For the past three weeks, we’ve been looking at some of the issues that arise when we attempt to merge the books of Chronicles with other parts of the Bible into a single direct historical account through a “literal” reading of the text. Today, on his blog Storied Theology, Daniel Kirk offers a look at the consequences of what happens when we try to apply the same literal reading to the Gospels.
First, however, he looks at the problem of Manasseh, whose 55-year reign is the longest in the book and who, according to Kings, is single-handedly responsible for the Babylonian exile. Theologically, Manasseh’s story seems to go against the overarching theme of the book: that sin is punished on earth while righteousness is rewarded. How could such a sinful king be blessed with such a long reign?
The writer of Chronicles addresses this by making Manasseh’s story one of repentance. While this account differs from that of Kings, it does so because, as Kirk notes, “the point [of Chronicles] is not to hand down the history but to preach the theology.” We recognize that the author has changed the story for theological purposes, just as most of his early audience would have, and it would be a mistake to lose the author’s purpose by attempting to turn these two accounts into one coherent, non-contradictory story.
Similarly, Kirk notes that the Synoptic Gospels employ the same sort of textual freedom. Luke, for example, based his account on those of Mark and probably Matthew, but his account is not intended to be an accurate historical picture, but rather to communicate the theology.
As Kirk writes:
For me, the question of “inerrancy” versus not, or the question of how “historical” the Gospels are, or the question of whether or not we should harmonize different passages pushes in this direction: When we push for inerrancy, harmonizations, and historicity, we show that we have a fundamentally different desire for what these texts might give us than the biblical writers themselves had when they composed them. […]
The point is that at various points both Matthew and Luke have decided to tell versions of the story that are in ways major or minor different from the story of Mark–and that in trying to smash them all back together into a coherent unity we show that our own desire for the text is antithetical to the impulse that gave us the texts we actually have.
But what of those who say such a reading is a “low view of Scripture” that ignores the text’s role as God’s word to the church? Kirk responds that it is these human differences that are God’s word to the church. Honoring God’s word, he says, means receiving these books not only as they are given, but trusting that God gave us the text as he wanted us to have it to find salvation through Christ.