Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Wrong Way Round

In a previous post I pointed out that Christ’s disciples, unlike many modernists, were seekers after objective truth.

But the process of discovering that truth was anything but easy or natural. The disciples made some pretty entertaining mistakes.

Not that I would’ve done any better, I assure you. But they had an uncanny knack for getting things the wrong way round.

It must be remembered that these were average working men of their day, not educated theologians. While they, along with many in Israel, eagerly anticipated the coming of the promised Messiah, it cannot be expected that they had the in-depth knowledge of the Old Testament scriptures that someone like Saul of Tarsus took for granted.

It should hardly surprise us that, as the disciples listened to the Lord’s words, there were one or two errors into which they regularly fell. It might benefit modern readers to take note.

  Taking the Figurative Literally

Here’s one instance, but the gospels give us plenty more examples:
“Jesus said to them, ‘Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’ And they began discussing it among themselves, saying, ‘We brought no bread.’ ”
“What a bunch of morons”, we might think. “Of course the ‘leaven of the Pharisees’ is not to be taken literally. Why on earth would the Lord use an enigmatic metaphorical expression to convey something as prosaic as ‘Don’t forget to bring a couple of extra loaves in case we have a long day’? And what on earth do the Pharisees have to do with any of that?”

But the twelve weren’t the only ones prone to this sort of error. When the Lord taught a larger group of disciples that “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me”, most of them took it literally. “This is a hard saying,” they complained, “who can listen to it?” They actually thought the Lord was advocating cannibalism. And so we read that after this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.

The difference between a literal and a figurative interpretation, for them, was a total stopper.

Looks, Tastes, Feels and Smells

And yet this is not a blunder confined to first century disciples, sadly. Here’s a current error along the same lines in the words of someone who believes it:
“Catholicism holds that bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ when they are consecrated by the priest celebrating the Mass … it looks, tastes, feels, and smells like bread and wine, but it literally has been changed into the body and blood of Christ.”

But what is the doctrine of transubstantiation if it is not excessive, unsupported literalism buttressed by explanations that are nothing but mystical fantasies?

And yet Catholics acknowledge that the Lord used figures of speech all the time. Why they stumble over this particular metaphor may be perplexing, but it is no less mistaken for all that.

The only difference between Catholicism and the disciples is that Catholics have had 20 centuries to discover the error.

  Taking the Literal Figuratively

Then there is the opposite error:
“… he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead might mean.”
Again, since we know the end (or really, the middle) of the story, the fact that the disciples misunderstood the Lord’s plain words about his coming crucifixion and resurrection initially seems a little bizarre.

But of course the poor disciples hadn’t read the gospels like we have. So when the Lord spoke plainly and literally about his death, they assumed he must be speaking allegorically. Can you see them with their heads together, trying to puzzle out a figurative meaning for “rising from the dead”? I wonder what they might’ve come up with. It surely can’t be any worse than what modern readers come up with when they fall into the same error.

One such example is Ezekiel’s prophecy about a millennial temple, the prediction of which only makes any kind of sense if you take it literally, something well dealt with here and here. For those who still insist on reading it figuratively, well ... good luck with that. Please, for my amusement, forward your interpretations.

Hold the Curses Please!

Another common example is the spiritualizing of the God’s very literal promises to national Israel for the benefit of the church. John Piper, for one, states this bluntly:
“By faith in Jesus Christ, the Jewish Messiah, Gentiles become heirs of the promise of Abraham, including the promise of the Land.”
These are literal promises to an earthly people that have to do with physical geography. The problem with nicking these and applying them to ourselves as members of the body of Christ should be obvious, but it takes a rabbi to rebut Piper by quoting Deuteronomy back at him:
“And the Lord took delight in doing you good and multiplying you. So the Lord will take delight in bringing ruin upon you and destroying you. And you shall be plucked off the land that you are entering to take possession of it.”
Like most amillennialists, Mr. Piper would like to benefit from Israel’s blessings without the inconvenience of simultaneously inheriting Israel’s curses.

There may well be advocates of a figurative interpretation of such passages who do a convincing job applying both the blessings and the curses of Israel allegorically to the church. I just haven’t met one. My experience to date has been that, when confronted with a passage I believe should be taken literally, those who take it allegorically are hard pressed to say anything about it at all, let alone anything compelling. When asked for an explanation of a particular, obviously literal detail, the amillennialist often simply blurts out “But it’s spiritual!

“Spiritual” seems to mean either a tepid quasi-reiteration of some promised blessing already laid out explicitly in the epistles, or else a tacit admission that we cannot know what it means at all.

This brings up the obvious.

Question: How Can We Know Which is Which?

It can be perplexing, can’t it. If one thing should be obvious, both from the examples of the disciples’ errors in interpretation and those of modern Christendom, it’s that we need to be very careful when we handle the word of God. It is not easy going and what is at stake is often quite significant.

One principle has been useful to me: the Lord took a very high view of God’s word: “Truly, I say to you,” he said, “until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” Again, he confirms, “Scripture cannot be broken”.

Do Christians really believe the word of God cannot be broken? I hope so. But if we do, why do we see it so often broken down; its pieces carted away to the interpretation junkyard when they don’t suit the theological system of the reader. If the Bible is REALLY the inspired word of God, not merely a product of man, then we must recognize that it cannot self-contradict.

You cannot set one part of the Bible against another.

The Law of Non-Contradiction

Of course the Law of Non-Contradiction applies to more than just the word of God; it is a basic principle of logic going back to Aristotle. But it is especially useful in interpretation.

So if, for instance, scripture teaches the sovereignty of God and also clearly teaches the responsibility of man, our explanation of “sovereignty” must include human responsibility. God cannot contradict himself. Christian determinists need a more biblical understanding of what it means that God is sovereign.

Again, if scripture teaches that the church is spiritual Israel (and that case may be made) but also promises unconditional blessings to national Israel (and that case may be made too), then our understanding of the term “spiritual Israel” cannot be used to strip Jacob’s literal children of God’s earthly promises. God cannot contradict himself. We need a better understanding of “spiritual Israel”.

Yet again, if scripture teaches that believers must “eat” the Lord’s flesh and “drink” his blood, but also teaches that cannibalism is wrong (its mention in the Old Testament is uniformly negative and associated with human debasement and the fulfillment of God’s curses), then surely our understanding of the words “eat” and “drink” need modification. They cannot be literal.

God cannot contradict himself. Like the disciples, we may tend to get things the wrong way round from time to time. But let’s not forget an absolute.

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