“aha” moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (4): Michael Pahl

“aha” moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (4): Michael Pahl July 2, 2014

Today’s “aha” moment is by Michael Pahl (PhD, University of Birmingham). Pahl, as you may recall, was one of the casualties of Cedarville University’s theological purge of 2012. He is now pastor of Morden Mennonite Church (Canada). You can find more about Pahl at his blog. Pahl has written 3 books including The Beginning and the End: Rereading Genesis’s Stories and Revelation’s Visions and co-edited 2 others including Issues in Luke-Acts: Selected Essays.


I still remember winning the VBS Sword Drill one summer. I was maybe seven, and I could already pick out Obadiah with the best of them. I could also quote John 3:16, Romans 3:23 and 6:23, and all the other must-have-in-your-back-pocket verses crucial for salvation. Our church had prophecy conferences, where smart men in suits quoted the Bible left and right in building their towers of end-times prophecy, right to the new heavens.

I knew the Bible. I loved the Bible. And with that particular knowledge and love of the Bible came a whole set of expectations about what the Bible is and what it’s all about.

It is God’s word straight from God’s mouth, internally consistent from cover to cover. It is God’s literal, inerrant truth about anything that matters, but what matters most is personal salvation: people being saved from eternal hell, God’s just judgment for their sin, in order to spend eternity with God in heaven.

A lot changed for me over the years following my VBS triumph. We attended a different church through my teen years, not quite so hard-and-fast conservative. I then went through some crises of life and faith that pushed me to explore other denominations, even other religions.

I was hungry for meaning, and this hunger became so intense I did the only thing I could think to do: I read the Bible.

I skipped my university English classes to binge-read the Bible, devouring it not in single sword-drill verses but in large chunks: all of Isaiah in one sitting, all of Paul’s letters in another, then all of Genesis, then all of Luke, and so on.

This Bible binging was just what I needed—I found the meaning for life I was craving—but it was also the beginning of the end for the view of the Bible I had grown up with.

For the first time I saw the Obadiahs and John 3:16s of the Bible as pieces of a much larger narrative, a narrative centered on Jesus and encompassing the entire creation.

I realized God wasn’t concerned so much with personal salvation but with cosmic restoration.

I discovered that this world really mattered, that our bodies really mattered, that this life with all its joys and sorrows really mattered, that God created all things good and longed to return all things to that original goodness—or even better.

For the first time I also read the pieces of the Bible alongside each other: two creation stories in Genesis, two renditions of the Ten Commandments, two accounts of Israel’s kingdoms, four Gospel stories of Jesus.

This raised all sorts of questions for me that I wasn’t yet prepared to answer, but there was no doubt in my mind that these parallel pieces were different from each other.

It wasn’t until later, when I began to explore historical setting and source criticism and literary genre that these questions began to be answered—but in a way that made it impossible for me to hold on to the view of Bible I had inherited.

“I was always taught the Bible says X but now I just don’t see it.”

I could fill in that X with quite a few things.

I was taught that Genesis 1 was all about when and how God created the world—in six literal days a few thousand years ago, directly by a series of divine commands. I was taught that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, that Deuteronomy’s account of his death and mysterious burial was an instance of prophetic foresight.

I was taught that Jesus’ words in the Gospels were word-for-word what Jesus said. I was taught that there are no real contradictions among the Gospel accounts, that if you just look hard enough there is always a harmonizing explanation.

I was taught that Paul’s gospel was all about how individual sinners get saved, so that after death we can escape hell and enter heaven. I was taught that Revelation was all about when and how God would wrap it all up—pretty much like Left Behind, only for real.

I was taught a bunch of things “the Bible says” that I no longer believe the Bible says.

But yet I still believe.

I remain a committed Christian, in many ways a deeply conservative Christian (hey, I can recite the Apostles’ Creed without crossing my fingers—just one little asterisk by “he descended into hell”). How can that be, when so many have abandoned their faith after leaving behind their conservative bibliology?

I think the answer to that comes down to two things.

First, early on in my journey I came to the realization that Jesus, not the Bible, is the foundation and center and standard and goal of genuine Christian faith and life.

During those early days of reading the Bible in large swaths, I found Jesus, and that makes all the difference: paradoxically, the Bible matters less even as it matters all the more.

And second, along the way, even in the strictest of conservative environments, I always found people who gave me space to ask hard questions and avoid simplistic answers—because they themselves were in that space. It’s a dangerous place, that risky grace of a humble search for truth.

I’m grateful to those who have created those “dangerous places” for me in my life, even at great risk to themselves—and I’m committed to providing that same space of grace for others.

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  • Bev Mitchell


    I very much enjoyed your testimony. You mention “people who gave me space to ask hard questions and avoid simplistic answers—because they themselves were in that space. It’s a dangerous place, that risky grace of a humble search for truth.” And you are correct, these people can be found in all kinds of settings. Those struggling as many of us did and do need to seek out these people. They know they can trust the Spirit to guide them and us, and they can encourage us and we can encourage them in that trust.

  • Jordan

    Wow. Pahl’s childhood was just like mine. This is almost like reading an account of my own hermeneutic life.

  • James

    I resonate with my Canadian Mennonite brother. As more individuals and churches find themselves in a “dangerous place, that risky grace of a humble search for truth,” it will be interesting to see if they remain vibrant. There seems to be something about conservatism in North America (at least) that engenders vibrancy. Are there perhaps many expressions of genuine faith that are risky, gracious and humble? I think some good pastors just need to go back to school and update their profiles.

  • Marlena Proper-Graves

    My husband and I know Michael Pahl well. He and his wife are some of our closest friends. Not only is he a brilliant scholar and lover of his family and of those with whom he comes into contact, but through all he has suffered (along with his family), he has lived out the life of Jesus. His love of Christ and the church flows out of him. He and his wife have been such examples to us. What a delightful surprise to find him featured here.

  • JIZ

    Thank you, Dr. Pahl, for this honest and thoughtful post. In your reading, have you had the opportunity to encounter the approach to Scripture (and to divine revelation in general) articulated in the first part of the Catechism of the Catholic Church?

    With prayer for your ministry in Canada!

    • Michael Pahl

      Thanks for your response. Yes, I have, especially for a book contribution I wrote a few years ago. There’s much in the catechism that I can appreciate. If you want to read my essay related to that you can find it here as “Scripture and Tradition…”: http://michaelpahl.wordpress.com/other/

  • Michael Hardin

    Great story! Thank you for sharing.

  • I’m not looking for simplistic answers, but I’m trying to figure out– all these posts so far have talked about what the Bible is not. I accept that, but I’m trying to figure out what it is. I have left behind the inerrancy hermeneutic, but I still believe, and want to believe, the Bible is more than merely human writings, and is inspired by God. I have read Inspiration and Incarnation and it helped, but I’m still not satisfied. Where would you all recommend I read next?

    • Bev Mitchell


      Have you tried this one?

      “God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship” Kenton L. Sparks (2008)

      It’s heavier going than Enns, but you can skip around a bit among the chapters for the parts of greatest interest. You might want to read his Conclusion first (Biblical Criticism and Christian Institutions). His position is one of ‘believing criticism’ which he makes clear in many places.

      • Thanks, Bev– I’ll look into that! It appears he wrote another book which might be even more helpful: Sacred Words, Broken Words.

        • Bev Mitchell

          Yes, they are both very good. In light of your questions to Michael below, SWBW may well be more pertinent. GWHW does give a good foundation for the second book however.

    • Michael Pahl

      Kristen, thanks for your response. Yes, it’s often easier to articulate what one doesn’t believe than what one does! I know Karl Barth has been vilified among many evangelicals, but he’s experiencing a bit of resurgence among them recently. I’ve found elements of his approach to Scripture helpful, in particular his notion of the Bible as “witness” to Jesus. I could sum up my thoughts on it this way: The written word of God (Scripture) is the Spirit-inspired witness to the oral word of God (the gospel) centered on the living Word of God (Jesus), and it is in him that “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” are found (to borrow the language from Col 2:3). A brief thought on what the Bible is, for what it’s worth.

      • Thanks, Michael. I’m wondering, though, how that applies to the part of the Bible I’m having the most trouble with– Exodus through Joshua. For instance, how do the apparent directions of God on the division of captured females among the Israelite conquerors, apply to the witness of Jesus?

        • Michael Pahl

          Kristen, I preached on that recently, and I should probably post that sermon on our church blog. But I haven’t yet, so if you’d like me to send it to you by email contact me through the form on my website: http://www.michaelpahl.com.

          • I tried it, but it isn’t working right. It said “Message required” but would not allow me to type a message.

          • Michael Pahl

            Sorry, Kristen, I just saw this tonight. Send an email to my first name last name, no spaces, at gmail dot com.

    • AHH

      In addition to what has already been mentioned, another good book on this front (coming from a little different angle) is NT Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God.

  • jaysonwhelpley

    1. Thank you, Pete, for this series. I am both scared, and very excited about the intellectual and Bible-trusting fruit it’s bearing in me. Even if it’s being read in a single night (after reading “The Evolution of Adam”)!
    2. Can someone explain the Obadiah reference that Michael is making? I am totally lost on it.

    • Michael Pahl

      Jayson, it’s just that Obadiah is one of the Minor Prophets, a short book, that often gets skipped over in Bible reading and doesn’t get a lot of attention. My point was simply that even at an early age I could tell you where the obscure books of the Bible were!

  • I realized God wasn’t concerned so much with personal salvation but with cosmic restoration.

    Why the either/or? I suspect you’re going off of stuff like Rom 8:16–25, and have perhaps noted that when it comes to “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God”:

    1. We’re children of God, now, already (as individuals, but composing the body).
    2. We have glory now, already (Jn 17:22, 1 Cor 11:7, 2 Cor 3:17–18).
    3. Each of us is a poiēma and have work to do, now, already (also Emil Brunner’s Man in Revolt).
    4. We have freedom, now, already.
    5. Nothing left needs to be done for the creation to be freed from its bondage to corruption, except for mankind to start being gardeners again, picking up where Adam abdicated.

    Does that sound at all familiar? I can’t say much more than the above, so suggested reading would be excellent. 🙂

    • Michael Pahl

      Luke, just noticed this comment. I don’t see it as an either/or, but rather that notions of “personal salvation” in Scripture are set within a wider context of cosmic restoration (or at least, I’ll add in clarification, in a more collective context than individual). God saves sinners, but God saves sinners as part of a people of God as part of the “reconciliation of all things,” to use the language of Colossians 1.

      • I do wonder if you’ve underplayed the role of Christians in said reconciliation, though; in addition to Rom 8:16–25, we also have 2 Cor 5:11–21. Have you perchance read or heard of NT Wright’s After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters? It gets quite repetitive (I’ve never managed to finish it), but the idea seems sound: Jesus called us to “be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect” because that character is not just an end and not a qualifying exam for heaven, but largely a means to the end of cosmic restoration (my favorite passage on this matter is Eph 1:7–10).

        • Michael Pahl

          Sure, but even in those texts the focus is on the believing community and not the individual. Yes, God saves sinners, but not for their own sake, not as an end in itself. God’s concern is with the restoration of the cosmos, which includes but is not limited to the salvation of individual sinners.

          I think we might be speaking past each other, and it could help to step back and put my initial comment in the context of my whole post. By “personal salvation” I meant the idea of “individuals being saved from hell to heaven.” That notion is just not something the Bible is concerned with.

          • It’s fascinating that we’re having this conversation now, given my reading about individualism, especially via Charles Taylor in his Sources of the Self and The Malaise of Modernity. There is a constant tension, in all of life, between:

                 (a) unity
                 (b) diversity

            Even the Trinity has this tension: one ousia and three hypostases. What I see you doing here is stressing the unity over and above the diversity; part of the reason I see this is perhaps that it makes sense as a reaction to the radical individualism in the West, especially in the US, which threatens to make relationships solely ‘instrumental’—I use you for me, you use me for you, and that’s how it is. This is, of course, absolutely antithetical to agápē.

            What I want to suggest to you is that God places equal emphasis on (a) and (b). The individual is profoundly important—else David would have been within his rights to rape Bathsheba and murder Uriah. The community is also profoundly important: the body of Christ is one, as Paul so emphatically states, in Eph 4 as well as other places.

            I don’t think we should underplay verses such as 1 Cor 11:7 “… [man] is the image and glory of God …”. This is downright amazing! The Psalm 8 quotation in Heb 2 is also relevant: “What is man, that you are mindful of him / or the son of man, that you care for him?” Along with this importance comes an incredible amount of responsibility, a responsibility I see many Christians shunning, these days.

          • Michael Pahl

            I still think we’re speaking past each other, or approaching the same thing from different angles. I don’t disagree with much of what you’re saying, and I think it fits with my own comments.

          • Diagram time! This is Pre-Greece and/or much of the East even to today:

                    |               _
                    |               |
                collectivism    individualism

            The West, these days:

                    _               |
                    |               |
                collectivism    individualism

            What I suggest:

                    _               _
                    |               |
                    |               |
                    |               |
                collectivism    individualism

            I think individualism of the form that recognizes the importance of each and every individual, is great. I think the New Covenant means that each person ought to think for himself/herself, up to and including having a slightly different conception of ‘the good’ which makes him/her not someone else. I think that this can then contribute to:

                    ↑               ↑
                    |               |
                    |               |
                    |               |
                    |               |
                collectivism    individualism

            But if we cap one or both, then I think we fall short of the glory of God. Does this make any more sense?

  • rvs

    I especially appreciated your point about having “space to ask hard questions.” God bless you.

  • Michael Pahl

    My concluding comments on the relationship between Jesus and Scripture – which, admittedly, are vague – have provoked some discussion elsewhere and I thought it might be worth posting a clarification here also.

    Here’s how I see it: Scripture functions as the God-breathed prophetic and apostolic written witness to the crucified and resurrected Jesus (OT anticipating, NT proclaiming), who in turn becomes the lens through which we read Scripture, and who as the living Christ is the centre of the gospel, the source of our salvation, the foundation and head of the Church, the Lord to whom we submit, and thus the norm for our theology and ethics.

    Or, as I put it in a previous comment: The written word of God (Scripture) is the Spirit-inspired witness to the oral word of God (the gospel) centered on the living Word of God (Jesus), and it is in him that “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” are found (Col 2:3).