Friday, 2 September 2016

The Place of the Family in British Politics and Economics

Reading about the history of rural life in Britain in tandem with Old Testament law brings up some interesting connections, largely revolving around the place of the family in two disparate cultures.

It is notable that some of the crimes most severely punished in ancient Israel were those that attacked the stability of families: adultery received the death penalty, while various incestuous and other sexually perverse relationships required banishment at the least. This is indicative of how important the integrity of the family is to God, that transgressors of the basic divinely-ordained social structure would receive the most drastic punishment.

But the family also played a key role in the economy - not just in being a particular group which an individual might want to leave an inheritance to, but in being a decisive shaper of Israel's economy. The year of Jubilee in Leviticus 25 is often used as a justification for socialism, but a closer reading reveals that part of its concern was to return tribally-inherited property and land to those who had lost it or lent it. The interests of private families were therefore placed above the interests of both individual capitalists and any State plans for general redistribution.

The tragedy of Britain is that such an outlook never took definitive root. Although land and property were closely associated with familial ties, the feudal system ensured that many had no land of their own, but were in perpetual servitude to those who did. This concentration of land in the hands of a wealthy elite was only exacerbated in succeeding centuries as various acts of enclosure worked in individual capitalists' favour, culminating in late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as many were driven from their lands and into the cities to provide manpower for the new urban industries.

I have no wish to present pre-19th century rural life as a lost golden age of innocence. Life was harsh: poverty meant literal starvation, rather than lack of luxuries as it does now. But much of that suffering was caused by the increasing ownership of land in the hands of wealthy elites who could treat their tenants as they wished.

For land to be exclusively family-owned is to greatly increase the chances of society being formed and run through the bonds of familial love, rather than capitalistic self-interest or socialistic engineering and control. Indeed, the major fault of both free-market capitalism and socialism is that neither are decisively shaped by the natural family: it is the self-interested individual consumer/producer/capitalist in the first arrangement that is the fundamental unit of society, and the mechanistic State as the true family of all in the second.

The loss of subsistence farming and family trades only exacerbates the problem, as families become evermore dependant on secular bureaucracies and corporations that therefore have increasing power over their lives. The social-welfare funded 'benefits class' have little incentive to work, as with low-level or no qualifications they would much earn less for themselves and their families than if they remained on welfare. More broadly, work in the form of a family trade or on family land is no longer naturally 'there' for them anymore - modern man has been so estranged from the land under his feet that almost all people must rent it off others, or take out a mortgage that places them further under the power of the banks until they pay it off. The Year of Jubilee has obvious applications here, too, but the gleaning law of Leviticus 23:22, which provided work for the poor, not just resources, needs to be referred to as well.

The dangers of such a society are clear, not only in the dubious processes at work in the supply of mass-produced food. More significantly, if the state deems a family's way of life to be a threat to official ideology, the father's work or welfare could be terminated and his children taken away. Such has already happened to some degree in the West, and it's not hard to believe it could be carried further in future.

Creating a family-based economy will not transform a nation by itself. Only a society where most people have accepted the heart-changing power of the gospel would be able to resist the corruption of such an approach, or resist turning the family into an idol. But I believe such a vision is what Christians should hope for the nation, even if it lies only on the other side of mass catastrophe, disruption, and rebuilding. In the meantime, we can seek to live out such a vision in however greatly limited a way in our own family life, confident that our witness to what is good matters to God even in the midst of an overwhelmingly Babylonian age.

God: Beyond Human Good and Evil

It's a classic conundrum: if God is the ultimate source of all that is, in what way can He be said to be good? By what standard of goodness do we judge Him to be so, and where does that standard come from? The potential for idolatry is obvious: when some say that 'God is good,' they have a particular idea of goodness in mind that they seek to conform God to. They can then subsequently struggle to reconcile certain portrayals of God in Scripture with their idea of what a good God should look like.

The solution, I think, is to see that God, as the arbiter of all values, is above and beyond human good and evil: He is justified in doing whatever He wishes since He is the creator of any moral value in the first place. There is no standard by which we may judge Him to be doing wrong, other than a standard He may set for Himself. In this way, He may even predestine evil acts for His good purposes without thereby having done an evil thing, since the moral values He has declared for humanity do not necessarily apply to Himself. What He does is always 'good', 'right', or 'correct', simply because there's no external authority by which to judge differently.

To some, this raises difficulties: could God have decided that acts He now declares to be evil were in fact 'good' for mankind to do - and vice versa? To be consistent with God's sovereignty over all things, we must affirm this. But God was only ever, after all, going to make single decisions about the nature of human good and evil, His goodness and rightness being simultaneous with those decisions. Simply put,  He never going to decide any differently.

Beyond saying this, the exact nature of God's will and motivations remains a deep mystery, and I don't think it possible - or humble - to pry any further.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Textual Criticism and Holy Scripture

  • To privilege the truth claims of the Bible involves accepting the result of the text-critical endeavour: the attempt to reconstruct, as far as possible, the original autograph of each canonical book to provide a stable point of reference. Developed theology can trust that the divine guidance of God has been involved in such a process.
  • As long as 'the Bible' is held to be a concept transcending particular translations, languages and textual traditions, it is possible not to be concerned about manuscript or translation variations that do not affect major doctrines or teachings of the Christian faith.
  • Different Biblical books may have different criteria as to when 'the original' final form came into existence. For example, much of the Old Testament has not got an authorial first-person voice which must be trusted as the final author or redactor of particular material. There may therefore have been various additions and revisions over time for such books, and we trust that textual criticism has recovered the final form that we are to hold as authoritative.
  • In the case of the sometimes significant differences between the Masoretic and the LXX Old Testament texts, it may be trusted that, as there is often no criteria as to which tradition represents 'the original autograph' of some canonical books (if there was such a thing, in some cases), both of these textual traditions are authoritative. This seems to have been the attitude of the New Testament writers.
  • The New Testament gospels and epistles are in the form of first-hand testimony or authorship. We can therefore trust that textual criticism has indeed substantially recovered what the authors of the New Testament authors wrote.
  • Trust in the inerrancy of 'the original autographs' alone is not necessary, not only because the existence of such in light of the MT and LXX differences is tenuous, but also because the highest trust can be placed in what we have before us with no loss of important truth.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Historical and Imaginative Characters and Places in the Bible

As I have suggested previously, it is plausible that the Bible uses imaginative truths to speak truth about reality, with more or less imaginative elements present in different sections.

With regards to characters and places in the Bible, it may be held that they are always 'someone like' the historical person they signify. To state the obvious, this is always the case in that a character in a book who represents a historical person is not, materially speaking, that historical person in their actuality, but a collection of words that imaginatively create the impression of such a person.

If a character or place is involved in a number of stories, the historical referent would have to have been involved in events something like those reported for the character and the historical referent to have unity as a person. This would apply to figures such as Moses and Abraham.

More minor characters may have different referents. The conflicting traditions in 1 Sam 17 and 2 Sam 21:19 as to who killed Goliath may reflect that both David and Elhanan both killed someone, or several people, very much like Goliath, whose imaginatively symbolic potential was stretched across both traditions. 1 Chronicles 20:5 would then be a subsequent harmonization of the two traditions, separating the two Goliaths in the world of the text.

To apply this to a place, the historical referent for Jericho in Joshua 6 may be a city, or cities, 'very much like' Jericho, which takes on a symbolic function representative of the cities conquered by God's power, regardless of when and how the historical Jericho was destroyed.

Interpretation and Tradition

We can't know for certain, in an empirical sense, that our interpretation of the Bible is correct. But we can trust that it is if we have tested it against Scripture's own context and against the interpretations of others. This trust is ultimately in Scripture's ability to guide us into the truth, rather than our own.

Appealing to the authority of traditional interpretations, as Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox believers do, may well give the correct interpretation of Scripture. But there is no rational way of choosing which tradition to follow - there is no uniform 'mind of the church'. The heretics of the early centuries AD also believed themselves to be speaking authoritative and apostolic interpretation for the church.

The advantage of the Protestant tradition of sola scriptura is that there is at least a fixed point of reference for doing theology -, the Bible - rather than many conflicting and changing traditions. A Protestant may still follow a tradition of interpretation, but that will be because he believes it to accord with the meaning of Scripture, rather than as an authority in and of itself. And although non-Protestant churches would point to the Biblical commands to submit to church leadership, the Protestant may reply that the Biblical authors are the primary leaders and teachers of the church, and so trust in their teaching must take precedent over teaching from any other.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Child Sacrifice in Ancient Israel

“You shall not delay to offer from the fullness of your harvest and from the outflow of your presses. The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me. You shall do the same with your oxen and with your sheep: seven days it shall be with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to me."
- Exodus 22:29-30

It has been suggested that this section of Israel's Law could have been interpreted as commanding child sacrifice. Within its current context, of course, the offering of the firstborn son involves 'redeeming' him, rather than sacrificing him, in memory of the final plague against Egypt (Exodus 13:11-16).

But does 22:29-30 stem from an earlier time and version of the Law than 13:11-16? Was child sacrifice ever practiced by the Israelites under the apprehension that it had been commanded by God?

Some would affirm this, in light of the fact that the Bible itself speaks of such an idea. In Ezekiel 20:25-26, God describes His judgment of Israel in the wilderness in curious terms: "I gave them statutes that were not good and rules by which they could not have life, and I defiled them through their very gifts in their offering up all their firstborn, that I might devastate them. I did it that they might know that I am the Lord."

From elsewhere in the same speech, however, the picture isn't as simple as a monolithic Law system commanding child sacrifice up until the time of Ezekiel. Ezekiel himself describes how, before God gave "statutes that were not good", He gave them good laws, presumably not including commandments for child sacrifice, saying: " I am the Lord your God; walk in my statutes, and be careful to obey my rules, and keep my Sabbaths holy that they may be a sign between me and you, that you may know that I am the Lord your God" (Ezekiel 20:19-20).

The Bible, therefore, presents there always being a body of good laws that did not command child sacrifice, along with some that did that God used for judgement purposes. It is impossible to know whether Exodus 22:29-30, in some other context, was interpreted as involving child sacrifice, or if another, more unambiguous law no longer extant was used. Either, way, the Law in its current form is reflective of God's original good laws that existed for the good of His people.

But what of Jeremiah, who seems to know nothing of any 'bad laws' that God may have given? "[They] have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it come into my mind" (Jeremiah 19:5). Here it is only necessary to note that, in context, Jeremiah is talking about the present Israelites, not their forefathers to whom God gave the bad laws. Like Ezekiel, who elsewhere in chapter 20 expects the Israelites to not walk in the ways of their forefathers and recognize what is good, Jeremiah assumes it is possible for the Israelites to discern which are God's good laws and which aren't. It can only be trusted that this was always possible, dependent on whether a worshipper sought to follow God alone, or in conjunction with idols. And, indeed, we can only trust that similar discernment is possible now.

Monday, 11 July 2016

The Imaginative Fulfilment of Babylon

I have recently written about the literal fulfilment of certain Old Testament prophecies. As a test case of what imaginative fulfilment of prophecy may look like, I want to take the example of Babylon in the New Testament book of Revelation.
  1. The name of Babylon is clearly being imaginatively used, as it is described as the place outside which the Lord was crucified (Rev. 11:8), which in real-time was Jerusalem, not the historical Babylon. Therefore it is what Babylon represents as a concept - the enemy of God's people - that is important here. But to what is it actually being applied?
  2. Some believe the prophecies in book of Revelation were almost entirely fulfilled during the first century. Many such commentators would say that Babylon refers only to Jerusalem, which was devastated in 70 A.D. according to Jesus' prophecy. The problem with this interpretation is two-fold: 
  3. Firstly, Revelation 18 describes how Babylon will be destroyed forever, and will never be active in any sense again. This is clearly not true of Jerusalem, which continues as an active city to this day. Although prophecy was conditional, and it's perfectly possible to say that God had a measure of mercy on Jerusalem at 70 A.D., God will have to destroy Babylon finally and completely one day if it is the ultimate manifestation of evil civilization.
  4. This leads to my second objection: since the name 'Babylon' is being used imaginatively, it is impossible to tie it down completely to any one particular city, as it has already transcended its own original historical referent and has therefore become an imaginative construal. Babylon is Jerusalem in that it comprehends Jerusalem - but it can also comprehend Rome and the Roman empire more generally as 'the city' outside which the Lord was crucified as well.
  5. Given points 3 and 4, it is possible to believe that Babylon manifested itself partially through Rome and Jerusalem in the 1st century, and continues to manifest itself through cities and world powers that are opposed to God's kingdom today. The church awaits its final destruction, whenever that may take place.