If the violent depictions of God in the Bible are not completely accurate, isn’t all of Scripture up for debate?
Question: I’m very intrigued by your cruciform hermeneutics and can’t wait for your book (Crucifixion of the Warrior God) to come out. But I have to say that it strikes me as dangerous. You’re basically saying that the violent portraits of God in the OT are not completely accurate. But doesn’t this place us flawed humans in a place where we are the arbiters of truth, deciding what is and is not accurate in the Bible? If the Word of God can be defined and explained away through our definition of what we (again, as flawed humans) believe to be the character of God, then doesn’t that (in a sense) make us like God? And doesn’t this logically lead to the conclusion that all Scripture is up for debate as to whether it is true or not? How can we even know if any of it is true?
Answer: I appreciate the seriousness with which you take this important theological topic. I’d like to make four comments by way of a response.
First, as much as we might wish it were otherwise, I’m afraid that we flawed human beings are already, in a sense, the “arbiters of truth.” For example, you as a flawed human had to decide to accept the Bible as the Word of God rather than the Koran, the Book of Mormon, the Bhagavad Gita or any other book. Even after deciding to believe the Bible, you as a flawed human have to decide what you were going to do with (say) its pre-scientific view of the earth and sky-resting pillars, its view of the sky as a rock-solid dome that holds up water and that has windows that get opened when it rains, and its view that the earth was created in six days, with light being created three days before the sun, moon and stars. Finally, you as a flawed human have to decide what parts of the Bible you think are still relevant for today and which aren’t. For example, you must decide whether you think God still wants people to stone children to death if they sass back to their parents, whether God still wants people to keep slaves, or whether God still forbids women to speak in church and to wear braided hair and jewelry.
All these things are in the Bible, yet no one accepts all of these things to be accurate and/or applicable today. So I’m afraid we flawed humans have no choice but to decide matters of truth, including the truth of certain passages of Scripture. Or, to make the same point a different way, all of us must decide what God’s purpose is in each passage of Scripture. For just because a passage isn’t (say) scientifically accurate doesn’t mean its not “true” in another sense – viz. the sense for which God intends us to use it today. This is the sense in which I would say the Bible is “infallible.” (I’ll say more about that in a moment.)
Second, and closely related to this, you worry that to judge any part of the Bible to be inaccurate is to throw the whole Bible up for grabs. While you worry that my view is dangerous, I’d like to suggest that the truly dangerous view is one that believes that the Bible must be 100% accurate, according to our criteria, to be God’s inspired Word. This view means that your confidence in Scripture depends on your ability to resolve every one of the contradictions, scientific errors and historical problems associated with it. Most who explore these issues in a thorough and an intellectually honest way eventually come to the conclusion that this simply can’t be done.
By why should we impose on Scripture our criteria of accuracy? Consider this; if God “breathed” the most perfect revelation of himself on the cross by, in some sense, becoming our sin (2 Cor. 5:21), why should anyone assume the way he “breathed” through Scripture must be completely free of human limitations? If God can reveal himself by taking on our sin on the cross, in other words, why think he can’t reveal himself by taking on our limitations in Scripture? I think we must take great care to allow God to reveal himself any way he chooses, and the cross demonstrates that God sometimes reveals himself in surprising ways, to say the least!
Third, it seems you’re concerned that I am not treating all parts of the Bible, and all portraits of God in the Bible, as equally authoritative. The thing is, the New Testament itself teaches us to not read the Bible this way. For example, Jesus said his teachings carried more weight than that of John the Baptist (Jn 5:36) yet he also said that John the Baptist was greater than anyone leading up to his time (Mt 11:11). So, if Jesus’ teaching has more authority than John, then it has more authority than the entire Old Testament. No wonder Jesus felt free to not only cancel, but to even reverse, the “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” command. In its place he commanded us to “turn the other cheek” and to “love [our] enemies” (Mt 5:38-45).
In fact, Jesus at one point dared to claim that, “no one knows the Father except the Son” (Mt. 11:27). No one! This would include all the authors of the Old Testament! Now, I have to believe there’s some hyperbole going on here because Jesus clearly believed the authors of the Old Testament were inspired. But Jesus is at least claiming that his revelation of God is so much greater than anyone before him that it’s as though they had no knowledge at all! Something similar is found in the Gospel of John when John contrasts Moses and Jesus by saying that, while the law came through Moses, “grace and truth” came through Christ (Jn. 1:18). This again must be somewhat hyperbolic, for it makes it sound like there was no truth prior to Christ. But it at least demonstrates that revelation of God in the Old Testament is not on a par with the revelation we receive through Jesus.
This is what we find throughout the New Testament. For example, the author of Hebrews contrasts the way God spoke in various ways in the Old Testament with the way he now speaks through his Son, for the Son alone is “the radiance of his glory” and “the exact representation of God’s essence” (Heb. 1:1-13). So too, Paul as well as the author of Hebrews compares the OT to a “shadow” next to the reality, which is Christ (Col.2:17; Heb.8:5; 10:1 ). I could go on and on, but I hope this is enough for you to see that the New Testament does not allow us to read everything in Scripture as being equally authoritative.
Fourth, and finally, you wonder how anyone can know what is and is not “really” true if we allow any part of Scripture to be inaccurate. On the one hand, I want you to know that, in submission to the authority of Christ, I believe that, rightly interpreted, all Scripture is true and “God-breathed.” But as I said above, I see no reason why this should require us to deny that it contains contradictions, an antiquated cosmology and historical inaccuracies. As Luther, Calvin and most Protestants since have insisted, to interpret Scripture rightly means that, whatever else we find in a passage, we must interpret it in a way that bears witness to Christ (Jn 5:39-46; Lk 24: 27). This is how we can know what is and is not “really” true. If our interpretation of a passage – including any portrait of God – doesn’t point us to the God who revealed his true character by bearing our sins and dying for his enemies on the cross, then I submit we have not yet arrived at the “right” interpretation.
In this light, what should we do when we come upon gruesome passages such as those in which an author prays for God to melt his enemies like a slug in the desert heat (Ps. 58:8), to burn them up alive “like tumbleweed” (Psa 83:13-14; cf. 21:9), to “tear [them] to pieces” (Ps 50:22), to “rain fiery coals,” “burning sulfur” and a “scorching wind” upon their heads (Psa 11:6; cf. 140:10) or, worst of all, to “go down alive to the realm of the dead” – that is, to be buried alive (Ps. 55:15)? How could God “breath” such terrible prayers that are so contrary to the attitude Christ demonstrated when he prayed for the forgiveness of those who crucified him with his last dying breath? Even more challenging, how do macabre passages such as this point us toward the one who died for, and prayed for, his executioners in this way?
It’s at this point that I suggest we remember that the God who “breathed” these passages is one and the same as the God who bore the sin of his people and thereby took on the semblance that was far beneath his actual beauty – namely, the semblance of a God forsaken, guilty criminal. If the cross reveals who God truly is, and thus what God has always been like, then I suggest we must read the Bible with our eyes open to ways in which he bore the sin of his people in the past and thereby took on appearances that were far beneath his actual beauty. All passages are “God-breathed” and “true,” but the truth of some “God-breathed” passages is found not in what the say, but in the fact that the humble God of covenantal love was willing to stoop this low to bear the sin of his people by owning the passage as his own.
When we read the whole Bible in light of the cross, we find the God who revealed himself on the cross breathing through all of it, including its ungodly parts – just as he “breathed” his self-revelation through our sin on Calvary.