John Meunier

'An arrow through the air'

Posts Tagged ‘Bible

Violence in the Bible – Two approaches

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Adam Hamilton recently published three blog posts about violence in the Old Testament.

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Allan Bevere recruited Ashland seminary professor Dan Hawk to provide a response.

Part One 

Part Two

Part Three

The posts on these two blogs and the comments they have generated would make an interesting small group study.

Here is how Hawk concludes his second post:

On the question of divine violence as in so many others, the canon calls faithful readers out black-and-white thinking and into the gray; out of an impulse that seeks to simplify, dichotomize, and resolve in order to determine who is right– and into a communal conversation as fluid and contentious as the clamor of voices that vie with one another in the biblical canon. The plurality of voices, postures, testimonies, and declarations that configure Scripture reflect the diversity of the same that characterize the church. The very nature of Scripture, then, directs the community shaped by it to seek the truth from all sides and prayerfully ponder together what God is doing in any given day and age and so to align its witness and involvements accordingly.

I notice the reference to living in the gray, which may or may not be a reference to one of Hamilton’s other books. Reading Hawk’s response to Hamilton, I am mindful as well of another response to this question about the violence of God. Some — and John Wesley would fall in this camp — that we are all creatures of God, and so God is justified at any moment if he destroys us for any reason. We are like clay pots the potter can smash on a whim.

This “clay pot” solution to the violence of God comes to mind as I was reading these posts because it strikes me as the mirror image of Hamilton’s approach. Hamilton — as I think Hawk rightly argues — simplifies the witness of Scripture too much by shearing off those parts seem to conflict with a certain vision of who Jesus is. Wesley — and contemporaries such as John Piper — simplify the witness of Scripture the other way by smashing clay pots every time someone raises a qualm about Hell or the destruction of Jericho.

Hawk — quoting Walter Brueggemann — testifies to a God who defies simplification, and in that way becomes much more dangerous and awe-inspiring. You just don’t know what God is going to do next. Such a God is hard to cram into a Sunday School lesson or a sermon. Such a God certainly is not chiefly concerned with making us comfortable. But such a God — at least for me — feels much less like an idol created out of my own imagination and needs. Such a God feels worthy of worship, fear, and love.

Written by John Meunier

August 28, 2014 at 8:27 am

Posted in Bible

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Five things United Methodists say about the Bible

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David Watson discusses the mainline Protestant tendency to say more about what we don’t believe about the Bible than what we do believe.

He ends his post with five statements he drew from the doctrinal standards of the United Methodist Church:

1. Scripture is the primary source of divine revelation in our tradition. Other claims to divine revelation should be tested against scripture.

2. Everything we need to know to receive salvation is in the Bible.

3. The Bible is the true guide for Christian faith and practice.

4. The Holy Spirit helps us to understand and apply scripture to our lives.

4. Christian tradition, such as is found in the creeds, helps to interpret scripture for teaching the historic faith of the church.

5. Reason and the experience help us to understand scripture, but on matters of salvation, and matters of faith and practice related to salvation, they should not contradict scripture.

My postmodern friends, I suspect, will object to some of these statements because they suggest that scripture has a meaning independent of the community of interpretation.

To address those kinds of objections, I find I need to talk about revelation and the work of the Holy Spirit. But we ground those statements — or at least I try to — on scripture. So, there is a certain circularity in my argument that I do not see how I can avoid.

In the end, I find that I adopt the attitude that scripture is something we receive as a gift of the Holy Spirit to the church, and in light of that attitude of reception I embrace the five statements that Watson offers above.

Written by John Meunier

August 16, 2014 at 8:02 am

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More than faith, hope & love

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We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thessalonians 1:3, NIV)

I’m not sure why this caught my attention recently. I noticed the 1 Corinthians 13 triad of faith, hope, and love while reading 1 Thessalonians. And then I saw how Paul here connected each one with an outcome. Faith produces work. Love prompts labor. Hope inspires endurance. Here is a portrait of the church that Paul celebrates.

Faith, hope, and love are all great and wonderful. But isn’t Paul here pointing out the true indications of these three things? Show me your faith separate from works. Show me your love that does not result in labor. Tell me of your hope that does not give you the endurance to walk through trials. You cannot. If you have not endurance, then your hope is fragile. If you do not labor then you do not love. If you do no work, you have no true faith.

Paul pairs these terms in offering praise, but heard rightly they are a challenge to us as Christians.

Written by John Meunier

August 11, 2014 at 9:54 pm

God will repay

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God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. (Romans 2:6-8, NIV)

The larger context of this passage is that God’s response to good and evil ignores the distinction between Jew and Gentile, but we should not let the distinction that Paul feels he has to make a case for obscure from our vision the claims about God that Paul feels no need to defend because everyone agrees, namely that God punishes those who do evil and rewards those who persist in doing good.

This is so fundamental to biblical religion that we render the Bible incomprehensible if we suppress this fundamental claim about God.

The old Methodist teaching took this for granted. And it equally took for granted that we are no able to do the persistent good that Paul writes about. We might do good here or there, but we cannot form a life grounded in persistent goodness out of our own resources. And we cannot erase the crippling stain of sin by our own good deeds. We cannot, in other words, deserve the reward.

This old Methodist message has many detractors in United Methodism, but what I have find even more perplexing is the resistance to the fundamental biblical claim about God rewards those who do good and punishes those who do evil.

 

Written by John Meunier

August 7, 2014 at 10:31 pm

Posted in Bible, Doctrine, God, Theology

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Does Parker Palmer get vocation right?

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In Parker Palmer’s book Let Your Life Speak, he writes with great passion against the notion that a calling is something that comes from outside yourself. For Palmer, calling arises when we listen to the inner voice of our own authentic self. As you might guess, Palmer does not buy into the doctrine of total depravity. He teaches the essential goodness of humanity that is only distorted and suppressed by society and external demands. Happiness and joy are only found in honoring the inner voice and embracing all of who we are — light as well as shadow. In this way, he reminds me very much of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and other romantics.

What his vision of vocation does not remind me of very much is the Bible. I am hard pressed to think of a clear example in the Bible where a calling comes to a person from within themselves rather than from outside. Moses, Isaiah, Mary, Paul, and on and on: They are summoned to God’s vision in ways that they do not want or did not seek.

As far as I can see, the biblical notion of call — or vocation — is experienced as an alien summons that goes directly against what you would choose for yourself. The Garden of Gethsemane — not my will but yours be done — is the first image that comes to mind when I ask myself what vocation looks like in the Bible.

Or this comes close after that: In teaching the disciples, Jesus tells them to deny themselves, take up the cross, and follow him. I wonder how Palmer reads and interprets that?

I know a lot of people find Palmer’s writing quite helpful.

I have a hard time squaring it with what I understand to be the witness of Scripture.

Written by John Meunier

August 2, 2014 at 8:16 am

Posted in Bible, Calling

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Twitter Proverbs

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There is a whole class of Tweets that are like the one above. They are short, often inspirational, sayings meant to offer a bit of proverbial wisdom.

In the Bible we get Proverbs, of course. We also get Job and Ecclesiastes, which call some of the proverbial wisdom into question. We get Lamentations. We get the cross. We get the apostles being flogged and jailed and hounded out of towns.

Twitter doesn’t offer us much in the way of Job.

It offers lots of snarkiness and sarcasm, but that is not the same thing.

Written by John Meunier

August 1, 2014 at 9:42 pm

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Augustine the spiritual reader

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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.

Written by John Meunier

July 5, 2014 at 10:44 am

Posted in Bible

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Biblical morality without the Bible

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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.

Written by John Meunier

June 28, 2014 at 1:41 pm

Why live under scripture

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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.

Written by John Meunier

June 6, 2014 at 6:17 am

Posted in Bible, Christian life

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The sword and centrist Methodism

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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.

Written by John Meunier

June 5, 2014 at 7:25 pm

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