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.

Labels: ,

Part 3: A Reply to Greg Boyd's Critique of Disarming Scripture

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

If you missed it, here's part 1 of this three part series.

Last time, in part 2, I explored how Boyd and I both agree that Old Testament texts, which contain portraits of God that are clearly in conflict with the way of Jesus, must not be normative for how we as Christians see God or treat others. This raises the question of how then such texts can be considered part of our sacred biblical canon. In this final installment I will explore the different ways Boyd and I address this question.

Boyd’s “Magic Eye” Approach

Boyd begins with the assumption that “Jesus taught that all Scripture is inspired for the purpose of bearing witness to him.” Now, one could certainly debate whether Jesus actually ever said that “all Scripture is inspired for the purpose of bearing witness to him.” As you may have noticed, two separate verses are being welded together here. On the one hand is 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is God-breathed,” and on the other is Jesus’ declaration that “You search the Scriptures... and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39 ESV). So Jesus did not actually say “All Scripture (i.e. every verse)... bear witness” but rather “the Scriptures (ho graphe)... bear witness.” As The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament states, the Greek graphe can and often does refer to individual passages in the Gospels, but it further notes that this meaning is “highly debatable” in the case of John’s Gospel where it may equally “be a reference to Scripture as a whole” (TDNT 1:752).

One can therefore legitimately ask whether Jesus is in fact saying that every single verse—including the ones about genocide and cannibalism—point to him (which seems to be quite a stretch). Is Jesus perhaps saying instead that Scripture as a whole—when we learn to read it like Jesus did—points us to him? This is would be how I would understand Jesus' statement. Boyd however seems to be convinced  Jesus is saying every verse refers to him. This is quite significant because Boyd appears to hang his entire theory on this (highly debatable) assumption,
Since Jesus taught that all Scripture is inspired for the purpose of bearing witness to him, I submit that we should not be trying to discern if a passage is inspired, we should be trying to discern how a passage is inspired to serve this function. The question I believe we ought to be wrestling with is this: How do portraits depicting God commanding genocide (Deut 7:2; 20:16-8), causing parents to cannibalize their children (Lev 26:29; Jer 19:9; Lam 2:20), or engaging in any number of other macabre acts, bear witness to the non-violent, self-sacrificial, enemy loving God revealed in Jesus?” (emphasis added)

As Boyd says, “It is admittedly not obvious how morally repugnant portraits of God such as those that depict Yahweh commanding the merciless slaughter of women and children could possibly bear witness to Christ.” In order to do this, Boyd looks to the “ugliness” of the cross,
“I asked myself the question: How does the cross function as the definitive revelation of God? Looking at it with the natural eye (in a first century Jewish context), there is nothing to suggest that this guilty-appearing, God-forsaken, crucified criminal is the definitive revelation of God. This crucified criminal can only be understood to be the definitive revelation of God when we by faith discern what else is going on behind this appearance. And what faith sees going on behind this horrific appearance is a God of unfathomable love stooping an infinite distance to become our sin and our curse and to thereby take on a hideous appearance that mirrors our sin and our curse.”

From this Boyd proposes that, just as we see God revealed in the ugliness of the cross, so too we can see this in OT passages such as those where God is said to command or commit horrendous acts of violence,

"We must by faith look past the ugly, sin-mirroring surface to behold the beauty of the divine revelation, for the revelation is not located on the surface appearance, but in God’s loving condescension to assume this appearance."
A major difficulty I see here with Boyd’s proposal is that there is a world of difference between being a victim of violence, and being the perpetrator of violence. Seeing a murder victim can be said to be “ugly,” and a murderer can be said to be “ugly” as well, but in profoundly different ways. Seeing God in Jesus as the victim of religious and political violence, and seeing God in the Old Testament as the perpetrator of that violence are not parallels, they are opposites. 

I submit that part of the problem here is coming from a misunderstanding of how the cross functions.[*] A better understanding of the cross—one we find reflected both in the Gospels and in Paul’s epistles—shows how Jesus on the cross is condemned by the authority and powers that be, and those powers are thus unveiled as unjust. How does this work? The Gospels continually stress that Jesus was sinless, innocent, blameless.  It is by recognizing God incarnate upon the cross (i.e. recognizing that the one who is condemned is innocent and holy— that we see the reversal, where the powers (what we had esteemed as good and right) are unmasked and stand condemned. Thus Paul can exclaim, “Disarming the rulers and authorities, he has made a public disgrace of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15 NET). The unjust suffering of the righteous servant (Isa 53) exposes the world’s false conceptions of power and violence. We thought he was stricken by God, but it was we who were guilty. The cross exposes the lie of violence committed in God's name. That includes those false conceptions of power and violence where we find them upheld in the Old Testament.

To say that God in Jesus assumed the role of the victim, of the condemned, of the afflicted is vastly different from saying that God in the Old Testament genocide accounts is “condescending to assume the appearance” of the warlord, the killer, the perpetrator. As it stands, I don't understand how that would point us to Christ, rather than pointing us away from Christ.

Now, I should note that Boyd does not appear to think that God actually committed or commanded these heinous acts. In Benefit of the Doubt he writes, “I can’t for a moment imagine Jesus ... commanding anyone to mercilessly slaughter anyone.” The question Boyd therfore instead asks is, “why God would stoop to appear to act in certain ways that reflect a character that is very different from his true character, revealed in Christ.”

Indeed. As I noted above, the question for me is: If God were to do this, how would this point us to Christ? How would God being falsely portrayed in a way that is not Christlike point us to Christ? After all, God is not seen in the Roman soldiers who beat Jesus, God is seen in Jesus, the victim of that beating.

There are also other questions currently left unanswered in Boyd's proposal. If God did not actually do this, who did? Did it happen at all? Most importantly, if God did not command killing, but purposely let people think he had commanded the killing, how is that not morally irresponsible?

Perhaps such questions are worked out in his forthcoming book The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, but as it stands these are some of the difficulties I see with Boyd's proposal.

First Things First

The answer, I propose, is neither to justify these acts as good, nor is it to say that the text is not saying what it says. Instead, I insist that we need to face these morally troubling passages for what they are. Not tossing them out, but looking at them in all of their ugliness, with our eyes wide open.

While we may go to a second reading as Boyd proposes, we need to begin with a first reading; and on that first reading (i.e. reading the texts for what they actually say, and in the way their authors intended them to be understood), the genocide accounts are exactly what they seem to be—texts promoting genocide in God’s name. They are not about love of enemies, they are about mercilessly slaughtering enemies. Genocide is immoral and wrong. If we are to have a redemptive reading, as Boyd proposes, we must begin by first facing these texts for what they are.

This is not simply a problem of our mistaken interpretations, but the reality of moral problems inherent in the texts themselves. Those problems are real, and we dare not deny them. To read a text purposely in a way that runs counter to how it was intended is not to read the text “correctly” (as if it were somehow incorrect to interpret something as it was intended). It is to read in protest against the text. It is to undo it, subvert it—or more positively we might say convert it to Christ.

In Disarming Scripture I offer several examples of how Paul takes Old Testament passages that promote hatred of enemy gentiles, editing them by omitting the violent parts, so they instead promote God's love towards those same enemy gentiles. Since Paul was very familiar with the Scriptures, and in the past had likely employed those same violent texts to justify his violent persecution of the church, I argue that Paul is intentionally misquoting these texts. He is subverting them, disarming them, converting them.

In many ways Boyd's approach is similar to Paul's. Both intentionally read the text in a way that is counter to the authorial intent in order to promote the gospel and Christ's way of enemy love. So seeing that, I am genuinely thankful for people like Boyd who are trying to find creative ways to approach these texts coupled with a commitment to Jesus’ way of enemy love. I fully support such redemptive readings.

However, if we are able to redeem parts of the Bible showing how they point to Christ I must insist that this cannot mean that we deny the very real problems inherent in these biblical texts. We need to face this reality of our own sacred texts we need to own it, admit it as ours. We need to begin by taking a hard look at the sin that is mirrored in these texts, and then, and only then, can we move from there to look for a redemptive reading just as we must first face our sin before we can move to redeem it. That sounds to me like a gospel approach.

The Multi-vocal Old Testament

So how do I understand the Old Testament to function as part of our sacred canon despite the fact that it contains much that we would consider to be profoundly immoral and wrong?

As I illustrate in Disarming Scripture, drawing from the work of Walter Brueggemann, the reality is that the Old Testament is multi-vocal. That is, it does not contain one view of God, one view of what morality looks like, but instead is made up of multiple authors voicing multiple conflicting visions of who God is, and how we should love. Some depictions of God in the Old Testament are focused on love and compassion. Others focus on the opposite. That is simply the reality of the Bible we have. The Old Testament is multi-vocal.

Reading as Christians, the key to knowing which of these to embrace (ie. which should shape how we see God and treat others, and which should not) is in understanding which ones Jesus embraced, and which he repudiated. As I detail in Disarming Scripture, looking at how Jesus read the Hebrew Scriptures, we can observe that he embraces the understanding of God found in the Old Testament characterized by compassion, and rejects depictions that instead promote harm and hate. Jesus reads the multi-vocal Old Testament and identifies with and embraces certain voices, while repudiating others.

Now, this raises the question: If there are things in the Old Testament that we must reject, how can it be said to be inspired? The Old Testament is clearly not "inspired" in the sense of being a book that we can pick up, flip to any page, and apply what it says to how we see God or treat others. Because it is multi-vocal it must be read with discernment, knowing what to embrace and what not to. Our model in this, as I said above, is looking at how Jesus read Scripture, and learning to see what he sees.

What I affirm is that the Hebrew canon as a whole is inspired in that we can read it in a way that we recognize it pointing us to Jesus. The Hebrew canon as a whole, through the very process of dispute, takes us on a journey (albeit along a rocky road with ups and downs) of a people discovering who God is. That journey culminates in Jesus.

Through faith we can recognize God working in all of this, behind the scenes and between the lines. Through faith we can witness that God is present in the middle of our human wretchedness, working through the disputes, contradictions, and many wrong and hurtful understandings of a primitive people that we see cataloged in the many books of the Old Testament. Through faith we can recognize how God raises up the voices of the marginalized and victimized are extraordinarily included as part of the Hebrew canon, giving them a voice of protest alongside the voices of power. Through faith we can see how God is gradually guiding us towards Jesus. We can find God in the Old Testament in the same way we see God in our own lives—a treasure contained in a jar of clay, a flower (Isaiah would say a wild and beautiful weed) growing out of the dirt.

This is a way of understanding the Old Testament as inspired that is rooted in God rather than in a book, and which does not require us to deny the very real problems of violence that we find in the Hebrew Scriptures.


In the end, while there are some difficulties I see currently with his proposal, I am confident that Boyd can address these, and I applaud his desire to redeem texts, just as Christ redeems us. As I mention above, Paul does something very similar, so Boyd is in some very good company! I hope I have also shown that, rather than being in conflict, our two approaches can work together, and indeed are needed parts of the whole, allowing us to read scripture in honest and morally responsible ways.

UPDATE: The conversation continues! Greg responded to these three posts, with another two-part response  (part1 and part2). I then respond to that here in a post I titled: An Orthodoxy For All of Us Non-Purebred Mutts: More Dialog with Greg Boyd. Also related, I further elaborate how I understand inspiration and infallibility here.


[*] Boyd’s above understanding of the cross seems akin to a view of the atonement that is known as “penal substitution,” which as I argue in Healing the Gospel represents a misunderstanding of how the cross functions. This misunderstanding results in justifying retributive violence, rather than unmasking it, and is therefore incompatible with the commitment to nonviolence that both Boyd and I share.

Labels: , , , ,

Part 2: A Reply to Greg Boyd's Critique of Disarming Scripture

Monday, April 20, 2015

In my previous post I discussed why I reject the Fundamentalist understanding of infallibility, which as I discussed is very different from how Boyd understands infallibility. In this post, I’ll begin by explaining why I, in contrast, agree with Boyd’s re-imagined Christ-centered understanding of infallibility. I will then discuss inspiration, authority, and what it means to make Christ the center of how we read the Bible.

Boyd’s Re-imagined Understanding of Infallibility

What infallibility means for Boyd in the context of the larger “God-breathed” nature of Scripture is a bit difficult to ascertain from his review. The closest I found to a definition was in a footnote where he states,

“The Bible is infallible in accomplishing all that God intends it to accomplish, which, as shall become clear later on, is ultimately to point us toward, and bring us into a relationship with, the God revealed in the crucified Christ.”

Digging a little deeper I found this further clarification in his book Benefit of the Doubt,

“Our confidence in Scripture as the inspired Word of God can be strengthened once we abandon the misguided notion that everything in Scripture is equally important … If God’s ultimate purpose in ‘breathing’ (theopneustos, 2 Tim. 3: 16) Scripture is to point us to Christ and to help us cultivate a relationship with Christ, then so long as we remain confident that Scripture doesn’t fail to do this— in this sense, it is ‘infallible’— whatever problems we might encounter in matters surrounding this book are irrelevant to the question of whether it’s divinely inspired.”

From this I take it that Boyd sees infallibility as meaning that God is somehow active in Scripture, using it to lead us to Christ. Scripture (or more precisely, God active in Scripture) is unfailing in doing this, and thus infallible. As Boyd says above, affirming this does not mean that we should not question violent portrayals of God, nor does it mean that everything is of equal weight or validity.

The question of course is then, how does Scripture do this? How does a text which contains “violent divine portraits that conflict with the revelation of God in the crucified Christ” lead us to Christ? The answers that Boyd and I give to this question are different. I will consider our two differing answers to this question in my next post (part 3). Right now I want to simply note that Boyd and I are in agreement that Scripture—when it is interpreted rightly—leads us to Christ and his way of cruciform love. If that’s what infallibility means, then I apparently believe in infallibility, too. 

Now, I don’t think I will be adopting the term “infallibility” because for me the term is historically tied to Fundamentalism, and as I said, I am not a Fundamentalist. I am however sympathetic to why Greg might want to redeem the term. 

We all do that at one point or another. There are some who reject the term “Christian” because of its negative associations, instead calling themselves “followers of Jesus” and such. I instead want to redeem the word “Christian,” showing that it should be associated with Christlikeness. I also want to redeem the term “inspiration,” showing how it works in the context of Scripture’s ultimate purpose being to lead us to Christ. I present that definition in the final chapter of Disarming Scripture, drawing on the of of Stanley Grenz.

So I really do appreciate what Greg is trying to do here by re-defining infallibility. I just don’t think it is fair or particularly charitable to fault me when I do not feel the need to redeem the same words that he does. At the very least, what we need to look at is the content of what we each believe and affirm, rather than focusing on affirming particular words. 

Inspiration (And How I Don’t Deny It)

More important however is how Boyd jumps from me denying the Fundamentalist doctrine of infallibility to assuming that I hold a position that “requires us to deny the inspiration and infallibility of all Scripture.” This is an inaccurate presentation of my view and I said nothing of the sort in Disarming Scripture. But Boyd pushes this even further, claiming that I advocate just tossing out anything I don’t like,

“When our conscience and life experience discern a portion of Scripture doesn’t lead to love, then it is apparently not inspired and we are free to reject it.”

Again, this is not what I said. What I in fact say repeatedly (using it as a thesis statement) in Disarming Scripture is,

“If we therefore recognize that a particular interpretation leads to observable harm, this necessarily means that we need to stop and reassess our course. To continue on a course we know to be harmful, simply because ‘the Bible says so,’ is morally irresponsible.”

How Boyd takes my above statement advocating humility and self-reflection, and from this declares that I am therefore saying that Scripture is “not inspired” and can just be tossed out, is frankly baffling to me.

On the contrary, I make a point throughout Disarming Scripture of saying that we need to face these violent text head-on, rather than ignoring them or pretending that they are good and Christlike, when they clearly are quite the opposite (more on that later). Continuing, Boyd writes,

“Yes, Flood holds that we should still wrestle with this material to learn lessons from it (104-12). But in his view we are not wrestling with this violent material as though it was divinely inspired and carried divine authority.”

Again, the first sentence is true (note that he can give a page reference). I do say that we should wrestle with the text (and I might add, so does Boyd). In the second sentence however Boyd is once again putting words in my mouth.

Let’s take a moment to consider the notion of “authority.” What does it mean for a biblical text to “carry divine authority” as Boyd puts it?

Authority: Why the Bible is not like the Constitution

In his review Boyd draws an analogy between the authority of Scripture and the authority of the Constitution for the Supreme Court judges. The role of the Supreme Court is to interpret the Constitution. The judges frequently do not agree on these interpretations, but they do agree that the Constitution is authoritative in making their rulings. Boyd thus writes,

“Imagine how chaotic and dysfunctional the Supreme Court would be if each judge was allowed to reject whatever aspects of the Constitution they disapproved of? …
Throughout the Church tradition, Scripture has functioned very much like the Constitution functions in the Supreme Court... [C]utting the tether with this tradition has the same effect on the theology of the Church as denying the supremacy of the Constitution would have for our Supreme Court.”

That all makes sense as far as the Supreme Court goes, but completely falls apart when it is applied to how Boyd proposes we should interpret Scripture. Boyd maintains that we should reject violent interpretations, while at the same time he fully recognizes that many parts of the Old Testament texts themselves contain “violent divine portraits that conflict with the revelation of God in the crucified Christ” and thus present us with an inaccurate portrait of God’s true nature revealed in Christ. This is not a matter of interpretation, of us somehow reading it wrong. It is simply what the texts actually proclaim and promote.

The only way Boyd can get around the fact that these texts themselves contain morally disturbing content intended by the biblical author is to propose that we interpret a text in a way that is intentionally opposed to the way the biblical author intended it. Now, try and apply that to the Supreme Court: Imagine how chaotic and dysfunctional the Supreme Court would be if each Supreme Court justice sought to interpret the Constitution in a way that was intentionally counter to the intent of the Founding Fathers. If there were a way to get fired as a Supreme Court Justice, I’m pretty sure this would be it.

So at the very least the analogy of comparing the authority of Scripture to the way the Constitution functions completely falls apart here. Conservative biblical exegetes who are exclusively concerned with authorial intent, completely detached from ethical concerns, might be comparable to the Supreme Court, but not to the approach of either Boyd or myself.

The fact is, the way Boyd proposes we interpret Scripture is really nothing like the way the Supreme Court interprets the Constitution, and that’s because the way we interpret Scripture (as both Boyd and I affirm) centers on Jesus not on Torah. That’s why I agree with Boyd when he writes in Benefit of the Doubt,

“Confessing Scripture to be completely ‘God-breathed’ does not entail that everything in Scripture is equally authoritative or that every portrait of God carries the same weight.”

Amen. What is therefore ultimately authoritative—i.e. what is normative for how we should live and how we see God—is not all of Scripture equally, but Jesus definitively. Jesus is authoritative. The cross is central. Only in so far as Scripture is read in a way that leads towards a Jesus-shaped life and a Jesus-shaped understanding of God is it authoritative. That’s why I very intentionally said in my previous post that I “affirm the inspiration and authority of Scripture, and in particular of the New Testament.”

That is what I am saying, and—despite the apparent confusion between us—I think it is what Boyd is trying to say as well.

You must reject... You mustn’t reject 

This understanding of the supremacy of Christ as our ultimate authority when interpreting Scripture necessarily entails that we must reject the portions of the Old Testament which run counter to Christ and his way, at least insofar as they are to be normative for us. Along these lines Boyd writes,

“Jesus, along with Paul and other authors of the New Testament, felt led by the Spirit to go beyond, and even at times against, the original meaning of passages”

Right. They go beyond and even against the original meanings. This is what I demonstrate in Disarming Scripture. But Boyd’s above quote continues,

“[But] there is no indication that they ever felt free to simply reject any portion of Scripture.”

Wait, what? Then what does “go against” mean then? How can you go against something, but not be rejecting it? Boyd writes further,

“I am in agreement with Flood when he claims that Jesus employed a hermeneutic of love that caused him to prioritize some parts of Scripture over others and to repudiate other parts of Scripture”

Repudiate. Let’s look that up in the dictionary: It means refuse to accept or be associated with. Deny the truth or validity of. So, following the lead of Jesus and Paul, we should repudiate and go against violent passages, but we can’t reject them?

Does the term “reject” have some meaning for Boyd that is different from these other terms? One might be inclined to think so, until we read him say,

“I completely agree that we must, in the light of Christ, reject violent interpretations of Scripture.”

At this point I honestly became a bit confused. Boyd maintains that in the light of Christ, we must reject violent interpretations of Scripture, and simultaneously that Jesus and Paul never felt free to simply reject any portion of Scripture? How does that make any sense?

It frankly doesn’t. 

So what might Boyd have then meant? Trying to view his position in the most generous way I can, I assume what he was trying to say is that we do practically need to reject, repudiate, go against (in the sense that they are not normative for how we see God or how we treat one another, which is to say that they are not normative at all) texts which are in conflict with the revelation of Christ, seeing them as not carrying the same weight and authority as the way of Jesus, but nevertheless still should seek to wrestle with these morally problematic texts to understand how they can then function as part of our sacred canon. 

Both Boyd and I seek to do this, albeit in very different ways. In my next post I will discuss our two approaches.

What I have attempted to accomplish in this post is to show how what Boyd finds so alarming (that I am supposedly “severing the tether” with the historical faith by denying the Bible’s inspiration) is simply not true. In fact I think we agree more than most on these things. I hope that Greg can give me the benefit of the doubt on that.

continue to part 3...

Labels: , , , ,

A Reply to Greg Boyd's Critique of Disarming Scripture (Part 1)

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Greg Boyd has posted a four part critique of my book Disarming Scripture on his blog You can read Greg's whole series here: part 1part 2, part 3, part 4

Beginning with this post I will address Boyd's criticisms (and offer a few of my own) in a three part series.

Let me begin by saying that I am honored that Greg felt that Disarming Scripture was important enough to offer a four part rebuttal. Let me also say that while we do genuinely disagree on some important points, there is much more that we do agree on.

We both are strong advocates for Jesus' way of enemy love. We both are consequently wrestling with violent passages in the Bible in an attempt to read it so that it leads us to Jesus-shaped lives and praxis. Additionally, I have personally appreciated and been helped by Boyd's work. In particular, his book God at War was influential to me during my formative years, along with Walter Wink's Engaging the Powers. So when I disagree with Boyd, I do so with both respect and admiration, recognizing we are not only brothers in Christ but also are both working towards the common goal of promoting enemy love. I hope I can exhibit that spirit of peacemaking in my reply to him as well.

As the saying goes, iron sharpens iron, so while we may disagree on some points, I hope that by voicing our disagreement we might together arrive at a better expression in dialog than either of us could on our own. I also hope others listening could likewise benefit from the discussion, even in our disagreement.

Let me begin with a bit about scholarship. In part 2 of his review Boyd discusses what he liked and disliked in Disarming Scripture. Boyd begins with our shared focus on the centrality of enemy love in the New Testament,

“There is a great deal in Disarming Scripture that I appreciate. Perhaps the most significant thing is that Flood fully grasps, and effectively communicates, the truth that Jesus, Paul, and in varying degrees the entire New Testament, reveal a God who loves enemies and who is altogether non-violent.”

This however is immediately followed by a criticism,

“Unfortunately, I don’t believe Flood’s treatment of the centrality of enemy-loving non-violence in the New Testament will persuade many dissenting scholars, for in the course of making his case, Flood failed to engage in the multitude of disputed exegetical and historical issues that surround the biblical material he cites... Disarming Scripture would have been academically stronger had Flood forged his position in dialogue with dissenting academics voices, but, of course, this also would have made his book less accessible to a lay audience.”

Here Boyd has actually answered his own question. As he notes, the book is not written for an academic audience but for “lay readers.” In other words, my audience is not scholars, but rather disciples of Jesus, and consequently I am concerned with articulating how we can, as Christ's followers, practically interpret and apply Scripture in our lives.

Scholarship has a role to play in this of course. I have drawn from scholars such as James Dunn, Walter Brueggemann, and many others where I felt their work was helpful. But we should not get the cart before the horse here. Scholarship plays a servant role to the church in helping us to better read the Bible, but from a pastoral perspective the audience is not fellow scholars, but fellow disciples.

Employing the work of scholarship towards that end means reading lots of books that are thicker than the NYC phone book, and then distilling the relevant parts from them in a way that people can understand. In doing the research for Disarming Scripture I read through literally hundreds of books and scholarly articles, as well as engaging in many personal dialogs with those scholars. I am consequently well aware of the various scholarly debates and issues involved, and where I felt they were helpful and relevant I have included discussions of them in Disarming Scripture.

This is a matter of connecting the dots, so we can see how the insights of scholars can help us to read the Bible well as Christians. It's important to understand here however that often these dots are not connected in the scholarly works themselves because the goal of scholarship — as an academic pursuit — is not primarily or even necessarily to address questions of faith at all, but rather to address academic and scholarly concerns. So part of my task — and many have said my particular strength— is to connect the dots between scholarship and faith, oftentimes when there are no dots made by the scholars themselves.

What I have not done — and this is very intentional — is attempt to address scholars with the book. That would have dragged us into a quagmire of rabbit trails that characterize scholarly works that would have bored most lay readers to tears. You’re welcome.

Again, my aim is to speak to disciples, to fellow followers, and offer a practical way to read Scripture — including taking on the problem of violence in Scripture — in a way that leads us to a life of love and compassion.

Finally, while we are on the subject of scholarship, I must say I was a bit surprised to read Boyd’s charge that my “perspective of Jesus and Paul on this matter runs counter to the views of most New Testament scholars, conservative and liberal alike.” I think this would come as quite a surprise to the many New Testament scholars who I worked together with as well. I trust that a brief glance at the book’s endorsements should make this point abundantly clear.

Infallibility: Two Definitions

The real disagreement that Boyd has with me however has to do with my rejection of the doctrine of infallibility. In fact, I think it would be fair to say that Boyd agrees with the major points of my book, and simply disagrees on the one point of infallibility. What we will find — if I could tip my cards here — is that Boyd and I have very different understandings of what infallibility means, and as a result I believe that, at least to a certain extent, we are talking past one another.

So with that in mind, let’s take a look at the doctrine of infallibility, beginning with a little history. The doctrine of infallibility arose from fundamentalism's reaction against modernism in the 19th and early 20th century. Infallibility is often contrasted with inerrancy. Inerrancy asserts that there are no errors in the Bible. That's of course a very difficult position to hold in the light of textual criticism which demonstrated that the Bible contains many typos as well as historical and scientific inaccuracies. The doctrine of infallibility is often presented as a lighter version that does not try to maintain that the Bible is without error (inerrant), but that it is trustworthy in all matters to which it speaks (the word infallible derives from the Latin fallere, literally “cause to fall”). Affirming infallibility means you can therefore take what Scripture says as authoritative and apply it to your life.

This is how infallibility is understood in its original context of fundamentalism's response to modernism. It says in effect, “Okay, maybe there are some typos and errors in here that we need to acknowledge in the light of science, but what the text teaches on faith and morals is still the authoritative and trustworthy final word on the matter.”

That sounds good, but what do we do with texts that promote things like slavery? Well, in the pre-Civil War South many conservative Christians argued that if the Bible says slaves should submit to their masters, then that is the final word. The Bible is our infallible guide, so that settles it. Nevermind that it seems wrong. Nevermind the harm you can see that slavery causes.

Similarly today some conservatives maintain that if the Bible says that women should submit under men, then that is the final word on the matter. This is how the doctrine of infallibility — which again is historically a doctrine that arose out of fundamentalism’s reaction to modernism — is understood and applied by conservative Evangelicals, both from the past as well as today. It is this understanding that I reject. I think this focus is quite clear in my book.

Let me stress here that I am by no means saying that this reflects how Boyd understands infallibility, nor would it characterize his approach to reading the Bible. That is precisely where the problem lies. I am rejecting the fundamentalist doctrine of infallibility, and Boyd is upholding something entirely different which he also calls “infallibility.”

As he states repeatedly, Boyd does not maintain that we should adhere to the “surface meaning” of the biblical text. He further states in no uncertain terms, “I completely agree that we must, in the light of Christ, reject violent interpretations of Scripture.” So his understanding of infallibility is clearly not the same as the typical conservative Evangelical understanding (thank God!).

That’s why when Boyd asks, “If the problem was the belief in biblical infallibility itself, how would Flood explain people like myself whose faith in the infallibility of Scripture leads them to unconditionally refrain from violence and to instead commit to loving enemies?” the answer is simple:

Because we are talking about two completely different things.

What I am referring to as “infallibility” is directly connected to a stance of unquestioningly embracing the violent surface meaning of biblical texts, which leads to justifying and perpetuating violence in God’s name. In contrast, what Boyd upholds as “infallibility” is not bound to the surface meaning of a text, and as Boyd notes, he is committed to finding nonviolent ways of interpreting such “morally repugnant” biblical texts.

Let me be clear that I am not saying that my understanding of infallibility is the “right” one, and Boyd’s is the “wrong” one. Boyd is more than welcome to creatively re-define the term in a redemptive way. I think that’s awesome. What I am claiming however is that it is simply a fact that there are a whole lot of people (i.e. conservative Evangelicals) who do understand infallibility in exactly the way I am using the term, and so I am drawing attention to the moral problems inherent in this interpretive approach in Disarming Scripture.

So what does infallibility mean then for Boyd? One thing I note is that Boyd seems to connect infallibility with the inspiration and authority of Scripture as if these terms were synonymous and inseparable. So when I question the fundamentalist doctrine of infallibility, Boyd apparently translates that in his head to thinking that I am questioning the inspiration of Scripture. He says this kind of thing frequently, speaking of liberals “cutting the tether with … the supreme authority and infallibility of the entire canon” and “deny[ing] the inspiration and infallibility of all Scripture” et cetera.

Boyd apparently assumes that when I reject infallibility that I am rejecting the inspiration and authority of Scripture. So let me be clear that I affirm the inspiration and authority of Scripture, and in particular of the New Testament. That is, I maintain that all of Scripture (OT and NT) should, as part of our sacred canon, be read in a way that leads us to Christ. I think that is actually very similar to what Boyd would affirm.

Now, this of course brings up the question of how we can recognize on the one hand that the Old Testament contains, as Boyd notes, “violent divine portraits that conflict with the revelation of God in the crucified Christ,” and at the same time maintain that the Old Testament is a part of our sacred canon. This however is a question that applies to us both equally, since neither of us think that one can simply take the surface meaning of such violence portraits as normative. On the contrary, we both recognize that “when conservative Christian apologists condone these violent portraits, they are allowing them to continue to influence believers toward violence.”

Therefore, we need to answer the question of how we can affirm the Old Testament — with its many morally troubling parts — as part of our sacred canon, while at the same time being committed to the nonviolent vision of God revealed in Christ. That's the big question.

In part two I will address Boyd's central critique that I deny the inspiration of Scripture (spoiler: I don't deny it). Then, in part three we will get into the above big question, looking at the differing ways Boyd and I both attempt to address it.

Labels: , , , , , ,

WTF Bible Moments: Noah and the Flood

Saturday, April 11, 2015

We all know the biblical story of the flood from Sunday school class:

The Lord told Noah' there's gonna be a floody, floody.
Get those animals out of the muddy, muddy,
Children of the Lord
The animals they came on, they came on by twosies, twosies.
Elephants and kangaroosies, roosies. 

Children of the Lord
It's told as a story of how God protects his people and all the fuzzy animals from disaster that ends with a pretty rainbow. But what we miss as kids is that in the biblical account, God sent the flood as a punishment to kill everyone else in the world.

As we grow in awareness and compassion as adults, as we learn from Jesus to care for the outsider, indeed to love sinners, we find ourselves asking,

What about everyone outside of the ark?

How are we to understand the biblical account of the flood as adults? Did God really kill every man, woman, and child in the world outside of Noah's family? Put yourself in their place: Imagine yourself as a mother, as your child is torn from your arms and swept into the torrent of water. Imagine yourself as that child as you gasp your last breath of air.

Now ask yourself: Does God care for that mother and child less than you? Did God really kill them as the Old Testament says? Does this also mean that when there is a flood or tsunami or hurricane today that God has killed them? How can we call a God who would do that "good" or "loving"? That's the struggle we face as we read this story today.

Let's take a look at the story, and how we can approach it as part of our Bibles. My aim will not be to do apologetics, which seeks to remove difficulty by either justifying or minimizing a problem. That's why apologetics -- as prevalent as it is among biblical commentary -- is ultimately a morally bankrupt approach to biblical interpretation.  Instead my aim will be to approach the text morally and ethically, facing problems head-on, and working towards a way of reading that leads us towards love. As I argue in Disarming Scripture, this is the way Jesus read his Bible, and as Christians how we need to read the Bible as well.

With that in mind, let's (ahem) jump into the deep water...

The literary genre of the flood story is that of myth. That does not necessarily mean it did not happen, but what it does mean is that the primary purpose of the story is not to report on history, but to make a moral point--the purpose of the story is to tell us who we are, who God is, and help us understand suffering in the world.

Did the flood really happen? There is good reason to think so. Not on a literal global scale, but in the sense that there was a huge flood that killed so many people that, from their perspective, it felt like "everyone in the world." As Peter Enns writes, 
"Many biblical scholars relying on geological findings believe that a great deluge in Mesopotamia around 2900 BCE was the trigger for the many flood stories that circulated in the ancient world, some already two thousand years old by the time King David came on the scene."
The point of the biblical flood story--like the many other flood stories of other cultures at the time--was not to do a news report, but to make sense of the suffering people had experienced. It's a form of theodicy. In other words, natural disasters like floods did happen, and so people looked for ways to make sense of their suffering. The flood stories of all these cultures is their way of doing that.

The biblical flood story is not the only version. Lots of other cultures tell similar stories. In all of them the gods are punishing humanity. In the flood stories of other cultures (for example in the Mesopotamian version known as the Atrahasis epic), the explanation given is that the gods were mad because people were too loud and the gods wanted to sleep.

The biblical flood story is a response to the flood stories of these surrounding cultures. In those stories the gods are amoral and heartless--destroying the world because they find people annoying. Why is there suffering? Because the gods are mean. That's the moral vision of the surrounding cultures.

In the biblical version it is instead an act of punishment for human sin. Specifically, the sin mentioned is the sin of violence,
God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them" (Genesis 6:13)
Why did the natural disaster come? Because of all the oppression and violence in the world. This is the biblical version's moral vision. What it shows is their developing away from their pagan roots to a focus on God as being moral and good and righteous, rather than the amoral gods of the surrounding cultures. We can also see their perspective as one of an oppressed people, familiar with suffering violence, slavery, and injustice. That is why the focus is on the sin of human violence. It expresses the belief that kings and pharaohs cannot forever carry out their violence without consequence. The very earth--the waters of the sky and sea--will rise up against them.

We can thus positively see here how the Israelites are, with their version of the flood story, moving away from the vision of the gods as raw amoral power, and towards an understanding of God as good and righteous, a God who cares for the oppressed, for victims of power and violence.

Can we critique their view? Sure, and in fact the Old Testament does critique it. In the Psalms, Job, and Ecclesiastes we find a critique of the idea that suffering is a punishment for sin. Here the scapegoat, the victim, speaks out, calling into question this narrative found in Genesis, the law, and the prophets.

That's the multivocal nature of the Old Testament. We do not find a single view, but multiple conflicting views. It is through the process of argument and dispute that we see their understanding of God grow and develop.

Compared with the surrounding cultures, we can see how the biblical account of the flood is a step forward in terms of how it views God as moral. It is a step forward away from their very primitive view. Our difficulty is that we are viewing it from the later perspective of today -- which is both post the voices of protest found in the Old Testament (in the Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, etc.), and for us as Christians also post-Jesus who likewise pushes back against the view of a destroying and punishing God towards an understanding of God who demonstrates love of enemies.

Looking from the perspective of the New Testament we can say that what God did in Jesus is a much better and fuller reflection of how God deals with evil (by healing humanity and bringing life, not by destroying it). So we rightfully stumble over the story of the flood which presents an understanding of God that is less than this, an understanding that seems immoral to us in the light of God revealed in Christ. That's why we struggle with it, and well we should. We struggle as an expression of faithfulness, not of doubt. We struggle in Jesus name.

In its time, the biblical flood story represents a move towards an understanding of God as good, not just as amoral power. It is not the last step, but an important first step. We however have a fuller revelation of who God is in Jesus. Paul speaks of the veil that Moses placed over his face so the people would not see the glory fading away, and tells us that, "to this day that same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away" (2 Corinthians 3:13).

What that means is, Christ takes away the veil, and we see that the glory of the Old Covenant has faded. It is not an eternal law, but a temporary one. We have in Jesus a better covenant, a better and more glorious revelation of who God is and how God responds to our human evil. That's why Paul writes,
"Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, transitory though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? If the ministry that brought condemnation was glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness!" (Corinthians 3:7-9)
Notice the imagery here: The "ministry of death" that "brings condemnation." That's the message of the flood. Paul describes this as "transitory," fading away, a lesser revelation. In contrast the new covenant is one that "brings righteousness." That's restorative justice, the idea of God acting to make things right, and God does that by love working to make us sinners good. That's the gospel. The story of the flood is, in contrast to this, a story of death and condemnation.

That means when we read a story like the flood in the Old Testament we are getting--to borrow a phrase from E. Stanley Jones--a "dim Christ" at best. There is a dark veil over the Old Testament's understanding of God. Only in Christ is that veil taken away so we can see that the glory of the old  B.C. view of God has faded, so we can see that this was not the full understanding of who God is. It was a step in the right direction on the way to Jesus, but it's not the end. Jesus is.

The flood does not show us a full and true picture of who God is. For that we need to look to Jesus. In Jesus we instead see that God does not come to destroy, but to bring life. We see that God does not hate humanity, but instead, through the incarnation, enters into humanity in all of our brokenness. We see that God is not on the side of one man's family, or one nation, but cares for all of humanity -- expressing this in special concern for the poor and the least. In Jesus we see that God cares for everyone outside the ark.

Labels: ,

WTF Bible Moments: Ananias and Sapphira

Sunday, April 05, 2015

There are a lot of WTF moments in the Bible. There's the one from the Old Testament where a guy tries to catch the Ark of the Covenant from falling and is zapped by God for it. "But wait," you think reading this for the first time, "wasn't he trying to help?" Then there's the one where some teenagers call Elijah "old baldy" and then God sends bears to maul the kids for it. Yeah, that seems a bit harsh, too.

Most of these WTF moments are found in the Old Testament, but there is at least one in the New Testament that leaves people scratching their heads -- the story of Ananias and Sapphira. You know how it goes, they are a little stingy with giving (as in they don't give 100% of their income to the church) and God strikes them both dead while Peter says "So there!"

We read this story and are shocked and disturbed by it. I mean, let's be honest, if someone you know was struck dead -- for any reason at all -- you would be shocked and disturbed of course, but you don't give 100% of your income to the church, and no one you know does either. So why are you not dead? Again, like with the bears and the bald guy story, the consequence seems shockingly out of proportion here.

The intent of the story is clearly not that we think, "Wow, God is being really unjust here," but that is exactly what we do think when we read this. If the point of the story was supposed to be something like, "All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had" (Acts 4:32), we are so distracted by the killing of this poor couple that this point is completely lost on us. Instead the story becomes about us questioning God's character. Is God like Jesus? What about Ananias and Sapphira?

A common approach to dealing with this kind of thing in the Bible is to either seek to explain why the violence is in fact good and right (the conservative approach), or to seek to show that what seems really violent was actually merciful and nice, and we are just misreading it (the progressive approach). In both cases, the approach is really kind of similar. It involves lots of "well, you have to understand that the Greek word here really means..." arguments, and in the end comes out to trying to make the problem go away so we can say that the Bible supports our view (regardless of whether this is a conservative or progressive view).

I can of course understand the appeal of this approach, but it is ultimately dishonest. Sure, there are times where we really do misunderstand, but then there are stories like Ananias and Sapphira which are... well... pretty much just what you think they are. It's a story about a God who is violent, and who kills disobedient people. The intent is to fill you with terror. The story says exactly that, "Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events" (Acts 5:11).

So how do we make sense of this? Let's consider the context. These are a people who have a history of the prophets telling them that whenever someone is sick, or a natural disaster happens like an earthquake, famine, fire, and so on, that God was punishing them. If you got cancer back then the assumption was you did something bad. If a hurricane destroyed your house this must be because you were guilty and were being punished. If you were born with a deformity or mental handicap then this must mean you were cursed.

We don't think that today. It's a really awful thing to think. And the reason we know that, frankly, has a lot to do with Jesus changing how we see the disadvantaged, the poor, the sick, and the unclean. There is a major shift in the New Testament that pushes back against this view that suffering is deserved punishment for sin (a view that was not only typical of Judaism at the time, but also of Greco-Roman culture as well). We see the beginnings of this protest in the Old Testament in books like Job, the Psalms, and Ecclesiastes, and Jesus continues in that tradition of protest, taking it to a new level.

But changing a people's mind about something that they have believed for centuries does not happen over night, or even over a few decades. So we still do find in the New Testament examples of people holding on to the narrative of a punishing and violent God. Here in this story we see people applying the same explanation that had been given over and over when bad things happened -- someone has a crippling illness, someone dies of a heart attack, someone is assaulted by robbers, someone's roof caves in -- and their pre-scientific go-to explanation is always "God did that, so you must be guilty."

Maybe Ananias and Sapphira died of a heart attack. Maybe the story was exaggerated so much by the time it got to Luke that we can't really know the full details of what actually happened, but what I do think we can say is that this is an example of where the New Testament is still (to borrow a term from Girard) a text in travail, a text in labor pains. Just as the New Testament has a less than ultimate view of slavery, so in places it has a less than ultimate view of who God is.

As with slavery, this is where we need to learn to read on a trajectory, to recognize where the New Testament is headed -- in this case in understanding that Jesus shows us the ultimate revelation of God's heart and character -- and where we need to learn to plot a course that can take us beyond where they were able to get at the time leading us to where Jesus is pointing us.

The view of God we see in Ananias and Sapphira is the old Zeus/Mars/Yahweh, the warrior view of God, and it is a wrong understanding of who God is. It just does not line up with reality. God simply does not kill bad people. Maybe we even wish he did, but that is just not how life works.

The New Testament has an alternative understanding of a God revealed in weakness, a God found in the horror, shame, and failure of the cross. It is a vision of God that is, if you really can face it, scandalous and shocking. As Juergen Moltmann has pointed out, this vision of God is way more radical than any atheism. Yet somehow -- just as the cross leads to Resurrection -- it is an understanding of God that can lead us to life and hope that is stronger than death.

Hey look, this is a post about Easter. Bet you didn't see that one coming!

Labels: ,

This website and its contents are copyright © 2000 Derek Flood, All Rights Reserved.
Permission to use and share its contents is granted for non-commercial purposes, provided that credit to the author and this url are clearly given.