From biblical inspiration to inspired interpretation
Many Evangelicals love to quote Paul to Timothy that the Bible is God-breathed (i.e. inspired). If we believe that prophecy did not cease with the Early Church and continues (although the Age of the Prophets had passed), then we need to acknowledge that, neither did God stop breathing. The Bible is not alone in being God-breathed. The Talmud is a God-inspired commentary on the Torah. This is good reason therefore to look at it. The Mishnah, the Talmud and the Zohar are all God-breathed and continuous with the thought world of the Bible in the way that the Patristics really is not. For example it marks a break from the spirituality of hearing (Jewish) to a spirituality of seeing (theoria, beatific vision) which is Greek and pagan.
The Jewish sages of the first centuries after Christ have much to say about the stories of Genesis and Exodus and the laws of Leviticus and Numbers. What they say is worth reading because we experience an intellectual interpretative shift equivalent to the shift from primacy of the eye to the primacy of the ear as the main conduit for the God who comes to mind. A good place for Christians to start, if the Talmud or Zohar are too esoteric to start with (which I expect would be the case), are the Tales of the Hasidim in two volumes by Martin Buber, published in Jerusalem in 1946. This is oral living Jewish biblical tradition written down first by him. The communities in which these stories lived were all destroyed, every single one, by Nazis and their collaborators.
The intellectual interpretative shift is important for faith and for theology as a reflection upon it. We do not find in the Talmud, for example, a doctrine of Original Sin; or the notion that “an eye for an eye” refers to revenge, permitting a strong contrast between Jewish legalism and Christian forgiveness. Can Christianity do without the doctrine of Original Sin? The answer is that it already does, which I shall explain.
The Protestant paradigm
My readers may have seen that diagram in Protestant Bibles which has a box with Sin written in it on one side and another box with God written in it on the other side and a big gap that cannot be bridged between, to show that no way can any of humankind in the sin box reach God in his box. So what happens? This is the Christian story, that God sends his only begotten Son to earth to save mankind by his death and form a bridge to God. The trouble with this myth for moderns is that it relies on naïve representationalism. We have to picture God as some kind of being in some place (outside time and space and causality!) where he has a Son, but without a woman, surrounded by Nothing. The Church Fathers made a lot of the word “begotten” to show how “birth” in this instance meant another non-human way of giving birth to a Son that God has, but the word remained a theologism. For moderns the “rational” justification only makes the story more implausible. Any high-schooler can see that the story relies on metaphor. Father and Son are metaphors. Creator is a metaphor. That is not to say: just a metaphor, as people often aver, because a metaphor is of something. A metaphor is not empty, it is meaningful by definition, and in this case especially so. But the boxes and gap diagram cannot be taken literally, nor can God sending his Son. They require interpretation.
We may interpret the story therefore to mean that we cannot find God, but God finds us. This is the truth we hear in the story. This truth is ratified in Christian experience. The story also refers to the personal and relational sense of God. This is also what we hear. The God who finds us is precisely related to the notion of revelation and to our need for a revelation and the alienation involved in being without any sense of revelation, as the way of God finding us. By interpretation the naïve representational story of Original Sin and salvation becomes meaningful for adult faith. But the interpretations I have just given dispense with a confusion of conceptualization and representational imaging.
The point here is not that Christianity must go without the doctrine of Original Sin, but that the diagram with the boxes and the big gaping gap between them does not amount to Christianity. There are other interpretations than this. But belief-led Christianity that uses this picture as a picture of the way it reads the Bible has to evangelize by making people feel condemned and sinful, and is forced to remind the faithful of the joys of salvation by first reminding them how sinful they are and how far from God. Another interpretation, rather than the gap and boxes, is the image and likeness of God. This is often the tacit interpretation of those accused by boxes-and-gap Christians of not reading the Bible properly (i.e. according to the boxes-and-gap).
The Pentecostal paradigm
Pentecostal messages tend to interpret the Bible in terms of the image and likeness of God and those who say Pentecostals do not read the Bible properly tend to read the Bible in terms of one or another version of the boxes-and-gap theology.
Where interpretation of our human predicament is given in terms of being made in the image and likeness of God, freedom and creativity are conferred on us from the outset; in God’s image we were “made” for freedom and creativity. Not everyone however feels free or creative, so they come to church. There they may learn who they are and who God is. This interpretation therefore is “correct” when it tries to find ways the listener may be set free and feel their creative power. This may start with such things as helping them from the Biblical text to feel more self-confident, and then to gain in self-worth. Such messages then need an element that overlaps with self-help teaching often, and in this respect all self-help teaching has a Christian root, even if it has not retained it and become more New Age. However, the fact is that you cannot love others if you do not love yourself. Learning to love yourself (as Whitney Houston sang) is a job in itself for some people. But as people become free and creative they move from being made in the “image” of God, to becoming in the “likeness” of God. This becoming is a life-long process and is really what the word conversion envisages, although conversion may mean, not a continuity, but a series of breaks or discontinuities with the past. Image and likeness interpretation tends to be encouraging and positive because we have an indelible link to God to start with and only need to gain in “likeness” (intimacy). So it is all about relationship and the theology of condemnation goes by the board as a foundation of relationship with God and for a theology of salvation. A theology of salvation founded on condemnation involves acceptance of this theological condemnation and accompanying self-condemnation as an entry criteria into the church community. This inverts the Good News into the “good news” that we are sinners, which we may not have been aware of before but are now redefined as, or that (in other wording) we fall short of the glory of God (no surprise to anyone who is not a megalomaniac). However, right-way-up the Good News is that we are co-opted (not just the People of Israel, all people) into God’s work of creation, which involves us in helping to finish what God started: on earth as it is in heaven. In our time churches based on the boxes and gap (theology of condemnation), or based on the carrot and stick (theology of heaven and hell) are shrinking.
Historical antecedents and changing teaching
Ironically teaching about being made in the image and likeness of God is historically older than the boxes and gap teaching, which developed later and only really came to full bloom in the 16th and 17th century with the reforms of Lutheranism. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century discusses sin, but emphasises virtue and is positive about human capabilities (especially the light of reason) and human co-creativity with God. To some extent Original Sin is in Augustine, but it is more historically true to say it was “rediscovered” there by those around the time of the Black Death in Europe and after who were seeking it and took it out of Augustine’s context and used in it his name to add weight to their theology of human depravity, and from here it entered deep into Catholic and Protestant teaching. Image and Likeness teaching on the other hand is ancient and traces back through patristic times to pre-Christian Judaism.
The teaching on Original Sin can be used as an interpretative matrix through which to understand the Bible and define “the Gospel”. But another interpretation of Original Sin is that it refers to the fact that damaged people damage people. Therefore, not the boxes and gap, but genealogical interpretation in time. Sin is not in this interpretation a metaphysical infection or an inherited disease of the will, it is the fact of originary damage in people’s lives and what it causes.
Forgiveness breaks the generational cycle of damage. So forgiveness is redemptive in the sense of lifting us out of the cycle, and forgiveness heals the forgiver. The point about forgiveness is that we cannot forgive damage by ourselves, but the Good News in this interpretation is that we are not alone, we let God do the forgiving on our behalf. This is the way “Christ died for our sins”. This differs from the Mel Gibson interpretation whereby violence is redemptive (“by his stripes we are healed”) which in turn differs from the transactional interpretation of redemption of one death paying off the deserved death of everyone else. Or the obscene and largely defunct idea arguably in the New Testament of God using the cruel death of Jesus to pay Satan to win us back, to show us how much he loves us.
Judaism models to modern Christians how a plurality of interpretation works. Having one interpretation of the Gospel which everyone in a group believes in identical words, and that excludes or alienates everyone who does not agree or who partly agrees but not in the same words is characteristic of some belief-led churches. Reading the Bible “properly” means reading the Bible in the way that accords to what “we” believe. Pentecostal interpretation is closer to the Jewish mode, without meaning to be (but perhaps God means it to be) because multiple perspectives are fine, they are part of a conversation in the relationship between the believer or group of believers and God. Like any relationship, no single interpretation may govern what is thought or said. Although the rubric of healing the world (tikkun Olam in Hebrew) will guide pastors and preachers.