The Bible being rhetorical, and our lives being ‘rhetorical’ God-speak (Rikk Watts)

In an article in The Regent World (Winter 2010, Vol 22, Number 1), Professor Rikk Watts says the following.

Ancient rhetoricians were designers, seeking to persuade people of a different vision for the polis. Since it did not exist, they could not prove it — how do you “prove” a dream? But if you’ve seen the movie Invictus you will understand what is involved. You need to know your audience, their history and their culture. You need to know what they value and you need to use metaphors, since metaphors are the essential bridge between the known and the unknown… [Then] it dawned on me that the Bible itself is fundamentally rhetorical.

Marketplace theology is about precisely this: incarnational “rhetorical” God-speak. His word to us is brimming with metaphors, history, ethics and vision. It is God’s rhetoric, persuading us to join him in his new creational work for a new and glorious future. It is a divine summons to design in the light of his life-giving truth.

The more I study Paul, the more I realise the rhetorical character of his letters. They are letters—speeches!—that seek to persuade. The Bible is not about a set of otherworldly (so-called) ‘spiritual principles’. It is not a set of systematic theological propositions. The biblical authors did not write the Scriptures to prove the existence of God per se (for they took for granted that he existed). Instead, the Bible is God’s revelation to humankind about who he is and his saving acts. And we are called to embody the gospel in our daily life. That is, we are to be incarnational “rhetorical” God-speak’, as Watts says. In doing so we bear witness to Christ.

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Rikk Watts on Creation and restoration of the image of God

Some years ago I read Rikk Watts’ “The New Exodus/New Creational Restoration of the Image of God” in What Does it Mean to Be Saved? (edited by John Stackhouse). Rikk Watts understands the creation as Yahweh’s temple-place, and here is thesis.

[T]he cosmos is seen as Yahweh’s temple-place, and the climax of creation is the installation of humanity as his “cult-idol” or image-bearer within it. It then maintains that the exodus from Egypt, Israel’s return from exile, and God’s new exodus/new creational work in Christ Jesus are best understood in terms of the restoration of the defaced image-bearer and consequently the restoration of the cosmos as Yahweh’s temple-place in which the newly Spirit-indwelt image-bearer is installed. (page 18)

Watts uses Job 38:4-6, 8, 10, 22 to illustrate that Yahweh is the master builder of creation, and lists plenty of other Old Testament passages to support it. He notes that the Hebrew for “temple” is the same word for “palace”. The notion that the creation is Yahweh’s temple-palace is not unlike that in a number of ancient Near Eastern traditions. (pages 18-19)

An important passage for this notion is Isaiah 66:1, “Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool; what is the house which you would build for me?”

Rikk Watts borrows from Katherine Beckerleg and says,

Furthermore, if Beckerleg is correct, the Genesis story is something of a polemic against contemporary idolatrous perspectives; instead of a “zoomorphic paganism” we have a “monotheistic anthropology.” We do not make a temple-palace for Yahweh; he has made one for us, and it is not only the earth in its entirety but Eden in particular. Hence the parallels between Eden and the tabernacle. (p 20)

More quotes from Watts,

It is important to note that the image of the god was never intended to depict the deity’s appearance but instead to describe elements of the function and attributes of the deity. Images were “probably pictograms rather than portraits.” [citing H Frankfort] Nevertheless, as is now widely recognized, the idea of image clearly involves its physicality” Our embodied form is also integral to our “functioning” as Yahweh’s image in this physical world. Furthermore, far from being an inanimate object, the image was indwelt by the very life of the deity, such that the image became the primary focus of his presence on the earth (cf. Jer. 10:14; Hab. 2:19). (p 21)

Our very embodied existence testifies to Yahweh’s kingship, and our function and attributes should resemble his. Just as Yahweh sits enthroned in his cosmic temple, so too humanity images him, reigning between his knees as it were in the smaller temple-place of the earth and functioning as his vice-regents. As such we imitate to a lesser but faithful degree his ordering and filling of the cosmos in our ordering (or gardening) of the earth and our acts of filling it with other bearers of his image. (pp 21-22)

The nexus of humans as bearers of Yahweh’s image and yet subordinate to him comes to the fore at the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. At issue is whether humans will accept their subordinate status, recognizing only Yahweh as the final source of wisdom, or seek to usurp his prerogatives by trusting in their own ability to understand – that is, to fashion creation and even themselves in their own image and according to their own wisdom. (p 22)

Creation too is bound up in this and suffers as a consequence of human rebellion (Gen. 3:17-18). The temple-palace and the bearer of the image fall together into ruin, and humanity finds itself driven farther away from the Garden until Cain, the crown prince, now finds himself in a desert land of wandering. Ultimately, in the flood the earth returns to its pre-creation state: formless and empty under the vast waters of the deep. (pp 22-23)

Watts goes to to demonstrate how Israel – Yahweh’s true son – is to be a holy nation-kingdom of priests to the nations (Exod 19:6). Then he says,

Tragically, Israel, Yahweh’s new humanity, rebels as did Adam and Eve. Yahweh’s son forsakes him for idols. The problem is that since human beings bear the image of Yahweh, to worship an idol is to deny both Israel’s identity in particular and humanity’s in general. To seek to capture the essence of Yahweh in a lifeless image is not only impossible but also invites manipulation of him rather than a trusting and obedient relationship with him. And if people see to manipulate an objectified deity, which is the essence of idolatry, it is no great revelation that they soon treat his image-bearers in like manner. idolatry and injustice are correlatives, and the prophets fulminate against both. (p 27)

Creation’s faith, as temple-palace for the image-bearer, is intimately linked to the authenticity of the image-bearer. Therefore, Paul can say that just as our rebellion caused creation to be subjected to the futility of not achieving its intended goal, so “creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of god;… in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:19-21 NRSV). (page 35)