Violence and the Canonical Bible: A Response to Reasonable Doubts
Back in February 2013 Reasonable Doubts (henceforth RD) responded to a critique I’d written of one of their episodes. (You can read my critique here.) Their response was titled “Response to Randal Rauser’s critique of episode 110.” I promised to reply shortly to their rebuttal but alas I failed to keep my word. (Middle of a busy semester, my short attention span, and other factors were operative.) The topic came up again just this morning at “Debunking Christianity“. Apparently RD is now wondering out loud whether I am unable to respond.
So let me give a quick response here. Let’s begin with the summary RD provides of my position. I offer this summary not as a reliable and adequately nuanced description of my position (it would need several tweaks to be that) but rather as the rough and ready summary provided by the RD crew:
Rauser defends what he calls a “qualified embrace” the scriptures. He maintains that God inspired the authors and that God had a purpose for including all the senseless violence and hateful curses contained in the text. But just because all scripture is inspired by God does not mean all scriptures are morally inerrant. The command to violence and the cursing psalms are examples of moral errors in the text. They represent what the human author intended (sensus litteralis) but God had a different purpose (sensus plenior) for including them. But is there any criteria to guide us in distinguishing between the authors voice and God’s intended message? Rauser says we must look to the overall tone of the Bible. Through the life of Jesus we see God to be a merciful and compassionate God that desires us to love and not curse our enemies. Clearly then, the genocides and imprecatory psalms are the human voice. But what was God’s purpose in including them? Its hard to say, but one possible reason was to carry the story forward. At least in the case of the imprecatory psalms they might also be examples of irony. We gleefully share the hateful sentiment of the psalmist towards the enemies of God but then stand condemned when (centuries later, I’d like to point out) we discover God really wanted us to love them all along .
With that as background, RD then provides two objections:
1. The genocidal passages play a pivotal role in the overall narrative of the Old Testament. They cannot be removed as merely the human authors [sic] prejudice without significant damage being done to our understanding of the OT.
2. it is not at all obvious that the vengeful passages are inconsistent with the overall tone of the Bible. If “overall tone” is our criteria for separating out the sensus litteralis from the sensus pleniur [sic] of the text, the merciful statements of Jesus are the ones that should be contextualized.
Let’s begin with 2. Imagine that you’re reading a novel of WW2 and you’re attempting to discern the novelist’s attitude toward the violence depicted therein. One approach to finding the proper reading is by seeing how much violence is depicted in the novel. If there is a lot of violence, you might conclude that the attitude conveyed by the author is pro-violence. But this would be a terribly simplistic way to read the book. Instead, you look for special events and characters as hermeneutical keys, ways to interpret the violence contained therein. Indeed, one scene in a book can provide the key to unlocking the book’s overall message. So imagine, for example, that the book begins with a soldier going off to war in search of valor. The next time you see him at the end of the book he returns to the idyllic village of his youth, now reduced to a smoking ruin. “I sold my soul for naught” he says, and the book ends. That single scene can provide the key to unlock all the violence and carnage in the previous pages. And with that final scene the entire work, which might otherwise have remained ambiguous, is shown to adopt a particular perspective on all the violence contained therein.
For Christians, the key to unlock the Bible is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. This idea goes straight back to the New Testament itself wherein those impacted by Jesus immediately turn to the Hebrew scriptures and begin to revision them in light of his life and ministry. Thus, for example, Jesus is now seen to be the suffering servant of Deutero-Isaiah, the coming king after David, and the one who will bruise the head of the serpent.
There is no more central question in the Bible than “Who is God?” or “What is God like?” Philip poses the question to Jesus: “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” (John 14:8) The understated way that this audacious question is presented is comical. It’s tantamount to interviewing a candidate for secretary general of the United Nations with the request: “Just show us how to establish and maintain world peace and that will be enough for us.”
And yet, incredibly, Jesus replies: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9) In other words, if you want to know who God is, look to Jesus. Look to the one who declared “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” (Luke 18:16) Look to the one who healed the leper through touch (Matt. 8:3), the one who proclaimed good news to the poor and captives (Luke 4:16-19), the one who embraced the disenfranchised (Luke 4:1-26), the one who while being crucified prayed for his enemies: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) and who taught us to do likewise (Matt. 5:44). And the one who rose again to bring healing and restoration to all creation (Col. 1:20) for the healing of the nations (Rev. 22:2).
For the Christian, the person of Jesus — his life, death, and resurrection — provide the key for the interpretation of all scripture. Some parts of scripture immediately are illumined in a new light. For example, we look back with new understanding on the promise given to Abraham: “and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Gen. 12:3) Now we can see in Jesus this promise finding fulfillment that could never have been anticipated.
So to summarize, Christians have always read the Bible in light of the pivotal event of Jesus. Whatever else one says about the violence depicted elsewhere in the scriptures, if you want to know who God is you should look to Jesus, the crucified God.
This brings us back to 1. We start with the commitment that whatever else we say about God, Jesus is the norming norm for all acceptable readings of God. From there we have two basic options. (This is grossly simplistic but at least it gives us the lay of the land.) Option 1 is a continuity thesis whereby one seeks to maintain continuity between passages that seem to conflict with the presentation of God in Jesus. For example, Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan build on the work of scholars like Kenneth Kitchen who have identified the presence of hyperbole in ANE war rhetoric, combined with proposals from Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff about the unity of the Deuteronomic history (scholars typically believe that Deuteronomy-2 Kings presents a unified history). From here they argue that a careful reading of the texts supports the conclusion that God never in fact commanded genocide. This is a way of maximizing the continuity between God as portrayed ultimately in Jesus and penultimately in these other passages.
This brings us to a crucial, Rubicon moment. Those who lack either the attention span or the commitment to a hermeneutic of charity to consider proposals of this type will quickly confirm their own prejudices. But those who are committed to understanding Deteronomy-2 Kings as a unified history, and who are committed to understanding ANE modes of hyperbolic expression, will be repaid with what may be at least a partial answer to removing the prima facie contradiction between God as revealed in Jesus and God as revealed in Joshua.
The second option is a discontinuity thesis. This is best captured, I think, in the provocative title of Gregory Boyd’s forthcoming book The Crucifixion of the Warrior God. On Boyd’s view, the presentation of God as Jesus offers a more radical critique of assumptions about God as militaristic and violent and retributive, assumptions that you find elsewhere in scripture.
Now you might be wondering, “Why would God include different, even conflicting views of important issues in the Bible?” The question itself presumes a particular understanding of what the Bible is which at the very least needs to be defended. After all, nobody would consider why a novelist would write a story that includes conflicting understandings of violence or courage or chastity or some other important topic.
By the same token, it would seem grossly presumptuous to assume a priori that any revelation of God would only include voices which are in complete unanimous agreement. I see no reason why God couldn’t include disparate voices, particularly if the text provided a hermeneutical key as a sort of golden thread through those disparate voices. Consequently, even if one is not predisposed to the discontinuity thesis, one cannot exclude it from consideration a priori.
Finally, let me note that these two views are not exclusive of one another. Obviously the Christian may work to maintain continuity between certain passages of scripture and God as revealed in Jesus while accepting discontinuity in other instances. And in those instances where discontinuity is identified it then behooves the reader to explore why that discontinuity exists. Is it there as an accommodation to a particular time and place but superseded by subsequent progressive revelation? (This is one way to read the OT law, for example.) Is it there as an ironic foil for certain sinful human impulses? (This is one way to read the imprecatory psalms.) Is it there to occasion humor and self-reflection. (This is one way to interpret the irony of violence in Esther.)
In this article I have only skimmed the surface of the complex and rich discussions that are ongoing about the formation and proper interpretation of scripture. I recognize, however, that not everybody will have the patience or interest for those discussions. Imagine, for example, a father attempting to get his fifteen year old son interested in opera. He might take the boy to a performance and begin to explain the intricacies of the music, the brilliant plotting of the storyline, the complexities of the staging and performance. But if the son is not interested, he’ll walk away thinking the whole thing was a waste of time. Likewise, those who are persuaded that the canonical reading of the Bible is a waste of time (e.g. a mere collection of ancient human writings with no divine superintendence) will likely confirm their opinions. But their incredulity has no probative force to those who are committed to the inspiration of scripture and the development of canonical readings of scripture in light of God revealed in Christ.