Relevant Verses: 1 Cor. 10:1-11; Numbers 11-14
Leading Question: “Can a believer question God without being sinfully rebellious?”
In an authoritarian culture, any questioning of “authority” is already condemned as an act of rebellion. Josef Stalin, who ruled the USSR with an iron fist from 1922 to1953, bequeathed to the Russian people an entirely closed system in which even the smallest questioning of authority could lead to loss of job, to exile, or to death. Only when two brave Russians decided to step out, at great personal risk, was a modicum of freedom restored.
The novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918 -2008), winner of the Novel Prize for literature in 1970, and the nuclear scientist Andrei Sakharov (1921 -1989), winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975, joined forces to break the smothering hold of authority in their native Russia. Speaking of Solzhenitsyn, one writer has said, “In terms of the effect he has had on history, Solzhenitsyn is the dominant writer of the twentieth century” (David Remnick, Resurrection, 1997).
In biblical history, the figures of Abraham and Moses stand out as believers who boldly challenged God – in the interest of defending him, to be sure – and won their way through.
But having thus struck a blow for the right to ask questions, I want to pick up the theme of lesson which focuses on the dangers of being “restless and rebellious.”
Numbers 11-14 lie at the heart of our lesson, 4 chapters that describe God’s attempts to deal with the rebellious ex-slaves. But 1 Corinthians 10:1-11 brings us a New Testament commentary on the Old Testament history of rebellion. These two sections of Scripture, one from each Testament, will be the focus of this lesson.
Note: The last verse of the NT commentary on the OT rebellion, namely, 1 Corinthians 10:11, provides a very useful concept that has a wide application throughout all Scripture. The message is clear in the classic words of the KJV: “Now all these things happened unto them for examples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.”
Devout people are very much tempted to use the words of Scripture to make universal and absolute applications to events in our day, a practice that is potentially deadly. A remarkable and helpful corrective to that universalizing impulse is provided in the writings of Ellen White:
“Every association of life calls for the exercise of self-control, forbearance, and sympathy. We differ so widely in disposition, habits, education, that our ways of looking at things vary. We judge differently. Our understanding of truth, our ideas in regard to the conduct of life, are not in all respects the same. There are no two whose experience is alike in every particular. The trials of one are not the trials of another. The duties that one finds light are to another most difficult and perplexing.” – Ministry of Healing, 483 (1905)
One of my students, listening to the way I used Scriptures and the writings of Ellen White, blurted out in class, “What you are doing is using a casebook instead of a codebook approach.” It was as though a light came on for me. “You’re right,” I said. “Thank you for the inspiration!”
The “examples” of 1 Cor. 10:11 provides a “safer,” more biblical-sounding, approach to the idea. It’s worth noting that the “casebook/codebook” distinction has triggered the most extreme reactions of almost anything I have written. Many of my students say that is the most helpful idea that they have learned in my classes. By contrast, those who have not been in my classes but have heard or read about the casebook/codebook distinction, have sometimes been very troubled.
Part of the difficulty stems from the title for Chapter 7in the original edition of my book Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers (Review and Herald, 1991): “God’s Word: Casebook or Codebook?” That was also the title for that chapter when it was reprinted in Ministry (July 1991, 6-10.) That “feels” too relativistic.
In the second edition of Inspiration, I include a one-page introduction to chapter 7, explaining the change in chapter title. This is a short version explaining that change:
“In the first edition I was so keen on introducing the diversity in Scripture, that I did not take into account the fragmenting impression that such an emphasis can leave in the minds of some readers. Only with a secure nucleus that never changes, as embodied in the law pyramid (the One Great Command of Love, Jesus’ Two Great Commands, and the Ten), will devout conservatives be willing to address issues of diversity. From a practical perspective, this is the most significant change in the new edition.”
The revised “casebook” chapter is included at the end of this lesson
But now let’s turn to the “examples,” the “cases” of the “restless and rebellious” people of God in Numbers 11-14. 1 Corinathins 10:1-11 summarizes the instances of rebellion. But Numbers provides the more complete picture.
Numbers 11-14: “The Restless and Rebellious”: ten incidents. “Restless and Rebellious” is a wonderful label that covers all four chapters. But the separate incidents are worth noting:
1. Grumbles, fire, and a complaint from Moses: 11:1-15. The chapter opens with a surge of whining from the people. The Lord heard it and was angry. A fire from the Lord began to destroy the people at the outlying edge of the camp. But Moses’ intercession effectively quenched the fire. Finally, Moses complained mightily to the Lord. The CEV (Contemporary English Version) translates his complaint/prayer in vivid language:
“I am your servant, Lord, so why are you doing this to me? What have I done to deserve this? You’ve made me responsible for all these people, 12 but they’re not my children. You told me to nurse them along and to carry them to the land you promised their ancestors. 13 They keep whining for meat, but where can I get meat for them? 14 This job is too much for me. How can I take care of all these people by myself? 15 If this is the way you’re going to treat me, just kill me now and end my miserable life!”
2. The Lord responds to Moses’ complaint: 70 “inspired prophets to the rescue”! 11:11-30: Put rather quaintly, the NRSV describes how the division of responsibility would be spread:
11:17 “I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself.”
But the Lord wasn’t finished:
11:18-23: And say to the people: Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow, and you shall eat meat; for you have wailed in the hearing of the Lord, saying, ‘If only we had meat to eat! Surely it was better for us in Egypt.’ Therefore the Lord will give you meat, and you shall eat. 19 You shall eat not only one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, 20 but for a whole month—until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you—because you have rejected the Lord who is among you, and have wailed before him, saying, ‘Why did we ever leave Egypt?’” 21 But Moses said, “The people I am with number six hundred thousand on foot; and you say, ‘I will give them meat, that they may eat for a whole month’! 22 Are there enough flocks and herds to slaughter for them? Are there enough fish in the sea to catch for them?” 23 The Lord said to Moses, “Is the Lord’s power limited? Now you shall see whether my word will come true for you or not.”
3. The blessing and curse of the quail: 11:31-35. As promised, God gave them meat, enough quail to make them sick forever. But the aftermath is sobering:
11:35 “But while the meat was still between their teeth, before it was consumed, the anger of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord struck the people with a very great plague.”
4. Miriam and Aaron rebel against Moses’ authority: 12:1-16. When Miriam and Aaron grumbled against Moses because of his Cushite wife, the Lord passed quick judgment on Miriam, striking her with leprosy, and said she should be sent outside the camp for one week. During that time, the encampment stayed in place.
5. Spying out the land: 13:1-24. The initial paragraphs reporting the visit of the spies to Canaan are simply descriptive. All twelve of the disciples were particularly impressed by the lush fruit.
6. The spies are divided: 13:25-33. Ten of the twelve spies said it couldn’t be done. Caleb gave a vigorous minority report, but to no avail.
7. Rebellion: 14:1-12. Moses and Aaron, Caleb and Joshua urged the people to move ahead. But the rebellion was now in full bloom. There was talk of a stoning. The Lord was not pleased:
And the Lord said to Moses, “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? 12 I will strike them with pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.”
Just as after the rebellion at Sinai (Exodus 32:10), God threatened to destroy the people and make of Moses a great nation, he again offered to wipe out the people and make of Moses a great people. But Moses would have nothing of it.
13 But Moses said to the Lord, “Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for in your might you brought up this people from among them, 14 and they will tell the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that you, O Lord, are in the midst of this people; for you, O Lord, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go in front of them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. 15 Now if you kill this people all at one time, then the nations who have heard about you will say, 16 ‘It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land he swore to give them that he has slaughtered them in the wilderness.’ 17 And now, therefore, let the power of the Lord be great in the way that you promised when you spoke, saying,
18 ‘The Lord is slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love,
forgiving iniquity and transgression,
but by no means clearing the guilty,
visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children
to the third and the fourth generation.’
19 Forgive the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have pardoned this people, from Egypt even until now.”
20 Then the Lord said, “I do forgive, just as you have asked . . . .
But there were consequences:
21 nevertheless—as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord— 22 none of the people who have seen my glory and the signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have tested me these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, 23 shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors; none of those who despised me shall see it. 24 But my servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed me wholeheartedly, I will bring into the land into which he went, and his descendants shall possess it. 25 Now, since the Amalekites and the Canaanites live in the valleys, turn tomorrow and set out for the wilderness by the way to the Red Sea.”
9. The unfaithful spies die immediately; the rest are told that they will die in the wilderness: Numbers 14:26-38. Only Caleb and Joshua were excluded from the sobering judgment. They were the two spies who gave a good report.
10. The rebellious and disastrous invasion: Numbers 14:39-45. All of a sudden the people decided that they wanted to invade the land after all. But again Moses was appalled and tried to dissuade them:
39 When Moses told these words to all the Israelites, the people mourned greatly. 40 They rose early in the morning and went up to the heights of the hill country, saying, “Here we are. We will go up to the place that the Lord has promised, for we have sinned.” 41 But Moses said, “Why do you continue to transgress the command of the Lord? That will not succeed. 42 Do not go up, for the Lord is not with you; do not let yourselves be struck down before your enemies. 43 For the Amalekites and the Canaanites will confront you there, and you shall fall by the sword; because you have turned back from following the Lord, the Lord will not be with you.” 44 But they presumed to go up to the heights of the hill country, even though the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and Moses, had not left the camp. 45 Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down and defeated them, pursuing them as far as Hormah.
Questions: In this astonishing survey of promise and punishment, hope and dejection, in short a “restless and rebellious” roller coaster, how should we evaluate the following “players”?
- The people
- Caleb and Joshua
Chapter 7 from Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers, 2nd edition, 2016
Casebook and Codebook
In the revised edition of this book, I have made one small but significant change in the title. Instead of a question: “Casebook or Codebook?” I have moved to a clear, affirmative statement: “Casebook and Codebook.” To my astonishment, the suggestion put forward in the first edition that Scripture is often more like a casebook than a codebook has produced a volatile response. This revision addresses that very issue.
The uproar over the use of the word casebook was particularly surprising to me because my goal in writing this book in the first place was to establish what is clear and immoveable in Scripture – those things that never change – over against those adaptations of God’s law to particular times and places, that is, the things that do change.
Chapters seven and eight, in particular, address the issue is some detail. And the following chapters often make use of the concept. But let me give a clear summary in advance, a snapshot of the great Law Pyramid:
The One – The one great principle of love: “Love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:10).
The Two – Jesus’ two great commands: First, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart” (Matt. 22:37, quoting Deut. 6:5); second, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39, quoting Lev. 19:18).
The Ten – The commands spoken from Sinai and written in stone (Deut. 4:13, referring to Exod. 20 and Deut. 5).
The One, the Two, and the Ten – that’s the Law Pyramid. It never changes. Everything else in Scripture illustrates and applies the One, the Two, and the Ten in more specific times and places.
Now let’s get on with this chapter as it was in the first edition.
A casual conversation after church from several years ago provides a good introduction to the casebook/codebook question posed by this chapter.
A man stepped up to me and volunteered the following comment: “I see that the School of Theology is going to be ordaining women,” he began. He had taken his cue from an article in favor of ordination that had appeared in Westwind, the Walla Walla College alumni journal. Based on interviews with the School of Theology faculty, the article reflected the consensus of the theology faculty that women should be ordained. Each interview, however, had included an important qualifier: “when the church is ready.”
“Ordination is not the responsibility of the School of Theology,” I reminded him. “But we do believe the church should move in that direction, at least here in North America.”
“But what do you do with Paul’s counsel,” he returned, “that women are to keep quiet and not have authority over men?” (See 1 Timothy 2:11-15.)
“Paul’s counsel reflected the culture of his day, not an enduring principle.”
“But Paul based his statement on the fact that Adam was created before Eve.”
“That was Paul’s logic, not necessarily God’s,” I said, adding then an echo from Selected Messages, book 1, p. 21: “God has not placed Himself on trial in the Bible in words, logic, or rhetoric.”
“Wasn’t Paul inspired?”
“Of course. But inspired writers always address their own culture – and culture changes.”
“But God does not change.”
Sensing that it was time to tap into some Old Testament illustrations, I asked about the laws dealing with slavery, citing those in Exodus 21:1-6.
“I see nothing wrong with slavery.”
“And polygamy?” I responded. “What about the law in Exodus 21:7-11 that commands a man to grant full marital rights to his first wife if he takes the second one. Does that still apply?”
“Except for elders and deacons, I find nothing in the Bible that would forbid a man from having more than one wife.”
Somewhat unnerved by his self-confident answers, I decided to try once more: “What about blood vengeance?” I asked. “Do you think a man should even the score when a near relative is killed?” (See Numbers 35:9-28).
“If we practiced blood vengeance today,” was the ready response, “we would have a lot less trouble with law and order.”
To my knowledge, this brother did not own slaves, have more than one wife, or practice blood vengeance. But he still felt compelled to argue that a law once given by God should live forever. For him, Scripture clearly was a codebook.
In our culture today, a codebook is an instrument of precision. When a contractor builds to code, he goes by the book. The minimums are clear, the specifications exact. If he wishes, he may install more insulation or provide more access than the code prescribes, but not less.
Typically a codebook demands application more than interpretation, obedient compliance more than thoughtful reflection. It anticipates a straightforward query from the inspector: “Did you follow code?” The answer is a simple yes or no. Proof of compliance is at hand and easily measurable.
Is Scripture like that? In some respects, yes. But I believe there is a better approach for Scripture as a whole. Let me suggest two propositions as a springboard for discussion:
- Except for the law pyramid, Scripture is more like a casebook than a codebook.
- Believers are reluctant to admit the casebook model for fear of undermining the authority of Scripture.
We will take up each proposition in turn and explore what it means for the church today.
Scripture: Casebook More Than Codebook
I am indebted to one of my students for the suggestion that Scripture is like a casebook. He simply blurted it out during a discussion on biblical law: “What you are describing is simply a casebook,” he exclaimed. Since then, I have become increasingly convinced that the casebook/codebook comparison is a fruitful one for helping us understand the nature of Scripture.
Whereas a codebook is at home in legal circles and in the realm of the trades and technology, a casebook is often a more useful tool in the behavioral and social sciences. It can also provide the raw data on which certain legal judgments are based. But instead of mandating a single, clearly defined response as a codebook would do, a casebook describes a series of examples which reflect a variety of responses under varied circumstances. None of the cases may be fully definitive or prescriptive in other settings, but each is described in a manner that could be helpful to someone facing similar circumstances.
In this chapter I will attempt to show, by way of pertinent examples, why a casebook model is preferable to a codebook for explaining much of what we find in Scripture. The following chapters continue the discussion. Chapter 8 develops a more thorough and systematic argument for the casebook approach, especially in the realm of law. Chapter 9 explores a specific New Testament passage, Acts 15, in which the casebook approach provides a helpful framework within which to interpret events bridging the Old and New Testaments.
In the examples that follow, we will note instances in which the complexity of changing times and circumstances suggest that a casebook approach can provide the right kind of framework for understanding the breadth of biblical material.
Law Codes – The examples cited above in my after-church conversation – slavery, polygamy, and blood vengeance – are all customs addressed by Old Testament law codes but which most Christians would consider inappropriate for Westerners in our day.
If, however, we want a specific biblical command indicating that these customs are no longer valid, we will be disappointed. In a technical sense, the brother who accosted me after church was right. Nowhere does Scripture directly condemn slavery, polygamy, or blood vengeance.
Since the next chapter discusses biblical law in greater detail, one additional example can suffice here to illustrate how the Bible itself adopts something like a casebook approach, actually reversing the application of a biblical law in the light of different circumstances.
The example involves the relationship between a man and his brother’s wife. As part of a list of forbidden incestuous relationships, Leviticus 18:16 specifically commanded a man not to “uncover the nakedness” of his brother’s wife. This law formed the basis for John the Baptist’s condemnation of Herod Antipas (Matt. 14:3, 4).
If a man died without male offspring, however, Deuteronomy 25:5-10 describes how a brother actually was commanded to take his brother’s wife and carry on the brother’s name. This law, known as the levirate marriage law (law of the husband’s brother), was the basis for the Sadducees’ trick question to Jesus: “In the resurrection, to whom does a woman belong who has married seven brothers in turn?” (Matt. 22:23-33).
While the circumstances mandating the exception for levirate marriage are clearly spelled out, a legitimate question would be: Do either one or both of these laws still apply in our day? Regardless of the answer, a casebook approach would seem preferable to a codebook model for accommodating the differences between them.
Proverbs – A rather striking instance of apparently contradictory proverbs occurs in Proverbs 26:4, 5. The first proverb recommends one line of action, the second precisely the opposite:
26:4 “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself” (RSV).
26:5 “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes” (RSV).
Some first century rabbis found such seeming contradictions troubling, even suggesting that Proverbs did not belong in the canon. A few moments of reflection, however, will suggest that proverbs by their very nature are likely to be generally true rather than universally true. In the world of non-inspired proverbs, for example, we may set two perfectly good proverbs against each other as apparently contradictory: “Too many cooks spoil the broth” versus “Many hands make light work.”
What determines which proverb applies? The circumstances in the kitchen, of course. Any cook can think of times when one proverb would apply more appropriately than the other.
As for the biblical proverbs cited above, one could conceive of circumstances when a fool should be confronted, but other circumstances when silence would be preferable. All that assumes, of course, that we are perfectly clear that we are dealing with a fool.
How could a codebook deal with all of that? It cannot. When more than one application is possible, a casebook is more helpful.
Prophetic Counsel – What would a prophet say to the following question: “Should God’s people resist a pagan invader or surrender?”
In the days of King Hezekiah, when the Assyrians threatened Jerusalem, Isaiah the prophet counseled resistance and promised victory for the kingdom of Judah (Isaiah 37:5-7).
Some 100 years later, in the days of King Zedekiah, Jeremiah the prophet gave just the opposite advice when Babylon threatened Jerusalem: “He who goes out and surrenders to the Chaldeans who are besieging you shall live and shall have his life as a prize of war” (Jer. 21:9, RSV). Understandably, Jeremiah was accused of treason.
We may not understand all the varied circumstances that led God to extend mercy to His people under Hezekiah and withdraw it from them under Zedekiah, though Hezekiah’s reputation certainly was superior to Zedekiah’s. But we certainly would expect God to adapt His approach to circumstances. And since a variety of factors determines the prophet’s response, a casebook seems more adequate than a codebook.
The Words of Jesus – A question for Jesus: “What kind of physical preparations and equipment do we need when we are serving in Your name?”
Jesus answers in Luke 22:35, 36 (RSV): “‘When I sent you out with no purse or bag or sandals, did you lack anything?’ They said, ‘Nothing.’ He said to them, “But now, let him who has a purse take it, and likewise a bag. And let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one.’”
How could a codebook clearly prescribe what we are to take when? Jesus’ answer requires a casebook approach.
Bible Biographies: Public Witnessing – A question for both Daniel and Esther: “How important is it to state one’s convictions clearly when under threat?”
Daniel would say: “In one instance, I told the king’s servant that we could not eat the king’s food. Another situation involved my friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. When they refused to bow the knee on the plain of Dura, they were thrown into the fiery furnace. But they stood firm. Finally, when King Darius forbid his subjects the right to pray to anyone other than himself, I kept on praying three times a day from my open window. For my convictions, I was thrown in the lions’ den. But the Lord protected me.”
By contrast, Esther would respond: “When King Ahasuerus sought a new queen, I obeyed my cousin Mordecai and did not identify myself as a Jew. I was treated as all the other maidens until he selected me as queen. Even then I did not reveal my identity. Not until the very existence of my people was at stake did I take my life in my hands and admit that I was a Jew.”
When Daniel tells us to speak up and Esther espouses keeping quiet, we know we need a casebook more than a codebook.
Bible Biographies: Soliciting Support from Pagans – A question for Ezra and Nehemiah: “Is it appropriate to ask pagan neighbors for protection and financial support for a trip back to Jerusalem?”
Ezra, in 457 BCE, answered no (Ezra 8:21-23). Ellen White comments: “In this matter, Ezra and his companions saw an opportunity to magnify the name of God before the heathen. Faith in the power of the living God would be strengthened if the Israelites themselves should now reveal implicit faith in their divine Leader. They therefore determined to put their trust wholly in Him. They would ask for no guard of soldiers. They would give the heathen no occasion to ascribe to the strength of man the glory that belongs to God alone. They could not afford to arouse in the minds of their heathen friends one doubt as to the sincerity of their dependence on God as His people. Strength would be gained, not through wealth, not through the power and influence of idolatrous men, but through the favor of God” (PK, pp. 615, 616, italics mine).
Nehemiah, in 444 BCE, answered yes (Nehemiah 2:7-9). Ellen White comments: “His request to the king had been so favorably received that Nehemiah was encouraged to ask for still further assistance. To give dignity and authority to his mission, as well as to provide protection on the journey, he asked for and secured a military escort. He obtained royal letters to the governors of the provinces beyond the Euphrates, the territory through which he must pass on his way to Judea; and he obtained, also, a letter to the keeper of the king’s forest in the mountains of Lebanon, directing him to furnish such timber as would be needed . . . .
“Nehemiah did not depend upon uncertainty. The means that he lacked he solicited from those who were able to bestow. And the Lord is still willing to move upon the hearts of those in possession of His goods, in behalf of the cause of truth. Those who labor for Him are to avail themselves of the help that He prompts men to give. These gifts may open ways to which the light of truth shall go to many benighted lands. The donors may have no faith in Christ, no acquaintance with His word; but their gifts are not on this account to be refused” (PK, pp. 633, 634, italics mine).
Christians who are sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of the world around them can easily conceive of circumstances when it would be wise to follow Ezra’s example. Other occasions may call for Nehemiah’s response. The casebook of Scripture includes both Ezra and Nehemiah and we can learn from both.
Apostolic Counsel – A question for the Apostle Paul: “What about marriage in these last days?”
“That depends,” he says in 1 Corinthians 7. “It is better to be single. But if you are already married, partners have a mutual obligation to grant each other conjugal rights” (vss. 1-7).
“If you are now single, even though I would prefer that you remain that way, it is still better to marry than to burn with passion” (verses 8, 9).
“If you are married to a non-believer, stay with your partner unless he or she wishes to separate. If the unbelieving partner desires to separate, let it be so. In such a case the believer is not bound” (verses 12-16).
The many variables Paul suggests would seem to fit more comfortably in a casebook than in a codebook.
Summary – In some of the examples noted above, the circumstances relating to apparently contradictory applications are spelled out. This is particularly true of the ancient law codes. Paul’s various concessions relating to marriage are also rather well defined, though they do not eliminate the need for significant personal decisions.
In most of the other instances, however, Scripture is largely silent about the reasons and circumstances that resulted in seemingly opposite actions or reactions. Since more than one legitimate alternative was open to the believer, the believer was required to choose a course of action, without a clear-cut command or a specific revelation from the Lord.
That places a high level of responsibility on the individual human being. It raises the fearful possibility of choosing wrongly and rationalizing away our duty to our own detriment and to the dishonor of God. All that is rather sobering.
Let us remind ourselves, however, that in each of the above instances, believers have been quite capable of integrating both sides of a seeming “contradiction” into a meaningful pattern of obedience toward God. To answer a fool or not, to solicit support from non-believers or not, to witness publicly or silently – all these are serious matters of obedience towards God. But each alternative can be seen as an obedient response in the right circumstances. The difficulty is that no codebook can provide us with the “right” answer in advance. We have a casebook with the various possibilities laid out before us. But ultimately, we have to choose our response. God will not do it for us.
And that last point is where the rub comes with many devout believers. Admitting that Scripture is a casebook seems entirely too open-ended. It could be seen as a dangerous invitation to take too much responsibility upon ourselves. That could lead to wrong decisions that would dishonor God and His Word.
This reluctance to be straightforward with Scripture as a casebook is a matter we must probe more carefully in connection with our second proposition.
The Reluctance to Accept a Casebook Approach
Devout believers respect God’s authority and the authority of His Word. It is understandable, perhaps, that believers in general are reluctant to say privately or publicly that a particular command or example in Scripture does not apply to them. To risk the possibility of the human will overruling the divine will is not an attractive prospect for someone really serious about obedience. Furthermore, examples can be multiplied of “careless” Christians who dismiss their responsibilities all too easily with a times-have-changed argument.
But even if we admit the cogency of the previously mentioned examples, the rhetoric from devout believers tends to portray God’s Word as providing much clearer guidance than is actually the case when we come down to specific circumstances in our lives. Several quotations, gleaned at random from both official and unofficial Adventist sources can serve to illustrate the fears, the longings, and expectations that we bring to Scripture – all of which can cloud our own responsibilities before God and obscure the nature of the decisions we are making.
The fear of relying on humanity is reflected in the following: “We cannot measure right and wrong by our feelings or by what the majority are doing! We need something from outside ourselves to tell us where the truth lies” (Joe Crews, Inside Report, vol. 4, no. 5 [n.d.]).
The deep reverence for inspired writings is suggested in an advertisement for some booklets by Ellen White. They are described as being “inspired by the Holy Spirit, and therefore faultless in the messages they contain” (Our Firm Foundation, July 1989, p. 10). The term “faultless” implies a certain transcendent quality overshadowing any need for human beings to interpret and apply.
A longing for consistency can lead us to overlook the fact that some divine commands were temporary and that God has introduced some dramatic changes in the way He has dealt with humanity. Note how the following statement reflects the desire for consistency: “But the Bible itself offers abundant evidence that advancing light does not contradict past light. What was truth in Abraham’s day did not become error in Christ’s day” (Robertson, p. 66).
There is a larger consistency in Scripture, to be sure – Ellen White’s phrase is “underlying harmony.” But a desire for consistency should not lead us to oversimplify the evidence from Scripture. Unless we can tuck the “apparent contradictions” into a casebook, how can we explain such a startling event as God’s command that Abraham sacrifice Isaac, to mention just one vivid example?
In connection with the use of Ellen White’s writings as a commentary on Scripture, the same source drops a revealing hint of our deep-seated reluctance to admit that human beings must and do interpret inspired writings. A question mark is raised over the person who considers himself “free to determine his own interpretation of Scripture.” Why is that dangerous? Because “One’s own authority may compete with the gift of prophecy” (Robertson, p. 64).
But let us be candid about the twin dangers facing the church. Some people, indeed, have a tendency to disregard divine authority. They take the reins into their own hands and do not listen to God’s Word. But a much larger number in the church are all too willing to let some authority do their thinking for them – a parent, a pastor, the church, a commentary, Ellen White, even the Bible.
An authoritarian approach to Scripture, one that assumes that all our thinking has been done for us, results in perhaps the greatest irony of all, in the name of God, we end up relying on an arm of flesh.
In the aftermath of the 1888 Minneapolis Conference, Ellen White spoke again and again of the need for believers to study and think for themselves. The following quotation is particularly appropriate when it comes to the topic of Bible study: “Beware of rejecting that which is truth. The great danger with our people has been that of depending upon men, and making flesh their arm. Those who have not been in the habit of searching the Bible for themselves, or weighing evidence, have confidence in the leading men, and accept the decisions they make; and thus many will reject the very messages God sends to His people, if these leading brethren do not accept them” (TM, pp. 106, 107, italics mine).
But now let us work toward a concrete solution. If we clearly define Scripture as a casebook, then we are admitting that the Bible lays before us the many differing ways that God has guided His people in the past, but without making our decisions for us.
How then can we know whether to answer a fool or not (Proverbs)? To witness publicly (Daniel) or keep quiet (Esther)? To make preparations and solicit help (Nehemiah) or simply to trust that God will provide (Ezra)? To take a sword or not (Jesus)? To marry or stay single (Paul)?
The answer is brief, beautiful, painful: We cannot just know Scripture, we have to know God. And in that very connection, I would like to share briefly and in a rather personal way how the casebook approach to Scripture has revitalized my devotional experience. Depending on how you look at it, that three-cornered relationship involving God, His Word, and me, has become more simple and more complex, easier and more difficult. The whole process has become more intense and more challenging – and boredom is never a problem any more.
The Casebook of Scripture and the Devotional Life
I cannot remember when I made the startling discovery that my religious experience was based on a codebook or checklist perspective. Adventists steeped in the writings of Ellen White know all about the big three Christian responsibilities: prayer, Bible study, and sharing. What I discovered in my life, however, was that I was doing these three, not so much for their intrinsic value, but, quite frankly, to keep God happy.
In my mind’s eye I pictured Him as a kind of giant scoutmaster with chart in hand. Each day he would mark off whether I prayed, studied my Bible, and shared. Thus, in my devotional life, duty led the way and true meaning trailed along behind somewhere. I always had one eye on the clock; I felt guilty when I fell short.
As I studied Scripture, however, it became clearer to me that I could not approach people – or God, for that matter – on the basis of a checklist. People and their needs differed greatly. How could I effectively point them to God? Without realizing it I began matching people and circumstances from my modern world with the world of Scripture. As I brought the various “cases” in my life into connection with the “cases” in Scripture, a serious dialogue with God became part of the process.
As I see it now, those conversations with Him remind me that my decisions are not mine alone, but His decisions, too. Not that He does my thinking for me, or that He makes the final choice, but those conversations do keep Him and His kingdom foremost in my thinking and make it more likely that my decisions will be motivated by the principle of love rather than by the principle of selfishness.
When viewed in this way, prayer is not a substitute for thinking, but an enhancement of the thought processes. A true Christian will use his mind more, not less.
Attempting to visualize what takes place when we pray might help us understand the process better. When I raise this question with friends, the range of suggestions is intriguing. Here are some samples:
- The radio. We are the receiver playing God’s signal. In this model we are passive, God is active.
- The pilot. God is in the control tower. We must be touch with him if we want to land safely. But he does not force us. We choose whether or not to listen and respond. This is a more interactive model requiring greater human responsibility.
- The filter. Conversation with God acts like a filter on a moving stream. If our prayer life is healthy, the water is pure on the other side of the filter. When our prayer life falters, the stream keeps flowing, but the water coming through the clogged filter is impure.
The last two examples I have found particularly helpful. The pilot metaphor tells me that I must choose to listen and obey. The filter analogy reminds me that life goes on if I do not pray – but the result is impure.
In contrast with my earlier codebook or checklist approach, I no longer see Bible study and prayer simply as a means to keep God happy. Reading His Word in dialogue with Him lies at the very heart of my relationship to the world around me. And the sharing process has become natural, for having discovered the joy of communion with Him through his Word, I find it impossible not to share.
This approach to Scripture has significant implications. I can no longer define sin (singular) simply in terms of sins (plural), a list of acts committed or omitted. Sin is also a way of life lived apart from God.
Defining sin in this way means that “sinlessness” or “sinless perfection” no longer commands the same interest as it did before, because we now define our relationship to God in terms of “dependence” on Him. In this respect, Jesus now becomes our perfect example because we learn from Him how to relate to our heavenly Father. His life was one of constant conversation with God about the affairs of life. That can be our life too.
To summarize, I would like to emphasize that it is perfectly acceptable for Christians to make human decisions on how we are to live. Scripture will not do our thinking for us. Nor will God. The tendency among devout, conservative Christians is to let revelation speak for itself. We fear that reason can destroy the authority of revelation. The casebook approach allows us, indeed, forces us to recognize that revelation and reason must work together. Revelation always deals with specific cases. Reason, in dialogue with the Spirit, determines which of those cases are most helpful in informing the decisions we make day by day.
A crucial question remains, however, one that we must address in our next chapter: If Scripture as a whole is a casebook, which parts of Scripture still have value as a permanent codebook?
Yes, there are absolutes in Scripture. And these we must clearly define if we are to know how to interpret the various cases in our casebook.