” demonstrated their lack of understanding. Jesus just put a stop to the conversation. It was as if saying, “I give up. I’m not even going to try to explain.”

There are many passages of Scripture that we want to turn to as a “proof text” to defend what we already want to believe. When that occurs we must be extraordinarily careful that we slow down, apply all of our tools of exegesis and hermeneutics, and especially consider if there are other passages that suggest an alternate interpretation. I believe Luke 22:35-38 provides such an example. I freely admit my interpretation may be in error, and so in conclusion I would simply suggest that it is far better in the long run to say, “I do not know” what a passage means, and be absolutely correct, than to defend interpretations that are absolutely wrong.

*I am indebted to Glen Stassen for this insight. See Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, p. 137-138, 186.

Definitions – Scripture

I love words – a gift I gratefully acknowledge that came from my father. If a lover of books can be called a bibliophile, then I am a logophile. I love words for the power that they have, for the humor that many contain, and for the manner in which we use them. I also find it both amusing and frustrating that, especially in religious conversations, we cannot come to a common understanding about what words should mean.

I have previously discussed the word baptism. Today I take my pitchfork to the word scripture to see if I can sift out anything concerning that word. Spoiler alert – not much of a chance. Just like baptism, the meaning of the word scripture is totally in the eye of the beholder, but maybe I can cause us to think more deeply about what we mean when we use the word.

I begin by noting that there are a number of ways in which we differ when we use the word scripture. For some it is a matter of ecclesial, of church, dogmatics. For example, in the Roman Catholic church, many books are considered as part of Scripture that are not included in the Bibles used by Protestants. These books are identified by Roman Catholics as deuterocanonical (added second to the canon) or by Protestants as apocryphal (hidden). Thus, which branch of Christianity you claim to follow can have a bearing on what you consider to be scripture.

There is another manner in which a person can identify scripture, and that is purely utilitarian. In this process one sifts the wheat from the chaff by deciding if the book, or passage, in question actually works in real life. Thus, for an increasing number of egalitarians and feminists, much of what Paul wrote is simply not scripture because it is outdated, patriarchal, and sexist. Great swaths of the Old Testament are removed for the same reason, or because God is pictured as being a warrior, or for his seemingly unquenchable desire for ethnic cleansing. Although it would not be defined in quite so bluntly, this method of identifying scripture can be labeled, “It’s not scripture if I disagree with it.”

Then there is the paring down of the totality of scripture through either ignorance or avoidance. In his category I place many “New Testament” Christians, who avoid much or all of the Old Testament because it is unfamiliar, or because it challenges them too severely (very similar to the utilitarian approach discussed above). Genesis is okay, because there are some really cool stories written therein, but the rest of the Pentateuch (Exodus – Deuteronomy) is verboten – too much law and not enough gospel. Heaven forbid any sermon or class come from the prophets – especially those pesky (and incriminating) minor prophets. So, while they are technically included in the canon of scripture, these books are carefully and intentionally excised in order to preserve a level of safety and comfort.

So, how do you determine Scripture? (and I now return to the practice I believe is proper, that of capitalizing the word when used to refer to the entire and normative Word of God.) In my opinion, we can only stand under Scripture when we confess that there are many teachings within that canon with which we are going to disagree, and therefore we are faced with a decision. We can either allow those passages to be normative, or we will use some other point of reference to decide what is Scripture and what is not. If we use some other point of reference, we are no longer standing under Scripture, but we are standing over it – the as-yet-unidentified point of reference then becomes normative, and Scripture becomes its servant. For some that point of reference is their gender, or their understanding of gender. For some it is their idolatrous understanding of who and what God should be (idol in the sense of something created that is less than God). For some it is their wealth, which has displaced God. For some it is their nationalism, their racism, their philosophy of economics, or any one of a dozen more issues which compete with a person’s view of Scripture.

I will admit I am biased in certain directions. I just do not understand how we can appeal to Paul for his powerful exposition of God’s grace and at the same time utterly dismiss his directives for congregational polity. I do not understand how we can fawn over Jesus’s words of love and forgiveness and blithely reject his commands regarding justice. How can we adoringly quote from 1 Corinthians 13 and just completely disregard Amos?

I will also admit to being imperfect in applying my hermeneutic of Scripture – which is why I am all the more adamant that Scripture remain normative. If I get to decide what is Scripture and what is not, I have, in the immortal words of Pogo, become my own enemy. I will further admit that it is not always easy to determine what is normative for all time and across all cultures, and what was recorded because it was normative (or simply descriptive) of one time and in one culture. I think we can have those conversations, but only if we first agree that the words of the Bible must be their own judge, and not any aspect of our temporally limited understanding of such.

So, just as with baptism, the issue remains clear – as mud. I believe with all my being that there is a way forward – but it can only be successful if we first agree to ascend lower in our search for the meaning of Scripture.

Definitions – Baptism

One of the most frustrating parts of my job, or ministry, is the fact that I deal primarily with words. Words, and the associated concept of language (the combination of words, grammar, tone, inflection) are a slippery thing. I grew up learning that many words have both denotation (how they are defined in an authority such as a dictionary) and a connotation (how they are actually used, which might be in a  very different sense from their denotation). It takes no great skill to know that the connotative meanings of words change every generation or so, but now even the denotative meanings of words are changing. It is getting to the point that I’m not really sure what I am talking about even when I use the words that I think I know what they mean.

Since this is a blog about all things theological, let us take a word about which probably everyone has an opinion concerning what it means: baptism. In the expansive world of Christianity there are essentially two broad understandings of baptism – one sees the word applying primarily to infants, and one sees the word applying exclusively to believers in Christ. For both groups the concept of faith is critical, for the one it is the faith of the church (and primarily the parents and god-parents), for the other it is the faith of the individual which is controlling. For the first group baptism marks the security of the individual until the point he or she can voluntarily assume an individual faith (confirmation), and is a removal of the effects of original sin; for the other it is the actual moment of the profession of individual faith, and is associated with the removal of actual sin. But beyond these stark differences between these very different understandings of baptism, there is also profound differences among those who profess to be adherents to believer’s baptism. (As I am not personally associated with a group that practices infant baptism, I will refrain from commenting on any real or perceived differences in that group.)

Some adherents of believer’s (adult) baptism hold that baptism is for the purpose of the forgiveness of sin; others believe that a person’s sins are forgiven at the moment of faith. Baptism in that case is simply a formality, a physical act that demonstrates one’s willingness to be a part of a specific church. Thus, even within the camp of “believer’s baptism” there is a huge gulf – one group believes it is absolutely necessary; the other group views it as a nice gesture, but one that is not to be considered critical. Let us proceed even further. Many within the “believer’s baptism” group hold that a candidate for baptism must be baptized at the specific moment (or as close to it as possible) that a decision to be baptized is reached; others believe that a period of preparation, or “catechism,” must be observed in order to fully prepare the candidate for the waters of baptism. This catechism can be days, weeks, months or even years in length.

The mode of baptism is fervently disputed: some will argue that baptism must be full immersion in water; some will argue that a candidate who enters a baptistery and has water poured over his or her head has been baptized; and obviously those who accept infant baptism will accept a few ounces of water gently poured over the head of the infant as proper baptism. And, not to be ignored, even the wording used in the event of baptism is debated. Must it be in the name of the “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” or will the name of Jesus suffice? Does the name of God, Jesus, of the Holy Spirit have to be mentioned at all? If the trinitarian language is used, must there be three immersions (or effusions) or is one adequate? Who is authorized to baptize? Must the ceremony be “officiated” by a priest, pastor, minister, elder or deacon? Can a female perform baptisms? What if a baptism is performed by someone who is later found to be apostate – is the legitimacy of the baptism somehow connected to the faith (and orthodoxy) of the one who performs the baptism? If so, how far back do we have to go in order to establish the legitimacy of the one doing the baptism?

All of this preceding wandering through the hermeneutical wilderness was to illustrate one simple point: asking a person whether they have been baptized is a considerable effort in futility. Only if they say “no” has there been any clarity achieved. If the answer is “yes,” then were they baptized as an infant or as a believer? Were they baptized because they had some ecstatic feeling of “oneness” with Christ, or were they baptized because they felt the crushing weight of their sin, or were they baptized in simple obedience to Christ? Were they old enough to understand the meaning of sin, or of faith in Christ? Were they immersed, or dribbled on, or just sprayed on?

As I have stated elsewhere, beyond some very basic (and I believe, scriptural) stipulations, I tread very lightly when it comes to “evaluating” or “judging” someone’s baptism. I hold that a candidate for baptism must be old enough to be considered responsible for his or her actions (and I am personally hesitant to follow the practice of baptizing pre-teens). I also understand baptism to be a full immersion (we do not just throw some dirt on someone’s forehead to “bury” them), and I expect a candidate for baptism to be able to express repentance for a real separation from God, and an adult commitment to obey and become a disciple of Christ (I don’t think anyone fully understands those concepts when they are baptized, but there must be some fundamental understanding, otherwise all we are doing is getting someone wet.) These, I aver, are the only basic requirements for baptism found in the New Testament.

It’s all very simple, and at the same time terribly complicated. After all, it all boils down to how we define baptism, right?

Standing Under Scripture

If you have been reading the last few posts (my “Uncertain Inferences” series) you note that I have been illustrating how we can look at a passage of Scripture and deduce, or infer, that something is true when, in fact, it is either not true, or at least the certainty of our inference is indeed “uncertain.” You may disagree with me on one or more of these issues: that is fine – by no means am I claiming infallibility. However, you better have more solid scriptural evidence than I have presented to bolster my case if you want to convince me. I am passionately opposed to perpetuating error just because it happens to be popular.

What all of this boils down to is our approach to Scripture. One of my most favorite professors stressed to his students that we stand under Scripture, we do not stand over it. When we stand under Scripture, we submit to its message, listen to its modes of communication, and seek to obey what it directs. In the 21st century, that means we have to unlearn as much about reading Scripture as we have to learn how to read Scripture.

As just a few examples, consider these: we (and I speak as an American, although much of what I say can be shared by other Western cultures) think linearly. Point B follows point A, and point C follows point B. Time flows in a straight line. Result Y is directly related to cause X. When we read Scripture, we automatically impose that way of thinking on the text. We think that is the way Abraham and Moses and David and Paul and Peter must have thought and acted, because that is the way everyone around us thinks and acts.

Philosophically we are basically Platonists. The world is made up of the ideal and the material. The material is somehow corrupt, whereas the ideal is perfect  – how many times have you heard the phrase “true love?” Our Platonic worldview is especially seen in our view of “heaven.” We have a view of disembodied “spirits” or “souls” flying around on little clouds in some nebulous realm “up there.” We base virtually every decision we make on some form of scientific “truth,” and yet we pray on Sunday mornings for “divine guidance.” These are all grand-children, or step-grand-children, of Plato’s understanding, and we are so immersed in that thought that to think otherwise is to be branded as a heretic.

Yet, when we enter into the very different, and we might even say strange, world of the Bible we see that so much of what we consider to be the only way to view things is NOT the way the biblical writers viewed them. Their world did not always follow a direct cause and effect pattern. Time for them was not always linear – sometimes it was, and sometimes it was cyclical and sometimes it was significantly disjointed. Abraham and Moses and David and Paul and Peter lived in a world where paradox was more common than consistency. And while Jesus and Paul and Peter lived in a world influenced by Plato and Aristotle, their thinking was more in line with Abraham and Moses than with the Athenian philosophers.

Perhaps nowhere in the Bible is this difference in thinking more profound than in the type of literature we call “apocalyptic.” This is the very strange world where beasts live that have seven heads and ten horns, where the sun goes dark and the moon turns red. We, as good 21st century Westerners, read those passages and immediately we think in “literal” terms. We start trying to figure out how ten horns can be divided onto seven heads – we start trying to calculate when solar or lunar eclipses must have occurred to give the biblical writers their “literal” reference. In so doing we utterly, totally, and completely miss the point! By forcing our worldview (literal, linear, and scientific to a fault) onto a mostly Hebraic, and sometimes Persian, and sometimes Egyptian, and sometimes Babylonian, and sometimes Greek, and sometimes Roman worldview, we destroy not only the method, but we destroy the message as well. What we are doing when we do that is we are standing OVER the text, not standing under it.

The problem is that this is the way we have been taught to read the Bible ever since we were very small children. We read a passage, made a modern day application, and moved on. We were never taught about Egyptian or Mesopotamian creation myths, or about Hebrew poetry, or about Zoroastrian dualism because our teachers knew little or nothing about those topics – and they did the best they could understanding that they had not been taught about those subjects. When I was a small child I searched the maps in the back of my Bible for hours, knowing that somewhere in those maps I could find Santa Fe, New Mexico, and my beloved Pecos river. We did not even have a globe in our classroom so that the teacher could show us just how far Bethlehem was from Santa Fe.

Please understand – I am not criticizing my teachers. They did the best they could with what they knew, and I might add that they did a remarkable job with those flannel boards and little sand boxes where the battle of Jericho was fought again and again with striking realism. But I do want to shine a light on a serious problem – what was adequate, and perhaps appropriate, for elementary age children is pathetically inappropriate for grown adults. We must grow beyond flannel boards and sand boxes. As we mature in our understanding we have to learn that the world of Abraham, Moses, David, Paul, Peter and every other biblical writer was vastly different from our own, and if and when we impose our way of looking at reality onto their way of describing their reality, we distort and even misinterpret Scripture.

Genesis is not a scientific textbook. Job is not a guide to astronomy. Revelation is not a road map of the future. Jesus spoke in parables because of, not in spite of, their open ended conclusions. It just seems to me to be the height of arrogance for us to say that we know everything about everything in the Bible when we are separated almost two millennia from the youngest of the biblical writings. We, who claim to be people of the book, must be the most careful and humble when it comes to speaking from that book.

Standing under the Bible means we have to get on our knees, not stand on a soap box. It means that we have to ascend by bending lower.

[Note: this post was edited to better reflect our Platonic worldview.]