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Sunday, December 16, 2012

Answering a concern about claims of Scripture being broken: A New Faith Paradigm -- Part V

Fifth in a series inspired by Kenton L. Sparks’ Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority & the Dark Side of Scripture.

First post here.
*****

I wanted to reply to something my brother Pete wrote in response to my last post. I could "hide" my reply in the give-and-take of the Comments section. But I thought his comments--and my (though I perceive it to be Sparks') reply--were worthy of greater visibility.

Pete wrote,
Ummm... Sparks seems to be starting from a very arrogant position, that I find increasingly common: the arrogance of assuming he is more moral than God. Or that he would do it differently than God.

Specifically, when I read
Thus, says Sparks, when we read passages like Deuteronomy 20:16-18 where the Israelites are commanded by God to annihilate the Hittites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites without mercy, in fact what we ought to understand is that God--the God we read about in Matthew 5:43-45, the God who commands us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us....
Who says that annihilating these ancient peoples was somehow in opposition to the command to love your enemies?

I relate what God asked them to do... to the single-person act of executing a murderer. Killing the murderer is not murder; the death is "on the head" of the criminal. So too, these ancient (very evil) peoples were -- by God's reckoning -- worthy of death. That He chose people to dispense justice is God's choice. Sometimes He used the Israelites, sometimes He used others like the Babylonians etc.

I suspect that we today don't have a problem with the Bible as much as we have a problem with God's purity and holiness. We water down God to make Him "nice." And by doing so we also water down the value of His loving act of sending His son to earth to die in our place.
And my reply:

Interesting hypothesis. And particularly interesting because Sparks himself attempts to address the charge.

Your concerns arise because of things he says most pointedly in Chapter 5.

Chapter 6 consists of Sparks' discussion of six questions. The last question is this: “If we admit that Scripture is as I have described ["broken"], does this not open up the door to an 'anything goes' theology that interprets Scripture so that it says nice things that we like? Will we simply pick and choose as 'final' those texts that suit our fancies?” (p. 64).

Short answer: Yes. Absolutely. Such a view does open up the door to an "anything goes" theology. And to abuse by arrogant human beings.

But.

Sparks writes:
all Christians succumb in some way or other to this threat. To see how true this is, one only needs to notice that, even among Fundamentalists who deny the human error in Scripture, one finds a wide variety of conflicting "inerrantist" readings. Some inerrantists claim that the Bible clearly teaches "predestination," others that it clearly teaches "free will." Some inerrantists argue that Scripture strongly supports "infant baptism," while others believe that it obviously teaches "believer's baptism." Some inerrantists are "pacifists," while others advocate "just war" theory.

No approach to Scripture, whether hermeneutical or theological, will prevent us from badly misreading it at points. But this much is certain: in the end, the success of biblical interpretation depends a great deal on whether we want to listen to God or merely tell him what he ought to say (pp. 64-65; emphasis mine).
This last comment reminds me of a question that meant much to me back when I was in college and during my years as a minister of evangelism. I asked skeptics who appeared, to me, to be using questions as a kind of diversionary tactic (and I often asked myself--because I, myself, am often so skeptical): "So. Suppose I answered all of your questions: Would you be willing to follow Jesus and do what He says?"

Sadly, the honest answer, too often, was (or is), "No. No way!"

So this honest answer points to the real problem. Ultimately, the real problem isn't honest doubts; the real problem is a matter of the will: "I am not willing to follow Jesus. I am not willing to obey God."

(By the way, this question of mine really came from Jesus in John 7:17: "Anyone who is willing to do the will of God will know whether my teaching is from God or is merely my own.")

But Sparks says more than this on the subject. And I think I would be unfair to you, my reader, as well as to Sparks, if I were not to point out at least some of the general hermeneutical principles he discusses in Chapter 10, "Listening to the Diversity and Unity of Scripture," where he responds a bit more directly to Pete's question.

Sparks calls the hermeneutical principles he discusses in Chapter 10 factors in theological interpretation of Scripture.

The fifth factor, he says, is that
we must distinguish those points where God uses [the human writers'] discourse to direct us explicitly in appropriate and redemptive directions ("love your neighbor as yourself"; "do not kill") from those points where the text, more warped by human sinfulness, implicitly witnesses to a broken human situation ("kill the Canaanites"; "buy foreign slaves"). (p. 110)
Isn't that beautiful? (Tongue in cheek. Sarcastic.)

So. How do we know that "love your neighbor" is sound and healthy and "kill the Canaanites" is warped and broken? (Sparks asks the question. Just like that (p. 111): "How do we know that 'love your neighbor' is sound and healthy and 'kill the Canaanites' is warped and broken?") How do we know whether or not our resistance to the extermination of Canaanites in Joshua arises from spiritual arrogance and sinful flesh? (He asks that question, too. Like that (also p. 111): "Does our theological resistance to the extermination of Canaanites in Joshua arise from spiritual arrogance and sinful flesh--from an unwillingness to let God be God and to accept his wisdom in ordering their destruction?")

Sparks' answer: We know it does not arise from such motives because we have all these "other texts in the Old and New Testaments that teach us to take a strong stand with God against things like violence and genocide" (also quoted from Sacred Word, Broken Word, p. 111).

Our judgment concerning the command to kill the Canaanites arises because of Scriptures such as those I (quoting Sparks) have alluded to before in earlier posts: Matthew 5:43-45; Ezekiel 18:14 and 20; and so forth; and other Scriptures that, as Sparks describes them, offer "explicit biblical evidence that Scripture is in need of redemption and that God is working to redeem it" (p. 66)--Scriptures like Matthew 5:31-32, 38-39, 43-44; 19:7-8.

Or, to sum up (p. 68):
[The most] striking example of the redemption of Scripture is provided by the Gospel of Matthew as a whole. Like other early Christians, Matthew viewed Jesus as the "new Moses" prophesied in Deut[eronomy] 18:15.
Strange, I know. But take a moment to see where Sparks goes with this.

He summarizes the themes in Matthew's Gospel that seek, obviously, to show how Jesus was (or is) “like Moses.”

Ultimately, he ends his parallels in the way that Matthew ends his:
Readers will probably recall that, because of his sin, Moses was not able to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land. At the end of his life, he stood on a mountain overlooking the land and sent to the Israelites, "I cannot go with you, but God will be with you. . . . Go, and kill all the nations." [Footnote: "See LXX Deut[eronomy] 11:23; Josh[ua] 23:4; 24:18." --My take: I don't see the meaning Sparks wants to apply. Though I see a close enough meaning: "Go, and displace all the nations." Or, "Go, and take everything away from all the nations." --JAH] This parallels very closely what we find at the end of Matthew's Gospel. Jesus takes his disciples "to the mountain" and there speaks his own final words: "Go, make disciples of all the nations . . . and I will be with you."

It is quite clear that Matthew wished to portray Jesus as a better Moses, who, because he was sinless, could address his followers from within the land and could extend the promise to be with them in their mission. (p. 69)
Okay. So?

"So," Sparks concludes, "the Gospel of Matthew is a deliberate and sustained attempt to redeem the Old Testament law and make it serve the purposes of the Gospel of Jesus Christ" (p. 69).

Similarly, then, we ought not to be afraid to recognize those "laws that are not good" (Ezekiel 20:25) and that reflect our own human "hardness of heart" (Matthew 19:8). And as we recognize them, we ought, then, also, seek to redeem them and make them serve the purposes of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

We ought not to think that there is "such [a] thing as Martin Luther's 'severe mercy,' which combined the violence of Deuteronomy and love of Jesus to justify the persecution of Jews 'for their own good'" (p. 55). Rather, through "Christ's message and work and the ministry of his Spirit[, we ought] redemptively [to be] putting this [kind of] brokenness behind us" (p. 64).

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