Rachel Held Evans, An Icon of American Evangelicalism; Both ‘Right’ and ‘Left’

I want to offer another note on the death of Rachel Held Evans. After reading through the various ‘sides’ in relation to RHE over the past few days, and either the absolute praise, or the utter damnation of her, I wanted to offer another word (FWIW). Like I have indexed previously, I was a critic of RHE’s theology and mode as a spokesperson and galvanizing figurehead for the continuously emerging Progressive Christian Left in and among Exvangelicals. Like I’ve noted elsewhere, what is present in the Progressive Christian move is nothing different than what was present, as antecedent, in theological liberalism. When you have a theological movement that is largely in reaction to another theological movement, you don’t ever get a “positive” movement as a result. All you really end up with is a shadow movement of the other movement it is reacting towards. This is what, I would contend, Rachel was a figurehead for. Her open doubts, and troubles with evangelicalism resonated at just the right time for many others, such that it catapulted RHE into the limelight of the Progressives. It was the convergence of her doubts, her generation, and the internet, with blogs, Twitter, Facebook etc. that thrust Rachel into a world, and into a spot that outwith these mechanisms may have never happened. RHE may have had harbored the doubts she did, the criticisms she had of her evangelicalism, but they would have been left between her, God, and her real-life interlocutors who may well have been able to point her to more constructive ways forward. But this is not the world we inhabit; we inhabit the world Rachel inhabited, shaped for better or ill by the monstrosity that the social interweb is. This is what made Rachel who she was over the last decade; the most formative years of her life, it might seem. But were they?

This is what I keep coming back to. As news to me, some of my former professors in seminary were good friends with Rachel’s parents back in the day; and they knew Rachel back then, and as she grew up. Rachel grew up seemingly in the same household that many of us did; right smack-dab in the middle of the evangelical sub-culture. Many of us know her story. Indeed, this is why she was so resonant, I’d contend, for so many. She was your average evangelical person growing up in the strange sub-culture that evangelicalism represents; and come of age she started to become (rightly) critical of many of the folkisms that count as orthodoxy in the evangelical world. So far so good. She was able to sense the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism that shaped the evangelical world; she knew firsthand what the merchandising of the Christian world felt and looked like; she understood how gimmicks had displaced the depth dimension of the sacraments and the preached Word in the churches. She saw something that many of us saw, and continue to see; and this made her voice appealing to many. And yet up to a point, even until relatively recently, Rachel remained ‘evangelical.’ I find it interesting that what led Rachel to where she went was cultivated by legitimate critiques she had of the evangelical sub-culture. So, this is where Rachel was spiritually formed. She had a real life and intimate relationship with the risen Jesus Christ, but she had doubts because she saw a dissonance between who she knew—in Christ—and what she was largely experiencing (in the main) in the Church.

So, Rachel voiced all of these concerns, wrote a book, and was catapulted into the online social theological world where she had her greatest reach. And this, I would contend, is where she met people who would lead her further and further away from what she would have recognized as core convictions, and into the world of theological liberalism. This is where Rachel lived, but in a popular and populace way. The ideas she had about God, Scripture, and anthropology (inclusive of sexuality) are ideas that have been around since at least the 18th and 19th centuries; ideas that were fomented by the Enlightenment and the ‘turn to the subject.’ Rachel was a ‘seeker of truth,’ indeed, but where she went, as she self-consciously moved from her conservative evangelical past into her progressive evangelical future had antecedents in a theological world most noted for seeing humanity as the measure of reality rather than the living God. And this, I would argue, is where things went terribly awry for Rachel. As is definitional for a ‘progressive,’ they progress; and Rachel did just that. Most notably she opened up a place for the inclusion of homosexuals in the church[1]; in such a way that they were affirmed in their homosexuality rather than challenged to repent and recognize it for the sin that it is. As a result of this message to homosexuals Rachel served as a catalyst for many people who identify that way to ‘come back to the Church.’ Indeed, this was probably the most dominant theme in the tributes to her among her followers on Twitter. Many claimed that they wouldn’t be able to be in the church or be a Christian without Rachel Held Evans. But this leads us to an irony.

As I noted above, many of Rachel’s criticisms of evangelicalism, I think, were right on. In my view, the primary criticism Rachel operated from, thematically, was that the American evangelical Church has largely ceased from being genuinely Christian in any meaningful sense; with this I agree. I can agree with Rachel in the sense that the American evangelical Church, in the majority of its quadrants, has really become an American folk religion and not in any way resembling what a genuinely Christ conditioned notion of the Church should be. Yet, as I also noted earlier, what Rachel ended up finding solace in equally resulted in her turning to something that is just as folksy as what she left in evangelicalism. There is nothing immediately recognizable as ‘Christian,’ vis-à-vis the catholic understanding of the Gospel and its implications on a range, to be found in what Rachel had come to be the symbol and mouthpiece for. So, this is tragic.

I want to share more about Rachel’s death, and how I think it fits into the broader picture of God’s love and mercy for her; but I will wait. I’ll wait because I think my thoughts will be rather controversial (more controversial than what I just shared), and so I will wait for a time and a season to divulge further. But I wanted to share the above because it is the way I see the story of Rachel Held Evans, at least in a snapshot. I see Rachel as a sister in Christ who had good intentions, even right ones in regard to her criticisms, but who was taken in by people who ended up contributing deleteriously to her soul and spiritual well-being.

[1] This represents only one example of many issues that RHE endorsed in regard to what can be identified as progressive social theory.

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Reflecting on the Sudden Death of Rachel Held Evans

Today has been a somewhat somber and sobering day. I awoke to the news, as did many of us, that popular blogger, author, and social mediaite, Rachel Held Evans had succumbed to the brain seizures she had been struggling with over the last few weeks (you can read about that here). Rachel made her name as she became the face of the progressive Christian movement over the last decade or so. She has written a few books, which gained her initial following, and then things blew up from there. Her appeal, to her many followers, was her openness as she struggled with doubt, and a variety of social issues that many so called post-evangelicals struggle with. She moved from a conservative evangelical background, which she grew up in and was groomed in through her Christian college education, to a mainline Episcopalian context. She became a champion for feminists, in the church context, and took an inclusive position on homosexuals in the church. Contra conservative evangelicalism, she advocated for female pastors; and as a result, encouraged many women to become pastors over the last many years—this is well attested by the tweet storm currently underway in Rachel’s name (#BecauseOfRHE). As a progressive, she moved away from what many would consider catholic orthodoxy in regard to traditional or classical readings of Scripture and even God. One of her last tweets said this “Like, how freaked out are they going to be when (if all this is true), they enter the full presence of God at resurrection and are suddenly hit with the reality that God’s not a dude? (4/11/19: 2:34pm)” She was heavily influenced by Pete Enns in regard to her approach to Scripture, which I’ve blogged at length about here.

So, RHE was a controversialist, and was a polarizing figure for many. Because of a few posts I wrote with reference to RHE (one I linked to above) back in 2014 I ended up having some public and private correspondence with her. I was being critical of some of her views; particularly her approach to Scripture, God, and the mode she operated from (as attested here). I also wrote an initial post that caused much consternation among her followers, which in turn produced some very heated exchange; Rachel herself showed up. I apologized to her in regard to my form (although not my material critique), and in private she was gracious towards me. This was back five years ago, and Rachel has progressed even further since then; per some of the social issues I noted previously. I had kept following Rachel over the years, particularly on Twitter; but only as a lurker.

When I heard, just a few weeks ago now that she was in a medically induced coma as a result of continuous brain seizures she was experiencing, caused by a reaction to some antibiotics she had taken for the flu and UTI, I was concerned. I consider Rachel my sister in Christ, even though her positions, in my view, had taken her far afield from where she started her life as a Christian—in an orthodox evangelical context. Many of her followers have claimed that without Rachel’s voice they never would have “come back” or “come to” Christianity at all; that she had constructed a version of Christianity that they felt they could live with. Rachel became a leader for many many people out there, particularly those in the millennial generation; but many from my own generationX and even some among the babyboomers. Her honesty about her doubts and frustrations with the evangelical sub-culture resonated and resonate with many people who had grown up in that context; and then her voice also had appeal to people who had an outsider’s perception of the church that they felt they never could penetrate themselves. Rachel served as the catalyst for many of these people.

It is a terribly sad day. Death is ‘the last enemy’ that Christ has yet to put under his feet in consummate actuality. When someone dies, when anyone dies it is a time of grievance; when that someone is as well known as Rachel it has a shock-impact. Her death came quickly, and seemingly out of nowhere. As of just a few weeks ago, she was a vibrant full of energy young 37-year-old woman, mother of two little children, and wife to a guy named, Dan (who need our prayers). What her death reminds us of is what the Bible never tires of reminding us, ‘that our life is but a vapor.’ I was reminded of this when I was diagnosed with a rare incurable/terminal cancer known as DSRCT back in late 2009; by God’s grace I’ve survived thus far. But each day is the day of salvation; we never know how much longer we have on this earth. This is why we ought to be the wise servant, and moment by moment, be storing up for the day of redemption; for each one of us, in Christ, that day could be realized even in the next second. We must entrust Rachel into the ever-loving and eternal arms of the Father, the Shepherd, and Comforter of our souls. ‘He is faithful,’ and His hands so big that no person can pluck us from thence. We know that nothing can separate us from the love of God that we have in Christ Jesus (cf. Rom 8). As the Church, as the body of Christ, we commit Rachel’s body and soul into the ever-faithful hands of the living God in the risen Christ. May his happy face shine brightly upon Rachel, and may she experience the eternal bliss and weight of God’s glory that all those participatio Christi have been received into with open arms. Kyrie eleison

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

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.

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]

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).

An Open Apology to Rachel Held Evans

This is an apology ‘letter’ (post) to Rachel Held Evans, in regard to the tone that I used in a post of mine that I regret writing now (this one); not because I think there are not some material theological considerations that Evans and I, and a host of others could discuss, but because the way I presented my reflection on her post about ‘Abraham and Isaac’ was indeed patronizing and presumptuous on my part. So Rachel, please accept this apology from me; will you? I never should have attempted to engage with you the way that I did. Please forgive me?

Rachel, some people in the comments have asserted that my opening clause to that post of mine was misogynistic, because I used the word ‘girl’ in reference to you. I can assure you that I as the author of that phrase and word had no intention of using it misogynistically; that never even crossed my mind when I wrote that. I simply thought it was a clever sounding turn of a phrase (at the time) that I was opening my post up with. I am not misogynistic (just ask anyone who knows me), and again, never intended to use that phrase in that way. I also apologize for that, if indeed it came off that way to you.

Anyway, Rachel, again, I am sorry for the tone of my post, and the way that I construed it. I do not know you personally (of course!), and so for me to make the leaps in judgment that I did about you personally, were unwarranted and uncalled for. I should have left any response I might have had to your post at the material theological and ‘critical’ level, and allow the merits of such a response to speak for themselves (if any). I realize that many of your readers (who have been commenting here at the blog, or just visiting it because of that post of mine) will probably think this apology is too little, too late; but I hope you don’t.

I am a passionate guy, and sometimes I type before I think enough. I have been blogging consistently since 2005 on primarily academic theological themes, but I have had moments where I have gotten caught up in the moment too quickly, and made blunders of posts that I have had to ask forgiveness for as well (this is not a common practice of mine J).

I have no doubt that you love Jesus Christ, Rachel, it is just that we have some fundamental methodological differences in our disparate approaches toward understanding what that looks like. My usage of hyperbole and melodramatic speech in my post, again were uncalled for, and should never have been made. Again I apologize.

The peace of Christ and His Strength,

Bobby Grow

PS. I have tabled that original post because I think it causes more distraction than good, and so I think it is better to simply remove that post.