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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Inbox: Things That Don’t Hold Together

My previous post addressed a question raised by Immanuel Can about the use of the term “bride” in scripture as a metaphor for the Church. Examining the subject raised a number of issues best explained in this Wikipedia blurb:

“The Bride of Christ or bride, the Lamb’s wife is a term used in reference to a group of related verses in the Bible — in the Gospels, Revelation, the Epistles and related verses in the Old Testament. Sometimes the Bride is implied through calling Jesus a Bridegroom. For over fifteen hundred years the Church was identified as the bride betrothed to Christ. However, there are instances where the interpretation of the usage of bride varies from Church to Church. The majority believe it always refers to the Church.”

Another thing we call “groups of related verses” is systematic theology

Now there’s nothing wrong with systematic theology in principle. Every Bible student needs to be able to rationalize his understanding of scripture in an orderly way. Moreover, a study of the larger patterns in the Bible is critical to developing a robust faith and a grasp of what God has been doing throughout history and therefore what we may expect him to do in the future.

But before we declare verses “related” or part of a “system”, we need to carefully examine them to ensure our big-picture, fly-by interpretation does not violate the intended contextual meaning of the author. Otherwise we may end up squeezing his words into a set of preexisting assumptions we have never properly examined.

That in mind, I asked a couple of questions about the “group of related verses” from which many have concluded that the Church is the Bride of Christ:

First, how “related” are these verses really? (The use of a metaphor by different authors at different times in very different contexts makes the relationship of such verses to one another questionable at best.)

Second, are there really ANY verses in the Old Testament that we can say are unequivocally and literally “about” the relationship of Christ and his Church? (I am not convinced there are.)

IC summed up what I saw in scripture about the Bride Metaphor better than I did:
“I find it hard to take issue with anything you say there. I guess you can see from my question my hesitation about the conventional reading on the “marriage” issue.

I do think the important point is that it’s a metaphor. As with any metaphor, we cannot expect it to correspond perfectly to its referent. We can only expect it to amplify one (or perhaps two or three) aspects of that referent. So when we read “Lamb of God” we cannot suddenly infer hoofs, fleece and tail. We can infer “pure one” and “sacrifice”, however. Not only that, but if we try to tie that metaphor used in one context into every other context in which “lamb” appears, we may end up trying to force things like Nathan’s parable to David into some sort of meaning they were never intended to have. Worst of all, to try to combine every use of the word “lamb” into a single, coherent whole will likely do nothing but create very weird doctrine indeed.

I think we just have to accept that metaphors have a local kind of impact: they refer to specific aspects of their specific subject in a specific context, and do not always form a general, coherent web or pattern of allusion. And “bride” or “virgin” are clearly metaphors that emphasize things like purity, love or belonging, but always within the specific context in which the metaphor is invoked.

If the global Church is, in a specific sense, a “Bride” in some way that Israel is not, and the new Jerusalem is not, and the Corinthian believers are not, then the implications of such a metaphor would apply only within the context of the verse(s) that specified that, I think. For I, like you, do not see a single, coherent pattern of reference pegging the Church as exclusively the Bride. I’m open to being convinced otherwise, but at the moment I just do not see it.”
There’s a lesson here that I need to keep relearning.

While working through my thoughts on the Bride Metaphor, I’ve been simultaneously involved in a discussion on another blog about the place of Israel in scripture. The discussion has been primarily with younger guys who have absorbed the eschatological schema of Supersessionist teachers without ever having done the necessary spadework in the Bible themselves. They are very assertive about what they believe but wholly unable to defend their view with specifics.

Thus IC’s last paragraph seems particularly relevant:
“Much of my life, I took it for granted because that’s what I was taught: but now that I look at the specifics, I’m not able to maintain my previous confidence about that. The whole thing doesn’t hold together over all the references in scripture.”
There is no useful way, in my estimation, to study these larger issues (Calvinism, Supersessionism, eschatology, Dispensationalism, the meaning of particular metaphors in scripture, etc.) in the absence of regular reading of, prayer about and meditation on the scriptures themselves, especially the frequently-ignored Old Testament. Systems of theological understanding cannot be built without careful personal inspection of each “component” of the system at each point in the process.

If we try to shortcut the road to spiritual maturity by reading too many commentaries and books of systematic theology without serious time in the word of God, we will find when we look at the actual proof texts upon which our system depends that, as IC has said, “the whole thing doesn’t hold together”.

The nobility Luke saw in the Berean Jews was not just that they were eager, but that they were “examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so”.

You have to look at the specifics. Increasingly, this is the forgotten part of the process.

1 comment :

  1. Yes, this is being forgotten. It's being forgotten because we, as Christians, are more interested in defending a system taught to us by some Bible teacher we happen to respect than we are for confirming its truth.

    We spout the "partly-line" quickly, and even cull websites of proof-texts to back our case: but we don't go and actually look at the text, humbling ourselves before the Lord, seeking His mind, not our own or that of some theologian we happen to admire. So we do not learn, and we do not grow, because we do not do what you call the "spadework."

    In order to keep up the party line, we avoid the Old Testament or use only small bits of it. And even in the New Testament, we do not look for the Author's intended meaning, so much as we impose our own prejudices or the biases of our heroes upon the text.

    The solution? Read the Book. It's not nearly so hard or obscure as we tell ourselves it is. And the Spirit of God still teaches those who sincerely search.

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