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

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]


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.



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).


30 thoughts on “The Critique I Should Have Written of Rachel Held Evans’ ‘Abraham and Isaac’

  1. This is a topic that has been on my mind quite a bit lately. How do we understand God’s being love and commanding the killing of even unborn children? This seems like something deeper than an issue of modern sensibilities, but at the same time I am with you in being suspicious of the modern critical method of Enns, Evans, and others. I’m far too wary of a any attempts, even unwitting ones, to tame Scripture and its presentation of the true God, in either testament.

    To tell you the truth, Bobby, I’ve scoured the Internet for stuff you have to say on this in comments and whatnot, but I’ve yet to find much of anything. (My search for your input being mostly because I wanted a perspective from an Evangelical Calvinist, and you’re one of the few I know of.)

    I guess in the end it just seems too difficult to imagine that the commands “Let the children come unto me” and “Kill every one of them, including infants” could come from the same God of love. Yet this is where I am stuck, as I can neither account for it nor do away with it.


  2. I haven’t written directly on this issue NN, not much anyway. And I agree, it is difficult to fathom God’s ways. But I take his ways to be higher than ours, and so I read him from an analogy of faith that is conditioned by His Self Revelation in Jesus Christ. But I cannot see how we can have the Jesus Christ that we have w/o the historical contingencies (all of them) being the reality and framework (the prefigural/preincarnate reality) that the man of Nazareth makes sense in and from.

    I think Enns untethers the Jesus of history from the Israel of history and the God therein. I also think we need to use dialectic when we read Scripture. So as George Hunsinger says, in regard to dialectic, that we hold certain realities about God and his history all at once, but not at the same time. So we can know and talk about the God of the OT as the God of the NT, but these and understand that when we talk about God in these periodized ways, that it is indeed the same God, but the same God working in different ways at different times. That said, I read even the wiping out of people groups at God’s command through the lens of his love in Jesus Christ.

    I am writing a chapter (two of them actually) for our forthcoming 2nd Volume EC book (due out in 2016) on how to do theological exegesis and how to preach theologically (the other on assurance of salvation). I will cover principles of interpretation that will be applicable even with texts like Joshua.

    I have actually written a lot on hermeneutics here at the blog. Just click on my hermeneutics category along with my doctrine of Scripture and ontology of scripture categories.


  3. I don’t really think it is deeper than ‘modern sensibilities’. I think if we were living in the Ancient Near Eastern culture that Joshua and all the rest were living in at that time, then a lot of what is being condemned through an anachronistic modernistic lens would be marginalized.

    The same principle applies to how people read John Calvin’s incident with Servetus, which I’ve written briefly about here:

    But it still involves a lot of trust in who God is. I simply think we must read the Bible ministerially and not magesterially, not over it, but under it as God’s Triune speech that it represents to us. I think we must read scripture as if the Bible is God’s bible, and that he is Lord, not us. And I think that our reasoning must be done from that posture and not another; like the ‘rational’ one I highlighted in the post.


  4. I appreciated Kevin Davis’ insight with regard to us being sinners.

    It brought to mind: Who am I to question God?…
    It’s not as though I could ever begin to understand why He has chosen to do the things He which He has not explained in the text.

    BTW, have you ever noticed that “Why?” is an insatiable question? We could go on asking it forever…regardless of the answer that is given.

    Sometimes, God’s only response is “Because I said so, and you need stop asking for explanations and trust Me”. I suspect this can be difficult for those of us who demand, or even just hope for, a completely rational (to human minds) justification.

    The lack of satisfactory accounting can test us to the limits of our faith. Not necessarily faith in whether God actually exists, but rather, faith in His intimately personal revelation via His beloved Son, who informs us that God is truly good.


  5. This is much better, Bobby.

    I have recently begun to explore this very topic–the violent portrayals of God in the OT. I guess you could say this has become my latest theological obsession;)

    MARCIONISM: let’s get rid of the OT and the unChristlike god it portrays. Problem solved!

    ORTHODOXY: the God of Israel is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Let’s keep the OT. Problem remains: what do we do with those passages? Two things are usually done: allegorize them and/or just accept them at face value. The tension remains here.

    I look forward to hearing more from what you think is the best way to reconcile the OT’s Yahweh with the NT’s Jesus.

    What I see Peter Enns, Derek Flood, Brian Zahnd, et al saying is the following:

    -There is no such thing as the biblical portrait of God. There are various portraits.

    -There are many voices in the scriptures.

    -Jesus is the image of God. He revealed God fully. God is Christlike. He has always been so, but we have not always known so. Now we do. The God of the OT is the God of the NT. We just didn’t know Him as accurately in the Old Covenant.

    -Both Jesus and Paul disarmed the violent language of scripture.

    -Scripture is a record of a dialogue of voices in scripture disagreeing with each other. Mercy vs Sacrifice.

    This approach is not incompatible (I think) with the type of theological reading you advocate for through Barth and Torrance.

    I do not think Peter Enns and RHE are in danger of making God in theor own image. Nor do I believe St. Isaac the Syrian & Sergius Bulgakov did this in insisting that “God is love” is the first and final word of theology. Where did they get this idea? From God!


  6. You completely identified the great irony of Enns and co: a way of thinking about theology that is influenced to a huge degree by ‘enlightenment presuppositions’, all the while claiming to ‘wrestle’ or courageously face up to the text, while accusing the more traditional positions of being influenced by the enlightenment! Its all very amusing if your familiar, as you are, with the histories and developments of these ideas.


  7. But it still involves a lot of trust in who God is. I simply think we must read the Bible ministerially and not magesterially, not over it, but under it as God’s Triune speech that it represents to us. I think we must read scripture as if the Bible is God’s bible, and that he is Lord, not us. And I think that our reasoning must be done from that posture and not another; like the ‘rational’ one I highlighted in the post.

    Here I must always agree. This is the main reason why I cannot bring myself to the point of people in the same line as Enns and Evans. And personally, I’m probably just trying to hard to get my mind around everything and have every answer.


  8. Juan,

    I really couldn’t disagree more. I also am not a fan of Zahand, or Enns, et al. There is one portrait of God in the whole Bible, and that is climaxed in Jesus Christ. It isn’t just allegory, Enns isn’t doing allegory, he is doing an end around. The irony of Enns is that he is still doing theodicy, he is still “defending” the Bible, and the God therein. This is exactly what orthodoxy rejects. Enns is reading the Bible still from the Wellhausen thesis. There is just so much more to this story Juan!

    But we are not in the confessional mode called to do anything with these texts except allow them to work us over. Nicene Nerd has the best approach, to live by faith.


  9. Nicene Nerd, absolutely! And the desire to get our head around every answer is the modernist attempt at things. I really don’t feel compelled at all to defend the God presented in the OT, since he is the same in the NT.


  10. Bobby, You say, “I don’t really think it is deeper than ‘modern sensibilities’” And then you refer also to a post by you of Calvin’s wanting Servetus to be beheaded:-(

    Where in Jesus’ life did he support the beheading of people who disagreed with him on theology?

    Where in Jesus’ life did he support the burning people at the stake?

    Killing people in the name of God has NOTHING to do with the political-social world John Calvin grew up in.

    Calvin claims to know much about God. Surely, he should have known at the very least that other humans shouldn’t be beheaded or burned at the stake for
    differing in their theology! And the other Reformers should have known this as well.


  11. Daniel,

    I only brought up that post to illustrate the relative role that historical context and ethics have in relation to each other.

    I’m not sure if you read my post on Calvin very carefully, but read it again, and if you still don’t get what is being communicated there, then email me. But we aren’t going to have that discussion on this thread, even if I did provide the link.

    The post on Calvin doesn’t argue de jure that burning people at the stake is moral, only de facto. If you can’t appreciate that distinction then we don’t have a lot to talk about on the subject.


  12. Bobby,

    I thought I did read your comment carefully. Maybe I didn’t read your post carefully enough.

    I will re-read your Calvin post again.

    What I still don’t understand is how any of this shows that ethical commitment against human sacrifice and against killing everyone (as in some in some Old Testament stories), etc. is no deeper than “‘modern sensibilities'”.

    Keep in mind that my background is probably very different than yours. I’ve lived in Palestine/Israel–knew Jews, Muslims and Baptist Evangelical Christians committed to killing each other (based in their theological understanding and for some of the Jewish persons and for the Baptist Evangelical Christians that theological perspective is based on explicit following of the Old Testament ethics:-( Of course, the Muslims also base their views on the Qur’an which has many Old Testament stories in it. ISS isn’t the first Jewish/Christian group to employ beheading. Christians have done that repeatedly:-(

    As for your statement about “argue de jure versus de facto”, keep in mind that I was a Baptist youth pastor many years ago, but dropped out of seminary so am ignorant with where you are taking this. Pleas be patient with me like my university philosophy profs were when we studied Kant, etc.:-)

    Also, you should probably know that I taught basic Puritanism to students for many years as an American literature teacher. I’ve read 4 scholarly biographies on Calvin, and many of the famous Calvinists of American including some of R. L. Dabney.

    My wife likes to kid me that when other people are watching football on Sundays, I read Reformation history for fun;-)

    And, lastly, after 52 years as a Christian, because of Augustinian-Calvinism, I’ve tragically come to the conclusion that Christianity can’t be true:-(

    That’s my background. Hope that helps you to see why your stating that opposing killing like Rachel did sends off red flags for me.


  13. Oops, I see a typo. I meant to say that the Muslim group isn’t the first monotheistic group to employ beheading. Jewish/Christian groups have employed that in the past.


  14. Daniel,

    Thank you for sharing your background … the last part of it is exceedingly sad to me! 😦

    1) I would hate to think that you have come to the conclusion that Christianity can be reduced to Augustinian-Calvinism! I haven’t come to that conclusion! In fact I prefer Athanasius to Augustine (but still think Augustine, himself, has some rich stuff to offer), and I read Calvin constructively, and don’t see him as the source, ultimately, of how I think or proceed theologically.

    Why would you come to such a dramatic conclusion about Christianity in general simply based upon such a reduction? In other words, you must know there are other versions or ways of understanding Christianity, different interpretive traditions in Christianity that eschew the Augustinian-Calvinian tradition, but that don’t eschew Jesus Christ.

    2) Well, I would consider myself a Baptist-Evangelical. But my guess is that you are referring to Baptists who are also dispensationalists (I used to be one of those too, but I am not one any longer). I understand how deep rooted ideas are, and their consequences. I lived and grew up in the “hood” of Long Beach and Los Angeles, and I have seen the result of bad theological ideas at work in those areas as well.

    It is difficult to compare ISIS with the teachings of the OT, since, this would really be a false parallel. They get their teachings from the Quran, the Hadith, and other teachings within Islam (from Mohammed’s life example etc). I think we would need to have a discussion about the textual traditions behind the respective “religions” (e.g. Islam, Christianity), and then, only after that, could we move onto a discussion about ethics.

    3) De jure=in principle. De facto=in point of fact. In principle, taking someone’s life for their aberrant belief (from our’s or Calvin’s) would be wrong, in general. But in point of fact, in Calvin’s day, many many people were given capital penalties for heretical teaching because of the belief, during that period of history, that eternal crimes (like heretical teaching) were even more grievous than temporal crimes (like murder). And so the death penalty was imposed or acceptable, during that period of history, because of the seriousness of the “crime.” Calvin didn’t live in the 20th century or 21st century Americas or the Western world of our day; he lived in the 16th century in ecclesiopolitical Europe where these kinds of standards were the norm of his day. Does that make it ultimately right? No. But it should relativize things enough to see why Calvin accepted it (by the way, Calvin did not directly “kill” Servetus, the civil legates of Geneva did).

    Anyway, Daniel, my greater hope is that you will return to your first love and rekindle a vibrant relationship with the living Lord of life; with Jesus Christ!


  15. Bobby,

    I did re-read your Calvin blog and look up de facto versus de jure on a philosophy website. But I see you also explained it in your new response.

    Briefly (so as to not hog the comment section:-),

    1) Actually, I do think Augustine has had a huge influence on all of Western Christianity. Even Eastern Orthodoxy, while disagreeing with guilt in original sin, etc., also sees Augustine as a father of the Church.

    So since, based on my reading of some of Augustine’s own writing, a scholarly biography of him recently, many other books that speak of him, etc. and that the Roman Catholic Church considers itself semi-Augustinian, and Luther was Augustinian, etc….
    it would seem one almost has to agree with Augustine in order to belong to Christianity.

    But it gets worse:-( When I was saved in the 1950s, I and my family were Billy-Graham-type Baptists, emphasizing God’s love for everyone. I remember volunteering at a Billy Graham Crusade, remember the joy I experienced at Youth for Christ rallies…
    but now the Billy Graham Association promotes limited atonement:-(. I actually spoke to one of their representatives for 45 minutes…etc.

    And Calvary Chapel had a big influence on me in 1969, several years before I became a youth pastor, then a teacher.
    But now even Greg Laurie has become a Calvinist and the C.C Ministers’ Conference invited a Calvinist lead them recently!

    No doubt you are greatly pleased:-)

    And it gets worse (from my perspective). I’m a very philosophical onion-peeling sort of person…
    Finally, it hit me last year when our church started promoting a Calvinist who claims God has two wills, etc.
    that there are very few Christian leaders who actually think God loves every one, wills for everyone to be saved.

    Heck, even the Assembly of God where I live has done 3 Calvinistic books in a row!

    2) You grew up in LB and LA huh? I was a youth pastor in Culver City.

    I think the Reformers (and the Roman Catholic Church, of course) had no excuse for their murderous slaughter of other Christians.

    3) The “civil legates” of Geneva carried out the sentence, but many famous Reformers (especially Calvin) John Knox, Philipp Melanchthon and others supported the execution.:-(Hate to say it but I probably know more about that period of time than most Calvinists. Many other individuals, none of whom had committed any crime like theft
    were executed by the Reformers for simply believing differently:-(
    Servetus is only the most famous one to be killed. Michael Sattler, Felix Manz, and many minor figures also were slaughtered.

    I only mentioned ISIS as an example of how Muslims currently practice beheadings. Christians have used Old Testament stories to behead many times in the past.

    Right now I’m in the middle of a scholarly tome on the English Civil War:-( It was so depressing what the Puritans (and others) did I finally had to pause in the reading and read a few other books.

    Thanks for your encouragement.
    In my inner heart I still trust in Christ, but almost every day I encounter Calvinists, even when I try and stay away (unlike today by posting here), and get another blast of how God only sent Jesus to died for a limited atonement, and how as Calvin infamously wrote some of us are foreordained to eternal damnation.

    Then I realize that my inner sense and experience of God in the past has to obviously be a delusion because it seems so few Christians actually believe in the God I came to trust in.

    Anyway, back to the issue at hand (I bet you can tell I was a literature teacher–talk,talk and call it brief;-)

    I think the Jesus of the New Testament clearly taught that we shouldn’t kill others. In my deepest inner conscience I am convinced that killing is wrong, that it’s not a “modern sensibility,” to use your wording.

    But thanks for the dialog. You might call yourself the Friendly Calvinist;-)

    And you didn’t claim that God planned the Jewish Holocaust for his glory like the last scholarly Calvinist I carried on a conversation with.

    And do pray for Rachel. I think you and she could have a good dialog. She’s probably much closer to your way of thinking than I am.


  16. Douglas,

    I don’t believe in limited atonement! Evangelical Calvinism promotes unlimited atonement. Haven’t you heard of Karl Barth?! He doesn’t follow the Augustinian trad, but the Athanasian trad. So you are mistaken there. Augustine’s influence on Eastern Orthodoxy just isn’t there. And I bet you I have read more Calvin both primarily and in secondary literature than you. I was mentored and proffed in seminary by a Puritan expert and medievalist, so I bet you I have more training than you in that area too! 🙂 And based on that background I’d say your conclusions aren’t fully-baked.

    I am glad to hear that you still love Jesus!

    Oh, and I would bet you money that Greg Laurie is not a Calvinist!

    I have to go to bed, I’ll respond to the rest of your points tomorrow.


  17. Bobby,

    You don’t subscribe to Limited Atonement!?

    So many Calvinists I meet emphasize that as the Good News!

    Well, I should have known that based on the fact you mentioned Barth.

    I’ve read very little of Barth. When I was reading theology, I did read Emil Brunner and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Learned much from them.

    I’m sure you have read way more Calvin than I have. I have no interest in reading any more of the thinker than I already have.

    As for Puritanism, you also probably know far more than me too. However, my prof for American Intellectual History earned his PhD with a thesis on Jonathan Edwards. I also know more about Puritanism than I care to know.

    I hope you’re right about Eastern Orthodoxy.

    And I am certain that Greg Laurie is some sort of Calvinist. I heard him say that only certain individuals who come forward at one of his crusades can be saved, only the ones already picked:-(

    When I wrote him an email asking about this very politely, my email was deleted. Something which happens on atheist sites too.

    I’m not very popular:-)

    C.C. ministers appear to being going into Calvinism in droves. One day when I was feeling very discouraged and hopeless, I turned on Christian radio–C.C. radio and what did I hear but a C.C. pastor say that God creates some humans as “toilets and spittoons.”

    Maybe I should read a little Barth:-) But I understand his Church Dogmatics is very difficult.

    Any suggestion?


  18. Hey Bobby,
    Your discussion with Daniel’s been scrolling through my feed. Hope it’s okay to butt in on the universal atonement bit.

    For it was the good pleasure of the Father that in Him should all the fulness dwell;
    and through him to reconcile all things unto Himself, having made peace through the blood of his cross; through Him, I say, whether things upon the earth, or things in the heavens. ~Colossians 1:19-20

    I love this passage as it indicates to me that Jesus not only reconciled man to God within Himself, but He also effectively reclaimed Adam’s forfeited dominion over all of creation. The atonement isn’t just about salvation of a select group of people.


  19. @Daniel,

    His Dogmatics In Outline is sweet, I think you would like it! It is Barth’s working through the Apostles’ Creed, it is rich, and pretty short to boot. And then Barth’s little book Evangelical Theology: An Introduction.

    There is no way, that Greg Laurie is a Calvinist, at least not a professing one! Yes, I am sure he used the “language” that you heard him use, but I bet you anything that he never intended that to be referring to Unconditional Election. And yes, there is a certain appeal to people like Spurgeon at Calvary Chapels, but that is in spite of Spurgeon’s Calvinism, or in spite of Tim Keller’s Calvinism, and has more to do with the spirit of conservative evangelicalism. But among some of the younger crowd in Calvary Chapel, I think you might be right about a turn to Calvinism (but not overtly as far as teaching the five points or something). I know many CC pastors, myself, young ones, who are definitely moving that way. But as long as the old guard is around those guys will never be allowed to overtly teach such doctrine in Calvary Chapel churches. But of course there is a lot going on at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa right now, and the leadership. A fight between some of the Smith family and Brian Brodersen, Chuck’s son-in-law who took over CC Costa Mesa when Chuck died. Anyway, it is a sad situation!

    But yeah, we are offering a form of Calvinism that reaches back into a mode of Calvinism (among some Scots, see Thomas Torrance’s book ‘Scottish Theology’) that is totally different than classical Calvinism, and indeed is “Evangelical.”


  20. Bobby

    Thoroughly enjoyed this post. I recently have been contemplating much on this topic. I have come across Enns writing and found myself very dissatisfied with his solution. I see his point in the critique in how some scholars interpret but I think there are different ways to approach this matter than where he goes.

    I would love to hear more on this in the future.


  21. I am also interested in hearing more on your critique of Brian Zhands approach? Could you expound?

    Thanks Bobby


  22. Response to your original post:
    I appreciate that you made the apology. It reflects well on you.

    I don’t think the most important question should be ‘Is one’s philosophy/theology consistent with tradition?’ or ‘Is this a slipplery slope to atheism?’ or even ‘Is it Biblically sound?’ but rather, “Is it true?

    I think Rachel Held Evans is on this path, trying to find what is true even if it has unfortunate ramifications re: the beliefs of “historic Christian faith”. If your beliefs can be burned away by this skeptical “acid”, well, were they really sound beliefs to begin with?

    In other words…when I began to doubt my faith four years ago, I re-read this story of Abraham and Isaac. And looking at it honestly, I realized the story’s horrible implications of elevating blind, irrational obedience above all else. I realized the god I thought I knew and the god in the Bible were different people. I found one more data point growing towards the conclusion that god isn’t real at all. The solution isn’t to ignore the data points. The solution is to be honest and willing to adjust your conclusion to match the facts.


  23. Physeter (I don’t appreciate when people remain anonymous when they comment),

    I have spent years studying the FACTS, and have come to a completely different conclusion than you, based upon the facts. The question isn’t the facts anyway, the question is the grid, the paradigm used to interpret the facts.

    Christianity, and the God of Christianity isn’t something that you or I posit and then attempt to figure out if we can prove if he is true or not–that would be the God of Fundamentalist Christianity, but not the God revealed in Jesus Christ. If we are going to think rationally (not rationalistically) if we are going to think ‘according to the nature of’ (kata physin), if we are going to think scientifically then the thing, reality, or in the case of Christian theology, the person under consideration must be understood from its own categories and emphases. You never would have walked away from the Lord if you had followed this approach. You were right, though, to walk away from the Fundamentalist god, for that is no god at all, just a projection of people’s own angry imaginations. Sorry to hear about your choice, hope you return to your first love.

    Here’s another post I wrote in response to Rachel Held Evans, and it fits perfectly with your situation as well:


  24. And Pheyseter, there is no such thing as an atheist; you aren’t and no one else is either, you simply worship another divinity other than the Other — so says Barth:

    **Theology is one among those human undertakings traditionally described as “sciences.” Not only the natural sciences are “sciences.” Humanistic sciences also seek to apprehend a specific object and its environment in the manner directed by the phenomenon itself; they seek to understand it on its own terms and to speak of it along with all the implications of its existence. The word “theology” seems to signify a special science, a very special science, whose task is to apprehend, understand, and speak of “God.”

    But many things can be meant by the word “God.” For this reason, there are many kinds of theologies. There is no man who does not have his own god or gods as the object of his highest desire and trust, or as the basis of his deepest loyalty and commitment. There is no one who is not to this extent also a theologian. There is, moreover, no religion, no philosophy, no world view that is not dedicated to some such divinity. Every world view, even that disclosed in the Swiss and American national anthems, presupposes a divinity interpreted in one way or another and worshiped to some degree, whether wholeheartedly or superficially. There is no philosophy that is not to some extent also theology. Not only does this fact apply to philosophers who desire to affirm — or who, at least, are ready to admit— that divinity, in a positive sense, is the essence of truth and power of some kind of highest principle; but the same truth is valid even for thinkers denying such a divinity, for such a denial would in practice merely consist in transferring an identical dignity and function to another object. Such an alternative object might be “nature,” creativity, or an unconscious and amorphous will to life. It might also be “reason,” progress, or even a redeeming nothingness into which man would be destined to disappear. Even such apparently “godless” theologies are theologies.**

    – Karl Barth, “Evangelical Theology: An Introduction,” 3-4


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