Monday, April 7, 2008

OT — NT and Presuppositions

I long ago came into the general realization that each of us interacts with the multitude of data that enters our lives each day within the framework of our respective presuppositions. Some of those presuppositions are conscious and embraced by personal choice; others are so deeply imbedded and assumed at such a basic level that it takes something significant ever to bring them into a recognizable focus (and for many people this seldom or never happens).

There were occasional serendipitous moments during my pastoral years when I would have stark reminders of this. Some presupposition so deeply assumed that I was not thinking of it would affect some particular opinion or action I took in congregational leadership, and the reaction of others in the church — good, committed Christians — would remind me that commitment of heart does not always translate into development of thought. Things that my theological education had enabled me to process into deep conviction (and thus presuppositional thinking) were not settled “givens” (or even cognizant issues) in some of my parishoners.

This general dynamic can, of course, occur in almost any particular context. I’ve been thinking about how it affects the levels of openness and respect — or total lack thereof — between differing religious identities, especially Catholicism and Protestant Fundamentalism. That will need to be a focus for another time (although my closing thought here brings the theme back). The impetus for thinking about this has been the recurring question, within just a few recent weeks, from a number of people who express distress between “the angry God of the Old Testament and the loving Jesus of the New Testament.” What a loaded phrase of presupposition that is! Yet that is obviously where many people are in their understanding.

I cannot do a whole development on this issue here, but I thought it might be worthwhile to share a few general parameters to shape one’s thinking. First, start with the big picture....
— the fact that God is unknowable unless He reveals himself
— that God is still unknowable in a comprehensive way; we can only work with what He gives, and the finite cannot encompass the Infinite (or we'd be God)
— that the Bible gives us progressive revelation; what comes later builds on what is earlier
— that no single picture of God is complete; the Bible gives a composite, "layered" picture of God (that is, again, "true" but not "total")
— that some parts of the Bible give a fuller portrayal of God's holiness and judgment; others put a focus on love and mercy.
— that holiness and love, judgment and mercy both need to be held in a constant tension. Either without the other is distorted and false.
— that the love of Jesus (biblically understood, not "sentimental pop") only makes sense in the context of God's holiness.

This means, again, looking at the Bible as whole and not just the parts of the whole (much less looking only at some of the parts, which a sentimental approach would do with Jesus). In the OT we get extended "pictures" of what holiness and judgment mean in a sinful world. Pointedly, the "love" of Jesus in the NT is in a context (the OT background) — the love of the Triune God in making a way to save sinful people who, without Divine Mercy, are facing the judgment of a holy God. God cannot be "holy" and merely dismiss sin; righteousness calls for justice to be done. Justice for sin was met when Jesus, without sin, took upon Himself the repercussion for human sin. This is clearly the essential message of the NT and the focus of Apostolic preaching (e.g., 2Cor 5:21, among many other "proof texts"). Yet this is not merely a “proof text” issue, but rather one example of what happens to biblical understanding when people get further and further removed from the Great Tradition (the Apostolic Rule of Faith) that provides an authoritative standard for biblical interpretation.

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