A reader of another of my blogs, Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation, has asked how the interpretation offered there of the Genesis creation account compares with the one in John Walton’s book The Lost World of Genesis One. In response, I have offered a review of Walton’s book in a series of posts that begins here. I’d like to invite readers of this blog to read the review as well, since it deals with many “good questions” about the Bible.
Part 4 of my review of The Return of the Chaos Monsters by Gregory Mobley
It remains only for Mobley to consider apocalyptic in the Bible and reveal who—not what—he actually considers chaos to be. At the start of his book he says that “the chaos monsters return in apocalyptic, only now they are members of a universal, invisible conspiracy dedicated to bedeviling the saints at every turn” (p. 15). Here at the end of the book we discover that “bedeviling” is meant quite literally: the chaos monsters are actually “the devil and his demons” (p. 135). And Mobley adds that “in the apocalyptic hall of mirrors, where nothing is as it appears, it is tempting to read an even deeper conspiracy behind the conspiracy.” This would actually be a conspiracy between God and the devil.
Mobley asserts that “the devil has taken on so many unpleasant chores of the divine administration,” such as “authoring the repertoire of disasters that thin the herds and forests” (not to mention “thinning” the human population as well?) and “injecting periodic doses of chaos that inspire innovation and new growth.” Mobley concludes that “Satan is the necessary evil,” and finally describes him in heroic terms, using language that is usually reserved for Christ himself: “Did the Angel of Light empty himself, bedimming his brilliance, in order to do the dirty work that Michael and Gabriel did not have the dramatic range or courage to handle?” Mobley’s implied answer is yes, because he suggests that “on the last day,” the “Ancient of Days will call Satan to the dais and say . . . ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’” (pp. 137-138). (And, presumably, “Enter into the joy of your Lord”?)
At the end of the real story of the Bible, Satan is thrown into the lake of fire, to be “tormented day and night forever and ever.” So how did Mobley lead us along the supposed “backstory” of the Bible to such a different outcome?
My first response would be, “bad interpretation,” that is, faulty approaches to and uses of biblical passages and books, as I’ve tried to show throughout this series of posts. Certainly Mobley’s deliberate choice not to appreciate the value and conventions of literary genres other than narrative contributes to his missteps through the Bible, which contains many works in these other genres.
But I think there’s an equally important problem: bad math. Simply stated, you can subtract from infinity as many finite numbers as you wish—billions of them, in Mobley’s terms—of whatever size, and it still remains infinity. If God’s “love-energy” is infinite to begin with, then creating finiteness from it will not leave it lacking anything. Quite the contrary. Creation is more commonly understood within Christian theology as an expression of God’s creativity that is effectively an expansion of God, not a diminishment.
There’s one more reason why I think Mobley wanders off into “sympathy for the devil” (as the Rolling Stones would say) when he tries to tell the story of the Bible: he mistakes freedom for chaos. Freedom is what is actually needed for “change, novelty, drama.” But this freedom must be exercised within a framework of structure, or nothing will come from it. No oyster shell, no pearl.
For example, a writer must work within an established genre—even if he or she uses it creatively, meeting some expectations while significantly disappointing others, and even transforming the genre itself in the process—or there can be no meaningful communication with readers, who are working to try to identify what kind of writing they have before them so they can approach it with appropriate expectations. Creativity (creation) occurs through the dynamic interplay of structure and freedom, not “the dynamic interplay of order and chaos,” as Mobley puts it (p. 9).
Chaos is structurelessness, within which nothing can happen. It’s the string on your violin snapping just as you’re supposed to start your solo in the concerto. Chaos is not constructive, it is destructive. It’s not synonymous with “random” or “free,” terms that only have meaning within the context of structure. It’s the absence of any kind of meaning-giving structure.
For me this is perhaps the greatest irony in Mobley’s book, since he begins it with a very articulate prologue about storytelling as meaning-making, and what characteristics it must have for that to happen. “Narratives,” he says, “create chains of events bound by cause and effect along a timeline . . . This led to that which led to this which led to that. . . . Once we have a story, we have direction, shape, motive, and episodes. We no longer have chaos; we have meaning and order” (p. 6). But what would happen if we tried instead to tell a story through the “dynamic interplay of order and chaos,” that is, if we repeatedly broke the chain of events by introducing things that nothing had led to, and which led to nothing? I doubt this would be seen as a “necessary evil” within a good story. Rather, the whole thing would be regarded as a bad story.
So let’s not welcome the chaos monsters back into the Bible. It’s far too good a story to ruin that way.
Part 3 of my review of The Return of the Chaos Monsters by Gregory Mobley
Mobley presses his case for divine dependence on human assistance further in his next chapter, about the Psalms, which he entitles, “God Needs Us.” He says, “Humans possess some measure of love-energy drawn from . . . the gracious endowment created in the world-making big bang . . . that contraction of the Infinite that gave space for the plenitude of finites. When we ‘bless’ the Lord, we release our vital powers back to their source” (p. 107). Or, stated more simply, “Praise releases the love-energy inside us that belongs to God. That is the backstory of the Psalms.” This praise, Mobley suggests, is “food” for God, just as animal sacrifices, according to the way “many . . . biblical passages could be read,” were once “sustenance for the Lord” (p. 102).
In support of this argument, Mobley cites texts from the Psalms where “the speaker threatens the Deity with loss of worship” (p. 97) if a petition for deliverance is not granted. For example, in Psalm 6, “In Death, there is no mention of you. In Sheol who praises you?” Presumably God cannot live without the “food” of praise and will be motivated to act.
But this is the kind of misunderstanding that occurs when one reads a collection of poems as if they were a story. (“There is a story in the Psalms,” Mobley argues: laments predominate in the earlier part of the collection as it is now arranged, and “praise songs” dominate more towards the end, so that it is “a journey . . . from lament to praise,” p. 99). I would argue that the psalmist is not so much saying, as in Mobley’s summary, “if you rescue me, then I will praise you” (p. 105)—a future narrative sketched out—as “when you rescue me, I will acknowledge your deliverance publicly.” The flow of worship is being described.
The vow of praise within which these supposed threats occur is actually a standard liturgical element within the psalm of supplication or lament genre, along with things like a cry for help, description of troubles, statement of trust, and petition. It has a counterpart element in psalms of thanksgiving, in the similarly conventional places where the psalmist recalls an earlier cry for help and states that he is now paying the vow he made on that occasion. For example, in Psalm 66: “I will come to your temple with burnt offerings and fulfill my vows to you—vows my lips promised and my mouth spoke when I was in trouble.” The very kind of statement about potential “loss of worship” that Mobley terms “rhetorically manipulative” is found within such a recollection in Psalm 30:
To you, Lord, I called;
to the Lord I cried for mercy:
“What is gained if I am silenced,
if I go down to the pit?
Will the dust praise you?
Will it proclaim your faithfulness?
Hear, Lord, and be merciful to me;
Lord, be my help.”
It would actually tactless, not to mention pointless, to recall and repeat these words if they had originally been used to threaten God to get Him to grant a request, on an occasion that is supposed to be devoted to thanking God for doing this. But within the context of the flow of worship captured in the poetry of the Psalms, it’s clear why it is appropriate to recall the words: This recollection brings glory to God by acknowledging that He was the one who delivered, in response to a cry to Him for help.
Mobley next considers the wisdom books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job, suggesting that they offer “glimpses of the divine design for chaos management” (p. 110). He believes he detects a progression in their insights. Proverbs, he says, offers “terse parallel sayings,” each of which “fits snugly . . . into a single small square on the graph paper of the blueprint” (p. 115). Ecclesiastes, for its part, also presents “the blueprint with lots of its squares filled in,” but it warns additionally that while “the squares are there, we lack the perspective to see the patterns they form” (p. 117). “We can experience . . . fleeting puffs of insight about and engagement with the Real, but we can neither possess nor control them” (p. 118).
Now I appreciate Mobley’s translation of hebel, perhaps the most key term in Ecclesiastes, as “fleeting” rather than “meaningless” or “vanity.” But I would argue that what the book actually says is “fleeting” is not our insight into life, but the things we typically think will make our lives worthwhile, such as riches and status. I believe the book is actually teaching us positively to invest in what really does last—relationships, and work that is meaningful and enjoyable while we are doing it—rather than discouraging us negatively from thinking we can know how we should live. But that is what Mobley believes the book is doing. He says that the “brilliantly ambivalent affirmation” of Ecclesiastes is, “There is a plan, but good luck, pal. We cannot know it.”
Not surprisingly, when he gets to the book of Job, Mobley is most interested in the figure of Leviathan, which (as noted earlier) he considers to be a chaos monster, even though Yahweh says specifically in his second speech that both Behemoth and Leviathan are creatures that He has “made” (likely correcting Job’s belief that he can appeal to Leviathan to undo part of creation, the day of his birth). I would argue that Yahweh uses the strength and power of His creature Leviathan to help Job realize what a small part of creation he is himself, and so Yahweh stresses that Leviathan is completely untamable:
“Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook
or press down his tongue with a cord?
Can you put a rope in his nose
or pierce his jaw with a hook?
Will he make many pleas to you?
Will he speak to you soft words?
Will he make a covenant with you
to take him for your servant forever?
Will you play with him as with a bird,
or will you put him on a leash for your girls?”
Mobley, however, takes one of these statements in a different way, as if it meant, “Will Leviathan make a covenant with you, as it has made with me?” Then he argues that according to this reading, “In effect, God says, ‘I have a covenant with chaos. Chaos is part of the plan. . . . In order for reality to function . . . there has to be space for the random, chaotic, and wild’” (p. 124). This is a theme Mobley has struck earlier in the book: “Chaos cannot be erased because to do so would eliminate change, novelty, drama, or conflict. No sand, no pearl” (p. 19).
I’ll discuss in my final post where this embrace of chaos, which we were originally encouraged to see as God’s primordial enemy, ultimately takes Mobley.
Part 2 of my review of The Return of the Chaos Monsters by Gregory Mobley
Making a barely subdued chaos his first premise, Mobley next takes up the Torah or “Pentateuchal narratives and teachings” and argues that their backstory is that humans must “act as co-creators of order and co-managers of chaos, with God,” by “living in accordance with the divine instructions” in the Torah.
However, in Mobley’s view, the creation is not at risk of coming undone if we don’t all follow the Law of Moses as originally given. He suggests that its commandments are “not written in stone, even though that is how the story of the Ten Commandments tells it” (p. 37); they’re adaptable to new situations. So adaptable, in fact, that following them comes down basically to “every free soul’s expression of the beneficence that animates it” (p. 46). To find biblical support for the notion that “Torah was always capable of reinterpretation,” Mobley argues that “the very words of the Ten Commandments are different in Deuteronomy than in Exodus . . . Forty years elapse in story time and the divine instructions already have new dimensions” (p. 37).
I agree with his conclusion about God’s people no longer being bound to keep the law literally, but I think the proper way to get there is through the “front story” of the Bible, of a covenant community in relationship with God that is transformed from being national to multinational. I feel that Mobley’s attempt to get there through a backstory doesn’t really work.
The commandments themselves match in Exodus and Deuteronomy, verbatim. The only differences are that the phrase “as the Lord your God has commanded you” is added to the commandment about honoring father and mother, and the rationale for the sabbath becomes, “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,” rather than, “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day.” In this one instance, one commandment is recontextualized, but the commandment itself is still not worded differently. Only in this quite limited sense is it true that “the very words of the Ten Commandments are different.”
Much more significantly, nowhere does the Torah describe its own purpose as empowering humans for chaos management. Rather, its stated purpose is to show the people of Israel how to walk in the same “ways” as the God with whom they are in covenant relationship, and how consequently to create a model community that will attract other nations, ultimately fulfilling the promise to their ancestor Abraham that through him all peoples on earth will be blessed.
But once again, let’s follow Mobley’s move, to see where it leads. He turns next to the “Former Prophets” (Joshua, Judges, and Samuel-Kings), which he describes as the Hebrew Bible’s “treasury of tales” (p. 49). The characterization doesn’t quite fit; Mobley acknowledges that Joshua, for example, “contains more than narrative—there are descriptions of rituals, geographic lists . . . and much speechifying.” But,” he says, “we will ignore all that to float in the stream of stories” (p. 56). I would argue once again that choosing to “ignore all that” is the surest way to miss the point of a book like Joshua. Disparaging the paired covenant ceremonies at Ebal and Shechem as “rituals,” for example, overlooks their essential role in both the structure and purpose of the book. And Joshua’s stirring farewell to the Israelites (“choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve . . . but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord”) is a rhetorical masterpiece that should hardly be dismissed as “speechifying.”
But I will say that Mobley’s reading of the tales themselves is insightful. He demonstrates how, over and over again, characters receive their “just deserts” in ironically appropriate ways. Abimelech, for example, slays his brothers on a stone to claim the kingship, but he is killed when a woman drops a stone on his head from a tower. Gehazi sneaks out to get a reward from the Syrian general Naaman, whom Elisha has healed of leprosy, and for his punishment is struck by leprosy himself. Mobley calls this “poetic justice” and says it illustrates how “God has enacted the tough love of moral cause and effect” to encourage fidelity to the Torah, which will “support management of the chaos” (p. 47).
Within this section devoted to the Former Prophets, however, Mobley dashes briefly over to the book of Isaiah to note similar poetic justice in the case of Lucifer, who was previously a heavenly being, but who said in his heart, “I will ascend to the heavens; I will raise my throne above the stars of God” and was ironically “brought down” to the underworld instead. There’s a reason for this excursus. Readers of the book need to keep a careful eye on this theme; they may be surprised where it leads.
Mobley turns next to consider the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the minor prophets) in a chapter entitled “Anger Management.” Though “diminished” by the “creation of the many,” he says, God still has “reserves of love-energy,” but while these are “vast,” they are “no longer quite enough” (p. 83). And so God gets angry and creates in human lives “effects that go beyond causality, retribution, and consequence” (p. 75).
It would seem that Mobley is saying that God was not able to maintain the “tough love of moral cause and effect” consistently because of his deficiency in love, and so there were times when “the divine anger threatened to burn hot and out of control.” The prophets were needed to perform “a mediating function between God and creation”: they “massaged and cajoled and shamed and used every rhetorical trick they had at their disposal to move God from the light and heat of day [anger] to the benedictionary calm of God’s evening-vespers-time stroll through the Garden” (p. 96).
However, Mobley says, while “this theme of anger management can be traced between the lines of the Latter Prophets . . . it is best seen in narratives . . . in which the two greatest figures from Israel’s past, Abraham and Moses, are recast as prophetic intercessors” (p. 77). As in the case of the story he said was back of the creation accounts, which he illustrated from Psalms, Isaiah, and Job, Mobley finds that his backstory of the prophets is most evident in the Pentateuchal narratives, where Abraham intercedes (though ultimately unsuccessfully) for Sodom and Gomorrah to be spared from destruction, and where Moses convinces God not to destroy Israel after the golden calf incident.
However, Mobley does cite some examples of the need for, and practice of, divine anger management within the Latter Prophets themselves. After each of two visions of destruction, for instance, Amos pleads for Israel and the Lord “relents.” (However, Iafter the third and immediately following vision, the Lord declares, “I will spare them no more.” This may be the literary device in which an intended action is taken “the third time around” after two tentative ventures.) The book of Ezekiel, for its part, Mobley says, shows what happens without the “dynamic of prophetic intercession”: “I searched among them for a man to . . . stand in the breach before me on behalf of the land, so I would not destroy it. But I couldn’t find one. So I poured out on them my curse, with the fire of my rage, I consumed them” (p. 90).
Paradoxically, however, Mobley also suggests that “if the prophet does not intercede, God may have to act out all the parts.” He quotes Muffs to this effect: “If an intercessor does not arise . . . the Holy One . . . rises from His chair of strict justice and goes to sit upon His chair of mercy. . . . The Holy One . . . appropriates to Himself . . . the role of intercessor, and pleads for Israel in His very own court” (p. 90). Mobley finds this kind of “self-produced intercession” in the divine soliloquies in the book of Hosea, for example. How this is consistent with God lacking sufficient reserves of love-energy to turn away from anger without the mediation of prophets is not clear to me.
From time to time on this blog I offer reviews of books about the Bible, even though most posts are devoted to answering questions about the Bible itself. In the next several posts I’d like to review Gregory Mobley’s book The Return of the Chaos Monsters.
I’m going to give so much space to this book because I find it to be a very significant one. It suggests an approach to the Bible that many readers, tired of the typical method of trying to extract personal divine daily messages from isolated snippets, are likely to find appealing and refreshing. But as I’ll argue in this series, I don’t believe Mobley ultimately presents an accurate picture of what the Bible is and what we are supposed to do with it, or of God, or of the place of suffering and evil in creation. His book is written in a delightful style that carries the reader along in glad assent, and I’m concerned that some readers may not appreciate exactly where they’ve been carried by the time they get to the end. So let me share some thoughts about where this book goes and how it gets there.
In the middle of the book, Mobley lays all of his cards on the table. He summarizes his understanding of the relationship between God, creation, and humanity this way: “Before time, the blinding Infinite Light exploded into a billion sparks, a happy accident for us since our very lives are merely infinitesimal reflections of this primeval divine effulgence. But this creation of the many left the One diminished. It is the sacred duty of every person to let his or her little light shine . . . and thus restore the full brilliance of the Light of Lights” (p. 82).
Mobley explains that the source of this understanding, in which God needs humans as much for His own restoration as they need God for theirs, is “medieval Jewish mystical theology, Kabbalah.” But he also maintains that the Bible itself, read in a certain way, says the same thing. Let’s explore how he makes his case.
Mobley’s first step, at the beginning of the book, is to turn all of the varied types of writing in the Bible into narrative. Citing phenomena such as the traditional headings that “associate given psalms with events in the life of David,” he claims that “a narrative alchemy is at work in the process of the Bible that endlessly, inevitably seeks to transform every genre into story” (p. 4).
I would argue, however, that this is precisely the way to misunderstand the biblical books. One of the first and most essential steps to understanding them on their own terms is to recognize their true genres and not approach them with expectations appropriate to different ones. They are not all stories. (I find that this presupposition causes problems for Mobley’s interpretations of many biblical books, as evidenced, for example, in his complaint that the “plot” of the book of Job “has been obscured by the poetic format.” Job contains some of the most elegant poetry ever written, and to see this as an “obscuring” factor is surely to miss what that book is all about.) Mobley’s approach is also precisely the way to misunderstand how the varying works collected in the Bible combine to become a grand story. They don’t do this by all turning into narrative. They instead together sketch out a story of God that is beyond themselves, and then they each find their own place within that story.
Nevertheless, let’s see where this leads. Mobley then observes that every story has a backstory or prequel. “No story starts ‘in the beginning.’ Every infant story is born into a narrative world that already exists” (p. 9). Some backstories actually do get written up, like The Hobbit as a prequel to The Lord of the Rings. But Mobley says that a true backstory is an “implied narrative” that has “not yet been composed, but looms, all latency, just before the horizon of a given narrative’s daybreak” (p. 9). He says he will give us “a thematic overview of the entire Hebrew Bible” by sharing the backstories that guide the “meaning-making most characteristic of” each of its sections (p. 13).
Mobley begins with the first section, “the creation stories,” and suggests that even Genesis itself doesn’t begin “in the beginning.” “Observant readers,” he says, “note that . . . there is something there: the primeval cosmic soup with its formless abyss.” The backstory in circulation at the time when Genesis was composed told how one god or another had slain this “chaos monster” and built the creation out of its dismembered carcass. But Genesis, Mobley acknowledges, is an example of how an author can “defy the conventional pattern and change the plot. . . . The chaos monsters . . . are not God’s mythological opponents; they are merely one more phylum of creation,” the “great dragons” (p. 10, “great sea creatures” in most English translations.
However, Mobley says, while this is the “official story,” there is an “alternate creation story” found elsewhere in the Bible. While the “front story” (my term) does indeed take things in a new direction, Mobley would prefer to keep them where the backstory had them. And so he cites two references in the Psalms and one in Isaiah about God slaying a chaos monster called Rahab or Leviathan. We should understand this “slaying,” he says, as only an incomplete victory over chaos; quoting Timothy Beal, he insists, “It is difficult to keep a good monster down. They have a tendency to reawaken, reassemble their dismembered parts, and return for a sequel.” And so in Mobley’s understanding, “God has subdued chaos, just barely” (pp. 16-17).
As evidence that chaos monsters are actually “lurking in the background” in the rest of the Bible, despite the placid and orderly creation account in Genesis, Mobley cites Job’s wish for someone to “awaken Leviathan” so that his day of birth, which he is cursing, will cease to exist: “The clear implication is that once the dragon Leviathan is aroused from her slumbers . . . all hell will break loose and creation will start to come undone” (pp. 22-23). I would argue, however, that the book of Job, by its end, also “changes the plot” and recasts Leviathan as one of God’s creatures, “one more phylum of creation,” not God’s mythical opponent. This is one of the many ways in which Yahweh’s speeches to Job at the end of the book address and resolve concerns raised at the beginning.
Similarly, I would argue that Isaiah’s point in asking Yahweh, “Was it not you who cut Rahab to pieces?” is, “Was it not you, and not Marduk, who cut Rahab to pieces?” In other words, Isaiah is appropriating the Babylonian propaganda and repurposing it as part of his sustained argument that “apart from Yahweh there is no other god.” Beyond this, it is hardly suitable to cite this part of the book of Isaiah, which lyrically celebrates Yahweh as effortlessly creating “the ends of the earth” by his “great power and mighty strength,” as a source for the idea that God has “just barely” restrained chaos. Nor is it really fair to cite the references to the mythological version of Leviathan in Psalm 74 and Rahab in Psalm 89 without noting the reference to the natural, creaturely version of Leviathan in Psalm 104, “which,” the psalmist says to God, “you formed to frolic” in the sea. Apparently the psalmists knew the backstory myth and could appropriate it for their own purposes, but they also told the “official story” with delight, picturing Leviathan frolicking in the waves, rather than awakening to undo the rest of creation.
But however we understand such passages, if this backstory is only found in other parts of the Bible, it doesn’t seem legitimate to treat it as the backstory to the Genesis creation accounts (particularly since Mobley himself says it is “suppressed” there, p. 23), as if it provided a foundation for understanding the rest of the Bible. But that’s precisely how he treats it, making it the basis for all the further steps in his argument.
I’ll explore those further steps in my next posts.
Q. Newsweek just published an article called “The Bible: So Misunderstood That it’s a Sin” — I found the article so loaded with half-truths that it needs to be addressed. Could you be so kind to take a look at this? I really enjoy your Blog!
Thanks for alerting me to this article, which I see was published provocatively only two days before Christmas! Its basic premises are summarized at the end:
“The Bible is a very human book. It was written, assembled, copied and translated by people. That explains the flaws, the contradictions, and the theological disagreements in its pages. Once that is understood, it is possible to find out which parts of the Bible were not in the earliest Greek manuscripts, which are the bad translations, and what one book says in comparison to another, and then try to discern the message for yourself. And embrace what modern Bible experts know to be the true sections of the New Testament.”
But these so-called “modern Bible experts”–only three of them–turn out to be skeptical, critical scholars like Bart Ehrman whose work reflects a strong bias against belief in the Bible as the inspired word of God and as a coherent and faithful reflection of God’s dealings and communications with the community of faith over the centuries. It’s no wonder that with sources like these, the article reaches the conclusions it does.
By relying only on sources that hold one view of the issue, the article violates one of the basic tenets of journalism, which is to tell both sides of a story objectively.
Others have had the space and opportunity to respond to this article at more length and in more depth than I will be able to. (Here, for example, is an articulate response by Albert Mohler, and here is another fine one from New Testament Greek scholar Daniel B. Wallace.) But let me at least acknowledge the accuracy of your perception that the Newsweek article is “loaded with half-truths.” Here’s just one example.
The article says of the pericope of the woman caught in adultery, “Scribes made it up sometime in the Middle Ages.” By contrast, Bruce Metzger, a universally respected expert in New Testament textual criticism, says in his Textual Commentary on the New Testament, “The account has all the earmarks of historical veracity,” even if it is not considered to have been an original part of the gospel of John. The international committee he served with to edit a critical text of the N.T. therefore decided, “in deference to the evident antiquity of the passage,” to include it “within double square brackets at its traditional place” in John. Virtually every other claim in the Newsweek article could be similarly examined and critiqued.
But I think that those who believe in the Bible as the trustworthy and inspired word of God can still take some legitimate challenge from this article. At the start it presents some research by organizations that, if anything, are favorable towards this view, rather than hostile to it, and who found the following:
“A Pew Research poll in 2010 found that evangelicals ranked only a smidgen higher than atheists in familiarity with the New Testament and Jesus’s teachings. ‘Americans revere the Bible—but, by and large, they don’t read it,’’ wrote George Gallup Jr. and Jim Castelli, pollsters and researchers whose work focused on religion in the United States. The Barna Group, a Christian polling firm, found in 2012 that evangelicals accepted the attitudes and beliefs of the Pharisees—religious leaders depicted throughout the New Testament as opposing Christ and his message—more than they accepted the teachings of Jesus.”
These findings, rather than the biased and inflammatory claims about the Bible, are what should really make us upset–with ourselves. If we truly love and honor the Bible, then let’s read it, become immersed in its teachings–supremely those of Jesus–and then live them out. In that sense I do accept a valid challenge from at least this small part of the Newsweek article.
Thanks again for your question!
The original questioner comments: My friend Stephen M. Miller (love his books) also commented on the Newsweek article — thought you would enjoy his blog entry. Blessed New Year to you!
In my last two posts I have reviewed Adam Hamilton’s book Making Sense of the Bible (New York: HarperOne, 2014) and examined one of the key exegetical claims he makes in support of his view that “we hear God’s voice as we listen to scripture’s words” (p. 131, emphasis added). That is, Hamilton believes that the Bible is not the word of God, but it becomes the word of God on those occasions when God speaks to us through it.
In this post I would like to consider another of the exegetical claims Hamilton advances in support of his view: that among the forty-one biblical “passages that speak of the ‘word of God,’ few seem to refer to something written down in a scroll or book. Most often, the phrase refers to a message about God that is heard–either spoken or preached” (p. 148). (He says that the same thing holds for the equivalent phrase “the word of the Lord,” i.e. “the word of Yahweh,” which occurs 260 times.)
Now what Hamilton says is quite true. In the Bible, the phrase “the word of God” or “the word of the Lord” does tend to refer to something spoken, not written. But this is not because the contents of Scripture do not constitute the word of God, so that even the biblical authors are distinguishing carefully between the written word and the “voice of God” that we may hear in or through Scripture.
Rather, these phrases simply reflect the original form of Scripture. “The word of God” is something spoken, not written, even in the Bible, because the biblical books were as a rule composed orally with the intention that they would be delivered orally.
To give a simple and clear example, Paul dictated his letters out loud; there is even a greeting at the end of Romans from the scribe who recorded that letter: “I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord.” And these letters were meant to be read out loud; Paul says at the end of Colossians, “After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans.”
The real issue is not whether the phrases “the word of God” and “the word of the Lord” in the Bible describe something spoken versus written. The issue is whether they are used to describe the contents of Scripture, rather than something that is mediated through Scripture. And when we examine these phrases with that question in mind, we see quite clearly that the Bible equates “the word of God” and “the word of the Lord” with the oral compositions that were eventually written down as the Bible itself.
The clearest example is found in the prophets. The essential building blocks of the prophetic books are passages that begin (for example), “This is the word of the Lord that came to Jeremiah concerning the drought.” The word that God spoke to the prophet for the people on the named occasion is then recorded, and these “words” are put together to make up the prophetic book. (One of the simplest places to see this is in the book of Haggai, which comprises the “word of the Lord” that came to that prophet on just four occasions.)
These word-of-the-Lord units, we see, constitute the contents of the prophetic books. Nothing further is needed to demonstrate that the authors or compilers of these books did not see the “word of God” instead as something that might later be mediated through some of the prophet’s words. But in at least one case, the Bible draws for us an even more direct connection between the “word of the Lord” that was spoken to the prophet and the written book we have today. At the end of each of the four major units in the book of Jeremiah, there is a depiction of his words being recorded in a book or scroll. We are allowed to witness the composition process itself and see how the spoken “word of the Lord” became the written Scripture.
The same thing can be seen in other parts of the Bible. The basic building blocks of the law of Moses are passages that begin (for example), “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Speak to the Israelites and say to them: “These are my appointed festivals, the appointed festivals of the Lord, which you are to proclaim as sacred assemblies.”‘” Now this is not precisely the formula “the word of the Lord,” but it is clearly another case of what is spoken by God being recorded in the eventual written Scriptures, becoming their contents.
It is true, as Hamilton documents, that in places the Bible uses the phrase “the word of God” to mean something other than the written Scriptures. In the book of Acts, for example, the phrase means essentially the same thing as “the gospel” or “the good news about Jesus.” The phases of the church’s expansion in Acts are all marked off by variations on the phrase “the word of God grew and multiplied,” meaning not the Bible, but the community that had embraced this good news.
So if the biblical writers, in such places, aren’t using the phrase “the word of God” to refer to what we know today as the Bible, what would they call the Bible? Characteristically, they use the phrase “the Scriptures.” But this does not mean that they did not consider “the Scriptures” to be “the word of God.” Once again, what they had in mind was simply the form: by “Scriptures,” they meant the messages spoken by God for his people that had been written down in the Bible. (“Scriptures” means “writings.”)
If anything, Hamilton’s argument shows us that we today can use the phrase “the word of God” to refer to more things than the written Bible. I find it encouraging and empowering, in fact, to envision the proclamation about Jesus as the “word of God” going forth to share good news with the whole world. But just because the biblical authors model such uses for us, this does not mean that they saw the Bible itself as anything less than the word of God, which might only become the word of God if the Spirit picked out a part of it and used it to speak to us.
In my last post, in response to a reader’s question, I gave my general “take” on Adam Hamilton’s book Making Sense of the Bible (New York: HarperOne, 2014). While I found much to appreciate in the book, I respectfully disagreed with Hamilton’s view that that Bible is not “inspired” to any greater degree than sermons, devotional books, etc. might be today.
Hamilton actually believes that “the most important dimension of inspiration may be how God uses the words of scripture to speak to us” (p. 142). “The biblical documents,” he says, “were written and edited by persons who were addressing the needs of the people of their time . . . in and through them, God continues to speak to us today” (p. 89).
These are Hamilton’s presuppositions. They are theologically informed and they have a venerable pedigree. As Hamilton himself acknowledges, “This view of inspiration is in some ways similar to that proposed by Karl Barth and the neoorthodox movement in the twentieth century” (p. 319 n. 5). This view is specifically, as I understand it, that the Bible not so much is the word of God, as that it “contains” or “conveys” the word of God. “We hear God’s voice,” Hamilton says, “as we listen to scripture’s words” (p. 131, emphasis added).
There is no debating another person’s presuppositions; you either share them or you don’t. But Hamilton also advances some specific exegetical claims in support of his position, and these can be evaluated. I’d like to look at several of his claims in my next few posts, starting in this one with Hamilton’s interpretation of Paul’s statement in 2 Timothy, “All Scripture is inspired by God.”
Hamilton observes that the phrase typically translated “inspired by God” in this statement “is just one word in the Greek: theopneustos. . . . Paul appears to have created this word himself. It appears nowhere else in the Bible, and, to our knowledge, nowhere else in the Greek language until after Paul’s time (pp. 133-134).
So what does it mean? Since it is a combination of the Greek words for “God” (theos) and “to breathe out” (pneō), Hamilton suggests it could mean “God-breathed” or “God-exhaled.” (Compare NIV “God-breathed,” ESV “breathed out by God.”) Then Hamilton asks, very intriguingly, “What if Paul, in using the word ‘God-breathed,’ is drawing upon the Genesis story of Creation?” This story says, “Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”
Hamilton sees here an analogy for his paradigm for Scripture: “When God first forms man out of clay, he is not yet a living being. God breathes into him and he becomes animated–he is now alive. Paul knew of scripture’s human authors. Was he suggesting that God breathes upon the human words of scripture thereby animating them, making them ‘living and active’? The words come alive in the moment when God, by the Spirit, uses these human words to speak to us” (p. 134).
This is brilliant, original exegesis. (Hamilton does not note any sources for the idea of an analogy between theopneustos and the Genesis creation account, so I am assuming that the idea is original with him.) I agree with almost all of it.
Paul is believed to have coined original words by allusion to the Greek Old Testament elsewhere in his letters, so there is every reason to believe he may be doing the same thing here. (The Septuagint has the verb emphusaō, “breathe into,” instead of pneō, but we can still take theopneustos as a general allusion to this incident in the creation story.)
This is certainly the most memorable episode of God “breathing” anywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures. (About the only other one I can think of is God telling Ezekiel to call to the wind/breath to “breathe into these dead bodies so they may live again,” which is similarly a case of God animating a lifeless body, and it may be meant to echo the Genesis creation account itself.) So if Paul was indeed trying to describe the nature of Scripture by coining the word theopneustos as an allusion to something in the Old Testament, I agree that the story of God breathing life into Adam is the likely reference.
So what don’t I agree with? Look at how Hamilton summarizes the parallel he believes Paul is drawing between the creation of Adam and the nature of Scripture (pp. 134-135). In Genesis, Hamilton says:
1. God forms the man.
2. God breathes into him.
3. He becomes a living being.
And “in the case of the scriptures,”
1. Authors write scriptures.
2. God breathes on them.
3. The words come to life.
This is not really a parallel. While the second point in each case is a divine action, and the third point is a creature’s response, when it comes to the first point, Hamilton is trying to substitute a human action for a divine action in order to account for the origin of the Scriptures. For this to be a true parallel, the first point in the second case should say, “1. God forms the scriptures.”
And that makes perfect sense to me. Just as God formed the man from the common elements of the earth, but then breathed life into him so that he became a living being, so God formed the Scriptures through the common process of human literary composition, and then breathed on them to make them “living and active.” But God was the ultimate creator of the Scriptures even in that first step. While it appears from our perspective that they came about through “people addressing the needs of their time,” Paul’s analogy to the Genesis creation account through the term theopneustos shows us that God was actually superintending and guiding this process, just as God formed the body of Adam from the dust of the ground, in order to bring us Scriptures that would truly be the word of God, from start to finish.
Q. I’m reading quite an eye-opening book called Making Sense of the Bible by Adam Hamilton. I have some issues with it, but I am enjoying it! What is your take on this book?
Thanks for bringing Hamilton’s book to my attention. When you asked about it, I checked into it, and I was so intrigued that I immediately got a copy and read right through it. So let me now give you my “take” on the book. (I will reference page numbers from the hardcover edition, New York: HarperOne, 2014.)
I have only one real disagreement with what Adam Hamilton writes in Making Sense of the Bible, although it is a significant disagreement, which I will discuss shortly. Apart from this, I found the entire book valuable, useful, and quite cogently presented.
Hamilton’s goal is to help people who aren’t familiar with the Bible, or who are troubled by certain passages in it, to “make sense of it.” To this end, he begins very helpfully with the crucial question, “What exactly is the Bible?” (p. 7). He explains that it is not what it is often considered to be: an “owner’s manual,” a source of random guidance, a collection of data for systematic theology, a science and history textbook, or a treasury of “precious promises.”
Hamilton then provides historical, geographic, and literary overviews of the Bible to orient readers to its background and contents. These will be valuable and helpful resources for the many today who don’t start out with a basic knowledge of the Bible. Hamilton addresses some questions about the nature of Scripture and then devotes the last half of the book to “making sense of the Bible’s challenging passages.”
I found that over and over again I came out pretty much where Hamilton did on the interpretation of these “challenging passages.” Indeed, most of the things he says about them, and in the rest of his book, are things that I could have said myself, and actually have said, in my own books or in posts on this blog. For example, he explains that many of Jesus’ most puzzling sayings are hyperbole or intentional “exaggeration designed to make a point” (p. 244). After outlining the four major approaches to the book of Revelation (pp. 284–285), he advocates a preterist interpretation, one of whose implications is that Nero Caesar may be the name represented by 666. Hamilton even takes up the subject of tattoos and concludes that these are fine for followers of Jesus today so long as they are not “permanently marking their bodies as a way of honoring a pagan god” (p. 263).
Indeed, as I read through the book, there were chapters that I found very meaningful personally. Hamilton’s testimony in Chapter 24 of how he “came to love Jesus” by reading the gospels is poignant and beautiful. And I would recommend his reflections on suffering in the preceding chapter to anyone who is going through difficult times: “Suffering is not given to teach us something, but through it we may learn. . . . Suffering does not occur because our faith is weak, but through it our faith may be strengthened. God does not depend on human suffering to achieve his purposes, but sometimes through suffering his purposes are achieved” (p. 226).
So if I like the book this much and find myself so closely in agreement with it at so many places, what’s my one disagreement? It’s with Hamilton’s answer to the question of what the Bible actually is. He says it is a collection of books “written by men seeking to express what they believed was God’s will. They were writing in a given time and culture, and they were writing to address the needs of the people of their time” (p. 262; similar summary statements are offered on pp. 89 and 173).
Notice that in this formulation, the Bible is described as essentially a human product. Is it also the inspired word of God? Only in a qualified sense, according to Hamilton. “The divine inspiration of scripture was . . . God working in the hearts of the biblical authors in a way not dissimilar to how God works in the hearts of modern-day preachers and prophets and laity . . . through a divine prompting felt in the heart, focused in the mind, and spoken with the lips or the pen” (p. 173). In other words, “that divine influence on the writers was not qualitatively different from the way God inspires or influences by the Spirit today” (p. 143).
In fact, as Hamilton sees it, the divine inspiration of the Bible is actually something that occurs more in its readers than it did in its writers. “The most important dimension of inspiration may be how God uses the words of scripture to speak to us today. . . . We may read a passage of scripture and hear nothing at all. Then we read it again prayerfully, and we hear something we did not hear before. We sense God speaking to us” (p. 142).
However, Hamilton says that he has experienced this same kind of “inspiration”—a seemingly divine prompting to say something or to do something—while reading a novel, listening to classical music, or “sitting in a Broadway musical.” “These are all means by which God speaks to us” (p. 147).
So is there anything that makes the Bible itself a distinctive repository or vehicle of divine inspiration, so that its message to us is more authoritative than what we might hear from other sources? Hamilton asks this very question: “What gives the biblical writings greater authority?” “Not a greater degree of inspiration,” he responds, “but closer proximity to the events described in the Bible. Just as importantly, the scriptures are the foundational documents of the Christian faith and have been found faithful, helpful, inspirational, and useful to the community of faith over the nearly two-thousand-year history of the church” (pp. 173-174).
Hamilton offers the U.S. Constitution as an example of a similar “foundational” document, “written by the founding fathers of our country” (p. 174) that has “stood the test of time” and that has been “found to be useful and helpful” (p. 180). But, he notes, while the framers of the Constitution “believed it was the best thing they could come up with at the time . . . they also knew that circumstances would change, and there needed to be a way to amend the Constitution.” In the same way, he argues, “God knew that the problem with . . . laying down moral absolutes is that situations change. While most of the absolutes might remain intact forever, at least some of them would need to be changed or dropped in the light of a changing world” (p. 181).
And so, Hamilton suggests, there must be a way to “amend” the Bible, just as we amend the Constitution. He writes that while “the bar should be very high for laying aside any clear command, practice, or teaching of scripture . . . I believe there must be a way for the church to continue to recognize that though God does not change, the needs of communities sometimes do” (p. 181).
Hamilton illustrates a method for “amending” the Bible this way at a couple of places in his book. He considers the so-called imprecatory psalms, in which the psalmists pray for God’s vengeance on their enemies, and suggests that we should not think God wants us to do anything similar today because these passages “don’t sound like things we would expect the Holy Spirit to inspire,” since this is “the opposite of Jesus’ command to love our enemies” (p. 136). Later in the book he argues that we can similarly set aside the “biblical condemnations of same-sex relationships” because they “seem out of sync with God’s will as we understand it today” (p. 271); they “do not seem to reflect the heart of God revealed in Jesus Christ” (p. 272).
I do agree with one aspect of Hamilton’s approach here. As I’ve already said on several occasions on this blog (quoting my study guide to Joshua, Judges, and Ruth), “Jesus’ life and teachings provide, for his followers, the interpretive key to the entire Scriptural record of God’s dealings with humanity. In light of them, believers identify what things are normative and what things are exceptional.”
Nevertheless, I still have a significant concern about Hamilton’s approach. If “the most important dimension of inspiration” really is “how God uses the words of scripture to speak to us today,” then anything we find in the Bible that doesn’t square with what we think God is saying to us now in light of Jesus can be considered something that the human authors of the Bible believed was God’s will for their own place and time, but which is not necessarily God’s timeless will for all people (and may not actually have been God’s will even for the original audience).
And so if we are troubled, for example, by the places in the Old Testament where God supposedly tells his people to go out and completely destroy their enemies, we can conclude either that “the passage may reflect the culture, the worldview, or the perspectives of the human author of scripture” (p. 216)—who thought God was telling the Israelites to do this, though God really wasn’t—or that “these stories were written down long after their time to inspire others to courage and absolute commitment to God” (p. 215), but they didn’t really happen as described (a view I discuss in this post.)
And so, in Hamilton’s view, the Bible can be “wrong” in one of these two ways: by interpreting actual events not according to the “timeless heart, character, and will of God” (p. 216), or by reporting events that did not actually occur. And this is where my concerns and objections really come in.
For one thing, this approach allows you to dismiss anything in the Bible that doesn’t square with “God’s will as we understand it today.” As a result, the Bible no longer functions as an objective check on our limited human perspectives; it can no longer expose or critique our time-bound and culture-bound thinking. This approach effectively condemns us to precisely the same fault that Hamilton finds with the biblical authors, whom he thinks sometimes reflected their own cultural biases rather than God’s timeless will.
For another thing—and this may be even more important—this approach ultimately prevents us from believing anything on the basis of the Bible’s teaching. This difficulty makes itself felt in the very chapter in which Hamilton shares how he put his faith in Christ after reading the gospels, particularly after he realized that the resurrection had to be a reality, otherwise “darkness has overcome light, hate has overcome love, and death has overcome life” (pp. 240-241).
The problem is, as Hamilton himself acknowledges at the beginning of the chapter, some biblical scholars “believe the miraculous elements in the Gospels,” including the resurrection, “reflect the faith of the early church and not the actual Jesus of history.” This is a perfectly valid option within Hamilton’s paradigm. The stories of Jesus, like those of Joshua, may have been written down after their time to inspire others and they may include events that did not actually occur. So how can we determine whether Jesus rose from the dead or not?
If we have accepted everything Hamilton has said to this point, we cannot simply trust the gospels about this, even though they were written by the people who lived closest to the time of the events they narrate, and even though they are the foundational documents of our faith and have been been found faithful, helpful, inspirational, and useful for so many centuries. They could still be wrong. So instead, as Hamilton acknowledges, “the question of the reliability of the New Testament witness to Jesus boils down to whether we can accept the idea that Jesus did things that other human beings are unable to” (p. 238). Ultimately it is our presuppositions that determine what parts of the Bible we believe.
Now one might argue that it is actually the Holy Spirit, inspiring us as readers of the Bible, who leads us to accept such ideas. But who can say whether the Holy Spirit did not instead inspire those of the opposite view to recognize and reject the resurrection as a well-intentioned superstition when they read the Bible? It seems to me that once you let this genie out of the bottle, there’s no putting it back in. So let me suggest an alternative.
Hamilton offers a helpful metaphor of three “buckets” that he believes biblical passages fit into. Some “reflect the timeless will of God for human beings.” Others “reflect God’s will in a particular time but not for all time.” And still others “reflect the culture and historical circumstances in which they were written but never reflected God’s timeless will”—the biblical authors were simply wrong when they thought this (pp. 273-273).
If you allow for this third “bucket,” anything can be put in it, as I’ve just observed, so that the Bible ceases to be an authoritative source of guidance, no matter how highly one values it (short of it being divinely inspired). I personally do not feel that this third bucket is helpful or needed (as nice as it would be to be able to put some passages in it!).
Instead, I would argue that from within our own culture and our place in human history and redemptive history, we do not have access, when it comes to certain passages, to an understanding of how what was said to the people of that other place and time could have been God’s will for them, even within their own specific circumstances. We need to confess frankly that we do not understand how the Bible could say what it does in these cases—that this troubles us and confuses us and embarrasses us, and we regret how this creates an obstacle to faith for many. We avow that these passages do not express the timeless will of God for all people and that they certainly do not express God’s will for us today.
But even so, we do not claim to have such a comprehensive understanding of God and of redemptive history, even in light of God’s definitive self-revelation in Jesus, and even with the help that the Holy Spirit indeed gives us when we read the Bible, that we can say confidently that these things could never have expressed God’s will for anyone, anywhere, under any circumstances.
In other words, when it comes to “making sense of the Bible,” there are a few parts that I think we can’t quite make sense of (though we work very hard to do this, as I trust my posts about such passages on this blog demonstrate). But that does not keep me from believing that the Bible is the inspired word of God and from relying on what it says, rather than on any inspiration I might receive when I read it, as my guide to life and faith. Certainly the Bible taken as a whole—its “big ideas and key messages,” as Hamilton puts it (p. 132)—is something we can make sense of and recognize by faith as God’s authoritative and instructive word to us. This is enough to allow us to trust it despite the few parts that force us to say humbly, “I just don’t understand that.”
This is my general “take” on Hamilton’s book. But I found the whole book so engaging that I will return to it in some follow-up posts and address the specific exegetical claims he makes about the meaning of the phrases “God-breathed” and “word of God.”