In my last Sunday post (which occurred two weeks ago, because of the issues with my blog host), I said that Christians start running into trouble, if they try to pick and choose which Bible passages they will interpret literally and which metaphorically. In particular, if we try to “soften the edges” by substituting in doctrines that seem more reasonable than what a plain reading of the text suggests, then we end up contradicting ourselves.
The particular example I gave in that post was the doctrine of “age of accountability,” for which there is (apparently) no Biblical basis. (Some people in the comments suggested that Jesus talked of entering the kingdom of God with the faith of a child, so we can quibble on this point.) The problem is that if you say infants can’t go to hell because they never really had a chance to accept Jesus, then you should say that aborigines living in the jungle shouldn’t go to hell for the same reason. And in that case, the worst thing you could possibly do is spread the gospel of Christ, because you might thereby send somebody to hell.
In the comments of that post, Thomas Knapp had a good zinger that apparently showed the absurdity of the Bible. However, it also proved my point in the post. Here’s how his comment went:
[Bob Murphy:] “I don’t consider myself a Jew bound by the Mosaic Law. I consider myself a disciple of Jesus Christ.”
[Thomas Knapp:] Would that be the same Jesus Christ who said “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled?”
Or are we talking about some other Jesus Christ?
At the time, I didn’t have a good comeback except to say, “The same one, Tom.” I knew that was the correct answer from a Biblical Christian viewpoint, but I didn’t have a more satisfactory answer.
After considering it more, the answer (ironically) involves the advice I gave in the post itself. In order to make sense of this apparent contradiction–where Christ apparently frees us from the punishment of the Law, while claiming that He is its ultimate fulfillment–we have to draw on other principles laid out in the New Testament.
For example, Paul says in Romans 6: 3-5:
3 Or have you forgotten that when we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism, we joined him in his death? 4 For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives.
5 Since we have been united with him in his death, we will also be raised to life as he was.
I have to confess, I never really liked this kind of stuff, in Paul’s epistles. It seemed too much to me that he was just speaking weird analogies or metaphors. But actually, the doctrines he lays out–if we take them literally–solve a lot of the problems in reconciling the “Old” and “New” Testaments.
In other words, the reason Thomas Knapp thought he had a great zinger, was that he was assuming something like, “Jesus is a distinct being from all of us, so that when He died on the Christ, that had nothing to do with our own deaths.” But who said? If God wants to become incarnate, and enter the world through the womb of a virgin, I don’t see why He can’t also declare, “By the way, when I said you would die for your sins, there’s a sense in which that is perfectly true–Jesus and you will become one from a certain vantage point, and you will in fact die. But there’s another sense in which Jesus the man bears the brunt of it.”
Incidentally, this is difficult for me because I’ve never liked Paul personally. In fact I can’t stand him. To give you a sense of what I mean: If Peter pulled me aside and said, “Hey Brother Bob, just to let you know, I think you drink too much. I mean, we drank wine with the Lord when He walked among us, but we didn’t get smashed,” I’d say, “OK yeah I’ve been thinking that myself.” But if Paul wrote me a letter telling me he was disappointed in the reports he’d heard (in prison) about my habits, I would bristle.
I think the reason for this is clear: Peter is a “normal guy” who can relate to everybody (and vice versa), who isn’t haughty and “lording it over” everybody. In contrast, Saul was a zealous Pharisee, who was so sure of his doctrinal convictions that he actually oversaw the execution of heretics. So it makes sense that (given my libertarian views) I can’t stand Paul even after his conversion.
And yet, I now am forcing myself to appreciate him. After all, the Lord Himself claimed Paul as His own. Peter (and the other apostles) were necessary to win thousands of converts for the early Church. But they were fishermen. Paul, in contrast, had been well-trained in the Mosaic Law. So he had the ability to reconcile Jesus’ teachings with the Law, and to show why Jesus fulfilled it, rather than contradicting it. Also, note that Paul probably wouldn’t have been able to write such important, foundational documents had he never been locked in prison for his beliefs. There wasn’t much for him to do, except reflect on Jesus and the early Church at that point. Had he been a successful businessman who threw wild parties every week, those epistles never would have been written.
God has a plan, and He doesn’t contradict Himself. If you think He has, it’s because you assumed something that is wrong. Perhaps your assumption would be perfectly innocuous in the context of man, but not when it comes to an omnipotent Being.