Disarming Scripture: Reader Questions, part3

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Jump back to Reader Questions, part 2

This time we'll take a look at this reader question,

What is Scripture? What is that which is referred to as "God's word" (though I now understand that Jesus is the total expression of God, not the Bible)? Why did the OT writers record the things they did as if it were commanded by God's very spoken word if they were in fact wrong and what they were doing was something which could only have been inspired by a voice or force of darkness?

We heard a similar question posed last time by "friendly atheist" contributor Rachel Ford,

What is God’s role in the Bible? If it is really His book, or its formation governed by His will, how does it further the Divine Plan to accumulate a number of really horrendous things, that (He must know) people will use as the inspiration for further atrocities, and pass it on to humankind without at least some word of caution?"

As we can see here, this is question asked both by those on the outside of the faith and by those in it. In a nutshell the question boils down to this: If there are things endorsed in the Bible like genocide or slavery which we can and must clearly recognize as wrong, then in what sense can we say that the Bible, and in particular the Old Testament, is inspired, let alone infallible or inerrant?

The conservative take is to read the Bible unquestioningly. So for them the answer is simple: If the Bible endorses genocide and slavery, then they must be good. The problem of course is that this results in people bending over backwards to find ways to call things "good" that they would clearly recognize as moral atrocities in any other context. It makes good people less moral as they find themselves doing things that are deeply hurtful (like beating their children) and that destroy relationships (like kicking their gay kids out of the house) because their pastor tells them the Bible commands them to. It makes smart people into fools as they use their intelligence to justify moral atrocity in a misplaced desire to "defend" the Bible. This is a morally bankrupt way of reading Scripture that leads people to justify and perpetuate harm and violence.

Those of us who recognize this need to find a better way to read the Bible, but often we don't know what that would look like. The way we have learned to approach Scripture is to trust what the text says, despite what we may think, and let it define our morality.

Let me caveat this by saying that in some cases we can do exactly that. For example when the Bible says things like "forgive people when you don't want to, love your enemies, give to the undeserving" and so on -- that is, when it says stuff that stretches and challenges us morally -- then we can and should let that shape us morally. It is certainly true that Jesus stretches us to grow our love and change our perspective. We still need to work through what a healthy application those teachings looks like of course, but this is a matter of finding the correct interpretation.

With the troubling texts in the Old Testament such as genocide and slavery however we are dealing with something different. This is not a matter of finding the right interpretation. Genocide and slavery are simply morally wrong and never God's will. Such texts present us with a picture of God's will that we must declare as wrong.

The Hebrew Bible itself says this in its multi-vocality. We find one place where the Bible says that God did something (2 Samuel says God told David take a census), and another place in that same Bible that says this was not God but the devil (1 Chronicles). Elsewhere, we find one prophet declaring "God says..." and then in another place we find another prophet contradicting them and declaring "I, the Lord, declare, I never said such a horrible thing!"

That's what the Old Testament is like, and because of this reality it makes no sense at all to have a "I accept as truth whatever it says" approach because it says conflicting things. It does not contain a single view, but rather is a record of opposing views.

So then how do we regard the Old Testament? In what sense can we regard a book like that as inspired Scripture? Certainly if we think inspired means "whatever this says is from God" then we need to re-assess our definition of inspiration. So if that's not what inspiration means, how do we define it?

As Christians, the obvious place to begin here is to look at how Jesus and the authors of the New Testament approached the Old Testament as their sacred Scripture. What we will find is that they simultaneously regarded it as inspired, yet did so in a way that allowed for faithful questioning. Let's take a quick look:

The book of Hebrews speaks of the Torah and the Mosaic covenant as being "obsolete" and "fading away" (Heb 8:13), and Paul describes Torah as a temporary measure, never intended or capable of making us holy, "for if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law" (Gal 3:21). Paul differentiates between the promise to Abraham, which he says is fulfilled in Christ, and the law given later to Moses, which he describes as a temporary measure, a stop-gap until the real thing came in Jesus.

That's how the New Testament authors viewed the Old Testament. Even verses like 2 Timothy 3:16 "All Scripture is God-breathed..." need to be read in that context. We can see this by looking at the verse right before this one which states that the purpose of Scripture is "to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim 3:15). The purpose of the Old Testament is to lead us to Jesus. That is what the New Testament repeatedly tells us.

Put differently, the Apostles encounter with the living Word of God in Jesus caused them to completely re-assess everything they had understood in Scripture in that light, and so it should with us. We need to learn to read the Old Testament in the light of Christ and to ask "Does this reflect Jesus and his way?"

Further, as we've seen, the New Testament does not view the OT as perfect and eternal, but as limited and obsolete, stressing that we are "not under Torah, but under grace" (Rom 6:15). That in itself is a rather huge NT revision since Moses says the law is eternal. The fact that we refer to the Hebrew Bible as the "Old Testament" reflects this view. We are under the new covenant, not the old. "For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another" (Heb 8:7).

Now, let me say here that Paul stresses over and over that "the law is holy and good" (obviously anticipating the objections of his religious audience to the view of Scripture he is proposing). So we should not misunderstand this as the NT authors just chucking the OT out with the bathwater. It is however a nuanced view that recognizes limitations, and has a clear focus of seeing the aim of the law as pointing us towards Jesus. In other words, the Bible is not our Lord and savior, Jesus is. The Bible is not central, Jesus is, and the purpose of the Bible is to serve a servant function leading us to Christ. We may learn of Jesus through the Bible, but it cannot replace that vital living connection. In that sense, Jesus alone is the very living eternal Word of God (Jn 1). "I am the truth" Jesus says. Truth is not a book or a law or a set of propositions, truth is a Someone.

What this ultimately gets down to us how we interpret the text. You can read the Old Testament and use it to justify slaughtering and enslaving people (as people have done throughout history), or you can read it like Jesus and have it lead you to loving your enemies and caring for the poor. It is therefore not simply a matter of what the text says, but of how we read it. Judaism, and the Old Testament itself, shows a developing record of the changed ways that people interpreted and applied the law. This development, which often took the form of conflict between opposing positions, continued within the Jewish faith during the time of Jesus, as we saw last time with the conflict been the schools of Shammai and Hillel.

Continuing in this Jewish tradition of interpretation characterized by faithful questioning, Jesus read Scripture as having the purpose of leading us to love. As a consequence he felt free to break laws when love called for it. He healed people on the Sabbath. He could've waited one day. No one's life was in danger. But he thought it was absurd to wait. He thought it missed the purpose of the law of Sabbath rest, which was intended to be a gift not a burden. So he broke it in the name of love. He did that constantly. That is certainly not an unquestioning way to read. Jesus did not see himself as breaking the law when he did this, but as fulfilling it. The Pharisees saw it as breaking it. The take away here is that Jesus saw that faithfulness to Scripture, fulfilling the law, involved at times breaking it, and taking it further, for example by overturning an eye for an eye with the way of enemy love.

So what I am proposing is that we take a clue from how Jesus and the NT writers viewed and applied (and didn't apply) the Old Testament. They all regard Scripture as Scripture, and yet did so in a way that allowed them to question, to reject, to revise, to add, to grow. That's awesome because it allows us to read Scripture with our minds and consciences intact in a way that lets us grow morally, rather than in a way that "enslaves us," as Paul puts it.

next time we'll look at this question,

Why doesn't the NT set the record straight on what to embrace and what to reject from the OT? Wouldn't it be good to state for instance that slavery and genocide are not God's will? To have these things in our Bibles, attributed to God's will, is misleading to say the least.
jump to reader questions part 4

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At 6:31 AM, Blogger SteveO said...

This is really good Derek, Was the concept of the NT calling the OT obsolete highlighted in the book as it is here?

At 8:38 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

No, there was a lot of stuff that got edited out of the book for clarity and flow. So the stuff in this post is not in the book. It might be worthwhile to post a fuller exploration of the NT view of the law, particularly in the letter of Paul. I believe I wrote a paper journal on this a while back, I'll see if I can dig that up.

At 6:11 PM, Blogger Rene Lafaut said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 11:21 PM, Blogger Rene Lafaut said...

Today the Holy Spirit revealed to me (thanks to Derek Flood’s Blog) that I still tried to put angry pressure on myself to keep Jesus’ commands, but what’s more is that I wanted to defend His commands by wrongly judging those who might oppose them as though they were evil in the popular sense. Both are wrong! Jesus does not need defending in this way nor do His sayings. As for the angry pressure I was putting on myself I realized it was wrong when I saw that I was hardening my heart in loyalty to all of Scripture…but in doing this I was neither able to keep the commands, nor able to love those who seemed to question those same commands. The commands were meant to protect people, care for people, and bless people. By wanting to defend the commands I was actually gearing myself to convict people of supposed sins whereas this role actually permanently belongs to the Holy Spirit who convicts people for real sins. Also I was a hypocrite because with my self-appointed role of moral policeman I tossed God’s words behind me by not being docile to the Spirit who wanted me to use Scripture to love not hate. What a warped and blind mindset I had. I guess I had the cart before the donkey. Strange how something that was intended to bring us closer to others was twisted around and used for evil. Thanks Derek for setting me straight!!! I was told a long time ago by a preacher that we all had a few hundred things wrong with us. At the time I could only count one or two dozen things if that...but thankfully I'm on a journey...and have known for some time that I was messed up really seriously. But it is not God's intent to only point out wrongs...He is into restorative justice too...Amen!!!

At 8:27 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Derek - I'm trying to think of what you're referring to when you wrote - "Elsewhere, we find one prophet declaring "God says..." and then in another place we find another prophet contradicting them and declaring "I, the Lord, declare, I never said such a horrible thing!" Could you help me out?

At 10:14 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Rene sounds like the Holy Spirit is doing a lot of work in you. That's wonderful, and I'm glad if my stuff can play a small roll in that. God grows the flowers, we just water the garden :)

At 10:18 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


There's lots of examples of this. Here's one:

“I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers” (Exod 20: 5; Deut 5: 9).

“As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel” (Ezek 18: 3). His prophecy continues, “He will not die for his father’s sin; he will surely live … The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son” (v. 17, 19).

At 12:12 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Derek - Thanks so much for responding. It's interesting to me to see how various verses come across to different people. I read Exodus 20:5/Deut. 5:9 as pertaining only to those children who embrace the sins of their parents. The Message seems to touch on this thought: "I’m a most jealous God, punishing the children for any sins their parents pass on to them to the third, and yes, even to the fourth generation of those who hate me."

I remember hearing Exodus 20:5 being read out loud by our pastor every Sunday when I was a child, but because of Exodus 20:5's context, I never felt God was saying he'd punish righteous children - "but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments." - Exodus 20:6/ Deut. 5:10. I always felt that if children did not embrace the sins of their parents, but instead came to love God (as Abraham had), those children were people to whom God could show lovingkindness (since they loved him and his loving ways).

I'd be interested in some of the other examples if you don't mind sharing them. By the way, I absolutely love your book Healing the Gospel. Thank you so much for writing it! I appreciate the chance to share perspectives with you.

At 12:55 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Well, Ezekiel would agree. However the people he is addressing apparently did not. That's why he feels the need to set them straight :)

I give lots of examples of this in the book (hint, hint). It's a pattern found throughout the OT as their views developed and changed. If you type "multivocal" into the "search this blog" box on the column to the right you'll find lots of posts where I've discussed this too.

At 5:57 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks, Derek. I'll check out your new book ;-). What I've also found helpful is the perspective that in the Old Testament, God presents the ideal - Lev. 19:17 for instance - "You shall not hate your fellow countryman in your heart; you may surely reprove your neighbor, but shall not incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord." Sounds just like Jesus in the New Testament. God being a pragmatist, however, knew that not everyone (in what He would have liked to have been His "showcase society" if people had listened to His guidance), would pay attention to the ideal. Therefore he met people where they were and prescribed laws that dealt with the hardness of their hearts. And their hearts were very, very hard. At times it took stoning to make any kind of impression. As a friend once said, God was forced to give very tough instructions to a very tough people.
I find the same “God met people where they were” principle helpful when reading about the wars to take Canaan. At the Red Sea God told Israel "The Lord will fight for you while you keep silent.” (Exodus 14:14). God reiterates His desire to take care of Israel’s enemies Himself in Exodus 23:27-30 (Good News Bible) - “I will make the people who oppose you afraid of me; I will bring confusion among the people against whom you fight, and I will make all your enemies turn and run from you. I will throw your enemies into panic; I will drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites as you advance. I will not drive them out within a year's time; if I did, the land would become deserted, and the wild animals would be too many for you. Instead, I will drive them out little by little, until there are enough of you to take possession of the land.” It seems clear that God preferred to drive them out rather than have every man, woman and child killed since He goes on to say, “Do not let those people live in your country; if you do, they will make you sin against me. If you worship their gods, it will be a fatal trap for you.” His plan involved these people still being alive – just not having access to Israel.

Yet the “glory of the fight” evidently consumed the Hebrews – Judges 8:10 definitely reflects this as far as I can see: “Then the men of Ephraim said to him, “What is this thing you have done to us, not calling us when you went to fight against Midian?” And they contended with him vigorously. But he said to them, “What have I done now in comparison with you? Is not the gleaning of the grapes of Ephraim better than the vintage of Abiezer? God has given the leaders of Midian, Oreb and Zeeb into your hands; and what was I able to do in comparison with you?” Then their anger toward him subsided when he said that.”

Tough job, trying to work with people like that. Very tough choices that God had to make in order to see His promise to Abraham fulfilled - the decision to bring the Hebrew nation out of Egypt into the land of Canaan – having to meet them where they were in order to accomplish that feat.

Looking forward to reading your book.

At 10:25 AM, Blogger Susan said...

Well, where does this leave Jews who don't believe in the New Testament? It leaves them following your violent and vengeful "Old Testament." I've always found that ironic given how much Jews have to forgive Christians for. If we really believed in vengeance Christians would be in trouble. There were plenty of rabbis that lived around Jesus's time and later that were pacifists. They focused on survival of the Jews throught prayer and study of torah. They weren't as poetic as Jesus, but they managed to create a the idea of a just and peaceful society without Jesus.

At 7:56 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


I think that is simply undeniable that there is a problem with violence in the Hebrew Bible, so for those of us who regard it as Scripture that is the reality we need to face and deal with. As a Christian, I am presenting a Christian approach to that problem. If you are coming from a different faith tradition, then you would need to look to your own faith for how they deal with the problem. I do not pretend to speak for any faith other than my own.

At 5:45 AM, Blogger SteveO said...

Hey Derek,

I don't mean to be a pest but, did you ever find your "paper journal" on "the NT view of the law?" And can you share? :-)

At 10:44 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


There's lots of literature on Paul's critique of the law. A big shift that has occurred in scholarship related to this is the "New Perspective on Paul" which moves away from a traditional Lutheran view of law vs grace where "law" is seen as good deeds and rejected, the New Perspective instead sees Paul (I think correctly) as focusing on acts of love as the fruit of faith and that love as the fulfillment of the law (what Paul sees as a "new law" above and beyond the written code), as opposed to ritual "works" of the law (circumcision, ceremonial washing, and other cultural markers that separated Jews from the surrounding culture). Here I particularly find the work of James Dunn and Michael Gorman helpful.

As a starting point to Paul's critique of the law (understood as a critique of retributive justice, not as a critique of moral actions), I'd recommend the essay by Chris Marshall entiled "The Violence of God and the Hermeneutics of Paul" in the book The Work of Jesus Christ in Anabaptist Perspective.

At 12:15 PM, Blogger SteveO said...

Thanks Derek, that's exactly what I was looking for.


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