In May 2021, I debated John Loftus on Modern Day Debate. The debate resolution was “The Bible, with its divinely commanded violence, wasn’t inspired by a perfect God.” Here is my opening statement in full.
Thanks to Modern Day Debate for the invitation to debate and to John Loftus for agreeing to participate.
I’d like to start with a clarification of the scope of debate. My burden is not to provide reasons to believe the Bible is inspired by God. That’s the subject of another debate. Instead, we are debating whether the fact that the Bible includes particular texts describing divine violence is consistent with the Bible’s having been inspired by God. Loftus is arguing that it is not consistent whereas I am arguing that it is.
The way I establish that consistency is by providing a perfectly orthodox Christian account of how to understand the biblical text being inspired by God despite the presence of these troublingly violent texts.
While there are many different types of violence we could talk about, for the sake of time, I will focus on what are arguably the most troubling cases, namely passages where God is described as commanding the destruction and expulsion of Canaanites in Deuteronomy 7:2-5 and 20:10-18 and Joshua 1-12.
Christians have offered various different responses to this problem. One popular approach is to argue that while God did issue these violent commands, they are not themselves problematic when interpreted correctly and understood in historical context. For example, Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan argue in their book Did God Really Command Genocide? that the passages in Deuteronomy and Joshua that describe God as commanding the killing and expulsion of Canaanites from the Promised Land actually conform to the standards of just war.
However, in my book Jesus Loves Canaanites I argue that Copan and Flannagan’s analysis fails and thus that the texts describe actions which meet contemporary legal definitions of genocide and ethnic cleansing.
So it seems to me that the way forward is not to explain how God in fact issued these terrible divine commands; rather, it is to explain how a text that is divinely inspired may consistently include some descriptions of God’s actions that are literally false.
No doubt, some people will find that to be a surprising claim, so it is important to note at the outset that it has always been a standard Christian position to recognize that the Bible contains descriptions about God which are literally false. For example, biblical descriptions of God having a body, or being ignorant of future events or of growing angry or of changing his mind or of acting in time have all standardly been interpreted as anthropomorphic and thus literally false. And that is even if the original human author did not think of them as anthropomorphic.
In addition, central to the Christian understanding of Scripture is the notion of progressive revelation according to which the divine nature and will are revealed more fully over time. For example, Exodus 33:20 says nobody can see God and live, but Jesus reveals in John 14:9 that one can indeed see God in virtue of seeing him. Psalm 11:5 says that God hates the wicked but John 3:16 teaches that God loves the whole world. Such developing theology and internal critique is standardly interpreted in terms of progressive revelation.
It is also understood to be divine accommodation. As any teacher adapts the subject matter to the understanding of the student so God adapts the subject matter of revelation to the audience, and adaptation can allow for some degree of accommodation to the errant, limited epistemic horizons (i.e. errors) of the audience.
To sum up, recognizing the presence of literally false descriptions of God in the Bible, including progressive revelation that involves accommodation to fallible human perspectives just is part of standard Christian Bible reading.
Before we go further, we should clarify how certain popular assumptions about the Bible and the nature of biblical inspiration make it seem problematic that the Bible would include false descriptions. Once we strip away those misguided notions, the perception of inconsistency dissolves.
To begin with, it is popular to think of the Bible as functioning like an owner’s manual for the human person or a set of directions for how to get to heaven. Needless to say, there is no room for false statements within owner’s manuals or life-saving directions, so if that is your assumption as to what the Bible is, you will predictably see a problem.
But that is most emphatically not what the Bible is.
For a more accurate picture, think of a famous textbook: The Norton Anthology of American Literature. This anthology is an expansive and diverse omnibus which spans four centuries of American history, consisting of the writings of men and women from a wide range of experiences, cultures, and socioeconomic backgrounds. The writings in the collection exemplify a diversity of genres and styles including poetry, short story, letters, speeches, novel excerpts, and much more. The editor selected the various texts that fill the pages of the book as a way to tell the story of the American people.
The Bible is a lot like this venerable textbook. Like the Norton Anthology, it is an extremely diverse collection composed by many different people writing in different genres including pithy wisdom sayings, poetry, prophecy, Gospel, apocalyptic, law, epistolary, and so on. The text was composed in three different languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek) and written in several distinct cultural contexts over a thousand years. Far from being like a simple set of instructions for heaven, the Bible rather is a vast and complex collection, an ancient library. And like any library distant from the reader in culture and time, it requires care in interpretation.
Now let’s turn to inspiration. Many people assume this is a process in which God directly acts upon particular individuals, somehow taking control of their cognitive faculties and leading them to write down particular texts rather as a violinist moves a bow over strings. Again, with that image, one is not surprisingly incredulous that God would directly inspire people to write down false statements about God’s nature or his commands.
But I believe this also is a false image, at least insofar as it is invoked as a general account of inspiration. The basic view of inspiration I accept here is a model of appropriation in which God sovereignly works as a divine editor. He perfectly foreknows what particular individuals will write and he appropriates specific writings into his collection much as the editor of the Norton Anthology appropriates the words of various American writers into his collection.
The editor of the Norton Anthology could have many reasons for including texts that convey views divergent from his own and using those texts to convey a different meaning than that intended by the original author. Similarly, God could have many reasons for including texts in the Bible that include views divergent from his own and within God’s collection they come to convey a different meaning than that intended by the original human author.
Jesus: The Hermeneutical End
So how do we interpret this complex library? From a Christian perspective, the interpretive key is conformity to Jesus. In Second Timothy 3:15-17, Paul writes:
from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Paul says here that the purpose of Scripture is to make us like Jesus.
And what does this look like, exactly? When asked in Matthew 22:36 what is the greatest law, Jesus replied to love God with all one’s heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. And keep in mind that for Jesus, ‘neighbor’ means the outsider: the proverbial stranger, leper, prisoner, tax collector, Samaritan, and so on. “All the Law and the Prophets,” he said, “hang on these two commandments.”
Thus, Christians have always recognized that Bible reading should be guided by love of God and neighbor. As Augustine famously said 1600 years ago: “Whoever … thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up [a] two-fold love of God and … neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.”
Faithful Bible reading is that which brings about the increased love of God and neighbor to the end of becoming more like Jesus. Needless to say, if you interpret a text in such a way that God literally commanded actions which constitute contemporary war crimes like genocide and ethnic cleansing, then you are not loving your neighbor and thus you are not reading the texts as you ought.
Israel: The Hermeneutical Struggle
You might be wondering why God appropriated such a complex collection as his inspired word.
The fact is, however, that this complexity fits squarely within the logic of the Judeo-Christian tradition in which piety and devotion emerge through the very act of wrestling with complexity and asking questions.
The background is found in Genesis 32:22-32, the famous story where Jacob wrestles through the night with an Angel of the Lord who is the Lord. This story functions as an etiology, an account of the origin of Israel as the People of God. As Jacob wrestled with the angel, so to be God’s people is to wrestle with God, and that means to wrestle with the texts of his people.
As Christians, that wrestling should serve the formative end of love of God and neighbor to be like Jesus.
In my book Jesus Loves Canaanites, I describe various ways that Christians have wrestled with these passages in Deuteronomy and Joshua in accord with these formative ethical ends. For example,
- Accommodationists like Christopher Wright say the text describes an accommodation to morally imperfect standards of ancient warfare;
- Ancient allegorists like Origen interpret these texts as symbolic accounts of the soul’s sanctification;
- Spiritualizers like Douglas Earl interpret the contrast between Rahab and Achan as intentionally subverting the very in-group out-group distinction that makes violence possible;
- Finally, providential errantists like Eric Seibert find in the text a challenge to the Christian to read in solidarity with all oppressed peoples including Canaanites.
In this opening statement, I have explained how a divinely inspired text may consistently include literally false statements about God. I did so by explaining that the Bible is not a simple road map to heaven but a complex library of divinely appropriated human experience encompassing figurative language that is literally false, progressive revelation, and accommodation to errant perspectives. The Christian is invited to enter into the devotional wrestling with the complexity of the text in community always seeking to cultivate love of God and neighbor to the end of becoming like Jesus.
And so, to conclude, the fact that the Bible includes particular texts describing divine violence is indeed consistent with the Bible’s having been inspired by God.
 Cf. Nicholas Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse.