Friday, December 13, 2013

More on Rob Bell's "What Is the Bible?"

I have no intention of starting a running commentary on Rob Bell's "What Is the Bible?" series on Tumblr, but a couple of recent posts of his 1) answer some questions I had raised about how he was going to handle the Resurrection, and 2) provide a wonderful example of how not to do exegesis on Ephesians 1:9-10.

First, on the Resurrection. I had raised the question of how Rob would handle Jesus' resurrection, considering the fact that he had made a point of saying that the historicity of events in Scripture was beside the point. In his post #18 of the series, Rob gets to the Resurrection. And his conclusion is that, yes, literally, "Dude is alive!"(Rob is living in southern California now. And surfing a lot.)

So that's great: Rob and I agree that the Resurrection really happened. Rob gets there by an interesting path--he sees the discrepancies (or what he views as discrepancies) in the various Resurrection narratives and post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus as evidence that this was not propaganda and therefore really happened. (That it was women who saw Jesus first is additional evidence. A phony story would not have been set up that way.) So Rob manages to affirm the literal truth of the Resurrection while not having to affirm (or reconcile) the literal truth of any of the documents that document that fact. It all fits into his method pretty well.

But here's where Rob didn't give me an answer: why does the literal truth of Jesus' resurrection matter? Rob affirms it, and that's great, but given his method, does it make any difference? Why shouldn't we go all Joseph Campbell on this thing and just affirm that, yes, it's a great, moving, powerful story, and let's not nitpick on whether it really happened or not? By Rob's method, I have no idea what difference it makes.

Second, on Ephesians 1:9-10, Rob makes a big deal out of the Greek word pas. A tip: whenever a Bible teacher starts making a big deal out of the meanings of Greek words, beware. Rob had me going for a minute: since he didn't give some esoteric meaning of pas, I assumed he just went to the Greek as a bit of a joke. But he ends up adding more to it than that.

Pas means "all." That's it. It's an adjective, but it can be used as a noun, "all things" or "everything." There's nothing hidden or different or special about this word. It's probably not precisely the same as the English word "all"--translations are hardly ever a straight one-for-one correspondence--but it just basically means "all." It functions the same way.

But that's not how Rob handles it. Having established that pas means "all things," he then applies this to scripture itself. "All things" includes the bad old barbaric and possibly mythical things that came out of the culture that produced the Bible. God's purpose is to redeem all of it, so the nasty (and possibly mythical) stuff comes alongside the nice, progressive stuff. He brings in other examples of the word pas and stresses its inclusivity: God is about restoring and gathering together and redeeming "all things": poverty, abuse, racism, fractured relationships (these are Rob's examples).

Now on one level, I agree with him. God does want to restore all these things, including the bad stuff, and to redeem it in such a way that it makes remembering the bad stuff a part of the charm of the new. But that has nothing to do with Ephesians 1:9-10. You can't simply take "all" and make it mean "everything you could possibly think of" everywhere you see it.

One of the best things I ever learned about biblical interpretation is the phrase, "Context is king." Words don't just mean what they mean in isolation. They mean what they mean in a particular context. When we're communicating in our native language, we intuitively know this, and interpret contextually all the time. That's why I can write a sentence like, "I set the chess set on the TV set," and you know what I mean by "set" in each case. But somehow, when the original language is different, we tend to forget that fact.

This is why Rob can end up chanting, "All things, all things, all things, all things," and completely forget about the rest of the passage. "All things" means "everything we're talking about here at the moment." When a child is stubbornly looking at the vegetables left on his plate, and his mother says, "No, you need to eat it all," she doesn't mean he has to eat all the food in the world. "All," in this context, means "everything that's left on your plate."

Now, in Ephesians, Paul's just getting going in his argument, so the context is not yet completely clear. But Paul is building a case to show something that seems obvious to us now but desperately needed to be understood at the time he wrote: that God's intention had always been to bring Jews and Gentiles together into one unified people under His lordship. He makes the point explicitly in 2:14-18:
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. (2:14-18)
The "all things" that Paul is talking about in 1:10 is, predominantly, all people, all races. What humanity sees as inherently divided God wants to unify. Perhaps one could make a case for extending the application of this meaning beyond its original context, but the case needs to be made, by something more than chanting "all things."

My point is not to knock or discredit Rob. Lots and lots of pastors and Bible teachers get away with bad interpretation because they work their way to making good points. But this dilutes Scripture, makes it more difficult for readers or listeners in the congregation to extract biblical truth for themselves. It makes them more dependent on the gifted interpreter. "I could never have gotten that out of that passage!" they say. They're right, but not for the reasons they think.

They couldn't have gotten it, because it isn't there.


  1. I agree with your post overall, but I have a couple minor quibbles. First, this line:

    "So Rob manages to affirm the literal truth of the Resurrection while not having to affirm (or reconcile) the literal truth of any of the documents that document that fact."

    This seems a bit over the top. Every Christian "affirms the literal truth" of parts of scripture without completely "reconciling" the text. The accounts of the Resurrection are a perfect example of this. I believe in the resurrection but I cannot effectively reconcile the divergent accounts. I've read plenty of attempts to reconcile them, but they all strain at credulity in one direction or another. I don't think Rob's attempt to explain the divergence is any less valid, although in full disclosure I admit I tend to lean toward his style of thinking on this topic.

    Finally, I agree that Rob's handling of Ephesians 1:9-10 is a "springboard", much like most of the preaching I heard in my youth. We are all, however, "dependent on the gifted interpreter." Of course "context is king" but where do we get that context from? From learned men and women who translate the text, who explain ancient syntactical and rhetorical style, who enlighten the history and culture of the text, etc. We all have had "I never thought about it that way" moments reading Don Carson or NT Wright or Dallas Willard, and that's not a bad thing.

    I don't want to discourage anyone from studying the scriptures for themselves either, but I also daily see the disastrously misguided interpretations of people who believe that all they need is a plain English bible (or KJV) and the brain God gave them. Anyone can read the bible devotionally, but to truly study and understand it requires a community of people including "gifted interpreters." This is why God gave "apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers". (Oxford comma ommitted intentionally...) I don't think the average American Christian is overly dependent on "gifted interpreters." I think the average American Christian isn't dependent enough, in the sense that they don't dig deep enough to find the context to make it king.

    As I said, minor quibbles or differences in emphasis. Overall we are in agreement, as usual.

    1. Hey Bob,

      You know very well that I'm much more interested in stimulating discussion than in agreement, anyway. :-)

      "Reconcile" was purposely in parentheses and could have been omitted altogether. Truth is, even though I'm not shy about claiming even the bugaboo word, "inerrancy," I've spent very little time and energy trying to reconcile divergent accounts within Scripture. I'm pretty content to trust that they are in principle reconcilable, and treat suggestions about how to reconcile them as mere possibilities.

      I think my comment is justified (perhaps without the parenthetical addition) in light of Rob's insistence that it is the very discrepancies that make the overall idea believable. Someone who affirmed the accounts and therefore the event, but didn't try to reconcile their divergences, would take no such shot from me. It seems that at least in some sense, Rob's trying to have it both ways.

      The point about needing interpreters is well-taken. When we have an eye-opening moment from a teacher, we should be able to go back to the text and see that it's there. It's different with the esoteric knowledge that gets passed off as biblical insight. You look back at the text, and it's not there anymore. You have to buy the dvd to recapture the feeling.