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The Oldest Books in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible

As anyone with even a cursory familiarity with the Judeo-Christian Bible knows, that book is composed of a collection of writings which were...

Sunday, March 28, 2021

THE OLD AND NEW TESTAMENTS: CONTRAST, CONTRADICTION, RECONCILIATION OR SOMETHING ELSE?

Longtime readers of this blog know that I do NOT subscribe to the notion that the Judeo-Christian Scriptures are inerrant/infallible. Hence, as numerous posts here have made clear, this blogger accepts that those writings are full of errors, contradictions and figurative passages. Hence, from my perspective, most of the efforts to justify and explain away textual problems are often misguided, futile and self-deluding. Likewise, I believe that those who demand a literal understanding of Scripture in all instances will invariably tread the path of misinterpretation and heresy.

And, while this blogger believes that Marcionism was/is heretical, I do believe that there are clear differences between the God depicted in the Old Testament (angry, vengeful and jealous) and the one depicted in the New Testament (loving, forgiving and understanding). In fact, the denial by some Christians that any such differences exist has alienated many thinking people from the Church and caused others to reject those Scriptures as being hopelessly flawed and without value in our modern world. I have said it before - Making the Bible into something it was NEVER intended by God to be helps absolutely no one (believer or non-believer)!

Now, most Christians are aware of the concept of "progressive revelation." For the sake of clarity, I like Matt Slick's definition for CARM - Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry. He wrote: "Progressive revelation is the teaching that God has revealed Himself and His will through the Scriptures with increasing clarity as more and more of the Scriptures were written. In other words, the later the writing the more information is given. Therefore, God reveals knowledge in a progressive and increasing manner throughout the Bible from the earliest time to later time." This concept allows us to acknowledge the differences between the Old and New Testament depictions of the Divine without being forced to arrive at Marcion's conclusion that the two "gods" must be completely separate/different entities.

Even so, we should not delude ourselves that the concept of progressive revelation accounts for all of the differences/discrepancies between the way in which God is depicted in the two testaments. We must also allow that the men who actually wrote those accounts contributed some of their own thoughts/perspectives/prejudices to what they wrote. Humans get angry. We are sometimes vengeful and violent. We can be jealous and envious creatures. In fact, those are traits which most sentient creatures exhibit from time to time. Isn't it plausible - even probable - that such notions would intrude on our thinking about God? In other words, isn't it likely that some of those men and women (even acting under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) projected some of their own feelings and notions onto their Creator? Moreover, this tendency to remake God in our own image has the effect of making God much smaller than "He" actually is. God has the capacity to present many different faces and accommodate many different perspectives of who and what God is. In other words, regardless of what we think, the Hebrew God does have the capacity to be the God of the Old and New Testaments.

The failure of many Christians to deal with these tensions between the two testaments, however, is symptomatic of a much more extensive problem that many Christians have with the stark differences which are apparent between them. Intentionally or not, many Christians have simply ignored the Old Testament altogether or employed only those few passages which they consider to be benign (like the Psalms or Proverbs) or are otherwise consistent with their New Testament theology. Unfortunately, this presents a picture of ignorance and/or cognitive dissonance to outsiders and robs the individual Christian of a fuller and more accurate understanding of his/her faith.

A friend recently sent me an article by Jonathan Peterson of Bible Gateway in which he interviews the author (Brent Strawn) of The Old Testament Is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment. According to Mr. Strawn, the way in which most Christians regard the Old Testament is akin to how some languages fall into disuse and eventually die. In the article, Strawn reminds us that the fluency of the older generations in some language is not passed on to the younger generations, and that the language naturally deteriorates as a consequence of this fact. In similar fashion, Strawn says that the failure of many Christians to be fluent in the language of the Old Testament has robbed them of a significant part of their heritage and has impeded their ability to fully comprehend the spiritual language of their faith. Unfortunately, many of us have forgotten that the only Scriptures available to Jesus, his apostles and the early Church were the writings which we refer to as the Old Testament.

The same friend also forwarded me another article by Jonathan Peterson where he interviewed Michael Norton, the author of Unlocking the Secrets of the Feasts: The Prophecies in the Feasts of Leviticus. In the interview, Norton explains that many Christians aren't familiar with the Torah festivals or their significance for their faith. Norton goes on to point out that many Christians are completely unaware of the important contributions which these festivals can make to our understanding of God's will and our salvation through Jesus Christ. And, taken in conjunction with the other Peterson article, we could say that Norton's contributions underscore a concrete example of one of the very important elements of the Old Testament which most Christian's miss by neglecting or ignoring those Scriptures.

In short, I'm advocating for greater Christian awareness of the Old Testament. To be clear, I'm NOT advocating for incorporating the dos and don'ts of the Old Covenant into the tenets of the New Covenant (I believe the New Testament clearly repudiates such a notion). I'm also NOT advocating for an apologetics tour or endorsing efforts to reconcile "seeming" contradictions between the Old and New Testaments. I do, however, believe that (whether intentional or unintentional) Christian avoidance of the Old Testament carries very negative consequences for the long-term health and survival of our faith/religion. What do you think?  

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Christ Crucified

The Apostle Paul wrote to the saints of Corinth that the message which they preached was "Christ crucified" (see I Corinthians 1:23) - a message that only has meaning/significance to those whom God has called. To those who have not been "called" by God (both Jew and Gentile), Paul said that this message presented and impediment or represented foolishness (depending on their particular perspective about the Hebrew God). For Christians, however, the apostle said that the message about Christ's sacrifice represents the power and wisdom of God (see verse 24). And Paul went on to remind the Corinthians that what many consider to be God's foolishness and weakness actually demonstrates God's infinite superiority to our "wisdom" and "strengths" as humans (verse 25).

Hence, as we are rapidly approaching the time when the events surrounding Christ's death will be remembered by Christians, it is incumbent upon all of us to consider what Jesus Christ has done for us (Christians). Many years before Christ was born, Isaiah wrote: "He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth." (see Isaiah 53:5-7) And, while the offering of such a sacrifice for human sins may seem illogical and unnecessary to those outside of the Church, Christians everywhere should glory in what our Savior did for us - especially at this time of the year (the same time of the year that those tragic/triumphant events transpired so long ago).  

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Two More "Prooftexts" For Unleavened Bread

In yesterday's post, we talked about one of the Biblical texts (I Corinthians 5:6-8) employed by Herbert Armstrong and his followers to prove that Christians are obligated to observe the Old Testament Feast of Unleavened Bread. Unfortunately, this passage was not the only one they employed in this capacity.

In his booklet Pagan Holidays - or God's Holy Days - Which?, Herbert Armstrong wrote: "It is faithfully recorded in the New Testament that the Church, during the period its history covers, was keeping those days! In Acts 20:6: 'We sailed away from Philippi after the days of unleavened bread.' Paul and companions plainly had observed the days of unleavened bread at Philippi. The Holy Spirit could never have inspired such words otherwise. Notice also Acts 12:3: 'Then were the days of unleavened bread.' Why this, if those days had, in God's sight, ceased to exist? Notice, it is not anyone ignorant of what was abolished making this statement. It is Almighty God saying it through inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This was years after the crucifixion. The days of unleavened bread still existed, or the Holy Spirit could not have inspired 'then were the days of unleavened bread.'"

Do these scriptures do what Herbert Armstrong said they do? Do they prove "that the Church...was keeping those days"? Were the festivals abolished? Did they cease to exist? And, if the festivals weren't abolished, does that mean that Christians were/are obligated to observe them?

In attempting to answer these questions, we should all be able to agree at least that the author of the book of Acts used Unleavened Bread as a marker of time. Moreover, it is reasonable to conclude from this fact that the author, Paul and his traveling companions were aware of the timing of this festival. Likewise, it is even plausible to suggest that these verses indicate that Paul and his companions were observing this festival. However, it is a gross abuse of these scriptures to assert that they demonstrate that the entire Church was observing this festival.

Frankly, I don't know of any serious student of the Bible who believes that Holy Day observance ceased among the Jews at any point prior to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans in the year 70 CE. Likewise, I don't know of many Biblical scholars who would dispute the fact that Jesus and his disciples observed the festivals of Leviticus 23 (along with Purim and the Feast of the Dedication). After all, they were all practicing Jews. Nevertheless, none of these scriptures (I Corinthians 5:6-8, Acts 20:6 or Acts 12:3) prove that Gentile Christians were ever expected to observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

In fact, history and Scripture refute the notion that festival observance was universal in the Christian Church of the First Century. For example, we know that Gentiles had no previous experience or traditions relative to Sabbath and Holy Day observances. And, we know that the Jerusalem Council ruled against those Jewish Christians who sought to impose the tenets of the Old Covenant on Gentile converts (see Acts 15 and Galatians 2). Moreover, in his letter to the Colossians, Paul specifically instructed that Gentile congregation not to permit other folks to judge them regarding their observance (or lack of observance) of these festivals (see Colossians 2:16). Finally, we know that festival observance as outlined in the Torah became impossible after the events referenced above in 70 CE.

Hence, as Christ's instruction to carry the gospel to all the nations of the world was finally carried out by Jewish Christians and more and more Gentiles were converted and baptized, the number of folks within the Church who continued to observe these days steadily declined. In fact, it is reasonable to conclude that there were many more Gentile Christians by 70 CE than there were Jewish Christians. And, because of the events of that year, the number of Christians observing these days at the close of the First Century would have been miniscule (and they could not have been observing them in the manner prescribed by the Torah).

We are, therefore, forced to conclude that Armstrong's "prooftexts" do NOT demonstrate what he claimed they demonstrated (that Christians were obligated to observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread). And it would be disingenuous/inaccurate to suggest that anyone had abolished those days, or that they had somehow ceased to exist. One cannot abolish or exterminate that which was NEVER enjoined upon Gentile Christians!

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

A Closer Look At One of Those "Prooftexts"

Herbert Armstrong and his followers have used a couple of verses from the fifth chapter of Paul's first letter to the saints at Corinth as a proof that Christians should be observing the Feast of Unleavened Bread for decades. They quote: "Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth." (I Corinthians 5:6-8, KJV) For Armstrong and his followers, these verses are proof positive that the Gentile Christians of Corinth were observing the Old Testament Festival of Unleavened Bread.

But are these few lines from Paul's letter to them really about festival observance? What about the context of these verses - does context matter? And, if he wasn't talking about the OT festival, what was he talking about in these verses? Do these "prooftexts" warrant a closer look?

The chapter begins with: "I can hardly believe the report about the sexual immorality going on among you—something that even pagans don’t do. I am told that a man in your church is living in sin with his stepmother. You are so proud of yourselves, but you should be mourning in sorrow and shame. And you should remove this man from your fellowship." (I Corinthians 5:1-2, NLT) Hmmm, sounds like Paul has a problem with the congregation's toleration and acceptance of flagrantly sinful behavior in their midst. He then proceeds to tell them that the man should be expelled from their midst until he has repented. (verses 3-5)

Paul continued: "Your boasting about this is terrible. Don’t you realize that this sin is like a little yeast that spreads through the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old “yeast” by removing this wicked person from among you. Then you will be like a fresh batch of dough made without yeast, which is what you really are. Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed for us. So let us celebrate the festival, not with the old bread of wickedness and evil, but with the new bread of sincerity and truth." (I Corinthians 5:6-8) So, Paul equated this man's sinful behavior with a leavening agent. He is telling them that this man's presence in the congregation has infected the whole with sin - that it has spread "through the whole batch of dough." And, that only by getting rid of this sin/leavening can the congregation partake in the festival that Christ's sacrifice has inaugurated for all of them.

Paul then proceeds to reiterate and make clear that this is his message to the saints at Corinth. In the chapter's remaining verses, he wrote: "When I wrote to you before, I told you not to associate with people who indulge in sexual sin. But I wasn’t talking about unbelievers who indulge in sexual sin, or are greedy, or cheat people, or worship idols. You would have to leave this world to avoid people like that. I meant that you are not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer yet indulges in sexual sin, or is greedy, or worships idols, or is abusive, or is a drunkard, or cheats people. Don’t even eat with such people. It isn’t my responsibility to judge outsiders, but it certainly is your responsibility to judge those inside the church who are sinning. God will judge those on the outside; but as the Scriptures say, 'You must remove the evil person from among you.'" (verses 9-13)

So, it turns out that Paul was speaking about expelling a man from the congregation who was flagrantly sinning and thus compromising the righteousness of the whole. He compares the man and his sin to a leavening agent spreading through a whole batch of dough. Paul is simply employing symbolism to demonstrate to these saints that their toleration and acceptance of this man and his sin has impeded their relationship with Jesus Christ! In other words, these verses should NOT be employed as a prooftext for OT festival observance by Christians.


Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Interpreting the Bible

Unfortunately, many Christian leaders have offered a great deal of advice over the years relative to Biblical interpretation that is designed to lead the student to the same conclusions their teachers have reached! I'm thinking of statements like: "Remember, the Bible NEVER contradicts itself," "God has revealed to me what this scripture means," "The Bible should always be interpreted literally," "This scripture can only be interpreted this way," or "You must accept or reject the Bible in its entirety." To be fair, most of the folks who make these kinds of statements do not do so out of any malicious/nefarious motivation. In their minds, they are trying to guide Bible students into truth and/or away from error.

Nevertheless, ensuring that a student arrives at some predetermined understanding of Scripture carries the often unintended consequence of short-circuiting what should be a very personal, unique and positive experience for him/her. Indeed, the Bible itself makes clear that God intended for each person to arrive at their own conclusions/convictions about the meaning(s) of Scripture. In short, it is self-evident that God designed us to be seekers/explorers/questioners and to interpret the Biblical evidence which we discover/uncover with the assistance and guidance of God's Holy Spirit. Hence, whatever we do to assist each other in this regard, we must keep uppermost in our minds that each person must internalize those truths for him/herself.

The Bible Society lists four ways that the Bible has been interpreted by different people: literal, symbolic, ethical and mystical. As these labels suggest, each one of these methods/approaches to Biblical interpretation is unique and very different from the others. Of course, taking the Bible "at face value" or literally is probably the most popular approach among many Christians. Even so, the allegorical/typological/symbolic method also has much to commend it (i.e. the fact that it was frequently employed by Christ, the prophets and some of the apostles). The moral/ethical approach has also been used down through the centuries by many Jewish and Christian believers and has an obvious practical application for our daily lives. Likewise, the eschatological/mystical approach is a favorite of those who are very interested in or focused on understanding prophecy. Finally, it should also be noted that the various methods mentioned above often overlap and are not considered mutually exclusive by most students of the Bible.

It should also be noted that not all of the principles espoused by Christian ministers are self-serving or subjective. In fact, some of their admonitions/advice regarding Bible study is quite helpful. I'm thinking about things like: praying before/during/after Bible study, interpreting verses within their context, consulting the meanings of words in the language in which they were written (e.g. Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic), consulting more than one translation, using scholarly commentaries and not basing your conclusions on a single passage of Scripture - all of these constitute excellent advice in attempting to understand the Bible and doing so in a way that maximizes objectivity and minimizes the opportunities for error. And you could probably think of a few more principles of your own which you have successfully employed in guiding your own study of Scripture.

Finally, I think that we could all benefit from looking at the way that other writings/documents are interpreted. For instance, Bhanodai Pippala has identified The 4 Ways To Interpret The Constitution. These are identified as Originalism, Textualism, Pragmatism and Stare Decisis. An originalist attempts to discern the intent or meaning that the author intended. A textualist, on the other hand, focuses on the wording of the document itself. A pragmatist considers the consequences of his/her interpretation and attempts to arrive at an outcome that minimizes any negative consequences. Those who attempt to follow stare decisis look at the way the document has been interpreted by authorities in the past and attempts to reach an interpretation which is consistent with those views. It seems to me that all of these methods which have been employed by folks to interpret the Constitution of the United States have some merit and could also be applied as valid principles for interpreting Scripture.

In conclusion, it should NOT be considered to be a disaster or failure when different people employ different methods or arrive at different conclusions about the meaning of Scripture. The Bible itself makes plain that the interpretation of its contents is a very personal and individual exercise. That is NOT to say that we cannot or should not collaborate on studying the Bible or attempt to help/assist each other in growing in grace and knowledge - It is simply an affirmation of the fact that God can and does speak to each and every one of us, and we don't have to have anyone else up in the middle of all that!