Monthly Archives: February 2014

Nonviolent Bible Interpretation III: Church

If the Christian community decided the canon over three centuries then inescapably it plays a critical role in interpretation. Church comes prior to scripture, if only in order of time. So, in turn, this begs the question of church. What in fact is church? What is the community of interpretation?

The content to this question is so big, spanning so much time, we can’t cover everything. What we’re interested in are key elements which can bring us to where we are today, with some degree of insight. We will approach the topic in bite-size chunks which hopefully move us forward swiftly to our present situation.

Any gathering of Christians is a church, an ekklesia, a calling of people to come together, in the name of Christ. The individual, local sense is almost always the sense Paul gives the word. (And it is always the case in Acts.) The name chosen, “ekklesia,” was entirely neutral in this way. It had no religious connotation. A “church” is a particular community.

But Paul also gives it a general and ideal sense at 1 Corinthians 12:27-28. Here, there is an emergent order of authority, but it’s to be underlined at once that all the roles are charismatic and non-institutional, i.e. they are conferred by the Spirit, not by institutional office and power.

Matthew 16:19 (“On this rock I will build my church”) is famous as a text conferring on Peter special power and office. These Matthean verses could certainly be analyzed in detail, but there can be little doubt that the term Cephas/Rock, as a nickname or metonym for Simon the brother of Andrew, had come to mean some kind of overall role and jurisdiction in the community tradition in which Matthew was writing. It is the emergence of the Petrine church.

In our study it was not a matter of debating the theological merits of the text, but recognizing it as reflective of something real in history.

The Johannine literature provides an essential context and counterpoint to this reality, beginning with the third letter, 3 John. The Elder (author) “wrote something to the church” (the first time the word is used in the Johannine literature), but a certain individual, Diotrephes, who “loving to be first of them, he does not welcome us” (v.9). Moreover this first-in-the-church person “refuses to welcome the brothers,” and those who want to receive them “he puts out of the church” (v.10). Raymond Brown analyzes this as the emergence of the Petrine church, its asserting authority over the much more “anarchic” Johannine communities based in direct personal mimesis, love and constant visiting and welcoming.

Brown also believes that the gospel of John with its edgy tensions between Peter and the Beloved Disciple in chapters 20 and 21 , represents both an ultimate recognition of Petrine authority and a subtle non-conformity.

But why should the Johannine groups come under the emerging hierarchy in the first place? It is because the non-institutionalized communities were particularly vulnerable to the emerging threat of other, dualist, world-denying viewpoints (docetism and gnosticism) which were multiplying around them. There was the constant possibility of any new leader asserting himself, claiming a brilliant new non-fleshly “truth” (2 John: 7), and the insistence then on listening solely to him. Only a legally constituted identity system could provide an effective counter to them.

Here then is the beginning of hierarchical orthodoxy, a.k.a. what most people have come to understand as “church.”

The number of Christians grew progressively through the second and third centuries, so at the beginning of the fourth they were estimated to be about 10% of the Roman Empire, about 6 million people. They also grew in social status and intellectual self-confidence, with an author such as Tertullian arguing trenchantly and wittily against pagan practices and beliefs. Pagans read Tertullian simply for the pleasure of his writing. By the end of the third century Christians constituted a sufficient body to become politically recognizable and significant. The Emperor Diocletian and his understudy Galerius adopted an ideology of restoring the ancient pieties and virtues of Rome. This quickly turned to persecution of Christians, involving the destruction of buildings and scriptures and the demand for sacrifice to and for the emperor. The persecution was severe in many places, but mostly centered in the eastern part of the empire.

Constantine was a Caesar in Britain and Gaul, and was positioning himself as a contender for the imperial throne. He seems simply to have ignored Diocletian’s decrees of persecution. Advancing on Rome in the year 311 to do battle with his rival, Maxentius, he claimed to have had a vision and a dream of Christ, telling him to adopt Christian symbols for his army. According to the church historian Eusebius he constructed a battle standard with a spear and a crossbar depicting the cross, surmounted by the first two letters of Christ’s Greek name, Chi and Ro (X & P, the latter intersecting the former). The whole thing was hung with a jewel-encrusted cloth on which was attached a portrait of Constantine and his children. With this “sign” at the front of his troops he proceeded to win the battle, and many subsequent battles in his eventual conquest of the whole Roman empire.

Constantine was a master of imperial propaganda, already proclaiming himself a Sol Invictus (sun deity) on his coins, and engaging in energetic building programs. The sudden adoption of Christian signs in the midst of a deadly persecution and before a pitched battle for control of the imperial city amounted to a semiotic revolution of blinding force. Whatever Christianity represented to paganism it was in one stroke turned into a mimetic reflection, a mirroring back, of all the Roman violence that lay before it, both physically and historically. Those who had not directly experienced the compassion of Jesus would only see this strange transcendence turning the violence offered to it, by Diocletian, around on its enemies. For this is de facto what happened: Constantine won all his battles carrying the “labarum” (as the battle standard came to be known), or with the Chi Ro emblazoned on his soldiers helmets. As far as the church was concerned the immediate cessation of persecution in the West, followed by the declaring of Christianity a “licensed religion” in 313 (Edict of Milan), would have made it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to refuse Constantine’s version of events. What was the hierarchical church to do? Throw the new-found toleration and status back in Constantine’s face and say “We prefer to be persecuted”? As it is, Constantine is regarded as a saint in the East, and by the Anglicans. In the Roman Catholic tradition the story is even more impacted: the popes assumed the right for the church itself to wield the sword and have final rule over emperors.

In every case two conclusions are necessary.

The labarum was a masterstroke of revisionist, generative symbolism, in one stroke twisting the cross out of its native compassion, making it instead a talisman of violence. Its infinite compassion was obscured beneath the machinery of imperial force and instead the raw event of killing was made to stand forth. It was a cultural intervention of incalculable import whose threads reach through to the “taking the cross” in the crusades, to Anselm’s reading of the cross as an event of violence to “satisfy” a higher divine violence, all the way to its full displacement as swastika, “the crooked cross.”

Secondly–and this is the arrival point of this study–the meaning of “church” was militarized, in as much as it became compatible with military force. Before Constantine, even if Christianity was not coherently pacifist through all of its believers, as a movement it was politically indifferent to the endless foreign and civil wars of the emperors. In contemporary terms it could be called, at the very least, neutral and non-combatant in the empire’s wars. After Constantine all that changed. Empire became suddenly and progressively identified with Christianity, and we’re still more or less in the same situation today. And as we study the community of interpretation derived from the first millennium of Christianity, this is clearly and implicitly part of what “church” means.

One of our members concluded that, “We don’t really know what ‘Christian’ means. We don’t understand all the paths by which Christianity has got to be what it is and means now.”

In a parallel vein, someone else concluded: “Reading the bible like we’re doing is like early Christians pushing against the structures of Judaism, trying to open something new. Except today we’re pushing against the churches, all of them, from Baptist fundamentalism to Catholicism.”

Nonviolent Bible Interpretation II: Literal Truth.

Our second study in the area of Violent/Nonviolent interpretation of the bible quickly routed us to a key Girardian principle as a way of understanding.

The topic was the verbal “inerrancy” of the biblical text (the popular name for which is the literal reading or literalism). But before we got down to thinking about how slippery words are, how unreliable as a final authority, we took a detour through Girard’s concept of “differentiation.”

In human culture “difference” between humans is constructed out of sacred violence. The phase of loss of difference–when a human group enters so intensely into rivalry that individuals become simply hostile mirrors or doubles of each other–is called “undifferentiation.” It can only be settled by the group victim. All the violence is heaped on the scapegoat who is killed, but the situation that provoked the crisis is remembered and rigid differences are then constructed in the wake of the terrifying violence and in the name of its peace-bringing victim. Competition over resources (food, territory, women) is strictly managed by establishing differences: who gets what from whom; and who, where and what is the “enemy” to be excluded. At the same there is the sense of an absolute “sacred” authority running through all this and holding it all in place. It is a description of any primary society, but the same basic principles hold in any “developed” culture founded in and through violence.

Last week we saw how the violence of God’s eternal decrees underlie the fundamentalist reading of the bible. This time the focus was on the text itself. The two in fact overlap. God’s authority is intimately tied up in the text. If the latter should come into doubt so would the former. In turn this would create a crisis in the differences established by means of the text (role of women, sexuality, hierarchy). We understood the crisis provoked in scripture-based differentiation to be the root reason for forcibly insisting on the authority of the text.

One of our members underlined this with a reference to the Civil War, citing the work of Mark Noll, which showed that the South clung to a literal reading of the Bible, including slavery, believing that a challenge to this would lead to a total loss of the bible’s authority. It seems clear that what was at stake was an overall worldview of difference mediated by the bible, one that could only be “decided” in the crushing violence of civil war.*

Thus, when there is a direct debate with a fundamentalist interpretation we must always remember that it is a question of primary difference and order which is being defended and this goes to the root of human identity. Ultimately it’s not about the bible, it’s about difference. At the same time, it has to be recognized that the bible will make an extreme and dangerous tool for establishing difference, with an eternal incomprehensible violence claimed at its core and behavioral codes and worldview stretching back to semi-desert tribal society three thousand years old.

In sum what is happening is that the engine of meaning or interpretation is violent difference. But what if the whole point of the bible, and above all the gospel, is to introduce ANOTHER engine of meaning, whereby difference is NOT settled by violence, but by love? What if Jesus does what is always claimed for him, recreating human nature from the ground up? What if Jesus’ “eating and drinking with sinners” is truly the final model, in which difference is swallowed up in love? What if in fact Jesus’ divine erasure of difference (as engine of meaning) is what deep down is driving our world in its “secular” history?

In this context we began to look at some of the claims about the biblical text, understanding that we are not dealing with the individual meaning of words but an overall transformation of meaning itself. It is this engine of transformation which helps us decide about any particular item of biblical scripture.

Meaning is always the issue. The moment you claim “inerrancy” for the biblical text there is a question of what you actually mean by that. We quoted from an online article by a defender of inerrancy: ‘Formerly all that was necessary to affirm one’s belief in full inspiration was the statement, “I believe in the inspiration of the Bible.” But when some did not extend inspiration to the words of the text it became necessary to say, “I believe in the verbal inspiration of the Bible.” To counter the teaching that not all parts of the Bible were inspired, one had to say, “I believe in the verbal, plenary inspiration of the Bible.” Then because some did not want to ascribe total accuracy to the Bible, it was necessary to say, “I believe in the verbal, plenary, infallible, inerrant inspiration of the Bible.” But then “infallible” and “inerrant” began to be limited to matters of faith only rather than also embracing all that the Bible records (including historical facts, genealogies, accounts of Creation, etc.), so it became necessary to add the concept of “unlimited inerrancy.” ‘

The author then goes to cite the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy held in Chicago in 1978, as the gold-standard of what inerrancy actually means. In the Council’s official Statement the word “authority” is mentioned twice. In its first two articles of affirmation and denial it is mentioned three times and “authoritative” once. It is clear what is at stake. In article XII we get to the classic sticking point: “We deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.”

19th century geology and biology offered what was felt as a devastating challenge to the authority of violent difference: God makes everything by authoritative decree, humans destroy creation’s order, God renews creation with violent differentiation. If these accounts are falsified then authoritative difference is lost. But to read the texts simply in these terms actually loses their prophetic engine of meaning: God creates without violence, and the core issue behind the flood is human violence!

Those who claim inerrancy do not deny metaphor in the bible but they mention it very little! “All flesh is grass” is a metaphor. The Song of Songs can surely only be understood as an extended metaphor. Why not Genesis 1? And why cannot the flood account be an ancient mythologeme (extended story-metaphor) given a radical re-reading by the inspired author?

In more technical terms of linguistics, words never totally lose a metaphorical quality. They only achieve a (more) precise meaning in relation to other words, and ultimately the conversation with words is endless (both Wittgenstein and Derrida came to this conclusion). Translators know this at first hand: the moment the original language of scripture is translated a shift in meaning is helplessly incurred. To try to cope with the shift translators use what are effectively paraphrases and thus they never quite capture the subtle resonances of the original. (See for example the huge range of English renderings for the Hebrew word for “word,” dabar.)

The thing that is therefore pivotal is not the words as such, but the engine of meaning at work in words, and the possibility of change in this engine. What indeed is a more creative act on God’s part, to reassert violent difference, or produce an entirely new basis of meaning?

Article V of the Chicago statement said, “We deny that later revelation, which may fulfill earlier revelation, ever corrects or contradicts it.” This strikes me as actually anti-gospel. What could Matthew possibly mean when Jesus says, “You have heard how it was said, I tell you…”? One of our members who was schooled in all-the-bible-says-the-same-thing engine of meaning told us the way this was parsed was that Jesus simply “raised the bar on the law,” arriving at its legal essence. Aside from Paul’s critique of the law as being practically unfulfillable, this makes many of Jesus’ anti-legalist statements and actions incomprehensible; plus it becomes a complete mystery as to why Jesus’ contemporaries should have sought his death ( i.e. if he simply wanted to perfect the law). Much more consistent to understand that Jesus really did introduce a new principle of meaning, one that lurked deeply in many corners of the Old Testament text but which found its concrete and singular realization in him. When Jesus says he comes to fulfill the law he does indeed affirm its radical purpose or intention, but he contradicts the engine of violent difference by which it is articulated and put into practice. Ultimately Jesus took the violent difference of the law upon himself in order to liberate its transformative human meaning. Thus he releases the new generative meaning for which the law was always striving.

Lastly, a flat single-horizon scripture ends up in negating the singularity of Jesus and his subsequently claimed divine status. It is out of his world-redefining singularity that the high confessional doctrines of the Son of God progressively emerged. To confess these and at the same time read all scripture with the same lens leads to a muddled, non-primitive and purely doctrinaire Christianity. And of course a violent one.

* This is not to say that the Northern cause was not also about difference in its own way. However, its difference was tied up in the concept of the Union and what that would mean in a longer, bigger game of U.S. world power and status. Meanwhile actual U.S. society, north and south, rejoices in three very direct “horizontal” ways of producing difference, money, prisons, and guns. Finally, the “liberal” or Enlightenment interpretation of the bible and/or culture very frequently understands itself in violent differentiation…from “fundamentalists.”

Salt Solution

In Syracuse N.Y. salt is ubiquitous, in the names of the roads, in its salt-springs history, and at this time of year just about everywhere you look. Anything that goes on wheels, or upon which wheels go, is encrusted in a thick grime of salt. After big storms, followed by melts and cold snaps, the roads are white, not with snow, but an astringent paste of the briny stuff, one you can taste in the air.

Jesus famously described discipleship in terms of salt losing its savor and being thrown out to be trodden underfoot (Matt.5:13). Commentaries say it’s strange, the compound NaCl is not known to lose its flavor, so what was Jesus talking about? My guess is on the steep inclines of Nazareth and Jerusalem people did just what they do now, on the occasions it did snow and freeze they put salt on steps and gradients. And when the wind blew and you got a tongue-curling taste of the stuff it was just like it is now, dull, cloying, unpalatable.

What Jesus was talking about was not salt losing its flavor in a chemical sense, but losing its precise human quality as seasoning. Too much salt and it’s no longer edible. Actually, it’s disgusting. A literal sense of the Greek word “to lose flavor” is “to become stupid, dull, doltish”… so Jesus is saying that when salt is spread underfoot it loses its tang, its meaning as salt and, instead, tastes, well, stupid, just a bad parody of its table self. All he did was reverse the order of events–first “no tang/bad parody” then “thrown out,” for the sake of his parable.

So, what does it mean for today’s disciples, intended to be “the salt of the earth,” but subject to the possibility of becoming bad parodies fit only to be trodden underfoot?

In many ways Christianity is already spread universally underfoot. In the West it has a massive historical and cultural presence which makes it appear part of the geography, of not much more vital significance than an old road paved over or an outline of ancient walls in an archeological site. Back in 2004 the announced European Constitution did not mention Christianity, prompting bitter complaints from the Vatican. An alliance that progressively emerged between the pope emeritus, Benedict, and some European atheists, for the protection of Christendom against Islam, only serves to highlight the parody-like version of Christianity that was being defended, one that has already ended under foot!

Here in the U.S. Christianity may appear more vital and contemporary but the same underfoot quality is all around us, evidenced by the now European style decline in many mainline churches, particularly and tellingly among young whites. At the same time the barely hidden undertow of violence revealed in many attitudes and situations in fundamentalist Christianity is its own unwitting but evident parody of the Sermon on the Mount where the salt parable appears. (

It seems we are failing the salt test.

What would it mean to seek to be table-salt Christianity today? How is it possible to be salt that dramatically changed the taste of human life for the better, giving life to the earth in the 21st century? To answer this question you have at once to take into account an entirely other perspective about the “spread abroad” quality of inherited Christianity. Elsewhere I have argued that Christianity has had such a profound cultural impact it decisively and progressively affects our underlying responses and opinions, above all in our recognition of the victim through an undertow of Christ’s compassion. This paradoxical impact explains why there is in fact so much implicit Christianity in so-called secular culture and why it is so easy to find a kind of diffused humanism and spirituality entirely away from the churches. For this kind of thing Jesus used parables of seed and its amazing, unstoppable growth. If we take the liberty of mixing this phenomenon with the image of the salt, it’s as if the whole world is suspended in a kind of saline solution! Everything today is mixed with Christianity.

However, this is of very little comfort when there are also many accumulated crises facing humanity. As a planet we have desperate decisions to make about inequality, poverty, the climate, weapons and war. Never in fact has the need for genuine disciples been more critical. I would say, therefore, that it’s the single tangy grain of salt resting in the water which reveals what the whole medium really is.

A grain of salt is by definition a small thing, but a passionate condensation of salt in an ocean enables all the water around to know what its life really is and to be more and more drawn to it. It enables the whole solution to come alive in the life that already is its own.

Such a single grain can be achieved only in direct relationships where it is possible to see the qualities of compassion, nonviolence, forgiveness and peace at work. It is a challenge, and failure and false-starts are a constant possibility. But we know for sure it cannot happen in the big Christendom-style operations based in power relations and which today are more and more simply thrown-underfoot. The objection is sometimes made that small communities do not have the sociological presence and effect of the big operations so you absolutely have to replicate them. This kind of thinking does not understand the seasoning power of a single grain of salt, that tangy thing Jesus was talking about!

Tony Bartlett

Violent or Nonviolent Reading of the Bible?


How do you get to the bottom (foundations) of the fundamentalist reading of the bible in three or four (relatively) easy but accurate lessons? Without making light of anybody’s first hand Christian feeling? And, at the same time, without minimizing the enormous crisis the reading represents for all of Western culture?

If we are on the verge of something genuinely new in Christianity then there has to be a fresh understanding about how to read scripture, one that must also encompass a clear account and deconstruction of its prior alternatives.


You remember how you were young? Filled with an infinity of life? And you may also be young now, filled with that same sense. That road, that mountainside, that street after rain, what incredible freshness! That’s what we’re attempting to name here, no matter the chronological age or received tradition of Christianity.

Last Friday we began a new course of study in our prayer and study group, Wood Hath Hope. It’s called “Principles of Interpretation” and it attempts to confront this challenge. The discussion is so important that I’m going to represent it here in a sequence of blogs.

The inspiration for the course came from one of our members who wanted to know how to respond to a literalist take on the bible, of the type, “If it’s in the bible that is what I believe, nothing else!”

For my part, I thought that to answer that question you had to back up and look at the presuppositions of this approach. In a nutshell, I believe that from the soul of an imperialized Christianity, combined with the inescapable centrality of the Crucified, there arose a version of God that was high, authoritarian and incomprehensibly violent. This reading can trace its intellectual roots back to Augustine, but the Bishop of Hippo’s thought in this area did not reach the minds of a majority of Church-going people. We had to wait for the Calvinist Reform before this became a default way of thinking for many Christians. And that is where we began.

We read the Westminster Confession (1646) and Beza’s “Sum Total of Christian faith” (1555) with its two perfectly symmetrical lines of the elect and the damned governed by the eternal, incomprehensible decrees of God. The major (ex?)denominational group within our body are Presbyterians, raised on a mother’s-milk of Westminster Confession, but still many were blown away by the mathematical distinction laid out in black and white. We read Hans Boersma’s powerful description of this tradition as “violence in the heart of God.” Somebody said this is where her youthful sense of the “creepiness” in Christianity came from. Are we dealing here with the figure of God as an abusive parent possessing absolute impunity?

The Westminster Confession says “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself.” This is inescapably true, but the question at once arises, how do you decide which are the bits which interpret other bits? Why not the Sermon on the Mount interpret everything else? The Confession (following Luther) says the Old Testament in Hebrew is the Christian Canon (together with the New Testament in Greek). This contradicted Roman Catholic practice which accepted the Greek Old Testament, including the books which Luther excluded as Apocrypha.

But this actually makes first century Jewish practice the arbiter of the Christian Canon, while the early Christian writers (including Paul) made free use of the Old Testament as written in Greek (what is known as the Septuagint, or LXX). In addition it seems pretty clear that Jesus knew and echoed Sirach (one of the Apocrypha; see, for example, 28:1-7). Does this mean that Jesus in fact considered the book canonical, or just the bits he used? (Moreover, parts of this book written originally in Hebrew were discovered in the 19th century, and later at Qumran, so it actually fits the criterion.) The point is not to pick holes or split hairs, but to show that there is inevitably some prior decision in regard to any text, i.e. there is a criterion or choice used about why it is or is not important. It can never be entirely “natural” as if it fell out of the sky. The choice is made in dialogue with the text, but the text can never teach us and reach us independently of that criterion, or set of criteria.

So then what are the criteria of choice in relation to the text which put “violence in the heart of God.” Atonement doctrine played a huge part in the process and we will come back to this in one of the next studies. But at once we can see the imperial model of authority supplied by the figure of this God, and, therewith, its inherent violence. The authority supplanted that of the Roman Catholic Church and its “Supreme Pontiff,” the pope, and it was a greater and more absolute authority than secular kings or magistrates. There are two consequences.

First, when it comes to reading the scripture in this light, the underlying theme of violence is inescapable. It must inevitably communicate itself to other areas of the bible, especially in the Old Testament where there are many instances of God-willed violence. Because of the meta-violence of God brought to the text as criterion, actual violence in the text will get a free pass. It will in fact become its own self-justifying criterion of interpretation. (Evidence for this can be seen in the Left Behind series which interpret the book of Revelation in terms of brutal violence on the part of Jesus, rather than a writing which does use violent imagery, but which foresees the eventual triumph of the nonviolent Lamb.)

Second, when someone says they are bible-believing Christian (something an early Christian would never have dreamed of saying) there is a latency of violence in the actual first-person statement. An implication is if you don’t agree, then literally you will/can go to hell!

In sum, what we have here is a theological model of authority, surpassing any normal human kind, even of the most despotic divinized character. No human god/king can simply will you to hell for eternity. With metaphysical accuracy, therefore, might makes right. Historically speaking, bringing this authority to the shores of the U.S. supplied its evolving character with a sense of untrammeled supernatural right. As someone said, it entered the water-supply.

In contrast to this criterion of violence in the heart of God we can advance a criterion of God’s absolute nonviolence. But this cannot begin with an alternative eternal concept of God, funneled from an opposite metaphysical starting point. How could we know that? Instead it begins with the concrete and historical event of Jesus and the paradigm shattering events of his death and resurrection, revealing to us our own generative violence by his dying-and-rising nonviolence. More of this later, but we keep in mind it is a concrete human situation of nonretaliation to the point of death, and then its life-filled reversal, which becomes our criterion of interpretation. And this is (of course) perfectly in line with Scripture!

”No one has seen God. It is the only Son, who is close to the Father’s bosom, who has made him known.” (John 1:18).