One Bible, one Lord … many paradoxes

Canopy of biblical truth2

Consider the diagram above: “The Canopy of Biblical Truth.”

The idea of a canopy may be seen in this Scripture: “The Lord is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens!” (Ps 113:4). Like a canopy, God is above all nations, peoples and cultures. His righteousness is above all nations. Although his Word is rooted in specific histories and cultures, it is likewise supra-cultural. The diagram contains a sample list of contrasts reflected in Scripture. The list consists of ideas, truths, cultural values, or areas of emphasis. The list of thirteen ‘dualities’—or paradoxes (seeming contradictions)—is by no means comprehensive; it is truly a mere sampling.

Let’s explore in a little more detail these thirteen contrasts or ‘dualities.’

1. Narrative / oral—and propositional / written: God’s Word contains narrative truth in the form of histories, stories, and parables. Sometimes God’s Word and mission are referred to as God’s Story. Jesus told many stories. Moreover, the people in the Bible were primarily oral peoples whose access to books and writing instruments were extremely limited. The stories of Scripture can be read aloud and memorized in order to fit the cultures of oral peoples. In contrast, the Bible also contains propositional truth. It is the Book of books—the written Word of God. Scripture is rich with propositional truth—in the form of declarations, proverbs, principles, laws, prophetic revelations of the future, or letters explaining theological truth.

2. Honor / shame—and innocence / guilt: God’s Word is loaded with material about the honor or shame of humanity as well as the guilt or innocence of humanity. Scripture reveals that the gospel of Christ is the remedy for sin/guilt (Lev 5:19, Rom 3:23–25, 1 Cor 15:1–3). The gospel is also revealed as the remedy for sin/shame (Luke 15:11–32, Eph 1:3–11, Heb 12:2).

3. Kingdom / regal—and democratic / legal: God’s Word has enormous material about kings and kingdoms beginning in the Old Testament and continuing into the New; Jesus Christ is the Son of David (Mat 1:1)—the King of Kings whose regal kingdom is forever (1 Tim 6:15). In contrast, Scripture is sometimes cited as the foundation for democracy, limitations on the absolute power of kings, human rights, and freedom. Moreover, the laws of God—the legal aspects of God’s truth—are widely present in both Old and New Testaments, although generally inside of a relational or covenantal framework.

4. Familial / ancestral—and individual / present-future: God’s Word has a huge amount of material about his working through family and offspring on behalf of other families (Genesis 12:1). There is also much about remembering the past and having regard for one’s ancestors (Mat 1:1–17). This may be contrasted with all the material in which God works through individuals, and where the orientation is the present or future. Scripture presents the gospel of salvation as being offered both to families and individuals (Acts 16:30–31).

5. Obedience / concrete—and knowledge / abstract: God’s Word emphasizes the necessity of obedience to God and concrete action; knowledge apart from obedience results in pride. At the same time, God’s people are commanded to “love the Lord your God…with all your mind” (Mark 12:30) and are warned that they will be destroyed for lack of knowledge (Isa 5:13, Hos 4:6).

6. Mystery / both-and—and logical / either-or: God’s Word teaches the mystery of the Trinity; God is both One God, and a community of Three Persons. The paradox of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility (both are biblical truths) is also a both-and mystery. However, God’s Word also teaches in abundance many truths which are logical and either-or. “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3). Either repent and be saved—or—do not repent and perish.

7. Poverty / vulnerability—and wealth / stability: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20, cf. Mat 5:3). God’s Word speaks favorably to his people in poverty and in vulnerable conditions. In contrast, God’s Word contains a ‘development ethic’ which produces wealth for individuals and nations—along with social stability.[1] The book of Proverbs contains many principles for gaining wealth.

8. Glory to God—and glory for humanity: God’s Word teaches that the glory of God is the crux of all reality (Rom 11:36). At the same time, God’s Word teaches that human beings are made in the image of a good and glorious God (Gen 1:27), and God shares his glory with those who believe and follow Jesus Christ (John 17:22).

9. Justice for the oppressed / justice for the oppressor—and acceptance of injustice: God’s Word teaches the good news that God will bring liberty to the oppressed (Luke 4:18) and that God will harshly judge the oppressor (Isa 14:3–6, Mat 23:1–36, Luke 6:24–28, Rev. 18:19–24). However, God also calls his people to accept and endure injustice and persecution (Mat 5:10–12, 1 Pet 3:9), following the example of Jesus (1 Pet 2:23).

10. Israel relativized—and Israel prioritized: God’s Word teaches that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). The laws and traditions of God’s people Israel are to be relativized under the Lordship of Christ. At the same time, we see in Paul’s letter to the Romans that the gospel is “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (Rom 1:16). We see in Paul’s letter to the church at Rome that God’s people Israel are, in a sense, prioritized (Rom 4:16–18, 9:1–5) because the promise of the all-nations blessing in Christ came through God’s people Israel, whose father is Abraham.

11. Everyday / local—and cosmic / universal: God’s Word teaches that obedience to God is for the benefit of people right now in the immediate everyday and local situation. The second half of the Ten Commandments deals with society and the realm of family and human relationships (Ex 20:12–17). The kingdom of God is for today, right here, right now (Mat 6:10). But God’s Word also teaches that he is reconciling together all things in Christ; this is the cosmic and universal level (Eph 1:10, Col 1:19–20).

12. Romantic / desire—and militant / duty: The Bible presents God as a husband or the people of God as his bride in the Old Testament (Ez 16:1–8; Is 54:5; 62:4–5; Hos 1:2–3) and also in the New Testament (Eph 5:25, 31–32; Rev 19:6–9). This shows that the nature of the relationship between God and his people is characterized by deep affection and desire. There is, indeed, a kind of romance between Christ and his bride. At the same time, God’s Word reveals that his people are under the command of an all-powerful King whose mission is to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8). God’s people are called in militant duty to engage with their Lord through prayer in a battle “against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil” (Eph 6:12).

13. Alien to the culture / at home in the culture: The church is an alien community, standing against the idolatries of any political or social status quo (Rev 13:1–18) which is a rival to Almighty God.[1] At the same time, the New Testament also provides support, both for working within the church’s socio-political environment (Rom 13:1–7, 1 Pet 2:13–17)—and for identifying foreign cultural signposts as entry points for the gospel (Acts 17:22–34, cf 1 Cor 9:19–23).

What’s the point? Variety!

The point in reflecting on this sampling of contrasts is that God’s Word covers a very wide spectrum of human ideas, social situations and cultural styles. Richard Bauckham writes,

“The Bible does, in some sense, tell an overall story that encompasses all its other contents, but this story is not a sort of straitjacket that reduces all else to a narrowly defined uniformity. It is a story that is hospitable to considerable diversity and to tensions, challenges and even seeming contradictions of its own claims.” –Richard Bauckham[3]

This contributes to our awareness that although the Bible was written in the specific cultural milieu of the ancient Middle East and Roman Empire—and thus reflects the pivotal cultural values of the time—the Bible as God’s Word nevertheless stands above all cultures and reveals God’s righteousness for all peoples.

This also reinforces to us that whatever our own expression of Christianity, the way we communicate the gospel of Christ is by necessity embodied in our own set of values and our own cultural style.

I’ll end this post with a quote from N.T. Wright:

“The Christian faith is kaleidoscopic, and most of us are color-blind. It is multidimensional, and most of us manage to hold at most two dimensions in our heads at any one time. It is symphonic, and we can just about whistle one of the tunes.” –N.T. Wright [4]


Excerpted from the forthcoming book, THE GLOBAL GOSPEL: Achieving Missional Impact in Our Multicultural World. If you would like read or review the pre-published manuscript write to Werner Mischke at werner@mission1.org.


FOOTNOTES
1. For more about the “development ethic” contained in the Bible see Darrow Miller, Discipling Nations: The Power of Truth to Transform Cultures (Seattle, YWAM Publishing, 1998).
2. Dean Fleming does an excellent job exploring the paradox of the church being both for and against the socio-cultural environment in which it exists. He writes, “Perhaps most striking of all is the tension between Revelation and other New Testament writings in their respective attitudes toward the Roman ‘powers-that-be.’ Revelation’s call for Christians to ‘come out’ of oppressive Babylon seems to be a far cry, say, from Peter’s advice to ‘accept the authority of every human institution’ and to ‘honor the emperor’ (1 Pet 2:13, 17). And John’s parody of Roman power as a diabolical beast (Rev 13) cuts a bold contrast with Paul’s teaching that Roman authorities are ‘instituted by God’ (Rom 13:1) and function as ‘God’s servants’ for the church’s good (Rom 13:4, 6).” See Flemming, Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Mission, 288–289. Kindle Edition.
3. Richard Bauckham, Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 93–94.
4. N.T. Wright’s quote is from the foreword to Scot McKnight’s book, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 11.


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