Thursday, November 23, 2006

The B-I-B-L-E

My theological journey has taken me from solid Calvinism and complete Evangelicalism including a belief in the inerrancy of scripture to someplace left of center influenced by Liberation Theology and the Social Gospel. The journey pivots on my relationship to the Bible. I suppose that nearly all Christians define themselves (knowingly or unwittingly) by their relationship to this collection of writings. The Bible is also clearly one of the most critical documents in the current culture wars, so I think it behooves me at the outset of this blog to attempt an explanation of my understanding of this vital document.

I have realized that a sometimes intractable obstacle to right-left dialogue is the often intransigence of the right on their understanding of scripture. I don't want to debate the issue of inerrancy as much as I want to explain my own position and how I got to it. My intent is to demonstrate that many of us who reject the principle of inerrancy still hold the Bible in high regard and use it as a guide for living. The implication for the culture wars is that there may be a number of valid Christian positions in the public square. I don't want to shout down the voices to the right of me, I just want my voice to be heard and validated as genuinely Christian.

Let me start with my reason for rejecting inerrancy. I had found myself "jumping through hoops" in sorting the cultural influences out of scripture (you know, things like seeing Paul not so much as a sexist but a product of his time) when I finally came up against something I couldn't find anyway to excuse within the confines of a belief in the divine authorship of scripture: cherem. For those of you not knowledgeable in Hebrew, that is the word used to describe the style of warfare used in the conquest of the Promised Land. Simply put, the principle is if you win victory over an enemy by your own power you are entitled to the booty (e.g. the land, the cattle, the gold, the people...) BUT if you are outnumbered or out-gunned and you pray to your god for victory and receive it then the booty belongs to the deity. The way that the god claims the spoil was typically through burnt sacrifice. I describe this generically since it was the prevalent form of warfare on all sides during that time. But that means that we read of a number of massacres (at least a half-dozen) in the Bible that are directly ordered by God. There is even a verse that I mercifully can never seem to re-locate that says that YHWH was pleased by the aroma of the burnt human offering.

Now I could have responded by saying "that was then, this is now" but that would fly in the face of the equally biblical principle that God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow (actually, there is a good evidence in the biblical story that God does change, but that is clearly not part of Evangelical theology). I found myself faced with a choice between obedience to a bloodthirsty god, a slippery slope of a potentially ever-changing god, or an acceptance of the Bible as a human document in which the victors write the history. I chose the last position as the most viable way to retain the reality of the personal relationship I had with God. That left me with the danger of "throwing out the baby with the bath water." It also meant that I could now read the Bible as our human attempt to understand what we can never fully understand instead of as God attempting to explain the inexplicable to mere mortals. The change in perspective is liberating, frustrating, exciting and frightening all rolled into one.

The good news is that I'm not alone in this journey. Many, many Christians today (as well as in the past) take this approach. In my next blog entry I'll address the way that other elements strengthen my faith and mold my theology. If you want a preview, consider the Wesleyan quadrilateral.

28 comments:

David J said...

This story I'm about to relate is highly relational. I once worked for a man who passed away several years ago (Jan. 2000) who was in a seeking mode. He peppered me with theological questions on a daily basis. He had a huge hang up with regards to the story of Nadab and Abihu. If you recall they offered stange fire to the Lord and were immediately incinerated. I've heard things like they were drunk, or God is a stickler for details, or they decicrated the priesthood, to God is God, He does what he chooses to do and that's that. None of these explanations made Carl anymore prone to listen to my voice of "reason". Carl even got the ear of Ravi Zacharius at one of his conferences and posed the questions to him. Ravi gave him the "we have to trust that God knew what he was doing" answer.

I've always struggled with the unexplainable violence of the Old Testament, especially when its juxtaposed by the mostly peaceful message of Jesus. Jesus even restored an ear of one his would-be killers.

I find this conversation very interesting, and I look forward to more blogs on this topic. I continue to wrestle with these attributes of God. I pray daily that God is love and he is merciful to those who deserve mercy. I can't see how David deserved more mercy than Nadab or Abihu.

mkz said...

Hello Ian, I am grateful for this beginning of your account concerning your point of view change concerning Scripture. If I go off track from your intent here, let me know.
I was immediatly puzzled by the reference to `burnt human offering`. I have never come across this line in any Bible I have read. While I will be the first to admit falibility as my memory concerning things spoken, heard and witnessed is less than adequate in my own assessment, my ability to visualize things in print is fairly good. I think maybe the reason you can not locate the passage again is because it is not in Scripture. If you do locate it however, please tell me the book, chapter and verse, that I may stand corrected. The overall thought that comes to mind having read your post through a few times, brings me to Romans 9:20-24. Can we as created beings,(asuming you believe the Biblical account that we are created) seriously question the mind, will and plan of our creator, and expect answers other than those He has already given throughout history by way of His prophets, servents and Son?
What happens if we don`t like the answers? Where is the precedence to validate the conclusions we construct before the author of the faith we profess? Job questioned God in the agony his life had become. Had we been at his bedside and seen the desolation of his life firsthand, we may have felt the action justified as he did being by all evidence, a far more rightous man than any of us today. Yet in Gods` answer, chapters 38-41 we can gain understanding about the magnitude in error of our humble assumptions before His infinite wisdom.
Ultimately Ian, I feel if we can not trust God to know what He is doing, day by day, or millenia to millenia in every detail, we as the violent, self serving and cunning species we are have alot more to worry about than what we think words in any book may mean.

David J said...

Hey Ian, I'd also like to know where that Scripture is. See if you can do some work on that, I was on Bible gateway and couldn't find it.

Ian said...

Gosh, you guys are tough task masters ;-) Let me clarify, there is no doubt that the Hebrews killed "all that had breath" and stated that it was ordered by God on multiple occasions recorded in Joshua and Deuteronomy. I'll list those specific citations in a comment here shortly. The verse that I can never seem to re-find is the one that expressed God's pleasure with the sacrifice. I recall it being something like "the aroma was pleasing in the nostrils of God." Obviously, it is some other construction or I would have found it by now. In any case, it is clear that the genocide was ordered by God in these passages, what I cannot demonstrate is the pleasure God felt as a result.

mkz said...

Mornin` Ian. Now "The aroma was pleasing to the nostrils of God" I have read. I am pretty sure more than once this statement is made in the OT. And it was in regards to sacrifices both of animal fat and flesh, and of praise given by the faithful(actual and metaphorical aroma).
We all can confirm God ordered genocide on some occasions, there is no question of this. I think we can surmise, by what we know of Gods` nature that he is never pleased at killing of and kind without reason or necessity. I feel He would much rather His creation come to faith and compliance with His will. Chaldeans, Assyrians, Philistines, Jews, Romans, all, had these people feared rightously and done the will of God, there would be no need of punishment so severe.

Hollands Opus said...

Hi Ian
thanks for the blog. Would that more people in Christianity would make scripture the pivot point. Of course I think you have pivoted considerably out of sync with scripture, but that is the subejct of this post. So we begin agreement.

I will also assume that you deny the inspiration of scripture, despite the good arguments that were surely familiar with in your Calvinsitic days. And though I feel quite at home with your gentle spirit, I cannot possibly affirm your position as genuinely Chrisitian. I do not think that it is. I am not stating that you are not Christian, but if scripture is not inspired than it is merely a human convention - to be ignored without consequence. Furthermore, all we can know about God is from non theistic philosophical arguements that the logical possibility of God is very high, and no atheistic arguement can come close to it in terms of explanatory force.

The Hebrew scriptures clearly present God as the victor, and never man. "The horse is prepared for the day of battle, but vctory belongs ot the Lord". And MKZ is correct, the verse to which you sense dread is not in the scripture, not in terms of human burning flesh or death being a sweet smelling aroma to God.

God surely demanded that entire cities be put to death. In the process, it may be that those peoples were so corrupt that thier prpogation may indeed have polluted the earth and resulted in greater death than that of thier city. I also know that God demanded that for particular times and places only, unlike the standing Qur'aniv mandate to always be engaged in the same. Keep in mind also that at the end of time, God will send those that have not repented and been united to God through Christ to hell - whatever that is. God will do that to keep sin out of the new creation - not entirely unlike what went on in choosing and developing of a people He would call His very own.

God of course is the same yesterday today and forever (but then if you deny inspiration, how can we really know that, which in turn means maybe he is not the same, in which case your objection does not apply). And of course that statement appears in a context. What does it mean that He is the same? He does not change in His attributes - He is still is wrath and love. He does treat some sinners with greater patience than others - He clearly has chosen to love some more than others.

The textual evidence for the transmission of the scripture is above reproach. Without, I do not know how you have any assurance of any relationship with God, which does not rule out the possibility that you do - you just can't know it, and your personal conclusion seems to suggest a God incapable of making his message understandable to mankind. God did not try to explain the inexplicable - the tremendous amount of anthropomorphism attests to the fact that He indeed can commuicate propositional truth to vessels able to understand - even if they refuse to follow.

And of course, what better way to interact with man than to become man! But if scripture cannot be a genuine accomplishment by God of communicating his will and being, we have created more problems than solved. And I doubt we know our purpose at all - we can feel good about some things etc. but we can never know if they line up with objective reality. It takes transcendence to reveal transcendence - and God has done that.

Perhaps you see my final question coming. DO you believe that Jesus physically rose from dead? Can one be Christian and deny the physical resurrection of Jesus?
Thanks for the space!
Hollands Opus

David J said...

"The textual evidence for the transmission of the scripture is above reproach"

except for the fact that nobody has the original autographs.

Ian said...

I’m glad that we can agree that the Old Testament has numerous examples of divinely mandated genocide, since that saves me from continuing to search for evidence. It also saves this from going off-track into a proof-texting exchange.

For the sake of others though, I offer the following few passages:
Numbers 21:1-3; 21-35
Leviticus 27:21-28
Deuteronomy 2:32-3:6
Deuteronomy 20:1-4
Joshua 10:40
Joshua 11:9-15
These passages are instructions for, or evidence of cherem. The concept is that whatever is cherem is dedicated to YHWH and thus cannot be taken by humans. Sadly, it is not meant that what is dedicated is holy; in fact it is just the opposite. In the Talmudic tradition, cherem became the principle used to excommunicate or ban people from the community.

I still need to find the verse I am certain exists that describes God’s pleasure at the burnt sacrifice of the people dedicated to destruction. But even if it is the result of faulty memory, whether God takes pleasure in the death of some humans or simply orders it I have a problem accepting. I also have a problem accepting that, as HO suggests, that God “clearly loves some people more than others.” How is it that Jesus died for all if some aren’t loved enough by God to receive that grace? Sure, we can say that some have rejected God’s grace through their sin, but at least in the case of cherem, we are talking also about children, aside from the possibility of original sin, what could they have done to reject salvation?

I have much more to say about the Bible, and will do so in another blog entry instead of continued comments in this thread. I will take up some of HO’s points as this conversation continues, but I reserve the right to direct the conversation here on my blog. It may take some time, but I will respond to the question about the resurrection. There are a few more points about the nature of the Bible that I feel I need to make first, as well as explaining why and how I value the scriptures in order to place my beliefs in context. I am grateful for the absence of ranting here. I trust that we can continue to have a civil dialogue. I hope that it remains valuable to all of us.

Hollands Opus said...

David -
just and FYI, we need not have the originals to know what was originally written. This is not true for scrpture only, but it common coin in textual criticism to acertain whether or not we can get to the original from what we do have.

It is not unlike forensics determing there is a dead body and who did it, even though we have no body!

Hollands Opus

Hollands Opus said...

Ian
if this fits into the discussion, why do you have a problem with God decreeing someone's death. Also, if this fits and we can work it out in your timing, why do you resist the notion of God loving some more than others? Humand=s do it all the time and not for immmoral reasons. It seems to be part of who we are. I love my children more than yours. I hope you love yours more than mine. (although, I have a 14 year old that I obviously cannot bring enough food home for, so if you wanted you could send dome!!)

Also, my question about the resurrection was intended merely to try to really specifiy what scripture means when it says something. I understand that is forthcoming.

Hollands Opus

David J said...

Ho, I was just making the point that to say "it's above reproach" is a bit too black and white for my tastes. I've heard plenty of preachers make this distinction-that God will preserve His Word, but there is still faith involved in accepting it. I think anytime you have man as the Scribe for God, there could be error somewhere. Unless God made each scribe the perfect transcriber. What we have is good copies of good copies. I don't contest that these texts, when compared and examined, are very well preserved. But when you make an absolute claim it requires absolute certainty.

Hollands Opus said...

David,
and according to ctextual criticism, you can be absolutely certain that you have the content of the autographa, be it scripture or any other writing of aniquity. By the way, the scripture has at least 10-15 times the quantatative manuscript support than any other writing.

So, as I satated, the evidence for transmission of the original texts is above reproach. Whether or not they are inspired is of course another matter.

I look forward to Ian's direction.

Hollands Opus

David J said...

Okay, let's concede the point about the accuracy of the writings. But how do we know that everything in those writings is God-inspired? And didn't men sit around and decide what was to be in the canon? At a certain point there arises some uncertainty that has to be accepted by faith. For instance, I see nothing in the Apocrypha that would contradicts the other 66 books, but yet those words are excluded from the Protestant Bible today.

I will eagerly await Ian's take on this as his arguments are new to me, and most intriguing.

Hollands Opus said...

The apocryphal books were never accepted by the Jews as canonical - they are all OT books.

Also, the canon was not decided by a bunch of men sitting around. The only time such a "sitting aroud" occurred early on was at Nicea, to battle the Arian heresy - Arius was insisting that Jesus was not divine. At that gathering, things at times got boistrous. Also, many men showed up missing limbs and bearing the scars of faithfulness to Christ - which includes the word of God. Also here, (and at a slightly later time) certain books were "excluded" that were being taught as "scripture". But to that point, the vast majority of the books were ALREADY acknowledged as being the writings of the apostles or those immediately acquainted with them. There are many excellent books written on the canon and the NT books, as well as attempts by gnostic thinkers to include a number of texts which deny basic tenets of the faith.

Jesus never include the Apocrypoha in his mentioning of the OT as scripture - but he constantly alluded to teh Penteteuch, the law and the prohpets, or the 39 books f the OT (though I beleive the Jews had them chronicled as fewer books per se, but that constitute the 39 books today.)

Faith has really little to do with what books have been accepted and recognized as canonical, and as what we should consider Canon. Faith comes in following what God has revealed - it is an abiding trust in God to do what he has said.

David J said...

Okay, but that still doesn't answer why these books are accepted and others aren't. To your agrument, yes the jews did not accept the apocrypha, but why would that be relevant? And Paul certainly made use of those writings in his thought processes. I'm not saying that make the apocrypha worthy of the Canon. But it seems a somewhat arbitrary. process of how we got the Bible. I've never heard a coherent answer as to why these books are inspired and what those requirements are and somewhere along the line a MAN had to have had input on what became the Bible.

Best I can tell from your answer is that writings confined to the apostolic time frame are a possible litmus test? If so, there must of have been much written (in fact the Bible says so much so that it couldn't be contained in a few volumes). I would be content with an "I don't know" response here. Because I would trust that God wanted these records preserved to represent His attributes. My answer would be that this is somewhat of a mystery.

mkz said...

Hello gentlemen, David, where do you find reference that Paul ever used the apocrypha, either in his teachings, or his letters to churches or diciples? I am fairly sure Paul would have seen them as ficticious, or at least uninspired. I can`t` see him tainting the message of Christ whith these writings.

David J said...

I am saying cross reference wise, mkz, if you owned a Bible that had the apocrypha, you'd see cross references with Sirac, and Wisdom. They may be just relational texts, but my contention that these cross references validate the authenticity and Canon(icity) of these writings is certainly evident in their application.

mkz said...

A Bible that had the apocrypha, this even sounds contradictory, as the established canon does not contain the apocrypha. Am I missing your point?,( I am not trying to sound like a wise guy.) Or are you proposing that if Paul may have used some refference out of these supposed texts, this somehow validates them, or any part thereof as canon?

David J said...

mkz, there are Bibles available with the apocrypha. I used one for over a year during my "Catholic' experiment. It was an Ignatius study Bible and contained many cross references from Paul to those books. What it proves is that those books don't disparage the Gospel or go against it. Even if you don't accept them as legitimate, you certainly can atleast draw some insights from them.

mkz said...

I`m still not sure I understand. I have never read of Paul referencing the apocrypha in the NIV, New King James, NIS, King James, etc. Is this referencing only in the Catholic version?

Ian said...

Oy vey, I have some catching up to do here, you all have been busy while I've been preparing my next entry.

A few responses:

*Textual criticism requires an acceptance of certain probabilities that provide a degree of certainty that may approach but can never achieve 100% So, while I'll concede that there is only a little doubt in many cases about the text, it is certain that doubt remains.

*If God is going to decree the death of innocents (you may disagree that the children in the towns dedicated to destruction were innocent) then I am not sure what kind of God that is. A truly omnipotent and benevolent god would have the power and compassion to work out his will without annihilating entire populations.

*The issue of God playing favorites is also related. It is one thing to say that God loves some more than others, but in the context of the conquest of the Promised Land, it sure stinks to be "loved less" by God. We can say that God alone chooses who will receive grace, so who are we to complain, but it is not just about some being shown favoritism, there is some serious smiting in the Bible. It is sometimes hard not to see God as petty and capricious.

*I commend the Wikipedia entry on "apochrypha" to help clear up some of the questions raised here. In support of Dave's claim that there are NT references to these texts is this from the article, "The deuterocanonical books form part of the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox canons. New Testament reliance on these books includes these examples: James 1:19-20 shows dependence on Sirach 5:13-14, Hebrews 1:3 on Wisdom 7:26, Hebrews 11:35 on 2 Maccabees 6, Romans 9:21 on Wisdom 15:7, 2 Cor. 5:1, 4 on Wisdom 9:15, etc."

Hollands Opus said...

I have no problem with the aprocryphal books being quoted in any NT texts. That there is some benefit in them is undebated. Quotation alone does not make them canonical, and I do not think that is what you are saying.

I would question Wikpedia's conclusions on what NT texts relied on OT texts. Some of that is mere conjecture, and some is quite accurate. In any event, I find it more significant that the jews never accepted those books as canonical and that those book snever carried canonical statius in the early church.

Ian,
I cannot see how you avoid a coollapse into total skepticsm with respect to the scripture. How do you decide what should be accepted as that which God would do and that which is not? How does one avoid utter idolatry in that respect? I am being rather terse here and getting right to the point. Please do not consider that an accusation.

God decrees the death of all people!

I do not need to undestand fully the mind of God to see that all that he does proceeds from those attributes he has revealed.

God may seem petty and capricious to you. I have no remedy for that other than caution. I also know that if all we knew in our common experience and from history as cruelty was slapping someone in the face, then when one amputates another, that will be the ultimate in smiting.

Those civilizations were God hating idolatrous wretched anti-creation parasites - as was Isreal - as is America - as are you and I from birth.

God has every right to do what he wants with his creation and will never act contrary to what he has revealed.

David J said...

"Those civilizations were God hating idolatrous wretched anti-creation parasites - as was Isreal - as is America - as are you and I from birth"

Wow! There is something inherently wrong and instinctively wrong with this negative-only potrayal of mankind. It's almost a sadistic theology that ignores the fact we were also created in God's image. I can't neccessarily disagree with your Jeremiah assessment of mankind, I certainly have trouble understanding the undelying and hopless tone of this assessment.

In either case, Jesus is our bridge out of hopelessness and He is the Finisher of our faith. I may be writing this out of context, but it seems there is glee in your acknowledgement of God's more ornary traits.

Hollands Opus said...

I think that God is as praiseworthy for His wrath as he is for his love. I would not judge those as ornery traits.

You also have denied the context of those comments, which was a response to the comment that Ian made that God seems petty and capricious. So there is nothing inherently anything about them, they are enitrely fitting in their context.

I think that the right to judge motive is reserved for God David. To suggest that I have some glee in detailing those qualities of man that are a stench in the nostrils of God, is either deliberately combative or insensitive at best, when you know me, and that you and I have fought similar battles for the faith. I know that this is not your blog, but you might consider how such comments are conducive to "finding common ground".

By the way, given that our even our best deeds are as "menstrual cloth" with respect to righteousness, my comments are right at home in thier setting.

Hollands Opus

Ian said...

OK, a quick word from the referee ;-)

One of the joys of this corner of the blogosphere for me has been the effort to understand one another. What I would really appreciate from everyone commenting here would be an attempt to "walk a mile in the other's shoes." We are going to disagree, but let's make every effort to avoid jumping to conclusions. I suggest the use of questions like "is this what I think you said?" and "is it fair to say that your position is...?" Also softening responses with statements like "in my opinion" and other ways of showing respect for the other's opinion.

For example, I appreciate that Holland's Opus didn't simply respond to my comment about feeling that some of the behavior ascribed to God made God seem petty and capricious with a simple counter that God was neither. He voiced is opposing position with clarification without discounting the reality of my feeling. We're capable of that level of discussion, even as we hit hot button issues the elicit emotional responses (and those will be coming).

Thus endeth the time out, back to the game...

Hollands Opus said...

Will do Ian. I both feel the heat of others and intend to generate yet more - politely I will!

David J said...

HO/Ian-I'm sorry if it came out that way. Obviously when writing one has a thought that one doesn't want to lose as he types away. I should have been much more forgiving in that sense.

As far as knowing you, HO as contenting for the faith, I think it's clear we all are trying to do that here.

I don't know when humans neccessary understand God when he's being wrathful. Like myself. I don't, but am trying to. When a large natural catastophe occurs, I don't usually hear the church or others praising God for his mighty deeds. Again, this is not meant to be argumentative, and I apologize in advance if it sounds that way. Praising God in a trial is understandable. Praising God when a whole village is buried in mud is quite another matter. Instinctively we mourn and rally around those who are in need. We may praise God for the strength to go on, but we hardly think to praise him for the disaster at hand.

Hollands Opus said...

I absolutely agree. My point is that he is no less praiseworthy because of his wrath. God is either praiseworthy or not, and conditions cannot change that.

Not only that, but there are a number of natural consequences that may not be wrath actions by God.