text without context

Elasticity of Scripture

Only at this blog will you find a post like this coming right after a post like this. One of the things I’ve been thinking about while arguing about UFC, studying at college, and grappling with the social context of the early church, is the idea of how far you can stretch a particular passage of scripture as you grapple with a particular issue. While the “context is king” hermeneutic is really useful for figuring out the “impossible application” of a passage – there are lots of circumstances that it seems we can pull a verse out of the ether (or the Bible) to address – without looking too hard at the context of the verse. Sometimes we call this ethics, other times its doctrine.

I have always hated the concept of “memory verses” as some sort of bandaid solution to every personal calamity, I get suspicious when I walk into houses that have verses stripped of context strewn all over the walls. I reckon putting big slabs of text all over your walls is much more Godly. Well, not really. As Carson famously argued “a text without a context becomes a pre text for a proof text” or something… but I think we can actually legitimately “proof text” without completely paying attention to the full “original audience” context. We don’t need every historical nuance to come up with a sound systematic understanding of an issue. The Bible doesn’t consider Climate Change – but says lots about our responsibility for the planet, its brokenness, and our new gospel priorities (and expectation of a new creation)…

I’ve been thinking about this since giving a presentation on Question One of the Westminster Shorter Catechism at church a couple of weeks ago.

The proof texts for the “chief end of man” are, in my opinion, pretty weak. If you consider the context of those passages it’s almost impossible to argue that this is the “big idea” of any of the specific passages, but it’s a “big idea” from the Bible, and we seem to feel like we need a good proof text for every position – we can’t just argue on the basis of “the vibe”… you can stretch a fair bit of Bible over the idea that one of our chief purposes being to glorify God. We have this correct concept that we get to by doing our systematics properly, but no great proof text, so we pull all the little bits of Bible into a paper mache type shape to build our idea, or we have an idea and we stretch (like a balloon) passages over it to give it a Biblical flavour.

Pacifism is not specifically mandated in the Bible, but I can see how one might reach that end by stringing together the teachings of Jesus, the fruits of the Spirit, and also our understanding of church history (how the early church acted based on the teachings of the Apostles) – but I think you can equally look at the Bible and come to a just war/justifiable violence position. Depending on what passages you want to string together. I can see why systematic sermons are hard – but they’re also, as forms of communication, heaps more compelling and much better for application.

But just how far can we stretch “scripture” when building a systematic framework? And where does context fit into this picture of systematising? If we’re Mark Driscoll we just talk about the idea without bothering using the Bible – which may, in the end, be preferable (and possibly prophetic).

What do you reckon? How far is too far when it comes to proof texting?

Against my better judgment

Long post – in summary some “pastor” thinks I’m ignorant because I think we should be preaching the gospel rather than caring about the environment. 

So, Amy was so annoyed by my theological viewpoint on the environment in this post that she called in an “expert”. He responded with a particularly long critique of my position, my post, and at times in a way I would consider an affront and pretty insulting – like where he compares being a climate change agnostic to being Pontius Pilate. Which I guess kind of backs up my point that climate change is essentially being considered as a salvation issue by some people.

I also like the part where he compares climate change to slavery and suggests that I’ll never amount to anything like Wilberforce or Newton.

Oh, and the bit where he suggested that God is not in control of the weather. So I guess he doesn’t pray for rain, and he probably ignores that awkward bit in the Bible where God brings a flood, and the bit where he brings a seven year famine, and the bit where he makes it dark when Jesus is being crucified… 

And who can forget the bit where he suggests that Jesus saw feeding the 5000 some lunch was as important as the teaching he was doing that lead them to being hungry – you know, the teaching about the kingdom of God being near. The teaching about how they should turn to him or face death and judgment. Oh yeah, that’s right. Jesus was all about temporal needs. That’s why when he told the paralysed man to get up and walk he did it AFTER forgiving his sins. That is the first and only time I will use block caps here to voice my displeasure. 

But he went to the time and effort of responding so here is his unabridged essay (it’s very long) below. 

I feel like I need to mount defences on some of these points but have not figured out the best way to do that. While I figure that out feel free to read this and jump in with your own critique – I’m sure Amy will either direct him here to respond or pass on our responses – because that seems only fair. 

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This will be a long post – responses to all of this topic by a Pastor friend of mine (also studies economics before Nathan starts critiquing credentials to argue about economics). This is transcribed as is from a word doc so I have copied out what para was referenced in italics, and his response normally. Hopefully all will be clear (and that the Hebrew actually comes through).

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Firstly, he would like to point out to Nathan that disparaging companies that have a triple bottom line is a bit rich when you buy coffee from http://store.ministrygrounds.net.au/ (who support “Rainforest Alliance”).

Also, that isn’t labelling yourself as a climate change agnostic the same as ‘washing your hands of responsibility’ a la a certain other individual 2000 years ago?

And, finally, that you are quite happy to travel NZ and admire the beauty of nature and post photos of such on your site – but not visit industrial sites and other sites of human achievements.

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Okay, in response to comments:

1.Amy:
1. I am of the mind to think that when God gave us this planet to look after, it was sort of a house-sitting arrangement. He isn’t going to be too happy to come back and find we’ve trashed the joint, is He?

Hmmm – not a house sitting arrangement as such but still His creation that we have been entrusted with to be good stewards of. Gen 2:15 tells us that man(kind) was given the task of working the garden to provide food but to also take care of it.

According to the Strong’s Bible Dictionary:
The word Work (NIV) in Hebrew means: עָבַד
‛âbad
aw-bad’
A primitive root; to work (in any sense); by implication to serve, till, (causatively) enslave, etc.:— X be, keep in bondage, be bondmen, bond-service, compel, do, dress, ear, execute, + husbandman, keep, labour (-ing man), bring to pass, (cause to, make to) serve (-ing, self), (be, become) servant (-s), do (use) service, till (-er), transgress [from margin], (set a) work, be wrought, worshipper.

Then the word Take Care (NIV) in Hebrew means:
שָׁמַר
shâmar
shaw-mar’
A primitive root; properly to hedge about (as with thorns), that is, guard; generally to protect, attend to, etc.:—beware, be circumspect, take heed (to self), keep (-er, self), mark, look narrowly, observe, preserve, regard, reserve, save (self), sure, (that lay) wait (for), watch (-man).

So there is both a sense of tilling the soil and labouring in the garden (yep even in a perfect world there was work!!) but also to be protective and preserve it.

See also Gen 6:19, 30:31,
The first 5 books (the Pentateuch) give this latter word a meaning of ‘preservation’ for the future. Along with the commandments and laws where the same word is used in Leviticus (18:4-5) gives the clear indication that this act of preservation is not passive but active.

The other side of this is Revelation 21:1 tells us that at the end of this age this current earth will pass away – be concluded with.

Subsequent to the Genesis 2 account, I am not aware of any revoking of our responsibilities that were given to us by God. The only addition is that the ground is now cursed because of our sin (Gen 3:17-19a) and the work and care we engage in will be more difficult.

So the upshot in a snap shot is that while we do not know when God will wrap things up in the future, He has given us a clear responsibility to take care of things until He (destroys/renews) it and makes us a new earth.

2. Nathan
The worst kind of green evangelist is the prosperity preacher – the ones spruiking environmentalism as an opportunity to grow your business through “triple bottom line sustainability” – seriously that’s such a corporate sell out.

See initial comments above

3. Nathan re Romans 8:20-22
We should expect creation and vis a vis nature to be frustrated, to be broken, to be falling apart. This is pretty much why I’m not overly concerned that the ice caps are melting.

Interesting point. But what was the point of Paul raising this – it was as evidence to the fall of mankind. So are we carry a similar level of concern about mankind? I realise they are not the same. Humans are the only aspect of creation which were created in the image of God. But also like us, creation longs to be liberated from the consequences of sin.

We do not sit on our hands and do nothing about the liberating of humans – we seek to introduce them to Jesus, disciple others and also work out our salvation with fear and trembling.

So yes there is to be a higher level of responsibility towards seeing people come to faith, but that does not mean we can abdicate responsibility for the ‘ice caps’.

4. Nathan re Genesis 3:17
“Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;…

The same word ‘curse’ is used against people 1 Sam 14:24 & 28.

5. Nathan:
Not only are our lives insignificant in terms of the lifespan of creation – we can, and should, expect life to be hard work. We should be expecting the climate to change in a frustrating way. That’s what I reckon anyway. So I’m ambivalent about carbon trading, carbon offsets, carbon sequestration, and taxing businesses on the basis of their carbon emissions.

Perhaps Nathan takes more of His theology from Billy Joel’s ‘We didn’t start the fire’ than from verses such as James 4:17

6. Nathan:
Trying to tackle climate change is like urinating into a pedestal fan – pretty pointless. That is a crude analogy. But sums up my thoughts on anyone who’d rather pursue “pie in the sky” carbon taxes that will cost people jobs. It seems the Federal Government is going to backpedal away from that policy faster than an off balance unicyclist, which in my mind can only be a good thing.

Such a fatalist and sad position to take. It is too hard so I won’t try. I would not expect Nathan to be a John Newton or a Wilberforce:

“Among his (Newton’s) greatest contributions to history was encouraging William Wilberforce, a Member of Parliament for Hull, to stay in Parliament and “serve God where he was”, rather than enter the ministry. Wilberforce heeded the ex-slaveship captain’s advice, and spent the next twenty years successfully working for the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Newton

Or a Nathan – his namesake who was prepared to confront the King 2 Samuel 12:1-12

Or a Jonathan 1 Samuel 14:6-15

Or the list could go on of God honouring people who were prepared to take a stand against impossible odds!

7. Nathan:
Really, from Australia’s perspective, we’re a microbe in a sea of whales when it comes to pollution. Any stance we take will only be on principle – and it will be a phyrric victory that comes at the cost of Australian jobs and we’ll all end up drowning when sea levels rise anyway. Thanks to our propensity for coastal living. Now, onto proposition number two.

Yep – Kinda like a David against a Goliath hey!!

But also don’t we have a responsibility as a nation to do something about the effects of our exports? That would be like us flushing the toilet and saying it is the beach goer’s responsibility to clean up our mess.

Actually economists suggest that it is well within our GDP ability to nationally absorb the increase due to the environmental recommendations.

8. Nathan re Genesis 1:28
We are called on to “subdue” the earth and to excercise dominion over the animal kingdom. I would argue theologically that the idea of subdugation here is referring to bringing order to disorder – to ploughing fields in order to grow crops, to production, to using natural resources in order to cater for the prescribed “multiplication” in numbers. I would argue that the proverbial “paving paradise to put up a parking lot” fits into the category of “bringing order”. Particularly if the development is designed with obsessive compulsive people in mind.

Great point. It is interesting then that we have people starving to death because of our inability to subdue the earth appropriately!

Paving paradise is like paving the veggie patch – when it really comes down to it, it doesn’t make much sense. We take some of the most productive food producing and grazing land and build houses on it. Where is the logic in that?

9. Leah:
Problem #1 exists but no matter what we as humans do (especially we as Australians), we’re not going to change it. Not significantly. Like you said, the bible predicts it and it’s always happened and is going to continue to happen.

See my comments above DT6-8
(Amy’s note: Not sure on the reference here – hoping someone else can work it out – Deut perhaps?)

10. Amy:
Theologically yes we should expect life to be hard. But the point is we are not making it so hard for ourselves, but the most vulnerable in the world. The poorest people are those who can least afford to suffer

Jesus in Matt 26:7; Mark 14:7 and John 12:7 talks about the poor. It was a comm. On saying that all the hearers would be able to finish the rest of the Deut 15:10-11 passage that Jesus was quoting.

11. Amy
A far better strategy is to invest in green technologies that will create jobs – solar plants, geo-thermal power, biodegradable plastics, hydrogen fuels, vertical farming etc. The ideas are all there, just dying from lack of funding.

Absolutely. Australians have invented amazing things like black box flight recorders. We could become an international innovator by creating Green Collar workers who build green technology when everyone else are saying it is too hard. The attitude that says we won’t move until everyone else does is nonsensical.

12. Nathan:
. Believing in God’s total sovereignty, as I do, means that I think God ultimately controls the weather. And thus that any change in the climate is ultimately his responsibility.

Sovereignty and control are too different things and are not synonymous. To say God controls the weather would also suggest that God causes the weather to do what it does. Yep God can intervene and so can we at times. But that sort of logic suggest that God is also in control of the gunman that shoots up the kids at school etc.

Sorry that sort of argument is rubbish!

Yes ultimately nothing happens without God allowing it, but that also does not mean we can abdicate our responsibility either.

Free will??? Where have I heard of that before? We choose – and God holds us accountable and responsible for our choices. Otherwise, on the basis of Nathan’s argument we can blame God for allowing sin to enter into the world and He is a mongrel for punishing us for something that we have no responsibility for – after all isn’t God in control???

13. Amy:
But was the fall the whole planet or humanity? You could argue that it was specifically referring to humans. There are also theological standpoints that say Jesus superceded/overruled the fall as the fulfillment of the law. But I don’t have the training to argue that at this point.

The fall affected all of creation – the planet and mankind.

Hmmm not really. Yep we were the ones that stuffed up – but the results affected the planet and animals etc.

14. Amy
I do think businesses should be looking at changing the way they operate to become more sustainable, and I guess the Government figures the best way to cause this is to hit them where it hurts.

It is seen that taxing is the best/fairest way to bring about change in business. A user pay system rather than levies and one off payments. If an industry pays money to reduce their carbon emissions, then they pay less tax. If they choose not to for economic reasons, that is OK as long as the tax goes towards other mitigation measures. So yep it should be put back into sustainability issues – not to prop up the budget bottom line. But that is a government policy decision. Once again, when governments do not take responsibility for the decisions and the past decisions, we end up perpetuating the problem rather than working towards better management.

15. Nathan:
. Preventing building of new houses because a finch might have to pack its bags and move elsewhere.

But would Nathan be a prepared to say – grandma, you have to move because they are resuming your house for a highway – take one for the progress team! Yep a bit of a jump, but when do we say the cost is too much?

16. Nathan
And if my coffee machine consumes onerous amounts of energy and emits tonnes of toxic carbon – I’ll pay for it to do so. I’m not going to stop so that a hippy somewhere can unchain themselves from the gates of a coal mine.

But the problem is that we don’t pay for it. The true cost of the impact on the environment is not worked through. It is an external cost that is not recognised and therefore not passed on to the consumer. As a result the purchase price for so many things are artificially lower because the cost on the environment is not recognised or factored in to the costs of production.

17. Nathan:
I’d much rather put my time and energy into meeting people’s spiritual needs than their temporal.

Wooow – That flies in the face of what Jesus and James stood against. James 2:14-26. Jesus would never had feed the 4,000/5,000 healed the sick etc. When we became Christians we would be zapped off the earth. Nup sorry that does not wash at all. We have a responsibility to care for the whole person, not just their spiritual needs. Whatever you did to the least of these…. (Matt 25:31-46).

18. Nathan:
I agree that we’ve probably played some part in changing the climate – you’d be an idiot to think that changing the finely balanced conditions in the world would have no effect. And I agree we have to face the consequences and adapt. I just don’t think adaptation necessarily looks like the Greens suggest it does.

But what if rather than throwing up our hands in the air we actually tried to reverse some of what we have done. Our bodies have the ability to reverse some of the damage of smoking if we stop soon enough. The planet has the ability to rebound if we act. It will not get back to Eden, but to say it is all too late is a cop out as well.

19. Queenstuss:
If climate change actually mattered, the various governments would be putting money and effort into sustainable developments: renewable energies rather than coal power, public transport rather than expressways etc.

Call me a cynic, but climate change will only matter if the people say it does. The democratic governments are elected by the people and we ultimately are responsible for what the governments do. If we shout enough, the governments will act.

20. Leah:
Living so that we make less emissions so that the earth stops warming up so that the icecaps don’t melt: not good. Because we *can’t*. Nothing we do will stop the earth warming up.

On what basis is this argument made? My understanding is the jury is still out on that. So we can either say until we have conclusive proof we will do nothing – or we can say, let us do the best we can, even if it costs us financially and in changing our behaviours to have a better way of life. And if it helps great. If not – have we really lost anything?

21. Alison:
. Christians always jump straight to comparing the environment to the gospel in a way that they don’t with other ideas. Why is that? Isn’t it also more important to share the gospel than fix pot holes, fiddle about with coffee ;), design clothing etc…

I guess the thing is that Jesus wants us to live life to the full (John 10:10) and a part of that is how we worship God. That is more than going to church but in our vocations – is the gospel more important that building safe houses? In a lot of ways yes. What good is it to gain the whole world and lose your soul (Mark 8:36). But what is the gospel – it is good news. If someone is homeless and hungry – to see them become a Christian but then starve to death or die of exposure does not fulfil the James 2:14-17. It was never meant to be an either/or but a both/and.

22. Alison:
Also, our bodies are also subject to decay. If we help someone live a little longer, they will still die one day. I think the bible also makes it clear that the poor will always be with us, and that “make poverty history” will not ultimately be successful

This is such an inaccurate interpretation of the text. Jesus expected his audience to finish off the Deut passage themselves. Not use it as an excuse to say it is all too hard Deut 15:10-11. Part of the reason for us being in the situation we are is because people misquote either out of convenience or ignorance. Once ignorance is corrected – it is a question of obedience or disobedience!

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Okay, that’s it. Phew!

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