As Opposed to the Sand
For some, the distinction is simply that some bits of the Bible are ‘cultural’, and some bits are ‘timeless’. But this simply begs the question: it is another way of saying, ‘we still do these bits, and we don’t do those bits.’ What is often lacking is a reason from within the text that demonstrates Paul, or whoever, is moving from ‘cultural’ to ‘timeless’ instructions. To take 1 Corinthians 11-14 as an example, there is nothing in the structure of what Paul has written that implies his instructions about head coverings or silence in churches are any more ‘cultural’ than those about spiritual gifts. The Brethren did the first two and not the last one; most modern charismatics do the last one and not the first two. But why? What hermeneutical justification exists for doing this?
Then, of course, we have Jed Bartlett’s questions from The West Wing. “If,” he says to a conservative radio host, “you agree with Leviticus that homosexuality is an abomination: what would be a good price for my daughter when I sell her into slavery? Do I really have to stone my Chief of Staff for working Sundays? Or put to death disobedient children, or people who grow mixed crops, or sleep under blankets of different threads? If touching pigskin is forbidden, then do the Redskins have to wear gloves? Notre Dame? Westpoint? And if not, why not?”
Answering these questions involves considering four related questions about the Bible. (1) Is the Bible a story, such that instructions that appear in one place might not apply everywhere else? (2) If so, what shape is this story? Where are the chapter breaks, so to speak, which signpost to us that a new phase has begun, and previous imperatives may no longer apply in the same way? (3) Bearing in mind all of this, which imperatives would we expect to apply to us today? (4) Are there any exceptions? Why / why not? Let’s look briefly at each of these, in order.
(1) Biblical hermeneutics makes very little sense without the recognition that the Bible is fundamentally a narrative, a huge story. The scriptures are an unfolding drama of God’s dealings with his people, and things that he commands them to do at one point in the story do not necessarily apply in the same way later on. To use a Lord of the Rings analogy: at the start of The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf tells Frodo and Sam to go to the ‘Prancing Pony’ in Bree, which they do. But if, midway through The Return of the King, they had suddenly remembered his instruction and decided to head out of Mordor and back to Bree, they would have completely missed the point – because the story had moved on, and although Bree was a forward step at the time, it would be a backward step now. If the Bible were a rulebook, a handbook for life that exists without reference to narrative or unfolding events, then we would all be obliged to obey all its commandments equally (as devout Muslims should with the Qur’an). But because it is a story, instructions that appear in one chapter should not necessarily be taken as binding on people in subsequent chapters. That’s why we don’t kill people for planting mixed crops.
(2) The next question, then, is: what shape is this story? It is (relatively) easy to see that the stipulations of the Mosaic law do not, in their entirety, govern the lives of modern believers, but less easy to see whether the same is true of Genesis 9, or Amos 5, or Matthew 6, or 1 Corinthians 11. How are God’s story, and our place within it, to be understood? And how does a ‘story’ function as authoritative in the first place? (As Tom Wright points out, if the drill sergeant walks onto the parade ground and begins, ‘Once upon a time’, the soldiers will likely be confused as to how his authority is being exercised!) Several answers to that question have been suggested, of which the following four are perhaps the most significant.
Dispensationalist hermeneutics. Dispensationalists divide the history of God and his world into distinct phases, in chronological succession. One common version is the sevenfold division:
1. Edenic (Gen 1-3)
2. Civil government (Gen 4-11)
3. Patriarchal (Gen 12 - Ex 19)
4. Law (Ex 20 – Acts 1)
5. Grace (Acts 2 – Rev 19)
6. Millennium (Rev 20:1-6)
7. Eternity (Rev 20-22)
Covenant theology hermeneutics. The historic approach of Reformed interpreters has been to see God’s big story in terms of three covenants:
1. Covenant of redemption: the plan within the Godhead to redeem humanity.
2. Covenant of works: in the garden, man is given the choice to obey and receive life, or disobey and receive death. The Mosaic covenant is a reiteration of the covenant of works: ‘the man who does these things shall live by them.’
3. Covenant of grace: God unconditionally saves those who put their faith in him. The Noahic, Abrahamic, Davidic and New Covenants are all expressions of the covenant of grace.
Five Act Play hermeneutics. This is the approach most clearly advocated by Tom Wright, in which God’s story is seen as a five act play:
The Scriptures represent Acts I-IV and the first and last scenes of Act V, and today, we live in Act V, in between the start of the church (Acts 2) and the consummation of all things (Rom 8; Rev 21-22; 1 Cor 15; etc). Wright uses the analogy of a group of experienced actors performing a guided improvisation of Act V, based on the script they have been given of the first four acts, and the first and last scenes of the fifth. This, he argues, is the way the church responds to the Bible’s authoritative story.
Redemptive-movement hermeneutics (or ‘trajectory hermeneutics’). The proposal of William Webb and others is that we see in the Bible a trajectory of redemption, or increasing freedom and liberation. Thus, in the earliest parts of the Scriptures, slavery is legislated; then it is critiqued; then, in the New Testament, seeds are sown for its abolition but without explicit instructions; and today, based on that trajectory within Scripture, we can know that abolishing slavery is God’s will. In that sense, we apply the Bible to contemporary decisions by sensing the redemptive spirit of the text, seeing the direction in which God’s story is moving – towards what Webb calls an ‘ultimate ethic’ – and living by this ultimate ethic, not what the Bible itself tells us to do.
Critiquing each of these models would be foolhardy in a textbook, let alone a blog post, so I will simply give links to (what I regard as) helpful responses to dispensationalism, covenant theology and redemptive-movement hermeneutics. Wright’s ‘Five Act Play’ model, which he argues for at some length in The New Testament and the People of God and which has a number of affinities with Kevin Vanhoozer’s approach in The Drama of Doctrine, is to my mind the best approach, largely because it resembles most closely the way that the apostles saw the shape of the biblical story. It coheres very well with the logic of (say) Galatians, Romans and Hebrews, in which the solution to the problem of Adam (I-II) begins through Abraham’s family (III) and comes to a head in Jesus (IV), launching the Spirit-empowered church out as witnesses to a new covenant and a new creation (V). For what it is worth, it seems also to have gained remarkably broad support: Wright’s book on Scripture, Scripture and the Authority of God, received commendations from J. I. Packer, Ben Witherington and Brian Maclaren, which is roughly equivalent to a book on evolution being endorsed by both Richard Dawkins and Ken Ham. It is worth reading a summary of Wright’s argument, but the proof of the pudding is, of course, in the eating.
(3) For all that, the way in which biblical imperatives function as authoritative over believers today will be seen in a very similar way by Covenant Theologians as by advocates of the Five Act Play (and in fact, some may hold to both together). Essentially, both will read the scriptures as an unfolding story, and therefore both will see the imperatives of the New Testament - Acts IV and V - as binding over believers in a way that those of the Old Testament are not. For example, both would agree that if an imperative appears in Act V, and is not obviously restricted to a specific congregation or individual (like ‘Greet Mary’ or ‘Fetch the parchments’), or to a specific time period (‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles’), then new covenant believers are called to submit to it and seek to obey it.
(4) Even then, however, a few questions will remain. If modern believers are intended to submit themselves to, and obey, all the imperatives addressed to new covenant Christians, then are there any exceptions? What about head coverings (1 Cor 11:2-16), footwashing (John 13:14), women wearing jewellery and braided hair (1 Tim 2:9; 1 Pet 3:3), silence in churches for women (1 Cor 14:33-35) and holy kisses (Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; etc)?
In fact, the issue isn’t quite as complicated as it might seem. The instructions about braided hair, jewellery and clothing are to do with how women make themselves beautiful (that is, through character rather than physical appearance), not to do with whether women can or should wear jewellery or clothes at all; the same point is made more graphically in Proverbs 11:22. And other than the passage about silence in the churches – which, as the rest of 1 Corinthians makes clear, cannot be a blanket prohibition of women speaking in a church meeting (cf. 1 Cor 11:5), and must therefore be understood as prohibiting a particular type of speech (probably cross-examining their husbands while they were prophesying) – the others above are all instructions about physical symbols which, in the context of first century Jewish or Greco-Roman culture, represent spiritual realities. So a holy kiss is a physical symbol of brotherly affection; head coverings represent respectable, sexually faithful femininity; footwashing demonstrates humility (cf. 1 Tim 5:10). However, in different cultures, those physical actions may not always have the same symbolic significance. In many cultures, men kissing men would suggest brotherly affection, but in the UK today it connotes other things, so other expressions of ‘brotherliness’ need to be cultivated. Footwashing, when Jesus did it, was a sign of humility, but it isn’t in contemporary Britain (and in fact, leaders washing the feet of their congregation could have the effect of magnifying, not diminishing, the split between leaders and laity), so leaders might need to express humility in other ways. In churches in many parts of the world, head coverings still mean pretty much what they meant in Corinth – but in some cultures, including mine, they do not, and alternative ways of using dress to express respectable, sexually faithful femininity may need to be found.
Do we, then, overthrow the authority of Scripture with this hermeneutic? By no means! Rather, we uphold it. In each case, our intention is to submit to the authority of God, in the scriptures, and in some cases this may mean translating physical symbols from one culture to another. It is surely more biblically faithful, if faced with a choice between preserving the meaning of the symbol or the symbol itself, to preserve the former – although in the vast majority of cases, of course, that is not a choice we have to make.
Taking all these ideas together, then, I am arguing for something like a Five Act Play view of God’s story, and a commitment to obeying the imperatives addressed to new covenant believers, with the exception of commands clearly related to specific individuals (e.g. 2 Tim 4:13) and commands which clearly applied for a limited period (e.g. Matt 10:5-6; Acts 15:19-21). In a handful of cases, this may mean finding different physical symbols to express the spiritual reality the scriptures were highlighting. But usually, it will mean nothing more than hearing the words of God, and putting them into practice. Kind of like a man who built his house on rock.
This is part four of a five-part series on The Biggest Theological Debate of the Next Twenty Years by Andrew Wilson.