In the Present Tense

June 24, 2009

Consistency vs. Contradiction

Filed under: Uncategorized — edoutlook @ 8:57 pm

Back to Cindy’s questions, with #2:

Why don’t the Old and New Testaments agree?  I know that we are supposed to believe that they ultimately DO agree, but after reading them for myself and comparing, they do NOT agree.  The OT says that we should not even touch a pig.  The NT says that what passes a man’s mouth does not make him unclean.  Yes, the NT was talking about different issues, but the rules seemed to have changed after Jesus came.  In the OT a man was stoned for picking up sticks on Sabbath.  In the NT, we are told not to judge people based on Sabbaths.  So if God is the same yesterday, today and forever, why isn’t He the same spanning a few thousand years?

Like the first question, this one depends upon an understanding of human culture, and how we as humans change and develop.

When my children were small, I warned them against using sharp instruments like knives. This could include an absolute prohibition against touching a knife. As they grew and developed, I might actually purchase a knife as a gift, might encourage them to use sharp instruments of all kinds.

Does that mean I was contradictory? Did I not agree with myself?

In an earlier post I mentioned the prohibition of cooking a goat kid in its mother’s milk. We now know that, at the time the prohibition was made, that practice was used in a divination ceremony.  Would that prohibition still hold today? I don’t think so. There may be good health reasons not to eat such a dish, but the cultural context into which that prohibition was made has changed to the point where the prohibition is essentially meaningless.

We must always ask what a particular command or prohibition meant to the people to whom it was given. God meets people where they are; He does not wast His time or theirs by making irrelevant commandments which will only make sense to later generations.

Oddly enough, one of the concerns many contemporary people have is that the church does not change enough; does not abandon practices which no longer make sense.

Orthodox Jews will not start their car or even turn on a light during the Sabbath hours, as that would constitute “kindling a fire” — and so it does. But Adventists don’t follow that practice. Does that mean we’re ignoring the Divine will? Did God change his mind?

Let’s look at an example much closer to home

God forbade the children of Israel’s baking and boiling upon the Sabbath. That prohibition should be regarded by every Sabbath-keeper, as a solemn injunction from Jehovah to them.

Spirit of Prophecy, Vol 1, pp. 226-227

Should we follow the same rule? Or are we ignoring God’s instruction through the prophet if we bake or boil?

The above counsel was given in 1870. The process of baking or boiling had changed very little from Biblical times. My Grandmother’s old wood-fired cooking range required cutting and splitting wood, kindling the fire, tending the range until it was good and warm. Bread had to be mixed up and kneaded, allowed to rise, then baked. And then everything had to be cleaned up, including the firebox of the range. Baking was most of a day’s work.

Does that compare to taking a container of lasagna, say, from the freezer, putting it in the oven, setting the timer and flicking a switch?

Even a culinarily challenged fellow such as myself can bake a casserole with no more labor than is required by simply getting dressed. Such baking need barely interrupt a conversation, or meditation.

On the surface, baking is baking. But when the reality changes so radically, we shouldn’t be surprised that our practice–and God’s commands, when He chooses to speak to the situation– should change as well. Sometimes consistent application of a principle results in apparently contradictory practices.

June 19, 2009

Racism and the Bible

Filed under: Uncategorized — edoutlook @ 3:22 pm

Today, I’m taking up the last part of Cindy’s first question:

racism against other cultures

There’s a bit of a mixture, here. but once again it comes from trying to put 21st century meanings onto an ancient text–which includes some 1600 years of changing times in its composition.

So long as their are differences among people, and resentments among people, some of those resentments will focus on the differences. That surely existed from early on in human history. But the Bible does not teach that such differences make one group inferior or superior to another. The Bible asserts that we are all children of Adam and Eve. Further, despite prohibitions concerning intermarriage and certain behaviors, the royal line of Israel explicitly includes (and preserved the information for later generations) a child born of incest, a child born of a heathen prostitute, a child of a Moabitess, and a child born as the result of adultery.

I am speaking, of course, of Perez, son  of Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar; Boaz, son of Jericho’s famous prostitute Rahab;  Obed, son of the very same Boaz and Ruth, the Moabitess; and no less than King Solomon, son of David and Bathsheba.

What Cindy is probably speaking of are two OT ideas: First, prohibitions against marrying with certain other tribes, and Second, the command to annihilate certain people.

Both of those are related to worship. The Hebrews were relatives of the Canaanites, and throughout their history prior to the Exile, they were prone to falling back into Canaanite worship practices. One of the surest ways to do that was to intermarry with them. No less an example than Solomon can be cited in this regard. Eventually, giving in to these worship practices led to the exile.

As to the extermination, that’s an extremely difficult idea for contemporary audiences to accept, that there could be a culture so corrupt that the only rememdy would be its extermination.

I don’t pretend that my understanding will satisfy everyone; I’m not certain how much I like it myself. But there are lots of things I don’t like, but nevertheless are true, and whose existence I must accept.

The archeological evidence concerning some of the Canaanite cultures is horrific. Entire mounds consisting of small jars into which crushed infant skeletons were placed have been found. Skeletons–sometimes half-skeletons–of people used as foundation sacrifices have been found in the hollow corner posts of houses and other buildings. And these are not the most horrific practices which have been discovered. I will spare my readers those. As one sickened archeologist declared, “When you see the evidence of how these people lived, it’s not surprising that God ordered them destroyed– it’s surprising he let them go on so long.”

It’s as though an entire culture became devout Nazis–literally carrying out atrocities as acts of worship. I think this was the final piece. Virtually every ancient culture practiced some sort of human sacrifice. In order to unequivocally repudiate this practice, God commanded its annihilation. It was a declaration, “Not only do I, the Lord God, not desire nor reward these practices (totally unlike all the other gods you know of) I demand that these practices be exterminated!” And exterminating the practices meant exterminating those who performed them.

And as to racism as we know it? The Bible is about the only ancient source that explicitly denies it! What we think of as our enlightened view of human rights has its foundation in the Bible, both in the universal Fatherhood of God taught in the OT, and in declarations like this in Colossians 3:11” Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.”

June 13, 2009

Natural and Romans 1

Filed under: Uncategorized — edoutlook @ 4:07 pm

And the question of the New Testament’s attitude toward homosexuality revolves around the first chapter of the book of Romans. Let’s face it, the language of Romans 1 is pretty uncompromising.

21For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

24Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

26Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. 27In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.

Unlike the Old Testament, it’s pretty clear that Paul would recognize what we call homosexual behavior today. At least from the ancient Greeks onward, such behavior, entirely divorced from religious practices, was known.

The way around this text, according to some, is to declare that for them, attraction to the same sex is “natural.” According to this interpretation, then, it was not same-sex sexual behavior that Paul was describing, but heterosexuals who abandoned what was natural to them.

There are two problems with this. First, the question isn’t what we think it is natural for us, but what did Paul think when he was writing these words. He was trying to convey his understanding to us. If he meant what was natural to each individual, as gay apologists would have it, it is entirely unclear on the text. This leads to the second problem, which is the logic of the entire passage. The entire passage describes a systematic rejection of the natural order. For example, they exchange the worship of the immortal God, for  images of mortal men and animals; they exchanged the creator for the creation;they exchanged the truth for a lie; and they exchanged the created relationship between a man and a woman for sexual relations with the same-sex.

The entire passage is talking about grand themes, not individual sensibilities. It’s talking about whole classes of things, not individual instances. One might as well take the postmodern view that when Paul says”they exchanged the truth for a lie,” he didn’t mean “the truth,” he meant their personal truths. Whatever we may think about absolute truth, Paul was thinking about truth as a category, and in this passage, as the opposite of untruth.

Frankly, I cannot see any way to be fair to the passage, and conclude anything other than that Paul is describing homosexual behavior in the most negative terms.

Having said that however, we have no warrant to hate or stigmatize individuals because they are tempted to certain behaviors. We are all tempted, and we all fail. That, in fact, is part of the message of the first chapters of the book of Romans. Paul declares:

8The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

in Chapter 1, he focuses on gentiles, those who do not pretend to keep the law. But a chapter 2, the focus is on the Jews, those who believe they do. Paul’s point is that everyone is under condemnation — we’re all in the same boat, we all need the grace of Christ. So while it seems pretty clear to me that Romans condemns what we call homosexual behavior, it also condemns a number of things I may be guilty of.

So, I’ll make this bargain with you. I won’t hate you, and you don’t hate me. How about that?

June 10, 2009

Does the Bible teach “hatred of gays?”

Filed under: Culture and the Bible — edoutlook @ 4:23 pm

To be frank, I’ve been dreading this post. Anyone addressing this topic has to be prepared for brickbats from every direction. Nevertheless, Cindy asked a legitimate question, and, as a Christian, I think I have a duty to answer her honestly.

I want to make it clear, for anyone who doesn’t yet understand, the opinions expressed here are mine and mine alone, and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs of the church at large, the Mid-America Union, the SDA denomination– even my family members may disagree. So it’s just me, just my understanding.

So here goes. When it comes to “gays” or “homosexuals” and the Old Testament, I understand how one could come to the conclusion, that it teaches “hatred of gays,” but I don’t believe that is an accurate reading of the text.

I will not here undertake an exhaustive review of every OT text but my understanding is this: When the OT condemns what we today would describe as “homosexual conduct,” it is always in the context of fasle worship, that is, the sexual activity as worship of a fertility goddess. That is the context in which it is called “an abomination.” But so is heterosexual activity as worship of a fertility god or goddess.

Many of the activities forbidden in the OT are forbidden because they had religious significance we do not understand today.

For example, Ex 23:19 forbids cooking a goat in its mother’s milk. What’s that about? Well, archeological evidence indicates that strange recipe was part of a conjuring or divining ceremony. They understood what it meant, even though we don’t.

Lots of things which are obvious in context may be obscure outside of that context. Sexual conduct in general was viewed in radically different ways in Ancient times. Both Isaac and Jacob married cousins. Cain, and Seth must have married sisters. The OT allowed polygamy. Does that mean these things are good, wholesome, or proper today? Of course not.

I could go on at some length. And the NT is a different situation entirely. But my take is that the OT does not directly address what we call “homosexuality.” When it describes those behaviors, it is in the context of false worship.

June 6, 2009

Position of Women in the Bible-II

Filed under: Culture and the Bible, Present Truth, Women in the Bible — edoutlook @ 3:45 pm

When we look at the status of women in the Bible, then, we’re looking at something which changes, depending upon where and when the reference took place.

The tendency is to ask, “How does this command concerning women compare with what our culture thinks today?”,  and on that basis,the Bible generally comes up short. But this is a false comparison, because the choice for the women concerned, the ones who would be affected by what God said through the prophets, did not have the choice of either the prophet’s declaration or today’s status. Their options were the prophet’s declaration concerning their status, or the prevailing status in their culture at the time.

When Moses set the conditions for divorce, they didn’t have the option of ‘no fault,’ alimony, and child support vs. a ‘bill of divorcement.” Their choice was between the ‘bill of divorcement,’ or simply being abandoned.  More that a thousand years later– that ‘s right, more than a thousand years— Jesus made it clear that God considered that the only legitimate  grounds for divorce was sexual infidelity. And if you read the narrative, it’s clear that even the disciples considered this radical.

Had God’s attitude toward divorce changed that much? Of course not. But, as the disciples reaction indicates– and these were the guys who believed in Him–people can only take so much change at time. And when confronted with change beyond their abilities, humans just bive up. So the real question becomes, “Which is better? A little progress, or none at all?”

And when we carefully examine the Bible’s teachings concerning the treatment of wome, in context, we will find that God always opts for progress, even a little progress, compared to the existing situation. at the time.

Having said that, there are some passages where the correct answer for today’s student is, “I don’t know.” That’s where I will have to be with “head covering” for women. I’m confident it’s not an essential matter one way or another, since those are explained repeatedly and in clear terms. My sense is it’s cultural, and I’ve seen several explanations for that. I’ve also seen counter-arguments for each of the specific cultural explanations. I’m not totally convinced of any of them, and to be honest, it’s not something I believe is worthy of a great deal of effort on my part.. Someone may find/have found the definitive explanation for this, and I’ll be happy when I run into it. In the meantime, I have other things

One of those, being a “fool who rushes in” is to take up your question concering the “hatred of gays,” next. Would you like to focus that a little more, or shall I just venture in and hang myself without assistance:)?

June 3, 2009

The “Position of Women” in the Bible-I

Filed under: Inspiration, Present Truth, Women in the Bible — edoutlook @ 3:59 pm

I’m rushing back in to Cindy’s first question today.

1. Is the Bible fallible? In any way? How much have human beings had a hand in the Bible, and how much of it is “culture?” For example, women are told to keep their heads covered. Our answer is that it was a cultural thing in the day. How much of the Bible was culture and not directly applicable? How much is culture and, frankly, wrong?? (Ie. position of women, hatred of gays, racism against other cultures, etc)

Not surprisingly, both because Cindy is a woman, and because many share her concern, the first– and only recurring– evidence of fallibility in her question concerns women. To paraphrase (Fairly, I hope): How can the Bible be true when it condones second-class (and worse) treatment of women?

Now, as my first post on this subject hinted at, the real question is, “Why doesn’t the Bible demand treatment of women that comports with what my culture views as appropriate?”

I share Cindy’s culture, more or less, so I understand her concern. My point is, however, that our view (Cindy’s and mine) is culturally conditioned as well. And “we’re right, they’re wrong,” or “we’re better, they’re worse,” may not be the only options. Forgetting that we have cultural conditioning is a quick road to error.

The next thing to consider is this: When we speak of the Bible’s “treatment of women,” we’re talking about the status and treatment of women in many different cultures over a span of roughly 1600 years. I’m speaking of approximate times when the Bible was written–the time period covered is considerably longer. Exactly how long, I don’t think anyone knows.

It seems only realistic to recognize that women in a nomadic, herding culture might have a different status than in a static, urban culture. That women in Egypt in 1500 B.C. would be treated differently than women in Rome in 45 A.D. Women of Chemosh-worshiping Moab would have a different status than women of Dagon-worshiping Ninevah. And so on.

So when we speak of “the treatment of women in the Bible,” to be fair, we have to take into consideration the treatment of women in the culture to which the prophetic message was given. That may change things radically.

A pertinent, and sad, example of how culture affects such things can be found in the history of Christian missionaries in Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries. European and American missionaries took the gospel to Africa. As part of their teaching, they thought to change the treatment of women. Some taught that polygamy was wrong, and that a man should divorce all but his first wife.

What they failed to take into account was that the surrounding culture didn’t have any way to relate to a divorced wife. Typically, a divorced woman had done something terribly wrong, and often the only way for her to survive was prostitution. The culture simply had no category to understand or relate to a woman who was divorced because her husband didn’t any longer believe in polygamy. So many otherwise innocent and conscientious wives were put in a terrible position.

In hoping to improve the treatment of women generally, and somewhat in the abstract, these well-meaning missionaries drastically worsened their actual situation. They had overlooked the influence of culture, both theirs, and the culture of the people they intended to help.

In the missionaries’ culture, divorce was common, and not a disgrace. Single women, even single mothers, could hold jobs and make their way. But the African cultures they were dealing with had no such categories or support mechanisms. When non-Christian members of the community saw a divorced woman, they saw a disgraced and unwanted woman.

A better way, perhaps, would have been to leave the existing marriages alone, and teach husbands to treat their wives better, while encouraging younger men and women to monogamy. But that would have left the missionaries open to criticism from many in their home culture, who after all were financing the missions, that they were not teaching “proper treatment of women.”

So the counsel of the Bible concerning the status and treatment of women must be understood in the context of the culture to which that counsel was given. God recognizes that humans can only change so much at a time. And even if an individual, say, a polygamous husband, may change his views radically and be willing to divest himself of all but one wife, the wider culture simply will not adjust so rapidly. And that could lead, as we have seen and God would have known from the beginning, to more harm than good.

I’m willing to take up individual examples, Cindy (and anyone else), but I felt first we needed to understand the crucial role of culture– both ours and others.

Hope this is helpful.

June 1, 2009

Culture and the Bible

Filed under: Bible study, Inspiration — edoutlook @ 3:20 pm

Today I take up Cindy’s* first question:

1. Is the Bible fallible? In any way? How much have human beings had a hand in the Bible, and how much of it is “culture?” For example, women are told to keep their heads covered. Our answer is that it was a cultural thing in the day. How much of the Bible was culture and not directly applicable? How much is culture and, frankly, wrong?? (Ie. position of women, hatred of gays, racism against other cultures, etc)

Despite  starting out with the question of fallibility, the word “culture” occurs in one form or another five separate times in this question. It appears to equate cultural influence with fallibility. And although I’m willing to take on the issue of fallibility, it seems to me the greater concern is something like this: “How does culture interact with inspiration?”

My short answer is, “Culture is what makes it relevant.”  “Culture” has gotten a bad reputation in some circles lately, because it has been used to justify certain practices  by some Christians that other Christians find unsettling. I believe that’s largely because “my” culture is largely invisible to “me.” When it comes to culture, we’re all like the college freshman who discovered he’d been speaking prose his whole life. “My culture” is just what I happen to do. “Your” culture is weird.

When we talk of cultural influences in the Bible, we tend to think of the same types of things Cindy mentioned, practices or attitudes which are foreign to us. But the Bible is saturated with various cultures, and in some ways saturates our own, so that we don’t notice them.

Let’s take one of the most prominent examples. “The Lamb of God.” Wonder how many think of that as a culturally conditioned reference? But of course, the Israelites to whom the sacrificial system was given were herdsmen.The principal of the school where I attended first grade pointed this out to me.

During the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, he had been a missionary to the people we used to call “Eskimos” in far north Alaska. They had no radio or TV in those days. A generation before the Alaska pipeline, there were no highways to most of their settlements. The only way in or out was by plane. These people had never seen a lamb. There were no sheep where they lived. So how could missionaries explain the concept of the Lamb of God?

The closest they could come was a baby seal. That communicated the innocence and helplessness of the sacrifice.

Now, you and I might have a lot of objections. For one thing, seals aren’t even clean! But that wasn’t the point.

The Bible is permeated with cultural references and influences we simply do not see. “Though our sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” Obvious? How about in Tahiti? or Ghana? “I am the vine, you are the branches?” A lot more obvious in wine country than the corn belt.

So that’s the first point I think we need to realize when we talk about cultural influences in the Bible. They are present because God wanted to meet people where the are, to communicate His message in ways that could be understood by the receiving audience. When our culture is closer to the original audience, the meaning is more obvious. When our culture differs widely from the original audience, the meaning may be entirely obscured. So to really understand the Bible message, we need to get as close to understanding the culture to which the message was originally given as possible.  There’s a lot more to this topic, but I think I’ll stop here for today.

It’s better to take these things one bite at a time, at least it is for me.. And, to Cindy and all others with the question, I hope that’s really responsive to your concerns. Let me know.

Blog at