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New Zealand readers will be well aware that we are in the thick of a political campaign. The campaign is fascinating for a bunch of reasons – the Maori Party and the Greens potentially both battling for survival while Labour surges ahead, the old legend Winston Peters resurfacing again like Poseidon from the deep poised ready to bestow the Prime Ministerial crown on his favourite. Or perhaps, waiting like a midwife at a birth ready to declare whether it is blue for a boy or red for a girl. Child poverty, abortion, climate change, housing, and many other issues have been raised, and all are important for Christians to consider.
But, in this post let’s briefly consider the place of values more generally. Bill English said that Jacinda Ardern’s values won’t pay for the groceries – probably true, but if they can’t pay for shopping, what can values do? In our consumeristic world are they even useful anymore, and in our scientific world are they believable? The central task of values, I think, is to persuade. If they are to do anything useful, they should serve as reasons for action in one direction or another. Reasons, for instance, to pick the blue or red, or another, team to run the country.
We can all understand that scientific or economic facts can be reasons to act (or vote) one way or another. If consuming a particular substance is scientifically shown to be likely to harm me, or pursuing a particular course is likely to make me go broke, I will probably decide against it. But values, surely they’re more ephemeral, more abstract – perhaps not even necessary in an adequately scientific society? We have to go slowly here though. The choices made on the basis of science or economics (physical harm or going broke) were actually made on the basis of both empirical facts and values. Only if we wish to avoid harm, or avoid going broke, will the empirical facts be relevant to the decision we make. So, we need values in order to decide what to do, even when deciding on the basis of scientific claims.
In a political context, and many other areas of social interaction, we want values not just for working out what we want to do (our own preferences would be enough for this), but for convincing others that they should want the same thing. Values cannot be just preferences if they are to fulfil their function, as they are intended to control not just our actions, but others’ actions – and to shape their preferences. When a politician appeals to values, they are appealing to, not empirical facts, and not just preference, but a claim about the way the world should be – a claim which intends to hold true across people with very different preferences. Values, if these things are real and useful, apply to both the poor and the rich, those that will benefit from an action and those which will not. In other words, they transcend individuals and people groups.
We live in a world where moral reasoning makes sense. It not only makes sense, but it is absolutely crucial for us and our society. Much more attention should be paid to the question of how to make sense of values, as their foundations (if any) will affect how they work in the world. This is a question which the Christian intellectual tradition has a lot to say about, and one which has contributed to many thinkers being persuaded of the reality of the personal Foundation of values. Christians should welcome open political discussion of values, in the hope that more will be persuaded of what is true, beautiful, and good.
‘I will give a lolly,’ said Graeme, our lecturer, ‘to the person who copies out the most verses in three minutes.’
For the next 180 seconds, I frantically wrote out most of 1 Peter 1 by hand. Some of my classmates copied out more, so I did not get the lollipop.
Then we took the two longest copies and copied them out. (I didn’t win the lolly in that round either.)
Finally, we checked the printed Bible and marked all the mistakes.
‘If your handwritten copies were our only copies of 1 Peter 1,’ said Graeme, ‘How could we decide which variations were correct?’
It was pretty clear. We would prioritise older copies. We would think of what mistakes were likely to happen while the copies were being made (like writing a wrong word that looks similar to the right one, or repeating a word accidentally). It would help that we had several copies to check against each other. We also noticed that, in any place where there were two equally convincing alternatives for what the original said, it hardly mattered. The differences were extremely trivial, and made no difference to doctrine.
This was the process of working out what the original said – an area of study called textual criticism (criticism in the sense of evaluation, not just objections).
Textual criticism is not only for the Bible, but for many other books, including Shakespeare’s plays. Textual criticism can achieve more with some books than with others. It depends on what copies can be found.
The original text of the Old Testament is remarkably well represented by the translations we have today. Perhaps the most spectacular event to confirm this was the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls. Among these scrolls were copies of most of the Old Testament close to 1,000 years older than the copies that had been available so far. These older manuscripts and the later ones agreed with stunning accuracy, bearing witness to the famous carefulness of the scribes who made copies.
The New Testament is even better off when it comes to textual criticism. For most books from the New Testament times, if they have survived at all, the earliest manuscripts available a good several centuries (sometimes over a millennium) after the time of writing, and we are lucky if they number over a dozen. Yet copying by hand is not such a transmission nightmare as some people imagine; textual critics and historians generally accept that what these authors said has successfully reached us.
But the New Testament is represented by literally thousands of manuscripts. The most important ones come from the fourth to sixth centuries A. D., very close to the time of original writing in the first century. Such a wealth of manuscripts really helps the process of checking variations to deduce the original words. The reasonable confidence of past Christians that the New Testament is being passed on intact through copies has been bolstered by a mountain of evidence – all we need and many times over!
And what we found with our copying activity in our class is also true for the Bible: when copies give us two equally convincing alternatives for what the original said, the differences are trivial, and make no difference to doctrine. God has truly provided us with exceptional clarity in the Bible.
Besides Graeme Fleming’s lecture at Lake Learning (a Christian training camp), I have drawn on F. F. Bruce’s classic The Books and the Parchments for this post.
Japan at first just used Chinese characters for all their own writing, which worked – barely. But both monks and nobles wanted something that worked well. Monks devised the katakana alphabet, so that Buddhist Scriptures could be read aloud easily in chants. Even more important was the alphabet of noblewomen, hiragana, which they used to write novels (arguably the world’s earliest) starting in the 10th century. Both alphabets have become standard elements of Japanese writing.
The New Testament also drove changes in the world of reading and writing. Simply put, the New Testament expanded this world as never before. Building on the tradition of synagogues, early churches encouraged broad study of the Scriptures. Oral teaching was huge, but it did not satisfy the demand; vast numbers of Christians were now motivated to read. It drove the shift from scrolls to codices, the earliest form of books.
Like the Old Testament, the New Testament engaged a huge audience on many topics. The genres indicate this. There are letters to churches. From early on, these were not even limited to one church: ‘Have [this letter] also read in the church of the Laodiceans,’ Paul tells the Colossians. As for the gospels, they might be called biography or ancient biography, but this does not mean writing about Jesus’ life as a private hobby. ‘These [things] are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ,’ says John, and Luke writes in order ‘that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.’ says Luke. (Though Luke addresses an individual, Theophilus, he also says he is following in the footsteps of others – probably including Mark – who have written for many.) The exception is that some of the letters are written to individuals. Anyway, these letters also ended up shared around the early church, as quotes in other books show.
In fact, there are many signs of interaction with audiences. Luke, as I mentioned above, gives one example: he says he is joining in an established practice by writing a gospel. Paul’s wish that the Colossians share his letter is another example. The seven churches addressed in the Revelation to John are all meant to read it. Peter, in his second letter, says that a bunch Paul’s writings are shared around, and calls them Scripture. Speaking of second letters, they are very valuable. Reading two letters to the same church gives us a rich picture of its relationship with Paul. Paul can correct misunderstandings and refine his points in detail.
Again, there are a huge range of topics. Christ’s teaching and miracles revisit many Old Testament themes from kingship to holiness – and prophecy: he looks forward to the future as well. So do the letters and, of course, the Revelation to John. Christ’s use of stories, metaphors and debate combine with the more essay-like letters to spell out the same big, detailed picture of a reconciliation with God. The history in the Book of Acts and the instructions in the letters tell us about the effect of truths and teachings on the lives of all sorts of people, individually and together.
As with the Old Testament, this huge array of audiences and topics makes the New Testament amazingly clear. Having an audience, especially a big audience, pressures an author to be clear. A range of topics and genres means each point is made in several ways. Our misunderstandings from one passage are cleared up in others.
Yet (as I also said about the Old Testament) it is good to balance variety with common ground. Common ground makes it easier to see the authors’ relevance to each other. They can actually make useful comments about each other. For the New Testament authors, the common ground was being in the first-century church and being an apostle or having apostolic sources.
The next post will introduce the initial audiences of the New Testament from books outside the Bible and translations of the Bible.
WYSIWYG is a technical term (in computer programming) with a simple meaning: what you see is what you get. Many liberal theologians believe that the Old Testament is not exactly WYSIWYG. They believe that it is in fact (to coin a new term) WYSITJC – what you see is the Josiah conspiracy.
The Josiah conspiracy theory looms so large for so many people that it deserves some attention before we move on to the clarity of the New Testament.
First, should we think that the Josiah conspiracy theory is a big deal? On one hand, much of the message of the Old Testament remains intact even if the conspiracy was real. Either way, most of the points made in my posts so far still stand. Either way, the voices of the authors and audiences still reach us today. These voices are varied enough to make a real conversation, connected enough for them to understand each other, and thorough enough to leave us clues to understand them. On the other hand, the King Josiah conspiracy is, well, a conspiracy. It makes the Old Testament a murky, underhanded business.
Conspiracy is my term. Christians who believe in it tend to refer to it with prettier terms, like documentary hypothesis, but I think Josiah conspiracy theory is simpler and more honest.
The theory is that, in the 7th century B.C., the court of King Josiah of Judah, needing to strengthen its authority, gave the clerics a mission: to dig up religious writings and legends from several Jewish and Israelite traditions and stitch them together. The court wanted everyone to believe that worship should be centred in their capital city. The clerics obeyed, producing the core of the Old Testament as we know it.
One of the biggest holes in the Josiah conspiracy theory is something I talked about in Part II: genre. Today, this hole in the theory is bigger than ever. Historians have found ancient covenant documents and compared them to the Books of Moses. Passages like Exodus 20 and most of the Book of Deuteronomy are clear examples of such treaties, in a style that belongs to centuries before Josiah. This discovery about Deuteronomy is an especial embarrassment to the conspiracy theorists, who had claimed it was an original forgery in Josiah’s time! Besides treaty format, there is a technique called chiastic structure. One of the biggest examples is the Flood narrative in Genesis (6:1-9:19). It is now clear that it is an elegant whole with several sections that make a pattern. Yet the conspiracy theorists had ventured to write elaborate descriptions of how Josiah’s clerics had messily stitched it together from competing sources!1 In the light of genre studies, their methods have suffered a huge loss of credibility.
So how did the flawed Josiah conspiracy theory come about? What biases were involved?
Just to be clear: simply being biased is not a sin, and everyone, including me, is biased. Pointing out the biases behind an idea does not prove that it is wrong, or that the people who hold that idea are bad. However, since there are serious flaws in the Josiah conspiracy theory, it is interesting to think of what biases were behind it.
The Josiah conspiracy theory has been (and still is) promoted by theologians and scholars of the liberal kind. They are biased towards believing that the books of the Bible were written later rather than earlier.
However, they have to accept that the Books of Moses, in pretty much their current form, are at least as old as King Josiah. This is because the Exile (shortly after King Josiah) has left us a lot of literature about the Books of Moses, both inside the Bible and outside it (see the previous post).
The Exile period was rich in Jewish literature (a) for religious reasons and (b) because it made the Jews a more international people, creating a need for the Greek translation, Aramaic commentary, etc.
So we have a period rich in literature which makes the existence of the Books of Moses undeniable, and then we have liberal scholars who would like the Books of Moses to be as late as possible. And we have a liberal-scholarship theory saying that the Books of Moses were concocted by conspiracy straight before that literature-rich period.
If the literature-rich period had come 500 years earlier or later, maybe modern scholars would have put forward different conspiracy theories! We can only speculate.
But, rather than holding to a conspiracy theory of exhumed texts stitched together in the dark for a king, it is reasonable to follow clues inside the Old Testament that point to very early audiences of complete books.
1Holding, J. P. (2005). Debunking the documentary hypothesis [Review]. Journal of Creation 19(3), 37-40.
Are there any books by the audiences of the Old Testament? Yes. As we have seen earlier on in the series, the Bible is a whole library of books, and many of the authors were each other’s audiences. Also, voices of audiences outside Scripture have also come down to us as well: translators, commentators, and authors of other books.
These voices slightly overlap with the latest Old Testament authors, but with all the authors, they shared the unique, strong Jewish heritage and the ancient pre-Christian environment. So what they say about the meaning of the Old Testament is a huge help to us.
Starting in the third century B.C., Jews translated their Scriptures (our Old Testament) into Greek. Their translation is known as the Septuagint.
‘Wait,’ someone might say, ‘I thought this was a list of voices outside the Old Testament.’ True, translations (if they are good) say the same thing as the original. But they say it in entirely different words, chosen (in this case) by entirely different people.
Here’s why this is great. Language naturally has fuzzy bits, but different languages have different fuzzy bits. If I say to you and your friend, ‘How are you?’ I might be asking about you alone or about both of you. The English you is fuzzy in this way. However, Chinese does not have this particular fuzz. Ni means you (one person) and nimen means you (two or more). Is Chinese the more specific language? Only in some ways. It has its own fuzzy bits that are not in English! So if you have the same message in two languages, each one of them clears up things that the other leaves fuzzy.
This is what happens with the Hebrew and Greek versions of the Old Testament. Because the Greek version comes from ancient Jews, who had special insight into the original Hebrew, it is the same message in a different language. Lots of fuzzy verses in the Hebrew Old Testament are clear in the Septuagint, because Greek has different fuzzy bits. Examples are pointed out in the footnotes of many English Bibles. (Often they refer to the Septuagint by the abbreviation LXX.)
After the Exile (6th century B.C.), Jews more and more wanted translation and commentary in the Aramaic language on their Scriptures. The first were oral. This is probably what the Book of Nehemiah refers to in 8:8: ‘They gave an oral translation of God’s Law and explained it so that the people could understand it.’1 Written editions survive from the first few centuries after Christ, but the oral material is linked with the growth of synagogues long before Christ.2
This Aramaic material includes the Talmud, which comments on how to apply the Books of Moses. In the Talmud, ‘a whole people has deposited its feelings, its beliefs, its soul’,3 and these feelings, beliefs, and soul centre around Scripture.
The other major part of the Aramaic material is the Targums: translations/paraphrases of not only the Books of Moses but almost the whole Old Testament. Both as translations and sort-of commentaries, the Targums are ‘an important witness to the text of the Old Testament, comparable in value with the Septuagint’4 (italics mine). Like in a courtroom, the more witnesses to what was said, the better.
Hebrew grammarian Heinrich Prinz drew on the Old Testament and Targums together to study the teaching of the Trinity. Contrary to the common Muslim claim (since the 7th century A.D.) that the prophets had always been anti-Trinitarian like them, Prinz showed that many pre-Christian Jews (including the writers of Scripture) recognised the Word/Angel/Son of God and Spirit of God, laying the groundwork for the clear teaching of the Trinity.5
In the centuries leading up to Christ, Jewish literature produced several books outside the Old Testament set. (There are traditions of publishing them along with the Bible under headings like Apocrypha.) We will look at two examples: Ecclesiasticus, a set of proverbs similar to the Biblical Book of Proverbs, and Tobit, a fanciful tale of the fortunes of Tobit the righteous Jew. Both books show respect for the Old Testament set.
Some in atheist/sceptical circles claim to see little or no real morals in the Old Testament, only selfish Israelite patriotism and priestly elitism. (This criticism perhaps says more about our own age, which is cynical about both patriotism and priesthood.) The wisdom in Ecclesiasticus and the righteousness in Tobit certainly affirm patriotism and accept priesthood, while also putting them together with some of the values that people do like nowadays, like compassion. The Old Testament itself does this, but Ecclesiasticus and Tobit help by further confirming that early audiences took it that way. They do this as independent voices, not just copying the statements of Scripture.
Septuagint, Talmud, Targums, Apocrypha: It’s not just a list of words for a spelling bee; it’s a diverse set of witnesses that show us how the books of the Old Testament came across to early audiences.
1F. F. Bruce. (1950). The Books and the Parchments (3rd ed., p. 53). London: Pickering and Inglis.
2Payne. D. F. (1996). Targums. In I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible Dictionary (3rd ed.). Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.
3Darmesteter, A. (1897). The Talmud. Jewish Publication Society of America.
4Payne. D. F. (1996). Targums. In I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible Dictionary (3rd ed.). Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.
5Prinz, H. (1863). The great mystery: How can three be one? London: William Macintosh.
When discussing topics of moral significance, it’s not uncommon to hear the phrase “that’s right for you, but not for me”. Implicit in these kinds of statements is the idea that moral values and duties are subjective; that it’s up to me to decide what’s right and wrong for me, and it’s up to you to decide the same for yourself. At face value, this view—call it “moral relativism”—may appear to be a tolerant position. However, upon reflection, it’s obvious that it faces a number of hurdles that it simply cannot overcome. One such hurdle is that it grates against the fact that, deep down, we all know that some things really are wrong.
Here’s an example. I recently finished reading Laurence Rees’ book “The Holocaust”. The book sets out to answer two questions: how and why the Nazi holocaust came to pass. Throughout the book Rees shares harrowing accounts of the horrors that Jews, gypsies, Soviets, and numerous other people groups experienced at the hands of the Nazi regime. These accounts are, frankly, very grim, disturbing, and unpleasant to read. Rees acknowledges this, writing: “Although the contents of the book… are disturbing, I believe it is still important to understand how and why this happened. For this history tells us, perhaps more than any other, just what our species can do” [i].
When Rees refers to “what our species can do”, he’s obviously implying that mankind is capable of horrendous evil. Now it doesn’t take a genius to deduce that the holocaust qualifies as horrendous evil—palpable, real, and true evil. However, if moral relativism is true, rather than saying “the holocaust was wrong”, wouldn’t it make more sense to say “genocide is right for you, but not for me”, or “murdering disabled and elderly people was right for the Nazis, but it makes me a bit uncomfortable”? Obviously to take such a view is absurd, indicating that relativism is an inadequate account of morality.
Rather than showing that moral values and duties are relative to the whims of individuals or societies, the fact that we perceive some things (such as the Holocaust) as truly evil indicates that good and evil are objective. By objective good and evil, I mean that some things are good or evil regardless of whether people perceive them to be that way. An oft-cited example goes something like this: even if the Nazis had won World War II and managed to exterminate all who opposed them, brainwashing the rest of us so that no one thought the Holocaust was evil, it would still be evil. That is what it means to be objectively evil.
Furthermore, though relativism may be given lip-service, I believe that our innate sense of objective moral values is betrayed in many of the films we enjoy. As Jonathan Merritt points out, film, art, literature, and music can act as a barometer for what the prevailing views are in a society[ii]. And what do we see in many of the popular movies of our time? The actions of innumerable villains portrayed as objectively—not just subjectively—wrong. When Voldemort kills Harry Potter’s parents, when the Joker sends Batman’s love interest up in a ball of flames, and when Anakin Skywalker murders young Jedi in cold blood, we judge their actions as objectively wrong.
In summary, it seems that moral relativism is bankrupt, and we should instead affirm the existence of objective good and bad, right and wrong. Although some people consciously or subconsciously subscribe to relativism, an examination of their judgements of horrors like the holocaust suggests that they actually do believe in objective moral values. James Rachels encapsulates the argument against relativism when he writes, “it does make sense… to condemn some practices, such as slavery and anti-Semitism, wherever they occur… relativism implies these judgements make no sense… [and therefore] it cannot be right”[iii].
[i] Rees, L. (2017). The Holocaust, p. 429. Penguin Random House, UK.
[ii] Merritt, J. (2016). The death of moral relativism. Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/03/the-death-of-moral-relativism/475221/
[iii] Rachels, J. (2003). The elements of moral philosophy (4th Ed.), p. 23. McGraw-Hill: New York, NY.
Never have a fake phone conversation. When you are in the middle of sounding impressive and charismatic, when your phone will really ring and you’ll be caught out. This is a lesson I have learned from sitcoms.
Sitcoms also illustrate how fake phone conversations are often one-dimensional. The entire ‘conversation’ reflects what the pretender wants to be true. There is no encounter with the complex and independent will of another human being.
By contrast, the Old Testament authors portray their audiences as complex and independent people. Not only did the authors write to them in a way that hints at their interaction (see last post), the authors also wrote about them in convincing detail.
Two features of Old Testament audiences stand out.
First, they changed. Granted, the Bible is famous for showing the consistency of human nature – people sin all the way through. Yet there is also variation. Israel was a very new nation under Moses, Joshua and the judges, easily influenced by the idolatry of more established cultures and often failing to pass on its distinctive heritage of the Law. Later, under the monarchy, worship – both of Yahweh and of foreign gods – was more organised and came under the influence of political marriages and alliances. Later still, when the Exile confirmed Yahweh’s prophets, Jews more than ever took for granted that they would only worship the God of their fathers and looked back longingly on the best of the monarchy. Prophets now had to emphasise that, in spite of the Exile, God was still relevant and in charge and cared. That overview is very simplified. The point is, the audiences were varied, like real people are. The different generations’ changing responses to the Law, Prophets and so on makes historical sense.
Second, though the authors celebrate their supporters and push back against the haters, they do so with reason and restraint. We do not see cookie-cutter haters. The authors help us to make sense of their faults in light of natural motivations and pressures. For example, there is Moses’ generation’s habit of being slaves, clumsy in their use of freedom. Again, the judges period showed a nation still immature, while some of the kings, like Solomon, naturally showed national pride and political diplomacy – and took them in some bad directions. Conversely, even heroes are often weak, like Abraham lying about his wife and King David committing adultery. Pretty much any character who the authors go into detail about has both sympathetic and ugly qualities.
This balance is remarkable coming from an Ancient Near Eastern culture. It was normal to write down exclusively positive versions of your own history. The Annals of Sennacherib are a good example; they record a string of Assyrian victories, though cross-checking with Babylonian records indicates some defeats.
Keep in mind that, to varying extents, the Old Testament authors claim to deliver a perfect message from God. Yet they frequently admit that the message failed to transform people. That’s one sign of honesty – admitting things that must be embarrassing. Prophets report being called offensively negative (perhaps jinxers), over-strict, and even unpatriotic. Historians such as the authors of Samuel and Kings record the achievement of priests teaching the Law of Moses in very modest terms. Tacitly, they admit a huge amount of ignorance, illiteracy, and lack of interest – within Israel!
This is either honesty or cunning fiction. People today are quick to suggest it is fiction; we are familiar with very sophisticated historical fiction. This is because we live two hundred years after pioneering historical fiction author Sir Walter Scott. But sophistication like Scott’s doesn’t just happen. It doesn’t magically appear from the pen of every writer spinning a story. It is a very specific craft which was alien to the Ancient Near East. So when a skeptic takes the subtle touches of realism throughout the Old Testament and tries to explain them away as fiction, it is quite a strain.
It makes much more sense to take the Old Testament’s portraits of its audiences as at least mostly true, even if you don’t think the Bible is God’s Word. And those portraits of the audiences, with all their responses and nuances, shed a huge amount of light on the authors’ message.
In the next post, I’ll look at sources which give us some of the audiences’ voices directly.
Carey College is running this a 15 week long course hosted by Mark Powell
Apologetics: Gain confidence in what you believe and why you believe it
Christianity is seen by many today as weird and incomprehensible – but is that true? The human condition, human experience, basic intuitions, history, science and reason all point to the truth of Christianity. Join Mark Powell as he helps equip students with a holistic contemporary apologetic which shows why we have good reason to believe what we say we believe.
• Reality and knowledge: What is real and how do we know it?
• Post-Christian World: Modernism and Post-modernism
• Creation, cause & design and evolution
• Immaterial realities and how we know them
• Moral/ethical knowledge and obligation
• The reliability and trustworthiness of scripture
• The case for the resurrection
• The problem of evil
• Controversial historical claims & contemporary issues
Be equipped to have better conversations, ask better questions and to share answers with gentleness and respect.
MARK POWELL – Lecturer
Mark is a Professional Company Director and “CEO in Resident” at Massey Business School and was the CEO of the Warehouse Group. A Carey graduate, Mark completed a Bachelor of Applied Theology and Diploma in Pastoral Leadership and is now a visiting Lecturer and member of the Carey Board. He has recently completed a Masters in Christian Apologetics from Biola University, California and has a passion for wanting to help Christians have a confident faith, where they know not just what they believe, but why they believe it.
WHEN: Tuesday nights from 18th July to 25 October
COST: $740 (for credit – as part of further study)
OR: $300 (for audit – you don’t need to do the assignments, but you earn no credits) – Administration fees additional
REGISTER or MORE INFO: Email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit cary.ac.nz/enrol
Do we as humans tend to think that others ought to get what they deserve, i.e justice, karma, punishment and praise? Do we think that we should always be given things according to what we deserve? Why does this theme of ‘reward for works’ seem to crop up so often throughout our thinking? It appears in many religions, in our families, in our societies and various worldviews. Is there some underlying perception of justice that is common to all humanity? I know in my own life the idea of fairness and what is right tends to influence how I emotionally react to my circumstances. Is this the same for you?
Contrary to this idea is this area of mercy, grace, and compassion which is so richly imbued into the Christian worldview[1, 2, 3]. However, Christianity is also deeply imbued with these ideas of justice, what is owed, what we deserve and appropriately issued punishment[4, 5, 6], themes which have permeated most of the societies and governments in existence. But how is it possible to reconcile these two so fundamental and intensely emotional features of humanity?
A nice place we could start is this short video dealing with where these two features collide in Christianity. Have a watch and then share your thoughts on such matters in the comments. Do you think that the answer given in the video was adequate? Maybe you feel we should be able to earn a place in heaven through good works? What would be good enough? Let us know!
 – http://www.biblestudytools.com/topical-verses/grace-bible-verses/
 – https://dailyverses.net/mercy
 – http://www.biblestudytools.com/topical-verses/bible-verses-for-compassion/
 – http://www.biblestudytools.com/topical-verses/bible-verses-about-justice/
 – https://dailyverses.net/righteousness
 – https://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/Commandments-Of-Christ
Postmodernism was, in part, the reaction against the notion of a meta-narrative; the ideal that there is one over-aching narrative that guilds and shapes society. In Western society that meta-narrative was Christianity. This usurpation of the One Story paved the way for other narratives to be told. With the monopoly of Christianity broken, these other narratives, which had always been told, were given greater airtime. Christianity no longer had the inside track, but in the forty-or-so years since the advent of postmodernism most Christians have not tried readily understood these other narratives.
Plato suggested that the people in his idealized society be told a story, a myth, that some people were created with gold strands, some with silver, and some with bronze. The gold imbued were created to be kings, the silver imbued to be soldiers, and those with bronze were at the bottom of the pile. The stories a society tells its members define the identity if those members, what is normal and what is not normal. Below is a very brief look at some of these narratives.
Mikhail Bakunin wrote that ‘as long as we have a master in heaven, we will be slaves on earth.’ He also wrote that ‘if God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish him.’ Atheism is the reaction against any form of belief in deity. Atheism, then, can be summarized as the active disbelief in deity. ‘Atheism’ the word is Greek for without a god. But it is more than just mere disbelief; it is the challenge against the social systems and morals inherent in a society with a monotheistic (or theistic) underpinning. If there is one god, there is one story (more or less). If there is no god, it is not, then, a case of there being no story, on the contrary the vacuum is filled with a multitude of contenders; there is no limit to how many stories that can be told. There is also no control, any terms of reference, as to what kind of story can be told. A story can be told that makes an unborn baby not (yet) human. A story can be told that one group of people are less than another. Stories of the equality of the sexes become stories of the sameness of the sexes. Light becomes dark and soon the clock strikes the thirteenth hour. Francis Bacon wrote that ‘they that deny a God destroy man’s nobility; for certainly man is of kin to the beasts by his body; and if he be not kin to God by his spirit, he is a base and ignoble creature….[atheism] depriveth human nature of the means to exalt itself above human frailty.’ It is a paradox to tell someone in school that they are merely an animal only to imprison them when they act as one as an adult.
Agnostism is the negation of the word gnostic. Gnostic or gnostism pertains to knowledge by revelation. Agnostism, then, means to be without knowledge or revelation. It is primarily an epistemological position, that is, it is to do with how knowledge is gained. William L. Rowe defined agnostism as ‘the view that human reason is incapable of providing sufficient rational grounds to justify either that God exists or the belief that God does not exist.’ That is, humanity does not have the means to know one way or another either God exists (Barth would argue that this is correct, and that it is only through the revelation of Jesus Christ that humanity can know anything of God.). Richard Dawkins, when pushed, considers himself an agnostic. Is it a safer place to be rationally than atheism because its only claim is that of incompetence. Atheism, on the other hand, makes a far bigger claim: it claims that nowhere in the universe exists an entity that could be considered a god. Where agnostism claims ignorance in the question of the gardeners’ existence, atheism claims to have searched every part of the garden simultaneously and have proved, beyond doubt, that no gardener exists. When one sees a garden the rational response is to at least posit the possibility of a gardener before one attempts to discover the existence, or lack thereof, of said gardener. Agnostism is simple and safe; it requires nothing more than the acceptance of epistemological failure. Agnostism is a safe place to be theologically; though in its claim of ignorance it demonstrates it.
Deism, from the Latin word for god, deus, is the belief that the universe was created by a supreme being who subsequent to creation did not intervene in the operation or events of the universe. This god is sometimes referred to as an absentee landlord – because he is never there. This created but neglected universe is referred to as a clock-work universe – because God wound it up and let it wind down on its own. Deism was in vogue during the Enlightenment and was the theological view of most of the Founding Fathers (see Alf J. Mapp’s The Faiths of Our Fathers) . Deism is not the same as Christianity because it allows for neither a relational god nor miracles. The concept of an intelligent designer could be seen as an argument for deism rather than theism or Christianity because it states that the universe was created, by whatever means, by a supreme being. Intelligent Design (ID) is a theological position on the creation of the universe and nothing more – it argues for nothing else. Those using ID in apologetics need to realize that all at calls for is a creator god and nothing more – it can only go as far as deism.
Theism (from the Greek word for god, theos) is a philosophical position and is not the same as either deism or Christianity. Theism is the belief that there is a creator god, and that this god can and does interact in the world (as opposed to a deistic god who does not); that is, it allows for miracles. It does not make claims about the identity or the nature of this god. It takes many forms: deism, monotheism, polytheism, henotheism. Judaism, Islam, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity are all theistic systems. The difference between Christianity and Theism is that while Theism posits miracles it does not necessarily posit a relational god. Antony Flew, the famous ex-atheist, became a theist, in that he believed an intelligence responsible for the complexity of information on DNA. Flew was not a Christian, he believed none of the claims of Christianity other than the claim of a creator-god.
We can understand the Bible with the help of a community: the authors, initial audiences, and later audiences. In my last post, I emphasised the authors. In fact, the authors and initial audiences overlap. By looking at the authors Paul and Luke last week, we have already started to look at initial audiences. These missionary teammates were in each other’s audiences. Other examples are proverb-writer Solomon reading his father David’s Psalms and several prophet-authors working at the same time, like Daniel and Ezekiel.
In this post, while still following clues from the Bible itself (just the Old Testament for now), we will widen our lens and find that the initial audiences were big.
Now, because we are following clues from the Bible, some skeptics will cry foul. Just as a skeptical shopper questions the claim on the Weet-Bix box that ‘Kiwi kids are Weet-Bix kids’, a skeptical reader questions the claims a book makes about its own audiences. However, a reasonable reader finds clues in a book about its audience. This is how scholars of literature treat books in general. Just as the box of Weet-Bix in my pantry is a clue to my diet, my digestive system, and my demographic, a book’s style and type is a clue to the sort of people it was written for, the relationship they had with the author, and the place his message had in their lives.
What clues in the Old Testament indicate large audiences? Much of Moses’ books are covenant or agreement documents, formally outlining the relationship between Yahweh and Israel, complete with instructions for land use, holidays, an order of priesthood, concepts of purity and perfection and much more. In other words, they were written to a whole nation on purpose to define that whole nation.
The Old Testament books after Moses are also designed for immediate and wide sharing, from temple songbooks (many Psalms) to criticisms of the nation (much of the prophets) to practical proverbs about everyday life. Even the lyrical Song of Songs is dedicated to (or perhaps by) a king.
So we have large audiences right in front of the authors using books together for a range of purposes.
Contrast this with the opposite: a lone, isolated reader who doesn’t need to do anything about the book. When I was about thirteen I read Lord of the Rings. Afterwards I felt a little guilty, because my mother would report my achievement in glowing terms, yet I knew I had bitten off more than I could chew at the time. I found it very confusing and scarcely followed the plot. Why was Aragorn the rightful king? Why did the Rohirrim ride horses into battle and not those giant tree-men? I could not have answered either of these to save my life. Fortunately, I did not need to answer these questions to save my life, or for any other urgent purpose. Again, I was a lone, isolated reader.
Yet the readers of the books of the Old Testament did use those books to support (or oppose) kings, organise battles, and do all sorts of other things. They could not afford to pose with the books and look smart one by one, like thirteen-year-old me with Lord of the Rings. They received the books as a group. The books called for an active response. And there are signs that the call got through. The books are full of clarifications in sophisticated detail. There are careful closures of loopholes in the Law of Moses, choir instructions in the Psalms, and shock tactics from angry prophets. The authors would only bother clarifying particular points like this if a lot of their message was already understood as they intended.
Each of those examples of clarification is a technique, and a set of techniques makes up a genre. A genre serves a big purpose. So, in the Old Testament, there are both clarifying techniques (like legal loophole closure, choir tips, and shock tactics) and purposeful genres (like covenant, worshipful singing, or king support) – both fine details and big ideas, all forced out onto the page by the drive to communicate. When we open those pages and read today, we have a chance to be a new audience, hearing the message again.
We should be grateful for the drive to communicate, and for the initial audiences who helped to stir it in the human authors’ hearts.
Next week, we’ll look at how balanced a portrait we get in the Old Testament about its audiences, why honesty is a much better explanation than skillful fiction, and how this, too, helps us to understand the text.