Friday, May 27, 2011

RKIA's Guide to Reading the Bible... part 1

Dear Rev. Know it all,

Who did the sons of Adam and Eve marry?

Patiently yours,
Eve Anne Gellikal

Dear Eve,

They married their wives.

the Rev. Know it all

PS I imagine you would like a more detailed answer than that. This will take some time, and so I have to decide to answer your question with a long harangue of which this is the first installment.


Let me begin by quoting my favorite theologian, the Rev. Billy Bob. “God hates method. He loves principle.” Do not misread the preceding. God hates method, not Methodists. God loves Methodists very much. No one can put on a church supper like Methodists.

What is the Rev. Billy Bob trying to say? An example: You go to the Thursday prayer meeting and that Thursday you are in charge of the prayer ministry. You are wearing your favorite bowling shirt, your red feedlot cap and your St. Christopher medal. Before you sit, an afflicted soul who has come for healing prayer with the worst case of athlete’s foot in medical history enters the room. You anoint him with holy water, praying in tongues all the while with the laying on of hands and conclude with three Hail Mary’s. And much to your shock he is instantly healed!

You now know how to heal the sick. You wear your favorite bowling shirt, your red feedlot cap and your St. Christopher medal. You anoint with holy water, praying in tongues with the laying on of hands and conclude with three Hail Mary’s. So you do the same thing next week, now that you have the gift of healing, and nothing happens. The minute you think you’ve got God down to a method He does things a different way. God hates method. He loves principle.

This is the point that St. Paul is trying to make when he talks about works of the law. “...a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ...” Galatians 2:16. There is only one place other than the New Testament in all of ancient literature where the phrase “works of the law” appears. It is in the Dead Sea Scroll 4QMMT: “Miqtsat Ma’asei ha Torah” (“Precepts of the Works of the Law”). It seems to be written by Essenes to Pharisees about ritual purity. In the scroll 4QMMT we read in ruling 16 “Concerning streams of liquid; we have determined that they are not intrinsically pure. Indeed, streams of liquid do not form a barrier between the pure and the impure for the liquid that is in the stream and that in its receptacle become as one liquid.” So there! Take that, you loose and liberal Pharisees!

(What the heck is this guy talking about????)Simply this: If a clay bowl is unclean and you pour water from a clay pitcher into the bowl, the uncleanness leaps up the stream of water and pollutes the pitcher and both must broken! Surely you remember this from you reading of Leviticus? The scroll ends with “Now we have written you some of the works of the law which we determined would be beneficial to you.”

When Paul talks about works of the law, he is saying that we are not saved by this ritual nonsense, but by conversion of heart and mind. 500 years ago Luther decided that Paul was saying that we don’t have to do anything to go to heaven. Paul would have been a bit surprised at that conclusion (Romans 2:24), as would Jesus (Matt7:23) In fact, St. James says that it is clear we are not saved by faith alone, but by works also (James 2:24)

If Luther had understood that the phrase “works of the law” was about ritual purity and not about kindness and mercy, and that Paul simply wanted to explain that these external rituals of kosher law don’t save, he would have spared the world a lot of trouble. It is always intriguing to me that people who talk loudly about dead works and salvation by faith alone constantly try to get people who were baptized as infants by the pouring of water to be re-baptized by a very specific formula as adults and only by immersion. They believe in method, not in principle. Whether they admit it or not they are professing salvation by a work of law.

We want to reduce the Bible to a set of rules. It is a book of principles, the principles of the Kingdom of Heaven. That is not to say that rules are unimportant. On the Contrary! For children, good rules are essential and we cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven unless we are like little children. These rules however, depend on love and trust and a desire to obey the Father who loves us. They are rules that teach the principles of the Kingdom. They are not rules that we can get around, rules that enable us to do as little as possible. They are instructions in the very character of God.

The prayer of the pagan is “God, give me what I want.” the prayer of the Christian is “Lord, teach me your ways.” (Psalm 25:4, 86:11,27,11 and the whole rest of the Bible.) The Bible is not a science text, it is not a history text, it is not a rule book. It has all these things in it, but it is primarily a collection of books that deal with the way God has loved us since the beginning of time.


Next week: the Bible is not a book


  1. So then how is liturgy not just method and ritual nonsense? This is the accusation leveled against us as Catholics.

  2. Even as a Protestant, I don't know any Catholics who would say that the liturgy - the "method and ritual", at least, I don't know about nonsense - is what saves them. I'm pretty sure even you "works righteousness" Catholics (sorry) at least profess that Christ is what (or Who) saves us, whatever the means He uses.

    In other words, Means and Forms and Discipline Are Not Bad... unless you try to locate the root of salvation in them instead of Christ.

  3. This is great Father! Looking forward to the rest of the series. During which, mayhap, could you answer queries about the Scripture + Tradition conundrum that baffles (or enrages) our Protestant brethren? The very idea that the Bible is itself a product of the Tradition, compiled by the Church, is enough to start a good shouting match between your average Evangelical and a well-catechized Catholic.

  4. Love it. I get asked this in college freshmen courses on the Bible every time!