On the nice and ugly sides of the Biblical God

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On the nice and ugly sides of the Biblical God

Bill Prat, a staunch defender of conservative Evangelicalism has written a series of posts with the aim of defending the holiness and goodness of God against the attack of the New Atheists:
http://www.toughquestionsanswered.org/2013/10/23/why-is-the-god-of-the-old-testament-worthy-of-worship-his-holiness/
http://www.toughquestionsanswered.org/2013/10/18/why-is-the-god-of-the-old-testament-worthy-of-worship-his-wisdom/

http://www.toughquestionsanswered.org/2013/10/21/why-is-the-god-of-the-old-testament-worthy-of-worship-his-majesty-and-beauty/

Instead of trying to show that Biblical atrocities are compatible with God’s love (a route taken by William Lane Craig and Paul Copan), he has chosen a different strategy:

“Skeptics of Christianity love to point out all the difficult passages in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. By noting these difficult passages, skeptics explicitly or implicitly imply that Christians are foolish (or even deranged) for worshiping the God described in the Old Testament.

My problem with this implication is that the number of difficult passages are dwarfed by the number of passages that clearly describe the greatness of God. These passages come in a wide variety and they are found all over the Old Testament. The skeptic’s approach is, therefore, totally unbalanced – it does not take into consideration the totality of Scripture.
– See more at: http://www.toughquestionsanswered.org/2013/10/21/why-is-the-god-of-the-old-testament-worthy-of-worship-his-majesty-and-beauty/#sthash.UUfO0bHp.dpuf”

His argument seems to be as follows:

1) the Bible gives us a fully coherent picture of God
2) therefore if some authors describe God as a beautiful and benevolent being, this must be what ALL Biblical writers thought
3) thus there is no particular need to deal with the Biblical terror texts. If one can show that some verses describe God as being loving; He is necessarily loving in the entire Scripture
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Of course, all outsiders won’t fail to see this as a terribly circular argument.

Here I can do nothing better than (quite modestly) quoting myself:

“Bill I agree that the authors of these passages expressed beautiful, admirable thoughts about God.

There are three possible positions:

a) the Bible is a book which consistently portrays us a perfect God (conservative Evangelicalism).

b)  the Bible is a book which consistently portrays us a horrible genocidal God (view of the New Atheists).

c) the Bible contains human thoughts about God in the same way the books of C.S. Lewis contain human thoughts about God. Some are great, other should be rejected:
https://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/09/18/on-the-inspiration-of-the-bible-and-other-books-von-der-interpretation-der-bibel-und-anderen-buchern/

By quoting all these verses, you refute view b) but you fall infinitely short of proving view a).

So yes, there are many verses in the OT which emphasize God’s greatness but they are contradicted by countless other texts.

Moreover, I also wrote:

“I have read these authors and here I give my last response to William Lane Craig’s attempt to whitewash these atrocities:

https://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/?s=william+craig

Did you read Thom Stark’s response to Copan?

thomstark.net/copan/stark_copan-review.pdf‎

Moreover, did you take a look at the blog of progressive EVANGELICAL theologian Randal Rauser?

http://randalrauser.com/tag/genocide/

I have never seen any kind of response to these two authors. Apparently, they are best ignored, aren’t they?”

Given my view of inspiration, finding descriptions of God as an immoral being within the Biblical Canon is like finding such pictures in the writings of the Church Fathers, Aquinas, Wesley, Luther, C.S. Lewis and so on and so forth.
It remains a problem, but it is clearly NOT the same as for people singling out the Bible as THE revelation of God.

It is my hope that Bill will examine every Biblical book as an ancient religious texts before deciding if it can reasonably be harmonized with other books. And I hope he won’t feel the need to give up Christianity altogether in the process.

 

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42 thoughts on “On the nice and ugly sides of the Biblical God

  1. You’ve left out a fourth possibility, the one I would support:

    4) The God of the Old Testament is a loving God- but only by the standards of the time.

    Smiting your enemies, allowing you to make slaves of them and rape their women, and giving you a land of milk and honey, was the epitome of what a loving Lord could do back then. Yahweh is a typical Bronze Age warrior-king, and looking out for your people, and dispensing stern justice, was what loving warrior-kings did. You see similar morals in the early medieval epics such as Beowulf and the Nibelungenlied. As in the Old Testament, the loving Lord is a great warrior, generous with his retainers and unmerciful to his enemies, and also cunning, not above using deception- as Yahweh did with Pharaoh.

    God expanded the sphere of His Love somewhat in the New Testament, responding to the needs of a more cosmopolitan society, to include Gentiles and even men with smashed testicles (at least they’re not explicitly excluded any more). But the Bible has not changed since the Nicene Council, and our societies (at least some of them) have moved on: Most people now condemn slavery, and some even stand up for the rights of women, neither of which has Scriptural support. We’ve expanded our sphere of love, the Bible has not.

    Thus, the God of the Bible has stood still, and we’ve moved on. You have to do a pretty fancy apologetic dance to get any palatable set of modern morals from the Bible nowadays, at least if you’re not a dominionist.. That’s the problem Christians face: some of them (like Craig) try to do the dance, some of them take the Bible with a grain of salt and/or cherrypick, and others go whole hog reactionary, like the Taliban. I find it easier to just make my own morals and look at the Bible as a fascinating glimpse of a long-lost world- perhaps even ahead of its time in some ways- but not as inspired by God.

    cheers from rainy Vienna, zilch

    • thanks for that enlightening epistle on our moral development over millennia. can i ask, if we accept that generally Yahweh has not evolved morally beyond the New Testament, why is this the case?

      i think we can see that certain more modern and liberal Christians have moved away from the somewhat “morally challenged” Yahweh, to a more universalist Christ.

      in another post, TheEvangelicalLiberal detailed that doctrines/credos and such do not matter as much as a relationship with Christ. if the newer Christianities become more accepting of pluralism, choice, no hell, soteriology of you choosing, miracles if you like, deism, homosexuality, etc., i think here we see Christ evolving morally.

      • I’ll agree with you there, xon-xoff, and I’ll add, although it also goes without saying, that many people who consider themselves Christians manage to be very nice- much nicer than I am. But I think you have to loosen the shackles of inerrancy to do that, and many other Christians aren’t willing to do that.

    • I have no idea if WordPress comments support HTML, so here goes.

      You have to do a pretty fancy apologetic dance to get any palatable set of modern morals from the Bible nowadays, at least if you’re not a dominionist.

      How about Mt 5:23-24?

      So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

      In case we need to understand ‘sacrifice’, we have Ro 12:1-2.

      I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

      For fun, here’s the Roberts-Donaldson translation of chapter 14 of the Didache:

      But every Lord’s day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one who is at odds with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned. For this is that which was spoken by the Lord: “In every place and time offer to me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great King, says the Lord, and my name is wonderful among the nations.”

      So, how does this “reconcile with your brother ASAP” doctrine sit in our current culture? My intuition is that our culture rejects it. My claim is that without it, there can be no true unity of the type described in John 13:34-35, 17:20-21, noting that Christians must love those different from them, contra the tax collectors and Gentiles in Mt 5:43-48.

      • Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Luke. I don’t deny that it’s possible to get a palatable set of modern morals from the Bible- I do think you have to do some picking and choosing, though, as you just did.

    • Zilch: It depends on what you mean by inspiration. If it is supposed to mean that God magically changed the brain chemistry of the authors, then we both agree there are no inspired text on earth.

      I view inspiration as people having had genuine religious experience and writing them down in a faillible way.
      So I believe that C.S. Lewis was NOT less inspired than the apostle Paul.
      And like Saint Paul in Athens (or at the very least Luke) described, I believe that also Pagan authors can get God right.

      I cherry pick from the Bible in the same way that secularists pick and choose from the writings of Voltaire even if they disapprove of his anti-semitism.

      • I cherry pick from the Bible in the same way that secularists pick and choose from the writings of Voltaire even if they disapprove of his anti-semitism.

        Do you have a measure for when this is a valid thing to do and when it isn’t? For example, it is often silly to cherry-pick bits from a scientific theory: there tend to be a bunch of parts that are interdependent on one another.

        I prefer to see the Bible as exposing a ‘moral trajectory’. Cherry-picking poses a threat to this by tempting us to pretend that human nature isn’t as terrible as it really is. It’s tantamount to a pre-Nazi telling himself that he would never murder Jews, only to find himself manipulated (but partly willingly, at least not willing to sacrifice himself to protest) into murdering Jews.

        Now, this all depends on what extent the Bible is a unified system of thought and to what extent it’s just a bunch of guys’ thoughts on what was true or at least a good approximation of the truth. Having a systematizing mind, I find a lot of unity to all of scripture. There is a hitch: many biblical scholars (example) note that there is not just one theology in the Bible. I model their error in this way: they think ‘the good’ is a finite idea which man can arrive at. So a ‘theology’ would describe ‘the good’, completely. What if, instead, we posit that as we view what is “through a glass darkly”, we also view what ought to be in the same way? Then, we could launch a research project into ‘the good’, just like science researches ‘what is’.

      • @Luke

        “For example, it is often silly to cherry-pick bits from a scientific theory:”

        do you consider a scientific theory in the same light as you may consider a theological understanding/doctrine?

      • @xon-xoff:

        do you consider a scientific theory in the same light as you may consider a theological understanding/doctrine?

        Kind of! I think we need to research ‘the good’ just like we research ‘what is’. I think theology is one very valuable way to research ‘the good’. It’s a different kind of research than science, although it can definitely use the results of science. For instance, I would be fascinated to see experts in psychology comment on the model of human nature which is found in the Bible.

      • “It’s a different kind of research than science…”

        yes, indeed it is.

        for me, i’d be fascinated by an explanation of the soul. is there a theological theory of the soul?

    • You have to do a pretty fancy apologetic dance to get any palatable set of modern morals from the Bible nowadays

      I love a challenge!

      “Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”

      Bang, done. Morals? Check. From the Bible? Check

      I know I know, you want to thank me with a cash gift or something, no need, my pleasure.

      • Rufusdog- yes, that’s exactly the verse quoted by most liberal Christians I know who oppose slavery and other nasty stuff. But you must admit, that it’s not the only commandment in the Bible. You’ve stepped around quite a few others.

        cheers from foggy Vienna, zilch

      • Indeed, xon-xoff. The Golden Rule is just about the best starting point I can think of for building a useful set of morals. That’s why it has cropped up so many places in the world independently: it works.

      • Ich kann mir vorstellen, daß Du sehr neugierig bist, lotharson. 😆

        Sorry, I have no objective criteria. As the Balinese say, “we have no art. We just do the best we can”.

  2. This is a really complex issue, which I’ve discussed with atheists for hundreds of hours. Here are a few items:

    1. We must compare the morality espoused in the Bible with contemporary, nearby morality. Even that isn’t perfect because we really want to know whether the laws God gave Israel (I speak without all the qualifier words which admit that I cannot 100% the Bible is authentic or accurately reports history, etc.) were pulling them to a higher standard. I claim that is the important question to ask. Was God reforming Israel as best they would allow?

    2. We must ask why an omni-*, morally perfect deity would allow Israel to get in such dire straits that it must e.g. have stories of concubines being chopped up into twelve pieces. While I have fun discussing this issue, I typically settle on the stance that we cannot a priori know that an omni-God would do, and thus dismissing him on this basis is highly questionable.

    3. We must ask why an omni-God wouldn’t choose to reform the Israelites more quickly. For example, why not state that slavery is evil, but if you’re going to do it at least obey these laws? Here I use the free will objection: too much futzing with humans and they become God’s meaty robots. God repeatedly indicates that he wants humans to want what is good; it makes sense to me that you cannot scare people into truly wanting what is good (they’ll just not want you to hurt them).

    4. Why was the canon closed with a seemingly sub-par morality? While I don’t believe southern American slaveholders were obeying the Bible on slavery (what happened to the release of slaves on the year of Jubilee, not returning escaped slaves, etc?), it does seem reasonable to ask why it doesn’t come down more harshly on the institution of slavery. Or we could pick the treatment of women: despite Paul’s “neither slave nor free, male nor female”, we have texts like 1 Pe 3:1-7 and 1 Tim 2:8-15. What gives?

    My answer on this issue is that we must heed Jesus’ statement about the heart in the Sermon on the Mount: if only behavior is regulated, then the heart is free to want things which are hurtful to others, with the regulations only mitigating harm, and even that for a time. Consider the American South during Reconstruction and after: did ex-slaves fare very well? No. While the laws changed, the heart-attitudes of whites were overall terrible. I argue that the NT authors knew this. There might also have been political reasons to suppress revolt at a doctrinal level, but I’d want to research that topic before saying more.

    I still haven’t really addressed the question of whether the NT has “the last morality”. My answer is a firm No. Here’s why: I don’t think it is possible to codify proper treatment of one’s fellow human being. Any person who thinks this is possible will create a glass ceiling for the thriving of humankind. Based on a 2011 book, What’s Wrong with Protestant Theology?, I say that the only solution is continual hearing of the Holy Spirit, and that not just in the form of Bible verses or feelings. See the Book of Hebrews where it thrice says, “Today if you hear his voice / do not harden your hearts”: I argue that any attempt to say that the Holy Spirit no longer gives sub-canon revelation is a violation of the Not in Heaven doctrine which Paul rejected in Rom 9:30-10:13.

    • Thanks for bringing up a conservative perspective, Luke. It is a pity that Bill will probably never respond to my challenges.

      “. While I have fun discussing this issue, I typically settle on the stance that we cannot a priori know that an omni-God would do, and thus dismissing him on this basis is highly questionable.”

      Can we know that an omibenovelent God will NOT predetermine a man to rape a girl and punish him eternally for that crime?

      “I say that the only solution is continual hearing of the Holy Spirit, and that not just in the form of Bible verses or feelings. See the Book of Hebrews where it thrice says, “Today if you hear his voice / do not harden your hearts”: I argue that any attempt to say that the Holy Spirit no longer gives sub-canon revelation is a violation of the Not in Heaven doctrine which Paul rejected in Rom 9:30-10:13.”

      I agree and this is why I reject the idea of a fixed Canon:
      https://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/09/18/on-the-inspiration-of-the-bible-and-other-books-von-der-interpretation-der-bibel-und-anderen-buchern/

      Cheers.

    • Luke- let me say first of all that I find your attitude towards Scripture, and that of Lotharson here, refreshing and open. I doubt that I would disagree with you much on essential moral issues, such as equality of women, slavery, etc. Most of the Christians I chat with online are fundamentalists of one sort or another, and don’t believe in any sort of Scriptural “moral trajectory”. I’m all for doing the best we can, and if the Bible is part of that, more power to you.

      But that said- I’m not an atheist because I don’t like 1 Samuel 15. I’m an atheist because I see no evidence for the existence of gods.

      cheers from rainy Vienna, zilch

      • But that said- I’m not an atheist because I don’t like 1 Samuel 15. I’m an atheist because I see no evidence for the existence of gods.

        I admit that the genocide bits in the Bible are difficult. There are many possible explanations and none of them is particularly alluring. That being said, is it really legitimate to reject something because one bit seems bad, if many bits seem good? It strikes me that maybe it is the case that the bad thing only seems bad because we have insufficient understanding. Now, I’m told that this is ‘monstrous’ attitude to take. But that seems silly to me (what a coincidence!), because if you were to get to know me, you’d know I would never sanction something genocide-like. I suppose I’m more certain that God would ever ask that kind of thing today than I am of most other claims. I could go into why, but that might be boring so I’ll only do it on request. Suffice it to say that there’s a lot of naiveté going on with respect to applying the OT law to how we are to live. The OT law puts strict limits on how much it expects you to sacrifice for others; the NT removes those limits entirely, although it does not compel.

        In terms of evidence for gods: remember the naturalistic fallacy, which says we cannot reason from is to ought. Think carefully: if Jesus were to appear to you and tell you what he demands from you and why he thinks the demand is reasonable, do you think you would believe him and start wanting what he wants? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if in your heart, you were ready to do that, Jesus would appear to you. But if his appearance to you, and performing of a few magic tricks wouldn’t actually change what you want and how you treat others in life, why would he appear to you? Why would he even want you to know he exists? “Even the demons believe [God is one], and tremble.” And yet… they’re still demons. Anyhow, I’m not calling you a demon. 🙂 I just think this is a revealing thought experiment if done with an open mind—open about the possibility of an objective moral law (which the Bible necessarily approximates, since I believe objective reality and morality are both infinite in description).

      • lotharson- yes, true, most Austrian Catholics don’t believe the Bible is inerrant. In fact, my Austrian wife still considers herself Catholic, and she certainly doesn’t believe in Biblical inerrancy- she would probably just say she believes in the good stuff Jesus said. The only real fundamentalist Christians I’ve met here were American Protestants, sent over to do missionary work among the heathen Austrians.

        I don’t have problems with Christians here. Even the fact that there’s no separation of church and state, that crucifixes still hang in public school classrooms, and that kids are forced to take religion classes for three years, doesn’t really bother me, because it’s still done in a balanced way: other religions are talked about, and there’s no intrusion of religion in the science classes.

        The same cannot be said for the US. Forty percent of Americans don’t believe in evolution, and about the same number don’t believe the universe is more than ten thousand years old. Some high percentage also believe that the Rapture is coming in the next five years.

        That wouldn’t bother me either- people are welcome to believe whatever they want, even if it’s wrong and silly- but unfortunately, what they believe has an impact on my world too. Fundamentalist Christians are far more likely to deny global warming, for instance. That’s where my tolerance for silly beliefs stops.

        Luke- you sound like a nice guy, and I think it’s a good bet that you are not in favor of genocide. But think about it- your argument that, say, the slaughter of the Amalekites “only seems bad because we have insufficient understanding” could be used to justify any atrocity- and of course, it has. If you are willing to accept anything as being “good” as long as what you believe to be God’s word says it’s good, then you have a very different idea of what “good” and “bad” are than I do. I don’t need any gods to tell me that it’s good to feed the hungry, and it’s bad to kill innocent children.

        About is and ought. I actually don’t believe the “naturalistic fallacy” is a fallacy, or rather, it’s only a fallacy when you leave out all the steps between is and ought. For instance, I agree that you can’t reasonably say that because we evolved (is) without clothes or eyeglasses, then we should not (ought) wear them. But since I don’t believe that morals (oughts) come from God or out of the clear blue sky, but rather that they evolved with life, I see a continuum between is and ought, not a contradistinction. The “ought” of feeding the hungry is a result of long evolution, starting with the “is” of organisms needing to eat to survive, the need to feed our kids so our genes get passed on, the need to feed our tribe and finally the whole world (as far as is possible) so this whole great experiment of living can go on. At no point is there a hard and fast line that can be drawn between “is” and “ought”.

        cheers from foggy Vienna, zilch

      • @zilch

        But think about it- your argument that, say, the slaughter of the Amalekites “only seems bad because we have insufficient understanding” could be used to justify any atrocity- and of course, it has.

        Justify on what basis? If I’m allowed to cherry-pick from the Bible instead of read things in their ‘fractal’ contexts (verse, chapter, book, era), I can get it to say anything! But this is nothing new, and really, it’s boring IMHO.

        The text has that the Israelites were inredibly stubborn. The text has that the Amalekites raided Israelites left and right. What was the solution to this? Well, Israel could just ‘take it’. They could build a wall around their settlements like the Great Wall of China. I could keep coming up with options. Is “Annihilate any who refuse to run to other cultures when I march on them” an option? If we say no, I fear we set up a false model of human nature. To merely assume “nah, there must be another way” can be a major cop-out. Unless we simply demand deus ex machina from God, and I’d be wary doing that, because the consequences go some weird places. (“Every time a person is about to hit someone else with an object, that object ought to turn to a noodle.” — adapted from C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain)

        I don’t need any gods to tell me that it’s good to feed the hungry, and it’s bad to kill innocent children.

        Is it completely and utterly unacceptable to every kill innocent children? If so, what do you think about regular wartime, or the weird new situation now whereby we send random missiles and hope to only hit terrorists?

        Now, a standard answer to the above is to posit omniscience, omnipotence, and/or moral perfection. But I often find that those are cop-outs, because what the person does who is advocating them merely makes crap up. Or, they forget that maybe God values A) our ability to rationally understand the world; B) our ability to discover ‘the good’ and truly believe it ourselves, vs. be forced to ‘believe’ it, e.g. via mind control or fear.

        I merely see the Bible as providing an optional model for structuring society. Miracles ought never convince one that the miracle-worker is God; “Any sufficiently advanced technology appears to be magic.” All miracles can do is say, “Look here!”

        The “ought” of feeding the hungry is a result of long evolution, starting with the “is” of organisms needing to eat to survive, the need to feed our kids so our genes get passed on, the need to feed our tribe and finally the whole world (as far as is possible) so this whole great experiment of living can go on.

        What is this “great experiment of living”? Is it merely passing on genes? Is it something more? Why does everyone have to equally enjoy life? Evolution doesn’t guarantee that! What’s up with getting highly educated? That doesn’t seem to pass on genes very well, given birth rates of educated folk vs. third world folk. I don’t buy your argument. 😐

      • @ Luke

        “I merely see the Bible as providing an optional model for structuring society.”

        ok, and i have a few friends that see the bible as the literal word of their god.

        as a non-believer, how am i to proceed here?

        to which view shall i adhere for moral counsel?

      • Luke- so you’re saying that God had no other options than to order the Israelites to kill every Amalekite man, woman, child, baby, and donkey? That doesn’t seem plausible to me. God hardened the heart of Pharaoh- why couldn’t he soften the hearts of the Amalekites? God was able to confound the speech of men so they couldn’t finish building the Tower of Babel- why couldn’t He do the same to the Amalekites?

        These are of course also examples that show God messing directly with man’s free will, something you claim is the reason He didn’t make laws against slavery, for instance- which is of course far less futzing around with man’s free will than going directly into his head and changing it. I don’t buy your argument. 😆

        About your objections to getting ought from is: xon-xoff answered admirably for me.

        ok, and i have a few friends that see the bible as the literal word of their god.

        as a non-believer, how am i to proceed here?

        to which view shall i adhere for moral counsel?

        There are no easy answers to moral questions, not for atheists, and not for Christians or anyone else. Or do you claim that you always have the “right” answer for questions such as you posed me, for instance about missile strikes which kill children? You Christians, and we atheists, and everyone else, are continually faced with such problems, and the fact that even, say, semi-Pelagian pre-Millenarians will often disagree on what to do in particular cases proves that the concept of “objective morality” has no meaning- at least here on Earth. We’re all in the same boat as far as actual behavior goes, as far as I can see. Sometimes we simply have to make hard decisions. But if I were pinned down to present my moral philosophy as cogently as I could, I doubt I could do better than “love thy neighbor as thyself”.

        cheers from largely Catholic but still pretty nice Vienna, zilch

    • actually, i do not ask those questions you raise. rather, i ask, if we accept that the Christian god exists, why would an omni*-god do anything?

  3. I choose position c) the Bible contains human thoughts about God in the same way the books of C.S. Lewis contain human thoughts about God. Some are great, other should be rejected

    I believe this is by far the most reasonable approach to understanding the Old Testament.

    • I think your worldview is analogous to mine, JWB: I would say that the entire world, including C.S. Lewis, the Bible, rocks and clocks and Dawkins, contain stuff, some of which is great, some of which should be rejected. I just call the great stuff “good” and not “God”.

      cheers from overcast Vienna, and a Guten Rutsch ( a “good slide”) into the New Year, zilch.

    • I’m curious; to what extent do you let the Bible shape you, and to what extent do you shape the Bible by rejecting bits?

      My own answer would be that the Bible predicts what belief and trust in Jesus looks like, and that I can measure my own actions and thought patterns by these predictions. That is, I can be scientific in my faith, although everything is much fuzzier, as it is tremendously more complex. I’m always in danger of rationalizing, but so are scientists. The measure, as in science, is whether I can progress, or whether I get stuck in a rut (or even regress!). I can also badly define ‘progress’, such that I end up being the equivalent of a psuedoscientist, weaving clothes for the emperor which end up being nothing.

      • Labreuer, I find the stories of Jesus written from the memories of his closest followers to be very powerful. I am drawn to this Jesus and he is the foundation of my life.

        However, I realize the writers were not historians and also had agendas, but I don’t think the story of Jesus was a fabrication. I am shaped by Jesus’ telling us of a loving Father, peace and reconciliation, love for each other, and eternal life.

        • For lack of a better word, this seems a bit fuzzy. Perhaps that is because I was asking a personal question and you are graciously declining?

          The importance of loving each other is simple to state on the one hand, but extremely difficult to live out on the other hand. My question would be: do you see the Bible as giving concrete information about how to live it out? Consider the “love your neighbor as you love yourself” depends on how one defines “love” (hence Jesus’ new commandment in Jn 13:34-35), as well as whether you treat the other person as just like you, or being possibly very different and yet still loved by God.

      • Labreuer, I wasn’t being reluctant to answer. It is absolutely true that, “I am shaped by Jesus’ telling us of a loving Father, peace and reconciliation, love for each other, and eternal life.”

        But perhaps I should have elaborated more. Because of my opinion of Jesus, I search for what he said and did, and also for how people around him, including his followers, reacted to him. I try to draw from that the most authentic sense I can of what Jesus tells us.

        This informs my entire approach to life. I don’t think Jesus gave us rules; in fact he had a low opinion of legalism. However, he gave us principles that we must work out in our own life.

        In answer to your question, “whether you treat the other person as just like you, or being possibly very different and yet still loved by God”, I would say that I believe each of us is loved by God no matter how we act or what we believe. I try to treat everyone with dignity and respect because I do not consider anyone to be my enemy.

        • First, I want to acknowledge a difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. The first is an approximation. It’s like scaffolding, to be taken down after the structure is built. A person doesn’t know what it means to “drive safely” until he/she is told enough traffic rules and gets enough practical experience. After a while, he/she hopefully understands when the traffic laws can be bent, and when they can be broken (Matrix, anyone?).

          I believe that the spirit of the law is somehow infinitely complex; this can be observed by noting that we can always expand what our idea of ‘love’ is, meaning that “love your neighbor as yourself” isn’t a static command. The reason Jesus’ command in Jn 13:34-35 was new is that he gave them a new definition of ‘love’.

          I believe that Jesus said the spirit of the law was still extremely important; otherwise Jn 14:15 doesn’t make sense: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Rom 9:30-10:13 provides some detail: the Jews pursued “a law that would lead to righteousness”, but pursued it with “a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge”, failing to understand that it must be pursued by faith.

          Imagine if ‘scientists’ had stopped with classical physics, declaring it to be the be-all and end-all of knowledge of how reality works. I think this would be like embracing the letter of the law over and above the spirit of the law. There would be some [false] comfort in having a set of equations which tell us How Reality Works. I don’t think God would be a fan of this. I think this is what the ancient Jews did, in the moral domain.

          Second, I was trying to get at concrete specifics in my previous response to you. I get that ‘concrete information’ is a bit like letter of the law, but it’s terribly difficult to communicate in generalizations such as “draw from that the most authentic sense I can of what Jesus tells us”, unless both people have essentially the same evidence base, and the same way of interpreting it.

          There are kind of two extremes: the fundamentalists who think they know what each verse says and have strong opinions on how exactly to apply it to life, and liberals, who are fuzzy-wuzzy and don’t always seem to think there is an objective moral structure to reality which really can be transgressed. My sense is that one must strike a balance. We must use the moral equivalent of F = ma, but being aware that it won’t work in some domains (relativistic speeds, high gravity). There is inherent fuzziness to the scientific work whereby true patterns and structure is found, but there do exist these patterns and structure.

          Does this make sense?

          • Labreuer, I think I know what you are asking. I do not subscribe to any ‘letter of the law’ but to principles, but neither am I fuzzy about the practical application of the principles.

            I constantly endeavor to live by the principles I understand from Jesus, and from those principles I have specific commitments regarding my behavior. However, they are not legalistic commitments binding on anyone–not even myself. I find that they develop over time as I grow and understand them better.

            For this reason, I don’t think it is of any value to others as to what my practical behavior commitments are, and even if it were the simple principles are so complex in human application that they cannot be described in a short statement. Legalism is easier than living by principle.

            Perhaps I am mistaken in thinking that you are asking about my practical use of Jesus’ principles of behavior, but if you wish to ask a very specific question I will try to answer it.

          • I was assuming that you adhere to spirit of the law. 🙂 The spirit of the law is tricksy: how do you communicate it? What you’ve said to me could be perfectly correct, but only communicate content to someone who already holds pretty much the same spirit of the law as you do. What I’m looking for is something more concrete.

            Things that are more concrete don’t have to be letter of the law. The danger isn’t in saying concrete things, it’s when you improperly generalize from them to “you should ALWAYS do it this way”. Paul said that “‘All things are lawful’, but not all things build up.” The key, of course, is on building up—Eph 4 stuff—not following laws.

            What I’m trying to get at from you are specifics. One type would be how the Bible showed you that you weren’t living life correctly. At least, I expect the Bible to be able to speak poignantly into my life. Sometimes it is a gradual shift in heart-attitude, but sometimes it’s a lot more acute and noticeable and describable.

            When you say stuff like,

            I don’t think it is of any value to others as to what my practical behavior commitments are

            , you’re depriving others of an example of “how it’s done”. There’s always the disclaimer of “it might not work exactly like this for you”—different people are… different!—but if you utterly refuse to give any practical examples, it’s hard to communicate much of anything!

            Am I still not making sense?

  4. Labreuer, I take your question seriously and I think you are genuine in asking it. Let me respond to several of your points from the last couple comments.

    “I get that ‘concrete information’ is a bit like letter of the law, but it’s terribly difficult to communicate in generalizations such as “draw from that the most authentic sense I can of what Jesus tells us”, unless both people have essentially the same evidence base, and the same way of interpreting it.”

    And…

    “The spirit of the law is tricksy: how do you communicate it? What you’ve said to me could be perfectly correct, but only communicate content to someone who already holds pretty much the same spirit of the law as you do.”

    It is not my goal to persuade anyone to adopt my perspective, but to support those who are on a journey in some way similar to mine. If someone doesn’t already have an idea of the distinction between principle and legalism, any answer I give about specific application will likely be understood as a legalistic answer.

    “What I’m trying to get at from you are specifics. One type would be how the Bible showed you that you weren’t living life correctly.”

    I can answer this question easily: I don’t need the Bible to show me that I am not living my life correctly. The evidence is all around me in my relationships with others, my alienation from God, and my attitude toward myself. What I find in the Bible is Jesus giving me guidance on how to remedy my life issues.

    If we don’t see something wrong with our lives, then there is no need for principles or rules of behavior.

    “When you say stuff like, ‘I don’t think it is of any value to others as to what my practical behavior commitments are’, you’re depriving others of an example of “how it’s done”. There’s always the disclaimer of “it might not work exactly like this for you”—different people are… different!—but if you utterly refuse to give any practical examples, it’s hard to communicate much of anything!”

    I cannot share ‘how it’s done’ of course, I can only share how I understand what Jesus tells us about behavior and how I apply it in my own life. But, as your say, how I do it is not a template for anyone else.

    In fact, though, the purpose of my entire blog is sharing what I think Jesus tells us and how it applies in my life. As it happens, I am writing a new series beginning tomorrow on Jesus’ principle of behavior and his attitude toward legalism. This is not a plug for my blog, but If you visit you will likely find detailed answers to your questions about my thoughts on these matters.

    In addition, many posts on my blog already address your questions in a much more systematic way than I can do in comments here. For example: Schadenfreude at http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/2013/09/26/schadenfreude/.

    I hope this is helpful! ~Tim

    PS, A question for you: How do you post quoted sections in comments that are indented and italicized? I can do it on my Word Press blog, but I can’t figure out how to do it here.

    • As it happens, I am writing a new series beginning tomorrow on Jesus’ principle of behavior and his attitude toward legalism.

      I left a comment. 🙂

      How do you post quoted sections in comments that are indented and italicized? I can do it on my Word Press blog, but I can’t figure out how to do it here.

      HTML blockquote tags.

      • Thanks Labreuer,

        I am probably missing something very basic, but I do not find an HTML editor on this site, and I cannot access the mark-up page for editing comments. I am going to experiment here by entering the HTML directly into the text.

        This is my block quote.

        I will have to post the comment to see if this works (I know it is unlikely). I thank you for your assistance even if I can’t figure out my problem.

    • Hey JWB! I hope you had a good slide into the New Year (as they say here in Vienna).

      I agree with you and lothar about the dangers of literal interpretation of principles, be they theistic or atheistic. The spirit versus the letter. The Tao that is spoken not being the true Tao. We must remember that the word is not the thing, and it’s certainly not the spirit.

      That said, one thing you said puzzled me:

      If we don’t see something wrong with our lives, then there is no need for principles or rules of behavior.

      I don’t see how you can see something wrong without having principles and/or rules of behavior. It’s part of the same thing: one’s ethical position. That is, if by “wrong” we don’t mean wrong in the sense of a hand on a hot stove, but rather “wrong” in the sense of, say, causing unnecessary pain. Some of these ethical principles are of course built into our genes by our evolution as social animals, but some must be learned anew culturally by each new generation. So in that sense, you can’t see that there’s something wrong with our lives without having principles, be they genetic and/or cultural.

      cheers from foggy Vienna, zilch

      • Good point Zilch,

        Many Christians actively share Jesus with other people, and I think this is good. However some take the approach that Jesus came to same the person from their sinfulness and begin by demonstrating how bad the person is and why they should allow Jesus to take away that ‘badness’.

        This is based partly on religious rules, and my point is that if a person does not already know they are imperfect then religious rules do not help. I am sorry my earlier statement was not more clearly stated.

        Most of us already know our behavior is deficient, and we can use some help in knowing what to do. But the answer is not for someone to give us lists of things to avoid; the answer is to understand Jesus’ principle of love. If we can internalize the Father’s love for us so that we can, in turn, love others more appropriately, then our behavior sorts out by itself.

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