I operate with deeply Protestant sensibilities. I read, work with, and respond to scripture anticipating that it will challenge, even upend, the paradigms that I bring with me to the task.
As banal as that might sound (the idea that a 2,000 year old book is free to disrupt what we’ve come to know), I actually think it’s quite a radical posture.
Reading is dangerous.
A month or so ago, Greg Carey’s Huffington Post Article made the rounds again. It’s title, “Where Do ‘Liberal’ Bible Scholars Come From?” The short answer to his provocative question is this: from reading the Bible.
The best way for conservative churches to produce “liberal” biblical scholars is to keep encouraging young people to read the Bible.
Over the past couple of week Peter Enns has been hosting a series on “Aha Moments,” those times when folks encountered something that transformed how they understand what the Bible is.
Nobody in Pete’s series is a “liberal” bible scholar, but the theme recurs: reading the Bible opens up our eyes to things that actually are contained in scripture which the theologies about scripture that we cut our teeth on typically did not allow for.
On Sunday we were listening to Nadia Bolz Weber doing her “Lutheran theology rocks” thing in an interview at Wild Goose. (Seriously, folks, she is living out the law/gospel, simul justus et peccator thing better than anyone else I’m familiar with in 2013.)
At one point she started talking about the atonement. So much of what she says is so great. She talks about how grace works in a community where we experience brokenness not just in community, but just because the community has wounded us.
Then, circa minute 37:45 or so, she starts talking about God in the midst of tragedy. And, again, she does such a great job because she brings people to Jesus, and God bearing our suffering on the cross.
Then she says this:
… that’s not “God’s little boy, like God is some kind of divine child abuser sending his son (and he only had one!).” Come on, give me a break! “God’s little boy and he only had one, and as this divine child abuser and as this cigar-chomping loan shark demanding a pound of flesh, sending his little boy…” What hogwash, right? That actually is God on the cross, God saying, “I’d rather die than be in the sin-accounting business you’ve put me in.”
I love the theology of this: it’s not God sending some other to die, but Godself doing it. And, I know that there is good, strong Trinitarian theology behind this. The eternal Son who is God dies upon the cross.
The problem I keep coming back to is that everywhere and always in scripture, the son who dies is precisely the son who is not the father, and is nowhere the God who, as Godself, is dying to save us.
There is always the son who is not the father who is dying out of obedience to the father.
There is always the father who is not the son who is not sparing his son but delivering him up for us all.
And… “He only had one!”
I don’t dislike the divine on the cross interpretation, but I’m not exactly sure where it leaves us. The only way to get there is to abandon the theological logic of the NT writers and replace it with a particular way of working out the later theological logic of the Trinity.
Is the need for it to be God as such who dies so profound that we simply have to abandon the suffering Human One of the Synoptic Gospels, or the obedient Second Adam of Paul? Or do we simply need to return to the question of why Jesus died to shore up a better answer of why this man, man I say!, goes the way of the cross?
And if we put it all in the divinity, what then of the calling to take up our cross and follow Jesus? Does God love us less than the Son because what God would not call another to do, but does Godself, God nonetheless demands we do?
And what about this bit of the father not sparing? Do we chunk it? What about, “Not what I will but what you will?” do we chunk it?
But if we don’t, how do we articulate atonement in way that doesn’t leave us with a child-abusing loan shark?
I’d love to hear how folks are thinking about what the death of Jesus might teach us about God and/or how you’re working out atonement to deal with the scriptural tradition and concerns such as those NBW raises.
Way back in August, just before I decided to take a Blogbatical, I agreed to review Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood. With the awesome press coverage it’s getting, she sure doesn’t need Storied Theology to make folks aware of the book.
For all my self-aggrandizing tendencies, I do realize that I have nothing on the Today Show.
But be that as it may, I have one big thought about the book that I’d like to share.
As you probably know, the book chronicles Rachel’s year of following every commandment in scripture directed toward women. The tongue-in-cheek exercise helps expose the difficulty in claiming that “biblical womanhood” is the goal toward which today’s women should aspire.
Her project exposes the most basic reality of biblical interpretation and application: we do not, cannot, and indeed must not, simply pick up the Bible, see what it says, and go do it.
All of us approach the Bible with some sort of interpretive grid that helps us to know when we do or do not need to take to heart the commandment issued. Rachel has grown weary of “biblical” as a trump-card adjective, thrown out in an effort to baptize whatever (conservative) social, religious, or theological position a person wants to endorse.
So, the story of the year is a story of challenging the notion that “biblical womanhood” is to be had by opening up the Bible and applying “God’s word to women.” (Camping in the backyard during your period, anyone?)
But there’s another story within the story.
And this is what the nay-sayers are going to avoid, deny, and otherwise be blind to.
As Rachel says at the end of her Today Show interview, she actually loves the Bible. And this thread runs right through the narrative of swear-jars, Thanksgiving dinner, and “Dan is awesome” signs.
What Rachel discovers this year is not simply that the Bible is embedded in a cultural context where myriad different assumptions about life make direct application impossible. She also discovers a richer, more potent biblical (there’s that word again!) prescription for womanhood.
That prescription is one of trust, of gentleness, of concern for the weak, of executing justice, of loving, and of honoring those worthy of honor.
This is a great book for raising, again, the question, “What is the Bible and what are we supposed to do with it?” (a phrase I steal from Enns on a regular basis). And my invitation to you is to read with an eye toward both stories: the over-the-top, witty narrative of literal biblical reading as a critique on our simplistic views of the bible, but also the underlying current of a true biblical womanhood that has the power to infuse even those “liberated women” who can’t quite bring themselves to call their husbands “master.”
(And other pressing concerns generated by Church Dogmatics §33.2)
Question 1: Is it faithful to Scripture to say that the Son, Jesus Christ, elects, such that in the God-man the one who elects and the one who is elected are one?
Or, is it more faithful to scripture to say that the one who elects is, properly, God the Father, who makes known to the Son that the Son has been elected for a certain task?
Barth’s whole program, as he presents it, hangs on Christ being both the subject and object of predestination.
I like the idea, but I’m not sure it’s how the NT presents God’s election. It’s all well and good for us, in our more developed Trinitarian Theology, to think “Father, Son, and Spirit” when we think “God.” However, this is not what the NT writers were thinking. For them, when they say “God” they mean the one to whom we refer to as “Father.”
More specifically, when election is assigned to a person, it is most often the Father (e.g., 1 Peter 1:1-2) rather than the Son; unless, that is, the Son is seen as agent of electing those (not himself!) whom the Father has chosen.
Indeed, Ephesians 1 itself, the great “in Christ” celebration that provides the clearest indication that Jesus Christ is the one through whom any others are seen when they are elect, places the whole in the provenance of the Father:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us… Just as he (i.e., the Father!) chose us in him (i.e., the Son), before the foundation of the cosmos… Having predestined us (i.e., the same Father predestines as chooses and blesses) to adoption through Jesus Christ…”
I don’t think that John 1:1, “the Word was God,” provides the kind of leverage Barth demands of it to assign to the son what is clearly assigned to the Father throughout scripture.
Or, to put a different spin on it, when KB says that the son’s suffering is something Jesus speaks of “not as a necessity laid upon Him from without, but as something which He Himself wills,” I wonder what Bible he’s reading. The Son wills it as the will of the Father placed upon him.
I do not think, however, that this is as fatal to Barth’s project as he would lead us to believe. Jesus Christ can still be the primary object of election, focusing the choosing of God on the Son who as Elected One responds faithfully in electing God as well, and much of what Barth wants to maintain is upheld.
Question 2: If Barth wants the election of Jesus Christ to be the sum substance of election, such that all of us can look to Christ and take confidence in our standing before God–has he not cut off any defense he might have had against a charge of universalism?
If not every single person can so look to Christ and be comforted, then election cannot serve this purpose, which Barth says it surely has. I know, I’m not saying anything new here. And I’m happy for KB to be a Universalist based on the capacious nature of Christ’s work on our behalf.
Question 3: is it really all potential loss for God and all potential gain for humanity that God would choose to become incarnate, to become a man who must elect God in order for humanity to be truly God’s people?
I get this idea: we suck, God is awesome, God takes care of our suckiness, but at the possible expense of some of his awesomeness.
However, what if God really loves people?
What if God, creating people in his own image and likeness loves us in the same way that, say, Adam loved Seth–one born in his own image and likeness.
In other words, what if being in the image of God means that we are God’s children and therefore beloved of him, and God has something magnificent to gain from this whole business–a beloved, faithful, loving family?
I love how Barth is moving away from double-predestination (although, again, I think a revisionist hermeneutic is involved here) and creating a doctrine that is radically christological in its focus. I think that much of this is a salutary corrective to predestinarian thinking.
But more work is going to have to be done if this is going to be a revision that stands up to biblical scrutiny.
… or, what’s right with it, depending on who you are.
This week, James K. A. Smith posted a review of Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam at The Colossian Forum. Although Enns is a friend, I am not an apologist for this particular book, which is amenable to, perhaps significant, critique from a number of angles.
However, I am an apologist for people wrestling with the critical issues about what the Bible is, what it actually communicates, and what the impact of this might be for Christian theology.
And this is precisely the sort of challenge that Smith’s critique of the book seeks to circumvent. Smith’s critique of Enns’ methodology (it’s not a book review in the typical sense) is an almost stereotypical move by a theologian to keep the church from having to wrestle with what the Bible actually is, what it actually says, and how this might challenge what we think we know about ourselves and God.
You’ll notice I said “actually.” And here, no doubt, I can hear Smith jumping up and down and screaming, “‘Actually’ is precisely the point! Enns tries to define ‘actually’ as what the human authors meant, but that’s never been the full extent of what the church has believed.”
I know this. And so does Enns–more so than Smith gives him credit for.
Smith wrongly critiques Enns on two points.
First, he says that Enns’ paradigm is one in which the true meaning lies “behind” the text. This is a mischaracterization. For Enns, as for most scholars who turn to historical context to understand the text, the world “behind” the text does not determine what the text means, but helps us understand with greater plausibility the particular connotations this text would have had to a first audience.
This is not getting behind the text, it’s better understanding the text we actually have.
Second, for some reason Smith thinks that Richard B. Hays is his ally while Enns is dubious company. But both Hays and Enns argue that Paul reads the OT with a revisionist hermeneutic in light of the person and work of Christ (Enns) or the formation of the church in Christ (Hays).
This is where Smith’s critique was peculiar, to say the least. After chastising Enns for claiming an ultimate meaning in Genesis and not allowing a reframing of it in canonical context, he quotes Enns as saying:
what Genesis says about Adam and the consequences of his actions does not seem to line up with the universal picture that Paul paints in Romans and 1 Corinthians […]. I do not think the gospel stands on whether we can read Paul’s Adam in the pages of Genesis.
That sounds a lot like Enns is arguing for a revisionist reading of Genesis in light of the Christ event–a canonical reassessment that says, “How Paul reads Adam is not determined by the Ancient Near Eastern context.”
If Smith were in the mood to give Enns’ book a charitable reading, he might even say that Enns has demonstrated that these later meanings unfolded “in front of the text.”
But the real crux is that Smith wants to iron out all the wrinkles through an appeal to divine authorship. The problem, of course, is that this convenient appeal is so powerful that it can substantiate every claim while proving none.
Such appeals to divine intention have too long disallowed careful investigation into the plausibility of evolution and what the impact might be for how Christians read the Bible and understand human origins.
While I disagree with Enns on numerous points, his book is more valuable than Smith’s critique for two reasons: (1) It owns up to the Bible we actually have rather than the Bible Smith seems to wish God had given us. (No, appeals to God cannot make the critical issues of the Bible go away.) But perhaps more importantly, (2) It moves Christianity in the right direction by freeing evangelicals to wrestle with the questions of evolution and theology with integrity rather than calling us back again to the comfort of divine approbation for our closed-eyed denial of the problems facing our theological tradition.
Smith closes his critique by suggest we return to ask the unasked foundational questions. This is a red herring. We can keep retreating to our theological reading rooms and having comfortable conversations about how important it is that God wrote the Bible. Or, we can continue the conversation that Enns has helped move along by (a) wrestling with the meaning of the Bible we actually have as both a historical and a theological document–God, if God be author, actually authored this and not some other book!–and (b) figuring out what we’re going to say about human origins now that we know humanity came to be in a much different way than we’d think from a literal reading of Genesis 1 or even the almost opposite way we’d think from a literal reading of Genesis 2.
Theological interpretation is at its best when it is drawing on what we know historically about the contexts of scripture to enrich and challenge the theology of the church. It is at its worst when it strives to use the power of God to keep us from recognizing either the Bible we actually have or the world we actually live in. Smith’s review is guilty of both of the latter.
I’ve found myself indirectly thinking about what it means to read the Bible as Christians. By “indirectly” I mean that these thoughts have gnawed around the edges of my thinking while I’ve been working on other things: teaching the Gospels and Acts, writing a paper on wisdom literature in the Coen Brothers’ movies, listening to sermons on the deadly sins, reading books on what the Bible is and we’re supposed to do with it.
By “reading the Bible as Christians” I don’t just mean reading it like we’re supposed to learn from it. There are lots of ways to read the Bible so as to learn from it. But those among whom I number myself approach the Bible as Christians–not as Jews, not as Mormons, not to mention that we don’t approach it as atheists or pantheists or deists.
Reading the Bible as Christians means that we not only read it with a ready disposition to hear it as God’s word, as the story of salvation, it means to read the story with the conviction that the narrative comes to its surprising climax in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
You have to do this on purpose, if you want to do it.
Pick up the book of Deuteronomy, and you’ll come away with a strong sense that they way God will fully restore his people is through their faithful obedience to Torah. Jesus is a surprise.
Pick up the law or the prophets, and you’ll come away with the strong sense that God’s ultimate plan is for a nation to be located in the geophysical land of Israel. The explosion of the promise of land to a promise of the world and indeed of new creation is a surprise.
Pick up the Proverbs, and the next thing you know you’ll be looking for your diligence to overflow in wealth and peace. The call to embody the death of Jesus in all quarters of our world is a surprise.
To read the Bible as the story of Jesus is to decide that nothing in the OT comes to us directly. It all comes to us mediated through Jesus. This means both that it is mediated through Jesus and that it all comes to us. Some is transformed in him, some is fulfilled and left behind. And some comes as a word reiterated now for a people reconfigured around Christ rather than Torah.
The vitality, and validity, of our reading the OT as Christians hinges on our willingness to read it in light of what we know to be more ultimately true: the Christ who is the end of the Law, the Christ to whom the Law, Prophets, and Psalms bear witness.
I’m doing a good bit of reading on the issue of the “Abba, Father” prayer in preparation for SBL.
The history of the prayer’s interpretation over the early to late 20th century is a fascinating study. There were at least two major driving factors at work in how it was read.
First, German scholarship was heavily influenced by Rudolf Bultmann, and he by the larger cultural ethos, who was deeply committed to existentialist philosophy as the framework for making sense of the NT. In a manner not all dissimilar from American conversionist preaching, Bultmann suggested that the core of Christianity is an experience of God, an in-breaking of the divine into the heart of the believer.
So what makes Christianity unique? It’s this immediate experience of God.
The other significant factor was the idea that the significance of Christianity is, in fact, to be found in its uniqueness. Yes, Jesus had to find his way through the Jewish world, but all the really great stuff was to be found in how Jesus was different from Judaism. Again, with Germany at the center of NT scholarship in the early-mid 20th century, its cultural ethos was significant. Think Hitler. Think World War II. Got it?
So what does all this have to do with reading the “Abba, Father” prayer?
These two factors came together in an exposition of the phrase that declared that this prayer gives evidence of an unparalleled intimacy between Jesus (and then, subsequently, the believer), and God.
Unparalleled: much ado was made about the alleged lack of parallel material in which God is addressed as “father” in prayer. But this is tied to the “intimacy” thing: prayers in which the Jewish community as a whole would address God as father were excluded.
Intimacy: the idea was tentatively put forward by Joachim Jeremias that ‘abba was baby talk, parallel to daddy. That sort of intimate family language was seen as expressing the heart of the believer’s existence in the family of God.
The latter claim is also easy to debunk. For one thing, every time it appears in the NT, the word abba is followed by the Greek [ho] pater: a form that is clearly NOT the baby-talk word for “daddy” in Greek.
The amazing thing about this claim about unique intimacy is that it became the central thrust of a whole strand of NT scholarship, bearing fruit even in whole New Testament theologies that centered on the idea of the intimate fatherhood of God to the believer.
In a circular process of cause and effect, this reading that derived from an existentialist, anti-Jewish environment resonated with those who occupied that same environment, and became the obvious reading of not only three verses in the NT, but of the whole NT itself.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You think that the point is going to be, “Therefore, be careful about how your environment shapes your readings.”
Well, that’s important. But I was actually thinking something along the opposite lines.
Say what you need to say for your own time and place, realize that the people who came before you said what they needed to say for their own time and place, and don’t worry about saying something that will be viewed as correct for the next five centuries of Christian faith and practice.
For all that the existentialist reading of the “Abba, Father” prayer seems to me to be driven by dubious assumptions, it resonated with a people and declared to them that Jesus was the Messiah sent from God. If my idiosyncratic readings, that nobody will agree with in 100 years (I hope someone will agree with them for the next 25 or so…) put that same conviction into the hearts of my readers / listeners, then I’ve done what I can for the time and place which is given to me.
Barth finishes ch. 3 of the Dogmatics with a section on reading the Bible. As we have been noting through the review of Christian Smith’s work, reading the Bible is not as straightforward as one might guess.
There is a historical sense to be had–or at least, to be approximated and approached.
But articulating what the apostles and prophets said is not the same as understanding what those words entail, and it is not the same as being transformed in our whole way of life by them.
Barth insists that the act of biblical interpretation must, then, not only be a practice of articulating what the text meant, but of actively engaging that text as witness to the Word of God. We have not “read” if we have not been changed, made obedient, transformed in mind and heart.
What about the theologies and philosophies we bring with us? Barth recognizes that we all bring a philosophy of our own day and time with us. Somewhat surprisingly, but quite realistically, he does not demand the (futile) attempt to set these aside.
Instead, we should recognize that each philosophy has the ability to be taken hold of by the grace of God and made an instrument for communicating the word; and, each philosophy has the ability to become an idolatrous substitute, determining in advance what the word must conform to.
And when we say, “philosophy” here, we also mean “theological system.”
The church is free under the word so long as it reads and listens to that word, listening in the sense of being taken hold of by it and willing to have its prior understandings transformed by the voice of God speaking in scripture.
The ideas Barth hits on here continue to be important: is historical critical reading of the Bible sufficient? what about praxis in response to what we’ve read? do we bring a strong paradigm that controls what the scriptures can say?
Biblical scholarship (and, indeed, the church at large) has not yet embodied a viable solution to these questions. And we might anticipate that there will not be one final solution–because this itself would, no doubt, turn into yet another version of that controlling idol that attempts to constrain the voice of God speaking through scripture.
My enthusiasm for Smith’s assessment and proposal continues in this final installment. He has put his finger on the problematic treatment of the Bible in evangelical circles, calling out the ways in which its understanding of scripture is insufficiently biblical, and insufficiently defined by the gospel.
Chapter 6, “Accepting Complexity and Ambiguity,” is bookended by two fantastic paragraphs that clearly articulate the problems with “evangelical biblicism”:
Ironcially, while biblicists claim to take the Bible with utmost seriousness for what it obviously teaches, their theory about the Bible drives them to try to make it something that it evidently is not. (127)
And then this:
The Anglican divine Richard Hooker put this well when he said about the Bible, “We must… take great heed, lest, in attributing unto scripture more than it can have, the incredibility of that do cause even those things which indeed it hath most abundantly, to be less reverently esteemed.” In other words, the more we try to make the Bible say allegedly important things that are in fact subsidiary, nonbinding, or perhaps not even clearly taught, the more we risk detracting form the crucial, central message of the Bible about God reconciling the world to himself in Jesus Christ. (148)
Biblicism, by insisting on the equality of every chapter and verse, creates a world in which everything we believe takes on equal significance. Deny the necessity of homeschooling and you’ve rejected the gospel. The importance of the Christological hermeneutic is that it allows back seat issues to stay in the back seat.
A final chapter from Smith works hard to articulate a third way between the conservative posture of biblicism and the strategies of liberalism or full-blown postmodernism. It is important for readers to appreciate that critical realism is, in fact, a true third way. No doubt it will be described as opening the back door for liberalism by many who hold to the position Smith wishes to advance. But that is plain wrong.
This final contribution is an accessible crash-course in hermeneutics and has the power to destabalize how we think about the Bible as an authoritative text. How do we, in fact, condemn slavery as morally reprehensible when the biblical writers seem so accepting of it? There are good reasons for our difference–and these are instructive for us when we think about what the Bible is and what we should be doing with it.
Smith’s book comes on the scene at an opportune time. As the evangelical right tightens its grip on evangelicalism more broadly, an tremendous number of believers are slipping through their fingers. Whether the conservative resurgence shows itself to be less-than-biblical because of a particular issue (e.g., the earth’s being 6,000 years old) or because of a holistic and yet inconsistent way of attempting to apply the Bible as an equally authoritative voice to all of life, those who leave biblicist worlds behind are reconfiguring what it means to confess that the Bible is the word of God.
So even though Smith will not doubt become another point at which the biblicist world points to encroaching liberalism and thereby solidifies anew its identity over against “them,” it also provides an invaluable tool to those who know that the biblicist Bible is, in fact, impossible–but who continue to believe that the Bible we have is, in fact, the word of God given to bear witness to the Word of God.
In this, our second installment in review of Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible, I wish to begin by underscoring that he is not dealing with “strawmen,” as has been suggested in the comments to installment one. He does not insist that all 10 of his descriptions of evangelical biblicism are present in any one person’s thinking; he does, however, demonstrate that these are the kinds of assumptions driving not only popular but also scholarly engagements with Christian issues.
On the level of popular slogans, we have everything from “God said it, I believe it, that settles it!” to “Vote Responsibly–Vote the Bible!” to “Confused? Read the Directions! [picture of the Bible]” Evangelical biblicism is reflected throughout its kitsch culture (pp. 7-8).
Of course, it is elaborated at greater length in books: Bible Answers for Almost All Your Questions, Biblical Principles for Starting and Operating a Business, How to Make Choices you Won’t Regret, Esther’s Secrets of Womanhood (pp. 8-10). The point: we treat the Bbile like it’s about everything–a handbook that answers all our questions. We treat the Bible like it’s a clear, direct word from God to us about how to live our lives. These assumptions are upheld by others such as, “If we read the Bible aright, it can perform this function for us.”
In the more technical theological realm, the idea of scripture’s unity and internal consistency are the points that come more to the fore, but still in ways that lead one to think that the Bible should be able to be heard with relative clarity on all that it speaks of. In particular, biblical statements about the Bible deny contradiction in scripture (which must all be consistent because it is God’s word, after all), or state that anything we need to know is either laid down in scripture or may be deduced by good and necessary consequence.
In fact, the more theological sophisticated versions make the Bible less a practical handbook for daily living and more a box of puzzle pieces to be rightly ordered into a system of doctrine. Both, however, depend on the same way of understanding the Bible as the word of God.
So what’s the problem with all this?
The single greatest problem Smith sees is proliferating interpretive pluaralism. In other words: people don’t agree with each other on what the Bible says. Not only this, they don’t agree about what the Bible says about significant, defining issues of faith and practice. This is because the Bible is not, in fact, univocal on important issues.
Here again, Smith points to publishing. You know all those awesome and helpful “Four Views” or “Three Views” books? Their very existence is an exhibition of the irreducible interpretive pluralism that will always beset the church so long as it thinks that “just believing the Bible” is what is required for faith and practice.
Note how important the topics covered are: Atonement, Baptism, the Doctrine of God (!), Hell, Divorce and Remarriage, The Lord’s Supper, Historical Jesus, War, Women in Ministry, Predestination, Christ (!).
So besides, Jesus, God, and how the cross works, we agree on all the “important” stuff?!
Smith insists, and he is correct, that at the root of this is a way of seeing and understanding what the Bible is, which is demonstrated to be false because we who read the Bible with honesty and integrity cannot agree on what it says. The theory is rendered false by the results it has produced.
Next time, we’ll look at how a theory that is falsified daily manages to keep such a strong hold on the church and also survey some of the other problems with evangelical biblicism.