Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Holiness through the OT looking glass

In He Gave Us Stories Richard L. Pratt calls the OT text a three-fold looking glass: a translucent window that opens upon events in the ancient world, a stained-glass window that presents a highly selective, ideologically focused drama, and a silvered mirror which shows us ourselves in others' garb. Pratt’s metaphor deserves the biblical theologian’s regular meditation. Most of us easily forget Scripture’s stained-glass nature and think only of it as a transparent pane, however circumscribed, for viewing God’s Kingdom plan unfolding step by step, phase by phase.

Such forgetfulness leads to serious exegetical error. First, we think that because the text does not say the ancients knew something, therefore they did not know it. This is a conclusion unreasonable and unsustainable.

The NT off-handedly attributes knowledge to OT characters of which there is not the slightest hint in the Hebrew Scriptures. For example, Jude tells us that Enoch prophesied Yahweh’s coming in judgment with multiplied thousands of his holy ones (Jude 1:14). While most would relegate any apocalyptic knowledge or interest to millenniums later, it in fact existed at least a mere seven generations from Adam, if it was not known from the beginning.

The bounds of inscripturated revelation have never compassed the totality of special revelation. That is to say, God revealed (many?) things to those who were His people that Scripture does not tell us.

What does this mean for a study of holiness? It means the biblical theologian must not assert that the near absence of holiness terminology in Genesis reflects a relatively great ignorance of its meaning and nature by the characters in Genesis. It also means that the biblical theologian should be refuse the temptation to trace boldly the historical development of this concept, since he have no way of knowing what was known when, unless the text tells him.

The second danger of such forgetfulness is the temptation to follow Scripture’s canonical sequence in the false assumption of chronological sequence. We do not know when, during Moses' lifetime, Genesis was written, but we do know that Exodus 1-13 was likely to have been written after Exodus 19-23.

How do we know this? Did Moses chronicle his birth, flight, the ten plagues, the Exodus before arriving at Sinai? I think it most unlikely. It seems far more likely that the 38 years of wilderness wandering provided Moses time for the inspired literary activity that gave us the narrative framing of Genesis, Exodus and Numbers.

What does this mean for a study of holiness? It means the biblical theologian who follows the canonical path through the Pentateuch does not follow the chronology of special revelation. He follows the literary path laid down by the Spirit's inspiration of theological narrative.

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