All faith is derivative. In other words, because nobody (at least nobody I wouldn’t regard as either a fraudster or schizophrenic) has personally interacted with God, all faith is based on individual interpretations either of religious texts or of personal experience. This means that the nature of the values we believe God to espouse will always reflect our interpretations of the values endorsed by the sources from which we derive our theologies.
If the Bible is the source from which we derive our theology, and if we regard the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, then we will inevitably end up with a God who is schizophrenic. This is because the Bible does not represent one holistic theology. The texts that comprise the Bible are written by people from a variety of cultural backgrounds and from different eras. They have different attitudes towards foreigners, women, moral purity and religious practice, and have different understandings of what faithfulness entails. The effort to reconcile the contradictions produces a God who must both love and smite, and who – to the outsider, at least (and to the discerning insider) – must appear Janus-faced. Invariably this must affect how we configure our “Kingdom” societies and how we treat others, particularly “sinners”. Sacred violence must become normalised within such a framework because it is justified in parts of the Bible.
If religious traditions are the source from which we derive faith, then theology is dependent on how prominent historical figures have interpreted the “texts” or events. Our theologies become restricted by the limitations of the interpreter’s understandings. Luther and Calvin, for example, provided many much-needed challenges to the existing theologies of the time. But both had legal backgrounds, and so it was inevitable that their reconfigurations of Christian theology would be coloured by legal considerations. Charles Parham, who is essentially the founder of the charismatic church, believed that we needed to experience the signs and wonders of the early church, and conducted many experiments to ‘unlock the power of the Holy Spirit’. Thus, many evangelical churches have a heavy emphasis on spiritual experience. The interpreter of the text or event always has bearing on the meaning derived from that text or event.
This is certainly true of the gospels. Our understandings of Jesus are limited by the biographers’ limitations, as well as by our own limitations in understanding their writings (we are also interpreting the texts). But I still hold that deriving a Christian theology based on the life and teachings of Jesus himself, whom we hold to be God incarnate, is the most sensible way to go.
I have argued in recent weeks that if we take this pursuit seriously – if we centre our theologies around Jesus first – then we have to dispense with the obsession around holiness codes, the concept of an angry God, belief in the existence of Hell as a place of eternal punishment. Furthermore, we have to seriously question the prominent place that the idea of personal salvation has in contemporary Christian theology and the way we configure our religious gatherings. Simply put, if we regard Jesus as the source from which we derive Christian theology (and it would be ludicrous to consider any other alternatives), then a lot of current Christian theology is simply wrong.
If we derive our theology solely from Jesus (even given the unavoidable role of the reader’s subjective interpretation of the gospels), the most logical conclusion to reach is that God’s nature is characterised by unconditional forgiveness, non-violence and a passion for social justice (as opposed to individual holiness). The big question is this: how do we turn unconditional forgiveness into a practical reality?
It seems fairly clear to me that Jesus would not have been in favour of ‘fighting fire with fire’. On numerous occasions he rejects violence as a means to challenge violent systems. And by ‘violent systems’, I do not necessarily refer only to brute force, but to systemic oppression too. If it is not obvious to you how he actively rejects it (in the trials in the desert, with the woman caught in adultery, at his arrest… I could go on), at least it must be conceded that he is never seen to actively choose a violent path. And yes, I include his clearing of the temple in that. The text gives no indication that he actually used the cattle goad against people.
It seems equally clear to me that Jesus never endorsed passive submission to oppressive systems either. He sides with the victims of oppression all the time – the lepers, the prostitutes, the tax collectors – against the brutal systems that exploit them. The religious leaders fairly frequently endure criticism from him for their treatment of those who follow them. Even at the cross, though he chooses it, it is not an act of forced submission. There is something defiant about it; it is no weary resignation to the inevitable.
I think, in an age of dualistic thinking, it is easy to polarise our choices into violence or submission. I agree with Walter Wink that Jesus offers a Third Way. While I do think that Wink oversimplifies the equation a bit, his basic observation of Jesus’ relationship with violence is sound. He refers to Matthew 5:38-48. Like Ghandi, and many other commentators, I believe that the quintessence of Jesus’ theology can be found in the Sermon on the Mount, so I think we ought to pay particular attention to it if we want to understand the nature of God, according to Jesus. And here is what he says:
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Walter Wink explains it like this: in the first example, in the context of 1st Century slavery, a master would have struck a slave with the back of his hand. This would have been a sign of contempt for somebody not worthy of an open-handed strike. A right-handed person (and left-handedness was actively discouraged in the ancient world – a practice that continued until very recently, historically speaking – so it is safe to assume that any given striker would be right-handed) would have to strike on the right cheek in order to deliver a back-handed blow. By turning the other cheek, the abuser would be compelled to strike open-handed (and therefore to strike the victim as an equal) if he wished to deliver another blow, or to strike left-handed, and thus debase himself.
In the second example, by surrendering the inner as well as the outer garments, the victim is rendered effectively naked. In the context of Jesus’ preaching, and the principle he is trying to tease out, it is safe to assume that the person being sued is being sued unjustly. If the accuser is winning, then it is safe to say that the injustice is legally achieved and that the injustice is masquerading as justice. In such a case, the extremity of the nakedness serves to expose the injustice inherent in the system and shame the one who uses that system to exploit others.
In the third example, Roman soldiers were allowed to compel Jews to carry their packs no more than one mile (and there would have been mile markers along the Roman roads – many still exist today). By carrying the pack the second mile, the abuse of power by the soldier is exposed and the soldier would very likely be punished. Romans were not particularly tolerant of rogue behaviour.
In all of these examples, there are some common threads: the victim acts in a way that asserts his human dignity despite the indignity of the injustice being done to him; the brutality of the system is exposed; the victim is empowered without becoming a monster; the abusers are debased by their own actions and the legitimacy of the structures that allow such abuse is questioned.
If Jesus had simply wanted to provide a law, or issue a commandment, I don’t think he would have given three examples. I think he provides these three examples because he is trying to tease out a principle. Jesus’s (and by extension, if you are Christian, God’s) leadership style is not to issue commands that need to be obeyed if the follower wants to avoid punishment, but to provide guidelines that followers ought to choose to employ if they wish to experience the abundant life of the Kingdom. So I wouldn’t read these examples as a mandate from Jesus on how to behave, but as illustrations of Jesus’ principles for confronting oppressive systems. As I have written before, I believe that forgiveness is the only way to interrupt the cycle of violence. But forgiveness is not merely passive acceptance. And that is what I think these are examples of: forgiveness. Forgiveness asserts the power and the dignity of the victim while offering the perpetrators the opportunity for reflection and change, by compelling them to suffer the debasement brought about through their own actions. Forgiveness exposes injustice while refusing to allow the victims to debase themselves. That, I believe, is precisely what Jesus models on the cross.
As a parting thought, consider this: if forgiveness reinforces the dignity of the victim, while allowing the perpetrator the opportunity to rediscover his own dignity, then the theology behind the cross needs to be rethought. God is not the perpetrator at Calgary; She is the victim. Jesus forgives us not for disobeying arbitrary laws and forcing God to reject us, but for our treatment of the downtrodden (remember in Matthew 25 how Jesus said that whatever we do to or for the hungry, the sick, the prisoners, we did to or for him?), for our treatment of God Herself, for using religion and other social structures – the very guidelines for abundant living that God gave us in the ten commandments – to exploit and victimise others, to accuse and divide and oppress. At Calvary Jesus exposes our systems of justice for what they are, he unveils the brutality of holiness-code oriented and divisive religion, he rejects the myth of a wrathful God, and he offers us the chance to reflect and change. Take it.
Perhaps I am to be seen as a fraudster or a schizophrenic ( though I consider myself neither!) but it is my firm belief that every born again Christian has indeed not only interacted personally with God, but has actually a part of the triune Godhead living within him or her- the Holy Spirit, promised by Jesus and experienced by Christians as a living reality. ! That is a fundamental tenet of the Christian faith and one that is my own reason for living; my reason for getting up in the morning; my reason for desiring to lay down my will in favour of His will every day, regardless of circumstance through the ups and downs of life.
How devastating a thought not to have the ability as dearly loved children o the loving God, to interact with the Father.
I cannot agree with your statement. But perhaps you mean it in a different way? I’d be interested for you to flesh out the comment.
I guess what I am trying to say is that we do not physically see nor hear God speaking to us. Interaction with God is more subtle than that. We do not literally hear a voice telling us what to do or see the figure of Jesus and converse directly in the physical world. This means that a lot of what we believe God to be saying to us comes through our interpretation of a source – wehther that source is our own feelings, our experiences, other people’s words, texts – like sermons, or the Bible, or books. Our own understanding, our own intellects, our own perceptions, always play a part in making sense of what we believe God is saying to us. It is never as cut and dry – at least not from any source I can regard as credible – as having God utter audible words (certainly not in a way that would convince an outsider that the voice was authentically God’s) or from an authentic manifestation of the actual physical person of Jesus. Whatever it might mean to have the Holy Spirit with us, the point is that direct sensory interaction with God doesn’t happen (definitely not as the norm), and so faith – as a rule (not an exception) – must be inferred.
I am moved to write to you out of great sadness and love; you are clearly a very intelligent man, but I fear you are removing yourself from great blessing through your endeavour to create your own palatable version of the truth.
As I see it, there are deep issues underpinning all your thinking.
Firstly, subjecting of a text to rigorous scrutiny is clearly huge for you. Textual criticism has its obvious merits but its huge downfall is that it always places the critic above the text and inside the author’s mind in a very presumptuous position. If the author of the Bible is God, as it claims – and which you must at least admit is a possible option – then we are on dangerous ground both disputing its veracity and imputing motives to God.
Though it might be circular reasoning to assert that the Bible says that the Bible is the indisputable Word of God, it does not necessarily make this claim untrue. In my simple, childlike understanding, an Almighty, loving God is more than capable of preserving His truth for generations and ensuring the world has access to it. He is not a capricious Creator who expects us to play hide-and-seek to find Him, and loves to leave confusing and deceptive clues along the way. Thus, if it is His truth, all the injunctions not to add to or take away from God’s word or pollute it with the ‘empty philosophies of men’, and Jesus’ warnings that ‘heaven and earth will pass away, but [His] words will never pass away’ (John 2), make perfect sense.
With respect, there is no way that man, on his own, could come up with an accurate view of God; that is why there are hundreds of widely varying opinions about who He is and how He operates – yours being just one of them. And there will be others after you with different theories.
How do we get away from such sinking sand?
I believe that the only way we could possibly know Him is if He reveals Himself to us and leaves a true revelation of Himself with us – not if we come up with fallible explanations from our own flawed understandings. Scripture tells us this revelation is primarily through His Word – given to His prophets, and revealed in the last days through His Son (the Word Himself). (Both scripture itself and historical accounts verify both the life and teaching of Jesus.) Thus, to look at Christ and to believe His word are the two fundamental ways we can know Him and are essentially synonymous. Once again, may I reiterate that God is more than capable of and clearly willing to leave an accurate revelation of Himself for us. To this end, He also gives us His Spirit to lead us into all truth – His Spirit that testifies with ours, reveals God to us and enables us to call Him, Abba – Father. (John 15-17).
So when you – or anyone else – asks me to exchange what I am convinced is the Word of God, for your theory, I have to ask why God would have kept His revelation obscured for so many thousands of years – and then revealed it finally to you. (I do not say this facetiously.) I would rather trust a document, put together over many years, recorded in many instances by eye-witnesses who saw and heard Him, that speaks one message, than a 21st century literary critic- possibly with deep-seated prejudices – who has created his own truth 2000 years after Jesus lived; it smacks of Joseph Smith, Mary Baker Eddy and the like, who similarly argued that Christians have had it wrong for centuries.
God says, ‘Seek me and you will find me when you seek me with all your heart’. We will not find Him when we seek Him with preconceived ideas and ingrained biases, or with a determination to find what we are looking for in the Scriptures and overlooking anything that makes us uncomfortable. So, if you were to seek the truth honestly, you would find – amongst other hugely liberating truths – that the gospel we have today is the gospel the apostles taught and that the creeds said in many churches – and which you seem to despise – are simply a summary of this. (If you find anything in the Apostles’ Creed that is not scriptural, please abandon it.)
It’s not about what we ‘believe’ sadly – but about what is truth. The truth remains unchanged despite what you or I believe, so our concern – in fact our life-long pursuit – should be to discover that truth. But you will argue that my truth might not be the truth either – and I agree. That is why we have to rely on a source outside of ourselves and outside of our finite brains and understanding – which has to be God’s word and His Spirit. It has to be supernaturally conveyed. The truth has to be independent of the ‘empty philosophies of men’.
When you say, ‘I can’t believe in a God like that,’ you are assuming a wisdom and a knowledge superior to that of God – if that is what He says. Who decides on what is truth? You? You are making truth claims yourself – why should we believe yours?
A reading of the Bible that honestly wants to understand it with perspicacity and insight, must read and understand many passages in their context, I agree. But the great underpinning message – or gospel – of BOTH testaments is, and always will be, timeless. The Bible’s teaching on man’s sin, God’s love and wrath, and the only means of God’s grace through the atonement of His Son, is there, deeply engrained, from beginning to end. The apparent contradictions you speak of never water down the principles that are consistent throughout.
Two of these principles that are there throughout scripture are the wrath of God and the atonement of Christ. If I understand you correctly, you are claiming that these are later additions by the historical church…? This premise of yours misses the significance of the account of Abel’s sacrifice; the near sacrifice of Isaac; the Passover Lamb; the whole sacrificial system made redundant once Jesus, the final sacrifice, had been made; Isaiah 53; Gen 3:17 – and many, many more – all of which reveal that the thread of the substitute or the principle of atonement runs through the Scriptures from beginning to end. Though God’s test of Abraham and Isaac’s near sacrifice might seem cruel to the modern mind, it was God’s love and mercy that allowed a substitute to take the place of the son; only when the spotless lamb was sacrificed did God’s anger ‘pass over’ the Israelites; it is only through His wounds that we are saved – the punishment that should have been ours fell on Him (Isaiah 53). The last Jewish prophet, John the Baptist, recognised in Jesus immediately the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. He needed no further revelation; Jesus was the final piece of the puzzle.
The ‘western church’ would have had to have tampered with every book of the Bible to make it say what it wanted to. This rejection of the atonement is an ancient heresy that denies the seriousness of sin and in doing that, turns its back on what God says is the only cure for it – i.e. Christ, ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life’. In Gethsemane, Jesus prayed, ‘Not my will, but Yours be done.’ He knew His death and the need for His perfect atonement, was God’s will. Why else did He go through with it?
You argue that this is not ‘just’ – that an innocent victim be punished. I agree – it is unjust that He take the punishment – but it is love to the nth degree; the price is paid or justice served by supremely greater love: God Himself takes our place. (Your concern seems to reveal a misunderstanding of the Trinity – God did not make His Son – a 3rd person pay – God Himself paid.) How can we turn aside from such love! This is the gospel that the apostles and disciples gave their lives to defend. There is no other gospel discernible in the pages of the New or Old Testaments. It is not love to say there is no need for atonement – or that there is no hell. It is in fact the opposite, because it encourages people to turn away from their only Saviour. Love yearns to save from death – not to confirm a sinner in his error.
Thirdly, God’s wrath: Your problem with God’s love being incompatible with His wrath is a fundamental one. Sadly, we cannot get away from His wrath in the Bible – both Old Testament and New Testament– not least in the gospels, and on the lips of Jesus Himself. Romans 1, which you point us to in one of your blogs, could not speak more clearly about the reality of the wrath of God and that a price must be paid is clear through the rest of scripture. God’s love is actually inconceivable without His wrath, as I see it: a God who did not get angry at cruelty and injustice, would be a monster. If your little boy was abducted and brutally murdered, and you were indifferent to it, you would be the most callous and unfeeling father. Similarly, God gets angry at sin – and very angry. Perhaps we can understand anger at a brutal murder, but we need to understand that God is angry at every sin – and so we need to remember that He defines sin, not us. And He decides how it must be dealt with – and this MUST involve perfect justice and perfect love.
In the passage you quote in John 3, do you not see that those who do not believe stand ‘condemned already’? Condemned? Condemned???? Those who believe ‘will not perish’ (Jn 3:16); in other words, those who don’t WILL. In the same chapter, it speaks of the wrath of God that you claim is a fabrication of the ‘western church’. ‘Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, BUT whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on Him.’ (Jn 3:36) Peter, how can you simply quote one part of this profound chapter and wilfully ignore another? This is not honest criticism. And it is not just here that God’s wrath is spoken about. The Scriptures – and particularly the gospels – are saturated with these claims. It would be far more honest for you to admit that you reject the whole Bible than to quote only the parts that support your particular theology.
As you rightly say, God is a God of love – and all the verses you quote about God’s love are there in the Bible; we would be completely lost without His great love which redeems us. However, there are so many more verses you have failed to mention. The same Jesus who spoke of the Father’s great love for us, speaks of His wrath too. In almost all of His parables of the kingdom, He warns us that a place of torment for unbelievers exists – a place where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Read again the parable of the rich man (and Lazarus) – who was so desperate to prevent other members of his family from coming to that ‘place of torment’ too. It is there in Moses and the Prophets, Jesus implies. (Lk 16:31). Those who don’t accept Jesus’ invitation to His banquet, will be cast outside where there will be ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’. Jesus told this parable. (Lk 13:27-28). He tells us that one day there will be a Day of great reckoning. Jesus speaking about His second coming, speaks about ‘one being taken and the other left’. (Lk 17:30-35). Jesus refers to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Luke 18:26 (another instance of God’s wrath, hard to explain away) and warns of similar judgement. In speaking of the Final Judgement in Matthew 25, Jesus speaks of the sheep and the goats, the goats being sent away from Jesus forever. He will say to them on that day, ‘Depart from me, I never knew you,’ and they will be ‘thrown out’. He tells us there are conditions for entering His kingdom: There are conditions for entering ‘life’, which the rich young, Jewish ruler understood (Luke 18:18). He tells Nicodemus in John 3 – ‘No one can enter the kingdom of heaven unless he is ‘born again’. Once again, the implication is that there are going to be some (many? the majority of humanity?) who will NOT be born again, and therefore will not see the kingdom of God. (And in chapter 1 of the same gospel we are told that to ‘those who believe, He gives the right to become sons of God’ – a gift not given to those who don’t (John 1:12). He enjoins us to enter ‘through the narrow gate’ for many will miss it and carry on, on the ‘broad way’ to destruction. In love, He weeps over Jerusalem and their unrepentant hearts; He weeps for those who will not turn to Him. In His Revelation to John, He speaks of hell in almost every chapter; it is the place where those who have rejected God and His Messiah will go – out of their own volition. Revelation also speaks of the blood of judgement flowing high – right up to the horse’s bridle. References to hell come out of the mouth of Jesus more times than references to heaven.
Oh, Peter, there is SO much you will simply have to ignore if you choose not to believe in God’s wrath and punishment for sinners. Be honest in your reading of the scriptures! It is because He loves us that He warns us about hell. Because of hell, He died. ‘For this reason, I came,’ He says (John 18:37). You gave a good defence of the resurrection, and Paul says, if this is not true, then we are to be pitied above all men. Peter, how can you miss the warnings? You are reading the ‘text’ so selectively – and only finding what you want to find.
Lastly, the church. You have made the ‘western church’ into the great villain of the piece, and have painted Christians and ‘the church’ with such broad brush strokes, that love and discernment have gone out of the window; this is unworthy of you.
You are right, religion is always despicable – in fact it is from hell – but the church, sinful and fallible in many respects, is still Christ’s dearly loved Body, for whom He gave His life. Dear Peter, have you been hurt or offended by judgemental Christians – and is this why you are rejecting the church? Or are you struggling with some issue that the church and Christians would call sin, and is their judgement of this angering you?
Remember, God has the last word, not the western church – so we need to be VERY sure what God says on the issue.
Are you rejecting ‘the church’ because much of what the Bible says is in conflict with our paranoid non-discriminatory contemporary culture? Christianity and culture will always be in conflict. When our version of truth starts to reflect our culture (as I see yours doing – with the change in pronouns when referring to God, and the dislike of any labels of ‘sinful’, etc), that is when we should worry. To me, the fact that much of scripture is ‘unpalatable’, smacks of truth; this is not man’s wisdom. Man would never have come up with many of these doctrines, particularly those concerning sin and hell.
Christians should seek the praise of God, not men. It is when we seek the praise and acceptance of men, rather than God, that we are in mortal danger. “They hated Me; they will hate you too,” says our Lord. I would rather be in Christ’s company and know His truth, and be out of fellowship with the whole world – than enjoy the world’s approval and lose my relationship with the Lord. The sheep will know His voice. They will know the truth and the truth will set them free.
I am praying for you too, so that you may discover and treasure the great joy there is in knowing and loving the Lord – as He has revealed Himself, not as we think He is.
With much love.
I am very moved that you took such care to craft a thoughtful response to my writings, and that you took the time to read them at all. It is a very loving thing indeed to examine the arguments of one – such as myself – with whom you disagree, and to try to understand where it comes from. I am very, very grateful for and honoured by that effort, and I want to express my gratitude for that. Please know that no matter how ardently and passionately I argue against your theology, I am not opposed to anyone who holds those theologies. Like you, I am attempting to make an honest intellectual effort to understand the great mystery that is God, as revealed in Jesus. My theology, as indeed yours, is completely open to criticism – as it always must be – because humanity can never fully grasp the infinite. And I ask your pardon if I come across as condescending of contemporary Christians. I also need to warn you that when I respond I can come across as angry or emotive or condescending. That is not my intent at all. I am passionate – when I embrace something I embrace it fully, mind and heart, and that comes out in the writing. But I want to remind you, in case this starts to sound preachy or dismissive, that what I really intend is loving and honest engagement with a Christian family-member. We are all seeking – with all our hearts.
As for my motives in questioning the church, I must state up front that the church has been – for the most part – very good to me. It has held me when I needed support and has shaped me in many very positive ways. My critique of contemporary theology is a purely intellectual one: much of it just doesn’t make sense. It is at odds with itself, with Jesus’ teachings and with common sense. Really, my search is for a theology – a way of understanding God – that is defensible. I have held your position. I have used many of the very arguments you use. And while they seem sensible, they are not.
Let me start at a point where we both agree: the only way we can begin to understand God is through His revelation to us. We differ in our understandings of the nature of that revelation and our insight into human responses to it.
You contend that both the Scriptures and Jesus are revelations of God. I am arguing that Jesus alone must be considered the primary revelation of God. You assert that the “Bible says that the Bible is the indisputable Word of God”. Where? The Bible makes no such claim. Nor could it. It does not exist as a canon of texts until centuries after the last book in it is written. Even if it made such a claim (and I would love you to show me where it does), that claim would not be referring to the Bible as we know it, simply because such a collection of texts does not exist at the time the claim is made. When we do look at the Scriptures, we do not see one cohesive theology either. Just one example: Paul calls the theology of the church in Jerusalem (ie. the theology of the authors of the letters of Peter and James) “no gospel at all” (Galatians 1:7). There is not one theology in the Bible and other problematic ones outside of it. There are problematic theologies in the Bible too, and good ones. But there is not one “Biblical theology”. There are Biblical theologies. Plural. At one point Moses claims, for instance: “He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” (Exodus 34:7), but later Ezekiel states: “The person who sins will die The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself” (Ezekiel 18: 20).
You see, whether we like it or not, all of our attempts to understand God are theologies – man-made constructs. Your argument seems to me to make the assumption that there are some ways of understanding God that are not man-made constructs, and I am arguing that this is impossible. Even within the church, within the Bible itself, the nature of those constructs differ. That is natural. We are human trying to understand God.
That is not to say I reject the Bible. It is invaluable in coming to understand God. But it is not because it is God’s revelation of Himself to us; it is because it documents human attempts to understand God. I do believe God has a hand in it, but the form that takes is primarily Girardian – more of that in a future post. It is too complex for now.
Suffice it to say, that the Bible is a book of theologies. It makes no claims to be the “indisputable Word of God”. You claim that this is the opinion of a 21st Century literary critic. My argument would be that this is the way it was understood by the early church and that your doctrine is the anachronistic one. None of the churches that can trace a direct line to the early church – ie. the eastern orthodox churches, nor – for that matter – the Catholic church – hold to a doctrine of the infallibility of Scripture. That is, historically speaking, a very recent introduction to church doctrine. It only comes in to our theological framework when Luther introduces it in the 16th Century. Mine are not the ramblings of a post-modern scholar; they are the discoveries of one who, seeing the devastation caused by problematic expressions of Christianity in his own world (often linked to the doctrine of the Bible being the Word of God), and who was thus determined to find out what the early church believed because those are bound to be the most accurate expressions of Jesus’s own theology, found convincing evidence that what we believe now bears little resemblance to what was believed then. As a comparatively recent addition to our understanding of God, then, the doctrine of the infallibility of Scripture must be rejected.
Part of your argument is that the critic always places himself above the text. This is true. But your argument also presupposes that it is possible to avoid this. You want to deny human agency in the meaning-making process when engaging with texts. This is where your argument collapses. Humans always interpret when they engage with a text. They read it through the filter of their own experiences, prejudices, cultures, desires etc. I am no exception. But nor are you. There can be no one “infallible” reading of the Scriptures because there are no infallible readers, whatever it is that we are reading.
Now this applies equally to our ‘reading’ of the person of Jesus. As with the Scriptures, we are invariably going to project ourselves into a reading of who Jesus is. And that is why a critical reading approach is so vital: if we are to understand and follow him truly, we need to mitigate the effects of our own projections. That is why we need to understand his teachings in the contexts within which they are taught, and learn to see the ways our own expectations distort the picture. I am not denying that I too will tend to project myself into a reading of Jesus. But you seem to be denying that your approach does this at all.
Let me take one step back so I can reiterate something: The Bible never claims to be God’s revelation to humanity. Jesus does. The book of John is full of it. Aside from calling Jesus the “Word of God”, John records Jesus saying, time and again, things like:
“The Word was God” (John 1:1);
“No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” (John 1:18);
7 If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”;
8 Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”
9 Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. 11 Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. (John 14:7-11)
“I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15: 15)
I could go on, but the point Jesus makes is clear: if you want to understand what God is like, look at Jesus. Everything we need to know about God is visible there. When I take Jesus up on this offer, are you trying to tell me that I am being heretical? Which is more heretical: to believe what Jesus said, or to cling to a doctrine (that the Bible is equal to Jesus in terms of being God’s revelation of Himself) that has no explicit basis in the Scriptures?
But I take your point that even here, we interpret and project. We make Jesus into what we want him or need him to be. I do not argue the atonement. That Jesus died to conquer sin’s hold on us is clear in early church theology. What is not clear, is what “dying for our sins” means. I am arguing that the atonement model that says that the atonement is about crime and punishment is a late interpretation of the event, initiated by Anselm in the 11th Century and refined by Calvin and Luther. I am arguing that such an understanding of the atonement, apart from being a Western fabrication, is incompatible with the life and teachings of Jesus: crime and punishment do not feature in his stories. “The Kingdom of God”, however, does feature heavily. And most of Jesus’ teachings centre on what it means to enter that Kingdom. When Jesus divides people in his stories, into those who enter the Kingdom and those who are outside of it, I do not believe that he makes the distinction based on the soundness of their theologies, nor on whether or not they have let him take the punishment for their sins (in fact people recognise him as “saviour of the world” prior to his atoning death (John 4: 42, for example). How do you explain that in your crime-and-punishment model?). The Matthew 25 passage you quote makes the distinction based on how we treat others, or on how deeply we embrace his “way”. John 14:6 is crucial, and I will write about that soon. But I will simply say that I think that any reading of Jesus’s teachings that imposes a crime-and-punishment motif onto the text is anachronistic. The Jews did not believe in Hell. They never have and didn’t then. It is fair to say, then, that neither Jesus nor his hearers would have understood his teaching about God’s wrath , then, as eternal punishment. There is no hint in the text that this is what he means. In a nutshell, if Jesus’s mission is to expose sacred violence and scapegoating, and to reconcile people to himself by helping us to reconfigure society so that it looks like he intended it to: governed by love, to bring about God’s kingdom on earth, then we can interpret God’s wrath to be directed at human relations that are not so; where “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (nothing to do with punishment, but a common idiom expressing frustration in that culture) means the agony of not choosing to participate in a Kingdom social structure underpinned by love of God and others.
I do not deny the “wrath” references. But I think you have become so used to reading them through a lens of divine punishment that seeing them as such seems natural. But that reading of what wrath is, or what it means to be outside the Kingdom, does not make sense if Jesus’ theology and ethics are the lens through which you interpret the terms. And that should be the only viable lens though which to do so.
There are a couple of issues you raised that require greater elaboration: the issue of sacrifice and the nature of God’s wrath, as well as the concept of being “born again”. I will deal with these more fully in future posts.
Just as an aside, there is nothing “palatable” about the gospel as I understand it. It is, as Jesus said, a cross that one must carry. The world does not want to configure itself around love. It rejects forgiveness for what it calls “justice”. We prefer the ‘eye-for-an-eye’ to “seventy times seven” (which is what I see your theology ascribing to God. How can God’s “perfect justice” demand one standard for us and Jesus (seventy times seven) and another for the Father (eye for an eye)? Mine is not the misunderstood Trinity: my understanding of the Trinity has them as the same in essence. I can’t say the same for this God construction). Love is not a palatable road. It is neither a politically correct one nor an easy one. But it is the right one. I certainly do not claim to have all the answers. I am seeking. And I may well come to a point where I recant some of this and adopt something I consider more in line with Jesus. But I am searching, and I maintain that if Jesus is the primary lens through which we come to know God, then that means much of the way we have been taught to think about God is, frankly, wrong. I refuse to be content with it because people have believed it for centuries. And, bizarrely, I think that I am starting to see that the church hasn’t believed what they do now for centuries. Not at all. So ironically, I think my prayer for you is the same as yours for me: that you may come to see, once you are able to remove the cultural filters that seem so natural, just how beautiful and liberating the gospel actually is.
I feel I need to say this, just in case it did not come across clearly the last time: I don’t believe I am asking you to embrace something new. I am asking you to remove the ‘new’ and revert to what was before. If you insist that yours is the correct theology, you need to explain why – without exception – all of the denominations that can trace their existence back to the early church do not claim the doctrine of the infallibility of Scripture, nor do they hold a penal substitution theology of the cross. You would need to explain why these conparatively recent theologies should supplant the ones that pre-existed them. I am asking you to do exactly what you think you are asking me to do – reject a ‘modern’ interpretation of the cross. I know yours seems like it has been around forever, but that is only because it is the theology into which you have been born and have become accustomed. It simply has not occured to you that perhaps in two thousand years since Jesus, somebody might have invented it. Simply put, your theology – a modern one built on a 16th Century Reformation one – is anachronistic. And subsequently, your readings of the Scriptures – filtered through that lens – might seem natural. but there are other ways of reading those same Scriptures that are truer to the way a first Century Jew – like Jesus or Paul or any of the disciples – would have thought. None of the verses you quote refer specifically to hell, nor does wrath necessarily equate to punishment. Those are interpretations. I am not asking you to reinvent the text. I am asking you to look at it without a Calvinistic filter. That filter has determined how you understand key ideas like “sin”, “being born again”, “wrath” and “judgment”. I am not arrguing against any of those things. I am saying they are not used as legalistic terms. Judaism has never been and certainly was not in the 1st Century, primarily about ‘being good’. It was about social identity – setting oneself apart as devoted to God. As such, the laws are identity markers, not moral imperatives. And they enable the group to function harmoniously – the point of God’s Law – of any law, for that matter – is to govern society. That is why Jesus can say that they all hang together on the concept of loving God and loving one another. He could not make that claim if the laws were ends in and of themselves. But he does. And if that is the case, then what makes sin bad is that it disrupts the social cohesion, not that it makes an individual impure (it may have that effect, and that is a problem that needs to be addressed, but that is secondary). The individual in the Scriptures always finds meaning in the group (hence all the ‘body of Christ’ imagery in Paul’s letters, or Paul’s deconstruction of social boundary-markers like gender or race in Galatians 3, not in isolation. The law serves the group, not the individual: it preserves group identity not individual purity. That is how any Jew, past or present, would understand it. And the key paradigm underpinning interpretation of the SCriptures needs to be a Jewish one – the key figures are all Jewish – not a European Enlightenment one.
And the world does hate me for saying that, as Jesus predicted. The world is defined as any system of power (for the Scriptures define the world as “principalities and powers” – ie. a way of configuring society) that structures itself in a non-Kingdom way (and please note that Jesus always preaches the Kingdom of God – ie. a system of social governance under the rule of God – and not individual forgiveness. You will be hard-pressed to argue that this is not true. The world hates this because it does not want to arrange itself around love and peace and forgiveness. It wants scapegoating and blame and power.
I do appreciate your concern, and my passion is not directed against mainstream Christians at all. I just find it so frustrating sometimes that so many people are lost and locked into a religious paradigm that promotes violence and injustice and death, when Jesus promises life and peace. As I see it, it is as simple as that: Jesus promised abundant life (John 10:10) and peace that the world cannot give (John 14:27). If our theologies cannot deliver on that, (and I don’t believe Calvinistic theology can), then we need to relook at our theology. It is theology that perpetuates violence that I passionately resist, not the people who hold those theologies. I dislike ideas, not people, not the church.