Blood, heresy and biblical authority

I’m still awaiting my copy of the Lutheran Study Bible, but I see there has been a small spat in the Lutheran blogo/twittersphere about its notes on Exodus 7:17.

The note suggests that when God turned the water of the Nile into blood, “it was not a chemical change into real blood, but a change in appearance, possibly because of red algae”. This was described by one reader as an epic failure, heresy and a false hermeneutic” (emphasis added), and it appears that a fairly passionate discussion ensued. Dan’s post at Necessary Roughness summarises the debate in rather more measured terms (though still critical of TLSB’s note).

As I said in a comment on Dan’s post:

Whether it’s actual blood or the appearance of blood, it’s clearly a miraculous occurrence above and beyond any natural event.

I don’t see why our commitment to Scripture as God’s (written) Word commits us in advance to particular exegetical conclusions on what that Word says. I sometimes get the impression that a certain machismo creeps in, a desire to push the “literal” meaning as far as possible in order to demonstrate just how seriously you take God’s Word: “Well, I double-super-extra believe in the Bible, so [to take a not-dissimilar example] I think that Jesus sweated actual blood rather than just blood-like drops of sweat!”

All this seems related to a point I’ve made before on the difference between two approaches to the authority of the Bible, which can be summarised as follows:

  1. “I believe in Jesus because I believe the Bible.”
  2. “I believe the Bible because I believe in Jesus.”

The problem with the first – Karl Barth’s famous citation of “Jesus loves me, this I know” notwithstanding – is that it can lead to a defensive view of the Bible. Because if the Bible (which is unconsciously equated with our interpretation of it) can’t be trusted, then how can we be sure about Jesus?

Every perceived contradiction or difficulty in the Bible, every questioning of received interpretations of it, therefore becomes a threat to our faith in Christ himself. And biblical interpretation becomes an exercise in shoring up the foundations: “blood” must mean “blood” in Exodus 7:17, because otherwise how can we be sure that “blood” means “blood” in Matthew 26:28?

Hence I prefer the second way of expressing the position. I believe in Jesus, and therefore I believe the Bible – not because I always understand it or am in agreement with every “traditional” interpretation of it (see: literal six-day creationism), but because Jesus affirmed the Old Testament and commissioned the New Testament. This view frees us to suspend judgment on the meaning of “difficult” passages, to question received interpretations, without this unsettling our faith: because our faith rests on Jesus, not on our ability to understand every word of the Bible.

This isn’t to drive a wedge between the written Word and the incarnate Word, setting one in opposition to the other. Our knowledge of Jesus and our understanding of the Bible are intertwined with one another and inseparable. But ultimately it is our faith in Jesus that is foundational.

Note: when I mentioned this view on the Boar’s Head Tavern recently, someone asked me (quite reasonably) how we can believe in Jesus if we don’t have a prior acceptance of the Bible, since all our knowledge of Jesus comes from the Bible. There are two responses to this.

First, it’s possible to accept the Gospels as a reliable testimony to Jesus on merely human grounds. However, the testimony they give is to Jesus being the risen Son of God. And then Jesus the risen Son of God testifies to the rest of the Bible. (That is not a merely theoretical consideration; it’s a description of my own conversion experience.)

Second, our knowledge of and belief in Jesus does not come only from the Bible (at least not directly), but from the church’s ministry of word and sacraments, the witness of individual Christians, and so on. Most people come to faith in Jesus, not because someone convinced them that the Bible is literal truth from cover to cover, but because they grew up within the life of the church or were converted by the witness and love of other Christians.

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12 Responses to Blood, heresy and biblical authority

  1. This Internet tempest in a teapot is a very good example of why the Internet is both bane and blessing. The person who precipitated this incident did so by posting what he himself describes as a “tirade” on his own Facebook page, in which, based on his dislike of the note in TLSB on Ex. 7:17 proceeded to say TLSB is a higher-critical Bible, is littered with crap and is heretical. Egads.

    And then more rationale discussion has ensued.

    Here is our comment on the Ex. 7:17 note:

    Water Into Blood Ex. 7:17

    The notes at Exodus 7 offer explanations of how God providentially and also miraculously used naturally occurring phenomena to accomplish this particular plague. God did the same with other naturally occurring phenomena, such as the plagues of locusts, frogs, and biting insects. The article on page 1674 in The Lutheran Study Bible offers a helpful discussion of the distinction between miracles and providence, a distinction that is often not made.

    The notes in The Lutheran Study Bible do not deny the miraculous work of God in sending a plague in the form of water turning to blood (e.g., note for Exodus 7:19, “no ordinary natural event”).

    The TLSB note for Exodus 7:17 points to Joel 2:31, which describes a similar transformation with blood and uses the same Hebrew construction found in Exodus (cf Brown, Driver, Briggs Lexicon entry on lamedh, section 4 a). If Joel 2:31 is taken literally, that would mean the moon will turn into blood. However, in the New Testament, this same transformation is presented as a description: “the full moon became LIKE blood” (Revelation 6:12; use of Gk hos). Therefore, the fuller context in Exodus and the rest of Scripture leads us to read “turn into blood” as a description of how the water changed and not as a chemical change from water into literal blood. These observations are not based on historical-critical assumptions but on careful grammatical reading, Scripture interprets Scripture, and sound theological distinctions.

    Once again, we thank you for your strong interest in TLSB. As you read, please be sure to consider each note in view of the surrounding notes and look up the many cross-references. They will help you understand the conclusions and intentions of our writers and editors.

  2. Chris Hubbs says:

    John, thanks for the discussion on BHT, for answering my questions via email, and for summarizing things so nicely here.

  3. Kyle says:

    Thank you for this post! Are there any books that you would recommend on this topic?

  4. steve says:

    i appreciate John’s side-stepping the details (at least in this post) for the purpose of highlighting the larger epistemological and hermeneutical frameworks at play.

    i see two ideas i would like to offer to this discussion: the origin of faith, the author of Faith.

    the origin of faith:

    we all FAITH something/someone/some experience; this is the core of the Fall, namely, idolatry. faith and worship are inextricably linked.

    we do not need justification for turning to materialism, alcohol, porn, comfort foods, clothes, sex, children/spousal/parental approval, achievements, wealth, etc as acts of worship. we worship these things when we turn to them, we buy into their lies, which they offer to provide something (security, comfort, identity, significance, etc) which only God alone can provide.

    there seems, to me, to be an aspect of your blog that is related to where does faith come from; and i just thought it worth noting that, in a lower-case way, faith-ing is a part of our creatureliness.

    the author of Faith:

    as i read the “two approaches to the authority of the Bible”, i immediately wanted to offer a third: I believe the Word because the Spirit has regenerated my heart.

    if i were to choose 1 or 2, i find they are circular, Jesus fulfills Bible, and the Bible testifies to Jesus. where does faith actually come from? from me? not from my experience; not in Augustinian tradition; not in Lutheran tradition.

    similarly, i would rework the last (large font) sentence to be “But ultimately it is [the Spirit’s work of faith in our hearts] that is foundational.”

    so, the real grace of God is that he causes us to be born again, and then shapes our faith, and free us to turn from our many idols to worship the true and Living God.

    thank you for a thought-provoking article, i look forward to your interaction with my thoughts here.

  5. Rick Ritchie says:

    I think what steve offers is true, that “I believe the Word because the Spirit has regenerated my heart.” That view is both Biblical and confessional (think Third Article of the Creed in the Small Catechism).

    But the “because” here is a bit different from the other two mentioned before. This “because” is the because of causation. The others are “becauses” of reason. The Holy Spirit’s regeneration is something I need in order to have faith. It is a cause of my faith. But I don’t offer it as an argument for my faith. It is one thing to offer causes for our beliefs and another to offer reasons, even when both are legitimate.

    Unless I have missed the point here and steve would offer the Holy Spirit as a reason for believing. It is not an argument that I offer for why I believe or why somebody else should believe. Whatever reasons are or are not involved in someone believing, the Holy Spirit is a necessary cause for true faith.

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  7. John H says:

    Kyle: I’m tempted just to say “Hebrews 1:1-2”. 🙂

    I’m not sure I could point to a single book to recommend on this. It’s more a synthesis of a number of influences on me over the years. However, the roots of it can probably be found in John Stott’s “Understanding the Bible”, which (IIRC) is where I first saw the “affirmed the Old, commissioned the New” argument clearly articulated.

    Steve: I agree with Rick that these are operating on different levels. I believe the Bible because I believe in Jesus – but why do I believe in Jesus? Answer: because the Holy Spirit creates faith in my heart by means of the word and sacraments.

    However, on a pastoral/practical level we need to be clear that our focus is on Jesus rather than on the Holy Spirit. When my faith gets fuzzy, I need to turn outwards to looking at Jesus, rather than turning inwards to the Holy Spirit dwelling within me (and whose job is precisely to make me turn outwards to Jesus rather than inwardly to himself!)

    So when I said that “our faith in Jesus” is foundational, this was slightly loose wording: it is Jesus and his promises for us that are foundational. We receive these by faith, and that faith is given to us by the Holy Spirit.

  8. steve says:

    @rick & john, i appreciate your clarifying words and affirmation of the role of the Spirit; i apologize if i was a bit pedantic regarding semantics.

    @rick … i appreciate the distinction you’re trying to draw between “causation” for believing and “reason” (or may i say “rationale”?) for believing, in a somewhat apologetic sense (one we commend to non-believers).

    i think this is where i was trying to go with my distinction between “author” (“causation”) and “origin” (“reason” or “rationale”). my point there is that faith and worship are tied together; that everyone, fallen or redeemed, WORSHIPS someone or something. in the case of the believer, that is living out of our regenerate spirits, as sons and daughters delighting in Our Father. in the case of non-believers (and the remaining Flesh in believers) it is Idolatry.

    in this, no one needs a “rationale” to worship, they just DO. whether the person/thing they worship is worthy, and can stand up under scrutiny, is up for their evaluation (but apart from the Spirit’s work, they will not be able to see the lies of the Idol, and even if they could, they have no power or desire to turn from them).

    @john … taking this to the pastoral and apologetic levels, i would say that to the believer (pastoral) i heartily agree with you, and would commend that when we are struggling to believe in the veracity of the Word (incarnate and/or written), the Spirit will graciously (unmerited from us) point us to Jesus, His promises and His accomplishments (particularly in His resurrection from the dead), and through the written account, the living testimony of those around us, and through His sacramental Word; He will fuel our faith and assure us that “He cannot lie”. and in this, we aim to encourage/admonish/rebuke our brothers and sisters to repent of their idols (their “functional saviors”) to place their affections/wills/thoughts to the One True God.

    to the non-believer, i would point to Jesus’ historical resurrection (a la N.T. Wright), not that “history” is somehow “objective” (and “certain”, whatever that would be, i don’t even think i’d want “certainty” (a la Lesslie Newbigin) ) but rather that for many people, they will submit to historical facts as a starting point for a discussion. so, in that case, i would perhaps feel a need to build up the case for justifiable confidence in the Bible, at least on a historical level.

    i would do this as part of an overall, winsome, effort to induce them to read the Bible (as “… faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Rom. 10:17), and pray the Spirit would use the words in the Bible to regenerate them and give them the gift of faith.

    how does this set with you all? am in pushing too much the scope of the topic, not being fair to either of you? i’m sure we all have so much more we could say on these things … i guess, trying to go back to the very start of this blog post, i would say that those who are feeling “threatened” (if i may) by the possibility that “blood” in Ex. 7:17 doesn’t mean A/B/AB/O(+) blood; may be grounding their faith, their worship, in a factoid or a collection of doctrines; and i would encourage those who are sincerely bothered there, to pray to the Spirit to assure their hearts … we are right to have confidence in His promises, we may ditch “certainty”.

    yeah, .. that is where i would go with this thought (thank you for sticking with me here) … the hub-bub over the passage (cited above) may be a struggle for something we do not need, but because of the Enlightenment, we think we need it: “certainty”. I would commend Lesslie Newbigin’s work “Proper Confidence”, which you may read a portion of here:

  9. Steve says:

    This is a bit off topic but as someone who lives in the UK, I was wondering where you ordered your copy of the LSB from?

  10. John H says:

    Steve: our church ordered a batch of them over from the US. Concordia Publishing House books are not easy to source in the UK, alas, but it looks as if have got a copy of the personal/gift edition, which is an attractive version (slightly smaller than the “pew” edition).

    Whereabouts in the UK are you, out of interest?

  11. steve says:

    FYI, the previous poster “Steve”, is not the same “steve” who posted on 10/17. we apparently happen to share our first names.

  12. Stephen says:

    I thought I should probably use Stephen instead of Steve to make things less confusing.
    I live in Northern Ireland, fairly close to Belfast. I’ve recently become very interested in Lutheran Theology and enjoy listening to podcasts of the God whisperers and Issues etc. Unfortunately there are no Lutheran Churches here, so my interest will have to be purely academic.

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