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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

jigsaw bible

The OOZE has a recent article by Frank Viola, The Bible is Not a Jigsaw Puzzle. Viola puts into words something that I've never been quite able to pin down before.

The Protestant Scholastics held that not only is the Scripture the Word of God, but every part of it is the Word of God in and of itself—irrespective of context. This set the stage for the idea that if we lift a verse out of the Bible, it is true in its own right and can be used to prove a doctrine or a practice.

Viola is describing a dangerous practice that can lead to all sorts of erroneous doctrines and church splits. I'd hazard a guess that virtually all "non-denominational" churches use this approach.

Let me stress right now that the Bible is authoritative for Christians, and was so even before the New Testament was canonized. But that doesn't mean each verse, passage, or half-sentence is as authoritative as the whole Bible. If it were, we would decimate the human population by strictly following passages like this:

If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. They shall say to the elders of his town, 'This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.' Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death.

- Deuteronomy 21:18-21

We would defend the ownership of human beings as property with this:

Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.

- 1 Peter 2:18

On the other hand we would eliminate debts this way:

If anyone of your kin falls into difficulty and sells a piece of property, then the next of kin shall come and redeem what the relative has sold. If the person has no one to redeem it, but then prospers and finds sufficient means to do so, the years since its sale shall be computed and the difference shall be refunded to the person to whom it was sold, and the property shall be returned. But if there is not sufficient means to recover it, what was sold shall remain with the purchaser until the year of jubilee; in the jubilee it shall be released, and the property shall be returned.

- Leviticus 25:25-28

Employers would hand out paychecks daily, even to illegal aliens:

You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt.

Deuteronomy 24:14-15

I never hear TV evangelists preaching on these passages.

The reality is that nobody consistently takes every word in the Bible at face value. There are parts of it that clearly were written to a specific group of people at a specific time, and were not meant to be followed by all people at all times. There are parts of it that should be taken seriously, but only in a metaphorical sense.

The big problem with reading Bible verses in isolation of their surroundings is that when they are stripped from their original context, the meaning can easily be distorted. Viola gives an extreme example:

“And he [Judas]…went and hanged himself” (Matthew 27:5). “Then said Jesus…‘Go, and do thou likewise’ ” (Luke 10:37b).

Clearly these verses were never meant to be put together like this. But neither were many of the proof texts used by Christian apologists today.

Viola recommends a different approach:

What is needed is a brand new approach to the New Testament. An approach not based in the New Testament letters as they are arranged in our Bible. But an approach that is based in "the story" . . . which blends together Acts and the Epistles in chronological order.

By placing Paul's letters in the context of the church's growth as recorded in Acts, we might have a better understanding of what Paul was writing about, who he was writing to, and why he said the things he did.

The truth is, Viola's "brand new" approach is really not so new. The early Christians would have taken this approach for granted, because they were living in the original context. In modern times many scholars have spent their lives learning about the world in which both the church and the Bible originated. By contrast, the jigsaw Bible is the fruit of those whose overt intention is to elevate the Bible's position, to make it uniquely the source of Christian doctrine and theology.

It is certainly a worthy goal to remember the Bible's uniqueness, its central role in the Christian faith. But let's not forget that each book of the Bible was written to people living in a specific place and time, and each book was written to address issues the first readers were facing in their lives. To strip passages of their original context, it seems to me, is the first step down the slippery slope toward denying its authority.



At 1/09/2006 5:06 PM, Blogger Michael said...

Good thoughts. Having read enough from both "liberals" and "conservatives", it is odd how each tries to accuse the other of "selective authority".

One other thought that I had regarding cultural context is this: if we knew more about the crowd toward which the document was directed, we might know more about what the writer meant.

I still do believe many of the lessons to be timeless, but there is nothing to be gained for the Kingdom by picking and choosing the "bullets" we would choose to use only to harm and not help.

At 1/09/2006 7:12 PM, Blogger gavin richardson said...

excellent critique. the ooze is one of the emergent sites and thus has a history rooted in evangelical traditions and seeker sensitive modes so it's funny how many of them are really just finding a moderate view in aspects of faith.

At 1/10/2006 3:45 AM, Anonymous Brian Russell said...

Good essay. I would invite you into the conversation that I have started on my Real Meal blog: I have been writing about reading the Bible "missiologically." I am arguing that mission is the center of the biblical narrative and serves as the key interpretive lens through which to read Scripture.


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