a new book on what Christians today can learn about the Bible from people who have been dead for about 1500 years

a new book on what Christians today can learn about the Bible from people who have been dead for about 1500 years February 3, 2014

Today’s post is an interview with Michael Graves on his recent book, The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture: What the Early Church Can Teach Us. Graves (PhD, Hebrew Union College) is Armerding Chair of Biblical Studies and Associate Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, IL. Dr. Graves is the author of Jerome’s Hebrew Philology (2007), and produced the first English translation of St. Jerome’s Commentary on Jeremiah (2012). He is also the author of numerous articles on ancient Jewish and Christian exegesis of the Bible.


Why did you write this book?

I have personally learned so much about the nature and interpretation of the Bible from studying the Church Fathers. I often appeal to ideas from the early church when I explain this or that point about the Bible. I decided that it might be helpful for others if I wrote up the major ideas that have been most illuminating for me.

The Church Fathers operated with ideas about biblical inspiration that had direct implications for how Scripture should be interpreted. Many people today are trying to figure out how best to interpret the Bible, and I think what the Church Fathers said in their context has a lot to contribute to what we should think about biblical interpretation in our context.

You mention “their context” and “our context.” How are these contexts significant?

My book focuses primarily on Christian interpreters who lived from the second century to the sixth century AD. In general, they tried to follow and systematize patterns of interpretation that they found in the New Testament. This alone makes them important for us.

Beyond this, the Church Fathers lived in a Greco-Roman cultural environment that was skeptical about Christianity, was influenced by philosophers and literary critics, and teemed with religious diversity and political turmoil.

On the one hand, I think many readers will be surprised at how many concerns we have in common with early Christian interpreters. They ask many of the same moral questions, deal with issues of biblical criticism, and wrestle with biblical texts that could be taken as teaching different things.

On the other hand, they come at these questions from their own philosophical background, using their own tools of scholarship, and drawing on their own Christian experiences. Consequently, they do not always say the same things that Christians today tend to say. Sometimes their ways of understanding the Bible are quite different from ours.

I think we have a lot to learn from them. But I also show how their views fit into their cultural world, and I try to make clear that we cannot simply repeat everything that they did with the Bible. We need to recast the essential truths into our own context

Walk us through the book.

After briefly introducing the topic of biblical inspiration and the context of Christianity in late antiquity, I work through a number of possible “entailments” of inspiration, that is, concepts that were seen by some as logical implications of inspiration.

I discuss the views of various Church Fathers with respect to each possible entailment, showing diversity of viewpoints where appropriate, and giving numerous primary source examples where ancient Christians deal with specific biblical texts. I conclude by tying together some of the major points of relevance for today.

The table of contents below shows in a bit more details the primary entailments I address:


1. Scripture Is Useful for Instruction.
2. Every Detail of Scripture Is Meaningful.
3. Scripture Solves Every Problem That We Might Put to It.
4. Biblical Characters Are Examples for Us to Follow.
5. Scripture Is the Supreme Authority in Christian Belief and Practice.

The Spiritual and Supernatural Dimension:

6. Divine Illumination Is Required for Biblical Interpretation.
7. Scripture Has Multiple Senses.
8. Scripture Accurately Predicted the Future, Especially about Jesus

Mode of Expression:

9. Scripture Speaks in Riddles and Enigmas.
10. The Etymologies of Words in Scripture Convey Meaning.
11. God Is Directly and Timelessly the Speaker in Scripture.
12. The Scriptures Represent Stylistically Fine Literature.

Historicity and Factuality:

13. Events Narrated in the Bible Actually Happened.
14. Scripture Does Not Have Any Errors in Its Facts.
15. Scripture Is Not in Conflict with “Pagan” Learning.
16. The Original Text of Scripture Is Authoritative.

Agreement with Truth:

17. Scripture’s Teaching Is Internally Consistent.
18. Scripture Does Not Deceive.
19. Scripture’s Teaching Agrees with a Recognized External Authority.
20. Scripture’s Teaching Must Be Worthy of God.

Why is ancient thinking about biblical inspiration a vital topic for evangelical Christians?

Because understanding Scripture is vital for Christians, and I think the early church makes a significant contribution to this understanding.

To be more specific, I would point out that many Christians today wrestle with how to be faithful to the teaching of Scripture in their own contexts. In this discussion, reference is often made to the “traditional” view of Scripture, but without any explanation or basis for what this “traditional” view is.

In my book, I describe ancient thinking about inspiration with many citations from patristic sources and specific biblical texts, showing the range of available ideas and the qualifications that came from grappling with specific textual issues. I believe that ancient Christian thinking about biblical inspiration is vital for Christians today who are intent on living faithfully in accordance with Scripture’s teaching.

Yet, vague or inaccurate notions about the “traditional” view of inspiration are not helpful. We need to be as specific and concrete as possible if we are to learn the right lessons. The goal of my book is not to shut down critical thinking by appealing to tradition, but to open up paths of faithful thinking by seeing the pious, critical reflections of ancient Christians about Scripture.

What is the big idea that you would like people to take away from this book?

That is a hard question to answer, because I imagine that different readers will perceive different strengths and weaknesses in patristic thinking about inspiration, and so they will legitimately take away different big ideas.

I expect that many readers will find significant elements in these sources with which they already resonate, and perhaps other elements that may challenge their thinking in constructive ways.

One big idea that arises from these sources is that the heart and soul of inspiration is that the Bible is useful and profitable for instruction (2 Tim 3:16), and so we should ask from every biblical text what God is teaching us.

Another big idea is that the discipline of discerning what Scripture teaches is complex and involves many steps, including ad litteram (“literal”) exegesis, comparison with other biblical texts, theological reflection, and spiritual receptivity. All of this was seen as part of the nature of Scripture itself as inspired by God.

Ancient Christian approaches to Scripture can set the stage for a rich encounter with the Bible. This encounter is genuine, in that is arises from the texts and makes full use of the intellectual resources we have been given. It is rich because it incorporates the full range of Christian spiritual experience in the act of interpretation.

You suggest in the book that “the example and teachings of Jesus serve as a lens through which all interpretations of Scripture must pass” (p. 136). Could you elaborate? Is this a particularly important takeaway of your book?

Yes, it is one of the major ideas from ancient Christianity that I think remains important today. Let me briefly state here two angles on this topic.

First, I try to show how the process of reading Scripture involves willingness to listen to what biblical texts actually said and also a rich and somewhat complex process of perceiving what God is teaching through any part of Scripture in the context of Scripture as a whole.

This requires from us virtues such as humility, patience, and love, so that we have genuine encounters with Scripture that can challenge us, and Scripture does not become a tool that we use to harm others. The example and teachings of Jesus provide us a tangible model and illustration of the virtues we need to interpret this way.

Second, the ultimate takeaway for our lives in reading Scripture should be love of God and love of neighbor, as Jesus taught and demonstrated. In sum, it is precisely because biblical interpretation is no simple task that we need illumination and the example of Jesus to guide us.



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  • mark

    Interesting. Let me just pluck a couple of points from the ToC, almost at random:

    5. Scripture Is the Supreme Authority in Christian Belief and Practice.

    And yet I get the distinct impression from reading early Christian accounts of Jesus (“gospels”) that Jesus (aka “Christ”) didn’t see “Scripture” (whatever that was, at the time) as the Supreme Authority. I get the distinct impression that Jesus saw himself as possessing supreme authority (“all authority on heaven and earth …”) as coming from the Father.

    6. Divine Illumination Is Required for Biblical Interpretation.

    Problem: different people, all claiming divine illumination, have different interpretations of “the Bible.” How do we decide who’s got it and who doesn’t? Is this one of those “I know it when I feel it” kinda things, or are there reasonable standards for discerning this–just as Pete suggested that there are reasonable standards (seemingly external to the “biblical” writings) for judging God’s bible-portrayed actions as moral or immoral?

    I’m not suggesting that Augustine and other Fathers didn’t have ideas more or less like these points, but I am interested to know where they came up with those ideas. Those ideas seem to amount to a paradigm or “model” for understanding those writings that they had come to refer to and to understand as somehow “scriptural,” “authoritative,” “revelational.” Where did that model or paradigm come from? Jesus? The apostles? Was it adopted in the context of early Christian controversies with Jews, which we get glimpses of in the “New Testament?

    It’s also interesting to me that Michael talks about “inspiration.” Pete likes to talk about “inspiration,” too. They put it in the titles of their books, they pepper their blogs and interviews with the word–I count something like 12 occurrences in this interview.

    To me it seems like it might be useful to begin by addressing the concept of “revelation.” Why is it that we say that these ancient writings are somehow “revelational” with regard to or “revelations” from God? Are other writings from other non-Israelite or non-Christian cultures that contain similar ideas also revelational? If so, or if not, why or why not? All these books were clearly written by humans, so what do we mean by these distinctions, how do we arrive at them, what standards do we use, etc.?

    It seems to me that “inspiration” is a post hoc explanation for this business of “revelation,”–how it works, the mechanism of revelation, as it were–but I never seem to see very adequate accounts of revelation itself in the light of modern social science–why do we call these books “revelational?” I can’t help thinking that the concept of revelation should be addressed first.

    • Rick

      Regarding Scripture as the supreme authority aspect, as N.T. Wright says, that is “shorthand” for God’s authority:
      “…what we are actually saying when we use the phrase ‘authority of scripture’, we must surely acknowledge that this is a shorthand way of saying that, though authority belongs to God, God has somehow invested this authority in scripture…In the New Testament, we discover that authority is ultimately invested in Christ: ‘all authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth’. Then, perhaps to our surprise, authority is invested in the apostles: Paul wrote whole letters in order to make this point crystal clear (in a manner of speaking). This authority, we discover, has to do with the Holy Spirit. And the whole church is then, and thereby, given authority to work within God’s world as his accredited agent(s). From an exceedingly quick survey, we are forced to say: authority, according to the Bible itself, is vested in God himself, Father, Son and Spirit…Thus it is that through the spoken and written authority of anointed human beings God brings his authority to bear on his people and his world…And it includes…the delegation of his authority, in some sense, to certain writings.”

      • mark

        Interesting. So you’re “investing authority” in NTWright? Might or might not be a good investment 🙂 depending on the issue.

        this is a shorthand way of saying that, though authority belongs to God, God has somehow invested this authority in scripture

        So, according to NTWright, God writes shorthand, or rather, we write shorthand and then attribute it to God … somehow.

        Somehow. How is that? How is “somehow?” Is the authority of “scripture” the same as God’s authority? The same as the authority God have to Jesus, and that Jesus so obviously claims for himself? Or is it different–somehow? And what is the standard by which we make these judgments? As I said, the authors all seem to be human and, while some may claim to have engaged in communication with God–how are we to judge that? My understanding is the Muhammed made a similar claim.

        At the risk of seeming to disinvest (divest?) NTWright of some of his authority, it still seems to me that Jesus himself has a different take on this business. Like, that command that you know stands written in the Torah? Eh, Moses gave it to you because of the hardness of your hearts–that’s not how God established it, and now I’m reestablishing what God really wanted–as opposed to what stands written in scripture (as it was then constituted, i.e., before there was a NT or even a single gospel).

        • Rick

          In a short answer: Jesus, being God (a member of the Trinity), is both the point of Scripture, and the inspiration of it (Holy Spirit). Since Jesus is the one with the authority, and inspired Scripture points to Him, it has authority.

          • mark

            I think you’re making a lot of assumptions. I also happen to believe that Jesus is God’s self revelation to man. However, it doesn’t necessarily follow from that that Jesus is the point of “Scripture” nor that “Scripture” is necessarily inspired by the Holy Spirit. For example, it is by no means obvious that the Israelite scriptures “point to” Jesus. The various Israelite writings would all have perfectly intelligible contexts within Israelite religion whether or not Jesus ever walked the earth. I leave it to Pete to “point to” the difficulties involved in the usual rather simplistic notions of “inspiration.” Now, the early Christian writings obviously do “point to” Jesus, but it doesn’t follow that they are inspired by the Holy Spirit. They might be what they appear to be: the record of the early Christians, followers of Jesus, grappling with the significance of Jesus in light of their experience of him.

            I think we’re not going to agree on this.

          • Rick

            Given that the guy who rose from the grave and conquered death, was the one who fulfilled the Scriptures, gave the Apostles their authority, and told them the Holy Spirit would be with them, I will go with that.
            But you are right, we probably won’t agree on that.

          • mark

            Maybe we’re making progress–I actually agree with almost everything you wrote. The sticking point is: “was the one who fulfilled the Scriptures.” Within my understanding of revelation–my theory of revelation, if you will–Jesus fulfilling scripture isn’t really important. It’s enough for me hear his words and the testimony re his life and believe (i.e., have a reasonable belief) that he did indeed rise from the dead. That makes Jesus seem pretty authoritative to me.

            You, on the other hand, sound like you, if confronted by the resurrected Messiah who urged you (like Thomas) to believe, would respond: Not so fast, buddy–there’re a few passages of scripture that we still have to reconcile with your claims!

            I do think that my position is intellectually respectable. There are a lot of informed people out there who would agree that the only valid way to understand the Israelite scriptures would be to understand them (as best we can) as they were understood by the author or his contemporaries. By that measure, many would maintain that there are NO passages that foretell a Messiah such as Jesus. If you’re interested, I wrote a review of a review on that topic. Which is to say, a professor of OT at NDU wrote a review of a book that said basically what I just did. The reviewer, while admitting the scholarly strengths of that position, attempts to get around the implications–to my mind unconvincingly. The One Who Is To Come.

          • Rick

            “You, on the other hand, sound like you, if confronted by the resurrected Messiah who urged you (like Thomas) to believe, would respond: Not so fast, buddy–there’re a few passages of scripture that we still have to reconcile with your claims!”
            I read/understand the OT passages in light of Him. I don’t have to have them to appreciate Him (Paul showed this in how he dealt with the philosophers in Athens).

          • mark

            I like that you brought up Paul at the Areopagus (sp?).

          • Within my understanding of revelation–my theory of revelation, if you will–Jesus fulfilling scripture isn’t really important.

            How do you deal with the fact that the vast majority of the Bible is story? The revelation of Jesus in the gospels is found via story. We see God acting (a) in history (b) in an intelligible fashion. And yet, is there any such thing as ‘intelligible fashion’ which doesn’t use a story to tie things together in a logical, believable way?

            Perhaps you disagree, but I find that much of what Jesus did doesn’t even make sense if one does not have the OT as a backdrop. Much of the OT could be summarized this way:

            These things you have done, and I have been silent;
                you thought that I was one like yourself.
            But now I rebuke you and lay the charge before you.

            Jesus can be seen as the ultimate example of this: when God acts, his idea of conquering evil is to redeem it. His true enemy allows him to love his alleged enemies. Importantly, the OT can be seen as moving in this direction, from a culture of scapegoating. If we insist that all of the Bible have the same theology, this is virtually impossible. If, however, the Bible is a story of people trying to understand God and getting better and better at it until Jesus can appear on the scene and be understood (if only in retrospect, or at least better and better with more retrospect), then Jesus fulfilling it is central.

            Part of why I say this is that I’m actually very tempted to take what I see to be your position. And yet, the more I see how the OT connects to the NT, the more I see Jesus in context and truly as the epitome of imago dei. Even much of what Jesus says is easy to derive from the OT. In a sense, he’s a lot less original than you might think. The trick, of course, is that there were many bad interpretations of the OT—how do you know what is the right one? A ‘good enough’ example doesn’t seem to suffice; a perfect example seems necessary. An example who goes through life with us.

          • mark

            Luke, that’s another huge topic. However, it just so happens that I wrote a blog on this topic of revelation and story, and unsurprisingly it launches from the thought of G. K. Chesterton: Chesterton’s Thomist View of Myth

            And yet, the more I see how the OT connects to the NT, the more I see Jesus in context and truly as the epitome of imago dei.

            Every life is a story, so if Jesus was born into a human life he became a story. But that includes parents, family, nation, history, … Jesus would not be “true man” without all that baggage, so to me it’s totally unsurprising that he should–in a human sense–use the resources of the story that he was born into.

            If, however, the Bible is a story of people trying to understand God and getting better and better at it until Jesus can appear on the scene and be understood (if only in retrospect, or at least better and better with more retrospect), then Jesus fulfilling it is central.

            Yes, that is a major part of what I’m trying to say. However, I would want to tie that into the story of universal human nature. In a way, like Paul at the Areopagus (as Rick mentioned). I try to build off the work of people like Mircea Eliade to show that there is a universal human nature and that all human stories ultimately share common characteristics, and that as Chesterton maintains, Jesus becomes that universal story, a “true myth.” And, as Chesterton also maintains, this way of seeing truth in story form is what in retrospect we could expect from God, since it comports with the typical human way of seeing intelligibility: in pictures, in stories. So God became a human story so that we could see our own stories in him.

          • mark

            Luke, I want to avoid misunderstanding on this very important topic. When I say that all human stories share common characteristics, I do mean that, but …

            The importance of Israel is that it developed from that universal “archaic ontology” (Eliade’s term) which is typical of the mythical worldview of ancient West Semitic religion. It developed from that to a unique–as far as I can tell–worldview of creative monotheism. The great OT scholar, Frank Moore Cross, wrote an essay (in “Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic) sketching out how early Greek “philosophers” (the “pre-Socratic” Milesian thinkers) developed their approach from that same mythical worldview, even as they attempted to react against it. Again, Israelite thought as we find it shortly before the time of Jesus is unique from both the mythical worldview as well as from what the Greeks termed “philosophy.” And in this I see the reason that God chose Israel as the vehicle for his self revelation, in that Jesus was born into Israel. The essence of revelation to me is the revelation of God’s identity, which I see as continuing beyond creative monotheism to the ultimate revelation of God as Trinity.

            I don’t want to take up much more space here. In my blog, linked above, I tried to go through this in a fairly specific and necessarily lengthy way. All these references are to 2011 and 2010


            ▼ February (1)

            Trinity and Revelation

            ▼ January (3)

            The Identity of God: Trinity

            Creation Ex Nihilo In Early Christian Thought

            The Identity of God: Creator

            ▼ 2010 (4)

            ▼ August (2)

            Eliade: From Theogony to Philosophy

            The Early Development of Greek Thought

            ▼ June (1)

            Frank Moore Cross: Theogony, Cosmogony and Philosophy

          • Thanks for the detailed response. Would you, though, be willing to describe what the following might mean?

            Jesus fulfilling scripture isn’t really important.

            What would it be like for Jesus fulfilling scripture to be important? I can think of quite a few answers, and therefore I find it difficult to see exactly what you’re trying to reject.

            As I see it, the Bible is an account of God teaching us who he is, and due to imago dei, who we are and who we can become like. So what does it mean for Jesus to not fulfill scripture, or at least for that to not be important?

          • mark

            Luke, I’m sorry, I’m pressed for time. How about this about the type of fulfillment narratives I would want to reject: Out of Egypt I called my son. Or you could take any of the various attempts to find a prefiguring or prediction of the resurrection. An example of the approach I agree with, more or less, can be found at this comment.

            I agree with your last paragraph, however would substitute something like “the history of Israel” for “the Bible,” because I don’t see the “Bible” as totally intelligible to us without serious historical-critical study. I would also highly recommend the approach of Mark S. Smith (which Pete has commented upon at some length–I have as well at my blog), especially Memoirs of God as a good summary of his thinking.

            Sorry, gotta run.

          • Carlos Bovell

            To Mark:

            The earliest records we have evince a belief that Jesus “fulfilled” the OT. Luke 24 gives the gist: ““This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.””This should count for something, don’t you think?

            In my book, Inerrancy and the Spiritual Formation of Younger Evangelicals, I argue that it makes no sense to view scripture as “supreme authority.” The way Christianity was initially pieced together, the way theology actually gets done (both in antiquity and today), the way our devotional lives are actually led, all seem to me to militate against seeing any component of a holistic religious life as being supreme. Perhaps a view like this might present itself as more agreeable to you?

            Grace and peace,

          • mark

            Hi Carlos,

            Obviously the issues you raise could keep us occupied for a long, long time. I’ll try not to write for a long, long time.

            The earliest records we have evince a belief that Jesus “fulfilled” the OT.

            In general I agree with that. A quick read of the gospels certainly gives the impression that the evangelists shared that belief. But things are more complicated than that, IMO. While they do attempt to understand Jesus in those terms in their editorial comments, it’s by no means a closed case that the Jesus whom they present felt that way. Certainly there are a relatively few passages that present Jesus as saying things like, “Moses wrote about me,” and so forth. But there are really very few such passages and, to my best recollection, they are all couched in extremely general terms. There’s nothing like, Hey, you wanna see some scripture get fulfilled? Brace yourself! Or, You don’t understand what rising from the dead could mean? Check out XYZ prophets [insert Chapter and Verse numbers], and you’ll see that’s how it has to happen! On the contrary, my reading is that Jesus presents himself as teaching on his own authority, precisely NOT relying on scriptural authority. In fact, the same evangelists who seem to feel a need to understand Jesus in such terms, repeatedly present Jesus as asserting his authority over that of scripture–that’s a major part of what the Sermon on the Mount is all about. Not only does Jesus later demonstrate his authority over wind and sea, but in the Sermon he asserts that authority over scripture.

            I think you can see where I would go with Luke 24. My Catholic friends like to bring that one up to me. I usually begin by exclaiming over what a shame it is that, here we have a couple of disciples engaged in the very first bible study session led by Jesus himself, and they took NO NOTES. NO oral tradition about what Jesus said. No trace of any of this in the later letters. No Paul saying that he confirmed with the apostles in Jerusalem that the gospel he preached–replete with midrashic argumentation that drew on the OT–squared with what Jesus told the disciples on the road. Even though Jesus opened up ALL the scriptures, laid it ALL out for them. So once again it amounts to an extremely general claim, and I for one suspect that this is a theological story to support a theological way of looking at Jesus. IOW, color me skeptical that Jesus really did open up all the scriptures for those guys. Anyway, imagine those early disciples, confronted with Jesus, needing reassurance from scripture! The early hymns that Paul quotes don’t seem to breathe that atmosphere at all.

            Now, re Paul, that’s an interesting question. Paul is complicated . Paul’s letters, as I said, are full of midrashic argumentation that draws on the OT. And yet, I don’t seem to recall too much fulfillment talk in those letters, not seriously. Not in the sense of, here are the chapter and verse citations that show that Jesus fulfilled the scriptures. What we DO find is, in the first chapters of Romans, a remarkably thought out theory of revelation in the sense of Jesus being the culmination of God’s plan for the entire human race, Jews and Gentiles alike. We also find Paul, basically, admitting that Jesus, the crucified Messiah, was indeed a scandal to Torah studying Jews or might seem like nonsense to Gentiles–but Paul’s response is not to cite OT passages, it’s to appeal to Christ risen.

            Re your second paragraph, I would say that it all does come down to Church–after all, that’s what Jesus left behind to carry on his life, the life that Paul calls being in Christ.

          • James

            Yes, but there is mystery here. I wonder if Scripture is largely a concession to human limitation–we have short memories, are spatially challenged, etc. But it is difficult to handle as a codex sitting on a shelf 2000 years after the words and events it records. Somehow (there’s that word again) it comes alive because the Spirit blows where it wants, through the dusty pages, revealing bits of God to weak humans.

          • I wonder if Scripture is largely a concession to human limitation

            I’ve long been struck by the following:

            Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. (Heb 6:1-2)

            I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. (Rom 6:19)

            The doctrine of the sufficiency of scripture claims that the what qualifies as “go on to maturity” is fully present in the Bible we have. I’m not nearly that sure. I think the Bible is a fantastic constitution, and I am extremely reluctant to allow that we would receive more canon-level revelation. But no more information about what God is like and what God wants—above and beyond what can be rigorously deduced from scripture—seems to entail a sub-personal relationship with Jesus.

          • Rick

            “The doctrine of the sufficiency of scripture claims that the what qualifies as “go on to maturity” is fully present in the Bible we have. I’m not nearly that sure…But no more information about what God is like and what God wants—above and beyond what can be rigorously deduced from scripture”
            But isn’t doing what Scripture calls us to do (such as worship God, love God, love others, etc…) is how we mature?

          • The Bible is certainly fantastically helpful, especially when we let it say things sharply and incisively, vs. fuzzing it up somehow. Do we believe Jesus in Mt 5:23-24? Is reconciling with our fellow believers really that important and that urgent?

            On the other hand, can we deduce “by good and necessary consequence” that how people are encouraged to do Ja 1:2-4 might differ greatly, and that it is important to understand what best encourages a given person? I’m not so sure it can be rigorously deduced, and yet I am convinced that this is true and a step on the way to maturity.

            It is very different to say “any truth required for living can be found in the Bible”, than to say “the Bible gives us excellent methods for discovering truth”. I am sure of the former, and I am sure it gives many concrete truths—such as the importance and nature of true, Jesus-glorifying unity. But I think much is left to discover. I think there is an infinity to discover, for God wants to be known and he is infinite.

          • Andrew Dowling

            Tons of non-canonical Christian texts and Gospels also point to Jesus, so why aren’t they given authority?

          • Rick

            short answer (not getting into authorship debates): apostolic connections of the texts and apparent writers.

          • The authorship is the crux of the matter. Lots of non-canonical texts claim apostolic connections … many of the canonical claims turn out to be bogus, according to most scholars.

          • Rick

            The authorship may be complicated, but that may be different than “apostolic connections”. Antiquity, from an early writer, who appears to have passed along the early faith, is what matters.
            Also, as Scot McKnight has pointed out, “most scholars” claims are tricky, complicated, and don’t necessarily address the truthfulness of the matter.

          • No trickier than the claims of ‘some scholars’.

          • Rick

            “Most scholars” indicates that some kind of poll has been done, and/or that it necessarily proves something.

          • Andrew Dowling

            Without mentioning or knowing the methodology from which the graphs are concocted from, they are worthless. In my exchanges with Scott on this subject in the past, he cites surveys of NAE scholars, which IMO is not a very good odometer of mainstream scholarship.

          • Rick

            Ah, the dreaded “mainstream scholarship”.

          • What’s to dread? Most scholars are smart but generally harmless old professors.

          • Rick

            Sorry, I was attempting to just be joking with the term “dreaded”.

          • Andrew Dowling

            By mainstream, I mean biblical scholars who don’t have a preconceived goal of apologetics as the outcome of their studies, as would befit most of the NAE. Yes, everyone carries some degree of bias into their work, but when you are working for institutions that uphold inerrancy or writing for an audience that does, you are already restricting your potential study outcomes, which is apologetics masquerading as scholarship; a somewhat unique issue in the field of religious studies.

          • I doubt that you could “prove” anything about these ancient texts. But the chances that the entire NT is composed of authoritative writings with close apostolic connections? Extremely unlikely.

          • Rick

            Clearly we would strongly disagree on that. But an interesting discussion none-the-less. Have a good evening.

          • Rick

            You probably have seen this graph before, but it shows how gray that answer can be


          • Paul’s letters are the most clearly connected NT texts – and they are gray enough. The remaining texts, including the gospels and the letters of Peter, have far more tenuous apostolic connections.

    • Problem: different people, all claiming divine illumination, have different interpretations of “the Bible.” How do we decide who’s got it and who doesn’t?

      I’d suggest considering (a) judging a tree by its fruit; (b) not pulling out the tares lest wheat be mistakenly included; (c) building up and gathering instead of tearing down and scattering; (d) Christians are allowed to vary belief on significant ideas such as whether to consider one day above all the rest. These are all expressly biblical ways to judge interpretations. I would say that the Bible provides strong reason to protest metaphysical tyranny. 🙂

    • Tim

      Just a thought here; It wasn’t clear from the way the list you’ve referenced here was presented in the blog post whether these section titles actually represent conclusions the author has come to, or if they’re just commonly held ideas about scripture that he is engaging with in the book (and perhaps refuting in some cases).

      • mark

        Since I haven’t read the book, I can’t possibly know. However, in my response I took it that Michael’s chapter headings are bullet point summaries of the “commonly held ideas about scripture that he is engaging with in the book.” And, as I said, I accept that Michael is, overall, correct in his summaries. My main concern was to tackle those views as commonly held by many believers–which I think is the case–and to argue that they are inadequate for a truly informed account of Christian faith.

        • Tim

          Got it. Thanks for clarifying.

  • mark

    I have to say, I’m surprised this post hasn’t attracted more attention–I would have thought it would be red meat for Pete’s usual commenters.

    • peteenns

      Wait. I hear them. Far off. They are coming…..

    • Rick

      I think that is because there is an ecclesiology issue involved (specifically the importance of the church universal and the early church fathers), and it is one that more and more people are paying attention to these days (especially since Webber’s Ancient-Future works). Therefore, this post/book further supports that direction. But that is just a guess.

      • mark

        could be.

  • Julie Walsh

    Nice. It sounds like a great book. I was trying to go down this avenue awhile back, interested in how the early Church interpreted Scripture (wrongly thinking there were competing Alexandrian and Antiochene schools) and discovered this article by Douglas Fairbairn in the Westminster Theological Journal, ” (http://files.wts.edu/uploads/images/files/69.1.Fairbairn.Patristic%20Exegesis%20and%20Theology.pdf). Fairbairn’s point, like it seems Graves’ to be, was that the Early Church had a controlling theological lens first which guided their interpretation of Scripture. In his article Fairbairn states: “Not surprisingly, as scholars have recognized the problems with the idea of an Antiochene-Alexandrian dichotomy, they have also offered alternative ways of describing early-church interpretation. Most of these efforts focus on rethinking the relation between theology and exegesis. Rather than asserting that exegesis was the horse pulling the theological cart, as the older view did, more recent scholarship has insisted that to a great degree, theology was the horse and exegesis the cart. More specifically, patristic exegesis, according to recent patristics scholars, was a task of reading all of Scripture in light of a controlling theological idea” (p. 10)Today, evangelicals get stuck when we put one exegetical passage over a canonical understanding of God.

    I recently got the Ancient Christian Commentary Series for my Logos Bible Software, which gives some of the Church Fathers’ statements about each biblical passage. And, seeing how they treated certain passages, I often I laugh thinking about how some of today’s exegetical scholars would groan!

    • mark

      I think you’ll find that the type of exegesis we find in the Fathers is a function of the rising influence of Platonic thought within the Church, as increasing numbers of Greek intellectuals, trained in philosophy, entered the Church.

      • Julie Walsh

        Yes, I think that is exactly why you see differences in the way Christians in the area of Antioch differed from the way Alexandrians interpreted passages. Differences in rhetorical methods. A book on my very long Amazon wish list was recommended by Witherington: Reading in Christian Communities:Essays on Interpretation in the Early Church, Charles Bobertz, that I think covers this.

        • Carlos Bovell

          Try also Rowan Greer, Captain of Our Salvation. Differences in “rhetorical methods” (as you call them) seem to have resulted from differing christologies.

          • Julie Walsh

            Actually, I disagree and think differences in rhetorical methods were required because of the different types of rhetoric used in the Antioch and Alexandrian cultures. Like the differences between a letter like Ephesians and one to the Corinthians.

          • Carlos Bovell

            R. Greer shows how the same methods could be used in each locale depending upon what theological point was at stake when interpreting the book of Hebrews, for example.

          • Julie Walsh

            Ah, then yes. I’ll have to look it up. Thanks

  • mark

    I have to say, I’m not surprised this post has attracted so much attention–I could tell at a glance that it would be red meat for Pete’s usual commenters.

  • mark

    I’m not sure when I acquired this taste for having my cake and eating it too, …

  • Claiming divine inspiration for particular writings is like setting in motion self-fulfilling prophecies and then claiming the prophets were right.

    Per Augustine: “If something there [i.e., in Scripture] strikes a person as absurd, it is not permissible to say, ‘The author of this book did not have the truth,’ but, ‘Either the manuscript is defective, or the translator made a mistake, or you do not understand.’” (Reply to Faustus the Manichaean 11.5) “Any harsh or even cruel word or deed attributed to God or his saints that is found in the holy scriptures applies to the destruction of the realm of lust” (On Christian Teaching 3.11.17; transl. R.P.H. Green) Later he says, “But if [a statement in Scripture] appears to enjoin wickedness or wrongdoing or to forbid self-interest or kindness, it is figurative” (On Christian Teaching 3.16.24) “Anything in the divine discourse that cannot be related either to good morals or to the true faith should be taken as figurative” (On Christian Teaching 3.10.14)

    What writings could you NOT claim to be “divinely” inspired if you excused questions they raised by claiming that such revelations were “progressive”(but eternal and unchanging in their source and fit together perfectly), and “accommodated to ideas common in the ancient world” (but not evidence of cultural relativism).

    Furthermore, that the source of such revelations is “loving and merciful” (but angry, vengeful, locks people out of parties, casts them out, tosses them into a lake of fire, eternally punishes them, and also blames people for not seeing how obvious the truth of Christian Creedal theological interpretations of the Bible are above all others).

    Which reminds me of the cover story of Christian Century (seen sometime in 2013) on “Why We Need the Dark Psalms.” I look forward to reading follow up pieces on “Why We Need the Flat Earth Creation Tale with which the Bible Begins,” “Why We Need the Tale of God Drowning Every Man, Woman and Child on Earth Minus Eight,” “Why We Need the Book of Joshua’s Tales of Divinely Commanded Mass Slaughter,” “Why We Needed a Law about Stoning to Death Anyone, Including Your Own Child, Who Tries to Tempt You to Worship Other Gods,” “Why We Need the Tale of a Husband and Wife Dropping Dead Instantly via God’s Judgment for Lying About Giving ‘All’ their Money to the Church,” not to mention, “Why We Need the Tale in 1 Cor. of God Judging Many Christians by Giving Them Diseases, and Making Some of Them Take a Permanent Dirt Nap Because They Didn’t Celebrate the Lord’s Supper the Right Way,” and “Why We Need the Tale in the Book of Revelation about how God and Jesus Plan to Release Satan, and also Bathe the Earth in Wrath and Curses.”

    Apparently we “NEED” all of the above, and Christians will remain clinging to such tales like Linus to his blanket. Because they just can’t imagine that God would send them this ancient literature that humans have canonized, only for other humans to later question its content. And so Christians like Randal and Eric will continue to cling to such tales, or re-interpret them as best they can to fit the view that God, fully revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, “loves His enemies.”

    Quotations from non-theologians:

    “I would like to ask if there is a Christian in the world who would not be overjoyed to find that every passage in the Bible that supported slavery, polygamy, and wars of extermination, was an interpolation.”
    –Robert Ingersoll

    “The witch text in the Bible remains; the practice of executing them changed. The slavery text in the Bible remains; the practice changed. Infant damnation is gone, but the text remains. Hell fire is gone, but the text remains. More than two hundred death penalties are gone from the law books, but the Biblical texts that authorized them remain… Is it not well worthy of note that of all the multitude of Biblical texts through which man has driven his annihilating pen he has never once made the mistake of obliterating a good and useful one? It does certainly seem to suggest that if man continues in the direction of enlightenment, his religious practice may, in the end, attain some semblance of human decency.”
    –Mark Twain, “Bible Teaching and Religious Practice”

    “According to the Bible, God gave orders to kill children and to rip open the bodies of pregnant women. The pestilences were sent by God. The frightful famine, during which the dying child with pallid lips sucked the withered bosom of his dead mother, was sent by God. God drowned an entire world with the exception of eight persons. Imagine how such acts would have stained the reputation of the devil!”
    — Robert G. Ingersoll

    A cottage industry has existed for centuries in which Christians attempt to deal with the moral difficulties involved in accepting every divinely wrathful murderous tale in the Bible as equally ethically inspired (not to mention the Christian industry involved in defending an eternal concentration camp or isolation ward). Some recent thrust and parry of such a debate was carried out by Thom Stark and Paul Copan with Copan attempting to justify the morality of Pentateuchal laws, and Thom’s rebuttal (for free online). Thom is also the author of The Human Faces of God that discusses similar questions. Also interesting is some of Thom’s discussion with John Anderson who mentioned not only Copan’s work but Seibert’s as well:

    John Anderson: I got about halfway through Copan’s book a few months back and could not finish reading it. I fully realize it is a book on apologetics, but it sounded overly apologetic to the point that most of his arguments are, in my view, severely strained and terribly unconvincing. I have yet to read a take on the problematic aspects of God’s character (or the OT in general) that satisfies me. My friend Eric Seibert’s ‘Disturbing Divine Behavior’ has serious issues (see my RBL review of his book), Copan’s book leaves me terribly disappointed on a number of levels–even moreso than Seibert’s, which I feel at least has some redeeming qualities. Eryl Davies’ recent and superb ‘The Immoral Bible’ does a wonderful job of laying out the various approaches and assessing their strengths and weaknesses, but doesn’t advocate entirely for a particular stance (though he admits reader-response may be the best strategry, though I quibble with how he defines it in relation to the problem). I’m working through David Lamb’s new book ‘God Behaving Badly’ and will see where that takes things. In a nutshell, I see a course developing around these books. I tend much more to be in the camp of Brueggeann–who is not explicitly addressing the topic–in affirming the dynamic complexity of God, a God who at times has no qualms about transcending traditionally defined (but by whose standards?) moral boundaries. It isn’t an either/or. Nor is, or should it be, an apology for God. The biblical text at these junctures shows no interest in needing to apologize for God. This doesn’t excuse the behavior by any means (historical or not), but it does keep us honest in addressing the witness of the text and not assuming it must conform to whatever grid we impose upon it.

    Thom Stark: My approach is to confront the texts for what they are, and then allow them to confront us right back, exposing the ways we do the same things. I wrote a 306-page review of Copan’s book, available for free on Religion at the Margins, but I lay out my approach to the problematic texts in Human Faces of God.

    John Anderson: Yes, Thom, I’m well aware of your book and the review of Copan. Copan’s is a terribly disappointing book. And I agree with you that it is best to confront the texts head-on. I am most interested in the theological take-away. What do these texts say about God? I’m not an historical critic by any means, but I do think a descriptive theology is the most appropriate first step. Only then can we begin to move to discussing the feasibility of contemporary application and how to go about doing that.

    Thom Stark: I agree, but I think that sometimes the texts are trying to say something about God but really only say something about us. Lamb’s book seems to be just as unsatisfying as Copan’s.

    • Carlos Bovell

      These are some tough questions! And I wrestle with some of them too. But I think you forgot the most important one of all: Why did God so love the world that he sent his only son to die on the cross so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life?


      • James

        C. S. Lewis in Miracles, comparing literal and metaphoric speech, is instructive to those who would wax eloquent summarizing the biblical story in not too glowing terms. From the chapter ‘Horrid Red Things’, these quotes: “For me the Christian doctrines (including scripture) which are ‘metaphorical’–or have become metaphorical with the increase of abstract thought–mean something which is just as ‘supernatural’ or shocking after we have removed the ancient imagery as it was before. They mean that in addition to the physical or psycho-physical universe known to the sciences, there exists an uncreated and unconditioned reality which causes the universe to be…” Lewis goes on to say that as creatures we can only speak in metaphor when referring to ultimate reality. Thus, any attempt to “improve the ancient language” only changes the metaphors we use. “We can make our speech duller; we cannot make it more literal.”

    • mark

      I for one don’t cling to these stories, nor do I actually “reinterpret” them. I try to understand them within an overall theory of revelation that takes their human origins seriously, as well as the forms of expression that humans have historically used to communicate insight into reality.

      Thanks for the post. It graphically, not to say luridly, illustrates why it’s long since time for the Church to step up and take the whole issue of a theory of revelation seriously. With Carlos I agree that turning to, and seriously engaging with, Jesus is the way forward.

  • Of many points from the book which I no longer can find support for, or reason to believe in, perhaps the central one, partly because it purports to be “verifiable”, and IS indeed in the realm of history and literary analysis (non-religious) this: 8. Scripture Accurately Predicted the Future, Especially about Jesus.

    As a long-time Evangelical and one-time apologist, I am fully aware of the case for this, which the Gospels take pains to make, especially Matt. However, on closer examination, it doesn’t stand up. Nor does the case for any other specific, verifiable predictions by OT prophets. Thus, the “cosmic Savior” picture of Christ is in the kind of serious re-thinking that many (especially younger) Evangelicals (and others) have been doing, along with views of the nature of revelation and authority for the Bible!!

    • Only two people recognized Jesus as Messiah immediately: Simeon (Luke 2:25-35) and Anna (Luke 2:36-38). I suppose you could count the wise men, but they came from afar; it’s not even clear they were Jews. I’ve long taken this to mean that very few Jews were looking for a suffering Messiah. The disciples themselves demonstrated repeated failure of understanding: Peter doesn’t want Jesus to wash his feet nor does he want Jesus to die at the hands of the Pharisees, Scribes, and Romans. All of the disciples wanted to be ‘greatest’, with James and John getting their mothers to ask Jesus for them to be greatest on their behalf (or I suppose the mothers could have had this idea themselves). The disciples were a mess! Now, we know that’s irrelevant: they came around in the end, probably because (among other things) they weren’t full of hubris like many of the Pharisees.

      It seems that the fairest claim is that the OT left the Messiah vastly underdetermined, just like the OT + NT leaves the end times vastly underdetermined. What can be said is that Jesus’ fulfillment of the OT is a glorious one, one which truly does frustrate the wisdom of the [self-proclaimed] wise.

      • Thanks for the response, Luke. I think you understate the case when you say “underdetermined” for how the OT left the Messiah. When it comes to the NT, it is mainly the Gospel writers we have to trust (not even knowing who they were or whether they even had direct contact with Jesus’ immediate disciples) as to how an evolving view of “Messiah” did develop, as well as just when. We don’t know for sure whether Jesus himself considered himself Messiah. Particularly in Mark, if he did, he did NOT want it publicly declared.

        It’s hard to find someone, as a person and as a scholar, more to be respected and paid attention to on Jesus and “messiahship” than Albert Schweitzer. If I recall his conclusion rightly (having done a review of his great final book, “The Kingdom of God and Primitive Christianity” on my blog), I believe he ended up believing Jesus did consider himself the Messiah, but not that he went to his death believing it was an atoning sacrifice (I’m definite on the last part, tho it is discussed mainly in a footnote).

        Note: I’m not citing him as “proof” of anything or even major support in itself, in isolation…. Just an example of a person, having studied an entire long life on this and other vital subjects of “life” and lived humbly, simply and compassionately when he could easily have done otherwise, who was obviously very inspired by Jesus. In the process, he had as much reason as anybody to follow traditional understandings of Jesus-as-messiah-in-divine-form but did not, based initially on extensive (PhD dissertation and beyond) study of “the quest” about Jesus, and affirmed nearly 50 years later in a very helpful book (above). In between, “all” he had done was live most of his life pioneering a mission/hospital in an INhospitable part of Africa.

        • I do think there is much to be learned by trying to see Jesus as his contemporaries saw him, instead of only seeing him in the light of a ton of theology, some of which is clearly wrong lest we let inerrancy spread past the Bible (it seems to me that many actually do this, despite claims to the contrary). There seems to be an important progression of understanding of God, with Jesus really messing with people’s ideas. It strikes me that many Christians haven’t actually fully gone through this process, leaving them thinking of God as e.g. largely wrathful, despite many OT protestations.

          I found this description of Schweitzer’s thought by you; is this what you were referring to? I’ve been keeping an eye on statements about whether or not Jesus needed to be an atoning sacrifice; I’m happy to consider this from what I call a mechanical perspective. Sin has material consequences in the world; it causes pain and suffering, and destroys. Did we just need a more inspiring example in order to finally repair and heal at a greater rate than the destruction and hurt? This seems like quite the suspicious claim.

          It is my experience that the redemption of evil tends to require participants who did not cause that evil. In other words: some of the consequences of sin fall on those who did not deserve those consequences. One thing history has made quite clear is that merely smacking those people who exhibit evil (and usually a strict subset of those; wealth and power tend to insulate one from culpability) tends not to make things much better. Instead, people need to voluntarily take on pain and suffering that they did not cause, and make things better. It seems that this gets awfully close to the doctrine of atonement! I am reminded of:

          For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.
              For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, (1 Pe 3:17-18)

          So it seems to me that in the very process of being a good example to us, Jesus had to be “pierced for our transgressions”. One could question whether this means atoning for all sins everywhere (Col 1:24 is a fun one), but it seems that Jesus necessarily had to suffer for sins not his own, in order to repair the damage and hurt caused by those sins. It’s not clear that the Jews understood this necessity; did they perhaps think that perhaps people only ought suffer for their own sins, in order to act sufficiently well to e.g. realize the Kingdom of God amongst themselves?

          • Thanks for taking time to look for my reference and for replying further, in depth! Maybe I should have linked to the book review I referred to… don’t like to be too blatant with that kind of thing. What you found IS close to it, written just after, I believe…. But the review itself is on my own blog, at this location: http://wp.me/p5oBn-hz.

            In checking myself, I see that I did explain and quote the statement by Schweitzer in some length, also citing the page number on which the footnote and related discussion appears. If you can pick up the book somehow (it wasn’t as broadly sold/reprinted as his 1906/10 “Quest” book [German/Eng.]), I highly recommend it, regardless of your (or anyone’s) theology. Almost more than anything, he quotes long and pertinent OT passages, within their historical setting and authorial purpose. Also an unusually readable and clear book for such an accomplished theologian/philosopher… much easier than his “Quest of…” I’m unclear why it didn’t get broader attention… maybe overshadowed by his other literary and life-mission work (including reception of the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize). Plus, it was published posthumously in 1967 or so, written in 1951. This was also during a relative lull, just near the beginning of the “new” quest for the historical Jesus. Ironically, conventional wisdom is that it was Schweitzer himself who was largely responsible for the near “closing down” of the first phase. (Some say we are now in the 3rd wave of it.)

            As to the sacrificial aspect of Jesus’ death, historically and theologically, it is a fascinating and important topic. I like some of where your analysis seems to be going. To me, there is no question that the “psychological” aspect of any atonement, and particularly a death seen as such, that was as far-reaching as that of Jesus, is “real”. Real in that it does have “real world” practical effects on people and on societies. The fact that any of us may no longer see reason to believe that Jesus was uniquely human-divine (“second person” of the Trinity) doesn’t need to diminish the perceived effects, except the supposed effects of granting forgiveness before God such that “salvation” is attained.

            One simple reason, per Gospel content itself, to think that Jesus thought more like a Jew of his day than a later Pauline/Johannine type Christian re. atonement is the passages calling on listeners to forgive, even “seventy times seven”, with no mention of it being based on his coming death/resurrection. No qualifiers as to needing the Holy Spirit to come to enable this, etc. Just spoken as if doable, to his mainly-Jewish audience.

            A study of Christian origins seems to indicate some progression, in fact, re. vicarious atonement…. From a very, very early view that Jesus’ death was a martyrdom (a human one), with him being vindicated by God via being raised (in harmony with certain apocalyptic expectations… Schweitzer has material on this, I believe, in that book), to something beyond such a death “for” the Chosen People or their sins. Paul soon (apparently by the 40s) conceptualized much more. But it MAY well not have been until the late 60s or post-destruction-of-Jerusalem in 70, that the emerging “mainstream” of Jewish and Gentile Christians conveyed the martyr’s death into an atoning sacrifice of a God-man… a re-interpreted Messiah figure.

            Unfortunately, there is a gap of written material from almost exclusively the 50s (Paul) until after the destruction of the Temple, the scattering or death of Jesus’ remaining direct followers, etc., by 70. These 20 or so years, like the 20 prior, were crucial in the development of what later became a “Christianity” separated fully from Judaism. We don’t know just how/why the separation took place, although it clearly revolved around how Jesus was viewed…. But not quite in the simplistic way the “standard view” of tradition on Christian origins has it… that set in place largely by “Luke” in Acts.

          • Real in that it does have “real world” practical effects on people and on societies. The fact that any of us may no longer see reason to believe that Jesus was uniquely human-divine (“second person” of the Trinity) doesn’t need to diminish the perceived effects, except the supposed effects of granting forgiveness before God such that “salvation” is attained.

            There is a debate that has been going on for a long time, about whether this form of ‘real’ is sufficient. Consider someone who believes in a clear falsity, such that life is better for a time. However, after a while, reality catches up and what was believed no longer matches it. Often what happens is the person clings to the belief until reality really doesn’t match it, at which point much pain and suffering often occurs. Briefly: delusions ultimately fail us, and often catastrophically.

            Now, some, like the Absurdists, don’t think there’s any “true truth”, to use Francis Schaeffer’s term, in the realm of the subjective, which I prefer to call the realm of the introspective senses. I disagree with the claim that the introspective senses are any less reliable than the extrospective [five] senses; both ‘see’ through a glass dimly. Eric Schwitzgebel’s The Unreliability of Naive Introspection is well-accepted in the philosophical community, and we could also look at the numerous cognitive biases that distort our thinking.

            If Jesus doesn’t have to be divine for his example to be sufficiently powerful (e.g. to fulfill Mt 5:43-48, Jn 13:34-35, Jn 17:20-23), then that seems to push us closer to the Absurdists, or Schaeffer’s “upper story” being utterly sundered from his “lower story”. This sundering seems very undesirable—perhaps it is necessary, despite being undesirable. It’s also not clear that we have gotten much closer to those verses (heh, Schweitzer apparently agrees).

            One simple reason, per Gospel content itself, to think that Jesus thought more like a Jew of his day than a later Pauline/Johannine type Christian re. atonement is the passages calling on listeners to forgive, even “seventy times seven”, with no mention of it being based on his coming death/resurrection. No qualifiers as to needing the Holy Spirit to come to enable this, etc. Just spoken as if doable, to his mainly-Jewish audience.

            I have often thought about that “seventy time seven” passage. I’m sure that the concept of forgiveness predated Jesus, but one still needs the [will]power to forgive, even when the stakes are at their highest, like in Rwanda or reconstruction Germany. The union with Christ doctrine is often used to explain whence this power comes. One might also say that as “we love because Christ first loved us”, also “we forgive because Christ first forgave us”. This only works if we were actually forgiven.

            You say “No qualifiers as to needing the Holy Spirit”, but is that really true, given these New Covenant passages? The OT repeatedly has God wanting to be the god of each and every individual, only reluctantly being Israel’s god through intermediaries. It’s not at all clear that Jesus expected people with stiff necks and hearts of stone to be able to forgive “seventy times seven”.

            It’s also not clear that Jesus expected his disciples to fully understand all of his teachings until his ascension. There are plenty of passages where Jesus says things, the disciples are reported as not understanding, and then they go do the next thing. I could easily see Jesus’ cross-statement, “Lord, forgive them, for they know not what they do” as being utterly shocking to the disciples, transforming their idea of forgiveness and the shouldering of the sins of others.

            Anyhow, I do find people like Schweitzer interesting, for comparing the words and actions of people like him to those who say that Jesus really did need to be God and is in personal relationship with them can be quite elucidating. If a Christian’s ‘relationship’ with Jesus is somehow ‘more real’ than Schweitzer’s ‘relationship’, then surely there should be ways to tell?

  • This seems to be truly a terrific book.

    A vital issue Evangelicals are struggling with are the so-called terror texts where God is described as ordering humans to commit atrocities.

    Unlike many Evangelical apologists, quite a few Church fathers believed that genocidal commands are clearly inconsistent with the human face of God we see in Jesus Christ.

    Therefore they opted for a symbolic interpretation and a Catholic sister told me recently that she followed the same approach: if a Biblical text is at odds with clear scientific and moral facts, this means we are interpreting it incorrectly.

    Why I am largely sympathetic to this reasoning (which respects our God given moral nature and reason), I fear it might often lead to intellectual dishonesty where we have to resort to an extremely unlikely interpretation of a problematic text for getting it (and the inspired author) off the hook.

    I think that a step forward is to recognize the existence of a dark side of Scripture where humans projected their own wicked or ignorant thoughts onto the will of the Almighty.

    • if a Biblical text is at odds with clear scientific and moral facts

      This gets very difficult, because the Bible was interpreted as supporting slavery, racism, second-class treatment of women, and capital punishment, among other issues. How can the Bible challenge your current conception of morality, if you reinterpret any text which appears to question your current conception of morality?

      Lest I be misunderstood, I would like to point out that we humans are very good at discerning patterns even amidst much noise: I love Hubble’s original data, because it was a giant mess and he somehow still managed to draw a line which indicated an expanding universe, even if he got the rate of expansion an order of magnitude(!) too high. That being said, this important question remains: how can you be proven wrong in your interpretation of reality, both scientific and moral?

      • No, it is dishonest to reinterpret a text clashing with morality.

        We have to clearly recognize that the author got God wrong.

        As for moral knowledge, do you really believe that nobody can intuitively (and by reasoning) grasp moral facts?

        This flies in the face of the overwhelming majority of Christian philosophical thoughts, including those of the Apostle Paul in Roman 2.

        Now it is true there are many gray areas.

        • I don’t dispute that God gives us a conscience that can guide us; indeed the idea is depended on in crucial places in Paul’s writings. Having a seared conscience was extremely bad; see the end of 1 Tim 1.

          What I question is whether the Bible appearing to be morally wrong can ever actually be us having wrong moral ideas. The way you speak indicates to me a danger of never letting the Bible tell you that your idea of what is moral is wrong.

          Another way to think about this is: what makes you angry? Is everything that makes you angry wrong, or is it the case that sometimes, your wrong idea of how reality should be is threatened, and thus you get angry? Clearly it is the second case, as the Pharisees demonstrated so thoroughly. And so, I claim that not every instance of the Bible appearing morally wrong means that it is morally wrong.

  • toddh

    I guess from reading the comments in this post that the author is interacting with the 20 entailments, not affirming all of them as stated? I ask the question because I disagree with at least 13 of the 20, and would like a sense of how the book treats them.

  • Scottvj

    Not a very interesting table of contents.