Augustine the spiritual reader

A recent post by my friend Jeremiah Gibbs reminded me of the pleasure of reading Augustine.

One of the great surprises for me the first time I read The Confessions — recall I am a Protestant — was his use of allegorical or spiritual reading of the Bible. For Augustine, such reading was the key that made much of the Old Testament comprehensible. Hearing Ambrose preach allegorically led him to realize that he was hearing truth from texts that had formerly repulsed him.

This realization  was particularly keen when once, and again, and indeed frequently, I heard some difficult passage of the Old Testament explained figuratively;such passages had been death to me because I was taking them literally. As I listened to man such scriptural texts being interpreted in a spiritual sense I confronted my own attitude, or at least that despair which had led me to believe that no resistance whatever could be offered to people who loathed and derided the law and the prophets. (The Confessions V.14.24)

It is not clear to me whether the objectionable passages were those that conflicted with Augustine’s late Roman philosophy or those that many Western Christians in 2014 find difficult — those that depict genocide and insist on taboos we find objectionable.

But I do find it interesting how Augustine solved the problem that we still wrestle with in various ways. Adam Hamilton is the latest among us Untied Methodists to try to make the “difficult” parts of the Old Testament comprehensible to the testimony of the New Testament. Hamilton uses three buckets. Augustine used different ways of reading – literal vs. spiritual.

I don’t want to push the Augustine-Hamilton comparison too far, for a number of reasons. But it is interesting to note that these supposedly new and vexing questions that torment Christians in the 21st century are actually not even remotely new nor uniquely vexing to us. Thoughtful Christians (a phrase Hamilton likes to use) have been wrestling with these questions from the days of the Apostles and Church Fathers.

What remains the largest distinction between Hamilton’s buckets and Augustine’s spiritual reading, however, is the attitude toward Scripture that springs from each approach. Hamilton’s buckets approach discards many of the difficult and outrageous passages of Scripture as unworthy of God. Augustine finds in spiritual reading a deeper reverence for all of Scripture.

The authority of the sacred writings seemed to me all the more deserving of reverence and divine faith in the scripture was easily accessible to every reader, while yet guarding a mysterious dignity in its deeper sense. In plain words and very humble modes of speech it offered itself to everyone, yet stretched the understanding of those who were not shallow-minded. It welcomed all comers to its hospitable embrace, yet through narrow openings attracted a few to you — a few, perhaps, but far more than it would have done had it not spoken with such noble authority and drawn the crowds to its embrace by it holy humility. (VI. 5. 8)

The elitism in Augustine is undeniable, but this is hardly unique to him among those who approach scripture attempting to make it “credible” to “thoughtful” Christians, words I read quite often among many of our contemporaries.

I am aware of the problems of spiritual readings of Scripture. But if my choice is chucking whole sections of the Bible in the bucket labeled slander against God, I think it would be better to read in the way of Augustine.

Biblical morality without the Bible

Victor Paul Furnish does not want us to use the Bible poorly. He wants to steer us clear of interpretations that have no credibility in the eyes of the world and ethical arguments that are based on flawed conceptions.

Biblical statements about the nature of the universe afford a useful analogy. Insofar as they accord with the fundamental witness of Scripture, that creation is a gift of God and that we are called to be faithful stewards of all that God has given, they may and must be constantly affirmed. However, we would be irresponsible in our stewardship of creation were we to rely on them for specific judgments about the morality of, for example, strip-mining, clear-cutting the earth’s rain forests, or colonizing other planets; for what was presupposed in antiquity, and therefore in Scripture, about the physical properties of the universe is demonstrably wrong.

This interesting little argument from the opening chapter of the book The Loyal Opposition will be used by Furnish in the next few sentences to makes some arguments about sex, but before we read those, I wanted to dwell for a few moments on this passage.

A few things strike me as interesting here.

First, Furnish posits the existence of something called “the fundamental witness of Scripture” and then goes on to provide a summary of that fundamental witness. What is not at all clear is how this witness was arrived at and who has declared it the fundamental witness of Scripture regarding creation.1

In Wesleyan theology, we do have something called “The Analogy of Faith,” which does summarize a grand framework for interpreting the Bible.

For John Wesley, that “sense of the the whole” was reflected in how he understood the way of salvation: humans have a problem that God overcomes in Jesus Christ, so that our sin is forgiven and we are able to live a new life of inward and outward holiness.

I suspect Furnish has some sort of similar encapsulation of the whole message of Bible, but I am not sure exactly what it looks like or if it is compatible with a Wesleyan theology.

Second, Furnish appears to believe that it is dangerous to make moral judgments about colonizing Mars based on the teachings of the Bible about the nature of the universe. He says, indeed, it is irresponsible to do so. I’m not sure, however, what the concern is. Certainly it would be a bad idea to use the Bible as a technical or astronomical manual for planning a trip to Mars. The planet Mars is not, in fact, a light in the firmament that encircles the Earth. But the engineering challenges of travel to Mars is something quite different from the moral questions about whether we should invest time, talent, and energy into making the trip. It seems to me that the Bible has a lot to contribute to that discussion.

In short, I do not understand why the Bible’s statements about the windows of heaven and the pillars of the Earth matter at all in any morality of creation stewardship. Scientific knowledge is quite useful, but does it tell us anything about the morality of strip mining that we could not say if we knew nothing about geology?

These questions repeat as I read the next few lines of Furnish’s paragraph.

Similarly, we may affirm the biblical statements about sex, insofar as they accord with the fundamental witness of Scripture that sex is part of God’s good creation, for which we have continuing moral responsibility. But scriptural counsels about sex that are based on discredited presuppositions can be of no specific help as we consider what it means in actual practice to be faithful stewards of our God-given sexuality.

Here we see the same issues. Who, exactly, determined the fundamental witness of Scripture regarding sex? The Bible does speak of sex quite a bit, but I’m not aware of any place where it is discussed as a generic thing for which we have some undefined moral responsibility.

And what do the debatable historical conclusions of scholars about the nature of sex — which Furnish argues discredit the biblical texts — really tell us with any certainty? Our “knowledge” about sexuality today or 2,000 years ago bears little resemblance to empirical science. An operational definition of the term “sexuality” that permits observation and measurement of the phenomenon has proven elusive, to state just one major problem with treating the topic of sex like a science. If biblical statements about sex have been discredited, it is because biblical notions are out of fashion in gender studies and sociology departments at universities, not because there has been an empirical breakthrough with regard to the meaning of the word sexuality and its attributes. We have no Copernicus, Kepler, or Galileo when it comes to sex.

Perhaps more important, though, is the way we are urged to be morally responsible and to steward faithfully the God-given gift of sex in a context in which the term “morally responsible” has no meaning. If the witness of the Bible on sex reduces to the claim that it is good and we should be morally responsible in our sexuality, then we have to look outside the Bible for guidance on what it means to be morally responsible with regard to sex.

Indeed, in the end, our “biblical” ethic of sex ends up looking exactly like the ethic of sex we would adopt if the Bible had never been written. The Bible has been reduced to a vague “fundamental witness” that provides no independent teaching on the will of God or moral behavior.

All of this is my way of saying that the proposals of the sexual progressives in the United Methodist Church about the way we should use scripture in our theological discernment strike me as incoherent from the point of view of our theological heritage and task. What Furnish and others appear to be advocating is a sexual ethics that looks exactly like the sexual ethics devised by the world that does not read the Bible or call Jesus Lord.

I suspect Furnish would argue that he is merely using the best understanding of modern science and scholarship to inform his reading of Scripture. He is using reason. But other than saying the word “God” I don’t see how his ethics of sex is in any way distinguishable from the consensus opinion that center-left upper middle-class America would come up with independent of the Bible.

Which may explain why our ethics around issues such as the use of money also bears almost no resemblance to the biblical conversation around money. Indeed, it may be that our successful efforts to exclude the Bible from our economics may have set the stage for the argument that Furnish would have us make with regard to sex.

But that is probably a conversation for another day.


1I also find Furnish’s description of creation as a “gift” of God and also something over which we must exercise good stewardship confusing. I have always understood a steward to be one who has control over something owned or possessed by another. A master does not give his estate to his steward as a gift, but as a responsibility. This may be a minor semantic point, but it does raise questions for me.

Why live under scripture

NT Wright from a post The Problem with Biblical Authority:

Why would we even want to mention biblical authority? Why not say, “We live under Jesus’s authority,” and leave it at that? Wouldn’t that be the biblical thing to do? Well, yes, but as centuries of history demonstrate, the Bible is the God-given means through which we know who Jesus is. Take the Bible away, diminish it or water it down, and you are free to invent a Jesus just a little bit different from the Jesus who is hidden in the Old Testament and revealed in the New. We live under scripture because that is the way we live under the authority of God that has been vested in Jesus the Messiah, the Lord.

On a related note, here is a story with a chart about what people say about the Bible.

The sword and centrist Methodism

Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies. So he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.” And all the Levites rallied to him. Then he said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’” The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. Then Moses said, “You have been set apart to the Lord today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.” (Exodus 32:25-29, NIV)

In the document A Way Forward being offered as a path out of our denominational crisis over sexual ethics, the following words are offered as describing the scriptural debate over sexual intercourse between those of the same sex.

One side believes that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. The other side believes that scriptures related to homosexuality are like scriptures related to the subordination of women, violence or the acceptance and regulation of slavery, reflecting the values of the times in which the scriptures were written more than the timeless will of God.

Having just read Adam Hamilton’s Making Sense of the Bible, the second sentence echoes with his arguments on this topic. But I wonder if this is a fair description of the argument. I’m primarily wondering about the reference to violence.

Do all people who argue that the Bible is wrong about same-sex sex also believe that the Old Testament is wrong when it describes God as sanctioning violence?

I know this is a side issue, but it is one that has caused me a fair amount of consternation in recent months. The Old Testament contains dozens — if not hundreds — of references to God sanctioning and even commanding violence against his own chosen people and others.

The quote at the top of this post comes from the response of God to the Golden Calf. Reading this text brings to mind the words of Jesus in Matthew 10 that Jesus would be a sword dividing fathers from sons, mothers from daughters, and neighbors from neighbors.

So, is this a case in which violence commanded by God is at odds with or violates the revelation of God in Jesus Christ?

Is this a case in which Moses — or the writer of Exodus — was lying about what God desired?

I don’t think my questions here relate directly to our debates about sex, but I do think they relate tangentially because there is a stance toward the Bible in our debates about sex that continues to expand into more and more areas of interpretation. Once we establish the principle that we cannot trust what the Bible says about God — notice that the violence issue is not an issue about natural science but about the moral character of God — then we find there is nothing that the Bible says about God that cannot be easily set aside by the same intellectualism.

If being a centrist or progressive means I need to rip out pages from the Bible, then I don’t understand why I should be a Christian at all. As I’ve noted before, I was a fairly nice guy who loved people before I became a Christian. I did not need the Bible to tell me that love is a good thing. However, I do need the Bible to tell me the truth about God that is not obvious just because I am a nice guy who lives in America in 2014.

And, curiously, the witness of Scripture is that violence on behalf of the people of God was necessary and was God’s will. That seems outrageous to us. We want to reject it as out of character with our times. We want to say that Jesus reveals a different God than the Old Testament. I don’t see it.

Jesus told us to put down the sword and turn the other cheek. But nothing in the New Testament witness — certainly not Jesus’ own words — disowns anything written in the Old. The kingdom of God was taken by violence. Thanks be to God, Jesus has changed that as he changed everything in the entire creation. But he did not invalidate what Israel did or what God required of his people.

At least, I don’ t see any coherent way to argue otherwise.

The meaning of inspiration

Tom Lambrecht zeroes in on the biggest question I had when reading Adam Hamilton’s book Making Sense of the Bible.

In the book, Hamilton argues that the writers of the Bible were inspired in exactly the same way that a pastor or Christian singer-songwriter or spiritual author is inspired today. He argues, I take it, that there is no difference in the inspiration of Paul and Billy Graham.

Hamilton defends the use of the Bible — as opposed to any other book – based on the proximity of the biblical writers to the events they describe and the church’s long use of the Bible as giving it a special place in our worship and theology.

When I read Hamilton’s book, I was not sure whether to interpret his argument as a case of strong pneumatology — the Holy Spirit is just as active today as then — or an appeal to experience in the classical manner of Protestant liberalism.

Lambrecht articulates some of my doubts and reactions to Hamilton’s argument. He does open up interesting questions about the nature of inspiration that are worthy of further discussion among us.