After a week of studying theology and one team meeting bandying about a bit of (in my opinion) a speculative theological interpretation of Acts 15 (see Andrew’s blog for details) I’ve been wondering about how to balance the excitement I feel at new “special knowledge” interpretations of old passages.
On the one hand I think there’s lots to learn from better understanding the original culture and context of passages and grappling with different nuances of the original languages – and on the other I have a high view of God’s sovereignty and the perspicuity of scripture (the idea that God teaches truths clearly through his word).
So I wonder what place new theological ideas grounded in particular and special knowledge (as opposed to general knowledge and a plain understanding of the text understood in the context of the Bible rather than in the context of history) has when it comes to application.
Because I’m now all about nuance and balance I have come up with this fence sitting position where you can own both the perspicuous reading of a passage and the more historically and theologically nuanced position at the same time – unless they are in direct conflict with one another.
The example I’m thinking most about is the Acts 15 passage that Andrew wrote about. Acts 15 is a little story where the church leaders are called on to decide how Gentile converts to what is essentially the continuation of the Messianic Jewish faith should conduct themselves. Some Jews want Gentiles to circumcise themselves and obey the law – but the church leaders decide this is unnecessary because salvation is through grace, not the law.
But they do give the Gentiles some ground rules – rules that have been traditionally understood as relating to how Gentile and Jewish Christians could share “table fellowship” – ie eat together as brothers – while not causing one another offense.
Kutz’s position (based on someone else’s position) on Acts 15 is slightly more exciting. The Gentile Christians are given a list of four things they are not to do as Christians. They can’t eat food sacrificed to idols, food strangled, food with the blood still in it, and they can’t engage in sexual immorality. These requirements tie in to the Levitical law (and in Leviticus also apply to gentiles sojourning amongst believers). The exciting new bit is that this may well have been shorthand for not participating in first century idol temple worship. All of the prohibitions address elements of that practice.
I would argue that the everyday Christian believer throughout the last two thousand years would understand this passage on the basis of table fellowship – I don’t think the new argument is convincing enough to do away with this perspicuous understanding – it is enough to nuance it though. We can better understand that these actions were synonymous with the worship of idols, but that doesn’t negate the understanding that Gentiles should be avoiding that conduct in order to stay in fellowship with Jewish believers.
In conclusion, I think it’s a case of “both” not “either”. And I wonder how this is going to work out as we continue to grapple with new and exciting ideas. I think the temptation can be to throw out the old understanding when we come up with something better, rather than improving our understanding of the old. And I don’t know what that does to two thousand years of church history which if you’re a trinitarian and Calvinist is Holy Spirit inspired and God ordained.