God's Word: casebook or codebook?

Sometimes Scripture seems to offer contradictory guidance. What model of Scripture best helps us put it all together?

Alden Thompson, Ph.D., is professor of biblical studies at Walla Walla College, Walla Walla, Washington. This article is a reprint of the chapter by the same name in his recently published book Inspiration (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1991). Used by permission.

A casual conversation after church several years ago provides a good introduction to the casebook/codebook question. A man stepped up to me and volunteered the following comment: "I see that the School of Theology is going to begin ordaining women." He had taken his cue from an article on the topic of women's 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 the 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 Tim. 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 Ellen G. White's Selected Messages: "God has not placed Himself on trial in the Bible in words, logic, or rhetoric."1

"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 Num. 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 con tractor 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 straight forward 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:

1. While Scripture clearly contains some codebook elements, on balance, it is more like a casebook than a codebook.

2. Believers are reluctant to admit the casebook model for fear of under mining the authority of Scripture.

We will take up each proposition in turn and explore what it means for the church today.

Casebook more than codebook

I am indebted to one of my students for the suggestion that Scripture is like a casebook. The suggestion grew out of class discussions on biblical law. Increasingly I am convinced that the casebook/codebook comparison is fruitful 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 that 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 the examples that follow, we will note instances in which the complexities 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 supported by Old Testament law codes but which most Christians would consider inappropriate for Westerners of the twentieth century.

If, however, we look for 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.

One additional example can suffice here to illustrate how the Bible itself adopts something like a casebook approach, in this instance 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).

However, if a man died without male offspring, 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?" (see Matt. 22:23-33).

While the circumstances mandating the exception for levirate marriage were 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: "Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself' (verse 4). "Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes" (verse 5).

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 individual 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, 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 offers more help.

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 (Isa. 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). 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 was certainly 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 approach 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 22:35-38: " '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 and 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 re fused to bow the knee on the plain of Dura, they were thrown into the fiery furnace. But they stood firm. Finally, when King Darius forbade 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 Uncle Mordecai and did not identify myself as a Jew. I was treated as all the other maidens until the king 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 advocates speaking 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 B.C., 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.''2

Nehemiah, in 444 B.C., answered yes (Neh. 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 by 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."3

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" (verses 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 nonbeliever, 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 just noted, 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 remains largely silent about the reasons and circumstances that resulted in seemingly opposite actions or reactions. Since inspiration opened more than one legitimate alternative to the believers, they were 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 capably integrated both sides of a seeming "contradiction" into a meaningful pattern of obedience to ward God. To answer a fool or not, to solicit support from nonbelievers or not, to witness publicly or silently all these are serious matters of obedience toward 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. Instead, 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, which could then 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, 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." 4

An advertisement for some booklets by Ellen White suggests the deep reverence for inspired writings that so many of us hold. The ad describes them as being "inspired by the Holy Spirit, and therefore faultless in the messages they contain." 5 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." 6

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 over simplify 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 deter mine his own interpretation of Scripture." Why is that dangerous? Because "one's own authority may compete with the gift of prophecy." 7

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 General Conference session, Ellen White spoke again and again on 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: "Be ware 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 mes sages God sends to His people, if these leading brethren do not accept them. 8

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 specific decisions for us.

How then can we know whether to answer a fool or not (Proverbs)? To witness publicly (Daniel), or to 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 to 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 re vitalized my devotional experience. De pending 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 anymore.

Approach enhances devotions

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 and 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:

a. The radio. We are a receiver playing God's signal. In this model we are passive, God is active.

b. The pilot. God is in the control tower. We must be in 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 inter active model and requires greater human responsibility.

c. 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 of keeping 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 also 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. For example, 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 the question of "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 us as 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: If Scripture as a whole is a casebook, do 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.

In the next chapter of his book Thompson identifies which portions of Scripture he considers to fit the codebook model.—Editors.

1 Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub.
Assn., 1958, book 1, p. 21.

2 ____, Prophets and Kings (Mountain
View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1917), pp.
615, 616. (Italics supplied.)

3 Ibid., pp. 633, 634.

4 Joe Crews, Inside Report, vol. 4, No. 5

5 Our Firm Foundation, July 1989, p. 10.

6 John J. Robertson, The White Truth (Mountain
View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1981), p. 66.

7 Ibid., p. 64.

8 Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.,
1944), pp. 106, 107. (Italics supplied.)

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Alden Thompson, Ph.D., is professor of biblical studies at Walla Walla College, Walla Walla, Washington. This article is a reprint of the chapter by the same name in his recently published book Inspiration (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1991). Used by permission.

July 1991

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