Wrestling with Scripture


I was reading Walter Brueggemann’s book, An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible, today, and I came across this quote: ”

“I suggest that a Christian reading of the Old Testament requires, in the present time, a recovery of the Jewishness of our ways of reading the text.”

He goes on to suggest that Jewish scholars have always seen our interpretations of Scripture as provisional, not final. There is always more to the text. My view may be challenged, and I welcome the challenge as a means by which we all learn more in the process of interpretation. We wrestle with the text, and we recognize the value of continuing to wrestle in the pursuit of wisdom.

This brought to mind some things Pete Enns said in his wonderful book, The Bible Tells Me So. In the course of his own journey, Pete learned to appreciate the much different dynamic of Jewish biblical studies and their willingness to tolerate differences and tensions within the Jewish community.

In other words, reading and studying the Bible ought to open and encourage conversations, not shut them down.

I thought it might be good to think about that today.

…the history of Judaism is a lively tradition of wrestling openly with scripture and coming to diverse conclusions about how to handle it. More so than the Christian tradition, Judaism embraces debate as a vital part of its faith. Disagreements are preserved (not silenced or marginalized) in official core texts of Judaism, like the Talmud and medieval commentaries on the Bible. Opposing opinions sit side by side as monuments to this wrestling match with scripture— and with God.

As I mentioned, I was influenced at Harvard by Jewish professors as they introduced me to this rich history of struggling with the Bible. Though I still handle the Bible as a Christian, through their influence I also came to appreciate and embrace the spiritual benefit of keeping conversations open rather than closing them. That influence is written all over this book.

The Bible isn’t a cookbook— deviate from the recipe and the soufflé falls flat. It’s not an owner’s manual— with detailed and complicated step-by-step instructions for using your brand-new all-in-one photocopier/ FAX machine/ scanner/ microwave/ DVR/ home security system. It’s not a legal contract— make sure you read the fine print and follow every word or get ready to be cast into the dungeon. It’s not a manual of assembly— leave out a few bolts and the entire jungle gym collapses on your three-year-old.

When we open the Bible and read it, we are eavesdropping on an ancient spiritual journey. That journey was recorded over a thousand-year span of time, by different writers, with different personalities, at different times, under different circumstances, and for different reasons.

In the Bible, we read of encounters with God by ancient peoples, in their times and places, asking their questions, and expressed in language and ideas familiar to them. Those encounters with God were, I believe, genuine, authentic, and real. But they were also ancient— and that explains why the Bible behaves the way it does.

This kind of Bible— the Bible we have— just doesn’t work well as a point-by-point exhaustive and timelessly binding list of instructions about God and the life of faith. But it does work as a model for our own spiritual journey. An inspired model, in fact.

92 thoughts on “Wrestling with Scripture

  1. “Know” = believe, in re. religious faith. Am not saying that as anything but a self-evident fact. It cannot be proven in a sci/tech sense, no matter how true (or not) it might be.


  2. Hmm… Miguel, you might want to check out Mark S. Smith’s The Early History of God. Peter Enns posted about it a couple of weeks ago. It’s a standard text for biblical studies courses these days. Even so, a lot more has come down the pike since his revision of the text.

    And I’m referring to good schools using this book. Eerdmans publishes it, and even their scholarly side is not what I’d call “liberal.” I have been finding that even the evangelicals who deal with ANE archaeology, literature, etc. are in a whole different ballpark than most other evangelicals. Can cause a lot of problems, sadly.

    One of the important points to think about is that monotheism didn’t come into being overnight. Even if you take the story of Abraham as a starting point, he was *still* a Chaldean from Ur…


  3. What the people who preach ‘literal days’ only to do with Creation forget is that God created us as rational beings in His image, with the gift of reason.

    So when a geologist studies the structure of the Earth, he is exploring God’s handiwork and examining it for clues as to how the Earth was formed. And this includes an examination of the scientific evidence of the age of the Earth’s formations. Since the gifts of observation and reason are employed, the scientist is not working in opposition of God’s revelation but in accordance with our ability to encounter it with His gift of reason. Our rational powers are a part of being made in the image of God. And the scientist’s rational study of the Cosmos is not done in opposition to the One who gave that scientist his ability to reason and employ rational thinking . . . .

    I suspect that SOME in the YEC fan club are more interested in ‘cult control’ than in appreciating Creation’s unfolding witness to God’s handiwork. The worst evidence for this is that YEC gurus have suggested that God tried to ‘trick’ mankind by making the Earth appear ‘older’ than it is. That is a sad testimony to their strange ‘faith’ in a ‘god’ who is small and petty and dishonest. That kind of desperate ‘rationalizing’ on their part is a corruption of the gift of reason, not an employment of reason to honor the Creator.


  4. Well Ben, just a few years ago I watched a small fellowship I was serving implode because creationists couldn’t imagine another pov. I’ve had the same experience as you describe the other way around on creationist sites. Perhaps I’m at a disadvantage here because I live within the vicinity of the Creation Museum and in the heart of homeschooling country. Biologos and names like Pete Enns, Francis Collins, and John Walton are equated with biblical compromise and (at least potentially) abandoning the gospel. This weekend there is a Creation Expo at a local college in town offering “answers to evolution.” They usually draw in the thousands, and I’m pretty sure their approach isn’t too tolerant.

    This is the world I came from, and while I will grant you that a lot of progress has been made, most of the folks I spent my pastoral career among would find my positions fairly intolerable.


  5. Hi ROBERT F.
    I can agree with Numo here . . . . . the brand of ‘hell’ as dished out and applied as doctrine by fundamentalist-evangelicals is not consistent with the Great Tradition of the Church.


  6. Sorry didn’t finish my thought about Justin Taylor. He made a detailed case that a non-literal interpretation of the events of Genesis 1 was entirely within bounds for an evangelical, conservative, Calvinist.


  7. “…if they didn’t insist that their way is the only way…”

    What does this mean? Does it mean that they think that their way is right and other ways are, consequentially, wrong? Isn’t that exactly what you think about your own position? That the Creationists are wrong and that your position (theistic evolution or something close to it) is the one correct way to interpret Genesis? Good grief, if we aren’t allowed to disagree about anything or think that we’re right about anything, good luck getting any of your Bible questions answered.

    “…and that those who don’t agree are not faithful Christians or maybe not even Christians at all.”

    Many prominent pastors and scholars in the evangelical world question the Young Earth interpretation of Genesis 1. Even Steve Hays of the Calvinist Triablogue posted last week on how one could make good faith arguments for a local not a global flood.

    Did you happen to see the post from Justin Taylor on Gospel Coalition about the interpretation of Genesis 1? It was a few years ago, but essentially he made a detailed case that

    Besides Steve and Justin, I could name Francis Collins, C. Jack Collins, Tim Keller, Bruce Waltke, John Walton…the list goes on.

    Who are you talking about?

    A no-name commenter who brings up Creationist literature on a theistic evolution blog or website is hardly in a position to read people out of the faith. He’s simply raising questions. But try that and you are mocked as a simpleton. The fangs come out. It reveals what’s really going on in this whole debate, and who the real intolerant ideologues are.


  8. Ben, speaking only for myself, I’d be a lot more open to creationists if they didn’t insist that their way is the only way and that those who don’t agree are not faithful Christians or maybe not even Christians at all.


  9. Peter Enns writes, “More so than the Christian tradition, Judaism embraces debate as a vital part of its faith. Disagreements are preserved (not silenced or marginalized) in official core texts of Judaism, like the Talmud and medieval commentaries on the Bible. Opposing opinions sit side by side as monuments to this wrestling match with scripture— and with God.”

    Here’s a fun experiment. Try bringing up the book “After the Flood” by Bill Cooper on this blog or in similar venues (Enns’ own blog). You’ll quickly find out how open to disagreement the proponents of open-ness and tolerance really are.

    Whenever any species of Creationism or Creation Science comes up, the Pavlovian instinct of liberal Christians like Enns is BASH BASH BASH. How enlightened they are…


  10. I’m not sure what you and Adam mean; it may be that there is some difference between the evangelical concept of hell and Catholic ones that escapes me. But if the discussion here is about a doctrine of hell sufficiently horrific and frightening to prevent a plurality of interpretations of Scripture, and to promote the idea that getting Scriptural interpretation wrong leads to that hell, then the traditional Catholic doctrine of hell certainly did those things long before Protestantism of any kind arrived on the seen.


  11. I do get what Adam is saying about the American evangelical version of fire and brimstone, though. It’s not the same as what can historically be found in Catholicism, or even in some non-evangelical wings of Protestantism.


  12. One thing you might find interesting per the history of Westetn religious art is that depictions of hell and its torments don’t start showing up until the early medieval period…


  13. Also – it’s a vast and complex subject. Maybe checking at your local library, and online, for some books would be helpful to you.


  14. You are, I think, sort of (maybe) thinking about the Hasidim and other haredi groups, not what is known now as the “modern Orthodox.” Beyond that, I can’t really answer your questions in a helpful way, because I’m just not acquainted with the things you mention in any depth, and would rather say “I don’t know” than start talking through my hat.

    I grew up with peers whose parents were, almost without exception, raised Orthodox. All of them had moved to either Conservative or Reform synagogues, especially those who felt strongly pro-women participating in religious life. (Not to mention their young daughters being included.) But things are slowly changing, even among some of the modern Orthodox per that. Reform Judaism has ordained women to the rabbinate for quite a few years, and the 1st Conservative women rabbis came along within the ladt decade. I think the modetn Orthodox – some of them – will eventually come around.

    I think, though, that it’s really rough for women in haredi communities of any kind. The separate gallery, not being encouraged (in many cases, not even being permitted) to engage in prayer, not counting in so many other ways. Some ultra-Orthodox groups try to live like people from the shtetls, back in 1860 or so. It’s hard for all, except maybe for those who enforce things. I rec’d a couple of books by former haredim up at the top of this thread, so you might want to have a look there…


  15. The Hasidim are Orthodox, but not what is often called “modern Orthodox.” That would be people who are part of the “secular” world, not living in closed communities like the Hasidim.

    It’s complicated!


  16. Scneerson was the last leader of the Lubavitch sect. He died over 20 years ago without naming a succssor. Many, many of the Lubavitchers believe he is the messiah and that he will rise from the dead. I think that alone categorically separates them from other harefi (aka ultra-Orthodox) sects. Messianic fervor over specific people has happened every so often in the history of Judaism, but ultimately has never lasted.

    Potok seemed to have a lot of connections to the Lubavitchers, and they feature in nearly all of his books. But that studying… well, for another perspective, read Shulem Dern’s memoir All Who Go Do Not Return. (He came from a different Hasidic group, one that’s far more closed off thsn the Lubavitchers.) Leah Lax’s Uncovered is pretty good, too, and one of yhe few memoirs written by a woman who’s left the ultra-Orthodox wotld. (She was a convert to the Lubavitchers, from a secular Jewish familu.)


  17. Right here at IMonk is really the only online venue where I will actually engage in theological discussion and arguments. I’ve done arguments in other online venues, and it’s just not worth the time. The community spirit here makes all the difference.


  18. Israel doesn’t chronicle their journey of understanding different Gods whom are latter attributed to the same name. Instead, they tell the story of them betraying the one true God to run after other false Gods, after which they are repeatedly chastised and brought to repentance and renewed faithfulness to true God. Those events do not fit your narrative.

    Additionally, if you view the OT God as a composite of different deities who are really just man-made projections of ourselves, then you’re gonna have a hard time with Jesus, who seems to take him to the bank, and the grave. Unless you want to say that Jesus REALLY knew better and was merely pandering to the popular conception of the time. So in addition to making Jesus dishonest, we’d also be saying that everything written about what he taught and said is suspect because we now have special insight to know what he really would have meant if he were addressing us today: Exactly what we would want him to say, as we create another God who is really just a projection of ourselves.

    In essence, when we accuse the OT Israelites of doing this, we will wind up finding ourselves doing the exact same thing. It’s difficult to accept the totality of the Biblical narrative as true and the God it portrays as real, but when you can cut past the baggage the fundamentalism brings to the table (especially of the Reformed Baptist kind), it’s not nearly as difficult. I do not think it reasonable to expect a divine, eternal justice to be something completely easy for us to stomach, as if we were constantly on the same page as him. We’re grappling with mystery as we scramble with futility to see through the muddied lenses of our ulterior motives and the ideologies we create to justify them. His ways must be higher than ours, which means there will necessarily be conflict between how we like to see things and the way they necessarily are. Christian theology requires a kind of humility where we approach church teaching in the Scriptures with our minds open enough for the text to correct us, to tell us what to believe, rather than be conformed to what we already believed before coming to it.


  19. CM the last century has seen unprecedented ecumenical advances, which means that now that we’re being nice to each other and not leveraging the power of government/anathemas against each other, we are much better able to address where our actual, substantive differences lie. I don’t anticipate it will ever lead to organizational unity, however. So long as the Pope is who he claims to be, that doctrine single handedly ostracizes Rome from organizational unity with the rest of Christendom that simply cannot go there.

    However, having better clarity about where our non-negotiable doctrinal conflicts lie could lead to greater ecumenical cooperation in non-doctrinal matters.

    The next year is going to bring a ton of work for all in the vocation of Lutheran cantor, as we will be expected to pull out all the stops for Reformation Sunday. Music/Choral festivals around the world are already in the works. It shall be a lovely year indeed.


  20. Stuart, our churches believe, teach, and confess that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law. No and/but about it.

    Therefore what you understand faith to be is relatively crucial to the equation.


  21. Miguel, I would definitely agree that the situation is much, much better today. And I suppose there will always be people and groups that insist on a “bunker” mentality. I have had good relationships with ministers and people from all different kinds of people as a chaplain, but I think I get the benefit of the doubt. It will be very interesting to see what next year brings, as we commemorate 500 years since the Reformation began.


  22. I was referring to historic Roman Catholicism; contemporary Roman Catholicism has changed much of its teaching from earlier teaching in this area and others.


  23. ROBERT,
    the Catholic Church doesn’t have the same ‘inerrantist’ theology about the Bible that evangelicals have; HOWEVER, the Church does acknowledge that in sacred Scripture, there is enough information for a reader to be able to make it to salvation and to heaven. For this reason, that ‘grace’ can come to help save a person through the guidance of the words of sacred Scripture, the Church holds that the Bible is a ‘sacramental’, and so it is honored accordingly.


  24. Miguel, are you familiar with Sharper Iron? If not, I’d encourage you to spend some time on there. The divisions over minor doctrines complete with ‘burn in hell’ motifs is sadly very active, if marginalized.


  25. Would be fun to discuss Sola Fide sometime. It sounds good, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen it in practice. There is always a “…and/but” coming.


  26. “What is frustrating is to try to teach a class where people resist any open discussion of the bible. . . ”

    I think folks who are brought up with the tradition of religious dialoguing would be much more at ease with diversity of opinions than someone from a much more rigid background. That at least makes sense to me.


  27. Possibly fictitious. I don’t really know. But it doesn’t help me to deny the reality of how many gods Israel had, which time periods they were in charge, and how they all eventually came to be the single monolithic God we now know as God…til Jesus.

    I don’t have the answers. I’m wrestling with what I used to know to be true, and now what I’ve learned is true.

    Seems like Scripture to me.


  28. well, maybe they feel that since the priest handles so many sinner’s confessions, it’s okay to go to him for help in a crisis? Catholics are a mess, and we know it, so no frills and aires at our Church. Full on ‘hospital for sinners’. Everyone welcomed. Bring your baggage. No one will be shocked. 🙂

    goodness knows, when non-Catholics need exorcisms, they certainly come running to the Church for ‘the rite’, which I find very strange, but chalk up to too many weird demon possession films out there.
    The Church does however take some of these cases, after much investigation, in accordance with the mercy of God to those in peril.


  29. could this be why, when I asked questions over on SBCvoices, I ran into firestorms of criticism and charges of being ‘ingenuous’? I wanted to KNOW. And then, in the end, the possibility came to me that words like ‘gospel’, ‘biblical’, ‘godly’, ‘biblical gospel’, etc. were just terms that were not particularly sharply defined, but were just tossed around among people who took them for granted as ‘our crowd’ talk. I sure was an outsider. And they let me know that, yes.

    Some really nice people who commented on that blog, though. From them, I was able to learn something. So it wasn’t time wasted, no.


  30. I’m more than willing to be corrected in this, given my limited knowledge. Am I wrong in thinking that in Orthodox communities today, and down through European Jewish history, differences of interpretation werr widely tolerated, but uniformity of practice is and was thought to be indispensable to Judaism, however much those communities may have differed in particulars from each other? And that refusal to abide by the decisions of the governing religious authorities of a particular community could and sometimes did result in exclusion from the community? I imagine these communities to be much like the different Amish and Mennonite churches in this respect; perhaps I’m wrong?


  31. Thanks NUMO. I had thought the boy whose eye was injured was Orthodox and the other boy (the one with the photographic memory) was from the Hasidim, so I stand corrected. I found the whole experience of reading the book to be eye-opening and I had to admire the depth of Scripture study together with the way that the Talmud and other sources were employed in the ‘wrestling’. The numerical stuff was interesting but strange.

    I’ve also read from Jewish Wisdom (Telushkin) and from Rabbi Scheerson who I think was from the Lubavitcher group. I’ve even wandered into the riches of the Velveteen Rabbi. 🙂


  32. I dunno about that, Robert. There are a lot of different ways to be Orthodox; most aren’t like you’re describing – but if you’re referring specifically to haredi communities (of which there are msny), then yes, you’re 100% correct.


  33. It is Talmudic scholarship, set within the Lubavitcher Hasidic community. Not mainstream Orthodox Judaism, though, which is much more integrated with society. The Hasidim and other ultra-Orthodox groups stick to their own communities and are warned against interaction with the outside world. Plus, Potok consistently ideslized the Hasidim. Not unreasonably so, but it’s good to keep in mind.

    He never wrote anything featuring main Hasidic characters who were women, which is kinda sad. Equally, he wouldn’t have had any access to their lives.


  34. When historic Protestant confessions declare that “Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation”, they are defining the theological place Scripture has in that particular confession: the function of Scripture first and foremost in the theological framework is to secure salvation for the believer, and to help him avoid hell. Hell, and the certainty that one will end up there apart from the “saving knowledge” that is thought to be contained in Scripture, becomes the controlling theological concern over the whole system and confession. This is not as blatant in historic Roman Catholicism, because the relationship of the process of attaining salvation to the Scriptures is simultaneously more complex and diffuse, but it’s still there: We, the Holy Roman Catholic Church, are the only body in possession of an authoritative, saving interpretation of the Scripture, the only interpretation whereby one may surely follow the narrow way and be assured of being kept out of hell.


  35. I see what you’re saying, but it was a heck of a lot worse 100 years ago. A lot of that has died off, and much denominational division is rather amicable: We in the LCMS don’t require members of other denominations to agree with us on all things to be worthy of our recognition. We recognize the entire spectrum of trinitarian orthodoxy as brothers in the faith, even those with whom we have very significant disagreements. Take Rome, for example. What they reject (Sola Fide) we consider the article on which the church stands or falls. Yet at the same time, a significant percentage of our clergy would consider them our nearest neighboring theological tradition, for a host of other reasons. We can recognize what unites us while being honest about what divides us without being jerks about it.

    But I will concede that too often that is simply not done.

    I think it’s a bit different when you work for the church (any excuse to crucify the pastor is good enough), but I’ve known fundies to argue vehemently over eschatology, but they can still be friends and consider each other true believers. But when it comes to some issues, intellectual honesty requires us to align ourselves, as best we can, with a tradition in which we have as little outstanding differences on significant issues as possible.

    Exactly as you did when you decided not to join the LCMS. That was honest. But as far as taking a “hard line,” most in our synod would laugh at the prospect of synodical leadership actively doing that. It’s happened once in recent memory (Matthew Becker, who openly taught your differences with us and them some), so consider our “hard lines” with a grain of salt: There is much more diversity within our ranks than we officially recognize. We have many pastors who say they don’t believe you could have shaken hands with any character before Genesis 12, for example.

    Church divisions can be painful, but it’s not as bad as a dishonest fake unity where we pretend our differences in perspective don’t matter. Peace and unity is better achieved when those who believe similar cooperate more closely so that the same old issues don’t have to keep getting settled over and over again. Ecumenical cooperation, also, has got to be at a historic high in Christendom right now. This “those outside our tradition will burn in hell” motif is seriously passé.


  36. Adam,
    I agree that belief in such a doctrine is a distortion of Christianity, but it has been a widespread belief down through the ages, held by Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church after the Reformation, and by the Roman Catholic Church before the Reformation. It is not an American invention; Dante’s harrowing depiction of the torments of hell in The Inferno, a depiction based in the “stock-and-trade” belief in hell of the Catholicism of his time, is evidence enough of that. Neither Protestants nor Americans invented the doctrine of Eternal and Everlasting Conscious Torment, nor did they first make it common and widespread in Christendom, nor were they first to cultivate widespread fear of hell or to develop extraordinary religious machinations intended to avoid landing oneself in it. Medieval Catholicism fairly echoes down through the ages to the present with these fears, and their attendant machinations. Hell, and the fear of it, as a fearful (admittedly false) driving force is not an invention of modern Christianity; it has ancient, widespread, well-developed, well-watered roots in the historic Church: would that they were dug up and burned.


  37. “I have more questions today than ever, almost to the point of throwing up my hands and saying ‘I give up!’.”

    Weavers’ fingers flying on the loom
    Patterns shift too fast to be discerned
    All these years of thinking
    Ended up like this
    In front of all this beauty
    Understanding nothing

    -Bruce Cockburn, “Understanding Nothing”


  38. The stubborn divisions in the Body of Christ say differently. And try being an academic in an evangelical institution with contrary views about, say, inerrancy or the sacraments. Heck, I once feared for my pastoral career because I was leaning Post-Trib on the rapture! I also watched a fellowship implode over Genesis 1-11 in the not-too-distant past. When starting my Lutheran journey, I couldn’t consider your Synod because of hard lines taken on several issues where I differ.

    And it’s not even so much that groups have to accept significant dissension within their own memberships. I’d be happy if we just publicly recognized each other and partnered more often as allies in faith and good works.


  39. You are pitting building healthy relationships with those we disagree with against holding beliefs that you are convinced enough of to build your life upon. False dichotomy. Someone’s wrong opinion doesn’t have to be equally valid as someone else’s right opinion for them to debate and be friends. If you are truly right about something, you aren’t arguing to assert intellectual superiority, but rather, for the good of the other person whom you believe can be potentially harmed by what is deceiving them.

    Of course there are things we can disagree about that are of little consequence, too, and fundamentalism gives too much consequence to inconsequential things, but everyone has at least one tree to die on that someone else thinks is superfluous.


  40. Yes, I’m not saying I don’t have convictions. The problem comes with seeing many of them as absolute truth and then requiring that others conform to them to be “right” and therefore worthy of my recognition.


  41. Perhaps I am out in left field but I feel Scripture provides many clear answers… but not to our preferred questions.

    Growing up fundamentalist, I’d have to agree. Then I went to a different fundamentalist church. And another. And another.

    Now I don’t think that anymore, lol.


  42. ….or…. it IS the same God, only he is very complex and difficult for finite beings to comprehend. Consider that as at least a possibility.

    I wonder…with all this talk about how “it’s all the same God but just different aspects/names”…I wonder if Baal and Asherah and all the rest are also aspects of this same God? Assuming there is only one God, of course.

    I know El and Baal are basically kissing cousins after all.


  43. Not only do I remember, but I could point you to lots of places where you can still hear this pretty regularly.

    It comes from the view of the Bible as an instructional guide for putting life together. One cog out of place and the whole machine collapses. Funny thing is, they always promote themselves as strong in faith, even as they participate in a system that requires them to go to battle stations if anyone disagrees with any part of it, because for them that threatens the whole.

    As an outside observer, it’s very weird to watch this dynamic. Twilight Zone stuff almost.


  44. > If all opinions are equally valid, then there is actually no purpose to the discussion at all

    I disagree. One learns an alternative perspective and one creates fellowship with another person. Both of which may in the end be far more valuable than Being Right.

    > We must respect our opponent enough to value convincing him of our views, else we
    > concede that they are not actually important.

    I disagree; this I think holds “views” in too high a regard.


  45. Not sure, BUT, people who generally have trouble accepting supernatural intervention or the miraculous in Biblical stories ARE more likely to see the genre of myth/fable/parable in such stories wherever they can. So there is a strong correlation, which leads possibly to a hasty generalization. Denying the supernatural on some things obviously does not necessitate denying it on all things, though some would try to connect the two logically. I have a rather intelligent friend who holds this perspective, and I’m trying to wrap my mind around it. Even if the two COULD be connected logically, it still doesn’t follow that all people are logically consistent. Humanity has a remarkably high tolerance for cognitive dissonance, given how rational we otherwise appear to be.


  46. > Why is that.

    It has nothing to do with Theology; these “beliefs” are used as a cultural/class shibboleth. To be a shibboleth they need have no actually meaning whatsoever, so bringing the rigors of the intellect to them is misguided.

    I mean – what does it matter at all in any way if I believe in a giant fish thousands of years or? And you cannot even tell me what “inerrancy” is.


  47. Yes, but discussion/debate and diversity of opinion are only helpful to the extent that err can be recognized. If all opinions are equally valid, then there is actually no purpose to the discussion at all. We may not ever come to a consensus on some things, but neither should we argue them as “simply my perspective.” Let each man be convinced in his own mind, otherwise any apologetic with gentleness and respect is still disingenuous. We must respect our opponent enough to value convincing him of our views, else we concede that they are not actually important.


  48. > to provide clear answers

    Most of the church bible studies I have been involved with – the problem is not answers – it is the “questions”. Perhaps I am out in left field but I feel Scripture provides many clear answers… but not to our preferred questions.


  49. Life is a mess? But we want God to FIX it so it’s not so messy! If He’s just slogging through the muck with us, what good is He? Don’t the TV preachers say God wants us to have a wonderful life?

    I had an interesting conversation with a college friend of mine this summer. I had not seen her in years. She lives near Houston (Joel Osteen country) and attends a Roman Catholic church. Besides Osteen, there is another mega-type church very near them in suburbia. She said it is surprising how many mega-church members come to their lowly Catholic church when they need financial or emotional help. They don’t want to have to admit to their own church that they are having trouble. Messy life indeed. Let’s just hide the mess.


  50. > We can’t take what we know about God the Father from the NT and apply
    > it perfectly to God from Genesis or Joshua or wherever because …

    Long before the “because” there is the question of “what does that mean?” Take what we “know” and “apply to” to Genesis; perfectly, or otherwise. Apply it for what purpose / end?


  51. ….or…. it IS the same God, only he is very complex and difficult for finite beings to comprehend. Consider that as at least a possibility. I think that NOT being the case is rather unlikely, just like an ultimately just being who NEVER does things we disagree with would be a presumptuous creation of a God in our image.

    God behaving differently at different times does not necessitate a fundamental change in his being. It COULD indicate this, or, it could indicate hoe he choses to respond to specific situations, based on a consistent character, for reasons he may or may not reveal to us.

    Of course, the God who does things WE disapprove of MUST be different than the God we worship, no matter what hermeneutic we must adopt to accomplish this.


  52. “What is frustrating is to try to teach a class where people resist any open discussion of the bible. This makes most people uncomfortable because they want certitudes, NOT more questions.”

    This is one of the curses of leadership. Most people want to follow leaders, and they want those leaders to provide clear answers, solutions, and courses of action. It’s really a basic component of how human civilization works, whether you’re dealing with religion, politics, business, or whatever.
    So quit muddying up the water, get with the program, and stop thinking for yourself!
    I’m just kidding, of course.


  53. Exactly.

    I don’t think there isn’t an Orthodox Christian on the planet who doesn’t feel some resistance when Father offers the cup to a divorced man openly living with a paramour, then refusing it to a family man who isn’t up to date with his pew pledge.

    The Orthodox principles of oikonomia (relaxing the rules for pastoral reasons) and akribia (strict application of the rules for pastoral reasons) need two things to work well; a spiritually sensitive clergy and a laity that confesses frequently and transparently.

    There is no one-size-fits-all.


  54. I think you’re exactly right Robert. And given the conscious (or unconscious) effect that ECT has on the ethos of a faith community (and it DOES play a major role), the inability to wrestle with the text – or with faith in general – would seem to be a perfectly natural and expected (and even a desired) outcome. Paring the list of “essentials” back won’t resolve anything within this paradigm.

    I don’t think “certainty” is necessarily the problem here, but rather a certainty motivated by fear and self-preservation that then (1)demands a “flat text” and (2)defines what “biblical authority” must be before one even looks at what the Bible actually is and how it behaves. This is where an honest acknowledgment of the debate, multi-vocality, and change within the pages of the Bible has something positive to contribute to the journey of faith rather than be something that needs to be silenced or explained away – through allegory or hermeneutical gymnastics, or whatever.



    I mean, wouldn’t these guys be happier with the Koran & Hadith?


  56. I heartily second your recommendation of The Chosen. Great book.

    Also, along more academic lines, almost anything by Abraham Heschel is a good window into Jewish thought and approach to the OT. And, for a more eastern or Asian approach to the Bible’s teachings, I’ve also appreciated Sadhu Sundar Singh.

    Good stuff from Enns. So many evangelicals and fundamentalist types still read the Bible as a cookbook, manual, or whatnot. I have family members who are still in this mode. It’s hard to engage in conversation with someone who already has all the answers.


  57. The Scripture-as-medicine and interpretations that heal are a good thing that all those on this blog recognize and desire. It seems like too much certainty is required to adjudicate what those might be in the Modernity that we swim in. It seems like Orthodoxy and Islam for that matter will have to engage Western thought to become viable in the West. Although Orthodoxy is very attractive to those looking for certainty with statements like “fullness of Truth” or that’s how the apostles did church or the church is the foundation and pillar of truth.


  58. Agreeing to disagree is not a good formula for Scripture-as-medicine, though. There are interpretations that heal, and those that are mere husks.

    I agree, but I struggle with this. Since what heals some will wound others.


  59. Does anyone else remember hearing people say that if you deny things like the great fish or inerrancy in general, you are really denying the supernatural entirely?

    Why is that.


  60. I have more questions today than ever, almost to the point of throwing up my hands and saying “I give up!”.

    And people say there are no contradictions in the Bible…lol

    I’m thinking it’s because the Bible does indeed contain contrarian arguments and perspectives as people try to figure things out. We can’t take what we know about God the Father from the NT and apply it perfectly to God from Genesis or Joshua or wherever because, in some way, they aren’t the same God. It could be argued that progressive revelation means we learn more about God as we go along, tho that seems a sleight of hand dismissal that God changes throughout Scripture.

    Incidentally, I just started watching this documentary about the history of God last night.


  61. Reminds me of a book the women’s Bible study at my church went through. It’s written by a woman who classifies herself as a Jewish follower of Christ. Most of the women in the Bible class absolutely could not wrap their heads around that and some questioned her perspective because, well, how can she be both! She has to be one or the other! Yes, Charles, Jesus was Jewish. He didn’t give birth to Christianity as a fully formed religion, but that is news to many Christians.


  62. We tend to like our beliefs to be neat and clean. But neat and clean are not the way of life. Life is a mess and the Good News is that God is with us in the mess and the muck.


  63. I just read The Chosen a few years ago. Actually, I got it from the library and liked it so much that I bought a copy. It was fascinating. Maybe it’s the roots of Protestantism that shut down debate in too many of our churches. Scripture, we think, is clear and If you don’t agree with us, you are free to run off and start your own church. But don’t question our doctrines. But, as the book so well portrays, not everything is clear and understandable. You can question, disbelieve, and wrestle but still be among the Chosen.

    Go get yourself a copy of The Chosen as soon as possible and read it.


  64. The application of Ezekiel 44:1 and following to the most holy Mother of God is an example of the kind of application of Scripture that the Orthodox Church routinely indulges herself in.

    There’s no way to argue it, but once you see it, you can’t unsee it. Our prayers and services are chock-a-block with this sort of Scriptural legerdemain, which is why I need to make the effort to go to Vespers and Matins more often.

    I unnerstan’ yuu, Mike. We’re dealing with a crowd here who are emerging from a culture where Scripture has been weaponized, where many have been deeply wounded thereby, where every verse and footnote is a landmine in the interminable Verdun salient of interpretation. Agreeing to disagree is wise for the development of civil discourse, and has come to the fore after 1688 when the wars of religion ceased and the secular state began to develop. Thank God we no longer have the right, and most of us no longer have the inclination, to commit violence upon those who differ from us in interpretation.

    Agreeing to disagree is not a good formula for Scripture-as-medicine, though. There are interpretations that heal, and those that are mere husks.


  65. Your comment speaks to what is unique about Christian teaching. It’s Jesus himself. He spoke with authority because his primary theme was himself — his identity and mission in the history of Israel. When Christians speak of Jesus, we likewise have that authority. But not when it comes to our systematic theology, whether Genesis 1-11 is myth or history, whether Jonah was actually swallowed by a great fish, or whether the Bible is inerrant or not. We may, of course, teach on these things, but there is room for disagreement, debate, and diversity of opinion.


  66. > The belief that getting doctrine (or practice) wrong leads to hell

    However… that simply is not Christianity. That is mostly, IMNSHO, just a strange American form of stock-and-trade parochial religion; parochial religion transformed for the individual rather than the tribe, still bearing the aftertaste of medieval and puritan pop-culture? As far as I am concerned the EECT crowd can be dismissed, intellectually, so the conversation can move on..

    > following of traditional religious practices in exactingly specific ways must also be
    > a doctrinal set of assumptions

    Or it was just yet more class politics. Orthodox Judaism certainly does not represent a majority of Judaism today; and we can never know if it ever did. I doubt amidst the withering poverty of the first and second centuries – not to mention before – the laborer was bound to strict religious adherence – almost certainly he was mostly ignored. What records we have reflect those with the leisure to keep records – something it is always important to remember.


  67. I love the scene in Fiddler on the Roof where Tevye the milkman tells one villager “You’re right” and then tells another villager who says something quite opposite “You’re right.” When a third villager says, “They can’t both be right” Tevye replies, “You know, you’re right too!”

    Also the scene at the end when they all have to leave Anatevka and someone says, “But we’ve always waited here for Messiah to come” and the aged rabbi says, “We’re going to have to wait for him somewhere else.”

    Certainty is for the dead. Living requires both flexibility and faith.

    My mother was Jewish, if anybody cares.


  68. Traditional Judaism has certainly allowed diversity in interpretation of Scripture, but not in religious practice (I’m not talking about modern forms of Judaism). Underlying an insistence that what is of utmost importance for the community’s identity and religious fidelity is the following of traditional religious practices in exactingly specific ways must also be a doctrinal set of assumptions, though it perhaps is never made explicit. Here, Orthodox Judaism to this day in highly intolerant of disagreement.


  69. Of course, when the strong possibility of ending up in hell (eternal and everlasting conscious torment) is part of your doctrine, as it is in too much traditional Christianity (though not in Judaism), then getting things “right” (and convincing yourself and others that you’ve gotten it “right”), rather than allowing and living in the tensions as a community together, becomes of utmost importance. The belief that getting doctrine (or practice) wrong leads to hell makes acceptance of such creative wrestling impossible; one must always be looking to pin things down: believe exactly this, do exactly that. With a belief in hell (EECT) always looking over your shoulder, there’s no room for error, or interpretations accepted as equally valid.


  70. Actually, I prefer the way a certain subset of Jews approached the Scriptures; they being Jesus and the Apostles. It is accessible to human reason but it does not proceed from argumentation and debate. He does not speak as one of the Scribes, but as One having authority.

    There is little of the Talmudist in Jesus.


  71. When I started to seriously study the bible I thought that I would become more established in my faith tradition and understanding. I was wrong, VERY wrong! I have more questions today than ever, almost to the point of throwing up my hands and saying “I give up!”.

    What is frustrating is to try to teach a class where people resist any open discussion of the bible. This makes most people uncomfortable because they want certitudes, NOT more questions.


  72. I read that book way back in the early 70s and it influenced my perspective on things Judaica to this day. A religious Jew playing baseball???


  73. I read Enns’ words
    “More so than the Christian tradition, Judaism embraces debate as a vital part of its faith. Disagreements are preserved (not silenced or marginalized) in official core texts of Judaism, like the Talmud and medieval commentaries on the Bible. Opposing opinions sit side by side as monuments to this wrestling match with scripture— and with God.”

    and I thought about the book by Chaim Potok, ‘The Chosen’, which describes a kind of scripture scholarship and study and debate like I had never heard about . . . . . totally fascinating and impressive. And the arguing back and forth with much quoting from resources (from memory) was applauded and admired by those who watched and listened.

    I highly recommend taking a look at this little book about a couple of young Orthodox Jewish boys growing up in NYC and a world of Scripture study like no other. There is a film but it doesn’t get into the details of what was involved in the great give and take (wrestling) of the participants. That is one excellent book for a gander into another world we Christians could benefit from learning about, yes.


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