On a Historical Old Testament

Yesterday I posted the following status on Facebook:

The problem with abandoning the historicity of the Old Testament is that every few years another aspect of it is vindicated.

To which I received this response:

Yet we would acknowledge the role that varying styles of literature in the ancient Near East has to play, right? The historical consensus, as far as I am aware (and I’m not necessarily taking a position), is that the Old Testament starts out as more metaphorical and increases in historicity until the time of David, after which it becomes much more reliable. For example, we still have not found any evidence of a large population of Israelites having lived in Goshen around 1400 BC. It makes little difference to me, though, which side turns out to be right, but I’m interested to keep up with it!

I do have some empathy here, but there are several issues involved on which I would like to make a special point. Approaches along these lines are gaining traction in Evangelicalism, both with and without a doctrine of inerrancy. I do not see this as a good sign. The historicity of the Old Testament is more important than even most Christians who believe in it give it credit for. So here are some thoughts on the issues raised in this coment.

First, with respect to literary styles, it is simply not the case that there are any convincing reasons to believe that most, much, or even just a decent slice of the Old Testament is not intended as basically “historical” literature. While there are thematic differences between different parts, and the form of the narratives can vary based on the “zoom” factor, there are no clear shifts in the basic use of narrative from Able to Zechariah. The account of Ezra is literarily much like the account of David which is like the account of Abraham which is like the account of Noah which is like the account of Cain. The only passage which might plausibly seem an exception to this is Genesis 1, which is clearly very different from most narrative accounts. Yet it is clearly not poetry (since it lacks parallelism or most other features of Hebrew poetry), and a narrative account of something which happened before the cosmos was fully in place or humans existed is naturally and necessarily going to be different from other narratives.

This brings me to an extremely important point. It is true that Genesis 1 and basically all the narratives in the Bible have meaningful, carefully constructed literary features and forms. There are chiasms, parallels, recapitulations, non-chronological sequences, modified repetitions, typologies, and all sorts of good stuff. For some bizarre reason, though, people treat this as an indication of a narrative not referring to literal history. If Genesis 1 is clearly arranged into a theologically relevant pattern of forming and filling, with the significant number of seven days being associated with temple construction, then many scholars will be willing to stop with “We see a theological meaning to this text, so a literal, historical meaning is superfluous.” If the Bible presents Noah as a new Adam and Ham as a new Cain, peopel imagine this means that one or both of the stories never actually happened.

This is, of course, logically absurd. Literary richness does not prove, or even vaguely imply, that a story is unhistorical. Indeed, for Christians we must understand that the same Spirit who authored the Scriptures has authored history. We should expect patterns, structures, and typologies with theological significance in real, tangible history. And even if we didn’t have that theological link, it should be recalled that even a perfectly historical event can be written down truthfully but stylistically to produce an account with certain intended levels of meaning beyond the “bare facts.”

Moving on, then, to the point about historical consensus. My friend explained what he understood as the consesus this way: “the Old Testament starts out as more metaphorical and increases in historicity until the time of David, after which it becomes much more reliable.” This is problematic in three ways.

First, for the secular historical consensus, it’s not so much that the Old Testament starts off metaphorically as that it simply starts of as myth or legend with amibiguous relationships to events which may or may not have happened. Whether the events recorded are supposed to have any actual metaphorical significance would be a side debate, akin to the question of whether The Illiad is metaphorical.

Second, for the Christian historical consensus, there simply isn’t one. Even within the relatively small sphere of Evangelical Protestant scholarship, opinions range from quasi-fundamentalist hyper-literalism to the view that almost none of the Old Testament is historically reliable except where it is confirmed by secular accounts. As far as I can tell, there’s not even really a majority view on the historicity of any part of the Old Testament before around the time of the Exile. This is not to deny that there are trends, of course. And the trend seems pretty clear: a dehistoricization of Genesis 1-11 at the very least, but often including much more, especially the Exodus. But this brings me to the third problem with the question of historical consensus.

Third, the closest thing we get to a historical consensus is the stuff on which secular historians agree with a decent number of the moderate Christian scholars. The problem with this consensus is that it is bunk. There are three notable problems with it. First, its arguments against the historicity of biblical events are usually from silence, i.e. “we can’t find extra-biblical evidence for that.” These often, and I mean very often, get overturned by later discoveries. It’s the same story every time: historians said there was no King David, until they found archaeological evidence of King David. They said there were no Hittites, and lo! they found that there were Hittites. They doubted countless minor details of customs and names found in the Bible until more evidence confirmed that they existed in the time the Bible seems to claim. It seems that if we have functional pattern-recognition, we should expect this to be the norm: historians deny biblical claims for lack of evidence, only for evidence to show up later.

The second problem with the historical consensus is that it quite unjustly minimizes the Bible as a historical document. I don’t mean that they simply fail to believe every word as historically true. I mean that they don’t even give it the minimal benefits of the doubt which they extend to other ancient literature, and in proportion they give it much less historical weight where it stands alone than they do most similar works. Basically, in researching and hypothesizing about the Ancient Near East, they try to rely as little as possible on what can be justly called the largest, most internally diverse, and most well-preserved collection of texts from the Ancient Near East. This is bound to go wrong, and it is only natural that doing this for such a distant period of history would lead to tension with the biblical account even if it were mostly correct (or, you know, inerrant).

But the third problem with the historical consensus is a plain historical issue: the historical consesus account of the ancient world is largely constructed on a very weak and increasingly questionable foundation: a hypothetical chronology built from Manetho’s list of Egyptian kings and dynasties. This matter would be difficult to address in detail here, but I’ll give a summary. Almost all historical work on the ancient world around the Mediterranean relies on a specific chronology of Egyptian history. This chronology is based on adding up the lengths of the reigns of all of the Egyptian kings in what we have of Manetho’s work. Two major problems present themselves here, because (1) scholars have noted that some or many of Manetho’s dynasties may have ruled simultaneously in different parts of Egypt, and (2) the conventional chronology requires that Mantheo made few or no errors or intentional falsifications. This produces a host of issues which have the potential, if solved, to radically reshape the history of the Ancient Near East. This appears quite likely to change things in the Bible’s favor. Donovan Courville in his work The Exodus Problem and Its Ramifications analyzes many of these issues, and his work has been followed up by others. Even if not perfect, it opens up many interesting possibilites. This, by the way, is not a mere desperate Christian apologetic. The book Centuries of Darkness argues the same basic point from the perspective exclusively of secular historical academia and has inspired plenty of further research.

All of these issues add up to make the point that the historicity of the Old Testament does not deserve to be dismissed the way it so often is, or really even be approached with half the skepticism usually aimed at it. It might take faith to expect the whole Old Testament history to be vindicated, but if anything it is a reasonable faith grounded in precedent and evidence.

None of this even begins to deal with the theological problems involved with dehistoricizing Old Testament narratives. That alone could be the subject of a book, but in the meantime I think this piece of Peter Leithart satire says the gist just as well.

On a Historical Old Testament

Whose Glory? On the Transfiguration

Alastair Roberts, a favorite blogger of mine, has just finished a 10-part series on the Transfiguration. It’s really interesting, and I highly recommend it for any of you who can fathom 10 blog posts covering just the Transfiguration. Reading this series has given me two thoughts I feel are worth sharing, one more directly from the series and less directly.

The first point of note is the dramatic role of the Transfiguration in the history of Israel and their God. From time to time in Israel’s history, God was seen, but never fully. Moses saw God’s back, the 70 elders saw His feet, Isaiah saw His robe and throne, but His face was not ever mentioned or described. It is something like in a TV show where you never see an important background character, only having name-drops, instructions, references, and maybe even an occasional glimpse of part of their body. Yahweh’s face remained a mystery, one too glorious for human viewing.

Yet there are references linking the Transfiguration to these events, and it is portrayed as essentially the same thing: a theophany. In the Transfiguration, the glory of God is revealed on a mountain like so many times before. But this time that glory shines from a face. The face hidden throughout the Old Testament is revealed, and it is no other face than that of Jesus Christ. Yahweh is no other God than the God whose fullness dwells bodily in Christ, of whose glory the Son is the radiance and exact expression. The face of the main character of the Old Testament finally comes into view, and it was Jesus all along. Now we know who God really is: whoever has seen Jesus has seen Him.

The other interesting point that I drew from Alastair’s posts is this glory is to become our glory. The glory which Jesus bears by nature as the Son of God, we will one day share by grace as sons of God. See, the glory which was revealed in the Transfiguration has been alternately viewed by some either as a divine glory (which Alastair focuses on) or as a prefigured resurrection glory. But there is no need to separate these. The glory of Jesus, of the one who is both God and man, is the glory of God in a human “shape.” Before Jesus rose, this glory remained veiled, with a single peek coming through in the Transfiguration. When He did rise, He was exalted and could be fully and simply an example of a glorious human filled with the life and glory of God.

We are also united to Christ, though. We share in His death and His resurrection, and one day will experience that fullness when our bodies are brought to new life. At that point, when Christ returns, John tells us, “what we will be has not yet been revealed. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him because we will see Him as He is” (1 Jn. 3:2), Paul notes that we are “looking as in a mirror at the glory of the Lord and are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18), and Peter says that we will “share in the divine nature, escaping the corruption that is in the world” (2 Pet. 1:4). Our resurrection, an event in theology often called “glorification,” is the time that we will share the glory of Christ, who is the glory of God. The Transfiguration glory is our destiny. We will be truly and fully humans in the image and likeness of the Triune God. Or, as Irenaeus put it, “the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ…did…become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.”1

With all of this in mind, let us read the Transfiguration account and be moved to worship. Jesus is the God who has been working in salvation history from Abraham to Malachi and beyond, and He is so gracious as to unite us with Himself and raise us to His very own glory. Amen!

Whose Glory? On the Transfiguration

Joan of Arc: Her Story and Challenge

The second item for the year’s reading list was a biography. I’ve never been particularly interested in biographies, but I found an exception. I was listening to the radio a week or two ago and ran across someone giving an interview about her biography of Joan of Arc. I kind of thought it was interesting, and remembered St. Joan from my medieval war obsession of my childhood. So I decided to check it out. Alas, a couple of Amazon reviews showed me quickly that this particular Joan biography was not something I’d like. My curiosity had already been piqued, so I did more research and found one more to my liking. I learned that, of all people, Mark Twain wrote a book on Joan of Arc, entitled Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. I expected this to be a simple biography. It was not. Rather, I found it to be a highly engaging, fictionalized account of Joan’s life from the perspective of a made-up lifelong friend, page, and secretary, which nonetheless remains very historically accurate.

I finished this book tonight, and it is already among my favorite books I’ve ever read. If Twain’s portrayal of St. Joan is at all accurate, and it seems to be based on my outside research, then she was without doubt one of the most outstanding women in history (besides my lovely wife, of course). If you’re not familiar with her story, I’ll give you the rundown:

Her Story

It all happened during the medieval Hundred Years’ War between France and England, which had been raging for 92 years. The country was essentially divided in half, with the northern half firmly under the control of England. The southern half in theory still belonged the Charles VII, the Dauphin, heir of the French throne. This was meaningless, as he mostly was holding up in safety doing nothing while the English and French in his territory fought to no purpose but destruction. France’s situation was apparently hopeless. By the end of the hundred years, surely France would be naught but a British province.

In the midst of this turmoil, a 16-year-old peasant girl named Joan (or Jeanne in French) from the small village of Domrémy embarked on a strange quest. She claimed to have been told by angels and saints, which she called her Voices, that she was called by God to lead France to raise the ongoing siege of the city of Orléans, and to get the Dauphin crowned king at the city of Reims. This all seemed rather far-fetched, if not altogether impossible, but it worked. She impressed everyone she met along her journey, first securing a troop to go to the king at Chinon, then convincing the Dauphin to send her to Orléans to raise the siege, then actually raising the siege in only a week, and finally blazing a trail through enemy territory to the city of Reims, where the Dauphin was crowned king with Joan in a prominent place. All along the way, she demonstrated humility, mercy, intelligence, war prowess, bravery, and even prophetic abilities.

Alas, after her successes she fell victim to the evils of politics. She was not allowed to go home, but instead the king sent her out to continue her military work. Yet he also did not allow her to do what all she suggested. Because of the king and his advisors, she lost the chance to reclaim Paris, and in another battle was finally captured. She was ransomed by the English, who set up a series of brutally rigged trials for revenge against her victories. In the end, at the age of 19 she was burned at the stake as a heretic, primarily for cross-dressing (i.e. wearing men’s military attire in battle, and in her prison cell to prevent rape by guards). Twenty-five years later, the Pope ordered a retrial, in which she was declared innocent and a martyr.

Her Challenge

I already feel as if I have sorely mistreated St. Joan by giving her story in this painfully brief form. Alas, time fails me to tell of her many virtues. To this day we possess the full transcripts of both her trials, in which her character is plainly shown as sincere, honest, pious, merciful, bold, innocent, and chaste. No one ever did find any real fault in her. The closest thing to a flaw which can be found in history is her temper, which was only ever provoked by people misbehaving (e.g. she drove out the prostitutes from her army’s camp in a rage, and lambasted the king’s advisors for being manipulative cowards). Even as a war hero, she claimed to have never killed anyone, and to have loved her banner 40 times more than her sword (which she seems to have found miraculously).

I want to dwell for the rest of this post on the challenges presented by Joan of Arc to us. The first challenges I want to peek at are theological. Most of you readers are, like myself, Protestants. So St. Joan makes for an odd case. On the one hand, she shows all the signs of being truly of God. Her prophecies all came true, including ones made during her trial that came true after her death. Her character was impeccable. The tide she turned in the war came against all odds, comparable to Old Testament campaigns where God was with Israel. Her accusers at her trial tried relentlessly to find evidence that her Voices came from demons rather than angels or saints, yet never could. On the other hand, though, she was a devout Catholic, who claimed in particular that she spoke with dead saints, and certainly adhered to an unlearned, medieval Catholic view of the sacraments and salvation. The same Voices which gave her the fulfilled prophecies also told her very Catholic things about how she would be saved. What are the implications of all this? In addition, if she was of God, then God apparently didn’t give up getting His hands dirty in war and national conflict with the coming of Christ. Instead, He seems to have picked sides and led the French to impossible victory using a young peasant girl, something which sounds more like a story from the book of Judges. If she wasn’t from God, then why did she achieve so much of the impossible in His name, giving true prophecies and being remembered as a martyr? What does this mean for how God acts today?

But theological questions aside, I also want to briefly consider the practical challenge St. Joan puts to us. She was only an ignorant, illiterate, and humble peasant girl, yet she felt called by God to accomplish great things, and following faithfully all the way through. Through dangers, political opposition, and severe injuries (she was once actually shot in the neck by a crossbow!), she persevered. She never yielded to the pressures of fear and intimidation. Her faith in God always remained strong, so much so that the only leverage her enemies could use against her was her desire to continue taking Communion. She was committed to her personal purity, and the purity of her entire army. She made her soldiers pray and worship on a regular basis. All reports show she was selfless as could be. Even when the king offered to give her anything in repayment for her help in his coronation, she asked for nothing but that the poor people of her hometown, which she never saw again, be free of taxes. (This request, by the way, was granted and stood for 300 years until the French Revolution.) 

Basically, Joan of Arc was more noble, brave, persistent, and faithful than I am, and than many of us could ever hope to be. Even if she was crazy, or a heretic, or what have you (a question I think C. S. Lewis would have something to say about), the standard she sets is amazing and deserves emulation. We could all use to be a little more like Joan of Arc.

[P.S. For more on Joan of Arc, you can always check Wikipedia, or buy the book I read yourself.]

Joan of Arc: Her Story and Challenge

Jesus the Apocalypse: The Messiah Appears

To continue my Mark Bible study (which began in this post), I’ll move on to the very first verse:

This is the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

What the Bible Says

Let’s not miss the significance of this. Mark has the simplest introduction of any of the Gospels. No genealogy (Matthew), preface (Luke), or poetic allusions to creation (John). He just says, “this is the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” By the next verse, he’ll be introducing John the Baptist. So let’s take a closer look at this first verse.

Good News – The words “good news” here come from the Greek word euaggelion, which is usually translated “gospel” and from which we get our word “evangelize.” It was primarily used in particular of politically-relevant military victories, especially if the emperor was involved. This kind of good news would be along the lines, “Good news! We’ve won the battle!” or “Good news! A new emperor has been crowned!” The theme of royal victory was most likely a common connotation. Keep that thought in your back pocket for now.

Jesus Christ – The name “Jesus” doesn’t really warrant much explanation, though an interesting tidbit is that “Jesus” is the English way of saying the Greek translation of the Hebrew name “Yehôshua.” That name, if translated straight to English instead of to Greek first, is “Joshua.” So you can tell all your friends that Jesus’ name was Joshua. More important is the “Christ” part. What does that mean? The word “Christ” essentially means “anointed one,” or the same as “Messiah” from Hebrew. By saying “Jesus Christ,” Mark is saying, “Jesus the Messiah.”

This makes sense in connection with the theme of royal victory behind the term “Good News.” After all, there is nothing many of the Jews of Jesus’ day, of whom He was a part, wanted more than a Messiah who would rescue them from Rome in a military victory, and be crowned the true king under God. An unsuspecting reader from Mark’s world would at this point probably have in the mind the picture of a king like David, who would defeat God’s enemies and be acknowledged as God’s chosen ruler. The difference of the Messiah would be that He is the final king, whose victory and reign would be permanent and through whom God Himself would rule.

the Son of God – This is a particularly interesting title. See, before the early church did some serious study of what Jesus said about Himself, the term “son of God” had not been used to say someone had a divine nature, or was God. The most popular use of “son of God” when Mark was written would have been as more or less a synonym for “Messiah,” but with special emphasis on the royal aspect. In the Old Testament, the king of Israel, and Israel as a whole, was often spoken of as God’s son (Exod. 4:22-23, 2 Sam. 7:14, 1 Chr. 17:14, 22:10, 28:6, Ps. 2:6-7, 89:20-26, Ezek. 21:9-10, Hos. 11:1). This is important. God called Israel to be His child, and the king was especially so as God’s anointed representative of the whole nation. By Jesus’ day, these connections developed in many concepts of the Messiah, and the two phrases were practically synonyms (Matt. 16:16, 26:63, Mk. 14:61, John 1:49, 11:27).

So Mark here is again claiming Jesus as Messiah, only this time the emphasis is even more on His role as the King who represents all Israel in Himself. What He does is relevant for the whole nation. (Note that none of this is to say that Jesus wasn’t God’s son in another, more unique and divine, way as well. That’s simply not the original focus of the title “son of God.” Part of the reason this changed is because of who Jesus revealed Himself to be.)

The Theology Part

Putting these pieces we’ve just looked at together, we can start to see the startling scene Mark is trying to show us. Out of nowhere, Jesus appears. Like an unexpected scene in a dream, the Messiah has shown up. This is the beginning of the apocalyptic vision Mark has written his Gospel as. To dramatize it: “Good news!” he yells to his readers out of the fog. “Your Messiah has come!” The fog then parts to reveal the silhouette of Jesus.

We should remember that, for Mark’s readers, God has seemingly been silent and unhelpful to the Jews for many years. Even though they came back from Babylon way back when, many still believed that the Exile was still going on in some sense. They may be back in their land, but they’re still under pagan rule (the Romans this time), their king (Herod) is a corrupt puppet, and God has yet to do anything to show that He has returned to Jerusalem to dwell in His temple like He promised.

With this gloomy backdrop, the sudden appearance of the Messiah clearly has significance. Jesus has come to fix this situation, lead Israel out of exile, and win the final victory of God. This is indeed “Good News!” Yet whatever expectations may have been created in this first verse, the rest of the Gospel will end up confusing them.

For us, on the other side of these events, we know what has been accomplished. Jesus, the Messiah, who is God’s Son not only as King but as the eternal Word of God Himself, has defeated Satan and dealt with our sin on the Cross, then rose again. Now He is reigning on high, exalted above all. For us, the Jewish Messiah has already completed His mission, fulfilled the destiny of Israel, and brought us, the Gentiles who didn’t belong, in on the blessings. We now stand as one body, saved by Jesus alone, and acknowledge Him as the Son of God whose sudden appearance in history was the day of salvation for all people!

What to Do about It

So how are we to respond to what Mark 1:1? What changes can even this little verse make in our lives? I can think of a couple possible applications.

  • Just like Jesus suddenly appeared in the middle of Israel’s suffering to save His people, we now wait for Him to suddenly return. When He does, we have hope that He will implement His victory once and for all. In the mean time, we must work and prepare, telling the whole world about what Christ has done for us. One day time will run out, and just like Jerusalem was destroyed after it missed its chance with the Savior, so next time the whole world will fall if we do not prepare them for the return of the King.
  • God is always faithful, and we can trust Him. It had been 400 years since the Old Testament was written, and the Jews were wondering where God had gone. When would He help them again? Yet He did return to His people in Jesus just as He swore, and today we can trust that He will fulfill all of His promises to us. This means we can live boldly and without fear, doing whatever God calls us to, because we know He will do what He has promised.
  • We should never lose hope. Like I said, 400 years had gone by. No word from God in this time. Even after the Jews’ victory in the Maccabean revolt (study here if you’re interested), little progress was made and all the authorities were still corrupt. Pagan rule hadn’t stopped. Even in the midst of this bleak situation, though, God suddenly made His move for His people. So we can wait patiently, but also eagerly, because God might act at any moment to help us in whatever we need, or to rescue us from any of our sufferings. He could change your life whenever, so never lose heart.
Jesus the Apocalypse: The Messiah Appears

Jesus the Apocalypse: A Study on Mark

This is the third and final new series I’m starting now. I thought it would be fun to do a Bible study series on a particular book of the Bible. My recent studies have led me to Mark. The shortest and (according to most scholars) earliest of the Gospels, as well as the most cryptic, it begged for good study. So, on to the background details.

Date and Authorship

Mark is widely believed to have been the first Gospel written. More conservative dating puts it in the AD 50s, while more mainstream scholarship says 65-70. Very few people date it any later, simply because the book gives no indications that the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 70 had yet happened, which would have been very theologically significant if it had since Jesus is recorded to have prophesied this event.

While no solid historical evidence exists surrounding the author of Mark, and the book itself does not specify the author (remember that the titles were added later), the tradition of the early church was that a disciple of Peter named Mark wrote the book based on Peter’s preaching. Modern historians mostly disbelieve this tradition, but the reasons for this seem to be mostly involve skepticism about the historical truth of Mark. If Mark is taken as overall a reliable work, then there is no obvious reason to question the traditional claim.

Theme: Let the Reader Understand

The idea which I have recently run across, and which I plan to explore with this Bible study, is that Mark is essentially an apocalypse. At first, this may not make sense, but this is probably because of the widespread misunderstanding about what an apocalypse is. So in order to explain how and why Mark might be an apocalypse, I should address briefly what apocalyptic literature actually is.

In popular imagination, “apocalypse” means “end of the world.” But that’s not quite right. Our word apocalypse comes from the Greek word apokalupsis, which basically means an “unveiling” or a “revealing.” Specifically, the genre of apocalypse involves God revealing His secrets in mysterious ways, usually by strange visions or dreams. Daniel, for example, consists of much apocalyptic material. Sometimes they are interpreted there (like often happens in Daniel), and sometimes the reader is left to understand by himself. Often times, these revelations have to do with what God is about to do in the future (such as end times matters), but they can also refer to the present and the past, giving the heavenly, theological perspective on earthly events.

How does Mark fit into this category? It seems that Mark portrays Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection like a series of apocalyptic visions. The events of His life are written as short and cryptic, strung together like the scenes of a dream or visions with the word “immediately,” and ultimately ending in suspense. “Let the reader understand” seems to indeed apply to the whole of Mark; he gives us a mysterious picture of the Messiah which only those with ears to hear will truly understand.

Coming Up

With this context in mind, my next post will start at the beginning in Mark 1:1 and move on from there. I’m hoping to find lots of interesting goodness in this book, a book which testifies of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. Any fresh riches to find about Him are worth the search. So until next time, maybe try reading Mark with what I’ve mentioned in mind, if you’re at all interested. Comment if you find anything to say, as always.

Jesus the Apocalypse: A Study on Mark

Streams: Beliefs about the Bible and Tradition

Tradition.

Such an interesting word for Christians. It seems innocent enough, but as it turns out there are very many ways it can be used, few of which are entirely free of controversy. Take, for example, the following statements:

“You’re just follow human tradition instead of the Bible!”

“Tradition tells us that John died on the isle of Patmos under house arrest.”

“Our youth Christmas carolling is an important tradition in our church.”

“The traditional view of marriage is increasingly under fire in the popular media.”

These four statements all use “tradition” very differently, and each of these could be controversial, though not all to the same extent. But this just goes to show how not straightforward understanding the proper role of tradition in the Church can be.

What Do We Mean by “Tradition?”

First off, let’s break down a few basic kinds of tradition. These aren’t technical names, just convenient labels to explain my points. Here are the broad categories:

  • There are local traditions, which are basically unique things that a congregation does and has done for some time. These may or may not come from the Bible in any meaningful sense. But someone started doing it in the past, and now people continue. This kind of tradition can be useful and pleasant, but since it is uniquely local and not tied to fundamental beliefs, they can be removed when necessary or desirable. They should not be debated to the point of remotely serious division.
  • Next are confessional traditions. These are a step above local traditions that come from common denominational ties. They consist of a group of shared beliefs and practices more sharply refined, and are usually outlined in confessional documents (e.g. the Westminster Confession of Faith) or other large written statements (e.g. The Baptist Faith and Message). These traditions determine the differences between denominations, so if you want to change or challenge these traditions, you may find yourself seeking a new church.
  • Historic traditions make up the next group. These are beliefs and practices that have always been common or dominant in the Church, but aren’t spelled out in most creeds or confessions, and were never very controversial in the past. The “traditional view of marriage” falls into this category, as does the belief in the future, physical new earth. When these are challenged, the waters are always a little more murky. Some are more important than others, and it takes serious debate to sort out how to handle what.
  • Finally, there are orthodox traditions or creedal traditions. These are essential beliefs shared by all Christianity, and are mostly written down in some of the early creeds like the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athansian Creed, among some other documents. The Trinity, the relationship between Jesus’ two natures, and similar matters are examples. This kind of a tradition tends to define the boundaries of the Christian faith. Within these boundaries, we assume people to be true followers of Jesus. Outside these boundaries are heresy and false religion.

Now, we as Christians all agree that Scripture is in some way an authority over what we believe. But how does that relate to things in these kinds of traditions, especially the last group? There are three major approaches within Christianity. I want to lay these out simply with the analogy of streams of water.

Sola Scriptura: A Protestant View

One of the most divisive points in the Protestant Reformation, as well as the major wall separating Catholics and Protestants on many issues, is the doctrine of sola Scriptura, or “Scripture alone.” This doctrine states that God speaks His final authoritative word in Scripture and nowhere else. (Technically, this word appears first in God’s words and deeds in history, climaxing in Jesus, and from that point fills Scripture, but I digress.)

This does not mean that it’s impossible to find God’s truth outside of the Bible’s pages. If I read the Bible and then tell you what I read, you would still be getting God’s truth, only through my words. Of course, that’s only the case if I tell you accurately what I read. If I forgot, misinterpreted, or otherwise corrupted something I passed on to you you’d need to go back to Scripture yourself to fix it.

So for my first stream analogy, imagine there is a single stream running down a mountain. This stream is Scripture, and the water source in the mountain is God’s revelation of Himself. The water itself is truth. If you need some water, you can go to the stream and find it.

But suppose that I fill a bucket up with water from this stream and bring it back to my village. Now we all have access to the water from my bucket. This represents the role of tradition. Truth from Scripture is collected into small “buckets” of tradition so that we can get it it more easily.

This bucket, though, has limitations. It’s not at all impossible that it could get polluted or corrupted after some time. We might get some water out of it one day and realize that it’s contaminated. Or after a while it might simply not be as fresh and cool, making it less satisfying for the thirsty man. In either of these cases we’d need to go back to the stream to get fresh, pure water to replace the contaminated water in our bucket. Likewise, sometimes we might find that our traditions of different kinds have gone astray, or at least lost some of their original power due to familiarity and changing cultures or languages. In this case we need to dig back into Scripture to refresh our knowledge of God.

Dei Verbum: A Catholic View

The Catholic view of Scripture and tradition was laid out most clearly in a document entitled Dei Verbum (Latin for “Word of God”) during the Second Vatican Council. While it has existed for much, much longer than that, this is the most up-to-date and definitive explanation. According to Catholic theology, both Scripture and “sacred Tradition” come from God’s same self-revelation to the prophets and apostles. God gave His word to them as a large body of inspired truth, some of which came down to us in the Bible and some of which came down to us by teaching and preaching ministries of the Church.

To adapt the stream analogy for the Catholic view, imagine two streams, for Scripture and sacred Tradition, going down a mountain. Both of them have their head in the same water source, God’s revelation. But the streams take different paths and are different sizes. By the time they reach the bottom of the mountain, they flow into the same lake, the full teaching of the Church.

If anyone wants a drink of water, where should he go? He can go to either of the streams, or the lake they both flow into. Either way he will be getting the same water of God’s truth. But the stream of Tradition is larger, and the combined lake larger still. This is where it is simplest and preferred to get your water.

It’s important to note that in this view, Scripture and sacred Tradition aren’t two totally different things. They both flow from the same word from God and flow into the same body of Church teaching. Therefore to Catholics, if something isn’t in one stream, such as Scripture, but it is in the other, you are still completely justified in believing it and indeed should. This is very much the case with certain doctrines such as the Assumption of Mary (that Mary was taken body and soul to heaven either just before or just after death) or the practice of praying to the saints, both of which come out of the Tradition and not (despite people occasionally saying otherwise) from Scripture itself. 

Regula Fidei: An Orthodox View

Technically, regula fidei, “rule of faith,” is not a phrase unique to the Eastern Orthodox Church. But it seems the easiest way to sum them up. For the Orthodox, Scripture is part of a larger Holy Tradition. This Holy Tradition includes Scripture along with the early creeds and ecumenical councils, the received liturgy, and to some degree the writings of the early church fathers.

In Orthodoxy, this makes Scripture and the other parts of Tradition in an interdependent relationship. They all work together and complement other to make of the whole teaching of the Apostles passed down within the Church. Whereas Protestants put Scripture above tradition, and Catholics tend to put Scripture beneath Tradition, Orthodoxy places Scripture within Tradition. Of course, there is a spectrum like with everything else. Some versions of sola Scriptura, those which are also called prima Scriptura, are basically the same as some looser versions of the Orthodox view.

For the streams analogy, imagine again God’s revelation as the water source on top of the mountain. In this case there is a large stream flowing out from it, which is the Holy Tradition. This stream has many smaller branches coming in and out, including Scripture as a major branch, but also branches for Eucharist liturgies, creeds, etc. Yet these all come together again and again as one stream full of the water of truth.

Streams: Beliefs about the Bible and Tradition

Early Evidence for Belief in Jesus’ Deity

[This is an article I made for an apologetics forum. I decided I might as well post it here as well.]

An argument frequently made by those who deny orthodox Christianity is that Jesus was not believed to be God until a very long time after His death. Among those who have the Internet but nothing else to their credit, this development supposedly came as late as the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451, or at least the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325. Not everything is this absurdly extreme, of course. Among the more reasonable and learned of skeptics, Jesus’ deity is acknowledged to reach back to at least some time in the first century. The best example of this is probably Bart Ehrman, who believes that some kind of belief in a divine Jesus existed by the time John was written.

I do not intend to argue particularly against Ehrman’s account of belief in Jesus’ deity here. I merely intend to lay out some of the basic evidences from the New Testament that Jesus’ deity was already at least partially present, or perhaps strongly so, in Christian doctrine within a generation of Jesus’ death.

Paul

Paul’s epistles (mostly AD 50-60) do not often make any explicit statements about Jesus’ deity, though there are verses in the contested Pauline letters which make such a statement (Titus 2:13, 2 Pet. 1:1). However, in all of Paul’s letters Old Testament verses which spoke of Yahweh in the original context are applied to Christ, with YHWH appearing in the Greek citation as adonai, “Lord.” Examples include Romans 10:13 (cf. Joel 2:32, probably the strongest), 1 Corinthians 2:16 (cf. Isa. 40:13), and 2 Corinthians 10:17 (cf. Jer. 9:24).

Also in Paul we have the early Christian hymn in Philippians 2, which is difficult to interpret in ways which do not ascribe to Jesus in some way a preexistent divine nature. In 1 Corinthians 8:6, Paul reworks the Shema, which was the defining declaration of Jewish monotheism, around the Father and His Son Jesus in a way which applies the lordship, oneness, and role as creator to both of them (of particular interest would be the new developments on this by Crispin Fletcher-Louis).

Hebrews

The anonymous letter of Hebrews, most likely written sometime before the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, has an undeniably high Christology. While an exact and explicit identification of Jesus as deity is not present, the entire first chapter demonstrates a strong belief that Jesus shared a relationship with God that far surpasses the royal sonship in the psalms which he cites. He clearly sees in Jesus a nature as the Son of God. This appears to cross the line into affirming true deity when he cites Psalms 45 and 102. There he not only says that the Son is addressed by God as God (and in the context of his argument he seems to take this beyond the original sense of royal adoption), but even speaks of the Son as the Lord (YHWH in the cited verse’s Hebrew text) who created the universe and is eternal before and after it.

John and Revelation

Remaining to mention are John and Revelation, both supposedly the work of the apostle John, who tradition says died around the close of the first century. Both of these books are usually dated to the 90s, which is a little later than the rest of the New Testament evidence, though still just within a lifetime of Jesus’ death. Of particular interest, though, is the theory increasingly considered by even secular and liberal scholars that John was actually written in part before the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. This is argued mostly on the basis of John’s portrayal of the Temple authorities, along with a peculiar feature of John 5:2.

John opens up with what is arguably the highest Christological declaration in the New Testament: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Since, by the end of the passage, this Word is clearly identified as Jesus, there is no possible way of understanding this except to say that Jesus had, at least in some way, a preexistent divine nature. Even Ehrman admits this, though is careful not to anachronistically assume this takes a post-Nicene shape. Adding interest, most scholars think John’s prologue is came from earlier traditions. If this is the case and it were the case that John was written before the Temple fell, then we have an extremely strong statement of Jesus’ deity dating very early.

Revelation, although without doubt later than all of the other books in the New Testament, with consensus placing it during Domitian’s rule (AD 81-96), is nonetheless an interesting case. By this time there can be no doubt that, even if no one else agreed, the author held a view which somehow identified Jesus as God. The entire books operates on that assumption, repeatedly attributing to Jesus divine attributes and actions, especially in allusion to Yahweh’s roles in the Old Testament. Citing verses would be a tedious task here, but enough evidence can be found simply by reading the book with a good list of cross-references. A clear theme is that the Lamb who was slain shares in every way the life, names, character, and roles of God Himself.

Early Evidence for Belief in Jesus’ Deity