Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A fundamental problem: and three attempts at a solution

Doug at Metacatholic has published a provocative post, Deconstructing the Decalogue.

(For those who aren't familiar with the jargon, the "Decalogue" = the "Ten Commandments". Literally, the ten "words" (Gk. logoi):  see the ESV footnote to Deut. 4:13.)

I intend to use Doug's post to illustrate a fundamental problem in any attempt to understand the Bible. In a three-part series of posts, I will lay out three attempts at a solution to the problem. The first attempt at a solution, historical criticism, is described in this post.

Internal inconsistencies:

For ease of reference, I am going to attach a label to the problem that Doug illustrates so well:  internal inconsistencies. One biblical text often contradicts, or appears to be inconsistent with, another biblical text.

Very often, the sickness of modernity is diagnosed in different terms:  faith vs. science. In other words, individuals must choose between the competing claims of rival authorities. Naturally, Christians will choose to believe the Bible instead of "believing" the claims of modern science.

I submit that the problem is more fundamental than that. Christians cannot simply "believe the Bible" because the Bible comprises a range of viewpoints. Scripture is "multivocal" (my preferred summary term). A close reading of scripture does not pit faith against science, but one biblical "voice" against another — often even within a single book (e.g., Ecclesiastes).

Doug analyzes three Old Testament scriptures, which I am presenting side by side in tabular form. The first text, from Exodus 20, explicates the second commandment:  "You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth" (Ex. 20:4).1

Exodus 20:5-6 Deut. 7:9-10 Ezekiel 18:20
You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and repays to their face those who hate him, by destroying them. He will not be slack with one who hates him. He will repay him to his face. The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.

(1) The Decalogue asserts that God will punish three or four generations for the sins of the father. (2) Deuteronomy makes no mention of subsequent generations; rather, it focuses on the sinner himself. God will not be "slack" with the sinner (i.e., there will be no delay in punishment?), but will punish him to his face. (3) Ezekiel goes even further, flatly contradicting the Decalogue:
The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father. … The wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.
Doug comments,
The words portrayed as belonging to God both in speech and writing seem to be up for conversation, criticism and dialogue. God in Ezekiel disagrees with God in Exodus, and even though the final redaction of Exodus most likely post-dates these prophecies the tensions and discordances are preserved in the text on its long journey towards canonicity.
What are the implications of this conclusion for exegesis? How can texts which are inconsistent with one another supply a coherent and authoritative guide to doctrine and practice?

Historical criticism:

The first attempt at a solution that I wish to consider is historical criticism.

The historical-critical method presupposes that Israel's understanding of God was contingent on its location in space and time. As the generations passed; as Israel encountered other nations with different religious ideas; as Israel's fortunes on the world stage rose and fell — Israel's doctrines and practices changed.

In my view, this is undoubtedly a biblical perspective. As Walter Brueggemann says, "Israel’s articulation itself would seem to stress the historical."2 And indeed, traditional theology has been open to the notion of progressive revelation:
Different faith groups assign various meanings to the term "Progressive revelation." A common definition is the belief that God did not teach full theological, legal, moral, scientific, medical and other knowledge to humans in the beginning. Rather, God gradually revealed truths over a long interval, according to their needs, and at a rate slow enough that humans were capable of fully absorbing them.
But traditional theology was not open to the idea of irreconcilable contradictions in scripture. That Israel might actually change its mind, and conclude that the doctrines of an earlier era were in error — that was simply unthinkable.

In fact, historical criticism doesn't assume progressive revelation. Methodologically, earlier documents are preferred to later documents. The biblical historian assumes something like a degeneration from an original purity, rather than progress toward perfection.

As an example of the historical-critical method, consider Gerhard von Rad (whose views are here summarized by Walter Brueggemann). Von Rad proposed
that the recitals of Deut. 26:5–9, 6:20–24, and Josh. 24:1–13 constitute Israel’s earliest and most characteristic theological articulation. These highly studied recitals … narrate Israel's remembered "historical" experience of the decisive ways in which Yahweh, the God of Israel, has intervened and acted in the life of Israel. …

Von Rad was drawn to term these stylized recitals as credos, as bottom-line articulations of what is unquestioned and nonnegotiable in Israel’s faith.3
Thus von Rad employed the historical-critical method to isolate the earliest recitals of Israel's faith. He recognized that subsequent generations always circled back to the core material; they retold the stories in ways that were appropriate to new historical circumstances. But it was the most ancient stratum of the tradition that von Rad deemed normative and non-negotiable.

Were von Rad's conclusions warranted? Had he succeeded in isolating the earliest stratum of the tradition? Can the historical critical method solve the problem of internal inconsistencies for us?

In my second post, I will lay out some of the inadequacies of the historical-critical option. I will then direct our attention to a second attempt at a solution:  canonical criticism.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
1Unless otherwise indicated, scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

2Brueggemann, W. (1997). Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, dispute, advocacy, Fortress Press, p. 40.

3ibid., pp. 32-33.


Doug Chaplin said...

I look forward to the subsequent posts as well. Thanks for picking up on this and taking it further.

geocreationist said...

Personally, I am not sure that Exodus 20:5-6 means what you say. It says "visiting the iniquity", not "visiting the punishment". This suggests to me an acknowledgement that consequences, though not a punishment per se, can have lasting effects on future generations. Surely we see that even today. A father goes to jail, then his children grow up without a father, and their children suffer as well... but none of them are necessarily being punished.

As for Ezekiel, that is speaking specifically of the soul, not the body. Therefore, a person may suffer for his father's iniquity while on earth, but when he dies his soul will not go to Hell for his father's sin.

So, in my view, here is how it works. A father sins. As Deut. 7:9-10 says, that father will be repaid to his face. There will then be bodily consequences for his son, per Exodus 20:5-6, but his son will go to Heaven or Hell based on his own life (per Ezekiel 18:20), not based on his father's.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

• Geocreationist:
Thanks for offering an alternative interpretation, and a thoughtful one at that.

I'm not invested in persuading others to see the text the way that I see it. In particular, I am reluctant to play the role of persuading fellow believers that there are errors (contradictions) in the Bible. Obviously I do plan to share my own perspective on scripture, and people can react in agreement or disagreement. I think dialogue is always good, if it is conducted with mutual respect.

With that proviso, I will continue to argue that these texts are inconsistent with one another.

You make a good point with your illustration of a father going to jail. In terms of social consequences, it is undoubtedly true that the members of the family suffer when the head of a family is caught out in a sin (crime).

But with respect to exegesis —
"Visiting the iniquity" means "visiting the guilt on the children". The Israelites were not individualists like us; their worldview was premised on a "corporate" understanding of society.

Perhaps the outstanding illustration of that point is the unfortunate contemporaries of Achan, who were slaughtered because of his sin. That happened even though there is no indication that they were complicit in Achan's sin; indeed, there's nothing to suggest that they were even aware of Achan's sin.

It isn't quite the same as saying that the next generation will suffer for this generation's sins, but you can see that the idea of corporate guilt is present in Joshua 7, as in Ex. 20.

In Ezekiel, when it says "the soul who sins shall die" — soul simply means individual. There was no compartmentalization of body and soul in ancient Israel. The Israelites were aware that human beings have both a physical part and a spiritual part, but the two together constituted the individual.

When you trace that idea forward, you see that it leads to the insistence on a bodily resurrection. It isn't just that the believer's soul will travel to heaven; the believer's body will also be restored, just as Jesus' body was. Paul says that the body will be transformed: a "natural" body will become a spiritual body. But throughout that text, he repeats "it is sown … it is raised" — referring to the salvation not of a disembodied soul, but of the whole body/soul person.

Make of that argument what you will. Presumably you will still be able to reconcile the passages to your satisfaction. This is of course a perennial debate: whether the tensions in scripture amount to actual contradiction, or whether the texts are complementary. I'm sure we'll have this debate again before long!

geocreationist said...

My basis for seeing other than what the contemporaries of the time would understand is based on the nature of the messianic prophecies... they often meant other than (or more than) what the contemporaries of the time thought. For example, "Elohim" in Genesis 1:1, "My lord said to my lord" in Psalms. "his seed and her seed" in Genesis. And others.

That said, I understand your point. Unfortunately, I have not studied the hebrew or the cultures of the time to the extent where I can call my opinion any more than that, in regards to the scriptures you cite. For me to insist on this point would be slippery slope to dismissing any scripture I do not like... something people would probably accuse me of certain cases already!

In any case, I look forward to the rest of this mini-series.