Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Second Peter, again

In my last post, I cited a portion of II Peter 3, which showed the writer's cosmology in terms of a future and total annihilation of the earth. I stated that there are 2 ways of reading this text: 1. The anticipated annihilation is not total or literal, but points to a radical destruction of the current world order, with the purpose of 'disclosing' its sinfulness in order to cleanse it. 2. The anticipated annihilation is literal and total; but if this is the view then II Peter's cosmology is what Barbara Rossing called 'an anomaly,' an exception from other ways of seeing the world within the Scriptures.

Let's explore this second option a bit more, shall we? I'll use two questions as a way of looking more closely at it, one of which we'll explore in this post, the next we'll explore in the next post. Here are the questions: What is at stake if we call II Peter's cosmology an anomaly? What are some other ways of viewing the world found within the Scriptures?

What is at stake if we call II Peter's cosmology an anomaly?
It means, first of all, that we do not embrace what I've called in earlier posts 'homotextuality.' I use that phrase, admittedly a bit tongue-in-cheek, to describe the method of biblical interpretation that assumes that all texts say essentially the same thing. If we say that II Peter's cosmology is different from other cosmologies in the Scriptures (even if we want to argue that there is only one other cosmology or that there is a single dominant cosmology in the Scriptures), then we are saying that all texts are not essentially the same. It would mean that there are various (even if only 2) and diverse theologies at work throughout the Scriptures.

Personally, I believe that there are various theologies at work throughout the Scriptures. But, having grown up in a church that teaches biblical fundamentalism, I had to reckon with what is gained and what is lost when embracing this view of the Scriptures.

For many people, there is comfort and clarity in assuming that the theology throughout the Scriptures is all the same. It means that there is a single, correct message throughout the Scriptures and that single message offers single answers to the all-important questions that theology addresses regarding the truth about God, the world, and humanity. And faithfulness, within this view of the Scriptures, means that one simply believes in that singular theology. Richard Bernstein refers to this penchant for one, single, correct answer as "Cartesian anxiety," arguing that it is a product of the Modern period that began with Rene Descartes' need to find one, indubitable truth on which to base all of philosophy/theology. For Descartes, unless one could identify this one indubitable truth, nothing else could be reliable. I think Bernstein is correct and that much of our approach to the Scriptures in the 20th and 21st centuries has been built on this anxious assumption of 'modernity.' That is particularly true of the kind of biblical assumptions that lie behind Left Behind Theology.

Let me illustrate this way of viewing the Scriptures with a song that I was taught to sing in Vacation Bible School, at Church Camp, and in Junior Church on Sunday mornings.
God said it, I believe it, that settles it for me! (repeat).
Though some may doubt that his word is true,
I'm going to believe it. Brother how about you?
God said it, I believe it, that settles it for me."
When we sang that song we took away all of the human agency of the Scriptures and declared that all Scripture was God speaking directly, not mediated by human thoughts and diverse views. And when we sang that song we used the word 'it' to describe the message of the Bible. 'It' is a singular pronoun, so we were denying that there might be any diversity throughout the Scriptures. What God says is one thing, that one thing is identifiable, any other thought is casting doubt on the 'truth' of God's word, and faithfulness is believing this one thing that God says and that we've identified.

One of the implications here is that if anyone happened to disagree with us concerning about 'it'- well, then they were either stupid or evil. So, my best friend was a Southern Baptist whose church believed in "once saved always saved." We thought that was crazy- of course you can fall from grace, backslide, etc. and of course you can repent and get saved all over again. Our options for my best friend's church were: Either they just don't get it (i.e. stupid); or they get it but they maintain their 'once saved always saved' doctrine in order to ease their conscience whenever they are out sinning (i.e. evil).

Okay, this is a very narrow view of God, truth, the world, faithfulness, and others. But, I think it is a fair evaluation of the kind of views that come from beginning with the idea that all the Scriptures say essentially the same thing.

If we accept II Peter as an 'anomaly' within the Scriptures- that is, if we accept openly that the Scriptures have more than one cosmology at work- then we have to step away from the homotextual assumptions that lie behind much of Left Behind Theology. We cannot string together Genesis, Daniel, Ezekiel, bits and pieces of Isaiah, the Gospels, Paul's letters, I and II Peter, and Revelation as one seamless thread of a single end-time scenario. Instead, we honor the differences that lie between them; just as we can honor the differences that lay between my best friend's Southern Baptist tradition and my own Pentecostal Holiness tradition.

I can see why this approach to the Scriptures would be intimidating, because it seems to chip away at the 'certainty' of a single, correct answer to life's greatest questions. But, it can also offer a breath of fresh air, an honesty about what one encounters in the Scriptures, because we no longer have to make them all say essentially the same thing.

One piece of Presbyterian tradition that I've come to appreciate enormously is how the people who met, debated, and composed the Westminster Confession described the Scriptures as 'containing all that is necessary for salvation.' And, with all due respect to Rene Descartes, that's good enough for me.

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