Thursday, April 15, 2004

Biblical Interpretation: Inerrantist/Traditional vs “Liberal” (e.g., Does the Bible Record Immoral Actions of God?) (Sogn Mill-Scout)

The code of ethics taught by Jesus and prophesied – at least in some places! – for the Kingdom of God ought to make no less meat-eating obsolete than slavery.

Does Christian just war theory preclude God commanding us to annihilate a nation or race? Would it be immoral for God to issue us such a command, whereas it was moral to issue that command to the Israelites 30-odd centuries ago?

[Dave]Slavery as it was in America was rightly opposed by the abolitionists. It was not biblical slavery. And we see that its basis was often explicitly racist. Stupid stuff like the "curse of Ham" and so forth was sometimes used to justify it.

Are you saying that if the southern states had conducted their enslavement of blacks according to “biblical” principles, it would then have been innocuous? Would abolitionists have been wrong to oppose it in that case? These are bizarre suppositions, but I don’t see why they wouldn’t follow from your comments on “biblical slavery.”

[Dave]Now, for a brief response to your "dilemma," the short answer is that God has power over life and death, and He is the Judge. This is consistent biblical teaching: Old and New Testaments alike. When God judged the entire world (or a great deal of it, depending on how the language is interpreted) with a flood, that was entirely just and deserved. When He judged Sodom and Gomorrah, they deserved that. When He judged even His own chosen people, the Jews, by the Babylonians, they, of course, deserved it. We all deserve death and hellfire for our rebellion, but God has mercy on us. In some instances, however, He decides that the rebellion and wickedness is such that it demands immediate judgment. For specific material relating to this issue of the Canaanites, see these links:

How Could a God of Love Order the Massacre of the Canaanites?

Shouldn't the Butchering of the Amalekite Children be Considered War Crimes?

I haven’t read these articles yet, but I intend to. From a quick perusal, however, I doubt they will be much different from other intellectually contortionist defenses of biblical genocide that I’ve read. Look, it’s really quite simple: If our moral sense is functioning properly, we just know that it’s abominable to kill defenseless people, especially children. Isn’t it this very sense that motivates the pro-life movement so intensely? Anyone who doesn’t know this savage behavior is wrong has a defective conscience and is perhaps a sociopath or psychopath. Yet the ancient Israelites were supposedly following the commands of a perfectly good God – the source and foundation of our morality! – when they inflicted this final solution on the inhabitants of Canaan. You have to twist your mind and conscience into a pretzel to convince yourself that this is even within the realm of possibility. Such is the terrible cost of the inerrancy shibboleth.

We are divided, as you suggest, by our views of scripture and its inspiration. As I read the bible I find myself incapable of believing that every historical assertion and every moral lesson within its books is equally inspired by God and authoritative in defining the beliefs of all Christians. It would require impossible mental gymnastics for me to rationalize certain problematic segments of the bible. With all due respect to you and your apologetic ministry, the intellectual machinations employed in the service of the doctrine of inerrancy strike me as dishonest. By that I don’t mean insincere by any means, but rather a seeming refusal to face reality and its often difficult data.

I do not “pick and choose”; that must be the favorite put-down expression of inerrantists when arguing with errantists. And you reinforce the pejorative tone by reference to the “prior ideological commitments” that allegedly drive my interpretation. My paramount commitment is simply to follow Christ, to be a good and faithful servant, and to become more like Him; that comes before any so-called ideology. I am as open to God’s guidance when reading the scriptures as I am capable of being. That’s the best I can do. The sincerity of my desire to know God’s truth, and my capacity to have my thinking radically changed, are exemplified in our recent dialogue on abortion.

What you deride as “wholesale biblical skepticism” is what I call progressive revelation.

You have shown me that Isaiah was apparently quite conflicted (or more likely, the book is an assemblage of material from two or more prophets, as is the consensus of biblical scholars).

I have no objection to being called a theological liberal. It doesn’t disbar one from being a Christian.

[Dave]His instructions are considerably watered-down if we think He was a sinner and couldn't even get "self-evident" things right like cruelty to fish and so forth . . . why should we care about what someone thinks who is on a lower ethical plane than we are?

He isn’t, but according to you He looked impassively upon the slow suffocation of fish. It is only reasonable to wonder how that could be.

You have only succeeded in providing good evidence that Isaiah and Jeremiah were schizoid (if each book comes from a single prophet) because evidently they prophesy absolutely contradictory states of affairs in the Messianic Kingdom: total nonviolence (entailing vegetarianism) vs animal sacrifice and, presumably, continued meat-eating. You’ve made a nightmare out of reading the prophets. And we won’t be literally carving up and chewing Jesus, the Real Presence in the Eucharist notwithstanding . . . I haven’t been impressed by the coherence of your inerrantist reading of, say, Isaiah and Jeremiah.

Given basic moral truths which normal people cannot fail to know, it follows that God, who is perfectly good and the source and foundation of moral truth, most definitely did not order anyone, at any time, to commit the atrocities found in the book of Joshua, among other biblical places. And there is nothing arbitrary about adhering to the most self-evident moral principles when reading the bible.

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