The Big Principle: The Ideal and the Real

The work of William Webb and Gordon Oeste suggests a very important principle of interpretation, when it comes to the Bible. Since God meets people where they are, God’s revelations are couched not only in the language, time, and place of the biblical writer, they are accommodated to the understanding of those receiving the revelations. They are also limited in terms of what can be expected from the human response to each revelation. While the revelations of God sometimes express God’s highest and ultimate ideals, they often have to stoop much lower than that because of human limitations.

One way to express these two types of revelation are as the Ideal and the Real. God sometimes states His ideal and invites us to reach up toward it. But at other times God deals with the real, what human beings are capable of in a given time and place. Passages of Scripture like Deuteronomy 21:10-14 do not address God’s highest Ideals for the treatment of women in war, they are very much engaged in the Real. Regulating human wars is a divine accommodation, God ultimately does not want war at any time or any place. Regulating how human beings handle war is the Real. Beating swords into plowshares (Isa 2:4; Mic 4:3) is the Ideal. So regulating the treatment of women in war is an accommodation to human weakness, not an expression of the ideal way that God wants human beings to behave toward women.

The difference between the Ideal and the Real is easy to see in Matthew 19, a passage regarding divorce. First, Jesus states God’s ideal, in God’s perfect plan there is no such thing as divorce. “And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, ‘Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?’ He answered, ‘Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh”’? (Gen 2:24) So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” Matthew 19:3-6, ESV. The ideal for marriage goes back to the very beginning of creation. The image of God includes both male and female (Gen 1:27). When the two are joined together in marriage, the image of God is complete. As Jesus notes, in what God has joined together there is no provision for divorce. That is the Ideal.

But that is not the end of the story. The Pharisees were puzzled why Jesus left some important marriage information out. “They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?’ (based on Deuteronomy 24:1-4) He said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” The Pharisees suggested a priority of Deuteronomy 24 over Genesis 2. But Jesus doubles down on Genesis 2. It is the expression of God’s ultimate will. God desires a universe in which there is no divorce. The reason Moses allowed divorce is because people’s hearts are hard. God meets people where they are. God’s revelation, therefore, can express both the Ideal and the Real.

We see this worked out, not only in the writings of Moses (Genesis [Ideal] and Deuteronomy {Real], but in Jesus, Paul, and Ellen G. White we well. In Matthew 19:3-6 Jesus states the Ideal and invites people to strive for that Ideal. But when confronted with the woman taken in adultery, He does not condemn her, but invites her to a renewed focus on the Ideal (John 8:3-11). Jesus affirms God’s ultimate ideal in principle, but is very merciful in the application of that ideal. Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul six times asserts God’s ideal, but then goes on to moderate it with a “but if” (1 Cor 7:1-2, 6-7, 10-11, 13-15, 26-28, 39). He holds up a high ideal in principle, but in specific instances shows great flexibility.

Similarly, Ellen G. White has many statements on marriage and divorce that sound inflexible, yet in specific applications she can apply those statements in a very flexible way. For example, many have applied her strong statements against divorce as absolutes in every situation. But in specific instances, she can be quite flexible. There was once a church where a couple divorced and each married someone else in the same church. The rest of the church were pressuring them to divorce their second spouses and get back together so they could live out God’s ideal. When Ellen White was consulted, she instead said, “Leave them alone, they have suffered enough!” Not what I would have expected. Ellen White also counseled that people should not marry someone who is greatly different from them in age. But she came under criticism for encouraging her 41-year-old son Willie to marry her 22-year-old secretary. When confronted about this she responded, “Best decision Willie ever made!”

Inspiration lives in a tension between the Ideal and the Real. God’s ideal is to hold up the highest standards in human behavior. But people’s hearts are hard. And in specific situations God reaches down into the depths of human depravity and makes the most of messy situations. God meets people where they are. And sometimes they are in a place so far removed from His Ideal that He settles for the best they can do, seeking incremental improvements that bring them a little closer to the Ideal. This reality helps us understand what God is doing in Deuteronomy 21:10-14.

3 thoughts on “The Big Principle: The Ideal and the Real

  1. Eileen

    This is very interesting. It clarify homosexual partnerships which are monogamous? Just like heterosexual promiscuity, which is sin, so in a monogamous homosexual relationship promiscuity would be a sin? Does this apply? It would allow for happy relationships rather than a life alone.

  2. rog

    Jon, (thanks for the previous comment back on the previous topic, by the way) I love what you are saying here, but the next question I’d love to see you talk about is when it is applicable to apply that and when it isn’t. Because it can easily become a slippery slope as a way to explain away anything in scripture we’d like to push away. As an example, I’m not ready to go down the road the previous reply above is going to go down with this. (not trying to start an argument). But I think your principles work… until they don’t and we’ve overstepped our prerogatives?

  3. Jeff

    Thank you for articulating these distinct Biblical constructs of the “real” and “ideal”. In very recent years I’ve seen some very devoted and sincere SDA church members, from personal conviction and their interpretation of Scripture, literally applying Paul’s admonition that women should cover their head (1 Cor 11:14-15). It is not clear, however, to what degree the “ideal” principle of modest dress and being a witness (by “wearing” a sign of respect and acknowledgement of divine order) is modifiable by the “real” (cultural context). Ellen White (and early SDA women) adopted the same Pauline head-covering practice (or use of head netting). Does the current cultural (real) context “neutralize” this early Christian behavior / practice as long as one dresses modestly? Or, is there some “ideal” of God in continuing such a practice as a witness “sign”?

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