Tag Archives: dispensationalism

Did Canon Close for Christians and Jews?

Talmud Study by LamplightWhen we asked Major General Farkash why Israel’s military is so antihierarchical and open to questioning, he told us it was not just the military but Israel’s entire society and history. “Our religion is an open book,” he said, in a subtle European accent that traces back to his early years in Transylvania. The “open book” he was referring to was the Talmud — a dense recording of centuries of rabbinic debates over how to interpret the Bible and obey its laws — and the corresponding attitude of questioning is built into Jewish religion, as well as into the national ethos of Israel

As Israeli author Amos Oz has said, Judaism and Israel have always cultivated “a culture of doubt and argument, an open-ended game of interpretations, counter-interpretations, reinterpretations, opposing interpretations. From the very beginning of the existence of the Jewish civilization, it was recognized by its argumentativeness.

-Dan Senor and Saul Singer
“Chapter 2: Battlefield Entrepreneurs,” pg 51
Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle

Less widely appreciated, though, is the paradox that in Judaism the canon remained fluid even as it became fixed. The word of God, unlike the language of humans, was deemed to bear an infinity of meanings with the result that canon spawned commentary. Of all literary genres, commentary is the least appealing to the modern temperament with its penchant for speed, novelty, and self-expression. Yet it is the key to Judaism’s singular achievement: a canon without closure. Revelation proved to be expansive rather than restrictive. The right, indeed the obligation, of every Jew is to plumb the Bible for meaning kept the text open, pliant, and relevant in a conversation that spanned the ages.

-Ismar Schorsch
“Introduction,” pp xv-xvi
Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries

This is probably one of the fundamental differences between Christianity and Judaism: the belief that it is “normal” to not agree about religion and what the Bible says. Add to this, the belief that Biblical canon is not immutably fixed across time and in fact, that interpretations of the Bible must change across time in order to remain relevant, and you have a tremendous barrier between Christianity and Judaism as religious entities.

Well, sort of.

I’m talking about the various branches of Judaism vs. fundamentalism in Christianity. If you shift to the other end of the spectrum, the view becomes different.

Simply put, the desire for an original source document is one that we’ll likely never overcome because we’ve been taught that a “source” must always exist. We assume that in order for the written word to be valid, it must be verifiable, because we were raised in the era of book reports and footnotes. The Bible, however, is a not a term paper written to appease a persnickety professor. Rather, the Bible is a written collection of generations-old, evolving oral stories as they existed at the time they were written down. Someone chose to record a tiny piece of the evolving oral tales in writing, capturing one solitary moment in the life of the story. Even in cases where the works were copied from other documents, it is probably not proper to wonder where the “source” document is, because the source was the spoken word.

From what I’ve gleaned in the essay written by Fowler and other writers, we erroneously believe that the preservation of God’s Word is the same as preserving each string of words. We also erroneously equate preserving God’s Word with preserving an interpretation of the Word. We spend a lot of time chopping scripture into sound bytes and mining tiny details of our stories, but this is not how ancient storytellers and hearers engaged these stories… We differ in approach because our high level of literacy has made us letter-focused, rather than spirit-focused, when a more faithful use of the text would be to focus on the power of story to bring people together.

-Crystal St. Marie Lewis
“Our Literary Bias: What it is and How it Affects our Perception of Scripture”

BibleStorytellingThe blog author is commenting on an essay written by Robert M. Fowler called “Why Everything We Know About the Bible is Wrong.” I’d love to be able to read this essay myself. I commented on Ms. St. Marie Lewis’s blog asking for the source and she was gracious enough to supply the relevant link.

According to her brief bio, Ms. St. Marie Lewis says that she “writes from the perspective of a progressive Christian about religion and how it relates to the world around us,” which should tell you that she’s unlikely to reflect a fundamentalist Christian viewpoint. However, it’s her progressive perspective that is more likely to fold into, at least to some degree, the Jewish idea that canon is not rigidly fixed.

The church I attend is Baptist and generally supports a dispensationalist point of view:

Dispensationalism is an evangelical, futurist, Biblical interpretation that understands God to have related to human beings in different ways under different Biblical covenants in a series of “dispensations,” or periods in history.

One of the most important underlying theological concepts for dispensationalism is progressive revelation. While some non-dispensationalists start with progressive revelation in the New Testament and refer this revelation back into the Old Testament, dispensationalists begin with progressive revelation in the Old Testament and read forward in a historical sense. Therefore there is an emphasis on a gradually developed unity as seen in the entirety of Scripture. Biblical covenants are intricately tied to the dispensations. When these Biblical covenants are compared and contrasted, the result is a historical ordering of different dispensations. Also with regard to the different Biblical covenant promises, dispensationalism emphasises to whom these promises were written, the original recipients. This has led to certain fundamental dispensational beliefs, such as a distinction between Israel and the Church.

History_of_Dispensationalism_Darby_IIIDispensationalist don’t see themselves as reinterpreting the Bible from a human standpoint to adjust to the requirements of different generations, but nevertheless, they do take the text and view it as becoming more densely packed with information as it progresses from past to future, making “the Church” the ultimate receiver of the highest and most “evolved” revelations of God, somewhat in contradiction to the level of intimacy that someone like Moses would have experienced at having spoken with God “face to face” (the level of intimacy implied here is that of a husband and wife) as it were.

If dispensationalists believe that God progressively revealed Himself up to the end of the Biblical period and then stopped, that’s one thing, but what if they believe that God’s progressive revelation progressed after the end of the Biblical canon and for many centuries to follow?

John Nelson Darby is recognized as the father of dispensationalism,[1]:10, 293 later made popular in the United States by Cyrus Scofield’s Scofield Reference Bible. Charles Henry Mackintosh, 1820–96, with his popular style spread Darby’s teachings to humbler elements in society and may be regarded as the journalist of the Brethren Movement. Mackintosh popularized Darby more than any other Brethren author.

As there was no Christian teaching of a “rapture” before Darby began preaching about it in the 1830s, he is sometimes credited with originating the “secret rapture” theory wherein Christ will suddenly remove his bride, the Church, from this world before the judgments of the tribulation. Dispensationalist beliefs about the fate of the Jews and the re-establishment of the Kingdom of Israel put dispensationalists at the forefront of Christian Zionism, because “God is able to graft them in again”, and they believe that in his grace he will do so according to their understanding of Old Testament prophecy. They believe that, while the methodologies of God may change, his purposes to bless Israel will never be forgotten, just as he has shown unmerited favour to the Church, he will do so to a remnant of Israel to fulfill all the promises made to the genetic seed of Abraham.

Um…whoa! As it says at Wikipedia, it seems as if progressive revelation continued to progress well past the Biblical period and into modern times. How else do you get doctrines such as progressive revelation, the rapture, and Calvinism that didn’t exist in Biblical times and were created closer to the 21st century than to the 1st century? Why did God “reveal” these concepts to Christians so much later in history (and after the Christian Biblical canon was theoretically closed) and how does all this compare to the basic viewpoint of Rabbinic Judaism?

The feature that distinguishes Rabbinic Judaism is the belief in the Oral Law or Oral Torah. The authority for that position has been the tradition taught by the Rabbis that the oral law was transmitted to Moses at Mount Sinai at the same time as the Written Law and that the Oral Law has been transmitted from generation to generation since. The Talmud is said to be a codification of the Oral Law, and is thereby just as binding as the Torah itself. To demonstrate this position some point to the Exodus 18 and Numbers 11 of the Bible are cited to show that Moses appointed elders to govern with him and to judge disputes, imparting to them details and guidance of how to interpret the revelations from God while carrying out their duties. Additionally, all the laws in the Written Torah are recorded only as part of a narrative describing God telling these law to Moses and commanding him to transmit them orally to the Jewish nation. None of the laws in the Written Law are presented as instructions to the reader.

The oral law was subsequently codified in the Mishnah and Gemara, and is interpreted in Rabbinic literature detailing subsequent rabbinic decisions and writings. Rabbinic Jewish literature is predicated on the belief that the Torah cannot be properly understood without recourse to the Oral Law. Indeed, it states that many commandments and stipulations contained in the Torah would be difficult, if not impossible, to keep without the Oral Law to define them — for example, the prohibition to do any “creative work” (“melakha”) on the Sabbath, which is given no definition in the Torah, and only given practical meaning by the definition of what constitutes ‘Melacha’ provided by the Oral Law and passed down orally through the ages. Numerous examples exist of this general prohibitive language in the Torah (such as, “don’t steal”, without defining what is considered theft, or ownership and property laws), requiring — according to Rabbinic thought — a subsequent crystallization and definition through the Oral Law. Thus Rabbinic Judaism claims that almost all directives, both positive and negative, in the Torah are non-specific in nature and would therefore require the existence of either an Oral Law tradition to explain them, or some other method of defining their detail.

bible_read_meI know that Christian progressive revelation in the post-Biblical period and the development of Rabbinic Judaism in the post-Second Temple period don’t seem particularly related, but look at the core of what they both accomplish. They both state that the various authorities in each of these religions take the Bible as the base source material and interpret it (either via the Holy Spirit in Christian understanding or under the authority God gave the Rabbinic sages) across time in order to meet the requirements of each generation. Although Christianity likes to believe it has closed the canon at the end of the book of Revelation, the fact that many doctrines have been created in post-Biblical times that would have been alien to Jesus, Peter, and Paul attest to the opposite.

Judaism, if anything, is more upfront with what it has been doing. The Bible may be a fixed document, but it’s how we interpret it at any given point in history that gives it a lived meaning in the Christian and Jewish worlds. Are any of us truly living “Biblical lives” or are we actually living “Doctrinal lives” as interpreted by our different denominations, sects, and movements?