“aha” moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (10): Chris Tilling

“aha” moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (10): Chris Tilling July 18, 2014

The 10th installment of our “aha” moments series is by Chris Tilling, Lecturer in New Testament at St Mellitus College and Visiting Lecturer at King’s College London. He is the author of Paul’s Divine Christology, co-author of How God Became Jesus, and editor of the recently published Beyond Old and New Perpectives on Paul. He appeared in the documentary, From the Dust: Framing the Debate and blogs at Chrisendom (which, I need to warn you, is a bizarre experience–I dare you). He is married to Anja who, everyone agrees, is stupidly out of his league. His hopes to vicariously live all of his unfulfilled dreams through his new son, Karl Lucas Benjamin, who is already being marked out as the first ever multiple Major winning PGA Golf Professional and World Champion Chess Grandmaster.

[PE: And just for fun, see how many British spellings you can find.]


I’ve really enjoyed the posts in this series, thanks to all contributors. I cannot expect to match their eloquence, especially as I write these words while on paternity leave. So expect some drowsy, below the belt, out-of-order British sarcastic humour below!

I’m kidding, of course. Having just had our first, I’m totally in love with our new son and I’ve never smiled so much. Right now I think everybody is wonderful.

Even my old pastor who declared all car CD players are “of Satan” because it stopped his flock listening to his sermon tapes when driving!  He was a lovely man, don’t get me wrong, and he always meant well, but he also instructed me not to go to University to study theology but rather get a job in McDonald’s “to keep me humble.”

He was worried, of course, that I would lose my faith (yes, I went anyway and didn’t lose my faith). So, yes, I’ve come from a theologically conservative background. Ken Ham this, dinosaurs-lived-with-humans-as-seen-in-Job that.

Sometimes I miss those days. Everything was straightforward. And most foundational of all: the Bible was the inerrant Word of God! The logic employed in defence of this dogma was obviously circular, but it was supposedly “God-ordained”, so who could object?!

(A) The Bible claims to be the perfect word of God. (B) The Bible is true. (C) Therefore, the Bible is the perfect word of God.

Try backing out of that beauty! Parsed more formally, this would tend to run as follows:

(A) The Bible is God inspired. (B) God cannot lie (according to the Bible). (C) Therefore, the Bible is true in all that it affirms (whether those affirmations be about history, science or whatever).

Slightly more sinister, however, was the way fear attached to this circular reasoning. Anybody who disagreed with this was simply deceived (probably by Beelzebub). Best to stay behind a safe wall of Christian academics more intelligent and learned than I. Let them deal with the difficult questions about two creation accounts, Gospel contradictions, the archaeopteryx, Adam’s missing bellybutton etc.

Even at University, because of that fear, I didn’t make the most of my studies. Rather than downing Barth, Sanders, etc., I stuck to my safe and sure Ken Hams, Benny Hinns, Reinhard Bonnkes, and Josh McDowells. Only on slightly more intellectually venturous days would I read real scholarship, and then only someone considered “safe” such as Don Carson.

But during my studies, I had one key “aha” moment that began to chink away at my unhelpful armour.

I read John Goldingay’s excellent book, Models for Scripture, in which he argued that the circular logic noted above is simply not biblical! The Bible itself undermines it because God seemed happy to allow discrepancies to remain in the Bible (all of which were easy to look up and read without the need to accept the claims of “liberal biblical scholarship”).

Instead, he argued, an inductive approach, one which refused the deductively logical wringer of inerrancy, allowed the Bible itself to shape our doctrine of Scripture. I could thus read and love the Bible for what it is, not what it isn’t (i.e., inerrant in every detail Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy-style).

But it was not until I decided to begin postgraduate work that things really started to shift for me. In the process I realised that I was beginning to join the “safe wall,” those Evangelical scholars who knew the answers to the tough questions. And slowly but surely, and to my great consternation, I realised that the “safe wall” of believing scholarship was not at all what I had expected.

One particular “aha” moment came when listening to a Walter Brueggemann lecture on “The character of God in the OT.”

Brueggemann pointed out that the Bible could say some astonishingly strange things about God, for example:

  • the contrast between what Deuteronomy 23:1-3 and Isaiah 56:3-5 have to say about who God says can be admitted to the assembly,
  • Jeremiah 20:7 and God “overpowering” Jeremiah,
  • 1 Kings 22:20-22, where God’s actions seem devious,
  • Exod 4:24, where God “tried” to kill Moses.

Rather than whipping out an “answer” to these issues, he just let them sit there, undecorated and without cosmetics.

Boy did that guy screw with my head! But as a result, no longer could I accept a clear, unambiguous line between “what the Bible says” and “what we must all believe” (these issues, I later learnt, were elaborated under the heading “Israel’s Counter Testimony” in his Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy). 

Thankfully, I remembered Goldingay’s arguments, and this begun a complete reconstruction of my views, something facilitated by great distance from my earlier conservative Christian roots, as I was now surrounded by amazing Christian theologians at Tübingen University.

There it started to become clear that a biblical grasp of the Bible demanded that tensions and, yes, contradictions, factual and, yes, theological problems in Scripture needed to be taken seriously.

Confronted, not dodged, embraced as God-ordained, not “explained away” by some doubtful apologetic manoeuvre that would only convince the desperate.

Otherwise I would indeed not hold a biblical view of scripture.

In a nutshell, I began to see that to speak of the inspiration of this text means to take seriously the phenomenon of that text!

Of course, this realisation was accompanied by further scrutiny of the dodgy “original autographs” get out clause, and other such matters relating to “church tradition” and the like, but the real “aha” moment was realising that inerrancy (at least understood in Chicago Statement terms) did not take the Bible itself seriously enough. Ta dah! I was liberated from the vicious theological circle!

My unleashed theological appetite paved the way for constructive “aha” moments, too.

I came to understand that Paul, in the Corinthian correspondence, engaged with so-called “knowledgeable” Christians. They knew correct theological propositions (e.g., “there is no God but one”), but they were deploying them in ways that damaged others. Paul responded by explaining that they did not “have the necessary knowledge” (1 Cor 8:2), which involved “loving God and being known by him” (8:3).

This Pauline relational form of knowing helped me to grasp a truly high view of scripture without thinking it all hinged on whether or not the bunnies historically hoped two-by-two into the ark (or was in in sevens? … Genesis 7:2-3).

Instead, corresponding with this relational motif, if I regularly read the Bible with the delighted expectation that God would speak to me, if I lovingly memorised parts and meditated on passages, turning each word slowly over in my mind, that was a high view of scripture, and one which didn’t need to dodge real questions.

In reading Barth, I also came to see that the Bible is the Word of God in so far as it points us to The Word of God, Jesus Christ. So appreciating Scripture as Scripture, was theologically relocated from arcane modes of isolated propositional communication (often understood in post-enlightenment categories) into the context of God’s gracious movement to us in Christ (a Trinitarian category).

And reading it as inspired meant trust not in the often extremely weak arguments of creationists, pop-apologetics, etc., but instead in terms of trust in the kindness of the self-revealing Trinitarian God.

Ultimately, I rejected the circular logic of Chicago-style inerrancy for missiological, biblical, critical-historical, and theological reasons.

Now I’m trying to live out a high view of Scripture, one which is faithful to the tradition, the phenomenon of scripture itself, and can even revel in questions and thrive in engaging problems without fear.

I do not, of course, claim to have it all figured out – loose ends, puzzlement, doubt-filled and existentially troubling questions are sometimes a dominant part of biblical spirituality, as we see in the Psalms – yet my “aha” moments have breathed fresh and wonderful life into my reading of scripture.

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  • Dave Strausbaugh


    • peteenns


      • Edem Morny

        I guess he didn’t know there were that many people in the world with such experiences of “aha” moments, Pete. Lol

        • peteenns

          Ha. You’re probably right.

      • Johanna Graves

        Counting Britishisms.

      • Dave Strausbaugh

        My guess for the number of British spellings in the post was 10. Sorry for being a bit vague 🙂

    • Paul Bruggink

      Dave, I only found nine: humour, defence, armour, realised (twice), manoeuvre, realisation, realising, memorised. What is the tenth one?

      • AHH

        Maybe “one which is faithful” (proper American would be “that is faithful”).

      • wolfeevolution

        Maybe he was counting “hoped” for what the bunnies did…. 😀

      • Dave Strausbaugh

        I counted learnt.

  • Jaco van Zyl

    I think Tilling’s relational model on Christology is a very weak attempt at elevating Jesus to the position of being ontologically identical to God. I also think that he is still using the same unsatisfactory lines of argumentation to push for a high Christology which motivated him to present an alternative model to begin with. Scholars like Dunn and McGrath have climbed in and have demonstrated convincingly why Tilling’s attempts have failed. He needs a Christological “aha” moment…

    • AlanCK

      Rude and out of place. How about an “aha” moment with regards to manners?

      • Jaco van Zyl

        How is my comment rude? I don’t think Tilling has add anything to the Christological conversation, and has failed completely in improving on the traditional weaknesses. How’s that rude? How about an “aha” moment with regards to being too sensitive?
        Why not rather share what about Tilling’s Relational model convinced you? Then a conversation can be had.

        • Nick Norelli

          Hi Jaco,

          I’d love to have that conversation with you. I don’t think the comments to this post is the place though. Do you have a blog where you’ve discussed Tilling’s book? I’d gladly comment over there. Or perhaps you’d be interested in stopping by my blog and commenting on my review of the book. rdtwot.wordpress.com/2012/10/11/pauls-divine-christology-review/

    • “Scholars like Dunn and McGrath have climbed in and have demonstrated convincingly why Tilling’s attempts have failed”

      But my work postdates theirs, so they have done no such thing.

      “I think Tilling’s relational model on Christology is a very weak attempt at elevating Jesus to the position of being ontologically identical to God”

      (a) Not quite what I argue and (b) not a single peer review came to this conclusion.

      I don’t think discussion with you will profit much. Enjoy the trolling!

      • Jaco van Zyl

        Chris, my apologies. I confused Dunn’s critique of Gathercole with yours.

        I had Andrew Perriman in mind: http://www.postost.net/2014/06/sinning-against-christ-argument-divine-Christology

        Unfortunate you think I was just trolling.

        • Ah, in that case I retract my “trolling” comment and replace it with “confusing me with Gathercole”! (and getting me mixed up with somebody completely different doesn’t lead me to think that you have read my work closely or thought it through enough, so be careful how and when you unleash your definite pronouncements!)

          My friend Andrew’s comments, even if right on this matter, which I dispute, leave the rest – the 99% – of my evidence for Paul’s Divine Christology (in the way I portray) still intact.

  • Scott Caulley

    Thanks, Chris. I, too, found Goldingay’s book (and the companion volume on interpretation) to be most helpful and stimulating. I’m especially encouraged by British evangelicals like Goldingay who have learned how to be true to scripture without becoming entangled in a Chicago-Statement kind of scholasticism.– Scott Caulley

    • Thanks Scott. From our days in Tübingen, you were one who modeled precisely the right attitude to Scripture, respectful, yet academically vigorous and analytically honest

  • scott caulley

    Pete, I’m wondering (hoping) that there is a book project in this series of “aha” moments, perhaps with your editorial wrap-up on similarities and differences in the different views, and/or some responses to the individual contributions. I’m especially interested in some positive statements on how to “reimagine” scripture for evangelicals who wish to replace Chicago-Statement inerrancy with something formal but viable (one of my “back burner” projects). Scott Caulley

    • Brian P.

      Agreed, agreed!!! There are at least a couple possible book projects here. I believe I mentioned one possibility on one of the prior posts.

      First, Scott, I like your anthology idea. One possible, quite interesting take, on it though might go like this… (And forgive my non-scholarly thoughts…) What if it were in a devotional format? What if there were a number of authors and the difficult individual passages were taken up as the readings, combined with a bit of scholarly thought as well as devotionally reflective thought? Many of the inspirationally driven devotional books bypass the chewy and stick to the sweet. Isn’t this all together what makes the Bible the Bible? Part of the journey’s challenge is how is the Bible and God are appreciated not just despite these ahas, but within these ahas. Bart Ehrman books are sufficiently popular they beg response books. With aspects of the laity becoming more and more informed, perhaps there is need and market for something more than what’s been. I’d suggest commercial viability will soon emerge for something greater, something for the future. Oswald Chambers’ work has lasted a long time. Who’s next?

      The second idea–which I’ll mention again–would be for a lurking wanna-be writer to find another kind of project here, a novel. It would be possible to create a story of spiritual voyage through these learnings. I had thought that the Joseph Campbell monomyth framework would be a great one to leverage. So many of these testimonials implicitly have a very similar story of challenge and growth. I can’t help but think of Ian Morgan Cron’s Chasing Francis as being also somewhat of a similar prototype but here there could be a wonderful novel centered in discover of the text of the faith rather than (re)discovery of the tradition of the faith. This series could significantly springboard the research for such a project.

      Simply assembling blog posts into a easy e-book (alas, I can’t help but think of Tony Jones…) would be too cheap. There are some really good projects that could be done.

      • Andrew Knapp

        Incidentally, I know someone who pitched a very similar idea—the same thing, but with about six or seven contributors writing (more in-depth) chapters rather than blog posts—to [a major university press] a couple years ago, and it was denied. He was convinced that the contributors that he had just weren’t big enough names, and I expect he was correct. I’m not necessarily saying that it’s a job for the Great and Powerful Enns… you may infer what you will.

        In other news, great post, Chris. It’s just a shame that Pete got a “conservative Christian scholar who toes the theological line” to contribute. (That was sarcastic, by the way, and if anyone wants the reference, just scroll down on the Chrisendom link above.)

        • peteenns

          I would never expect a major university press to be interested. And don’t you mean “all powerful Enns”?

          • Andrew Knapp

            Good point. Now I’m second-guessing myself about the press. Let me inquire.

          • Brian P.

            There are different kinds of works targeted to different kinds of audiences that are supported by different publishers here. There are a number of viable books to be written.

        • Yea, right! Just what Pete needs, a Fundie actually writing guest posts! I hope Ehrman at least recognises that we’ve put the mental back in fundamentalist

      • scott caulley

        Thanks, Brian. I find your ideas interesting. In the past I’ve kicked around the idea of writing a novel, but I find my own writing sufficiently boring that I’ve given up on the idea. Perhaps a devotional approach with several contributions/examples from specific passages (interpretations modeled by different authors) could make up a “practical” section of a larger work which included some more academic foundation-laying essays (?)

        • Brian P.

          Sometimes I’ve wondered if the cold wars and skirmishes within the Evangelical academy and existence of the external Evil Empire of secular scholarship have been so consuming that opportunity toward Evangelicalism outside the genre of apologetics gets lost. Evangelicalism isn’t held together by communion or by liturgy. The ties that bind are few and sometimes quite fragile. Often, as gross to me as it is, the bad of popular Evangelical theology is created and propagated through its programs and “resources.”

          I was pretty slow on the uptake. It wasn’t until I was about 40 as a layperson to robustly consider why I believed what I believed. As I read the ahas here, I wonder, which of these ahas are beyond the grasp of a middle schooler? Why does it take postgraduate work?

          I wonder, is there not just opportunity for novel of voyage of discovery of the Bible, or devotional reflection rich in polyphonic mystery? Is there also even opportunity for better Sunday school curriculum?

          Chris’s pastor once feared CD players as from Satan. Surely the learned and lurkers here can make a difference. I honestly don’t believe much at all any more. But if there is a still small voice, I’ll take a guess at what He’s saying.

          • scott caulley

            maybe a “New Pigrim’s Progress”? I certainly don’t know the answers for Evangelicals. I do try to remember that “Evangelicalism” is far from monolithic. When I was a master’s student at Fuller in the 1970s, some of the students were part of a fascinating effort to begin an “evangelical Orthodox” group. I gather that experiment went on for a few years. Later, some of my own students left their conservative evangelical roots and joined the Orthodox Church. One is now a priest. Personally I can’t see myself going there for several reasons, but I resonate with their needs, and their joy in finding a community connected to history. I agree with you– there needs to be more to hold a group together than is typically available in evangelical groups. I think the focus on academic circles is because of where we have all come from, and the freedom in Christ we have experienced through our study.

          • Brian P.

            Personally, I don’t see the Church becoming One again until after a complete meltdown in between now and then.

            Kyrie Eleison.

  • Andrew Wilson

    Thanks (and hi!) Chris …
    Just a thought for Pete, really: had you thought about getting any “aha” moments from people who have moved the other way, i.e. from a more liberal-critical to a more evangelical-critical approach? So far (I think) these are all journeys away from fundamentalism of some kind; I’d be interested to hear how journeys from other backgrounds work, and how they differ. Had you thought about that?

    • Brian P.

      Yes, yes! I had brought up something quite similar a number of posts back.

    • Anthony

      I was just getting ready to ask a similar question when I stumbled upon this comment. It would be interesting to know if deep theological study tends to lead to change in a particular direction (i.e., from conservative to progressive). My understanding is that reading the Bible tends to move people’s politics in that direction, so I wonder if critical study moves people’s theology the same way.

  • Kathryn Helmers

    One of THE BEST ahas to date. Lucid, funny, stellar presentation of the movement of mind and soul through conflict to insight. Thank you!! Especially enjoyed the reference to Barth, whose The Word of God and the Word of Man gave me an aha to replace the ruinous “what wondrous thing will you apply today” approach.

    • That’s very kind of you to say, Kathy, thanks! Pete’s editing played a major role!!

  • Rick

    Thanks for sharing this. The appreciating Scripture for what it intends to be does take it more seriously, and is liberating. Well said.
    I also appreciate your contributions when you are on Godpod.

    • Brian P.

      Yep. Often what gets considered a high view of Scripture is instead a high view of one’s view of Scripture. Perhaps such even contributes to a love of not God but a love of one’s conception of God. I think personal relationships get made with proxies in the mind.

      Personally, the patristics, more than about anyone have helped me see my otherwise unseen hidden levels of indirection.

    • Thanks, Rick, they are a great bunch at St Paul’s, an honour to work with them

  • Diana Kroodsma

    I love this series, however are there any female biblical scholars who could be represented here in this series?

    • It is a legitimate concern. I’ve got moobs, Diana, does that help?

      • Diana Kroodsma

        Ha… I don’t think so…? Even though I am not a Biblical scholar by any means, I will share my story. My aha moments came in college where I did some religious studies with what my conservative Baptist church would call “liberal” professors. Basically they challenged my old way of viewing Scripture, literal creation, and women’s roles in the church. One of my professors was studying at Oxford during the summer months for her Ph.D. I really admired her as a professor because she challenged everything I knew, but was a fantastic listener and kept us all thinking. I am grateful to her for saying doubt, questioning your faith and challenging your traditional ways is ok and can lead to even more questions (but you don’t have to lose your faith in the process). Finally! My upbringing taught me that doubt for a conservative evangelical is basically admitting you don’t have faith in God. My pastor even remarked that he never has doubted his salvation. Good for him… Bad for the likes of me who prayed as a child every day for God to save me from hell, just to be sure I was really a “Christian.” (It was somewhat of a relief to find out my friends felt the same way!)

        Thanks for sharing your story. I wasn’t trying to diminish yours or any of the others by asking for a female voice. Best wishes!

    • Just to say, I’m not mocking you, just having fun. I need to be careful as I write things which are meant to be funny, in my head, but they are received quite differently. Usually I have a decent feel for this, but with my lack of sleep (thanks baby tilling!) I seem to malfunction a bit too often!!

      • Diana Kroodsma

        No worries. I laughed! Have fun with the Baby :-)….and getting sleep, which may take a few years to actually count as healthful, beneficial sleep…or so I hear. I have four pets (no human children) but was up all night tending to my dog, who kept waking me up with her very loud, startling cough. She is on some medication now, resting peacefully, of course.

  • Daniel Fisher

    This was very well written. My own similar wrestling gave me a far, far deeper and complex understanding of the Bible (and consequently, both God himself and the way he reveals himself). However, it did so with my core understanding of inerrancy intact. This particular entry piqued my interest – for I can so easily relate to the Bible challenging my preconceived notions about God, revelation, etc…. but I don’t follow what specifically about the initial aha moment (the 4 Scriptures Brueggemann referenced) led to the categorical shift in understanding Biblical revelation?

    In other words, sure, all those Scriptures might challenge a simplistic, neat, fundamentalist or formulaic view of God and/or Scripture – but I can’t see any way that they require such a categorical shift or abandonment of inerrancy? specifically:

    Isaiah 56:3-5 – is prophetic, foreshadowing (or introducing) a new way God would deal with his people in contrast to the strict external regulations of the Mosaic system. I’m not sure what should be troubling to an inerrantist (or even a fundamentalist dispensationalist) about this?

    Jeremiah 20:7 and God “overpowering” Jeremiah, – (and “deceiving him”) certainly is challenging in understanding the way God deals with us – but if our understanding of God can’t handle this, then it is my understanding (not this Scripture) which is problematic, no?

    1 Kings 22:20-22, “where God’s actions seem devious,” – sure, but not categorically different than 2 Thessalonians where “God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.” I can appreciate this being problematic for your stereotypical simplistic evangelical – and it needs to be. But again, if someone’s view of God cannot deal with these Scriptures, surely it is their simplistic view of God, and not these Scriptures, where the problem lies?

    Exod 4:24, where God “tried” to kill Moses – sure, an odd passage – And God threatens all kinds of things he doesn’t end up accomplishing throughout the OT. But again, this teaches us how to have a more mature view of God, the way he reveals himself, the way he uses human language, etc.

    As I read all four of these passages, they present a challenge for an inerrantist Christian – but they are not in any way “problems” for my belief in inerrancy – they force me to have a far deeper, more nuanced, sophisticated view of God and God’s way of revealing himself – BECAUSE I believe the Bible to be the unyielding authority to which I must conform.

    My belief in inerrancy requires that if Scripture and I have a different view about who God is (or should be), then I am the one, without doubt, that needs to change. This doesn’t mean I don’t wrestle and question deeply – but I know who the final authority is, and it is not me, my tradition, my church, my culture, etc. Is not the alternative to assume that, at least in some cases, that if Scripture and I disagree about God’s being or character, that I have nothing to change, as the Scriptural authors may have just gotten it wrong… and conclude that in any conflict between their views and Scriptures, the problem might lie in the Scripture, no?

    Additional thoughts? Would appreciate anyone else’s thoughts or insights.

    • Mike H

      Great thoughts and questions.

      I get my terms mixed up because they’re so often used interchangeably, but are you talking more about “infallibility”? I think the Chicago Statement has enough gray area (cultural context, original documents, etc.) that it’s hard to say what kind of foundation it really provides for “inerrancy” even if a person were to agree with everything it says. A Biblical writer using wrong cosmology is one thing. But the point that they’re making seems to me to be what really matters. It always leads to the question of if you can have one without the other.

      Your 2 Thessalonians example is a good one. At face value it would seem to contradict what I’ve come to believe about God. Since it doesn’t seem like the characteristics of ANE literature can be used to contextualize this, it seems like there are two main choices. 1 – we can have a definition of infallibility that requires that we try to harmonize it with other verses to prove that there is one consistent message about God (this approach would seem to lead to an endless process of reconciling texts). Or 2 – we can say that there are tensions & theological contradictions that can’t be explained away & that there are competing voices that can’t be systemized (and that this phenomenon doesn’t need to be explained away) But you’re left wondering what you can really rely on. Both of these approaches have their own set of challenges. And either way, it’s not like you can ever really arrive at some final destination where you’ve “mastered” the text.
      Love this series.

      • Daniel Fisher

        Thanks for these thoughts – can I suggest a third alternative, though? (and apologies in advance for the long post). Let me paraphrase, to make sure I understood you correctly. Upon coming across some Scripture that seem to contradict what we had otherwise come to believe about God, you see two choices: 1) try to somehow “iron out” the differences, parse the words, reconcile the texts, so that in the end, they really all are saying the same thing. This, I think, is what so many on this page are reacting against – as it obviously seems to be denying the obvious and plain meaning of these texts and intents of the writers. Or 2) acknowledge the differences as theological contradictions, due to the Bible writers simply having inherently incompatible and competing views of God… but as you mention, which one do you go with? The perspective about God you embrace as “true” is simply the one that you prefer?

        Therefore, can I suggest 3) acknowledge that, whether or not we understand how they fit together in ultimate reality, that if the Bible clearly says two different things about God’s character, then they both are true – and we need to embrace them both as accurate and true about him, regardless of whether or not we personally understand how they can work together.

        If I may illustrate: Imagine a Christian who grew up in a relatively shallow, mushy, evangelical church who heard nothing his whole life except variations on the concept that “God is love.” Jesus is kind, longsuffering, merciful, compassionate, etc., etc.
        Then, in college, lets say for the first time, they open up the Bible for themselves, and are confronted with some passage such as “Fear him who after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell” or “as for those enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me.” They’d never heard anything about a Jesus like this. This seems to contradict everything they’ve heard about Jesus, and the particular Bible verses about him they remember hearing in church.

        So, given the options you mention above, this Christian could: 1) try to unpack all these “difficult passages’ to somehow figure out how they really aren’t saying anything different than the other ones they’re familiar with. “Fear isn’t FEAR, it is respect…” etc., or “Jesus is slaughtering them simply out of love and kindness, to put them out of their misery, etc., etc.” They maintain their view about “nice Jesus” but at the cost of significant intellectual honesty, as this starts to seriously stretch what is written in the texts – this what I believe Chris Tilling here means when he talks about having a ‘high view’ of the Bible – that is, just let it say what it is really saying, without the need to reframe, water down, tame, domesticate, etc.

        2) This Christian could conclude that perhaps a different author wrote the part about “slaughter my enemies in front of me”, since it is obviously in irreconcilable conflict with the Jesus who said “the son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Or an unsophisticated redactor incorporated these two competing viewpoints of Jesus, unaware of the hopeless contradiction he was incorporating into his gospel, etc., etc. So this Christian chooses to maintain belief in the “nice Jesus”, concluding that the “mean Jesus” is erroneous. But on what grounds? Given this paradigm, how can we be certain that it isn’t the “mean Jesus” that was the real one in history and the “nice Jesus” was made up by later generations to tone this whole thing down?

        So, I’m suggesting this third alternative: 3) Even if he can’t understand how Jesus could be both so sensitive yet severe, so good yet so unyielding, so full of grace, yet so full of wrath, he submits to what the Bible says about both descriptions, and acknowledges that, even though I cannot personally make sense of it, I acknowledge this is what Scripture teaches – Jesus is both meek and severe; both gentle and vengeful.

        Now, as this Christian tries to genuinely wrestle with this (and I hope I am pointing out – this still requires genuine wrestling) – some things begin to make sense. He notices that he himself is at times gentle, at times angry, depending on the situation. He finds himself quick to forgive slights against him, but still very angry when he hears about terrorism on TV. And he begins to realize that maybe, a person who is both angry and kind is not so much a contradiction as he first imagined.

        Then, he continues to read through the Bible, and realizes that this truth – that God and Christ are both kind and severe – are constantly taught as being “both/and”, and often in the very same verse: “The Lord is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished….” or “consider then the kindness and severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you….”

        And this Christian starts to see, once he has embraced both aspects of Jesus’ character, that many Bible writers don’t feel the need to pick one or the other – they embrace both quite explicitly, seeing no irreconcilable conflict.

        So by picking that third option – their faith has been genuinely challenged and has actually grown significantly in depth. I humbly suggest that either of the first two options leaves them stagnant in their faith – whether they try to reconcile the accounts into the “nice Jesus” from which they began, or acknowledge, but discount, those contradictory “mean Jesus” passages, they are still right where they began – believing in the “nice Jesus.” By going the third route – embracing both aspects of what Scripture describes him, they actually grow in and expand their knowledge of God, and start to see him far deeper – as one who is both kind and severe.

        (The above illustration is essentially fictional. There is, admittedly, a tiny element of autobiography in the above.)

        • Mike H

          Thanks, and great thoughts once again. Your 3rd alternative really seems like option #1 to me – I don’t see a difference. It’s the idea that all can be reconciled at the end of the day, so long as we are open to redefinition of our ideas. There is a wholeness to God’s character, so there’s no sense in talking about God is “this” but also “that” as if there’s internal conflict going on. God is love, for example, so since we see extreme violence, genocide, stonings, etc. in the Old Testament, this view simply states that this is the same love and there is no contradiction, even if we don’t understand it. This can be perfectly reconciled to Jesus’ words to love your enemies and turn other cheek – it’s just up to us to figure it out. A particular view of the Bible requires that this be true. It’s this presupposition of what the Bible must be that requires this approach, not the Bible itself. There is a lot of truth in this approach (being open to redefinition) – I just question if it’s a truly “biblical” approach when you look at what the Bible actually is if you look at the text itself which seems to be what this series is about. That isn’t without challenges though.

          • Daniel Fisher

            I’m curious, though – on what basis do you start with the presupposition that there is a “wholeness” to God’s character that rules out the ability to speak of him being “‘this’ but also ‘that'”? Is this something derived from the Bible? Plato? Church tradition? I would humbly suggest that, given the constant language of God being both “this” and “that” throughout the Bible (behold the goodness and severity, etc.), we should hold very loosely to any theology that dictates God can’t be both “this” and “that”. I think it is safe to say that the idea “God is love and therefore nothing but love” is pretty well absent from every single book in the Bible, no?

            Additionally, there are plenty of places the Bible says the Lord our God is a jealous God. Are we forced to pick one or the other? He is either love, or jealous, but can’t be both? If so, on what basis do we know we are correct in choosing love as his “true” character, and not jealousy?

            As such, I have no issue stating categorically that the genocide, stoning, etc., (and let’s not forget the flood killing all people of all nations, and hell itself, both far “worse” than genocide of any single nation) are not somehow expressions of the love of God – Sure, God is love, but these things demonstrate he is more than just love. Hence in this example, the categories I discussed would look like this: 1) God is love, so genocide and hell must (somehow?) be an expression of this love. 2) God is love, so doctrines of genocide and hell being God’s will are erroneous. 3) God is love, but as these things are obviously not “loving,” God must be more than just love.

            I can see how you see 1 and 3 as similar – the difference being, #1 one is trying to still hold onto the old view of God, and willing to artificially force these challenging texts to fit into the old view of him and say things they obviously aren’t trying to say. #3 is willing to take these texts at absolute face value, in all their challenging ugliness, and wrestle with what new information that tells us about the character of God, whether we like it or not.

          • Mike H

            Getting away from the original post, but I can see where you’re coming from now on your 3rd option so I’ll leave it at that. In this view there are times when God’s love is simply absent and in its place is wrath/justice/anger – no need to reconcile the 2. Rather than see a need to reconcile them (as in #1) love / justice are at odds with one another. That does make it easy to look at wrath, the flood, traditional hell, etc, I’d just ask, what is the rationale or reason for justice /wrath if it’s not love? You’re right, I don’t believe that there’s anything “more” than love so I try to interpret thru that lens – a crucified God.

        • John

          I think #3 works “logically” (cf. Poythress’s “symphonic theology”); I’m not sure it works IRL. I, for one, don’t have the brain power to believe two contradictory things. Now if we were talking about human perspectives on God’s character – that I could get on board with.

          • Daniel Fisher

            I pretty well agree – God doesn’t even have the brainpower to believe two contradictory things. But I suggest there is a place for acknowledging that, given God’s absolute, transcendent and infinite being, that it is unsurprising that there will be aspects and facets of his being that I don’t understand exactly how they fit together. I’d hardly say I comprehend how God can be so vengeful to condemn some to hell, and simultaneously so loving so as to slaughter his son to save his others from it. But this is different than claiming that, just because I can’t work out in my mind exactly how they can coexist, they must therefore, for that reason alone, be “contradictory.”

            (If my ability to understand seemingly conflicting information were the standard of determining “contradiction,” then Einstein’s theories of relativity are “contradictory.” Just because I don’t understand how something works together does not a contradiction make.)

      • I would say that there are tensions that cannot be explained away at a straightforward level. And so thought also the early fathers. When confronted with real difficulties, Origen urged, ask what the spiritual point of the text may be. He perhaps had a point. My own approach is to remember why these texts are Scripture, which reminds us of the plumb line. Not some philosophical notion of truth, such as non contradiction (sorry Graham Priest), but Jesus the living Word. Trust itself then becomes relational, invading our discipleship. Here is an older post I wrote. I would add important material penned by John Webster and Barth, these days. http://blog.christilling.de/2009/04/negotiating-tensions-in-bible_02.html

        • Mark K

          This is a good post; thanks for the link. The references you suggest are also helpful. And the cartoon is worth the price of admission! Did you ever pen that article you were thinking about?

          • Thanks, Mark, which article do you mean?

          • Mark K

            Hi Chris, you mentoined in the post you might at some future date write a longer article about the elements covered in the post?

          • Ah, I see. No, haven’t published it, but will be writing one over the coming weeks about the gospel and the inspiration of Scripture. Will keep readers of my blog updated! Thanks for asking after it

    • Really nice comment, Daniel, thanks. As I’m waiting for the lightning to begin here in London, so may have to turn this device off soon, I will simply suggest that u may enjoy the fuller treatment in Brueggemann’s Theology, cited in the main text. He has a section with a subtitle along the lines “YHWH contradicts”. Actually, it is the many other contradictions in the bible that led me to reject inerrancy as non-biblical, not this particular set (though you may be glossing too easily over problems even there I suspect). I don’t mind speaking of inerrancy, by the way. But I prefer to use the term in a doxological context, when thanking God for his perfect Word. When it becomes analytical, and based on the correspondence of propositions with truth or facts, inerrancy – so understood – becomes all but impossible to defend.

      Back in the old days, apologists could simply say to a critic: “give me an example of a contradiction!”, a statement which usually won the day as the critic didn’t know the bible! But these days, people all have google on their phones, making lists of problems very tricky, putting inerrantists on the back foot. But no need, I say!

      Loved your comment.

  • Ron Roberts

    Thank you for this wonderful article.

  • James

    I note most of the aha moments we are enjoyed here (thank you, Pete) are integral to a Christian’s growth and academic development over time. I wonder if they are attempts to make sense of personal and corporate faith in the face of accelerating cultural and societal change. Either we dig in our heels and risk letting the world pass us by or we adapt and risk going with the flow. Our challenge either way is to maintain “a high view of scripture” as we take it to be (thank you, Chris).

  • rvs

    I especially appreciated the distinction between induction and deduction.

    • Yes, I found that very helpful – a thanks to John Goldingay!

      • One thing I wonder as I converse and read about inerrancy and other approaches to the Bible is the fact that everyone brings presuppositions and assumptions to the table — so while it seems silly to start with the idea of inerrancy, but it also seems dangerous to think we can simply read the plain text. How does one make sense of what kinds of assumptions we bring to reading and interpretation?

        • “How does one make sense of what kinds of assumptions we bring to reading and interpretation?” Yes, I think that is the key question! It’s what makes interpretation so much fun and such a challenge. The “hermeneutical spiral” If the phrase some often used to describe the dialogical and conversational learning curve involved in proper interpretation

  • Mark K

    This is one of the better entries in an already excellent series. Many thanks.

    And Brueggemann messes with everybody’s head, methinks (as someone said, reading him is like trying to ice skate on butter)! Goldingay does seem a good counterweight. I enjoy both.

    • Thanks, Mark. And yes, Goldingay’s Theology of the OT, volume 1, has to be one of my all time favourites. I find that he messes with me, too, in more relaxed way! I sat on my sofa in Germany chuckling away reading volume 1, amazed at how rich the text was, intellectually and spiritually

  • Daniel Merriman

    I was fortunate to hear Brueggemann a few times when I lived in exile in Atlanta back in the early 80’s. I was not an inerrantist, but my attitude toward the OT was probably borderline Marcionite at that time. He awakened an appreciation for the OT that has only grown over the years. Great post, Chris.

    • Thanks, Daniel, Brueggemann has a way of awakening fascination in the OT!

      • Guest

        What would you recommend for a start in Brueggemann?

        • I usually send people to the book, The Prophetic Imagination. I’m sure Pete will be able to advise you better, though! You could also try some of his published sermons.

          • peteenns

            I agree, Chris. Readable and profound book. I assign it in my prophets class at Eastern.

  • I posted this elsewhere but am reposting here to get responses from others.

    So far, everyone featured who has had their aha moment has managed to retain their faith despite their enlightenment. I suspect this could be because they started out from a position of conservative evangelical faith. Post-aha, they have managed to make adjustments to reconcile their faith.

    Would this be possible for a new generation that starts off post-aha without the foundation of conservative evangelical faith?

    What does an enlightened/liberal evangelical look like who didn’t walk the journey from absolute trust in the inerrancy of the Bible to understanding what it is and is not?

    Do we get the same kind of Christians as featured in this series who have retained their faith or is another animal created?

    • This is a good qstn. An older generation also worked in the opposite direction: here I think of the neo-orthodox crowd who, in different way, reacted to German liberalism, such as Barth, Bultmann, Brunner etc.

      • Brian P.

        I love reading conversion/tranformation/aha stories, from A->B, from B->C, from A->C, from B->A, from C->A, from C->B, etc. The better ones have a selfless oblation in the middle, where the “->” is a bit more cruciform than a simple arrow suggests.

        From what I’ve seen, how this happens in each man is not necessarily a simple formula that can be reduced for everyman.

        Often the hardest for many to handle is that their found freedom looks a lot like someone else’s continued captivity. Often, there’s another transformation ahead to be found. On a humble journey, one can easily find one more thing to count as loss.

        • That’s exactly what’s hard. Why does the Spirit not lead us all in the same direction, even if the pacing is different? How can I trust I am hearing the Spirit at all, if I am moving in a different direction from others who clearly love Jesus as much as, if not more than, I do? And how do we maintain relationship and respect, trusting that each is generally following as best they can?

    • AHH

      This is an excellent question, not just for scholars but also for everyday people for whom we might wish to be “missional”.

      My only partial answer would be the need to bring the new generation to a faith that is centered on Jesus, not centered on the Bible. Then any “aha” moments strike at something secondary rather than at the foundation of faith. Invite them with NT Wright, not Josh McDowell.
      I’m middle-aged now, but I’m grateful the faith I came to at 16 was Christ-centered. Had it been based on conservative Evangelical biblicism, it might not have survived.

    • Daniel Merriman

      “What does an enlightened/liberal evangelical look like who didn’t walk the journey from absolute trust in the inerrancy of the Bible to understanding what it is and is not?”

      Humble. Very humble.

  • Andrew

    I’ve read the whole series so far, and I’ve seen no discussion of Ecclesiastes, which surprised me a bit. How do Biblical scholars who are trying hard to hold on to their faith in inerrancy deal with stuff like “all is meaningless” and “who can bring them to see what will happen after them?” and “Do not all go to the same place?”? Those were all moments of shock for me on first encounter.

    On second thought, maybe that’s why I never made it as far as seminary…

    • Jeff Downs

      Andrew, Why do you assume that “meaningless” is the best translation?

      Jeff Downs

  • Matt

    Pete, interesting series so far. Lots of fascinating stories. Curious if you are going to invite someone like your former student, Alan Lenzi of Univ. of the Pacific. That would definitely be an interesting ‘aha’ moment.

  • Marius Lombaard

    “Ultimately, I rejected the circular logic of Chicago-style inerrancy for missiological, biblical, critical-historical, and theological reasons.”

    I would add “for devotional reasons” when I come to passages talking about bashing babies against rocks…