The Bible’s Teaching on Being Willing to Set Aside the Bible’s Teaching (From the Archives)

In the story about Cornelius in Acts 10, Peter sees a vision in which he is told to kill and eat all sorts of things that were prohibited by the Jewish Law. Peter understandably refuses to eat such unclean things, only to be told by the heavenly voice that he should not call unclean what God has cleansed. Eventually he comes to understand this as a point about God cleansing not only prohibited foods but even excluded people.

Previously I posted about Scripture’s testimony regarding its own insufficiency. In Acts 10 we seem to have the Bible telling its readers to be prepared to set the Scripture’s own teachings aside in response to new revelation. That is, ultimately, what we find in early Christianity: a movement whose spiritual experiences were so powerful, and so clearly had spread even to Gentiles, that some (but not all) of its members were willing to set aside stipulations of Scripture about circumcision, food and Gentiles, so as to incorporate the Gentiles into the people of God.

This aspect of the New Testament and early Christianity simply cannot be fit within the framework of a supposedly inerrant Bible with an allegedly uniform, monolithic teaching. It can fit within a view of Scripture as witness to God’s progressive revelation.

And here we reach the crux of the matter. Unless one artificially insists that God has ceased from revelation (why on earth or in heaven would God do that?!), then it is clear that the Bible should lead us to expect to have to set even more of it aside, precisely as we learn more about God. As God continues to pour out his Spirit on people previously excluded, we are called as Christians to continue the process of rethinking and setting aside. As we continue to study the Oldest Testament, what God “wrote” long before even the earliest source of the earliest writing in the Jewish Scriptures (I’m referring here to the “book of nature“), we find that some things were revealed long before but, because we had yet to understand them, were not reflected in the Biblical writings. But just as Paul argued that the Law of Moses could not set aside the covenant with Abraham which pre-dated it, so the Biblical texts cannot invalidate the “Scripture” God “wrote in stone” much earlier than the tablets Moses supposedly brought down Mt. Sinai. If Moses, from a Christian perspective, could not trump Abraham, then why do some who supposedly accept Paul’s point in Galatians 3 nonetheless allow Genesis 1 to trump what God wrote in the earth and the universe itself?

Conservative Christians often claim to be the most faithful interpreters of Scripture. But it seems to me that if we have ears to hear what the Spirit was saying to the churches down the ages, it will become clear that focusing on written words and using them to argue against what the Spirit is doing often led people to be on the “wrong side” as far as the Bible’s own perspective is concerned. And part of the message of many parts of the Bible is a warning to learn from such mistakes of the past.

Nevertheless, I understand why it is attractive to be a religion of the book. Religion that is focused on spiritual experiences and prophetic figures is a very messy business, and we don’t seem to ever know for sure which of the supposed divine spokespeople has really heard from God – if indeed any of them have heard more than anyone else. But the Bible does not offer itself as an antidote to such messiness. And at times, it points beyond itself and even undermines itself, so as to ensure that we are open to the messiness that is the way of living faith moving from the past through the present into the future.

Remember Job. He was willing to set aside accepted wisdom in light of his experience. They accused him of undermining piety too.

  • http://www.facebook.com/pstenberg Pär Stenberg

    Interesting post but I am going to have to take issue with some of your interpretations. :)   

    “Eventually he [Peter] comes to understand this as a point about God cleansing not only prohibited foods but even excluded people.”

    Acts 10 does not say that Peter was now allowed to abandon the dietary laws. The food is used as an image for not calling Gentiles unclean or common, or at least, that is Peter’s own interpretation of the vision (v. 28). This then is not a setting aside of Scripture since no such command is found in the Torah. Are there any indications that the Jewish believers in Acts as Luke portrays them were not living in accordance with Torah? Note that Luke is concerned to depict Paul as one living obedient to Torah (Acts 21:24. And rightly so, in my opinion) and not as someone trying to make the Jews forsake Moses (21:21). Odd thing to say if Luke is willing to portray the apostles setting aside Scripture for new superior revelation.

    “that some (but not all) of its members were willing to set aside stipulations of Scripture about circumcision, food and Gentiles, so as to incorporate the Gentiles into the people of God.”

    Remember that Paul argues from the basis of Scripture as to why Gentiles does not need to become Jews (since the promise of Abraham pre-dates his circumcision and the giving of the law).

    “This aspect of the New Testament and early Christianity simply cannot be fit within the framework of a supposedly inerrant Bible with an allegedly uniform, monolithic teaching.”

    I do not hold to inerrancy, but nevertheless, I do not see why this could not fit into such a framework?

    “Paul argued that the Law of Moses could not set aside the covenant with Abraham which pre-dated it”

    Yes, Paul recognized the true function of the Law. For reading the Scriptures starting with Genesis and the promise of Abraham, Paul realizes that the promise was given to Abraham (the promise which included the Gentiles), happend before the giving of the Law and before the reciving of circumsision. This then forces Paul to see another function of the Law of Moses: it was a guardian for the Jews for period of time inbetween the promise and its eschatological fulfillment in Christ event.

    The Christ event caused the first believers to view Scripture in a new way, but they were not simply tossing out things on the basis of mere revelation, but sought to give an account on the basis of Scripture for this new way of looking at things (e.g. Romans 4, 10)

    I do not think you are wrong in saying that the Bible “sets aside” texts of the Bible, but I see where you are going with this and I do not think it is a valid leap. :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/pstenberg Pär Stenberg

    Interesting post but I am going to have to take issue with some of your interpretations. :)   

    “Eventually he [Peter] comes to understand this as a point about God cleansing not only prohibited foods but even excluded people.”

    Acts 10 does not say that Peter was now allowed to abandon the dietary laws. The food is used as an image for not calling Gentiles unclean or common, or at least, that is Peter’s own interpretation of the vision (v. 28). This then is not a setting aside of Scripture since no such command is found in the Torah. Are there any indications that the Jewish believers as Luke portrays them were not living in accordance with Torah? Note that Luke is concerned even to depict Paul as one living in obedience to Torah (Acts 21:24. And rightly so, in my opinion) and not as someone trying to make the Jews forsake the law of Moses (21:21). Odd thing to say if Luke was willing to portray the apostles setting aside Scripture for new superior revelation.

    “that some (but not all) of its members were willing to set aside stipulations of Scripture about circumcision, food and Gentiles, so as to incorporate the Gentiles into the people of God.”

    Remember that Paul argued from the basis of Scripture as to why Gentiles did not need to become Jews (The reason being that since the giving of the promise pre-dates Abrahams circumcision and the giving of the law. Seems like a valid interpretation if you ask me.).

    “This aspect of the New Testament and early Christianity simply cannot be fit within the framework of a supposedly inerrant Bible with an allegedly uniform, monolithic teaching.”

    I personally do not hold to inerrancy, but nevertheless, I do not see why this could not fit into such a framework?

    “Paul argued that the Law of Moses could not set aside the covenant with Abraham which pre-dated it”

    Yes, Paul recognized the true function of the Law. For reading the Scriptures starting with Genesis and the promise of Abraham, Paul realizes that the promise was given to Abraham (the promise which included the Gentiles), happened before the giving of the Law and before the receiving of circumcision. This then forced Paul to see another function of the Law of Moses: it was a guardian for the Jews for period of time in between the promise and its eschatological fulfillment in Christ event.

    The Christ event caused the first believers to view Scripture in a new way, but they were not simply tossing out things on the basis of “mere” (contradictory?) revelation, but sought to give an account on the basis of Scripture for their new way of looking at things (e.g. Romans 4, 10)

    I do not think you are wrong in saying that the Bible “sets aside” texts of the Bible, but I see where you are going with this… :) You silly liberals and your funky hermeneutics.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @facebook-722151080:disqus 
    Pär, thanks for your comment. The food laws were understood to symbolize and practically accomplish the separation between Jews and Gentiles, and so I don’t think the food/people matter is an either/or choice. Be that as it may, clearly some early Christian took different views on subjects like food laws and circumcision – although it is the “liberal” voices that dominate the New Testament.  :-)

    • http://www.facebook.com/pstenberg Pär Stenberg

      I would agree that the dietary regulations functioned as practical boundary markers between Jew and Gentile (and perhaps this was why the food-imagery was so fitting for the purpose of Peter’s vision, v. 28), but can we really say that Peter was setting aside Scripture due to new revelation? Rather it seems that he was forced to understand that the traditional understanding was in err. It was not the text and commands of Scripture that was made invalid.

      If we understand Peter’s vision as meaning roughly “nevermind that kosher thingy; eat whatever you want for it is now all clean”, then why no controversy in Acts over this issue, and why is Luke so keen on showing that Paul (and by implication none of the other apostles) had abandon Torah or that they were teaching the cessation of some of its commandments?

      Have you read the works of Mark Nanos (especially on Paul as a Torah observant Jew)? What do you think of his conclusions?

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @facebook-722151080:disqus 
    Pär, thanks for your comment. The food laws were understood to symbolize and practically accomplish the separation between Jews and Gentiles, and so I don’t think the food/people matter is an either/or choice. Be that as it may, clearly some early Christian took different views on subjects like food laws and circumcision – although it is the “liberal” voices that dominate the New Testament.  :-)

    • http://www.facebook.com/pstenberg Pär Stenberg

      I would agree that the dietary regulations functioned as practical boundary markers between Jew and Gentile (and perhaps this was why the food-imagery was so fitting for the purpose of Peter’s vision, v. 28), but can we really say that Peter was setting aside Scripture due to new revelation? Are there any indications that he stopped being concerned about Kosher? Rather it seems that he was forced to understand that the traditional understanding was in err: that it would be unlawful for Jews to associate with Gentiles. It was not the text and commands of Scripture that was made invalid.

      If we understand Peter’s vision as meaning roughly “never mind that kosher thingy; eat whatever you want for it is now all clean”, then why no controversy in Acts over this issue, and why is Luke so keen on showing that Paul (and by implication none of the other apostles) had abandon Torah or that they were teaching the cessation of some of its commandments?

      Have you read the works of Mark Nanos (especially on Paul as a Torah observant Jew)? What do you think of his conclusions?

  • Gary

    James…I agree with you. “A theory is what one or more hypotheses become once they have been verified and
    accepted to be true” from the wilstar link. Also, I think some contradiction in the bible originates from the JDEP. I think Paul, being from the tribe of Benjamin and a Pharisee, was most likely closer aligned with Judah, and therefore J thinking. E writing emphasizes Moses, over Abraham and his covenant. J does just the opposite. I can see why Paul would say Abraham trumps Moses. People’s motivations affect their writings and philosophy.If you were to ask someone with ties to E, they would say Moses was the turning point in Israelite history, and Moses trumps Abraham. That is why I would say pre-millennial dispensationalists are more like J and P, since their single focus is on returning to the old covenants in the new millennium, including a new temple and more animal sacrifice. “Out, out, you demons of stupidity”.

  • Gary

    James…I agree with you. “A theory is what one or more hypotheses become once they have been verified and
    accepted to be true” from the wilstar link. Also, I think some contradiction in the bible originates from the JDEP. I think Paul, being from the tribe of Benjamin and a Pharisee, was most likely closer aligned with Judah, and therefore J thinking. E writing emphasizes Moses, over Abraham and his covenant. J does just the opposite. I can see why Paul would say Abraham trumps Moses. People’s motivations affect their writings and philosophy.If you were to ask someone with ties to E, they would say Moses was the turning point in Israelite history, and Moses trumps Abraham. That is why I would say pre-millennial dispensationalists are more like J and P, since their single focus is on returning to the old covenants in the new millennium, including a new temple and more animal sacrifice. “Out, out, you demons of stupidity”.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @facebook-722151080:disqus , Peter in Acts is not depicted as objecting to Gentiles being accepted into the Christian movement without observing food laws. I’m not sure that Peter the character in Acts and the historical Peter had exactly the same stance on this, which complicates things. But what I think we can say is that the author of Acts thought that a heavenly vision could provide a legitimate reason for reinterpreting or setting aside something in Scripture – whether separation from Gentiles or circumcision or something else.

    • http://www.facebook.com/pstenberg Pär Stenberg

      @jamesfmcgrath:disqus Sorry if I made myself unclear. For some reason I can not seem to formulate clear statements in written English anymore. :)

      I am not saying that Peter is objecting to Gentile acceptance into the faith without food law observance. That would be a Pauline-issue. What I am saying is that Acts 10 is not about whether or not the dietary commandments are to be set aside; rather it is on the issue of Jews associating with Gentiles. The food imagery is used due to it being so closely linked with the practise, but the commandments concerning various foods are not annulled, thus no Scripture is set aside.

      So in other words, I do think it is a “either or” issue :D

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @facebook-722151080:disqus , Peter in Acts is not depicted as objecting to Gentiles being accepted into the Christian movement without observing food laws. I’m not sure that Peter the character in Acts and the historical Peter had exactly the same stance on this, which complicates things. But what I think we can say is that the author of Acts thought that a heavenly vision could provide a legitimate reason for reinterpreting or setting aside something in Scripture – whether separation from Gentiles or circumcision or something else.

    • http://www.facebook.com/pstenberg Pär Stenberg

      @jamesfmcgrath:disqus Sorry if I made myself unclear. For some reason I can not seem to formulate clear statements in written English anymore. :)

      I am not saying that Peter is objecting to Gentile acceptance into the faith without food law observance. That would be a Pauline-issue. What I am saying is that Acts 10 is not about whether or not the dietary commandments are to be set aside; rather it is on the issue of Jews associating with Gentiles. The food imagery is used due to it being so closely linked with the practise, but the commandments concerning various foods are not annulled, thus no Scripture is set aside.

      So in other words, I do think it is a “either or” issue :D

  • Dn4sty

    Same things are at work in Acts 15. Basically the question of what to do with the Gentiles and them being circumcised is overthrown based on the evidence of the work of the Spirit. So the council chooses to ignore a clear command of scripture (circumcision) based on the observed evidence of the spirit

    • http://www.facebook.com/pstenberg Pär Stenberg

      @Dn4sty I’m not sure that the clear command of Scripture was circumcision. After all, the Gentile believers were not becoming Jews but Christ believing Gentiles. The reception of the Spirit was confirmation that circumcision was indeed not necessary.

      I see no indication that the author of Acts understood the decision of the council to be “setting aside” or disregarding Scripture. Perhaps the opposing party believed that they did but that does not seem to be Luke’s understanding of the issue. Seeing how “setting aside” the circumcision command to Jewish believers was to “forsake Mose” (Acts
      21:21), I am having a hard time believing that Luke would open himself for a similar charge from others in regards to the Gentile-question.

      But then again, I’m just thinking about loud for the moment being. :p

  • Dn4sty

    Same things are at work in Acts 15. Basically the question of what to do with the Gentiles and them being circumcised is overthrown based on the evidence of the work of the Spirit. So the council chooses to ignore a clear command of scripture (circumcision) based on the observed evidence of the spirit

    • http://www.facebook.com/pstenberg Pär Stenberg

      @Dn4sty I’m not sure that the clear command of Scripture was circumcision. After all, the Gentile believers were not becoming Jews but Christ believing Gentiles. The reception of the Spirit was confirmation that circumcision was indeed not necessary.

      I see no indication that the author of Acts understood the decision of the council to be “setting aside” or ignoring the clear command of Scripture. Perhaps the opposing party believed that was the case but that does not seem to be Luke’s understanding of the issue. Seeing how “setting aside” the circumcision command to Jewish believers was to “forsake Mose” (Acts 21:21), I am having a hard time believing that Luke would open himself for a similar charge from others in regards to the Gentile-question if they had simply willfully set aside Scripture.

      But then again, I’m just thinking about loud for the moment being. :p

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Pär, whether or not Gentile believers in Jesus had to convert to Judaism was precisely the issue in these early controversies. Paul didn’t think of his movement as even having a separate name yet, much less as being a separate religion from Judaism. And the command regarding the covenant with Abraham emphasizes that even those who are part of his household but not his descendants must be circumcised.

    In retrospect, I think that the example of circumcision might have been a better one to use in this post! But this was a reflection on a sermon on Acts 10, and I had already blogged about the topic of circumcision previously.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Pär, whether or not Gentile believers in Jesus had to convert to Judaism was precisely the issue in these early controversies. Paul didn’t think of his movement as even having a separate name yet, much less as being a separate religion from Judaism. And the command regarding the covenant with Abraham emphasizes that even those who are part of his household but not his descendants must be circumcised.

    In retrospect, I think that the example of circumcision might have been a better one to use in this post! But this was a reflection on a sermon on Acts 10, and I had already blogged about the topic of circumcision previously.

  • devin roberts

    James,

    I came across your interview with Luke Muehlhauser on Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot (which I thoroughly enjoyed) a while back and have been following your blog for a few weeks now. I suppose I am a bit confused by some terminology you used in this post, namely “progressive revelation” and “Spirit,” referring to the Spirit of God. It was my impression, after listening to the podcast interview, that you have not held to traditional theistic concepts of God. But your description of the divine from the podcast seems to differ from the concept of God you have portrayed in several of your blog posts. Some of the “god talk” from your blog sounds very similar to that of classical theism. Can you explain what you mean by “progressive revelation” and the “Spirit” of God? I assume you are not referring to a supernatural being doling out special revelation to writers of ancient scripture?

    Thanks,

    Devin

  • devin roberts

    James,

    I came across your interview with Luke Muehlhauser on Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot (which I thoroughly enjoyed) a while back and have been following your blog for a few weeks now. I suppose I am a bit confused by some terminology you used in this post, namely “progressive revelation” and “Spirit,” referring to the Spirit of God. It was my impression, after listening to the podcast interview, that you have not held to traditional theistic concepts of God. But your description of the divine from the podcast seems to differ from the concept of God you have portrayed in several of your blog posts. Some of the “god talk” from your blog sounds very similar to that of classical theism. Can you explain what you mean by “progressive revelation” and the “Spirit” of God? I assume you are not referring to a supernatural being doling out special revelation to writers of ancient scripture?

    Thanks,

    Devin

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Hi Devin. Thanks for your question! The short answer is that when I discuss the Bible, I try to do so in a manner that is accessible and intelligible to the wide range of readers I have, and not only in a way that requires a reader to be sympathetic to everything I happen to think. (Let’s face it, if I did the latter, I would probably have a lot fewer readers!)

    In this case, as I was writing I had in the back of my mind Paul’s letter to the Galatians, where he makes the rather liberal argument that, since Gentile Christians had received the Spirit (in other words, had had the same sort of transformative/mystical experience as Jewish Christians), that meant that God had accepted them as they are, even while uncircumcised. All sorts of people have had different sorts of spiritual experiences, and I wasn’t really trying to answer the question of how such experiences are best understood (indeed, I was trying very hard not to open that can of worms and get off on a tangent, and it worked – until now!). Instead I hoped to focus on the fact that Biblical authors allowed their experience of the same sort of experience, the same values, and other points of commonality with those they had been taught to hate, to challenge them to set aside traditional and even Scriptural barriers and take a more inclusive approach. And since it is often those whose way of talking about religion is more traditional/theistic than my own who tend to resist moving in that direction, I wrote hoping that the way I put things would make the case in a manner accessible to them.

    Does that answer your question? I don’t use the term “progressive revelation” too often any more, and nowadays would find it more natural to talk about our own human progressive journey of discovery – although there is definitely a sense in which reality continues to disclose its mysteries and secrets to us in a way that can perhaps, at least metaphorically, seem or be described as “revelatory.”

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Hi Devin. Thanks for your question! The short answer is that when I discuss the Bible, I try to do so in a manner that is accessible and intelligible to the wide range of readers I have, and not only in a way that requires a reader to be sympathetic to everything I happen to think. (Let’s face it, if I did the latter, I would probably have a lot fewer readers!)

    In this case, as I was writing I had in the back of my mind Paul’s letter to the Galatians, where he makes the rather liberal argument that, since Gentile Christians had received the Spirit (in other words, had had the same sort of transformative/mystical experience as Jewish Christians), that meant that God had accepted them as they are, even while uncircumcised. All sorts of people have had different sorts of spiritual experiences, and I wasn’t really trying to answer the question of how such experiences are best understood (indeed, I was trying very hard not to open that can of worms and get off on a tangent, and it worked – until now!). Instead I hoped to focus on the fact that Biblical authors allowed their experience of the same sort of experience, the same values, and other points of commonality with those they had been taught to hate, to challenge them to set aside traditional and even Scriptural barriers and take a more inclusive approach. And since it is often those whose way of talking about religion is more traditional/theistic than my own who tend to resist moving in that direction, I wrote hoping that the way I put things would make the case in a manner accessible to them.

    Does that answer your question? I don’t use the term “progressive revelation” too often any more, and nowadays would find it more natural to talk about our own human progressive journey of discovery – although there is definitely a sense in which reality continues to disclose its mysteries and secrets to us in a way that can perhaps, at least metaphorically, seem or be described as “revelatory.”

  • Jewishevangelist

    The Food Laws are not “Jewish Laws”; they were set by The Almighty Himself.
    The meeting in Acts chapter 15 was what would now be termed a Beis Din, a “house for judging”. A key function then, as now, was to determine the acceptability or otherwise of proposed converts.
    Ignoring the roots and background can cause all kinds of confusion, such as the silly claim that the Food Laws now no longer apply. This idea doesn’t sit at all well with the words of Jesus at Matthew chapter 5

  • Jewishevangelist

    The Food Laws are not “Jewish Laws”; they were set by The Almighty Himself.
    The meeting in Acts chapter 15 was what would now be termed a Beis Din, a “house for judging”. A key function then, as now, was to determine the acceptability or otherwise of proposed converts.
    Ignoring the roots and background can cause all kinds of confusion, such as the silly claim that the Food Laws now no longer apply. This idea doesn’t sit at all well with the words of Jesus at Matthew chapter 5

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Indeed, I think that Paul, Luke and Matthew all had slightly different views on what should be done, and what Jesus’ teaching might or might not be in relation to it. But it isn’t appropriate to just assume that because Matthew (or anyone else) attributes something to Jesus, it comes from Jesus. One has to do some historical critical investigation before one can draw that sort of conclusion one way or the other.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Indeed, I think that Paul, Luke and Matthew all had slightly different views on what should be done, and what Jesus’ teaching might or might not be in relation to it. But it isn’t appropriate to just assume that because Matthew (or anyone else) attributes something to Jesus, it comes from Jesus. One has to do some historical critical investigation before one can draw that sort of conclusion one way or the other.

  • devin roberts

    Thanks for the (timely) response! That does clear things up for me. Fantastic blog. I am looking forward to reading your take on the Christ myth theory soon. I skimmed through your exchange with Earl Doherty in the comments section of a recent post and decided it would serve as the perfect nightcap after dinner this evening.

    Thanks, again!   

  • devin roberts

    Thanks for the (timely) response! That does clear things up for me. Fantastic blog. I am looking forward to reading your take on the Christ myth theory soon. I skimmed through your exchange with Earl Doherty in the comments section of a recent post and decided it would serve as the perfect nightcap after dinner this evening.

    Thanks, again!   

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Glad you’re enjoying it! I am relieved to know that, while some get aggravated in the discussions of mythicism, it helps other people sleep! :-)

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Glad you’re enjoying it! I am relieved to know that, while some get aggravated in the discussions of mythicism, it helps other people sleep! :-)

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