Why the Real Problem with Violence in the Bible is not the Old, but the New Testament

Saturday, May 30, 2015

It's easy to recognize the problem of violence in the Old Testament. One simply has to point to the many divine commands to commit genocide, and it is immediately obvious that this portrait of God conflicts with the God revealed in Jesus.

However, I want to propose something radical: The real problem with violence in the Bible is not the Old, but the New Testament.

That's not where I began, but it is where I ended up. Like most people I initially began by wrestling with violence in the Old Testament. This is the place most people begin, because it is where it is most noticeable. However, as I really began to dig into the issue of divine-sanctioned violence in the Bible, what I found was that the place that is the most problematic for us today is actually the New Testament.

To understand why I say this, consider the typical way an argument will go between two Christians. One is arguing for divine-sanctioned violence, and another is arguing against it.

The argument for divine-sanctioned violence will either be that God violently punishes by killing or torturing people (in the eternal torment of hell), or that we humans (in the role of the state) have a divine mandate to violently punish by killing or torturing people.

For example, conservative Evangelical Christians have been some of the most outspoken advocates for the death penalty, war, and, government torture. So when I say "punish by killing or torturing people" that is quite literal.

All of this is presented as for the good of us all, as an example of the way of a good God who is both loving and at the same time stern. The Christian advocating for this "good violence" may begin by citing the Old Testament. This will then get the response, "Well, that's the Old Testament... that's the Old Covenant... that's not Jesus" 

The basic argument here is that the New Testament trumps the Old. Christians across the board, both conservative and progressive, will basically recognize this as valid. If someone is going to quote from the Old Testament, it needs to be shown that this is in line with Jesus and the New Testament.

It is at this point that our Christian violence advocate will then pull out the ace in his sleeve, countering with a verse from the New Testament which allegedly shows God being violent or purportedly shows Jesus or Paul advocating for human violence in God's name.

For example, they might quote Paul's seeming endorsement of state lethal violence in God's name "Rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer" (Romans 13:14), arguing that for this reason we should also have the death penalty today.

"What?" We exclaim, "It says that?"

Yup, and the New Testament also says a lot of stuff about God killing and torturing people, too  -- torturing them forever and ever in hell. This is not just in Revelations, but the very words of Jesus (particularly in Matthew's Gospel).

This is when the jaws drop, because our common assumption is that the Old Testament is violent, while the New Testament is focused on peace and love. Yet Christians, who argue for an angry punishing God, and who likewise argue that our government should model that same violence "for our good," will make their arguments using the New Testament.

My point is not that there is not a problem of divine-sanctioned violence in the Old Testament. There certainly is a huge problem. However, for us as Christians, at the end of the day what really matters is how we read the New Testament, because this will determine how we read the Old Testament as well, and whether we embrace and mirror a violent punishing God, or mirror the God revealed in Christ. 

So if we want to chart out the way of Jesus characterized by enemy love, it is not enough to simply say "look to Jesus" or "read Christocentrically" or "read the Bible like Jesus" because those who advocate for God's violence and for our violence in God's name claim that they are following Jesus and the New Testament, too.

So if we really want to move away from violence in God's name, the place where we really need to focus is the New Testament. We need to expose the wrong ways that people read it in order to continue to justify violence as good, and we need to seek to really understand the way of grace, forgiveness, and enemy love that Jesus proclaims, so that we can practically apply it in our own lives, as well as to the larger societal and political issues of our day. 

This is the task for us as the church. This is what spiritual formation, what discipleship looks like. This is how we are to have our minds renewed so that we will take on the image of Christ. Do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

With that in mind, next time we'll take a look at one of the key New Testament texts that is used to justify state violence in God's name today by American Christians: Romans 13.

Continue reading PART TWO

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The Bible is Flawed and Inspired: Learning to Read Christocentrically with Karl Barth

Saturday, May 23, 2015

In Disarming Scripture I point out that there are many things in the Bible, and in particular in the Old Testament, that we would regard today as profoundly immoral, such as genocide and slavery committed in God’s name. This raises the question, not only of the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture, but of its inspiration.

If the Bible contains things that are wrong – not just errors in terms of science, but things that are morally wrong – how can we say that it is inspired? Can the Bible be flawed, and at the same time inspired? If so, how can we trust it, and what would that look like?

What I propose is that as Christians we should not ultimately place our trust in a book, but rather place our trust in Christ. The Bible is used by the Spirit to lead us to Christ, but the Bible itself is not Christ. The Bible is not the eternal Word of God, rather it is the vehicle used by the Spirit that leads us to encounter the Word of God, the living Jesus. As Luther puts it, we love the Bible because it contains Christ, just as the manger did. But we dare not mistake Christ for the manger he is laid in.

In Disarming Scripture I point out that the word “inspiration” literally means in-Spirit-ed. Scripture is inspired through God’s active illumination of the text, breathing life into the page and revealing its truth to our hearts. The text alone is not inspired apart from the Spirit. Rather, it becomes inspired (in-Spirit-ed) as the rema word of God breathes life into Scripture so that it becomes a sacrament for us where we can encounter the living God. Scripture is therefore not infallible, Jesus is.

Now, I realize that this may be a new conception of inspiration for many. So I want to do two things here. First, I want to give a little history, and establish some roots for this view. It is not a view I just made up, and that kind of is important. Second, I want to discuss the practical implications of it and how it addresses the moral problems we find in the Bible, that is, how can we believe that the Bible is at the same time a flawed book, and that it is inspired?

Let’s begin with the history part.

Renewing our Evangelical Center (by remembering our own history)

In Disarming Scripture, following the work of the late Stanley Grenz, I note that the view of inspiration that I propose is not new or novel, but in fact can be traced back to pre-Fundamentalist Evangelicalism before the 20th century.

In his book Renewing the Center: Evangelical Theology in a Post-Theological Era, Grenz characterizes this earlier Evangelicalism as having a “gospel-focus” which looked to the Bible as a source for encountering Jesus through the Spirit. It saw the Bible as the means to this encounter, and spoke of the illumination of the text by the Spirit. Grenz further describes how with the advent of Fundamentalism at the beginning of the 20th century, and the “new Evangelicalism” that came after it, the focus shifted to a “book-focus,” rather than a gospel-focus. Now the Bible was seen as a repository for absolute truths which one could find if they understood how to read it properly.

Grenz, in seeking to “renew the center” of Evangelicalism, proposed that we need to regain that gospel-focus of our earlier Evangelical heritage. Because the Bible is central to any Evangelical theology, making this gospel-focus the center has a direct impact on how we understand inspiration. The “center” however is not a book, rather Jesus is the center. Grenz thus speaks of the Bible as the “instrumentality of the Spirit” meaning that it is the vehicle used by the Spirit to speak to us today.

To use a contemporary example, my sister and I live on opposite sides of the country. I can talk to her face to face using Skype on my iPad. My iPad thus becomes the instrument through which I can see and speak with my sister. I am, however, of course aware that my iPad is not my sister, and is only a means for me to connect with her. I love it because it allows me to connect with my sister, but I don’t confuse the two.

The Bible is a lot like that. It is the primary means used by the Spirit through which we encounter Jesus. It is how we hear his words, learn what his values are, understand his heart, and how we should orient our lives around his way. However, the goal is much more than information alone. The goal is to connect with the living Spirit of Christ who indwells our hearts. We don’t just look at the way of Jesus and adopt it, rather Christianity begins with “For God first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19). It is from this starting point of experiencing love from God that we are transformed by that love into the image of Christ. We, in turn, then respond to that love by loving others as we have been loved by Christ.

So we read the Bible not only for information, we read it devotionally, prayerfully, as a kind of sacrament which brings us into a living connection with God. We read the Bible and encounter God in Christ in its pages – powerfully, personally, transformationally. 

That’s why we love the Bible, because it is how we encounter the loving living Jesus! But just like my iPad is not my sister, we need to remember that the Bible is not Jesus, it is merely the vehicle used by the Spirit for us to encounter the living and eternal Word of God, Jesus. That’s something I think a lot of us can relate to, and it is an experience we share in common with the original Evangelicalism that emerged out of Pietism and Puritanism in the 18th century. As Grenz writes, this was

“an Evangelicalism that looked to Scripture as the vehicle through which the Spirit worked the miracles of salvation and sanctification. Sparked by their experience of the nurturing work of the Spirit through the pages of the Bible, Evangelicals’ overriding aim was to allow the message of the Bible to penetrate into human hearts and to encourage the devotional use of the Bible.” (Renewing the Center, p. 72-73)

As Grenz unpacks our Evangelical history, we see that the focus of that earlier Evangelicalism was on a way of reading the Bible that put Jesus at the center, rather than a book. The historical perspective Grenz presents us with is helpful and needed, as we Evangelicals are often unaware of our own history, forgetting that what we call “Evangelicalism” today is really post-Fundamentalist neo-Evangelicalism, and that there was centuries of Evangelicalism before it that had quite different ways of seeing things.

From this historical perspective we can appreciate how the focus of that earlier Evangelicalism was on a way of reading the Bible that put Jesus at the center, rather than a book, and we can observe the ways that the “new Evangelicalism” that we know today has taken some wrong turns, and is indeed in need of renewing its center in Jesus.

At the same time, as Grenz notes, the way that the Puritans, Pietists, and early Evangelicals understood inspiration and authority of Scripture was not really worked out in detail. Grenz writes,

“Evangelicals were generally in agreement that the Bible is inspired by God. Nevertheless, like their Pietist forebears, they were not particularly concerned to devise theories to explain the dynamics of inspiration. Further, Evangelicals displayed a remarkable fluidity of opinion about the ins and outs of inspiration... The Evangelicals who emerged from the awakenings exhibited little interest prior to the 1820s in elaborating precise theories about biblical infallibility or inerrancy.” (Renewing the Center, p. 73)

So to really discover what this Jesus-centered focus might look like when worked out in detail, we will need to look elsewhere. This is important if we wish to articulate the ins and outs of what a Christ-centered approach to Scripture looks like in practice. With that in mind, we turn to the work of Karl Barth.

Don’t make me Barth

Barth (who’s name, despite the joke in my above subtitle is pronounced “Bart”) has had an uneasy relationship with Evangelicalism, mostly because his approach challenges many of the assumptions of conservative neo-Evangelicalism, and in particular, its understanding of the authority of Scripture. For this reason, those Evangelicals who sought to defend this view of inerrancy rejected Barth, while other Evangelicals who found his approach illuminating sought to integrate and embrace it.

Now, for the above reasons, I realize that referencing Barth is not always a slam dunk among my fellow Evangelicals, but I do think it shows that the view of inspiration I put forward is certainly not a flimsy and rootless one, since as we will see below, we can pin it to the very center-point of Barth’s massive multivolume Church Dogmatics. I am also, as an Evangelical, hardly alone in doing this. With that in mind, we’ll begin with an overview of Barth’s view of Scripture, and then turn to how this has been embraced by a number of Evangelical theologians.

First, we begin with an overview of Barth’s view of Scripture. Barth makes God’s self-revelation in Jesus the center-point of his theology. This is the anchor for his entire multivolume Church Dogmatics. The first volume of his Dogmatics is entitled The Doctrine of the Word of God, and Barth understands the “Word of God” here to be God’s self-revelation in Jesus, which he differentiates from the Bible itself, which he sees as a fallible human book. This applies not only to historical, geographical, and scientific material in the Bible (which would impact inerrancy), but it also “extends to its religious or theological content” Barth says (CD I/2, 509). The biblical authors thus “speak as fallible, erring men like ourselves” (CD I/2, 507).

For this reason, the Evangelical Princeton theologian Bruce McCormack describes Barth’s approach as “dynamic infalliblism” which expresses the idea that the Bible becomes infallible dynamically in the concrete moment when God addresses us by the Spirit through the text.

As McCormack stresses, we should not make the mistake of thinking that this makes things subjective in the sense that the Bible’s inspiration depends on whether we receive it as such. Rather, Barth places the authority not in our human hands as receivers, but in the hands of God. We do not make the Bible inspired, God makes it inspired. Just as God was active in inspiring the writers of Scripture, so too God must be active in illuminating the text for us as we read it in order for us to encounter the Word in that human text. As Barth writes in his earlier Göttingen Dogmatics, inspiration is an “act of God … in both the biblical authors and in ourselves. It is an act in which the Spirit speaks to spirit, and spirit received the Spirit.” (Göttingen Dogmatics, p. 225).

Note that this is different from the classical neo-Evangelical assumption that we have in the Bible objective truth in a book. We do not possess objective truth in a human book. God is objective, and we at best can come in contact with Truth through the Spirit’s working. The point therefore is that objectivity belongs to God alone, not to us, nor to a book apart from God. As Barth writes,

“The statement, ‘the Bible is God’s Word,’ is a confession of faith, a statement made by the faith that hears God himself speak in the human word of the Bible … this act of God upon man has become an event, therefore not to the fact that man has reached out to the Bible, but to the fact that the Bible has reached out to man. The Bible therefore becomes God’s Word in this event, and it is to its being in this becoming that the tiny word ‘is’ relates, in the statement that the Bible is God’s Word.” (CD I/1, 123-4)

A second focus of Barth’s understanding of Scripture is its focus on Jesus, and on the message of Scripture pointing us to Jesus. Expanding on McCormack, David Congdon writes,

“We cannot say that the biblical text qua text has two authors: divine and human. Rather, only insofar as the text bears witness to the kerygma of Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit—and thus insofar as the community hears this kerygma in faith—can we speak about dual authorship.” (“The Word as Event: Barth and Bultmann on Scripture” p. 247)

That’s quite significant, because it points to the idea that it is ultimately not a text which is infallible, rather it is God in Christ who is infallible, and in whom we place our trust. Sola Scriptura is only properly understood when it is read solus Christus.

As a side note, let me mention that in his above mentioned article Congdon compares the work of Barth with another major figure from 20th century theology, Rudolf Bultmann. As Congdon writes,

"Scripture for Bultmann mediates the interrupting presents of the Christus Praesens, whereas Scripture for Barth mediates the self-proclamation of the historical Jesus Christ. In both cases, the human witness of the prophets and apostles becomes God's personal address to us today through the gift of the Hold Spirit." (p. 252)
Personally, coming from a Charismatic background as I do, I relate here more to Bultmann's focus than I do to Barth's. What is certainly significant is that these two theological giants are both pointing us to the conclusion that the Bible is a sacrament through which we can encounter the living Word of God. Scripture is the instrumentality of the Spirit. As the late Evangelical theologian Bernard Ramm notes, if the Bible contained the Word of God in itself, this would make it a magical book, rather than a spiritual one (Ramm, Special Revelation and the Word of God, p. 184).

Let’s consider how this all plays out in regard to how we read the Bible as sacred Scripture. First, this perspective recognizes that, just as we are flawed humans who are, in Christ, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, so too the Bible is a flawed human book that is likewise indwelt by the Spirit, and thus inspired. The source of that life, however, does not reside in the book itself. Rather, its source is in the communicative act of the living God. That is how a flawed human book can nevertheless be inspired, and act as a vehicle for us to encounter the Word of God, for us to encounter the living Jesus in its pages.

In this, we cannot own the Word of God, we cannot claim to have captured it, or have a monopoly on the truth. At best, we can only claim to be captured by Jesus who is the Truth, and let the Truth have a monopoly on us.

Everything we hear from God will always be in the context of our own lives, with all of our blinders and biases intact. Because we are as humans involved in the process as hearers, we will get things wrong. Reading Scripture as Scripture therefore calls for openness, care, and humility on our part.

If we say “how can we be sure we wont get it wrong?” the answer is, and always has been, we will get it wrong. If we are looking for certainty in a book, we will not find it. What we can have however is faith. Or to put it differently, we can place our certainty in God, rather than in ourselves, in our doctrines, or in a book. The result of this kind of certainty beyond ourselves requires a lot of humility and a whole lot of grace – both towards ourselves, and towards others as we stumble together towards Jesus.

In the end, what is infallible is not a text, which we claim to posses – meaning that infallibility ultimately resides with a book apart from God, and therefore resides with the reader of that text. Rather, what is infallible is the Word of God, God’s own self-revelation in Jesus. In short, to borrow a very Tweetable phrase from Bruxy Cavey,

“I believe in the infallible word of God... His name is Jesus.”

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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.

For further reading, see my post The Bible is flawed and inspired: Learning to read Christocentrically with Karl Barth

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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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