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.

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