This post continues my series on biblical theology. Thus far:
1 Introduction to Biblical Theology
2a Revelation (From Text to Scripture)
2b Revelation (NT Understanding of Scripture)
With this post I want to finish the section "From Text to Scripture."
Another key insight is to recognize that this entire way of talking about revelation focuses on the head, on understanding. One of the insights of modern times, no doubt known informally throughout history, is that there is much more to us than what is merely going on in our conscious minds and our uttered words. Our words are only a shadowy reflection of what the Bible often calls our hearts.
The "heart" is a metaphor for the part of us that orients our actions. It is our will and the longings that most direct it. To expand the words of 1 Samuel 16:7, "God looks on the heart." In that passage, Samuel is implying that external appearance can be deceiving. But the words we say are part of our external appearance. And as it has turned out, the mere words of our unspoken mind also turn out to be often superficial to our true motivations and desires.
Truly powerful revelation would not just tell us how to think. It would change us. It would change our desires and our will to act in certain ways. To use an often repeated distinction, we would know God in a personal sense and not just in the manner of "head knowledge."
To think of the Bible only or even primarily in terms of telling us what to think is not only horribly myopic. It is fundamentally skewed. It is skewed first because it does not take into account the actual genres of the Bible itself.
A narrative does have implications for what we are to think but they are implicit in the story. More fundamentally, a story draws you in. You identify with one of the characters. The story can reveal who you really are and what you should be. This is a much more transformative and existential operation than merely collecting a set of beliefs.
The psalms largely do not tell us what to believe or even how to act. They are catalysts for us to express our feeling of sorrow, anger, and hope. This is an emotional, not primarily a cognitive function.
The bottom line is that the genres of the Bible do not translate most naturally into a set of propositional beliefs. They are much more matters of the heart and the will than the mind. They involve the mind. They have implications for the mind, but it is the mind on a more fundamental level than some credo or set of beliefs.
A second skew is the fact that the vast majority of biblical texts were written to address audiences in the distant past. Paul's letters addressed the situations of local churches in the ancient Mediterranean world. The books of the Old Testament were written for ancient Israel. It's sacrificial law related to sanctuaries that have been gone for millennia. Its civil law to a nation that has not existed for the same amount of time. Even the gospels implicitly addressed a different time and place.
We can certainly draw timeless truths from the Bible, but we do so with most integrity when we are fully aware of the distance between then and now, between their contexts and our contexts. If we are thus to use the traditional model of revelation, then, we must think of these books first as God's revelations to them. We are not them. These books were at least written to them. In terms of truths, we must then determine how to translate those truths to our contexts.
On the other hand, if we see revelation more on personal and transformative terms, then we often take away the timeless without realizing that we are not reading the words with the same import they might originally have had. Through the Spirit, we experience them as God wants us to. The danger is of course that we can be (and often are) mistaken in what God is saying or trying to do in us. This is why we best read Scripture together, in fellowship. This is why it is good for us to have scholars around who have done their homework on the likely original meanings...
Next weekend maybe: God's speakings