Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Historical and Imaginative Characters and Places in the Bible

As I have suggested previously, it is plausible that the Bible contains both historical and imaginative truth, often blended together.

With regards to characters and places in the Bible, it may be held that they are always 'someone like' the historical person they signify. To state the obvious, this is always the case in that a character in a book who represents a historical person is not, materially speaking, that historical person in their actuality, but a collection of words that create the impression of such a person.

If a character or place is involved in a number of stories, the historical referent would have to have been involved in events something like those reported for the character and the historical referent to have unity as a person. This would apply to figures such as Moses and Abraham.

More minor characters may have different referents. The conflicting traditions in 1 Sam 17 and 2 Sam 21:19 as to who killed Goliath may reflect that both David and Elhanan both killed someone, or several people, very much like Goliath, whose imaginatively symbolic potential was stretched across both traditions. 1 Chronicles 20:5 would then be a subsequent harmonisation of the two traditions, separating the two Goliaths in the world of the text.

To apply this to a place, the historical referent for Jericho in Joshua 6 may be a city, or cities, 'very much like' Jericho, which takes on a symbolic function representative of the cities conquered by God's power, regardless of when and how the historical Jericho was destroyed.

Interpretation and Tradition

We can't know for certain, in an empirical sense, that our interpretation of the Bible is correct. But we can trust that it is if we have tested it against Scripture's own context and against the interpretations of others. This trust is ultimately in Scripture's ability to guide us into the truth, rather than our own.

Appealing to the authority of traditional interpretations, as Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox believers do, may well give the correct interpretation of Scripture. But there is no rational way of choosing which tradition to follow - there is no uniform 'mind of the church'. The heretics of the early centuries AD also believed themselves to be speaking authoritative and apostolic interpretation for the church.

The advantage of the Protestant tradition of sola scriptura is that there is at least a fixed point of reference for doing theology -, the Bible - rather than many conflicting and changing traditions. A Protestant may still follow a tradition of interpretation, but that will be because he believes it to accord with the meaning of Scripture, rather than as an authority in and of itself. And although non-Protestant churches would point to the Biblical commands to submit to church leadership, the Protestant may reply that the Biblical authors are the primary leaders and teachers of the church, and so trust in their teaching must take precedent over teaching from any other.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Child Sacrifice in Ancient Israel

“You shall not delay to offer from the fullness of your harvest and from the outflow of your presses. The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me. You shall do the same with your oxen and with your sheep: seven days it shall be with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to me."
- Exodus 22:29-30

It has been suggested that this section of Israel's Law could have been interpreted as commanding child sacrifice. Within its current context, of course, the offering of the firstborn son involves 'redeeming' him, rather than sacrificing him, in memory of the final plague against Egypt (Exodus 13:11-16).

But does 22:29-30 stem from an earlier time and version of the Law than 13:11-16? Was child sacrifice ever practiced by the Israelites under the apprehension that it had been commanded by God?

Some would affirm this, in light of the fact that the Bible itself speaks of such an idea. In Ezekiel 20:25-26, God describes His judgment of Israel in the wilderness in curious terms: "I gave them statutes that were not good and rules by which they could not have life, and I defiled them through their very gifts in their offering up all their firstborn, that I might devastate them. I did it that they might know that I am the Lord."

From elsewhere in the same speech, however, the picture isn't as simple as a monolithic Law system commanding child sacrifice up until the time of Ezekiel. Ezekiel himself describes how, before God gave "statutes that were not good", He gave them good laws, presumably not including commandments for child sacrifice, saying: " I am the Lord your God; walk in my statutes, and be careful to obey my rules, and keep my Sabbaths holy that they may be a sign between me and you, that you may know that I am the Lord your God" (Ezekiel 20:19-20).

The Bible, therefore, presents there always being a body of good laws that did not command child sacrifice, along with some that did that God used for judgement purposes. It is impossible to know whether Exodus 22:29-30, in some other context, was interpreted as involving child sacrifice, or if another, more unambiguous law no longer extant was used. Either, way, the Law in its current form is reflective of God's original good laws that existed for the good of His people.

But what of Jeremiah, who seems to know nothing of any 'bad laws' that God may have given? "[They] have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it come into my mind" (Jeremiah 19:5). Here it is only necessary to note that, in context, Jeremiah is talking about the present Israelites, not their forefathers to whom God gave the bad laws. Like Ezekiel, who elsewhere in chapter 20 expects the Israelites to not walk in the ways of their forefathers and recognize what is good, Jeremiah assumes it is possible for the Israelites to discern which are God's good laws and which aren't. It can only be trusted that this was always possible, dependent on whether a worshipper sought to follow God alone, or in conjunction with idols. And, indeed, we can only trust that similar discernment is possible now.

Monday, 11 July 2016

The Imaginative Fulfilment of Babylon

I have recently written about the literal fulfilment of certain Old Testament prophecies. As a test case of what imaginative fulfilment of prophecy may look like, I want to take the example of Babylon in the New Testament book of Revelation.
  1. The name of Babylon is clearly being imaginatively used, as it is described as the place outside which the Lord was crucified (Rev. 11:8), which in real-time was Jerusalem, not the historical Babylon. Therefore it is what Babylon represents as a concept - the enemy of God's people - that is important here. But to what is it actually being applied?
  2. Some believe the prophecies in book of Revelation were almost entirely fulfilled during the first century. Many such commentators would say that Babylon refers only to Jerusalem, which was devastated in 70 A.D. according to Jesus' prophecy. The problem with this interpretation is two-fold: 
  3. Firstly, Revelation 18 describes how Babylon will be destroyed forever, and will never be active in any sense again. This is clearly not true of Jerusalem, which continues as an active city to this day. Although prophecy was conditional, and it's perfectly possible to say that God had a measure of mercy on Jerusalem at 70 A.D., God will have to destroy Babylon finally and completely one day if it is the ultimate manifestation of evil civilization.
  4. This leads to my second objection: since the name 'Babylon' is being used imaginatively, it is impossible to tie it down completely to any one particular city, as it has already transcended its own original historical referent and has therefore become an imaginative construal. Babylon is Jerusalem in that it comprehends Jerusalem - but it can also comprehend Rome and the Roman empire more generally as 'the city' outside which the Lord was crucified as well.
  5. Given points 3 and 4, it is possible to believe that Babylon manifested itself partially through Rome and Jerusalem in the 1st century, and continues to manifest itself through cities and world powers that are opposed to God's kingdom today. The church awaits its final destruction, whenever that may take place.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Interpreting Old Testament Prophecy

  1. Although prophecies were conditional and could change (Jer. 18:1-11), at least some of a prophet's predictions would have to happen for them to be considered a true prophet (Deut. 18:22). 
  2. There are various prophecies in the Old Testament prophecies about a new Temple and a regained land of Israel at the centre of a new earthly order. Although I am perfectly open to the idea of imaginative truth in the Bible, the fact that these prophecies speak of things that had a '1:1' correspondence with first-hand realities for their hearers compels me to believe that such prophecies will be fulfilled literally. It is unclear otherwise how their hearers would know what the fulfilment of such prophecies would actually look like to accord with the Deut. 18:22 test, as compared with more imaginative prophecies that do not correspond so easily to lived experience or realities.
  3. The NT makes it clear that many OT prophecies about the Temple are fulfilled at least partly and imaginatively in Jesus. But such a reality doesn't rule out the fulfilment of the literal sense as well - that fulfilment, too, may find its 'yes' in Christ.
  4. Although prophecy was conditional, the fact that the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable (Rom. 11:29) implies that prophecies of blessing will not be discarded, but delayed. Therefore, I don't think that Israel 'sinned away' the blessings of a new Temple and land. If God still wishes to grant them, that is His right to do so. 
  5. Taking Ezekiel's vision of a future, unrealised Temple as an example, it is hard to see how many of the specific details - the layout, a new priestly caste, etc. - are fulfilled exhaustively in Christ except at a very high level of abstraction. In my interpretation, the apparently awkward nature of the future sacrifices will be a memorial of Christ's death.
  6. The way in which such prophecies will be fulfilled is impossible to specify, and need not involve claims of legitimacy or support for the current state of Israel. Although the millennium of Christ's rule mentioned in the book of Revelation seems probable as the time for their fulfilment, they may fit in in another, unexpected way. 

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Against Liberal Democracy

1) Democracy presents us with an arbitrary and senseless mechanism for making decisions - there is no reason to suppose that a majority vote will give us a good (ethical) or even correct (utilitarian) outcome. Rather than decisions made at smaller, local levels through persuasion, wisdom and compromise - perhaps through genuine personal cost and struggle - we entrust decisions to which pre-determined option gets the most numbers, largely through propaganda and misinformation. It can't even be about 'the will of the people', because that would entail strictly proportionate voting at every level and decision - an obvious impossibility.

2) Because of this, liberal democracy as a system can never be about seeking 'the good'. We see this when people (of whatever political persuasion) complain about the result of a vote. But if democracy is the best system (or the best of the worst), shouldn't we trust that it has produced the best outcome? That we don't is evidence that democracy is not about finding the good for society, but about perpetuating the ideal of individual, autonomous choice as the chief good - regardless of the outcome. This is liberalism's own particular 'story', which we must implicitly accept for participation.  It is part of the triumph of means over ends which characterizes so much of modernity.

3) Although some of liberalism's roots lie in Christian thought, a Christian liberalism can only be one justification of liberalism, as the philosophy can have a number of non-Christian justifications and by its very nature cannot privilege a Christian justification. In and of itself, therefore, liberalism cannot be 'Christian', as it easily slips such moorings and proves to be genial to the inevitably sinful manipulation of fallen humanity. 

4) A consistent liberalism necessitates a form of libertarianism or anarchism: to prevent this, liberalism must be an unstable mixture of arbitrary authority and perpetual revolution. This is seen in how certain values ('consenting adults', 'equality', 'diversity', 'rights') and favoured groups have been chosen to provide a semblance of shared values so things don't fall apart completely.

5) It is the illusion of freedom that liberal democracy creates, as we are presented with options that all operate on secular metaphysics and assumptions. As Carroll Quigley detailed, these options are engineered by the international banking elite who hold our governments in colossal and unpayable debt. We can therefore only vote for parties that perpetuate evil and create new evils, contra Psalm 2.

6) A Christian government would only be possible if the leaders of a nation and the majority of the population were personally converted to the faith. It would then be natural for them to want laws based on the highest possible conception of good conduct, as per Romans 13, for the good of society at large. This would be an imposition of Christian values on at least some people, but all law is an imposition of certain values (not least on those who don't wish to abide by particular laws) and so it is perfectly justified. The limited role of such legislation would be recognized: it wouldn't be seen as salvific, or instating the kingdom of God over society, something only acceptance of the gospel can do. It would merely seek to project a vision of good conduct according to God's will and to limit evil as far as possible through the means of law. Were the leaders of nation and the majority of the population converted to some other faith system or ideology by a minority, who would be allowed to voice their beliefs to others, the political system of the nation would naturally change again.

Monday, 4 April 2016

The Authorship of the New Testament Epistles

For the self-description of each epistle's author as 'I' to have any real-time truth value, the contents of the epistles must faithfully represent the thoughts of the stated author.

In epistles where personal messages to individuals appear, as in many of the Pauline letters, the distance between the letter's writing and the attributed author would have to be fairly close for those time-specific personal messages, and therefore the letter as a whole, to have real-time truth value.

For other letters, such as 2 Peter, where such personal messages are absent, it may well be that the letter faithfully represents the thoughts of a deceased author. In this case it is still from the 'I' it is attributed to, but at a greater remove whereby the voice of the author is represented somewhat imaginatively.