In “A review of “God or Godless”, inerrancy, and begging the question” I defended myself against a reviewer of God or Godless who opined that I had made a “major mistake” in my theology by rejecting the doctrine of inerrancy. I pointed out that I don’t reject inerrancy, though I do reject indefensible articulations of the doctrine (which is a proper characterization of most conservative statements on inerrancy).
Walter took issue with my approach in the comments. He wrote as follows:
You believe that God, just like you, does not approve of capital punishment. This despite the fact that the Old Testament is chock full of passages not only endorsing capital punishment but prescribing it as the penalty for various infractions of the divine law given to Israel. The same law that was supposedly fulfilled by Jesus. Is the Mosaic Law a human invention, or just the penalties for breaking it?
Once you wrote a blog article where you struggled with the morality of eating meat, and you desperately seemed to want to derive a vegan ethic from Jesus’ teachings, but you ran head first into passages that depict Jesus eating fish. Using your methodology for scriptural interpretation the reflective Christian vegan can simply conclude that passages depicting Jesus as eating meat are errant human additions to scripture that don’t convey the divine voice. Point being is that this type of “inerrancy” is well suited to every individual who wants to find just the Jesus that he or she is looking for.
Let’s start with the first paragraph. Here Walter expresses his incredulity that God could be viewed as being against capital punishment given the many examples where God is described as advocating capital punishment and participating in acts of violence in the Old Testament.
But we need to be clear on how it is that people read the Bible. As John Wesley pointed out, people always read the Bible (as they read any text) informed by their tradition, experience and reason. Martin Luther highlighted the place of reason in his famous stand at Worms when he declared:
“Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.”
Note that Luther appeals to “plain reason” and the importance of respecting one’s own conscience (or moral reason) in drawing conclusions about doctrine. In other words, our moral reason necessarily informs our reading of the Bible. This was true for Wesley, it was true for Luther, and it is true for every one of us.
Interestingly, this same attitude on the primacy of reason and conscience is found within scripture. Consider, for example, the passage where God resolves to destroy Sodom without having ascertained that every person in Sodom is wicked. Abraham immediately protests that it would not be just to wipe out a city when some innocent people are still residing in it:
“Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25)
Note that God doesn’t reply “Silence mortal! How dare you question my justice!” Instead, he bargains with Abraham. What about fifty righteous people? Would that be enough to spare the city? Forty-five? How about forty? Thirty?
Like Luther, Abraham refuses to go against his conscience for doing so is neither right nor safe. And the inclusion of this story within the narrative is a ringing endorsement of that very spirit of independent moral thinking. Yoram Hazony refers to this as the type of the shepherd, and from Abel on through to Abraham, Jacob, David and on we find the independent leaders of Israel being commended for their independent thought and their willingness to follow the direction of their internal moral voice.
Just as Abraham enters into conversation with God, so should the reader of scripture. Like Luther, we should read scripture informed by “plain reason” and guided by conscience. And if, after very careful, extended reflection we believe that certain actions are morally evil, then we are obliged to bring those convictions into our reading of the Bible. To do otherwise is, as Luther said, neither right nor safe.
With that in mind, I look to Jesus and find in his life and works not a commendation of divine (and human) violence but rather a repudiation of it. In Christ we find, as Greg Boyd provocatively puts it, the crucifixion of the warrior God.
But doesn’t this place us in danger of refashioning the deity in our own image so that, as Walter puts it, we end up making the deity look and think just like us?
Of course this is a danger. But what is the alternative? To ignore and suppress the deepest voice of conscience and interpret the Bible contrary to that voice? There is no risk free approach to the Bible, to moral reasoning, or to reality writ large. We all seek as best we can with the resources available to us to form right beliefs and live out right action.
God help us. Amen.