Thoughts on the Bible

Haden Clark over at Help Me Believe shared an article by Jeffrey Poor of Rethink concerning the relationship between the Old and New Testament. I wrote a comment that criticized the original article on the premise that it suggested that there was a difference in how God work in each Testament. I’ve decided to expand on that comment in this post and explore a little deeper into the relationship between the Old and New Testaments and reading and understanding the Bible in general.

I encourage you to read the original post on Rethink and I’ve posted my full comment here:

I am not sure if I agree that God seems mean in the OT because he is “operating under a different set of rules” and that “when Jesus entered the picture he changed everything.” Everything that is contained with the NT is hidden in the OT. The reason for this is because the core message of the OT the covenant between God and humanity is revealed in the NT through the Body of Christ and His sacrifice for our salvation. I think that the problem with this post is that it starts from a premise that the OT and NT are different, unique and distinct which they are not, both are a unifying force of each other. I like to think of the OT as a giant forest with trees, and rocks and small streams and uneven pathways. We walk through this forest without the NT and without Christ in the dark. Our foot hits something hard on the ground and we can reason and suppose it to be a rock. Walk into something wet, and assume it is a stream. By the end of walking through this forest we get a pretty good idea of what the whole area is like (little stream here, big tree there, hike up a hill over there) but it is not the full and complete picture because we did it in the dark. Christ is like a giant flashlight, now we know that the wet thing we walk through was a stream, but that hard thing our foot hit was actually a stump and not a rock (close before, but now we know for certain what it is). The OT is like a facet dripping slowly overnight and the NT is the sink that is filled with water at the end, and if I want to beat this analogy to death, Christ would be plug in the drain keeping the water held together.

I think that the first place to start when we talk about the Bible as a whole to is to understand that the Bible is not entirely a Christian object. It is a collection of books that stretch over 3000 years, through many different eras from the perspective of many different people with many different faiths and written originally in many different languages (many of which do not even exist today). There is a tendency among Christians to ascribe a singularly Christian (and I’ll even add modern western) perspective on the entire Bible which has no historical or theological support.

When we start from the premise that the Bible is in fact a collection of many books with many perspectives, interpretations, translations, understandings, themes, lessons and imagery we can automatically understand why there are entire faculties of learning dedicated to the study of this wonderful book. From viewing the Bible holistically, splitting it in two by the Old and New Testament or deep into each book and letter individually, we gain a better understanding of the deposit of faith through the Word of God present in the Bible. We can even understand why some strains of Christianity, especially those more catholic oriented, insisted upon the interpretation of the Word of God falling to a formal magestrium that brings together the whole of the Deposit of Faith. We can also gain a better understanding why some Christians reel at the thought of the Word of God being capable of being read and understood by any single person at any single point in time– I would wager that this concept is one of the great failings of the protestant wing of Christianity. It fundamentally undermines the realities of the Bible as a sacred text that spans thousands of years. It immaturely presupposes that a person brought up in a western world removed completely from the world present in the Bible can somehow pick up the book and simply “get it.” If that was honestly the case we wouldn’t need Jesus, and we wouldn’t need the Holy Spirit because from the moment the Israelites were brought out of Egypt they would have “got it” and everything would have been fine.

When we pick up the Bible there is a temptation to want to open the cover and start reading. Doing so is certainly one way to take in the Word of God but doing so will also generate confusion. Genesis was certainly not the first book written in the Bible, it actually has two creation stories and is hard to understand if read literally without an understanding of Jewish literary techniques. For example, in the OT we are told that Abraham lived to be 175. No human has actually lived to be 175. We can watch some Christian bend and twist in order to provide “reasoning” why this is the case for Abraham, but there is a simple explanation albeit one with profound implications for how to interpret the Bible as a whole. It is in fact a common Jewish literary device to ascribe a long life to being in favour with God. This comes from the Jewish understanding of sin which supposed that the cause of sin and death in general was being unfavorable with God (for whatever reason). Thus, the flip side of this is to promote the fact that a person is in favour with God by adding years on to his life in the story. A Jew living in the desert hundreds of years before Christ would not have read that part of Genesis and thought, “oh my Abraham lived for a long time” he would have thought, “Abraham had great favour with God.” It is for that reason that Abraham’s age is even mentioned in the Bible.

Another good example of the dangers of jumping into the Bible without any sort background is when we talk about dinosaurs. I have heard some pretty amazingly irrational arguments as to why the Bible never mentioned dinosaurs. We have their bones plain as day before us today. We can use technology from the brains that God gave us to even date the bones in order to better understand our world. From undermining the very legitimate science (without any reason evidence other than the Bible) to claiming that dinosaurs and man lived on earth together (insane with absolutely no science to back it up) to even claiming that Satan put the bones in the earth to make us question God (probably with the assistance of Darwin himself somehow), Christians the world over have bent over backwards to explain the dearth of something so real and so present before us today in the Bible. And yet there is a simple explanation. The Jews in the desert didn’t have time to sit around and dig up dinosaurs (especially while in exile which is when most of the best parts of the OT were written down), they never even had a concept or understanding of their existence. So of course they do not make their way into the Bible. They also have no relevance on any stories or lessons within the OT. The whole purpose of the creation stories in Genesis are not about how God made the world (we will never know that while here on earth, even with the Bible) but that He made it and it was good and pleasing to Him and even more so it is about Him creating mankind in His image and marking us uniquely among His other creations. So we have to ask ourselves, when we dive into the creation story and take the seven days literally or the listing of animals created in the process literally are we really taking away from the story what we are supposed to take away? I say no absolutely not, we miss the mark when we undermine the Biblical teaching and focus on the wrong aspects of the story.

It might seem like I have digressed a little from my point but I am going to bring it all home now. Reading the OT and NT is a lot like how we approach the Bible as a whole. The law contained with the OT makes no sense if we do not have the teachings of Christ to back it up. Just the same as reading the OT requires us to have a broad understanding of Jewish theology, culture and literacy, so too does it require us to have a deep understanding of the NT. And in typically God fashion, it all hangs together (to steal a C.S. Lewis line) and comes back full circle. We cannot understand or grasp the importance of the NT without the messages and the coding in the OT. Together each book forms the yin and the yang and each have an eye within each other. Amazing how even the composition of the Bible itself is a fingerprint of the nature of God and man here on earth!

In closing, I firmly believe that it is fallacy and a vector for Satan to do his most effective work to attempt to interpret the Bible on a personal basis. We need the Church, we need our history, we need the history of the authors and we need a broad understanding of the cultures at play. We also need the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is amazing that we are able to hold this book in our hands and that it has been compiled and bound over two thousands years plus and counting.

God be praised!

The Incarnation

It is fitting that in this final week (yes it is still the Third Week of Advent, but Christmas day comes very shortly after the Fourth Sunday of Advent this year) we reflect on the doctrine of the Incarnation and its meaning within Christianity and specifically the catholic church.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

This is the foundational line from the Gospels that articulate in a sort of mystic way the Incarnation of Jesus as both God and child. There is a story of the birth of Jesus in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew (and virtually no mention of the story in the Gospel of Mark) but I think that this line from John is perfect. It is simple and yet terribly complex; which is a spot on summation of a foundational event in Christianity. Indeed, what separates Christianity from every world religion is found within the Incarnation; a God who comes down and becomes fully human while remaining fully God.

In the original Greek versions of the Gospel, John writes ‘the Word’ as Logos, which is a very important idea worth exploring some more as we speak of the Incarnation. The Logos was almost purely a Greek concept that was imported into various sects within worlds that were influenced by the Greeks (at that time the Greeks were like the United States when it came to culture and arts). It can literally be translated into English as the Word, which works well because such a label is illusive and broad, just the same as that of the Logos. The early catholic church was without question influenced by Greek culture and society. One of its biggest salesmen was Paul who was a hellenistic Jew that spoke and wrote in Greek. And rounding the early first century within the early church we see leaders like Justin Martyr and Cyril of Alexandria link the Logos to that of the Greek understanding of the concept; a seed-bearing Logos that would spread ideas of itself around humanity and then having that Logo dwell in humanity in the form of Jesus the man and Christ the Lord. Cyril of Alexandria himself would go further and add that the coming of Jesus through the Incarnation occurred in order that the Logos may be united to defiled human flesh thus making all humanity capable of sharing in His divinity. It is also interesting to note how early church fathers placed a clear distinction on Jesus as the Messiah (a purely Jewish concept) and Jesus as the Christ (a more hellenized concept). Despite the word itself being purely of Greek origins, it is likely that many gentile Greeks who would have been preached to about Jesus Christ would have assumed it was a familia nom as opposed to a title that bequeathed universal glory. But it was an intentional development by the church fathers which was undoubtably influenced by the Holy Spirit.

Saint Augustine writes that, “He whom the world could not contain was contained in a mother’s womb,” when remarking about the Incarnation. C.S. Lewis writes in a Grief Observed that “…the Incarnation leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins.” I am rather fond of this aspect of the Incarnation. It is indeed a concept that could not have been reasonably conceived by humans. It is impossible that anyone would have proposed and organized an entire religion around the idea of a God who becomes the nasty and brutishness of their creation. It separates Christians from every other religion in the world. Jesus had spit like we have spit. The coming of the Word in the form of flesh gives us a focal point in the material world in which all of humanity (and creation for that matter) is limited to. It is as if God is one cloth hanging against a separate cloth and creation is another hanging against it. They are separated at first, but are now united by the needle and thread that is Jesus Christ, made of the same substance of the Father and of the Father in every way, the Word becomes flesh and becomes the mediated between God and man forever. An entire focal point for all of creation. He breathed as we breathe (and probably had bad breath from time to time). He bled like we bleed. And yet He was totally God. There were no changes made to the Word when it became flesh, it remained fully and completely the Word, in addition to being full and completely human. And we know that He was different because although He spit as we spit, His spit made the blind see. And although He breathed as we breathe, His breath brought dead men back to life. And although He bled as we bleed, His blood paid the ransom for all of humanity as a result of the Adam’s Fall. He was both fully human and fully man.

And what better sacrament to we have in the catholic church than that of the Holy Eucharist to articulate this concept for us. Every day the Incarnation is not just replayed or reenacted at the hands of the Priest, it literally happens again and again. Since it was instituted by the Word made flesh. The bread and wine brought to the altar become the body and blood of Jesus in the same was as the body and blood brought into Mary bore a child that was the power and glory of God. And just the same as the body of Christ tastes and feels like bread even after the miracle of transubstantiation takes place on the altar, the body of the Son of God was like that of a human. If I can digress a bit here, and be permitted to indulge in a silly analogy in order to better illustrate my point. Suppose one of the children who came rushing to Jesus licked His face or hand, indeed His face would have tasted salty as ours and His hands probably clammy and perhaps a little dirty as our at times do as well. The same is true of the bread and wine after it becomes the body and blood of Jesus. And yet the saltiness, clamminess and dirtiness of the flesh of Jesus certainly does not diminish His glory and the fact that He is the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God and the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.

In fact we can venture to say with certainty that there is no Eucharist without the Incarnation and vice versa. Not just for the obvious fact that the Incarnation was how the man of Jesus was conceived into this world, but because you cannot have the body and blood of Christ without the flesh and veins of a human being. For reasons we will never be able to comprehend (but in faith we hope some day will be revealed to us), we require the body and blood of Christ as Christians for spiritual and temporal nourishment as part of the physical Body of Christ here on earth. In order for this life giving substance to exist and to be present here, God needed to take the form of man and literally create the body and blood of Christ in order that it may be shared from generation to generation to nourish the entire Body of Christ while we labour and wait for His Second Coming. The Logos became flesh and blood so that we may share and nourish on it indefinitely until He returns in glory. What an amazing cyclical existence and surely one that contributes to the entire concept of Christianity and a truth “hanging together” as C.S. Lewis once remarked.

Much can be said about the Incarnation of our Lord. It is after all the defining characteristic of the whole of the Christian faith. Along with the Holy Eucharist, the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ, we can look upon the Incarnation as linked faithfully to the Eucharist. Together they represent the two stable and everlasting bookends that is the Christian faith.