An Orthodoxy For All of Us Non-Purebred Mutts: More Dialog with Greg Boyd

Saturday, May 16, 2015

This post is part of a continuing conversation with Greg Boyd surrounding my book Disarming Scripture and its treatment of the problem of Violence in the Bible. If you want some context, you can check out my previous post, or better yet, begin with my first reply to Greg.

Before I embark on my response to Greg's most recent posts to me (part1 and part2) in our continuing dialog, I wanted to say a bit about what has been happening behind the scenes (and why I did not reply sooner).

It often happens in a debate that the two parties talk past each other, and because of that I thought it would be good if Greg and I could talk face to face. So Greg and I arranged to have a talk on Skype.

It was a really fruitful conversation, and I think we both left with the impression that -- while we do not agree on everything (and, hey, who does?) -- perhaps there is a way to understand our two perspectives as working together, rather than as being in conflict. Perhaps I'm the peanut butter and Greg is the chocolate in a Reese's (two great theologies in one candy bar...)

So with the goal in mind of understanding how our two perspectives might be able to work in tandem -- functioning as compliments to each other -- in this post I wanted to clarify the different ways we are each using terms like inerrancy, infallibility and inspiration with the hopes of getting us all on the same page.

To do that we'll need to dig a bit into Evangelical history. So put on some bell bottoms, set your time machine's dial to 1978, and let's take a look at the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy.


Chicago-Style Infallibility 

The Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy purports to be a definitive statement on how Evangelicals understand Scripture. Does it speak for all Evangelicals? That's debatable. Many who identify as Evangelical would disagree with the Chicago Statement, but what is certainly the case is that the signers of the Chicago Statement fully intended to speak for all Evangelicals with the statement.

It reflects the belief among conservative Evangelicals that inerrancy is central and indispensable. For example, long before the Chicago Statement, upon its founding in 1949 the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) made affirming the doctrine of inerrancy its sole doctrinal requirement for membership. Affirm inerrancy and you can be a part of this club. Don't and you will be out.

The ETS tried to expel Evangelical scholars Clark Pinnock and John Sanders on heresy charges in 2003 for affirming open theism. If Boyd had been part of the ETS at the time he would have been on the chopping block with them. Instead he spoke before the ETS and defended Pinnock and Sanders.

What does this all have to do with inerrancy you ask? The charge of heresy was grounded on the claim that open theism was incompatible with inerrancy. In the aftermath of this, the ETS voted in 2006 to define their understanding of inerrancy based on the Chicago Statement in order to avoid any future ambiguity in how inerrancy was understood by its members, spelling things out for everyone.

Here's the bottom line: While not everyone within the Evangelical camp affirms inerrancy (or infallibility as defined in the Chicago  Statement for that matter) this "biblicist" understanding has been the key battle line of the 20th century that many conservative Evangelicals have drawn to determine who is in and who is out. Those who have denied it, or even attempted to tweak it, have faced the very real possibility of losing their jobs or even their careers. 

Why don't you hear much about open theism these days from Evangelicals in books or academic articles? Because the ETS did a pretty good job of shutting down the conversation, and Chicago-style Evangelicals have also done a good job of shutting down lots of other conversations as well -- whether it's on Scripture or gender or politics or a host of other issues. That's kind of their thing. They are the Pharisees of our day, and they have a lot of influence and power behind them. They are the ETS, Christianity Today, The Gospel Coalition, The Southern Baptist Convention, IHOP (not the ones with the pancakes), and host of other institutions who seek to influence not only theology, but social issues and politics as well.

It is important to understand this history and how it impacts us. For those of us who come from an Evangelical background, this all has had a huge impact on how we see the Bible. This is not just a minor hiccup or the view of a small minority, it has shaped how Evangelicalism has developed throughout the 20th century in regards to how Scripture is understood and applied.

Now, it's important to stress here that Boyd and I both do not accept the understanding of inerrancy or infallibility as they are expressed in the Chicago Statement. This is not simply because the Chicago Statement sees inerrancy and infallibility as inseparable (i.e they insist that you can't affirm infallibility without equally affirming inerrancy). Much more pertinent to the topic at hand (which in case you forgot is the moral problem of divine sanctioned violence in the Old Testament) is that the Chicago Statement insists that Scripture must be interpreted by grammatical-historical exegesis.

If the significance of what that means escapes you, the followup 1982 document, The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics, was written with the purpose of clarifying this:

Article XV
We affirm the necessity of interpreting the Bible according to its literal, or normal, sense. The literal sense is the grammatical-historical sense, that is, the meaning which the writer expressed.

In other words, what Boyd refers to as the "surface meaning" of the text, according to the Chicago Statement, is the only legitimate way to read it. If the text says that God commands genocide, then this is what is infallible and right. That is how Chicago-style Evangelicals understand infallibility. This understanding represents the dominant view among Evangelicalism. Take a class in exegesis in seminary and that is what you will learn.


The Myth of a Purebred Doctrinal History

I love Chicago-style pizza, but I am not a fan of Chicago-style infallibility. Greg agrees (on the Bible part anyway, I don't know about the pizza part). Greg, in affirming infallibility, clearly does not understand it as those Evangelicals who affirm the Chicago Statement do. In his most recent reply to me, Greg refers to Chicago-style infallibility and inerrancy as a "recent, and unfortunate, application of this doctrine" by "certain Fundamentalists and Evangelicals in the 19th and 20th century."

At the same time, in that same post, Boyd maintains that "theologians within the historic-orthodox church have always confessed that Scripture is 'infallible' or 'inerrant.'" Since Greg sees the Chicago-style understanding of inerrancy and infallibility as an unfortunate misapplication, this would mean that Chicago-style Evangelicals – who have dominated the Evangelical theological scene for the past century or more, and who themselves claim to be the gatekeepers of that very orthodoxy – have been getting their orthodoxy completely wrong all this time.

That's a possibility, and I do think Evangelicalism has gotten a lot of stuff wrong. That’s why, as a progressive Evangelical, I want to see it reform. I think Greg and I are pretty much in the same camp in that regard. However, I want to suggest that the problem is not just with the misapplied doctrine of these Chicago-style Evangelicals, but also with how they (mis)read church history. Allow me to explain:

Greg bases his declaration that the church has always believed in infallibility and inerrancy on a book by J. D. Woodbridge entitled Biblical Authority: A Critique of the Rogers/McKim Proposal. Woodbridge is one of the original signers of the Chicago Statement, and his book is an attempt to argue that the church has always believed in inerrancy, understood precisely in the way it is defined in the Chicago Statement.

In other words, the author of the book that Boyd is citing to back up his claim that the church has always embraced infallibility would completely disagree with Boyd on what infallibility means, since Boyd holds to infallibility but not inerrancy.

As the book's subtitle indicates, Woodbridge's book is a critique of Rogers and McKim's book The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible: An Historical Approach. In their book, the two young Evangelical scholars argued (as Greg Boyd also does) for embracing a belief in infallibility but not inerrancy. Rogers and McKim's book is itself a response to Harold Lindsell's bombshell book The Battle for the Bible, which was the impetus behind the Chicago Statement.

That was a kind of a mouthful, so let me sum things up: First Lindsell writes Battle for the Bible and makes the case that the church has always believed in Chicago-style inerrancy, and calls out all sorts of Evangelical groups who he feels are not towing the party line in that regard. Rogers and McKim write a book in reply and say, nope, the church has always believed in infallibility, but not inerrancy. Woodbridge then writes a book rebuking them, arguing that Lindsell was right and the church has always believed in Chicago-style inerrancy so get with the program boys.

Now, I suppose it would have been better for Boyd to have cited Rogers and McKim since their book makes the point he does, rather than citing Woodbridge, whose book has the sole purpose of debunking that point. But there is actually something bigger going on with all of these books that I want to draw our attention to:

All three of these books cite Origen, Chrysostom, Augustine, Luther, and Calvin as advocates of their particular view. That is, they are disagreeing with each other, but all citing the same sources to back up their divergent claims.

What we can observe in all of these works, therefore, is an example of an unfortunate tendency among Evangelical academics to read anachronistically -- projecting their own doctrinal assumptions into a text because they find similar words being used, rather than looking to uncover how these terms are being understood by the historical sources, who (not surprisingly) see things in a very different way, being from a different time.

In the 2004 book Evangelicals and Scripture: Tradition, Authority and Hermeneutics, Thomas Buchan presents a study of these three books, and concludes that Woodbridge -- along with these other authors -- is guilty of "reading his late-twentieth-century evangelical conception of biblical authority back onto the historical sources" rather than recognizing the "historical diversity of perspectives on Scripture held by prominent figures in the history of the church." (p. 53)

Now, I certainly think there is great value we can derive from looking at how prominent figures from church history such as Origen or Luther have understood Scripture. However, I do not believe we can look to a single view that has always been held. Instead, what we find is that there has been a wide spectrum of diversity as to what inspiration (let alone infallibility or inerrancy) means and how it is understood.

So when Greg states in his post that "[no one] in the historic-orthodox theological tradition has felt bound to the surface meaning of biblical texts" I must object. While this may be true for Origen and others in the Patristic Period who followed his allegorical reading, it is certainly not true for the 300 signers of the Chicago Statement, including Woodbridge, who insist that it is this very "surface reading" that is authoritative, inerrant, and infallible. Nor does this reflect the view of  Martin Luther and the other Reformers who, as a whole, rejected allegorical readings and insisted instead on what Greg calls the "surface reading" (which they refer to as the "historical sense" of the text). As Luther puts it,

"It is the historical sense alone which supplies the true and sound doctrine ... The bare allegories, which stand in no relation to the account and do not illuminate it, should simply be disapproved as empty dreams. This is the kind which Origen and those who followed him employ." (LW 1:233. Emphasis added)
That said, it's worth noting that it's doubtful Luther would have agreed with the Chicago Statement either, since he advocates judging all Scripture in the light of Christ, which causes him to question some books (compare this with Article 1 of the The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics). Luther says the following in the context of critiquing the book of James, which he declared to be "an epistle of straw" (LW 35:362). Luther writes,

"This is the true test by which to judge all these books: seeing whether or not they promote Christ . . . What does not teach Christ is not apostolic, even if Peter or Paul teaches it. Conversely, whatever does preach Christ, that is apostolic, even if it were done by Judas, Annas, Pilate, or Herod" (WA:DB7:386. My translation from the German. Compare LW 35:396)

I note this neither to endorse Luther's view, nor to disparage Origen's, but to underline that there simply is no single view of inspiration or interpretation that is shared throughout church history. Rather, we instead find a wide spectrum of diversity in how Scripture is read and understood. The fact is, our Evangelical heritage is that of a mutt, not a purebred poodle. That's who we are, and I wouldn't want it any other way.


Making Sense of our Messy "Mutt" History


What we can perhaps see as a common thread in all of this is that the inspiration of Scripture (understood in various ways) has been maintained throughout church history. That is, I believe, one of the reasons why Greg stresses the importance of holding on to the doctrine of inspiration and infallibility. He recognizes something good there that he wants us to hold on to, even if that's hard.

For Greg what is important here is that we not let go of the affirmation that all Scripture -- including its morally troubling parts -- is somehow, nevertheless, inspired. We may have to dig deep to uncover this, but we should not simply cast it aside -- we must continue to wrestle with the text as a part of our own sacred Scripture.

I would agree with all of that. What I want to stress is that in doing this, there needs to be room for an honest moral critique of these troubling texts, which includes a repudiation of what they plainly say. We must allow people to state that these texts are not Christlike, not praiseworthy, and indeed that they are immoral in what they affirm. So if we are going to employ a hermeneutic that looks past the "surface meaning" of the text, this cannot mean that we say that those who call out the clear moral problems in the text are somehow misreading it. The text itself really does say bad things, and this is critical for us to face and own.

Scripture is inspired, and at the same time it says some things that are wrong and immoral. Holding these two truths in tension simultaneously is hard to do. The tendency is to want to pick one side or the other. Consequently those who question the Bible are often seen as being on the outside of the faith, or perceived to be rejecting or attacking it somehow.

I think, to a certain degree, this has happened in Greg and my conversation. For example, in his most recent reply to me, after I stated that I affirmed the inspiration of Scripture, Greg voiced some lingering doubts to this, citing my discussion in Disarming Scripture of how Jesus declared some Old Testament passages to be "the way of the devil," wondering how I could claim this and still believe in the inspiration of Scripture,

I honestly don’t understand how he could affirm that “all Scripture is inspired.” My bewilderment increases when I consider Derek’s claims that, Jesus and Paul felt free to reject portions of Scripture and that Jesus even attributed some narratives “to the way of the devil, rather than the way of God” (42). Since Derek offered no explanation as to how a narrative could be “breathed by God” and yet be rejected and even attributed to “the way of the devil,” I was led to the conclusion that he did not affirm that “all Scripture is breathed by God.” 

However, in his book Benefit of the Doubt Greg says virtually the exact same thing,
An episode from Jesus’s ministry similarly reflects the radical way Jesus repudiates the violence of the Old Testament, even when it appears to come from God. After being rejected by some Samaritan towns, James and John asked Jesus if they could “call fire down from heaven to destroy them.” Jesus “rebuked” them and, according to many early manuscripts, added: “You do not know what spirit you are of” (Luke 9: 54– 55). What’s most interesting is that the disciples were simply asking to follow the precedent set by Elijah in the Old Testament when, in this same location, he twice called fire down from the sky to incinerate foes (2 Kings 1: 10, 12, 14). While it raises many questions we cannot address in this context, I see no way of avoiding the conclusion that Jesus would have rebuked a person who is held up as a hero in the Old Testament for participating in a violent supernatural feat that Jesus clearly would have considered to be ungodly, if not demonic. (p. 182, emphasis added)
So what's going on? Why is it that I can say something virtually identical to what Greg does, and it sounds to him as if I must be denying the inspiration of Scripture?

That's the tightrope we are walking on. It is genuinely hard to hold these two ideas together in tension. It's not just intellectually challenging, it is challenging to one's faith. It requires that we re-think some of our assumptions of who God is, and that's really hard. I feel that. I find that scary... I think we all do.

So what I think is needed is a lot of generosity towards one another as we work through this. Not just between Greg and myself, but with all of us post-Evangelical mutts looking to find a more Christlike faith and more Christlike way of reading the Bible.  We need to make room for honest moral critique of Scripture to take place as an accepted expression of our faith, and making room for that means allowing people to say scary honest things sometimes. That's part of the normal and healthy process that moves us towards real and deep trust in God, and a life of compassion and grace. Like anything deep and real in life, this is a messy process, and we will need to give each other a lot of grace along the way. Here I am reminded of the words of Peter, "Above all, love each other deeply. For love covers a multitude of sins" (1 Pet 4:8). That does not mean we cannot disagree. But it sets the context for it to produce good fruit.

The fact is, we both affirm the inspiration of Scripture, and we both repudiate violence in the Old Testament. The difference is that we do this in slightly different ways.

Where I see inspiration is in how God works with the totality of the multi-vocal Old Testament canon to lead us to Christ, including the immoral parts. I do not believe that Jesus endorsed all of Scripture in the sense of endorsing the content of every verse in the Old Testament and what it affirms. Rather, I believe that Jesus endorsed all of Scripture in the sense of endorsing it as a whole, including the immoral parts, in how they all together, understood as a dialog rather than a monolog, can be read as leading us to Christ. In particular, the immoral parts can act to send us to our knees in recognizing our human tendency to use religion to justify our own hurtfulness -- just turn on the news and you can see that kind of scapegoating in the name of God and country is alive and well today.

That understanding of the Old Testament helps me, and I hope it is helpful to others as well. It differs from most other treatments of the problem of violence in the Bible in that it does not seek to justify or downplay the reality of divine-sanctioned violence in the Old Testament. Greg's approach is similar to mine in that it likewise does not seek to justify or downplay the problem of OT violence, and further in that its goal is towards a Christlike understanding. However, Greg does not get there in the same way as I do, and instead focuses on what I would identify as a theology of the cross reading which seeks to find God in Christ, even in the depths of our human depravity.

I think Greg is on to something really big here with this cross-shaped reading, and I look forward to his forthcoming book. I believe it will be helpful to a lot of people. My appeal, however, is for a "generosity" in how we approach Scripture. Our approaches are indeed different, but I see no reason why they cannot work together. What Greg is affirming with his understanding of infallibility is a reading that rejects OT violence as normative, and points us to Jesus-shaped love. I affirm the same, but articulate it in saying that the OT canon as a whole needs to be read in a way that leads us to Christ. I do this by laying out a practical proposal for how we can identify in the multi-vocal OT texts what is Christlike and what is not. Greg's cruciform reading actually presupposes that deliberation since we can only know to go "deeper beneath the surface" once we have identified that a particular text that claims to speak for God is in fact un-Christlike, requiring us to dig. So in that sense you could say my book tills the soil for Greg's.


The fact of church history is that there have been many different ways that people have approached Scripture, and we can see this diversity further in the different ways that Greg and I both get to our understandings of inspiration. I propose that, rather than looking for the one right view or formulation, we should instead make room for many ways of approaching the issue. What matters most is where we land when we do this -- that is, the fruit our theology bears. From what I can see, Greg and I both land on trusting in a God who looks like Jesus, and on committing to show that Jesus-shaped enemy-love to others.

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Are Faith and Science Enemies or Allies?

Saturday, May 09, 2015

This time around I'd like to talk about what some have called my "scientific" approach to hermeneutics, and address some of the objections that have been raised. 

Let's begin with some background: What I specifically propose in Disarming Scripture is that we learn to "look at the fruits" of how we interpret and apply Scripture in our lives. That is, I propose that our interpretation and application of Scripture is right if, and only if, it leads to love, and further that the way we can tell if it leads to love is by evaluating the effects it has in our lives (i.e. by looking at the fruits). 

I make the argument that this reflects the approach of Jesus--not only because the phrase "look at the fruits" was his own, but more substantially because we can observe him doing this over and over with the Pharisees and his criticism of how they interpreted and applied the law in hurtful ways. In short, Jesus evaluated the effects of how the Pharisees understood and applied the law, and saw that it was hurting people. He consequently rebuked them, and went against their application -- healing on the Sabbath, touching the unclean, fellowshipping with sinners, and so on. 

In the eyes of the religious authorities Jesus was breaking the law. But Jesus saw this as fulfilling it. Not by unquestioningly following its commands, but by lovingly bringing it where it needs to go in the service of love, even when that meant changing those commands to something harder and better ("You have heard it said an eye for an eye, but I tell you..."). 

Wrap your head around how that works, and you will understand how Jesus read Scripture. One thing is clear: Jesus was not popular with the religious or state authorities of his time. He was perceived as a threat to authority, so much so that he was executed. Jesus and authoritarian religion are in conflict with one another.


The Enlightenment and the Birth of Science

Fast forward to the birth of modern science. Let's consider the context that it arose from: Christianity, both in its Protestant and Catholic forms, had long ago merged with the state, and become very violent. People were burned at the stake for heresy. Others were tortured in the most cruel and inhumane ways imaginable. Crusades were waged in the name of Jesus. 

As a reaction against that authoritarian tradition and the violence and oppression that accompanied it, the Enlightenment arose. The Enlightenment focused on reason over authoritarian tradition. It is in this context that modern science was born. 

Science has consequently been seen as a threat to faith (and faith seen as a threat to science). From the get-go science  challenged the authoritarian claims of church tradition. Copernicus' discoveries challenged the Catholic Church's claim that earth was the center of the universe, showing instead that it revolved around the sun. When Galileo followed Copernicus he was declared a heretic and put under arrest for the rest of his life. 

Today we still can see that conflict between religion and science in the battle of evolution and creationism. However, I would propose that this is really not where the battle-line lie today. The conflict of evolution and natural science was the battle of the early 20th century that conservative Fundamentalism and  neo-Evangelicalism arose from. Today's front-line battle is about social science and its moral critique of authoritarian religion. If you listen to the "New Atheists" this is their focus (note that I have a lot of problems with the New Atheists, which I'll address in a moment. Here I'm simply saying where the battle-line are today).

Let me elaborate on that a little: Natural science tells us that the church was wrong about the cosmos or about the origin of life, but social science tells us that it was also wrong about morality. When religion is wrong about matters of science we can perhaps say "Well, the Bible is not a science book, but it is flawless in matters of faith and morality." Dodged that bullet! However,  when we start to see that it's wrong about matters of morality this hits us right at home because this is exactly what the Bible speaks to. 

This is not simply a matter of understanding things from the past (for example: Why did they commit genocide in the OT?), but of what is promoted right here and now in the name of conservative Christianity -- often despite what social science might tell us about how hurtful it is. I could name a long laundry list of examples here, and I suspect you could as well.

Let me further clarify that the conflict here is not really between science and religion, but more specifically it is a conflict between science and authoritarian religion. Science is simply about observing. We observe that something is hurtful, and this causes us to reassess our course. As we have seen above, Jesus and the Apostles' faith was characterized by those kinds of practical life observations leading them to question hurtful application of Scripture within their own religious tradition. So the conflict is not between science and faith. Faith is fully capable of questioning, too. This is known as the "prophetic spirit," and it runs all through the Hebrew tradition that Jesus identified with. The problem is authoritarianism.

Let me further state that science is not immune from authoritarianism. Or at least, a lot of people -- perhaps the majority of people -- understand science in an authoritarian way. We hear reports on the news that cite a "scientific authority." We read headlines with titles like "science has proven that..." Just as with the Bible, it appears that on a populist level if science says it, that settles it. 

This reflects a popular but fundamental misconception of what science is and how it works. Because of that misconception, science becomes a new kind of religion, a new source for unquestioning authoritarianism for some secularists. On the flip side of that coin are Christians who will object that science is not fool-proof and has often been wrong, so we cannot rely on science as a source for moral absolutes.

Confusing Methodology with Ideology

The problem here is that this all reflects a profound misunderstanding of what science is and how it functions. Science is not an ideology at all; it is a methodology. It does not claim to have objective absolute knowledge or to be immune from error. On the contrary, because science recognizes that we humans are not objective, it employs tools to eliminate bias as much as possible. That is at the very core of how the scientific method works. 

So when I say in Disarming Scripture that we should learn from this and incorporate it into how we interpret Scripture, I do not mean that we should simply give the theological car keys to the scientists, which would just mean switching the source of authority. Rather I am proposing that we would not only benefit from listening to scientists' conclusions, but also that we theologians could greatly benefit from learning about the methods they have developed for removing human bias from observation. Honestly, you'd think we theologians would really appreciate that, since it is about recognizing our human limitations and biases.

Further, let me stress that the scientific method functions by advancing in knowledge. Einstein builds upon Newton, quantum physics builds upon Einstein. Each recognizes limitations, blind spots, and even errors in earlier science. That's how it is supposed to work. So when people object that "science does not give us absolute answers," I stress that it never claims to be able to, and in fact the opposite is the case. The scientific method is not about naive optimism ("Yay, science gives us the right answer!"). Rather, it is a practical methodology focused on recognizing all the ways we can be biased, and coming up with safeguards and tools to eliminate that bias as much as possible -- including how that understanding develops and grows over time by the process of further inquiry. That's not a flaw in the methodology, it's how it is supposed to function.


Faith and Science as Allies
The way of unquestioning obedience always leads to hurt. We instead need to develop the art of faithful questioning in the name of compassion, and the methodology of science provides us with a tool proven effective in that pursuit. That is, learning how to observe the effects in people's lives as objectively as possible is a crucial and practical tool for evaluating whether we are applying Scripture wrongly or rightly. Understanding those tools for eliminating bias allow us to take Jesus' method of "looking at the fruits" beyond where it was in those pre-scientific times. Not taking advantage of those tools today is just as silly as saying a pastor can't wear a microphone because Peter and Paul didn't have one when they preached the gospel.

Let me underline again that the goal here is not to arrive at some perfect absolute via science. That is again just not how science works. So if the question is "how can we be sure we will not get it wrong?" I hate to break it to you, but we will get it wrong. History shows this over and over. We are humans, and humans get stuff wrong. Religion does not stop that from happening. The Bible does not stop that from happening. Science does not stop that from happening. It's part of being human, and there is just no way around it. 

However that does not mean that we need to continue on a course that we can see is hurtful. That is the mistake of authoritarianism. It says "this is the way we do this, and we cannot change, even when we see that it is hurtful." 

That we can avoid. 

Authoritarianism is the problem -- whether that's authoritarian religion or authoritarian science or whatever -- authoritarianism ignores evidence, it ignores conscience, it ignores reason, it ignores life. As a result it perpetuates hurt, and that's clearly bad. That is most definitely a mistake we can and should avoid. 

We instead need to find a way to move forward, to grow, to develop, to progress morally. In that pursuit faith and science can be great allies. Science is not a replacement for faith, mind you, but an ally. From Jesus we have the content of the way of grace, forgiveness, and enemy love. Science as a methodology helps us to evaluate this so we can see if we are getting it right, and to help us to grow in it. 

Finally, let me say that recognizing how the scientific methodology can provide us with a valuable hermeneutical tool in our pursuit of applying the way of Jesus in our lives and world does not invalidate other tools. We can certainly learn from the wisdom of the past as we can learn from community. I myself have learned a great deal about enemy love from the inner promptings of the Spirit. The only thing I reject is authoritarianism. That means for example that I would never want to claim that my view of enemy love is right because I heard it from the Spirit (even though I did). Rather, for me listening to the Spirit means having a heart that is humble, open, seeking, self-reflected, and always wanting to grow in love.  

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A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel

Saturday, May 02, 2015

My buddy Brad Jersak has a new book out, A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel that I'm really excited about. As the title suggests, the book’s premise is understanding God in the light of Jesus. That may sound at first glace to be a really basic premise, but in fact it is quite radical. I say this for two reasons,

First, while there is a clear renunciation of humans killing in the name of God in the New Testament (in contrast with the Old Testament where this is presented as a means to bring about God’s purposes and specifically commanded), the New Testament does—at least in some places—still maintain the idea that God can and will use violence in acts of judgment. We see this in places like the story of Ananias and Sapphira, and of course with the entire idea of hell understood as “conscious eternal torment” for the unrepentant.

So to understand God as Christlike means stretching ourselves even beyond where some New Testament authors were able to go. We can argue that in so doing we are moving further in the direction they point us in (I would certainly), but still that requires some courage to more forward towards that new territory—even when we do so believing we are doing it as an act of faithfulness. I personally think it is something we desperately need to do, which is why Brad’s book is so important and needed.

Second, it is radical to understand God as Christlike because this undoes the way we think of God in terms of power and force and strength. If we really get this, we will understand that this applies even to people who don’t believe in God at all (meaning it is not just something that matters to religious folks but to everyone) because it has to do with what we value, how we understand power, how we understand success. Brad understands this deeply and works out in A More Christlike God what it means to re-think who God is in the context of the weakness of the cross. This is, again, a scary and brave thing to do, because it means facing our own helplessness and weakness.

Because of this, A More Christlike God is not a book about detached theology, but a book that cuts to the heart (which is what good theology is supposed to do). Ultimately it is a book that deals with the question of theodicy—if God is loving and all-powerful, why is there so much evil and hurt in our world? Most attempts to deal with this question end up being apologetics that seek to explain the problem away. It’s because of free will... it’s a mystery... it’s for your good... and so on.

That’s not the approach Brad takes because he has spent too much time as a pastor among people who are hurting—parents reeling from the death of a child, people who have survived abuse or rape—in short, among people encountering profound and devastating trauma and loss. There in the face of that kind of pain our best intellectual explanations just ring hollow. What we need instead is a way to face our real pain—to face the reality of suffering in our world—and at the same time be able to open our hearts in hope and trust and love.

This is where Brad takes us. Written with the wisdom of a pastor’s heart, familiar with the reality of people’s real trauma and grief, Brad lovingly helps us to face the pain and darkness of our suffering head-on by showing us a theodicy of the cross that faces the problem of human suffering with brutal honesty, showing us that it is precisely there in that place of brokenness that we encounter God in Christ.

This is a conversation we desperately need to have, and you really could not find a better guide to walk you through this than Brad. So go get yourself a copy of A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel.

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Don't Bury Treasure: Why "How Do You Justify That With The Bible?" Is The Wrong Question

Saturday, April 25, 2015

I deal a lot with difficult passages in the Bible. There's lots of them. But beyond finding ways to deal with these passages is a bigger and more important question: How can we read the Bible in a way that helps us to grow to be more loving, more like Jesus? How do we take what the Bible says and live that out in a way that is live-giving and good? Jesus says on the Sermon on the Mount that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees. So how do we allow the teaching of Jesus to take us beyond basic religious morality to the cutting edge?


A while back I did a post on forgiveness, discussing how to understand it in a deep way, and contrasting this with hurtful ways of understanding forgiveness. One person commented saying, "Good post and I agree with it, but how do you justify it from Scripture?" I hear that a lot. People will recognize that what you are saying is good, it will resonate with their own experience as deep and true... but is it biblical? What is the Scriptural justification for this?

So let me tell you a parable. Maybe you've heard it before...

One person was given a single Bible verse. They took that Bible verse and planted it in their lives, and it grew and expanded. As they lived it out they learned how it worked, and they were able from that deep understanding to multiply their understanding.

Another person also read that same single Bible verse, but they thought, "I am afraid of God, for I know that God is harsh and punishing. I better not go beyond what this says, but instead stick to the letter so I don't get in trouble." So he buried it in the ground so he wouldn't lose it.

Which one did the right thing in the eyes of Jesus?

Consider that when Jesus approaches Scripture his goal is not to simply find a way to interpret Moses or the law. He is constantly offering new, creative, original ideas of how to be more loving. "Hey, you know about an eye for an eye? Try showing love to those you hate instead." That's not an interpretation, it's a brand new and better way. 

So why would Jesus want us to take the "gold talent" he gives us and bury it in the ground? When we apply the Bible like that, only being able to apply what we can justify from the letter of the text, the result is, we place a low ceiling on how much we can grow morally. That means that there is a certain point where there will be nothing more for the Bible to say to us, and we will either stay stuck there permanently, or feel we have morally outgrown the Bible (and to the extent that our faith is rooted in the Bible,  even feel we have outgrown our faith altogether).

I want to say that there is a better way to read that does not tether us down or stunt our growth, but allows us to continually grow. That happens when we are able to read the Bible and apply it to our lives -- learning from this how to make it walk, learning things in the act of living it out that we never could from book-study alone. We need to take what we read in Scripture and connect it to our lives, to live it out. That's the way it can grow.

That may feel scary because it means we need to trust in our own moral judgment, and many of us have been indoctrinated into thinking we can't and that we instead need to stick to the text, burying our gold in the ground for fear. I want to submit that this results in a shallow underdeveloped morality. 

You can do better.  It's really not hard. We just need to overcome our fear (because fear paralyzes) and take a risk of investing that gold by applying it in our lives, and watching how it grows bigger and deeper and wider as we do. This will sometimes result in success, but we will also get it wrong sometimes. That's okay because even in that failure we will learn how it works, and how it doesn't. We will from this be able to go beyond doing something because Jesus says to (although that can be an okay place to start when done from a place of trust) to really getting and deeply understanding why Jesus says it is good. 

That comes from living it out, and it is simply not something that you can learn from understanding the Greek or any other exegetical tools out there. You need to get up, and go out, and put it into practice. If you can learn to do that, you'll find that the New Testament opens up, and life opens up, too. 

The ceiling is gone. The sky is the limit.

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