Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, Question 3

Is God violent?

Brian begins this section by admitting that he has a big problem.  It helped his new kind of Christianity to assert that the Bible is our cultural library rather than authoritative constitution, but he still has to wrestle with the fact that this library contains many bloody books.  In Brian’s words, he needs a way to deal with the numerous “violent images, cruel images, [and] un-Christlike images” of God that are found in the Bible.

Most troubling is the God who appears in the Noah narrative.  Brian complains that “a god who mandates an intentional supernatural disaster leading to unparalleled genocide is hardly worthy of belief, much less worship.  How can you ask your children—or nonchurch colleagues and neighbors—to honor a deity so uncreative, overreactive, and utterly capricious regarding life?”

Brian solves his problem by misusing the concept of progressive revelation.  Everyone recognizes that God reveals more of himself as the Scripture narrative progresses.  In the Old Testament God told the Israelites that he was one (Deut. 6:4), and then at the incarnation and Pentecost he revealed that he was also two and then three.  But note that God’s future revelation expands rather than contradicts what came before.  New Testament Christians still believe that God is one, as much as any OT Jew, but they now confess that God’s oneness also makes room for three persons.

Conversely, Brian asserts that future “revelations” supplant and correct earlier passages of Scripture.  So while he cannot “defend the view of God in the Noah story as morally acceptable, ethically satisfying, and theologically mature,” he concedes that this early, immature view of God was at least a step up from the stories of God told by other religions of its day.

I put the term “revelation” in quotation marks above because Brian seems to think that the God we find in Scripture is merely what humans at the time thought of him.  He writes:  “when we ask why God appears so violent in some passages of the Bible, we can suggest this hypothesis:  if the human beings who produced those passages were violent and genocidal in their own development, they would naturally see God through the lens of their experience.  The fact that those disturbing descriptions are found in the Bible doesn’t mean that we are stuck with them….”

Five observations:

1. Brian seems to agree with Feuerbach that religion—and in this case the Bible—is merely our human projection of God.  Our view of God tells us everything about ourselves and nothing about what God is like.  If this is his view—and his endorsement of Pete Rollins gives more reason to suppose that this is the case, then he needs to find another line of work.  If we don’t have a revelation from God, then we’re all wasting our time here.

2. Brian writes that he treasures the Bible, even calling it God’s inspired Word, but then he says that much of it, especially the older parts, is just wrong.  I am not able to make much sense of that.

3. Brian solves the problem of a violent God in Genesis 6 by saying that this immature deity is later replaced by the New Testament perspective on God.  I wonder how this coheres with Brian’s comment in question 1 that he prefers the earlier Hebrew God Elohim over the later Greek God Theos. It seems that Brian only accepts the Bible when it says something he likes, and then fishes for a reason to justify his decision, even if the reason contradicts his argument for another passage.

4. Brian has embraced the red letter Bible, where Jesus’ words and actions count more than what Paul or Peter wrote.  He said that one evangelical’s “transparent willingness to grant Jesus no more authority than Paul renders me speechless.”  I am not necessarily trying to shush Brian, but I will second what the evangelical said:  Paul’s epistles have the same authority as the words of Jesus, for both are the Word of God.

5. Here’s the kicker which you knew was coming.  Brian alleges that those of us in “seminaries and denominational headquarters” who say that every description of God in Scripture is authoritative are guilty of “conceptual idolatry,” for we are “freezing” our “understanding of God in stone.”

Conversely, I think that God’s problem with idolatry is not that the idols don’t develop but that the idols are false gods.  Did God oppose Baal simply because he didn’t move?  Also, if a static understanding of God is conceptual idolatry, then wouldn’t God, who I assume has a perfect, unchanging understanding of himself, be guilty of this sin?



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66 responses to “Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity, Question 3”

  1. “In Brian’s words, he needs a way to deal with the numerous “violent images, cruel images, [and] un-Christlike images” of God that are found in the Bible.”

    Like, “I come not to bring peace, but a sword,” or, “And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one”? Or, “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law”?

    Sorry. I realize the exegesis on those is exceptionally difficult and highly contentious. But if the objection to parts of the Bible is ‘violent images,’ then Jesus seems to be guilty as well. It seems hard to get around those without retreading the Jesus Seminar.

    But thanks for doing this series for us. It’s enormously helpful.

  2. Thanks again. This is so out there you make me want to read the book because I find it so hard to believe. If he doesn’t understand the need to eradicate he must not lead anything and he has surely never gardened.

    There is a clear effort out there to redefine Christianity. I have been noticing it in articles in the media where the writer presents real Christianity as this progressive movement that you write about.

    Is it wrong for me to believe this is inevitable? I think we must warn people but to me it is almost “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” It seems to be less about trying to stem the tide and more about preparing people to be ready for what comes next. We need to keep our head and be ready for hardship.

    Am I out of line? I would appreciate your thoughts.

  3. zoecarnate

    Mike, I know that your review of Brian’s book isn’t necessarily the place for it, but somewhere, sometime, I’d like to hear how you process the troubling and violent parts of Scripture, where God is depicted as commanding genocide, rape, sex slavery, etc… Clearly you’re uncomfortable with the view that ‘the fullness of God is revealed in Christ,’ but what do you replace this with?

    You strike me as more empathetic and sensitive a person than some of my more fundamentalist Christian friends, who simply shrug and say “If God commanded Canaanite women and children to be slaughtered, that’s His Righteous & Holy Business! And if God commands the American Church today to wipe Al-Qaeda off the map today, we should step up to the plate to fulfill God’s righteous and holy judgments – bless God, hallelujah!”

    I know that the more conservative evangelical approach is to hold Jesus’ command to love and forgive enemies as God loves and forgives in abeyance, or applied only to the ‘holy,’ or in ‘balance’ with the violent depictions of God. But the basic psychological fact is, we humans can’t do that. We inevitably end up acting like the God we image and worship. If we worship a warrior God who – while He might be nice to certain people or everyone for a certain time – will ultimately come back to kick butt and take names, religion-in-Empire will want to skip right ahead to the butt-kicking and name-taking – no matter how many ‘Vengeance is mine saith the LORD’s you toss out there at them.

    For my own spiritual – not to mention geopolitical – sanity, I have to agree with James in affirming that ‘mercy triumphs over judgement,’ and Jesus in proclaiming that ‘God sends rain on the just and unjust alike.’ As I’ve noted, what’s crucial about the Christian revelation of God is not only that Christ is godlike, but that God is Christ-like.

  4. Never ceases to amaze me when folks find something objectionable about God, they work so very hard to form God into an image of their making rather than trying to form themselves after the image of God Himself.

    Is this not then a form of idolatry? We don’t like the God that is handed to us, all thunder and lightning and 10 commandments who seems so distant, impersonal, and more than just a little bit scary and bloodthirsty, so lets build ourselves and image of a god who is typified by great strength, yet far less wrath, sort of like a young bull. And instead of cowering in fear before a God who has the power to destroy us, let’s just dance and party around a god whom we have successfully cowed into an image of our own making.

  5. zoecarnate

    Rick, let me ask you this: What kind of husband, father, and human being would I be if I tried to form myself into this image of God?

    Numbers 31
    Vengeance on the Midianites
    1 The LORD said to Moses, 2 “Take vengeance on the Midianites for the Israelites. After that, you will be gathered to your people.”
    3 So Moses said to the people, “Arm some of your men to go to war against the Midianites and to carry out the LORD’s vengeance on them. 4 Send into battle a thousand men from each of the tribes of Israel”….
    7 They fought against Midian, as the LORD commanded Moses, and killed every man…9 The Israelites captured the Midianite women and children and took all the Midianite herds, flocks and goods as plunder. 10 They burned all the towns where the Midianites had settled, as well as all their camps. 11 They took all the plunder and spoils, including the people and animals, 12 and brought the captives, spoils and plunder to Moses and Eleazar the priest and the Israelite assembly at their camp on the plains of Moab, by the Jordan across from Jericho. [a]
    13 Moses, Eleazar the priest and all the leaders of the community went to meet them outside the camp. 14 Moses was angry with the officers of the army—the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds—who returned from the battle.
    15 “Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. 16 “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and were the means of turning the Israelites away from the LORD in what happened at Peor, so that a plague struck the LORD’s people. 17 Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, 18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.
    Dividing the Spoils
    25 The LORD said to Moses, 26 “You and Eleazar the priest and the family heads of the community are to count all the people and animals that were captured. 27 Divide the spoils between the soldiers who took part in the battle and the rest of the community. 28 From the soldiers who fought in the battle, set apart as tribute for the LORD one out of every five hundred, whether persons, cattle, donkeys, sheep or goats. 29 Take this tribute from their half share and give it to Eleazar the priest as the LORD’s part. 30 From the Israelites’ half, select one out of every fifty, whether persons, cattle, donkeys, sheep, goats or other animals. Give them to the Levites, who are responsible for the care of the LORD’s tabernacle.” 31 So Moses and Eleazar the priest did as the LORD commanded Moses.
    32 The plunder remaining from the spoils that the soldiers took was 675,000 sheep, 33 72,000 cattle, 34 61,000 donkeys 35 and 32,000 women who had never slept with a man.
    36 The half share of those who fought in the battle was:
    337,500 sheep, 37 of which the tribute for the LORD was 675;
    38 36,000 cattle, of which the tribute for the LORD was 72;
    39 30,500 donkeys, of which the tribute for the LORD was 61;
    40 16,000 people, of which the tribute for the LORD was 32.
    41 Moses gave the tribute to Eleazar the priest as the LORD’s part, as the LORD commanded Moses.
    42 The half belonging to the Israelites, which Moses set apart from that of the fighting men- 43 the community’s half—was 337,500 sheep, 44 36,000 cattle, 45 30,500 donkeys 46 and 16,000 people. 47 From the Israelites’ half, Moses selected one out of every fifty persons and animals, as the LORD commanded him, and gave them to the Levites, who were responsible for the care of the LORD’s tabernacle.

    I have stopped trying to rationalize such passages of Scripture as containing Christ-honoring depictions of God – it makes God way too schizophrenic. If any world leader were to command the things that ‘god’ commands here, and any general were to carry them out as Moses apparently does here, they’d be condemned today as the worst kinds of war criminals. I’m sure you wouldn’t be happy if a radical Muslim cleric declared that ‘Allah’ demanded such things in accordance with his perfect and holy statutes in the Qu’ran – conservative evangelicals would be among the first to denounce radical Muslims advocating that they “form themselves in the image of Allah himself.” Yet we tolerate these things as a matter of our own faith, and this poisons the well of peacemaking that Jesus so urgently calls us to.

    I for one am weary of being characterized (not on this blog, mind you – but in other venues, both in-person and online) as an aberrant Christian and human being because I allow my conscience and morality to be one of my hermeneutical lenses of evaluating who God is and what God is like.

    It’s one question, I suppose, to ponder whether such a god as you’re proposing exists; its another altogether to weigh, deeply and honestly, whether such a god is worthy of worship.

  6. 1. There’s a problem with using the Bible as the Word of God rather than Jesus Christ (see John 1:1-18). Jesus said, “I am the way.” It seems to me Biblical literalists always wind up implicitly denying that, even though they don’t do so explicitly.

    2. Doesn’t scripture itself say there’s a New Covenant?

    3. There’s a tension in the O.T., sometimes put (perhaps a bit too simplistically) as between the priestly and prophetic traditions. The prophetic tradition, which finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, often seems to chastise the priestly tradition. It also foreshadows what Jesus says, for example in Isaiah’s Peaceable Kingdom passage.

    4. I don’t know if any way of reconciling the apparent contradictions is fully satisfactory, including Brian’s way, but we need to wrestle with it. Daniel Berrigan (The Kings and Their Gods: The Pathology of Power) finds the violent parts as actually being lessons to us on the evils of violence. The different ways of reconciling it may be different windows into the same reality. Of course, some ways may just be wrong, but that doesn’t absolve us from wrestling with the issue.

    5. Ultimately, as a follower of Jesus Christ, I must reject any approach that downplays Christ’s message.

  7. Laman Speaks

    The Apostle Paul said in Romans 3:23 “…all have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God.” Then in Romans 6:23 “The wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.” While I understand that these verses must be taken in context the fact remains that all of humankind are sinners and are deserving of death. The wonder of the gospel is that God would desire to save anybody at all. “…there are none who seek for God. All have turned aside; together they have become useless…” Romans 3:11-12.

    Any conception of God that does not fully take into account His righteous wrath against the sin of mankind is a conception that falls short of what He has revealed and is at that point idolatry.

    For Moses and the prophets of old to not have carried out the express commands of God – even when it meant the slaughter of an entire ethnic group – would have been sinful disobedience. Fortunately for us God does not execute His wrath through prophets today and issue those type of commands. When God carried out the slaughter of His own Son for the sin of mankind His Holy and righteous wrath was propitiated for those who would believe. Those who refuse the work that Chrsit did will face a future wrath that makes the simple killing that Moses did look like a cake walk.

    God is the furthest back. There is no system of judgement with which we may judge Him since everything we know of the good comes from Him. When we attemt to say that God is other than He has revealed we are elevating our own less than Godly system above him and trying to judge Him by it.

    “O my God, however perplexed I may be, let me never think ill of thee. If I cannot understand thee, let me never cease to believe in thee. It must be so, it cannot be otherwise, thou art good to those whom thou hast made good; and where thou hast renewed the heart thou wilt not leave it to its enemies.” C. H. Spurgeon


  8. Mike,

    Thank you for personifying exactly the point I was trying to make. However, you didn’t go quite far enough in the post. You did very well in cringing away from the thunder and lightning and fire and smoke. You even said that you are setting yourself up as the criterion for evaluating whether God is worth worshiping or not. It’s a very short step to rejecting him altogether and then not much further to casting a much more attractive god, one who is cowed and manageable, and who suits your preferences better.

    I might caution you, however, in leaping to assumptions. You said, “I have stopped trying to rationalize such passages of Scripture as containing Christ-honoring depictions of God – it makes God way too schizophrenic.” I have no doubt that you have. It is much easier to dismiss the whole thing altogether as a cultural artifact and construction of a xenophobic minority attempting to establish themselves in a land of hostile peoples. No need to grapple with the seeming contradictions. No point in trying to reconcile paradoxes. Much easier to create God in your image according to the dictates of your own conscience, I’m sure.

    Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t say the OT was easy to understand from a post-Messiah perspective. Nor do I advocate a wide-eyed swallowing of Sunday School sensibilities. But there is a reason these writings have been deemed holy and of spiritual significance for nearly 3,000 years.

    And since we are quoting at length, would you be so kind as to tell me how this Jesus is worthy of your worship?

    Revelation 19:
    The Rider on a White Horse
    11Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. 12 His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. 13He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. 14And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. 15 From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. 16On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.

    17Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly directly overhead, “Come, gather for the great supper of God, 18 to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all men, both free and slave, both small and great.” 19And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against him who was sitting on the horse and against his army. 20And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had done the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. 21And the rest were slain by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse, and all the birds were gorged with their flesh.

    Revelation 20
    The Thousand Years
    1Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. 2And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while.

    4Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. 5The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. 6 Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.
    The Defeat of Satan
    7And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison 8and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea. 9And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, 10and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.
    Judgment Before the Great White Throne
    11Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 12And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. 13And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. 14Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

  9. Long quotes are bad form on a blog. Gentlemen, behave! Give us the references and let us open the Word for ourselves.

    “If any world leader were to command the things that ‘god’ commands here, and any general were to carry them out as Moses apparently does here, they’d be condemned today as the worst kinds of war criminals.”

    Are there ANY things that God is allowed to do that are wrong for humanity to emulate? An assumed answer to much of this discussion has been, no. If I can’t act like that, neither can God.

    But consider a simple counter-example, because because is ultimately praise-worthy, God can demand ultimate allegiance and praise. I cannot because I am not ultimately praise-worthy.

    God’s destruction of evil (including evil-doers) is a large part of the historic Christian hope. Christ, in taking the punishment for our sins, was CRUSHED (Isaiah 53 — and I won’t copy/paste the whole chapter here).

    Yes, God made us in His image, but we must not return the favor.

  10. Mike, thanks for the excellent review.

    Those who defend McLaren should consider that the entire Christian religion is based on the premise that God “will judge the world in righteousness” (Acts 17:31), that all are guilty and cannot stand in this judgment (Rom 3:23), and that “there is salvation in no one else [other than Jesus Christ], for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which me must be saved” (Acts 4:12). All other judgments in the Old Testament, as violent and horrible as they may seem, pale in comparison to this final Day of Judgment and serve as illustrations pointing us to the Day of the Lord (Lk 13:1-5, Matt 24:36-39; 2 Pet 3:1-10). Those who cannot swallow this need to find a new religion, for without judgment there is nothing to be saved from and therefore no Christianity.

    Further, it is a non sequitur to suppose that the holy wars of the Israelite theocracy justify such “holy wars” today, as I have argued at: (hint: The difference has to do with redemptive history and eschatology and not with any supposed “evolution of god.”)

  11. And I’m probably coming across a little stronger than I intend to, Mike. Let’s just say I see some interesting parallels in the cautionary tales of the OT where people are confronted with a God they don’t like and fashion for themselves a God that they do like.

    Personally, I would not be comfortable with a God who told me to marry a whore and stay married to her even while she was still turning tricks and giving birth to children that weren’t mine. Calls for a bit more magnanimity than I can muster up on my own. Or what about a God who tells me that because of my religious disaffection I’m going to see my wife raped in the streets, my infant children with their heads bashed in and my sons and daughters carried off as slaves by an army of heartless extremists from (modern day) Iran? Not very pleasant, is he?

    And here’s the worst part of it – that same God tells me that it’s my own fault that the calamities come on me. If I had just listened to him and lived by his rules, not only would none of this be coming to pass, but we would be experiencing a golden age where countries from all around would be flocking to our nation asking to be taught the way of our God of peace and prosperity. We would be living in a world where we wouldn’t have to teach people what God’s law says because everyone would have the law stamped on their hearts and they would keep it.

    I do not say this God is easy to understand, easy to follow, easy to comprehend. Indeed, his ways are so far above ours that we have trouble framing good questions, let alone discovering answers. But I also fear God too much to reject him and say, “Nope. Don’t like him. That’s not the kind of God I want to worship.” It’s too easy for me to see the consequences of not following God. I see what our land looks like without a year of Jubilee that resets all the debt. We are living in a recession now because we don’t follow God’s economic plan. I know about trichinosis from eating under-cooked pork, that apparently God knew about centuries before the germ theory of disease. I understand why hands need to be washed under running water rather than in stagnant basins, something God foretold millenia before Semmelweiss. It is too easy for me to see too many ways in which God’s laws express his provision of safety, security and prosperity for his people for me to dismiss the OT out-of-hand.

    Do I struggle with a wrathful, vengeful God? Indeed. But I would much rather wrestle all night with a God who can bless me, even if I end up walking on a crutch the rest of my life than construct a God of my own devising. The consequences of the latter seem far more tragic.

  12. Well, said, Josh. And I do wonder wither Christianity that has no sin to be saved from, no wickedness in the world to overcome, and a savior who suffered pointlessly if redemption could be found in any other venue. Indeed, why was he not given these alternatives when he prayed, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me…” while agonizing through the night.

  13. zoecarnate

    Really? That’s all y’all have to say after I point out a passage where YHWH allegedly tells Moses & his armies to kill children and non-virgin women, and keep the virgins ‘for themselves’ – making these presumably already-married men sex-slave holders, at Moses & YHWH’s command and blessing?

    All you can say is that God’s judgement in the end is going to be far worse than that, and that this all points to the inscrutability of God’s ways? If that’s all you can say, what passes for orthodoxy these days is more groupthink-y and morally bankrupt than I thought.

    Let’s try this: even in the Old Covenant, whenever one of God’s servants thought that God was proposing something unethical – or, if you prefer, not bringing the maximum glory to God’s name – they’d argue with God about it. ‘Spare these people,’ ‘spare this city,’ ‘give me the blessing I’ve earned,’ ‘you’ve punished me unjustly, ‘why are you absent,’ they’d say. They’d argue. They’d wrestle. And these men weren’t smitten on the spot – Abraham, Moses, Job, Jacob, and David were considered the righteous – friends of God. So why is it in the age of the Spirit, the New Covenant, that the self-proclaimed protectors of God’s reputation find it so impossible not to tow the party line? Why do you refuse to question and wrestle with God – or at least Scripture? It’s a very faith-filled thing to do.

    I believe we need deliverance. And I believe in judgement. I also believe in God’s inscrutability and God’s mystery. But our ideas about salvation, judgement, God’s character and Other-ness are absolutely up for discussion, debate, and reimagining. That’s what the evangelical’s vaunted ‘personal relationship with God’ is all about.

  14. Not sure what you’re getting at, Mike. I have been encouraging an engagement with the God of scripture. I have even used the allusion of Jacob’s wrestling with God as apropos of the struggle we are engaging.

    You are the one who said, “I have stopped trying to rationalize such passages of Scripture as containing Christ-honoring depictions of God – it makes God way too schizophrenic.”

    Where have you seen me advocating capitulation to a party line or, as you seem to have done, simply giving up on the wrestling match altogether? For that matter I find it interesting that you have stopped struggling, yet find fault with others who have (supposedly) done the same, just not in a manner that agrees with you.

    As I’ve said earlier, I believe we are better served trying to come to grips with the God of the Bible – the WHOLE Bible and not just the ‘nice bits’ that we like – rather than idolizing a figment of our own creation derived from a piecemeal reading of the gospels and other unobjectionable New Testament passages coupled with our own personal preferences.

  15. If we interpret God through Jesus, as McLaren argues, you have to come to grips with the fact that Jesus referred to some of these difficult Old Testament passages. Rather than distancing himself from that God, he spoke of the same type of judgment as being suitable for his day (Matthew 11:20-24). He also spoke of the judgment of Noah, and said something similar is going to happen again.

    However you interpret these passages, one has to admit that Jesus didn’t distance himself from the God who judged Sodom and Gomorrah, or the world in Noah’s time. And if we interpret God through Jesus, as McLaren argues, that is significant.

  16. Isn’t the question of the horrible atrocities God commanded in the OT directly linked to the question of judgment and hell? I mean, nothing described in the Bible is as bad as final judgment, if you believe in it. So….if you find a way to dismiss that these passages were in fact God’s will, you still have a much bigger problem to deal with, and the promise of final judgment comes from Jesus’ mouth more than anyone else’s. So making a “more Christ-like God” out of the OT God doesn’t really work in that respect. You essentially have to dismiss hell altogether, which means you dismiss some of the Red Letters Brian is so proud of(I am too by the way). Which, as has already been brought up, means that you now have the authority, should you please, to dismiss whatever you please of Jesus’ words. And I promise you, while you may not be dismissing the warm fuzzy passages, give that kind of authority, and SOMEONE will get rid of “Love you neighbor as yourself”as soon as it becomes convenient. And now you’re committing the exact sin you came against in the first place: making God in your image to justify genocide…

    Yeah, I don’t think I want to do that.

  17. I should have added – it’s important to see how Jesus interpreted the Hebrew Scriptures. It would be hard to make the case that he interpreted them in the way that McLaren advocates.

    This doesn’t tidy everything up. There are real issues we need to wrestle with. But it makes it much harder to say there are passages in the Hebrew Scriptures that reflect a primitive understanding of God that Jesus later repudiates.

  18. dlw

    The consequence of sin is death and sin is collective, not individual here and it holds for both male and female.

    Moses spared the lives of the virgin females. This was a humane concession, not a blessing on slavery or sexual slavery.

    The point was that the Midianites were not blessed by God simply because they also were descendants of Abraham thru his third wife Keturah or the people of Moses’ wife. They were under judgement for having sought to prevent the Israelites for returning to the Promised land, where they would be a light to all nations. For this reason, God commanded Moses to command the Israelites to carry out God’s vengeance.

    Things are different now. We no longer view the after life as consisting of our physical descendants and so the wiping out of our progeny thru genocide is not the equivalent of losing our salvation and what-not.

    Every soul is not sacred, not in a world full of strife where the Israelites were bound to have a hard time as it is with being different from the world around them in part through the enticements of marriages to the cultural canaanites around them.

  19. Darryl, we do have the “You have heard it said” statements of Jesus wherein he indicates that the way of the Old Covenant was not all that God would have us be. The “love your enemies” comes in that context.

    I would think this dialogue would be more useful if we focused on how God calls on us to live, as shown by Christ’s words and deeds, rather than on how God is to behave. This is what is our legitimate concern.

  20. Bill,

    The “You have heard it said” statements don’t contradict Old Covenant commands. They actually affirm them and get to the heart of the commands. Jesus makes it clear in that passage that he hasn’t come to abolish those commands. He’s actually correcting misinterpretations of those commands. Rather than relaxing them, he raises them.

    Bill, the issue is who God is, as well as how God calls us to live. McLaren has very much put the “who God is” issue on the table.

  21. Yooper

    Zoe – Why do you find it difficult to just trust and let God be God? I have learned that it is absurd for my finite, fallen state to challenge, let alone fully comprehend Him or His actions. But I refuse to go down the same path as McLaren, who is walking and leading many down an eternally dangerous one by creating a god in his own image. It may not make for easy reading or living, but we must trust that God knows what He is doing. It works for me, and the Holy Spirit is faithful to provide peace.

  22. […] new book, A New Kind of Christianity – intro, question 1, question 2, interlude and question 3. Darryl Dash also has a very helpful review up on his […]

  23. It MUST be pointed out that a God of wrath does not dispense out his judgment in a merely objective way. God has been on the receiving end of the worst of his own fury — on the cross of Christ.

    God never condemns someone to a punishment which He has not personally experienced.

    We SHOULD wrestle with these things, and evangelicals have a history of doing so. Christopher Wright’s book, The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith, is a fine example.

  24. This is precisely where Jesus’ redefinition of the word of God and his solely redemptive hermeneutic comes into play. All of the New Testament writers defined the word of God as either Jesus or the gospel. There is little or nothing redemptive about the conquests of the Isaelites. That is not why we have the bible. It is not an historical book…it is the story of redemption and if not that it is nothing.

  25. Jeff Straka

    Why, oh why, are Biblical stories STILL being read as factual, historical accounts? Isn’t there enough evidence to even ENTERTAIN the notion that they might be allegories, myths and parables? Do you REALLY read the Noah story as a factual event? Are you not aware of the Babylonian text that parallels it, “The Epic of Galgamesh”? Do you all STILL believe that MOSES wrote the Pentateuch when most scholars think otherwise? Where is the physical or historical evidence (outside of the Bible!) that there were “600,000 fighting men plus wives, children, the elderly, and the mixed multitude” that left Egypt and wandered in the desert? Why don’t we at least have SOME physical evidence of these epic battles Joshua supposedly fought, and where entire villages were destroyed and all the people killed? How can you honestly look at the real history of how the canonical Bible was arrived at (what was left in and in what order and what was left out) and at least not have SOME doubt as to if it was a “Godly” end product?

    Can’t you understand why more and more people are leaving the church because this literal understanding no longer is logical and they are seeing the increased DANGER in holding on to it?

    You know, until all the fundamental sects of ALL the Abrahamic religions let go of this LITERAL reading of the texts, and the belief that GOD literally “dictated into the ear” and “steered the quill”, wars will continue to be waged and with the move towards ALL these sects obtaining nuclear weapons, it is NOT a pretty picture! Isn’t it horribly sad to entertain the possibility that all this violence and war of “rightful” ownership of “holy land” could very well be about mythical places and even mythical people?

  26. Joe:

    I’m amazed at how many times Jesus and the New Testament writers quote and make reference to the Hebrew Scriptures and affirm them. The view that “All of the New Testament writers defined the word of God as either Jesus or the gospel” simply doesn’t make sense of their use of the Hebrew Scriptures – quite the opposite. Jesus and the NT writers go out of their way to show the continuity between the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus and the good news of his kingdom.

    Simply put, if you want to argue for a low view of parts of the Hebrew Scriptures, you also have to gut the New Testament and the very words of Jesus as well. There’s no other way to maintain the view that Jesus moved on to a more developed ethic or theology.

  27. Jeff:

    There are holes in the archeological evidence, but we can’t argue from silence that these holes mean that Biblical events did not take place. There is lots of archeological evidence that confirms the Biblical records.

    “Can’t you understand why more and more people are leaving the church because this literal understanding no longer is logical…” This is a pragmatic argument, which isn’t the best way to discern the truth. But in Canada at least, which is more a more post-Christendom context, it’s the more liberal churches that are emptying in droves.

  28. Jeff Straka

    Ok – please give me examples of the “lots of archeological evidence that confirms the Biblical records” – hopefully ones NOT funded primarily by a religious group.

  29. Jeff Straka

    Here is an interesting read:

  30. Jeff Straka

    I meant to add that this particular book does not say that David and Solomon didn’t necessarily exist, but that their stories perhaps were a bit “embellished” (or “purdied up” as we say in the South) in the biblical text. To me, this is VERY helpful to know. There is the bathwater and there is the baby in the bathwater. I want to be careful not to toss out the baby.

  31. Hi Jeff,

    Here is one example:

    “With regards to the Biblical texts, the Tel Dan Inscription demonstrates that there are definite historical kernels in the Bible that cannot readily be dismissed … The Tel Dan inscription has brought us a definite step closer to finding a historical David.”

  32. “I’m amazed at how many times Jesus and the New Testament writers quote and make reference to the Hebrew Scriptures and affirm them.” But I don’t see where Jesus took a literalist view. In fact, he didn’t usually teach in a literal way himself. He taught with parables and “I am” statements most of which don’t make sense taken literally. There are a number of cases where listeners took something Jesus said literally and Jesus had to correct them for doing that.

    In both Testaments, there are a number of incidents which are told in two or more places. In many of these cases, the details differ. I think this is evidence that significant parts of scripture were not intended by the original writers to be taken literally. There is a lot of historical fact in scripture, and in a number of cases evidence has supported that, but to take it all literally as exact statements of what happened is not well supported.

    There are possible traps with any approach to understanding scripture. This highlights the need to do everything, including reading scripture, in the Spirit. Quakers historically said that scripture can only be understood when you are in the Spirit that gave forth the scriptures. This isn’t a pat answer either, as we can be misled about being in the Spirit. There is not a correct pat answer.

  33. Jeff said, “I meant to add that this particular book does not say that David and Solomon didn’t necessarily exist, but that their stories perhaps were a bit “embellished” (or “purdied up” as we say in the South) in the biblical text. To me, this is VERY helpful to know. There is the bathwater and there is the baby in the bathwater. I want to be careful not to toss out the baby.”

    This is exactly the approach one would take if all they knew of the books of I and II Samuel was what they remembered from Sunday School. While the story of David was edited (as is clear by comparing the Samuel account with the Chronicles account), it was hardly embellished. Comparing the Hebrew stories with the writing of, say, the Trojan War and the Odyssey provides a stark contrast between the incredibly mundane accounts in the Bible and the fantastic accounts of mythical beasts and demigods in Greek (as well as Latin and Persian) legends.

    Add to the fact that David and Solomon represent a “warts and all” account that is far from an idyllic, mythic, or ideal age. Halcyon, possibly, but by no means even close to perfect.

    Also, Jeff, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. I always wonder why it is only the Biblical accounts that receive the level of skepticism from critics when other widely accepted historical accounts with far less evidence get a free pass. We have a greater volume and more ancient copies of the New Testament than we do of Caesar’s “Gallic Wars” but we almost never hear the authorship questioned or the authenticity of the works doubted. Granted, the implications for canonical texts is greater, but we will accept authenticity of historical figures on far less evidence than we have for biblical characters. As one example, I find it interesting that no serious historian today questions the existence of the Hyksos in Egypt, even though there are no known Hyksos in existence. Yet millions of Jews with thousands of years of history is not enough to convince skeptics that the Exodus happened. Seems like a double standard to me that works like this: If it is mentioned in the Bible, then the default position is to be skeptical. If it is not mentioned in the Bible, then the default position is to accept it.

  34. dlw

    Bill is right in calling on us to focus on the implics for how we live today.

    Jeff, the best arg for the historical authorship by Moses for the Pentateuch is the arg from aesthetics. As for the JEDP hypothesis, the regularities in textual patterns could reflect the varying source materials used to weave the Pentateuch, not the historical authors.

    The fact is that one cannot say much about historical authorship based on texual analysis, particularly of texts written long ago. We are better off focusing on reading the text as a set of narrative(unified by a meta-narrative) that transcend our modern-day and unhelpful categories of fact/fiction.

    I’d argue that the origins of our concept of history could come from the Pentateuch and so to dismiss it because it doesn’t fit with our prevalent conceptions of history is folly and not helpful in truly dealing with the woes of traditional US Christianity.


  35. Jeff,

    Wow, your interpretation that a literal reading of the scriptures leads to war is quite a stereotype of conservative/fundamentalist Christianity. It was precisely my literal reading of the Sermon on the Mount and other passages throughout the Bible that led me to not support the preemptive strike on Iraq several years ago. Also, your view doesn’t really square up with history 100 years ago when America was on the verse of WWI. Actually it was those that downplayed and dismissed the authority and inspiration of the Bible that were the Christian warmongers, not the literalists. In fact, those who held to a more literal interpretation of scripture (dispensationalists and historical-premill) leaned towards staying out of the war because of their ambivalence towards social issues so they were accused of treason by liberal, progressive Christians (it was suggested by progressives from the University of Chicago that they (conservative Christians) were getting funding from the Germans because their end-times theology destroyed morale for the war effort). Check out George M. Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture for source on that one……….

    By the way, I realize that evangelicals nowadays happen to be much more supportive of war than their forebearers a century ago, but to attribute it to a literalness argument does not square with certain periods of American history. Therefore, you may need to go back to the drawing board on that idea and figure out other sociological factors that would lead certain Christians to embrace war.

    Also, most Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals do not believe that God literally dictated into the ear of the Biblical writers. (here is the typical view of Biblical Inspiration that most Christian fundamentalists and Evangelicals ascribe to Have you rejected this form of Christianity because you have wrongly stereotyped it?

    I realize that often evangelicals can behave quite badly in arguments with whom they disagree with. However, as I see it from MClaren’s new book that the constant mischaracterizations, strawman arguments, and even red herrings that Mike is bringing up on this blog shows that often evangelical liberals such as MClaren are really down deep fundamentalists too………

  36. typo on my post….it should read verge, not verse…….

  37. Jeff Straka

    So can you guys please explain what is going on in the Middle East between fundamentalist Muslim, Jews and Christians if it’s NOT about the literal interpretation of each of their respective texts that each claim to be the indisputable Word God? I’m not just blaming Literalist Christians – the Literalist Muslims and Literalist Jews are all equally involved in this mess.

    And Rick – maybe no one is real concerned about the authenticity of “Gallic Wars” because people aren’t be killed or blown up over it! (At least not that I’m aware of!)

  38. What leads you to believe it is about literal reading of the texts? Very few of the Zionists are ultra-orthodox. In fact most of the Jews in Israel are fairly secular. As far as I know the American brand of fundamentalism and evangelicals which are founded on a literal reading of the scripture are not even involved in the Middle East conflict in any meaningful way as participants. Nor do I hear the justification from the Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese for the eradication of Israel based on the Koran.

    So what is it about the Middle East conflict that leads you to believe it is based on a literal reading of the respective religious texts? Can you point me to a web site or publication that indicates a religious text as the basis for waging war against the “enemy” whoever it might be?

  39. Jeff:

    Your question made me think of this quote from Tim Keller:

    “I remember Kathy said, ‘No, that’s not true. Fundamentalist doesn’t necessarily lead to terrorism. It depends on what your fundamental is.’ Have you ever seen an Amish terrorist?…So why will there never be Amish terrorists? I’ll tell you why. If your fundamental is a man dying on the cross for his enemies, if the very heart of your self-image and your religion is a man praying for his enemies as he died for them, sacrificing for them, loving them—if that sinks into your heart of hearts, it’s going to produce the kind of life that the early Christians produced. The most inclusive possible life out of the most exclusive possible claim—and that is that this is the truth. But what is the truth? The truth is a God become weak, loving, and dying for the people who opposed him, dying forgiving them. Take that in the center of your heart and you will be at the heart of the solution that we have in this world and that is the divisiveness of exclusive truth claims.”

  40. Jeff, you originally asked, “So can you guys please explain what is going on in the Middle East between fundamentalist Muslim, Jews and Christians if it’s NOT about the literal interpretation of each of their respective texts that each claim to be the indisputable Word God? I’m not just blaming Literalist Christians – the Literalist Muslims and Literalist Jews are all equally involved in this mess.”

    Then when I requested evidence showing that a literal believe in respective holy books was they cause you linked to wikipedia which debunks your assertion by saying:

    The conflict, which started as a political and nationalist conflict over competing territorial ambitions following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, has shifted over the years from the large scale regional Arab–Israeli conflict to a more local Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though the Arab World and Israel generally remain at odds with each other over specific territory.


    In his 1896 manifesto The Jewish State, Theodor Herzl repeatedly refers to the Biblical Promised land concept (though Herzl was an atheist himself).[5]

    I hardly think Herzl was “biblical literalist” as you seem to assume from your earlier proposition, nor does the wiki say the Muslim motivation is based on a literal interpretation of the Koran.

    Then you cite the Jewish virtual library where I could find not one reference blaming Muslim adherence to a literal interpretation of the Koran as a reason for the conflict. Instead I find quotes like this:

    “All signs unequivocally prove that the conflict between the Jews and the Muslims is an eternal on-going conflict, even if it stops for short intervals…. This conflict resembles the conflict between man and Satan…. This is the fate of the Muslim nation, and beyond that the fate of all the nations of the world, to be tormented by this nation [the Jews]. The fate of the Palestinian people is to struggle against the Jews on behalf of the Arab peoples, the Islamic peoples and the peoples of the entire worlds.”

    — Al-Hayat Al-Jadeeda quoted in The New Republic Online, October 30, 2001

    Can you please provide evidence that supports your assertion that the conflict in the Middle East is rooted in a literal interpretation of sacred writings?

    But even if you cannot, it’s not really relevant. You suggest that if all three faiths saw their writings as legendary, mythical, and fanciful that the conflict would end. I’m not sure how a non-literal interpretation would end the conflict. Perhaps you can elaborate.

  41. Jeff Straka

    Did you not read (all from 1st link):
    “The Likud party is currently the most prominent Israeli party which includes the Biblical claim to the Land of Israel in its platform.”

    “Christian Zionists support the Jews in this war because they recognize their ancestral rights to this land as explained in the New Testament by Paul in Romans 11. Some also believe that the return of Jews in Israel is a prerequisite for the Second Coming of Jesus.”

    “Muslims too claim to have religious priority in accordance with the Quran. Contrary to the Jewish belief that this land was promised only to the descendants of Abraham’s younger son Isaac, they argue that the Land of Canaan was promised to all descendants of Abraham, with Arabs claiming to be the descendants of his elder son Ishmael…Muslims too claim to have religious priority in accordance with the Quran. Contrary to the Jewish belief that this land was promised only to the descendants of Abraham’s younger son Isaac, they argue that the Land of Canaan was promised to all descendants of Abraham, with Arabs claiming to be the descendants of his elder son Ishmael. ”

    And did you not read (from 2nd link):
    “All weapons must be aimed at the Jews, at the enemies of Allah…whom the Koran describes as monkeys and pigs, worshippers of the calf and idol worshippers. Allah shall make the Moslem rule over the Jew, we will blow them up in Hadera, we will blow them up in Tel Aviv and in Netanya in the righteousness of Allah against this rif-raff”

    You can’t STILL don’t see how all parties seem to support their own position from THEIR literal reading of THEIR text reportedly received from the same God?

    Would a non-literalist understand guarantee a fast resolution? Probably too many other factors layered on over time to make it THAT easy, but don’t you think a more loving, compassionate understanding of God, a God that loves ALL his creation and ALL his people, rather than a wrathful war-like God how seems to favor one group over another, and a God that sanctions complete destruction of the other, would maybe take the tension down a bunch?!

  42. Jeff Straka

    I just want to add that through history, there has been a peaceful mystical/contemplative component in ALL three of these major religions (Sufism, Kabbalism, Contemplation), that seem to be about a “oneness” and “inter-connectedness” (not an “us vs. them”), though the fundamental/literalists always viewed them as heretical. We are seeing renewed interest all three once again, which is quite hopeful to me!

  43. Jeff,

    Not sure what your definition of a “literal” reading is, but you seem to be reading into the article what it is that you intend to find rather than what is actually there. Are you suggesting that Muslims believe Jews are literally four-legged swine or literally apes? I doubt even you accept that they read this as anything other than metaphorical.

    Fundamentalists believe that a “literal” reading of the Bible means that it contains completely historical information that has you been historically present you would have actually seen the physical events transpiring exactly as described. I personally do not know any Jews who treat their scriptures entirely in this very narrow fashion. Most of the Jews I know are secular and while they describe Israel as their ancestral homeland, I don’t know if any of them believe the walls of Jericho fell flat at the sounding of a trumpet. They treat it as a legendary story that may or may not be factual, but for their purposes it doesn’t really matter. They are content to believe that the stories are legendary and mythic in scope, proportion, and application.

    I’ve not been able to discuss with Imams their view of the Koran, but I suspect they see the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Ismael as equally legengary rather than actual history as the Jews do.

    So this gets back to my skepticism of your initial premise.
    1. I do not believe that all faiths accept the “literal” accounts in their holy books in the same way as fundamentalist Christians.
    2. Since I do not accept your first premise, I obviously do not believe your conclusion follows, namely that literalism leads to the situation in the Middle East.
    3. I believe if all faiths renounced literalism and described their holy writings as legendary or mythic or even allegorical, that it would make not one bit of difference in the Middle East. Why? Because I do not accept that the conflict is based on a literalist interpretation of sacred writings as you assert.

  44. rey

    “But note that God’s future revelation expands rather than contradicts what came before.”

    Like, you’ve heard it said an eye for an eye but I saw turn to the other cheek? Or you’ve heard it said kill all the Canaanites, Perizites, Hittites, Hivisites, Jebusites and any other -ites you can find, but I say love your enemies? Yep, always just expands, never contradicts.

  45. Rey:

    It really is a danger for both sides to smooth over the difficulties. One side does this by dismissing the difficulties as outdated and appealing to the new ethic of Jesus; the other can pretend that the difficulties aren’t there. But in both cases, the same thing is happening. It’s a lot better to admit the difficulties are there and to refuse to expunge them.

    We have a story that’s full of tension and mess, which is just what you’d expect if the story was true.

    The eye for eye command was a *limit* on retribution, which is easily missed. Jesus does take this further. He raises the bar, which is not the same thing as a contradiction.

    The Hebrew Scriptures never commanded hate for enemies. The direction is toward love and blessing for all nations. This is part of the Abrahamic covenant and is all over the place in individual stories as well as the general thrust. In Matthew 5, Jesus is correcting a mistaken interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures.

    The conquest is an obvious difficulty for us to wrestle with.

    The Scriptures really do require a careful reading. Nobody should turn a blind eye to the tensions that are there. But neither should we dismiss the Scriptures that don’t fit our grid. That seems like a poor way to resolve the tensions as well, and (as I’ve argued) violates Jesus’ view of Scripture. If we accept McLaren’s argument that Jesus reveals God to us, we need to pay careful attention to his view of Scripture.

  46. Chris

    I’m confident that a perfectly Holy God incapable of sinning is also incapable of tolerating sin. I don’t understand the divine nature but I hope to do so better when I am in Heaven.

  47. Jeff Straka

    “The Hebrew Scriptures never commanded hate for enemies. The direction is toward love and blessing for all nations.”
    Really? I don’t think those cities and villages that were being slaughtered by the Hebrew people would have quite viewed it as “love and blessing”.

    I will let the following definitions speak for me. Perhaps I should have used McLaren’s terms of “constitiutional” and “librarical” (if that’s a word).

    From wikipedia:
    “Muslims believe the Qur’an to be the book of divine guidance and direction for humanity and consider the text in its original Arabic to be the literal word of God, revealed to Muhammad through the angel Gabriel over a period of twenty-three years and view the Qur’an as God’s final revelation to humanity.”
    “Many Christians, Muslims, and Jews regard the Bible as inspired by God yet written fallibly by imperfect men. Many others, who identify themselves as biblical literalists, regard both the New and Old Testament as the undiluted Word of God, spoken by God and written down in its perfect form by humans. Still others hold the Biblical infallibility perspective, that the Bible is free from error in spiritual but not scientific matters. “Bible scholars claim that discussions about the Bible must be put into its context within church history and then into the context of contemporary culture.”

    So in this literalist view, how can both Holy Texts (Bible and Koran) be the “literal, undiluted”words” of God if they have so many opposing views? (Now at the same time, there are many passages that seem to express the same loving characteristics of God, so it does show that man has been able to capture that. Baby and Bathwater.)

  48. Jeff,

    Thank you for clarifying. If I were to translate these definitions into a Venn diagram I would have a large circle of those who believe that the sacred writing is “inspired” and within that large circle I would have a much smaller circle folks who believe the Bible is infallible in spiritual matters but not physical matters and finally a tiny fundamentialist circle of those who believe that every single word is literally true and accurate. Is this correct?

    For Muslims, however, there is a statement that they believe the Koran is literally from God, yet they seem to make no statement as to its scientific veracity or accuracy as some fundie Christians do with respect to the Bible. It would seem from the passages you quote that a Muslim “literalist” is a very different kind of a beast from the fundie Christian “literlist.”

    And there doesn’t seem to be any evidence for a Jewish literalist analogous to a fundie Christian literalist. At the risk of being tedious, let me repeat (for your refutation, if you like):

    I am skeptical of your initial premise because…
    1. I do not believe that all faiths accept the “literal” accounts in their holy books in the same way as fundamentalist Christians (and your quotes seem to bear this out).
    2. Since I do not accept your first premise, I obviously do not believe your conclusion follows, namely that literalism leads to the situation in the Middle East.
    3. I believe if all faiths renounced literalism and described their holy writings as legendary or mythic or even allegorical, that it would make not one bit of difference in the Middle East. Why? Because I do not accept that the conflict is based on a literalist interpretation of sacred writings as you assert.

  49. “Really? I don’t think those cities and villages that were being slaughtered by the Hebrew people would have quite viewed it as ‘love and blessing’.”

    Indeed. And I have acknowledged that it is an area of difficulty. I’ve also suggested that it’s an area of difficulty because the Hebrew Scriptures point us to God’s concern for all peoples and nations. Israel is meant to be a blessing to all nations.

    The God of the Old Testament is revealed as one “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,” forgiving sin. But in the same breath he is a God of judgment (Exodus 34). We have a hard time reconciling these. The cross demonstrates both God’s justice and grace at the same time.

    Look, I understand why one would want to move away from a God of judgment. But I don’t see how one can claim that Jesus made this move himself. I also worry about our tendency (we’re all guilty of this) to dismiss the parts of Scripture we simply don’t like.

    Jeff, thanks for the interactions. Thanks to Mike as well for hosting this animated conversation here.

  50. Jack H


    While you are in the business of stirring up a hornet’s nest, you might be interested in taking up the challenge presented below by Scot.

  51. Jeff Straka

    This is why I am beginning to see (and it appears to be what Brian McLaren and others are saying) that the Bible possibly is a collection of stories from men (the Gospel of Mary of Magdalene was excluded!) that were trying to make sense of the Mystery they were experiencing. If you haven’t read McLaren’s book, I would encourage you to read it with an open mind (and not the closed mind of the owner of this blog). I would also suggest Marcus Borg’s “Reading the Bible Again For the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally” (of course, Dr. Wittmer thinks HE is a heretic, too!)

    I am sorry to say that I am disengaging from Dr. Wittmer’s blog “conversation”. Having read and enjoyed Dr. Wittmer’s book “Heaven is a Place on Earth”, I thought I might find some interesting, alternative views to McLaren’s book in a respectable “one Christian to another Christian” fashion, since Dr. Wittmer is a respected professor at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. Instead, all I have seen thus far is a thrashing, essentially calling McLaren a heretic or non-Christian. I have come to expect that kind of review from the Mark Driscoll’s, the John MacArthur’s and the Ken Silva’s, but was hoping for something a little more “upscale” from Dr. Wittmer. This experience has done nothing but reinforce my “disenchantment” with the institutional church, and those who are training the church’s future “leaders”.

  52. Jeff,

    You realize that since your engagement with Mclaren’s view, no one has called you or him a heretic, but have instead engaged your view on the related subjects. All we have done is disagree and given sources as to why we disagree and it still isn’t good enough in order to dialogue (all of us coming from slightly different viewpoints as well). It has nothing of the Ken Silva or John M. tone. Maybe I am wrong, but it seems as if you don’t want to deal with some of the reasons why people are disagreeing with you because your Ken Silva card doesn’t match up with what has been recently going on in this blog……

  53. dlw

    it’s about all sides misusing the text to make power claims or justify their side being in power or using the other side as a scapegoat to distract people from their own problems or poor governance.

    The biblical text transcends our modern dichotomies between fact/fiction, literal and literary. Focusing on those dichotomies has generally produced more heat than light and not done anything to subvert the sort of endemic violence found in the Middle East or the cultural captivity of US Evangelicals and how that’s harmed our witness to our neighbors and the world.


  54. Jeff Straka

    I am not disappointed with the the majority of the people commenting – I think most have been VERY gracious on having a healthy dialog, and I have enjoyed the interaction. It is Dr. Wittmer that I have the disappointment with. With every post he makes, it continues to use the same arrogant language seems beneath what I would expect from a professor. If Dr. Wittmer and Mr. McLaren were sitting across from one another at a table discussion this book over coffee, and we were to be ease-dropping, I can’t imagine Dr. Wittmer using these same words – I would expect it to be a little more “forgiving”, shall we say.

    But the “clincher” for me was when Dr. Wittmer wrote:
    “Is he slouching toward a panentheism which does not distinguish God from this world? This is a serious charge. I am not saying that Brian claims to be a panentheist, only that his denial of a natural/supernatural distinction implies as much. If he means something different, now would be a good time to speak up.”

    So Dr. Wittmer is saying panentheism=heresy=not-a-Christian? If you look at the writings of the great Christian Mystics (including Meister Eckhart, Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, Francis of Assisi, Thomas Merton) and the Desert Fathers and Mothers, they seemed to use the language of what we now call panentheism, and which I consider myself to be.

    I don’t ever recall ANYONE in the Emergent conversation accusing someone – including a fundamentalist – of being a heretic or a non-Christian. I really don’t get a sense of arrogance that THEY have all the answers and that THEIRS is the only TRUE way to God. Many critics of Emergent don’t seem to be the gracious and open. And to me, once the “H” word (heretic) creeps into the conversation, it is no longer is a conversation. Now did Dr. Wittmer use the “H” word? No, but if you re-read his paragraph above, it sure sounds implied.

  55. dlw

    The H-word.

    It brings a lot of baggage, but I can’t deny I use it or something similar to connote a view that might result in denying someone teaching authority within my local faith community. Does it make someone a “destroyer of souls”, to use the phrase used in the 4th ctry Arian-Trinitarian schism, to be wrong in their doxy? That’s not consistent with the need for us to overcome evil with self-sacrificial love. Evil includes wrong views/practices, whether practiced/propagated by snakes in the grass or folks who’ve gotten side-tracked.

    So maybe Wittmer isn’t part of the Emergent conversation? What matters is that he’s a thoughtful thinker and writer in an ongoing conversation that I believe will tend towards the right doxy/praxy in the absence of serious economics-driven church politics slash ecclesial rivalry.


  56. rey

    “It really is a danger for both sides to smooth over the difficulties.”

    Is this not my point? By saying “Scripture is infallible and I believe whatever it says, even when it makes God evil” you are trying to ignore/smooth over the difficulty, are you not? To be at peace with God, therefore, and not blasphemers, we must admit that Scripture is not perfect and inerrant and infallible, but we must confess with Paul that Scripture “is profitable…that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Paul does NOT say perfect, inerrant, nor infallible, but only “profitable” and only to one very specific purpose “that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Generally those who try to defend an inerrancy view are Calvinists who need an infallible source to say “God is evil yet we must worship him anyway, yeah praise his malevolence” and “we can live like devils and still be saved.” But the purpose of Scripture is not to teach such things but is “that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work”–good works being a thing that Calvinists hate. Therefore they hate the fact that Scripture is profitable to this rather than inerrant towards convincing Christians that God is more foul than Satan.

  57. Calvinists hate good works?

  58. dlw

    hyper-calvinists treat good works as utterly derivative of Grace and not crucial.


  59. A lot has already been said here, but I don’t think this “piece” yet…

    C.S. Lewis noted that the world was horrified at the destruction in WWI. But he rightly noted that no one died in the war who wasn’t going to die eventually anyway. Sound callous? Keep reading

    The trouble with the violent passages of Scripture is mitigated somewhat….not that it’s easily swallowed, but perhaps more easy to “sit with” rather than cavalierly dismiss…..when you contemplate that according to Scripture, God actually commits a sort of “mass homicide” against EVERY HUMAN BEING IN HISTORY:

    Gen 3: “23 therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden s to work the ground from which he was taken. 24 He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.”

    God inflicts death, quite intentionally, on all sons of Adam, so that they will not have to endure the sin-debased existence forever. It’s, at bottom, an act of love greater than any other possibility at that point.

    What illuminated the issue for me was this: Our problem is not that we find the violent passages too terrible to believe and therefore are tempted to re-interpret the Bible. Our problem is that we think death is a bad thing.


  60. dlw

    I think our problem is to relate all revelation to missional praxy. The violence of the OT doesn’t exhort us to be violent. It does reflect the realities of it’s time and by giving God the right to vengeance, it helps us subvert the fight/flight response.


  61. rey

    God can be vengeant all he wants, but if he were command men to engage in genocide (especially genocide mixed with child rape as in Numbers 31) then he debases his own moral law. This I do not believe God has ever done.

    In Ephesians 6:12 Paul says that our warfare is “against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” In Colossians 2 Paul connects the ceremonial law with the principalities and powers not with God. For he says Christ “canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us…having nailed it to the cross, having spoiled the principalities and powers, making a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them through it (i.e. the cross). THEREFORE, let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths” (Colossians 2:14-16) If the ceremonial law is from the principalites and powers (against whom our warfare is directed) and not from God, then so are the genocidal commands and stories from the principalities and powers and not from God. They impersonate God in much of the Old Testament.

  62. […] *Question 3: Is God Violent? […]

  63. Kass

    Good post. You’re explaining quite coherently what I am having trouble understanding. I appreciated reading this:

    “2. Brian writes that he treasures the Bible, even calling it God’s inspired Word, but then he says that much of it, especially the older parts, is just wrong. I am not able to make much sense of that.”

    It’s good to know I’m not alone in feeling mystified at that.

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