“aha” moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (18): Rob Dalrymple

“aha” moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (18): Rob Dalrymple November 11, 2014

robIt’s been a while since our last “aha” moment, but I told you they’d be coming in now and then, and I’ll post them as they do.

I don’t mind telling you, nothing I’ve ever posted here on Patheos has elicited as many private emails and Facebook messages as this series. There are a lot of you out there who are looking for company–others who have taken your same path and for many of the same reasons. You need to know you are not alone, and I am glad this series is giving you a virtual community of sorts.

Today’s “aha” moment is from Rob Dalrymple (PhD Westminster Theological Seminary), who has been pastoring and teaching for more than 25 years. He is currently pastoring Northminster Presbyterian Church in Bakersfield, Ca. You can learn more about him on his website and blog. He is the author of 2 books: Revelation and the Two Witnesses and Understanding Eschatology: Why It Matters. His third book, These Brothers of Mine: A Biblical Theology of Land and Family and a Response to Christian Zionism, is due in early 2015.

********

I was a fundamentalist. A hard-core, fully convinced fundamentalist. Fill in the blank with whatever cliché you want and it’s likely true. I was a sincere follower of Christ all along. Many fundamentalists are. They are good people.

My problem was simple—well, it was actually very complex but it came down to glaring problem: without realizing it, I came to learn that I held to a worldview that had put God in a box. It was a strong box. I held it close to me and I loved this box. I was convinced that we knew everything we needed to know about God. I had a master’s degree in Apologetics to prove it. I felt I could answer any question. My Bible indeed told me so.

If you have never been a fundamentalist this may sound a bit over the top, but I assure you that I really believed that we absolutely had all the answers, or at least knew where to find them. I was truly convinced that what I thought was true, and therefore all of my conclusions were true. Others who held to different (i.e., false) conclusions simply didn’t have the right assumptions.

Then I went on to pursue a PhD in biblical interpretation. But before I left one of my mentors advised me: “don’t let them make you a liberal.”

That was a small moment for me, and it has stayed with me. I thought, really? That’s what I am supposed to worry about? It was as if he was alerting me that my convictions might not be as solid as I had always thought.

As I moved along in my studies my box seemed less agreeable and problems began to surface. My Bible was not acting the way it was supposed to, the way it had to.

The more I studied the more I realized that Jesus, Paul, and Moses thought like people of their time. That might seem like a no-brainer, but it wasn’t for me. It was a revelation. This meant that they didn’t hold to the same modernist assumptions that I held to and that were passed on to me in my fundamentalist upbringing.

I could see what my mentor was afraid of. Those “truths” began to come apart quickly, within one semester. This troubled me for some time.

I came to realize that my worldview was also a product of my era, and I was placing those expectations on the Bible. I knew what I believed and was convinced that it was true. But suddenly things weren’t fitting too well. Moses didn’t write Genesis to provide us details as to how God created the world. Moses wrote to an Israelite people who had come out of Egyptian slavery having worshipped the gods of Egypt for 400 years. Moses wasn’t answering modern scientific questions. He was answering ancient questions. Yahweh, and not the gods, is worthy of Israel worship.

One day, as I stood contemplating these matters, I had a true epiphany. This process had brought me to the clear realization that in my worldview I had been standing outside the box with God and the Bible inside it. But now I was beginning to come to terms with something too obvious to say: God wasn’t in a box. I was! God is the transcendent Creator. I am the finite, created being.

This hit me hard. But it was also unbelievably freeing! I was suddenly free from the fear of making it all fit. Free from the dogma that needed to make everyone else wrong. I realized that I was actually free from having to play the role of God. As a fundamentalist, I had actually made myself God. Now, I could be free to let God be God.

My faith in Christ and trust in the Bible are not weaker, but deeper and richer now that I have given up the reigns. Jesus Christ is Lord and we are not!

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  • Assuming, of course, that the account of Egyptian enslavement and the subsequent exodus have any basis in historical fact backed up by the archaeological record. So far, everything points to the contrary.

    Cue the people to remind me of the Hittites as if that deals with the present data at hand….

    • Johannes Richter

      I think you might be missing the point.

    • Michigan22

      I suppose that there are many Christian scholars who would acknowledge that you might be right. But you’ve totally missed the whole point of the article by majoring on a point that was not central to his story.

    • Jeff Wishart

      Don’t forget about the Hittities.

    • Do you think that “the account of Egyptian enslavement and the subsequent exodus” is realistic? For example, the book of Hebrews plays on it being a very accurate portrayal of human nature, and is calling the readers to not be sniveling, cowardly, obstinate weenies who refuse to listen to God. (Listen ⇏ obey, as one can see by reading Ex 32:9–14, Num 14:11–20, and Num 16:19–23.)

      When I look at passages like Deut 5 and 1 Sam 8, and then read up on the Milgram experiment, I see huge connections. Add some Jacques Ellul on true vs. false freedom and things get even more intense. It seems to me like the OT really captured human nature. Would you agree, or would you say that these accounts you never think happened also paint wrong pictures of human nature?

  • I wonder if God laughs as each of us try to remake him in OUR image. I imagine He waits like the infinitely patient parent as we journey to that simple truth.

    fundamentalist or liberal. AHA!

  • Dr. Donny

    It’s amazing how someone could get a PhD in biblical interpretation and not be aware of the validity of historical or source criticism. What will Rob think when he figures out what the large majority of biblical scholars believe – that the Torah was written by J, E, P, and D and not Moses. And that the Gospels don’t all give the same picture of Jesus. And the synoptic histories in the OT were written to make history relevant to peoples at different times. Gosh, he may decide the fundy view of the world is not the only valid approach. Hard to believe he is at a mainline church.

    • Gsaseeker

      I would like to give him the benefit of the doubt, but it turns out that his church is actually affiliated with the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, which is the schismatic breakaway sect that was formed specifically to reject LGBT people, but more importantly for understanding his perspective, also affirms scriptural infallibility. Given the latter, it is unlikely he will be embracing the findings of modern scholarship.

      • mjk

        Pretty harsh to mock and criticize a guy who’s on a journey of leaving behind the certainty and intolerance of conservative fundamentalism just because he’s not yet arrived at liberal fundamentalist certainty and intolerance reflected in these comments.

        • Gsaseeker

          I’m not mocking him. But I’m not making any concessions on history here; whether you want to believe it or not, the Torah was not written by Moses. In fact, I assume that the poster in question is aware of the redaction thesis, but has rejected it. As I said, the fact that he is a pastor at a church that affirms scriptural infallibility makes it unlikely or even impossible that he can affirm scholarship inconsistent with the confession.

          As I said, I would like to give him the benefit of the doubt. But this is not a matter of “liberal fundamentalist certainty and intolerance.” Accepting the obvious does not a liberal make. There are plenty of extraordinarily conservative people who accept the (fact) that the Pentateuch was compiled and edited over a long period of time. You do not have to become Spinoza simply because you acknowledge this.

          • mjk

            I’m not disputing history or the redaction thesis. I’m perfectly comfortable with it and am pleased to embrace it myself, for the time being. My jab at certainty is aimed at the reality that there may still be better hypotheses to explain the version of the Pentateuch that we now have. (There was a time when atoms were conceived as raisin muffins, then as mini solar systems.)

            My larger point stands. Give the guy the opportunity to take a journey and to arrive at his own conclusions at his own pace, rather than criticizing him for only coming so far. Instead, honour his diligence and humility thus far and pray eagerly for where God may lead. Perhaps he is not a pastor in this context forever because his journey continues. I guess I just didn’t resonate with the negativity heaped on a guy who’s moving in the right direction.

          • Gsaseeker

            I don’t personally consider it negative to disagree with him. I think that certain statements are unhelpful and judgmental, and tend to avoid them, so you should probably not read my comment in the same spirit as the one I was replying to.
            That said, my larger critique is of the confession that anyone in that community (ECA) must abide by. That’s really what stifles the truth here.

          • mjk

            That’s fair. I probably read the clearly negative tone of the first commenter into your words as well. My apologies.

          • I’m curious: what really, truly changes, if Moses didn’t actually write the Torah?

          • Gsaseeker

            Since the Torah is composed over several centuries with multiple authors and compilers, it is essentially a discourse, one that contains multiple points of view, errors, contradictions, etcetera. Now what you do with that is up to the community and individual charged with making it meaningful for them. We are certainly told by proponents of inerrancy and infallibility, often with great emphasis, that abandoning the traditional view of the scripture changes things.

  • Johnny Number 5

    “Moses didn’t write Genesis to provide us details as to how God created the world.”

    Yes, probably because Moses, or any other individual person, didn’t write Genesis.

  • Al Cruise

    I always find the statement “don’t let them make you a liberal ” hilarious. What they are really saying and want for that matter is “don’t let them make you free”

  • Mark K

    Thanks for sharing your story, Rob. It’s very affirming.

  • Powerful! It’s all about surrender to the living, resurrected Jesus.

  • Wally Morris

    This article is full of so many generalities that it’s basically useless: “God in a box”, “product of my era”, etc. The comments are more revealing than the article: denial of the historicity of Biblical events is at the heart of what is happening here. You haven’t “grown”; Sadly, you have deceived yourself into some type of self-freedom, & you ultimately have nothing to offer people except more generalities based on what . . . nothing. You may still talk about “God” and Jesus, but those words have no meaning anymore because you have emptied them of their Biblical basis.

    • Marc B.

      Define “Biblical”

      • Wally Morris

        The fact that I even have to define “Biblical events” illustrates the problem here. Amazing.

        • Marc B.

          Well, since it sounds like God obviously gave your definition his stamp of approval, I thought you’d want to share it with the rest of us.

        • Marc B.

          Btw, you’re using a lot of generalities too….like ” the problem”….care to elaborate? What exactly is “the problem”?

    • Gsaseeker

      No belief system that is wholly dependent on an error is going to survive the exposure and correction of that error. If evangelical Christianity truly requires scripture to be an account of historical events that is infallible or inerrant, then evangelical Christianity will die. Tradition, reason and experience are not “generalities based on…nothing.” They are important and vital parts of living as a human being.

    • Daniel Fisher

      I concur, in that i would love to hear more specifics…. What he said here could easily describe the eye-opening freedom I felt I found at seminary, when I set aside a formerly simplistic, almost magical few of the Bible for one far more nuanced, informed by the realities that Moses and others were of their culture writing to people of their time, and all the ramifications….. But I never lost a core belief in the full inspiration and consequent inerrancy of the Scripture. If the author’s “aha” moment led him to dismiss a commitment to inerrancy or other similar view of absolute biblical authority, I’m not seeing it here in what was written here. This could almost be read as more a journey from simplistic fundamentalist inerrancy to nuanced, sophisticated, and intellectually satisfying inerrancy, unless I miss something?