36 The basis of our confidence in the Bible’s moral authority (Part 2)

In my last post, I argued that when biblical writers such as Matthew speak of a prophecy being “fulfilled,” they don’t mean that a foreseen future  has come to pass. Rather, they mean that sayings or events from an earlier point in the biblical story have taken on a fuller and deeper meaning in light of later redemptive-historical developments.

We may appeal to American history for an illustration of this sense of “fulfillment.” When Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence in 1776 that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” he said this to challenge the premise that kings rule by divine right and that their subjects therefore ow them the kind of unquestioning loyalty they would offer to God. (That is, he said this to justify a revolutionary independence movement.)

But when Abraham Lincoln observed in his Gettysburg Address of 1863 that our nation was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” he meant instead that slavery was incompatible with the fundamental premises of American society.

And when Martin Luther King said, in his “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963, appropriately delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, that he longed for the day when our nation would “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal,’” he explained that in such a nation, people would “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” This is how the “true” or “fulfilled” (fullest and deepest) meaning of Jefferson’s words would be realized, according to King.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., greets the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Aug. 28, 1963.

By this same analogy, in Matt. 1:23 the gospel writer is announcing that Isaiah’s words have taken on a fuller and deeper meaning. The Greek translation of Isaiah’s original words has helped this happen: Isaiah uses the term “maiden.” (The original Hebrew term refers to a young woman, married or unmarried, who has not yet had a child; in Isaiah’s original context, it probably indicates Ahaz’s queen, who became the mother of Hezekiah.) The Greek reads, more intensively, “virgin.” Moreover, “Emmanuel” is no longer the boy’s name, but rather an explanation of his identity — “God with us.” These two intensified aspects of meaning are brought out when the original statement is heard in the light of later developments as the plan of God unfolds.

The case is similar with “out of Egypt have I called my son.” “Son” is no longer a metaphorical description of the nation of Israel, but another accurate disclosure of Jesus’ identity.

As for “he shall be called a Nazarene,” the best explanation seems to be that this was a geographic term of derision (as in John 1:46, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”), much like “Okie” during the Dust Bowl years. This term “Okie” was applied to people from Oklahoma and nearby areas similarly affected by prolonged drought who migrated West in search of work and food. It ceased to mean “someone from Oklahoma” and came to mean something closer to “gypsy.” Matthew, in his appeal to the prophets, is summarizing their many statements that the servant of God would be “despised and rejected.” (The quotation here is indirect, not direct like the preceding ones, and thus does not belong within quotation marks, although some modern Bibles present it that way.) Other announcements of prophetic “fulfillment” may be understood similarly.

None of this should be taken to mean, however, that those who knew God could not have spoken in prescient ways about the deliverance He would send. They were able to do this, and did so, precisely because they knew the ways of God. Moreover, we must not rule out the existence of an actual “gift of prophecy,” given to humans, through which God discloses details of what He will work to bring about in the future, so that those in the present may take moral warning.

One clear example of prophecy-as-foreseeing is the prediction a prophet made to Jereboam, recorded in 1 Kings 13:2, that a king named Josiah would one day defile the altar he had built to rival the one in Jerusalem. This prediction was fulfilled, not in the Matthean sense, but quite literally, three hundred years later, as described in 2 Kings 23:15-18. Another example is Jesus’ prediction that Peter would deny him three times before the cock crowed the following morning (Luke 22:34 and 54-62, with parallels in Matthew and Mark). Jesus’ estimate of Peter’s impetuous character could certainly have led him to predict that despite his bravado, Peter would deny him. But how would Jesus have known, without divinely-granted insight, how many times, and by when? So there are indeed examples in the Bible of prophetic fulfillment in the sense of “a future foreseen come to pass.”

Nevertheless, these examples do not provide proof of the supernatural inspiration of the writer who recorded them. They take place, after all, within a single continuous narrative that has been recorded after the fact. So they are not offered to demonstrate prophetic insight on the part of the writer. These predictions and fulfillments are rather recounted for other reasons. The far-off but inevitable doom of Jereboam’s altar is proclaimed from its very foundation as a warning against idolatry. And Jesus’ prediction about Peter shows that even as he went to his death, he was full of divine power and knowledge, and that it was therefore willingly that he surrendered himself for our sakes. The account is meant to fill us with gratitude and admiration for Jesus, in other words—not for Luke!

As we seek to understand the Bible’s concept of “fulfillment,” we must also recognize the significance of “intertextuality,” that is, of the new meanings texts take on when they are read in the presence of other texts. For the Christian who believes that the Bible is the inspired word of God, one implication is that it is God Himself who has juxtaposed the texts in question. Divine intention can therefore be seen in connections that would have been impossible for the original authors to have made, since they wrote far apart from one another in both time and place.

The word spoken to the serpent in Genesis 3:15, for example, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel,” may have meant in its original context only that animals formerly subject to humans would now turn wild and dangerous. But within the pages of the biblical collection, there is now an intertextuality by which these words can be understood validly as a Messianic prophecy, even though the New Testament itself does not make this connection expliclity. This prophecy was fulfilled by the victory of Jesus over the devil at the cross.

But if such “fulfillments” are instead to serve as our guarantee of the divine inspiration of the Scriptures, all of them, without exception, must be examples of uncannily accurate prediction. It simply does not suffice for Isaiah to look 700 years into the future, see a boy miraculously born to a “maiden” or “virgin,” but then get his name wrong. We have a right to expect better than this from God, if we are looking for supernatural proofs.

And if what we think should be happening really isn’t, then we must re-examine our expectations themselves. Has God really promised us that his word can be recognized as his word even without faith? Did not Jesus say that it is “an evil and adulterous generation that seeks a sign” (Matthew 12:39)? If no such signs were granted in the case of the living Word, we should not expect them in the case of the written word, either.

35 The basis of our confidence in the Bible’s moral authority (Part 1)

God gives rain upon the earth and sends waters upon the fields.”

God made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.”

“All Scripture is inspired by God.”

These three statements in the Bible all have something very significant in common. They all attribute to a supernatural cause, the action of God, results that appear, the more closely one studies them, more and more to have come about through natural processes. That is, these results look just like other results of their respective processes which are not said to have come about through the action of God. This does not mean that God is not the actor in these three cases; it simply means that God has not chosen to use a radically different process to bring about what is nevertheless a divine product.

We have already considered, in an earlier post, that rainfall in the land of Palestine (the rainfall that is arguably in view in statements such as the one quoted above) is produced by the same process as the rain that falls on other parts of the world. We have also seen in earlier posts that the biological diversity that results from a process even the strictest creationists would consider “natural” rather than “supernatural” (“variation within ‘Genesis kinds’”) is quantitatively and qualitatively equal to, if not greater than, the diversity that results from what is understood to be divine activity (“special creation”).

In this post and the three that follow, we will also establish that the Bible, for its part, bears all the marks of having been produced through the same process as human writings that are not considered divinely inspired. Once we have seen this and accepted it, we shall be free to ground our confidence in the Bible’s moral authority, which will still be entirely justified, on something other than the inevitably disappointing premise that it bears magical signs pointing to its divine origin.

My co-author has already discussed one of these sought-after signs. He has related how he was taught that God supernaturally gave the biblical authors natural-scientific insights far transcending the observations it was possible for them to make within their limitations of time, place and culture. He faced deep disillusionment when he discovered that the biblical authors’ statements about the origins of the natural world—when read literally, non-contextually, and cumulatively, in keeping with the approach characteristic of those who appealed to them as a sign—could not in any way be considered “accurate” by scientific standards. When he came to appreciate the beauty and truth of these statements within the observational, phenomenological perspective from which they had actually been made, this offered some reassurance about the statements themselves, but a substitute was still lacking for the role they had once been asked to play.

Before proceeding further with our discussion, it is instructive to recognize that even if the authors of the Bible had been given a supernatural awareness of true cosmology, and even if they had reflected this awareness in their writings, this would still not have provided an attestation of the Bible’s inspiration for just about any of its readers over the centuries. This is because, until the Copernican Revolution, the readers of the Bible held the same observational cosmology it actually presents. They would therefore have dismissed the Bible as inaccurate if it had instead painted a picture of a spinning earth and a stationary sun.

Nicolaus Copernicus’ model of the earth, moon, sun, and known planets from his 1543 work On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. A stationary sun and a moving earth were revolutionary concepts that explained the observed motions of heavenly bodies much more accurately and elegantly.

Indeed, there is actually no cosmology that could have been put in the Bible that would have provided an attestation of its inspiration to any but a tiny fraction of its eventual readers. A Copernican cosmology would have been considered outdated in Kepler’s day; Kepler’s cosmology would not have provided an attestation in the present day; and it is virtually certain that even if the Bible presented a cosmology identical to the one we now believe to be accurate, a few hundred years from now this, too, would raise the same question we are addressing.

The human understanding of cosmology has continued to grow and change over the centuries to such an extent that there is no period whose cosmology is correct by the standards of other periods. An observational cosmology, however, when it is recognized as such, travels to all periods, and was thus the best choice for the Bible itself. Even if God had somehow revealed the true cosmology to all humans right from the start, even this would not have permitted cosmology to provide an attestation of the Bible’s inspiration, because in such circumstances its cosmological insights, however true, would be nothing special.

Another “sign” that is often pointed to as proof of the Bible’s divine inspiration and consequent moral authority is the accurate fulfillment of the prophecies it contains. How could the biblical writers have known the future, the argument goes, if they had not been inspired by God? But once again, if we look closely and carefully at what the Bible means when it speaks of its own prophecies being “fulfilled,” we discover that there is no magical testimony to the Bible’s divine authorship in this case, either.

We do not have to look very far to make this discovery, in fact. The very first book of the New Testament, in its very first claim that a prophecy was fulfilled, rules out the understanding of “fulfillment”—a foreseen future coming to pass—to which appeal is typically made to demonstrate the Bible’s inspiration.

Matthew writes that when Mary had borne a son, and Joseph had called his name “Jesus,” the prophetic word was fulfilled that said, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel” (Matt. 1:22-25). We would expect that if Isaiah 7:14, the passage referred to here, really were a future foreseen and described, Mary would have actually named her son “Emmanuel,” not “Jesus.” So something different is happening here.

The early chapters of Matthew present several other problems along this same line. In Matt. 2:23, for example, it is said that Jesus dwelt in Nazareth to fulfill what was spoken by the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene. Yet nowhere in the prophetic corpus, nor indeed anywhere in all of the Hebrew scriptures, is such a prediction recorded.

And when Jesus’ flight into Egypt and return to Israel after Herod’s death is said to fulfill Hosea’s words, “Out of Egypt have I called my son” (Matt. 2:13-15), the reader is puzzled indeed, because Hosea is writing history, not predicting the future, when he makes this statement. He is describing the Exodus (Hos. 11:1).

The necessary conclusion is that when Matthew speaks of “fulfillment,” he does not mean that a foreseen future has come to pass. Instead, he means that words spoken at an earlier time in redemptive history have taken on a fuller and deeper meaning in light of later, more developed redemptive-historical circumstances. This, to me, is actually a much more powerful concept: not that humans were given an advance glimpse of what was going to happen in the future, but that the God who superintends and overrules human affairs has demonstrated His unchanging character consistently through time and has revealed more and more of his purposes while reaffirming the earlier-revealed ones.

A Coptic-style icon of the Flight into Egypt by the Bulgarian artist Yordanka Karalamova. Matthew says that this event “fulfilled” Hosea’s prophesy, “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” But Hosea made that as a historical statement describing the Exodus several hundred years before.