Saturday, November 28, 2009

Quote of the Day

From Ken Schenk's Quadrilateral Thoughts blog:

"We have to accept the fact that the original context of the Bible was sexist in its orientation. We can't be as Christians in our context, not and be faithful to the core message of Christ. But when we are studying the original meaning of the Bible, we simply have to deal with the fact that we are reading male-oriented texts, as all the texts of the day were. This is one area, interestingly, where Western society as a whole--even the fallen world at large--has thankfully moved closer to the kingdom than the New Testament itself, since its books were truth incarnated within the thought patterns of its day.

God took where they were, met them there, and pointed them in the direction of the kingdom. Pity those like the Grudems and Pipers of the evangelical world who mistake the wineskins for the wine. "

Probably one of the lessons about Biblical interpretation that I most value from my education thus far is this idea of trajectories in Scripture. That is, the idea that when set within the cultural context from which it came, the Bible can set us on the path toward certain theological conclusions that are not explicitly stated in the text itself. It's an idea that was well understood (and then taken much too far) by the pre-Reformation church, but which certain forms of modern Protestantism have largely lost. This sort of reasoning gave us, among many other things, the doctrine of the Trinity: though no such doctrine is ever specifically articulated in the New Testament, there are many passages that point in that direction and, when followed to their logical conclusion, result in the Trinity. The abolitionist movement of the 18th and 19th centuries is another example: it's not often remembered nowadays that the abolitionists' position rested largely on their conviction that slavery was fundamentally counter to the message of Christ. Though the New Testament never explicitly says "slavery is evil," it points strongly in that direction - especially in places like Galatians 3:28 and Paul's letter to Philemon. If in Christ "there is neither slave nor free," and a Christian master is urged to receive back his runaway Christian slave as "no longer a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother." It's only a short hop from there to the conclusion that slavery is inherently anti-Christian.

Some of these ideas, however, meet with resistance. Indeed, from would-be debunkers of Christianity, many of them do: it is makes their argument easier. If they can argue that the Bible promotes slavery and the oppression of women and that the Trinity (especially the divinity of Jesus) is a later Christian invention (*cough* The DaVinci Code *cough*), then it's easier to argue that Bible is irrelevant.

There is also controversy over some of these issues within the church, particularly the issue of the roles of women. That is what Dr. Schenck is discussing: there are many (myself among them) who see in the New Testament a trajectory leading toward the equality of men and women within the leadership structures of the church (and the marriage). Others, like John Piper and Wayne Grudem, disagree, and argue that gender-based hierarchy remains in force in the church.

I do have to disagree with Dr. Schenck on one point, though: I think the ESV, though overall an excellent translation, does suffer as a result of the politics of its origin. It's translation of certain passages most favored by egalitarians is plainly constructed so as to minimize the impact of such passages for egalitarian arguments. An example being Romans 16:7, the ESV's translation of which is deeply problematic, and is designed to undercut a specific egalitarian argument (namely, that a woman in the New Testament-era church bore the title "apostle").

Ultimately, though, I think Schenck is right. The Bible does put us on a particular path on this issue, and I expect that ultimately, this view will win the day, and in a century or so will be largely taken for granted among Christians, in much the same way that the abolitionist arguments of our predecessors have done.

(Which is not, of course, to say that there is no racial prejudice within the church, certainly there is. But there's also nobody arguing for the re-institution of slavery, either.)

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