remember to hold your beliefs lightly: the Bible says so

Posted by PeteEnns on December 2, 2016 in Christian faith and life nature of the Bible 23 Comments

Here’s the point I want to make today: Being deeply challenged in our faith is not a “threat” or “attack” that should be fought against. Rather, these moments play an important and necessary role in our spiritual growth.

Nothing has helped me see more clearly the positive spiritual value of having one’s faith tradition challenged than reading the Bible.

Over the last 30 years or so, I have come to see that the Old Testament writers and editors are not conduits of timelessly inerrant information, but as ancient theologians who deliberately, consciously, recontextualized their past to suit the needs of present communities of faith.

The reason we see such flexibility and movement in the Old Testament is this: The final editors of the Old Testament, not to mention many of the writers, experienced and had to account for the crisis of exile, a failed monarchy, and, the survival of one tribe out of 12, Judah, among all the countless children of Abraham that were to have filled the earth.

“So what?” you might ask. Here’s the “so what”: It’s looked like God was changing course. What they were sure that God was doing needed to be adjusted in the face of their changing circumstances.

Think of this, for example. Is it not curious that the Old Testament narrative explicitly focuses on and exalts the tribe of Judah, beginning at least as early as way back in Genesis 49:8-12 (Jacob’s farewell speech)? The Judahite winners/survivors who wrote/edited the story wove their own experience into the ancient Patriarchal tradition. It is hard to escape that conclusion.

Indeed, the traditions of Abraham and the other ancestors in Genesis are shaped to “anticipate” scenes in 41laJ6C-ITL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_the united and divided monarchies.

  • For example, God makes with both Abraham and the Judahite King David an “eternal covenant.” The Abrahamic tradition is recast to support the Davidic line.
  • Or Isaac gives his leftover blessing to Esau, telling him he will first serve his brother but then break loose and break the yoke from his neck (Genesis 27:39-40). That scene is played out the national level when Edom rebels against Judahite rule in the days of King Jehoram in 2 Kings 8:20-22. Personally I don’t believe the Patriarchal narratives were created during the divided monarchy, but rather these old Patriarchal traditions were reworked to speak into a later time.

Perhaps more clearly, the books of 1 and 2 Chronicles are nothing if not a significant, deliberate, conscious theological reshaping of Israel’s earlier history (the Deuteronomistic History) by late postexilic theologians for a late postexilic audience.

  • Manasseh, for example, the utterly corrupt and idolatrous king of Judah and the cause of the exile according to 2 Kings 21—so wicked that even Josiah’s thorough sweeping reforms could not stay God’s wrath (2 Kings 23:26-27)—this Manasseh becomes in 2 Chronicles humble and contrite, a repentant sinner who is then blessed by God (33:10-17) The Chronicler recasts tradition and reshapes Manasseh as a model of repentance to motivate his Persian era Judahite readers.

Or consider Nahum’s late 7th century gloating over the destruction of Nineveh, the capital of the wicked Assyrians, in 612 BC, which gives way to Jonah’s postexilic claim that even the Ninevites have a place in God’s future—indeed, they convert en masse. This reshaping of the past reflects the sobering cosmopolitan experience of the exile.

And of course we have the lament psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Job, which famously take to task the conventional theology of divine retribution championed in Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History (for example, Deuteronomy 28:15-68).

The Old Testament does not work well as a historically accurate record of the ancient past, a foundation of historical certainty upon which to build an unchanging, firm, and true tradition. But it does work very well as something entirely different, the value of which no contemporary person of faith should underestimate:

The Old Testament models an intentionally innovative, adaptive, and contemporizing theological dynamic—a recasting of the past to speak to the changing present and for a vision for the future.

The authoritative texts and traditions of the past were not simply received by the faithful but were necessarily adapted and built upon.

And I say “necessarily” because as circumstances change (like the exile), rethinking tradition is never far behind. In fact, adaptation of tradition is necessary in order to stay connected to the tradition—which is to say, in order to keep it alive.

We also see this pattern in the New Testament.

The Synoptic Gospel writers were in some way dependent on each other, but rather than an “accurate use of sources,” they willingly—and with apparently little reservation—“rewrote” earlier versions of the life of Jesus to suit the theological needs of their communities.

Paul profoundly and of theological necessity recontextualized, reshaped, and thus reinterpreted Israel’s story around the unexpected circumstance of Jesus of Nazareth.

The tectonic shift of a crucified and risen messiah, not to mention a major shift in how one conceived of Gentile inclusion in the family of Abraham (Acts 10 and 15), required a profoundly creative re-engagement of Israel’s story, to which the NT bears clear and consistent witness.

sin-of-certainty-peter-ennsThis pattern of adaptation also plays out, perhaps unwittingly but also unavoidably and necessarily so, throughout the history of Christianity, beginning with the reshaping of the ancient Semitic story of the Old and New Testaments in Greco-Roman philosophical categories, giving us ancient church creeds (Nicean, Chalcedonian).

This dynamic of adaptation of the past seems never to have not happened.

Through the entire history of the church, then and now, the faithful cannot help but ask the very same question asked by biblical authors like the Chronicler and Paul: how does that back there and then speak to us here and now?

Answering that question is a transaction between the believer’s present and the scriptural past, which always involves some creative adaptation.

Here’s an irony. Those who claim to be the most scrupulous of “Bible believers,” who say they will “follow Scripture” wherever it leads, should be the most open to theological change.

What I find curious is that, more often than not, the very opposite is the norm. Those most “biblical” are most resistant to having their belief systems challenged.

Take Scripture “seriously” by embracing what Scripture itself models—a moving rather than static theological process.

After all, the question has never simply been, “What did God do then?” but “What is God doing now—surprisingly, unexpectedly, counterintuitively, and in complete freedom from our traditions?”

***If you want to read more on how I explore how the Bible models theological flexibility, check out The Bible Tells Me So (HarperOne, 2014) and  The Sin of Certainty (HarperOne, 2016).***


  • So, in our trumped-up era where there are no facts, only opinions, did Manasseh really repent or is that a theological rewriting of what actually happened?

      • I have. In fact I’ve taught on it. Your comment is somewhat obtuse, giving the hint of disdain without being straightforward and transparent.

        • Dear Rick,
          “you can’t please them all there’s always somebody calling you down!”~ Joni Mitchell “I was a free man in Paris”

          I just wanted to start a conversation. Obtuse? are you reading in some combativeness of your own and projecting the the hint of disdain you yourself should own? To be honest you’re defensiveness and Your arrogance is apparent in the comment you made to me: do you always have to have things the way you want them when you want them the way you want them? Do you always expect somebody to read your mind person? I brought up Ezekiel 34 because I think it represents a big picture the human race is living out the dregs of.

  • Excellent article and well expressed! I like the way you brought to life the rewriting and updating of earlier traditions by explaining the process with specific examples. I think you have made a tremendous impact as a trained OT scholar through your books and articles. Thanks you, as always.

  • I loved the challenge at the end. How can the church understand her life and her story -today- which may have significant differences from those churches in the Bible’s scope, and that’s totally ok.

  • OK, I will try to engage.
    1) Just because 2 different covenants are said to be eternal does not mean they are the same thing. It just means both are continuing.
    2) Judah was not the only surviving tribe, it was just the largest. Benjamin also became part of Judah and well as some of Simeon and Levi as they were scattered around Israel. Also Anna in the NT is from Asher, so it is plausible that some followers of YHWH went south to Judah when North Israel went bad.
    3) I do not read Acts 10 and Acts 15 as disjoint from the OT, I see them as continuous with the OT story. On Acts 15, Richard Bauckham has recently concluded that the 4 items required of gentiles are from Lev 17-18 are they are in the exact same order in the formal letter. I think this is spot on. I think this is also true for Acts 10, but harder to see.
    Yes, there should always be a 2 step process of exegesis and then application, but the exegesis is dealing with what the text MEANT and the application then tries to say what it MEANS today.

    • 1. That may be true in the abstract but the monarchic and Davidic echoes in Gen and esp the Abraham story are the stuff of whole books (e.g. Clements, Abraham and David)
      2. Doesn’t affect at all the point I am making which is a rump state when countless numbers were promised.
      3. You are free to hold this opinion but certainly Luke presents this as a tectonic shift.

      You seem to minimizing the effects of the exile and its aftermath. That’s new to me.

      • 1. As I see it, each covenant is its own thing but also relates to others, for example, a later covenant can elaborate on an earlier covenant that it assumes. So they should be compared and contrasted, etc. but they each continue in force if that was the claim made when instituted.
        2. Yes, a rump or a remnant is a theme in Scripture. I was just claiming that “the survival of one tribe out of 12, Judah, among all the countless children of Abraham” was understating things.
        3. I am not saying there were not shifts in understanding described in Acts 10 and 15, as I think there was in both cases. Rather, my claim is that these 2 episodes were instances of SUBTRACTING human traditions that negated Tanakh, not adding new ideas (as they are commonly understood) and certainly not negating Tanakh. That is, the NT is by far the stories about 1st century Jews and letters from 1st century Jews with gentiles and gentile concerns being an addition to the Jewish baseline (or tree in Paul’s illustration), although gentiles are a very important addition.

        On Acts 10, Peter had been taught that if he entered a gentile’s house, he would become ritually unclean; but Tanakh never taught this, it was just a human tradition (a fence around Torah as it was called) but in this case it ended up negating Tanakh. There is a lot more on Acts 10 but the first thing is to assume continuity until shown that such does not fly, not assume discontinuity.

        On Acts 15, once you assume and see the continuity, then the council asking gentiles to follow the “gentiles in Israel” type commandments so that there could be table fellowship with Jews makes sense.

        I think exile and return is a repeated theme in Scripture, so I certainly do not want to minimize any of them.

        • On #1, see my previous comment.
          #2, the biblical narrative is actually what inconsistent about fate of the Simeon and Benjamin–functionally, they aren;t mentioned, in my opinion, but I could be forgetting something.
          #3, I’m all for maintaining continuity and discontinuity, but you seem to be exaggerating the former. The “surprise” in Acts 10 is the baptism of the HS on Gentiles (replaying Acts 2 for Jews). That was so disconcerting they had to have a council about it. If it were as continuous as you claim, I would expect the read at least a hint of it.

          • 2) 1Ki_12:23 “Say to Rehoboam the son of Solomon, king of Judah, and to all the house of Judah and Benjamin, and to the rest of the people,

            2Ch_11:1 When Rehoboam came to Jerusalem, he assembled the house of Judah and Benjamin, 180,000 chosen warriors, to fight against Israel, to restore the kingdom to Rehoboam.

            Jos_19:1 The second lot came out for Simeon, for the tribe of the people of Simeon, according to their clans, and their inheritance was in the midst of the inheritance of the people of Judah.

            These verses shows that the parts of united Israel that became what is called Judah included the areas allocated to the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Simeon. And Levi was scattered to all Israel, so some were in Judah. esp. as the 1st temple was in Jerusalem, in tribe of Benjamin, in Judah.

            3) Right, in Acts 2 the HS baptized Jews (all the gathered believers were Jews), in Acts 10 the HS baptized gentiles. Yes, it was a surprise. Why? Because Jews were taught as a human tradition that while God fearing gentiles had a part of the “age to come” (true according to Torah) they were still seen as second class (not true according to Torah). So Peter needed a correction in Acts 10 to clarify they were not 2nd class. So now gentiles were joining Jews in congregational fellowship, including eating. What to do about that? Acts 15: Did the believing gentiles joining heretofore all-Jewish congregations need to become Jews? No, they would be treated as gentiles in Israel when fellowshipping/eating with Jews. That is, Acts 15 was not an innovation, it was a continuation of the previous revelation in Torah.

            • 2. “He then said to Jeroboam: Take for yourself ten pieces; for thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, “See, I am about to tear the kingdom from the hand of Solomon, and will give you ten tribes. 32 One tribe will remain his, for the sake of my servant David and for the sake of Jerusalem, the city that I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel. “ (1 Kings 11:31-32)

              3. You’d have to show how Acts 10/15 is simply a continuation of Torah. Do you really mean to say that Gentiles are seen as full and equal partners in the covenant in the OT?! Ot =r am I missing your meaning.

              • 2. From wiki on ten lost tribes “Nine landed tribes formed the Northern Kingdom: the tribes of Reuben, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Ephraim and Manasseh. In addition, some members of Tribe of Levi, who had no land allocation, were found in the Northern Kingdom. The Tribes of Judah and Benjamin remained loyal to Rehoboam, and formed the Kingdom of Judah (or Southern Kingdom). Members of Levi and the remnant of Simeon were also found in the Southern Kingdom.
                According to 2 Chronicles 15:9, members of the tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh and Simeon “fled” to Judah during the reign of Asa of Judah (c. 911 – 870 BCE).” 2Ch 15:9 Then he gathered together all of Judah, Benjamin, and people from Ephraim, Manasseh, and Simeon who were living among them, since many people had defected to him from Israel when they learned that the LORD his God was with him. Also Luk 2:36 Now Anna, a prophetess, was also there. She was a descendant of Phanuel from the tribe of Asher. So obviously some from the tribe of Asher had gone south to Judah.

                So the 10 parts of cloth in the prophecy seem to be 9 tribes with land plus part of Levi. The 1 part of cloth seems to be a claim that Judah was at first the only tribe, but this included Simeon and some of Levi and then Benjamin joined and as Jerusalem was in Benjamin, this included the temple priests. Plus other followers of God went South. I think you agree that prophecies can use poetic language.

                3. Here is how I would word things: As a first pass when going thru the Torah/Tanahk, there are 3 groups of people that are involved in varying ways with God’s commandments: (1) Israelites/Jews, (2) gentiles inside Israel, and (3) gentiles outside Israel. Or to see it another way, Israelites/Jews have the most commandments that apply to them, then gentiles in Israel have a middle number, then gentiles outside Israel have the fewest. The term God fearers applies to gentiles in groups 2 and 3, depending on where they are located. For example, a pagan gentile needed to become a God fearer before converting to become a Jew. But some never converted, they remained God fearers. But once one sees the categories, I claim one can make better sense of what is being stated in the Tanakh.

                But what was the belief among 1st century Jews in terms of God fearers, they were certainly seen as much preferred to pagans, but they were also seen and treated as 2nd class. This should not have been the case, but there is always a temptation to look down on the “other”.

                On Acts 10 in particular, recall that it is a vision and that Peter does not obey the command to eat 3 times. Nowhere does Peter eat unclean animals in the vision. (P.S. This shows that Peter as a Jew obeys Torah inside the vision.) Peter is puzzled by the vision but then figures out that it means gentile inclusion. However, for us a puzzle remains, what steps to take to get from the vision itself to the meaning of the vision being gentile inclusion may not be so clear. One solution is to see that JUST AS Peter obeyed Torah in terms of what he ate, so Peter learns he should obey Torah in terms on how to treat gentiles that are turning to God.

                • ISV Deu 14:21 “You must not eat any carcass. But you may give it to the alien in your cities so he may eat it or sell it to a foreigner, for you are a holy people to the LORD your God. “You must not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.”

                  This verse shows that there are at least 3 groups of people that are discussed in broad categories in Torah. The “You” refers to Israelites, the “alien in your cities” refers to gentiles/strangers sojourning with the Israelites and the foreigner is someone outside of that.

                  • Yes. Of course. No one is disputing the presence different categories of people and how they are treated. But they are *treated differently.* In Acts 10, the unexpected surprise moment was that this “tiered holiness” is no longer at work. I cannot imagine Deut, Lev., or Numbers saying saying of Gentiles what Acts 10 does.

                    • As I understand Scripture (and others, I am not inventing this), one of the ways holiness is pictured physically in Israel is by “getting near” to God who is seen as residing in the tabernacle/temple. So the high priest gets closest and needs the most preparation in being “set apart/made holy” for his duties, a priest is next so he can do his duties, and then the common Israelite/Jew is next. The time when a normal Israelite/Jew would come (physically) closest to God is when offering a sacrifice, this is when that person would need to be in the most “set apart/ritually clean” state. But notice these verses:

                      Lev 17:8 “And you shall say to them, Any one of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who sojourn among them, who offers a burnt offering or sacrifice
                      Lev 17:9 and does not bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting to offer it to the LORD, that man shall be cut off from his people.

                      This is written in a way to declare a punishment for violation for doing things in the wrong way, but note that this rule ASSUMES that an Israelite and a stranger (gentile) who sojourns among Israel is treated the same. This means that an Israelite and a gentile in Israel according to Torah have the same ability to “get near” to God.

                      One can ask whether this was true in the 2nd temple period and we can easily see that it was not. The court of the gentiles in the 2nd temple had a wall that prohibited gentiles from going any further upon risk of death. This part of the temple design was a human tradition that actually negated a portion of Torah.

                      Act 10:15 And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.”

                      The contrast with common in the purity laws is holy.

                      Lev 10:10 You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean,

                      So another way to translate v.15 is “… do not call unholy.” In other words, God was saying there were no 2nd class believers. Yes, this was a shock to Peter as he had been taught human traditions that said that the God fearing gentiles were 2nd class and “less than” Jews in some sense.

  • Isn’t this a similar process that we all use when we look back on the years of our life and reflect on past events with the wisdom we have gained, to gain a better understanding of what those events meant and how they shaped us and the course of our lives?

  • Very enjoyable read because this is your territory as a scholar. I think many Christian’s are simply unaware of a lot of information out there. There are those who will choose to ignore it, but there are countless others who simply don’t know, but want to know.

  • I’d like to engage with you on one particular point: the literal existence of a god.

    Given everything you’ve said about the Bible (with which I agree, by the way), how does this affect the warrant for a belief in a literal, interventionist deity?

  • Or, maybe all of the biblical contributors were just making it up as they went along and we should just abandon the whole thing. I’m not disagreeing with what you’re saying in the post, by the way.

  • Pete, quick question for you. I’ve read a couple of your books (I&I, The Bible Tells Me So), and its been life altering to say the least. Its like you are putting meat and bones to what I’ve always believed or intuitively known. Thanks for much! When talking to others about an Incarnational View of scripture, especially one where as you say in this post – scripture is recasted, adapted and built upon, how might one respond to the person who asks “well whats stopping you from seeing the gospels that way and therefore chalking up Christ’s divinity, miracles, etc to ‘creative interpretation’ or ‘storytelling'”?

    I’ve listened to a couple podcasts where you somewhat address this question by saying that there really isn’t anything safeguarding someone from going that route. Maybe I’m misapplying that answer here, but if you would in fact maintain that answer, how then do you personally believe in those things concerning Christ?

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