A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

The Character of God and the Nature of Scripture: Reading the Bible Incarnationally #4-- Progressives Protecting the Integrity of God's Character

So far in this series I have raised questions about the doctrine of biblical inerrancy suggesting that it not only is not a helpful approach to interpreting biblical texts, but it can indeed distort the biblical narrative itself. In this post, I turn my attention to more progressive readings of the Bible, which in the final analysis are just as problematic as readings designed to protect inerrancy. My friend, Lee Wyatt outlines the apparent options before us:
It's always dangerous to try and simplify complex debates, but I'm going to do it anyway. It seems to me that in regard to God and Warfare in the Old Testament we have three basic options.
First, to accept the accounts at face value either to damn the OT deity or to valorize him for his pursuit of justice in Israel's wars.
Second, to explain away God's involvement in the commands and practice of warfare as described in the Old Testament, either to damn the Old Testament as primitive and irrelevant to Christian moral reflection or to accept it, suitably interpreted, as not saying what it appears to say and therefore not damning to Christian moral reflection.
And third, to accept God's involvement in some proto-incarnational sense in the nitty-gritty reality of national Israel's needs, getting his "hands dirty" in defending its boundaries and leading it into the Promised Land. This view recognizes that much of harsh rhetoric is likely stock ANE military vocabulary that takes a bit of the sting out of them . Nevertheless God's involvement is real but bound to that brief bit of Israel's history and the rest of the OT leads us on the way to recognizing that Jesus' call to nonviolence is God's last and best word to his people.

 If the first option represents those who argue for inerrancy, and also ironically those like atheist Richard Dawkins, who uses the texts to simplistically dismiss the God of the Bible, it is the second option that characterizes in general, a more progressive understanding of Scripture. I refer to Adam Hamilton who has presented the options most clearly with an analogy of three buckets.

1. Scriptures that express God’s heart, character and timeless will for human beings.
2. Scriptures that expressed God’s will in a particular time, but are no longer binding.
3. Scriptures that never fully expressed the heart, character or will of God.

Because there are Old Testament passages that seem out of character with the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ, Hamilton suggests that such problematic texts should be thrown in bucket three-- "Scriptures that never fully expressed the heart, character or will of God." It is not my intention to get into the details of the Old Testament in this post-- that's the subject of the next post. But, all I want to do at his point is to highlight briefly my problems with the three buckets approach to interpreting biblical texts.

First, Hamilton's approach is in some important ways a modern version of Marcionism. My friend, Dan Hawk writes,
Hamilton's solution, as well as the general stream that informs it, is but a contemporary version of an approach that was first proposed by Marcion, who addressed the problem of divine violence by positing two gods. Marcion declared that the God of the Old Testament could not be and therefore was not the God revealed in Jesus Christ. The modern approach reprises this move by opposing the humanly-contrived god of violent texts to the God manifested in Jesus Christ. The violent God, we are told, is a human fabrication formed from culturally-embedded tropes and figures – "what they believed about God rather than what God inspired them to say" in Hamilton's words. This "humanistic" god is completely inconsistent with the gospels' testimony of Jesus Christ and so can be discarded. There are two gods: an invented god and an inspiring God. Same approach. Different packaging.
Second, instead of attempting to understand how these Old Testament texts reveal a God who acts within history which ultimately leads to and is complimentary of the incarnation of Christ, Hamilton pits the God revealed in Jesus against the God of the Old Testament. Whereas the Bible see continuity between Old and New Testaments in reference to God's plans and purposes for Israel and all humanity, the bucket approach dismisses those texts that seems incompatible to the New Testament witness. Thus, for all practical purposes, Jesus Christ does not fulfill what happens in the Old Testament, Jesus Christ allows us to dismiss what has happened up until the "fullness of time" (Galatians 4:4).

Third, it must not be forgotten that Jesus himself had plenty of harsh words of judgment to pronounce:
Then he [Jesus] began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent. "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades.
For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you." (Matthew 11:20-24)
If Jesus is the lens by which we dismiss some Old Testament text because they do not reflect God's will, do we then reject the judgmental Jesus in a favor of the nice gentle "come unto me" Jesus? Is a
schizophrenic Jesus acceptable? Or do we simply dismiss the judgmental Jesus as embellishments of the Gospel writers?

Fourth, whereas inerrantists want to protect the character of Scripture (which needs no protecting), such a progressive reading of Scripture attempts to protect the character and integrity of God (which also need no protecting). There is no doubt that the violent texts of the Old Testament are a stumbling block to many. In an attempt to appeal to Christianity's twenty-first century cultured despisers, it becomes easy simply to dismiss these texts as an ancient people's view of their God as tribal instead of wrestling with what these text might indicate to us as to how the God of Israel is willing to involve himself in the mess that is Israel's history in order to ultimate involve himself in the mess that is human history. Under the guise of the complexity of Scripture, the bucket approach to the Bible simplifies and smooths over the character of God because without such a simplification, the God of the Old Testament becomes the strange uncle in the attic who needs to be kept away from the house guests. But the God of the Bible is not a safe deity who can be domesticated even by historical critics.

Fifth, who gets to decide which text should go in which buckets? I quote my friend, Dan Hawk again:
Who decides which texts are humanly-contrived and which are inspired? And on what basis? This is a slippery business to say the least, and especially so when historically-oriented interpreters attempt to ground their decisions by discerning the intent of ancient authors and redactors. While we have learned a great deal about the historical and cultural environments of the ancient world, we cannot even today confidently locate the composition of most texts in a particular historical and social context. Furthermore, our ideas of what was in an ancient author’s head will inevitably be infused with the projections of our own ideas and perspectives.
Centuries ago the church rightly rejected the two different gods approach to the Old and New Testaments. That's because the meaning of the biblical text must be grounded in theological reflection not historical reconstruction. We need historical reconstruction, to be sure, and history and theology cannot be so neatly separated; but we would do well to be less concerned with what historians think and be more interested as to how theologians can reflect on the whole of the biblical narrative in a way that the whole biblical story, to quote Tom Wright, "has a ring of truth to it." I suggest a canonical approach to these texts will save us from both the inerrantist and progressive hermeneutics which reflect two sides of the same modern assumptions. Such theological reflection is critical to discern the coherent threads that run throughout the Bible-- and in particular, Christological reflection-- and even more specifically-- incarnation.

More on that and the Old Testament in the next post.
Previous Posts:

1. The Character of God and the Nature of Scripture: Reading the Bible Incarnationally #1-- Introduction

2. The Character of God and the Nature of Scripture: Reading the Bible Incarnationally #2-- Inerrancy and Protecting the Character of Scripture

3. The Character of God and the Nature of Scripture: Reading the Bible Incarnationally #3-- Inerrancy or Errancy-- Are Those the Only Options?


Unknown said...

It's worth pointing out that Wyatt's options 2 and 3 are combined in Patristic exegesis. Because God's revelation to Israel stands at the beginning of a story that reaches fulfillment in Christ and the Church (option 3), we who have received the Spirit perceive in the texts of the Old Testament a meaning which is not literally apparent, and sometimes might seem contradictory (option 2).

Keith Beasley-Topliffe said...

I find helpful Brian McLaren's contrast between reading the Bible as a constitution (with all parts binding and of equal weight) and reading the Bible as a library of books, some of then written specifically to argue with others (e.g., Job v. Deuteronomy's view of divine earthly retribution so well expressed by Job's friends--or Ecclesiastes v Proverbs). Then we are invited to enter into the argument/discussion and make our own conclusions.