What God doesn’t say and how not to read the Bible

The unpleasant topic of what God doesn’t say has shown up in three different conversations this week (and its only Tuesday!) :

Tony Jones gave a little pushback to Daniel Kirk (a recent guest on Homebrewed) about homosexuality and the Apostle Paul. Both Paul and homosexuality are hot topics right now so the discussion was vibrant.

Kirk is clear about those infamous Old Testament ‘clobber’ passages but is a little more allusive when it comes to the New Testament. He pulls what appears to be equivalent to an ‘argument from silence’ saying that Jesus would have commented on it if he wasn’t OK with the dominant view of his day. Tony makes this argument:

Apply that logic to any number of other moral or ethical issues, and I’ll bet that Kirk and his fellow evangelical biblical scholars don’t agree. For instance, Jesus was silent about:

  • Slavery
  • Abortion
  • The death penalty
  • Corporal punishment
  • Racism
  • Rape

I could go on. Does that mean that we should argue that Jesus was implicitly endorsing each of these? Of course not.

The same line of reasoning has been showing up over and over again in blogs written by women about issues of church leadership, image-beauty, and marriage.

 It is tough to argue about what the Bible doesn’t say. 

I actually try to pull this off in the latest TNT (Eschatology and Resurrection) when it comes to reading the Old Testament. I use the story of Lot’s daughters (Genesis 19) and point out that there is a noticeable lack of commentary in so many places in the Bible. In that Genesis 19 narrative it never says “and what they did was wrong” or “and they should not have done that”.   It just tells the story.

I compare this to the Canaanite conquest when the Israelites come out of slavery, violence, and oppression – into a new land – and then become violent and oppressive to the inhabitants. It reads to me like a cautionary tale about groups who escape violent oppression and come into a new area will always think that A) God is on their side (which is different than saying ‘God is with them‘  B) God has prepared the land especially  for them C) that God wants them to kill the current residents

 I got this idea of the cautionary tale from a book called Native and Christian - specifically two essays entitled The Old Testament of Native America by Steve Charleston and Canaanites, Cowboys and Indians by Robert Allen Warrior.

These three topics: homosexuality, women’s roles in church & home, and religious violence are not just arguments from history … they are on our doorstep knocking angrily everyday of the 21st century. They also share something else in common: the make arguments from silence about what is not in the Bible.

Here is where it gets even stickier. I was reading an old article by Roger Olson (also a former podcast guest) from Christianity Today 10 years ago. He was illustrating how American Christianity came to be and specifically the influence that the 1800’s had on our contemporary situation.

I also stumbled into Tad Delay’s blog about American Populism in early American religion, dealing with The Democratization of American Christianity by Nathan O. Hatch. Tad explains :

The language of a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” a sinners prayer for salvation, and a strong emphasis on unschooled individuals reading the Bible without need for rigorous theology came out of this period. Those with any training or expertise were openly spoken of as the enemy. The most flamboyant and charismatic circuit preacher garnered fame- which was certainly a goal of many- but to be charismatic, you had to convince the hearers that the message was simple. So, the message became very simple.

And this is where I get really nervous. A plain & simple reading of the Bible is one thing – a surface understanding I am always encountering and navigating. That is one thing. But arguments about what God didn’t say and what is not in the Bible are complex and nuanced. Our popular simplistic impulse leaves us in a pickle – one that I am not sure we  commonly have the tools to get out of and one that leaves us with an increasingly irrelevant message that our young people simply walk away from.

If everything needs to be understandable to anyone … we might be in trouble when it comes to reading the Bible in 21st century.

 

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3 comments
Jeremy
Jeremy

Two things: 1) I implore all of you to read Ted Jennings' recent work Plato or Paul for a more in depth Biblical and theological look at homosexuality and Paul. 2) Preston's argument makes little sense. All he says is that the tradition is beautiful and hence we have no ability to critique it. I'm simply amazed at how people who believe homosexuals acts are sinful act as if the particular reasons matter. You can be as violent as Jerry Falwell or as beautifully obscure as Preston, and you're still in the same camp. From the homosexual perspective, you are the enemy. There is no middle ground. Let's be very clear about that. This fantasy of inhabiting some middle space is just ridiculous. He goes on to say that what really matters is how thoughtful one was when arriving at this position. Again, this is idiotic. What matter is Truth. You either have it or you don't. You can hold to truth violently or tentatively. It doesn't matter in the end. You're either right or wrong.

Dan Hauge
Dan Hauge

The take on the conquest narratives is interesting, but unfortunately I don't think there is a real parallel with the story of Lot's daughters. That story really does just relate the events without commentary--the problem with the conquest narratives in Joshua is that they DO have commentary--the narrator pretty clearly says that this is what God specifically wanted them to do. To look at this as a cautionary tale requires a second step away from the text--not just that God doesn't endorse the actions but that we should resist the narrator's theological perspective, even to declare it theologically toxic. And yet it's still in the canon to give us an example of toxicity to reject. It's quite the bridge for anyone with an evangelical perspective on Scripture to cross, and yet I do understand that there are compelling reasons to cross it. I guess my main question is, just how do we understand God actually at work in the calling and forming of the nation of Israel, if their narratives were so 180 degrees wrong about how God was actually involved in it?

Preston
Preston

Goodness--this. I can use an example from my own life recently. I happen to fall on the side of things that views homosexual acts as sinful and was pushed to explain this. It was assumed that my position was taken largely from an argument of silence or from pulling out a single verse from Paul and bastardizing it into my thinking. But that's not my approach. I tried to articulate it from an incarnational perspective, engaging Athanasius and von Balthazar. This is not to suggest that my position is the infallible one or to argue that point here, but to illustrate that for me, I respect a person much more if they disagree with me from a position of thoughtfulness as opposed to a faith in "faith." As beautiful as Franciscan spirituality is to me, how as an artist it sings to my soul, I am--Protestant as I may be--still incredibly grateful for Thomas Aquinas, for an ability to carefully consider the things of God in conversation with the Scriptures, to desire more than a line of a prayer or a belief in a punctiliar moment of salvation in which all that should ever be or could be is suddenly done in an instant. Our conversations need to be a part of the larger Conversation and I, young as I am, fault these times most with an inability to engage the larger Tradition. There is nothing more beautiful than to live in a time where anyone may hold the Scriptures in their hands, but there is also nothing more dangerous than that same person to have access to Wikipedia.