On Not Harmonizing

I’ve just wrapped up teaching the Synoptic Gospels part of my Gospels and Acts course. Going through the individual books, looking over proposed solutions to the Synoptic Problem, and seeing how the seemingly harmonious stories portray Jesus’ ministry in quite different lights, we are left with a few conclusion that are surprising to many of us. Here are a couple:

  • The Gospel writers have different ideas about how Jesus’ death works, which means they have different ideas about how God brings salvation through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
  • The Gospels we have used sources, including, probably, Mark as a source for Matthew and Luke, and yet they felt free to change this source for various reasons, including: style, making a somewhat different point, causing the story to more clearly echo an OT antecedent, eliminating theological claims that they did not want to make, or including new theological claims that are somewhat at odds with the theological claims of the original story.

This means that there is not only a plurality of voices in the NT, there is an irreducible theological diversity.

But more importantly, this theological diversity is no accident of history but, on the human level, has been intentionally introduced into the texts we have in front of us. Luke intentionally modifies Mark (and Matthew?) to increase the continuity between the OT narrative and the work of Jesus, and to eliminate the idea of Jesus’ death procuring salvation for people as such.

Two questions came up that I think are important for us to keep working through, especially as evangelicals for whom such conclusions seem to push against our prior conception of what it means to call the Bible the word of God.

First, what does this mean for “scripture interpreting scripture”? This rule became quite popular at the time of the Reformation, or at least, if you Google “scripture interprets scripture” the people who are the most fierce advocates for the view are likely to be appealing to the Reformation traditions in their defense.

But what do we do when Luke says, “Blessed are the poor,” and Matthew says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit”? Is Matthew clear here where Luke is ambiguous, thereby telling us what Jesus really meant? Or are we to hear in Luke’s version his special concern for the socially marginalized?

What are we to do when Mark says that you don’t put new wine in old wineskins, but Luke feels compelled to add, “No one wants new wine, old is better!”? Do we let Mark’s apparent meaning stand, where Jesus is the new wine that cannot be contained by the older Jewish practices? Or do we allow the “more clear” Lucan conclusion to change our reading?

Image: WikiBooks, Gospel of Mark ch. 8

My response: (1) allow the scripture one author wrote help interpret that author’s other passages; and (2) allow the NT’s example of rereading the OT in light of Christ to train us to reread the OT as a witness to the saving life, death, resurrection, and reign of Jesus.

If we insist on giving the one meaning made clear by the other texts, we start to force the Bible into our preconception of what kind of Bible would be good for us, what kind of Bible would qualify as “word of God,” and in so doing we spurn the actual Bible that God did give us, and that God thought was adequate for conveying God’s word.

Question two is what do we do with this stuff as pastors?

My answer here: it is your pastoral responsibility to help people recognize that the Bible we actually have, rather than the Bible of our imaginations, is the word of God.

If you don’t give your people a category for this kind of diverse Bible being the word of God, then you will create a false sense of connection between a supposedly uniform, univocal Bible and the Christian faith as such. So what happens when they go off to college and take a Bible class at State University? What happens when they get bored one Saturday and map out (or try, anyway) the last week of Jesus’ life in each of the four Gospels?

Uh oh.

That’s when they discover that the Bible isn’t what you led them to believe. And if that imagined Bible is necessary for believing what God has to say about Jesus and the Christian faith in general, then the latter are apt to crumble as well.

Make no mistake, there are tremendous pastoral issues at stake in affirming correctly what the Bible is. But one of the worst mistakes we can make, especially in a day and age where media will tell people the truth if we don’t, is to affirm a vision of a single-voiced scripture that fails to correspond to the text we have actually been given.

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