Coming to Our Senses: Beyond the Literal Sense of Scripture

Jesus famously said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and all these things will be added to you as well.”

Elsewhere, he restated this principle using a different image and adding a negative corollary: “Take heed what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to him who has will more be given; and from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Mark 4:24-25).

Moderns love to argue about the fairness of these observations, as though Jesus is somehow advocating abolition of the capital gains tax. What strikes me is how much this is like arguing about the fairness of the law of gravity. Jesus is not talking about what we might wish were so. He is describing what is. And the hard facts on the ground are these: a person or a culture that aims for God gets the earthly stuff taken care of as a side benefit. The person or culture that aims for earthly goods not only doesn’t get the things of heaven, they don’t even the earthly goods.

Examples of this abound. A Christian culture set out to celebrate holy days for God and found that it had accidentally created a slew of holidays for human beings. A Christian culture insisted that man was made in the image of God and would up abolishing slavery among men (and, mark you, Christian culture is the only culture that has ever abolished this immemorial human institution). A Christian culture aimed to obey Christ’s command to care for the wretched of the earth and accidentally invented the hospital. A Christian culture set out to obey the command to love the Lord your God with all your mind and accidentally invented the university and the scientific revolution.

Conversely, when we deny that the human person is a creature made in the image of God and define him strictly as a product of nature, you don’t get human dignity freed from the shackles of religious dogma as the New Atheists keep hoping. Instead, you get constant attempts to reduce the human person to his component parts. He becomes “nothing but” a collection of complexes or chemicals. Mind becomes “nothing but” a very complex set of neuron firings. Love is thrown into the acid bath and dissolved into various components consisting of sex response to pheromones and visual stimuli. Duty is reduced to various theorized component parts having to do with herd instincts and Darwinian species protection genes. Nothing is itself and nothing is a mystery. The arts become “nothing but” the various expressions of the will to power between races, classes, and genders. If a thing appears to partake of personhood and mystery, that’s because that thing is actually a sort of musical chord formed of subrational “notes” that combine to create the illusion that things like persons and meaning exist. In the post-Christian era that seeks only earthly goods, what you thought was a human being made in the image and likeness of God turns out to be an unusually complicated piece of meat living out the genetic programming bequeathed to it by a long serious of accidental collisions of molecules.

This impulse to dissolve mystery in the acid bath of simplicity can also be seen in the post-Christian era’s approach to Scripture. The pioneers of post-Christian thought set out some two centuries ago to pull Scripture down out of the clouds of heaven and reduce it to a strictly human book. What they delivered was not a human book, but a less than human book. For in attempting to figure out, not what Scripture said, but what the guessed-at sources and redactors and re-redactors were “really” saying before the Bible actually assumed its present form, they turned it into an unreadable patchwork that no normal person would bother with. What lay behind this mentality is something akin to the sort of mind that doesn’t actually like to watch The Lord of the Rings but instead insists on watching the 18 hours of “Making of” videos on the extended edition. Such a mind understands everything about the film except the experience of watching the film as it was intended to be watched by the people who made it. Such people need to be reminded of Gandalf’s remark, “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

Add to that, of course, the fact that, with the extended edition of The Lord of the Rings, you actually have the makers of the film telling you, in their own words, how they did it, while with the source-critical approach to Scripture, you have multiple, conflicting, and often completely baseless guesses about which passages come from what sources and were edited by who for what purpose. That’s because we don’t have any of the original writers or storytellers who supposedly stand at the back of the Yahwist, Elohist, Priestly, Deuteronomic, Deutero-Isaian, Q, proto-Mark, Pauline, pseudo-Pauline, Johannine, pseudo-Johannine, Hebrew Matthew, Lucan, Petrine or pseudo-Petrine documents. We just have the Bible—and a lot of scholars with minds buzzing in a vacuum.

That is not to say that the source-critical approach is worthless. It’s not. It’s just grotesquely over-rated as a way of getting at what Scripture actually says and means.

So, in a small attempt to restore some sane balance, we will use this space over the next three weeks to look at Scripture as the first Christians did, beginning next with the allegorical sense of Scripture.

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