The Stumbling Block of “Mere” Christianity

Introduction

Human history is bloody that’s just a simple fact of reality. If you’ve got any interest in history, then it is almost certain that you have recognized that much of the historical epochs are pock-marked with wars, skirmishes, and bloodshed. Just a little over a month ago, people were panicking over the possibility that the United States was going to go to war with Iran, now you’re probably stuck at home waiting out COVID-19/Wuhan coronavirus reading this and wondering just where it is going.

As I am stuck in a sort of quarantine myself, I find myself trolling the depths of the inter webs and stumbled across this jewel [;-)] of a blog post by Randal Rauser, titled, “Christians, you are allowed to wrestle with the problem of biblical violence”.

Let’s look at it.

Randal begins his brief essay by giving us something of a worst case scenario,

“Imagine for a moment that you are in conversation with a person from another religion and you discover that their sacred text describes their deity as commanding genocide on entire peoples. If you’re like most people – including most Christians — then this discovery would provide a significant obstacle to you considering that religion any further.

There are, of course a number of factors that need to be unpacked in order to dig into this properly, but it must be recognized that Randal is front-loading his argument with tons of emotional energy. The proper response needed to both disarm and reset the argument is somewhere between “So what?” and “Yeah… and…?” because the scenario is assuming certain conclusions (theological , moral, etc) before establishing the argument. Until those moral conclusions are justified, those responses are the only reasonable responses possible, until matters of context are firmly established.

Randal continues,

“As you may know, the Christian faces a similar dilemma since the Bible appears to depict God as commanding and commending violent actions that appear to be immoral including the mass targeted killing of entire civilian populations (e.g. Deuteronomy 20:10- 20; Joshua 6; 1 Samuel 15).

Yeah… and…?

Remember, as I said in addressing the previous paragraph, there’s a lot of unjustified assumptions that have to be unpacked and addressed before one can proceed to address anything else. Basically it comes down to “In the Bible, God is depicted commanding X”, the only coherent Christian response is, “Well, he’s God, therefore he can do that.” Randal gives the best example of this coherent response by providing a quote from John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, a work that necessarily assumes the absolute sovereignty of God over his creation.

He continues,

“Given the emotional and ethical challenge presented by these texts, it should be no surprise that the recognition of biblical violence has come to provide an enormous obstacle to Christian belief, and one that has increasingly occupied the resources of many apologists who sought to defend the basic violent depictions, often with some important caveats.

See also: The Stumbling Block of Inerrancy

In a footnote, he refers his readers to Paul Copan’s book Is God a Moral Monster?, which is an insightful, street-level introduction into certain literary devices and the understanding of the ancient reader. It’s a book that I recommend to anyone who wants to gain a better understanding of the ancient nature of the text. But that’s beside the point of the admission that one of the objections brought is the fact that an objection brought is emotional in nature.

It’s interesting that emotion takes center stage. It’s not that emotions don’t matter, it’s just that they seem to be the primary driver and that ethics—which determines the morality of the actions under consideration—takes a back seat.

Even if we assume that “ethics” is the primary objection, then we’re still at a standstill until those are grounded in something real. The consistent Christian must operate under the necessary presupposition of God’s sovereignty over his creation.

Randal says that he considers the arguments by people, such as Copan, to be “poor and unconvincing” based upon the “emotional intensity of the problem”, which sounds like Randal is judging such arguments on their ability to assuage his personal discomfort rather than on their ability to interact with the nature and historicity of the text so as to help us, who are removed by culture and time, in understanding them better.

The Stumbling Block of Mere Christianity

When it comes to foundational matters, one of the many issues where Randal seems to stumble is found in the fact that he doesn’t want to defend a robust biblical Christianity.

This is seen when he gets down to the real issue of his post: can “modern” Christianity deal with the biblical truth of God? Randal asks:

“Is it part of that ground-level mere Christianity to believe that God commanded actions like the genocidal slaughter of entire peoples?

That question assumes a lot, and it directly exposes the fault in many popular philosophical problems, like Rauser and even William Lance Craig: they let their philosophy determine their theology rather than their theology determine their philosophy. Indeed, it would be right to say that the past 50 to 75 years of modern, popular level Christian thought has been one not driven by a consistent, coherent biblical theology, but one centered on making the faith palatable and easy. They seem to want God to be a kitten, when he is described as a “bear robbed of her cubs” (Hosea 13:4-8).

Randal continues from his question,

“I certainly do not include that claim in my understanding of mere Christianity; nor is it a feature of mainstream creeds and confessions.

I think that there’s a confusion here between what is required to be affirmed with regard to certain beliefs, reflected in “creeds and confessions” and Christianity-proper.

There is a distinction that should be held between what is common between denominations, something that true mere Christianity seeks to defend and distinctive beliefs.[1] If Randal is merely arguing that in his apologetic endeavors he does not feel a need to specialize or include such in his defense, so be it. He can defer to those who have sought to specialize in those areas. However, in doing so—to me at least—he is cutting off his apologetic nose to spite his face, seen in two questions that he asks:

“So why include it at all? Why not instead place it on the second floor as a secondary opinion held by some Christians but rejected by others?

Probably because there’s some opponents of the faith who use that as an argument against the faith.

Randal does try—to his benefit—argue why some would make it an apologetic issue, and he does it by making it a matter of commitment to the inspiration and authority of Scripture, writing,

“You cannot take your scissors and snip out the bits of the Bible that you don’t like.

Exactly. The Bible was inspired by God to show us God. And it’s not a Polaroid picture, a moment in time snippet, rather its an elaborate tapestry that is meant to demonstrate who God is, what he has done, and what he will do. It is a commissioned self-portrait, but not by a single artist, but multiple artists, using multiple genres of literature to paint a vivid picture through vignettes of interactions, in which God is not seen as some distant, hand-wringing figure, but as an active, causal force that moves history along, raising up and casting down whom he please for his purposes (eg Amos 6:14).

Randal gives lip-service affirmation to plenary inspiration and authority, which is interesting considering his reticence to accept inerrancy, However, Randal seems to confuse this with interpretational methodology.

“[My beliefs about mere Christianity] does not require particular readings of biblical passages that are not part of that ground level. So, for example, the young earth creationist may believe that plenary inspiration and biblical authority requires a reading of the Genesis creation as including literal 24 hour days. They are mistaken.

And I would agree—provisionally—with that point. But then Randal jumps somewhere, that I don’t think that one can get to.

“[My beliefs about “mere” Christianity] does not require one to accept that God literally commanded the slaughter of entire civilian populations any more than it requires that one accept God literally created in six 24-hour days.

That’s not even an issue, but Randal wants to make it the issue. He writes,

“Now you might concede the point in principle and nonetheless worry that the pursuit of non-violent readings which depart from the literal and historical reading of those narratival details is a suspiciously modern phenomenon.

This needs to be addressed in two points.

First, “literal” and “historical” are somewhat loaded terms especially of we recognize the fact that the biblical texts are historical as a starting point. Being historical means that we cannot read them and endeavor to make sense of them outside of the historical context in which they were composed or compiled. If that first premise of being composed in history, and obeying certain literary conventions and expectations are true and hold, then that step gets us to a place where we can determine whether or not we are supposed to take a text literally.

Second, Randal is trying to shift to interpretive methodology, which necessarily requires applicative methodology. Before we can interpret the passage, we have to determine matters like genre, intent, and scope, then we can get into matters of interpretation and any subsequent application that can be derived.

Now, Randal does make a valid point when it comes to what people assume and often articulate from Scripture and avoid “modern sentimentalism” in an attempt to soften the harsh and, often, brutal realities of the ancient world. But I would like to suggest that Randal himself falls into this trap when he cites Origen was doing this in making application of a point of a historical text from Joshua, indicated by what he says about it,

“It’s important to note that Origen never comes out and denies that the destruction of Jericho occurred. Nonetheless, his attempt to add a non-violent spiritualized reading shows an awareness of the moral problems that the text presents and a need to seek additional meanings to help contextualize and so interpret that violence.

As I have often made this distinction, and it needs to be reiterated here: there is a confusion between interpretation (what the text says or means) and application (what the text says that we should do). Randal is confusing the latter, what Origen is concerned with and doing, with the former. And I have to admit, Origin’s application of the text is pretty good, a little narrow, but I put that up to his allegorical interpretive methodology.

Randal moves on to Gregory of Nyssa, who held some rather interesting views, but helped to give believers greater language with regard to the Trinity. He quotes from a section of Gregory’s Life of Moses, where the bishop s wrestling with the death of the first born in Egypt, a passage which does seem to generate a contradiction between the commands of God to his people with regard to justice in their midst, and how God acts, as the sovereign ruler of the world and rescuer of His own people. Again, Randal stumbles over the difference between interpretation of the text and application of the text when he writes,

“Unlike Origen, Gregory is not satisfied simply to add a non-violent spiritual layer of meaning to the text to avert our gaze from the literal carnage. Instead, he appears to propose an alternative spiritual meaning which obliterates the historical reading…

Randal does ask, “Is Gregory correct?” To which I have to answer, given my concern for a coherent interpretive methodology, with an emphatic “No.” Do I agree with the teaching itself? Yes, but I find where he draws the example from to be problematic, as I do with Origen. But I recognize that faithful (ie believing) interpreters in the past often weren’t concerned about the same things that I am and that they were wrestling with Scripture in a completely different context with different immediate concerns, and often used inconsistent interpretive methodologies to try to make application. I would argue that, given the respective contexts, Origen’s application was much closer to the original meaning of his text, than Gregory’s was, even though they were trying to make similar arguments with different texts. That is why I think that Randal misses the point when he writes with regard to his question:

“My point here is that it is part of the Christian tradition to wrestle with the biblical text and in particular the violence of Scripture.

This is where Randal’s philosophical practice, as well as his assumptions, trips him: he is not an exegete, nor is he mindful of the historical interpretive methodologies that were used by men like Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, nor their goals or intentions, he is simply assuming that they have the same concerns as he does. And that is simply wrong.

This is further seen by the fact that he either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about the theological concerns of Greg Boyd (who advocates for open theism and has a Christus victor view of the atonement), Peter Enns (who has some questionable theological tendencies), Philip Jenkins (who takes an embellishment view of the texts), and others, who seem to want to minimize or spiritualize the reality of Scripture.

One of the inherent problems in many of these analyses, something that Randal gets right, is that so many have the “interpretive priority of the peaceable Jesus” overriding and driving their biblical interpretive matrix.

This is where Randal’s own interpretive matrix gets in the way when, returning to take an exiting poke at Calvinists, he mentions a written debate between John Piper and Thomas McCall. He claims that McCall has “serious moral objections to Calvinist theology,” then proceeds to quote part of a statement by Piper, that is portrayed as a “concession” to McCall’s objection.[2] Indeed, much of McCall’s arguments have to do with reconciling the fact of God’s sovereignty over his creation with the tremendous amounts of apparent evil in the world.[3] The fact is that Piper takes God at his word, and isn’t conceding anything but is admonishing his critic for putting an interpretive matrix over the text, and saying, “Continue to pray and study. Either you or I (or both of us) will be changed in due time.”[4] By failing to give the proper context of Piper’s statements and exactly what he was responding to, Randal is misrepresenting Piper’s statement, after all Piper is concerned about the totality of evil in the world and how it fits into the decree of God and not the interpretation or application of particular incidents in the biblical texts.[5]

How Having The Wrong Jesus Upsets the Applecart

As I noted in passing in the previous section, having the wrong Jesus (ie a pacifist/peaceful Jesus) will ultimately infect how one reads Scripture and will set one up for difficulty.

Part of this I fault to a post-modern, feel-good evangelicalism that is detached from history. As I noted at the very beginning of this post,

“Human history is bloody and that’s just a simple fact of reality. If you’ve got any interest in history, then it is almost certain that you have recognized that much of the historical epochs are pock-marked with wars, skirmishes, and bloodshed.

Failure to keep the simple facts of history in mind often sets us up for failure. This is just as important as failing to keep who God is in mind sets one up for failure when it comes to the biblical narrative.

Modern Christians are infected with anachronism and neo-Marcionistic tendencies: we have an idea of what we would like for God to be, and when we encounter the True God, we recoil from him. We want God to be cute and fuzzy, but God is, at his truest nature, a “consuming fire” (Deut. 4:24; Heb. 12:29), a “man of war” (Ex. 15:3) portrayed as “mighty in battle” (Ps 24:8). The epistle of Jude, in its earliest readings, paint Jesus as the rescuer from Egypt and the destroyer of the unfaithful, probably why later readings soften it to just “the Lord”.

See also: Was Jesus a Pacifist?

We often confuse the historic actions that God took in making a people for himself and establishing a foothold in the world, by establishing a unique people in history with the message of the gospel and the warfare that believers now engage in. Indeed, as one studies the Old Testament, we see the ground being prepared and foundations being laid for what would later be built upon by the apostles, see my series on Deuteronomy for that evidence. That means that when we come to the biblical text, that we have both an intellectual and moral responsibility to understand it as it is, as what it is. This means that we have to recognize that the text is also doing double-duty, both as history and theology.

As history, we have to recognize that it is a product of history and subject to the standards of history that produced it. As theology, we must recognize that it is telling us something about the nature of God through his interactions with people in time, and what that means as he continues to work in time.

It is irresponsible and intellectually dishonest to minimize, or spiritualize the text. At the same time, it is theologically dangerous to spiritualize everything because it disconnects the text from reality.

Some things to keep in mind:

1. Wars happened. Battles happened. Skirmishes happened. These are just facts of history.

2. People were killed. People die in battle. Yes, even “innocent” people die in wars.

3. Modern categories of “combatant” and “non-combatant” didn’t exist then. We’ve become so disconnected and Christianized in war that, as Westerners, we’ve created “theaters of conflict” and made distinctions that the ancient world just didn’t have.

4. It was normal to embellish events or actions in the ancient world. Ancient writers liked to brag in the face of enemies and friends. As we’ve uncovered more of the ancient world, we see that totalizing language was just as common as it is today.

The simple fact of the matter, if we don’t contextualize things, we will get them wrong. And the greatest error in that is that we want to make Jesus and God palatable. We can’t do that. To try to make God anything less than how he has revealed himself is to set up an idol to a false god not to the True God.

Notes

1. C.S. Lewis notes in his book Mere Christianity, he sought “…to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.” (Location 109/2779; Kindle edition) This is and should be the focus of the evangelist/apologist.

2. The full exchange between McCall and Piper can be found here.

3. The overriding assumption, from my reading of McCall’s instigating essay, comes down to reconciling the problem of evil against a God who is in fact sovereign and who has decreed all that will come to pass in time, with God’s glorification in both a perfect administration of justice in punishment of those rightfully condemned and in his display of mercy in saving those who do not deserve to be saved from his wrath. McCall sees such as making God’s existence “contingent” rather than necessary, and is an assault on God’s self-existence (ie aseity).

4. John Piper. “I Believe in God’s Self-Sufficiency: A Response to Thomas McCall”. Trinity Journal, Number 29. 2008. p. 234

5. Ibid. p. 233.

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s