4th Edition: A Poke In The Faith

23 October 2021

I launched my free e-book, A Poke In The Faith, in 2016. It shows how many traditional evangelical beliefs have come under question in recent years. And this, not by enemies of the Christian faith, but by solid, committed followers of Jesus who have been bold enough to query some aspects of their faith.

My aim in writing the book was, first, to spell out some of the challenges being made—most of which I’m in sympathy with, but others not—and, second, to show how it’s possible to face up to them without losing your own faith.

The latter came, in turn, out of the grim awareness of an increasing number of Christians who have jacked in their faith all together. And the reason they have done so, it appears, is because they have held to an inter-connected belief system in which every item is linked to all the rest. As a result, if an attack on one item brings it down, the whole belief-system comes crashing down with it.

In my book, therefore, I set out to show that you don’t have to have a tightly inter-connected system. That sets you free, then, to let go of—or adopt a different view of—certain items without having the whole faith-structure collapse around you.

Since the book went public on my website, I’ve had a steady flow of responses from people in many countries  who have found it helpful in just the way I intended, which is gratifying. Most of these have been Christians with a long evangelical history. Many of them have been questioning certain aspects for years, but have never dared make it known, for fear of being thought to be ‘backsliders’.

Naturally, I’ve also had a handful of vitriolic responses writing me off as an irretrievable heretic!

A few of the topics covered are:

  • Heaven and hell
  • What happened at the cross?
  • Creation and evolution
  • Interpreting the Bible
  • Belief-systems like Calvinism
  • What the Bible is and is not
  • The meaning of ‘justification’
  • What exactly is ‘the gospel’?
  • The kingdom of God
  • Christianity and other religions

In December 2019 I updated A Poke In The Faith to its Second Edition. This involved a few minor tweaks to the text, plus three new topics:

  1. A section on ‘the wrath of God’
  2. A chapter on the doctrine of ‘original sin’
  3. A chapter applying current thinking on Bible interpretation to the fraught topic of homosexuality in general and gay marriage in particular

Hard on the heels of this, in August 2020, came the Third Edition. This added material on God and the problem of evil. In particular, it addressed the issue of why, if God is both loving and all-powerful, does he not do more to stop it? And, more recently still, the Fourth Edition appeared, with minor amendments and some material on the Bible viewed as ‘wisdom’ literature.

You can download the latest edition for free here. It’s available in PDF, Kindle and epub formats which, between them, mean you can read it on any computer, tablet or phone. I invite you to give it a read in the hope that, along with many other readers, you will find it informative and, hopefully, liberating.

The same link will give you access to my other current free e-book, Signposts To God. This is an evangelistic book aimed at people who at present don’t have any active faith but are beginning to feel their way towards God. Please don’t hesitate to download it and pass it on to anyone you feel might find it helpful.

And if you have any feedback to offer, I’d be very happy to receive it. You can email me via the link on my website at www.davidmatthew.org.uk

[If you have found this interesting, you might also like this post.]


Review: Reading Scripture the Emmaus way

10 September 2021

This is the last of a trilogy of related works by Canadian theologian Bradley Jersak, following on from A More Christlike God and A More Christlike Way. It is

A More Christlike Word: Reading Scripture the Emmaus Way by Bradley Jersak (Whitaker House, 2021).

It has a foreword by Peter Enns on five aspects of biblical interpretation.

Jersak’s emphasis in all three of his books is the supremacy of Christ, to whom all other aspects of faith and doctrine must bow, since he alone is ‘the exact representation of God’s being’. The ‘Emmaus’ reference in the title is, of course, to Jesus’ dialogue with two disheartened disciples in Luke 24, where ‘he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.’

The author is wary of calling the Bible ‘the word of God’, in the conviction that only Jesus himself can claim that title. The Bible is a witness to him, no more. In the light of that, some of the notions of biblical inspiration, infallibility and inerrancy common in evangelical circles are open to question. He addresses them all in depth, along with the concept of the ‘canon’ of Scripture. In doing so, the author is open about his personal journey from dispensationalism, via Calvinism, to a more Christ-centred position, and how that has altered his approach to such issues.

He looks frankly at the brutal, genocidal passages in the Old Testament, concluding that God never commanded them, even though his people at the time thought he did. From there, it’s a short step to a critique of PSA (penal substitutionary atonement), where God allegedly killed Jesus, using violence to achieve his ends, and to a different (and now widely accepted) understanding of God’s ‘wrath’. In all this, he leans heavily on patristics (the church leaders of the first few centuries, and their hermeneutics), lamenting the fact that modern evangelicalism tends to ignore almost everything between Paul and Martin Luther.

In addressing his theme, Jersak anticipates the objections that some readers will interject, and he deals with them thoroughly, and with grace. These include charges of supercessionism, eisegesis and the ‘spiritualising’ or ‘over-allegorising’ of Scripture.

In addition to rejecting the ‘flat reading’ of the Bible associated with modern concepts of inerrancy, he questions the ‘progressive revelation’ approach. Instead, he prefers ‘progressive illumination’—spelling out the differences and making a good case for it. He also looks with favour on the Septuagint (LXX, the Greek translation of the Old Testament), which was the version of the OT used by the NT writers. He illustrates how it often undercuts evangelical ideas like God punishing Jesus at Calvary (see the LXX of Isaiah 53:10).

He looks in detail at some literary features of the Bible often overlooked, such as allegory, ‘myth’, rhetoric, diatribe, phenomenology and anthropomorphism, with examples of each. He maintains that without some grasp of how the NT writers, in particular, used these stylistic devices, we cannot hope to get a clear understanding of what they are saying.

Evangelicals have tended to look down on church calendar-based practices revolving round liturgy and the lectionary. Jersak makes a strong case for a return to such approaches as guarantees that we get a rounded picture of God’s redemptive purpose instead of just pecking around the Bible for an interesting sermon-topic or a ‘blessed thought’.

To the huge current discussion about the nature of the Bible this book brings a helpful contribution. It’s not an easy bedtime read, but the effort of working your way through it will be a worthwhile challenge.

Here’s a selection of quotations, with page numbers.

When we stand firm on Scripture’s central revelation—that Jesus Christ, the Word-made-flesh, is what God finally says about himself—biblicism (the notion that the Bible is our final authority) presents a thousand objections in the form of contrary biblical proof texts.  (p20)

Reading the whole Bible as a testimony of Jesus and as the grand narrative of redemption will require us to revisit our patterns of interpretation and layers of reading—attending to the literal, moral, and spiritual sense described by the early church.  (p24)

The Word of God is inspired, inerrant, and infallible. And when he was about eighteen years old, he grew a beard.  (p26)

The Word is a person. The confusion or conflation of inspired texts with the eternal Son of God is deeply problematic, especially when the Bible displaces Christ as the “Word of God” and “Scripture alone” becomes our “sole and final authority” instead of him.  (p27)

When I reoriented from Bible to Christ as the locus of the Word of God, Scripture became my map—or an inspired compass—rather than my destination, its authors, narrators, and events all employed by God’s Spirit, directing me to pursue the Person.  (p36)

…the difference between reading the Bible as a flat text (where every word has equal authority), progressive revelation (where all the words accumulate in a crescendo of consistent truth), and the Christocentric view (where Christ is the pinnacle of revelation, and every word must finally submit to him).  (p38)

[Re Numbers chapter 31]  Could the Abba Jesus revealed say, “Wipe out the foreigners. Take their women and sort them into virgins and nonvirgins”? (Who checked? How?) “Slaughter the nonvirgins and keep the virgins for yourself. But tithe a tenth of them to the Levites for their use”? (What use?)  (p39)

Following N. T. Wright and others, I no longer capitalize satan. Brian Zahnd says “the satan” is less than a person, more than a metaphor. It is the real phenomenon of evil, rooted in human sin, and verges on self-awareness. Most importantly, the satan phenomenon is undone by Love.  (p42)

“You mean in Eastern Orthodox churches you don’t have to believe in penal substitution?” I asked, hopeful.  “No, I mean in the Orthodox church you are required not to believe in it,” he replied firmly, adding, “And there are 350 million of us who have never believed it.”  (p49)

Once PSA fell, every doctrine related to divine retribution began to topple in turn. If God truly is Love in his essential nature, the necessity of eternal conscious torment, acts of divine genocide, and literalist interpretations of wrath fall too.  (p50)

I read 1 Samuel 15 to Vladika and asked him how the Abba whom Jesus Christ revealed as perfect love and unfailing mercy could possibly issue such a command. Without hesitation, he replied, “He didn’t.” I countered, “But the Bible says he did.” He parried with these surprising words: “No, these are the words of Samuel, a cantankerous old bigot who would not let go of his prejudice, projecting his own malice, unforgiveness, and need for vengeance into the mouth of Yahweh.”  (p51)

What the Bible calls “God’s wrath” is a metaphor for the self-induced consequences or intrinsic judgment of our own turning from Perfect Love.  (p52)

I am especially taken with Pete Enns’s “Christotelic” interpretation, which is why I asked him to explain it in the foreword to this book. In fact, he’s answered one of my most bewildering questions in one sentence: Why does the Bible contain so many bizarre, offensive, and un-Christlike depictions of God? Pete’s answer: “Because God let his children tell the story.”  (p53)

How you see the Bible changes your relationship with it. As I keep insisting, Christ gets the final word, and the Scriptures testify to his authority. I relate to Christ as God’s Word and to the Bible as one (and not the only) venue where I can hear the living Voice.  (p57)

I personally receive the Scriptures as authoritative insofar as they testify to Jesus. But I don’t see them making authoritative claims on matters of history, science, or even religion (e.g., I don’t submit myself to the purity laws of Leviticus). Rather, I ask, “How are the Law and Prophets not abolished but fulfilled in Jesus?” I let the authors say what they say on their own terms and then ask what the message is saying to me about Christ, his gospel, and his call for me to grow in love, by grace, toward God and my neighbors.  (p72)

The canon of faith was established by Christ and his apostles from the beginning, but the canon of Scripture has always been hotly contested. In fact, the canon of Scripture differs from Protestant to Catholic to Eastern Orthodox to Coptic Orthodox to Ethiopian Orthodox and beyond…to this day!…  The ecumenical councils felt it essential to be led by the infallible Holy Spirit to remember the gospel and articulate it infallibly in the first creeds—even before they finalized what books were canonical.  (p74)

[Re 2 Cor 3:5-18]  The veils are not only being removed from our own hearts as we read Scripture. Over the millennia, veil upon veil has been progressively removed within the Bible itself. That is, the authors who produced the Scriptures by the Spirit were themselves subject to temporal veils. Their veils glorified tribalism and nativism, militarism and violence, racism and misogyny, imperial and colonial ambition, and so on. Just like us!  (p79)

Prior even to opening the scrolls, the famous rabbi Philo understood that God is all-good and all-merciful. That understanding became his first interpretive principle. It predetermined how Scripture was to be understood and applied. Where God is portrayed as good, Philo instructs us to read that as a revelation of the good God. Where God is not portrayed as good, he instructs us to read allegorically, because we must never allow a literalist interpretation to negate our understanding of God’s goodness.  (p89)

I would suggest that the liturgical reading of the Scriptures in the context of community worship and the lectionary cycles, with its connections of linked texts, provided an essential medium for understanding the message that preceded the Bible—an understanding that is not as obvious in the printed version. In other words, the “divine liturgy” of the church is a medium that functions to frame the Scriptures within the canon of faith—the message of the gospel—showing how they work together within the drama of redemption that inexorably points to Christ crucified and risen. So, too, the lectionary cycles: these frame the Scriptures within the church calendar precisely in order to lead us to Christ and his gospel.  (p94)

I have often seen people, through a flat reading of the Bible, use particular Scriptures to argue against the very teachings of Jesus Christ, justifying from the idolized text that which the Word himself forbade. When the Bible becomes our final authority, Jesus is demoted to a mere episode in the Good Book.  (p95)

The next time you make eye contact with another human being, look through their eyes to the depths of their heart, to the treasure that is their true self, and then look to the deep joy of Christ’s adoring gaze. Leave behind the worm theology that judges another person’s deepest heart as deceitful and desperately wicked. Value them as you would a priceless gem—because Jesus did.  (p103)

When you compare translations side by side, the question is NOT necessarily which one best represents the first manuscripts, but which one best represents the gospel.  (p108)

[Quoting David Bentley Hart]  Fundamentalist literalism is a modern heresy, one that breaks from Christian practice with such violence as to call into question whether those who practice it are still truly obedient to the apostolic faith at all.  (p112)

Biblical literalism and inerrancy predetermine limits on what the Bible cannot do or say before even reading the text or allowing it to speak for itself. The result is an unwitting assault on the authority of Scripture, which itself is subordinate to Christ the Word. Inerrancy, then, is a modernist ideal that stands over Scripture (and over Christ!), attempting to master the text—to dissect it with the scalpel of literalism.  (p113)

We’ve learned that the Epistles are more than propositional teachings and ethical letters. Ben Witherington III and David deSilva have helped us to see these New Testament Epistles as sermons, written to be preached and crafted by masters of first-century rhetoric.  (p122)

The early masters of Scripture such as Origen in the East and Jerome in the West were simply following Jesus’s own hermeneutic and training us to emulate our Master-Teacher. And while literalists are skittish of allegory, Jesus makes it necessary for an Emmaus-Way interpretation. Contrary to my training, early church fathers didn’t come up with allegorical interpretation—Jesus and his apostolic successors were already adept at using and modeling it to unveil the gospel.  (p134)

Many disillusioned Christians, embittered ex-Evangelicals, and haughty New Atheists denigrate the Bible in the easiest possible way: they continue to read it as fundamentalist literalists—then use their misinterpretation of the sacred Scriptures against it as ammunition.  (p135)

Yes, I believe Jesus actually performed a wedding miracle in Cana, met with Nicodemus under the stars, and sat with a Samaritan woman who had been divorced five times. And I also believe the water-to-wine miracle is a parable of our transformation, that Nicodemus’s born-again transformation and the Samaritan woman’s inner spring are stories about us. I am/we are the morphing water. I am/we are Nicodemus. I am/we are the Samaritan. I am/we are the woman caught in adultery, and the blind man, rescued and healed by Christ. This dual reality of history and allegory is what Lewis meant by “true myth.”  (p151)

We can be liberal in saying, “I see Christ foreshadowed here,” without claiming, “God told me this verse means that.” This is not an “anything goes” hermeneutic. Rather, we’re reading with an open ear for intimations of the gospel itself within the Scriptures.  (p159)

A great many details of our sacred text still surprise and bewilder me. I can’t get my head around great chunks of it. But I trust that God is good, that Jesus is Lord, and that the unsearchable ways I read about are riches to be cherished. For me, being stumped has become an invitation to worship and to perpetual discovery.  (p168)

Hosea is one of our clearest revelations of the radical freedom of God to forgive sin without punishment, payment, sacrifice, or even repentance.  (p174)

[Re Deuteronomy 20-21]  I know Christians who are so hateful to Muslims that if I showed them this passage and said it was from the Qur’an, they would not hesitate to condemn and burn it. But if it’s in the Bible? Does the binding and title on the book suddenly make it defensible?  (p183)

The average Christian is now less biblically literate, and the average atheist is significantly more biblically aware, now than in the twentieth century.  (p190)

Worship precedes theology, often by several decades. As we experience the presence of God in prayer and worship, we begin to compose liturgies and songs that express what we have come to see. Eventually, theologians become observant and follow suit. Teachers may begin to confirm the implications of what the congregation has already been singing and praying (which is to say, believing) over the past decades. Ironically, the first generation of these teachers are often regarded as heretical, sometimes even by the very congregants who spawned the original revelation.  (p191)

The Bible is a revelation about us and about God. What the Bible reveals about the fallen human condition is our “sin.” This includes the depth of our “death anxiety,” the nature of “mimetic desire” and the “scapegoating mechanism,” and our human propensity to demand retributive justice and then sacralize retribution through sacrificial religion.  (p196)

[Re the book of Job]  Would the story have been better if we had simply skipped the first thirty-one chapters? After all, God himself tells us that virtually everything to that point was folly! Then why not just delete it? Why fill our minds with flaws? I used to flip right to the “good stuff” in Job until I started seeing how “good” the foolish counsel seemed to me. Some of it appears to make good sense. Exactly! The important function of the friends’ speeches is to shine a light on our own idiocy. The friends’ speeches are an inspired revelation of our own error, not a divine thumbs-up to their error.  (p203)

When we read the psalmist’s blessing on infanticide in Psalm 137:9, no sane person who has experienced the Father’s love honestly believes this is a revelation of God’s will. We know instinctively that we have here a revelation of the psalmist’s real but misguided demand for justice.  (p204)

We ought to bear in mind that just like Abraham, Moses, and David, so too the apostles of Christ and the authors of the New Testament were people in the process of transformation and discovery, not omniscient angels with magical pens. Their works, too, reveal both the human condition and faith culture of their era…and the divine solution—Jesus Christ, to whom all Scripture (before and after) points.  (p208)

We have often imagined that when we disobey a divine warning, God, rather than our own disobedience, becomes the threat and the source of harm. We confuse the wages of sin (intrinsic consequences) with the wrath (violent anger) of God.  (p221)

God deals with sin through correction, not punishment. That’s Clement, that’s Hebrews, that’s Hosea. The chastisements of God are disciplinary—not because divine justice demands satisfaction, payback, or wrath, but because a patient God is raising beloved children who tend to learn the hard way.  (p226)

I would argue that the number one genre error in biblical interpretation occurs when we mistake epistles for straightforward didactic teaching when, in fact, they are rhetorical sermons, designed to be preached aloud in the congregation.  (p233)

[Re Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats]  We literalize the parable into an eschatology. And since we can’t work out why the criterion of judgment is mercy rather than faith in Christ, we sit around reworking our end-times timeline instead of welcoming the stranger or visiting those who are sick and in prison.  (p244)

The Bible says God DOES change his mind. Some examples are Exodus 32:12–14; 2 Samuel 24:16; Jeremiah 18:8–10; 26:13, 19; 42:10; Ezekiel 7:22; Jonah 3:9–10; 4:2; and Amos 7:3–6. The Bible also says God DOESN’T change his mind. Examples: Numbers 23:19; 1 Samuel 15:29; Isaiah 31:2; 2 Corinthians 1:19; and James 1:17. Does the Bible contradict itself? Yes, these verses are contradictory if we read them literally. If we forget to account for worldviews and phenomenology…  (p251)

What, then, shall we say to those texts that announce God’s wrath? I argue that to avoid regressing to pagan images of God, we must read them as anthropomorphisms—i.e., figures of speech projecting human characteristics onto God.  (p254)

It’s not as though God is some heartless Stoic in the sky or the “unmoved mover” of Aristotle’s philosophy. No, God is LOVE. And God is relational and responsive to us—infinitely so. It’s just that God’s love is not reactive, subject to or contingent upon our drama, shame, or performance. Rather, God’s love flows as the infinite, constant, and unfailing spring of his own nature. Does God grieve with us and rejoice with us? The incarnation reveals God’s limitless empathy. Yes, God sympathizes with our weaknesses and knows the human condition from within—but not as one whose character (love/goodness) is jerked around by external forces.  (p266)

These patristic giants defined orthodoxy and defended it against some of the same heresies that pass themselves off as mainstream Christianity today. Their dogmatic teaching on the Christlike God of unswerving goodness and cruciform love is the gospel through which all Scripture must be read. I commend them to you as the pinnacle of biblical interpretation, without whom we would have no Bible at all.  (p268)

I see the deconstructionists exiting their churches and walking away from faith by the tens of millions. One reason for this is that they’ve been indoctrinated with false images of who God is and what God requires. The wrathful God who threatened to burn them in hell forever if they don’t believe right or behave right is not the Abba whom Jesus revealed—not the gracious and gentle Shepherd who descends into hades to rescue lost sheep, who are too entangled in briars to find their way home.   (p271)

The parable of the prodigal son(s) is the clearest picture we have of what wrath is, how it works, what causes it, and how it is and isn’t “God’s.” The Prodigal Son woke up in a pigpen of his own making and came to his senses. The father did not send him there. Were his days or years or life of misery literally God’s wrath (anger expressed as violence)? No. But his trials were transformed by God’s grace into the big story of the son’s redemption.  (p274)

My reviews of other books by Brad Jersak:

  • A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel – here
  • Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hell, Hope and the New Jerusalem – here

Review: Gay marriage

17 June 2021

In Christian circles, gay marriage is a current hot potato. Many evangelicals take the view that the Bible condemns homosexuality in every respect, and that’s the end of the matter. Others, including myself, would want to take a more nuanced view of the Bible and its interpretation, which might open the door to gay marriage. This book is in the latter category. It is

God and the Gay Christian—The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships by Matthew Vines (Convergent Books, 2014).

The author is a Christian with a high view of Scripture. He was raised by Christian parents, and realised he was gay when quite young. He tackles every aspect of the question with openness and integrity, including detailed analysis of the six key Bible passages. But he also addresses appeals to the larger narrative of Scripture. In fact you will be hard pressed to find any anti-homosexuality argument that he doesn’t face up to and examine in depth, and with grace.

In past generations, the church rejected the idea of a heliocentric solar system and accepted the legitimacy of slavery, both on the grounds of ‘the Bible says…’ It has rightly changed position on both those issues, and others. The whole homosexuality issue, the author maintains, is in the same category, for the same kind of reasons.

He concludes that God favours commitment and covenant in human relationships, and that the kind of commitment expressed in a same-sex marriage falls safely within that circle. If your initial reaction to this statement is to snort with derision, you are the very person this book is intended for.

Here’s a selection of quotations, with page numbers.

My core argument in this book is not simply that some Bible passages have been misinterpreted and others have been given undue weight. My larger argument is this: Christians who affirm the full authority of Scripture can also affirm committed, monogamous same-sex relationships. (p3)

Homosexuality, to the limited extent it was discussed in our church, was little more than a political football, a quick test of orthodoxy.  (p8)

Six passages in the Bible—Genesis 19:5; Leviticus 18:22; Leviticus 20:13; Romans 1:26–27; 1 Corinthians 6:9; and 1 Timothy 1:10—have stood in the way of countless gay people who long for acceptance from their Christian parents, friends, and churches.  (p11)

With most sins, it wasn’t hard to pinpoint the damage they cause. Adultery violates a commitment to your spouse. Lust objectifies others. Gossip degrades people. But committed same-sex relationships didn’t fit this pattern. Not only were they not harmful to anyone, they were characterized by positive motives and traits instead, like faithfulness, commitment, mutual love, and self-sacrifice. What other sin looked like that?  (p12)

Mandatory celibacy for gay Christians differs from any other kind of Christian self-denial, including involuntary celibacy for some straight Christians. Even when straight Christians seek a spouse but cannot find one, the church does not ask them to relinquish any future hope of marriage.  (p17)

Christians did not change their minds about the solar system because they lost respect for their Christian forebears or for the authority of Scripture. They changed their minds because they were confronted with evidence their predecessors had never considered.  (p24)

The trouble starts when we put names, faces, and outcomes to what the traditional interpretation means in practice.  (p28)

For the overwhelming majority of human history, homosexuality was not seen as a different sexual orientation that distinguished a minority of people from the heterosexual majority. It was considered instead to be a manifestation of normal sexual desire pursued to excess—a behavior anyone might engage in if he didn’t keep his passions in check.  (p31)

Prior to 1869, terms meaning “homosexual” and “homosexuality” didn’t exist in any language, and they weren’t translated into English until 1892.  (p40)

The new information we have about sexual orientation actually requires us to reinterpret Scripture no matter what stance we take on same-sex relationships.  (p42)

The account of Eve’s creation doesn’t emphasize Adam’s need to procreate. It emphasizes instead his need for relationship.  (p45)

For gay Christians, the challenge of mandatory celibacy goes far beyond their mere capacity to live it out. Mandatory celibacy corrodes gay Christians’ capacity for relationship in general. But it does something else equally harmful: by requiring gay Christians to view all their sexual desires as temptations to sin, it causes many of them to devalue, if not loathe, their bodies.  (p50)

Decades ago, biblical scholars on both sides of the issue dismissed the idea that homosexuality was the sin of Sodom. Yet that belief still pervades our broader cultural consciousness, fueling negative attitudes toward gay people among Christians and negative attitudes toward the Bible among gay people.  (p60)

No biblical writers suggested that the sin of Sodom was primarily or even partly engaging in same-sex behavior. That interpretation would only arise later, after originally being advanced by an influential Jew named Philo.  (p69)

The Old Testament doesn’t condemn either polygamy or concubinage. On the contrary, it often assumes them…  All this is to say that not all Old Testament sexual norms carry over to Christians.  (p84)

There’s no question that Romans 1:26–27 is the most significant biblical passage in this debate. It’s the longest reference to same-sex behavior in Scripture, and it appears in the New Testament.  (p96)

Paul’s description of same-sex behavior in this passage is indisputably negative. But he also explicitly described the behavior he condemned as lustful. He made no mention of love, fidelity, monogamy, or commitment.  (p99)

…the cultural context in which Paul’s original audience would have read Romans 1:26–27. Paul wasn’t condemning the expression of a same-sex orientation as opposed to the expression of an opposite-sex orientation. He was condemning excess as opposed to moderation.  (p105)

In the ancient world, if a man took the active role in sex, his behavior generally was deemed to be “natural.” But if he took the passive role, he was derided for engaging in “unnatural” sex. The opposite was true for women: sexual passivity was termed “natural,” while sexual dominance was “unnatural.”  (p108)

From the church’s early centuries through the nineteenth century, commentators consistently identified the moral problem in Romans 1:26–27 as “unbridled passions,” not the expression of a same-sex orientation. Furthermore, no biblical interpreter prior to the twentieth century even hinted that Paul’s statements were intended to consign a whole group of people to lifelong celibacy.  (p116)

The bottom line is this: The Bible doesn’t directly address the issue of same-sex orientation—or the expression of that orientation. While its six references to same-sex behavior are negative, the concept of same-sex behavior in the Bible is sexual excess, not sexual orientation. What’s more, the main reason that non-affirming Christians believe the Bible’s statements should apply to all same-sex relationships—men and women’s anatomical complementarity—is not mentioned in any of the texts.  (p130)

Now that many of us recognize that same-sex orientation is both fixed and unchosen, we need to modify one of two Christian teachings: either the voluntary nature of lifelong celibacy or the scope of marriage.  (p134)

In Jesus’s understanding of marriage, covenantal commitment is foundational. The ability to bear children is not.  (p141)

Becoming “one flesh” encompasses much more than the act of sex. It includes the entire covenantal context in which God intends for sex to take place.  (p145)

Because same-sex orientation contains the potential for self-giving, covenantal love, it’s consistent with the image of God in us.  (p156)

If we tell people that their every desire for intimate, sexual bonding is shameful and disordered, we encourage them to hate a core part of who they were created to be. And if we reject the desires of gay Christians to express their sexuality within a lifelong covenant, we separate them from our covenantal God, and we tarnish their ability to bear his image.  (p158)

David Matthew note: My own journey towards being in favour of same-sex marriage is outlined in my free ebook, A Poke In The Faith, chapters 8 and 9. Chapter 8 sets out some principles of biblical interpretation (hermeneutics), and Chapter 9 applies them to aspects of sexuality, specifically gay marriage. You can download the book for free here: Download ‘A Poke In the Faith’ (davidmatthew.org.uk)


Review: Wise angle on the Bible

1 June 2021

These days, many would say the biggest challenge facing evangelicalism is its no-longer tenable view of the Bible. One scholar after another has exposed the weaknesses in how most evangelicals treat it and has pointed to more sensible alternatives. This book comes in that category. It is

How The Bible Actually Works: In which I explain how an ancient, ambiguous, and diverse book leads us to wisdom rather than answers—and why that’s great news by Peter Enns (Hodder & Stoughton, 2019).

This is Enns’s second book along these lines. The traditional ‘rule book’ approach to the Bible, he maintains, fails to take account of the fact that it is ‘ancient, ambiguous and diverse’. He outlines what he means by that, and how we need to adapt accordingly.

He proposes a ‘wisdom’ approach. That means looking at its varied, and often contradictory, messages and using Spirit-given wisdom to apply them sensibly to situations we face. After all, the Bible is all about Jesus, who ‘became for us wisdom from God’ (1 Corinthians 1:30). We should read it, then, intent on being wise in the way we interpret its broad guidelines. And these are broad indeed. Rarely do they come as unambiguous instructions but, instead, in a variety of forms requiring us to make choices.

The author has opted for an ‘amusing’ style for this book—presumably to broaden its appeal. For me it doesn’t work. I had the occasional smile, but most of the humour is anchored in American culture and thus, since I’m British, went over my head. A humorous style trivialises this serious topic anyway, I feel. That aside, it’s sound and thought-provoking stuff.

Enns illustrates ‘wisdom’ from the Book of Proverbs, showing how statements there flatly contradict each other—and that this is not a problem, because we are meant to exercise good sense in the way we apply the conflicting principles in everyday situations. He goes on to show, with many examples, how God’s laws, too, change and evolve with circumstances, requiring the same wisdom. The same feature marks the writings of the prophets of Israel.

Underlying the searching and insights of every past generation has been the question, ‘What is God like?’ The ancient Israelites could only express their conclusions within the limits of their time and culture, expressions mostly inappropriate for our own day. They saw him, for instance, as one god among many, and attributed to him the kind of violence typical of pagan deities of that era.

The most radical reimagining of God was triggered by the coming of Jesus, which forced Jews like Peter, John and Paul to stamp onto their ancient scriptures a whole new meaning. They honoured the tradition, but reworked it drastically to suit their new situation. Language featured in this. When the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek (the Septuagint), the translators tweaked many a statement to make it fit their current situation better. And this modified document was the ‘Bible’ that the New Testament writers used and quoted.

The fact that we have four Gospels, not just one, and that they don’t match up, points to the need to bring a ‘wisdom’ approach to the life of Jesus. The same is true of the New Testament letters where, Paul, for instance, struggles to identify the exact relation between ‘the Law’ and the gospel. He tussled in the same way with the ‘temple’ and ‘land’ themes. His was a major ‘wisdom’ exercise as he sought to tie the story of Jesus to Israel’s tradition.

When it comes to ‘faith versus works’, Paul and James bring different emphases. How both can be ‘true’ is difficult to specify. But again, this is ‘wisdom’ territory, and what we emphasise will vary from one situation to another, depending on the need. And that, Enns maintains, is a good thing; it is how the Bible is meant to work.

Even the nature of the atonement retains a degree of open-endedness. Vicarious or substitutionary atonement was a newish idea by the start of the New Testament era, and the apostles applied it to the work of Jesus in a variety of ways, leaving us requiring wisdom in how we understand and apply it.

Enns looks at some contemporary applications of the ‘wisdom’ principle. One is how Christians should view Romans 13:1, which labels governmental authorities as instituted by God. Does that mean we should never criticise political leaders today? He suggests not! He goes on to show how the same principle might affect the perennial hot topics of slavery, the place of women in society and the church, and homosexuality.

He concludes by warning against getting stuck in any stage of the church’s past. The creeds, for all their value, were a staging point only. The Reformation did not mark the end-point of revelation. We are to honour the past, retain only what is of lasting value, and keep moving forward in wisdom.

I recommend this book as a key to help unlock evangelical Christians from the constrictions of a questionable attitude to the Bible. Were it not for the annoying ‘humour’ element, I would give it an ‘Outstanding Book’ rating.

Here are some quotations, with page numbers.

The ‘problems’ we encounter when reading the Bible are really problems we create for ourselves when we harbor the misguided expectation that the Bible is designed primarily to provide clear answers.  (4)

By ambiguous I mean that the Bible, perhaps surprisingly, doesn’t actually lay out for anyone what to do or think—or it does so far less often than we have been led to believe…  The Bible is diverse—meaning it does not speak with one voice on most subjects, but conflicting and contradictory voices.  (8)

If polar opposite positions can keep claiming the Bible’s support, then perhaps providing ‘clear teaching’ might not be what scripture is prepared to do.  (10)

When the Bible is seen as a source of wisdom rather than an instruction manual of universally clear and consistent ‘teachings,’ we will learn to be comfortable with the provisional nature of how we think about God and therefore not shy away from interrogating our own faith with gentle candor.  (16)

What the Bible says about raising children is ambiguous once we pay attention to the details. It’s even morally suspect in places, in need of being questioned—even interrogated. And here is the bigger point of all this: How the Bible addresses this one topic of child rearing is a window onto how inadequate (and truly unbiblical) a rulebook view of the Bible as a whole is.  (28)

[Re Proverbs 26:4-5]  The lesson we learn from these two little verses sums up not only how Proverbs works, but how the Bible as a whole works as a book of wisdom.

Some of you might have thought ‘contradictions’ in the Bible were ‘bad.’ They’re not. They’re revealing.  (32)

The ambiguities in Proverbs are often tied to the book’s antiquity. When we read Proverbs, we are crossing a chasm of time and culture. The methods of disciplining children we’ve seen most certainly reflect the rather harsh climate of Iron Age tribal culture (1200–500 BCE), where physical violence among peoples and nations is a ho-hum matter-of-fact reality. Even God is depicted as a warrior who ruthlessly slays the enemy.  (36)

‘The entire Bible, like Proverbs, is ancient, ambiguous, and diverse. The Bible as a whole demands the same wisdom approach as Proverbs.’  (p38)

Wisdom became a prominent image for Judaism, which sets the stage for how the New Testament writers processed the idea of wisdom through a Jesus lens—the place held by wisdom would now be held by Jesus, ‘God with us,’ who, as Paul put it, became for us wisdom from God (1 Cor. 1:30).  (43)

The same wisdom that was with God when God ‘ordered’ creation (Gen. 1) is available to us as we seek to ‘order’ the chaos of our lives.  (45)

Given their uncompromising and stern tone, biblical laws have a surprising quality: they tend to be ambiguous, which should be rather disconcerting given what is at stake.  (52)

Readers from ancient times have always understood that keeping a law means more than ‘doing what it says’; it means deliberating over what the command actually requires here and now. Discerning how a law is to be obeyed, in other words, is an act of wisdom.  (53)

Jewish tradition has always understood that keeping the sabbath law—and any law—means working out how. And that insight still holds for today as we too seek to know God in the pages of scripture.  (63)

Times change, and laws that made sense at one point in time don’t necessarily make sense in another, and so they need to be amended.  (64)

[Re Exodus 21:11, 23-25; Deuteronomy 15:14-15]  These two slave laws of Exodus and Deuteronomy don’t match up, even though they are both said to come from the same divine source: God revealing his will to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Let that sink in.  (66)

Ambiguity in the Bible isn’t a problem to be solved. It is a self-evident reality. It is also a gift, for this characteristic is precisely what allows the Law to be flexible enough to fit multiple situations over time.  (69)

When we accept the Bible as the moving, changing, adaptive organism it is, we will more readily accept our own sacred responsibility to engage the ancient biblical story with wisdom, to converse with the past rather than mimic it—which is to follow the very pattern laid out in the Bible itself.  (77)

I’ve learned—by reading the Bible again and again—to accept and be grateful for this messy Bible we have, which drives us away from thinking of it as a stagnant pond of rules and regulations and toward thinking of it as a flowing stream that invites us to step in and be refreshed anew every day in following Jesus here and now.  (81)

Whoever was responsible for Deuteronomy apparently had no hesitation whatsoever in updating older laws for new situations and still calling it the words that God spoke back then to Moses on Mt. Sinai (or Horeb, as it is called in Deuteronomy), even though they don’t match what God said in Exodus. This writer wasn’t an idiot. He knew exactly that his words differed. But by saying that his words were the ones spoken by God to Moses a generation earlier, he was making a huge spiritual claim that we simply cannot miss and should take to heart: The writer of Deuteronomy sees his updating of the older laws as God’s words for his time and place. And so God isn’t just a voice out of the past. God still speaks.  (86)

Deuteronomy reimagines God for a new time and place.  (87)

Jonah and Nahum clearly see the matter of God’s attitude toward the Ninevites differently, and the reason is . . . wait for it . . . they were written at different times and under different circumstances for different purposes.  (104)

The reign of King Manasseh in 2 Chronicles—with his deportation to Babylon, repentance, and return to his homeland—is not an account of Manasseh’s reign. It is a symbolic retelling of Judah’s exile and return home after the captives had learned their lesson and repented of their sins.  (110)

I know many people of faith who struggle regularly with the God of the Bible, because this God seems so locked in a world we don’t recognize, a world that is so distant from ours—a world we have worked hard to get over.  (123)

‘What is God like?’ is the wisdom question around which all others revolve, the question that is ever before us, as each successive generation tries to pass on the faith of the past, which comes to us from an ancient time and in an ancient book, to the next generation that occupies its own unique moment in time and space.  (124)

‘Wisdom teaches us to embrace both the adequacy and the limitations of our God-talk, to keep the two in tension.’  (p129)

What made the Israelites different from their neighbors, religiously speaking, was their belief that only Yahweh, and not any of the other gods (heavenly bodies included), was worthy of their worship. To use the technical language, the Israelites were not monotheists in the strict sense of the word, but monolatrists: they worshiped one God, but believed in the existence of many gods.  (130)

Having no other gods before Yahweh (meaning ‘in preference to’ Yahweh) is a command that only has force if real live divine options are available.  (141)

The God of the Bible is portrayed in diverse ways. But that doesn’t neutralize the fact that one of those ways is as a harsh monarch so typical of the Iron Age world of tribal conflict.  (148)

The Bible does not leave us with one consistent portrait of God, but a collection of ancient and diverse portraits of how the various biblical writers understood God for their times. These biblical portraits of God are not there to test how clever we can be in making them all fit together nicely. They illustrate for us the need to accept the sacred responsibility of asking what God is like for us here and now.  (153)

The New Testament writers did not reject the God of the Old—they reimagined God, because the gospel in their time and place demanded it. The God-language of their Jewish tradition could not fully account for what the (Jewish) New Testament writers believed God had done in Jesus of Nazareth in their time.  (155)

When I see God presented today as a champion of the full equality of women, people of color, refugees, or the environment, I say, ‘Yes, this is my God too. This is the God I believe in.’ But this is a reimagined God.  (158)

At what point have we left the tradition by adjusting it to the present, and at what point have we killed the tradition by refusing to change at all? Addressing those questions describes the entire history of Judaism and Christianity, beginning already within the pages of the Bible itself and through to this very moment.  (165)

This process of needing to adapt over time is part of the biblical fabric, baked into its pages, and a crucial yet overlooked aspect of the Bible’s character as a book of wisdom rather than a once-for-all book of rules and static information.  (166)

Genesis 2:2 in Hebrew says that God finished the work of creation on the seventh day—which if you think about it suggests that God actually did some work on the seventh day and then took the afternoon off. But that would imply that God broke on page one of the Bible his own commandment to do no work on the sabbath. The Greek translators saw the problem and made a minor adjustment: he finished on the sixth day his works. Now God doesn’t contradict himself. Problem solved.  (175)

[Re the Septuagint]  The argument that gender-inclusive language is simply “compromising” the Bible for the sake of culture rings rather hollow when we look at what Jews were doing about twenty-three hundred years ago: they produced a culturally influenced Bible translation, the translation that—oh, sweet irony—became the Bible of the New Testament writers.  (177)

Resurrection of the dead was an adjustment to the story, a reimagining of what God will do that arose (an unintended yet fitting pun) during the Greek period to solve a pressing problem that had to do with God’s justice and fairness to his people.  (180)

The presence of an anti-God figure [Satan] solved (somewhat) a problem caused ironically by Judaism’s deep belief in only one God: Why do bad things happen? Where does evil come from? Who is responsible? In a world where many gods existed, you could pin horrid events on some erratic divine being. Sure, one of the gods was at the head of the table and ultimately responsible, but they couldn’t always be relied on to stay on top of everything. But once you believe that your God is the one and only God, accounting for the presence of evil in the world gets tricky.  (185)

Christians have said rather freely for almost two millennia that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and present everywhere at once (omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent). We do not always realize how completely dependent these ideas are on the ways Greek thought influenced Judaism before Christianity and how ill-fitting these descriptions of God are, biblically speaking.  (186)

Wisdom didn’t stop being a big deal when Jesus came, as if now finally all answers are given and we can start following the rulebook. Wisdom continues to be fundamental to faith. Jesus and the gospel have more to do with wisdom than we might be used to hearing.  (197)

If Jesus’s main goal were to be crystal clear, he wouldn’t have introduced thick layers of ambiguities and possible misunderstandings [parables]. But that’s what he did. Because he is a sage.  (199)

Another sagely side of Jesus is how he answers questions when challenged by the guardians of the status quo. He rarely if ever goes for a straightforward answer and often answers the question with another question.  (200)

Following Jesus’s teachings is following the path of wisdom—it is your actions, what you say and do to others, not maintaining a hard-line doctrinal stance or turning faith into an intellectual abstraction.  (202)

As the Word with God at creation, Jesus is described in a way that unmistakably echoes the description of wisdom we already saw in Proverbs 8 (especially verses 22, 30) and wisdom’s role in creation.  (204)

Each Gospel is its own unique retelling of the life of Jesus centered on the needs of each writer’s community of faith. We’re in wisdom territory here again.  (206)

Paul doesn’t reject the Law of Moses, as some in Christian history have thought, but he does marginalize it, decenter it, by placing at the center of God’s plan for the world not our obedience to Torah, but Christ’s obedience to go through with the crucifixion to defeat Sin and God’s raising of Jesus from the dead to defeat Death.  (221)

Judging from the Sermon on the Mount, for example (Matt. 5–7), Jesus has no place for nationalism or political power, whether Roman or Jewish. Recovering the land of Israel—meaning an Israel the Jews run as their own with their own king, as in the old days—never gets so much as a whisper of support in the Gospels or anywhere else in the New Testament. Rather, the opposite is the norm.  (233)

Paul came to the conclusion that God’s raising of Jesus is Phase 1 of the ‘end times.’ Phase 2 will come at some future time when all will be raised in the normal Jewish way of thinking about it. But (more confusion coming) the final judgment that God would announce at the future time (Judgment Day, we often call it) has, for Paul, already been announced for believers in Jesus now.  (243)

The letters of the New Testament are wisdom documents. We are watching some of the earliest followers of Jesus working out what it meant to walk with God in their moment in time. When we read these letters we are watching wisdom in action.  (256)

Far from being an unalterable law that simply has to be obeyed by all at all times because Paul said it and it’s in the Bible, Romans 13:1 is a demonstration of wisdom at work, of choosing the best path for Paul’s here and now. Rather than simply doing what Paul told the Christians in the Roman capital to do two thousand years ago, we today follow Paul best by exercising the same kind of wisdom he did—discerning for ourselves how best to follow God in our time and place.  (260)

Paul brought gender equality into his world as far as he could. Christians today can—and should—build on that wise trajectory and take it farther.  (265)

‘Using Bible verses to end discussions on difficult and complex issues serves no one and fundamentally misses the dimension of wisdom that is at work anytime we open the Bible anywhere and read it.’  (p270)

The creeds are not high moments of the Christian tradition simply to be recited as if that’s the end of it, though they tend to be seen as that. Rather, they are monuments to wisdom that we revisit with profit, but dare not hold up as the non-negotiable high moment of the tradition. That place is taken by Jesus, the true subject that all creeds are trying to put into words.  (274)


Review: Still believing the Bible!

3 October 2020

Many books today are knocking the Bible by giving reasons for rejecting it. Many, perhaps most, are ill thought-through and lacking in scholarly substance. So it’s good to find a book in defence of the Bible’s trustworthiness, written by a competent biblical scholar with his feet on the ground. It is

Can We Still Believe The Bible?—An evangelical engagement with contemporary questions by Craig L. Blomberg (Brazos Press, 2014)

Blomberg engages with six aspects that have commonly come under attack:

  1. Textual criticism (finding the Bible’s original wording)

cwsbtbWith so many textual variants in the NT, can we be sure we know what the original version was? The author exposes the glaring weaknesses in Bart Ehrman’s influential book: Misquoting Jesus. He shows the statistics there to be presented in a misleading way, and counters them with a balanced and settling presentation. He goes on to examine the two key ‘doubtful’ NT passages: the ending of Mark’s Gospel, and part of John 8. Along the way, he addresses many other shorter textual variants.

He goes into considerable detail, too, on the more complex text of the OT. It makes fascinating reading. He concludes that, overall, we can be more certain of the text of the Bible than we can of most other ancient books. We can reconstruct it with a very high degree of probability, even if we cannot claim to have a flawless text.

  1. The biblical canon (which books are in the Bible, and why)

Here, Blomberg addresses the popular opinion that political forces at the time of Constantine (4th century AD) decided which books should be in the canon of the NT. He provides solid reasons for rejecting that position. He also examines the debates that took place over certain books and their legitimacy as candidates for inclusion in the NT canon, and what the criteria were.

outstandingbook  He looks at the OT canon, too, and shows how flimsy a foundation some of the critical claims are based upon, offering firmer alternatives on which to build a different view. But he is honest in admitting where our knowledge of ancient sources and developments runs out and speculation begins. He also tackles the question of the Apocrypha and how we should regard it.

There is an interesting section on the abuse of the canon of Scripture, in which Wayne Grudem’s widely-used Systematic Theology comes in for some direct criticism.

  1. The problems of the proliferation of English translations

Blomberg has already, in the previous sections, debunked the notion that the Authorized (King James) Version is somehow more trustworthy than later versions of the English Bible. And there are vastly more of these than in any other language, some of them of dubious quality.

He provides a history of the translations and the three main approaches adopted by translators. He debunks the idea that the more ‘literal’ a translation is, the more we should prefer it. Interestingly, the version favoured by most English-speaking scholars worldwide is the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). Conversely, he shows how exaggerated are the claims made for the English Standard Version (ESV).

The author also faces up to the fraught issue of gender-inclusive language and how appropriate it is for the Bible text, especially in relation to the latest edition (2011) of the popular New International Version (NIV).

  1. The ‘inerrancy’ of the Bible

It is chiefly in the USA that ‘biblical inerrancy’ is emphasised. But many Christians elsewhere have picked up on it and assumed it to be a ‘given’ of orthodox faith. It holds that the Bible is without errors. But there is debate over what constitutes an error! Definitions of inerrancy usually include a phrase like ‘Scripture properly interpreted’, which opens the door to many opinions.

Blomberg examines the ways in which, in biblical times, people reported speech or recorded history. They differed enormously from modern practices, but we should not judge the former by the latter. A difference does not constitute an error.

He comes down in favour of inerrancy, but with a view of it that is very nuanced and sensitive to the complexity of the biblical text. It is a view that many conservatives would, I suspect, dismiss as far too liberal, but which I myself find very satisfying.

  1. The biblical genres (e.g. what parts are history, and in what sense?)

The Bible contains a wide variety of literary genres: history, letters, wisdom, poetry etc. A problem for many people is which parts they should receive as historical narrative, and which as illustrative stories that are not necessarily true in a literal sense.

Blomberg looks at many examples, starting with the accounts of the creation and fall in Genesis. He goes on to discuss Job and Jonah—was he really swallowed by a whale?—and then the authorship of Isaiah, before looking at Daniel and the genre known as apocalyptic literature.

The NT section examines the theory that Matthew is an example of the Jewish genre called midrash, the disputed authorship of some of the epistles and, finally, the much-disputed book of Revelation. Blomberg’s treatment of them all is sensible, balanced and persuasive. To his credit, he comes clean on where he personally stands on the main issues.

  1. The question of miracles

Sceptics have argued that the Bible’s miracle stories make it a mythical book. This comes from a materialistic worldview that has no place for real miracles.

Blomberg disagrees. He points to the evidence for miracles happening today, well-documented and with lasting results. And, in addition, reminds us that miracles—especially the resurrection of Jesus—are an integral part of Christianity in a way that is not true of other religions.

After recounting some miracles that he himself has personally witnessed, he goes on to examine some of the NT miracles and ask whether they were embroidered over the years onto more mundane events, or were even based on pagan miracle stories. He looks particularly at the resurrection of Jesus, for which the evidence is overwhelming. Then he takes a similar approach with some OT miracles.

He identifies categories: types of situations where OT miracles were frequent. Then he applies the same process to NT miracles, including those in the book of Acts. He decides that the evidence for biblical miracles—and miracles today—is strong.

He concludes by coming down firmly on the side of the Bible’s trustworthiness. While cautioning against an over-liberal approach to it, he wisely warns, too, against the opposite: an unrealistic conservatism. The latter, espoused by hard-line biblicists, has done as much as the former to put off genuine seekers from engaging with the Scriptures.

Finally he cautions against exclusivist, pharisaical attitudes towards those who take a ‘lower’ view of the Bible that we do, asserting: ‘Millions of evangelicals worldwide and throughout history have not accepted the belief that every last word of Scripture is without error, yet they are living (or have lived) faith-filled, Christ-directed, God-honoring lives.’ (p221)

This is a first-class book, and I recommend it wholeheartedly to every thinking Christian.

Here’s a selection of quotations, with page numbers.

It seems impossible to avoid the conclusion that God has worked with humanity gradually over time, progressively revealing more and more of himself and his will as humans have been able to receive it, which also suggests that there are trajectories of moral enlightenment established on the pages of Scripture that we should continue to push even further today. (4)

There are…areas of scholarship where new findings, or at least much more intense study of slightly older discoveries, have actually strengthened the case for the reliability or trustworthiness of the Scriptures. (7)

Huge misunderstandings remain about the strengths and weaknesses of so-called literal translations. (10)

Many people simply can’t live with even a very slight uncertainty about the exact reading of the original text of a document they treat as inspired, authoritative, and infallible Scripture. So, however implausible their arguments have to be, they insist on defending the notion that God has inerrantly preserved his Word. (39)

We have massive amounts of support for our convictions that the sixty-six books of the canonical Scriptures accepted by all branches of Christianity have been extraordinarily well preserved. (42)

The New Testament explicitly quotes from a broad cross-section of Old Testament documents but never quotes from the Apocrypha. Jude quotes once from a pseudepigraphic work, 1 Enoch, but not in a fashion that necessarily implies that he understood the work to be part of the Hebrew canon. (49)

In John’s original context, Revelation 22:18–19 on not adding or subtracting to the words of this book referred only to the book of Revelation itself. But when the church finalized the canon, by including Revelation and ending with it, it was in essence applying John’s words to the entire collection of authoritative documents. (56)

The criterion of apostolicity [for inclusion in the canon] does not mean that every book was written by an apostle—by one of Jesus’s twelve closest followers—but rather that they were written during the apostolic age, before the last of the Twelve (most likely John) had died. (58)

The Hebrew Scriptures remained an open-ended narrative in a way the New Testament did not. Christians, in compiling their uniquely sacred Scriptures, added to the Old Testament what they believed was the divinely intended fulfilment of the story of God’s dealings with humanity. (62)

Tellingly, the only way Muslims and Mormons have been able to justify another collection of divinely inspired literature is to claim either (1) that the existing texts of the New Testament are corrupt and originally taught something quite different (the typical Muslim claim), or (2) that entire books were left out of the canon that God originally gave to his people (the typical Mormon claim). (76)

Occasionally an evangelical systematic theology is written with insufficient reference to the history of Christian thought on the topic or to the philosophical and cultural underpinnings of the major schools of thought throughout that history. The result makes it appear as if the theologian’s task is merely to group every passage from the Bible on a given topic together and see what concepts emerge.115 Wayne Grudem’s widely used Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine unfortunately too often approximates this approach. (79)

The Bible is uniquely inspired and authoritative, but that does not mean that Christians shouldn’t read widely from every perspective on every topic about which they wish to learn. Nor does it mean that we can treat the Bible like a textbook on any topic, even theology, as if immersing ourselves in Scripture alone, with no other resources, will suffice to teach us everything that God has revealed about any area of human inquiry. (81)

The options [in Bible translation] are whether to (a) prioritize accuracy, (b) prioritize fluency, or (c) optimize both by seeking as much of a and b as can be accomplished simultaneously. Of course, there can also be gradations of these priorities, but in broad generalizations, the NASB, ESV, and NRSV represent a (putting meaning ahead of clarity); the NLT, CEV, and GNB represent b (putting clarity ahead of meaning); and the NAB, NET, HCSB, CEB, and NIV represent c (aiming at the optimal amount of meaning and clarity simultaneously). (94)

The updated NIV may have attained the best combination of accuracy and clarity of all the translations. (118)

Numerous competing theological and exegetical positions over the centuries have appealed to the inerrancy or trustworthiness of Scripture for their support; in reality these were debates over hermeneutics. (124)

The reporting of people’s words is a particularly significant example of where the ancients employed noticeably less precision than we moderns do. (127)

What it means to say that the Bible is wholly true varies widely from one genre to the next, but the concept of a deeply flawed or errant Scripture is a virtual oxymoron and largely the invention of recent times. (131)

Nothing in principle should prevent the person who upholds inerrancy from adopting a view that sees ʾādām (“man” or Adam) and awwâ (“life” or Eve) as symbols for every man and woman, created in the image of God but sinful by virtue of their own rebellious choices in succumbing to Satan’s lures. (152)

Outside of evangelical circles, roughly half of contemporary New Testament scholars believe that Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, James, 1 Peter, and Jude were not written by the authors to which they have traditionally been ascribed. Perhaps as many as three-fourths of New Testament scholars reject the Pauline authorship of Ephesians and the Pastoral Epistles (1–2 Timothy and Titus), and an even higher percentage rejects Petrine authorship of 2 Peter. Second Peter is also the one canonical letter whose authorship claim was disputed in the ancient church as well. (169)

The form of Christianity in which these church-leavers and faith-leavers were brought up and/or nurtured did not allow for serious discussion of the hard questions of the faith in a safe environment and drew small circles around what was deemed acceptably “Christian.” (175)

Among biblical scholars there is a much greater openness to the miraculous than there was even a generation ago. (185)

The reliability of the entire exodus story has, of course, been frequently called into question because of the lack of direct archaeological evidence. The problem is compounded by the debate over its date, whether it should be placed in the thirteenth or fifteenth century BC. But we do have hieroglyphic paintings from Egypt from the fifteenth century that depict foreign slaves making mud bricks under the supervision of Egyptian overseers, and we have archaeological evidence for the sudden appearance or growth of towns in many places in Israel at about the right time, if we opt for the later date for the exodus. It is not realistic, moreover, to expect anything to remain of the shelters of impoverished people like the Israelite slaves in Egypt living in the marshy delta of the Nile, or of their temporary wilderness wanderings in the Sinai utilizing even less permanent structures. And no Pharaoh would have wanted to acknowledge the loss of a slave community due to their flight by recording or commemorating it in any way! There are, to be sure, sites in Israel where we might have expected evidence of occupation or signs of larger settlements, but it is actually amazing that so much has remained over the millennia. We should always remind ourselves that the absence of evidence is never the evidence of absence! (195)

Just as often as Christ works a sign or wonder in response to faith, he also effects a miracle to produce faith where it is too small or nonexistent. (201)

A study of the heresies that the early church had to address in its first several centuries quickly discloses that there are two ways one can distort the truth. The best known, then and throughout church history, has been to redefine central doctrines too broadly—to become too “liberal.” Less well remembered are the heresies caused by redefining central doctrines too narrowly—to become too “conservative.” (216)

We can still wholeheartedly believe the Bible in the twenty-first century, even after honestly engaging contemporary questions. (217)


Review: The ‘Jesus approach’ to the Bible

3 September 2020

Richard Rohr is a Roman Catholic and a Franciscan priest best known as an exponent of the ‘contemplative’ approach to prayer and spirituality. His many books have been immensely popular, even among non-Catholics, some of whom have had questions about the way he approaches the Bible. To answer them, we now have

What Do We Do With The Bible? by Richard Rohr (SPCK, 2019)

wdwdwtbIt’s a short book: just over 40 pages. And it’s commendably to the point. Rohr is keenly aware of the way Christians have misused the Bible over the centuries to justify the most appalling practices, like apartheid, slavery and the burning of heretics. And he is equally familiar with the weird ways many ordinary believers today approach it: ‘as a personal power pack, a hammer, or a rationale for their bad behaviour.’

At the same time, he recognises that, for sincere Christians, the Bible remains properly ‘the primary authoritative source’ for their beliefs and practices. He outlines the different approaches to it fashionable in different periods of history, most recently the rational, literal and historical approach since the Enlightenment. This, he maintains, hampers true spirituality. He is sceptical of the ‘biblical inerrancy’ line, with its excess literalism, and points out that Jesus took a different approach to his own OT scriptures, and so did the likes of Paul.

We cannot, the author claims, act as independent interpreters of Scripture, but must be aware of ‘the perennial tradition’ formed throughout Christian history. Nor must we overlook the way our individual personality affects our approach to the Bible. And let’s remember that, in the vast aeons of human history, the Bible turned up very late, but God was not silent before that; he was known through the natural world (Romans 1:20).

A ‘bullet point’ section briefly identifies some popular misconceptions about what the Bible is, how it came to us, and how we should use it. Traditional evangelicals will feel a few body-punches here! Rohr is skilled at showing how some of our strange ideas came into being, enabling us better to identify and hopefully jettison them.

He ends with what he calls ‘the Jesus hermeneutic’. That means, simply, ‘Let’s use the Bible the way that Jesus did!’ Jesus in fact treated his own Scriptures in a very biased way, picking and choosing which bits to highlight and which to overlook, and sometimes veering close to what have been called ‘situation ethics’. A further string of bullet-points provides a comprehensive range of examples from the Gospels.

He winds up by re-asserting that we ourselves should interpret Scripture the same way, which will be unsettling for many evangelicals—and needs to be!

Reassuringly, Rohr’s overall approach tallies with the hermeneutical approach being emphasised by a wide variety of scholars and writers today. If you want a brief overview of that approach, you can find one in my own free e-book, A Poke In The Faith.

Here’s a selection of quotations, with page numbers.

…the postmodern revolt against religion in general and Bible quoters in particular. (9)

Read the Apostle Paul’s Sermo Sapientia, or sermon on wisdom, in 1 Corinthians 1:17–2:16, where he says that believers have an alternative way of knowing that prayerfully contemplates a text instead of using it as dualistic ammunition to protect our opinions or attack others. (9)

We must be prepared to somehow state our method of interpretation, including our conscious biases, or we end up being dishonest or manipulative with the text—without even knowing it. (13)

Our hermeneutic must make use of both our will and our intellect. Mere conformity (will) or mere reason (understanding) is always a dead faith, and unworthy of the full human person. (13)

The most common default position for Scriptural interpretation is, of course, the literal/historical one—which is honestly the least helpful and the least fruitful. (17)

The Reformation’s critical thinking was surely a necessary stage in our maturation process—but we cannot permanently rest in oppositional thinking. We must continue toward mystical, non-dual, and conciliatory patterns. The overreaction that produced fundamentalism soon set in motion an equal and opposite reaction called rationalism. This is the present argumentative frame inside of which we are trapped. There must be some good alternatives and subtleties to this false dualistic split between non-critical fundamentalism and overly critical rationalism. (18)

Good scriptural interpretation is not limited by the rational lens, but that does not mean it is irrational either. There is also the childlike lens of the pre-rational, the adult’s intelligent reason, and the very sophisticated lens of the trans-rational, the symbolic, and the mystical. This last is our wide-angle and long-distance lens, which provides the basis for our Biblical hermeneutic. We need all three. In fact, I would correlate the pre-rational with the always unknowable work of the Creator, the rational with the visible work of Christ, and the trans-rational with the ubiquitous work of the Holy Spirit. (19)

As Paul directly puts it, “Ever since the creation of the the invisible existence of God and the Divine Power can be clearly seen by the mind’s understanding of created things” (see Romans 1:20). These words undercut and self-correct the absolute and autonomous authority of Scripture—from the inside out! They base spiritual wisdom in nature, in creation, and from the beginning, thus preceding all later spiritual writings, which were composed in the last nanosecond of geologic time. (20)

This “proof text” approach to Scripture, which allows us to find a single line to prove or illustrate almost anything, has now been universally discredited and, also, shown to lead us to some very dangerous and difficult conclusions. (22)

The Bible does not demand academic scholarship, but it is indeed dangerous in the minds of unbalanced or agenda-driven people. (23)

We also extracted Christ from the eternal love flow of the Trinity and made him into a lone male monarch, revealed as such in almost all language and art up to our own time. We henceforth understood the God relationship less in terms of a circle and flow of shared life, and more as a pyramid of feudal authority. Obedience and loyalty were the supreme virtues, not love and compassion. (26)

By not reading the Jewish prophets, except in terms of their “foretelling” of Jesus, we failed to notice that the constant recipients of their ire and judgment are two special groups—the princes and the priests. (27)

When we watch his pattern of interpretation, we could even say Jesus “played light and easy” with the only Bible he knew—the Hebrew Bible. Jesus was anything but a fundamentalist or a legalist. This is not hard to demonstrate; in fact, it is culpable ignorance not to see it now. (29)

I am convinced that Jesus is presenting rewards and punishments as inherent and present-tense. Goodness is its own reward, evil its own punishment. (31)

Jesus appears to ignore most of his own Bible, yet it clearly formed his whole consciousness. That is the paradox. If we look at what he ignores, it includes any passages that appear to legitimate violence, imperialism, exclusion, purity, and dietary laws—of which there are many. These are the very ones we love to quote! Jesus is a Biblically formed non-Bible quoter, who gets the deeper stream, the spirit, the trajectory of his Jewish history and never settles for mere surface readings. (32)

[Jesus] is not factually correct in some of his examples, which clearly should suggest to people who like to pick apart arguments that this is not the point! For example, he describes the mustard seed as the smallest of all seeds and the mustard bush as the biggest of all shrubs in Matthew 13:32, which, in both cases, is not anywhere close to the truth. Is the Bible still to be called inerrant when Jesus uses erroneous examples to make spiritual points? (34)

When religion meets culture, culture wins, nine times out of ten! Take that as normative. (35)

Not all Scriptures were created equal in Jesus’ mind, which is a great blind spot for most fundamentalists, who have little or no skill or training in spiritual discernment. Jesus seems to teach that you can only tell goodness “by its fruits” (see Luke 6:43–45) and not just by the naked action itself. (35)

God does not ask and expect you to do anything new until God has first made it desirable and possible for you to do it. (37)

Excessive God talk and quoting of Scripture are the best cover possible for a narcissistic personality. (38)


Badly Behaved Bible

27 November 2019

There seems to be, these days, a steady flow of new books about what the Bible isn’t and is. I find this very heartening; many of the problems evangelicals are encountering today stem from an unhealthy adoration of the Bible, and untenable ideas about its inerrancy. So it’s good to see a respected author like Nick Page weighing in on the subject. The book is

The Badly Behaved Bible: Thinking again about the story of Scripture by Nick Page (Hodder & Stoughton, 2019).

tbbbNick is known for his unique mix of humour and serious issues, and he lives up to that reputation in this, his latest work. Our difficulties with the Bible, he maintains, arise from the fact that we have been misinformed about it. We expect it to be something it’s not. And the way to find a better position is ‘to stop studying it’. He brings balance to our perception of what ‘the word of God’ is, and what ‘inspired’ means in relation to the Bible, and his answers are not the usual mainstream ones.

He faces up to the complexities of the canon and its formation. He makes a strong case for the prominence of the ‘story’ aspect of the Bible, and how this requires us to respond to the text. He faces the unsavoury bits of Scripture head-on, and pulls no punches in his assessment of them. For every point he makes, he pulls together lots of biblical instances. Like the Christmas story which, in today’s world is a long way from what the New Testament says and means.

A key focus is the plain fact that the Bible portrays a people whose understanding of God is constantly developing, so that we get contradictory views about him at different stages of Old Testament history. Hence the folly of trying to reach a composite biblical view of what God is like; it just can’t work. God is like Jesus; end of story.

I like the way that Nick Page, a totally committed Christian, extols the virtues of doubt. It outstandingbookis a key part of the lives of all who are honest about their spiritual journey. He gives examples from various Bible characters and cautions his readers against equating doubt with backsliding. Well done! His tackling of the theodicy issue in this respect is brilliant.

He cautions against a blind ‘obedience’ to the Bible; it isn’t that kind of book. He shows how both the Law and the Prophets changed position on various issues, so which one should we obey? In practice, we all pick and choose the bits we prefer, opting, for example to insist on tithing but to look down on tattoos.

He covers all the major topics that Christians have tended to ignore, like the violence in the Bible and God’s commands to commit genocide. His answers are convincing and clearly argued. Ancient approaches to writing history were a far cry from modern historiography, and we should expect the ancient Bible texts to conform to it. And he examines the way Jesus and the New Testament writers treated OT scripture in a cavalier manner, with little regard to its original context.

He concludes with some wise guidelines for reading and using the Bible today. They are sensible, balanced and workable. So read Page’s book, and start putting his advice into practice!

[The numbers that follow are Kindle location numbers, not page numbers]

We are told that the Bible is inerrant, infallible and without contradiction, and then discover that there are two different creation stories and two versions of the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer, and that the New Testament writers misquote the Old Testament. Not only that, the Bible thinks the world is flat, with a big domed canopy above it to hold the water out.  (72)

Many of the saints whose Christlike lives changed their world were illiterate. For them, the right way to read the Bible was simply to listen to the stories, to learn the texts and to live it out.  (150)

I’ve come to this conclusion: I hate the phrase ‘Bible study’. And I want to ban it.  (177)

For the early church the ‘word of God’ was not the written text, but the spoken gospel: it refers to words said, not words read.  (325)

The Bible was written and compiled by humans, but God filled it with his presence.  (452)

If we insist on seeing the books as one unified work then we will always have problems with the fractures, the edit points, the duplications and the differing details. But if we just let the text speak for itself, then a different picture emerges: one of collaboration and careful preservation, one of multiple authors and witnesses, each doing their bit to tell the great story of God and humanity.  (867)

The contents of the Jewish Scriptures were not finally settled until about AD 90; the contents of the New Testament not until around AD 400.  (898)

Countless sermons and talks give the impression that characters in the Bible are really just like us, only with loincloths and more sheep.  (1797)

The Bible shows us people as they are, not as how we’d like them to be. Samson slept with prostitutes, Abraham passed his wife off as his sister, Jacob was a blasphemous liar, Joseph was a spoilt brat, Moses disappointed God so badly that he wasn’t allowed to enter the Promised Land, and Solomon, as well as building the Temple, ended up worshipping all kinds of other gods and marrying any woman with a pulse. And it’s not just in the Old Testament. Peter flip-flopped between eating with Gentiles and not eating with them. Jesus’ mother and brothers thought he was mad. And Paul had the temper of a bull hippo with a toothache.  (2052)

For much of the Old Testament history they believed that there were loads of gods, but Israel’s was the best.  (2223)

What I’m trying to show here is that (a) Israel’s concept of who God is changes through time, and (b) much of the Old Testament assumes the reality and presence of other gods.  (2249)

So much of our theology is built on the idea that everything is in God’s plan, but what if that doesn’t mean quite what we think it means? How much does our disobedience and our failure come as a surprise to God? How much does God change his mind? Is he playing the great tune of history from a written score or is he a jazz improviser working within patterns but always adapting creatively?  (2420)

Israelite ideas about who God was and what he was like changed and developed over the centuries. So we often find theology in the Bible that is either wrong or incomplete. Because the people in the Bible are still trying to work things out.  (2462)

People will insist on trying to turn the Bible into a systematic theology. But the Bible refuses to behave that way. There’s nothing systematic about the Bible, largely because it’s about humans who, despite valiant efforts throughout the centuries by various philosophers and sages, generally tend to prefer unsystematic thinking. The Bible isn’t a unified theology, but it is a unified story. Stories don’t deal in systematic thought. Stories may be used to challenge and explain, to connect and to work things out, but they do it by inviting us to think, not telling us what to think.  (2514)

The contradiction between doctrine and real experience: that’s what doubt is all about.  (2623)

Monotheism brings with it a problem: if there is only one God, then who can you blame for the bad stuff?  (2638)

[Re Job]  Yahweh accepts the challenge. He allows The Satan to put Job to the test. (It seems to me that, right away, we’re in a work of fiction. And if you don’t think this is a work of fiction, then you have some explaining to do as to why God kills people and tips Job’s whole life down the toilet simply to win a bet.  (2759)

Churches that deny oxygen to doubt and questions are really protecting not the Bible but the pastor.  (2914)

I am convinced that our failure to bring lament into our acts of worship is one of the reasons why so many people drift away from the Church.  (2979)

Gifts need to be given. People need to be paid. But it’s no longer a law. The tithe as it was originally stated no longer holds force. You can’t claim that tithing is obligatory for Christians from the Bible.  (3251)

Ultimately, I believe the authority of Scripture means the authority to live like Jesus. I’m a Christian. I’m not a follower of Paul of Tarsus or Moses or Isaiah.  (3412)

A disciple is one who learns by imitation – in this case by centring our whole life on the presence, teaching and example of Jesus Christ. This is why in your canon within the canon the Gospels have to take pride of place.  (3412)

If the Bible has authority in my life, then it will not be as a set of rules and regulations telling me exactly what to do in any circumstance, but as a story that authorises me to act in a Christlike way.  (3425)

All this – the hyperbole, the formulaic writing, the presence of different traditions within the Bible itself – should alert us to the possibility that the account of the conquest is not documentary history as we would write it today.  (3576)

If you have found this interesting, you might like to look at my own e-book on the subject, entitled A Poke In The Faith. You can find it here.


Review: Reading backwards?

25 August 2018

Yes, it’s another book about Bible interpretation—hermeneutics. This one examines how the writers of the four Gospels looked at the Old Testament in a completely new way in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is:

Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness by Richard B. Hays (Baylor University Press, 2014).

rbThe four Evangelists each had a unique approach to this task, while sharing a common overall approach, which Richard Hays calls ‘figural’ interpretation. Looking at their Scriptures in the light of Jesus, the writers saw in them clear ‘figures’ or pictures of him and his work—aspects of which the original OT authors were completely unaware.

Hays gives penetrating examples from each of the Gospels and makes a solid case for his thesis. In this, he is in line with much current thinking among biblical scholars, who are moving away from what they see as a previous over-emphasis on the original meaning and what is sometimes called ‘authorial intent’. In other words, the Gospel writers would probably fail a typical seminary exam on Bible interpretation!

When Jesus met the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, ‘beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself’ (Luke 24:27). Too often we have taken that to mean a few isolated proof-texts. Hays shows clearly that, on the contrary, the whole OT canon is shot through with figural pointers to Jesus. The whole of it takes on a different hue in the light of him, and this is what excited the Evangelists.

The big question, of course, is whether we, today, should take the same approach to interpreting the Old Testament. Supported by the example of Paul, he concludes that we certainly should. His conclusions are another nail in the coffin of vocal right-wing evangelicals who use the OT to justify their views on, for example, today’s State of Israel and the application of prophecy to other current events. Instead, it’s all about Jesus.

This is a deep and thought-provoking book but, based as it is on an original series of lectures, it is lucid and easy to read. While it is unlikely to ever reach the best-seller list, it is, in my view, a key book in the current hermeneutical debate.

[In the quotations that follow, the numbers are Kindle location numbers, not page numbers]

These lectures follow the lead of the early church fathers, Irenaeus above all, in affirming both the legitimacy of figural interpretation of Israel’s Scripture and the complementarity of the four Evangelists. (116)

The sort of figural interpretation practiced by the canonical Evangelists is not a rejection but a retrospective hermeneutical transformation of Israel’s sacred texts. (167)

Only if we embrace figural interpretation, can we make sense of the Gospel of John’s assertion that the Scriptures bear witness to Jesus Christ. (321)

There is…a significant difference between prediction and prefiguration. Figural reading need not presume that the OT authors—or the characters they narrate—were conscious of predicting or anticipating Christ. Rather, the discernment of a figural correspondence is necessarily retrospective rather than prospective… The two poles of a figure are events within “the flowing stream” of time, the correspondence can be discerned only after the second event has occurred and imparted a new pattern of significance to the first. (337)

Luke’s formulation [ch 24] suggests that testimony to Jesus is to be found “in all the Scriptures”, not just in a few isolated prooftexts. The whole story of Israel builds to its narrative climax in Jesus. That is what Jesus tries to teach them on the road. (547)

Even Jesus’ definitive peripatetic Bible study on the road to Emmaus does not produce understanding and recognition in the Emmaus disciples… The moment of recognition comes only as they sit at the table and Jesus breaks bread with them (vv. 30-32). This point, too, is significant for understanding how the Gospels teach us to read the OT. We come to understand Scripture only as we participate in the shared life of the community, enacted in meals shared at table. (564)

Mark’s way of drawing upon Scripture, like his narrative style more generally, is indirect and allusive. Mark for the most part works his narrative magic through hints and allusions, giving just enough clues to tease the reader into further exploration and reflection. (613)

Isaiah 40 prophesies the coming of the Kyrios (the Lord God) to reign, and Mark appropriates this prophecy to characterize John’s preparation of the way for the coming of Jesus. (671)

[Re Mark 6:45-52—Jesus walking on the water and making to pass by the disciples in the boat]  In Job 9 the image of God’s walking on the sea is linked with a confession of God’s mysterious transcendence of human comprehension: God’s “passing by” is a metaphor for our inability to grasp his power… Mark’s mysterious statement in Mark 6:48, read as an allusion to the Exodus theophany, suggests simultaneously that Jesus’ walking on the water is a manifestation of divine glory and that it remains indirect and beyond full comprehension— as the disciples’ uncomprehending response amply demonstrates (6:51-52).

The importance of Mark 4:21-25 as a hermeneutical directive for the Gospel as a whole can hardly be overstated. (902)

The “meaning” of Mark’s portrayal of the identity of Jesus cannot be rightly stated in flat propositional language; instead, it can be disclosed only gradually in the form of narrative, through hints and allusions that project the story of Jesus onto the background of Israel’s story. As Mark superimposes the two stories on one another, remarkable new patterns emerge, patterns that lead us into a truth too overwhelming to be approached in any other way. (934)

Matthew is far more overt than Mark in his interpretative strategies; indeed, in many passages we find him providing explicit explanations of Mark’s hints and allusions. (970)

It is as though Matthew is producing an annotated study Bible, providing notes and references that will give the uninitiated reader enough information to perform the necessary interpretation. (986)

…a ringing quotation of Deuteronomy 6:13 LXX: “The Lord your God you shall worship and him alone you shall serve” (Matt 4:9-10). Once this commandment has been forcefully set forth in the narrative, readers have little choice but to interpret Jesus’ acceptance of worship from other characters as an implicit acknowledgment of his divine identity. (1166)

If Jesus is “God with us,” then his personal presence now takes the place of the Temple where the presence of God was formerly thought to dwell. (1166)

Genesis 28: “Behold I am with you… I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Matthew 28: “Behold I am with you all the days until the end of the age.”
The parallel cries out for readers to draw an obvious christological conclusion: in the ending of Matthew, Jesus now stands in the same role occupied by the Lord God in Jacob’s dream. (1265)

Matthew highlights the worship of Jesus for one reason: he believes and proclaims that Jesus is the embodied presence of God and that to worship him is to worship YHWH— not merely an agent or a facsimile or an intermediary. If we read the story within the hermeneutical matrix of Israel’s Scripture, we can draw no other conclusion. (1330)

We come to know Jesus in Luke only as his narrative identity is enacted in and through the story. An important element of Luke’s narrative art lies in the way in which he evokes echoes of Israel’s Scripture and thereby leads readers to a complex, intertextually formed perception of his central character. This is the decisive heremeneutical clue given in the final chapter of Luke’s Gospel, as Jesus “opens the Scriptures” to his followers. (1396)

John’s manner of alluding does not depend upon the citation of chains of words and phrases; instead it relies upon evoking images and figures from Israel’s Scripture. For example, when he writes, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up” (3:14), John is clearly alluding to the episode narrated in Numbers 21:8-9, but the only explicit verbal links between the two passages are the name “Moses” and the word “serpent”. His intertextual sensibility is more visual than auditory. (1833)

It is impossible to understand John’s Jesus apart from the story of Israel and the liturgical festivals and symbols that recall and re-present that story. (1917)

Passover symbolism is particularly pervasive in John’s Gospel, coming to a climax in the passion narrative, where Jesus’ crucifixion takes place on the day of preparation for Passover (19:14), not on Passover itself as in the Synoptic Gospels. (2016)

Even more comprehensively than the other Gospels, John understands the Old Testament as a vast matrix of symbols pointing to Jesus. In contrast to Luke’s reading of Scripture as a plotted script showing the outworking of God’s promises in time, John understands Scripture as a huge web of signifiers generated by the pretemporal eternal Logos as intimations of his truth and glory. (2109)

From the perspective of figural interpretation, it would be a hermeneutical blunder to read the Law and the Prophets as deliberately predicting events in the life of Jesus. But in light of the unfolding story of Jesus, it is both right and illuminating to read backwards and to discover in the Law and the Prophets an unexpected foreshadowing of the later story. (2141)

[Luke] shows how the mission to the Gentiles is the outworking of God’s longstanding plan for Israel as a light to the nations. (2259)

One function of the church’s canon, a diverse collection of writings, is to model a repertoire of faithful ways to receive and proclaim God’s word. Particular voices within that canon will be more or less useful in different times and places, as the church discerns the points of vital intersection between the Bible and its immediate cultural situation. (2304)

If we had to choose just one of the Gospels as a hermeneutical guide for the long haul, Luke offers the most adequate load-bearing narrative framework for the church’s reading and proclamation of Scripture. (2319)

For the Evangelists the “meaning” of the OT texts was not confined to the human author’s original historical setting or to the meaning that could have been grasped by the original readers. (2349)

The Evangelists were convinced that the events of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection were in fact revelatory: they disclosed the key to understanding all that had gone before. (2349)

To read Scripture well, we must bid farewell to plodding literalism and rationalism in order to embrace a complex poetic sensibility. (2364)

A Gospel-shaped hermeneutic will pay primary attention to large narrative arcs and patterns in the OT, rather than treating Scripture chiefly as a source of oracles, prooftexts, or halakhic regulations. (2364)

Because the Evangelists are so deeply immersed in Israel’s Scripture, their references and allusions to it are characteristically metaleptic in character: that is, they nudge the discerning reader to recognize and recover the context from which the intertextual references are drawn. (2394)

The more deeply we probe the Jewish and OT roots of the Gospel narratives, the more clearly we see that each of the four Evangelists, in their diverse portrayals, identifies Jesus as the embodiment of the God of Israel. (2409)

The God to whom the Gospels bear witness, the God incarnate in Jesus, is the same as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Either that is true, or it is not. If it is not, the Gospels are a delusional and pernicious distortion of Israel’s story. If it is true, then the figural literary unity of Scripture, OT and NT together, is nothing other than the climactic fruition of that one God’s self-revelation. (2440)


The Bible teaches…

26 January 2018

‘The Bible teaches…’ Time was when I used that phrase a lot. Having spent over sixty years studying the Bible, I felt I had a pretty good grasp of its message. I could tell you with great conviction what ‘the Bible teaches’ on, say, the baptism in the Holy Spirit, or male headship, or divorce, or the kingdom of God, or homosexuality, or church government, or whatever.

bible-thumper.jpgThese days I’m far less dogmatic on these and a host of other issues. And that’s because I’ve come to the conclusion—better late than never—that the Bible as a whole doesn’t in fact ‘teach’ much at all very clearly.

I’d always been aware, of course, that my convictions about what it taught on this or that were not shared by all Christians. Some of them had reached conclusions very different from my own—and from the same Bible at that! But somehow I had failed to grasp the enormity of the problem highlighted by these differences. The problem is this: if, after two thousand years, Christians are still reaching hugely different conclusions about the Bible’s teaching, the only thing I can conclude with any certainty is that the Bible is not clear in its teaching at all.

For decades, I felt convinced that my own conclusions (and those of my spiritual clan) as to what the Bible teaches were the right ones, and that everyone else’s were wrong. Now, I’m deeply ashamed of the appalling pride that this attitude displays.

Proof-texting was dear to me in those bad old days. I was skilled at mustering verses from both Old Testament and New to back up the ‘right’ view that I was presenting. I wrote semi-learned papers on a host of topics, using my middle-of-the-road knowledge of Hebrew and Greek to bolster my case and quoting from my extensive library of Bible commentaries and reference works.

I don’t do that anymore. I’m convinced that, if you have a mind to, you can present a decent case from the Bible, with supporting proof-texts, for just about any theory you want. Indeed, this has been happening regularly for two millennia, and it’s happening still. I don’t want any part in that sort of behaviour now. So I’ve ditched my old views on the Bible’s inerrancy, even its infallibility, and certainly what the Puritans called its ‘perspicuity’. I take a far less tidy view of the whole thing these days.

‘Ah,’ you say, ‘it’s tragic that you’ve gone off the rails at this late stage in your life, Dave. So sad that you’ve kicked the Bible into touch like this.’

Hang on. I didn’t say that! The fact is, I love the Bible now more than I ever did. I read it more. I draw more strength and sustenance from it, and I honour it as God’s Word with a new-found vigour. And that’s because I’ve adopted an altogether different approach to it. ‘And what exactly is that? you have every right to ask.

Now, I see the Bible as ‘God’s Word’ in only a secondary sense. The ultimate ‘Word of God’ is Jesus Christ. The Bible is the story—a God-breathed one, I believe—of a people struggling, through their changing times and cultures, to understand God better, and often getting it only half-right, or sometimes even wrong. But the whole story was leading to its brilliant climax: Emmanuel, God with us in the person of the God-man, Jesus the Messiah. He alone is the end to which the Bible is merely the means.

Jesus, and Jesus only, is ‘the exact representation of God’s being’, the full and final revelation of what God is truly like. Everything else is shadowy, vague, temporary, unclear. But in him the shadows have cleared and the sun has come out. The Bible gave enough light to guide the previous generations along, but it will always be secondary to him. I’m now trying to take my views and convictions, my lifestyle-model, my attitudes, my standards, my everything from him, and from nowhere else.

As for the Bible, I feel wonderfully liberated by my new way of looking at it. I love to read it for the insights it gives into the life of pilgrimage that I’ve embarked upon. I am gripped as I read about the ups and downs, the frustrations and joys, of previous generations of God-seekers, and learn much from them. I tap into the Bible’s psalms of praise and its accounts of the moments of life-changing revelation enjoyed by the pilgrims of old. And I quietly skip (as Jesus did when quoting Isaiah in the Nazareth synagogue) the bits now shown, in the light of his revelation, to be wide of the mark.

So that’s where I’m at. If what I’ve written makes you hopping mad, I’m not going to let that faze me. After all, not so long ago, I would have reacted the same way myself, so I can understand where you’re coming from. I sincerely hope, though, that you will pause to think about what I’ve written, and maybe even become open to a few changes yourself. Jesus, I think, would smile at the prospect…

[You can read more about my changed attitude to the Bible in my free e-book, A Poke In The Faith, which you can download here.]

 


Review: Examining the gospel we preach

25 January 2018

Here’s yet another book challenging the gospel represented by Jonathan Edwards’ famous 18th century sermon, Sinners in the hands of an angry God, with its theme of retributive justice and divine violence. It is:

Sinners In The Hands Of A Loving God: The scandalous truth of the very good news by Brian Zahnd (WaterBrook, 2017).

sithoalglarge_It’s a book about how we should read and interpret the Bible, and the nature of the gospel—the ‘good news. Edwards’ sermon was graphic in its description of God’s intense hatred of us because of our sin, and of his determination to fry us for ever in the inextinguishable fires of hell. But, asks Brian Zahnd, is this true? He concludes that it most certainly is not! Jesus, who alone is the final revelation of God’s nature, presents his Father in a different light altogether.

He tackles the topic of ‘the wrath of God’ directly, as he does the Bible passages that Jonathan Edwards-types typically lean on, and sheds helpful light on their meaning. He also faces up to OT ‘violence’ texts like God’s request to Abraham to kill Isaac, and the command to Joshua to commit genocide on the Canaanites. If we have problems with those issues we have to (1) Question God’s morality; or (2) Question God’s immutability; or (3) Question how we read Scripture. The latter is the way to go!

Zahnd gives many documented examples from history of how people leaned on the Bible to justify the most appalling atrocities—Adolf Hitler among them. Not the Bible, but the Christ to which it points, is God’s final word and it is upon him, not it, that we should lean.

The book deals with the fraught question of ‘Who killed Jesus?’ It certainly wasn’t the Father, it concludes! And it looks in detail at the ‘hell’ question. Yes the wicked (which means ‘wicked’, and does not mean all who have failed to ‘accept Christ’) will end up in an afterlife hell—but whether than means endless torture is quite another matter. Zahnd speaks a lot of good biblical sense on this.

Then he takes a searching look at the book of Revelation—long the favourite book of violence-loving Christians. There, he points out, it is the self-sacrificing Lamb who triumphs; the Lion is the Lamb. He pours scorn on dispensationalism and its sick longing for the horrors of Armageddon as the only way forward. ‘God is love’—that is the true bottom line. 

This is a well-written and thought-provoking book that will enhance your grasp of the good news you are called to preach, making it ‘better news’ than it appeared to be before.

Here are some quotations.

God is like Jesus! God is not a sadistic monster who abhors sinners and dangles them over a fiery pit. God is exactly how Jesus depicted him in his most famous parable: a father who runs to receive, embrace, and restore a prodigal son. (p11)

Christians are to believe in the perfect, infallible, inerrant Word of God—and his name is Jesus. (p13)

The Bible itself is not a perfect picture of God, but it does point us to the One who is. This is what orthodox Christianity has always said. We also need to keep in mind that the Old Testament doesn’t give us just one portrait of God but many. It’s impossible to make the Old Testament univocal. (p14)

In the Old Testament God is portrayed as both quick to anger and slow to anger. It’s Jesus who settles the dispute. (p15)

We easily acknowledge that God is not literally a rock and not literally a hen, but we have tended to literalize the metaphor of divine anger. (p16)

The revelation that God’s single disposition toward sinners remains one of unconditional love does not mean we are exempt from the consequences of going against the grain of love. When we live against the grain of love we suffer the shards of self-inflicted suffering. This is the “wrath of God.” (p18)

God does not hate you, and God will never harm you. But your own sin, if you do not turn away from it, will bring you great harm. The wisdom that acknowledges this fact is what we call the fear of God. (p19)

In answering with an unequivocal no to the question of whether you would kill children, are you claiming a moral superiority to the God depicted in parts of the Old Testament? (p25)

Clinging to the idea that if God commands genocide it’s not immoral opens the door for all manner of atrocity to be justified in the name of God, something the human race has proved itself all too adept at doing. Persecutions, pogroms, crusades, and the Shoah are all the bitter fruit of this corrupt seed. ISIS may justify killing children in the name of God, but followers of Jesus must never do this. Never! (p26)

It’s Jesus, not the Bible, that is the perfect revelation of God. (p29)

As Israel was in the process of receiving the revelation of Yahweh, some unavoidable assumptions were made. One of the assumptions was that Yahweh shared the violent attributes of other deities worshiped in the ancient Near East. These assumptions were inevitable, but they were wrong. For example, the Torah assumed that Yahweh, like all the other gods, required ritual blood sacrifice, but eventually the psalmists and prophets take the sacred text beyond this earlier assumption. (p30)

We should acknowledge that in the late Bronze Age, Israel made certain assumptions about the nature of God, assumptions that now have to be abandoned in the light of Christ. (p34)

The Hebrew prophetic tradition developed in the crucible of enduring threat, invasion, and oppression from Gentile empires. In this crucible of suffering a theology of justice was forged, but it also produced the slag of vengeance theology. (p36)

Certainly there is divine judgment, but it is a judgment based on God’s love and commitment to restoration. The restorative judgment of God gives no warrant to a schadenfreude yearning to see harm inflicted on others. Jesus has closed the book on that kind of lust for vengeance. (p44)

The Bible is the penultimate word of God that points us to the ultimate Word of God who is Jesus. (p50)

[Re the transfiguration]  When Peter, James, and John looked around on Tabor after the voice from heaven had spoken, they saw only Jesus. This is significant. To say it as plainly as I know how, the Old Testament is not on par with Jesus. The Bible is not a flat text where every passage carries the same weight. (p53)

I remember preaching on Jesus’s call to the practice of radical forgiveness and being challenged by a church member who said, “Yeah, but the Bible says, ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’ ” I had to explain to him that a Christian can’t cite Moses to silence Jesus. (p55)

Wars of conquest, violent retribution, the institution of slavery, and women held as property are all biblical. But when placed in the light of Tabor these primitive assumptions must be renounced. (p59)

A Biblicist reading of the Bible can be a clever way of hiding from the rule of Christ. (p62)

In the light of the crucified and risen Christ, torture stands condemned as evil and barbarous, and it doesn’t matter in the least that a text from Ecclesiastes says there’s a time to kill and hate. (p66)

The Bible is not univocal about violence. It says “There is…a time to kill” and “Thou shalt not kill.” The Bible says “Show no mercy to them” and “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” Are these contradictions? Of course they are! And it’s a fool’s errand to try to reconcile all the disparate things the Bible says about violence. But there is a trajectory in the Bible, a movement away from violence as normative and toward God’s peaceable society where swords become plowshares and spears become pruning hooks. (p67)

Unfortunately, over the last thousand years, the Western Church has drifted into the idea that God required the violent death of his Son in order to satisfy his honor and pay off justice. (This theory was wisely rejected in the Eastern Church.) (p82)

Who is this tortured man, nailed to a tree, suffering a violent death? Incredibly Christians say this is God! The crucified God. If we don’t find this scandalously shocking, we have grown far too familiar with the crucifixion of Jesus. (p83)

The apostle Paul tells us that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.” This should not be misunderstood as God reconciling himself to the world. It wasn’t God who was alienated toward the world; it was the world that was alienated toward God. Jesus didn’t die on the cross to change God’s mind about us; Jesus died on the cross to change our minds about God! It wasn’t God who required the death of Jesus; it was humanity that cried, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” When the world says, “Crucify him,” God says, “Forgive them.” (p85)

The justice of God is not retributive; the justice of God is restorative. Justice that is purely retributive changes nothing. (p86)

In Christ we discover a God who would rather die than kill his enemies. (p87)

The term God of the Bible does not give as coherent a picture as we like to pretend. Is the God to whom the Bible points chiefly revealed as infinite anger or as immeasurable love? It’s possible to read the Bible in support of both. What we need is a way to center our reading of Scripture. We do this by reading from the center of salvation history: the cross. (p89)

A good deal of atheism is protest atheism. The protest atheist is essentially contending that the angry god of ritual appeasement should not exist. And I agree. (p92)

In what is called the fear of God, what I fear is not God but the suffering my sin can inflict on myself and those around me. What God calls me to fear is the destructive results of sin—and I take God seriously. The shorthand term for this is the fear of God. (p96)

Jesus was killed by the principalities and powers, a term used by the apostle Paul to describe the very powerful, the very rich, the very religious, the institutions they represent, and the spirits that operate within these institutions. Jesus was put to death by the structures of political, economic, and religious power represented by Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipas, and Joseph Caiaphas. (p99)

Among the many problems of Calvin’s theory of the cross is that it turns God into a petty tyrant and a moral monster. Punishing the innocent in order to forgive the guilty is monstrous logic, atrocious theology, and a gross distortion of the idea of justice. (p101)

Viewing the cross as payment to God for our personal debt of sin ignores the deep problem of systemic sin. When we turn the cross into a payment for our personal sin debt to an offended God, we leave unchallenged the massive structures of sin that so grotesquely distort humanity. (p106)

What sinners need (shall we say deserve?) is love and healing, not torture and death. We are worthy of God’s love and healing not on the basis of personal merit but because of the image we bear: the very image of God. Original blessing is more original than original sin! (p108)

We are so addicted to the idea of redemptive violence—problem solving by killing—that it even infects our theology of the cross. (p109)

At one point a clearly frustrated Jesus said to the Pharisees, “You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell [Gehenna]?” Indeed they did not escape! In AD 70 the Roman general Titus destroyed Jerusalem, killing hundreds of thousands in the process. In the smoldering, corpse-strewn ruins of the city, the fires were not quenched and the maggots did not die. Jerusalem had gone to hell…again. (p123)

It’s very eye opening to realize that in all the evangelistic sermons found in the book of Acts, none of them makes an appeal to afterlife issues. Not one. (p125)

When Jesus does speak of an afterlife hell (most extensively in the parables of the rich man and Lazarus and of the sheep and the goats), he is making this point: it is the wicked who end up being condemned. And we need to recognize that Jesus uses the word wicked in a conventional sense: the wicked are those who live wicked lives, inflicting evil upon others. Jesus does not use the word as a technical term for all of humanity except those who have “accepted Jesus into their hearts.” Jesus does not use wicked as a synonym for non-Christians! The idea that all non-Christians are wicked is the result of some very arrogant and deeply mistaken theological systems. (p126)

The first part of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus was an existing Jewish folk tale; there are seven versions of it in rabbinic writings. But Jesus supplies his own twist to the parable by adding the bit about the five brothers. The effect of this new addition is to pull the story back into this present life. (p133)

In the final scene [of the story of the Prodigal Son], the older brother is outside the father’s house, gnashing his teeth in resentment and rage. The father has not exiled his elder son to the outer darkness; rather, in his refusal to forgive, the embittered brother has exiled himself. (p135)

Hell is not God’s hatred of sinners; God has a single disposition toward sinners, and that is love. God is always the loving father of both the prodigal younger son and the resentful older son. He always loves them both. Hell is not God’s hatred; rather, hell has something to do with refusing to receive and be transformed by the love of God. (p136)

Let’s say I have an enemy whom I deeply despise; my heart is filled with nothing but bitter contempt for my enemy. And let’s say that I wind up destitute, living on the streets. I’m friendless and homeless, hungry and thirsty. Then my despised enemy finds me on the streets, takes me into his home, and gives me food and drink as acts of co-suffering love. If I respond to my enemy’s love with entrenched hatred, these acts of kindness are a source of torment; they burn me up. Hot coals of resentment are lodged inside my head. I am tormented. I’ve turned heaven into hell. When hate wins, hell is inevitable. But what if I will repent, if I will change my thinking, change my heart, if I will say, “Why am I acting this way? This man is not my enemy. He’s a good person. He has nothing but love for me. I repent. I’ll stop resisting him as my enemy and receive him as my friend”? If I do that, what had previously been a source of bitter torment becomes the warmth and delight of a shared meal with a dear friend. What had been hell turns into heaven. This is close to how I understand hell. Hell is the love of God refused. (p139)

The gospel is the joyful proclamation that the kingdom of God has arrived with the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The gospel is the audacious announcement that Jesus is Lord and that the world is to now be reconfigured around his gracious rule. The gospel is the beautiful story of how God is bringing the world out of bondage to sin and death through the triumph of Jesus Christ. If you don’t know how to preach the gospel without making appeals to afterlife issues, you don’t know how to preach the gospel! (p143)

The Apocalypse brings the Bible’s most creative and powerful critique of the idolatry inherent within economic and military superpowers. (p150)

The Revelator’s composition is intended somewhat to comfort but mostly to warn Christians who were getting too cozy with the Roman Empire. (p151)

Revelation is a daring proclamation that Jesus Christ, not Julius Caesar or any other emperor, is the world’s true emperor and Savior. It’s the empire of Christ, not the empire of Rome, that is the eternal city. It’s the Pax Christi, not the Pax Romana, that brings true peace to the world. (p152)

The only way to consistently interpret the book of Revelation is to acknowledge that everything is communicated by symbol. (p153)

Perhaps the best way to understand the book of Revelation is that it is a prophetic critique of civil religion. By civil religion I mean the religion of state where the state is the actual object of worship. Civil religion is religious patriotism. Christians are called to practice responsible citizenship but to renounce religious patriotism. (p155)

John the Revelator tells us that Rome’s claim of a divine right to rule the nations and of a manifest destiny to shape history is the very thing that God has given to his Son, Jesus Christ. (p156)

Over the years I’ve heard countless sermons and songs about the Lion and the Lamb in the book of Revelation. But they’ve missed the point. There is no lion in Revelation, only a Lamb…a little slaughtered Lamb. Jesus is the Lion of the tribe of Judah only in that he is a descendant of the tribe of Judah. (The lion was the symbol of the tribe of Judah.) But when we look for Jesus to be a lion, we see only a Lamb. Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords; he reigns not as predatory lion but as a sacrificial lamb. (p161)

The phenomenon of modern dispensationalism with its endorsement of supposed divine and unavoidable hyperviolence is such an ugly and perverse eschatology that it’s unworthy of the name Christian. (p165)

If you believe there must be a megawar in the Middle East before Jesus can return, you’re going to be a lousy peacemaker! (p171)

A Left Behind theology of Revelation turns the Lamb into a beast! It turns a text that was intended to subvert empire into a text that endorses empire. There is not a worse possible abuse of the final book of the Bible than this! (p173)

John stresses that Jesus reigns through self-sacrifice by depicting the white horse’s rider as wearing a robe drenched in blood before the battle begins. Jesus’s robe is soaked in his own blood. Jesus doesn’t shed the blood of enemies; Jesus sheds his own blood. This is the gospel! (p176)

[Re Noah’s flood]  In an attempt to solve the problem of exponential violence, God intervened with his own violence. Salvation by tsunami. Human violence washed away by a divine deluge…  God’s attempt to solve the problem of violence by violence didn’t work. So God began a new plan and called the son of Terah. Enter Abraham. (p184)

With Easter and Pentecost, New Jerusalem began its slow but inexorable annexation of the old empires of death…  Today it is the task of every local church to be a kind of suburb of the New Jerusalem here and now. (p188)

I believe in hell. I believe in hell here and now, as Jesus taught, and I believe in the possibility of self-exile from the love of God in the afterlife, as Jesus indicated. But the notion that God, out of personal offense and infinite spite, inflicts eternal torture upon his wayward children is completely incompatible with the revelation of God in Christ. (p206)

 


Review: What happened at the cross?

24 January 2018

This book’s title may mislead you. It is really an examination of the main theories of the atonement; the idea that God killed Jesus on the cross is just one aspect of the Payment Model of the atonement. The book is:

Did God Kill Jesus?: Searching for love in history’s most famous execution by Tony Jones (HarperOne, 2015).   

dgkjlargeThe ‘atonement wars’ are raging right now, in spite of the fact that many Christians naively believe that the Payment Model (or penal substitution theory) that they have been taught—and which remains the commonest view in the Western world—is the only one there is. Jones’s book sets out all the major (plus a few minor) theories of the atonement and tries to reach a balanced assessment of each one.

The major ones he designates the Payment, Victory, Magnet, Divinity and Mirror models. He assesses each against the answers it offers to six basic questions:

  1. What does it say about God?
  2. What does it say about Jesus?
  3. What does it say about the relationship between them?
  4. How does it make sense of violence?
  5. What does it mean for us spiritually?
  6. Where’s the love?

He wisely concludes that there is probably some merit in all the models, though he is convinced that God did not kill Jesus and so keeps his biggest reservations for the Payment model. He writes lucidly and maintains a charitable spirit even when describing aspects of doctrine that he strongly rejects, but I find him a little over the top sometimes in noting the negative aspects of each model. The bottom line for him is solidarity: God’s with us, expressed in the cross, and, as a result, ours with him. That, he believes, is what the atonement is really all about.

Most thought-provoking of all his insights is the notion that God is by nature self-limiting, choosing to use his sovereign freedom to unite himself to humanity in the person of Jesus, and especially in the sufferings of Calvary. God is love, so we err if we think his primary trait is power. He calls us to the same kind of self-limiting love that makes room for others and quietly reaches out to the marginalised of society.

While Tony Jones is associated with the ‘emergent’ stream of Christianity, he is no wild extremist, but shows himself wise, balanced and sensibly biblical in his conclusions. He really does have something worthwhile and stimulating to offer to the current debates about the essence of the Christian faith.

[Here are some quotations. I have also done a synopsis of the book, which you can find here.]

Sure, there’s the occasional verse that talks of God’s anger at particular sins or human behavior that God considers an abomination, but the overarching message of scripture is clear: God created us, God loves us, and God wants the best for us. In fact, the Bible is rife with stories of God going out of his way to set people on the right path—despite our failures, despite our sins. Indeed, the Apostle Paul assures us that God loved us “while we still were sinners.” (p8)

After two thousand years of Christian history, we wonder why our world is so flooded with war and violence and ethnic hate. We fret that church attendance is low and dropping. And we worry that many see the Christian faith as irrelevant or even bad for the world. Could viewing God as vengeful and wrathful and bloodthirsty be the source of our problems? (p9)

How did the act of following Jesus go from something that was a response to God’s love in the first century to a bloody, fear-based, avoidance-of-hell decision in the twenty-first? (p10)

If God is wrath, then violence is inevitable. But if God is love, then violence must be surmountable. And the crucifixion of Jesus, while violent, must be the key to ending violence. (p16)

Behind each explanation of the crucifixion is an implied view of God. God is either strong or weak, in control or abdicating control, engaged or absent, gracious or vindictive. (p19)

Each of the theories about the crucifixion is historically contingent, reflecting the place and time of its invention and even the personality of its author. Each sets out to solve a particular problem, and in each case the death of Jesus is the solution. Throughout Christian history, the death of Jesus has been the answer—it’s the question that has changed. (p22)

A lot of us have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the regnant interpretation of Jesus’ death as primarily the propitiation of a wrathful God. For one thing, we don’t experience God as uber-wrathful toward us. For another, it simply doesn’t make sense that God would game the whole system so that he has to kill his own son just to vitiate this wrath. It just doesn’t smell right. (p26)

How did our human ancestors convince themselves that the death of an animal or, worse, a fellow human would appease an angry deity? And why did they seem to think that the bloodier the death the better? For that matter, why did they think that the gods were mad at them? No one has provided a better answer to the first of these three questions than René Girard. (p43)

An Israelite in the sixth century BCE could not have imagined worship in the Temple without the death of an animal. To put it quite plainly, God wanted blood sacrifice. Either the Israelites got it wrong—and very wrong for a lot of years—or else that’s what God wanted. (p59)

If pressed, I’d say that this is the core of Jesus’ message: a new age is dawning—the rules by which followers of Yahweh lived their lives, while not irrelevant, are in need of a serious overhaul; the spirit of those rules has been forgotten amid the attempts to keep those rules; I’ve come to redefine the relationship between God and humanity. (p70)

The blood of Jesus, according to the Gospels, is the blood of deliverance. Like the original Passover lamb, whose blood saved Israel from the plague of death and freed them from bondage, the Gospels cast the blood of Jesus as liberating the people by bringing new life. (p83)

The cross is like a giant reset button that God pushed in his relationship with humans and with all of creation. As a result, new things were revealed about God and humanity. Some elements of that relationship, like blood sacrifices and circumcision, were made unnecessary; other elements, like hospitality to the stranger and love of neighbor, were amplified. The whole cosmic state of affairs was rejiggered by Jesus’ death. (p88)

In Romans 3, the entire sacrificial history of Israel is concentrated in Jesus the Messiah, so in Romans 7–8 is all of human sin concentrated in him. Then, on the cross and in the person who represented Israel most perfectly, all sin is condemned. What this doesn’t mean is that Jesus died because you and I sinned. Instead, it means that sin is endemic to the human condition, that it needed to be conquered, and that on the cross it was. What some see here—that God demanded sacrificial recompense because his holy honor had been disparaged—isn’t really there. Yes, Jesus acts as a substitute for us, but it’s not to appease a wrathful God. Instead, it is to vanquish sin. (p91)

For the writers of Mark, Luke, Matthew, and John, the death of Jesus was seen exclusively through the lens of the Passover sacrifice—a Messiah leading the people into liberation. While Paul acknowledges this, he also introduces the idea that Jesus was the Yom Kippur sacrifice, an atonement in blood, meant to cleanse sin. It’s not that Paul disagrees with the Gospels; it’s that he emphasizes a very different part of Jewish sacrificial life. (p92)

[Re hilasmos in 1 John 2:2 and 4:10]   You can see how much hinges on the translation of this one word. If John is saying that God required a sacrifice to free us from sin, then God is standing with his arms crossed, shaking his head at every sacrifice humans have offered until finally his own son meets the requirement. But if instead God looks at sin as separate from humanity and acts himself to end the tyranny of sin by sweeping it away in one loving and self-sacrificial act, well, that’s a whole different story. Looking more broadly at 1 John, it seems clear that the latter is implied. The entire letter, and these two passages in particular, are predicated on God’s love, not God’s requirements. Reading 1 John, God’s love drips from every page. (p99)

The Bible lacks one particular perspective on the cross, instead offering us a plethora of ways to understand Jesus’ death—a surplus of meaning. That means the church has had a lot to draw on when trying to make sense of this event. (p107)

We’ve…got to find a perspective on the cross that doesn’t make Jesus or God helpless or beholden to a system of justice that’s bigger than they are. (p109)

Calvin and others upped the ante from Anselm. Now it’s not just that Jesus made our payment for us, but that he pays a penalty on our behalf—a penalty that we cannot pay. In theological jargon, this is how it goes from substitution to penal substitution, the “penal” connoting the penalty. This change happened during the Reformation, and it remains popular today. (p113)

I assumed that the doctrine of original sin was a biblical notion and that all Christians accepted it as gospel truth. As it turns out, neither is true. (p116)

[Re Romans 5:12-14, 17-19]  If one believes that there is some kind of spiritual nature that is passed from mother (or father) to child by a biological process, as Paul likely believed, then this passage will be taken one way. If, however, one does not believe that the taint of Adam’s sin is genetic but is instead an archetypal account of the human condition, then it will be taken another way. (p122)

One can acknowledge the universality of the human proclivity toward sin without affirming either Calvin’s total depravity or Augustine’s original sin. One merely has to accept simple human fallibility. We’re neither immortal nor perfect. We’re fallible. We make mistakes. And we die. It’s not such a big hurdle to accept those facts, and we can do so without the theological gymnastics required for the doctrine of original sin and all of the corollary doctrines that flow out of it…  If we simply embrace the Eastern notion that we inherit death but not guilt from Adam, then many of our theological problems are solved. (p126)

In 2013, the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational song decided to leave a song out of its new hymnal. The song, “In Christ Alone,” contains the stanza, “Till on that cross as Jesus died / the wrath of God was satisfied.” The committee asked the song’s authors if they could change those lines to “Till on that cross as Jesus died / the love of God was magnified.” The songwriters rejected the change, leaving the committee to debate the merits of the hymn and of that particular stanza. One committee member reported, “It would do a disservice to this educational mission, the argument ran, to perpetuate…the view that the cross is primarily about God’s need to assuage God’s anger.” The committee voted to remove the song from the hymnal. (p131)

If we are supposed to learn about love from God, then the idea that God predestined us to sin, which results in our eternal damnation and requires God’s Son to die on the cross, teaches us very little about love. (p132)

The God behind Payment/Penalty/Punishment is a quid pro quo God. God won’t do this unless his subjects do that. But his subjects are constitutionally incapable of doing what he demands. Instead of realizing that fact and coming up with an alternative solution to his problem, God looks around for someone else who can satiate his thirst for justice, and he settles on his own son. (p138)

It seems rather unlikely that God would set up the cosmos in such a way that Satan could gain the upper hand and force God to negotiate a deal. But in the Victory theory, God does seem to have given up a significant amount of power. In fact, God is reduced to a sparring partner with Satan. (p152)

Socinus thoroughly refuted Anselm’s Payment model. Among his arguments is this: If grace and mercy are eternal aspects of God’s character, then they must also be infinite characteristics, just like God’s wrath. So why does Payment assume that the demands of God’s wrath must be met, but not the demands of his mercy? Why is wrath a more powerful motivation for God than love? (p160)

A recovery of the Magnet model in modern times holds great promise. So many people teeter on the edge of Christian faith, and the metaphysical answers of the Payment and Victory models of the atonement fall short. People are often not attracted to a theory of a cosmic transaction between God and the law or God and Satan. They want a personal, relational connection to God. And this is just what the Magnet model offers. (p164)

To the Orthodox, [the problem is] not about what we do, it’s about what we are. We are mortal; we are condemned to die. We are hedged in by our mortality and our always impending death. That’s what defines us, and that’s what separates us from God. The problem is death, not guilt. In the resurrection on Easter morning, God defeats death and gives us the ability to once again claim our divinity. (p171)

Maybe you’ve heard someone say, “Sure, God is loving, but his love is balanced with his justice” or “Without justice, love is not possible.” These statements speak of God’s love as an attribute of God. But, for the Divinity model, God’s very nature is love. Love is not an aspect of God’s being; love is God’s very being. (p173)

Girard’s view of the crucifixion can be understood like this: When we look at Jesus hanging on the cross, we are looking in a mirror. God is reflecting back to us the outcome of our systems of rivalry, sacrifice, and violence. Jesus’ death shows conclusively that those systems are bankrupt, that they do not assuage guilt, and that they do not minimize violence. Jesus is the final sacrifice because he reveals the fiction behind the entire enterprise of sacrifice. (p180)

[Girard says that] sacrifice was efficacious at mitigating rivalry, but only temporarily. And it was based on a fiction, that the victim somehow deserved it. So Jesus’ death is not the last in a long series of sacrifices, the ultimate sacrifice, better than any dove or goat or ox or virgin or prisoner of war. Instead, Jesus’ death shows that the entire system of sacrifice is bankrupt, that it never pleased God, and it never really solved human problems. (p184)

God’s story is a story of humility, of self-limitation. Before the creation of the cosmos, God was all there was. For there to even be anything other than God, God had to withdraw, to retreat. That is to say, God had to make room for something that was other-than-God. You and I and everything else that’s not God exist because God withdrew enough to make room for us. God began creating with an act of self-limitation. And that act set the course for God’s activity up to the present day. (p211)

Our definitions of God hinge on God’s power and freedom. But part of freedom is the freedom to give up that freedom. That’s what God started in creation, and that’s what God did most poignantly in the birth of Jesus. (p215)

We can say that in Jesus, God was experiencing something that God had not experienced before. To take it one step further, we can surmise that in Jesus, God was learning. In Jesus, God crossed the line from sympathy with the human condition to empathy with humans—that is, God went from pitying us to truly understanding us by actually becoming one of us. (p225)

Famously, Mother Teresa preached the presence and love of God to kings and lepers her whole life, but letters published after her death told a different story: she had not sensed God’s presence for decades. (p229)

When Jesus cried out from the cross in despair and anguish, God experienced something that God had never before experienced: God experienced the absence of God. (p232)

God is present, on the gallows, in the gas chambers. To the cry of godforsakenness—Where is God?—the response is quiet presence. (p236)

Jesus is the most fully realized revelation of God that we’ve got, and what we can see of God in the life of Jesus is the perfect example of self-limitation and humility. (p238)

The amazing thing about the cross is that both the victim and the victimizer, both the oppressed and the oppressor, are liberated. God plays both of those roles in the event of the crucifixion. In Jesus, God is the victim; in God the Father, God is at least allowing the oppression. In God and in this event are wrapped up everything it means to be human. So the crucifixion does not valorize victimhood, it redeems the victim. And in an unexpected twist, it also redeems the victimizer. (p239)

Sin must be thought of as a condition rather than an activity. (p243)

God has forsaken power in order to give creation freedom. In other words, God’s primary posture in the world is that of weakness, not strength. This is a tough pill for many Christians to swallow—we’ve been taught to claim God’s power in our lives, to pray for power, and to trust God’s power and perfect plan for our lives. But we’ve got something to learn from Jesus’ cry of forsakenness, and from God’s response. God’s power, it turns out, comes in God’s willingness to abdicate power. God saves the world through submission to the point of solidarity with human weakness. (p252)

Cut off from cultural power, Jesus died on the margins, among the marginalized. Surely that’s also the place for the church founded in his name. (p264)

The way of the cross is God’s solidarity with us, and ours with God. When we look at the cross, we should be reminded that God identified with us. And we, in turn, identify with the dying Jesus. In that two-way identification—God with us and us with God—we are gathered up into the Trinitarian life of God. This is atonement, this two-way identification. This is the good news of Jesus’ crucifixion: that you and I can be made one with God. That happens because God identified with our most human frailties in Jesus, and God invites us to identify with Jesus’ victory over death in the crucifixion and resurrection. (p268)

God as defined by Greek philosophical categories—omnipotent, immutable, impassible—is not the God found in the Hebrew Bible. (p272)

The crucifixion is a source of peace. It’s a magnet that draws us into the all-encompassing love of God. It’s a mirror that shows us the result of all our violent tendencies. It’s a spark that relights the flame of divinity within us. It’s a symbol of God’s victory over the forces that oppress us. (p276)


Review: What ‘faith’ is really all about

22 January 2018

It’s great when you meet a book confirming some of the conclusions you yourself have been coming to for a while. I’d long had doubts about the nature of ‘faith’ in the believer’s lifestyle. It may be faith for healing, for some friend’s salvation, for deliverance from pressure—or whatever. Now here comes Greg Boyd, ticking lots of boxes for me on the subject, and taking me much further than I’d got on my own. The book is: 

Benefit Of The Doubt: Breaking The Idol Of Certainty by Gregory A. Boyd (Baker Books, 2013).

botdlargeThe popular notion of trying to convince ourselves that we ‘believe’ for whatever it is, he shows, is seriously flawed. It is unbiblical, and it makes an idol of certainty. Real faith, by contrast, means holding on to God in spite of our doubts and being frank with him about them. It means facing up to facts and evidence, not denying their reality. It means ‘wrestling with God’, as did the likes of Jacob and Job.

He also deals with the folly of the ‘house of cards’ approach to Christian faith, where you have to take every biblical statement literally and subscribe to a host of interconnected doctrines to be considered a proper believer. If you pull any one of the cards out, the whole thing collapses. We need instead to come back to ‘Jesus Christ, and him crucified’, and hold everything else more loosely.

The author advocates a Christ-centred understanding of Scripture. All Scripture may be inspired, but it isn’t all of equal value, and the portraits of God it presents are not to be lumped together to create a composite image. The way Christ has revealed him, and that alone, is the way the Father truly is.

Boyd also shows how our relationship with God is covenantal, not contractual—a crucialoutstandingbook difference that, once grasped, will govern how we view him and his love for us. And this, too, will change how we view Scripture. We will stop looking for alleged ‘promises of God’ and treating his Word like a legal document that we can quote to our advantage.

This a deep book, in the best sense. It is sometimes annoyingly repetitive and is overloaded with italics and phrases like ‘As we saw in Chapter 3…’ But these are minor irritations. The author illustrates from his own experiences with frankness and warmth, and his approach to Scripture is commendably balanced. This book’s message, if taken to heart, could have a radically beneficial effect on today’s typical evangelicalism. I hope it does!

[Here are some quotations. I have also produced some notes on the book’s key points which you can find here.]

I’ve had questions, doubts, and confusions about most of the beliefs Christians typically espouse. (p12)

I am now persuaded that, at the end of the day, there is only one thing I really need to remain confident about, and that is “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). (p12)

The people who are best at convincing themselves that something is true, beyond what a rational assessment of evidence warrants, are most often people who are either self-delusional or intellectually dull. (p13)

Certainty-seeking faith, combined with the all-or-nothing way evangelicals typically embrace it, is simply no longer viable in the postmodern world in which we live. (p16)

My re-examination of the biblical concept of faith led me to the conclusion that the concept of faith that equates strength with certainty and that views doubt as an enemy is, in fact, significantly different from the biblical model. (p17)

I’m going to offer eight arguments as to why I believe certainty-seeking faith is misguided, unhealthy, and dangerous. (p28)

Having the courage to embrace the pain of doubt and to face unpleasant facts, as well as to embrace challenging questions and to live with ambiguity, is the hallmark of a mature and responsible human being. (p31)

Trying to make ourselves certain that a friend will be healed because of our prayers when there is such overwhelming evidence of people who were not healed by the prayers of their friends is, frankly, the height of irrationality. (p35)

I­f God is so enamored with the ability to not doubt, why on earth did he bother to create critical minds that instinctively doubt truth claims and that are unable to believe anything until they’ve thoroughly examined the matter? (p36)

Most of us know firsthand, to one degree or another, how painful it is to doubt beliefs that are important to us. Cognitive dissonance over important matters can be excruciating! (p44)

Evangelical Christians generally assume that it’s arrogant, if not sinful, for people of other faiths to refuse to doubt their beliefs. And I think we’d all agree that it is arrogant for anyone to simply assume their views are right and to refuse to question them. But is this not how Christians who embrace certainty-seeking faith tend to hold on to their beliefs? (p46)

[Re John 5:39-40]  Jesus was trying to get them to see that there is no life in knowing the Bible and embracing Bible-based beliefs unless they lead to him. Yet by trying to wring life out of things that have no life apart from Christ, these leaders made an idol out of the Bible and their Bible-based beliefs. (p66)

This is the nature of biblical faith. It’s not about striving for certainty; it’s about a willingness to commit in the face of uncertainty. (p68)

The God revealed on the cross is a God who loves people more than right doctrines. (p69)

If we are really interested in embracing true beliefs, then the last thing we would ever do is to try to convince ourselves that we already embrace true beliefs. A genuine concern for truth is simply incompatible with a concern to feel certain that one already believes the truth. (p70)

In sharp contrast to many today who seek the comfortable feeling of certainty as a way of feeling at peace with God, biblical heroes are better known for their willingness to be uncomfortable and to honestly wrestle with God. (p82)

Though it initially sounded pious, the “Lord-gives-and-Lord-takes” philosophy implies that Job was right when he accused God of capricious cruelty. (p87)

While God had to confront his mistaken blame-God theology, he applauded Job’s raw honesty. He applauded the fact that Job wasn’t afraid to “argue [his] case with God” (13:3). (p88)

The very fact that Jesus tried to influence the Father to change the plan (and sweat blood in the process) demonstrates that his perfect faith and obedience didn’t mean he never struggled and never tried to push back on God’s plan. (p93)

When God displays his true eternal nature to a fallen world, it looks like Calvary. This is why the cross is presented in the New Testament as the quintessential expression of God’s love (John 3:16; Rom 5:8) and why the Son is put forth as “the exact representation” of God’s “being” or “essence” (hypostasis, Heb. 1:3). When we behold the crucified Christ, we are beholding the eternal essence of the Triune God. (p96)

A dishonest relationship with a false image of God always requires a dishonest relationship with oneself to be sustained. (p111)

Faith presupposes belief. But faith goes far beyond belief in that its focus is not on a mental conviction but on willingness to act on that mental conviction. (p113)

People enter into covenants because they trust one another; people enter into legally binding contracts precisely because they don’t. (p115)

There’s been, almost from the start, a strand within the Western theological tradition that has tended to conceive of our relationship with God in legal terms, where contractual concepts are more at home than covenantal concepts. (p116)

When our relationship with God gets framed in terms of a legal contract, people are inclined to treat the Bible like a confusing litigation manual, the purpose of which is to resolve technical theological disputes and clarify ambiguities surrounding the terms of our contractual acquittal before God. (p120)

Giving honest feedback is one of the roles fellow disciples are supposed to play within the body of Christ, according to the New Testament. This is how the bride is supposed to be making herself ready as she waits for her bridegroom to return. (p132)

I don’t believe it is anyone’s right or responsibility to entertain any opinion about the destiny of those who show little to no signs of God’s life within them, whether they profess faith in Christ or not. (p142)

So long as we remain confident enough that Jesus is Lord to commit to living as if he were Lord, then whatever doubts and questions we have about other theological, spiritual, or personal issues can and should be wrestled with from the inside of this covenantal commitment rather than as a precondition for entering into, or staying within, it. (p147)

A true and living faith is never a destination; it’s a journey. And to move forward on this journey we need the benefit of doubt. (p151)

I found a way to embrace the essence of Christianity while also embracing a degree of ambiguity about creation and evolution, as well as about the discrepancies and archeological problems I was beginning to discover in the Bible. (p158)

Rather than believing in Jesus because I believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God, as evangelicals typically do, I came to believe the Bible was the inspired Word of God because I first believe in Jesus I discovered I have compelling reasons for believing that Jesus is the incarnation of God that have nothing to do with the belief in the inspiration of Scripture. (p159)

The most compelling and most objective reasons I have for believing in Christ are historical in nature. (p160)

Our faith in Christ and in Scripture is anchored in Christ, not in the absence of discrepancies or the absolute historical veracity of Scripture. (p166)

To accommodate the ever-expanding worldview of thoughtful people today, we need a model of faith that is flexible enough to accommodate people’s expanding worlds while being sufficiently grounded to help them to confidently embrace definitive convictions that keep them from floating off into a sea of postmodern relativism. (p167)

It is odd that, despite the common claim of conservative Christians to base everything on the Bible, the rigid, all-or-nothing way they typically hold onto their beliefs is actually not biblical. (p168)

I’ve become increasingly aware that the God of other-oriented love that the cross reveals is in tension with portraits of God that depict him commanding or engaging in horrific violence… My struggling has led me to the understanding that confessing Scripture to be completely “God-breathed” does not entail that everything in Scripture is equally authoritative or that every portrait of God carries the same weight. (p175)

Confessing Scripture to be completely “God-breathed” does not entail that everything in Scripture is equally authoritative or that every portrait of God carries the same weight. (p175)

The authors of the New Testament…, as much as they affirm the inspiration of the Old Testament, are even more emphatic in proclaiming that the revelation of God in Christ completes, and in this sense trumps, everything that preceded him. (p177)

We cannot read the Bible as we would a cookbook, giving equal weight to everything it teaches. We should rather read it like a novel in which the final chapter forces us to rethink everything that preceded it. (p183)

I confess, primarily on the authority of Christ, that Scripture is inspired and perfect for what God intends it to do. In this sense I can affirm that it is “infallible” and even, if one prefers the word, “inerrant.” But the thing that God most wants Scripture to do— point to the cross— leads me to expect it to reflect some limitations, imperfections, and faults rather than to feel the need to defend it against these things. (p185)

While God has always worked to reveal as much of his true self as his people could receive, he has also always been willing to acquiesce to the hard-heartedness of his people to whatever degree was necessary. It is for this reason that we find God sometimes taking on violent roles and giving violent commands in the Old Testament. Violence was unfortunately the only language most people of this time could understand, and so this is the language God was sometimes forced to speak. (p189)

[Re James 1:6-8]  James is…describing a person who is wavering between whether they will remain loyal and seek wisdom from God alone, on the one hand, or whether they will be duplicitous by also trying to derive wisdom from the world. (p197)

If we interpret Mark 11:24 literally, this instruction is simply impossible to obey. Think about it. We are instructed to believe we have already received what we ask for when we ask for it. But the very act of asking for something presupposes that we don’t believe we’ve already received it. If we truly believed we’d already received what we’re asking for, we obviously wouldn’t be asking for it. (p200)

Few things have caused as much misunderstanding and have led to such damaging consequences as the tendency of modern readers to mistake hyperbolic expressions for literal statements. (p203)

When the role of imagination in faith gets severed from the more fundamental point about trusting God, faith is transformed into a self-centered, mind-over-matter gimmick… If we always remember that the purpose of imagination in prayer is to help us more effectively lean on God, it becomes a crucial, God-glorifying dimension of what covenantal faith is all about. (p205)

The obvious but rarely noticed insight that we think with imaginative representations lies at the heart of the nature of faith, and I believe it’s what Jesus is hyperbolically alluding to in Mark 11:24. We can’t literally believe we have received what we’re asking for when we pray, but we can, and should, mentally envision receiving what we’re praying for as though it is present to us. (p208)

[Re Hebrews 11:1]  Faith involves embracing a vivid vision of an anticipated future that in turn gives rise to a compelling conviction that moves us toward that future. (p212)

If nothing is allowed to count as evidence against our belief in God’s faithfulness, one has to wonder if we’re really asserting anything meaningful when we point to events as evidence of God’s faithfulness. (p220)

Christians who try to find security in the magical promise that, if they can just “trust and obey,” God will bless them and protect them and their children… The unspoken rule is, don’t notice the obvious. And the obvious reality no one is supposed to notice is that this magical formula contradicts the way the world actually is. (p223)

To all who simply open their eyes, it’s obvious that the righteous suffer debilitating and fatal diseases the same way the unrighteous do. (p224)

There are a multitude of variables other than God’s will or our faith that influence what happens to children, marriages, careers, finances, health, and every other aspect of our lives. (p224)

I’ve discerned a tendency among conservative Christians to assume that anything in Scripture that looks like a promise is in fact something that God promises them. Sometimes driven by a need to find some security in a world that can be very scary, and paying little attention to the context or original meaning of passages, Christians tend to randomly cling to verses that seem to promise what they’re looking for. (p225)

Whenever we come upon unqualified promises or instructions in Scripture, whether in the Old or the New Testament, we should consider it likely that we are dealing with hyperbole, especially if the promises or instructions contradict reality or are otherwise absurd. (p226)

As part of the surprise ending of the biblical narrative, Jesus actually turned the Old Testament’s system of rewards and punishments on its head. (p227)

The practice of combing through the Bible in search of promises to stand on and to feel secure in is reflecting a contract mind-set more than a covenant mind-set. (p229)

I am proposing that we anchor our understanding of what we should trust God for in the same revelation that serves as the intellectual foundation of our faith, the same revelation that serves as the center of our interpretation of Scripture, and the same revelation that serves as the center of our theology. Every aspect of faith, in short, is centered on “Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (p234)

When we find ourselves in the midst of radical suffering— our child dies, our marriage dissolves, cancer strikes, a tornado wipes out all we held dear— we should not infer anything about God’s character from this. The only one from whom we should ever draw conclusions about God’s character is Jesus. p238)

Jesus put an end to the fallen tendency to discern the hand of God behind “natural” disasters (Luke 13:1–5)… A central strategy of Satan has always been to do terrible things or to motivate others to do terrible things and then try to deceive us into attributing these terrible things to God… If we trust that the cross reveals what God is really like, I don’t see that we have any other choice but to conclude that every aspect of our circumstances that fails to reflect the loving character revealed on the cross is traceable back to wills other than God, whether human or angelic or both. (p238)

We can be confident that God is using our decisions to love rather than hate, to serve rather than retaliate, and to be killed rather than to kill to move the world closer to the time when God will fully reign on the earth. (p246)

…the bizarre and beautiful world of the realized eschatology of the New Testament… (p248)

An important part of my calling has been to continually seek out objections to my faith in order not only to re-examine my faith for myself, but also to help others who may struggle with these objections. (P251)


Red Herring in Galilee: Israel and prophetic promise

16 January 2018

I’ve never been to Israel and I’m not really keen to go. If someone offered me a paid trip I’d take it, but my own holiday cash is more likely to take me to Minorca or Corfu, where’s there’s less chance of gunfire in the streets.

Some would question my priorities. A trip to Israel should be top of the list, they’d say. I am, after all, a Christian, and Israel is where our Lord himself lived and died—and rose again. It would do me good to peer at the site of the nativity, breathe the air of Galilee or stroll the Via Dolorosa.

jerusalemsmallWell, maybe it would, but I’m not the sentimental type. And anyway, if ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it’,[1] my own neck of the woods in England can be as replete with his presence as any Holy Land.

Others offer me another reason for showing interest, even if I don’t visit. Israel, they point out, is the Promised Land, given in perpetuity to the Jews, and the return of scattered Jews since 1948 is a fulfilment of Bible prophecy. So I should at least be praying for the peace of Jerusalem—which means, they seem to imply, Israeli subjugation of Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular.

Some Christians take all this very seriously. Like the pastor who told me his church was committed to ‘the conversion of the lost to Christ, and the return of the Jews to Israel.’ I found this a strange pairing, a bit like being committed to world peace and the eating of Harrogate toffee. The two are simply not in the same league. Didn’t the spiritual distinction between Jew and Gentile come to an end with Christ and the foundation of his church?[2] Certainly the church—that redefined ‘Israel’ or ‘people of God’—is what Jesus loved and died for,[3] and that’s what he’s building.[4]  It’s the church that matters, not Jewish ethnicity, and certainly not any Middle Eastern territory.

The New Testament, in fact, contains not a single reference to the return of the Jews to the Promised Land. That’s for two reasons. First, because, while God’s promise of the land was unconditional, their possession of it was always conditional upon their obedience.[5] The Old Testament records how they failed to meet the conditions and so lost the land. And second, because ‘Israel’ has been redefined in the light of Christ. Present-day Israel is a secular state unrelated to God’s revealed purpose.[6] My view has been, therefore, that the whole ‘Christian Zionism’ thing is a gigantic red herring, diverting believers from their twin tasks of reaching the lost and nurturing the saints.

‘Ah yes, but what about that famous passage on the Jewish question: Romans 9-11? Isn’t it clear from Paul’s words here that the Jews are a special case?’

On the contrary. Look at the context. The theme of the whole letter is an examination of the question: who are the people of God? And Paul’s answer is unequivocal: God’s people are those who put their faith in Christ. Whether they are Jews or Gentiles is immaterial. A Chinese, an Indian, a Swede or an Eskimo can, by trusting Jesus, be as much a descendant of Abraham as a thoroughbred Jew.[7]  And the point of Romans 9-11 seems to be not that the Jews are a special case for God’s favour but that—wonder of wonders—in spite of their obstinate refusal to recognise their Messiah, they are still in with a chance. God in his mercy has not slammed the door on them. They are still candidates for salvation as much as any Gentile!

In fact Paul ends up redefining what ‘Israel’ means. While recognising Jewish ethnicity, of course, his more basic point is that the real ‘chosen people’, the real Israel, is the redeemed community: the church.

‘Ah, just as I thought!’ claims someone. ‘You’re into Replacement Theology, pushing Israel aside and saying the church has taken its place. And it’s heresy!’

Here I permit myself a few groans, then quickly gather my wits for a reply. I don’t believe in Replacement Theology, at least not as just defined. My position—and that of virtually all mainline biblical scholars—is a different one: not that the church replaces Israel but that the church is Israel. The real Israel, that is. The true people of God, the ultimate ‘chosen people’ of which the Jews in their national ‘chosen’ capacity were merely a type and shadow.[8] The church has not replaced Israel; God’s promises to ancient Israel have been fulfilled in the church.

Here’s where we have to check our hermeneutical bearings. We believe in progressive revelation: that God has made himself known gradually, culminating in Jesus Christ.[9]  The New Testament reveals truth unknown in the Old Testament, and the New Testament writers are the Spirit-inspired interpreters of the Old. No longer now can we afford to read the Old Testament—including its ‘land’ promises—as if the New Testament didn’t exist. If we do, we shall become bogged down in a quagmire of doctrinal confusion.

Let’s apply this principle to the Promised Land. That God gave it to the Jews no-one in their right mind can deny. According to the Old Testament he promised it to Abraham and his descendants [10] and, after the exodus, that’s where those descendants went. Later, when ousted from it at the Exile, they headed back to it—or at least a remnant did.

But what does the New Testament say about the Jews and the land? Zero. Absolutely nothing. For a start, that in itself should make us massively cautious about Christian obsession with Israel and Middle Eastern territory. And sure enough, when we look closely we see the New Testament writers pointing us in a quite different direction.

First, we see Jesus signalling a departure from Jewish centrality by choosing twelve apostles as the foundation for the new people of God in an obvious alternative to ethnic Israel with its twelve tribal ancestors. Then we see those apostles themselves adopting the same ‘new people’ line. Peter—that Jew par excellence—takes Old Testament phrases precious to Israel and applies them, without excuse, to the church. It is redeemed Jews and Gentiles together, he says, who are in the final sense ‘a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God.’ And not just a people, for he goes on: ‘Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God.'[11]

In the Bible, ‘the people of God’ and ‘Israel’ are synonymous.

Paul is equally clear. He takes, for instance, a bundle of Old Testament promises originally addressed to the Jews and, writing to chiefly-Gentile Christians in Corinth, declares, ‘Since we have these promises, dear friends…'[12]  And in case we have any lingering doubts he tells the Galatians, ‘Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision[13] means anything; what counts is a new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God.'[14]  Rare is the serious biblical commentator who sees that phrase as referring to anything but the church.[15] And again, ‘It is we who are the circumcision’—it is we who are true Jews—’we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus and who put no confidence in the flesh.'[16]

So it’s no wonder ‘the land’ is absent from the New Testament picture. The real people of God, the church, are so numerous you would never fit them into that tiny country in the Middle East, even if they wanted to live there.

Instead, the New Testament writers give a global application to those Old Testament promises originally limited to the Holy Land. Abraham would be ‘heir of the world’,[17] his descendants in every land, not just in one. The meek now ‘inherit the earth’,[18] not Canaan. Christian children who honour their parents will ‘enjoy long life on the earth’,[19] not, as originally, ‘in the land the LORD your God is giving you.'[20]

That the church is the real Israel is so patently obvious that, to me, it’s not even up for debate. And I’m apparently in good company because, over the centuries, ‘the majority view within the church has been that the church is the New Israel and that the Jews have lost title to that claim.'[21]

‘But surely,’ you insist, ‘you accept the fact that the return of Jews to Israel in our own day is a wonderful fulfilment of prophecy?

Not in the least. The prophecies usually quoted in support of that view are capable of a more obvious interpretation: they refer to the return of a Jewish remnant from exile in Babylon around 500 BC.

‘But the return from exile was a return from a single country—Babylon. The promise that God would bring them back from among “many nations” can only be fulfilled in the return of the Diaspora in our own times.’

Well, that’s not what Jeremiah thought. He saw the Babylonian Empire for what it was: a conglomerate of ‘many nations’, and the return of Jews from Babylon in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah fulfilled those prophecies perfectly, as he himself makes plain.[22]

‘Well, then, what about Isaiah’s prophecy that God will bring his people back “a second time”?[23] The return from Babylon was clearly the first, so the second has to be today’s re-gathering.’

A look at the context knocks that one on the head, too. Isaiah states that the first return was, in fact, Israel’s arrival in the Promised Land from Egypt after their earlier escape from slavery at the exodus.[24]  Against that background, the ‘second time’ is the return from Babylon after all. And there’s no mention of a third time to cover events since 1948.[25]

That’s it, then. All the ‘Jews to Israel’ promises were fulfilled in the distant past. There’s no reason at all to look for any further fulfilment today.[26]

‘Ah, but what about the principle of double or multiple fulfilment of prophecy? Isn’t there room there for the Zionist return?’

No, because all prophecy finds its ultimate fulfilment in Jesus and his church. He’s what life, history, the Bible and prophecy are all about. Once Jesus came on the scene, all the strands of Old Testament prophecy came together in him.[27]  We have no business looking for rogue strands due to be fulfilled in ways unrelated to him or to the church which is his body. The only homecoming that matters now is the exodus of sinners from the ‘Egypt’ of sin through the blood of Jesus, God’s Passover lamb,[28] and their gathering into the real and ultimate Israel which is the redeemed community, the church. That is what all the Old Testament ‘return to the land’ prophecies were ultimately about.

And what a relief it is to get into that land! After those wearisome struggles to earn our own salvation, the ‘rest’ of receiving it freely by God’s grace is wonderful—more wonderful, even, than the relief of the desert-weary Israelites when they at last set foot in Canaan, the land that God called ‘my rest’.[29]  The letter to the Hebrews develops this theme, underscoring yet again that a patch of Middle Eastern territory for the Jews was merely a picture of a spiritual homeland for all God’s people in Christ and the church.[30]

‘But that’s all very spiritual. Don’t you believe there’s room for physical and geographical fulfilments as well? Surely there’s a heavenly people with a heavenly destiny—the church—and an earthly people with an earthly destiny—the Jews?’

No, because the Bible makes the progression clear: the natural comes first, then the spiritual.[31]  The one doesn’t run alongside the other; it supersedes it. Now that Christ has come, turning back to the natural (Jews in Middle Eastern territory) is unthinkable. Everything is better in him. Why grasp at shadows when the reality is here?[32] Why should the man who has just won millions on the lottery continue busking for pennies on cold street-corners? Even Abraham never saw Canaan as his ultimate destiny. He had grander prospects: a heavenly country, a city whose architect and builder is God himself.[33]  That’s the church—Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem. And it’s not just a future prospect, inaccessible until Christ’s return. Already those who are in Christ ‘have come to’ it.[34]

The old Jerusalem is doubtless a fascinating place, with its Western Wall, ancient streets and souvenir shops selling olive-wood carvings. But it’s not a patch on the new one! [35]

So I’m not fussed about whether ethnic Jews live under the Israeli flag, or in New York, or Leeds, or wherever. Like Cambodians, Welshmen, Hottentots, Greeks and Kashmiris, they’re candidates for the gospel wherever they live. König is right: ‘[There can be] but one conclusion about the Jews’ future in the New Testament. The message expressed most fully by Paul is that, despite Israel’s rejection and merited judgment, God continues to hold open the doors of his mercy so that the Jews can again be ingrafted through faith in Jesus.'[36]

Well over half the world’s Jews live outside Israel and, today, emigration continues to outstrip immigration.[37]  But if God is the God of all the earth, he can use the fact that lots of Jews do live in Israel to further his saving purpose. May he do so! But let’s not get all misty-eyed and pseudo-spiritual about Zionism. It’s a deceptive sideline, nothing more. And the mainline? ‘Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham.'[38]

Fancy a piece of Harrogate toffee?

 

P.S.

Experience tells me that some people get very emotional about this subject. So before you lose your cool, please note the following:

  1. I am not anti-Semitic. I have as much time for Jews as I have for anyone else. They stand in as much need of God’s grace as Gentiles do. According to the New Testament that grace—praise him!—is equally available to both.
  2. I am supportive of those who feel God has given them a particular call to evangelise the Jews—as long as they don’t condemn those of us who may, instead, be called particularly to evangelise the British, the Moroccans, the Guatemalans or the Palestinians.
  3. The present-day State of Israel is a reality, even if there are serious doubts about the wisdom of its creation. I take the view that the Arabs need to accept its existence and withdraw their determination to wipe it off the map. At the same time, some sort of Palestinian state is needed, existing alongside Israel and living in peace with it. The current mutual killing by both sides remains unacceptable, and Christians should certainly not adopt an unthinking support for Israel in the conflict on the mistaken assumption that the State of Israel somehow enjoys divine support. It does not.

Footnotes

  1. Psalm 24:1
  2. Galatians 3:26-29; Colossians 3:11
  3. Ephesians 5:25
  4. Matthew 16:18
  5. Jeremiah 18:7-11; Deuteronomy 28:62-63; Joshua 23:16. The unbelieving spies, along with a whole generation of Israelites, were kept out because of their unbelief (Numbers 14:21-23); Moses was kept out because of his pride (Numbers 20:12). And one certainly cannot argue that the present State of Israel exists because its citizens have turned to God. It is a thoroughly secular state, with only a very small number of practising Jews and Christians.
  6. Only about 15% of Israelis are even observant [of Judaism], much less Orthodox.’ Holwerda D.E., Jesus & Israel: One Covenant or Two?, Apollos, 1995, p28
  7. Romans 4:16. See also Galatians 3:7
  8. God’s way of moving from ‘old’ to ‘new’ is not to replace the old with the new, but to remodel the old into the new. The earth after the Flood, for example, was still in many respects the same earth, yet new in the sense that it had been radically reshaped by the waters. For further detail see my post: The Same But Different.
  9. Hebrews 1:1-2
  10. Genesis 15:18
  11. 1 Peter 2:9-10, referring to Isaiah 43:2 and Exodus 19:6
  12. 2 Corinthians 6:16 – 7:1
  13. A common shorthand for ‘Jewishness’ and ‘non-Jewishness’.
  14. Galatians 6:15-16
  15. Some have tried to argue that the Greek word kai doesn’t mean ‘even’ here but ‘and’. The weight of scholarly linguistic opinion is solidly against them. Paul is saying—controversially for the Judaisers who opposed him—that those who have been born again (i.e. have experienced the ‘new creation’), whether they be of Jewish or of Gentile stock, constitute God’s true Israel. He makes a similar plain statement in Romans 11:26 where, after using ‘Israel’ in the ethnic sense from the beginning of chapter nine, he then deliberately shocks his readers by using the phrase ‘all Israel’ to mean the church. N.T. Wright comments: ‘Paul is clearly offering a deliberately polemical redefinition of “Israel”, parallel to that in Galatians (6:16), in which the people thus referred to are the whole company, Jew and Gentile alike, who are now (as in chapter 4 and 9:6ff.) inheriting the promises made to Abraham.’ (P. W. L. Walker, ed., Jerusalem Past and Present in the Purposes of God [2nd edn. 1994] Carlisle: Paternoster. Grand Rapids: Baker, pages 53–77
  16. Philippians 3:3
  17. Romans 4:13
  18. Matthew 5:5 cf. Psalm 37:11
  19. Ephesians 6:2
  20. Deuteronomy 5:16, from which Paul is quoting in Ephesians 6:2
  21. Holwerda D.E., Jesus & Israel: One Covenant or Two?, Apollos, 1995, p4
  22. Jeremiah 29:10-14
  23. Isaiah 11:11
  24. Isaiah 11:16
  25. Some see a third homecoming of a sort at Pentecost—the Jewish feast that, at the time of Jesus, annually brought Jews back to Jerusalem from their homes throughout the Roman Empire. It is interesting that Luke’s list of their home areas echoes those mentioned in the homecoming promise of Isaiah (Acts 2:5-11 cf. Isaiah 11:11). Apparently some who became Christians when the Holy Spirit fell at Pentecost sold property in the places from which they had come and settled in the Jerusalem area. It was these Jews who, in submitting to baptism and receiving the Spirit, fulfilled in a minor sense God’s homecoming promise through Ezekiel (Ezekiel 36:24-27).
  26. There has always been a school of thought among the Jews that the return from Babylon under Zerubbabel, Ezra and Nehemiah did not in fact fulfil the many OT promises of restoration, and that the real exile continued long thereafter. Paul seems to sympathise with this view in his treatment of the subject in his letters. On his view, the restoration of the Jews to God is tied up with Gentile salvation and its provoking of Jews to jealousy. But it is a purely spiritual restoration, which is why references to ‘the land’ in the Middle East are notable by their absence in the NT. For more of this see the entry ‘The Restoration of Israel’ in Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, Hawthorne, Martin & Reid, eds., IVP, 1993.
  27. Acts 3:24; 2 Corinthians 1:20
  28. 1 Corinthians 5:7
  29. Psalm 95:7-11
  30. Hebrews 3-4
  31. 1 Corinthians 15:46
  32. Colossians 2:16-17
  33. Hebrews 11:10-16
  34. Hebrews 12:22
  35. Revelation 3:12; 21:2-3
  36. König A., The Eclipse of Christ in Eschatology, Eerdmans/MMS, 1989, p170
  37. According to The Jerusalem Post’s online statistics, Jews in Israel in 2000 numbered 4.9 million. At the same period, over 6 million Jews were living in the USA alone. Also emigration of Jews from Israel in recent years has exceeded immigration by about 600,000 (see R.H. Curtiss, ‘Year-End Statistics Gloss Over Israel’s Biggest Problem’ in the Washington Report on Middle Eastern Affairs, March 1997). The Sunday Telegraph of 30 Nov 2003 reported: ‘The government wants to bring another million Jews to Israel by 2010. Yet figures released by the absorption ministry, responsible for helping new immigrants, have revealed that an estimated 760,000 Israelis are living abroad, up from 550,000 in 2000. Only 23,000 people are expected to move to the Holy Land this year, the lowest figure since 1989… Many families head for Canada. So far 6,000 Israelis have moved there this year, double last year’s total.’
  38. Galatians 3:7. See also v26

Review: A refreshing ‘take’ on Scripture

11 January 2018

Richard Rohr, the author of many books, is a Roman Catholic priest in the Franciscan tradition. Does that set your Protestant alarm ringing? If it does, switch the alarm off, please, for here is a book with a depth of biblical insight that, frankly, leaves a lot of evangelical writing seeming, by contrast narrow and insipid. The book is

Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality by Richard Rohr (St Anthony Messenger Press, 2008).

thlargeIt looks at some key biblical themes and draws from them practical applications for living the Christian life today. I found it resonating with lots of the changed attitudes to Scripture that I myself have adopted in recent years (some of which I have touched on in my free e-book, A Poke In The Faith)—like the ‘trajectory’ approach to hermeneutics (which Rohr calls ‘the developing tangents’), the clear trend towards non-violence, rejection of the classic understanding of ‘original sin’, God’s core essence as self-giving love, and wariness of the ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ position.

The author sees all the major themes being introduced early on in the Bible. These then develop throughout the middle part of it, and come to a crescendo in the risen Christ, who is the final revelation of what God is like, and who draws us into union with him. The large middle section records many instances of ‘three steps forward, two steps back’, as Israel’s understanding slowly progressed. We should be wary, therefore, of letting some parts of the Bible inform our conclusions as to what God is like.

In moving towards the goal of union with God through Jesus Christ, we need both the external wisdom of the Scriptures and the inner wisdom of experience; each sheds light on the other. As Rohr himself puts it, ‘Information is not necessarily transformation’. Too many Christians claim to have all the ‘right’ theological answers but don’t echo the character of Jesus much—and that’s challenging!

outstandingbookI love the penetrating insights Rohr provides into human nature, social dynamics, how we perceive truth, and how we change, grounding them firmly in the teachings of Jesus. They ring true and I, for one, have found them prodding me to make some adjustments to the way I think and act, and how I treat other people.

Throughout the book there is a strong emphasis on grace, which will be reassuring if you are wary of any writing from Catholic sources. And I have to say that the nature of the grace it portrays is a million times bigger and better than the Calvinistic variety! The whole flavour of the book, in fact, is one of grace, warmth, love and challenge-to-change.
This is the best book I have read in a very long time. There’s huge and winsome wisdom here, and I encourage you to taste it.

Here are some quotations.

The ecumenical character and future of Christianity is becoming rather obvious. It is really the religious side of globalization. (p4)

I am increasingly convinced that the word prayer, which has become a functional and pious thing for believers to do, is, in fact, a descriptor for inner experience. (p6)

The [Bible] text itself edges forward and sometimes backward, just as humans do. In other words, it doesn’t just give you the conclusions, but it does create a clear set of patterns and a tangent—and our job is to connect the dots forward and backward. In my opinion, it is only inner experience that can do that job—not just proof texts or external belief systems. (p11)

Our job is to see where the three steps forward texts are heading (invariably toward mercy, forgiveness, inclusion, nonviolence and trust), which gives us the ability to clearly recognize and understand the two steps backward texts (which are usually about vengeance, divine pettiness, law over grace, form over substance and technique over relationship). (p11)

If you read searching for certain conclusions, to quickly reassure your “false self,” as if each line in the Bible was a full dogmatic statement, all spiritual growth will not just stop, but you will become a rather toxic person for yourself and others. (p12)

We have created a terrible kind of dualism between the spiritual and the so-called non-spiritual. This dualism precisely is what Jesus came to reveal as a lie. The principle of Incarnation proclaims that matter and spirit have never been separate. Jesus came to tell us that these two seemingly different worlds are and always have been one. We just couldn’t see it until God put them together in his one body (see Ephesians 2:11–20). (p17)

What you have built into the Hebrew Bible and strongly expressed by Jesus and the prophets is the capacity for self-critical thinking. It is the first step beyond the dualistic mind and teaches us patience with ambiguity and mystery. (p18)

Our temptation now and always is not to trust in God but to trust in our faith tradition of trusting in God. They are not the same thing! (p19)

Forgiveness always heals; it does not matter whether you are Hindu, Buddhist, Catholic or Jewish. Forgiveness is one of the patterns that is always true, it is part of The Story. (p23)

One of the enlightened themes that develops in the Judeo-Christian tradition and reaches its fullness in the crucified Jesus is the recognition of the cosmic and personal significance of human pain and suffering…   I would define suffering very simply as “whenever you are not in control.” (p24)

We were created in the very “image and likeness” of God… our family of origin is divine. Our core is original blessing, not original sin. This says that our starting point is totally positive, or as the first chapter of the Bible says, it is “very good” (1:31). We do have someplace good to go home to. If the beginning is right, the rest is made considerably easier, plus we know the clear direction of the tangent. (p27)

God’s main problem is how to give away God! But God has great difficulty doing this. You’d think everybody would want God. But the common response is something like this: “Lord, I am not worthy. I would rather have religion and morality, which give me the impression that I can win a cosmic contest by my own efforts.” (p31)

[Re the animals in Noah’s ark and Gen 7:16]  Most people never note that God actually closed them in! God puts all the natural animosities, all the opposites together, and holds them together in one place. I used to think it was about balancing all the opposites within me, but slowly I have learned that it is actually “holding” things unreconciled that teaches us—leaving them partly unresolved and without perfect closure or explanation. (p35)

If the mind that needs to make moral judgments about everything is the master instead of the servant, religion is almost always corrupted. (p37

The major heresy of the Western churches is that they have largely turned around the very meaning of faith, which is not knowing and not needing to know, into its exact opposite—demanding to know and insisting that I do know! (p38)

Salvation is only secondarily assuring you of an eternal life; it is first of all giving you that life now, and saying, “If now, then also later,” and that becomes your deep inner certitude! If God would accept me now when I am clearly unworthy, then why would God change his policy later? You can then begin to rest, enjoy and love life. (p41)

If we do not understand election as “inclusive election” (chosenness is for the sake of communicating the same to others), religion almost always becomes an exclusionary system against the “non-elect,” “un-worthy” or “impure”…  In any kind of “exclusive election,” the “chosen” do not see their experience as a gift for others, but merely a gift for themselves. We end up with a very smug and self-satisfied religion. (p44)

How we relate to God always reveals how we will relate to people, and how we relate to people is an almost infallible indicator of how we relate to God and let God relate to us…  The whole Bible is a school of relationship, revealing both its best qualities and its worst. (p56)

Jesus brings the biblical tradition to a climax when he defines truth itself as personal rather than conceptual. He says “I am the truth” (John 14:6) and then immediately defines himself as one who is in absolute relationship with his “Father” (14:7, 9–10) and the Spirit who is in relationship to both (14:16–18). This rearranges the world of religion from arguments over ideas and concepts into a world of encounter, relationship and presence to the face of the other. That changes everything. (p61)

God is not dependent upon knowledge in the sense that the Western mind understands knowledge. How could God make such a mistake when 98 percent of the people who have ever lived could not read or write? Biblical knowing is more akin to face-to-face presence. (p63)

You feel so much more in control when you are right than when you are in right relationship. (p67)

Faith will always be faith, and we are never going to be able to make it into total certitude and clarity, although that is always the temptation of religion. (p71)
Paul takes much of Romans and Galatians to say what the Dalai Lama says in one oft-quoted line: “You must learn the meaning of the law very well, so you will know how to disobey it properly.” You must know and respect the rules before you can break the rules. (p73)

It is painful but necessary to be critical of your own system, whatever it is. But do know it will never make you popular. As you know, the prophets are always rejected by their own (see Luke 12:50–51) and usually killed. (p74)

Jesus criticizes hypocrisy more than anything else. He does not hate sinners at all, but only people who pretend they are not sinners! Check that out, story by story, if you do not believe me. (p76)

Paul tells us in Romans 7:8 that “sin takes advantage of the law” to achieve its own purposes. What does he mean by that? Our unconverted and natural egocentricity (“sin”) uses religion for the purposes of gaining self-respect. If you want to hate somebody, want to be vicious or vengeful or cruel or vindictive, I can tell you a way to do it without feeling an ounce of guilt: Do it for religious reasons! Do it thinking you’re obeying a law, thinking you’re following some commandment or some verse from the Bible. It works quite well. Your untouched egocentricity can and will use religion to feel superior and “right.” It is a common pattern. (p82)

We have been given a God who not only allows us to make mistakes, but even uses our mistakes in our favor! That is the gospel economy of grace and is the only thing worthy of being called “good news, and a joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10). If we could have come to God by obedience to laws, there would have been no need for God’s love revelation in Jesus. The techniques for order and obedience were already in place. (p84)

Only very gradually does human consciousness come to a selfless use of power, or the sharing of power, or even a benevolent use of power—in church, politics or even family and marriage. (p85)

Two thousand years after the revelation of Jesus, many people still seem to prefer a punitive, threatening and violent God, which then produces the same kind of people and the same kind of history. (p87)

It is largely a waste of time to tell people to love generously when the God they have been presented with is a taskmaster, loves quite conditionally, is easily offended, very needy and threatens people with eternal torture if they do not “believe” in him. (p89)

It seems that until you are excluded from any system, you are not able to recognize the idolatries, lies or shadow side of that system. It is the privileged “knowledge of the victim.” (p92)

After Jesus, God can no longer be perceived as the Pantocrator or Omnipotence Itself, but a member of a self-emptying and humble Trinity. (p93)

[Re Gideon’s army-reduction]  God has to teach the people that there are alternatives to brute strength. If all you are taught is the art of the hammer, everything in your life is perceived as another nail. (p94)

Until you don’t need external power, you normally cannot handle power. When you have real power, you do not need to flaunt it. When you know you are being used by a Higher Power, you do not take your small power too seriously. (p98)

[Re Luke 9:3]  This austerity was not a program for the whole of life, but rather it was an initiation rite, a training course in vulnerability and community. Jesus is telling his apostles, as it were, “You’ve got to go through this or you will never be capable of empathy, compassion and identification with the pain of the world that you are called to serve. You will use ministry as a career move instead of a servant position.” Some such rite of passage seems necessary to break our foundational narcissism. Paul says the very same, and it is the only time the word initiation is used in the Scriptures, to my knowledge (check out Philippians 4:11–13). (p103)

Almost everybody seems to need some kind of sinner or heretic against which to compare themselves. (p105)

[Re those excluded from the Temple, Lev 11-24]  We tend to like purity codes. They define groups and give us an identity as superior. Once inside, we cannot hear anything that demotes us. (p107)

The Bible illustrates both healthy and unhealthy religion, right in the text itself, and Jesus offers us a rather simple criterion by which to judge one from the other. It is not a head category at all, but a visual and practical one—“does it bear good fruit or bad fruit?” (Matthew 7:15–20; Luke 6:43–45). Jesus is almost embarrassingly practical. (p110)

When we presume we know fully, we can all be very arrogant and goal-oriented. When we know we don’t know fully, we are much more concerned about practical loving behavior. This has become obvious to me as I observe human nature. Those who know God are always humble; those who don’t are invariably quite sure of themselves. (p110)
In my experience, I observe that the people who find God are usually people who are very serious about their quest and their questions, more so than being absolutely certain about their answers. I offer that as hard-won wisdom. (p113)

Without an in-depth prayer tradition, religion has cried wolf too many times in history and later been proven wrong. Observe earlier authoritative church statements on democracy, war, torture, slavery, women, usury, anti-Semitism, revolution, liturgical forms, native peoples, the Latin language and the earth-centered universe—to name a few big ones. If we had balanced our knowing by some honest not-knowing, we would never have made such egregious mistakes. We proved whatever we wanted from one twisted line of Scripture. The unprayerful heart will always twist reality to its own liking. (p114)

Good poetry doesn’t try to define an experience as much as it tries to give you the experience itself, just as good liturgy should do. It tries to awaken your own seeing, hearing and knowing. It does not give you the conclusion as much as teach you a process whereby you can know for yourself. It does not “overexplain and destroy astonishment.” (p116)

If I left myself as open to misunderstanding and misinterpretation as Jesus did by teaching in the way he did, I surely would be called a heretic, or at least a very fuzzy and dangerous thinker. Why do we need to be clearer or less capable of misunderstanding than Jesus? Apparently, it was not a problem for him. (p117)

The three monotheistic religions each insist on absolute truth claims in forms of words, whereas Jesus’ truth claim was his person (John 14:6), his presence (John 6:35 ff.), his ability to participate in God’s perfect love (John 17:21–22). (p123)

We must approach the Scriptures with humility and patience, with our own agenda out of the way, and allow the Spirit to stir the deeper meaning for us. Otherwise we only hear what we already agree with or what we have decided to look for! (p125)

Only people who have first lived and loved, suffered and failed, and lived and loved again, are in a position to read the Scriptures in a humble, needy, inclusive and finally fruitful way. If you put the Scriptures in the hands of a person uninitiated by life, they will always make it into a head trip. It becomes a set of prescriptions instead of an actual description of what is real and what is unreal. (p128)

Human nature always wants either to play the victim or to create victims—and both for the purposes of control. (p134)

It’s hard for us religious people to hear, but the most persistent violence in human history has been sacred violence, or more accurately, “sacralized violence.” Human beings have found a most effective way to legitimate their instinct toward fear and hatred. They imagine that they are fearing and hating for something holy and noble, like God, religion, truth, morality, their children or love of country. It takes away all guilt, and one can even think of oneself as representing the moral high-ground or being responsible and prudent, as a result. (p135)

If I would try to describe the evil people and evil events that I’ve encountered, they’re invariably characterized by a sense of certainty and clarity. They suffer no self-doubt or self-criticism, smirking at people who would dare to question them. (p135)

…the story of Noah’s Flood and God’s seeming destruction of the whole world. Unfortunately, this picturesque and ancient story that explains God’s salvation of a few, ends up presenting Yahweh as accusing, petty and even one who kills the unworthy and the innocent (Genesis 6-9). God’s love has not yet been received at a deep or reflective level by this biblical author. It is still a very conditional and deserved love, and God is free to drown a whole world of animals and children, even if we can assume all the other adults on the rest of the earth were sinful and “violent” (Genesis 6:11–13). Here God is created in our own punitive image and is made worse than we would hopefully be! But it is a good start, because Yahweh is at least revealed as a “savior” of some (6:19–20)…  This is an important story to use to reveal what I mean by a text in travail: getting part of the point, but not all of it yet, and partly in direct opposition to the tangent that will develop. (p139)

Jesus does not define holiness as separation from evil as much as absorption and transformation of it, wherein I pay the price instead of always asking others to pay the price. (p142)

I think the story of Jonah is the much-needed journey from ministry as mere careerism to ministry as actual vocation, from doing my work for God, to letting God do God’s work in and through me. (p147)

It always takes us a while to move beyond groupthink and to join the God of all the earth in universal compassion. (p148)

No one had been more pious, Jewish and law-abiding than Paul (Philippians 3:5–16). He was a perfect Pharisee, as he said, and suddenly he realized that in the name of love he had become hate, in the name of religion he had become a murderer, in the name of goodness he had become evil. (p148)

All three absolutes that keep people small and paranoid have been undone by Jesus: my identity or power group, my job, and my family. (p150)

Jesus is teaching us that if we put our energy into choosing the good—instead of the negative and largely illusionary energy of rejecting the bad—we will overcome evil in a much better way, and will not become evil ourselves! (p152)

I want to name what I think is the central positive theme of the Bible. It is the Divine Unmerited Generosity that is everywhere available, totally given, usually undetected as such, and often even undesired. It is called grace. (p155)

[Re a ‘reward and punishment’ mindset]  As long as we remain inside of a win-lose script, Christianity will continue to appeal to low-level and self-interested morality and never rise to the mystical banquet that Jesus really offered us. It will be duty instead of delight, “jars of purification” (John 2:6) instead of 150 gallons of intoxicating wine at the end of the party! (2:7–10). How did we avoid missing the clear message on that one? (p159)

When forgiveness becomes largely a juridical process, then we who are in charge can measure it out, define who’s in and who’s out, find ways to earn it and exclude the unworthy. It makes for good religion, but not at all for good spirituality. We have destroyed the likelihood that most people will ever experience the pure gift of God’s forgiveness. (p162)

God seems quite practiced in using peoples’ sin for good, but those who refuse to see their dark side God cannot use! Jesus himself is never upset at sinners. He’s only upset with people who don’t think they’re sinners. Righteous folks are much more problematic for Jesus, because they are only half there, at best. (p167)

To allow yourself to be God’s beloved is to be God’s beloved. To allow yourself to be chosen is to be chosen. To allow yourself to be blessed is to be blessed. It is so hard to accept being accepted, especially from God. It takes a certain kind of humility to surrender to it, and even more to persist in believing it. (p168)

God apparently gives us exactly what we want. Do you want life, to live inside the city of Jerusalem, “where you will be suckled, filled from her consoling breasts, where you will savor with delight her glorious breasts” (Isaiah 66:11). Or do you want “Gehenna,” the garbage dump still outside the walls of Jerusalem, “where the worm never dies nor the fire ever goes out” (Isaiah 66:24). That is always the choice, and in these concluding verses of the prophet Isaiah the choices are dramatically portrayed. They became archetypal metaphors that were used in the Jewish tradition down to Jesus himself. They were used so dramatically, however, that they become literalized and localized. This has had an unfortunate effect for generations of Christians, who were often not consciously realizing that to take it literally would make the loving God into an eternal torturer. It’s an absurd notion, because then God would be less loving than we are. (p171)

All of Jesus’ healings, touchings and “salvations” (Luke 7:50; 17:19; 19:9) were clearly now. He never once said, “Be good now, and I will give you a reward later.” (p173)

We don’t know how to say yes by ourselves. We just “second the motion”! There is a part of you that has always said yes to God, it is the Holy Spirit within you. God first says “yes” inside of us and we say, “Oh yeah,” thinking it comes from us! In other words, God rewards us for letting God reward us. Think about that, maybe even for the rest of your life. (p179)

How does Jesus “overcome death and darkness,” as we often say? Is it just a heavenly transaction on God’s side, or is it more an agenda that God gives us for our side? Did Jesus not reveal for all humanity the very pattern of redemption itself? Could that not be what we mean by calling him “The Savior of the World”? (John 4:42). Jesus is, in effect, saying, “This is how evil is transformed into good! I am going to take the worst thing and turn it into the best thing, so you will never be victimized, destroyed or helpless again! I am giving YOU the victory over all death!” (p188)

In forgiveness, it is precisely my ego self that has to die, my need to be right, to be in control, to be superior. Very few want to go there, but that is exactly what Jesus emphasized and taught. I am told that forgiveness is at least implied in two-thirds of his teaching! (p193)

We are the only religion in the world that worships the scapegoat as God. In worshiping the scapegoat, we should gradually learn to stop scapegoating, because we also could be utterly wrong, just as “church” and state, high priest and king, Jerusalem and Rome, the highest levels of discernment were utterly wrong in the death of Jesus. (p194)

[Re the cross]  The trouble is that we emphasized paying a cosmic debt more than communicating a credible love, which is the utterly central issue. The cross became more an image of a Divine transaction than an image of human transformation. We ended up with a God who appears—at least unconsciously—to be vindictive, violent and petty, not at all free, subject to supposed laws of offended justice—and a Son who is mainly sent to solve a problem instead of revealing the heart of God. (p199)

True Christianity beguiles, seduces, invites, cajoles, creates spiritual yearning and draws humanity into ever more desirable mystery, healing and grace. (p200)

If God can forgive, then God can forgive! We do not need one major exception where we need atonement and payment of price. But theoretical religion has always been more comfortable with cosmic problem-solving than with personal surrender to the healing and transformative mystery of divine love. (p202)

The things Jesus talked about constantly, like living a simple and nonviolent life in this world, like forgiveness and inclusivity, are still considered fringe thinking by many Christians. How strange that we have the capacity to not see what is taught so clearly by the one we consider our teacher. It must be what saddened Isaiah and Jesus too: “This people will hear and hear again, but not understand, see and see again but not perceive” (Isaiah 6:9; Matthew 13:14). (p213)

You don’t have to figure it all out or get it all right ahead of time. You just have to stay on the journey. All you can do is stay connected. We don’t know how to be perfect, but we can stay in union. “If you remain in me and I remain you,” says Jesus, “you can ask for whatever you want and you’re going to get it” (see John 15:7). When you’re connected, there are no coincidences anymore. Synchronicities, coincidences, accidents and “providences” just keep happening. Union realigns you with everything, and things just start happening. (p214)

It seems obvious to me that God is calling everyone and everything home, not just picking and choosing a few. In fact, the few are only for the sake of the many, or as Paul put it “the dough is for the whole batch” (Romans 11:16 ff.). We all are saved in spite of ourselves—and for one another. It never was a worthiness contest. If God is love and if grace is true, then what exactly is the cut-off point? “When is God’s arm too short to save?” (Isaiah 50:2). Are there any who have achieved worthiness and do not need saving? Name them, please. (p218)


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