Friday, February 23, 2007

Proverbs and Promises

Perhaps because of my deep commitment to the Bible as God's Word, I have too often handled the Bible as a kind of "magical" book without adequate regard for what should have been simple and obvious interpretive guidelines--for example the genre of a particular book. I have grown up in a movement which, though with excellent motivations, hasn't always practiced careful exegesis.

For example, I, like many others, treated the book of Proverbs as if it were the book of "Promises"--divine commitments to make things turn out a certain way if conditions were met. Therefore if a generous person did not become wealthy or if a diligent parent had a prodigal child, it appeared that God had reneged on His word. A proverb is a pithy statement of popular wisdom, such as "an apple a day keeps the doctor away." No one turns that into an infallible medical law. We understand that proper eating habits promote good health.

The book of Acts is another example. Too often I have treated it as a manual on missiology and ecclesiology, instead of a book of unvarnished history presenting the birth and spread of Jesus' church in the first century. It is more descriptive than prescriptive, that is, it tells us what happened back then more than what we should do now. This is certainly not to diminish the value of any portion of Scripture, but rather to clarify how it should be read, interpreted, and applied.

Believing that one aspect of the image of God in us is the ability to think and communicate in signs and symbols (language), I should not distrust the normal usages of communication. For God to use the normal "laws" of language in His written revelation is no different than the incarnation of Jesus, in His humanity, occurring as a normal human being. Failure to perceive this has led to extreme allegorizing of Scripture as well as other misuses such as my turning proverbs into promises and history into doctrine.

Reading Acts 15 this morning (the occasion of this post) is an important recitation of how the early church developed both theologically and ecclesiastically. How the church affirmed what is required for salvation is a valuable companion to the doctrinal propositions of the apostles' teaching in the New Testament letters like Romans. Observing in Acts the emergence of elders as the leaders of the churches and seeing how decisions were made helps us contextualize passages like 1 Timothy 3.

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