I began this series by noting that I view scripture as the authoritative record of God’s acts in history. I see an unfolding story as I read that record. The overarching story is quite vague for the human participants early on in the narrative. With the passing of time, from Noah, through Abraham, through Israel, through Jesus, through the apostles and on through the church, the story comes into ever sharper focus as God reveals more and more of his character and intentions. The story, and the Church’s interaction with the story, is the regulative authority in Christian community.
I have also suggested that economics is central to humanity’s mission in the world. Yet scripture gives us no culturally transcendent economic system to implement. How do we evaluate what constitutes a just economic system? This question turns on how we relate to scripture. There are two scriptural interpretation methods that tend to dominate American Christendom, neither of which are very helpful.
First, there is what I will call the literal-authoritative approach. Scripture is approached as though it is an instruction manual. Passages relevant to a topic are identified, assumed to be non-contradictory, collated, and then synthesized, often with complete disregard for context. This data is formed into ethical directives. The New Testament is seen as the apex of God’s vision and authoritative for ordering human institutions today.
Second, there is what I will call the illuminative approach. Many within this camp have concluded that while scripture is inspiring, it has little to say directly about our age. Vague notions of love, justice and equality can be discerned from scripture that illumine our quest but that is about all. Others believe Jesus was in some way unique, if not divine, but they believe that the New Testament authors in some way distorted Jesus’ message. We have to uncover the Jesus behind the New Testament for true illumination.
Craig Hill, in his book In God’s Time: The Bible and the Future, does a wonderful job showing this diagrammatically. (Although he does not use labels for the differing views.) The box in the diagram to the right represents the New Testament and the asterisk represents us in our culture and time. The two axes represent culture and time. A move upward represents the evolution of culture and a move rightward represents the passage of time. Therefore, moving from lower left to upper right indicates our position with respect to the New Testament. We are distant in both culture and time from the New Testament.
Literal-Authoritative Approach – In the next diagram, the dotted arrow represents our vision backward toward the New Testament. As Hill notes, many who take this approach simply ignore the distance in culture and time and just assume that the words are self-evident today and that the Holy Spirit will lead them. Others may consult commentaries and other resources but the manifest aim is to discover prescriptions and obey them.
Illuminative Approach – To the degree that there is divine wisdom in the New Testament, it is found in Jesus. More specifically, it is found in the Jesus behind the New Testament not necessarily the Jesus presented in New Testament. Hill illustrates this by placing Jesus just prior to the New Testament. The arrow drawn here represents the effort to bypass the New Testament to get to the Jesus behind it. As the New Testament is the only record we have of Jesus, we must devise schemes that delineate the authentic from the altered. From there we can receive true illumination.
Ironically, both approaches lead us into the same problem: reading our culture into the scripture. For example, with the literal-authoritative approach, we may read our contemporary assumptions about family back into scripture, where family life was markedly different. Then we read out of scripture instruction that would be mystifying to the authors and original audience of the biblical documents. My post last week about reading our metaphors of “head” into Paul’s metaphorical use of “head” is a good example. Paul was teaching mutual submission. His aim for the husband was for him to view himself as the animating source of life (Greek “head” metaphor) to his household instead of ruling over it. But many today use it as a directive for the husband to rule over (English “head” metaphor) his household! Scripture loses its transforming authority.
As to the illuminative approach, Craig Hill writes,
Can one bypass the New Testament and get directly to Jesus? Only if one is content to find a projection of oneself. To know and to listen to Jesus necessarily means knowing and listening to Matthew and John and Paul. The New Testament books are irreplaceable guides into an otherwise inaccessible territory; they are the gold standard against which all claims about Jesus must be tested. (1)
If the literal authoritative approach can be faulted for substantial contextual blindness, the illuminative approach suffers from an intellectual hubris that trusts one’s own “objectivity” to cut through the “distortions” of simpletons or “deceptions” of frauds who wrote the New Testament.
Hill suggests an alternative that I will call the God-through-scripture approach. In the diagram to the right we see all the same elements as in the previous diagram above except that the attempt to find a Jesus behind scripture becomes the dotted arrow symbolizing Jesus speaking to our culture and time through his interaction with the New Testament culture and time. Craig Hill writes,
Believers today are employed at the same essential task as the New Testament authors, namely, the attempt to make sense of their world in light of God’s self-disclosure in Jesus. I call this the “But in Christ” project. Like us, the writers of the NT were located at particular moments in time and in specific cultural environments. Like us, they accepted much of their situation as a given; however, at certain points they realized that their situation as a given; however, at certain points they realized that their world was challenged by what they had seen of God in Christ. Those are the “But in Christ” moments. Yes, first-century this and first-century that about women, but in Christ “there is no longer male and female” (Gal. 3:28). I would contend that it is precisely at these junctures that the New Testament is most important and most revelatory. (2)
Hill uses slavery as an example. To literally conform to the New Testament would require the sanctioning of slavery. The “But in Christ” points us on a trajectory that goes beyond the status quo of New Testament life.
Hill introduced the “but in Christ” concept. I want to expand it just a little bit further. Indeed there are many “but in Christ” explicit statements in the New Testament. But there are many other implied “but in Christ” cases in the New Testament and “but as God’s chosen people” cases in the Old Testament. Often the Israelites or Christians were given instruction that was counter to the surrounding culture without an explicit contrast being made to the those cultures. For instance, when the law was given in the Torah forbidding slavery among the Israelites, all the surrounding cultures practiced slavery. Such directives should be given special attention because they teach us that God was moving in a different direction.
By observing these “but” instances in conjunction with other instances in the scripture, we can often discern an arrow that points us on a trajectory from the story of the Bible, through our time, and on into the New Jerusalem. It points us to an ultimate ethic. William J. Webb has developed what he calls the Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic which has this perspective as one of its central themes. You can click here if you want to explore it a little more. I will have this hermeneutic in mind as I turn to look at what the biblical narrative says about economics.
(1) Craig C. Hill. In God's Time: The Bible and the Future. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Puclishing, Co., 2002. 26.
(2) Ibid, 25.