As I wrote in this space last month, Rachel Held Evans is hosting a fine and spirited discussion on the role of the Bible in the life and faith of believers. Every Monday morning the discussion begins anew, usually with another chapter from a book on the subject. This past Monday the chapter was from N. T. Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God: chapter 5. The First Sixteen Centuries.
On Wright’s Chapter 5.
In it, Wright takes his readers on a fast-paced ride — he calls it “condensed” and “highlighted” — from the founding of Christianity through to the end of the Reformation period, circa., 1700.
No one, least of all Wright, would say he does this period justice. He blasts his way through major shifts in the history of Christianity past heresies and controversies, turmoil, war, Goths (both Ostro- and Visi-) through the collapse of early Christian society, the rise of the monastery, the rise of the Papacy, towns, nations, cities and universities with nary a mention of any of that.
Why? Because Wright is on about something. How was the Bible both elevated and treated with great reverence and at the same time, regularly read in such a way as to make most of its content and even its salvation of all creation message unintelligible, not only to the communities of faith which were its most natural and hospitable audiences but even to those whose job it was to make that message clear to the rest of us.
Wright gets at: Why had this happened? And did the Reformers fix it? Yes, they did, but not enough, says Wright.
So, how was the book of books made unreadable? By the development of a method of reading, a hermeneutic, that took the reader away from what the words immediately conveyed, away from the “plain sense” of the text.
Why, you ask, would anyone who claimed to love the book do that? Because so much of what they read in the book had nothing what-so-ever to do with that which, as they saw it, was the point of the Bible, what I call the counter-gospel:
“Jesus died to save my soul so that when I die, I can live forever with Jesus in heaven.”
On Rachel’s blog I commented on the comment of a fellow who noticed how Israel’s story had less and less to do with the way the Bible was read and so those who had been taught there was supposed to be value in the Old Testament began to make up meanings for all the parts that did not make any sense to them. Below is my revised response:
As hard as Paul and probably others, tried to contemporize the Jewish scriptures for their largely Greek-thinking audience, the Greek way of thinking, with its immortal souls and static eternity in heaven eventually won the day over the redemption of creation story which unites the entire older testament and the actual teaching of king Jesus. This meant trouble for readers of the OT, of course, yet Paul had declared “all scripture [to be] useful…”
Useful, but how? If the final goal is to leave the earth for heaven and yet the worst thing that could happen to someone in Israel was to be tossed out of the land then how can going to heaven, away from the earth, be a good thing? How can Samson, murdering Philistines with a jaw bone or the Shullamite maid, choosing her shepherd boy over lascivious old King Solomon be related to Jesus dying to save my immortal soul so that I can join him, away from the earth, in heaven forever?
In short, how was the new, Greek, Neoplatonist/Xian redemption story which Christians in the second and third centuries slowly adopted, in any way related to all the OT mud, blood, hair and breasts?
Easy. The land of Israel became a metaphor for heaven. Samson became a cautionary moral tale about drinking, womanizing and associating with the wrong kind of people and the Shullamite’s breasts…
My beloved is to me a pouch of myrrh which lies all night between my breasts.
…from the Song of Songs became the Old Testament breast and New Testament breast, with Jesus as the little pouch of myrrh, lying in between them — all night? Well, O.K., “all night” can mean, “through the ages!”
Of course, if you do that sort of thing to these texts, you have to gut the actual redemptive historical purposes of the land as actually a demonstration project for the whole world for what redeemed living might look like, of Samson as a demonstration of God’s grace toward both that one wayward man as well as his whole confused people — the God who gives up on neither — and the Song of Songs cannot then be, as Calvin Seerveld has so well written, a whole-bodied expression of full-throated and faithful love between one man and one woman, over-against the grasping acquisitive consumer-king, Solomon, who has a thousand wives and concubines and has completely missed real love!
But so what? Since the land and the flesh had become irrelevant to their salvation story, allegory was their solution.
Do you see what happened eventually? Having lost the redemptive picture of a restored creation which Paul proclaims in Romans 8:18-22 and the Bride of the Lamb returning to earth with the Lamb in its midst which John foresees in Revelation 21-22 the early expositors could only make the texts be about something other than their “plain meaning.” Allegory was their solution.
Allegory was therefore not the deep problem; it was a symptom of the much deeper corruption of the kerygma, the message of salvation.
And since then, apart from rare periods of clarity, the “soul saved for heaven” narrative has crowded out the biblical story until we have been trained to read even Romans 8 and Revelation 21 upside down.
Several times I have read expositions on Rev. 21:2: And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband which comment on the passage as though it read,
“…new Jerusalem, going up from the earth, to God…”
How hard it must be to learn to read a passage as meaning the opposite of what it clearly says! Ummm… apparently, not hard at all.
And when I have read Romans 8:18-22 out loud to classes…
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now…
…I have been met with bewilderment.
I have had educated, life-long, Christians ask me, “What does that mean?”
And I have answered calmly, patiently, “It means what it says, that all creation is the inheritance of the children of God, of us, and that the earth itself looks forward to its restoration when we will come into our full, earthly inheritance.”
And I have had people look at me like I was a Martian, fresh from outer space because although they have lived all their lives within the church and although they met Jesus perhaps at age twelve or twenty, they have never heard the gospel nor the redemptive story’s endgame put like that before.
Tell me: which is worse: allegory or a redemptive story which is so out of line with the scriptures that allegory is necessary to make the scriptures fit the story?
How would you write out a one-sentence synopsis of the story of redemption? Does it read like what I enshrined in quotes at the beginning of this post: “Jesus died to save my soul so that when I die, I can be with Jesus in heaven forever” ?
Why don’t you give it a try: write one sentence which tells the story of how and what God has redeemed and of where the redeemed will come to reside with King Jesus? If you get it right you will need no allegories to understand either the New or the Old Testament.
(Hint: I would start with four words and then fill in around them. Another hint: the first letters of the four words are: C F R R.)
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1 Back to Post The Greatest Song in Critique of Solomon by Calvin Seerveld is the finest translation of the Song of Songs ever done in the English language. It is a rigorously literal translation of the Hebrew but because it assigns the speeches of the book to various characters based on that literal Heberew as well as story’s context, it is the only clear and easy-to-read translation of the book you will ever hold in your hand. Leave me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will get you the info you need to pick up the book for under $15 (at least it was the last time I ordered some copies).