I was at the evening service in my home church last night and, I must confess, didn’t particularly engage with the theme of the sermon. It struck me as bordering on eisegesis rather than exegesis. To be fair, what it was doing was asking questions of the text that weren’t (I would have said) inherent in the text – the questions didn’t arise from the text; they were being imposed upon it (in my opinion). But, as I said, it did kick off a train of thought that I’m still wondering about.
The text in question was Exodus 27 (the construction details of the tabernacle and associated bits and pieces). It’s the habit of my minister to work through an entire book, leaving nothing out, hence this particular text. The Questions that were asked of the text were “Who can approach God?” and “”How can we approach God?” (the latter with two subsections – ‘by sacrifice’ and ‘through consecration’). Being a sound evangelical sermon, it was, of course, firmly linked to Jesus and the cross. But I have to confess, I struggle to make the link in a meaningful way. Or more to the point, I struggle with a reading of scripture that leans too heavily on the semiological, typological or prototype approach. And I also take issue with the ‘conclusion’ that only those who acknowledge Jesus’ sacrifice and ‘consecrate’ themselves are able to approach God in worship.
Anyway, to the point.
The train of thought that was sparked off was the idea of ‘progress’. It seems to me that what scripture witnesses to is the developing relationship humanity has with God. But it also strikes me as being more than that. When the first ‘sacrifices’ were made to God by Cain and Abel, why didn’t God simply turn round and say, “Well, thanks, but you’ve kind of got the wrong end of the stick about sacrifices.” It would have saved a whole lot of arguing over process and procedure. It would have saved an awful lot of legal wordplay over rules and regulations (and maybe no need for lawyers, so the world’s a better place all round – joke, honest). It would have saved some breath for God to not have to say that actually, He wasn’t overly enthusiastic about burnt offerings.
But, of course, that didn’t happen and I believe that it didn’t for a reason – progress. Being the sort of creatures we are, we have to be led through a process until we get to the realisation of what it’s really all about. (Have you ever tried to get a committee to agree on what you’d like done? You need to make them think it’s their idea or it’ll never happen.) And so it strikes me that in scripture, and especially the Old Testament, what we have is a witness to the ongoing maturing (and I use the word advisedly) of faith until it gets to the point where Jesus, His ministry, His death on a cross, and His resurrection are actually meaningful. Any earlier and you’re in the middle of the sacrificial cycle with prophecy for/against the nations and prophecy for/against Israel with insufficient stability for the sacrificial system and the place of Israel to be really questioned. Any later and you run the risk of there being no Israel left, or at least a diminished number which would have lessened the significance of a Jew dying on a cross and not enough people around to take notice of what it meant, in terms of past prophecy and future hope.
So, where am I going with this?
That’s what I’m still working through I think. It does mean that we cannot erase the Old Testament as it stands as witness to that progress (or lack thereof) – a warning from history, if you like. But it also does more than that. It gives us our trajectory for future faith. If we only started with Jesus then there are any number of tangents that could be headed on. Not all would be fruitful, but interestingly, I don’t believe all would be dead-ends. Furthermore, it means that we can’t stop with the New Testament. We can’t hanker back to the church of the NT; we can’t ‘get back to basics’. We have to make sense of where we are and make sure that we haven’t entirely disconnected with the past. Progress isn’t about starting all over again every time. It may mean having to throw away a lot of baggage from time to time, but there can never be a clean break. Nor does there need to be.
But it does mean, I think, that we can’t superimpose the present on the past and shout, “Look, that was there all along – we (they) just didn’t see it.” It all has to be seen in the context of progress. Of course, that does also raise some fascinating theological questions, especially around pre- and post-cross salvation. It also means that we have to be rooted in scripture, but always interpreting and reinterpreting it in the light of our culture and context. In what better sense is it God’s ‘living word’ (lower-case ‘w’ deliberate)? To ‘disconnect’ from scripture and rely upon a personal sense of ‘spirituality’ is not Christian. It also raises issues of individuality over and against community (and now I’ve finally managed to drag these thoughts towards my Masters project) and the fact that we must surely draw upon the progress made by the whole faith community. Otherwise, are we not, as a society, simply standing still however much we may appear to progress as individuals?
Anyway, that’s been a bit of a long ramble for no apparent conclusion or purpose other than to be a bit of a brain dump on my part.