Category Archives: Bible Interpretation

A crucial question, how to interpret the bible! If this other kind of theology is going to make headway it has to offer a convincing answer to “literalist” ways of reading the bible.

Nonviolent Bible Interpretation VI: Gospel = Theological Nonviolence

To conclude a series on nonviolent interpretation of the bible we turn necessarily to the man from Galilee.

Jesus as cultural figure is so commonplace (both as doctrine and meaning), it is very difficult for us to get behind him, to identify a sense of his extrordinary novelty and singularity. Further below is a small thought experiment to try recapture this.

Jesus made a pivotal intervention in human history, explicitly teaching nonviolence (“turn the other cheek”), but even more crucially, displaying it in extreme, primordial circumstances.

The gospels set out the singularity of Jesus in terms of his identity as the Christ and of his relationship to the Father. The latter issue preoccupied the first centuries of Christianity and they understood the Christ/Messiah very much in the light of Jesus’ divinity.

But the relationship was conceived in Greek ontological terms, of being (“one being with the Father”), rather than the quality of the relationship, its phenomenology, as transformation of the nature of relationship itself.

Hence, the experiential basis of Jesus’ uniqueness was swallowed up in a doctrinal metaphysics of being, and we lost a human sense of why these immense claims were or could be made about him.

At Matt. 11: 25-27 we hear Jesus say, “Thank you Father that you have revealed these things to the simple, not the wise or intelligent.” The root meaning of nepios is those without speech or words (Latin infans), i.e. the pre-cultural child or unlettered adult. Jesus is saying clearly that his stuff is not revealed to those invested with conventional cultural knowledge, but to those ready to be humanized from the ground up. Those who are speechless in the old way, who are ready for a new human start.

He goes on directly to say no one “fully knows” or recognizes the Son except the Father, and no one recognizes the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. In other words, it is not possible to know the Father/Mother within the established cultural order. It is only in the revolutionary relationship that Jesus establishes that it is possible to begin truly to know God. What could possibly explain this exceptionality about himself?

If it is not some arbitrary demand to confess “Jesus as Lord” it has to be the radical nonviolence of God which cannot be known without the radical nonviolence of Jesus.

Conversely, when Jesus asks at Matt. 16:13-17 “Who do men say that I am?” and Simon Peter answers that he is the Christ, Jesus comments that it is “not flesh and blood that has revealed this, but the Father.” Flesh and blood is the universal cultural system we are in, and to recognize the Christ/Messiah is to be moved by the Father/Mother. Thus the nonviolent God also works to make known in our hearts the Messianic nonviolence of Jesus and allow us to confess him as the Christ-of-nonviolence.

Scholars uncritically assume that what is currently in their heads, and the heads of half of humankind, was always there, but it wasn’t. The affirmation of a crucified teacher of nonviolence as the key to history could not have happened without a transcendent event. Let’s try this thought experiment.

Imagine MLK Jr., that his fight wasn’t with racism, or militarism, rather with the religion of his own people. They possessed a national territory which they had achieved by exodus from the rest of America after the end of slavery, let’s say somewhere like California. There was a central institution, a temple, which everyone attended at regular intervals, by obligation. The people believed God had led them to California and the temple was the place he had chosen for his worship. However, the territory was currently occupied and under the control of the Nazis who began in Germany but were now in power everywhere. To fight the Nazis was like taking on the world order itself. But the people could never quit resisting, because the presence of the Nazis in the land was a blasphemy to God. At the same time there was the belief that the presence of the Nazis was a judgment by God on the sins of the people. So there was the added sense among opinion leaders that they now had to be absolutely faithful to God’s rules, in order to end the terrible Nazi curse they were under.

MLK began to preach: he behaved as if none of this mattered, the land, the temple, the rules, the Nazis. All that was important was a totally new move by God that had to do with him and his preaching, with relationship to him. Through this relationship there was the possibility of love, nonviolence and forgiveness for everyone around you. This was God’s move in the world.

What would people say?

The matter did not end there. MLK clearly had enemies among the temple and rules people. But instead of hiding out in the desert and spreading his teaching untroubled by authorities, he headed to the temple and he shut it down, claiming full authority over this central symbol. All the people gathered round him, hanging on his every word. They expected something overwhelming: that this totally new outrageous teaching would get a sudden all-powerful confirmation from God, so that it would wipe out all opposition, including the Nazis. At this point the temple authorities understood a direct challenge has been made and they decided to take MLK out. For some inexplicable reason he did not protect himself or even hide sufficiently carefully, but allowed himself to be discovered and captured. His followers are disoriented and scattered, the crowd turns against him. The temple authorities hand him over to the Nazis who torture and humiliate him in the most horrendous and public way, making him a joke and a disgrace to the whole world. He is strung up in a public place and dies a slow, crushing death. He shows great courage and perseverance but he dies all the same. Next day is Sunday. He remains dead. The only possible conclusion: this man suffered from terminal religious delusion.

From where then will come the psychological resources to assert not only the teaching of this man, but that he does indeed represent the true meaning of God? The man who preached these things had entered a pit of unmediated horror and all that could be felt was the echoing brute triumph of violence. It beggars belief that unlettered disciples could invent the gospel out of violated, condemned hearts, and afterward continue peacefully in nonviolence and forgiveness.

To entertain this understanding in respect of Jesus is willful a-historicism, projecting on first century Galilean Jews the default sense of Christian truth embedded after two thousand years of slow-drip cultural presence. As one of our group said, Christian meaning is imprinted in people’s minds today as a kind of collective myth, and they assume it would always have been as easy to embrace the story culturally as it is now. They don’t recognize how profoundly they have been shaped, and how impossibly this easy acceptance could have occurred originally: absent the transcendent event of the Resurrection.

The Resurrection is the unnegotiable affirmation of theological nonviolence, and it could not have been imagined into existence! It is only when we understand the profound newness represented by Jesus and his death that we also recognize the organic truth of the resurrection. If the resurrection is understood simply as a confirmation that Jesus is divine then the suspicion will at once arise that it’s a religious fiction. In its proper context, of Jesus’ revelation of theological nonviolence, it becomes unavoidable.

Finally, a key aspect of the gospel narrative is Jesus’ mental suffering in the garden of Gethsemane. Matt. 26: 36-46 shows his horror facing the cross. The fact that the Father/Mother wills it does not demonstrate a perverse will to punish, rather the converse: because the Father/Mother is given over entirely to the risk of creation and its violent self-affirmation, so in imitation Jesus must surrender to the generative violence of human culture, in order to transform it. Jesus removes himself three times from his disciples, separating himself from actual humanity to do something new. Mark’s exthambeomai is to be out of one’s mind, paralyzed with terror. Matthew uses the standard word for grief (unto death), but keeps Mark’s ademoneo, the strongest word in the NT for depression and stress, a loathing for existence. These are very powerful words and they represent the depth of Jesus’ alienation from life as he faces the truth of human culture and its bottomless foundation in violence. Jesus must enter this human hell in order to bring it to love from within. The narrative of Jesus’ internal agony is unique in  ancient and classical literature: no other hero is shown to undergo such terrifying loss of self-meaning. But it is precisely this interiority or subjectivity in crisis that guarantees Jesus has entered the core of our violent existence in order to bring it to love.

It is the infinite gesture of self-giving in Gethsemane that is raised up in resurrection. Gethsemane is the phenomenological core of resurrection: the story of one is not credible without the story of the other.

To confess Jesus, therefore, is to confess the dramatic in-breaking in human history of theological nonviolence.

Nonviolent Bible Interpretation V : Science of Human Relationships

So far we have been trying to undo, or deconstruct, violent bible interpretation (eternal decrees, literalism, empire, commodified soul). Now we can turn to the constructive side: a positively nonviolent interpretation.

If we read Genesis holistically, rather than legally and piecemeal, we gain a completely different sense of the human condition. Rather than an isolated legal fault condemning all, there is a profound and extended description of anthropology. This is the biblical anthropology identified by Girard: a science of fundamental human relationships arising in the bible.

To take up Genesis this way is a radical hermeneutic, just as Luther’s “only faith and only scripture” was a radical hermeneutic for his time. But Luther depended on an embedded interpretation of Christ’s death, one that understood that death in legal terms of compensation. In this sense Luther did not challenge a violent hermeneutic; he may well have served to intensify it.

Luther derived his understanding of the “sin of Adam” from the powerful impact of Augustinian tradition. It is a “vice of origin” which brings eternal death. Augustine, in his argument with Pelagius, used a faulty Latin translation of Romans (Kirwan 131-32). At 5:12 he believed the text read “in him all have sinned” rather than “because all have sinned.” Although this has been corrected in later translations it served to cement in tradition the notion of direct sharing in Adam’s personal sin.

It has been well said that Romans 5 is about a “communion of sinners” (with Adam) just as there is a “communion of saints” (with Christ). This idea stands in contrast to the thought of one man’s individual sin transmitted to all. The concept of original sin set the whole of humanity (and Christianity) on the wrong end of a legal judgment by God: rather than seeing it as trapped within a structural condition of desire and violence which it is God’s salvific intention to treat and reverse.

If you look at the accounts of the Garden of Eden and Cain and Abel (Genesis 2-4) it is evident these stories are doublets or mirror images and cannot be interpreted separately. They have the following features in common: familiar conversation between God and humans, warning about a crime and its consequences, commission of crime and resulting curses, mitigation of punishment. Most of all they have instigation or provocation in common.

The presence of the serpent (snake) in the Garden is left unexplained. At the level of the story the snake is simply the most cunning of the creatures; there is no thought of a supernatural Satan. It is a story-telling device to introduce the language of rivalry to Eve. But from a mimetic perspective it is God who already established the relationship of rivalry by setting up the prohibition against eating of the fruit of the tree in the first place. (A “test” is always a “model-obstacle.”) This mimetic component is reinforced at the end of the story when God gives as reason for excluding the first parents from the garden, “Because the man has become like one of us…and…he might…take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever;” 3:22.)

The instigation is corroborated when we look at in the second story. God arbitrarily prefers Abel’s sacrifice to Cain’s, without having given any ordinance for animal husbandry or animal sacrifice. He explicitly made Adam a tiller of the ground, not a pastor of sheep. God’s preference in fact can be seen to up the sacrificial ante for Cain, provoking him to kill his brother not a sheep. After this Cain has God’s sevenfold protection! It is no accident that Cain goes on to be the founder of the first city (4:17).

An unprejudiced reader cannot help but sense these subtle implications in the text. In other words, the story works to introduce problem themes of rivalry, violence and sacrifice as part of the actual process of becoming human. The thought of “God” is deeply implicated in the process and must therefore be understood as being subjected to deep questioning by the author. What is called the “historical grammatical” method, favored by conservatives, must surely recognize these textual features. It is only a secondary, imposed level of “interpretation” that can bend the meaning back to a simple legal matter of “original sin followed by bad consequences, and needing the sacrifice of Christ to forgive.”

A fundamentalist interpretation is itself an anthropology, since it depends on the law of mimetic exchange and displacement on the victim, implicit in substitutionary atonement. In other words it already makes God subject to a deeply human (anthropological) mechanism. God can’t just forgive: he has to provide a victim, for himself! As one member said, to forgive on condition of compensation (in particular the horribly violent death of a son) is not to forgive. The difference in the nonviolent hermeneutic is that it sees God subverting the mechanism itself, in order to transform actual humanity. Which then seems the more likely?

Another core aspect of Genesis 2-4 is its account of desire. The woman observing the fruit of the tree was awakened to desire on three levels: it was good to eat, good to look at, desirable for gaining wisdom. In a highly concise story this is a significant amount of text, developing a theme. It shows the author is fully alive to the issue of desire undergirding the whole drama. This is greatly reinforced in the Cain story where desire is described as so powerful that it has assumed a displaced, externalized role (4:7) : it is now itself the subject, desiring the figure of Cain who has abandoned his self to desire! As AA says, the disease of alcoholism is a subject in its own right, “cunning, baffling and powerful.” The intense commentary on human desire already evident in Genesis has, again, been passed over in favor of a purely legal interpretation.

Toward the end of our study someone made the telling point that the beginning of the human world for Jesus did not occur with Adam but with Abel (Lk. 11: 50-51). In other words for Jesus the story of Cain was the hermeneutic key for our human condition, not the story before it. But presumably he also read them together.


Nonviolent Bible Interpretation IV: Soul

Last time we looked at how a structure of military power (empire) was able to recruit Christian meaning (the cross) to its side. This time we looked at the way Christianity adopted a shaping concept from its surrounding milieu, one which quickly became the object of desire in a mimetic Christian worldview.

The Hebrew concept of soul (nephesh) is not defined in the bible but is presented in a variety of existential meanings. (Bullinger’s Critical Lexicon says nephesh is translated 44 different ways in LXX, grouped under four main headings, of “creature,” “person,” “life,” “desire.” ) In contrast the Greek concept of the soul is clearly defined, chiefly by binary opposition, by what it is not: i.e. immortal (not dying), immaterial (not matter), simple (without parts). This is an effect of mimetic construction, holding something back through desire, from forces which threaten it (death, decay, multiplicity). Add in intellect, and shazam, you have the immortal soul!

As someone in the group said this Greek way of thinking was “black and white,” while the Hebrews thought in fuzzy edges. The metaphysical or essential clarity of the concept helped in establishing it as supreme object at stake in a dispute between heaven and hell. Its core value as an individual thing or commodity helped turn Christian salvation into a salvationist business with rival companies offering competing deals.

Today neural science and Mimetic Anthropology show us that the human soul cannot be separated from the material relationships whereby the body identifies spontaneously and holistically with the other. The soul is whole-self human communication.

At Matthew 22:37 we see  clearly that Jesus is not thinking in Greek dualist terms, he talks of a tripartite humanity (heart, soul, mind). He uses these terms as aspects of the human self, but they are not fixed essences, neither are they exclusive. At Matt. 10:28 we hear “both soul and body” can be destroyed in Gehenna, i.e. death can be the outcome for personal human life (the soul) along with the flesh. Gehenna is an apocalyptic image, a place of fire, of endless violence, and must be understood in contrast to the in-breaking of God’s kingdom of life. Jesus’ words suggest the intense pain of the self when the God of life is refused in favor of endless generative violence. His image must also be understood from the present perspective of the apocalyptic moment and its clarity of choice now: the outcome of loss is “to be feared.” It is a precipice we stand upon, not the architecture of the precipice itself as became fixed in the imagination of the Middle Ages.

Paul makes no significant use of the concept “soul.”

Reading Tertullian’s De Anima (On The Soul) we saw how the distinctive Christian concept emerged. Tertullian describes the origin of the soul as separate but simultaneous with the origin of the body: a living immortal soul, passed down from Adam, arrives at the moment of sexual discharge at the same instant as the body is conceived. The body comes in the fluid, the soul in the warmth. “I cannot help asking, whether we do not, in that very heat of extreme gratification when the generative fluid is ejected, feel that somewhat of our soul has gone from us? And do we not experience a faintness and prostration along with a dimness of sight? This must be the soul-producing seed…” (Chapter 27)

Tertullian (160–225CE) was strongly influenced by the materialist/spiritual “fire” of Stoicism. Augustine (354–430) was much more inclined to the other-worldly philosophy of Plato (specifically Neoplatoism) where the soul arrived individually from heaven. At the same time Tertullian’s “traducianism” (the soul passed down from Adam) had the huge advantage of explaining original sin. Throughout his life Augustine hesitated between versions of the-soul-from-heaven (pre-existent souls or souls specifically created by God for each act of conception) and traducianism. He never came down finally on one side or the other, and there has to be a reason. I believe he instinctively favored the heavenly soul, conforming to the Neoplatonic vision of the Confessions, and yet he adopted Tertullian’s theory of sexual generation to provide the scenario wherein original sin is transmitted. It was precisely the involuntary desire-led character of sexual arousal which signaled the fall of Adam and the communication of original sin. “(C)arnal concupiscence (libido), which, while it is no longer accounted sin in the regenerate, yet in no case happens to nature except from sin. It is the daughter of sin, as it were; and whenever it yields assent to the commission of shameful deeds, it becomes also the mother of many sins. Now from this concupiscence whatever comes into being by natural birth is bound by original sin…” (On Marriage and Concupiscence, Bk. 1, see chapters 7 & 27.)

From Augustine onward the die was cast: the combination of a soul created directly in heaven and original sin generatively transmitted in sex became fixed teaching in Aquinas and was quietly assumed and carried over by Luther in his account of justification. The soul thus became the fearful battleground of church powers and crisis-ridden human conscience seeking salvation.

But today the soul is more and more inseparable from the body, a complex made up of billions of cells, individual propagating units, all in communication with one another via electrical and chemical signals. The meaning, function and purpose of this complex can be understood simply as communication, i.e. the soul. Jesus is a revolutionized human body whose communication (soul) is peace. As the Risen Christ he offers this new meaning to all bodies. As Risen his communication is also beyond death. We do not know how it works but we believe that at the point of death any human soul can reach out in communication with Christ and so find life. “My desire is to depart and to be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23).


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.”

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).