Can We Read the Bible Nude of Church Tradition?

Bible text: Various

When the Protestant Reformers looked at the medieval Church, they saw an institution full of corrupt practices and doctrines. Defenders of those practices and doctrines regularly appealed to the authority of ecclesiastical tradition.

The Reformers sought a platform where they could stand in criticizing these practices and doctrines. They believed they found it in appealing to the sole authority of Scripture—the reformation principle of sola Scriptura.

They also had confidence that responsible exegesis would illuminate the meaning of Scripture without any appeal to tradition. [Exegesis is the technical term Bible scholars use to describe the process of a close reading of the Biblical text to determine what the author intended to say, not what we want the text to say.]

I have come to believe they were wrong in their confidence. Ecclesiastical tradition profoundly influences the way we read and interpret the Bible, whether we realize it or not. We carry those traditions and a host of other cultural traditions into every act of exegesis, thus determining what we hear in the Bible. This is true for Protestant exegesis as much as it is true for Catholic and Orthodox exegesis. [Postmodern literary theory has also established that this is true for the reading of any literary text, religious or not.]

Let me offer some examples to make my point. Let’s begin with the Christmas story, which we have so recently read in our churches and celebrated in Christmas pageants. Our traditions about Christmas are heavily influenced by tradition, not by the Biblical texts.

The Gospel of Luke says that when Jesus was born, he was placed in a manger. It does not, however, say anything about animals present that night. We assume that because of the reference to the manger. So in our Christmas crèche scenes we include sheep, cows, and maybe a kneeling donkey. Tradition adds that, not the Biblical text.

Luke also says that when the Christmas angel announces Jesus’ birth to the shepherds, an angelic host praises God. But he does not say explicitly they sang their praises. He says they said them. The angelic choirs singing on the hillside comes from tradition, not the Biblical text.

When Matthew tells the story of the visit of the wise men to the baby Jesus, we read that as a visit by three of them. Matthew does not say that explicitly. He just says wise men (number unspecified) made the visit. Church tradition determines our reading of three wise men (probably because there are three gifts).

Likewise Matthew does not say they are kings. He says they are magi, scholarly astrologers from the East. Church tradition has changed them into kings, most likely from conflating Matthew’s story with the prophecy in Isaiah 60:1-6, which talks of kings bringing gifts of gold and frankincense to Jerusalem.

And when we see the hundreds of images of the Annunciation story, we invariably see the announcement to Mary coming from the archangel Gabriel, who has a stunning pair of wings growing out of his back. The Bible has many references to angels, but it never says they have wings.

Yes, the prophet Isaiah has a vision (Isaiah 6) of seraphim with six wings. But in the ancient Near Eastern context in which Isaiah lived, seraphim were not envisioned as having a humanoid form. Seraphim were regarded as composite creatures, bearing maybe a human head, but the body of a lion or other beast. Wings, like the wings of an eagle, were a part of this composite understanding.

And yes, Revelation 14:6 has a reference to an angel flying in mid-heaven, but it never says that angel is flying by means of wings.

Yet church tradition, especially as expressed in Christian art, images angels as humanoid creatures with wings. And that is just as true of the art we find in Protestant churches as well as in Catholic and Orthodox churches. Our image of angels draws more from pagan Roman and Greek iconography than it does from the Bible.

Let me give a few more examples, outside the Christmas story. It is universally assumed that the forbidden fruit that Adam and Eve ate in the garden was an apple. The Biblical text does not say that. Yet Protestants as well as Catholics joke about the apple the first sinners ate.

We assume that the creature that swallows the prophet Jonah alive is a whale. The text does not say that. It says it is a big fish. If you read Matthew 12:40 in the King James or the Revised Standard Version translations, you will hear Jesus call it a whale. But the Greek word those versions translate as whale is the word ketos. This word does not mean literally a whale, but a sea monster. Tradition has come to regard it as whale, and so most of us read the story in that way. Tradition has even influenced how we translate the Bible.

Finally, most people tend to read Revelation 21-22’s description of the new Jerusalem as a description of heaven. Our image of heaven having golden streets, for example, comes from this interpretation. But the text is not describing heaven. It is describing a city of great beauty that will descend from heaven in the new creation. It images the idea of that perfect indwelling of God with creation when the Kingdom of God comes in all its fullness at the end of the age. Our eternal home is not heaven, but this new transformed creation in which God fully dwells with us.

What I hope these examples suggest is how much our reading of the Bible is influenced by church tradition, and in some cases, cultural traditions outside the church. We simply cannot read and interpret a Bible nude of traditions, assumptions, and prejudices that we bring with us to our reading.

This is not to disparage the vital task of exegesis. As my examples try to do, we see how a close reading of the text can help us see how our traditions and assumptions are influencing what we are reading.

But exegesis can never be purely independent and objective. Every interpreter of the Bible has his or her blinds spots. This is why the Protestant assumption that every reader can interpret the Bible for himself or herself independently of anyone else has proved so destructive. It feeds the constant fragmentation of Protestant churches over conflicting readings of the Bible.

This places a huge premium on reading and interpreting the Bible within a climate of dialogue, among various theological traditions, social classes, races and ethnic backgrounds, and genders. What you see in the text may be something I am blind to, and vice versa. This never leads to any form of infallibility of interpretation, but it does help to sharpen our exegesis. Our eyes can be opened to see things we never saw before.

The examples I have offered in this posting have been relatively frivolous and unimportant. They will hardly damage anyone’s faith or religious practice. But tradition can also influence the way we read important Biblical texts that lie at the heart of critical doctrines or practices in our churches. In so doing, it can lead to distortions that do indeed cause great harm in the spiritual lives of ordinary people.

I want to tackle one such example in the traditions for interpreting John 3:1-16, a gospel passage that lies at the heart of much Christian evangelism. I will do so in my next blog posting. See you then.

Watching a Biblical Insight Emerge

Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?

            Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?

If I ascend to heaven, thou are there!

            If I make my bed in Sheol, thou are there!

If I take the wings of the morning

            and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

even there thy hand shall lead me,

            and thy right hand shall hold me. Psalm 139:7-10 (RSV)

When Christians read the Hebrew Psalms, many will claim that Psalm 139 is one of their favorites. The psalmist says there is no place we can go in life where God’s Spirit is not present with us. Given the many vicissitudes of life, this is a profoundly consoling message.

Few who read this psalm, I suspect, have any idea that they are also watching a world-changing insight emerging in these words.

It comes as a stark surprise for many Christians when they first learn that the ancient Israelites of these Old Testament eras had no belief in a heaven or a hell as the our destinations after death. Christians just assume that the ancient Israelites believed just as we do. They did not.

The prevailing belief among Old Testament Israelites was that when people died, all of them (whether righteous or evil) descended to a land under the earth, a land of the dead. It was a gray and shadowy land where people experienced a gray and shadowy existence. One could hardly call it an afterlife, for it was devoid of all that makes life alive for us. The dead existed in a state we might compare to zombies.

This land was called Sheol, or the Pit. And we find references to it throughout the Old Testament, but most especially in the psalms.

What was most distressing about Sheol was that God was not there. It was a godless world. And so in Sheol no one praised God or enjoyed the comforts of being in God’s presence. (For an example, see Psalm 6:5.) In Sheol, the relationship the righteous had established with God in this life was shattered. It was gone.

This accounts for the desperation we often find in the psalms when the psalmist pleads with God not to let him be swallowed into Sheol or to let the Pit close its mouth over him. (For an example, see Psalm 69:15.)

A belief in an afterlife and in a resurrection of the dead did not make its appearance in Judaism until late into the post-exilic period. And the Christian belief in a heaven and hell is largely a Christian development.

We see an insight, however, that death does not lead to a godless existence emerging in Psalm 139. When the psalmist says, “If I make my bed in Sheol, thou are there!”, he is saying something revolutionary for the Old Testament world. In that world, Sheol was godless. The psalmist, however, senses that maybe Sheol is not godless after all. God’s Spirit is present there as well as in heaven.

This is not a full-blown declaration of a belief in an afterlife, in a heaven and hell. But it is a suggestion that there is a mystery about what happens after death that the old settled dogma of Israelite religion cannot conceive. The ground is shifting. What is emerging in this small seed of an insight will ultimately blossom into the fully developed ideas of the afterlife that we find in rabbinic Judaism and Christianity.

What I find striking about all this is how it speaks to our modern world. The ancient Israelite mind is not that far away from the mind of many modern secularists. They believe that when we die, we just cease to be. There is nothing to expect after death.

Well, in a sense, so did those ancient Israelites. A relationship with God was important, therefore, not as fire insurance, ensuring that we go to heaven when we die. It was important for the way in which that relationship served as the core of life in this world. To be truly alive here and now was to be in close relationship with God here and now. When a belief in an afterlife emerges, it comes as the icing on the cake, not the cake itself.

And I would contend that that is still the case in a biblical faith, despite Christianity’s exuberant development of ideas about heaven and hell. The point of evangelism is not to get people saved so they will go to heaven when they die. It is to invite people into a relationship with Jesus Christ that will transform life here and now.

In John 17:3, Jesus defines eternal life as knowing the only true God and Jesus Christ whom God has sent. Eternal life is defined as a form of knowing, i.e., relationship, not by how long life continues after death.

Christians are too inclined in their descriptions of the afterlife to get too graphic. We seem to know too exactly, as Reinhold Niebuhr once quipped, the furniture of heaven and the temperature of hell.

That is why I read a book like Heaven is for Real with great skepticism. I am not sure we are ever given the kind of details about heaven and hell that such a book claims to give. More importantly, it distracts our attention from the real issue, which is our transforming relationship with God who comes to us in Jesus Christ. The focus of that relationship is first and foremost a changed life here and now, not the here after.

Interestingly, the apostle Paul never goes into the detailed description of heaven and hell that the Book of Revelation does. Instead he says simply, when we die, we are with Christ. What does being with Christ look like? Paul never says, nor should we. That is the big surprise that awaits each of us at the moment of our death. And I am willing to let it remain a surprise.


Heaven’s Not My Eternal Home

Scripture Text: Revelation 21-22

O Lord you know I have no friend like you.

If Heaven’s not my home then Lord what will I do?

The angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door,

and I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.

These lyrics from a popular gospel hymn express the hope of millions of Christians. No one questions that the belief that heaven will be our eternal home is biblical teaching.

But we ought to. For it is certainly not the vision we get in the Book of Revelation. In Chapters 21-22, we have John’s vision of the life that is coming after the Eschaton. And in his vision, our eternal home is not an ethereal heaven above, but a recreated earth. The new Jerusalem descends from heaven to a new earth. There it will be the eternal resting place of God and God’s people.

In Revelation, we do not rise to heaven, but heavens descends to us. As John says, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them” (Revelation 21:3). So we ought to look forward with anticipating joy to this glorious union of heaven with earth.

John’s vision is deeply incarnational, as is the theology of the whole New Testament. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” is the proclamation of the Gospel of John, and of all the New Testament. Jesus Christ is Emmanuel, God with us, in every sense of being.

The New Testament hope is not the Hellenic hope, the hope that at death our immortal souls will be set free from the corrupting flesh. Blessedness for Plato and many of his fellow philosophers is the liberation of the soul from its bodily prison. The soul is blessed in its nakedness.

The New Testament hope, on the other hand, looks forward to that great day when mortal flesh should put on immortality (1 Corinthians 15:53-54).  Rather than standing naked before God,  the apostle Paul looks eagerly to that day when our souls are clothed with their new heavenly bodies (see 2 Corinthians 5:1-5). And our personal hope is the hope of all the material universe, which groans in longing for that  day when it will come to share the glorious liberty of the children of God (Romans 8:21).

Eastern Orthodox theology puts this great hope into the maxim: God became a human being in order that human beings may become divine. I love this way of expressing God’s purpose in both creation and redemption. We human beings—bodies, mind, spirits, and social units—are destined by God to be one with God’s own life. No wonder we are encouraged to pray constantly: Thy kingdom come!