Compelled to Control: Is the Success Culture Destroying Christianity?

(This article by Pastor Mark was originally published on “Philosophy Goes to Church” and is reprinted here with permission.)

Introduction: What Did Jesus Really Say and Can We Hear Him Today?

I recently attended a lecture given by John Dominic Crossan[1] on the violence of God in the Christian Bible.[2] His central thesis was clear: “If the biblical Christ is the norm, criterion, and discriminant of the Christian Bible, then the historical Jesus is the norm, criterion, and discriminant of the biblical Christ.” After making some cursory remarks about how to distinguish between the words of the historical Jesus (or the earliest oral tradition attributed to Jesus) and the words of the early church placed on his lips, Crossan developed an argument for the historical Jesus as a non-violent Jewish revolutionary who cast a radical vision of peace through (distributive) justice.

As the lecture drew to a close, what stood out as most interesting to me were the sayings that Crossan, in some sense, attributed to the historical Jesus:

  • Bless those who persecute you.
  • Don’t return evil for evil, but overcome evil with good.
  • Be kind to your enemies.
  • Give away your possessions.

It occurred to me that although there is rigorous debate about the authenticity of other sayings (much of which revolves around whether or not Jesus’ message was apocalyptic), the vast majority of historical Jesus scholars, whether liberal or conservative, agree that Jesus said these kinds of things. What is even more striking is that these sayings that have garnered scholarly consensus in the Twenty-First Century are precisely the ones that are most problematic for the American church today.

When thinking about why this might be the case, I have a nagging suspicion that it has something to do with our preoccupation with success. In what follows, I simply try to voice some of my informal reflections in hopes of generating a discussion. Although I have been trained as an academic theologian, this is not a scholarly article. I mean no offense to academics, but after leaving the academy almost ten years ago to devote my life to pastoral ministry, I am not interested in crafting an airtight argument supported by long footnotes that can withstand the rigorous critique of people who are much smarter than me. This qualifying statement is my way of asking for grace from those who serve the world well in an academic setting. Rather than seeing yourself as a respondent on a panel at the American Academy of Religion (and hence seeking to refute my claims), my hope is that you will read as a friend (and try to help me, as a pastor, to wrestle with a problem that is very real in the church).

Success: Trying to Understand the Problem

As I serve in the local church, I get the feeling that Christianity is being co-opted by a preoccupation with success. Many pastors (including myself at times) want to be more like Steven Furtick than like Jesus, and to lead churches that look more like Fortune 500 companies than the ecclesia described in the book of Acts. In terms of the laity, instead of renouncing their quest for worldly success, many convert to Christianity in hopes that it will provide them with more effective strategies for achieving such worldly acclaim!

I have come to believe that the success culture in America has its own vision and prescription for salvation, and one of the biggest challenges for pastors is figuring out exactly what this looks like. My hunch is that the logic of the success culture is driven by a notion of power construed as willful and controlling, even manipulative and coercive. It takes many forms, including wealth, fame, charisma, intelligence, and sex appeal. To be successful means to possess and effectively leverage power to achieve a series of goals that are themselves designed to increase power, expand freedom, and merit the praise of others who have already joined the club. Inherent in all of this is the ability to control oneself and others, to effectively manipulate resources, and to manage external circumstances.

Successful people exercise the power to control their thoughts. They cultivate the “power of positive thinking,” which not only helps them manage their outlook but can even bring external circumstances into alignment with internal desires. Don’t you know The Secret of how we can leverage the “law of attraction” by the power of positive thinking to create life-changing results of increased happiness, health, and wealth? Successful people also control their emotions and exhibit an internal strength that precludes neediness, vulnerability, and anything else that can be perceived as weakness. Winners are of sound mental health, evidenced by the power to manage and eradicate anxiety, guilt, depression, and other undesirable feelings. In the parlance of much that passes for women’s ministry today, strong people “choose joy.” They don’t really need anyone else to be happy, but create their own happiness and then design relationships in ways that enhance and protect it. Successful people also possess the personal power to transform a “normal body” (which is an entry-level requirement for the school of success) into a beautiful body, which always increases one’s power! Even in the church, people are encouraged to follow biblical diets like The Daniel Plan and commit to exercise as a fifth spiritual discipline. If you can leverage personal power to control your thoughts, emotions, and appearance, then you are well on your way to managing the perceptions of others (in both real and virtual environments), thereby gaining greater influence over people who can advance your quest for success. (Who cares about people who lack the power to promote, or derail, your agenda?)

Although I am no Clifford Geertz, it seems to me that all of this has generated a powerful cultural stream in America that exercises a gravitational pull on the church. To shift metaphors, it creates a pair of glasses through which we see all of life, including the life of faith. Read through these glasses, the Gospel is not seen as a call to abandon the quest for worldly success, but a new and improved strategy for successfully completing the quest! In the most concrete terms, when I preach on Sunday mornings that we should fully surrender our lives to Jesus as Lord and Savior, which includes allowing him radically to redefine our values and goals in light of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, I fear that many hear, “Jesus can empower me to return to work tomorrow and be more effective at what I am already doing in pursuit of goals I’ve already set.” Our “personal relationship” with Jesus can easily become another way to access the power needed to become successful, admired, and well-respected.

One symptom of this problem is the way some clergy preach the Bible and, consequently, how many lay people interpret it. Instead of the biblical Christ (perhaps normed in important ways by the Jesus of history) serving as our guide for the faithful interpretation of scripture, those breathing the air of the success culture tend to give hermeneutical priority to passages that support the logic and value system of hard won success. The clearest example is found in the “prosperity gospel” with its focus on Deuteronomic theology, but there are subtler forms that infect the American church in innumerable ways.

When confronted with the sayings of Jesus that contradict the logic and value system of the success culture, many find ways to reinterpret those passages to marginalize the intended message. For example, when confronted with Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek, some say, “Well, what he really meant was that violence should be a last resort and only in self-defense. If someone hits me rather softly and doesn’t draw back for a second blow, then maybe I should exercise the power of self-control and suggest a non-violent solution. But if someone hits me hard and keeps coming at me, then surely Jesus would not object to me defending myself. To turn the cheek in a real fight would simply be crazy!” If pressed harder on this issue with a clear presentation of Jesus’ direct command, some are honest enough to say something like, “Well Jesus was the Son of God, and I’m only a sinful human being. So if someone hits me, I don’t care what Jesus said, I’m fighting back and asking for forgiveness later.” Only a loser would allow himself to be assaulted without some kind of retaliation.

The problem, of course, is that the passages being ignored or reinterpreted in service to the success culture are not merely ornamental, but rather absolutely essential to Christian faith and practice. More precisely, the logic and value system of the success culture is antithetical to the logic of the gospel. Indeed, even a cursory reading of the Sermon on the Mountain shows Jesus completely reversing the logic and value system of the success culture, effectively saying, “This is not only wrong—its wrongheaded! This will not only fail to deliver happiness but it will prevent you from seeing the true way of salvation and accelerate your journey down the highway to hell.” The success culture is all about acquiring, consolidating, and leveraging personal power to achieve self-determined goals (not least, security), and to do it in a way that will merit the praise, admiration, and respect of others perceived to be more powerful and successful than we—thereby increasing our power and positioning us for even more success. In stark contrast, the logic of the gospel can be found in Matthew 16:24-26: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” In our efforts to acquire and consolidate power to secure our interests and accomplish our self-determined goals, we lose our lives (even more so, not by failing but by accomplishing those goals) and become powerless to do anything about it. The only way to truly be saved is to completely abandon the quest for worldly success and totally surrender our lives to Jesus as Lord and Savior, a surrender that is so complete that it leads Paul to confess, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2: 19a-20b).

The power of success is characterized by willful grasping, while the power of the gospel is characterized as willing surrender.[3] The former is the way of conquest; the latter is the way of the cross. The former focuses on predetermined outcomes; the latter focuses on faithfulness. The former is self-defeating, self-destructive, and self-condemning; the latter—according to Jesus—is the way of salvation and abundant life.

I want to make this point as strongly as possible. Jesus does not say, “If you do all that I have commanded then you will be successful” (and in several passages he suggested the opposite). To assume this is absolutely to misunderstand his message. Everything Jesus teaches—the logic of his gospel—runs contrary to the vision of salvation promised by the success culture and the concomitant strategies that supposedly make it possible. But this logic and this culture are exactly what we are up against in the American church, and this raises a critical question: Is a Christianity that is co-opted and reinterpreted by the value system and logic of the success culture still rightly described as Christian at all? If not, then what is the way forward?

Conclusion: Questions for Conversation

I want to end my reflections by posing a few questions to academics and pastors alike.

In your research and experience, how is success defined in American culture? How does our pursuit of success shape and reinforce American culture? Does success have its own logic and value system?

To what extent has the American church been influenced or coopted by the culture of success? Does this lead to a reinterpretation of the vision and way of salvation as proclaimed by Jesus, and does it go so far as to undermine the logic of the gospel? What is the difference between success and abundant life?

What resources would help us clarify the problem, gain a more faithful understanding of the gospel, and deepen our relationship with Christ?

As we seek answers to these questions, let us remember the words of Paul: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)

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Notes:  

[1] Bible Symposium, “Reading Between the Lines: Recent Research on the Gospels and the Quest for the Historical Jesus,” Florida Southern College, 14 April 2016.

[2] The arguments in his lecture are more fully developed in John Dominic Crossan, How to Read the Bible the Bible & Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis to Revelation (HarperOne 2015).

[3] I first discovered this distinction between willful and willing ways-of-being-in-the-world in Gerald G. May, Will and Spirit: A Contemplative Psychology (HarperSanFrancisco 1982). However, it is assumed and taught by all contemplative Christian traditions.

 

Don’t Label Me! The Subtle Violence of Judgmentalism

No one likes to be labeled or reduced to a stereotype. But without even realizing it, we often experience a person and then cast him or her in a role that becomes the basis of all future interactions. The problem is that once we start thinking of John as a “bully” or Jane as a “manipulative person,” it’s difficult to relate to them in any other way.

This is particularly true with interactions that involve conflict. When someone gets angry with us, their natural human response is to look for reasons to legitimate their anger. This leads them to trace offending behavior back to some personality or character defect. In doing this, it is not uncommon for them to inadvertently hit-on one of our growing edges, which are undesirable ways of thinking or acting triggered by stress. In reality, these growing edges are fragments of our total person, and usually not characteristic of our normal ways of being and acting. However, in the hands of the offended these fragments are magnified into stereotypes that not only legitimate aggression but also provide a basis for writing someone off as a “difficult person.”

Stereotyping in this context is subtle form of violence and is highly effective at triggering guilt and shame because it’s a distortion of something we already know to be true about ourselves. When someone is looking for reasons to justify their anger toward us, they usually don’t fabricate things out of thin air. Rather, they hone-in on a small piece of who we are, something with which we already struggle, and magnify it in ways that eclipse all of the other aspects of our person. Since many people are not only aware of their growing edges but also deeply ashamed of them, when someone latches on to these undesirable traits and effectively says, “This sums-up the kind of person you are,” it can really hurt.  

In Christianity, this is a form of judgmentalism, something that Jesus sternly warns against: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:1-2). Some of Jesus’ most severe criticism was aimed at the religious leaders of his day who were driven by a judgmental spirit to condemn those who failed to meet their expectations. Going even further, Jesus also said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28).   

Clearly, judgmentalism is wrong, and when treated this way we face a twofold challenge. First, we must find ways to resist the label. This is not to say that we should actively deny our shortcomings through the power of positive thinking. We should be honest about our failings and work diligently to grow past them. But we should also actively resist any message that says, “This shortcoming defines who you are and makes you undesirable or defective.” The best way to combat this temptation is to make a list of scriptural affirmations that ground our identity in Christ, and meditate on these affirmations during times of prayer. For help in doing this, see my message, “Overcoming Insecurity.” In addition, we can surround ourselves with spiritually mature and emotionally healthy people who know us, love us, and focus on our strengths to inspire change. These are people who help us see our faults in the overarching context of grace and our progressive sanctification. This is an exercise in discernment: To whom should I listen?   

The second (and much more difficult) challenge is to not become that which we hate. Our natural response to judgmentalism, is to say, “What a jerk!” and then fantasize about (and even act on) ways to reestablish respect, dominance, or superiority. “I am not going to let anyone treat me like that!” If we are really honest with ourselves, all of us struggle with being judgmental, and it is much easier to see it in others than it is to see it in ourselves. While it is important to consider past interactions when making important decisions about present and future interactions, we cannot effectively combat judgmentalism with judgmentalism. In addition to resisting stereotypes, we also have to resist stereotyping and allow for the possibility of grace-empowered change. The only way that I know how to do this is by praying for people that I’m tempted to condemn or write-off. 

Whatever judgmentalism, labeling, and stereotyping you face today, remember to ground your identity in Christ and pray for those who mistreat you.

God Is Love: Understanding the Doctrine of the Trinity

The doctrine of the Trinity is the primary conception of God in Christianity, distinguishing it from other world religions, especially the strict monotheism of Judaism and Islam. While pointing to the deepest truth of Christian faith, it is also a divine mystery that is difficult to state adequately.

The purpose of this article is to present a helpful way of understanding the Trinity. As we contemplate the nature of God for the purpose of conceptual clarity, the mystery of the Trinity will not be resolved but deepened. If you finish reading this article and think to yourself, “Now I have it all figured out!” then I have failed you. While I intend to clarify the purpose and meaning of this central doctrine, I don’t want to mislead the reader into thinking that we can exhaustively grasp the being of God in human thought. God does reveal Godself in history, and we can trust that revelation, but we must also maintain intellectual humility in light of the qualitative distinction between God and human beings (i.e., God is the creator and we are the created).

Even though the Trinity is an essential teaching of the Christian faith, it is nowhere explicitly stated in the Bible, though some passages are suggestive (Matthew 3:16-17, 28:19; II Corinthians 13:14). Rather, the doctrine was officially formulated by leaders in the early church, especially at the first two general councils in Nicea (325) and Constantinople (381). Although the church drew some of its technical language from Greek philosophy, the doctrine was not developed to satisfy a penchant for esoteric philosophical reflection. It was carefully formulated in an effort to explicate the meaning of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ and the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Christians have always made three essential claims:

  • God is the transcendent creator.
  • God saves us in Jesus.
  • God sustains all of creation and leads it to ultimate fulfillment. 

Understanding the meaning of these three fundamental claims and how they hang together in a coherent way without lapsing into absurdity is what the Trinity is all about.

GOD IS THE TRANSCENDENT CREATOR

God is the creator of all that exists. There was a time when creation was not and there was only God. But God made a decision in eternity to create the world in love and freedom. Thus, God creates space for a genuine other to exist as a creature distinct from God. Then God releases the creative power of being into that space so that the world as we know it can emerge. In simplest terms, God creates the world and sets it free.

We find poetic accounts of creation in the Bible. Genesis 1:1-3 states:

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless  and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.”

When Christians read this passage, they tend to associate the term “God” with God the Father, but the attentive reader will also notice the presence of two other characters. First, we see the presence of God’s Spirit: “ . . . the Spirit (ruach) of God was hovering over the waters.” Second, we see the presence of God’s eternal Word: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” Anyone familiar with the prologue of the Gospel of John will notice a connection with this verse. Just as the first words of Genesis 1:1 are, “In the beginning . . .,” so it is with the first verse of John’s gospel:

“In the beginning was the Word (logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” (John 1:1-3)

The gospel continues, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Clearly, the author of John is drawing an explicit connection between God’s eternal Word and Jesus Christ. Thus, Christians find it fitting to claim that the Father creates the world through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit, and does so as the one transcendent source of life. In the poetic language of scripture, God creates the world and reigns over it from heaven above. God transcends the world as its creator.

GOD SAVES US IN JESUS

At the same time we say that God is Creator, we also say that God is Redeemer. God creates the world and sets it free in love, but God also enters that world to personally encounter us in Jesus Christ. When Christians talk about God sending Jesus, they are not saying that Jesus is merely a wise prophet or heavenly messenger. Rather, they are saying that God looked down upon the suffering of creation, had compassion, and resolved to become a human being to save the world from sin, evil, and death.

Christians believe that only God can save, but they also claim to experience salvation in Jesus. Therefore, God must in some sense be fully present to humanity in Jesus. Returning to the Gospel of John, we read: “In the beginning was the Word (logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1). The Greek term translated “Word” is logos, which connotes knowledge, wisdom, reason, and revelation. The author of John uses this term to refer to God’s mind, heart, character, will, and creative power. When he goes on to say in verse 14, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us . . .” he is making the outlandish claim that God’s heart, mind, reason, logic, and will was incarnate (literally, “enfleshed”) in the man Jesus of Nazareth. This is why he can go on to say, “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God . . .” (1:18). Jesus is recorded as saying in John 14:9, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9). In light of such passages, Christians believe that Jesus embodies the eternal Word of God. God reveals Godself to humanity in Jesus. The invisible God become visible in Christ.

Since Jesus is the incarnation of God’s eternal Word, whose glory we have seen as “the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father,” we can say that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19). Since God is fully present to us in Christ, Jesus has the power to save. A messenger can tell us about salvation and even inspire hope for salvation, but only God can accomplish our salvation. And this is what Christians claim about Jesus, that God acts decisively in his life, death, and resurrection to save the world.

When contemplating God’s saving work in Jesus, it seems fitting to focus on the work of God the Son. But in a way similar to the creation accounts in Genesis, the New Testament stories of Jesus include the presence of three divine characters: The Father, the Son, and the Spirit. Consider, for example, the baptism of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew:

“As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’” (3:16-17)

Indeed, throughout the gospel accounts Jesus is always accompanied by the Father and the Spirit, and this leads to another threefold claim: The Father saves us through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. All three work together as one God in perfect love and unity to accomplish the salvation of the world.

In summary, Christians not only claim that God reigns over the world as its transcendent creator, but also that God encounters humanity in Jesus Christ and works decisively through him to save the world from sin, evil, and death.

GOD SUSTAINS CREATION AND LEADS THE WORLD TO ITS ULTIMATE FULFILLMENT

In addition to creating and redeeming the world, God also sustains the world by his Spirit. God creates the world and sets it free, but then floods the world with his life-giving presence. The Spirit of God is the energy by which all things exist, and if God were to withdrawal his presence (even for an instant) then it would vanish into thin air. As we read in Acts 17:28: “For in him we live and move and have our being.” This is what Christians mean when they say that God is omnipresent—God’s powerful presence saturates the entire created order. There is literally no place where the Spirit of God is not. In addition, we claim that God is constantly working through the Holy Spirit to open the hearts and minds of human beings to faith and love, and to bring the entire creation to its full completion. The Holy Spirit woos us in love toward reconciliation with God and lures all of creation toward its ultimate fulfillment.

Importantly, the Holy Spirit is not some kind of impersonal or unconscious energy that we might find in some New Age circles. Nor is the Spirit an independent, quasi-divine power. According to scripture, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus sent by the Father and the Son to continue and complete the work of Christ as we await the new creation. Thus, Christians find it difficult to talk about the Spirit without also talking about the Father and the Son.

THE CENTRAL QUESTION

Now we arrive at the heart of the matter: How do all three of these claims hang together in a coherent way without lapsing into absurdity? Christians experience the presence of God as the one who creates, redeems, and sustains, and we experience God in these ways all at the same time. It’s not as if God ceases to reign over creation when God acts decisively to save the world in Jesus. It’s not as if God stops saving us in Jesus in order to fill all creation with his sustaining presence. Rather, we say that God reigns from heaven as Creator, and at the very same time acts decisively in Jesus to save us, and at the very same time fills the entire creation with his sustaining presence. This is how we experience the fullness of God’s revelation in Jesus, and the only meaningful way to talk about this is to talk about the Trinity.

According to the doctrine of the Trinity, there is only one God, but this one God is revealed to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God confronts us in Jesus Christ as the eternal Son. But God is also apprehended as the Father who sends the Son and to whom the Son points. And God is also known as the Holy Spirit who sustains the world, opens the hearts and minds of human beings in faith, and leads the world to its ultimate completion. The words “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit,” point to one God, but we cannot properly think or speak about this one God except by thinking and speaking about all three at the same time.

FROM ECONOMIC TO IMMANENT TRINITY

An important final point is that God does not lie or deceive. If God reveals Godself as triune, then God is triune. We don’t say, “Well this is how we, from a human perspective, see and experience God, which requires us to think and speak about God as Father, Son, or Holy Spirit. But God could be different in and of Godself.” While Christians are careful to acknowledge the limitations of their theological language, they absolutely refuse to accept that there could be a different God behind the God we see in Jesus. To use the language of scripture, the God we worship in heaven is the same God we encounter in Christ and the activity of the Holy Spirit.

This means that there is relationality in God! As the Cappadocian Fathers recognized, there is a sense in which the one God we worship is constituted by a community of self-giving love. God (in-and-of-Godself) is the eternal self-giving love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. What makes the Father the Father is his eternal self-giving love to the Son and the Spirit. What makes the Son the Son is his eternal self-giving love to the Father and the Spirit. What makes the Holy Spirit the Holy Spirit is his eternal self-giving love to the Father and the Son. What makes God one is the eternal, self-giving love that continuously flows and unifies the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. This is the deep meaning of the claim, God is love (1 John 4:8)

CONCLUSION

For Christians, to say that God is love is to say that God is triune. To say that God creates is to say that God is triune. To say that God saves is to say that God is triune. To say that God sustains creation is to say that God is triune. To say that God is one is to say that God is triune. One reason that the doctrine of the Trinity is so important to Christians is because it contains in itself the entire story of God’s activity in the world and reveals what kind of God we serve—a God that is love.

 

To watch the sermon on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o2QK_LdXbls  

If you liked this post, then you might also like “Salvation in the Wesleyan Tradition: Grace Upon Grace.”

Overcome

Do you struggle with insecurity, fear, shame, or discouragement? If so, check out my last message series, Overcome. The series was developed in conversation with a book by Steven Furtick, Crash the Chatterbox. The messages used scripture to show you how to find freedom from negative and self-destructive thoughts. When circumstances challenge your identity as a beloved child of God, remember what God says about you in his word. I hope these teachings bless you as much as they have blessed me!

The audio of all these messages are also available on iTunes.

The Obligations of Courageous Love: A Pastor’s Response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Introduction: Understanding the Crisis

What would compel you abandon your home and all your possessions? What would make you leave your career, friends, and family to walk 800 miles through dangerous terrain with little money and food? This would be like walking from Orlando, Florida to Washington, D.C, and if you covered twenty-five miles a day it would take you more than a month. Imagine having to sleep under a tree with your children on the side of the road.

Child Sleep on Ground

What would compel you to pay a smuggler $1000 a person to cram your family on a small raft to float across 200 miles of shark infested, choppy water, knowing that approximately 500 people have already drowned making the journey, including several children.

Why would any sane person leave everything behind for this kind of deadly journey, knowing that if they are caught leaving they could be executed as traitors? Well, what if your own government started dropping barrel bombs on your neighborhood, blowing-up houses and burning your neighbors alive. What if your own government poisoned your city with chemical weapons in an act of mass murder? What if members of your family were abducted and tortured for having divergent political or religious views? What if you saw a heavily armed group of men wearing black masks saw off the head of a child with a dull machete, or women being kidnapped to serve as sex slaves for these same men? What if members of your Bible study were burned alive in cages simply because they were Christians? What if brutalizing torture, mass executions, and perpetual civil war became the norm in your neighborhood? My guess is that you would flee for safety too.

These are the kinds of things that are happening to the innocent people we call refugees, many of whom are women, children, disabled, and elderly. These people are not terrorists, they are victims of terrorism.

Massive numbers of traumatized people have poured into Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey. The United Nations and World Food program were not prepared for a refugee crisis on this scale, and in certain areas this has led to over-crowded refugee camps where people are suffering from hunger, exposure, and disease. These conditions have led many to seek refuge in Europe, but Europe was not prepared for this kind of crisis either.

Estimates as high as 7.6 million people are refuges in Syria (they are displaced in their own country) and 3,800,000 are children! To put this in perspective, we could take all these kids and fill Tropicana Field to its maximum occupancy almost 100 times! In addition to those displaced within Syria, over three million have fled to neighboring countries and Europe. This is roughly the equivalent of the entire population of Chicago, Illinois. The picture below might give us an inkling of the kind of numbers we are talking about.

3 million people

Western Europe is being overwhelmed by this crisis. Turkey has received more than two million refugees, and Greece was flooded with 5,500 people on a single day. (At this rate, Greece receives more refugees in two days than America has pledged to receive over the course of a year). Many of these people are being resettled in Germany, and even France—a country that just endured a massive terrorist attack—has pledge to receive an additional 30,000 Syrian refugees in the next two to three years. However, even as the European countries pull together, they simply do not have the resources to deal with a humanitarian crisis on this scale.

This is why the United Nations is asking America to help, and our initial pledge is to receive 10,000 Syrian refugees. This less than 1/3 of 1% of the people who need help!

Fear and the Screening Process

In light of the recent terrorist attack in Paris, many Americans have recoiled in fear. They are worried that if we allow these refugees into our country, terrorists might slip through the cracks undetected and plan attacks the homeland from within. But there is strong evidence to suggest that the potential threats driving our darkest fears are being drastically exaggerated by misinformation. The worst offenders are those seeking political gain in an approaching election year.

Many who are trying to slow or halt the entrance of displaced Syrian (and Iraqi) people are claiming that the majority of those applying for refugee status are young men without families, those considered “combat age.” This is patently false. According to the United Nations, most of the applicants are women and children. While approximately 20% are men between the ages of 18 and 59 (many of whom are fathers protecting their families), 51% are under 16 years old or younger, and 38.5 percent are 11 years old or younger. (FactCheck.org). Indeed, of the 2,165 Syrian refugees already admitted to the U.S., only 2% have been military-aged males unattached to families.

Other people are claiming that the U.S. has an inadequate screening process for receiving refugees and are trying to pass a new bill in Congress to make it more stringent. But this is also not true. It might surprise many people to know that the U.S. government handpicks the refugees invited to resettle in America. To date, the U.N. has referred 23,092 Syrian refugees to the U.S. After extensive screening outside of our country, 7,014 were granted into our screening process, and only 2,165 were received (Refugee Processing Center/U.S. Department of State).

This careful selection of refugees is done by applying the most rigorous, multilayered screening process in the world that includes the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, Department of Defense and numerous intelligence agencies. The screening not only includes extensive background checks, but also biometric and forensic testing, medical screenings, and multiple in-person interviews. This process takes 18-24 months to complete and is the most painstaking difficult way to enter the U.S. For more information see the infographic on whitehouse.gov and outline of the process on nytimes.com.

It is much easier to enter our country through the visa program or on a European passport. Most experts say that this is the real threat. The screening process to get a visa is less rigorous than that required to be granted refugee status. In fact, the U.S. has a visa waiver program with 38 countries. People from these countries can enter the U.S. on a passport as long as they leave the country within 90 days. This means that if ISIS wanted to dispatch a terrorist to America, they would not instruct a mole to apply for refugee status, but rather to apply for a student visa to study at the University of Florida or to enter the country on a European passport under the guise of a tourist. Keep in mind that all of the terrorists in the attack on Paris were French and Belgium nationals.

It is also important to note that our current vetting process has an excellent track record. Since 9/11 approximately 785,000 refugees have settle in the U.S. and many were from the Middle East:

  • 127,657 Iraq
  • 10,983 Afghanistan
  • 2,165    Syria

Only twelve (.001%) have been arrested or sent back because of terrorism related charges (and none were Syrian). Our existing screening process is extremely effective, and it enables us to focus our efforts on the most vulnerable refugees: women, children, survivors of torture, and those with severe medical conditions.

Given these facts, I am deeply disappointed some of our politicians—both Democrat and Republican—who are exploiting our worst fears by spreading misinformation or telling outright lies for political gain. 56% of the U.S. population thinks we should refuse the refugees because of fear generated by lack of information. I am also deeply sadden by how many Christians believe the first thing they hear on the television and quickly sacrifice their faith on the altar of politics.

But even if you are not convinced by the facts outlined above, even if you are genuinely fearful that receiving additional refugees would increase our risk of admitting a handful of terrorists, this is still not a good enough reason to turn these desperate people away . . . at least if you are Christian.

Courageous Love and Risky Faith

God commands us not to make moral decisions based on fear, but on the law of love. Recall the greatest commandment according to Jesus:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

Those who follow Jesus make moral decisions based on love of God and neighbor, and according to 1 John 4:18-20 this kind of love casts out fear:

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear . . . We love because He first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.”

This is why one of the most repeated phrases in scripture is “Do not fear,” and to make moral decisions based on fear is to be disobedient to God. Fear should never take precedence over faithful obedience.

Consider the difference between cowardice and courage. Cowards experience fear and then compromise their values secure their own interests. To the contrary, courageous people experience fear and do the right thing anyway, even if that requires self-sacrifice and risk! The call of discipleship is to follow Jesus wherever he leads, even when he leads us into dangerous territory to help desperate people.

Even a cursory reading of the Bible shows that God often gives people dangerous and scary missions. The mission God gave Paul led to multiple incarcerations, immense suffering, and repeated exposures to death (2 Corinthians 11:24-27). Others paid the ultimate price. The mission God gave Jesus got him crucified, and the continuation of this mission got ten of the twelve apostles executed, along with many in the early church. As historians remind us, the soil of Christianity was watered by the blood of the martyrs. Indeed, Christians of every generation have suffered horribly for their faith, including many people in the Middle East today. So why do we deserve an exemption from the dangers and risks of discipleship? Remember the words of Jesus in in John 15:20: “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” Following Jesus has always been the way of the cross. Crosses are scary. They are neither comfortable nor secure.

The main point is that Christians should not make moral decisions based on fear. Rather, we make decisions based on what God says to us through a faithful interpretation of scripture that is grounded in the law of love, and we are obedient to what we hear even when it puts us at risk—even when we are scared.

In there anything in your faith that is worth sacrificing your security? Jesus seems to think there is: What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Matthew 16:26). Passages like this make us uncomfortable because they remind us of a final judgement in which we will be held accountable by Jesus Christ—not our governors, not our congressmen, not fear-mongering political pundits, but Jesus Christ.

Care for Widows, Orphans, and Strangers

So what does the Lord require of us in response to the refugee crisis? I believe that God is calling us to help. From Genesis to Revelation, there are numerous commands given by God to love and care for strangers, foreigners, immigrants, and refugees. Consider the following examples:

  • Deuteronomy 10:17-19: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (The Hebrew word translated “stranger” is nokri and refers to the alien or foreigner.)
  • Deuteronomy 27:19: “Cursed is he who distorts the justice due an alien, orphan, and widow. And all the people shall say Amen.
  • Leviticus 19:34:The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.
  • Malachi 3:5: “Then I will draw near to you for judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.”

These Old Testament passages (and many more not mentioned) are grounded in Israel’s experience as a displaced and refugee people. The primary example, of course, is the Exodus. God hears the desperate cries of the Hebrew people, sends Moses to rescue them from slavery and oppression, and leads them through the wilderness for forty years as a refugee people. Israel was displaced again when they were taken into exile by the Babylonians, and again after Rome conquered the Holy Land. For most of its history, Israel has been a pilgrim, exiled, oppressed, or refugee people, and this is why they repeatedly insist in their scriptures that God commands us to offer compassionate care and hospitality to widows, orphans, foreigners, and refugees.

In addition to the overwhelming evidence in the Old Testament, we see the same spirit of compassionate hospitality commanded in the New Testament. In Romans 12:13, Paul instructs the church to contribute to the needs of the saints, and to “extend hospitality to strangers.” James 1:27 states that true religion is “to look after orphans and widows in their distress . . .” Hebrews 13:1-2 says, “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

Jesus of Nazareth began his life as a Middle Eastern refugee. In Matthew 2:13-15 we read about Mary and Joseph fleeing with the new born child as refugees trying to escape the infanticide of King Herod. They continued to live as refugees in Egypt until Herod died. Once Jesus started his earthy ministry, he wandered around as an itinerant preacher dependent on the hospitality of strangers. Jesus says in Luke 9:58, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” His entire ministry was about loving, including, elevating, and showing compassion to the most vulnerable and outcast in society: women, children, lepers, cripples, the blind and deaf, prostitutes, tax collectors, and even Samaritans.

Indeed, one of the clearest teachings on this subject comes from Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. You remember the story: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.” Both a priest and a Levite (religious people) saw the man in desperate need but “passed by on the other side.” They didn’t do anything to actively harm this man, they just refused to help. But a despised Samaritan stopped and helped the person that the others left to die. Jesus asks, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” Answer: “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.” The moral of the story is simple: love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself, understanding that your neighbor is any human being in serious need. (For more on this parable see my message, “The Splendid Samaritan: Overcoming Tribalism”)

An equally powerful teaching comes from Matthew 25:31-46. Speaking of the final judgement, Jesus tells a parable about God separating people into two groups, the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. To the goats he says, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in . . .” The teaching is clear: if we fail to care for those in desperate need we fail Jesus.

Conclusion

We have to find a way to help these people, and not only because we will be held accountable to Jesus for the way we treat “the least of these,” but also because we have a wonderful opportunity to be who we say we are—to show the love of Christ to the friends of Jesus who are in desperate need. While we do not want to glorify senseless suffering, the Christian martyrs teach us that sometimes Christ calls his disciples to suffer, and that suffering in name of Jesus is not something to be shunned as obscene but embraced as honorable. We should never forget that the world is watching, and today we have an opportunity to bear witness to the truth of the gospel by compassionate words and actions.

I can guarantee that the evil powers and principalities in this world want you to bow down to fear, worship security, and do nothing. ISIS wants America to cower before them in fear, to compromise the values we so loudly preach to others, and do nothing. But Jesus is calling you to act with courageous love and risky faith.

This is what it means to be a Christian: to live a courageous faith in radical obedience to God in accordance with the self-sacrificial love of Jesus, which includes the enemy and exhibits a special concern for the most vulnerable around the world. Being a Christian means seeing God in the face of the needy and responding with compassion.   

GET INVOLVED! 

There are several things you can do to help:

  • Get Educated: Don’t believe the first thing you hear on the television. Take a break from the partisan news cycle and try to get the facts from reputable, non-partisan sources.
  • Pray every day for these people and ask God, “What do you want me to do?”
  • Donate money to reputable relief agencies:
            The United Nations Refugee Agency
            Church World Service
           UNICEF
  • Volunteer: In central Florida, call The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo (813-679-4982) or Coptic Orthodox Charities (727-785-3551) and ask how you can help.
  • Speak Out on social media by educating others about the facts and calling for compassion.
  • Sign Petitions
  • Call your governor and your representatives in congress (1-866-961-4293) and tell them: “I’m a constituent from (City/State) and I support the resettlement of Syrian refugees. I urge the Governor / Senator / Representative to represent me and other constituents who seek to welcome Syrian refugees.”

I leave you with these last words from the one we call Lord and Savior: “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Whatever you do, for Christ’s sake, do something!

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy:

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All Reading Is Interpretation: The Application of Perspective in Biblical Meaning

This is the fifth essay in a collection entitled, A Course in Understanding the Bible. The full collection is organized as follows:

  1. The Bible is Not Infallible: Destabilizing Plenary Inspiration
  2. Going Fishing with Grandpa and Learning to Tell the Truth
  3. God Did Not Write the Bible: The Formation of Scripture
  4. Why the Bible is Important to Christians: Rethinking Scripture and Inspiration
  5. All Reading Is Interpretation: The Application of Perspective in Biblical Meaning

The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed an idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of a doubt, what is laid before him” (Leo Tolstoy).

Have you ever read a book a second time only to discover something new that escaped you the first time? New meanings emerge, but the book is the same and you are looking through the same eyes. What’s different? Over time, you had a vast array of new experiences that altered your horizon of understanding, generating new interpretative possibilities and evoking fresh insights. What changed is your perspective.

This strange experience of reading with “new eyes” gestures toward an important principle in philosophical hermeneutics: all reading is interpretation. The meaning of a piece of writing is “not an automatic and unproblematic exercise of deciphering a set of consistently identical signs on paper in front of us” (Werner Jeanrond, Theological Hermeneutics, 1). The meaning of a text is not objective and self-evident, as if any well-intended reader could easily discover “the right meaning.”

When talking about the Bible, some people argue the contrary. They claim to have easily discovered the correct meaning of a passage with a simple, literal reading. No interpretation is necessary, only common sense. “Look!” they say, “The meaning is plain as day, right there in black and white.” But this naïve, uneducated, and highly personalized approach is shallow, misguided, and dangerous.

To the contrary, hermeneutics helps us understand that the meaning of a text (including the Bible) is not an objective fact waiting to be discovered like a quarter under a couch cushion. Rather, meaning is something that is created when our minds interact with a text. Simply put, meaning is an event. Since the meaning of a text emerges through the application of a particular perspective, it is important to remember that our perspective is always limited.

So what shapes our perspective? An extensive list is beyond the scope of this article, so a few general examples will have to suffice. First, we might consider how a wide range of formative experiences in early childhood influence how we see the world, especially in our family of origin. It would also include our education, both secular and religious, and how this influences our views on things like politics, morality, and religion. Our perspective is also shaped by the way we see ourselves and others in relation to gender, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, age, and sexual orientation, as well as the way the dominant culture interprets and assigns value to such identifiers. When it comes to interpreting sacred texts, our past and present experiences in a community of faith will generate various “pre-understandings” that must also be taken into account. For example, before we ever start reading the Bible on our own, most of us begin with a particular image of God and a wide range of assumptions about what the text could possibly mean and how it should be interpreted. These pre-understandings usually come through the inculcation of religious traditions in a specific community of faith, but they can also be acquired through the absorption of cultural stereotypes. Regardless, these pre-understandings serve to highlight and privilege certain interpretive possibilities, while obscuring and repressing others.

The main point is that a wide range of continuous experiences generate innumerable interpretive filters and pre-understandings that come together to create a person’s limited perspective. This perspective provides a world-view that functions like a pair of glasses through which we see everything, including our sacred texts and traditions. When different perspectives interact with a text, different meanings emerge. So, a twenty-three year old Columbian woman living in extreme poverty will interpret the Bible differently than a wealthy, white, fifty-five year old American man. They will focus on different passages and, in some cases, discern divergent meanings.

Since meaning is an event that happens when different people’s perspectives interact with a given text, multiple meanings are possible. Texts are polyvalent. While we are not entirely enslaved to our own perspectives (see below), no one can achieve a perspective-less God’s eye view. This does not mean that interpretation is a free-for-all in which we can make a text say anything we want. When it come to the Christian Bible, there are interpretive boundaries established by the community of faith, by the academic disciplines of Biblical studies and theology, and by common sense. But firmly grasping the role of perspective in the event of meaning and the polyvalent nature of all texts will help keep us humble in our interpretation.

One of the biggest dangers for religious people is forgetting that they are reading with a pair of interpretive glasses, that they are reading through a worldview constituted by a complex set of interpretive filters and pre-understandings. If we are not even aware that we are interpreting through a particular perspective then we unwittingly become a slave to the limitations and dangers of that perspective and foreclose on the possibility of deeper and more transformational meaning. Henceforth, anything we can do to become more aware of our interpretive filters and pre-understandings will encourage humility, expand our horizon of understanding, and hopefully evoke fresh insights that will make us more faithful interpreters of the Bible. The best way to do this is to read the Bible in conversation with others, especially those who are different!

One important conversation is between the reader and the author(s) of the text. Anyone who has engaged in the academic discipline of Biblical studies knows that the contemporary reader does not have direct access to the original intent and audience of the author. These must be tentatively reconstructed using tools provided by multiple disciplines like archaeology, history, ancient languages, literary and form criticism, and cultural studies. This attempt to determine what an author was trying to communicate to the original audience is the work of exegesis, and (since this is reconstructive work) it too requires interpretation.

While historical-criticism does not operate on the basis of certainty, much can be learned about the ancient world, the perspective of the author, the context of the original audience, and the message being communicated. As those who live on the other side of the Enlightenment, the perspective of the author and intended audience will be very different from ours. Acknowledging these important differences allows us to distance ourselves from our own interpretive filters so we can listen to the text on its own terms. While we never do this perfectly (because we cannot completely escape our own perspective), to a certain extent we can resist the urge to blindly project our own modern presuppositions on ancient texts, effectively collapsing the radically different worldviews of the author and contemporary reader. In hermeneutics, this is known as distanciation. We can provisionally bracket our own presuppositions and allow the text to speak to us as a genuine other in ways that will illuminate, challenge, and even change our interpretive filters, as well as broaden our horizon of understanding.

In addition, Christians believe that God somehow works through this interpretive conversation with the Bible to speak to us in transformative ways. God can and does speak to us through the kind of scholarly exegesis described above, but God also speaks to us in more devotional readings of scripture, like the ancient practice of lectio divina. Indeed, both of these approaches are important as we seek to understand the Bible and encounter God through it. (See my article, “Shaped By Scripture: Two Different Ways of Reading the Bible.”) As God speaks to us in and through the interaction of our perspective with the Bible, it becomes the Word of God in the power of the Holy Spirit. This encounter with the Word can illuminate, challenge, shape, and even alter our interpretive filters in ways that broaden our horizon of understanding and allow us deeper access to divine truth. This is at least part of the process by which we mature in the faith and grow in wisdom. The more spiritually mature the reader, the more faithful the interpretation. This is why the Bible should also be read in conversation with spiritual directors and teachers who have become wise through contemplation.

It is also important to read the Bible in conversation with the larger Christian tradition, both synchronically and diachronically. Gaining more knowledge about how Christians have interpreted the Bible in different ways over the course of 2,000 years will help surface and evolve our interpretive filters, as will contemporary conversations with other Christians around the globe who occupy very different perspectives. We not only ask how Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Wesley interpreted the Bible, but also how Christians in Africa, South America, and Asia interpret the text today. We study the history of Christianity but also Latin American Liberation Theology, Black Theology, Feminist and Womanist Theology, and Minjung Theology, all of which confirm the added benefit of conversations with philosophy and critical-theory. One could also argue the benefit of reading in conversation with people of other religious traditions. A great example of this is the interreligious dialogue between Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh.

Again, it should be clear that we don’t have to be slaves to a narrow and shallow interpretive framework. While our reading is always perspectival, our perspective can evolve and deepen over time by disciplined engagement in the various kinds of conversations mentioned above. One way of understanding this truth is by reference to the hermeneutical spiral.

Hermeneutical Spiral

As you can see in the diagram above, we start with pre-understandings that give us an interpretive framework for understanding the text. As we practice distanciation by bracketing our presuppositions, we allow the text to speak to us as a genuine other in the interpretive process. New insights emerge that are appropriated and assimilated in ways that transform our pre-understandings.

In conclusion, the purpose of this article is to destabilize the idea that textual meaning is a neutral, univocal, and static object that is passively waiting to be discovered by a well-intended reader. I am also trying to destabilize the idea of reading as a literal one-to-one correspondence between the human mind and printed words on a page. Taken together, I am criticizing what Merold Westphal calls “cognitive transubstantiation” and emphasizing the importance of interpretive humility. Furthermore, by sharing some key insights in philosophical hermeneutics, we have seen how important it is to be aware of our own perspective and to read sacred texts in conversation with others so that our interpretive filters can evolve and our horizon of understanding can be expanded.

The faithful interpretation of scripture is a life-long process, and our hope is that as we continue to grow in this regard that the Bible will continue to be a narrative space where we can encounter the risen Christ and be conformed to his image.

(Image Source: http://www.metanexus.net/essay/entangled-narratives)

Why the Bible Is Important to Christians: Rethinking Scripture and Inspiration (Course in Understanding the Bible)

This is the fourth essay in a collection entitled, A Course in Understanding the Bible. The full collection is organized as follows:

  1. The Bible is Not Infallible: Destabilizing Plenary Inspiration
  2. Going Fishing with Grandpa and Learning to Tell the Truth
  3. God Did Not Write the Bible: The Formation of Scripture
  4. Why the Bible is Important to Christians: Rethinking Scripture and Inspiration
  5. All Reading Is Interpretation: The Application of Perspective in Biblical Meaning

_________________________________________

Once we relinquish the illusion of biblical infallibility and study the process of traditioning that led to the development of the Christian canon (see “The Bible is Not Infallible” and “God Did Not Write the Bible“), we are faced with an important question: Is there a meaningful way to continue talking about the inspiration of scripture? I believe that the answer to this question is yes, and in what follows I offer a brief sketch of what this might look like.

What It Means to Call The Bible Scripture.  In the most basic sense of the term, scripture refers to a collection of writings that are normative for the church because they bear witness to the founding revelatory events on which the Christian tradition is based and to which it refers. While Christians trace their history through ancient Israel, they proclaim that the paradigmatic revelation of God happened in Jesus of Nazareth. So while the Old Testament is an indispensable part of the Christian Bible, the New Testament is given priority in Christian faith and practice because it focuses on this paradigmatic event. Furthermore, these normative texts function to perpetuate Christian faith and discipleship from one generation to another by preserving the memory of these originative events.

What It Means to Say That the Bible Is Inspired.  When we say that the Bible is inspired, we mean at least two things. First, we mean that the Spirit of God inspired people in ancient Israel and the early church to deeply reflect on personal and communal experiences of redemptive transformation and to preserve and communicate these reflections through oral and written traditions. Furthermore, we proclaim that the Spirit of God was at work in the traditioning process by which the Bible came to be to give future generations trustworthy testimony about God’s saving power in the world. Such a claim does not require one to believe that God bypassed or destroyed the humanity of the authors in miraculous interventions during composition. Rather, we might think of God’s activity as a creative, inspiring, guiding, and directing power that lured the authors toward certain insights and expressive ideals. While the documents that constitute the Bible were clearly written by human beings and share in the limitations of the cultures in which they were produced, we believe that they tell the truth about the human condition and God’s redemptive power in this world. Just as God did not have to dispense with the humanity of Jesus to bring us salvation, but worked in, with, and through his humanity to accomplish this purpose, so God does not have to dispense with the humanity of the biblical authors to ensure trustworthy testimony. This is at least part of what Christians mean when they say that the Bible is inspired. (For more on this subject, see the third essay in this collection, “God Did Not Write the Bible: The Formation of Scripture.”)

The second reason Christians say that the Bible is inspired is because we believe that God continues to use this collection of writings to evoke fresh disclosures of God and to mediate new experiences of redemptive transformation. In the power of the Holy Spirit, these texts not only tell stories of redemption in the past, but mediate redemption in the present. They become transparent to the presence and power they describe. As we read these stories of redemption and experience it for ourselves in the process, the trustworthiness of these texts is confirmed. We don’t trust the Bible because it is dictated by God to passive secretaries that are given the miraculous gift of infallible communication (see “The Bible is Not Infallible”). Nor do we claim that these texts are truthful because they constitute a compendium of inerrant scientific, historical, and moral facts (See “Going Fishing with Grandpa and Learning to Tell the Truth”). No, we trust these texts and the God revealed in and through them because they mediate the same kind of redemptive transformation that they describe.

So what do we mean when we say that the Bible is inspired? We mean that God worked in and through the telling and retelling, writing and rewriting, interpretation and reinterpretation of this collection of writings so that future generations would have faithful testimony of God’s saving power in Israel and the early church, testimony that the Spirit of God continues to use to mediate new experiences of redemption for the ongoing transformation of human life and community toward the ideals of the Kingdom of God.

The Bible Is Not Infallible: Destabilizing Plenary Inspiration (Course in Understanding the Bible)

This is the first essay in a collection entitled, A Course in Understanding the Bible. The full collection is organized as follows:

  1. The Bible is Not Infallible: Destabilizing Plenary Inspiration
  2. Going Fishing with Grandpa and Learning to Tell the Truth
  3. God Did Not Write the Bible: The Formation of Scripture
  4. Why the Bible is Important to Christians: Rethinking Scripture and Inspiration
  5. All Reading Is Interpretation: The Application of Perspective in Biblical Meaning

_____________________________

Who Can Argue with God? 

Have you ever disagreed with someone about a complex moral issue only to have them dismiss your perspective with simplistic Bible quotations? I had this experience recently after an interview on a local Christian radio station. When my thirty minute spot was over, the host invited me to stay and meet the pastor scheduled for the following segment. A few minutes later, a man wearing a big smile and hipster clothes enter the studio and cracked a joke in reference to the group of people that would be the subject of his one hour talk—homosexuals. His joking demeanor quickly turned angry as he derided Christians who were not throwing down the gauntlet in vehement, public condemnation of the Supreme Court decision granting marriage equality to gay and lesbian people. He even singled out evangelical pastor, T.D. Jakes, saying that he was “more black than Christian” when he voted for Obama, and that his “soft” public response to the court’s ruling showed that he was more interested in “padding his wallet” than telling the truth about homosexuality.

I was sincerely ashamed by the divisive tone of this pastor, which was fortified by ideological politics and a naïve understanding of the inspiration of scripture. I did not want to be associated with this conversation and planned to leave during the first commercial break. But before I could exit, the guest pastor asked me what I thought about this issue. Experience has taught me that arguing with people who already think they have God’s definitive answer is an exercise in futility. So I simply replied that many Christians wrestle with this issue and arrive at different conclusions. He responded by asking how someone could claim to be a Christian and not believe what is clearly written in God’s word.

Like many people who have been influenced by various strands of American fundamentalism, this pastor assumed that he was simply reciting the literal, infallible, inerrant Word of God. He was not expressing his view but God’s view, and there was no possibility that he could be wrong. Anyone offering an alternative interpretation was contradicting the very mind of God and corrupting the Christian faith with selfish motives. This Pastor did not understand himself to be an interpreter of scripture in service to the community of faith, but as a spokesman for God almighty. His claims were not only devoid of spiritual humility, but were also ironic insofar as they assumed a theory of inspiration that is not required by scripture. As this pastor claimed unmediated access to the infallible word of God, he was unaware of the interpretive glasses resting on his nose that were fashioned not by God but by nineteenth-century American theologians like Charles Hodge.

This article is not about homosexuality, it is about the inspiration of scripture. My goal is to destabilize plenary verbal inspiration and claims of biblical infallibility in order to make room for an alternative view (which will be articulated in subsequent articles). I will proceed by giving a brief history of this doctrine as articulated by one of its staunchest defenders, Charles Hodge, and then offer some general observations that raise serious questions about biblical inerrancy. Although both parts of the article make important points in support of the main argument, part two can be read independently by those not interested in the history of the doctrine at issue.

Part I: A Brief History of Plenary Inspiration in the Theology of Charles Hodge

During the seventeen and eighteenth centuries, groundbreaking discoveries in geology, evolutionary biology, and historical criticism challenged some of the church’s teachings about the Bible. At a more philosophical level, devastating critiques were leveled by intellectual powerhouses like Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud. In light of such challenges, the dominant trend of Protestant theology in the nineteenth-century was inherently subjective. According to this trend, human access to the divine comes in and through human experience. Examples of this can be found in the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Horace Bushnell. The general orientation of these theologians in relationship to philosophy and science was one of engagement. Their goal was to generate fresh interpretations of Christianity that were intellectually honest in the context of an emerging critical consciousness.

However, there were a minority of theologians who were suspicious of this subjective turn. They argued that this approach inevitably led to the triumph of human reason over biblical and confessional authority, which could be seen in the development of theistic rationalism and the emotional religion of American revivalism. In light of these concerns, scholastic Protestant theologians focused on securing their religious dogma from threats issued by philosophy and science, especially historical-criticism. Instead of a posture of engagement, they sought to defend their traditions by (ironically) turning inward to provincial confessions of faith, which they assumed would ground their theology in objective truth. One of their main apologetic strategies in this endeavor was to develop a theory of inspiration that endowed the Bible with infallibility. This brief historical survey will focus on Princeton theologian, Charles Hodge, because his theory of plenary verbal inspiration became axiomatic in the development of American fundamentalism, and because the central ideas of his theory continue to shape the interpretation of scripture in fundamentalist and evangelical churches today.

I do not assume that Charles Hodge was the first person to claim biblical infallibility. This general idea was implicit in the early church fathers and developed more fully by Reformers like John Calvin. But a few important points should be considered before we jump to the false conclusion that the church universal has always embraced the theory articulated by Hodge. First, while the general idea of biblical infallibility might be implicit in what Edward Farley and Peter Hodgson describe as “the scripture principle,” the Bible itself does not require us to accept a theory of plenary inspiration (Hodgson and King, Christian Theology: An Introduction to Its Traditions and Tasks, 66).  In fact, the prophetic traditions in scripture can be appropriated to raise serious questions about any theory claiming perfect knowledge of the mind of God.  Second, although some of the early church fathers and Reformers assumed a general idea of scriptural infallibility, their literal truth claims were always held in tension with symbolic interpretations of the Bible. For example, Clement of Alexandria and Origen openly admitted that the literal sense of various biblical passages was demonstrably erroneous, repulsive, or unedifying, requiring a moral, mystical, or spiritual reading (69). This led to allegorical interpretations of the Bible, which were further developed by theologians like Augustine of Hippo. This same tension between a literal-infallible and spiritual-symbolic reading can be found in most of the Reformers, including Luther and Calvin in the sixteenth-century. Granting these historical facts, it is important to remember that these theologians assumed a pre-modern worldview and should not be uncritically parroted as if the Enlightenment didn’t happen. Sometimes the Christian tradition gets it wrong.

What is clear is that the theory verbal plenary inspiration articulated by Hodge didn’t fall from heaven, nor was this theory embraced by the universal Church in every age. It was developed by an eighteenth-century Protestant theologian at Princeton Seminary who was trying to fend off the external threats of Enlightenment infidelity and resolve internal conflicts within the American Presbyterian church (James C. Livingston, Modern Christian Thought: Volume 1: The Enlightenment and the Nineteenth Century, 300-302).

As we survey the brief history of this doctrine, it is important to note that Hodge did not start with the Bible per se. He started with an unwavering commitment to a conservative Calvinist confessionalism, which he assumed was important for a faithful theological interpretation of the Bible. According to Hodge, this confessionalism was given authoritative expression by the late seventeenth-century Genevan theologian, Francis Turretin (1623-1687), whose primary goal was to defend Calvinist orthodoxy as articulated in three foundational documents: John Calvin’s Catechism (1545), the Second Helvetic Confession (1566), and the Canons of the Synod of Dort (1619). In addition to the doctrines of election and reprobation, plenary inspiration and the inerrancy of scripture were essential teachings in this confessionalism. So instead of defending his theology with unmediated access to divine truth, Hodge’s understanding of the authority, inspiration, and use of scripture was strongly influenced by the Calvinist confessionalism of Turretin. Hodge’s unwavering commitment to the inerrancy of scripture did not emerge from a close reading of the Bible but from his desire to defend a particular theological tradition. Hodge began with the conclusion that the Bible was infallible and then set out to prove why this was the case.

Ironically, Hodge developed his views in opposition to Enlightenment infidelity by appealing to Enlightenment philosophy and science! Specifically, he drew from Scottish Common Sense Realism and the scientific method espoused by Francis Bacon in an attempt to ground his ideas in objective truth. As would become evident in the twentieth-century, this was a failed attempt to “beat them at their own game.” In his very effort to establish theology as an independent discipline grounded in objective truth, he rendered theology dependent upon Baconian empiricism, which would later prove to be devastating to the very ideas he so vigorously tried to defend.

In an effort to secure the infallibility of the Bible according to the inductive principles of scientific realism, Hodge was forced to construe scripture as a collection of facts that could be assessed, organized, and theorized. He argues, “the Bible is to the theologian what nature is to the man of science. It is his store house of facts; and his method of ascertaining what the Bible teaches, is the same as that which the natural philosopher adopts to ascertain what nature teaches” (Hodge, Systematic Theology I.1, 10).

In an attempt to defend his assumed conclusion of the inerrancy of scripture, Hodge married theology to a philosophy of science that forced him to reduce the Bible to a compendium of facts dictated by God to infallible communicators. This was necessary to make his theological apologetic work. It was not that the Bible itself required a doctrine of divine ventriloquism. Rather, it was Hodge’s own ideological commitments to a certain brand of Calvinism and a fear of “liberalism” that compelled him to secure his project by two-timing lady Enlightenment in defense of a perfect book.

Hodge is clear about what plenary verbal inspiration requires of all Christians. He argues that belief in Christ requires faith in the Bible as the word of God, “and faith in the Scriptures as the word of God, is faith in their plenary inspiration. That is, the persuasion that they are not the product of the fallible intellect of man, but the infallible intellect of God . . . in saying that the Bible is the word of God, we mean that he is its author; that he says whatever the Bible says; that everything which the Bible affirms to be true is true     . . . the Bible is the product of one mind [i.e., God]” (Charles Hodge, “Inspiration,” Biblical Repository and Princeton Review, XXIX (October 1857), 661-663).

The spirit of God verbally dictates divine facts and propositions to passive secretaries who are given the miraculous power of infallibility, precluding the possibility of any conceivable error in communication. This guarantees that the Bible is inerrant not only in content but in the very words used to communicate that content. This means that every part of the Bible is fully inspired; there can be no difference or degrees of truth or authority between one part of the text and another (what theologians call “leveling”). Every single letter in every single word in every single sentence in both testaments is equally inspired and infallible, not only in matters of religion and morality but also of history and science.

 

Part II: The Bible Is Not Infallible

In what follows, I do not offer rigorous arguments supported by multiple examples proving that plenary inspiration is a bad theory. Countless other scholars have already done this with overwhelming evidence. Those interested in a more detailed analysis can choose from a plethora of scholarly introductions to the Bible, and those not interested because of an ideological commitment to biblical inerrancy will find such arguments unconvincing anyway. Rather, I will offer some general observations that have become common sense in contemporary biblical scholarship. Furthermore, giving multiple examples to support these general observations is unnecessary because the primary goal of this article is simply to destabilize plenary inspiration. Based on the very logic of the theory itself, this can be done by merely demonstrating a single error. If it can be shown that the Bible is mistaken regarding any of its factual claims then plenary inspiration as articulated by theologians like Charles Hodge goes out the window. And if supporters of inerrancy respond by claiming that only parts of the Bible are fully inspired, then they surrender the warrants and backings of plenary inspiration that give their claims rational coherence. The only way forward would be to develop a new theory showing what parts of the Bible are infallible and which ones are not, along with enough evidence to overturn the scholarly consensus that biblical infallibility is laughable. Regardless of the reader’s assessment of the historical survey above, the general insights below should be sufficient to raise serious questions about the theory at issue.   

The Bible Is Not Infallible Regarding Scientific Claims. It is common knowledge in biblical studies that people living in ancient Israel assumed that the world existed in three parts. As can be seen in the illustration below, the earth was thought to be a flat disc sitting atop a cosmic ocean supported by great pillars below mountains. In addition to these cosmic waters below, they also imagined that there were “waters above” held at bay by a solid dome in the sky. Rain fell to the earth when the windows in the firmament were opened by God. One example that illustrates this is the story of the flood as recorded in Genesis 7:11-12: “In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life . . . all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. The rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights” (NRSV). The dwelling place of God (heaven) existed beyond the waters in the sky, and the realm of the dead (Sheol) was directly below the surface of the earth.

Biblical Worldview

A close reading of the creation accounts in Genesis 1-2 shows that the authors assumed this ancient worldview. Consider, for example, the way God created by separating the waters from dry land. First, God separated the waters on the earth from the waters in the sky by creating the solid firmament: “And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky” (Genesis 1:6-8a). Then God separated the waters on earth from dry land: “And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas” (Genesis 1:9-10a). The biblical authors also assumed that the sun and moon revolved around the earth, as can be seen in Joshua’s answered prayer while waging battle against the Amorites: “And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies. Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stopped in midheaven, and did not hurry to set for about a whole day” (Joshua 10:13).

Based on what we know from modern science, this ancient cosmology is patently false. The creation accounts in Genesis are not infallible in their factual claims for a three-storied world, a flat earth, a solid firmament, and an underworld below and heaven above. Of course, the biblical authors didn’t lie about these things, but simply drew on the best resources available in the ancient world to express their conviction that God created the world with purpose, meaning, and value. One of these resources was a collection of Babylonian creation myths called The Enûma Eliš. This is just one example of how some biblical claims contradict external sources in modern science.

The infallibility of the Bible is also called into question by internal contradictions related to such matters. The most obvious is the fact that there are two different creation accounts in Genesis (cf. 1:1-2:4a and 2:4b-24). People who have an ideological commitment to infallibility and insist on reading Genesis literally employ all kinds of hermeneutical gymnastics in an attempt to harmonize these two accounts into one grand narrative. But the fact that we have two different creation accounts that resist harmonization raises serious questions about the theory of plenary inspiration and the infallibility of scripture.

This brings us to an important point: the Bible is not a modern science book. The creation accounts in Genesis are etiological stories, and to read them literally as scientific accounts is to misidentify their genre and perpetuate anachronism. Furthermore, when our interpretive goal is to harmonize two different creation stories and make them conform to a modern worldview, we unwittingly eclipse the main theological ideas that the authors were trying to communicate through the narratives. We engage in the exercise of missing the point.

The Bible Is Not Infallible Regarding Historical Claims. This general idea is also supported by internal and external evidence. Internally, there are countless contradictions in the Bible when read as a compendium of historical facts. In addition to the two creation accounts mentioned above, compare the number of soldiers in the army recorded in 1 Chron. 21:5 and 2 Sam. 24:9, the length of the king’s reign in 2 Chron. 36:9 and 2 Kings 24:8, or the details of Paul’s itinerary in Acts and Galatians. A close reading of the four gospels also discloses multiple inconsistencies when read on a factual level. Consider that the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke not only list different names in his family tree but also disagree on the number of generations leading up to his birth. John says that Jesus cleansed the temple at the beginning of his ministry, while Matthew, Mark, and Luke say that he did it shortly before being arrested. Scholars argue that if this violation of the Pax Romana actually happened then it was probably the precipitating event that led to Jesus’ arrest, and that there is no way he could have gotten away with this twice. None of the gospels agree about whether there were angles or “men in shining apparel” at the empty tomb, or how many of these were present when the women arrived to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. Perhaps most striking, John describes Jesus’ crucifixion as happening on a different day compared to the accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Again, these are just a few examples among many contradictions when the Bible is read as a history book.

In addition, biblical accounts sometimes contradict external sources in historical studies. Take, for example, the conquest of the Holy Land as described in Joshua. There is no textual source, aside from the Bible, that mentions this invasion. This alone raises questions if the conquest happened on the grand scale narrated in Joshua. Nevertheless, when scholars compare the massive destruction of the Canaanite cities in the Bible with evidence gathered through numerous archeological excavations, the empirical evidence in support of the biblical version is simply not forthcoming. Archaeologists have confirmed a dramatic resettling of the land in the first part of the Iron Age, but most scholars believe this happened by some kind of gradual migration, assimilation, or cultural evolution. Joshua’s fantastic account stems from the theological impulse to show how Israel enjoyed an utterly unique, intimate relationship with God prior to its postexilic apostasy. It is also interesting to note that we have no textual sources outside of the Bible that mention King David, King Solomon, or their magnificent constructions in Jerusalem (see Douglas Knight and Amy-Jill Levine, The Meaning of the Bible). It is true that the “facts” change as new evidence is gathered, therefore historians cannot claim absolutely that such events did not happen as recorded in scripture. However, if religious texts are not given a historical pass, then the present archaeological record is enough to raise serious questions about the facticity of some of the biblical narratives.

This brings us to another important point: The Bible is not a modern historiography. The biblical writers had no concept of modern history and no access to the historical-critical methods used by biblical scholars today, including those employed by archaeologists and supporting experts in in biology, chemistry, paleobotony, archaeozooloy, and geology, to name a few. It is not only anachronistic but also unfair to project our worldview onto ancient people and hold their religious storytelling accountable to standards and criteria to which they did not have access. Another danger in reading the Bible as a history book is that it functions to eclipse all of the different genres in the Bible that give us important clues as to how we should interpret various texts. Scholars remind us that even the more history-like parts of scripture are always theologically interpreted narratives, not excluding the author of Luke who claims to give a historical account of Jesus but starts with the post-resurrection assumption that Jesus is the Messiah and then sets out to convince others to receive him as lord and savior. In no way would this be considered a modern history today (something akin to the Jesus Seminar).

The Bible Is Not Infallible Regarding Moral Claims. Just as in matters of history and science, the Bible is internally conflicted in some of its moral claims. The most obvious example is related to sexual ethics. I continue to be flabbergasted by conservative appeals to the biblical view of sex as celibacy in singleness and monogamy in marriage, or the biblical view of marriage as a life-long commitment between one man and one woman. The Bible does not offer a singular, uniform, context-invariant sexual ethic that can be uncritically parroted in memorable clichés as “God’s design for sex.” Rather, it presents multiple sexual norms that are reflective of differing cultural ideas in the societies in which the texts developed over the course of hundreds of years. A close reading of scripture yields a variety of acceptable sexual practices that include not only monogamy, but also polygamy, the sexual use of concubines (some of whom were the spoils of war), levirate marriage, arranged marriages to establish political alliances, and the arranged marriages of young girls (some prepubescent) to much older men for a bride price. If these practices have anything in common it is not an unambiguous sexual ethic but the endorsement of a divinely sanctioned patriarchy in which men were superior to women and (in some sense) owned them as sexual property. In addition, we often see a condemnation of “fornication” in the Bible, wrongly assume that the word literally translates “sex before marriage,” and then use it to condemn all forms of premarital sex. But this is simply wrong. The word translated as fornication refers to “sexual immorality,” and what constitutes sexual immorality changes depending on what relative cultural norms are governing a given society. This is why the author of the Song of Solomon can use the passionate sexual relationship of two unmarried young people as an allegory for God’s love.

The Bible does not unequivocally teach celibacy in singleness and monogamy in marriage (at least not as we typically define these terms). Nor does it clearly teach that God’s view of marriage is a lifelong commitment between one man and one woman. This does not mean that such sexual norms cannot be derived from various interpretations of scripture. Clearly, many people have done this. In fact, this is the way that the dominant Christian tradition has typically articulated its official position on sexual ethics (although the official teaching rarely lines-up with the actual practices of most people in the church). However, honest readers of scripture should acknowledge that their sexual ethic is a theological construction that requires interpretive decisions based on hermeneutical principles (and moral biases) that are not explicitly delineated in the Bible. These interpretive decisions to endorse certain principles discovered in scripture require us to simultaneously reject other (divergent) views that are also contained in scripture. Certainly, none of these constructions should be endowed with infallibility. While there is much more that could be said about this topic, the simple fact that there are differing sexual ethics contained in the Christian cannon raises serious questions about the infallibility of the Bible regarding its moral claims.

In addition to these kinds of internal contradictions, there are also external contradictions between some of the Bible’s moral claims and what we judge to be ethical behavior in the modern world. Consider that the Bible largely assumes the moral permissibility of slavery from Genesis to Revelation, and in some cases even endorses it as divinely instituted. According to the Old Testament, God summoned Moses and directly spoke the divine Law to him, commanding him to communicate and strictly enforce this Law with the Israelites. All of the details of this Law supposedly came straight from the mouth of God, and they included rules for buying slaves: “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly” (Lev. 25:44-46). This passage clearly gives divine endorsement for slavery. The Law also gives rules for beating slaves: “If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property” (Exodus 21:20-21). This passage undeniably teaches that beating a slave (as long as they don’t die) is at least morally neutral in a divine order where human beings can be bought and sold as property. In the New Testament, the author of Colossians writes, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord” (3:22). This submission of slaves to earthly masters is also commanded in Ephesians 6:5, and according to 1 Peter 2:18 slave resistance is prohibited even when the master is particularly brutal. Many more examples could be given to show how the Bible directly or indirectly endorses practices as morally permissible that we find ethically abhorrent today, including rules for Holy War and the treatment of women, but this example of slavery should be enough to raise questions about the moral infallibility of scripture.

The Bible Is Not Infallible Regarding Its Portrayal of the Character of God. This claim will probably be the most offensive to those who need the Bible to be infallible in some sense, including those who are not fundamentalist in their theology. More moderate theologians sometimes try to appease our more conservative brothers and sisters in their debunking the infallibility of the Bible’s scientific and historical claims by saying that it’s infallible in terms of its teachings on God’s character. But even this idea seems untenable. There seem to be real tensions (even contradictions) between the way God is portrayed in the Old Testament and the way that God is portrayed in the New Testament, and simply acknowledging this fact does not automatically make one guilty of Marcionism. We can believe that the biblical authors attempted to describe the same God, and that both testaments reveal important truths about the character of God, while still acknowledging some important differences that cannot be easily harmonized. The same is true of the tensions that exist between the portrayals of Jesus in the Gospels and the book Revelation.

If these internal tensions do not rise to the level of contradictions, then we still have to contend with some very problematic claims about God when judged according to accepted ethical standards today. For example, God commands the wandering Hebrews to invade and conquer a foreign nation by violent military force and to utterly destroy every living thing in the process: “[regarding the people in the land] that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them . . .” (Deut. 20:16-17). This divine command includes the murder of noncombatant, innocent women and children. A close reading of the Bible seems to suggest that God actively commands violent invasion and conquest, genocide, the seizure of private property, slave labor, and the utter destruction of foreign religious sanctuaries and artifacts. In regards to civil law, God is portrayed as commanding the public execution of rebellious children (Deut. 21:18-21), women—not men—who have sex before marriage (22:20-21), anyone caught in adultery (22:22), and men—not women—caught engaging in homosexual sex (Leviticus 20:13). (For more on this topic, see my article, “It’s Dangerous to Read the Bible Too Literally: The Seeds of Religious Extremism.”) Contemporary Jewish theologian, David Blumenthal, has even gone so far as to argue that the way God is described as treating Israel in certain parts of the Jewish Bible is analogous to child abuse (Facing the Abusing God). Whether or not one agrees with Blumenthal’s conclusions, it is true that Israel has always had to reconcile divine love and cruelty in some of its own sacred texts and traditions. Since Christians share some of these sacred texts, we also have to figure what to do with some of these stories. Again, the reason why all of this material is so disturbing to modern ethical sensibilities is because it is associated with direct divine commands, which raises serious questions for the contemporary reader about biblical infallibility, even when we limit the conversation to the character of God.

It might be helpful to note that many of the internal contradictions noted in the various categories above can be explained by the fact that the Bible is not a single author book but a library of books. The content constitutive of the Christian cannon was shaped by many different people, who lived in different periods of history, spoke different languages, endorsed different social-political worldviews, wrote in different genres, and addressed different problems and needs in the worshiping community. (See my article, “God Did Not Write the Bible: The Formation of Sacred Scripture”) In addition, many of the external contradictions can be explained by the fact that the authors of scripture inhabited a prescientific world and shared most of the pre-modern social, political, moral, and religious ideas common to all people in their period of history. Once we allow room for the humanity of the authors and stop insisting that the Bible is infallible, most of these interpretive problems yield reasonable solutions.

Conclusion

Although it might not occur to those who have been indoctrinated with biblical inerrancy, there are other ways of construing the inspiration and authority of scripture. Some people are fearful to even consider this possibility because defenders of fundamentalism present Christians with a false dichotomy: they try to force us to choose between biblical infallibility and abandoning the idea of divine inspiration altogether. But many faithful contemporary theologians have developed viable alternatives.

As stated at the beginning, the purpose of this article is to destabilize the theory of plenary verbal inspiration that is used by many fundamentalists and evangelical Christians to dismiss complex problems with naive Bible quotations. It is difficult to consider other possibilities when you think that you have it all figured out. But when serious questions are raised about our most deeply held convictions, one healthy response is to ask, “What are the alternatives?” As the arguments in remaining articles in this series unfold, I will offer a different interpretation of the inspiration and authority of scripture that avoids many of the problems of the theory criticized above.

God Did Not Write the Bible: The Formation of Scripture (Course in Understanding the Bible)

This is the third essay in a collection entitled, A Course in Understanding the Bible. The full collection is organized as follows:

  1. The Bible is Not Infallible: Destabilizing Plenary Inspiration
  2. Going Fishing with Grandpa and Learning to Tell the Truth
  3. God Did Not Write the Bible: The Formation of Scripture
  4. Why the Bible is Important to Christians: Rethinking Scripture and Inspiration
  5. All Reading Is Interpretation: The Application of Perspective in Biblical Meaning

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There are many different theories that attempt to explain how the Bible came to be. What follows are some informal reflections on the origins of scripture that are consistent with my experience and studies in theology.

In his book, Good and Evil, Edward Farley explains that human beings experience redemption in three spheres of existence: the personal, interpersonal, and social. In the personal sphere, we experience redemption as freedom from the dynamics of idolatry and the courage to live by faith. In our relationships with others, we experience redemption as forgiveness, reconciliation, and the freedom to love unconditionally (agape).  In the social sphere, we experience redemption as social justice and emancipation from oppressive systems. In these ways, divine redemption breaks into our lives in very concrete and specific ways.

As people in the ancient world experienced the freedoms of redemption, some felt inspired by God to theologically reflect on what had happened and to communicate these reflections with others, first through oral tradition then through writing. The people who were obedient to this divine calling spoke and wrote as human beings. This means that they drew on whatever was available to them in their specific cultural-historical context to describe their experiences of the divine. This included their given language, symbol systems, traditions, religious ideas, and communal stories.

It is important to note that all of these expressions of divine redemption were limited by at least two things. First, divine transcendence. There is always mystery in God’s activity. As theologians have argued extensively, God does not act in the same way that human beings act. Peter Hodgson explains:

“The causality exercised by God is not that of a first cause or material cause, which bring about specific, predetermined effects, but that of a final cause, which offers a possibility, an invitation, a goal. God’s creative power also works as a formal cause, providing patterns or ideals for the shaping of events, but not controlling outcomes. Final and formal causes exercise real influence within a framework of contingency, freedom, and indeterminacy. God orders the world, orients it to the attainment of value, but God does not mechanically control the dynamics of the creative process.” (Christian Faith: A Brief Introduction 56).

Since there is an ontological distinction between God and the world, and since God does not act with the same kind of agency exercised by human beings, theologians like Martin Luther, Karl Barth, and Paul Tillich emphasize that divine revelation has a paradoxical character. It is not only an unveiling but also a veiling. There is a sense in which God remains hidden even as God is revealed. Taken together, all of this points to the fact that God is a (rational) mystery. To speak of God is to point to a higher rationality, a higher truth, which cannot be exhaustively known by means of human language. As those in the mystical tradition remind us, when we say that God acts, there is a sense in which we don’t know exactly what we mean because there’s not a one-to-one correspondence between the words we use and the events they seek to describe. All theological language is analogy or metaphor. This is the first limitation of our attempts to expression divine redemption.

The second limitation has to do with the perspectival nature of human thinking and language.  The way that we experience, interpret, understand, and express the “coming forth” of redemption into our lived existence is always already shaped by a particular symbolic-linguistic worldview, which is limited by all of the blind spots and knowledge gaps associated with finite, located, human beings. There is no unmediated or uninterpreted encounter with God.

Going back to those in the ancient world who played a role in the shaping of biblical content, it is important to remember that most of the stories of redemption started as oral traditions that were passed down for many years before they were recorded by scribes. As these stories were passed-down from generation to generation they were told and retold, interpreted and reinterpreted, adapted and readapted in ways that met the evolving needs of the worshiping community in an ever changing context. The goal was not to construct a modern historiography, but to engage in ongoing theological interpretation that could help a religious community make sense of God, the world, and the relationship between the two in changing and challenging circumstances.

Over time, these oral traditions generated more conceptual thinking about the character of God and God’s relationship to the world. More sustained reflection on the fluid, pliable, theologically interpreted memory of the community functioned to generate theological norms that served in the ongoing adaptation and reinterpretation of the stories (as well as stories and ideas received from other religions). As Walter Brueggemann argues in his book, Theology of the Old Testament, Israel started by attributing verbs to YHWH, then adjectives, and eventually nouns. As the community experienced the redemptive power of God over significant periods of time, they began to see patterns that allowed them to make more general claims about God’s character. All of this gave the community tools for theologically interpreting every aspect of life, which helps us to understand why there are so many different genres in the Bible. As the oral traditions were written and used by the community for various purposes, some of them proved to have enduring value and were collected together as sacred scripture. So the content of the Bible is the community’s theologically interpreted memory of how God acted to save them through a covenant relationship in various ways and in various times and places.

While I reflect on biblical authority and inspiration in another article (see “Why the Bible is Important to Christians“), it is appropriate to mention that part of what we mean by “divine inspiration” is that the Holy Spirit was somehow at work in the traditioning process described above.

All of this helps us to understand that the Bible is not a book but a library of books. The content constitutive of the Bible was shaped by many different people, who lived in different periods of history, spoke different languages, endorsed different worldviews, wrote in different genres, and addressed different problems and needs in the worshiping community.  If you doubt this, simply compare the life and times of Abraham and the Apostle Paul. Some of the books of the Bible have multiple authors and all of them were copied, edited, redacted, and reinterpreted as they circulated among various communities across generations. So the finished product is not a single author book, but a library of books that span the course of centuries.

All of this helps us to see that while God is active in the development of the Bible, it is also a very human text. God acts in redemptive ways and inspires people to think and write theologically about these experiences.  But God did not write the Bible as John Grisham wrote A Time to Kill. Neither did God negate the humanity of the authors by making them passive secretaries or giving them miraculous knowledge of modern science or historiography. The good news is that God does not need to author a perfect book to accomplish God’s purposes in the world and bring us salvation. Just as God did in Jesus of Nazareth two-thousand years ago, God works in and through the humanity of the biblical authors, with all of their limitations, failures, and blind spots, to ensure that they tell the truth in ways that can lead (in the power of the Holy Spirit) to knowledge of salvation.

Don’t Waste Good Wine: Remaining Flexible in Times of Change

We are living in a time of rapid change and cultural upheaval. Most people don’t like change because it requires us to grieve losses, solve novel problems, and acquire new skills. Some even retreat into religious fundamentalism and a literalistic reading of the Bible to insulate themselves from the challenges that come in the wake of change. In retrospect, we can clearly see that this approach has always done more harm than good to the Christian community and the world it claims to serve. For example, fearful “change avoidance” has compelled Christians to use the Bible to attack modern science, defend slavery and segregation, and deny women equal rights. This impulse is grounded in the idea that unity is a divinely ordained homogeneity that must be defend against any intrusion of difference. Difference is seen as the source of division, as a dangerous enemy to be eradicated. But the New Testament casts a vision of unity that is grounded in and strengthen by diversity. This is a counterintuitive idea for many, and Jesus knew that we would never be able to grasp it unless we had flexible hearts and minds. I believe that this is why Jesus told the parable of the wine skins (Luke 5:36-39). In this message, I exegete this parable to suggest two things: (1) we need fresh interpretations scripture that will help Christians solve complex problems in their contemporary context, and (2) Christians need pliable hearts and minds to receiving and assimilate these new interpretations. If this message blesses you then please share it with others.

For those who would like to learn more about interpreting the Bible in light of some of the most important insights in contemporary biblical scholarship and Christian theology, I highly recommend a book written by Rev. Adam Hamilton, Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today.