So what am I to make of these texts? Do I simple ignore them and assume they are false? If so why did Jesus appear to regard the OT scriptures as sacred?
I am incredibly thankful to Geoff for his terrific email which raises many fundamental questions that are all too often shoved aside by Conservative Christians.
I find it extremely healthy to start questioning and critically examining one’s faith, as I pointed out in one of my first blog posts, this is all what progressive Christianity is about.
I am sure, however, that I won’t be able to provide him with final answers. All I can do here is giving him some advice and insights which will hopefully help him make up his own mind.
The problem of Biblical atrocities
Moral indignation against certain Biblical passages is far from being a phenomenon of our enlightened age.
Several Church Fathers in the first centuries of Christianity recognized the stark contrast between Christ’s teaching (on the one hand) and the moral message conveyed by some texts in the Old Testament.
Gregory of Nissa wrote:
“The Egyptian [Pharaoh] is unjust, and instead of him, his punishment falls upon his newborn child, who
on account of his infant age is unable to discern what is good and what is not good … If such a one now
pays the penalty of his father’s evil, where is justice? Where is piety? Where is holiness? Where is
Ezekiel, who cries … “The son should not suffer for the sin of the father?” How can history so contradict
C.S. Lewis (who is almost universally admired by Evangelicals) did not share their belief in Biblical inerrancy and had this to say about the genocide depicted in the book of Joshua:
“Yes. On my view one must apply something of the same sort of explanation to, say, the atrocities (and treacheries) of Joshua. I see the grave danger we run by doing so; but the dangers of believing in a God whom we cannot but regard as evil, and then, in mere terrified flattery calling Him ‘good’ and worshiping Him, is still greater danger. The ultimate question is whether the doctrine of the goodness of God or that of the inerrancy of Scriptures is to prevail when they conflict. I think the doctrine of the goodness of God is the more certain of the two. Indeed, only that doctrine renders this worship of Him obligatory or even permissible.
To this some will reply ‘ah, but we are fallen and don’t recognize good when we see it.’ But God Himself does not say that we are as fallen as all that. He constantly, in Scripture, appeals to our conscience: ‘Why do ye not of yourselves judge what is right?’ — ‘What fault hath my people found in me?’ And so on. Socrates’ answer to Euthyphro is used in Christian form by Hooker. Things are not good because God commands them; God commands certain things because he sees them to be good. (In other words, the Divine Will is the obedient servant to the Divine Reason.) The opposite view (Ockham’s, Paley’s) leads to an absurdity. If ‘good’ means ‘what God wills’ then to say ‘God is good’ can mean only ‘God wills what he wills.’ Which is equally true of you or me or Judas or Satan.”
Salvaging the dogma of Biblical inerrancy
Conservative Evangelicalism is founded on the rock of the Chicago statement on inerrancy, according to which everything a Biblical writer intended to convey is entirely free of errors.
As a consequence, Conservative Evangelicals have developed two kinds of strategies for dealing with putative moral atrocities found in the Bible.
The first consists of calling into question the moral intuition underlying our rejection of certain passages (when interpreted straightforwardly).
William Lane Craig is a great example of that approach. He tried to argue on philosophical grounds that God is not bounded by any moral obligation and has the right to kill an entire wicked people if He so wish.
As Randal Rauser argued, his arguments utterly fail to establish that the slaughter of the Canaanite was not an atrocity.
The second Evangelical strategy consists of arguing that we cannot take the offending texts at face value and that if we interpret them correctly, we will see that they are really not as morally problematic as one could think.
To paraphrase Evangelical pastor and theologian Greg Boyd, both strategies are (at best) only capable of making the God depicted by the terror texts to look a bit less horrible.
A shift of paradigm concerning inspiration
To my mind, such strategies are akin to seeking to cure a cancer by using pain killers. It might temporarily alleviate the pain but does nothing to heal the underlying disease which is still progressing and going to cause many other ordeals.
I think that the Evangelical way to look at the Bible has to be overturned and that one should consider Biblical authors in the same way other Christian and Jewish authors are seen.
Let us consider John Wesley, Martin Luther, C.S. Lewis, the Church Fathers or many missionaries. The fact that they were not inerrant and that God did not directly speak to them does nothing to cancel the value of their testimonies, experiences and theological insights.
It also does nothing to show that they did not experience God’s miraculous intervention.
Viewing the Biblical writings as thoughts about God rather than as the direct voice of the Almighty certainly greatly alleviate the problems of atrocities they endorsed.
Like Christians between 300 A.C. often got God wrong, writers of the OT and the NT also made culturally conditioned mistakes and misinterpreted the divine will.
This is why we cannot base our theology on the Bible (which speaks with many conflicting voices to begin with) but on God’s ultimate moral perfection, as C.S. Lewis expressed it in the quote above.
This is why we need to use the historical critical method to interpret the Bible in order to understand the historical context and motives of the authors.
If we do so, we will often realize that (most) Biblical authors were not evil and often progressive for their time, even if their ethic fell short (objectively speaking).
And it is from their very experience and progresses we can learn as Christians.
Jesus view of the Bible
This leads us to the most problematic question, namely what Jesus thought about the Hebrew Bible. Did he not consider it to be inerrant in the same way modern Evangelicals do?
I have three important points to make about this.
Incarnation does not mean infallibility
Viewing the earthly Jesus as almighty and all-knowing is not only unnecessary but also flies in the face of the Biblical texts.
“Though theologians seldom point this out, the fact that Jesus operated mainly within the horizon of his
finite human horizon has other implications. If we assume for the sake of discussion that he was a
carpenter like his father, did he ever miss the nail with his hammer? Hit his thumb? Did he think that he left
his saw on the bench when, because he was distracted, he actually leaned it against the wall? Did Jesus
ever look across a crowded town square and think that he saw his brother James only to discover that it
was someone else? And did he estimate that the crowd was about 300 when it was really 200? To confess
that Jesus was fully human is to admit that the answer to these questions must be yes. “
Progressive Evangelical scholar Randal Rauser wrote:
“The problem is that this imputes a bizarre psychology to Jesus which undermines the humanity of Jesus, separating it drastically from the common human experience it is meant to emulate. Consequently, it has nothing to commend it. In conclusion, we are far better off accepting that Jesus had at least one, and likely an indeterminate number, of false theological beliefs, so long as there are no false theological beliefs of soteriological import among them.”
Like all Jews of His time, Jesus probably wrongly held to some kind of Biblical infallibility. To my mind this is a real defeater against Christianity only if you view His revelation as absolute moral and intellectual knowledge, which is an assumption I reject.
Jesus view on infallibility and the meaning of the incarnation
Whatever it was, it cannot be the Chicago view (i.e. what the authors really expressed) since the central message of Christ flied in the face of many problematic passages in the OT.
(There is a nice post on the blog of Peter Enns I could not unfortunately find).
I take N.T. Wright’s view that the incarnation means that Jesus became God’s new temple and the Almighty showed us His true face through the life, death and resurrection of His Son.
Therefore God’s revelation through Jesus is not (primarily) propositional knowledge but a narration.
I think that we must view the Bible as a part of the experience of God’s people which is centered in the life of Christ.
Consequently, we should edify ourselves with the Bible in the same way we build ourselves up through other Jewish and Christian authors, i.e. by seeing what we can learn from their own experiences while always taking into account their historical background for understanding them. The presence of scientific, historical and moral errors are no indication that their experiences were not genuine.
Now all I could write was a sketch and I completely accept the fact that many people won’t be convinced by my views.
I have one main advice for Geoff: follow your own conscience wherever it leads.
If you find my answers untenable and cease to be a Christian, you would much more honor God than by faking a faith and experiencing cognitive dissonance.
And as perfectly loving and just, God is never going to condemn a honest person who could no longer believe in Him due to the evil in the world and confusions He Himself allowed.
I wish you all the best in your spiritual journey which must be authentically yours.
A merciless fight / Een schonungslose Kompf
Vernon (a godless atheist from the Caribbean also known as Xon-Xoff) and I had a confrontation which was aimed at honoring the praiseworthy American culture war.
Since this is the very first time I recorded such an event, the quality of the sound is terrible.
I believe it is no exaggeration to say I utterly destroyed him.
So if you still read comments of Xon-Xoff, you should conclude it is most likely Vernon’s ghost.
Lorraine Franconian – Lothringisch
Vernon (een gottlos Atheist us de Karibik, de aach Xon-Xoff hess) un ich hon eeni Konfrontation gehon, die druf abzielte, de preiswürdige amerikanische Kulturkompf de Ehre ze gewe.
Do es de eerste Mol isch, wu ich solch een Ereignis gespeichert hon, isch de Qualität des Tons fuaschtba.
Ich glawe, dass es keeni Iwertriewung isch, ze behaupte, dass ich ihn total vernichtet hon.
So wenn ihr immer noch Kommentare von Xon-Xoff liest, sollt ihr schliesse, dass es sich höchst wahrschäinlich um seen Gespenst hondelt.
This is what is currently puzzling me.
William Lane Craig is undoubtedly the most popular defender of the Evangelical faith and for both believers and unbelievers, he represents the very best Christianity has to offer.
While trying to prove the historicity of the resurrection of Christ, William Lane Craig often presupposes the existence of God as background information. I think this is a very clever move for the way probabilities are assessed in that case can largely vary according to the truth of atheism or theism.
But there is a problem here: William Lane Craig also uses the resurrection as independent evidence for demonstrating God’s existence.
Jason, the questioner asked:
“So for the first argument stated, you contend that the resurrection of Jesus serves in itself as evidence for God’s existence. In your Resurrection Hypothesis, you appeal to the evidence for the existence of God as a part of the specific evidence used to show that the Resurrection Hypothesis is more probable than not.Are these arguments not then circular reasoning?”
Let us see what Craig’s answer was.
“My studied view, then, is that one first establishes theism on the basis of the arguments of Natural Theology like the cosmological, teleological, axiological, and ontological arguments, so that when one comes to explaining the facts pertinent to Jesus of Nazareth, one may include as part of one’s background information the existence of the God of Natural Theology. You misunderstood the Defenders lectures. There I challenge the assumption that the probability of the resurrection on our background information Pr (R|B) is very low precisely because we can include God’s existence as part of our background information. We’ve already completed our Natural Theology before we come to an examination of Christian evidences.
So why do I frequently present the resurrection as part of a cumulative case for God’s existence in debates? Well, the reason, frankly, is evangelistic. I don’t want to leave students with just a generic God common to all monotheists but with some warrant for believing in the Christian God, the God revealed by Jesus of Nazareth.
Now if one includes the resurrection itself as part of the evidence for theism, as I often do in debates, one cannot include God’s existence as part of the background information (though one could still include evidence like the beginning of the universe, the fine-tuning of the universe, the reality of objective moral values, etc.). What one will say in this case is just that we’ve got no reason to think that Pr (R|B) << 0.5.
So I hope you’ll find that I’ve been consistent in including God’s existence in the background information only in cases in which I am not using the resurrection as part of a case for theism. When using the resurrection as part of a theistic case, one should simply say that the resurrection has not been shown to be improbable on the background information because we’ve not heard any good arguments for atheism.”
The problem is that in such debates Craig leaves to most of his listeners and readers the misleading impression that one can, on a neutral agnostic ground, prove the resurrection and use this as evidence for God, even tough he seems to recognize at other places that you need to consider God’s existence as granted before doing this.
Is this a real inconsistency? Is that perhaps even a true deception?
I don’t know.
Moral Indignation and Divine Genocides
I had an interesting email exchange with Andy, a confessing atheist from Northrhine-Westphalia.
We’ve mainly discussed about metaethic but in this post I want to go into specific things which he wrote about the genocides mentioned in the Bible.
“If you look at some of the justifications for the genocides within the Old Testament, like those from fundamentalist Christians like Paul Copan, then you find exactly the same justifications than those that the Nazis had.
Copan says that the foes of the Israelites were completely wicked, that not one of them was not wicked, that the Israelites *had to* kill them because otherwise they would be killed etc.
And exactly like the Nazis lied about the Jews, I am sure that the Old Testament lies about the Canaanites. It is easy to show this for the Nazi lies but it is harder to demonstrate it for the Old Testament because we have no other source than that of the perpetrators (try to figure out the situation if the Nazis had won World War 2, we would read everywhere that the Nazis had helped the world because the Jews are completely wicked and would have planted the seeds of our destruction and so on and so forth.)
I am extremely thankful to Andy to have given me his opinion in such a way for it raises many interesting questions.
Atrocities in the book of Joshua
In the books of Joshua and Samuel it is reported that God ordered Israelite soldiers to annihilate an entire people whereby it was expressively said that women, children and old men should also be killed.
Now there are several possibilities:
1) the literal interpretation of our European Bibles is correct and historical and
1.a) God has really organized a bloodshed
1.b) God didn’t want that at all. Actually the ancient Israelites projected their murderous nationalism on Him.
2) the literal interpretation of our European Bibles is wrong, we should view the extermination order as a complete military defeat of the enemies
3) the conquest of Canaan and the related genocides actually never occurred. The books attributed to Moses and Joshua were written only much later on by several unknown authors
3.a) the authors really thought that the genocides happened and approved of them. However they employed many false data and oral traditions.
3.b) the authors wanted to write down a mythological or symbolic history of their origins and had absolutely not the intention to be careful historians
There are probably also other possibilities I did not envisage.
Strategies of conservative Evangelicals and fundamentalists
I would not describe Paul Copan as a fundamentalist but as a conservative Evangelical who wants to defend the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. He told me that he views such commands as not good but terrible, but that they had to be carried out owing to the dire circumstances.
Since he also doesn’t want to give up his faith in the goodness of God he has mainly tried in his book to defend 2).
I think he is right that the reported extermination orders in the Ancient Near East could be sometimes hyperbolic or symbolic. That said, there are many cases where we can assume that they were meant seriously, as Thom Stark described in his book.
In this context, I find it really remarkable that Copan’s response only included 4 pages whereas Stark’s book includes several hundreds pages and that he no longer interacted with him and his book after that.
I strongly doubt that this only lies in the aggressive and disrespectful tone of Thom Stark in the first version of his book. Afterwards he apologized for his rudeness.
Since Copan is aware that 2) could be dubious, he also wrote that this divinely ordered genocide would have actually be a good thing.
The most popular Evangelical apologist William Lane Craig has also tried several times to whitewash the genocides and I went into his last attempt.
But now one must consider the fact that the conquest of Canaan is actually historically extremely unlikely and that the massacres written in the Bible never occurred.
Frankly speaking, I don’t know if 3a) or 3b) is true. Maybe the authors truly wanted to document the historical origins of their people but were mistaken.
But it is also possible that the authors intended to write a symbolic tale which was later misinterpreted as being historical.
In both cases I believe these are human and culturally conditioned thoughts about God and I see the canonical Biblical books in the same way I see books outside the Canon.
And Biblical authors can be wrong in the same way that modern Christian writers make mistakes.
The foundation of my faith is God’s perfection which should always be the norm according to which each religious text has to be evaluated.
And now I want to describe how a healthy and just moral indignation concerning such texts should look like.
Evangelicals have a strong tendency to only consider the nice pages of the Bible whereas they ignore or explain away the odious texts.
And they then say: the Bible depicts us in a consistent way God as being perfectly good.
This is undoubtedly a kind of self-deception.
But militant atheists make the very same mistake when they assert that the Bible depicts us in a consistent manner a God who is a moral monster.
As Thom Stark described in his book “The Human Faces of God“, the different Biblical authors had not by any mean the same conception of God with respect to his moral nature.
If 1a) or 3a) are true, then there is a great contrast between the order not to spare any living thing in Canaanite cities and the preaching of the prophet Ezechiel that children are never punished for the sins of their parents.
Now I have the following advice for intellectually honest atheists:
instead of asserting that “the God of the Old Testament is a psychopathic monster” it would be better to say what follows:
“The Old Testament shows us contradictory portraits of God. In some passages he is described as being compassionate and loving whereas in other texts he is depicted as being a psychopathic monster.
This shows us that Judaism, Christianity and Islam cannot be revealed religions for one cannot deduce a portrait of God free of contradictions out of them. “
This would be much more honest and efficacious than the assertion that the whole Old Testament is wicked for this can be easily refuted.
William Lane Craig and Divine Genocides
William Lane Craig is arguably the most popular defender of the Evangelical faith out there. Whilst he certainly tends to overstate his case about the resurrection of Christ, he is far more rational and rigorous in his approach than folks like McDowell (or your local pastor or evangelist for that matter).
At the end of the day, I don’t believe that his attempts to prove God’s existence through the cosmological argument are in any way, shape or form more fallacious than atheistic attempts to show that everything has to be as simple as possible.
I do believe, however, that he is completely misguided in his willingness to stick to the dogma of Biblical inerrancy at all costs.
Defense of atrocities attributed to God
One of the most disgusting consequence is undoubtedly his endorsement of Biblical genocides, or should I say, genocidal myths.
According to the beliefs of Dr. Craig, those events undoubtedly occurred as reported in the pages of his inerrant book, whereby God allegedly ordered soldiers to kill babies and pregnant women alike.
Regardless of their historicity, the tales have been rightly called terror texts due to the theology they convey.
Unlike many fundamentalists, he recognizes to his credit it is possible to be a Jew or a Christian while rejecting them:
“First, let me commend you for seeing that this issue is an in-house debate among Jews and Christians. If it is the case that God could not have issued the commands in question, that goes no distance toward proving atheism or undermining the moral argument for God; it at most implies a liberal doctrine of biblical inspiration, such that inspiration does not imply inerrancy.“
But I was really stunned by his first sentence:
“It’s wonderful to read a rational response to my defense of the historicity of the conquest narratives, Daniel! The typical response has been just heated emotional denunciations with no rational interaction with the moral theory I defended in QoWs”
It demands a huge effort for me to believe that Craig is not aware of the numerous blog posts Randal Rauser spent dealing with his lame attempts to whitewash such horrors. He clearly expressed his feelings, but does Craig really expect someone to callously think about atrocities attributed to the Supreme Being of all universes?
He further said:
“But it’s worth remembering that the reason the conquest narratives are so puzzling is that God’s character in the Old Testament is so morally elevated that it’s hard to understand how He could issue such commands, especially after the story of Abraham’s bargaining with God over Sodom and Gomorrah. He is not the villain that the new atheists make Him out to be.“
This statement is certainly hugely debatable, but I can agree with it in so far that by and large the writers of the OT had more elevated human thoughts about God than those expressed in the genocidal passages.
“2. I’m very gratified that you agree with me on my Divine Command Theory of ethics. I think this goes a very long way toward resolving the problem. God does nothing morally wrong in issuing these commands. Rather the whole question devolves, as you note, to this: has God failed to act in accordance with His perfect moral character? The task of the biblical believer is now to show that in issuing these commands God does nothing out of character with a perfectly just and loving being.“
I am unwilling to argue about the validity of DCT here and am going to accept this for the sake of the discussion, provided the character of a perfectly just and loving being can be recognized by our moral intuitions, what Calvinists (for instance) usually deny.
Alleged wickedness of the Canaanites.
„You apparently agree with me that God’s judgment of the Canaanite adults is consistent with God’s being perfectly just and loving, given how unspeakably debased these people were..“
Well I certainly cannot agree with this anymore than with the proposition that the entire human race except Noah and his family was literally rife for utter destruction by the flood.
This stems from the simple empirical fact that even in the most wicked cultures, you’re always going to find a substantial set of (relatively) virtuous individuals not deserving such a judgment. And the whole concept that the place of one’s birth is going to have a huge impact on one’s ethical behavior certainly mitigates one’s personal responsibility.
„Is taking their lives consistent with the character of a perfectly just and loving being? Well, why not? My claim is that in taking these children home early, God does them no wrong. Indeed, He may actually prevent their eternal damnation by snatching them out of a depraved Canaanite culture.“
WLC looks completely confused here and I hardly know where to begin with. If he agrees that the genocide of the Jews or the Armenians was an atrocity for God, then it makes no sense He would commend such a horror given the wrong message it would send. The expression „taking them home“ sounds extremely cynical (to say the least) in such a context, if one tries imagining a soldier cutting the throat of the toddler of a terrified housewife.
But this passage made me realize that divine genocide isn’t the weakest point of Professor Craig’s theology.
No, the hugest problem is certainly his belief in conscious eternal punishment. If he believes that babies and toddlers automatically escape this fate by dying and that we can be glad about the Canaanite ones leaving this earthly life in this way, then it seems inevitable we should also praise God for every abortion.
More than that, conservative Christian parents believing that most humans end up in hell would express their love for their children in the most perfect way by practicing infanticide.
„But your question is easy to answer. The reason we should withhold such a reward is that God has issued a command “Thou shalt not kill,” so that we have a moral prohibition against killing the innocent. We have no right to play God; it is He and He alone who has the prerogative to give and take life. Yes, the death of a child brings great good to that child. That’s why we are comforted at funerals of children. But there’s nothing in my moral theory that implies that we should bring about this great good (I’m not a utilitarian!). In fact, my moral theory entails that we have a moral duty not to take the life of a child or of any innocent person. God has forbidden us doing so, and anyone who presumes to do so commits a great evil. This is right in line with the teaching of the New Testament, as well as the Old.„
The problem is that God gives us strong commands against inflicting a temporary pain to our fellow human beings while he’s going to allow them being tortured forever.
Progressive Christian perspective: faith forward.
To conclude, let me give my take on the Biblical terror texts. I view the things contained within the Biblical Canon in the same way I see religious texts outside the Canon, that is to say as the fallible description of human thoughts and experiences with God. In the same way people can get facts about mathematics, logic, and physics wrong, they can get God wrong, sometimes in quite a guilty and sinful way.
Our reflection about God shouldn’t start from any allegedly inspired holy scripture, but from the concept He has to be perfect in order for Him to be God, that is infinitely better than any one of us can dream to be. From this basis, we can evaluate if the religious thoughts and experiences of anyone are genuine, illusory, or both at the same time.
Certainly, developing a coherent theology on this foundation cannot be achieved with some lines of a blog entry.