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Are we Christians or “Biblicans?”

I saw a meme the other day that read: “Believing every word of the Bible requires a relationship with the spirit of God so that we can discern how to apply the Scriptures in a way that leads to the outcome the author intended.” For many Christians, as the quote above shows, thinking about God begins with the Bible, the 66 books of the Protestant canon of course. God would have it no other way. From there, knowledge about God can be established; confessions of faith can be hashed out, and at some point Jesus can get awkwardly and rigidly fit into place. In this article, I would like to point out 3 crucial problems that arise when one begins with “plain truths” about the book rather than the Christ, the Logos, the “structuring principle of reality.” (John 1:1–5)

  1. A God of Many Faces

When we presuppose that everything said about God in the Bible is a verifiable fact—a “plain” biblical truth as is often confidently said—then we end up with what seems like an unpredictable God, Janus-faced if you will. He certainly doesn’t seem eternally consistent, as the Bible clearly states Jesus Christ is (Hebrews 13:8). At times, he is like a ruthless army general, treating his creation like the game of Risk ©, showing no mercy to his enemies. The book of Joshua and Judges gives us stark imagery of this. Joshua 10:40 reads, “So Joshua defeated the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings; he left no one remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded.” Psst! That includes children . . . like in Exodus 12:29, Deuteronomy 20:16, and 1 Samuel 15:1–9. At other times, his definition of “peace” boggles the mind. In Numbers 25, we read a story about how Phinehas earns a covenant of peace (v 12) and covenant of perpetual priesthood (v 13) from God after he drives a spear through the stomachs of an interracial couple who had allegedly caused a plague on Israel (v 8). Let me see if I get this straight. Because a man slays two people, thus “atoning” for the sins of Israel (v 13), he gets an everlasting covenant of peace from our Heavenly Father, who is the same yesterday, today, and always!? That reminds me of Calvin’s emesis-inducing penal substitution atonement theory but it does not make me think: “that sounds like the first-century Jesus and the Risen Christ that I know and love.”

But, on the flip-side, there are times where God’s mercy is said to be everlasting. The entire 136th Psalm is about God’s perpetual mercy in fact. Gods’ love is also said to be steadfast in Psalm 118:1 and in Psalm 86:15 he is said to be both gracious and slow to anger. He is a Creator who, contrary to the gods of Egyptian and Babylonian mythology that must kill in order to create, instead breathes things into existence and deems his creation “very good.” In Hebrew, it is tov tov. He is a God who delivers a people from bondage, a God the downtrodden and suffering could recognize and worship.

Suffice it to say that a flat hermeneutic paints God as split, bi-polar, schizophrenic. That much does seem “clear,” at least. Sometimes he is wrathful yet other times merciful. His love endures for some but for others, he behaves like a genocidal maniac who needs to be hooked up to an IV drip of some kind. My wife is the nurse in the family so she could probably recommend something strong enough. But don’t worry; I don’t throw the baby out with the bath water (Marcionism). For anyone looking for reconciliation of this, I believe I do just that in my book All Set Free.

  1. A Rabbi without Students

As Christians, Jesus should be our Rabbi. That is to say, he should be our teacher. A part of a Rabbi’s job is to help guide his disciples in how to read Scripture. As Protestants, this rarely seems to happen. I believe I lived the first 30 years of my life (predominantly as a Protestant Christian) without once hearing: “how did Jesus read Scripture?” Instead, I only heard things like, “Jesus quoted from the Old Testament so that proves they are authoritative.” Of course, this, in a non-sequitur sort of way I suppose, then means the hermeneutic is literal, flat, and if I can interject my own tacit experience, dead and boring. But is this really how Jesus approached Scripture?

Well, like I said in the last paragraph, we never even ask, do we? Case in point; most of us know that as good evangelicals, we give newly “saved souls” a Bible and tell them to read it and find out what God is speaking to them. So they read. And when they come to a place where Jesus quotes the Old Testament, they generally fail to notice any nuances, any slight alterations, or any creativity at all because they simply do not know to even look. At least, this was my experience and the experiences of many whom I’ve spoken with. It is as if Jesus is a Rabbi without students. Let me be more specific. It is as if Jesus has students who hear him talk, but they are not actually listening to what he is saying. And when they do, it’s as if he is speaking a foreign language. And it can get rather ugly.

What some of us right now are attempting to say is that Jesus’ hermeneutics were creative and his exegesis was always specific in that they remove violence and vengeance from the Father. We witness this in places like Luke 4:18–19 (quoting Isaiah 61:1–2) and Luke 7:18 – 23 (quoting various Isianic passages). Paul follows suit in Galatians 3:13 (quoting Deuteronomy 21:23) and Romans 15:8–9 (quoting phrases from Psalm 18). The writer of Hebrews makes a very anti-sacrificial and anti-violent statement in Hebrews 10:5–8 (quoting Psalm 40:6–8). He does so after critiquing the Law of Moses in 7:18 and 8:13. So yes, Jesus, Paul, and the writer of Hebrews do in fact quote Hebrew Scripture, but they do so intentionally and in a consistent fashion.

  1. Potential for Extremism

Some of the views of some of the writers of some of the books of the Bible are dangerously wrong. That does not mean they don’t have their historical and cultural place and that does not mean I do not believe Scripture fails to be inspired, but what I am saying is that within the Scriptures, there is a vigorous theological conversation going on. And unfortunately, some extremists today fall on the wrong side of the argument and then, even in light of divinity revealed in Christ Jesus, use various passages to argue in favor of concepts we now understand to be fundamentally anti-Christ. Allow me to point to a few of the most extreme examples.

Leviticus 20:13 (one of the anti-homosexual “clobber” passages) has been used as an argument by the members of the Westboro Baptist Church to picket events that even include people’s funeral; using bigoted and hateful signs to spread their message . . . in the name of God no less! Some of the more profane have stated, “Planes Crash God Laughs [sic],” “You’re Going to Hell [sic],” “Thank God for Dead Soldiers [sic] ,” and the always infamous, “God Hates Fags [sic].”

1 Corinthians 7:20 – 21 and others have been used throughout history as an argument in favor of slavery. Blogger Rachel Held Evans aptly points this out in an entry entitled, “The Bible was ‘clear’ . . .”

Hitler even went so far as to use the story of Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple in John 2:12–25 to justify hatred toward Jewish people.

I am not saying fundamentalists agree with the behavior in these extreme cases. Most in fact do not. What I am saying, however, is that without a fundamentalist approach to Scripture, it would be much more difficult to justify such hateful bigotry. At least, it would be more difficult to prove that God is clearly on their side, that they are plainly correct, and that their truth is absolute. It is possible, just not as likely.

I just want to conclude by saying that, yes, there are truths in the Bible and yes, it testifies to the Word of God, which, as I understand things, has always been Christ. But, no, it was not written by God, is not infallible, and is not to be read in a flat way. When it is, it can really make a mess of things. So let’s be Christians and not Biblicans for goodness sake.

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