Thursday, September 16, 2010

Acts 17 & General Principles:

I knew someone would mention Acts 17 when I noted Presidents Washington, Jefferson and Madison repeatedly spoke of God as "The Great Spirit" suggesting unconverted Natives worshipped the same God Jews and Christians do.

Biblical interpretation has similarities to constitutional interpretation. Neither text says "read this provision broadly, read that one narrowly." If there is a doctrine which you are "worried" about, you try to limit its effects, not make a general principle out of it. On the other hand, if there is a doctrine that sounds nice you make it as generally applicable as possible. "Love your neighbor" and "do unto others" are the nice things which we want to apply as broadly and generally as possible.

Likewise, the Bible says nothing about unalienable rights (and yes, to be fair it doesn't mention "The Trinity" or original sin either, which are also doctrines constructed from interpretations of the Bible's text) but you may be able to get there by taking a leap from the general principle of Imago Dei.

On the other hand, all non-psychopaths (hopefully) want to limit the parts of the Bible where God commands genocide against certain tribes. They were, after all, human beings, created in the image of God, but that didn't stop God from commanding Moses et al. to wipe them out. So we say they applied to specific times and circumstances only (how convenient).

We could, as with other parts of the Bible, apply the genocidal texts as general "principles" to grant believers the general power to wipe out all "enemies of God." Scary stuff, yes.

What about the principle of folks who worship the "true God" -- the God of the Bible -- without knowing more about Him?

One thing that always struck me about that provision was how it anticipated the merging of the noble pagan Greco-Roman with the Judeo-Christian. It was Rome, after all, which globalized Christianity. And then, of course, we had Thomas Aquinas' fuller incorporation of Aristotle and Greco-Roman philosophy into Christianity. The Acts 17 example resonates.

The example of the "Great Spirit" on the other hand, seems different in its non-Westerness. Though certain Mormons or any folks who believed Natives are lost tribes of Israeli would be spoken to by the narrative that holds Act 17/TGS as the same God Jews and Christians worship.

But how far does this reasoning extend? Who else worships the true God of the universe dressed up in pagan garb? Who are the false gods which the First Commandment says not to worship?

As far I can tell the only gods the first four Presidents and many other Founders considered false were those who supported the Tories and those who were illiberal in not respecting the freedom of folks to worship Him according to the dictates of their conscience. As long as those two requirements were meant God could call Himself Jehovah, Allah, Vishnu or The Great Spirit and still be the One True God of the Universe.

Is this what Acts 17 teaches?

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