Revelation and the God Revealed in It

By Stephen Terry


Commentary for the October 13, 2012 Sabbath School Lesson


“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” 2 Timothy 3:16-17, NIV

Shortly after World War II, a shepherd boy tossing rocks in a cave was surprised to hear the sound of breaking pottery. This activity by a bored boy resulted in the discovery of one of the great archeological finds of modern time. The treasure trove of papyri found in clay jars in these caves at Qumran in the West Bank of Palestine is known as the Dead Sea Scrolls due to the proximity of Qumran to that body of water. One of the more significant finds was the scroll of Isaiah shown here. As can be seen, it is relatively intact for a document that was created two millennia ago. I suspect if I were to place some of my old National Geographic magazines in clay jars for two thousand years they might not look this good. But their preservation is not the only reason these scrolls were important.

This was an opportunity for biblical scholars to compare the scrolls with other known texts that had survived from ancient times to determine if there were significant discrepancies in the different texts. In the half century since their discovery, they have done more to establish the trustworthiness of our modern Bibles than to discredit them. However, they have also shed some light on another area of biblical scholarship. They have given us further proof that there were other texts that for various reasons were considered inspired at the time but are no longer considered so today. An example of this would be the scroll “The War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness.” This scroll was apocalyptic and perhaps that accounts in part for the controversy surrounding it. Even the apocalyptic book, “Revelation,” was not initially included in the current canon of the New Testament. Prophecy can be off-putting due to an inability to confirm its authenticity until at least some of the prophetic predictions can be verified. Sometimes that is a matter of interpreting the symbolism, other times it might be a matter of allowing enough time to pass for verifiable events to occur. More often it is a matter of both combined.

Perhaps because of the premillennial positioning of theological scholarship within Seventh-day Adventism, we focus primarily on the prophetic interpretations surrounding the Parousia and the grand teleological narrative we refer to as the Great Controversy when we study the Bible, even in an archeological context. When we approach archeological finds in this way, desiring to confirm a particular perspective by verifying the veracity of key proof texts, we can miss some of the significance of the overall picture. One of the most obvious implications we can overlook is that the canon we revere today was not the same canon our forebears may have understood as having sacred significance. Once we do lift our noses from the papyri to consider a larger perspective, we may find that the carefully constructed theological “apple cart” we have built has some wobbly wheels. While this may be problematic to Seventh-day Adventists, we are not alone in our sometimes tendency to literalism. These non-canonical (in our modern sense) texts have challenged understandings throughout Christendom.

There are several possible responses to this broader perspective that recognizes that there are prior canons to our own. One can look at it as “pollution” that crept in over the centuries. This is a popular concept when dealing with theological conflict. Often opposing theological viewpoints are vilified as having somehow compromised with non-Christian philosophy and culture. This was a very dominant theme during the Protestant reformation as evidenced by the content of Luther’s “Ninety-five Theses.” The Catholics also used this theme during the Counter-reformation as they sought to purify their body of Protestant influence that had somehow allowed progressive concepts regarding government and authority to creep in and challenge existing institutions both political and religious.

In the present day, we hear these same arguments used whenever there is a more expansive world view proposed than Christendom is currently equipped to embrace. Often these conflicts are more about culture than biblical writ, tending to focus on music, gender issues, and worship styles. However, there is also an element of conflict directly related to what constitutes scripture and how to understand inspiration. A current example of this is the sometime conflict over the use of the King James Version of the Bible. Some would limit biblical canon not only to certain texts but to certain translations of those texts. This creates a strong push within Christianity for explicit literalism. Without a literalist approach to scripture, the justification for a particular translation erodes.

Another response to a broader perspective regarding inspiration and the canon is to simply ignore the problem. Some would consign everything not in agreement with the current canon to the secular world and therefore irrelevant to the topic of inspiration. On might refer to this as the “head-in-the-sand” approach. It seems to imply that if we just ignore it as secular, it will somehow go away on its own. But it doesn’t. Instead it simply festers on the edge of understanding until it progresses and draws enough attention to itself that it must be dealt with. Unfortunately, because our response by that point becomes more apologetic than pro-active, we lose a certain amount of credibility, coming off as self-serving, rather than speaking from a position of unbiased intellectual detachment.

A third approach is to recognize scripture for what it has historically been. Even if we accept a premise that the earth is approximately six or seven thousand years old in order to satisfy the most conservative fundamentalist among us, we must admit that we have no evidence that a written biblical text in a form we would recognize today existed prior to the Exodus from Egypt, and that leaves a huge gap. Similarities between certain accounts in the Pentateuch and other sources may lead us to believe that there might have been other accounts, but this cannot be conclusively shown. Some modern scholars believe that the Pentateuch represented a coalescing of some of these various accounts from other non-Hebraic sources into a common tradition. However, this cannot be conclusively demonstrated either. The biblical account itself only identifies the Decalogue has having sprung directly from the finger of God, although there are apparently a number of quotations attributed to verbal communications from God. This begs the question, what is the source of those portions of the books not so attributed.

Where the similarities to non-biblical accounts are strongest is in the early chapters of Genesis. Other cultures have stories of cataclysmic floods. Since these chapters do not state that God spoke or wrote them, how much was simply recorded from oral traditions handed down through the many previous generations to the time of the Exodus. Even where we currently translate ancient conversations in the text as literal quotes, how accurate can these be? Could Moses have known the exact words Joseph spoke to Potiphar’s wife? Most likely he did not. But even the literalist might argue at this point that it is the intent of what was said, not the exact wording. This is precisely the issue.

We cannot know exactly what was said, perhaps purposefully so. Maybe God never expected us to take a literal approach to his communication with us. Maybe He knew that we would have a tendency to be “rules lawyers.” Like the lawyer who confronted Jesus over the command to “Love your neighbor,” we could not simply go on our way loving our neighbor. Instead we have to “split the hairs” of literalism like the lawyer who demanded of Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” (See Luke 10:25-37) This tradition often continues in synagogues, today, where scholars argue over the precise meaning of a phrase, a word, or even a punctuation mark. This has come into Christianity as well. Perhaps it has done so for the same reason. God has never limited his interaction with His people solely to the written word. He has spoken personally to some. To others, He has communicated through angels. He has communicated through dreams and visions. He has even used the mouth of a donkey. His ability to adapt His relationship with us to varying circumstances is infinite.

Perhaps, God has revealed himself in so many ways over time to preclude the possibility of literalism and the rigidity that would be an obstacle to progressive revelation. After all as our own children grow into adulthood, doesn’t our manner of relating to them change as they grow? Should we expect God to demonstrate an inflexibility that we ourselves, created in the image of God, find inappropriate with our offspring?

Moses crafted a bronze serpent in the wilderness to save the people from death by snake bite. It was intended as a blessing that saved many lives. Yet, by the reign of Hezekiah, it became an idol known as “Nehushtan” and a stumbling block to the people. They worshipped it instead of God. The king had to have it destroyed in order to return the people to proper relationship with God. (2 Kings 18:4)

Just as Nehushtan was meant as a blessing to save people’s lives but became a curse when it was made into an idol, so also the sacred writings were given as a blessing but have the potential to become idolized to the point of losing sight of the blessing of having a living word (See Acts 7:38) growing and changing among us. We should perhaps consider asking ourselves if we have solidified it into an inflexible rock that can no longer speak to society’s need for healing. When the Word of God is no longer living and vibrant in a modern context that speaks to these societal needs, then the church may lose its vibrant spiritual experience and simply become another irrelevant bureaucracy in a world already filled with such bureaucracies. Even worse, it may simply become an exclusive social club, occasionally initiating new members, but with no higher goal than its own self-preservation.



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