WARNING: this post gets into some theological discussion that, for most everyone out there, will be neither helpful nor interesting. And it’s way too long (which is why I’ve broken it up into two separate posts). Forgive me and please be gracious.
Anyone that follows the blog knows that I’m currently thinking through and writing a Lent series on the theological idea that Jesus was slain “before the foundations of the world” (Part 1, Part 2). Even though no one has said anything to this effect, I have felt like somewhat of a hypocrite. As I’ve been doing this, I’ve been haunted by a little voice reminding me that it seems like I’m employing many of the same techniques of interpretation and viewing the Bible that I’ve criticized in others before. This post is my attempt at reconciling this in my own head (in front of all of you).
As J.R.D. Kirk (and others) has often talked about, many of our theological disagreements in the church boil down to a simple question “what is the Bible?”. At the end of the day, we can argue about any number of things appealing to the Bible, but if we believe fundamentally different things about what the Bible is–and how it is that–we will never get anywhere.
And here’s where I’m getting into problems with this series: there are ways of viewing the Bible that, in others, I have criticized as reductionistic, simplistic, and frankly, abusive to the text itself, and I fear that I’m employing many of those same techniques in my thinking through this series. Here are two of those ways (two more later):
This idea is only mentioned a couple of times in the Bible. As I alluded to in the first post on this, this idea of “eternal slain-ness” is explicitly mentioned only twice in Scripture (and only one if you translate the verse in Revelation differently).
My responses: First, other core doctrines, especially those concerning the nature of God (the Doctrine of Trinity, anyone?), only became more clearly “revealed” to us after Jesus, and we simply don’t have much Bible written after Jesus that contemplates these more systematic, ethereal, abstract questions of God’s nature. It makes sense, then, that these explicit expressions of this idea are found in those biblical books that were among the last to be written.
Second, I still believe it is a running theme in Scripture. After the flood, when God promises never to the flood again, he puts a “bow” in the sky. The Hebrew doesn’t actually say “rainbow”, but uses the word for a military bow–and it’s pointed upward, at God, implying his wrath is poised to strike Him. We see God in his convenant-making event with Abraham, not, in fact, making a covenant with Abraham, but instead making the bloodied covenant with himself and then inviting Abraham into the benefits of that Covenant. Wherever God has a “house” (a temple or tabernacle) it is always, fundamentally, a place of sacrifice and slaying, and in God’s clearest revelation of himself, Jesus clearly refers to his very person as a temple.
So God, whose nature is covenantal, reveals that covenantal nature to be one that expresses itself as a bow pointed at himself, in the midst of the gore of slain animals, and as a place in which death and slaying taking place.
The Bible is more a piece of artistic narrative than philosophy and theology textbook. Many of the posts I want to write in this series take this “eternal slain-ness” idea and develop it into a very comprehensive system with many implications. But, at times, when this idea is expressed in Scripture, one could argue it’s a poetic device written in protest/response to the philosophical assumptions of the day (similar to the logos phrasing found in John); or it’s simply a poetic device used, not as protest, but as simple poetry (similar to the anthropomorphizing of God in Psalms, where has has a chariot and such). Either way, it can appear that these statements are not meant to be grand, well-developed statements about the fundamental nature of God, but are just the enculturated statements of ancient peoples.
My responses: Even if the “device” used is poetry, it is a device that is still trying to communicate an aspect of God’s character. God may not have a literal chariot in which he rides in the sky, and Jesus made not literally be the nameless, mysterious logos the Greeks had long-spoken of, but he is still One who fights in and for his Creation and is the underlying logic and order of all things.
Also, at some point, the biblical writers have to mean–in very real, concrete terms–what they say. It’s too easy for others (and myself) to over-poeticize the Bible (an essay on this that haunted me for a while was Geehardus Vos’ Christian Faith & Truthfulness in Human History). What the writers write, even when couched in poetry and myth, still actually means something significant–appeals to other contemporary literature and sources of ideas does not in the least rob our biblical texts of that.
Besides, of all the texts that mention this explicitly, only one could even be considered an intentional use of poetry (Revelation).
And lastly, as I said above, I believe that the narrative force and consistency of the doctrine is perhaps even stronger than the systematic and explicit references found in the Bible.
Later, I’ll have two more points that have been haunting me.
[image credits: Caravaggio’s St. Jerome (header), Durer’s Christ as Man of Sorrows (post)]