A friend of mine made the following statement to me last week: “The difference between Catholics and Protestants is that Catholics believe in “Jesus and…”; Protestants believe in “Jesus only”. He’s wrong, of course. Nobody believes in Jesus only. We all add something. And if I were to be cynical, I would argue that Protestants don’t worship Jesus; they worship the Bible. I know this might sound hyperbolic and paradoxical, but I believe that Bible-worship is the single biggest obstacle to Protestants coming to know Jesus. More than that, I believe it is the heresy with the most devastating consequences in terms of the violent impact of religion on society. I will even be so bold as to venture that Christian faith has very little of value to offer the world so long as the Bible in its entirety is regarded as God’s incontrovertible revelation of Henself to humanity.
The reason for this is that the God revealed in it – if every revelation of God contained therein is authentic – is a monster. If every command attributed to God in the Biblical writings genuinely proceeded directly from the mouth of the Divine, and if every action the writers claim was sanctioned by God genuinely received the divine stamp of approval, then God is abusive and capricious. The same God who orders the complete destruction of every nation that opposes Israel – women, children and men (sometimes even livestock), who rains fire on Sodom and Gomorrah, who allows foreign armies to rape and murder His “children” as punishment for disobedience, is the very God who claims – without any apparent hint of irony – to love us while we are sinners. If the Bible is completely reliable in the picture it paints of God then we are in big trouble. Because that means that the Being that holds the reins of the universe is a deranged psychopath. As magnanimous as this God can be, He (and I have deliberately used the masculine pronoun instead of what I regard as the more accurate gender neutral Hen) can be equally petty and vindictive. In short, it is a God made in our own image.
And that is hardly surprising, really. The Biblical texts find their origins in deeply patriarchal warrior cultures. And in trying to make sense of an invisible God, it is natural for writers to project something of themselves, of their worldviews, onto their interpretations of the God revealed through the history they are living through. When multiple writers across different times, from different cultural , socio-economic and linguistic backgrounds, with differing levels of education and varying experiences of imperial power, all attempt to write about their perceptions of an invisible God, it is inevitable that there will be contradictions. The contradictions, as I see it, are not the problem.
The problem is that we deny that there are any contradictions at all. Is it really so difficult to see that the same God whom Moses claims commands the sacrificial laws is the same God whom Jeremiah denies ever issued such commandments? That the same God who brutalises both His enemies and His children throughout the Old Testament is the same one who insists that self-sacrificing love is the only legitimate model for interrelating in the New?
We elect to blind ourselves to these contradictions by trying to argue that God is not only absolutely loving but also absolutely just, and so the extreme violence is actually loving because it is employed in the name of justice. After all, who wouldn’t want a just society? And if that fails to convince, we can always fall back on the old “God’s ways are higher than our ways” and “God can do whatever God wants”. I have been told that if I only allowed the Holy Spirit to guide me in my reading of the Scriptures, I would see that bloodshed and love are reconcilable. To the carnal mind, I am told, these things do not make sense, but to the spiritual mind they are clear. But I am very sorry: razing entire cities to the ground because they offend God’s moral sensibilities is neither just nor loving, it is tyranny, whether you have a carnal mind or a spiritual one. And don’t get me started on the frankly ludicrous contention that condemning people to eternal suffering by fire because they refuse to bow the knee, or because they don’t manage to come to a point of adopting a narrowly defined theological paradigm in the very short space of time allotted them, can in any way be construed as acceptable. And there is nothing even remotely just (let alone absolutely just) in allowing somebody innocent (Jesus) to suffer in the place of the guilty. Justice is not transferable. Nor ought it to be confused with retribution. If Jesus being tortured and killed slowly is God’s idea of justice, then God has a very twisted sense of right and wrong. Face it: the God we preach, based on select Biblical passages, contradicts the God revealed in Jesus. You would have to have a seriously perverted theology and non-existent reading comprehension skills to be able to conceive of a scenario where the Jesus of the gospels commanded the wholesale slaughter of children. God is not a murderer of children. That’s something people do.
We refuse to acknowledge that we not only write ourselves into texts, we read ourselves into them too. That is one of the key reasons why I am sceptical of any faith that centres itself on a text. Readers are always active in making meaning of texts – the messages texts convey are never constructed only by the writers. When a 21st Century Western white, middle-class man reads any part of the Bible I will guarantee that the message he “hears” (I would argue ‘constructs’) is not the message that a Jewish person from millennia past would have “heard” (more accurately, ‘constructed’). The connotations of terminology have changed, for example. “The Kingdom of God” would not have meant an otherworldy utopia to any Jew, and ideas like “salvation” and “repentance” are English translations that in an individualistic Protestant culture lose the orientation around ideas of communal identity and political liberation that they would have had for 1st Century Jews. To trust in a text is to trust in one’s own interpretation of the text. Faith in a text is thus faith in oneself.
That is not to say that the Biblical texts have no value. It is not a choice between either accepting them as infallible or discarding them altogether. That kind of dualistic thinking is also a regrettable characteristic of modern thinking. Rather, we engage with the text on its own terms. We wrestle with its ideas, we attempt to understand the influences on the thinking of the writer, we inquire into which parts can be trusted and which cannot. Not least, we reflect on how we ourselves influence the message we hear. In other words, we discern. Reading carries a great deal of responsibility. The Bible is an invaluable and indispensable tool for the Christian. It is not the Bible I have a problem with, it is our approach to it.
Reducing our reading to “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” is not only supremely arrogant, it is also utterly irresponsible. It is tantamount to saying: “I will not question the extent to which my own prejudices and context influence my understanding; I am my own arbiter of absolute truth and nobody can tell me otherwise”. That is not the kind of thinking that leads naturally to a peaceful and loving society, the kind of community that Jesus calls “The Kingdom of God”. Bible-worship, though, discourages any form of engagement with this. So when some of the God-projections in the Scriptures have no issue with employing excessive violence against those who oppose them, then it is no wonder that we have no issue doing likewise. Because the Scriptures reflect a multiplicity of (sometimes very human) voices, it is easy to find a verse that will justify whatever action we desire to take, especially if we take those voices, which are actually our own, as God’s. We can make the Bible say whatever we want it to say. What’s more, we do. And that has resulted in all manner of atrocities in the name of God. Text-based faith legitimates systemic violence and perpetuates inequality. It is always, I would argue, ultimately extremist, exclusive and violent.
A common objection is this: if the Bible is not the anchor of faith, then we are at the mercies of any ideologies that take our fancy. Indeed, that was the very reason Luther introduced Sola Scriptura in the first place. At face value, that seems sensible. How else do we know we are right? But once you put it like that, you can see the problem: faith has become a competition. Who is right and who is wrong? And being right takes on an extra sense of urgency when you take into account, according to the Bible, the kind of horrific treatment God metes out to those who are wrong. Text-based faith roots faith in fear, and fear always diminishes one’s capacity to love and be loved: the very opposite of what Jesus taught. But that is a topic for another day. Suffice it to say that the need to anchor faith in something absolute is not met by rooting faith in a text, simply because the reader of any text is the primary agent in the meaning-making process. If you trust only the Bible as a dispenser of spiritual revelation you are already at the mercy of any ideology that is prevalent at the time: the meaning derived from a text is never derived only from the text, but is necessarily a derivation of the reader’s own thinking and the thinking of those who interpret the text for the reader.
So where can we anchor faith? If we say “In Jesus”, surely we are falling into the same trap, as the only Jesus we can know is the one we derive from the gospel texts, interpreted through the lens of our own contexts? That is true. And that is certainly why we must apply academic rigour to our readings of Jesus too. Subjectivity is inescapable, and that is why we must remain conscious of it. Objectivity is a myth, and a dangerous one. Certainty limits understanding, because when we are certain, we stop acknowledging our own subjectivity and we see our own opinions as objective truth. But we still need an anchor. The dilemma is this: while we want to avoid the pitfalls of certainty, we acknowledge that faith founded upon subjective experience and personal opinion will – especially if practised by entire communities – amplify the impact of human vices on society. When we become our own arbiters of truth, our own insecurities and prejudices play themselves out in our relationships with others, but we see our actions and beliefs as legitimate, even perhaps as a divinely mandated expressions of faith and we never question them. Put another way, text-based faith is subjectivity masquerading as objectivity, that teaches that we ought to treat others as we want to treat them.
What Jesus offers is this: a picture of God that goes beyond text; a living, breathing theological paradigm, richer and deeper than any text. To quote Brian Zahnd, “Jesus is what God has to say”. In the Bible, the term “Word of God” is not used self-referentially, but is used in reference to Jesus. When the term “The Word of God” is used by the early church fathers, it is used in reference to Jesus. The Bible is not “the Word of God”, Jesus is. The appropriation of the term to refer to the Bible is Lutheran in origin. It has merely become naturalised through five centuries of use. But if Jesus is the Word of God, what does that mean? For a start, it means that Jesus himself is the message, not merely his words. If you reduce the gospel to an atonement theory, you will miss much of its beauty and value, which lies in how Jesus lived, as much as in how he died.
I think Jesus understood something very important about our approach to faith: we are by nature mimetic creatures. The value we ascribe to things is often the value we perceive others to ascribe to those same things. Thus the way we give expression to our faith is often simply mimicry of those we regard as faithful, as holding spiritual authority. We regard as valuable expressions of faith those expressions of faith seen as valuable by others, and by the religious culture as a whole. But religious culture, like any form of culture, is neither static nor objective, and so faith expressions, too, shift form over time. If faith expressions are mimetic, and culture changes, then text-based faith expressions will shift according to the interpretations of the text predominant in the culture at any given time. Jesus gives us something else to mimic instead. Very frequently, especially when it comes to his key teachings, Jesus encourages his disciples to mimic him, instead of the religious leaders of the time, and sometimes even instead of the Scriptures:
- “When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love, just as I obey my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow! This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you.” (John 15: 10 – 12)
- So Jesus explained, “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does. (John 5: 19)” [It is very hard to justify Penal Substitution as a legitimate interpretation of the atonement when Jesus makes claims like this. Essentially, it simply cannot be inferred, if you believe Jesus is One with God, as he claims, that God is punitive and violent by nature.]
- Notice how much of Matthew 5 follows the pattern of Jesus saying: “you have heard it said…(Jesus quotes from Deuteronomic law) …but I say …(Jesus reinterprets law)”. This is much more than Jesus simply differentiating between the letter and spirit of the law. What Jesus does here is set himself up as an authority above the law (imagine, for example, your pastor saying: You know the bit in the Bible where it says…? Well, instead I say…). And implicit in this is that we ought to mimic Jesus as opposed to blind adherence to Scriptural precepts.
- “But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) For me, this is possibly the verse that illustrates most clearly what Jesus teaches about God’s character. This statement is the conclusion to his teaching on enemy love, where Jesus argues that the key characteristic of godly character is the capacity to love one’s enemies. Anyone can love those who love them. But children of God, Jesus insists, ought to love everyone. God’s blessings, he states, are not only reserved for the just and the faithful, so therefore we ought to be perfect just as God is. Perfection is not defined as strict adherence to the law, prefection is acting in love towards one’s enemies. Holiness is not moral purity, it is unconditional love. It is a teaching Jesus models at the cross when he forgives his murderers.
- In Luke 10, when Jesus repackages the teaching on enemy love in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus tells his audience, if they want to live a godly life, to “go and do likewise”.
Mimesis is key to understanding religious expression. Jesus, I think, knew that, and instead of leaving us to follow the examples of the religious leaders who relied solely on their sacred texts, and who were therefore unwitting slaves to their own prejudices and preconceptions, he asked us to mimic him instead, to take up our crosses and follow him. Jesus never defines faith as a belief system. Go back and look at what he has to say about the subject. For Jesus, faith is always defined as something you do; a way of being, not a way of thinking. Life is not found through texts. Sacred texts breed hatred in us, as ultimately we cultivate contempt for those who do not see the ‘truths’ in them that we do. Sacred texts generate mimetic rivalry – a concept I will develop at a later stage – and, ultimately, foster violence and death. But if, instead, we choose to mimic a living word, one that refuses to submit to our flawed interpretations and one that insists – against all of our natural desires – that we actively love our enemies, then we have hope of finding life.
Somewhere near the Temple in Jerusalem, a crowd of religious leaders was harassing Jesus for healing a blind man on the Sabbath. They were so bound up in the prescripts of their texts that they could not see God working right before their eyes. Text-based religion always breeds contempt, always fosters elitism and eventually stirs up violence. Violence is the heartbeat of religion. But Jesus rebuked them, directing them to a better, life-affirming word. I often wonder, were Jesus to walk into a 21st Century Evangelical church, if he would not say much the same thing as he did then (John 5:39-40):
“You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life.”
You speak of heresy in this post. You should be aware that this line of reasoning you are proposing is based on the same type of analysis that Marcion employed for his doctrines, which were declared as heresy in the early centuries. To view the God of the Old Testament as not representative of the faith presented by Jesus, (who was Jewish “rabbi” that taught strict observance of the Law of God), is to fundamentally (and I mean to emphasize the word fundamentally) misunderstand who God is and his word. This presentation is not at all consistent with the teachings of the apostles and would be most definitely denounced as heresy by them.
I don’t think the comparison to Marcion is altogether just, although you are right that there a number of points of agreement. My concern is that it is all too easy to say: “this resembles Marcionism, and the church regarded that as heresy, therefore I won’t engage with it.” Marcion’s questions were altogether legitimate: I think there is an obligation on the part of Christians to explain how the violent God in much of the Old Testament is reconcilable with Jesus. Jesus is the full revelation of God: any reading of the Scriptures makes that abundantly clear. And in that case, Marcion’s observation is critical. I think his observation that Paul, more than the church in Jerusalem, understands this, is also clear from a sound reading of Paul’s epistles and his well-documented conflict with the Jerusalem church.
But I differ from Marcion on several very key points, which is why I think the comparison is misleading. First, Marcion concludes that there are two different Gods operating. I maintain that there is only one immutable God, but several different understandings of that God, represented throughout the Scriptures, but that the differences between those different perceptions are more clearly delineated post-Jesus. I think the God as revealed in Jesus is very clearly evident throughout the Old Testament, but there are other human voices too, which depict a violent God that does not exist. Unlike Marcion, I do not reject the Hebrew Scriptures. I think a God of love is evident throughout:
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.(Hosea 6:6)
To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.(Proverbs 21:3)
In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required. Then I said, “Behold, I have come; in the scroll of the book it is written of me: I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.” (Psalm 40:6-8)
For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (Hebrews 10:4)
For in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave them: ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. And walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you.’ (Jeremiah 7:22-23)
“I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:21-24)
“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:6-8)
Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)
And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (Mark 12:33)
It is undebiable that passages like these are irreconcilable with passages that depict God as commanding genocide.
I am not like Marcion: I see only one true God, throughout the SCriptures, not two. But I aslo see many human voices – which is expected in a collection of texts spanning hundreds of years and many cultural contexts – who attempt to portray that God according to their own understandings, which is what I believe we do too when we interpret Scripture. The church was right to challenge Marcion: there is only one God, not two, and the Scriptures cannot and should not be rejected. I am not arguing for Marcion’s views. I am arguing that to find the One God revealed in Scriptures, and align that with the God revealed in Jesus, requires a more honest intellectual approach than we are currently making.
I appreciate your detailed and thorough response to my critique. I find you a thoughtful writer and this is why I chose to engage. I am convinced, after reading your comments above, that you are very sincere. Yet, I must say that you are making your argument with a classic, supersessionist view of the scriptures which collapses in a mighty heap when a more comprehensive view of the text is considered. Additionally, you ignore the context of the passages you quote and fail to see what the reader is actually saying and to whom he is saying it. To attempt to separate Jesus and Paul and the rest of the apostles from a completely Jewish religious worldview is to a) misunderstand the gospel message itself, and b) totally misunderstand the kingdom of God.
In a previous post (one which I abstained from commenting on) you attacked the notion that God makes covenants. I completely disagreed with both your premise and your logic in that piece.
I think that the missing piece is the Jewish worldview. The Jewish people have been wrestling with the Bible far longer than any of us, and far longer than the Church itself. I have found that many of these seeming discrepancies in the Bible, which you have interpreted as such and have characterized them as inconsistent with the testimony of Jesus, are actually not discrepancies at all. Jesus taught from within the matrix of traditional Judaism, supported the Oral traditions (mostly) and fulfilled the Jewish expectation of the Messiah Son of Joseph, a messianic idea which springs from the Oral Traditions of Judaism. The texts you quote which you are claiming show an abrogation of the Old Testament ethics and Mosaic Law itself are being misinterpreted out of their rightful context. Jesus said himself that he did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, and that anyone who taught against even the least of His ordinances would be least in the kingdom (Matt.5:17-20). Paul also claims that what matters most, above all, is obeying God’s commandments (the Law) (1 Cor.7:19).
I agree with you that there is a re-emphasis and exhortation by Jesus and his followers (James is closest to the literal teachings of Christ in this regard) of the aggadic, ethical instructions of the application of righteousness, but Jesus himself, contrary to your assertion, expresses the same character and tone as the writings of the Old Testament which you seem to feel represent something other than what he did. I would turn you to Matthew chapters 23-25, for instance, for a poignant example of what I mean.
So, while you may not agree that you share common ground with Marcion, doctrinally, the effect is the same, if one were to embrace your view.
I believe that it’s not only possible, but necessary, to put Jesus and his teachings, and the teachings of his followers, within the context of Second Temple apocalyptic messianic thought, in order to solve the mystery you are wrestling with here.
Again, I like your style and I applaud your willingness to think outside the box. But I felt it was time I engaged your thinking process with some warm-hearted criticism. Hopefully you are receiving it in that spirit.
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Sorry to take so long to respond. I have been out of town. Of course I will receive your criticism in the spirit it was intended. I follow your blog, and am honoured, actually, that you have responded at all. I find your work deeply thought-provoking. I am also an advocate of trying to understand Jesus through the Jewish paradigms he operated within. I have done a fair bit of reading, although I am nowhere near as familiar with that contaext as you are. Still, I don’t think it is quite as simple, though, as saying that because the disciples would have understood Jesus in a certain way that it follows that we ought to as well. Like ours, their understandings would have been rooted in a cultural context. I think this is also true of the writers of the gospels and is evident in the ways that they package the narratives, and this needs to be taken into consideration. In many of his teachings, Jesus actively subverts traditional thinking. I don’t think it is wise to conflate Jesus’ thinking with any of the predominant schools of thought of his time any more than it would be wise to conflate his thinking with postmodern thought, although certain lines of Jewish thinking would have obviously influenced him whereas postmodern thought would certainly not have, which makes an understanding of Jewish thought, as you say, vital.
I am afraid I do not accept that “the effect is the same”, in terms of the similarities between Marcion’s theology and mine, if you mean propogating an heretical understanding of God. If you mean the effect is the same in terms of seeing God as non-violent, I would agree to some extent (although the comparison is limited: Marcion has two Gods – one violent and one not. I have one nonviolent God depicted in Scriptures by people who think violently. Marcion sees the Scriptures as speaking with one voice, essentially. I see it as speaking through many voices). I understand the comparison, though, and will leave it at that.
I appreciate your taking time to respond. I am certainly open to learning, and where I found some of your critique vague (“…collapses in a mighty heap when a more comprehensive view of the text is considered. Additionally, you ignore the context of the passages you quote and fail to see what the reader is actually saying and to whom he is saying it”, as well as your references to Matthew 23-25), I accept that the comment section on a post isn’t really the right forum for going into detail on such weighty issues, and I will read your work to gain a more solid understanding of what you mean.
I really, really value your feedback. Thank you, sincerely.
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Amen. Yes, I chose to be a little vague because of space restraints. I trust if you are interested in exploring what I mean you will read the passages cited and reflect on them based on my commentary. It may, at the least, stimulate some further dialogue.
I agree with some things you said in response. I fully agree with the importance of cultural context. I’m really big on that issue and I find, generally, that interpretations which ignore this facet fall woefully short of the mark. I agree also, that the Jewish worldview of the Second Temple period certainly weighs more upon the teachings of Christ than any postmodern one. And your insight on this is one of the reasons I enjoy your writings; you aren’t held by a dogmatic, static approach to the Word, as though it exists in some sort of levitated state, apart from the physical world, and cannot be wrestled with, argued with, and brought into real-life context.
I think, also, that I will concede the defensiveness you are feeling about the Marcionic claim. Certainly I’m not suggesting that you are proposing “two gods”. My analogy is grounded in the idea that you are proposing an entirely new set of teachings and understandings about God Himself and about how to relate to the world in the New, apart from the Old. I don’t think I could agree with that, nor do I think the apostles present that case.
I believe, after reading both your responses, that you have a very normal difficulty with putting the teachings of Jesus into a traditional Jewish context. Therefore, it appears he is departing from the norm. I am convinced that, while his messianic claims are apocalyptic and demand a response, that he taught very much in line with the house of Hillel and with the Pharisees in general. The criticisms of his opponents are in line with similar debates that are found in the Talmud (though the Talmud doesn’t present these arguments in polemical fashion as the apostles do in their gospels). I think, based on my own research, that the teachings and ministry of Christ are very consistent with the Oral Traditions and the Prophets and the Torah, and the Jewish understanding of all three. Truthfully, we would not have the Bible at all if not for the faithful transmission of it by the Jewish scribes.
My basic position, overarching all of this, is that any inerpretation which fails to acknowledge that fact that the Jewish people were given the responsibility by God to steward the oracles and revelations of Him, and seeks to somehow marginalize the Jewish interpretive method or position, is bound to rub up at odds with what God intends for us to know about them.
So I bristle when I see any teaching that seeks to abrogate the promises of God as found in the Old by superseding them with a movement that came afterwards. After all, the religion of the people who wrote the Bible was Judaism.
Certainly, the Talmudic sages existed after Christ’s ministry, but the ideas within the Talmud are largely the product of a long history of oral tradition carried forward by previous generations,and then added to by subsequent ones. This is true of the gospels as well, which were all penned decades after the actual events they describe, and after the epistles of Paul.
Thanks. I’ll keep reading. And thanks for reading my stuff too. I’m glad you are doing so and you honor me as well!
Sometimes, when I read the Old Testament, I try to imagine an old man telling the story at a fire at night, with all that dramatic accents and pauses. Sometimes it gives me a new understanding of the scripture and I feel that it is probably the correct one. Many texts are not taken from a lawyer’s or mathematician’s textbook.
Yes, that is it exactly for me. Except for me it is not merely one old man telling the story, it is many. And they come from different places and different times and tell the story in different ways.
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