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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

What is the earth?

A review...
"Proclaim the Gospel," some sage once said, "and use words if necessary." This is a pithy way to express what I have said about the saints. "The lives of the saints make concrete the message of God's Good News." Their lives serve as a wonderful commentary on various passages. They show in time and place what it looks like to obey the words. They put flesh and blood on concepts, ideas, images and words.

Now, we are also saints, even if less fully developed and actualized than those enshrined (canonized) in our church 'Hall of Fame.' Learning from them, we can be challenged and comforted. We also gain insight into how the Word of God is dressed in different cultures (across time and place). It is a 'particular moment and words' which encapsulate the Eternal Word.

The "four senses" of Scripture, the ancient way of reading and hearing God speak is the model used in the Bible itself! The foundational and most basic is the literal/plain reading. Next is the moral/ethical, this is the practical, behavioral wisdom and guidance for a full life. The mystagogical is connected to--revealing or explaining--"the mysteries of salvation" or signs/sacraments through which we encounter God. Lastly, there is the spiritual depth of meaning (analogical, symbolic,typological, etc.) This is probably the key one, for herein lies the deeper meaning and the fuller communication of God.

Obviously, the plain/literal provides much protection from subjective and fanciful interpretation. The church has long recognized the capacity for delusion and eisegesis. But when we only seek the plain meaning we are also led astray, especially when the text in question is symbolic by intent (e.g. God does not have hands, it is a metaphor). In other words, too often the plain reading misses the point or emphasizes the wrong point. Here is a simple example I encountered in our morning prayer today.

Morning Prayer included Psalm 24. Hear verses 1&2: The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it, the world and all who dwell therein. For it is He Who founded it upon the seas, and made it firm over the rivers of the deep.
The Hebrew 'erets (earth, land, world) and tobel (world, in multiple OT usage it appears with columns or pillars) refer to the planet on which we live. The geography in the plain reading does not reflect the world as we understand it (a sphere, no pillars, no waters and rivers under us; we are in space rotating around the sun). However, the meaning (God creates it, He establishes it securely) is certainly true. No Christian today says that God's Word demands we believe that the earth floats on a river or is within a dome to keep the celestial waters out. We have fully embraced the spiritual meaning of the text and superceded the plain and obvious sense. We affirm God creates! That belief changes everything. The particular way it is expressed is how they (inspired by the Holy Spirit) conveyed that message to people three thousand years ago.

A deeper spiritual meaning might understand the waters as chaos (the Hebrew meaning in the Genesis creation which the Psalmist assumes) which God combats daily (we call it salvation). As a type (Paul and Peter as exemplars in their writings) it can be the waters of baptism or the Holy Spirit (two quick ones off the top of my head). In that case we are proclaiming (good news, evangelism) that the sure foundation of creation is truly found in the life of God through baptism and His (unseen) working through the Holy Spirit. Now, in those verses, we have a spiritual geography, a revelation of what is really taking place, not observable to the eye. We praise God for creating and sustaining the world, for physical existence and a deeper life. The laws of nature which God has put in place in creation are the firm foundation for its continued being...

Not very plain or literal, but also not manufacturing an unneeded debate with earth science about the structure of the world. And that is much better, don't you think? It frees up to contemplate the Creator in words which are in usage among us today, without losing any of the depth or the power.

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