The Bible We Wish We Had And The Hermeneutic Of Denial

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Peter Enns has spoken of differentiating between the Bible we wish we had, and the Bible we actually do have. We might expect that if God were to write a book for us, it ought to contain perfect, unchanging, absolute truth which is plainly understandable. That is the way we think the Bible ought to be, similar to how we assume that if God is good and powerful then the world ought to be a place where there was no suffering or injustice.

But there is a big difference between the way we wish the world was, and the way we wish the Bible was, and the way they actually are. As Enns writes in The Bible Tells Me So

"This kind of Bible— the Bible we have— just doesn’t work well as a point-by-point exhaustive and timelessly binding list of instructions about God and the life of faith... When we try to squish the Bible’s diverse voices into one voice, we are no longer reading the Bible we have— we are distorting it and cutting ourselves off from what it has to offer us."

Nowhere is this more true than in how conservative Evangelicals approach the issue of homosexuality. The assumption is that we can take what the Bible has to say about homosexuality, and trust that this can be taken as a timeless and binding view that we must uphold and defend, regardless of what science and life tell us, regardless of what our conscience tells us, regardless of what others tell us first hand. We are "safe" to discount others, discount our own moral conscience, discount what we find in our lives, and instead trust in the Bible here.

This was exactly the hermeneutical approach taken by conservative Christians in their defending of the perpetuation of institutionalized slavery in the United States. However, rather than finding a better way to approach Scripture based on understanding the mistakes of our past, conservatives continue to use this same approach of unquestioning obedience. 

To do this, they need to deny that there ever was a problem with how their Christian forefathers used that same approach to the Bible to justify slavery. For example, Tim Keller makes the claim that, "there was never any consensus or even a majority of churches that thought slavery and segregation were supported by the Bible.” The implication is that supporting slavery was always a minority view in the church. As I have pointed out before, that is simply not true. The reality is, the church has a long history of endorsing slavery based on the authority of the Bible, including the New Testament, which says that Christians can own slaves.

Others have argued that because slavery in ancient Rome was not based on race that this somehow makes it okay. This of course ignores the fact that slavery has always been characterized by dehumanizing violence, including rape. There is simply no way to paint slavery of any time as morally acceptable. Not the slavery of the Old Testament, not the slavery of Rome, and not the slavery endorsed by the church for centuries and centuries.

In his book Every Good Endeavor, Keller writes that, "Many critics of Christianity simply assume that the Bible wrongly endorsed slavery and that therefore it may be wrong about other things it teaches. Actually, biblical theology destroyed the coercive heart of the institution of slavery within the Christian community and finally led Christians to abolish the inevitably oppression-prone institution itself."

What Keller does not say is that the way of reading the Bible so that it leads to the abolition of slavery is a categorically different approach than the one he takes in regards to homosexuality. If we read the Bible as a timeless and eternal guide for God's morals, then we must conclude that either God wants slavery or that the Bible is wrong and cannot be trusted. That's one way, and it is a dead end.

In contrast, we have the way of reading the Bible that does lead to the abolition slavery. This involves learning to read the Bible on a trajectory, accepting that the Bible does not always provide us with timeless eternal truths that we must unquestioningly perpetuate and defend, but instead requires that we question and grow and develop -- moving in some cases beyond where the Bible is stuck in the morally wrong assumptions of the religious and political culture of the time. 

What we find is not a timeless and eternal blueprint, but a view that is on the one hand limited by the blinders of the surrounding culture, and at the same time giving us clues of how we need to grow beyond that, towards transforming our world to more and more take on the values of Jesus' politics and economy where, as Paul says, "There is division of slave or free... for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:28).

If we want to read the Bible like that in regards to slavery, then we need to do the same in regards to homosexuality. Now, of course just because the Bible is wrong in endorsing slavery does not automatically mean that it is wrong in condemning homosexuality. However, it does necessarily follow that we cannot simply claim in regards to homosexuality that "this is what the Bible plainly teaches" and defend that. We need to instead look at the evidence in our lives and world, and learn how to morally discern what is good in connection with life and reality.

However, the predominate "party-line talking points" approach of conservative Evangelical leaders today (such as Keller, Fuller Seminary, Christianity Today Magazine, and so on) in regards to homosexuality is to not do that at all. Their strategy in the culture war is to instead utterly ignore everything but what "the Bible clearly teaches." This approach is an exact mirror of how Christians in the past defended slavery in the United States.

Conservative Christians like Keller continue to make the same mistake today with the issue of homosexuality that their forefathers made in the past with slavery. Nothing has changed in how the Bible is approached. Nothing is learned from the past. Instead we have a hermeneutic of denial -- denying the reality of the past and the harm it caused, and denying the harm that same approach of unquestioning obedience continues to cause today.

It seems clear to me that the priority is not on caring for the oppressed and the marginalized, but rather defending the way we wish the Bible was. Conservative evangelicals wish the Bible were a book they could unquestioningly look to for timeless and absolute moral guidelines, and have so based their faith on that assumption that to question it is to question the very inspiration of Scripture and with it the very foundation of their faith.

That's why they so vigorously defend it, they feel threatened. It's understandable that people who feel threatened become blind to how they are hurting others. It's understandable, but it's not okay. In focusing on defending their system of the Bible they wish they had, the focus is placed on defending that fictional view, at the expense of hurting the very people Jesus said we should especially care for.

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At 1:49 PM, Blogger Spiritual Drift said...

Well done as always, Derek. Thank you.

At 7:30 PM, Anonymous Phillip said...

Bravo, Derek ... Couldn't the same argument be applied to 1 Timothy 2:12? ... Experience teaches us that women can instruct us toward a closer relationship with God, and other parts of scripture point toward gender equality ...

At 6:13 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks Derek. Once our eyes are opened to "see" then we think "how did I miss it?" Your book and Enns' were liberating and very much a "duh" revelation for me. It really makes God bigger and more awesome, don't you think? You may have read this but just in case I included a link. Another way to read Romans one. You eluded to it in your book. Enjoy.

At 1:08 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 1:12 PM, Anonymous Ryan said...

Hi Derek,
Excellent post as always.

Folks that I have conversations with are not "party-line" evangelicals," agree with a trajectory based reading, but are still unwilling to re-think this topic.

How would you respond to those who say "Yes, slavery was wrongly endorsed in the Bible, but we can see how Paul, especially in Philemon, and other NT writers were already paving the way for an abolishment of slavery. This is not true of homosexuality. The Bible is clear on sexual morality and its definition of marriage."

At 1:54 PM, Anonymous Robert said...

Hi Derek- excellent post with so many points that need to be discussed by us all to a deep degree. One thing you made me think of i would like to see you write more about. How do we recognize what is absolute and what is relative when it comes to the Bible?? How do we get an ability to examine that the Bible does not have one perfect absolute interpretation of every passage with all those who think there is?? I think a deeper more challenging discussion for you to take on which links to this is how do we interpret God?? Is God who He is or who we want Him to be and how can we know the differece?? I have a friend who contends many people form a god of their own makingand thus an idol, but don't we all do that to a degree since we are fallible and finite?? You always stimulate thought Derek!!

At 8:37 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Thanks Drift :)

At 8:38 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


Yes, absolutely it could! Glad your connecting those dots.

At 8:42 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Lance, thanks for sharing the article. Good stuff. And yes I agree that it makes God bigger and more awesome. It opens up the big blue skies for us to grow, for us to have a grown-up faith, and for us to make our world a more beautiful Jesus-shaped place. That's exciting!

At 9:27 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


I guess I'm nonplussed with their reading. It strikes me as disingenuous.

It's really easy for us to "see" that Paul was moving us to the abolition of slavery now a century or two after a Civil War. Hindsight is 20/20. Not impressed.

What would be impressive and worthwhile is if we could "see" what the NT is moving us towards now, when it is not self-evident to everyone in our time, when it s counter-cultural.

Note too that the focus of people who now "see" that Paul was paving the way to the abolish slavery is primarily on exonerating Paul and the Bible, NOT on caring for the oppressed now, NOT for ending injustice now. Those are misplaced priorities that Paul and Jesus would totally disagree with.

The question is how we get to those readings. The way we get there is not by focusing on what is "clear" in the text (which is how the Pharisees read it), but to learn to catch the spirit of where it is headed.

At 9:36 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


I think the most important question we can ask of the Bible is "is this good?"

So we don't ask "is this relative?" or "is this absolute?" but simply "is this good?" Is it good in all cases or is it good only in certain cases? That's a matter we can determine by waking it out and learning by doing.

Similarly, instead of asking "Is God who He is or who we want Him to be?" we should instead ask "is my understanding of God good?" If it's good, it's true.

At 1:23 PM, Anonymous Robert said...

Derek- That begs the question though- how is good defined?? Jesus said only God is good. Our understanding will always be a lil skewed since our knowledge and experience is finite. Isaiah 45:7 has God declaring He is responsible for all the calamity that occurs. Job tells his wife should they only expect good things from God?? This goes back to your point about the Bible. How do we make sure God is who He is, and not who we want Him to BE???

At 6:58 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


" Isaiah 45:7 has God declaring He is responsible for all the calamity that occurs. Job tells his wife should they only expect good things from God?"

Note that in both of these examples they question is not how to define what is good, but rather the claim that Yahweh is both good and evil.

There is a shift that occurs within Judaism where they go from pantheism to monotheism. Similarly, there is a shift from viewing God as amoral to viewing God as only love. Certainly by the time we get to the NT the view is clearly that God is love and light and, "in him there is no darkness" as John says.

That is fundamentally a different view of God than in the OT passages you cite. So to accept that view of God is something we do by faith. To accept that revelation that "God is love" is to reject the OT claim that God is both good and evil, love and hate. You need to choose which understanding of God you will embrace.

"how is good defined?"

Again, Jesus shows us what goodness looks like. That is not an authoritarian statement because we don't do it blindly. We need to recognize and understand that it is good. We then, recognizing that this is good, understanding and experiencing it as good, choose to align ourselves with that goodness, revealed in Jesus. We allow it to shape us, we make it our way. That's discipleship.

At 10:43 AM, Anonymous Robert said...

Derek- great response thank you!!! I ask the questions as both devils advocate somewhat and to discern more fully. What would you say about the fact that ever since Jesus instituted the church, hell has been a primary doctrine??? If God is love, is hell not the MOST unloving action ever to be taken upon anyone, let alone an infinite God upon finite mere mortals??? Many who hold the view you oppose would say Jesus upholds the OT God by affirming judgment of hell. As well, calvinists affirm some are created as already condemend simply because God chose to do so. I know your position as you have laid out, which I agree with, but how would you respond to those who take the positions i have delineated??

At 11:44 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Calvinism of that sort is devil worship. I do not mean that pejoratively, but as an accurate description. It worships a god who is evil. In choosing Christ, I choose to reject that evil god.

That evil god is never loved, because he is unlovable. He is instead obeyed because of fear. The Bible "says" this is how God is, thinks the hyper-Calvinist, and so we must accept it. It's pure authoritarianism.

I recognize that that kind of authoritarianism is toxic. So I do not read the Bible in an authoritarian way at all. I do not say "the Bible says God is this way, so I must accept it" rather I say "I want to learn to have the Bible help me to find what is good."

At 4:58 PM, Blogger Joel Kessler said...

I love what Peter Enns has been saying, and you affirming about accepting the Bible as is and not making it something its not. I would like to ask if this same reasoning could be used with the religion of Islam. There is a lot of hooplah over what ISIS is doing and Al-Qaeda before them, and it has a lot of people in fear. I am trying to dispel that fear by just reading the Qur'an myself and seeing if there are some peaceful ways of reading the Qur'an. In that journey, I am finding out how big of a mess it really is to read it peacefully. I'm trying to find the good in the Qur'an without committing the blasphemy of "shirk" or being a "kafir" by denying that some of the verses of the Qur'an are just wrong (and thus denying the Islam doctrine of inimitability or i'jaz of the qur'an). I like the mystic/pacifist Sufi Muslims, but most of all the Muslims deny that they are truly Muslims, and it does seem like a stretch for the Sufis to interpret all the 109 violent verses in the Qur'an as metaphoric for our spiritual struggle with our ego. I don't know Derek, I know you are a Christian theologian, but have you given any of this stuff much thought that you might like to share with me? What do you think about Islam in general?

At 4:45 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


I don't think a person on the outside of Islam can really answer that. Reform of a faith needs to come from within. I imagine there are people inside of Islam who are doing this, but it is not something I have really studied. I just know that I like people like Malala Yousafzai and Reza Aslan.


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