Peter Enns and ‘Natural’ Bible Reading

October 29, 2014 § 3 Comments

Peter Enns just wrote a blog post in response to Andrew Wilson’s Christianity Today’s review of Enns’ new and rather controversial book (for many) The jeromebibleBible Tells Me So. In Enns’ article he identifies twelve rhetorical strategies “evangelicals” like Andrew Wilson use when responding to critiques of the Bible, like Enns’, where the Bible’s historical and textual contradictions are emphasized; emphasized through a certain historist-text-critical lens. Here Enns describes the “why” of these rhetorical strategies–deployed by evangelicals as they are–and in his description what Enns believes about Scripture (in contrast to his “evangelical” interlocutors) becomes apparent:

These strategies—which are not necessarily deployed consciously—are aimed at protecting evangelical theological boundaries but do so at the expense of those evangelicals, who, through the course of reading and studying scripture, come upon legitimate questions for which they are seeking thoughtful answers. Issues like the tribal violence of God, true (not apparent) contradictions, and historical problems are quite real and cannot long be kept at bay through these strategies.[1]

For the rest of this post, we will survey (sort of) some of the history that has led Enns to become an “anti-inerrantist,” which is ironic, to say the least.

Some Of The History

People haven’t always thought of the Bible through the lenses that people like Enns and inerrantists (usually associated with evangelical and Fundamentalist Christianity [being forwarded by today, most ardently, by neo-Reformed types like John Piper, Westminster Theological Seminary, et al]) do. Prior to the turn to enlightenment modernity, and the higher criticism of the bible that developed as a result (among other things), people used to think of the bible as the place where the God of history in Jesus Christ encounters and meets us; inviting us into his life which is history. Far from discounting the historical veracity of Scripture what was emphasized more was a participation of God’s people in the history of God’s life disclosed in Scripture which found its telos or ‘end’ (purpose) in his beloved Son, Jesus. Matthew Levering identifies this conception of biblical history (the one I just said that finds its ‘end’ in Jesus Christ) as a ‘participatory’ view of history; he labels the theory of history that Enns and the inerrantists follow (solely, as far as developing a doctrine of Scripture) as linear history. According to Levering (and others, many others) linear history by the eighteenth century had become the dominate way of thinking about the reality of Scripture and the way that people ought to approach it. Notice Levering (as he provides a brief survey and diagnosis on this very line of thought):

By the seventeenth century, the participatory understanding of historical reality was on its last legs among intellectuals, although the overall unity of the onward-marching linear-historical moments was still presumed.

Hans Frei finds a similar logistic conceptualism in Enlightenment biblical hermeneutics, although unlike Lamb he does not, so far as I know, draw the connection to late-medieval thought. Discussing the “supernaturalist” position on the Bible offered–within the context of the emergence of historical criticism–by the eighteenth-century Lutheran theologian Sigmund Jakob Baumgarten, Frei notes that for Baumgarten the accuracy of biblical history “ ‘be brough to the highest degree of probability or the greatest possible moral certainty in accordance with all the logical rules of a historical proof.’” By the eighteenth century, logical rules of historiography took priority over the Bible’s narrative as the ground on which Christians could understand themselves. These rules envisioned God’s action as radically “external” to human action, and thus extrinsic to historical accounts of Scripture’s genesis and meaning. In patristic and medieval hermeneutics, by contrast, not logical rules of historiography, but faith in a providential God grounded the assumption that the books of the Bible displayed the divine pattern of salvation. This faith nourishes and is nourished by the Church’s biblical reading, understood as a set of embodied and liturgical practices constituting the Church’s conversatio Dei.[2]

Just to reinforce Levering’s sketch of things, let me also refer to John Webster who writes similarly to Levering:

To simplify matters rather drastically: a dominant trajectory in the modern development of study of the Bible has been a progressive concentration on what Spinoza called interpretation of Scripture ex ipsius historia, out of its own history. Precisely when this progression begins to gather pace, and what its antecedents may be, are matters of rather wide dispute. What is clear, at least in outline, is that commanding authority gradually came to be accorded to the view that the natural properties of the biblical text and of the skills of interpreters are elements in an immanent economy of communication. The biblical text is a set of human signs borne along on, and in turn shaping, social religious and literary processes; the enumeration of its natural properties comes increasingly to be not only a necessary but a sufficient description of the Bible and its reception. This definition of the text in terms of its (natural) history goes along with suspension of or disavowal of the finality both of the Bible and of the reader in loving apprehension of God, and of the Bible’s ministerial function as divine envoy to creatures in need of saving instruction.[3]

Conclusion

Peter Enns and the “Inerrantists” come from this same trajectory, the linear historical one that both Levering and Webster highlight for us. Whether you are Enns or the inerrantist, Scripture is reducible to linear-historical reconstruction and the way that sentences are syntactically structured, etc. Enns and the inerrantists might want to get to a point where Scripture can become a ‘spiritual’ thing (Enns says as much at the end of that blog post of his I linked to above; and the piety of the inerrantists bears testimony to this exceedingly so … there is a heart warmed feeling and love for God, by both Enns and the inerrantists), but the bedrock of their doctrine of Scripture won’t ever really allow them to; there are too many hurdles to jump prior to ever getting there (to living in a participatory depth in regard to the Bible and what it is in relation to its order as given by God). And so Enns and the inerrantists end up developing theories of biblical interpretation (hermeneutics) that have taken shape by their acquiescence to the bible “as history,” natural history before it is supernatural history; and this ends up having a deleterious effect upon everything else.

It is because of this (and I am focusing on Enns in this post) that I see Enns as dangerous and not edifying to the larger evangelical body of Christ (the younger or millennial generation, so called, in particular).

I hope younger Christians, in particular, will turn to a more robust and participatory understanding of biblical history. Understanding that Scripture is part of God’s invitation to converse with him, the Triune God.

 

[1] Peter Enns, Source.

[2] Matthew Levering, Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation (Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame University Press, 2008), 21-2.

[3] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason(London/New York: T&T Clark, A Continuum Imprint, 2012), 6.

‘Schooled in the faith of Christ': Thomas Torrance Responds to Rachel Held Evans’ “Questioning” Approach

October 25, 2014 § 3 Comments

As you all know I had an interesting engagement with Rachel Held Evans this last week here at the blog; particularly because I chose to write too quickly, jesusteacherand thus not respectfully of RHE. In the aftermath of that I have continued to think about ways to engage with RHE, and her post on Abraham and Isaac (which was really a post on hermeneutical theory). What was more central though to Rachel’s post was actually her questioning of how God is represented as the one who commanded the Israelites to go into the Canaanite nations and slaughter them (Rachel uses the more provocative language of ethnic cleansing, with all of the modern political and ethical connotations attached to that that language conjures for all of us). I want to take another shot at engaging with Rachel, and the content of her post. In particular I want to focus, this time on how she has claimed that she is simply engaging in honest questioning of the text of scripture and its ethical implications. Many others, in Rachel’s defense, also asserted that this is all that Rachel is doing. The post that got me in trouble with many of her readers (whether those readers be fans or not of Rachel’s writings in general) revolved around the fact that I was questioning Rachel’s questioning. Of course the way I came at Rachel, like I have already noted, was disrespectful and not right on my part. But I still think in spite of my foolishness in that first post, there was still a nub of criticism therein that was legitimate. In that sense then, let me focus on one aspect of Rachel’s general and overall mode; i.e. on the way that she approaches just about every issue: She tends to claim that all that she is doing is being a skeptic, a ‘questioner.’ It is this mode that I will engage throughout the rest of this post.

Learning To Be ‘Christian’ Questioners

Is it right to be a skeptic, a questioner, a ‘naked-questioner’ as a Christian; or do we as Christians have a higher calling a more ennobling task set before us? I would argue that we have a higher task set before us, one that we do not get to determine, but one that is imposed upon us. Those of us, Rachel included!, who name Jesus as Lord are not allowed to ask random, or arbitrary questions of God in Jesus Christ; we have been called to submit to the questions and answers imposed upon us by God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. And so this brings me back to Rachel’s mode[1], she claims to be an honest questioner and skeptic, and that she is bringing her experience, science, modern ethics, etc. to God, and asking him to meet her expectations based upon those various loci. Note Rachel as she ‘questions’ God’s apparent ruthlessness (in the story of Joshua toward the Canaanites) based upon the aforementioned loci:

This is a hard God to root for.  It’s a hard God to defend against all my doubts and all the challenges posed by science, reason, experience, and intuition.   I once heard someone say he became an atheist for theological reasons, and that makes sense to me. Once you are convinced that the deity you were taught to worship does evil things, it’s easier to question the deity’s very existence than it is to set aside your moral objections and worship anyway.[2]

But this is not what we have been called to as Christians, as I just noted; with the Revelation of God in Jesus Christ there comes a method, a set of questions that God has determined as the norming questions that he would have us ask of him, conditioned as they are by the center of his life given for us in his Son. Thomas F. Torrance (as he reflects on Karl Barth’s method of theologizing) might counsel us (including Rachel and her readers) this way:

. . . Barth found his theology thrust back more and more upon its proper object, and so he set himself to think through the whole of theological knowledge in such a way that it might be consistently faithful to the concrete act of God in Jesus Christ from which it actually takes its rise in the Church, and, further, in the course of that inquiry to ask about the presuppositions and conditions on the basis of which it comes about that God is known, in order to develop from within the actual content of theology its own interior logic and its own inner criticism which will help to set theology free from every form of ideological corruption.[3]

For Barth, for Torrance there is not an arbitrary way to question God or the way he acts, there is a concrete way that is given to us. It is a way that is not in our hands, not reposing upon our intellectual misgivings; it is a way that is imposed upon us, and thus not in our control – and so it scandalizes us. Torrance comments further on this way as he thinks about the benefits of catechesis and the scientific method (which means seeing Jesus alone as the regulator and giver of the questions that God has given us to bring to him as a freewill offering):

… The really scientific questions are questions which the object, that we are studying, through its very nature puts to us, so that we in our turn put only those questions which will allow the object to declare itself to us or to yield to us its secrets. The more we know about a thing the more we know the kind of questions to ask which will serve its revealing and be the means of communicating knowledge of it. This scientific principle has to be applied to Christian instruction, and it is here that we see the fundamental importance of the catechetical method. The young learner does not know enough as yet to ask the right questions. We have to encourage him to ask questions, but also to learn that only the appropriate questions will be a means of knowledge. This is nowhere more true than in regard to Christian communication. Christianity does not set out to answer man’s questions. If it did it would only give him what he already desires to know and has secretly determined how he will know it. Christianity is above all the question the Truth puts to man at every point in his life, so that it teaches him to ask the right, the true questions about himself, and to form on his lips the questions which the Truth by its own nature puts to him to ask of the Truth itself that it may disclose or reveal itself to him….[4]

Conclusion

I would suggest, moving away from Rachel H Evans, but staying close, that Rachel’s popularity (other than the fact that she is a smart, intelligent, genuine person) has a lot to do with the way people, Christian people in general have been trained to approach God. Christians, especially in North America, have been trained to approach God on their own heart-felt terms, and the questions that arise out of that frame of reference. Rachel Held Evans’ approach, I would suggest, embodies that in a way that gives voice and words to the questions that so many post-evangelicals have. They are questions, I would further suggest, that are hang-overs from their evangelicalism; apologetic questions that arise from an apologetic faith. This remains, among other things, a great irony of the Rachel Held Evans movement (and I am simply referencing her prominence among many many like-minded sojourners), if I can call it that; a desire, in some sense to be “post” evangelical, and yet still operating from the very premises of evangelicalism (as far as the kind of rationalist and apologetic questions that have plagued it for so long).

As an alternative, Rachel Held Evans & companions, all Christians could follow Thomas Torrance’s advice and be ‘schooled in the faith of Christ’ and allow his life to impose upon us his questions (and then answers). This way there will be a ‘rule of faith’ regulating our approach to God that will keep us from asserting a lordship of our own, and allow us to assume a posture wherein we recognize that Jesus is Lord, and that we can only then operate in and from the domain of his Word, instead of in and from the domain of our own words.

 

[1] Why am I focusing on Rachel so much? Because she is high profile, and has massive impact upon a gigantic swath of the Christian church. Her influence is massive! And so she deserves special attention, especially if she is ‘teaching’ people how to think biblically and theologically; and she is!

[2] Rachel Held Evans, SOURCE

[3] Torrance, Theological Science, 7.

[4] Thomas F. Torrance, The School Of Faith: The Catechisms of the Reformed Church (Eugene, OR: Wipf&Stock Publishers, 1996), xxvi.

Please Brittany Maynard, Don’t! Jesus Loves You

October 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

I continue to think about the pending physician-suicide of Brittany Maynard (remember I already wrote about this situation here). Brittany is a young lady holysaturday(29 years old) who was recently diagnosed with a ‘terminal’ brain tumor. This is a terrifying thing, I understand what it feels like! But despite the terrifying nature, and the subsequent suffering that attends such a diagnosis, death alone (as life) is the prerogative of the Son, of Jesus alone. He alone has the power to ‘freely’ make the decision to have his life snuffed out for others; this is not the prerogative of any of us, Brittany Maynard included. Look at what Arthur McGill has to say on the topic of death and life relative to Jesus:

Jesus’ death, moreover, is not a fateful fatality like the image of the automobile accident. It does not serve to show how humans, in spite of all their passion for life, can be wiped out in a moment’s notice. By his death Jesus does not represent the enormity of the power of death. On the contrary, he chooses to die. He lays down his life freely and deliberately, and he does so in accord with God’s own will. Jesus’ death is just the opposite of an unexpected, unforseen auto accident. For the New Testament there is absolutely nothing accidental at all about Jesus’ death. It belongs to his conscious purpose; it is grounded in God’s loving will. Far from proclaiming the mutilating power of death (as does a nuclear bomb), Jesus’ death takes death out of the demonic and makes it an event informed by the free decision of this man and by the graciousness of this God.

– Arthur McGill, “Death and Life,” 46

Death is not in control, God is! Death is a relational concept, it is a cutting off from life (who alone is God). In other words, death, in the Bible has never been framed as non-existence; it has always been understood in terms that are relative to life. So that to be dead is to be cut off from life itself. Death is to be in a state that asserts itself in a way that only God can; which is to say that life is always a “received” reality (for example the Son receives His life from the Father, the Father from the Son and the Father and Son from the Holy Spirit). To die, then, is to be “cut off” from this receiving (relationally), but to live is to rise again in the Son, and entrust ourselves into his hands whatever may come. To submit to the will of the Father, that we are not our own but have been bought with a price, the blood of Jesus Christ.

If the above is true, then it is not okay for Brittany or anyone else to choose to take their lives ‘early’, no matter what the circumstances. To do so is equal to putting ourselves in the position that belongs to the eternal Son of God alone; he is the only one in human history who can freely and rightfully choose to die for others that life might come through resurrection.

I continue to pray that Brittany will change her mind, and that if she does not have a relationship with God through the Son, Jesus Christ, that she will deny herself take up the cross and follow Jesus!

 

Deviant and Evangelical Calvinism Together

October 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

Oliver Crisp, Reformed theologian, Brit, professor of Systematic Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA just had a book of his published deviantby Fortress Press entitled Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology. It is a cool book, you ought to check it!

The following is not a review of Oliver’s book (maybe I will do one of those later … although the publisher never did send me a complimentary copy, so we will see – I have a manuscript version from Oliver Crisp), instead what I want to highlight is the general theme of Oliver’s book, it is a theme that is resonant with what we here have called Evangelical Calvnism, and what Myk Habets and myself similarly highlighted in our 2012 edited book Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Pickwick Publications). The point of contact between Crisp’s ‘Deviant Calvinism’ and our ‘Evangelical Calvinism’ is that we both are hoping to promote the idea that the Reformed faith is much more expansive and variegated than what we typically think of when we are confronted with Calvinism. Usually, especially in North America (but elsewhere too), when we think of Calvinism we either think of the famous and heated debates between the Calvinists and Arminians, or we think of the infamous five points of Calvinism (TULIP). But this is too reductionistic; we think so as does Crisp. Habets and I wrote this in the introductory to our book:

Numerous recent attempts at defining the Reformed or Calvinist tradition have been offered.24 A number of these treatments have tended to present in objective fashion what is, ultimately, only a subjective judgment. Earlier popular works at definition, still in vogue amongst seminary and university students on campuses today, look to the five points of Dort—the so-called “doctrines of grace”—as the essence of what it means to be Reformed.25 Dort, however, as with most if not all of the Reformed confessions, is a localized and contextual document. The Canons of Dort give a detailed and skilled reply to Arminianism; hence “TULIP” represents a response to the Arminian five-point Remonstrance. It was never intended as a sum of Reformed thought. The Canons of Dort are still to be consulted for a Reformed reply to Arminianism, but they should not be thought to represent the sum of our belief.[1]

Dovetailing with this sentiment Oliver Crisp in an interview he just did with Christianity Today on his book Deviant Calvinism wrote this:

I see a lot of misrepresentations of Reformed theology, among people both inside and outside the Reformed tradition. Many people think Reformed theology coalesces around five points or around the soteriological “doctrines of grace” rather than around historic confessions. And I see a lot of Calvinists who aren’t confessional, when in fact the Reformed tradition very much is. If you truly are a Calvinist, then you should be interested in Reformed confessions, I think. And when we look at the confessional tradition, it seems Reformed theology is broader than the more narrow five-point Calvinism.[2]

PICKWICK_TemplateSee resonant!; in fact of the same mind as ours in our thinking about the Reformed faith as evangelical Calvinists. Interestingly the like-mindedness doesn’t stop there, within this same theme of the wide and deep nature of the Reformed faith or Calvinism we also wrote in our book:

The contributors to this volume are Reformed theologians from various denominations who love their theological tradition and are committed to its truths, but understand that their tradition is a variegated one, with many tributaries and eddies. They represent a consistent feature of Reformed theology—the willingness and ability to enrich their tradition by mining its past and contributing to its future.3 This is not, however, an expression of a “new-Calvinism” or even a “neo-Calvinism,” if by those terms are meant a novel reading of the Reformed faith. We, along with the Reformed theologian Donald McKim, consider the Reformed faith an expansive tradition with many threads that make up the fabric of our tradition; McKim captures this well when he says:

The Reformed faith impels persons to confess their faith as part of the ecumenical church, the whole people of God. The movement here is first from what Christians believe to what Reformed Christians believe. Reformed churches are a portion of the full household of faith. As such, Reformed theology and Reformed faith are open to hearing, dialoguing with, and learning from other theological viewpoints and Christian communions. Though some Reformed bodies have tended to become more narrow and almost assume that their formulations are the only means of expressing God’s truth, this impulse runs counter to the genuine heartbeat of Reformed faith. Reformed faith is open to God’s Spirit, who may encounter us at any time in any place. Reformed Christians should see and listen to other voices since perhaps through them an essential theological insight will be given.[3]

Oliver, the Deviant Calvinist unsurprisingly writes this (in the same interview of him that I just quoted):

Also, a number of people outside the Reformed community tend to associate the Reformed tradition with a narrowly dogmatic—in both senses of that term—way of thinking about the Christian faith. And they are rather disparaging about that. But not all of us are narrowly dogmatic. So I thought, Maybe the time has come to make a case for a more irenic, more sanguine, broad approach to the Reformed tradition, because there are great riches in the Reformed tradition that just don’t get reported.[4]

Crisp with his new book is tapping into a movement of sorts among Reformed theologians that is attempting to notice a reality that has always been the reality, even if it has maintained a minority report for too long! The Reformed faith has a lot of exciting categories and trajectories to offer the Christian faith in general, and I think, along with Crisp and Habets that it is high time that we crack the lid open and let this truth out!

I think we can safely say that the Deviant Calvinists & Evangelical Calvinists are together in their desire to see the riches of Reformed theology unleashed on broader Christianity; in an edifying and reforming way that fosters an environment that better enables the body of Christ to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ until we all finally come to the unity of the Faith. ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda—“the church reformed and always reforming.”

[1] Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 9.

[2] Oliver Crisp, The Softer Face of Calvinism. Interview with Kevin P. Emmert (IL: Christianity Today, October 23rd, 2014).

[3] Habets and Grow, Evangelical Calvinism, 2.

[4] Crisp, The Softer Face of Calvinism, October 23rd, 2014.

The Role of ‘Patience and Trust’ in Biblical Interpretation. Advice from two Johns [Webster and Calvin]

October 22, 2014 § 4 Comments

I have been talking a lot about biblical interpretation lately, especially with reference to how we ought to interpret the Old Testament. Continuing within the_magdalene_reading-largethat theme, in this post, I want to briefly highlight the role that waiting and trusting God ought to play in our engagement with the text of Scripture.

I do not believe that the Bible can ultimately be interpreted apart of from a posture of faith. This springs from my belief that the Bible is a book for God’s people, and that in order to properly understand it, and wrestle with it, that we need to have ‘hearts of flesh’ that have been and are being transformed from glory to glory by the Holy Spirit. As we approach bible reading and interpretation in this way we will, by posture, be set up in a way where we are willing to ‘talk things out’ with the God who gave us the Bible; we will be doing dialogical biblical exegesis, understanding that God has spoken and continues to speak by the Holy Spirit into our lives from the pages of his written Word, from within the context of his eternal living Word, Jesus Christ. In this spirit let me share two points offered to us by theologian John Webster on how this might look as we approach scripture through this kind of theological interpretive mode (these are the last two points of five that Webster has been sharing on what theological interpretation of the Bible might look like and entail):

Fourth: theological work, including theological interpretation, requires the exercise of patience. This is because in theology things go slowly. We are temporal creatures, we do not receive revelation in a single moment; and we are sinful creatures whose idolatry and inattention are only gradually overcome. It would be a poor conception of theological interpretation which presumed to have acquired Scripture’s meaning in a final way which cut out the need for ever-renewed listening and learning. ‘My soul languishes for thy salvation’, says the psalmist, ‘I hope in thy word. My eyes fail for watching for thy salvation’ (Ps. 119.81f.) We must be patient, suffering God’s works, looking for the coming of the Spirit to instruct us in the truth of the Word. But we must also be patient with others. Augustine, again, considered the activities of biblical interpretation as an exercise of charity through mutual learning, as what he called a ‘way for love, which ties people together in the bonds of unity, to make souls overflow and as it were intermingle with each other.’

Fifth: a prayer from Calvin:

Grant, Almighty God, that as nothing is better for us or more necessary for our chief happiness, than to depend on thy word, for that is a sure pledge of thy good will towards us, – O grant, that as thou hast favoured us with so singular a benefit, which thou manifestest to us daily, we may be attentive to hear thee and submit ourselves to thee in true fear, meekness, and humility, so that we may be prepared in the spirit of meekness to receive whatever proceeds from thee, and that thus thy word may not only be precious to us, but also sweet and delightful, until we shall enjoy the perfection of that life, which thine only-begotten Son has procured for us by his own blood.[1]

I think both of these insights represent wonderful advice for the way that we should approach biblical interpretation. I am afraid that all too often we do not start from this posture before the Lord of the Word, and thus hastily rush to interpretive conclusions that come more from our desire to have a satisfactory answer to almost ‘everything’ rather than conclusions that come from careful and patient and prayerful waiting upon the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Sometimes waiting might mean we never get a satisfactory answer to our interpretive questions until we have beatific vision of God in Christ; when we no longer walk by faith but sight (so to speak). I think this is the prudent and advisable way to go, rather than many of the more rationalist approaches to biblical studies and interpretation that we see happening today.

[1] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London: T&T Clark. A Continuum Imprint, 2012), 31.

The Critique I Should Have Written of Rachel Held Evans’ ‘Abraham and Isaac’

October 21, 2014 § 27 Comments

A couple of days ago I attempted to critique a blog post written by Rachel Held Evans, famous Christian blogger par excellence. In particular I was abrahamattempting to critique her seeming suggestions about how we ought to read the Old Testament, in particular, those troubling passages of Scripture that make it seem like God commanded his covenant people, Israel, to slaughter the Canaanite people groups that Israel was supposed to subdue and dispossess of their land. This part of Rachel’s post is the part that is most interesting and revealing to me, even though it is situated within a broader appeal, by Rachel, to the story of Abraham and Isaac, and the sacrifice of Isaac that God was requiring of Abraham (the story can be found in Genesis 22). The reason that the issue of the Canaanites is more interesting to me is because this is where Rachel really begins to discuss the way she believes she must interpret these admittedly hard passages to deal with, ethically. And so for the rest of this post I am going to attempt to offer a material engagement with what Rachel wrote in her post, and attempt to offer some perspective on where, maybe, her apparent interpretive approach has come from, historically. Furthermore, I also will be addressing, briefly, Old Testament scholar, Peter Enns, and the impact that he has had upon Rachel Held Evans (even recently) through the publishing of his new book The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. Because I will be engaging with quite a bit of material, and some profound stuff in regard to biblical interpretation and theology (i.e. heremeneutics), this post is going to run long; hopefully it will be interesting enough to you to finish through to the end.

The God of Genocide Who Is Love

As I mentioned, Rachel Held Evans, among many others, is troubled with passages in the Bible (like what we might find in the books of Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, etc.) where we see God commanding his covenant people Israel to go into these Canaanite nations and wipe them out; for Rachel (and not just Rachel) this sounds like ethnic cleansing and genocide, she writes:

In the story in question, God leads the Israelites on a years-long conquest of Canaan, with instructions to kill every man, woman, and child of Canaanite ethnicity.  “When you enter Canaan,” God tells Joshua, “the land I am giving you, as I promised to Abraham long ago, do not offer terms of peace, but kill everything that breathes—including women, children, and livestock. Leave nothing alive.”[1]

She writes further,

Those who defend these stories as historical realities representative of God’s true desires and actions in the world typically respond to challenges to that interpretation by declaring: “God is God, and if God orders ethnic cleansing, we have no business questioning it.”

According to this view, God is glorified in seeing swords driven through the chests of curly-haired toddlers, in pregnant women being stabbed in the belly before being murdered themselves, and in old men and women begging for mercy but being denied it—just as God was glorified in the death of all the firstborn Egyptian males (Exodus) and in the taking of twelve and thirteen year old girls as spoils of war (Numbers).

An endorsement of such actions raises about a million questions, the most pressing of which is: if God ordained ethnic cleansing in the past, might God ordain it in the present or future?[2] 

What we see Rachel doing, is the same thing that we all must do when confronted with texts in Holy Scripture; we must try and understand to make sense of this, and what appears to be a very brutal and bloody version of God, and how that jives with Jesus Christ, and his revelation of God as love (cf. I Jn. 4:8). We need to honestly work at bringing what seems to be an ethical dilemma in God’s own life into some sort of comportability with this picture of God as gentle like a Shepherd, but aggressive like a Warrior.

Getting a better grasp on the gravity of the biblical scenario that Rachel is attempting to get her head around is important as we move forward in critically engaging with Rachel’s article. Now, there are some alternatives that we have available to us, as we attempt to bring some sort of resolution to this grunewald_crucifixion_phixr-2.jpg‘apparent’ dilemma with who God is. Here are some alternatives off the top:

1) We could posit that God is God (as Rachel has already interacted with this approach herself), and thus what he says goes, no matter what (a la John Piper).

2) We could offer a view that I have heard over the years that: the Canaanite people were so miserably immoral, that wiping them out was actually an act of mercy (like putting a wild, diseased animal out of its misery).

3) We might want to not frame this as an ethical conundrum primarily, and instead focus on the covenantal and canonical reality of these ‘harsh’ stories by emphasizing God’s plan of redemption in action as forging a way for his ultimate salvation for the nations that he was mediating with particular focus through the nation of Israel. We might want to understand that God’s action in these “genocidal” stories through the lens of the salvation that he was bringing not just for future nations, but maybe even for these Canaanite people themselves (which would be an interesting way to understand this).

4) Or, we might want to posit, as many biblical interpreters of the late 18th, 19th, 20th, and now 21st centuries have offered through a higher critical, historist, history of religions lens (in Peter Enns’ words):

“God never told the Israelites to kill the Canaanites. The Israelites believed that God told them to kill the Canaanites.”  … “is the story of God told from the limited point of view of real people living at a certain place and time….The Bible looks the way it does because ‘God lets his children tell the story,’ so to speak.” … These ancient writers had an adequate understanding of God for them in their time,” … “but not for all of time—and if we take that to heart, we will actually be in a better position to respect these ancient voices and see what they have to say rather than whitewashing the details and making up ‘explanations’ to ease our stress. For Christians, the gospel has always been the lens through which Israel’s stories are read—which means, for Christians, Jesus, not the Bible, has the final word.”[3]

There are other ways to try and understand what God is doing (or not doing, as it may be according to Enns, and potentially Evans, insofar as she is willing to endorse Enn’s solution), but these, above, will have to suffice for now.

This is where things are interesting, and maybe even telling, in regard to Evans’ own approach, she writes in regard to the Joshua passage:

Those who defend these stories as historical realities representative of God’s true desires and actions in the world typically respond to challenges to that interpretation by declaring: “God is God, and if God orders ethnic cleansing, we have no business questioning it.[4]

It sounds as if Rachel is not of those “who defend these stories as historical realities representative of God’s true desires and actions….” It sounds like she is choosing, along with Peter Enns, to see these stories as not ‘historical realities representative of God’s true desires and actions,’ but instead as a story[s] that “looks the way it does because ‘God lets his children tell the story,’ so to speak.”[5] Evans makes her reliance upon Enns opaquely clear when she writes,

As I’ve mentioned here on the blog before, one of my favorite guides on this journey has been Old Testament scholar (and friend) Peter Enns. Pete’s books, blogs and articles just make sense to me—as a skeptic, as a literature lover, and as a Christian. The guy speaks my language, and he consistently writes with unusual wit, clarity and honesty.[6]

Further,

I’m not sure how else to describe this book [The Bible Tells Me So] except to say that reading it is an experience. Never have I encountered a book on biblical interpretation that manages to be as simultaneously challenging and funny, uncomfortable and liberating, intellectually rigorous and accessible, culturally significant and deeply personal. It’s a book that invites the reader to really wrestle with Scripture, and it’s not for the faint of heart.[7] 

Does this praise of Enns’ work mean, without a doubt, that Evans takes Enns’ solution to the dilemma of “God as love and genocide” as gospel truth for herself? No, not necessarily, but it does suggest it. Especially when Evans, in her article on Abraham and Isaac (the one I have been referencing throughout this little critique), takes this tact in response to all of this; she writes:

While I agree we can’t go making demands and bending God into our own image, it doesn’t make sense to me that a God whose defining characteristic is supposed to be love would present Himself to His creation in a way that looks nothing like our understanding of love.  If love can look like abuse, if it can look like genocide, if it can look like rape, if it can look like eternal conscious torture—well, everything is relativized! Our moral compass is rendered totally unreliable. We have no moral justification for opposing Joseph Kony’s army of children, for example, because Joseph Kony claims God is giving him direction. If this is the sort of thing God does, who are we to question it?

This is a hard God to root for.  It’s a hard God to defend against all my doubts and all the challenges posed by science, reason, experience, and intuition.   I once heard someone say he became an atheist for theological reasons, and that makes sense to me. Once you are convinced that the deity you were taught to worship does evil things, it’s easier to question the deity’s very existence than it is to set aside your moral objections and worship anyway.[8]

It sounds like Evans needs a way out, or better, a way around the events recorded, for example, in our biblical book of Joshua. And it ‘sounds’ like, for Evans, Enns has provided a plausible alternative for Rachel, an alternative that allows the Bible to remain the Bible, but one that is compatible with Evans’ modern ethical sensibilities juxtaposed with who she believes God to be. My colleague, Kevin Davis has responded to this “apparent” mood at work in the hermeneutic of Evans in this way (at length):

I don’t disagree with the substance of that initial criticism [the one being made by both Evans and Enns], but it also must be said that I make God into my own image. Last I checked, I am a sinner. I harbor a whole host of assumptions, moral and aesthetic categories, which I bring to my theology and which still predetermine my conception of God. This is why our theology is always a work-in-progress — “theology on one’s knees,” to use one of Balthasar’s favorite images.

My disagreement with Evans (and Enns obviously comes to mind) is how the biblical portrait of God no longer operates in its authoritative capacity for the church. A certain treatment of Christ, which is itself selective, is given the sole normative status for one’s theology. The rest of the Bible is relativized through its cultural framework, with the peculiar christology of one’s own cultural conditioning serving as the norma normans.

While I invariably bring moral and aesthetic categories to my theology — categories which have been predefined apart from the covenantal activity of God and the inscripturated witness to God — these categories have to be rigorously tested, modified, or perhaps rejected entirely. God does not conform to my philosophy; my philosophy conforms to God, using “philosophy” in both its narrow (modern) and broad (ancient) sense. This includes the God of the conquests, just to be clear.[9]

Davis brings up the way, if I had space, that I would like to proceed further in offering a more pin-pointed critique of Evans’ apparent hermeneutic (reliant upon Enns, as the case may be). But I am going to have to leave the heft of that critique with Davis’ insightful words, and move on, in conclusion to suggesting where, in the history of biblical interpretation, Enns’ and maybe Evans’ approach to interpreting these Old Testament stories come from (and the desire to figure out how to still salvage the God of the Old Testament, in essence, as the Christian God of love that he is, without totally throwing the Old Testament into the garbage can). To this suggestion we now turn, and with this we will close (we are currently at 2200 words in this now mini-essay of mine).

 

History of Interpretation

This is where this critique must go, not just to the ethical concerns (that Davis kantimhas now helpfully alerted us to what is at stake in that regard), but what the antecedents are to the way that Enns’ (and Evans, insofar as she might rely upon Enns in her own thinking) ‘novel’ (but not novel) approach has developed in modern history.

Immanuel Kant signaled a paradigmatical shift into the ‘modern’ period (among other thinkers) in providing the building blocks for how people think (in general) about reality; inclusive of biblical reality and its ostensible historical accounts. It is interesting to consider the kind of impact Kant had when we apply that to the development of modern biblical studies and interpretation, and then how that impact gets played out in people like Enns (who was trained in the discipline of modern biblical exegesis at Harvard Divinity School). Murray Rae helps us understand what kind of impact Kant had, and interestingly, and to our point, how we can see this impact in the types of questions that Evans is asking, and in the kind of ‘solution’ that Enns is offering (pace a ‘Kantian’ turn). Rae writes in regard to Kant and biblical interpretation:

Kant proceeded to explain that there are two forms of theology, the revealed or biblical theology of the church containing all the historical and symbolic material upon which Christian theology has been constructed, and the rational theology which Kant himself presumed to develop in Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793). These two forms of theology are related as two concentric circles: the outer being revealed theology, the inner being rational theology. The rational theologian, Kant argued, must “waive consideration of all experiences,” which is to say, the rational theologian must proceed without reliance upon the historical material of the Bible. There is, in revealed theology, a timeless essence with which the rational theologian is concerned, but it is discoverable in principle without recourse to the historical testimonies that attend Christian theology, as also the theology of other faiths. The essence of all faiths, allegedly, is their moral significance, which is derivable a priori from reason alone[10].

Remember when Evans wrote this previously in this essay?: “This is a hard God to root for.  It’s a hard God to defend against all my doubts and all the challenges posed by science, reason, experience, and intuition….” And remember, Enns’ ‘solution’ (that Evans appears to resonate with)?: “The Bible looks the way it does because ‘God lets his children tell the story,’ so to speak.” And now consider that, with what we just witnessed in regard to the impact that Kant (according to Rae) had upon modern biblical exegesis, and the desire for a ‘rational’ theology. What is interesting about Kant in relation to Enns’ ‘solution’ is the willingness, the necessity even, in order to be rational and in accord with modern sensibilities (ethically and epistemically), to discard the ‘husk’ of historical reality, in order to get to the ‘kernel’ and essence of the ethical reality of who the God of the Bible is. For Enns, thinking from a Kantian (among many others later) type of trajectory, it is perfectly acceptable to discard the historical event-ual reality of the biblical text as a faithful representative of who God is (because it does not comport with modern ethical sensibilities – remember Davis’ critique previously), in fact it is demanded by the rational among us, in order to be able to still affirm the gentle Shepherd God who is love that we find particularly revealed in the man from Nazareth, in Jesus Christ.

 

Conclusion

We have covered a lot of ground, and too quickly. This has turned into a mini-essay of sorts (of about 3000 words), way too long for a blog post, but if you stuck it out, thanks.

I have made lots of suggestions, and attempted to draw some connections that still wait to be connected through further development. But I hope that through this engagement, you can at least see some pitfalls that I believe are attendant with Evans’ probing in her post (that I have referenced throughout), and where that trajectory has come from in modern history. I also hope that the role that Enns is playing in all of this has become clear. For many of you that might be a good thing, but in a later post I would like to suggest (and somewhat argue) that reading the Bible through ‘rational’ categories (like those provided by Kant and others, and now deployed constructively by folks like Enns & co.) is not really ‘principled’ Christian or confessional way of reading Scripture. I will further suggest in that later post that this way of reading Scripture (‘rationally’) is not new, nor principally owned by Enns (he just has his own creative way of engaging it), but in fact serves as the basis for almost all of what counts as biblical studies today.

Stay tuned.
[1] Source

[2] Ibid.

[3] Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So, cited by Rachel Held Evans here.

[4] Rachel Held Evans, Source.

[5] Enns, The Bible Tells Me So, cited by Evans.

[6] Evans, Source.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Rachel Held Evans, Source.

[9] Kevin Davis, A Brief Response to RHE, accessed 10/21/14.

[10] Murray Rae, “Salvation in Community: The Tentative Universalism of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834),” in ed. Gregory MacDonald, All Shall Be Well: Explorations in Universalism and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann(Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011).

What is the Bible and How Should it be Interpreted?

October 20, 2014 § 5 Comments

The Bible is part of God’s domain in Jesus Christ; it speaks God’s lively voice over, and often, against us. When I encounter approaches to Scripture that are Bible Pagepremised upon a posture of sitting over Scripture through some platform ostensibly offered them by some sort of ‘pure nature’ that gives them critical space to question Scripture’s veracity as God’s deposited words to humanity, I am deeply saddened! When I come across modes of engagement with Scripture that think Scripture finds its orientation, again, from a ‘pure nature’ (meaning a non-contingent independent understanding of nature that is abstract from God’s upholding Word, and thus self-sufficient and self-possessed in itself), I am troubled.

John Webster:

To simplify matters rather drastically: a dominant trajectory in the modern development of study of the Bible has been a progressive concentration on what Spinoza called interpretation of Scripture ex ipsius historia, out of its own history. Precisely when this progression begins to gather pace, and what its antecedents may be, are matters of rather wide dispute. What is clear, at least in outline, is that commanding authority gradually came to be accorded to the view that the natural properties of the biblical text and of the skills of interpreters are elements in an immanent economy of communication. The biblical text is a set of human signs borne along on, and in turn shaping, social religious and literary processes; the enumeration of its natural properties comes increasingly to be not only a necessary but a sufficient description of the Bible and its reception. This definition of the text in terms of its (natural) history goes along with suspension of or disavowal of the finality both of the Bible and of the reader in loving apprehension of God, and of the Bible’s ministerial function as divine envoy to creatures in need of saving instruction. To speak of the historia Scripturae is to say that Scripture is what human persons author, and that its interpretation is what human persons do to get at the meaning so authored. In describing authoring or interpreting, language about God is superfluous, or merely ornamental, or invoked only as the remotest background condition for human communication. Further, priority is given to the generic features of the biblical writings and their interpretation – the features which they share with other texts and acts of interpretation – over the particular situation in which they function – over the particular situation in which they function – the situation, that is, of divine instruction. That situation is epiphenomenal: most basically, the ontology of the Bible and that of its readers is that of pure nature. Thus, for example, the category of ‘text’, with its linguistic, semantic and literary properties, comes to play a different role in modern study of the Bible from that which it plays in Augustine’s De doctrina christiana. For Augustine, the text’s linguistic, semantic and literary properties are signa mediating divine instruction, whereas for moderns they are not underlain by anything other than the processes of authorship or the history of religion. Even when the category of ‘text’ is supplemented by those of ‘scripture’ or ‘canon’, these refer largely to the use of and ascription of value to texts, and carry no metaphysical weight. Running parallel to the naturalization of the text there is the ‘deregionalization’ of practices of interpretation, a standardization of its operations and ends which takes its rise in a natural anthropology of the interpreter and interpretive reason. Nor are matters helped much by supplementary talk of ‘God’s “use” of the church’s use of scripture’, for here God’s agency remains consequent rather than initiatory.

Countering the hegemony of pure nature in bibliology and hermeneutics requires, appeal to the Christian doctrine of God, and thus of God’s providential ordering of human speech and reason. Within the divine economy, the value of the natural properties of texts, and of the skills and operations of readers, does not consist in their self-sufficiency but in their appointment as creaturely auxiliaries through which God administers healing to wasted and ignorant sinners. What more may be said of this economy of revelation and redemption of which Scripture is a function?[1]

What Webster is communicating would be in line with what Brevard Childs has written here, in regard to a posture toward developing an approach and standing within a mode of humility toward the text of Scripture, and its reality in Jesus Christ: “… The true expositor of the Christian scriptures is the one who waits in anticipation toward becoming interpreted rather than interpreter. The very divine reality which the interpreter strives to grasp, is the very One who grasps the interpreter. The Christian doctrine of the role of the Holy Spirit is not a hermeneutical principle, but that divine reality itself who makes understanding of God possible.”[2]

There is an dogmatic order to Scripture’s placement relative to God in Christ. Scripture comes from within a proper and Christian doctrine of creation; and a proper Christian doctrine of creation comes from a proper doctrine of God in Christ, Christ as creation’s telos or purpose (cf. Col. 1.15ff). There is no abstract intellect that is embedded within a sanitized (from God) natural history that has the capacity to construct an alien (from God) criteria (like positivism, or empiricism, etc.) that God must submit to in order to be heard. God owns the cattle on a thousand hills, He knows the number of the hairs of our head, he feeds the birds of the air, he clothes the lily of the pond, and He is the content of His written Word.

If the above is true, the Bible is God’s Bible nor our’s, not the historian’s, not the higher critic’s and not the pew-sitter’s. In order to best appreciate what the Bible is we need to appreciate its order in relationship to the God who gave it to us. If we do this, this will do all kinds of wonderful things to the way we interpret it and understand it. We will understand that in it, because of Christ as Scripture’s purpose and context, that God has spoken (Deus dixit), and continues to speak!


[1] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London/New York: T&T Clark, A Continuum Imprint, 2012), 6.

[2] Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 86-7.

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