The Point of Hebrews: Further Conversation with Paul Copan

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Paul Copan and I have been having an ongoing conversation revolving around the issue of violence done in God’s name and the corollary issue of violence and the Bible. Although we have very different views on these subjects, I am grateful for Paul’s willingness to engage with me, and also very much appreciate his respectful and kind demeanor. I hope to return that same tone of kindness and respect.

Most recently the conversation has centered around chapter 11 of Hebrews. Referring to Hebrews 11:31 which states “By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the army had marched around them for seven days” Paul asked me if I thought the author of Hebrews believed that “the battle against Jericho was divinely commissioned and thus morally justified.” It’s worth noting that after the walls of Jericho fell, the book of Joshua states that “everyone charged straight in, and they took the city. They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys” (Joshua 6:20-21).

So I think it is without question that the author of Joshua did believe that the battle against Jericho was divinely commissioned. That seems to be the clear point of Joshua 6. Now, there is strong archeological evidence, based on high-precision radiocarbon dating, that shows that Jericho was completely uninhabited at the time of Joshua. So as Robert Hubbard concludes, echoing the current scholarly consensus, “There was no fortified city of Jericho for Joshua and Israel to conquer.” Since it is made-up that Joshua conquered Jericho, it is a very short logical step to conclude that it is equally made-up that God commanded him to.

However, let’s return to the author of Hebrews, who obviously did not know anything about archeology. Do I think that the author of Hebrews believed that the battle against Jericho was divinely commissioned and thus morally justified” as Paul asked?

No, I do not. Given the context of the central point the author of Hebrews is making in this chapter as well as in the following chapter, I would say it is clear that he is not trying to make the point that killing in God's name is morally justifiable, and in fact he is making the opposite point: The point of the entire chapter is encouraging believers who are suffering violent persecution to not resort to violence in their defense but to endure suffering in faith. Indeed, in the beginning of chapter 12 we read the author’s summary conclusion, “therefore, with all these examples before us... keep your eyes fixed on Jesus who looking beyond the shame of the cross, enduring it to get to the joy beyond it.” (Heb 12:1-2)

Paul seems to agree with me that the author of Hebrews is not using these OT examples to persuade his audience to similarly use violence in God’s name. He writes, 

“there is a new people of God who are the interethnic body of Christ--no longer a national entity with civil laws, national enemies, etc. So taking up the sword to rise up against their Roman persecutors in the name of Christ would be misdirected.”

He however disagrees with my saying the author of Hebrews is making the “opposite point” noting that the author of Hebrews speaks favorably of these OT examples who “conquered kingdoms, . . . became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight” (Heb 11:33-34). The implication is that the author of Hebrews is speaking favorably of war here, using it as a positive example. That’s true. However, I want to point out that in the next chapter this same author writes,

“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son. (Heb 12:5– 6, quoting Prov 3:11– 12 from the LXX)

The Greek word translated above in the NIV as “chastens” is mastigoō which in fact means “to beat with a whip, flog, scourge.” It’s the same word Jesus used to describe his being flogged by the Roman centurions before the cross (Mt 20:19; Mk 10:34; Lk 18:33).

Now, if we want to conclude that because the author or Hebrews cites being “mighty in war” positively, we should therefore see this as a New Testament endorsement of war in the OT, we would have to equally conclude that because the author of Hebrews cites being “flogged” by your father positively, we should likewise need to see this as a New Testament endorsement of what would unmistakably be regarded today as criminal child abuse in the OT.

This is not how I would read Hebrews 12, nor is it how I would read Hebrews 11. What I try to do is look at what the point is that an author is trying to make, and focus on that. In chapter 12 the point is to hold on to the idea that even when we suffer, we can trust that we are loved by God. The point of chapter 11 is to look to the past and take heart, while enduring suffering in faith. The point of the author is not to endorse violence in the OT, nor is it his point to condemn it. His point is not to make any sort of evaluation of the past, but rather to tell his audience how they should live now. That is pretty much always the point of NT authors. The Apostle Paul has plenty of really critical things to say about the OT, but it is always in the context of telling his audience how to live and love now. So he tells them that if they are under the Law they will be under a “curse.” He compares it to slavery, says it is “death” and gave birth to “sin” and on and on, always doing this in the context of how we should live now. Paul is not concerned with saying whether or not Joshua or Moses were justified, because they are not his audience. Jesus is the same. Jesus says everything with the focus on how his audience lives and loves now. So he breaks the Sabbath to heal, he disobeys the command to kill the woman caught in adultery (even though he is the one without sin who could have cast the first stone) and forgives her instead. He says “You know the law says this... but I say to you now...”

So I will thus concede that the author of Hebrews does say positive things about people in the past killing in God’s name. However, I maintain that it is quite correct to say that his clear point, the take away, the reason he is writing, what he wants his audience to do now is not to kill in God’s name, but to do the opposite: “choosing to be ill-treated with the people of God" (Heb 11:25), "regarding abuse suffered for Christ to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt" (Heb 11:26), and even calling his audience “to resist to the point of shedding your blood” (Heb 12:1), rather than to respond with violence. Hebrews 11 is not an endorsement of OT violence, nor is it a critique of it. It is, as the NT authors always are, telling his audience how to live now. That is his point, that is his take-away message.

Do I see difficulty with telling people to “to resist to the point of shedding your blood”? Yes I do. I can see how a text like this could be used to justify people accepting oppression. But that is the tight-rope that we need to walk here, we need to work out how we can understand this way, which seems to me to be a very hard way, and put it into practice in a way that brings us closer to a loving and just world.

Paul Copan next addresses a question that I raised, where I proposed that we must not stop at what we can justify, but must go beyond this towards working to reform and repair and redeem. He writes,

“As for your other question, of course, a broader ethical discussion must go beyond justifying difficult moral exceptions. But that isn't the specific point that Matt Flannagan and I are tackling in our coauthored book. We are addressing a specific moral difficulty, and we do go into great detail about the matter of divine commands. In that setting, we raise the question, "Is taking innocent human life ever morally justifiable?" We give, I think, plausible examples (e.g., in the case of an ectopic pregnancy) that lead us to conclude that while it is an objective prima facie duty not to take innocent human life, it would not be morally absolute. (We point out too that this view is not idiosyncratic but is fairly widely accepted.)”

I note that here we are in agreement that there are some rare cases where taking innocent human life could be considered morally justified. I also acknowledge that this is a relatively widely accepted view. Paul then continues,

“Issues of hyperbole in ancient Near Eastern war texts, etc. aside, could it be that under certain less-than-ideal conditions, that an all-wise, all-good God might have overriding reasons for issuing these difficult commands?”

No, it could not. Absolutely, categorically, no. There is no possible reason that would justify going into a city and slaughtering infants and children. None. I dare say that it is universally accepted that killing infants is never ever okay. I strain to think of something that could possibly be more self-evidently immoral than this.

Paul next comments,

“I do think that John Goldingay is on to something when he writes: “Perhaps Deuteronomy [20:17-18] was only being realistic in recognizing the power of Canaanite temptation when Israelite faith in Yahweh was a newly budded flower.”

I cannot help but mention that the reasoning John Goldingay is using here for justifying these accounts is literally the same reasoning that the Nazis used to justify the Holocaust. I hope that gives all of us pause. The logic is that it is necessary to kill an two-year-old child and and six-month-old baby because otherwise they will grow up to morally corrupt the chosen people, making them impure. That is a truly horrific kind of logic. As we know from history, that kind of logic has led to many genocides.

I do not know John Goldingay, but I would not be surprised to find that he is a fine, loving person. I do know that Pastor John Ortberg has said something very similar, writing that “The beliefs of the Canaanites were a cancer that had to be removed from the land before the people of God could live there with any hope of health.” John Ortberg is well known for his commitment to care for the poor and the oppressed. So here’s a guy who is actively working to help the poor and the oppressed, a person who is exhibiting compassion and care, a person who is likely a much better person than I am. Yet they are calling people a “cancer.” I had the opportunity to speak with John Ortberg about this, and he graciously agreed that this was a fair critique.

I want to emphatically stress here that my point is not to claim that John Ortberg or John Goldingay or Paul Copan are bad people because of such comments, but just the opposite: I wish to underscore how easy it is for all of us as Christians— even the most loving among us— to feel the need to justify violence in the name of defending the Bible. In doing so we find ourselves seeking to justify things in the Bible, which in any other context we would without question wholeheartedly condemn.

I note again that the New Testament author’s focus was always on how people should live now. I would like to propose that this is how we need to read the Bible, too. That is the task of discipleship and also the task of ethics. While we can perhaps make ethical evaluations of things in the past, we cannot stop there. The most important question is to ask how we should live out the teachings we find in the Bible. I maintain that when we do this in a way that promotes acting in love towards others and ourselves we are reading the Bible rightly, and when we read it in a way that promotes harming or hurting others we are reading it wrong.

Paul, thank you for bearing with me as I work through this. I wish you God’s grace, peace, and loving care always.

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A Reply to Paul Copan

Sunday, February 04, 2018

In my previous blog post, "Boyd and Copan's Unbelievable Debate, and the Problem of Unquestioning Obedience." I outlined some serious problems I see in Paul Copan's approach to interpreting Scripture. Paul was gracious enough to reply to me in a comment on the blog, which you can read here. Since my reply to Paul's comment was getting rather lengthy, I decided to post here:

Hi Paul, thanks for posting. 

You write, “I'm incredulous that you attribute to me what I do not hold (e.g., that Mt. 15:3-4 is in force today).” I can certainly sympathize with that, as no one likes to feel misrepresented. However, I'd like to submit that, while difficult and uncomfortable, this could perhaps actually be good in that it allows us to really face what is at stake in the discussion.

I note that in your conversation with Greg, when he brought this up, you did not acknowledge that the idea of a command to execute children really troubles you, too. Perhaps it does, but you did not communicate that distress and struggle. You instead stressed (as you did again in your comment here) your view that “Jesus clearly seems to take this as divinely commanded under the Mosaic Law.” This left me with the impression that you had no problem with it since you believe Jesus endorses it. Or at least that, for you, the issue is not really whether or not you or I struggle with something as being alarmingly immoral, but simply whether it is commanded.

To state things differently, the issue is not that I am claiming that Paul Copan is endorsing such behavior today. I fully acknowledge that you do not, and if I implied otherwise, that was sloppy of me, and I apologize. The issue, i.e. what I am wanting to bring to light here, is that you are endorsing such behavior as morally justifiable if and when God commands it.

Indeed, if the reason you are not following this command to execute children is simply because it happens to not be in force today, and not because you think it would be morally abhorrent to do so, then you really should not feel incredulous. It would only make sense to feel incredulous if I claimed you endorsed something that you found morally abhorrent.

My suspicion however is that the reason you felt incredulous is because you actually do find it morally abhorrent (I mean seriously, who wouldn't?). I think it would be helpful if you could acknowledge that. Throughout your conversation with Greg I was waiting for something like that from you. He kept bringing up really troubling things like divine commanded genocide and so on. I never heard you say “Yes, Greg, your reaction is valid. I really struggle with that, too. Here's how I try to understand it, which is a bit different from how you do...” Instead your responses all seemed like none of this troubled you, like a tennis player volleying back every shot that comes over the net. Like it was a game of sorts. Again, perhaps this all does in fact trouble you, but I saw no indication of this.

To be clear, my wish that you would acknowledge and validate much more than you do the legitimacy of people's shock and moral outrage in regards to these examples of divine commanded killing of children and infants is not so much about the merits of your arguments, and has more to do with effective communication. It just works better to validate others' views and feelings--especially ones that are deeply morally troubling--and makes it more likely that they will be open to hearing yours.  I think the lack of this, both in your books and interviews, is what leads me (perhaps incorrectly) to conclude that you have no moral problem with any of it. The impression given is that while immature Christians might struggle with such things, you demonstrate the model of the one who has it all figured out, the model of faith as certainty as an antidote to doubt. I would submit that when people are troubled by such profoundly immoral commands, it does not represent a weakness in their morals or faith, but instead is the result of adopting the heart of Jesus. That is, such moral doubts spring from developed empathy which in no way should be regarded as being in conflict with faith.

To be fair, you do speak theoretically of how we might find certain actions “troubling,” but this is in the context of arguing that we should do it anyway if it is a command. This brings me back to what I see as at the heart of the substance of your argument: The issue of making commands the sole criteria for moral evaluation. You make the point that there are some circumstances where it is morally justifiable to use coercive force. I fully grant that point. I can think of lots of examples myself. That, however, in no way means it logically follows that therefore it was okay to execute children for being disobedient or slaughter infants. The moral justification I believe you would give for both of these is that they were divine commands. As you say in Is God a Moral Monster? “Without God’s explicit command (and thus his morally sufficient reasons), attacking the Canaanites would not have been justified” (169). Again, the sole moral justification here is simply that it is a command. We don't know God's reasons, we just know the command. This is what I term the hermeneutic of unquestioning obedience.

You say that you seek to approach the OT as Jesus and the apostles did, but I don't think you actually are. Jesus taught his followers to not follow certain OT commands, rejecting the command “an eye for an eye” and teaching them instead to follow his way “but I say...” Paul told his churches that they were not under the law, i.e. not under commands, but under love. Jesus, when told that the law commands a woman be stoned to death, opted to disobey that command, and instead forgave her – which under the law there was absolutely no provision for with the sin of adultery. I could go on for pages and pages with examples of this, and if you are interested, I in fact do in my book Disarming Scripture.

The bottom line here is that both Jesus and Paul consistently approach faithfulness to Torah as being expressed not in blindly following the command, but rather in seeking to do what is loving and good and just – even if that meant going against a command. That's why Jesus was regarded by the authorities of his own religion as a lawbreaker. He prioritized the welfare of people over commands and laws. That's why he broke the Sabbath. That's why he touched the unclean (by law making himself unclean). That's why he fellowshipped with the “woman of ill-repute.” His understanding was that the purpose of the law was to lead us into loving action, and if in practice it turned out it was not leading to this, then our application of the law needed a course correction. As Jesus says “People are not made for the Sabbath, the Sabbath was made for people.” Likewise, the law is intended to be a means to help us to love, not something that binds us into doing things that are unloving and immoral. That's how I see Jesus and Paul's approach to the OT, and so I try to take that same approach with all of Scripture.

I hope from this is is apparent why I maintain that the way Jesus and Paul both interpreted and applied Scripture was the opposite of the hermeneutic of unquestioning obedience, and thus why I take such issue with your approach to Scripture.

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