Recently, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary broadcast another “panel discussion,” this one taking to task Eric Seibert for his views on God’s violence in the Old Testament. Seibert posted a three part series on my blog, the first of which is here, and has written two books on the subject, The Violence of Scripture and Disturbing Divine Behavior.
In brief, Seibert argues, “At times the Bible endorses values we should reject, praises acts we must condemn, and portrays God in ways we cannot accept. Rather than seeing this as a sign of disrespect, we should regard engaging in an ethical and theological critique of what we read in the Bible as an act of profound faithfulness.” (from the above linked blog post)
The panel, consisting of Al Mohler, Phillip Bethancourt, Denny Burke, and Owen Strachan (more on Strachen below), was predictably alarmed about Seibert’s handling of the issue of God’s violence. Seibert’s position is certainly outside of their universe of theological discourse, and they felt strongly enough to record their hour long session and post it. There is nothing at all wrong about that.
As for the content of the discussion, the panel’s position amounted to a marginalizing, if not dismissal, of the moral and theological difficulties with Yahweh acting like every other tribal deity of the ancient world. Since the Bible is God’s Word, whatever it says holds as valid and binding, the standard by which our sinful human hearts are to be searched and tried rather than that which must be judged by sinful humans. God says it, and that’s that. Disagreement on that point is an attack on the Bible and God himself. They are welcome to publicize their position to any and all who would listen.
I won’t take the time here to rehearse the arguments themselves. They are transparently driven by the need to protect perceived theological non-negotiables, and they have been raised and answered many times. If they do not feel the need to engage their critics, their arguments are not worthy of serious attention.
What concerned me more than the content of the discussion was the calculating manner in which Seibert was set up not only for failure but demonization. I don’t know how else to interpret Mohler’s opening where he juxtaposed Psalm 106 (“the Lord is good, his steadfast love endures forever”) to–and here I was waiting for a good old genocide passage like Deuteronomy 20, but instead Mohler read a rather inflammatory excerpt from Richard Dawkins about the God of the Old Testament being a moral monster.
Apart from the fact that Psalm 106 speaks to God’s steadfast love for the Israelites and is therefore 100% irrelevant for the discussion of violence toward outsiders like Canaanites, the implication of the juxtaposition is quite clear: Battle lines must be drawn, and Seibert and others who wish to discuss how to rethink God are on the wrong side of the Psalm 106/Richard Dawkins divide.
Mohler is stacking the deck, but I think alert readers won’t be taken in by it.
Next, the specter of Marcion was raised (2nd century heretic who called for a dismissal of the Old Testament and significant portions of the New Testament that made God sound too–well–Old Testament like). The rhetorical stab being made here was that Seibert’s rethinking of the God of the Old Testament because of things like the violence God is nothing more than a repetition of old heresies. It’s all been said before.
I might have asked the panel to speak to the Orthodox tradition that saw these same violent portrayals of God as incompatible with the nature of God and so allegorized these portions of the Old Testament, but I would venture to guess that the tradition of Orthodoxy would not carry much weight at SBTS. Regardless, rather than juxtapose Seibert to Marcion, perhaps an acknowledgment that the violence of God has been a perennial theological conundrum in Church History would have been a more noble way of setting up the discussion.
Elsewhere the panelists juxtaposed Seibert to Nietzsche and then repeating the accusation of Seibert’s “postmodern reading strategy.” I think an objective observer would be able to recognize quickly the use of scare words, and so engaging Seibert’s thinking was not the primary focus of the meeting.
I feel that both the content and the rhetoric displayed by the panel are unbecoming of learned Christian discourse, but we all have our blind sides and those factors alone are not motivating me to respond. I am far more alarmed by an episode involving Owen Strachan, Assistant Professor of Christian Theology and Church History at Boyce College.
When Seibert’s first post came out, Strachan quickly registered his shock. Of course, it’s Strachan’s blog and if he wants to be shocked he can, and if he wants to rail against Seibert and warn others of him, that is fine, too. But what he does next is not fine, but reprehensible, and something of which I feel he needs to repent publicly.Strachan apparently felt that he was serving Christ and furthering his kingdom by driving home what he considered to be the incompatibility of Seibert’s views with those of his employer, Messiah College. I was incredulous as I read the following, and I feel I must quote Strachan at length (my emphasis):
[Seibert] is subverting the faith of his readers and, I assume, his students. I don’t know what could be more problematic for a biblical studies professor than this. Remember–these aren’t my interpretations. I’m pulling direct quotations from his piece. He’s put his argument out there in public on a widely-read evangelical blog. He’s invited engagement; his unbiblical and spiritually dangerous argument deserves it.
It will be interesting to see how Messiah College responds to this. Will it take its own statement of faith seriously, as Steffan and Christianity Today pointed out? Or will it treat its confession as unimportant? Do professors at Christian schools need to abide by their doctrinal statements, or not? Is a statement of faith just a piece of paper with some well-intended but ultimately inconsequential thoughts, or does it shape the life and health of the students entrusted to the school by God?
Confessions aren’t for policing. They are for health. Doctrinal statements aren’t designed to punish, though that should happen if needed. They are intended to lead people to flourishing. In this doctrine, a school or a church says, you find the core of biblical teaching. This is what will give you life. This is what will bless you and lead your feet on sure paths. We offer this to you to guard you, protect you, and keep you. We will answer to God in some sense for your soul, and we are doing our utmost to shepherd you to glory.
It is therefore good and right and gracious when a school upholds its own standards and protects its students so that Satan cannot destroy them. And it is devastating when a school allows it standards to grow lax.
**Will Messiah College leadership allow this to happen? We’re all watching and waiting to see.**
With many others, I am praying that good will come from this, that error will be corrected, that the truth will be vindicated, that God’s Word will not be attacked but will be seen as right and true and without error and loving and good and life-giving.
And that students, young men and women who are put in the care of professors by their parents and churches, will thrive in Jesus Christ, triumphing over darkness and doubt and sin.
This is not a veiled comment. Strachan is publicly challenging Messiah College to terminate Seibert–which is to say he feels both called upon and competent to insinuate himself into a matter that, if I may be blunt, is none of his business. I cannot fathom the level of either self-delusion or a confused sense of spirituality that would lead a Christian professor to do such a thing.
What complicates the matter is the Christianity Today article Strachan mentions. The author, Melissa Steffan, in what strikes me as an incendiary piece of journalism, for some reason raised the specter of Seibert’s fitness to teach at Messiah, though hardly as confidently as Strachan. But, in what appears to be nothing more than a dig, Steffan felt it was of high priority–while writing under a strict word count–to cite a critical comment by Scot McKnight from his blog when Seibert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior was being discussed.
The use of the quote strikes me clearly as an attempt to cast Seibert in a bad light rather than simply report a story of interest. I know McKnight and contacted him, and, although he was clear he disagrees with Seibert’s position, he was not pleased with how is quote–in the midst of a lengthy vetting of the book–was used.
Far more disturbing was the deliberate use McKnight’s name in the title of the Facebook link to the article–thus giving the impression that the core of the CT piece and Strachan blog was McKnight condemning Seibert. The link has since been reworded after McKnight contacted Strachan.
All this is bad enough, and I was hoping that the issue would be raised in the panel discussion and that Strachan might give some account of his actions. Mohler did raise the issue, and Strachan justified his actions thus: “I wanted to look at Seibert’s argument in light of his school’s confession of faith.”
Really? Why? Just because? And after “looking,” Strachan made it the core element of his post. Again, why? The lengthy quote above makes clear why. Strachan wanted to nail Seibert and get him fired--for the good of the kingdom so that Satan could no longer destroy Messiah college students.
But Strachan had more to say. He next relayed anecdotes of students he has known who entered Messiah with a strong faith and left with a weak faith. As Strachan put it, the pieces fell into place, knowing now what Seibert teaches there. (Apparently Strachan is unaware that all schools, including his own, have all sorts of anecdotes.)
Strachan’s use of anecdotes in a public forum to build a case against a professor, a department, and a school is at the very least unwise, and at worst borders on immaturity. Such rhetoric will safely be ignored by wiser heads, but, to mimic Strachan’s words, “Will Boyce College leadership allow this this type of public display? We’re all watching and waiting to see.”
Without any disrespect intended, in my opinion the position of the panel on divine violence is theologically and hermeneutically naive and untenable, and their rhetoric unfair to Seibert. But neither should cause us to lose sleep because these things can be ignored. But Strachan crosses a line.
In exercising zeal to maintain sound doctrine, Strachan and others should also remember the biblical admonition to lives lives that reflect that doctrine (Titus 2:1). As a Christian college professor myself, that is something Christian college students need modeled for them, not public personal attacks [yes, it IS personal when someone is gunning for your job] against Christian brothers with whom you have a theological disagreement.