Eucharist: when Fundamentalists fail to read Scripture literally


I love old hymns. They are so often full of such deep theology.  I love the eucharist, I need the grace that this sacrament transmits. A couple of us had a stimulating Facebook conversation about the riches of those old hymns. For me “old” here means before the invention of printing, not the 18th and 19th centuries ;)  I said in passing that two of my all-time favourites are Thomas Aquinas’ “Pange Lingua” and Fortunatus’ hymn of the same name – perhaps it is no accident that they start with the same exhortation Aquinas seems to have shared my delight in Fortunatus’ fine hymn. My liking for Aquinas hymn, though, shocked my interlocutor, unused (as they were) to high-church Baptists.

Actually I am more shocked by all those low-church Baptists, who persist in praying lengthily over the bread and wine carefully informing God, and through him the assembled people, that whatever Jesus may have meant by the simple words “this is my body given for you” he did not mean them to be taken seriously, let alone literally.

It’s funny how these words, so important in our regular celebration of the story of Jesus (I’d say “worship” but today worship means singing I’m told), are read paradoxically differently by “Fundamentalists” and Catholics. Catholics read the Bible (at least these words) over-literally. For it seems quite clear to me that, whatever Jesus meant, he did not intend to be understood literally. Just imagine his disciples’ reactions: “But the law forbids us to consume blood!” (Lev 17:14) On the other hand for my Fundamentalist friends, not only did Jesus not mean these words literally (however keen they would be to read other words – like the “days” in Gen 1 – literally), he hardly meant them at all! (Though for such low Baptists Jesus words about remembering seem for some reason to be less overlooked. Perhaps because they hold to the doctrine of the real absence of the risen Christ they are keen that communion should remember Jesus’ death.)

“This is my body, broken for you.” surely means, in some sense (though not a literal one), that the bread of the eucharist is the broken body of the Son of God who died for us. If we can believe in two-a-penny miracles, like healings and gems or gold teeth from heaven, what is so hard about the promise of the real presence of Jesus in the bread of the Lord’s Supper?

Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy

"Starsinthesky" by ESA/Hubble. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons -
"Starsinthesky" by ESA/Hubble. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons - (edited)

“Starsinthesky” by ESA/Hubble. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons – (edited)

I confess, I have never really read the famous “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy”, the idea of defining the authority of Scripture in terms of lack of error in propositional statements strikes me as so wrong headed that I have never been really tempted to start. However a friend on Facebook showed me a post that linked to a copy of the statement.

Now I’m really puzzled. Article 12 reads:

Article XII.

WE AFFIRM that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit.
WE DENY that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.

The first part of “WE DENY” seems to claim that the Bible (regardless of the intentions of its human authors?) can be used to learn about scientific questions – I assume this means things like the age of the universe/earth, how species came to be etc… and not that somewhere in Scripture Boyles Law is taught.

OK… but the second part seems to claim that whatever Science may with high degree of confidence assert cannot be used to “overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood”. Which seems to imply that those passages of the Bible that teach about creation and flood are exempt from the first statement?

Is there (even a twisted sort of) logic here, or is the statement just daft? In either case why do so many American, and American influenced, religious people find the statement helpful?

Please, these are serious questions and I just do not understand, so help me!

Inspiration and Incarnation


For the Introduction to the Old Testament I am teaching at APTS one of the set books students must read is:

Peter Enns. Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005.

I do not intend to do a thorough review of this book here, not least because one of the assessments asks the students to  review it ;) But I do want to venture a few comments, and may add more as I read further.

First some general remarks: The book is clearly and simply written, Enns has taken trouble to make the material accessible to beginners. Yet his topic is useful to students further on in their serious study of Scripture. It shows some signs of haste in production, alongside the times when I am delighted by how well Enns has expressed some idea there are many places where it seems to me his expression has been careless and a more careful editing (by Enns or by his editor(s) could have strengthened his delivery of his message. Overall the “delighted” sections well outnumber and outweigh the “I wish he’d taken more care” ones. This is a book that would have been ideal for a proper electronic edition that enabled readers to question such places and enabled Enns to edit and improve the text!

Among the places where I have been saying “Amen” and singing (in my heart for my voice is not up to the task) praise to God for what he is saying – which seems to me so far (I am at p.102/172) to do for big picture practical biblical hermeneutics what Duval and Hays1 for small scale practical hermeneutics – that is, codify and explain the sort of practice and understanding most/many trained Bible readers have been doing (sometimes unconsciously) for years in useful and clear ways that a beginner can access, or help a more experienced student to develop.

My takeaway gem so far:

[t]here is a significant strand of contemporary Christian thinking on the Old Testament that feels that these sorts of things Just shouldn’t happen. And. if they do. they just appear to be a problem. You just need to read a bit more closely or do a little more research. and if you’re patient enough. you’ll get the right answer eventually. For others.however (including myself). such an approach comes close to intellectual dishonesty. To accept the diversity of the Old Testament is not to “cave in to liberalism,” nor is it to seek after novelty. It is.rather. to read the Old Testament quite honestly and seriously. And if diversity is such a prevalent phenomenon in the Old Testament. it would seem to be important to do more than simply take note of diversity and file it away for future reference. We must ask why God would do it this way. Why does God’s word look the way it does?2

Now there’s an important and potentially most productive question for everyone who desires to take the Bible seriously as Scripture. Especially it is a useful question for those of us in traditions that make the Bible the authority for faith and practice!

  1. J. Scott Duvall and J Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word : A Hands-on Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible Grand Rapids  MI.: Zondervan, 2001 and in a shorter version: J. Scott Duvall and J Daniel Hays, Journey into God’s Word : Your Guide to Understanding and Applying the Bible Grand Rapids  MI: Zondervan, 2008. []
  2. Enns, 102. []

Mark Driscoll at Thrive and a sharp double-edged sword!


Mark Driscoll spoke at a leadership conference recently. He began with the sad story of his family’s experience during and after the events that led to his ministry at Mars Hill ending in shame and the closure of the church. This story is sad and my heart goes out to him and especially his children. No one should be treated that way!

His topic was forgiveness, and he focused on the need for “struck shepherds” to forgive those who have hurt them. So the introduction telling of his family’s experience was strong. The talk is a powerful reminder of the centrality and importance of forgiving to Christian living. It is made more real by Driscoll’s desire to forgive those who hurt his children.

Several people have already commented on the strange fact that Driscoll never asks for forgiveness or acknowledges his fault in all this experience (apart from  a rather trite aside about “struck shepherds” sometimes hitting themselves in the head). That despite his experiences and his desire to forgive Driscoll’s talk is still self-centered is sad, but sadly not untypical of Western Christians in the early 21st century.

What I have not seen commented on is Driscoll’s use of Scripture. The phrase “struck shepherds” runs like a refrain through the talk. The refers to a verse from the Old Testament that Jesus quotes in which he reads “Strike thou the shepherd and the sheep scatter.” The passages are Zechariah 13:7 and Mark 14:27 || Matt 26:31. I am not sure which passage Driscoll read nor which translation, because he seems to misquote. For the original verse in Zechariah all the translations I looked at had something like:

“Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered;
I will turn my hand against the little ones.

While the gospels read something like:

 Mark 14:27 “You will all fall away,” Jesus told them, “for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.'”

Matthew 26:31 Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: “`I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’

Far from offering comfort to a “struck shepherd”, as Driscoll seems to think,  what I notice in both the prophet and in Jesus quoting of the prophet is that the agency of the striking is God.

In these Bible passages the shepherd is struck by God.

And, unless Driscoll thinks he is Jesus struck by God and crucified he presumably ought to identify himself with the struck human shepherd/leader(s) of Zech 13. This is not at all comforting for Driscoll, for this chapter proclaims God’s action against the false leaders who led his people into idolatry!

Beware lest your misuse of Scripture cause the weapon to turn in your hand and bite you. For the words of the Word of God as like a sharp double-edged sword!

Revelation 1:16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.

Demolishing Scripture (while claiming to be “biblical”)

Photo by Bob Hall via Wikipedia

Several recent conversations (online and face to face) in my circles involve applying the Bible to contemporary social issues. The latest is a very long-standing one in Western churches if there are particular roles for men and for women in family and church to which we should conform.

This discussion is usually framed as between Egalitarian and Complementarian approaches. As I have said elsewhere I think this framing is false – almost everyone I talk to is egalitarian (affirming they believe women and men are “equal”) and complementarian (they believe women and men complement each other and that for example in a marriage each partner brings qualities and so the whole is more than the parts). The key difference (I think) revolves round whether this complementarity is through defined gender roles to which we ought all conform regardless of our personal skills or gifts.

Sadly much of the discussion in Christian circles has for decades disolved into either each side bashing the other with “verses” that are believed to support/teach their view, or sometimes into a “literalist” – “liberal” ding dong. My beef with the “literalist” approaches, and with the “liberal” ones is that they each end up discarding a lot of the Bible. They differ in which parts of Scripture can be ignored or removed, and in the excuses they provide to justify their anti-biblical stances.

Some “liberals” discard Scripture honestly. Some openly say that this or that passage1 “is old fashioned”. Others dismiss some Bible teaching as “cultural” and so no longer binding in this enlightened age.

“Literalists” (and often ex-literalists, like many Baptists today) often do it covertly – with their lips they pay tribute to the whole Bible, but a slippery slope starts with the laws in the Pentateuch. No one I know avoids clothes made of mixed fibres. The excuse they offer if challenged is either “it was not confirmed in the NT” or “it’s only a ritual law”. Both of these excuses leave the Old Testament without authority! Only following Old Testament teaching that is confirmed in the New makes the Old Testament superfluous and effectively Apocrypha, valuable as spiritual reading but without authority. This ignores Jesus’ clear teaching that:

Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practises and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Mat 5:19)
Even if we could allow such tentative first steps down the slope, dismantling Scripture as Marcion did we have not solved the problem. Jesus also said

Take nothing for the journey except a staff–no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra tunic. (Mark 6:8-9)

But when such “literal” Christians pack, even for a mission trip, there are plenty of spare clothes! The response if they are challenged is “Ah, Jesus was talking to his disciples there, not us.”

Quite right, if you set aside Jesus’ words you are not his disciples!

Rather than either the “liberal” or the “literal” dismantling of Scripture we must (because every part of the Bible is socially and culturally contextual (that is incarnate in ancient places and times) look for the understanding of God and the world (theology) that the passage is teaching or applying. That is what we apply. It’s hard work, it risks us getting it wrong… in short we cease to “master” Scripture, but we (have tried to) allow it to master us.


For more explanation of that last important section see the last three sessions in my Reading the Bible Faithfully:

9: God remains faithful: the principle of the thing

10: Application: Where the rubber hits the road

11. Reading in the light of Christ

  1. Or indeed the whole of the Bible. []

Killing the Bible with kindness

Rhett has a typically sensible and thought provoking post “New” which begins with the strange obsession academia has with “new”, leading in disciplines that deal with a limited corpus of texts and ideas, like biblical studies or theology, to bizzare thesis topics and many silly claims. (Read Rhett’s post!)

From where I stand (often in front of a class of beginning theology students, sometimes Christians studying to be counselors or teachers, even more often in churches or Facebook chatting about this and that) the problem is not so much an obsession with “new”  as one with “simple”.

Fact/FictionChristians are taught from Sunday School upwards a simple approach to a simple Bible. The Bible says it, it is so. This is typified by the habit of citing “verses” to settle arguments.

Relevant Children’s Ministry has a post today also, “Are We Blurring the Lines Between Fact and Fiction When We Teach Children?” This begins with a terrifying statistic

 A recent study says that children who attend church have a harder time distinguishing between what is fact and fiction in life.

The study by Cognitive Science was based on research with 5 & 6 year olds who do and do not attend church.  An example – kids who attend church would be more likely to believe a talking animal they see on television is real.

They go on to ask what seems like a sensible series of questions about whether several of the things we do in children’s ministry risk confounding fact and fiction for these children. Their questions are good ones (and I hope my reply did not seem to suggest that we should not consider them) but I think they miss the more basic point.

The “line” between fact and fiction is already blurred. Thinking about historical biography and good fictional biography of historical personages shows this. Children, and adults too, need to be able to think critically, not merely “know” the line between fact and fiction.

Christians claim the Bible is their source of authority (different Christians give different roles to tradition and contemporary revelation by the Holy Spirit alongside Scripture). Yet few people I meet (who do not have Bible College training) can explain well and sensibly why Paul’s advice that women praying or speaking in church ought to cover their heads/hair (1 Cor 11) does not mean that Christian women today ought to wear hats in church. The answers range from the antinomian: “it’s out of date, that was his culture, it is not ours”, to the weird: “Gal 3:28 means we ought to treat men and women the same” – so men should wear hats also?! Almost none can go on from their explanation to also show how Paul’s teaching in this passage applies today! By one route (temporal snobbery) or another (bash your opponent with a “better” Bible verse) Scripture is denied and therefore devalued.

We need to teach our children, and our adults too, to think critically about Scripture (as well as about other things, don’t get me started) else the Bible will lose what little authority (as more than a tribal totem) it still retains.

[NB this is not my attempt to respond to Rhett’s post, that’s in the comments there. Nor is it my attempt to show you how to approach reading a passage like 1 Cor 11 today, I’m gradually doing that as simply and briefly as I can in monthly articles in the NZ Baptist and at Reading the Bible Faithfully.]

Scriptural claims about the inspiration of Scripture

Chris Heard has been doing a really fine and deeply thoughtful (and perhaps provocative) series on Scriptural claims about the inspiration of Scripture the series is not over, but has arrived at the stage of partial conclusions. You should read it (if you are reading this, then whoever you are you SHOULD read it) if you prepare a carnival (whether in Avignon, Rome, Geneva or someplace else) you MUST include it!

Here are links to the series so far:


Reflections on the debate over “marriage equality”

I’ve been watching the debate over the marriage equality bill with growing horror. Somehow the skill, humour and gentleness with which the “other side” has argued the case “for” has provoked many in the “Christian” camp to excesses that sometimes do deserve the accusations of gay bashing.

Of course the churches were on the back foot. Those Christians, that opposed the bill did so largely because they believe that Scripture teaches that homosexual activity is sinful. Without that conviction few have such clearly defined understandings of marriage or sex that they could bear the weight of the discussion. Yet by and large our society sees “sinful” as a positive adjective (“a sinfully rich” chocolate dessert anyone?) and the Bible as an outdated set of rules from a bygone age. (That both these views are dangerously false does not change their widespread adoption, or the fact that Christians cannot argue in the public square against gay marriage on the grounds that “the Bible says homosexuality is sinful”, and expect to be listened to.) Given this inability to argue from Scripture the public arguments offered have been tortuous and often false.  (Gays getting hitched will somehow destroy the meaning of heterosexual marriages, anyone?)

This, plus preparing to talk at Hillcrest Baptist on Sunday on “Gay Marriage”, has made me even more aware that, over the last century or so, the world has shifted on issues of sex and marriage and that Christians have by and large reacted, and often merely allowed themselves to be swept along by the social currents of the day. Before the current bill was passed the definition of marriage had already been changed drastically by reforms of divorce laws, changes in attitudes, language and habits have made sex merely about “pleasure”, and marriage about “self-fulfillment”, or (romantic) “love”.

The Pharisees cling to the old certainties and denounce the sins of others, while the Sadducees happily slide into the behaviour of the world around. The standard of the internal Christian discussion of the issues seems to amount to little more than one side bashing the same half-dozen Bible texts over their opponents’ heads, while their opponents suggest that somehow the changes in “culture” (seldom much more carefully discussed) mean those same texts are irrelevant. Either way the Bible loses its authority. The “Fundies” make Scripture a laughing stock, and the “Liberals” simply ignore it.

My response to the passing of the Bill? Christians need to take seriously the need to teach themselves and each other to read and interpret Scripture, and not merely treat it as a “promise box”,  or an armory full of convenient one-size-fits-all clubs.

Disbelieving the same god

“Unfortunately I was not able to gain access to the actual site.”

Deane Galbraith was kind enough to link to my podcast Was God married? Part two: the death of the goddess, as you might expect we do not see eye to eye. Deane prefers Stavrakopoulou’s version of things, pointing to a more recent TV show  in the BBC series, Bible’s Buried Secrets, in particular in episode 2.

In the programme Francesca rehearses much the same arguments more fully and in doing so the BBC provide stunning imagery and Stavrakopoulou presents the evidence well. The trouble is, she here also confounds history and theology, what happened in the past with what was written about it in the (more recent) past.

Her agenda is clear, and well-signposted. Near the beginning of the video she says:1

But there’s something about this ancient world that the Bible is not telling us… Hidden in its pages is a secret.

And according to her this “secret”:

Rocks the foundation of monotheism to its core.

Somewhat confusingly as the programme continues She changes her mind and says:

I think there’s evidence that the ancient Israelites also worshiped any gods… yet if you examine the biblical texts you find references to more than one god here in Jerusalem itself.

So, this is a “secret” when that suits her rhetorical needs “to undermine monotheism” but is clearly acknowledged in Scripture when admitting that suits her needs. This sort of fudging the evidence is not worthy of a scholar of her standing, though it does make “good television”.

In short (laying aside the places where Stavrokopoulou misrepresents the Bible, because she herself corrects those!) the facts are not at issue. Except at one point. She claims that biblical monotheism worships a male god, and she does not believe in such a god. I do not believe that the Bible presents Yahweh as a male god, and like her I do not believe in such a god.

  1. All quotations are my own transcriptions of the sound track, if there are any errors in the citations are problems of my hearing and I regret them.  []

And that sort of ship so suited me…

Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore Chapel End 2009 photo by highstone

Susanne at BLT: Not Just a Sandwich has an amusing post, The end of male headship, about the patriarchal assumption of male leadership and a British soap-opera currently popular in the USA, replete with upper-class twits and grovelling serfs.

That got me thinking. The word that American Evangelical Patriarchs have invented to claim biblical support for their theories is “headship”. The origins of this usage seem clear, the suffix -ship attached to the metaphorically used noun “head” found in Bible verses like Eph 5:23. The meaning of the -ship suffix is clear:

-ship suffix
having the rank, position, skill or relationship of the stated type

(Definition of -ship suffix from the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus © Cambridge University Press)
It is therefore usually attached to a title, job description etc. like the examples listed. Indeed the usual English usage of “headship” reflects this, it refers to the time when someone acts as head teacher of a school. There “head” is no longer a metaphor but has become through common usage a title or position descriptor.
Does “head” as Paul uses it work that way? To Anglophone readers used to head teachers, head nurses, heads of department etc. it sounds as if “Christ is head of the church” works like that. Except as we have seen, it doesn’t. There is no use of  kephale “head” as such a position descriptor in Koine Greek. Paul’s own usage does not support it.
This modern invention of male “headship” is just that, a modern invention. Paul uses the metaphor of head to describe a relationship of nurturing, uniting and nourishing, he uses kyrios  “lord” to describe leading and commanding.1
  1. Listen to “Headship”: What did Paul really mean? for more explanation of this. []