Here’s the point I want to make today: being deeply challenged in our beliefs is not a “threat” or “attack” that should be fought against. Rather, these moments play an important and necessary role in our spiritual growth.
Nothing has helped me see more clearly the positive spiritual value of having one’s faith tradition challenged than reading the Bible.
Over the last 30 years or so, I have come to see that the Old Testament writers and editors are not conduits of timelessly inerrant information, but as ancient theologians who deliberately and consciously recontextualized their past to suit the needs of present communities of faith.
The reason we see such flexibility and movement in the Old Testament is this: The final editors of the Old Testament, not to mention many of the writers, experienced and had to account for the crisis of exile, a failed monarchy, and the survival of one tribe out of twelve, Judah, among all the countless children of Abraham that were to have filled the earth.
“So what?” you might ask. Here’s the “so what”:
It looked like God was changing course. What they were sure that God was doing needed to be adjusted in the face of their changing circumstances.
For example, is it not curious that the Old Testament narrative explicitly focuses on and exalts the tribe of Judah, beginning at least as early as way back in Genesis 49:8-12 (Jacob’s farewell speech)? The Judahite winners/survivors who wrote/edited the story wove their own experience into the ancient Patriarchal tradition. It is hard to escape that conclusion.
Indeed, the traditions of Abraham and the other ancestors in Genesis are shaped to “anticipate” scenes in the united and divided monarchies.
- For example, God makes with both Abraham and the Judahite King David an “eternal covenant.” The Abrahamic tradition is recast to support the Davidic line.
- Or Isaac gives his leftover blessing to Esau, telling him he will first serve his brother but then break loose and break the yoke from his neck (Genesis 27:39-40). That scene is played out on the national level when Edom rebels against Judahite rule in the days of King Jehoram in 2 Kings 8:20-22. The Patriarchal narratives may not have been created during the divided monarchy, but these old Patriarchal traditions were reworked to speak to a later time.
Perhaps more clearly, the books of 1 and 2 Chronicles are nothing if not a significant, deliberate, conscious theological reshaping of Israel’s earlier history (the Deuteronomistic History) by late postexilic theologians for a late postexilic audience.
- Manasseh, for example, the utterly corrupt and idolatrous king of Judah and the cause of the exile according to 2 Kings 21—so wicked that even Josiah’s thorough sweeping reforms could not stay God’s wrath (2 Kings 23:26-27)—this Manasseh becomes in 2 Chronicles humble and contrite, a repentant sinner who is then blessed by God (33:10-17) The Chronicler recasts tradition and reshapes Manasseh as a model of repentance to motivate his Persian era Judahite readers.
Or consider Nahum’s late 7th century gloating over the destruction of Nineveh, the capital of the wicked Assyrians, in 612 BC, which gives way to Jonah’s postexilic claim that even the Ninevites have a place in God’s future—indeed, they convert en masse. This reshaping of the past reflects the sobering cosmopolitan experience of exile.
And of course, we have the lament psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Job, which famously take to task the conventional theology of divine retribution championed in Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History (for example, Deuteronomy 28:15-68).
The Old Testament does not work well as a historically accurate record of the ancient past, a foundation of historical certainty upon which to build an unchanging, firm, and true tradition. But it does work very well as something entirely different, the value of which no contemporary person of faith should underestimate:
The Old Testament models an intentionally innovative, adaptive, and contemporizing theological dynamic—a recasting of the past to speak to the changing present and for a vision for the future.
The authoritative texts and traditions of the past were not simply received by the faithful but were necessarily adapted and built upon.
And I say “necessarily” because as circumstances change (like the exile), rethinking tradition is never far behind. In fact, the adaptation of tradition is necessary in order to stay connected to the tradition—which is to say, in order to keep it alive.
We also see this pattern in the New Testament.
The Synoptic Gospel writers were in some way dependent on each other, but rather than an “accurate use of sources,” they willingly—and with apparently little reservation—“rewrote” earlier versions of the life of Jesus to suit the theological needs of their communities.
Paul profoundly and of theological necessity recontextualized, reshaped, and thus reinterpreted Israel’s story around the unexpected circumstance of Jesus of Nazareth.
The tectonic shift of a crucified and risen messiah, not to mention a major shift in how one conceived of Gentile inclusion in the family of Abraham (Acts 10 and 15), required a profoundly creative re-engagement of Israel’s story, to which the NT bears clear and consistent witness.
This pattern of adaptation also plays out, perhaps unwittingly but also unavoidably and necessarily so, throughout the history of Christianity, beginning with the reshaping of the ancient Semitic story of the Old and New Testaments in Greco-Roman philosophical categories, giving us ancient church creeds (Nicean, Chalcedonian).
This dynamic of adaptation of the past is present throughout the biblical period and thereafter.
Through the entire history of the church, then and now, the faithful cannot help but ask the very same question asked by biblical authors like the Chronicler and Paul: how does that back there and then speak to us here and now?
Answering that question is a transaction between the believer’s present and the scriptural past, which always involves some creative adaptation.
Here’s an irony. Those who claim to be the most scrupulous of “Bible believers,” who say they will “follow Scripture” wherever it leads, should be the most open to theological change.
What I find curious is that, more often than not, the very opposite is the norm. Those most “biblical” are most resistant to having their belief systems challenged.
Take Scripture “seriously” by embracing what Scripture itself models—a moving rather than static theological process.
After all, the question has never simply been, “What did God do then?” but “What is God doing now—surprisingly, unexpectedly, counterintuitively, and in complete freedom from our traditions?”