Principles, patterns, and exceptions within the Bible

One of the things I value about being back in Sydney is how Christians love and esteem the Bible. Trust me – it’s not the same in Tassie, or Melbourne, or Brisbane or Western Australia.

There is a shared belief that God’s Word is authoritative, powerful, and life-giving. It’s great we agree on this. But it does not mean we will always agree on how to read, interpret, and apply scripture.

Some people search the Bible for timeless truths, for first and forever principles. An example of this would be the Sabbath. We should rest because God rested on the Sabbath. It is a creation ordained principle, enshrined into both nature and Scripture. Its foundations are before the fall, before culture. Therefore it’s universal and eternal. It is a first principle that we can build with certainty upon.

There is insight here, but also questionable assumptions, and interpretive dilemmas.

The dilemma: most of Scripture is story. Or narrative. Take the detail that Abigail used words to diffuse (King) David’s anger. Is it just an accident that Abigail is female? Is it a coincidence that Samson is strong, and Delilah nags?

Drawing principles out of narrative is vexed. When is a rock a metaphor for something else, and when is a rock just a rock? The answer has a lot to do with how the first audience understood texts. How do you get timeless principles out of time-bound narratives?

And if you believe you have found a timeless principle – like the need for a Sabbath – what do you do with exceptions? What do you do with Romans 14:5, which suggests we get to decide for ourselves if and when to Sabbath?

If you decide men lead, what do you do with Deborah? If you decide women cook and use words, what do you do with Jacob (who feeds and then talks his brother Esau into selling his birthright)?

In this series, I have intentionally steered away from naming up principles, instead of speaking of patterns. I think ‘patterns’ cope with deviations and exceptions; it allows for the role of the identifier in identifying, and it’s more contextually sensitive.

God accommodates his timeless truths into culture-bound forms (Scripture), and then uses that word to speak to people who exist in yet another culture.

Rev David Rietveld

Senior Minister

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