Description vs. Prescription in the Bible - Kyle Hanawalt
Second in series: When the Bible Came Alive To Me
This week I am excited to continue our current series, that we have called When the Bible Came Alive.
The basic starting point for this series is that I have found myself throughout my life to struggle with two big pitfalls when it comes to the Bible.
On one side, growing up with my parents being pastors, I spent much of my young life looking at the Bible with a sort of reverence and respect, which isn’t a bad thing, but that sense of reverence often prevented me from asking hard questions about the Bible. It often lead to me hand waving the things that were challenging to understand, or more significantly ignoring things in the Bible that would seem to challenge the very goodness of God.
I was so obsessed with treating the Bible with the proper respect that I actually prevented myself from doing the due diligence of asking the right questions, and taking the right steps to properly engage with it. And on the other hand, I spend much early adulthood dismissing the Bible as not a helpful tool at all. That that was the only way to come to terms with the things that didn’t seem to make sense, or the things that seemed to challenge the idea of a God who is reliably good. I spent a while just dismissing the Bible as antiquated. A couple weeks ago I called these two pitfalls More Bible, More Bible (one one side) and More Bible, More Problems (on the other).
It has been my experience that in between these two is a middle ground of thoughtful, informed engagement of the Bible that allows it to come alive. SLIDE That middle ground is what this series is about. We are sharing the stories, the concepts, the particular moments when we stumbled into that middle ground, and experienced the Bible come alive to us -- in the way it connected us with God or with other people, or the way it challenged and broadened our worldviews, or in the way it felt like Jesus used it to lead us into some kind of personal growth.
Today I want to tell you all about a professor I had in Seminary
She taught the most advanced Greek Class you had to take, and was widely considered the most difficult professor at the school.
The reason she was so hard, was that would challenge you in about anything you wrote or presented. She would challenge you to make sure that you could actually back up what you said. That you had thought through the implications, the consistency, and logical consequences.
And big part of her class was to have a passage in greek up on the screen, which you had to out loud translate for the class, and then explain what the passage was trying to communicate.
And she would stop you mid sentence in class and challenge the validity of something you said.
But, honestly I loved her
And I loved her for a few reasons,
I used to love seeing her challenge other students, not so much when it was me, but it seemed like she was able to pick out the most smug and self assured people in the room, and point out the inconsistencies and flaws in what they said. And there something just delightful about that.
But, she also was able to see those in the room who were most reserved, and lacked confidence, and she was able to call confidence out of them.
And the last reason I loved her was that she had a way taking really complex and nuanced things, and then saying them in a sentence or two which perfectly captured it.
And one of these things I remember most that she said was when she was talking about a problem that particularly Americans have when they read the Bible.
She said, That we are always trying to take everything we read in the Bible and create timeless truths and ultimate ethics, and the problem is that the majority of the Bible is not trying to create timeless truths and ultimate ethics.
If the Biblical writers saw us today they would be very disappointed in how we read what they wrote PAUSE SLIDE This connects to my talk here at BLV two weeks ago We talked about the role culture plays in how we read the Bible, and one spectrum we looked at was was value orientation On the spectrum of Universalist to Particularist. America is about the most Universalist culture the world has ever seen. Which means seeing the world through the lens of what is right is right, and it is always right and applies across the board. Opposed to a Particularists, which is what the ANE world of the writers of the Bible was, which see the world as through the lens of what is right is based on circumstance and context and relationship. What is right at one point or one context could be wrong in another.
Because we are universalist, our default is to read the Bible like it is some sort of rule book, where every line or statement, even if it is a secondary point only trying to support the real primary argument, we want to take every line and find the life lesson or moral of the story or rule, the timeless truth.
Another way to say this is that we tend to read the Bible “prescriptively” -- in way that makes everything a prescription for all time.
But, the truth is, the vast majority of Bible is “descriptive”, the writers are just trying to describe what is true at that time. They are not trying to be “prescriptive” for all time or say this is how it should be forever, they are saying, this is what is true for this given situation with this given audience, given this particular context.
There are a few places in the Bible where a writer is intentionally trying to be prescriptive Something like the book of proverbs, or I think of many of Jesus’ teachings where he will finish a speech saying something like “So, love your neighbor as you love yourself.” But, that is just not the case with the majority of the Bible. SLIDE over the last couple weeks, I started going through tons of examples of where we can get ourselves in trouble when we read descriptive texts prescriptively, or as timeless truths.
And frankly I had enough examples of this, that I could just talk on this each Sunday for the rest of the Summer. But, since I only have today.
There is one example that I was considering, that actually found itself into the news this last week. Compliments of our Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
If you missed it, Jeff Sessions referenced Romans 13 in a comic super villain like defense of why God would support our government's actions of separating children from their parents at our southern border.
My initial reaction to hearing something like that - is that this is a moral outrage, of course Jeff Sessions is wrong. What he says is directly contradictory to everything I know and understand about Jesus.
So let’s read this
13 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
Uh oh. are you as uncomfortable as me?
After reading this do you feel a little worried that Jeff Sessions might be right?
Do you notice some discomfort inside that maybe the Bible does say this.
And right here, at this point, I am presented with a moment of Crisis, When I was 18 and for the first time really read this passage, I felt presented with only two options, More Bible, More better or More, Bible More problems.
Either I conclude, I don’t like this, knowing what I know historically about evil leaders, this makes me uneasy about how good God really is. But, I even though I may not like it, I don’t get to make the rules. God does. So, I guess our leaders are put there by God, and Jeff sessions may have a valid point.
And that feels deeply uncomfortable, that I have to rationalize how God is both good and also is in support of separating children from parents.
Or I conclude, this is BS. There is no way you can reasonably look at history and say that “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.”
So, it is clear that the Bible is just not worth me giving it much authority to speak into my life at all.
The reason we feel this, that we have only these two options, is because as Americans we have been taught to read the Bible prescriptively.
Let me suggest that we try to read it descriptively
Let’s take a step back, shut off our universalist brain for a moment, and stop trying to find the timeless truth in this passage. Stop trying to read it as if Paul is writing those words to me today sitting in Chicago.
And rather I ask myself what was happening when Paul wrote these words to this church in Rome? Paul wrote this letter to the church in Rome in a very interesting time. For years prior to this letter the Jewish people in Rome had been pushing back against the Roman Emipire rule. And the most notable way they pushed back was what is known as the Jewish Tax riots, in which the Jewish community in Rome refused to pay taxes and rioted when they were being collected. And as a result of this, Jewish people, even the Jewish background followers of Jesus began being puersecuted and eventually getting expelled from Rome all together. And this included many Jewish followers of Jesus getting expelled from Rome So, at the point of that this letter was written, The Old Emperor had died and the new Emperor had just taken over and for the time being, created a peaceful and religiously tolerant climate. Which meant that many of the Jewish followers of Jesus could return to Rome. And this section of Paul’s letter to the Romans, Chapters 12 to 15, is in many ways trying to deal with how after five years in exile, how are these Jewish background followers of Jesus were going to reintegrate into Rome and the Roman church? And how is the Church going to relate to the Roman rule general. So in that context, Where the church is experiencing peace and religoius tollerance for the first time in years, Paul is trying to encourage this Roman church to be good citizens as much as they are able. To keep the peace and not make trouble in the midst of this new kinder climate.
This especially makes sense when you look at Paul’s words in the passage just prior to this when he says “Live in harmony with one another. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” And when we read it in that context, not only does the passage start to come alive in a more substantial way, but it also helps us navigate the other places in the Bible that would seem to feel in contradiction to what is said in Romans 13 Like what God says through the Old Testament prophet Hosea hundreds of years before Paul “They set up kings without my consent; they choose princes without my approval.” That the whole reason that Israel fell to Assyria was because there were people put in authority that were put there against God’s approval. If I read Romans 13 and Hosea 8 both prescriptively, then they just don’t fit together, you have to explain one away. The contradiction fades when we see both of these as true statements describing something that was true in two different times and two different contexts. That Paul is trying to make a statment about what is true of every authority for all time, but speaking about what it true at that time and place in rome.
Yes, God put all the authorities in place that exist, at that moment, but it’s a quite a large prescriptive leap to say that mean every ruler for all time, and every government for all time are God’s agents for Justice in the world.
And frankly If that is how you read Romans 13, Hosea 8 gets pretty challenging to understand.
So, considering all of that.
In contrast to Jeff Sessions’ approach, The thoughtful and informed way to learn from Romans 13 (and the vast majority of passages in the Bible) is to ask what is Paul saying in his context?. And not what is Paul’s ultimate ethic.
Then we discover things that feel insightful, like it’s helpfully addressing the situation in Rome at that time, and I can glean helpful things from that for my context today.
Like, I should respect and stay engaged with my civil responsibilities. Just because I follow Jesus doesn’t mean that I bear no responsibility to my government. However, I don’t have to make this a timeless truth. God, may have put into to place the leaders of that day in Rome, God may have even used them as agents for justice. However, that does not mean that we have to respect the rules of government unquestioned as Jeff Sessions suggests, because God set them up. Paul, didn’t even do that, Paul himself was imprisoned by governing authorities several times and eventually executed for later not obeying the Emporer. SLIDE As I said, our universalist culture has taught us all to read the Bible prescriptively, so the Bible can seem riddled with contradictions to us. BUT like we saw here, the contradictions fade away when we read this passage as it’s meant to be read -- descriptively, not as timeless truths, but as descriptions of specific things for specific reasons. PAUSE If you want to learn more about how to read the Bible this way, SLIDE here’s a book rec: How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth
For me, above all, training my American brain to read the Bible this way has helped fade away my fears about God.
Going back to that professor of mine, this is why she was so bothered by people reading timeless truths and ultimate ethics into every line of the Bible.
It upset her, because it makes it really really hard to really see God as Good.
When I was younger and always reading the Bible as prescriptive, I constantly would be filled with distress I felt as read thing in the Bible that seemed to make God appear kind of monstrous or cold or terrible,
I was constantly secretly worried that God was not actually really good.
But, as I have learned to read the Bible differently, as I stopped reading everything as prescriptive, my fear about God has faded.
I read the Bible all the time now, and almost never do I have those secret scary thoughts about God, that some passage I read that seems to depict God as callus or violent causes me to feel.
Instead, now, I have a steadfast belief that God is good and actually read in context, the whole Bible, every single line, can testify to God’s goodness.
And because of that, when I read a passage that would seem to put God’s goodness in question, I feel safe to talk to God and wonder openly: what am I missing? Is there something that I might be reading as a prescription when I shouldn’t?...
I don’t try to do intellectual gymnastics to rationalize it, nor do I hand wave it away, or dismiss it all together.
I try to ask other learned people I know or research and read more about the context of what I just read, ALL WITHOUT ANXIETY -- because the foundations of my faith are not shaken when I’m doing this. I’m just someone who knows how small (and American) my perspective is and I want to learn more
And the result is that I find the Bible to come alive to me in a very real way almost every time I read it.
And so I would like to pray. Pray that God would feel reliably good to every one of us here.
That when we get a sinking feelings that maybe that is in question, Whether it’s when we are reading the Bible, or some terrible thing some religious person said, or when it’s some suffering or injustice we see in the world.
That our image of God as good, would feel steadfast and reliable AND that there wouldn’t be a hint of a “lying to ourselves” feeling in that, but rather a feeling that it is safe to ask critical questions of life and of the Bible -- that God is not frowning at that, he feels engaged by that.
The Stakes of this are high for me.