by H. Van Dyke Parunak
Readers of Except for Fornication (Energion, 2011) will recognize that I hold a very high view of Scripture. In my own pilgrimage, I find Deut. 29:29 a useful guide to the implications of such a view, and it shaped the exposition in the book.
“The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.”
Let me share these implications with you.
The first insight is that there are secret things that are in principle inaccessible to us. When I graduated from Dallas Seminary, and then added a Ph.D. from Harvard in preparation (I thought) for a teaching career, I believed that if I knew Hebrew and Greek (and Ugaritic, and Akkadian, and Syriac, and …) well enough, and were expert enough in the cultures of the ancient world, I could resolve any question about the Bible. This attitude has a parallel in the physical world. The eighteenth century French scientist Pierre-Simon Laplace thought that someone who knew the position and velocity of every particle in the universe at a point in time could reconstruct the entire history of the universe, past and future. This view of a clockwork universe fell into disrepute in the last century, with two developments. The first, quantum mechanics, claims that one can only predict the universe probabilistically. The second is more severe. The growing understanding of chaotic regimes in nonlinear systems led to the realization that for some systems (including most realistic ones), we can’t even make probabilistic forecasts very far into the system. It appears to be part of the nature of the universe that there are secret things that are inaccessible to human reason.
Moses would not be surprised. He told us 3400 years ago that God has secret things. Moses’ concern is less with the equations of physics and more with God’s revelation of himself. Revelation is, he asserts, partial. The best exegetical tools in the world do not entitle us to claim an answer for any question we choose to ask. God has reserved some answers for himself. Often these reserved answers include those to the question “Why?” that we, like petulant children, like to throw back against God’s commands. Our parents sometimes refused to answer anything more than “Because I said so.” Similarly, God sometimes does not explain his moral imperatives such as his prohibition of divorce and remarriage. As I worked through what the Bible commands about divorce, often I would ask, “Why must it be this way?” I would love to be able to give my readers a complete account of God’s reasons for his commands, but I can’t always find them. Moses’ first principle suggests that they may simply not be part of what he has chosen to reveal.
The second insight is that what God has revealed is just that, a revelation. One ought not to need years of study of arcane lore to discern the mind of God. The more I read the Bible, the more I realize that the most important Bible study tool is a deep and broad knowledge of the rest of Scripture. The value of intertextuality, highlighted in my previous blog, reflects this principle. The solution to the fornication puzzle in Matthew doesn’t rely on lots of linguistic details. Even the dual meaning of απολυω, which turns out to be the crux of the puzzle, doesn’t require in-depth knowledge of other Greek literature, but can be demonstrated within the biblical text itself (though I do give other examples for those who may be skeptical). I think it’s fair to expect God’s people to learn to read the Scriptures in the languages in which he gave them, and I have known people who have acquired such capability without the benefit of seminary. So I don’t apologize for pointing out how a particular Greek word is used elsewhere in the NT or in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament). But God has given his word to tell us something, not to play games with us. We can expect it to be plain, once we see the answer. I’ve tried to make my understanding of the fornication clause clear in the book. You will have to judge whether I’ve done justice to the principle that God’s revelation is plain.
The third insight is that God’s revelation is practical, “that we may do all the words of this law.” The Lord has really had to deal with me on this principle. The student in me loves to figure out the propositional content of Scripture. The flesh in me struggles against God’s expectation that having understood it, I will do it. There is a solution to this dilemma. Paul outlines it in Romans 7-8, and I will discuss it in my next posting. Our Lord cares at least as much about our orthopraxy as he does our orthodoxy. We can confess every element of the creed, but if we don’t obey the Lord, he will not be happy with us. My greatest burden in writing Except for Fornication is not to establish a theoretical understanding of the text, but to help saints who are wrestling with the pain of marital strife to reach a decision that will honor the Lord.
God’s revelation is partial, but it is plain, and it is practical. That perspective is humbling to those who have devoted years of study to abstruse knowledge and abstract theology, but it ought to be a great encouragement to ordinary believers.