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).