Pigs and Blankets image

Pigs and Blankets

A couple of weeks ago, I argued that the doctrine of Scripture was going to be the key theological debate of the next generation, and that three questions required particular thought and attention.

The second of these was as follows:

What sort of hermeneutic is appropriate to the Bible? Even when agreement on the meaning of a specific text is achievable, its application today can be hotly contested, because of different views of the narrative shape of the scriptures. What do we do with passages about slavery, circumcision, mildew, silence in churches, eating blood, head coverings, the Sabbath and brotherly kissing? We will generally justify each decision with reference to the narrative shape of the whole Bible, but what is this narrative shape? Do we read the Bible dispensationally (like Charles Ryrie), covenant-theologically (like Michael Horton), with a redemptive-movement hermeneutic (like Bill Webb), or as a five-act play (like Tom Wright)? Why?

A number of the founding fathers of Newfrontiers, when they first experienced the Holy Spirit falling on them in power and prompting them to speak in tongues, prophesy, heal and so on, were told crossly by their denominations that spiritual gifts were ‘not for our day.’ That position has been eroded now, thankfully; but we find ourselves in the odd position of arguing precisely that way about all sorts of other things, yet without always having a clear rationale for doing so. For example:
Punter: Do we need to get circumcised?
Pastor: No, it’s not for our day. We’re not under the law.
Punter: So we can break the ten commandments, then?
Pastor: No. Those are for our day. ‘The law is holy, righteous and good.’
Punter: What about the Sabbath?
Pastor: That one isn’t. ‘The Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath.’
Punter: Right. What about head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11?
Pastor: Not for our day.
Punter: Prophecy in 1 Corinthians 12-14?
Pastor: You bet. Very much for our day.
Punter: Women being silent in churches in 1 Corinthians 14?
Pastor: Not for our day.
Punter: Tongues in 1 Corinthians 14?
Pastor: Definitely for our day.
Punter:  Do we obey Acts 15 when it bans sexual immorality and idolatry?
Pastor:  Certainly.
Punter:  What about when it bans eating black pudding and non-kosher meat?
Pastor: Not so much.
Punter:  Do we obey 1 Timothy 2 on praying for all in authority?
Pastor: Yes. That’s for our day.
Punter: What about a few verses later, when it talks about women braiding hair?
Pastor: No. Not for our day.
Punter: Do we greet one another with brotherly kisses?
Pastor: Not so much.
Punter: Do we wash each other’s feet?
Pastor: Not so much.
Punter: Do we have a worked through hermeneutic for any of these decisions?
Pastor (wistfully): Not so much.
A silly conversation, perhaps, but one that may reflect the experience of some, at least in outline. The crucial question is the last one: do we have a worked through hermeneutic that undergirds the decisions we make about how to apply the scriptures? Do we have a clear view of the narrative shape of the Bible, and why it is that we follow certain biblical commands and not others?
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, it is rarely clear what, if anything, in the structure of what Paul has written 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?”
You see the problem. I’ll suggest what I think is the best way forward next week.

This is part three of a five-part series on The Biggest Theological Debate of the Next Twenty Years by Andrew Wilson.

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