movie review – Killing Jesus

killing jesusKilling Jesus is a TV-movie adaptation of Bill O’Reilly’s work of the same name. The purpose of this movie seems to be to build a more historical portrait of Jesus, rather than the influx of spiritually focused TV films. The setting is very convincing as most actors actually look Middle Eastern and the filming was done in the desert of Morocco. The architectural detail is also convincing, especially during scenes of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. One has to wonder if they are not re-experiencing life in the Jewish religious tradition of the first century.

Killing Jesus stars Haaz Sleiman (a young Muslim actor famous for his voice work in the Assassin’s Creed video games) as an uncertain and soft spoken Jesus of Nazareth. The cast also is not shy to other famous names: Rufus Sewell, John Rhys-Davies, and Kelsey Grammer. This miniseries does not suffer from the same casting mistakes as Exodus: Gods and Kings.

Jesus, at times, is as surprised about his own miracles as others. Jesus learns who he is from Peter in an awkward scene when he asks his disciples who they think he is. Throughout the miniseries, Jesus’ primary message is one of ethics. There is always a slight hesitance and uncertainty in everything Jesus says. It is as if Jesus says something, not knowing if it is true or not, and then evaluates and accepts the claim. This tends to be slightly comical at times.

The scenes are generally well acted and believable. Jesus is born in Bethlehem. Herod pretends to want to see the new King but instead sends troops to kill young children. The events are brutal and compelling, as Herod’s soldiers rip children away from mothers and cut down resisters.

John the Baptist is beheaded in a similarly shocking and compelling scene. The Biblical account was modified to having Herodias and Salome fabricate the plan in advance due to their mutual hatred of John’s ministry. They plot to seduce Antipas into killing John the Baptist through an exotic dance. Herod Antipas poses the terms before the dance and is not reluctant when the request to behead John is revealed during the dance. In an odd twist, Salome is said to have bad dreams of John’s head from that point forward. I am not sure what that adds to the plot.

One negative about this series is that it both focuses on spiritualizing historical Christianity with bias towards modern theology. For example, in one scene the wife of Pontius Pilate wonders when she will meet the Jewish God. Pontius Pilate responds that the Jews believe God is omnipresent and invisible. Why is this scene included in the miniseries? What is agenda is being pressed?

Rural Jews in Israel could be hardly said to accept omnipresence. There was a strong tradition of God inhabiting the temple sporadically through Israel’s life. Two historical Jews that seem to have accepted omnipresence are Josephus and Philo (Philo in a more philosophical and Platonic sense), but there is little evidence that the Jews in general believed this. In the gospels, Jesus reinforced the claim that the temple is God’s house during the cleansing of the temple:

Mat 21:13 He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.”

Another inaccuracy from the same scene is that any Gentile expected to meet any god, especially in upper class Roman society. Most Greeks, except for laymen, had long ago abandoned the gods of Homer. Mystery Cultism was vogue, as well as Platonism, Stoicism, and Epicureans. It was definitely a scene that could have been cut.

Probably the worst part is the depiction of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ ministry is changed from one of a coming Kingdom of God (filled with imagery of angels slaughtering the wicked), to a half-hearted and vague teaching of ethics. The Kingdom of God is spiritualized. The disciples are shown to hold the belief and are left wondering why God’s army of angels does not materialize. There is a scene in which James and John ask to sit on the right and left of Jesus in the Kingdom of God. In the show, Jesus becomes astonished and claims that the question fundamentally misunderstands his ministry. The writer is making it seem as if an Earthly kingdom with thrones was not part of Jesus’ eschatology. The actual exchange suggests the exact opposite. In Jesus’ Kingdom, there would be those on his left and right although he had no right to choose those individuals:

Mar 10:35 And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
Mar 10:36 And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?”
Mar 10:37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
Mar 10:38 Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”
Mar 10:39 And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized,
Mar 10:40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

The Biblical narrative suggests Jesus believes that the Kingdom of God will have a right and left hand to his throne. Throne imagery is consistent in early Kingdom preaching, and does not seem figurative. The Kingdom of God was to be a real place. O’Reilly does not seem to want to add the very historical understanding of the Kingdom of God in his historical narrative of Jesus. And one very strange thing he skips is the resurrection of Jesus, which is depicted as a kind of spiritual resurrection.

Other complaints are minor. Jesus lacks enthusiasm when overturning the temple tables. He picks up the money and starts handing it out. Jesus is baptized fully clothed (which probably is a good historical anachronism), the Sanhedrin is shown as having general power to execute people. There are other nitpicky items, but they are minor.

There are a lot of small details that I enjoyed seeing. Jesus is a toddler when the wise men reach him. The film makes much of the Pharisees and Sadducees attempting to trick Jesus, such as a trap with a coin of Caesar. The film makes clear the various roles of Herod, Pontius Pilate, Antipas, Herodias, Ciaspas, Caiaphas and Annas. It is a good overview of Jesus’ life.

In all, the miniseries is very good. It gives a more realistic portrayal of ancient life than any competing film. The characters are not wooden. It towers about other TV movies, which portray Jesus as if he was psychotically happy or immovably stoic. In Killing Jesus, Jesus is given a personality and acts like a person. The disciples are given individual motivations (as well as Jesus’ enemies). If a hybrid movie were to be made with Killing Jesus spliced with Mel Gibson’s The Passion, it would probably be the best Jesus film in existence.

Posted in Bible, Church Fathers, History, Jesus | Leave a comment

philo on omnipresence

From On Sobriety:

(63) But God is said to dwell in a house, not as in respect of place (for he contains everything and is contained by nothing), but as in a most especial degree exerting his providence and care in favour of that place; for it follows inevitably in the case of every one who is master of a house that he has a particular care for that house.

Posted in God, Omnipresence | Leave a comment

critical thinking applied to psalms 139

6a0133ecf0a174970b01b8d0c588ac970cIn Psalms 139, the text possibly claims that God knows all words before they exit the mouth (I am purposely using an ambiguous sentence):

Psa 139:4 For there is not a word on my tongue, But behold, O LORD, You know it altogether.

Competent individuals have claimed that this passage negates Open Theism. Other competent individuals do not believe as much. From a Facebook comment by Gene on GodisOpen:

Even before there is a word on my tongue, Behold, my daughter knows it all. It’s uncanny. Almost like we have lived together so long she really knows me, who I am, and how I think. She will even say sometimes, “I know what you are thinking.” And she is right.

Gene’s idea is that people might know each other so well they can be said to know what is on the other person’s mind before it is said. In other words, the verse is a generality and based on personal knowledge.

Both views are advocated by rational people. Rational people can disagree. But how is a third party to determine who has the more probable understanding?

The purpose of this article is to use Psalms 139:4 to explore how proper critical thinking deals with any Biblical text (using this specific text as an example). The specific question which will be explored is “in what way and with what mechanism does the author believe God knows words before they are on the tongue”.

Step 1 – Brainstorming

The first action should be brainstorming.

Psa 139:4 For there is not a word on my tongue, But behold, O LORD, You know it altogether.

Possible meanings include:

Future Omniscience – God knows all events, past and future, and thus has all the author’s words in mind. [This seems to be the most popular view.]

General Relationship – Because God knows all people, God generally knows how people think and can determine what they will say though personal relationship. [This seems to be the most common Open Theist view.]

Fatalism - God knows people like we know computers and can look at our input-output to determine what will happen given certain inputs. God knows the future because God knows all input-output code. [This is a view that could be claimed by certain Calvinists and certain theistic fatalists.]

Personal Relationship – God is so familiar and personal with the author (not necessarily everyone else on Earth) and thus knows what David will say. [This is an Open Theist view, not to be confused with General Relationship. In this scenario, God does not necessarily hold the same relationship with all people, but only the speaker.]

Mechanical Knowledge – God can read minds. The mind thinks the thoughts before they are said and thus God can intercept thoughts to know them before they are spoken. [This is a view sometimes claimed by Open Theists.]

Metaphor/Generality – This sentence is fully or partly figurative and idiomatic, meaning a concept similar to knowing words of people before they are spoken. [Any text in the Bible can be a generality or idiom.]

Enigma – This sentence is figurative and idiomatic representing something not familiar to modern readers and unable to be determined. [This is usually the least preferred route, as it is entirely speculative and unable to be proved. This can be adopted when the text is highly inconsistent within the same context.]

To be sure, this list is not exhaustive. With this list, we can determine the variables in the sentence that might have several possible meanings. This can be easily morphed into a formula, where the variables can be mixed and matched. The question can be modeled as such:

God has (absolute / general) knowledge of the words (King David / everyone) is going to say through (future omniscience / personal relationship / mechanical knowledge / fatalism). [Alternatively, the entire sentence is a metaphor and is not actually about God knowing words.]

The trick is to pick the right variables and not every set of variables plays nice together. For example, future omniscience is incompatible with general knowledge, because general knowledge requires imprecise knowledge about the future.

Step 2 – Examine Probabilities

The next step is examining the evidence and assigning how much each evidence supports or does not support the statement in question. The only evidence for Psalms 139:4 is the immediate context and the context of King David’s other writings (maybe culture context as well). The immediate context should be of primary importance as essays and narratives tend to have a unifying theme. While authors can contradict themselves over several writings (stressing different points in different contexts), it is less likely to encounter this in a single narrative.

Every evidence from the context should be examined in light of each possible meaning. If the author means Mechanical Knowledge then would the evidence under examination be consistent with the Psalms 139:4 using the same meaning? If Personal Relationship is true, would the author write this evidence in a different way to complement the idea of Psalms 139:4?

The context is most likely written in a way fortifying and complementary to that correct interpretation. For example, if David’s point is that God can predict based on inputs like a computer, then other verses make mention or be consistent with God examining data input. If David’s point is about God knowing the future, then David should speak as if God not only knows the future, and should not write in a fashion that would be unnatural for that view. If David’s point is about God knowing him personally, and not necessarily anyone else, the text should be focused on David with little hint to general applicability.

So, what is the context?

Psa 139:1 For the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David. O LORD, You have searched me and known me.

King David believes God searches him in some fashion and then knows David. This does not appear written as if God knows the future by virtue of being omniscient. Instead, this points to God gathering knowledge through action. If God did not search, then God would not know. This gives weight to Personal Relationship (notice the “me” references) and possibly Mechanical Knowledge (the searching might be intercepting thoughts). This is evidence against Future Omniscience (God is not assumed to already know), General Relationship (there is no reference to general applicability), Fatalism (God is searching, suggesting no eternal knowledge).

Psa 139:2 You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought afar off.
Psa 139:3 You comprehend my path and my lying down, And are acquainted with all my ways.

King David believes God understands his thoughts and knows when King David sits down and rises up (figuratively meaning God knows David’s general movements). King David believes God is acquainted with all his ways (all David’s mannerism or, perhaps, walking paths). This is strong evidence towards Personal Relationship as all the phrases revolve around David. As such, this is evidence against General Relationship. Would King David write like this if the ideas were generally applicable? Would King David better be able to communicate his meaning by writing “God, you are acquainted with my ways and the ways of all mankind.” If this Psalm is purposed as a general praise of God, wouldn’t an alternative sentence be more fitting?

This is also evidence against Future Omniscience. Would King David write like this if he believed God knew the entire future in detail? Would King David have better communicated his understanding by writing something such as “You have, from before the creation of the world, known all my ways, everything I would do, and every move I would make.” The text is more focused on God observing and then knowing, not an eternal knowledge.

This could be evidence towards Mechanical Knowledge, but not Fatalism. Fatalism would probably be contrary to the spirit of the text. David is not claiming to be predefined, but instead a rational actor who is observed by God.

Psa 139:5 You have hedged me behind and before, And laid Your hand upon me.
Psa 139:6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is high, I cannot [attain] it.

King David believes God hedged him, probably meaning God protects him. The hand is symbolic imagery signifying the same protection as the hedge. In verse 6, David says that such knowledge is too wonderful for him. What is he saying here? It appears that the fact that God knows him individually is an amazing thing for King David. If so, this would be further evidence for Personal Relationship and evidence against Future Omniscience or General Relationship. If King David was under the impression that God does this for all people then it would cease to be special. It can be assumed that King David does not believe God “hedges and protects” all people, giving further evidence that this is about a Personal Relationship rather than a general trend.

This also serves as evidence against Mechanical Knowledge and Fatalism. David is not stressing God’s knowledge, but God’s actions to David.

Psa 139:7 Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?
Psa 139:8 If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.
Psa 139:9 If I take the wings of the morning, And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Psa 139:10 Even there Your hand shall lead me, And Your right hand shall hold me.

These verses can be taken in several senses. The most common one is in the sense that David is claiming God is omnipresent. While this could be a possibility, it is more likely that King David is sticking with the theme of God’s personal protection and personal knowledge. The last verse makes this evident. King David is saying “wherever I do, there you are to be with me”. Notice that God’s protection is not generally applicable, thus King David making a point about God being omnipresent would not make sense.

If this verse was about omnipresence, then what point is King David making? That “King David cannot get away from God because God is omnipresent”? It seems more likely that King David is claiming that God follows and precedes him, by virtue of a personal relationship. If this is the case, this is strong evidence towards a Personal Relationship.

If this passage was about omnipresence, perhaps this gives weight to Mechanical Knowledge or General Relationship. It would not affect Future Omniscience, as it neither is for or against that position.

Psa 139:11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall fall on me,” Even the night shall be light about me;
Psa 139:12 Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You, But the night shines as the day; The darkness and the light are both alike to You.

In this passage, King David is saying God follows him into the night. The night is could be figurative for “despair” or “deadly situation”, just as “the grave” could be figurative for the same in verse 8. Because King David is using figurative language, this is evidence that a certain level of Metaphor/Generality is being utilized. It can be assumed that King David is not talking about God shining a flashlight on him.

If this verse is about God protecting David in trying times, this is strong evidence towards the Personal Relationship. This could also be about Mechanical Knowledge or General Relationship; King David might have the idea that God calculates everything instantaneously. This is probably evidence against Future Omniscience, as the idea is about an active observation rather than some sort of innate future knowledge.

Psa 139:13 For You formed my inward parts; You covered me in my mother’s womb.
Psa 139:14 I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Marvelous are Your works, And that my soul knows very well.
Psa 139:15 My frame was not hidden from You, When I was made in secret, And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
Psa 139:16 Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, The days fashioned for me, When as yet there were none of them.

This passage is generally used to claim that God knows the future of all people. If that is a valid interpretation, then this is strong evidence for Future Omniscience or Fatalism. It would be evidence against General Relationship or Mechanical Knowledge.

But, as with David’s use of “light” and “dark” and “grave”, these verses might be continuing a chain of figurative statements. “Lowest parts of the Earth” seems figurative for “womb”. If so, this is further evidence that this text has a measure of Metaphor/Generality. If the text overall is a generality, the meaning could be close to “God, when I was still in my mother’s womb, you had a plan for my life.”

Greg Boyd claims that “days” is improperly translated. His claim is that this passage is overall about fetology. God knew King David’s development in the womb. If this is the case, this would be evidence for Personal Knowledge, although Boyd believes in General Relationship in regards to this specific passage. This idea could also be evidence towards Fatalism (if not for the personal nature of the passage).

Psa 139:17 How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God! How great is the sum of them!
Psa 139:18 If I should count them, they would be more in number than the sand; When I awake, I am still with You.

King David seems to be saying that God’s thoughts about David are unable to be counted. A better translation might be “How precious also are Your thoughts about me”. King David clarifies with the phrase “When I awake, I am still with You.” King David seems to be again highlighting his personal relationship with God, which would be diminished if it was generally applicable. This gives evidence towards Personal Relationship and against General Relationship.

Another idea that is commonly believed is that this is a passage in which King David is praising God’s omniscience. The idea is that God has an uncountable number of thoughts. But it is hard to see how this leads to any omniscience conclusion. Omniscience has to be presupposed to come to that conclusion. This is not to mention that Metaphor/Generality has been commonly used in the text and might be a better way to take this text than notions of this verse being about Omniscience.

Psa 139:19 Oh, that You would slay the wicked, O God! Depart from me, therefore, you bloodthirsty men.
Psa 139:20 For they speak against You wickedly; Your enemies take Your name in vain.
Psa 139:21 Do I not hate them, O LORD, who hate You? And do I not loathe those who rise up against You?
Psa 139:22 I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.

This text is again very personal. King David talks about his private enemies. King David references people who speak against him. King David seems to have specific people in mind, and he calls upon God to act and to kill them. This is strong evidence for Personal Relationship.

This speaks very strongly against Fatalism (as King David is petitioning God to act which would thus destroy the fatalistic continuity). This also speaks against Future Omniscience, as King David does not seem to think the future is set and makes no reference to God knowing the outcome of the evil men. If King David did believe the future was set, he might word it differently: “God, I know that your plans for these men will be carried out.” or something similar.

Psa 139:23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me, and know my anxieties;
Psa 139:24 And see if there is any wicked way in me, And lead me in the way everlasting.

The last few verses in Psalms 139 are a challenge by King David for God to test him in order to know his heart. King David is not under the conviction that God knows what King David will do in all circumstances. This is strong evidence against Fatalism and Omniscience. This is strong evidence for Personal Relationship, as King David is asking for God to test him personally. This is not a general call for God to test all people. The figurative use of the word “everlasting” is evidence towards Metaphor/Generality.

Step 4 – Rank Probabilities

The next step is to rank variables by probability.

///Very Probable///

Personal Relationship – God is so familiar and personal with the author (not necessarily everyone else on Earth) and thus knows what David will say.

This seems to be the overall point of the entire psalm. King David is highlighting a personal relationship that is not generally applicable to everyone. As such, when David is talking about God knowing words before King David speaks them, it most likely is because God knows David intimately.

Metaphor/Generality – This sentence is fully or partly figurative and idiomatic, meaning a concept similar to knowing words of people before they are spoken.

King David speaks in a lot of generalities and metaphors. As such, it is highly likely that when King David says “For there is not a word on my tongue” that King David means “God can more often than not know what King David is thinking and feeling”. The sentence is a partial generality.

///Probable///

Mechanical Knowledge – God can read minds. The mind thinks the thoughts before they are said and thus God can intercept thoughts to know them before they are spoken.

This could be what David had in mind as a mechanism for God knowing King David’s thoughts. This would have to be combined with Personal Relationship if that is the case.

///Improbable///

Future Omniscience – God knows all events past and future and thus has all the author’s words in mind.

King David’s overall message is not about cool features about God or about the extent of God’s knowledge. There are several passages that serve as strong evidence that David does not have any similar concept to Future Omniscience in his mind as he writes. The strongest evidence for Future Omniscience has to assume away Metaphor/Generality, which is unwarranted considering the strong metaphors and generalities used throughout the text.

General Relationship – Because God knows all people, God generally knows how people think and can determine what they will say though personal relationship.

This meaning would counter the very personal nature of this Psalm. If God does this for everyone, then why is King David praising it? Instead, King David talks about God’s personal protection of him and their mutual enemies. There is just not a sense of general applicability in this text.

Fatalism - God knows people like we know computers and can look at our input-output to determine what will happen given certain inputs. God knows the future because God knows all input-output code.

This does not fit the highly personal nature of King David’s psalm. If this is what King David had in mind, it would not fit the overall point that King David is trying to make.

Enigma – This sentence is figurative and idiomatic representing something not familiar to modern readers.

The text does not contradict itself or does not contain concepts that do not fit neatly into a general framework.

 Step 5 – Formulate a Conclusion

The most probable understanding is:

God has (absolute / general) knowledge of the words (King David / everyone) is going to say through (future omniscience / personal relationship / mechanical knowledge / fatalism). [Alternatively, the entire sentence is a metaphor and is not actually about God knowing words.]

Posted in Bible, Calvinism, critical thinking, Figures of Speech, God, Omniscience, Open Theism, Theology | 4 Comments

tucker on spontaneous order

Jeffery Tucker summarizes organic and spontaneous order:

The problem is becoming an anarchist is then you have to defend the idea. Then you have to say, well, you know, a society without an institutionalized and legal font of aggression in which stuff just kind of happens in various ways and we kind of find our way toward getting along, making stuff, doing cool things, managing our lives, making mistakes and sometimes finding solutions to problems, and crazy surprising things take place that variously delight and alarm us but mostly point us toward ever better ways of living. Immediately the response is: that will never work!

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tucker on the unnoticed new world

Jeffery Tucker from a Facebook post (May 2014):

A new world is dawning. Do you see it? It is all around you. The state control over the 20th century is giving way to a people-controlled world of the 21st century. It is emerging bit by bit, peer to peer, one small technological improvement at a time. It is creating new habits, new ways of thinking, new institutions, new and better ways to engage, create, associate, and empower. It is the great trajectory of our times, the relentless march away from authoritarian control toward freedom. By historical standards, it is happening at light speed, but because we are embedded in the revolution day-by-day, we are too willing to treat it as the daily grind. Actually it is not. All acts of creativity are beautiful, but a globally cooperative embrace of creativity put into action to improve lives — a dramatic break with what has been known and what is expected and what is planned — is an awesome thing to behold.

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God interrogating adam as an evidence for open theism

In Genesis 3, there is a scene in which God asks Adam questions. This narrative is largely ignored by those who claim a classical understanding of omniscience. But an examination of the text shows that this text cannot just be discarded.

Gen 3:9 But the LORD God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”
Gen 3:10 And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.”
Gen 3:11 He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”
Gen 3:12 The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.”
Gen 3:13 Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

This scene occurs directly after Adam eats of a fruit that was prohibited by God. Perhaps the sudden appearance of God signifies that He possibly knew Adam’s actions and was bringing Adam to account, although this rendering is not required from the text.

God asks where Adam is. God could have been attempting to make Adam self-identify, which is a strong possibility. It is a common interrogation technique to ask questions for which the answer is already known. This interpretation only works if God does not know how Adam will respond. If God knew “the future” then what possibly could be the purpose of getting Adam to self-identify? God would already know if Adam would self identify or not, rendering the actions meaningless. The tone of the text does not read as if God is just walking through meaningless motions. Usually, the purpose of interrogating suspects (where the answer is already known) is to see if they speak honestly. It is a form of information gathering. Another item of interest is that God acts upon the answers given; where blame was laid, judgment was given.

No matter the spin on these verses, it is hard to deny that God having exhausting knowledge of the future is beyond the realm of the author’s intent.

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context is comprehension

curse-god-and-die

…few, if any, writers write with the precision of a legal document, and the inverted pyramids which have been built upon chance phrases of Clement or Justin are monuments of caution which we shall do well to keep before our eyes.
-Edwin Hatch

 

 

 

Existence is defined by contextual understanding. Everything in life is understood through context. What surrounds an object is almost as important as the object itself in explaining that object. Objects themselves can be explained in countless ways. The same messy room could be the result of years of neglect or a movie director setting up a scene. Likewise, Science Fiction author Arthur C. Clarke once stated: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Data, by itself, can have an infinite number of explanations. When viewing the same evidence, any two people could likely come away with reasonable but divergent interpretations. What tilts the weight of the evidence in one direction rather than the other is always context.

Language, in its basic operation, is largely ambiguous. Each sentence can have multiple meanings. A man says of his wife: “She is the most attractive woman in the world.” He could mean he is physically attracted to her more than he is physically attracted to any other woman. He could mean that other men are highly physically attracted to her. He could mean that (in spite of her degrading appearance) he still ignores more physically attractive women because they are not better than his wife. He might just be joking. The possibilities are endless. Without context, it is a mistake to militantly side with any single interpretation. It would be even a bigger mistake to assume a meaning into “most attractive” (such as physical attraction) and then reinterpret the context to fit that assumption. Context defines words; words do not define context.

In relation to the Bible, what this means is that it is a mistake to build (to use Hatch’s imagery) inverted pyramids on fleeting phrases. Hatch does well to illustrate grand and sweeping systems of thought based on fragile evidence. The meaning of a verse or word cannot just be assumed, especially with equally valid and competing interpretations being available. Everywhere and always the larger narrative takes precedence. As Hatch points out: “few, if any, writers write with the precision of a legal document”. Attributes of God are not to be taken from a scattering of prooftexts and chance phrases, but they are to be understood through the overall point of the writer in their specific social-political historical context.

NT Wright expresses his experience with the inverted pyramids, which so often crop up in the modern Christian landscape:

Sometimes even some of the best systematic theologians have allowed their ideas and their systems to float free, to leave the world of 1st century Judaism. And even if they say they believe in the authority of the Bible. [How that works out in practice] … is that they organize all these concepts and sprinkle bits of the Bible in like you may put sugar on your cornflakes in the morning, make it taste better. But it is not actually generated by the narratives and the energy and the reflection which is actually there in scripture itself.

Prooftexting is how individuals win debates. Prooftexting is how smooth speakers make cute expressions. Prooftexting is not how truth is achieved. When reading the Bible and trying to understand Biblical theology, the only valid question is “what is the author trying to communicate to his intended audience?” The implications of what is said must always take second stage to the overall narrative. Only then can Biblical theology be formed.

This question cuts to the heart of any Biblical debate and stops people from distracting from the text. If the debate is about Exodus 32 and the text shows Moses convincing God not to kill Israel because foreign nations would mock God: What is the author communicating to his reader? What evidence is there that shows that this author believed a different series of events occurred rather than what was described? What should the audience take away from this text? Is there any reason to think the author wanted the audience to believe that these events did not take place as described?

When the debate is narrowed to the text in question, this cuts down on prooftext battles where one prooftext trumps another. It is very open ended to debate what one text might mean to the debater; to debate what that one text meant to the author is much more focused. The more words written by an author, the harder it is to ignore the particular theology of the writer. If the author is incredibly prolific, there is more than ample opportunity to understand their basic understanding of theology.

As a side note: while it is acceptable to show what future authors thought about any one prooftext, it is in equal measure as unacceptable to use an unrelated point by a future author to override the text in question. For example Romans 9 can hardly “trump” Hosea 8, especially considering that Hosea had never heard of any people group called Romans or any individuals named Paul. The earlier text is more likely to have influenced the later. If the author of Romans had been trained in a Jewish context, this would include study of Hosea. It would be more rational to form an understanding of Romans 9 consistent with Hosea 8 rather than to form an understanding of Hosea consistent with Romans. This contextual “conflict” is used as an example.

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