Biblical Theology: Scripture Is Not Our Dog
In the 1984 film Irreconcilable Differences, an elementary-aged girl named Casey attempts to divorce her parents—both of them. While the movie explores the madness of her parents’ marriage, the audience learns that the parents have a history of neglecting Casey during the split. Quite simply, they chose to focus on their own soap-operatic and narcissistic life journeys. These parents did not suppose that their child might have something to say about their own behavior, that she might offer an astute observation of their blatant shortcomings, or that she might even desire a change in her current relationship with her parents.
But the daughter is finally heard by the judge when they are determining whether or not a child can legally separate from her own parents. In that courtroom scene, it finally becomes clear to everyone that Casey has something to say about how she should be treated:
I think if you have a child, you should treat that child like a human being and not a pet. Not like you treat your dog or somethin’. You know, when you have a dog sometimes you remember him and you remember how cute he is and stuff and you kiss him a lot, but then the next day when you’re busy again you don’t notice him. That’s how I’ve been treated for the past four years and you don’t treat your kid like your dog. It’s not right.
A pet has no part in the family compact. We have never asked our pet hamsters what they think of moving to a new home or our vacation schedule, because we presume they would have nothing to say on the matter. We do accommodate them, even seeking out hamster-sitters when we are away, but it is assumed that Snuggie has nothing to say about how we conceive of our family or live out those conceptions. But this is Casey’s grudge: She is accommodated, even loved, but she effectively has no say, possibly because her parents presume that she does not know or care enough to speak into the life of the family.
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So it goes with biblical theology, that unless we heed both the Scripture’s content (what it says) and its form (how it says it), we risk making God’s revelation into our dog, or hamster: an object of affection that has no real say in the formation of our theology. It is unarguably clear that God wants us to know the world and to know it theologically, adducing and imaginatively engaging the Scriptures in order to live before others as we trust Him. After all, this is the life pictured for us in first Psalm.
But how do we work theologically from what is essentially a narrative, the story of Israel? And just as importantly, does the storyteller get a say in how we are theologically shaped?
The Scriptures Should Shape Our Theology
The use of Scripture to develop a “theology of X” presumes that these Christian texts have something to say about “X” and that it speaks sufficiently concerning “X.” For instance, to my knowledge no one has bothered to develop a theology of chasms, although there is mention of them in one of Jesus’s parables (Luke 16:19-31). A passing reference in a parable does not pass muster for grounding a theology developed from Scripture. However, a preliminary query, which is admittedly easy to breeze past, concerns whether or not Scripture has something to say about how we are to use the Scriptures themselves. This is a matter of Scripture’s own epistemology: how we creatures are created to know and how the use of Scripture participates in our epistemological shaping.
Of our constitution as knowing creatures, we look to the Scriptures for a description—how we were created to know and the stories of definitive epistemological success and failure. To understand how the Scriptures shape our theology, we consider their literary form—how God chose story as the primary form to reveal Himself to Israel and to us today. For both, we must have some checks to ensure that Scripture does not become our pet, that object of affection which has no real formative role in shaping us as knowers.
Anecdotally, whenever I maintain that the Christian Scriptures have within them a robust theory of knowledge, the most common response from scholars is something like this: “The Scriptures obviously care about knowledge, but do not speak to epistemology directly”—much the same way that Scripture cares about ecological or political matters, but only speaks to them by inference. So, implicit to any attempt to derive an epistemology from the Bible is a view that one is merely “reading my view into the text.” Whatever theory of knowledge I believe I see in the Scriptures would presumably say more about my epistemology than an ancient Semitic one.
But fresh biblical scholarship has recently erupted that focuses on the philosophical content of the Scripture. There is also a similar renewal in Jewish scholarship. Some Jewish scholars are questioning the assumption that the Hebrew Bible is categorically different than the foundations of Greek thought.
So there are two matters we must establish: First, exploring an epistemology from the Christian Scriptures presumes that these texts have something to say about knowing, and what are better and worse routes to meaningful knowledge. And second, the Bible’s description of our path to knowing circumscribes the way in which we can use Scripture to develop our theology, a biblical theology. When surveying the epistemological content of the Tanakh (that is, the Old Testament) and New Testament, we find that they have much to say about knowing—from knowledge of good and evil to knowing trustworthy prophecy apart from presumptive prophecy. What we cannot miss is that the form of Scripture is structured in story, which emulates the epistemology being described within Scripture as well.
The Scriptures Have Something To Say About Knowledge
In my book, Biblical Knowing: A Scriptural Epistemology of Error (Cascade, 2013), I argued that there is a single process of knowing that pervades the Old and New Testaments. I would like to offer a terse synopsis of that work here.
Essentially, the Scriptures focus meticulously on the process by which knowers come to know properly, rather than aiming at a thoroughgoing description of an end-product called “knowledge.” For instance, one of the most evocative occasions of knowing happens right at the head of the Old Testament: Genesis 2–3. The Eden narrative has been well worn by scholars and pastors alike, but it’s worth pointing out that the story never resolves what exactly is the content of “knowledge of good and evil,” the supposed product. Nor is that vernacular—”knowledge of good and evil”—employed in the rest of the Tanakh to describe moral knowledge, as has so often been suggested. However, the passage does incisively explore the process by which two knowers came to very definitive knowledge and the factors that guided them in the epistemological process. Those factors are twofold: first, listening to the voice of the serpent, and second, embodying his instructions.
In Genesis 3:17, God begins his curse of the man with this: “Because you listened to the voice of your wife [and listened to the serpent by implication] and ate of the fruit of the tree . . .” The indictment is simply that the man listened to a voice other than God’s and consequentially embodied an action forbidden by God. In fact, this is the only diagnosis of error in Eden for the entirety of the Old Testament.
The idea that knowledge begins with listening to the appropriate authority is exotic to many conceptions of epistemology and might appear tenuous even here. But the question God asks the man upon finding him in Genesis 3 is instructive. Notice that He does not ask the man, “How did you deduce this knowledge of your nakedness?” Rather, he asks the man, “Who told you?” God appears to presume that this knowledge came by listening to someone other than God. There was another voice in Eden.
The knowledge process in Scripture centers on procedure, where an authoritative voice guides the knowers to see the thing being shown. That authority is most often a prophet (or prophet—like) in the history of Israel up through the early church. When knowers submit to the authority’s voice and bodily participate in the process, then they come to see what is being shown to them. This seeing is called something like knowledge (or even wisdom!). Knowing, then, has no guarantee of ending in proper knowledge, as it is contingent upon the voices to which we submit ourselves.
This trend continues in the book of Exodus, which opens with an epistemological crux: “Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). When confronted by Moses and Aaron, the subsequent pharaoh responds with similar unease: “Who is YHWH, that I should listen to his voice and let Israel go? I do not know YHWH, and moreover, I will not let Israel go” (Exodus 5:2). Because the pharaoh refuses to “listen to his [Moses’s] voice,” he will come to know YHWH as an outside oppressor of Egypt. Israel, on the other hand, listens to Moses and embodies his instructions, and so comes to know YHWH as her God.
What captivates the reader is YHWH’s acute intentionality to bring the pharaoh to a particular knowledge. If the pharaoh is ignorant about YHWH, then YHWH will cause him to know. Notice YHWH’s statements, nine of them, that punctuate the plagues and express God’s reasons for sending them: “So that you [pharaoh] will know . . .” (e.g., Exodus 7:17; 8:22; 9:14; 11:7; 14:4, and so on). But, these plagues were also sent so that Israel would know that YHWH is her God (see 6:7; 10:2). Do these texts have something definitive to say about knowing? Yes.
It comes as no surprise then that Jesus initially aims at being listened to. His speech often began strategically with the Deuteronomic phrase, “He who has ears to listen, let him listen.” Even the disciples were struggling to know the kingdom of God as it was being demonstrated to them because they were struggling to listen to Jesus and do what he prescribed. The disciples themselves pose their dumbfoundedness about Jesus in the question, “Who is this, that even the wind and the sea listen to him?” (Mark 4:41). In the transfiguration account, which most of us recollect as a highly visual account, God’s voice comes down from the heavens to say just one thing of Jesus: “Listen to him” (Mark 9:7).3
Jesus does not focus on the idea that Israel must see what he is showing them, but that they can only see if they listen to him as the authoritative prophetic voice accredited to Israel by God. Jesus’s mother, among other wise women in the gospels, understands that the ability to know what the kingdom of God is like requires servants who listen to Jesus’s instructions and do exactly what he says (John 2).
The Christian Scriptures have this mind about them, that knowing happens in community and in a process. Failure to know properly is equated with failure to listen to the voice of an authenticated prophet and/or failure to follow that authority’s directions. Importantly, this is not an epistemology of religious knowledge, but accounts for all-knowing. T.F. Torrance (and more recently Esther Meek) has been adept at popularizing and translating Michael Polanyi’s scientific epistemology into theology. In Polanyi’s description of scientific epistemology, we find priority placed both on knowledge being authoritatively guided in communities and requiring embodied participation in order to know. So what we see in Scripture comports with much more than mere “religious knowledge.”
With these emphases before us, we can now consider the implications of an authoritatively conscious epistemology, where the priority must be placed upon acknowledgment of and submitting to the prophetic authorities that God promised to raise up through Israel (Deuteronomy 18).
Story Masters Us (And Scripture Is Story)
It is not controversial to claim that the Old and New Testaments center upon recounting history. Together, they tell the story of Israel. So while the genres of poetry, wisdom, and epistle are clearly not telling a story, these non-narrative parts of Scripture are contingent upon the totalizing story of Israel in order to make any sense. For instance, the reason as to why Israel would sing a song of praise is even framed in narrative terms: “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously. The horse and his rider He has thrown into the sea” (Exodus 15:1). Moses sings, a non-narrative genre, but his song is grounded exclusively in the exodus story. The embodied actions prescribed in the Bible-singing, sacrificing, writing, feasting, fasting, meditating, camping, releasing debts, and more—all presume the story of Israel. Even one of the greatest commandments is predicated upon the story. Although it has been reductively moralized in the West, the justification of the Golden Rule is contextualized to Israel’s story with story: “For you all were strangers in the land of Egypt” (see Leviticus 19:18, 34). This storied grounding makes the ethic remarkably different from Buddha’s semblance of the Golden Rule or Kant’s categorical imperative.
In the New Testament, the gospel accounts of Luke and John are self-reflective about their special role in telling the story of Jesus (John 21:30-31; Luke 1:1-4). The fact that these writers chose story and not sutra, for example, is significant. This was not the case with pseudepigrapha like the Gospel of Thomas, or even later texts such as the Nestorian gospels that were translated for the T’ang dynasty emperor in seventh-century China. Those authors preferred aphorism and sutra-like sayings over narrative structure. This is to say that story was not a necessary form for relating the content of the Gospel, but it is the chosen form preserved in our canon. The epistles, like the psalms and wisdom literature that preceded them, presume the narrative of Israel in order to be basically coherent.
That the Scriptures should be conceived of primarily as narrative gives them a particular role to play in shaping us as knowers. Scripture, when seen as story, emulates the epistemological process described within itself because in narratives, the narrator leads the reader by narrative logic.
Narratives have a logic internal to them that restricts the range of exposition. Settings, characters, conflicts, plot tensions, climaxes, resolutions, and continuing actions all work together logically. This means that if we can accurately identify a conflict, then the resolution must necessarily follow, even if it does so in an unanticipated manner (for a great example of an unexpected resolution, see 1 Kings 21:17-19; 22:35-38). The telling of a story is a process, and in order to know what the storyteller is trying to show you, then you must participate in the process. Hearing, seeing, and reading a story all require imaginative participation—which means that we embody a process to see where it goes. But it’s not an open-ended or indeterminate process.
Stories are constrained by the narrative’s logic. When Jesus picks up the first loaf of bread in Mark 6:30-44, we might not have guessed exactly what he was going to do, but Jesus could not have done just anything. For instance, he could not have pulled out a laser pointer and used it to play with the local cats.
The narrators of the gospels ensure that Jesus of Nazareth, the roundest character in the New Testament, surprises us in his response to the Syro-Phonecian woman (Mark 7:24-30), the one leper who returned (Luke 17:11-19), and the Samaritan at the well (John 4). While we could not have seen through the plot twists, nothing in the plots violated the narrative logic. Unlike syllogisms, narratives can retain an internal logical structure without telegraphing the exact conclusions.
Recalling that the biblical epistemology places an absolute priority on identifying and apprenticing under an authority accredited to Israel, narratives then model the epistemology that Scripture describes. The narrator acts as the authoritative voice guiding the reader to see what the narrator is showing them. They parallel the very behavior they are describing. The narrator could choose to focus the logic of the narrative on only one or two aspects of the events where dozens might be available. Indeed, John’s Gospel is overt about the narrator’s discretion (John 20:30-31). That discretion makes the epistemology of narrative especially sensitive to the role of authority in knowing.
For instance, in the attempted sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22), the narrator is clearly not interested in bringing the reader to answer questions such as this one: What kind of a god would ask a man to kill his only son? While this is the pressing question foremost in many readers’ minds, the narrator chooses instead to direct our attention to the fact that YHWH is testing Abraham and Abraham then interprets the whole scene as an act of YHWH’s provision. Even the editorial comment at the end of the attempted sacrifice highlights YHWH’s provision, not his request for a boy to be killed (Genesis 22:14b).
Narratives, then, have a logic and authoritative voice that resist attempts to theologically bend them beyond what the narrator is trying to accomplish by means of the story. The epistemological process described in the content of Scripture and the fact that its mode of shaping us is in the form of narrative means that there are better and worse uses of Scripture in theological discourse—ways which reflect the type of epistemological shaping that Scripture is trying to accomplish and ways in which we can bend the Scripture beyond its ability to shape knowers.
Scripture is not our dog. It’s not even our hamster. It does not bend to our whims. If we want to treat it like our pet, then it should be pictured as something akin to Cain’s sin (Genesis 4:6): crouching at our door and desiring to rule over us! The story of Israel, given to the church in the Old and New Testaments, masters us. The epistemological process by which it brings us to know the Creator and creation involves the systematic submission to the narrator, the authoritative guide in coming to know the world as a creature of it.
Some considerations for the practice of biblical theology are manifest. First, if we are to know the cosmos in the way described in Scripture, then our epistemological priorities are derivative of two questions that Scripture implies: To whom should we be listening? And then, are we embodying the instructions of our authorities so that we can come to know the things they are showing us?
Theologies of X must submit to the authenticated authoritative voice of the narrator, even where it pains us. Although the narrator of Genesis eschews the moral coherence of God’s request to kill in favor of focusing the reader upon God’s provision, we can and must certainly seek to answer many of those questions within the story of Israel writ large, but always be willing to circumscribe our pursuits to the Scriptural priority: What is the narrator trying to show us? Because the narrator is expert, he gets a say in how we conceive of the story.
It seems to me that the kingdom that Jesus envisions would be well served if we were to reconcile ourselves to this one immovable conviction: Knowing begins with the voice to which we submit. And the process of knowing that ensues is centered around our genuflection to the voice of God through His prophets and the Holy Spirit, who promises to guide us in all truth (a truth pictured in the Spirit’s highest fidelity to the voice to which He listens as well; John 16:13).
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