UNDERSTANDING SCRIPTURE: The ‘Middle Ground’ Of The New Covenant

In my first post of this three-part series, I discussed my belief that Scripture does not condemn, but neither does it advocate for society which bases its focus on the individual.  In both the New and Old Testaments, Scripture stresses relationships and community — even to the point of treating large groups corporately.  However, in my second post, I explain why I do not believe Scripture endorses the modern notion of the collective.  In fact, I believe Scripture actually condemns our modern notion of the collective.  On the surface, I can understand how anyone reading along may be confused by now.  After all, I appear to be contradicting myself.  But I have also made mention of the fact that I believe Scripture allows for and even anticipates a third possibility: that of what I call a ‘middle ground’ between a communal-based and an individual-based society.  Furthermore, I believe — whether they were aware of it or not — our Founding Fathers actually lived squarely within this middle ground.  If I may, I’d like to see if I can’t wrap this whole discussion up by explaining what I mean by ‘middle ground.’  I just beg the reader’s patience, as this may take a bit of explaining.

First, I would like the reader to understand that I do not put the authors of “Misreading Scripture Through Western Eyes” on a pedestal.  I do not put any human on a pedestal.  That position is for the Lord and the Lord alone.  At the same time, however, the authors do make many valid points, and it would be wise for any believer to give them consideration.  It is for this reason I recommended this book, and it is upon the points made in this book that I intend this and my previous two posts are to be understood.  Personally, I do not care whether a person reads “Misreading Scripture Through Western Eyes,” or they read another book that explains how serious misunderstandings can result from reading Western values into Scripture.  All I care about is, if anyone who was born and raised in the West seeks to understand Scripture — on its terms — that they start by making themselves aware of how Western culture can lead to distorted understandings of the original intent of many Scriptural passages.

With that said, I must also stress that I am writing about my take on several narrow aspects of what I learned as I started to take off my Western glasses and put on those of the Biblical perspective.  By the very nature of my discussion, I have to leave a great deal unsaid.  This is why I started by suggesting “Misreading Scripture Through Western Eyes:” so that those who are interested in doing so would have a starting place for learning more.  For example: this book explains how the culture that produced the Scriptures was communal/corporate–orientated.  And, as such, it was controlled by external forces.  By this I mean a system of honor and shame.  In communal societies, honor and shame are not quite the same thing as the way many of us in the West think of them.  They serve as the ‘conscience’ of the individual.  Whereas, in individual-focused societies, that controlling force is found within each person.  It is what we call our conscience.  Now, I have  Sociology degree, and have a minor interest in psychology and the study of human cultures throughout history, so I was aware of these things, but I had never thought to apply them in my study of Scripture.  The book in question explains them in great detail, as well as how they can seriously alter the way people within each type of society — communal or individualistic — react in different situations.  Well, it can also change the way we might should be looking at what Scripture is trying to teach us.  When we move the un-spoken understanding that ‘you’ means the reader and allow that ‘you’ might mean the community, some important changes happen to the way we read and understand the Lord’s Word (I do not wish to discuss these changes here, I just want the reader to be aware that they are real and can lead to serious misunderstandings).

OK, now, the nations and peoples in Scripture all had communal societies, which means they were based on a system of law where an individual’s behavior was dictated by an external system based on honor and shame (hence, ‘communal’).  As hard as it may be for many of us in the West to believe, it is very possible that an individual within such a society could do things we in the West would consider immoral without feeling any sense of guilt.  They might even violate the laws of their culture without feeling guilty for having done so.  For people in these sort of societies, so long as they operated within the laws of the enforcing system — honor and shame — their is no need to feel guilty for anything they do.  The problem here for those of us in the West is that this ‘fluid‘ notion of a ‘law‘ conflicts with the way we tend to think of ‘laws.’  This is because we in the West do not understand the role of honor and shame in these type of societies (which is why we do not understand Muslim honor killings). In short, what we in the West might consider a violation of a society’s laws might well be considered proper within that society if it was necessary to help people keep their honor.  Paul actually makes mention of something like this when he explains that, before his conversion, he was ‘blameless before the law.’  Technically, Paul had been murdering people (i.e. Christians), but the honor and shame system in place at that time excused these actions as they were considered necessary to restoring the honor of the Pharisees, Judea and the Lord.  Again, this is a complicated subject that most of us in the West will find foreign, which is why I keep stressing people to consider reading the  book, “Misreading Scripture Through Western Eyes.”

On the other hand, in a society that stresses the individual, such as the West, the force that controls an individual’s behavior is internal (hence ‘individualistic’).  For us, a ‘law’ is more of a black-or-white thing.  There is no consideration of honor or shame to make and action ‘fluid:‘ either a person has broken it or they haven’t.   Assuming that the vast majority of my readers are Westerners, I hope that this point is clear enough that I do not need to expand on it any more than this.  I also hope that — by now — those who have been reading this series will have a better understanding of what I mean by a ‘communal’ and ‘individualistic’ society.  If so, then it is finally time to explain the middle ground, and more importantly, how I think Scripture actually anticipates it.

Before Christ came to establish the New Covenant, believers lived under a communal system of external control enforced by the notion of honor ans shame.  However, years before Christ came, the prophet, Jeremiah, had spoken this prophecy:

Jeremiah 31:31-34  New American Standard Bible (NASB)

31 “Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. 33 “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. 34 They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

There is sooo much in this passage for believers; soon I will write a post unpacking what it means to me.  But, for now, I call the reader’s attention to the words I colored in red.  God, through His prophet, says there will come a day when He will no longer keep His laws outside of the individual’s heart, but He will put them inside the heart of every person.  If we read with Biblical eyes, this can be understood as God promising to change the heart of Israel* from a communal-based (external) to an individually-based (internal) system of control.  But here is the key: Scripture may well prophecy that God will move the force that places restrictions on what we do and do not do from outside of us to within us, but nowhere in His Word does the Lord change His focus on relationships and communities!  This means there must be a middle ground: a system where members of a community are guided by an internal sense of right and wrong, yet they still focus on the needs of their family, community and nation.  If you know the culture, then you will know that this is the exact type of society our Founders had, which is why I say — whether they knew it or not — they were already occupying this middle ground.**

If the reader has followed me so far, I believe I can tie everything together now.  At least, I am going to try.

First, Scripture places a great deal of focus on the importance of relationships.  It starts with our families, but more than that, our extended families.  Then it goes to our communities, and, for those of us in the US, it would go next to our Counties, then our State and — finally — our Nation.  Scripture teaches us we have a duty to all of these people.  The founders knew this and, if we look, we will find they wrote about it.  At the same time, however, the founders had the internal control promised by Jeremiah.  They had consciences, which means they also had aspects of what can rightly be described as an individual-focused society.  The thing is, at least for them, they still retained the vestiges of honor and shame.  In fact, when Jefferson wrote “the pursuit of happiness,” it is most likely he was referring to a Christian term for pursuing a virtuous life (happiness being understood as the same thing Paul called ‘joy.’).  As a result, the founders had the best of both worlds: they had the internal system of control, but they still understood their duties to the people around them.  This system, being based in what I believe is Scriptural grounding, works, and it works for that very reason — it is based in God’s Word.  Unfortunately, the Founders made provisions for decay in our internal controls, but they didn’t provide any protection against decal in the communal and most important aspects of their formula for liberty.

This bring us to why our society is falling apart.  First, the collective never works because — at its foundation — the modern notion of collectivism is based in men pretending they are gods.  True, under Moses, God set up a communal system for society, but He was the Law-Giver.  God stipulated what was and was not moral.  Under modern collectivism, men do this, and not even the whole of society, but always a few people who have managed to seize control.  So, from the perspective of the Scriptures, the modern notion of the collective is nothing more than the result of people trying to assert themselves as gods.

Then there is the problem of ‘post modernism.’  Here is where I think my understanding of communal and individual based societies can help us understand things the most.  Over time, America has lost its communal nature.  We have been losing it for decades, but it really started to accelerate in the mid-1960’s, when we officially kicked God out of our society.  Since then, we have walked away from any notion of responsibility toward our families, our community, and now, even our nation.  At the same time, we have been moving more and more toward a self-centered society.  We even have a generation called the ‘Me’ generation.  This has resulted in a hyper sense of ‘individualism.’  Remember, in a communal society, if an individual acts immorally, honor and shame will eventually catch up to them.  This is because the ultimate control over individual action is external to them.  It resides within the whole of the community.  But what happens to an individualistic society that looses its anchor for it internal controls?  What happens when a society recognizes the individual’s sense of conscience, but has no foundation by which to anchor the individual conscience?  Well, we need but look around to see where this leads.  We get people who literally believe they can control reality simply by willing it to be the way they want.  This is the direct result of the post-modern notion that there is no objective reality.  Well, if there is no objective reality, then an individual’s conscience will allow a person to do whatever they wish and, if there is no external control, the end result will be anarchy.  Luckily, this anarchy usually doesn’t last long because tyrants love to use wide-spread lawlessness to seize control of nations.  People seek security, so, all ta person has to do is promise to restore order and the masses will sing the praises of their new master as they willingly put on their new chains.

If you stayed with me through all three of these posts, I hope I gave you some idea of how I am starting to see and understand the world.  This is all a work in progress for me, so I beg your forgiveness if there are areas upon which I still need to expand.  I will do so, as I work through things in more detail.  But, for me, I can no longer separate my understandings from Scriptural teachings, which means I have to work out how the whole of God’s Word manifest Itself in our material world.  This is no easy task, and I do not expect to ever have more than a fuzzy picture, but then, that is why I call this blog, “As Through Glass” (a variation of Paul’s line, ‘we see in a mirror.’)

 

  • * Believers should note that God is the one who divided Israel and Judah, and who first referred to the northern tribes as Israel and the southern as Judah.   Believers should also take care to note that Jeremiah’s prophecy applies to Israel and not Judah, and that, at this time, Israel had already been ‘lost into the nations.’ 
  • ** Believers should be aware –whether they accept it or not — there are a great many who believe that the Lord’s prophecies promising Ephraim (often used to refer to all of Israel — the northern tribes) a land of rest filled with milk and honey is America, and that our founders are descendants of Ephraim and the lost tribes.  Several of the founders even (including Franklin) referred to America as ‘New Israel.’  I only mention this so that the reader will be aware of it.

 

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