Sunday Toons: New wineskinsSeptember 7, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
As charismatic Christians like to tell us, Jesus once said, “Nobody puts new wine in old wineskins,” meaning that old traditions can’t always accommodate new movements of God, or something to that effect. He never said anything about putting old wine into new wineskins, however, and I think that’s a pretty good metaphor for how Christians re-frame Scriptural teachings to accommodate new interpretations. JP Holding gives us a good example of this in his article on “Biblical” faith, which we started to look at last week. But before we get to Holding, let’s do a quick review.
The difference between knowledge and understanding is that knowledge is facts and understanding is the relationship between the facts. We can learn facts by simply memorizing them, but in order to understand those facts, we must be able to relate them, somehow, to the understanding we already have. This causes serious problems for sola Scriptura, as I’ve discussed before, but it also offers Bible interpreters a powerful and useful technique for taking the “old wine” of Scripture passages and putting them into “new wineskins” that reshape and redefine just what the “Biblical” teaching is perceived to be.
The most common approach is to present one or more Bible passages in a context that mentions the new idea. Because “understanding” means creating relationships between facts and our pre-existing understanding, you can often create a new understanding just by juxtaposing the idea you want to present alongside the Bible passage you want to attach your interpretation to. One example would be the Catholic use of Matt. 16:18 as a scriptural justification for the papacy: Jesus says nothing about church hierarchy, or perpetual offices, or apostolic succession, but because Catholics interpret the verse as being a reference to Peter as the first Pope, voilà, we have papacy in the Bible.
Holding is doing the same thing with his “patronage” reinterpretation of Biblical faith.
Matthew 8:5-10 And when Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto him a centurion, beseeching him, And saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented. And Jesus saith unto him, I will come and heal him. The centurion answered and said, Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed… When Jesus heard it, he marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.
We see the definition of “faith” in terms of loyalty to, or trust in, a deserving patron, exhibited quite clearly here. The centurion knew of Jesus’ miraculous abilities (v. 8). His faith was not “blind” but based on the evidence of Jesus’ past works. He considered Jesus worthy therefore of his trust and came to him for help.
Notice, Holding sees patronage associated with the word “faith” in the passage above. Jesus doesn’t say anything about patronage, or how it would differ from a master/slave (or Father/child) relationship, or how faith based on patronage would be different from faith based on just believing what men have told you. Holding is merely juxtaposing the word “patronage” with the Biblical reference to “faith,” and is thus creating an interpretational context in which faith is associated with patronage. The new idea becomes part of the reader’s understanding of what “Biblical faith” is, and thus Holding’s extrabiblical teaching effectively merges with the Bible and acquires all the assumed authority and infallibility of the words that are actually written there.
Notice too that Holding’s interpretation is merely one possible interpretation of what is written—the interpretation that seems right in his own eyes. He could just as well have pointed out that the centurion had not seen or heard of Jesus healing anyone by “remote control,” and thus was proceeding on blind faith, in the absence of evidence. Or he could have used “master/slave,” “general/soldier,” or “parent/child” instead of “patronage,” and thus interpreted the passage as giving no special support to the patronage idea. He could even have pointed out that the centurion’s evidence-based faith is inaccessible to those of us for whom God does not show up and provide any evidence. It’s all in how you place the emphasis and in what academic context you supply.
The key to re-casting the meaning of Scripture is that your new interpretation must solve some problem that the text itself leaves unresolved. (Fortunately there’s no shortage of those!) It’s not enough to simply present your interpretation alongside the Bible verses you wish to “infect” with your new understanding (though it can be done if you preach it from the pulpit until it becomes subliminal). To really drive in your new meaning, you’ll want to make it sound like it explains something that has been bothering people.
A similar lesson may be drawn from Matthew 21, in which Jesus states, “Jesus answered and said unto them, Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done. And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.” This needs to be combined with our comments elsewhere: No Jew would recognize such statements as giving believers carte blanche to ask to have mountains turned over (see more here). This is simply a way of emphasizing God’s commitment, as a patron, to bless and show favor to the believer — who would be expected not to ask for silly or selfish things in the first place, no more so than any client in the Roman world would be foolish enough to ask his patron to give him a million bucks to blow on video games. A person with pistis does not knowingly ask for that which God would not or does not will, and does not ask for something to happen if it is against God’s will. In Jewish thought, God was sovereign. Nothing happened that God did not permit or cause. “Early Jewish teaching did celebrate God’s kindness in answering prayer, but rarely promises such universal answers to prayer to all of God’s people as the language suggests.” [Keener, 245] Only a small number of sages were considered pious enough to ask for and receive whatever they wanted — and that piety was their key indicates that they weren’t going around asking for just anything they wanted (like Hanina ben Dosa, and Honi the Circle-Drawer), but only what they supposed to be in the will of God. “Such a call to believing prayer supposes a heart of piety submitted to God’s will…”
A major problem facing Bible expositors is explaining how God can have a “commitment, as a patron, to bless and show favor to the believer,” even though in practice we don’t actually see God fulfilling any particular commitment to bless and show favor to the believer. Not only does God fail to show up in real life personally, He fails to interact with the real world in any kind of tangible way, even when believers ask in faith for things that are both reasonable and according to what the Bible presents as being God’s will. That’s a problem for thoughtful believers, and that’s what makes the “patronage” answer so appealing to Holding. The original Gospel is inconsistent with what we see in the real world, so Holding adopts “patronage” as a conceptual patch to try and cover up the holes.
Notice, too, that the new interpretation actually displaces the original text. Jesus is originally quoted as saying that whatever you pray for—believing—you get. Real life shows us, however, that believing prayer gets us no more than what would just as likely happen without prayer. The new doctrine of patronage “solves” this inconsistency by telling us that patronage faith means understanding that it takes a special kind of piety to make us worthy of having God honor His “commitment” to grant blessings and favor to us. In essence, when Jesus says “whatever you ask for, you’ll get,” what he ends up meaning is, “You can’t expect much, if anything.” Instead of Matt. 21 being a bold, new teaching that shattered people’s expectations of what God would do for them, Holding’s interpretation makes prior cultural assumptions the limit of what Jesus—and thus God Himself—could promise to believers. After all, God can’t fail to deliver it if He never technically promised it, right?
Holding opens his article by mocking a fictitious faith healer for telling people their lack of faith keeps them from being healed, but in the end, his “patronage” interpretation of faith offers only a slightly re-framed version of the same excuse. God does not honor His commitment to show us blessing and favor because “[o]nly a small number of sages were considered pious enough to ask for and receive whatever they wanted,” and the nature of their piety (i.e. faith) “indicates that they weren’t going around asking for just anything they wanted,… but only what they supposed to be in the will of God.” [Emph. Holding’s] In other words, if you’ve asked God to honor His commitment, and God didn’t honor it, the fault is yours because you didn’t have enough of the right kind of faith. Holding interprets faith differently, but he still blames you for not having it, and excuses God on the grounds that it’s all your fault, just like the faith-healing charlatan.
Likewise, Holding’s “patronage” interpretation conflicts with his exposition of the centurion’s story in Matthew 8. He started off using Matt. 8 to establish the idea of “patronage faith,” and associated faith with patronage by claiming that “[the centurion’s] faith was not ‘blind’ but based on the evidence of Jesus’ past works. He considered Jesus worthy therefore of his trust and came to him for help.” The centurion did not ask for any trivial thing, he asked for a rather astonishing miracle, and (according to the story) he got it. And Jesus called it “great faith,” instead of accusing the centurion of “lacking in piety” or failing to understand that faith means not asking your patron for anything. Only later on in Holding’s essay, after he feels like he’s established “patronage” as the true meaning of biblical faith, does his “don’t ask, don’t get” version displace the original.
Ultimately, Holding’s “patronage” excuse fails to solve his problem. Nothing in the ancient practice of patronage (or its modern equivalents) put such strict limits on what the patron could be asked for, particularly in connection with requesting access to the patron’s resources in order to accomplish the tasks the patron has commissioned. Granted, the patron’s role was more exalted than that of the person being patronized, still it was never the patron’s role to make himself completely inaccessible. God’s “patronage,” however, is so restricted that, not only do you not have carte blance to ask for things, but you cannot ask for anything that would require actual, tangible existence on God’s part—not even in the carrying out of His specific commission.
Holding’s discussion of faith gives us a good illustration of how theologians can build themselves a complex and insular mental framework that emphasizes detail at the expense of consistency with the bigger picture and the real world. It also demonstrates how Christians use artificial interpretational contexts to reframe the Scriptures in an attempt to fix some of the problems with the Gospel. These attempts invariably fail, however, because they are rooted in the things men say about the things men have said about God, rather than being rooted in the real world.