I have been listening to the podcast, Ask NT Wright Anything, with host, Justin Brierley, out of the UK. It’s good to get other perspectives on any topic, as we tend to be blind to the particular bents and biases and ways of thinking that we have, not realizing that there are other ways of viewing things.
One amazing thing about Scripture is that it has been translated into over 300 languages, hundreds of more translations than any other book of any type. Though the combination of writings making up the Bible were written over a period of about 1500 years by about 40 Ancient Near Eastern authors from one concentrated area in the world, it has found universal acceptance and application, even today, nearly 2000 years after the last writing.
From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, Australia to the West Indies, Canada to Papua New Guinea, the Congo to Russia, and El Salvador to Mongolia, the Bible has found an audience of devotees who consider it the Word of God. The Bible has resonated with virtually every people group in the world.
In western civilization, and the American version of it, in particular, we can be pretty provincial in our understanding, for all the sophistication we think we have. We have developed certain blind spots, and we get hung up in certain ruts that we don’t even realize are obstacles to a more nuanced, balanced and (perhaps) accurate understanding.
For instance, the prosperity gospel is uniquely western, and particularly American. The prosperity gospel isn’t preached in Pakistan, Sudan, Honduras or Haiti. It shouldn’t take much thought to realize the reason why. Our America view of the gospel, God and the Bible can be (and is) influenced by our cultural bents. Without the balance of other views, we can tend toward the heretical.
Another example of our cultural bent is our western and American view of the Old Testament and “the God of the Old Testament”. Most non-westerners don’t have the issues we have with “the wrath of God” and some of the passages of the Old Testament that seem unsavory to the modern sensibilities of Americans.
This doesn’t necessarily make the rest of the world “right”, but we have to realize that our views may not be perfectly “right” either. We can all benefit by views of people who have different cultural backgrounds.
American, for instance, have gotten hung up on things like the “inerrancy of Scripture” and a “fundamentalist”, literalistic view of the Bible. NT Wright talks about this often in his interviews with Justin Brierley. He notes that Americans tend to trip over details and miss “the story”.
NT Wright was recently speaking of the issues that some people have with the Old Testament, fixating on whether it is historically and factually true in every detail. In doing so, we may might never get to the story, and the meaning of the story, which is the whole point! We get stuck in a rut asking whether it is true in every detail, and, “If we can’t be sure that it is true on every point, can we really trust it?”
Paul told Timothy, “All Scripture is breathed out [inspired] by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17) Paul doesn’t say that the Scripture is meant to be interpreted like a science textbook or an historical treatise. Paul doesn’t say that the Bible is profitable for knowledge like an encyclopedia of facts.
That isn’t to say that the Scripture is something like Aesop’s Fairy Tales. It clearly isn’t. Modern archaeology continues to verify names and places described in the Bible, despite the predominant skepticism that accompanies modern science and historical inquiry.
But, I believe that we get hung up on details that block our view and understanding of the forest for all the trees in the way.
Americans tend to gravitate toward extremes that are influenced by a wooden view of Scripture that places undue emphasis on the factual character of the details. This leads some to hold stubbornly and defiantly to belief in the literal truth of every fact statement in the Bible and others to reject the Bible whole cloth for fear that some fact statements can’t hold up to scientific and historical scrutiny.
What we miss in this rigidity is the spirit and the life of the word of God, which ultimately isn’t a book, but a Person. It causes some people to spend their time and energy trying to prove and defend every jot and tittle, while “ignoring the weightier matters”. It causes others to reject the Old Testament as unreliable and out of character with Jesus.
Wright observes that we can’t throw out the Old Testament, as some are wont to do as a way of “saving” the New Testament, because the entirety of Scripture points to Jesus “endorses” the Old Testament Scripture over and over, and spent time explaining how it all points to him. (See Luke 24:27) Jesus is the climax of the “story”.
Wright says, the sweep of the Old Testament is about rescue, the law and the presence of God, and it sets the stage for God’s entry into our world.
We meet God, the Creator and Lord of the world in the Old Testament who becomes the Savior of the world in the New Testament. We can’t separate one from the other, as it is all part of the same narrative.
Dr. William Lane Craig characterizes the sweep of the Bible as “a progressive interiorization of God’s interaction with people”. The progression runs from external manifestations of the greatness and glory of God and His interest in redeeming a particular people group to an interest in every person and redemption of the individual.
Whereas God interacts in the Old Testament from afar, with parting the Red Sea, pillars of fire and smoke and a temple in which people journey to connect with Him; we see God becoming man, performing signs and wonders in close proximity and inviting us to worship Him in spirit and truth. The movement is from distance to proximity, from corporate to personal, from ritual to internal devotion.
God is not changing in the process; our understanding of God is changing and becoming more nuanced as we feel our way toward God, the material groping for the immaterial, timeless character of God. (Acts 17:27) We are from the dust; God is Spirit. The progression of God’s interaction with us reveals a developing understanding of the spiritual, eternal and timeless character of God as we move from external to internal, from a temple made of hands to the temple of our bodies through which we commune with God.
We can’t do away with the Old Testament or make the mistake of thinking that “the God of the Old Testament” is somehow different than the God revealed in Jesus Christ, who is described as the “exact representation of God’s being. (Hebrews 1:3) All of the Old Testament anticipates, points toward and sets the stage for Jesus.
If it seems there is a disconnect between the way God is revealed in the Old Testament and the God we see in Jesus, it is simply a matter of our changing perspective as God comes into better focus. Yes, the Old Testament is God-breathed, inspired by God, but the people through whom God is revealed were not so advanced in their understanding of the God who was revealed to them as the up close and personal perspective we get of God revealed through the person of Jesus.
Just as we the Old Testament Scripture is ultimately about Jesus, we have to reconsider the Old Testament in light of the exact representation of God revealed in the person of Jesus. Just as Jesus shed light on the interpretation of the Old Testament as the foreshadowing and anticipation of Himself, so we should seek to renew our understanding of the Old Testament – the story and sweep of the Scripture – in light of Jesus.
We can’t throw out the one to grab hold of the other. We need to hold on to the one while grasping the other. (Ecclesiastes 7:18)