paradigm ('perə-dīm) example, pattern; esp. an outstandingly clear or typical example or archetype. (Webster's)
"My project is a whole new paradigm," says one of the cubicle drones at a staff meeting in a Dilbert cartoon.
"What's a paradigm?" asks Dilbert.
"Heh-heh...What's a paradigm...Funny."
"Seriously," Dilbert responds, "what is it?"
"You know," Dilbert's co-worker answers. "Paradigm, paradigmish. As in 'This project is a paradigm.' But enough about my project. Tell us about your project."
"It's a paradigm," Dilbert says.
As another worker at the table announces, "My project is a paradigm too," Dilbert whispers to the first worker, "They bought it."
The word paradigm has been around for centuries, but it seems to have become something of a buzz-word in the world of academics and corporate business in just the last two decades or so. I think the first time I ever heard the word was in 1985 when I was in a linguistics course at a university.
As the above dialog from the Dilbert cartoon illustrates, paradigm is one of those words that a lot of people use without really knowing exactly what it means. Often it is used in the phrase "a paradigm shift," which has become a buzz-phrase in its own right. A few years ago I was at an art gallery and saw a piece of art titled Paradigm Shift. It was a ceramic piece, a plain, smooth lump of clay that had been glazed and fired. On top of the lump of clay were two dimes, glued at the ends of two parallel grooves, which made it appear that the two dimes had shifted their position when the clay was still wet--thus, "a pair o' dimes shift." I suspect the artist was being sarcastic and poking fun at people's over-use of the buzz-phrase.
People often use buzz-words and buzz-phrases in an effort to impress others. Technical terms like paradigm, synergy, and proactive sound like very meaningful and important words to laymen who aren't really sure exactly what the words mean. (Never mind the fact that half of the people who use the words aren't really sure of their meaning either.) Those who utter such important-sounding words must be very important people. After all, if someone uses contemporary, cutting-edge vocabulary, he must be a contemporary, cutting-edge expert in his field of labor, right?
In spite of my aversion to the use of buzz-words, I find the phrase "paradigm shift" to be useful when describing major theological changes. The Reformation of the 16th century was a whole new paradigm. The current Messianic/Hebrew Roots/philo-Jewish/Torah-friendly movement (or whatever you prefer to call it) is also a whole new paradigm. There was a major theological paradigm shift in the 16th century, and there is a major theological paradigm shift occurring in this present generation.
As the Webster's definition above states, a paradigm is an example or pattern, an outstandingly clear or typical example or archetype of something. In the realm of theology, we might describe a paradigm as the theological foundation from which the Scriptures are viewed. This foundation is based upon a thesis which is known or believed or assumed to be true. Regardless of whether the thesis is true or false, it provides the foundation for the paradigm.
In the pre-Reformation world, the theological foundation for most Christians was the Roman Catholic Church. The individual Christian's understanding of the Scriptures was filtered through Roman Catholicism. The Scriptures meant whatever the Roman Catholic Church said they meant, and that was the end of the discussion, because that was the paradigm. But then the Reformers stood up and challenged that paradigm. When the Reformers said, "Sola scriptura," the Scriptures then became the paradigm from which to view the Church. Now instead of the Scriptures being viewed through the lenses of the Church, the Church was being viewed through the lenses of the Scriptures. And through the lenses of the Scriptures, the Roman Catholic Church was weighed and found wanting. A theological paradigm shift had occurred, and it brought great and wonderful changes into the lives of those who loved the Lord.
The theological paradigm shift which is taking place in our generation is very similar to the one which took place during the Reformation. In today's Protestant Christian world, the theological paradigm for most Christians is Protestant theology and doctrines. The individual's understanding of the Scriptures is filtered through whichever denominational (or non-denominational) teaching he is exposed to. To the typical Protestant, the Scriptures mean whatever his denomination or his pastor says they mean, and that is the end of the discussion, because that is the paradigm. But in recent decades, Torah-friendly Reformers have been standing up and challenging that paradigm. We are really saying the same thing that the 16th century Reformers said, namely, "Sola scriptura"--only the Scriptures have the final authority in determining how God's people should live and worship. We are telling our beloved Christian brothers and sisters to stop viewing the Scriptures through the lenses of the Church (Catholic or Protestant), and start viewing the Church through the lenses of the Scriptures--not to condemn the Church, but that the Church might be saved from its erroneous anti-Torah paradigm.
I experienced my personal paradigm shift in the late 1980s. I had been reading and studying the Bible intently for over 17 years. I was very familiar with the content of the Scriptures, Old Testament as well as New Testament. I could read the Hebrew Scriptures in Hebrew, and I had taken a course in New Testament Greek and had done independent Greek study as well. My Christian friends thought that I had a marvelous knowledge and understanding of the Scriptures and that I was theologically and doctrinally sound. I did have a good understanding of a lot of things, and I was theologically and doctrinally sound in many areas. But the one important area where I was theologically and doctrinally deficient was in my view of the Torah, God's Law.
Like most Protestants, I had been taught to view the commandments of the Old Testament from an antinomian (anti-Law) paradigm. My view of the Torah was based on the mistaken idea that Jesus did away with the Old Testament Law, because the Law was just external legalism and bondage, in opposition to internal grace and liberty in Christ. So anything that I read in the Bible about the Law was filtered through this paradigm.
As I continued to study the Scriptures and seek the Lord, I eventually noticed that my paradigm--my theological foundation--was beginning to shift like sand where the Torah was concerned. I was puzzled and concerned when I realized that Matthew 5:17-19 could not possibly fit anywhere in my paradigm ("Think not that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets...till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven").
I noticed lots of other verses that could not fit anyplace in my anti-Torah paradigm--verses like Romans 2:13 ("the doers of the law shall be justified"); Romans 3:31 ("Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish [NIV, 'uphold'] the law"); Romans 7:12 ("therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good"); Romans 7:22 ("For I delight in the law of God after the inward man"); Romans 8:7 ("the carnal mind...is not subject to the law of God"); 1 John 3:9 & 4 ("Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin"..."Sin is the transgression of the law"); 1 John 5:3 ("this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments"); 1 John 2:4 ("He that saith, 'I know Him,' and keepeth not His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him"); Isaiah 8:20 ("To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them"); and many other passages, including Psalm 19 and Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the Bible.
I realized that these verses and many others were totally incompatible with my paradigm. These verses could not fit into my paradigm--not unless I wanted to be dishonest and deliberately twist the meaning of the words and force them to conform to my faulty paradigm. I did not want to be dishonest and deliberately twist the Scriptures. Therefore I had to either hold onto my paradigm and ignore and reject the clear, simple statements in all these verses, or admit that my paradigm was faulty, and undergo a personal paradigm shift in regards to the Torah. To put it in simple terms, I needed a paradigm that would accommodate both law and grace, without excluding or diminishing either one.
The way in which I underwent my paradigm shift was by re-examining the Scriptures from a different point of view, a Torah-friendly view. I was not yet convinced that new covenant disciples were actually supposed to do those Torah commandments which Christians typically ignore--things like Sabbath, dietary laws, tzitzit, etc. Nonetheless, I decided to re-read the New Testament Scriptures from the perspective of a person who does believe that Christians are still supposed to follow these neglected Torah commands. I re-read the New Testament from a "What if?" perspective. "What if these Torah commandments are still supposed to be followed (not to justify ourselves, but out of a love for God), would the New Testament make any sense?"
I focused especially on Paul's epistles, since most anti-Torah rhetoric is based on Paul's writings. "If these commandments of the Torah are still supposed to be followed, would Paul's negative statements about the law make any sense?" I put myself in the shoes of a person who believes in doing the Torah, and re-read Paul's letters, comparing translations and looking at the Greek text. At each "problem verse," each verse that appeared to be a negative statement about the Law, I asked myself, "How would a Torah-keeping Christian understand this verse? Is it really saying something negative about God's perfect Law per se, or is it something else that Paul is criticizing here? Is there a Torah-friendly way to understand this verse, some way that this verse can be compatible with the Law without twisting the meaning or ignoring the context?"
I soon discovered to my pleasant surprise that Paul's writings made a lot more sense to me than they ever had before. In many places, I saw that the context made the verse pro-Torah. Now Paul's writings harmonized with the rest of the Bible instead of contradicting it. The Torah-friendly view made Paul a Torah-friendly Jew!
In closing, let me modify and paraphrase Romans 10:1-4 to express my desire and prayer for my Christian brothers and sisters: Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Christians is that they might all undergo a personal paradigm shift in regards to the Torah. For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God's Torah, and going about to establish their own torah, have not submitted themselves unto the Torah of God. For Christ is the goal at which the Torah aims. He is the model of the perfect Torah-keeper, whose example we should joyfully strive to follow. Amen.
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Image (top): Tangled Up in Jew, an original painting by Daniel Botkin from his Dylan-Themed Art Gallery. See this and more of his pieces on his art website, DanielBotkin.com.