The Gender of YHWH and a carnival

Portrait of God as a bald-headed old guy with a beard.

Doug Chaplin has done a typically thorough and careful job of the October Biblical Studies Carnival.

Among other interesting material he notes, and often in a few well-chosen words reviews, was a post by Mark Zvi Brettler at TheTorah.com on ‘The Gender of God‘. As you might expect, I would have put things differently, and weighted the arguments differently, but then the post would have been less interesting. (For me at least, as it is careful scholars with whom I disagree a little from whom I often learn the most!) Brettler is far more careful than most writers on this topic to note and respect the distinction between the historico-critical and theological meanings of his texts. Strangely, though he is the Jew I would be the one to put greater weight on reading in the light of the tradition of interpretation which it seems o me he ends up downplaying. (Perhaps because he was conscious of writing as an ‘academic’.)1

  1. It that’s correct, it raises sharply again the question of whether, and why not if the response is negative, confessional theological work is academic. Are Marxist readings of history not academic? And what should a historian who is a convinced Marxist do with his Marxism when writing history? []

The experience of reviewing ‘The Crucifixion of the Warrior God’


Gregory A. Boyd, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Volumes 1 & 2. Fortress Press, 2017.

This is not a book review. I will be writing a review of The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, but this is not it. This post will reflect on the experience of reviewing this work, it is a sort of meta-review. Any that follow it may continue this reflection, or may address my responses to aspects of Boyd’s argument that interest me. I do not expect either of these things will appear in the review when I write it.

The book is enormous, two volumes nearly 1500 pages, seven sections six of which are themselves the size of small books. The work also addresses what is evidently one of the key “conundrums” for early 21st century Christians. Reconciling the texts of terror that appear to depict God as delighting in or commanding indiscriminate violence with the way of love revealed supremely in Christ. Extreme ‘solutions’ are sometimes proposed (at least on Facebook, but sometimes in more rarefied academic circles). Some suggest removing chunks of the Bible (most simply, but in the end not effectively, the Marcionite one Testament Bible).1 Others harmonise Scripture with their theology by the claim that, since God is God, whatever God commands is right and just.2

The book has powerful claims made for it before we reach the contents list. A large number of prominent biblical scholars and theologians (mainly from the Evangelical end of the scholarly spectrum) endorse Boyd’s work as ground-breaking, insightful and revolutionary.

My review will probably need to offer less than one word per page, so I will not be able to give much of an overview. Better scholars than me have evaluated it as important even seminal, so my review will not be evaluative. I think what I can realistically, and I hope helpfully, aim for is to assists people to decide if this is a book they should invest the time to address.3

  1. Not effective since the NT also contains its own texts of terror. []
  2. Whether this is true or not, it is not helpful. Since it risks replacing a God who is wrong with one who is a monster. []
  3. It only costs US$60, so the per page or per inch of shelf-space cost is very low! But at 1445 pages 1250 if you leave off the appendices, and perhaps only some 700 if you overlook the footnotes ;) it demands a considerable investment of time.  []

Beyond the Bible? Howard Marshall’s proposed Evangelical hermeneutics (part 1)

Howard Marshall’s little book (see previous post)1 is really important. Yet it seems little-known in the circles in which I move. I decided to postpone my promised second post and to do a series briefly summarising Marshall’s work and seeking to persuade more people to read it :)

In the first chapter Marshall provides a quick neat and authoritative summary of developments in biblical exegesis and hermeneutics among Evangelicals across the span of his career and a little beyond.2

This summary account is directed to two goals, distinguishing what makes Evangelical hermeneutics Evangelical, and presenting what he sees a the need to develop a common understanding of the proper ways to “go beyond the Bible” in ways that are faithful to the Bible. He sees the recognition of the need for this as something fresh in Evangelical hermeneutics. It might be more accurate to say that making this need conscious is the new thing, for it is a need that has been resisted. Such resistance is understandable, for talk of going beyond the Bible sounds like establishing ourselves in control. Indeed, Vanhoozer, in the same volume criticises Marshall’s proposal as risking “lording it over the Bible”!

Next Marshall discusses Packer’s3 proposals of understanding Evangelical hermeneutics he finds them good, yet also lacking in several ways. The most important of these is that they make it difficult or impossible for someone following the proposals closely to address issues that the Bible’s human authors could and did not address.

This point is a key one and I wish Marshall had developed it further rather than assuming everyone would see the need for and importance of recognising this requirement on us to live by Scripture by going beyond Scripture in addressing issues the Bible does not address.

Marshall then points to the need to avoid the Scylla of “liberalism” (meaning “peeling off of those aspects of biblical teaching about Christian faith and ethics that are held by many people today to be incompatible with a so-called scientific worldview and an “enlightened” understanding of morality) and the Charybdis of “Fundamentalism”. The latter temptation being more natural to most Evangelicals he spends longer explaining why it should be resisted.

Thus this the first lecture sets up the context and need for a hermeneutic that allows us faithfully to “go beyond” the Bible, that is to address issues that were not part of the world the Bible’s human authors addressed.

  1. Marshall, I. Howard, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and Stanley E. Porter. Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology. Baker Academic, 2004. []
  2. Basically from the 1960s till today. The emphasis is on the UK rather than the USA, which is refreshing since some issues that weigh heavily on American Evangelicals sit lighter or are even not really significant in the British context and the result is a more spacious treatment. []
  3. James I Packer, “Understanding the Bible: Evangelical Hermeneutics,” Melvin Tinker, ed., Restoring the Vision: Anglican Evangelicals Speak Out. Eastbourne: Monarch Publications, 1990, 39-58. []

Trajectory hermeneutics: Trajectories and biblical theology

The concept of a trajectory, though the word is a technical one from the science of mechanics, is simple enough. In mechanics it describes the path that an object (like a ball that is thrown or hit) takes. As a metaphor for a hermeneutic process it draws on the way in which if we know the direction and speed of start of the path and the forces (like gravity and air resistance) the point at which the ball will touch down can be calculated. Of course, hermeneutics is not a mathematical science, yet the metaphor is an interesting one.

Trajectories in Scripture

Biblical scholars have begun using this picture language for two reasons.

Firstly, within the Scriptures we find examples of developing understanding. So, there are passages which reflect the beliefs of early Israelites that the gods of surrounding (polytheistic) peoples had some sort of reality and power. Psalm 82 is an example.1 Moses’ song of God the Rock in Deuteronomy 32 offers another example (Dt 32:8). Even v.12 which denies the role of any foreign ‘god’ in guiding Israel through the desert seems to allow these ‘gods’ some possibility of existence. Yet alongside, and by far overwhelming, such passages are others that proclaim that God is alone and only, denying existence to all beings claimed as divine. Between these points other passages seem to suggest the beings worshiped in error as ‘gods’ are really demons (Lev 17:7; Dt 32:16-17; perhaps 1 Cor 10:20-22).

There are two main ways for Evangelicals to handle such examples. The traditional conservative approach has been to harmonise the ‘odd’ cases to the predominant view. The tradition rendering ‘god’ in Ps 82 as ‘ruler’ is an example. The advantage of this approach is that it fits neatly and easily with the modern US touchstone of Evangelical approaches to Scripture that it is ‘inerrant’. The disadvantage is that one risks seeming to twist some Scripture passages in ways that contort either the words or the sense. The other approach makes use of the metaphor of trajectory. It recognises that God’s self revelation in Scripture was progressive. Not all of the truth was revealed at once. In the revelation of God through covenant and law to Moses on Sinai some truth about God (e.g. the gospel of grace through the redeeming sacrifice of God incarnate in Jesus Christ) is only present as seeds or hints. These fuller and more complete aspects of God’s nature and work are revealed fully later in Scripture.

Trajectories from Scripture

There is a further area where such trajectory thinking is needed. We live in a world which is different from that inhabited by the writers of Scripture. In many ways the issues that face us were unimaginable to them. Yet, God chose to inspire the dozens of writers with messages that were (with perhaps a few notable exceptions) comprehensible to the writers and their audiences. How can we respond biblically to the challenges of life in the 21st C? Often the answer is simple. The principles the Bible teaches can be applied to our issues. The Bible contains many warnings against becoming intoxicated. Most of these point clearly to the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption. This principle that intoxication is to be avoided can clearly and simply be extended to suggest that the use of P or LSD or other drugs developed in recent times in order to become intoxicated should likewise be avoided. Note that in such cases some Christians push the argument a stage further and suggest (following the trajectory of the biblical teaching) that all consumption of such drugs (like wine and beer) might be better avoided.

Thinking not merely of the principles taught in Scripture but of the direction they point (their trajectory) has evidently been necessary in some cases. All churches today teach that slavery is wrong. No one would argue that slave owning is proper for a Christian seeking to follow the Bible. Yet in Scripture slavery as an institution is not condemned. Indeed in an extreme case (where a partner in ministry of Paul, Onesimus, is the escaped slave of one of Paul’s converts, Philemon) Paul attempts to convince Philemon to forgive and perhaps even set Onesimus free. Paul does not declare slavery itself to be wrong! However, after much bitter argument which pitted those who defended the plain and simple teaching of the Bible against others with ‘weaker’ arguments, we decided that the direction in which Paul’s (and the rest of the Bible’s) teaching was headed made clear that slavery is wrong. This position also coheres well with other core biblical teaching (thus confirming our conclusions). God is the creator of all, Jesus died to save us all, the Holy Spirit fills us all (potential slave and potential slave owner) alike!

In this post I have sought to explain the desirability, even the necessity of a trajectory hermeneutic as one interpretative tool. In the next I plan to consider some of the objections to trajectory hermeneutics (what some have called ‘trajectory theology’). Perhaps the best place to start for an Evangelical thinking about such issues is the book I. Howard Marshall, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and Stanley E. Porter. Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology. Baker Academic, 2004.

 

  1. At least it is when the text is translated and read in its plain meaning. Both the Hebrew and the LXX seem to understand the picture in v.1 speaking of Yahweh as the king with the gods as his ministers. One translation tradition, more recent than the LXX understands the ‘gods’ (‘el and ‘elohim, or in Greek the singular and plural of theos) here uniquely as ‘rulers’. []

Contraception and Theology of Marriage

 

I have several times in different forums expressed sadness that ‘our’ (which varies somewhat in its content depending on my context when making the claim, but usually implies NZ Baptists or more widely Evangelicals in NZ) theology of sex and marriage does not cohere well with our pastoral practice. In this post I am focusing on one such area, contraception.

Contraception

At the end of the last century Al Mohler, writing in a reevaluation of the encyclical Humanae Vitae three decades after its publication, made this point in typically forceful style:

Most evangelical Protestants greeted the advent of modern birth control technologies with applause and relief. Lacking any substantial theology of marriage, sex, or the family, evangelicals welcomed the development of “The Pill” much as the world celebrated the discovery of penicillin-as one more milestone in the inevitable march of human progress and the conquest of nature.
R. Albert Mohler untitled in “Contraception: a symposium” First Things, 1998

Has this changed substantially in the first two decades of the 21st C?

Having asked this question in a number of places and received only louder and louder affirmations of the splendours of the imperial sartorial equipment, I would really like to be pointed to something better than the threadbare old trousers that her Imperial Highness only permits her husband to wear in private!

I am not aware of any readily available teaching by/for NZ Baptists that suggests limits on their use of contraceptive technologies. Mohler’s article made a strong distinction between contraceptive technologies that could have abortifacient effects and those which did not. I am sure that (insofar as they are aware of this issue) most NZ Baptists would share Mohler’s concern. Looking around at the number of children in the families in churches I visit it seems clear that (as is apparently true according to census data) family sizes are often higher than the current societal norm (with three and even four children being not uncommon) however families with more than five children are almost as rare in church as outside.1

Thus the pastoral practice seems to be that contraception as a means of ‘family planning’ is quite acceptable in our churches, and that the only firm restrictions on the methods used are those put in place by the medical establishment.

Marriage

Christian theological understandings of marriage have (at least since Augustine) presented the conception, birthing, and raising of children as (at the very least, one of) the ‘goods’ (in the sense of the good things that are inherent in the institution)  of marriage. For Augustine it was indeed the first good.

However, procreation cannot be a necessary condition of marriage. Infertile couples remain married even when their hopes of bearing children seem (possible miracles apart) dashed. Our approval (even if nuanced as Mohler suggests) of birth control measures makes this even more clear. Yet an ‘openness’ (whatever that is understood to mean and to me the phrase seems vague) to procreation by the bearing and raising of children has been understood to be a necessary part of marriage.

Inconclusion

This is an inconclusion not an ‘in conclusion’ because I have not clarified for myself these questions.

The bearing and raising (both and each) of children is a great ‘good’ of marriage and beyond that is part of what marriage is about. Yet, some remain childless and know that they will. Must such couples adopt? Or does anyone’s definition of marriage exclude the possibility of childless marriage. This seems to me an impossible and arrogant claim. For the childless couples I know simply are married.

Given the social2 and economic context in which NZ marriages are lived, birth control seems sensible. It is allowed, and by default (through the witness of average family size) encouraged, in our churches.

Procreation is a good, but not a necessary, feature of marriage.

Little of this is clear, or worked out in theologically consistent and biblical ways. None of it is much taught in churches. We do however in many ways devalue or exclude singleness. Even widows (those once, but tragically no longer, married, because death has intervened)3 find their position in church is somehow ‘less’ (less easy, less clear, even less esteemed).

So, finally, I return to the question I started with: Do 21st C Evangelicals in New Zealand have a clear and widely accepted theology of sex and marriage that coheres with our pastoral practice? My answer is: No, we do not. Yet each time I pose the question I am told forcefully (though so far without any referencing of such theological teaching) that we do, it is ‘understood’ by 90% of us!

Can anyone point me to a nice clear simple expression of this ‘understood’ biblical theology?

  1. In writing this I am thinking of the few such families that I know. They are exceptional, in every sense! []
  2. E.g. an assumption of nuclear family households, combined with geographical mobility. []
  3. I plan to write about divorce in another post. []

Gay marriage, thinking through the case for toleration

Preamble

Among conservatives toleration has become a dangerous word. Spotting the excesses to which the ethos of toleration leads contemporary society they see the need to reject such ideals. They are, at the very least partly, right. Yet when some of my more conservative friends apply this suspicion of toleration to the question of gay marriage and the church, as an overwhelming majority of delegates to the 2015 NZ Baptist Assembly (Gathering/Hui) seemed to do, I wonder at their rightness.

I am not here arguing for (or against) the claim that churches should marry gay couples – I am not qualified to make the case in either direction, though I have studied some of the arguments for both. I want, however, to discuss the toleration within the Christian community (I’d say “church” but as a Baptist the institutional church is local, and the “church universal” is too ill-defined to be useful). The question I want to begin to address, and to which I would love to hear your responses, is simply: Is homosexual activity so clearly a sin (as defined by our understanding of Scripture) that we must judge anyone who implicitly condones such activity by approving of a gay marriage (whether conducting it, blessing it, or allowing their premises to be used for such) as being in rebellion against God.

Body of the argument

There are issues (e.g. slavery or remarriage of divorced people) on which we have debated, and reached a fairly clear position. In both these examples the biblical hermeneutics involved in our decision are not simple or straightforward. In the first case the Bible does not condemn slavery, and indeed it offers rules and advice to mitigate its conditions, while (at least in Philemon) accepting it as a social and legal reality. However, higher and more central biblical convictions overshadow this. In the case of divorce the biblical case is even less clear. On the one hand, we have Jesus’ statement: “…whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.” (Mat 19:9)1 On the other it seems to me we merely have the claim that circumstances today are so different from those of the first century that we can fulfil the spirit of Jesus’ teaching whilst breaking its letter!

In the case of homosexual activity (and therefore marriage) we have no such agreement. Whilst in Evangelical, Baptist and other church traditions that recognise the central authority of Scripture in governing our practice the very large majority of people, pastors and churches hold to the straightforward reading of those Bible texts that list such activity as sinful, there are still a small but not negligible number who choose to apply a less straightforward hermeneutic (with examples similar to each of the other issues mentioned above).

However, the church ought not to be a democracy. We should together listen for the guidance and conviction of the Holy Spirit. At present there is by no means unity in that conviction.

In these circumstances the case for tolerance (by each “side” of the other, until such conviction becomes more closely “common” or such comonality of conviction is evidently impossible) has recently been made in two related but different ways.2

A group of British Baptist theologians and leaders put out a statement: “The Courage to be Baptist: A Statement on Baptist Ecclesiology and Human Sexuality3 In it they argue, on the grounds of traditional and definitive Baptist ecclesiology and practice, for continued engagement with and listening to each other by both sides as we continue to wait upon the Spirit of God for clarification. In particular they “believe that any such attempt [to impose uniformity in the absence of agreement] would be faithless and born of fear, a denial of our shared Baptist confession of how God calls us to live together.”

Meanwhile one of the authors of the new Zondervan book Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church4 Steve R. Holmes (who is also a signatory to the Baptist statement) has argued a similar case from the grounds of “sola fide” that if salvation is on the basis of faith alone we cannot exclude from Christian fellowship those who disagree with us on this particular moral issue.5

This argument depends on the hermeneutical issues on this issue being reasonably undecided at this time. I realise that my friends on one or both sides of the question may deny that this condition is met. Sheer numbers suggest that the claim is true but I may need to address it directly in a future post.

  1. This can perhaps be softened by recognising the part played by the phrase “for any cause” cf. the Pharisees initial question in v.3 in contemporary rabbinic debate, but this would merely allow divorce for unchastity or desertion, not the sort of “no fault divorce” common in the West today. []
  2. I will mention them in reverse order, in part because that is how I came across them. []
  3. Beth Allison-Glenny et al., “The Courage to Be Baptist: A Statement on Baptist Ecclesiology and Human Sexuality,” The Courage to Be Baptist, accessed December 8, 2016, http://www.somethingtodeclare.org.uk/statement.html. []
  4. Preston M Sprinkle et al., Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church, 2016. []
  5.  Stephen R. Holmes, “An Evangelical Approach to Sexual Ethics,” Shored Fragments, accessed December 8, 2016, http://steverholmes.org.uk/blog/?p=7644. []

Superstimuli and the Terrible Ten Biblicist Claims

Today I want to turn to those terrible ten claims made by Biblicists.1

My aim is not to discuss whether, or how much, Evangelical scholarship may have been infiltrated by these ideas. Nor am I really trying to answer the question I was asked on Facebook of how many on the list I could support. Even though this post began with my surprise that DeYoung’s response to them seemed (almost) more negative than mine. He wrote:

I agree with point 1 and would affirm points 2, 7, 8, and 9 with the right nuance. But I disagree with points 5 and 6, and I am not comfortable with the wording in 3, 4, and 10.

Before going further here is the list (with some first comments):

  1. Divine Writing: The Bible, down to the details of its words, consists of and is identical with God’s very own words written inerrantly in human language.
    Right at the start DeYoung and I disagree, he accepts this, I cannot. The words of Scripture are clearly human words, I would claim that the message is divine while the words are human. I think this is what some of the biblical authors themselves claim, like Luke’s account of his process in writing (Luke 1:1-3) or the movement from vision to speech in the prophets (e.g. Amos 7:1-9; 8:1-3). The untruth of 1. is also demonstrated, it seems to me in the fact that Jeremiah does not usually sound like Isaiah, nor Luke like John.
    In this case the untruth of the proposition at best wrongly and badly states the claim that the Bible texts are inspired Scripture.
  2. Total Representation: The Bible represents the totality of God’s communication to and will for humanity, both in containing all that God has to say to humans and in being the exclusive mode of God’s true communication.
    This again is an overstatement. Scripture is NOT the “exclusive mode of God’s true communication” but might be closer to the truth if we inserted the word “authoritative” before communication, and perhaps toned down the claim to exclusivity.
  3. Complete Coverage: The divine will about all of the issues relevant to Christian belief and life are contained in the Bible.
    This one is plainly bonkers. No way does the Bible address every modern concern. Yet, the claim that Scripture is sufficient – that it tells us what and even “all” we need to know about God and for our salvation – is really important.
  4. Democratic Perspicuity: Any reasonably intelligent person can read the Bible in his or her own language and correctly understand the plain meaning of the text.
    The perspicuity of Scripture is vital to Baptist life and ecclesiology, but it should never be misstated like this, there is much in Scripture that is difficult, often reading in the light of serious study helps clarify, and yet (again, what we need to know about God and for our salvation) is clear and we have to (intentionally) misread, or be mislead, to miss it.
  5. Commonsense Hermeneutics: The best way to understand biblical texts is by reading them in their explicit, plain, most obvious, literal sense, as the author intended them at face value, which may or may not involve taking into account their literary, cultural, and historical contexts.
    This one is sneaky. Did you spot “literal sense” in there? Very little in Scripture is expressed literally. Yet the desire to read the plain sense, and not to get carried away with allegorising and spiritualising is a sound one!
  6. Solo Scripture: The significance of any given biblical text can be understood without reliance on creeds, confessions, historical church traditions, or other forms of larger theological hermeneutical frameworks, such that theological formulations can be built up directly out of the Bible from scratch.
    This one is plain untrue. Take the doctrine of the Trinity as example, it fits with and makes sense of so much in Scripture, yet it can nowhere be read as the plain teaching of a Bible passage. The truth it overstates is that our doctrine and practice should be subjected to the test of the text. They should conform to Scripture and not the reverse.
  7. Internal Harmony: All related passages of the Bible on any given subject fit together almost like puzzle pieces into single, unified, internally consistent bodies of instruction about right and wrong beliefs and behaviors.
    Such a univocal text does not describe at all the Bible I read. (I am currently supposed to be marking short essays on the topic “Did God want Israel to have a king” and the nuanced and diverse attitudes to theologies of kingship expressed in just 1 Samuel, let alone more widely in the OT are sufficient to give that claim the lie.)
    Yet, the consistency of Scripture is surely the reason for the claim that 1 Tim 2:11-12 cannot be read in its most obvious plain sense, that sense (that women should not teach or speak in church) is wrong – it does not “fit” with Paul’s own practice. So, I want to affirm the principle of consistency, while denying the excessive claim in Smith’s formulation.
  8. Universal applicability: What the biblical authors taught God’s people at any point in history remains universally valid for all Christians at every other time, unless explicitly revoked by subsequent scriptural teaching.
    This one is a case where DeYoung’s casuistic approach may have merits, for “certain values” of “taught”. The theological understanding that the writers were teaching are indeed true for all times, places, and people,2 But much that they teach (about other more time-bound matters) is not similarly eternal. Thus the laws about wearing clothes of mixed fabrics are not “revoked”  yet do not control my clothing choices. They ought to stand as a warning though against living in ways that are indistinguishable from the Pagans around us.
  9. Inductive Method: All matters of Christian belief and practice can be learned by sitting down with the Bible and piecing together through careful study the clear “biblical” truths that it teaches.
    Here I am with DeYoung, “with suitable nuancing” this is one I can affirm as stated, though sometimes the inductive process is quite lengthy with several steps.
  10. Handbook Model: The Bible teaches doctrine and morals with every affirmation that it makes, so that together those affirmations comprise something like a handbook or textbook for Christian belief and living, a compendium of divine and therefore inerrant teachings on a full array of subjects–including science, economics, health, politics, and romance.
    Even without the (rather naughty?) inclusion of “romance” this is one to resist. And yet even here there is at its heart the admirable desire to take seriously to sufficiency of Scripture. That is a truth worth retaining even while we deny the “supertruth” of the claim.

That last comment will bring me back to my title. But first let me draw your attention to the way this reflection on the claims in the terrible ten have run. In most cases the claim is untrue, yet in every case the claim intends to protect an important truth. This is the insidious nature of these (rightly identified as) terrible ten. They seek to protect truth but affirm a lie. At their heart they are ways in which Evangelicals (certainly in the “wild”, but often in the captivity of the academy too) seek to protect the claim that the Bible is Holy Scripture – the self-revelation of God. But each of them does this by insidiously claiming “more”. In this the terrible ten are like the “superstimuli” that ethologists and pornographers (like the Orange Overlord?) have identified or cashed in. They present something “more” or “better” than the truth, and thus lead the animal astray.

  1. Christian Smith, Bible Made Impossible, The: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (Brazos Press, 2011) 3-5. []
  2. As I affirm strongly in the first episode of Deep Bible. []

Getting the PIP and the Deep Bible project

Christian Smith (American sociologist of religion, who coined the phrase “moralistic therapeutic Deism”)  published The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture with Brazos Press back in 2011. His list of ten characteristics of “biblicism”1 was recently cited by Scott McKnight as part of a brief affirmation of the thesis of the book. This made it onto my Facebook screen just a few days after we spent Saturday recording for the first episode of Deep Bible.

Several Evangelical scholars reviewed Smith’s book largely to rebut his claim that these ten features are characteristic of Evangelical (or at least of academic Evangelical) Bible reading. Though they have also criticised his thesis.2 This thesis considers the ten marks of Biblicism in the light of the phenomenon Smith calls “pervasive interpretive pluralism” (hence forth “PIP”) claiming that this fact of multiple readings makes these tenets impossible.

Getting the PIP (pervasive interpretive pluralism)

This post is not a review, or even a notice, of Smith’s book (I have not read it) nor is it a review or response to his critics, rather it is my response to his list, in the light of recording the first episode of Deep Bible. You see one of the core problems with the Bible today for Evangelicals (and other Bible-centred believers, like Baptists) is PIP. You do not have to look far to get the PIP, perhaps all the current (and past) hot button topics among Christians reveal that interpretative pluralism is indeed pervasive. Take the discussion between “Egalitarian” and “Complementarian” camps, they read the same Bible passages, but come to different conclusions. Even the arguments over “gay marriage”, are fueled by different hermeneutics leading to different conclusions.3

Therein lies the rub at least for those who live and have their being in church as well as breathing the more rarefied air of the academy. For, in church (at least in the pews)4 most or all of the terrible ten are believed as gospel truth, and hermeneutics is either an unknown concept or code for “attempting to avoid the plain sense of Scripture”.

Hence the importance of PIP for Deep Bible episode one.5 My contribution offers two strands of practical everyday response to PIP.

Radios and telephones

First, I suggest we need to recognise and distinguish two ways in which God uses Scripture to communicate with us, let’s call them the radio and the telephone. Sometimes the Holy Spirit uses a Bible passage (or even verse or phrase) to give a particular message to a particular person (or group). When this happens it is a bit like the Spirit inspiring Jeremiah with the message that God watches over his word to fulfill it (Jer 1:12) that message came from a pun on the Hebrew word for an almond branch (Jer 1:11). The message has nothing (at all) to do with almonds or branches or trees. God just used the (bad?) pun as stimulus. When God gave Barbara and I a comforting message about our move to New Zealand (following the traumatic shock of being evacuated from Congo and losing contact with so many of our friends and colleagues) that comforting message had nothing to do with the message of the book of Jonah, but God used the familiar story to make his point – and, as with Jeremiah’s pun, it worked for us. That experience is God making a personal telephone call.

OTOH when God inspired the writers of Scripture to reveal truth about the world and especially about its Maker, Sustainer and Redeemer that message, like a radio broadcast is intended for anyone who has the equipment and listens in.

Failure to distinguish these two sorts of meaning leads to much of the most pernicious misuse of Scripture, and so is responsible for much of the PIP that we get today. For we live at a time that prefers the immediacy of “the spirit”6 to the work of rightly handling the word of life.

Let’s just agree to disagree

Another cultural tendency also impacts the PIP. Tolerance  is a virtue (it is perhaps both the most important, under practiced, and yet over-rated virtue today). In the face of multiple interpretations of Scripture this core virtue of the pomo world kicks in, and we find ourselves tempted to “agree to disagree“. Agreeing to disagree is fine and desirable when we have really discussed, understand where the other is coming from, still respect them, yet despite this disagree.

It is not so fine or desirable when it is almost our first response to differing understandings of what the Bible teaches. Because it suggests that the Bible can (rightly and properly, and not merely because of human sinfulness) teach different things to different people. If the Bible can mean anything, then it actually means nothing!

In everyday life we accept restrictions and limits on what texts can mean. Two key and common restrictions are the meaning of words and phrases (literary restraints on possible meaning) and authors’ intentions (historical restraints on meaning). Much of the rest of the Deep Bible series will consider these two sorts of limit and how we can move between these towards deeper and fuller (yet more restrained) understanding of the Bible.

  1. He seems to use the word as a shorthand for what is wrong with self-consciously “Evangelical” readings of Scripture. []
  2. Kevin DeYoung, “Christian Smith Makes the Bible Impossible,” The Gospel Coalition, TGC, August 2, 2011, https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/kevindeyoung/2011/08/02/christian-smith-makes-the-bible-impossible/ and “Those Tricksy Biblicists,” The Gospel Coalition, TGC, (September 1, 2011), https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/kevindeyoung/2011/09/01/those-tricksy-biblicists/; Peter J. Leithart, “A Cheer and a Half for Biblicism,” First Things, August 26, 2011, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2011/08/a-cheer-and-a-half-for-biblicism; Robert H. Gundry, “Smithereens! Bible-Reading And ‘pervasive Interpretive Pluralism.,’” Books and Culture, October 2011, http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2011/sepoct/smithreens.html.

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  3. Though in this case one side sometimes denies that this is the case, it is more charitable to recognise that both are reading and trying to follow Scripture. Though in this case for both sides the big picture rather than the interpretation of individual passages is usually the driver.  []
  4. Or even the comfortable padded seating that serves the “same” function today. []
  5. I plan to consider the terrible ten in another post, as I was surprised to find that I was more positively disposed towards the statements than DeYoung! []
  6. Sadly often without the discernment needed to distinguish “the Spirit” from “my spirit”. []

SBL and “being there” (reflections from a past attendee)

Facebook reminded me that seven years ago today I was at SBL, and discussing then (via Facebook) with Stephen Garner (who was in Auckland) the values and value of such face to face meetings in this time of digital communications. I still rather like this reflection:
“Ah, yes, ‘being there’ ;)

photo from Bill Heroman via Facebook of Mark Goodacre, snapping Chris Porter, snapped by Sarah Mayo Heroman at #sblaar16

photo from Bill Heroman via Facebook of Mark Goodacre, snapping Chris Porter, snapped by Sarah Mayo Heroman at #sblaar16

So far paradoxically the only reason for ‘being there’ rather than watching streaming video (with the capacity to ask questions like Dimdim et al.)1 has been meeting people I correspond with daily or weekly on the Internetz, but have not yet encountered in the flesh.

The papers that have been interesting would mainly be better read, with time to reflect and engage,2 David Clines’ Presidential Address was inspiring, but sitting on the floor at the back of the room3 YouTube would have been as inspirational… So the deep irony is that SBL is great because I meet people’s fleshly avatars, but that the format means most get met and left, as I or they rush off to the next timetabled timewaster!”

This photo from Fortress Press via Facebook shows some typical SBL attitudes

This photo from Fortress Press via Facebook shows some typical SBL behaviours

 

Meanwhile back in 2016

I think that was the last SBL I attended, the reasons have not been (so much) lack of enthusiasm, for there is an enormous energy boost to delivering a paper to experts in the field and having them listen with more than polite interest, and even engage (briefly, though often positively, with the ideas). Rather now that my airfare and hotel bill (even staying at Day’s Inns and youth hostels US hotels are expensive) are no longer paid for me I have difficulty justifying the expense. I’m sure many of my friends would not agree with this negative assessment, they are extroverts for whom fleeting but vital people contact does not seem to be a reward they receive in the same way at a distance.

But this introvert wishes that a small fraction of what is spent on SBL4 could be siphoned off as a tithe to pay for enriching academic publication platforms to actually encourage engagement.5

  1. Dimdim may still exist, I have not seen it mentioned recently, but such online meeting rooms abound today, and are still often badly used – the effort to attend seems to correlate with the effort made by the organisers far too often! []
  2. Though, of course that would require a change to academic publishing to allow come form of commenting feature, or at least authors’ emails. []
  3. As I was, the room was rightly packed for a highlight of the show. []
  4. Using the initials of the Society as the moniker of the biggest such jamboree for biblical scholars pars pro toto to refer to the whole “conference” parade. []
  5. I cannot now find, and of course I did not bookmark, the depressing post I read earlier this week concerning how few people actually read peer reviewed articles – the author and some of the reviewers excepted – but the number was shockingly small. []

What is the Bible?

Michael Pahl has an excellent post (a really long one comprising several from his church website) on What is the Bible and how should we read it?

The post is simple (any intelligent Christian should have no trouble understanding what he says), profound (many readers will be able to continue to draw sustenance from the post over years of Bible reading) and explained with some powerful picture stories.

Any Christian who has not done “Bible college” should read it, and many who have may find things their teachers said make more sense after reading this post!

Have I burbled on enough to get you over there? If not I’ll need to repeat what a fine post this introduction to Bible introductions is!