How the Bible Actually Works | Reflections & Notes

Peter Enns. How the Bible Actually Works (In Which I Explain How an Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather Than Answers—and Why That’s Great News. HarperOne, 2019. (292 pages)


The title says it all. Dare I repeat it?

If Inspiration and Incarnation is the blueprint, How the Bible Actually Works is the user’s manual. And, we need both; a historiographic analysis and a practical guide for everyday people. That we still need them is, however, the problem.

There is a fair amount of redundancy throughout, but it is, in my humble opinion, a necessary repetition. “Wisdom” needs to be explicated through the “law” texts, the “poetic” writings, the “prophetic” works, the “gospel” accounts, and the “letters.” The view of the “inspired/inerrant Word of God” is so instantiated in Christian consciousness that slow, deliberate, and clear outlining of how wisdom works in these different genres is necessary. The importance of this journey will need to be matched with equal patience. No surprise, another theme of the Bible itself.

Even still, some may balk: “But what about [insert verse taken out of context and used as a pretext here]?” And, because Christianity has not conditioned itself to think with wisdom and discernment outside of mechanically interpreted Bible verses, this actually has the potential to be problematic. Wisdom is a posture and virtue, but it is also a skill that must be honed and refined. And without that practice, humans can be oh so unwise. If, however, we begin recognizing the ancient and ambiguous diversity found in these writings, and putting discernment, thoughtfulness, consideration, and imagination into practice, we might be able to realize a different kind of faith expression, one that has tremendous value and worth in advancing human flourishing. We can then, also model this for the generations behind us, and the brilliance of biblical literature can continue to make its value manifest in our lives and in our world.

For those who are reticent, even with the book’s description and my reflections thus far, you may feel led to steer clear, not wanting to disrupt your established understanding. I get it. It is unnerving to have our beliefs and convictions challenged. Stay comfortable. That’s fine. But then ask yourself, whether the text you hold so dear and the faith tradition to which you adhere champions comfort as a prime virtue. And after you’ve quoted 2 Corinthians 1 to me, consider the other 1188 chapters in the Christian Bible. Consider that you may be just curious enough to wonder whether there might actually be more wisdom to be had in its pages.



1. The Bible’s True Purpose

Oh Good. Another Book on the Bible

When we come to the Bible expecting it to be an instructional manual intended by God to give us unwavering, cement-hard certainty about our faith, we are actually creating problems for ourselves, because—as I’ve come to see—the Bible wasn’t designed to meet that expectation. In other words, the “problems” we encounter when reading the Bible are really problems we create for ourselves when we harbor the misguided expectations that the Bible is designed primarily to provide clear answers. (4)

Three Surprising Things That Make the Bible Worth Reading

…the Bible is ancientambiguous, and diverse. (5)

But these three characteristics…are, rather, what make the Bible worth reading at all. (6)

[via: On page 7, Enns mentions “a dark primordial chaos, called the deep,…” In the Original Hebrew the word “tehom” (תהום) does not have the definite article “the” which is an indicator that it may be referencing the proper name of a primordial deity.]

The writers of the Bible lived long ago and far away, intent on asking their questions and seeking their answers, oblivious to our own questions and concerns. (7)

…the Bible’s antiquity shows us the need to ponder God anew in our here and now. Indeed, it gives us permission to do so. (8)

By ambiguous I mean that the Bible, perhaps surprisingly, doesn’t actually lay out for anyone what to do or think—or it does so far less often than we have been led to believe. (8)

And the Bible is diverse—meaning it does not speak with one voice on most subjects, but conflicting and contradictory voices. (8)

God’s Plan A: Wisdom

…the Bible holds out for us an invitation to join an ancient, well-traveled, and sacred quest to know God, the world we live in, and our place in it. Not abstractly, but intimately and experientially. (10)

But if polar opposite positions can keep claiming the Bible’s support, then perhaps providing “clear teaching” might not be what scripture is prepared to do. (10)

That quest is summed up in one beautiful, deep, too often neglected, but absolutely central and liberating biblical idea that shapes everything I have to say in this book: wisdom. (11)

Rulebook answers deliver certitude and finality, but wisdom embraces mystery.

Rulebook answers are distant and passive, but wisdom is intimate and learned through experience.

Rulebook answers are immediate, but wisdom takes trial and error over time.

Rulebook answers provide comfort and stability, but wisdom asks us to risk letting go of what is familiar for God’s surprises.

Rulebook answers are designed to end the journey, but wisdom shapes us so we journey with courage and peace.

Rulebook answers are limited to specific moments, but wisdom works in all times and places.

Rulebook answers keep us small, but wisdom gives us the space we need to grow. (12)

God Is Not a Helicopter Parent

You Are Not Alone

This book, therefore, is not for the hierarchy who guard the status quo at all costs and brand explorers as unfaithful. (17)

| This book is for the frustratedly Christian—who have seen that the Bible doesn’t meet the expectations they have been taught to cling to and who are having trouble seeing a better way forward. (17)

| This book is for the barely Christian—who are hanging on to some semblance of faith because they are worn out from having to defend a rulebook Bible. (18)

| This book may even be for the formerly Christian—who have had the courage to leave their faith behind when it ceased having any explanatory power for their reality because of what they were taught the Bible had to be. (18)

* * *

When we accept that biblical invitation, we will see not only how the Bible challenges us to work out what it means to live the life of faith here and now. We will also see—if I may stress the point once again—how the biblical writers themselves were already challenged by the need to move past a rulebook mentality and respond to new circumstances with wisdom. (19)

2. The Bible Doesn’t Really Tell Us What do Do—and That’s a Good Thing

Screwing Up Your Kids Biblically

…it would certainly help avoid misunderstandings if all these passages began, “Generally speaking…” (26)

…what the Bible says about raising children is ambiguous once we pay attention to the details. It’s even morally suspect in places, in need of being questioned—even interrogated. (28)

| And here is the bigger point of all this: How the Bible addresses this one topic of child rearing is a window onto how inadequate (and truly unbiblical) a rulebook view of the Bible as a whole is. (28)

Fools and Finances

cf. Proverbs 26:4-5

“Fool” in Proverbs is the catchall term for someone you definitely do not want to be: a hater of knowledge, a slanderer, one who leads others down the path to destruction, someone who lacks discernment and is complacent, stubborn, ignorant, prideful, greedy, and a whole slew of other despicable character traits. (30)

…a total jerk (feel free to supply a more colorful term). (30)

[via: The word כסיל, “fool,” shows up 75 times in the Hebrew scriptures. Once in Isaiah (13:10), once in Amos (5:8), three times in Psalms (49:11; 92:7; 94:8) twice in Job (9:9; 38:31) and the rest are in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.]

Reading the situation—not simply the Bible—is what wisdom is all about. (31)

| It’s also, as we’ll see, what the life of faith is about. (31)

Instead, we see that wealth is both a blessing and a curse, a security and a danger. It all depends. (33)

The wealth of the rich is their fortress;
the poverty of the poor is their ruin. —Proverbs 10:15

The wealth of the rich is their strong city;
in their imagination it is like a high wall. —Proverbs 18:11

My Big Point, and Then an Even Bigger Point

…knowing what to do is about much more than reading words on the page. It’s about learning to read the moment,… Contradictory proverbs about fools and finances neatly capture this truth. (35)

| Doing the best as we can to figure out life, to discern how or if a certain proverb applies right here and now, is not an act of disloyalty toward God, rebellion against God’s clear rulebook for life. It is, rather, our sacred responsibility as people of faith. (35)

Proverbs models for us how the Bible as a whole works. (38)

| The entire Bible, like Proverbs, is ancient, ambiguous, and diverse. The Bible as a whole demands the same wisdom approach as Proverbs. (38)

And an Even Bigger (and Final) Point

Wisdom is Plan A. (39)

Proverbs puts wisdom in the Garden of Eden. Wisdom, we are told, is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her (3:18). (39)

[via: This may be an intentional contrast, whereas the “knowledge” tree got them into trouble, the “wisdom” tree may be the ‘tree of life’?!]

The Little and Hidden Things

Think of it this way: the same wisdom that was with God when God “ordered” creation (Gen. 1) is available to us as we seek to “order” the chaos of our lives. (45)

To put it plainly, the life of faith is the pursuit of wisdom. (46)

One of wisdom’s great rewards is the true, raw, unfiltered, unchecked, honest knowledge of oneself. (46)

“Know thyself” might have been coined by Socrates and may sound like “secular” or “humanistic” advice, but it isn’t. to gain honest knowledge of oneself is to see wisdom at work. In fact, one way of stating the goal of the life of faith is entering deeper and deeper into that kind of wisdom. (46)

To skirt the difficult journey by using, of all things, the Bible as an impersonal one-size-fits-all list of dos and don’ts to shelter oneself in self-deception and a false sense of religious security blunts wisdom’s sharp surgical edge. (47)

What may appear to be the most biblical approach to the life of faith—”Do what the Bible says”—misses how the Bible actually works. (47)

3. God’s Laws: Evasive and Fidgety Little Buggers

Some Details Would Be Nice, O Lord

…readers from ancient times have always understood that keep-(53)ing a law means more than “doing what it says”; it means deliberating over what the command actually requires here and now. (54)

The law as written leaves its readers to ponder what it means and how to obey it here and now—in other words, to practice wisdom. Like it’s on purpose. (56)

Maybe You Didn’t Hear Me: I Want Clarity

Strict legalism is a myth. Laws have a knack for ambiguity,… (58)

[via: Wisdom is also intrinsically “inter-subjective” and our moral epistemology is shaped by this kind of wisdom. This is an important philosophical construct when asking “where” do we get our morals from. They come “from” the dynamics of our subjectivity in relationship with others’ subjectivity.]

When handled with a humble rather than anxious heart, laws drive us toward healthy community—not a tribalism geared toward insider-outsider thinking, but a community of faith where we can call upon wisdom as we deliberate and even debate how to live faithfully. (59)

[via: AH! I just said something to this effect! ↑]

| Laws are written in such a way to ensure that we can’t just mindlessly tick off some boxes and call it “obedience.” They might also prompt us to go to God directly with our questions and disagreement. (59)

Don’t Forget Your PIN

I am certain that the ancient Israelites knew as soon as the ink dried that these laws would need to be thought through, so that they could be justly and fairly administered. Wisdom, in other words, was not an add-on, but was always central for obeying any law in the Bible. Laws, once we begin thinking about what they mean and how they are to be obeyed, actually push us to seek wisdom, which goes beyond mechanical obedience. (60)

[via: I really like the term “mechanical” and have been using that term for a while to describe that kind of “rigid literalism.”]

Hear the commandments of life, O Israel; give ear, and learn wisdom (Baruch 3:9) …not far away “in heaven” or “across the sea” (3:29-30). That’s the exact same imagery used in Deuteronomy 30:12-13 to describe the Law (It is not in heaven. … Neither is it beyond the sea). (61)

cf. Ben Sira 24:23, 25, 30-31

Ben Sira’s placing of the Law at the very beginning of the biblical story signals for us a central point of this book: Changing times require adjustments to thinking about God and faith. (62)

* * *

Tying Law and wisdom together reflects what we’ve already seen: Law—however divine its origin and serious its requirements—is nevertheless ambiguous, and so “following the Law” and “seeking wisdom” are bound together for all time. Ancient Jews understood that following the commands necessarily took them beyond doing what the words said. Wisdom was needed to discern how to obey. (62)

| What a paradox. Even obedience to God is not scripted. Obedience is a wisdom exercise. Law without wisdom is incomplete. (62)

Jewish tradition has always understood that keeping the sabbath law—and any law—means working out how. (63)

Laws Don’t Stand Still for Very Long

The point is that laws don’t stay still. They can’t. They’re fidgety little buggers. Debating, amending, and even moving beyond some laws are part of the deal—and that includes the laws in the Bible. (64)

Times have changed and what was law then is no longer law now. (65)

Not to Beat a Dead Lamb, but…

…the choice to translate the same Hebrew root word as boil in Exodus and cook in Deuteronomy is aimed at avoiding this contradiction. [Exodus 12:8-9; Deuteronomy 16:7] (67)

Obscuring the tension between these two laws, (67) besides causing readers to feel lied to when they later discover it, only creates obstacles for seeing how the Bible actually works as a wisdom book—where thinking about God and God’s will changes over time. (68)

cf. 2 Chronicles 35:13

The writer of 2 Chronicles, who lived long after the time of either Exodus or Deuteronomy, about two centuries after the return from exile, saw the contradiction and felt compelled to create a hybrid in order to resolve it. Creative thinking about past laws is already happening during the biblical period. (68)

We are seeing wisdom at work—rethinking order laws for new situations, bringing together the ancient and revered tradition with the ever-changing, real-life circumstances of God’s people over time. (68)

…in order for these laws to remain God’s word, they could not simply be left in the past, as an artifact of a bygone era. These laws had to be revisited and adjusted if future generations will also hear God’s voice. (69)

| And I think I’ve just described the reality of what it means to “live biblically”—the wisdom act of bridging old and new. (69)

| Ambiguity in the Bible isn’t a problem to be solved. It is a self-evident reality. It is also a gift, for this characteristic is precisely what allows the Law to be flexible enough to fit multiple situations over time. (69)

Transposing the Past

ancient and ambiguous laws, in order to remain relevant, needed to be adapted—which results in the diversity of the laws we see in the Old Testament. (69)

Circumstances change, and wisdom is needed to keep the divine-human conversation going. (70)

4. Wisdom = Time + Diversity

Changing The Script

The Bible’s diversity is the key to uncovering the BIble’s true purpose for us. (76)

| Different voices coexist int he Bible, because the Bible records how writers in their day and in their own way health with the antiquity and ambiguity of their sacred tradition. (76)

The diversity we see in the Bible reflects the inevitably changing circumstances of the biblical writers across the centuries as they grappled with their sacred yet ancient and ambiguous tradition. …the same could be said of people of faith today. (76)

The Bible (both Old and New Testaments) exhibits this same characteristic of the sacred past being changed, adapted, rethought, and rewritten by people of faith, not because they disrespected the past, but because they respected it so much they had to tie it to their present. (77)

| I’ll go even farther. Without such changes over time, Christianity wouldn’t exist. The Christian tradition depends on these changes over time—and some rather big ones at that. (77)

The Bible isn’t a book that reflects one point of view. It is a collection of books that records a conversation—even a debate—over time. (77)

The Most Important Part of the Book Thus Far

Adaptation over time is baked thoroughly into the pages of the Bible as a whole and as such demonstrates that the Bible is a book of wisdom, demanding to be adapted again and again by people of faith living in vastly distant cultures and eras—including our own, removed by as much as two millennia from the time of its completion. (79)

This Part Is So Exciting!

When exactly was Etueronomy written? The broad consensus is in the latter half of the seventh century BCE based on an earlier (perhaps eighth-century) prototype and then subject to revisions up to and including the time of the Babylonian exile and perhaps later. (85)

| More specifically, scholars generally agree that Deuteronomy reflects a particular moment in Israel’s history—the Assyrian threat to the southern kingdom, Judah, in the seventh century BCE, after the deportation of the northern kingdom by the Assyrians in 722 BCE. In fact, Deuteronomy as a whole is structured like the treaties the Assyrians made with their conquered foes. (85)

…Deuteronomy is a late revision of ancient law. …whoever was responsible for Deuteronomy apparently had no hesitation whatsoever in updating older laws for new situations and still calling it the words that God spoke back then to Moses on Mt. Sinai (or Horeb, as it is called in Deuteronomy), even though they don’t match what God said in Exodus. (86)

The writers of Deuteronomy sees his updating of the older laws as God’s words for his time and place. (86)

You Were There

cf. Deuteronomy 5:1-5

Think of Deuteronomy as a motivational sermon. The second generation was to see itself as the “exodus generation,” to whom God is present and accessible, not a long-gone deity from days of old. (87)

| Deuteronomh reimagines God for a new time and place. (87)

…the Bible, rather than closing down the future, sets us on a journey of relying on God’s presence to discover it. (88)

Peel Me a Sour Grape of Wrath

cf. Ezekiel 18:3-4

…everyone is treated by God as they deserve. The son doesn’t get a free pass because dad was the model of obedience, nor is the father’s punishment for wickedness downloaded onto the son. (91)

…here’s the problem. Ezekiel’s prophecy, his word from the Lord, collides with an earlier word from the same Lord—the Second Commandment, against false worship (the making of idols). (91)

cf. Exodus 20:4-6

cf. King Jehu, 2 Kings 9-10 and Hosea 1:4-5

5. When Everything Changes

Rachel Is Weeping for Her Children

I don’t mean to compare the loss of a child to anything, let alone a national tragedy that happened a distant twenty-six hundred years ago. But I also know modern Western Christians have a lot of trouble identifying with the depth of panic and pain of the Babylonian exile, which one prophet compared to a mother losing her children:… [Jeremiah 31:15] (98)

Exile was the trauma of the Old Testament—and we dare not underestimate its impact. (98)

Yes, the Judahites were in a full-blown, centuries-long crisis that would come to lodge itself deeply in the Jewish consciousness. And that crisis would have to be processed, so the Judahites did what anyone would have done under the circumstances—they told their story: (101)

Christians call that story the Old Testament. (101)

That’s how the Bible was born. Out of crisis. And the question that drove these ancient writers and editors was the wisdom question we have been looking at all along: “What is God up to todayright here and now?” (102)

Don’t Put God in a Box, Unless You Want to Be Swallowed by a Fish

Nineveh fell to the Babylonians in 612 BCE and, as all prophets do, Nahum interpreted the event as an act of GOd. Jonah, however, was written in the postexilic period, after (perhaps generations after) the return from Babylonian exile in 538 BCE. (104)

The book of Jonah isn’t a history lesson. It’s a parable to challenge its readers to reimagine a God bigger than the one they were familiar with. (105)

…the writer of Jonah told a story of God’s expansive mercy for non-Israelites;… (106)

…the very presence of both Nahum and Jonah in our Bible forces us all to ponder what God is like in our here and now just as these authors did. (106)

| I may be wrong in how I process what God is like, of course, but I am not wrong because I process what God is like. (107)

Rewriting History

…Chronicles is not a repeat of 1 Samuel through 2 Kings. It is a retelling of those books from a much later point in Jewish history. (108)

And these books answer a different question altogether, not “What did we do to deserve this?” but “After all this time, is God still with us?” (108)

The reign of King Manasseh in 2 Chronicles…is not an account of Manasseh’s reign. It is a symbolic retelling of Judah’s exile and return home after the captives had learned their lesson and repented of their sins. (110)

The story of Manasseh, the penitent sinner restored to the place of God’s favor, is a reminder to that audience that God will fully heal them too—if they humble themselves and repent. (111)

* * *

What was ultimately at stake for the ancient writers wasn’t simply how they perceived the past, but how they perceived God now. (112)

6. What Is God Like?

The Universe Freaks Me Out

The God of the Bible

…the way forward feels like walking on a razor’s edge between two opinions—belief in the absurd God or belief that the idea of God is absurd. (123)

The Wisdom Question for All of Us

…I have come to terms somewhat with this dilemma of matching the God of the Bible with my faith: The God I read about in the Bible is not what God is (124) like—in some timeless abstraction, and that’s that—but how God was imagined and then reimagined by ancient people of faith living in real times and places. (125)

[via: For more of this, read The Bible Tells Me So…]

The sacred responsibility I’ve been talking bout is really a call to follow this biblical lead by reimagining God in our time and place. (125)

We reimagine God in ways that account for and make sense of our experience. (126)

[via: In concert with the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, I would call this “phenomenological theology.”]

…in one form or another, we are really asking a deeply foundational question, “What kind of God do I believe in, really?” (126)

We’re Stuck Being Human

…God is known through our human experience. (127)

…the only means they had at their disposal for talking about God were the language and the thoughts of that point in the human drama that they happened to occupy. (128)

| And that holds not only for the tenth century BCE, but also for us in the twenty-first century CE who have learned how big the universe is. (128)

cf. Deuteronomy 4:19-20

…the Israelites were not monotheists in the strict sense of the word, but monolatrists: they worshiped one God, but believed in the existence of many gods. (130)

7. Imagining and Reimagining God

You Mean to Tell Me That Actually Worked?

Banking Options

The biblical storyteller not only is clearly on board with the idea that Mesha’s sacrifice worked, but didn’t even feel the need to explain the concept to his readers. (137)

…Iron Age peoples asked, “Which god (or gods) are you devoted to? Which do you pray to and sacrifice to? Which do you worship?” (138)

What Does God Have to Be Jealous About?

Nile deity Hapi (139) …goddess of fertility and childbirth, Heqet… …the sun god Ra,… …the god of death, Osiris (or Anubis). (140)

How we see things is exactly what we need to get over if we want to understand stories like this one. The Israelites did believe Yahweh conquered the Egyptian gods—and if we bury that lede, we miss the point of this ancient story. (141)

| Israel’s “founding narrative”—the departure from Egypt and ascent to nationhood—is an odd and ancient story of rumbling deities where Yahweh easily comes out on top. (141)

My main point,…is that for Yahweh to be jealous about sharing his people with other gods, all concerned parties need to be operating on the same assumption, namely, that Yahweh actually has something to be jealous about. (143)

…the biblical authors speak of God in ways that reflect their experience in a world where many gods are a given. They are processing their experience of God through the limitations of their world. (143)

And with that we should be very careful to avoid two extremes. The first is looking down on this ancient view of God as simply “wrong.” The other is elevating this view off the pages of history, of taking it as timeless and “correct” because it’s in the Bible. (144)

Tiptoeing Around the Touchy Almighty

The question of right or wrong only comes up when we expect form the Bible timeless, unchanging facts about God. (149)

| To put it another way, the problem of divine violence becomes far less of a problem when we remember why some biblical writers portray God violently. They are making sense of God with the ancient vocabulary available to them in their world. And like most things in the Bible, God is presented in diverse ways along with the changing experiences of the ancient Israelites and then the first followers of Jesus. (149)

8. Interlude: Jesus and All That

God Is ___ (Fill in the Blank)

How else could these people of faith talk about God? How else could anyone talk about God? Who we are and when and where we exist affect how we imagine God. (154)

| Whenever we say to ourselves, “Well, that’s true, but of course God is ___,” we should pay attention to how we fill in that blank. (154)

In fact, what is the story of Jesus and the Good News if not a reimagining of the “God of the Bible”? (155)

It’s What Christians Do

Reimagining the God of the Bible is what Christians do. More than that, they have to, if they wish to speak of the biblical God at all. (156)

| And yes, that is yet another paradox—the God of old can only be accessed by being reimagined. (156)

Does Your God Recycle?

Should we be the least bit surprised when we, along with some biblical writers, find ourselves wandering beyond the words in the Bible as we think about what God is like, sensing that the God we see there made sense for that time but not necessarily for ours, and that the God we were introduced to in the Bible is not in every way the God we believe in here and now? (157)

| My answer to that rather convoluted question is, “No, we should not be surprised.” (157)

The ancient world, after all, gave us warring gods and heavenly board meetings. If that doesn’t fit the definition of “pagan influence,” I don’t know what does. And yet ancient Israelites imagined God within that world—and those images became part of our sacred scripture. (159)

Perhaps this is at least one reason why the Christian faith has had such staying power and spread broad and wide… (160)

9. Seriously Updating the Ancient Faith

Adapting to Survive

…to maintain any tradition, you need to hold on to some aspects of the past while at the same time thinking creatively about how the past and the present can meet—reimagining the faith,… The perennial wisdom question is, “What remains and what gets transformed?” (165)

Standing on a Table Covered in Syrup with My Hair on Fire

…Judaism survived because it has adapted its sacred tradition to its ever-changing environment while at the same time maintaining the tradition. (166)

| Or maybe…Judaism was faithful to its tradition by adapting that tradition so that it could survive. (166)

The Bible in that respect is more like a living organism than a carved tablet. (167)

…any other kind of Bible would have been dead on arrival within a few decades of when it was written. (167)

Adapting the past for the present is a wisdom move. Preserving faith in God is not about sticking to the past no matter what, but always asking anew how the past and the present can coexist. (167)

We Need to Get This in Writing

Dealing with an Inconsistent (and Somewhat Ridiculous) God

The Septuagint really wants to make God seem more, well, godlike. (176)

cf. Exodus 4:24

…Jews at the time changed their sacred text to “clarify” in their time and place what God is like. They changed the Bible to accommodate their culture. (177)

Whatever one might think of it, the argument that gender-inclusive language is simply “compromising” the Bible for the sake of culture rings rather hollow when we look at what Jews were doing about twenty-three hundred years ago: they produced a culturally influenced Bible translation, the translation that—oh, sweet irony—became the Bible of the New Testament writers. (177)

Allegory is something of a mindset. It was thought that the true meaning of any literature worth reading lay beyond the literal, surface meanings of mere words, and took on philosophical or symbolic meaning. (177)

God’s Honor Is at Stake

…resurrection of the dead was an adjustment to the story, a reimagining of what God will do that arose (an unintended yet fitting pun) during the Greek period to solve a pressing problem that had to do with God’s justice and fairness to his people. (180)

| What was that problem exactly? A key promise of God to Jews was that faithfulness to God is rewarded; namely, the faithful would take part in the coming restored kingdom of Israel. (180)

Resurrection is about God’s justice, and God’s justice became a more pressing issue than ever before when persecution of faithful Jews abounded and God’s absence was painfully felt. (183)

Angels and Demons

The descriptive title “the satan” of the Old Testament became Satan, the name of this powerful evil being (known also by other names in early Judaism like Mastema and Belial). (186)

Not Your Father’s Judaism

For the ancient tradition to survive, it had to transform—adapt to changing circumstances. To seek to remain as it always was would simply ensure its isolation, if not its death. The act of transformation is, therefore, a sacred responsibility on the part of people of faith in order to maintain that faith. And how a tradition is transformed is an act of wisdom. (189)

10. Treasures Old and New

German Christmases and French Drains

The New Testament, in other words, is our Exhibit A for how vital it is to adjust and reimagine the past to meet the challenges of a new day and time. (195)

Christian theology, in other words, is an exercise in wisdom—perhaps far more so than is normally thought. We are not simply maintaining the past; we are transforming it, again and again. (196)

Something About Jesus That Doesn’t Get the Attention It Deserves

I suppose one reason for this lack is that wisdom gets messy, compared to thinking of the life of faith as a set of rules and clearly defined and never-changing boundaries. We are just people, after all, and we tend to gravitate toward the black and white. (198)

| But the Christian faith doesn’t. (198)

The Gospels record almost forty distinct parables (who knows how many more Jesus told), and not a single one of them has a clear and obvious meaning. (198)

Jesus was clearly more interested in painting portraits, creating a vision, and overturning conventional thinking. You do that by telling a story that leaves people thinking, uncomfortable, moved, motivated—or in some other way invested. (199)

Parables are meant to have an afterlife, to be flexible, adaptable over time to new circumstances. (200)

Jesus, Wisdom from God

Think About It: Four Gospels

…each Gospel is its own unique retelling of the life of Jesus centered on the needs of each writer’s community of faith. We’re in wisdom territory here again, folks. (206)

Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead. (Matt. 2:20)

Go back to Egypt; for all those who were seeking your life are dead. (Exod. 4:19)

11. Reimagingin God the Jesus Way

Just Hear Me Out

“At what point do we cross the line from adapting a tradition, so it can survive, to compromising the tradition beyond recognition?” (216)

Paul Reimagines the God of Moses

Going Off Script

Paul is reinterpreting the purpose of Torah, because times have changed—Jesus has come. Now Paul has to account for something not accounted for by Israel’s tradition: a crucified and risen Messiah. (223)

…the gospel forced Paul to go back and reconsider Israel’s story from a point of view that the story itself wasn’t set up to handle. And not just any old part of the story, but the heart of it, the Law of Moses. (225)

1 Temple Avenue, Back Room, Jerusalem

For the Jesus movement, the Temple’s ultimate usefulness was in foreshadowing the presence of God in Jesus and his followers. (229)

The reimagining of God in light of the gospel has no need of this structure. The plan has changed. (229)

The really central point in all this is that the biblically rooted tradition of a holy sanctuary for God shifts from a structure to a person—and then that person’s followers. That sort of thinking only came about because the circumstances demanded it. Jesus inspired a major midcourse change in direction. (230)

| What eventually became “Christianity” began as a Jewish sect—a sect that stretched the boundaries of Judaism to its limit. Eventually, like Jesus’s wineskins, it stretched those boundaries too far. (230)

This Land Is My Land

It is not an exaggeration to say that the backdrop of the entire Old Testament drama is about how keeping or losing the land is dependent on Israel’s religious obedience. (233)

In the midst of such a drama rooted in an ancient and irrevocable promise of God, Jesus reimagines a God who has no interest in maintaining national borders—God is no longer interested in his own promise that goes back to the days of Abraham. (233)

Law, Temple, land. it’s hard to find three more central elements of Israel’s story. And all three experience a dramatic upheaval with the coming of Christ. Israel’s storyline with its expected trajectory has been ruthlessly edited and taken in a new direction. (234)

| The circumstances demand it. The story has to be adjusted. God is reimagined. And the Bible already has a long history of doing just that. (234)

Children of Abraham

12. Dying and Rising for Others

What Is God Up To?

…Isaiah 40: The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Matt. 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4; John 1:23). (242)

…it looks as though the Gospel writers are all trying to say that Jesus’s ministry will have something to do with bringing and end to the exile—of raising the nation back to life. (242)

God raising the dead wasn’t a remarkable idea at the time. But God raising one person from the dead, as something that already happened—well, that’s a head-scratcher. (243)

When Paul says to the church in Rome, for example, that they are now justified by his [God’s] grace (Rom. 3:24), the earth-shattering part of that claim isn’t justified or even grace, but the word now. It has already happened for believers in Jesus. The future is brought into the present time through Jesus. (244)

To sum up, all that future stuff of Jewish theology is already a present spiritual reality for believers in Jesus, because Jesus has delivered a piece of that future to our front door. (244)

Paul essentially responds to Israel’s main storyline by saying, “All that was just prelude to what God is really up to—reversing the curse of death for everyone.” (245)

| No one would arrive at a conclusion like that simply from reading the Old Testament. Rather, you have to start with seeing Jesus as the “solution,” read the Bible backwards, so to speak, and reimagine God to account for this surprising turn of events. (245)

No, Seriously, What Is God Up To?

As in the Old Testament, “to ransom” means to “buy back,” as when a price is paid to have someone released from captivity, and “to atone” means to supply satisfaction for an offense or injury, as when you make up for or make amends for your sins. (249)

In Jesus, martyrdom and messiahship merge. (249)

* * *

The gospel doesn’t match up with Israel’s story, as if it were an index at the end that lined up with what came before. The gospel is an act of reimagining God in view of an unexpected and ground-shifting development—not exile to Babylon, as formative as that was for Judaism, but a Messiah who challenged central elements of Israel’s identity (Law, Temple, land), but who also died a shameful, dishonorable, criminal’s death and then was raised. (250)

The New Testament story is, in other words, one big act of wisdom—a response to God’s surprising presence here and now. (250)

13. Figuring It Out

Reading Someone Else’s Mail

…it has struck me over the years that some of the most important pieces of literature in the entire Bible are

personal letters

written two thousand years ago

by people I’ve never met named Paul, Peter, James, John, and some others

and intended for people I absolutely know nothing about

in places I am not remotely familiar with

in a culture I really cannot hope to grasp. (254)

We can’t simply just drag these letters into our own life as is. We have to work at finding the connection between then and now. (255)

Does God Influence Elections? Dear Lord, I Hope Not

So, for Paul, sometimes you hold your ground and invite Rome’s wrath and sometimes you don’t—not unlike the choice we saw in Proverbs 26:4-5: sometimes you answer a fool and sometimes you don’t. (260)

[via: This might be something Pete would appreciate. Let’s call this “Almond Joy theology.”]

Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: No Big Deal, Nothing to See Here

…when the Bible is viewed as a once-for-all rulebook, the anti-abolitionists had a slam-dunk case, because you have passages from both parts of the Bible that assume the institution of slavery. The abolitionists had to argue differently—on the basis of the Bible’s trajectory toward justice and equality. That type of argument is a wisdom argument, tied not to the words on the page, but to discerning where the Spirit seems to be leading. (262)

But my point is that the just way of addressing human slavery had to go beyond the BIble—it had to take seriously “the moment” and read it well. (262)

The simple fact that Paul isn’t consistent about women should never be seen as some logical embarrassment to be overcome—like a misprint in a legally binding contract or an owner’s manual that has to be corrected—but as a clear sign that wisdom thinking is at work. We follow Paul’s lead best when we likewise exercise wisdom in our here and now. (263)

Paul’s comments about women straddled the line between social expectations of the day and Christian liberation from those expectations. To have obliterated those expectations would have impeded his mission to spread the gospel. Today, cultural expectations are not what they were in the Roman Empire of Paul’s time, and it is our responsibility to, likewise, be aware of those expectations (264) and not obliterate them, lest the mission of spreading the gospel be compromised. (265)

| And so, taking seriously today Paul’s words about women would mean employing the same principle of wisdom, but arriving at the completely opposite conclusion about the role and status of women, given our cultural expectations. Paul brought gender equality into his world as far as he could. Christians today can—and should—build on that wise trajectory and take it farther. (265)

| A paradox: only by “disobeying” Paul’s “command” are we able to follow the path of wisdom he was following. (265)

My point is that even though Paul’s words can’t be made to mean anything we like, once we dig in to the cultural context a bit, we see that Paul might mean something other than what we expected. (268)

Using Bible verses to end discussions on difficult and complex issues serves no one and fundamentally misses the dimension of wisdom that is at work anytime we open the Bible anywhere and read it. (268)

14. Grace and Peace to You

The God of the Here and Now

…the Bible itself—Old and New Testaments like—never sits still. (271)

…this book may be called How the Bible Actually Works, but the deeper topic is how we think about God here and now. Processing that question happens int he arena of wisdom,… (273)

Wisdom leads us to dialogues with the past. It doesn’t lead us back to the past. (275)

The Challenge of Wisdom

If that is how the Bible itself actually behaves, who are we to (276) Think that the Bible’s purpose is to have us step around our own sacred responsibility to reimagine God rather than warmly embrace it? (277)

| If that notion is still a bit unnerving for some, as I can well understand, look on the bright side. We are all already doing that very thing whenever we talk about God–and the biblical writers were already doing that very same thing long before any of us came on the scene. (277)

About VIA

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: