About Me

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Bedford, Texas, United States
Pastor of Woodland Heights Baptist Church in Bedford, Texas and former Professor of Old Testament. But mostly I am a husband of an amazing wife, father of gifted children, and servant of an AWESOME God.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Role of Consequence in Understanding the Biblical Text

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. (Galatians 6:7-8, ESV)

In an earlier blog post I dealt with the issue of blaming God for sin. I tried to bring some semblance of balance in understanding the interplay between life’s occurrences and God’s sovereignty. Whether or not I did that successfully is for each reader to determine for themselves. One of the implications, however, of the discussion that was most important for me was the understanding that as moral agents we are responsible for actions and their consequences. This truth not only has implications in understanding God’s sovereignty, however, but also I believe in interpreting Scripture regarding matters that may not be directly chastised or addressed in the WORDS of God, but through which He speaks in the consequences that take place either through His direct intervention or through the law of “reaping what you sow” that He has built into the universe.

When interpreting Scripture people are almost always looking for the “hidden” in the text. This is true for the positive reason that we believe the Bible to be the key to life and we don’t want to miss a thing God might have to say to us. But it is also driven by the negative reality that we want to feel like we picked up on some special insight that no one else has seen – that is we are motivated by pride. The result of both of these elements is that sometimes you find believers (often times preachers) bringing things that are either contrary to standard interpretations or just novel in their approach. Such moments can be enlightening and helpful, but they can also be quite damaging.

I remember the first church I served on staff at, the pastor was preaching from John 8 on the woman caught in adultery. I don’t remember much of what he said, but I do remember toward the end of the sermon he made the comment – “I want you to notice here that Jesus never forgave this woman’s actions.” To this day I am not certain where he was going with his point because I was so shocked by the statement, I didn’t hear anything else. My professor at Wayland offered some wisdom on the statement when he told me that the pastor was doing what a lot of us do when it comes to the Scripture – looking for something novel to point out.

Over the years as a professor and pastor, I have encountered this phenomenon over and over (I have probably even fell prey to it myself a time or two) – Individuals making a case from silence. This is indeed dangerous. But the opposite can be dangerous too – that is, sometimes we ignore something God wants to say through the text because we are looking for an overt statement, when the consequences speak just as clearly.

I hear people sometimes say, “Notice, God never says…” and then proceed to say that since He didn’t speak directly to the matter, He must be ok with what took place. Sometimes it is used to rehabilitate a biblical character. I recently listened to a sermon in which the preacher was trying to correct the negative portrayals of Jacob that too often occur in pulpits today. He made a lot of good points about aspects of Jacob and Esau’s story that are often overlooked, but in the process of “saving” Jacob’s reputation, he went too far the other way in almost removing any sense of wrong doing on Jacob’s part – and his whole case was built on the lack of Divine reproof of Jacob anywhere in the text.

Another example of this practice from a different angle is that of people who wonder why the Bible never says anything about polygamy (multiple-marriages) or says anything directly negative about slavery. The assumption is somewhat present that since God did not address these things, He must have approved of them. If that is the case, why are we against them, etc…

In both types of arguments that occur, the problem with the suppositions that come out is that people miss the unspoken reflections of consequence that God often communicates. For instance, the preacher making the observations about Jacob missed a lot of background material that would speak to the negative aspects of his actions, but more importantly to the argument here, he missed the consequences of the actions Jacob undertook that played out in the story (having to say goodbye to Rebecca – never seeing her again; not having anywhere really to go because both his past exchanges left him trapped between Laban and Esau, and many others). Similarly with the Biblical text sets a clear standard for marriage in the relationship of Adam and Eve (Paul makes this clear in his multiple allusions to the couple when discussing marriage) and then in every single instance of polygamy outlined in the Scripture showing its negative impact on the overall relationships involved. Even in those places where one might say there was “blessing” involved (Jacob’s multiple children), one can hardly look at the dynamic described between the women and Jacob and even their children and say, “Yes, the multiple wives of Jacob clearly was a good thing.” God often sets up a standard and then lets consequences take their toll.

With slavery, even a cursory examination of how God approached the subject versus how the surrounding culture did, will demonstrate that He was not pleased with the matter and sought to move Israel to a totally different mindset toward the institution. This highlighted all the more through the writings of Paul in Philemon where almost all the mores of the institution are thrown aside in favor of the new creatures Christ had made both Philemon and Onesimus. God doesn't have to directly speak on a matter in order to address it.

When interpreting the Bible it is essential that one attempt as much as possible to get the whole picture. Words matter and where God speaks, we need to give those realities added weight because words remove some of the ambiguousness or “guess-work” in interpretation. But we also need to be cognizant of what God is saying by simply letting the consequences run their course and the people harvesting what they have planted.

This is true also in life. God can indeed speak through consequences. But we always need to be careful to look at the whole picture of His revelation and to let the sure Word of His revelation define the sometimes murky word of actions and their fruit.