Friday, September 4, 2009

When God Tells You to Sin

What do you do when God tells you to sin? Sounds contradictory, even heretical, doesn’t it? It’s a difficult if not impossible question for those of us who believe the Bible to be a product of divine inspiration, not merely a record of human experiences with God. Acts 10 records a vision in which God tells the Apostle Peter to do something he’s never done and always believed was wrong:

On the morrow, as they went on their journey, and drew nigh unto the city, Peter went up upon the housetop to pray about the sixth hour: And he became very hungry, and would have eaten: but while they made ready, he fell into a trance, And saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending upon him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: Wherein were all manner of four-footed beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat. But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean. And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common. This was done thrice: and the vessel was received up again into heaven. (Acts 10:9-16)

What God asked Peter to do clearly violated biblical dietary laws. It’s too easy to say the vision was a metaphor or a parable about racism, while that is certainly true too. The symbolism wouldn’t work well if the literal meaning were false. That is, if God intended Peter to keep kosher after the vision, never eating any unclean animals, it would have been much harder for him to “get” the importance of accepting unclean people like the gentile Cornelius. (The vision prepared Peter to go and preach the gospel to Cornelius and his house.)

Reformed theologians sort Old Testament laws into three categories: civil, ceremonial, and moral. Only the moral laws are still valid in New Testament times they say. This solution is as elegant as it is contrived. Nowhere do we find this classification system in the Bible, and Jews have always believed that keeping ritualistic laws was their moral and spiritual duty.

It also doesn’t help to plead for a special case. Peter was an apostle, who lived when the Bible was still being written. True. But even if we don’t claim any kind of special revelation for ourselves, we’re still left wondering whether God changes or contradicts himself. No one wants a fickle, schizophrenic god, but I think we sometimes put God in a biblical box that’s too small to contain him.

The passage above illustrates a difficult religious conundrum. What do we do when there is a conflict between religious authorities? How do we prioritize them? Does a vision from God trump the Bible or vice versa? I was taught to go with scripture over any kind of subjective experience. That was Peter’s approach: “Not so, Lord!” But the Bible seems to undermine its own authority in this passage, putting a mystical experience over holy writ.

I’ve been thinking about this passage for two weeks now, and I’m still wrestling with it. Once I think I’ve got it figured out, I’m moving on to the story about when God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac!

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