ReThink everything you thought you Knew

Part 3: Disarming Flood’s Inadequate Conception of Biblical Authority

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In this third part of my review of Derek Flood’s Disarming Scripture I will offer a critique of his redefined conception of biblical inspiration and authority. I will begin by having us recall from Part I that Flood holds up “faithful questioning” over “unquestioning obedience” as the kind of faith that Jesus and Paul embraced and, therefore, that we should embrace. While “unquestioning obedience” blindly submits to Scripture without any consideration of whether it helps or harms people, “faithful questioning” is willing to allow one’s conscience and life experience to assess whether or not a passage is helpful and harmful. When a passage (or an interpretation of a passage) advocates something that does not lead to “life” and/or “love,” the “faithful questioning” posture refuses to submit to it (33, 42-5, 232-40).

Flood expresses this in terms of the Spirit encountering us through Scripture. “We…recognize that the Bible is inspired by God when it leads us to an encounter with the Spirit of God in Christ,” which is to say, “when it leads us to love” (251). But when our conscience and life experience discern a portion of Scripture doesn’t lead to love, then it is apparently not inspired and we are free to reject it. Yes, Flood holds that we should still wrestle with this material to learn lessons from it (104-12). But in his view we are not wrestling with this violent material as though it was divinely inspired and carried divine authority.

I must confess that I find this conception of the inspiration and authority of the Bible to be entirely inadequate. First, and most importantly in my view, I don’t believe this is the understanding of biblical authority that was espoused by Jesus. I am in agreement with Flood when he claims that Jesus employed a hermeneutic of love that caused him to prioritize some parts of Scripture over others and to repudiate other parts of Scripture and sometimes replaced it with his own teaching. This demonstrates that Jesus understood himself to have an authority that was greater than the Old Testament, which is a truth that is confirmed throughout the New Testament (e.g., Jn 1:14-8; Heb 1:3; 10:1, cf., Col 2:17). But it doesn’t demonstrate that Jesus rejected or qualified the standard assumption of all orthodox first century Jews that all Scripture is “God-breathed” (theopneustos, 1 Tim. 3:16) and carries divine authority.[1] While Jesus, along with Paul and other authors of the New Testament, felt led by the Spirit to go beyond, and even at times against, the original meaning of passages, there is no indication that they ever felt free to simply reject any portion of Scripture.

To the contrary, the manner in which Jesus repeatedly equates the voice of Scripture with the voice of God (e.g., Mt 4:4; 15:4,6; 19:4-6) and the manner in which he routinely and unquestioningly cites the Old Testament— including some of its violent stories (e.g., Mt 10:15; 11:23-4; 24:38-9)—demonstrates his agreement with his contemporaries on this matter.[2] Indeed, not only does Jesus affirm the full inspiration of the Old Testament, he went so far as to teach that all of it was inspired to bear witness to him (Jn 5:39-45; Lk 24:25-7, 32, 44-7)! And something similar could be argued for Paul and other New Testament authors.

I was frankly surprised Flood did not engage with any of this material since it seems to me it presents a strong objection to his understanding of the way Jesus and Paul viewed the Old Testament. And what made this all the more surprising was that Flood’s perspective of Jesus and Paul on this matter runs counter to the views of most New Testament scholars, conservative and liberal alike, and yet Flood’s unique understanding is foundational to the thesis of his entire book.

Second, I believe Flood’s conception of the inspiration and authority of the Bible is far too subjective. Flood argues against this objection, going so far as to claim that relying on conscience and life experience to assess when Scripture is becoming the Word of God is in line with the “scientific method,” for “[s]cience is about observing how life works” (246, cf., 142-4 ). And he is remarkably optimistic about where this scientific approach will lead, for “[t]he whole spirit of science is to welcome progress, not to restrict it” (247).

I confess I am not as optimistic. If history teaches us anything, it is that, while people often believe their conscience and life experiences provide them with self-evident truths, these allegedly self-evident truths often prove disastrous. So too, the meaning of “love” that people embrace as a reflection of their conscience and life experience is often justly judged by later generations as twisted.

To illustrate, Augustine advocated for a “rule of love” when interpreting Scripture that was virtually identical to Flood’s rule for determining when God is breathing life into Scripture to allow it to become the word of God. In his view, every passage of Scripture must be interpreted in a way that increases our “love of God and neighbor.”[3] Yet, this interpretive rule didn’t prevent Augustine from citing Scripture to support the practice of torturing and even killing heretics—out of love![4] To my mind, this illustrates that we cannot rely on conscience and life experience alone to determine what is or is not “loving,” and thus to determine when Scripture is and is not inspired.

Finally, if we cannot consider passages that do not bear the “fruit” of love to be “God breathed,” then, on Flood’s reckoning, we must conclude that most of the Bible is not inspired. Not only is “[v]iolence and bloodshed committed in God’s name…a major theme of the Old Testament” (3), but he holds that the “way of unquestioning obedience,” which is inherently violent in his view, is the “majority narrative” represented in Scripture (36, 98-100). I submit that any view of the inspiration and authority of Bible that involves denying this to most of the Bible is one we should be very hesitant to embrace. In the name of “disarming” Scripture, it seems to me that Flood has amputated large portions of it.

In any event, I fear Flood is leading us down a dangerously subjective path once the tether to the traditional confession of biblical infallibility has been cut and conscience and living experience are put in the drivers seat. And as increasing numbers of Christians are embracing the centrality of non-violence in Jesus’ revelation of God and his kingdom ethic and thus feeling with greater intensity the problem posed by the Old Testament’s violent depictions of God, I fear they will think cutting this tether is their only alternative.

While I fully accept that our faith should be willing to question interpretations of God’s Word that do not seem to be moral, beneficial, or loving, I contend that, on the authority of Jesus, we should never consider ourselves free to deny the “God breathed” authority of any part of Scripture—including even its horrendously violent depictions of God. Rather, since Jesus taught that all Scripture is inspired for the purpose of bearing witness to him, I submit that we should not be trying to discern if a passage is inspired, we should be trying to discern how a passage is inspired to serve this function. The question I believe we ought to be wrestling with is this: How do portraits depicting God commanding genocide (Deut 7:2; 20:16-8), causing parents to cannibalize their children (Lev 26:29; Jer 19:9; Lam 2:20), or engaging in any number of other macabre acts, bear witness to the non-violent, self-sacrificial, enemy loving God revealed in Jesus?

As I’ll argue in the fourth and final part of this review, this is a question we will only wrestle with if we remain convinced that all Scripture is indeed “God breathed” for this purpose. If we allow our outraged conscience to judge violent divine portraits to be uninspired, we will relieve ourselves of this obligation and thereby miss out on the opportunity to discern a deeper Christ-centered meaning in these portraits.

[1] The general attitude of first-century Jews toward Scripture is reflected in the ancient rabbinic comment that, “[w]hatever book has been included in the Bible canon must necessarily have been inspired or written by the Holy Spirit (Meg. 7a; Tosef., Yad. ii. 14, cited in “Inspiration,” Jewish Encyclopedia, 12 vols., ed. C. Adler and I. Singer [New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1901-06], IV, 607). For several discussions, see R. Kasher, “The Interpretation of Scripture in Rabbinic Literature,” in Mikra (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988), 547-94; E. Schurer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, G. Vermes, F. Millar, M. Black (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, rev. eds. 1973 [1885]), 314-21.

[2] Two good treatments of Jesus’ view of Scripture are J. H. Wenham, Christ and the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994) and L. Morris, I Believe in Revelation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 49-67.

[3] Augustine, On Christian Teaching, trans. R. P. H. Green (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 27, cf. 76, 80. On this rule, see A. Jacobs, A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love (Boulder C: Westview, 2001); M. Wallace, “The Rule of Love and the Testimony of the Spirit in Contemporary Hermeneutics,” in But Is It All True? The Bible and the Question of Truth, A. Padgett, P. Keifert, eds. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), 66-85; C. Cosgrove, Appealing to Scripture in Moral Debate: Five Hermeneutical Rules (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 158-61.

[4] On Augustine’s willingness to resort to coercion and violence, see P. Brown, “St. Augustine’s Attitude to Religious Coercion,” JRS 54 (1964): 107-16; F. W. Loetscher, “St. Augustine’s Conception of the State,” CH 4 (1935): 16-42; G. Hinton, The Church Triumphant (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1995), 170-3; J. M. Rist, “Augustine on Free Will and Predestination,” in R. A. Markus, ed. Augustine: A Collection of Critical Essays (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972), 218-52 (246-7)

Part 3: Disarming Flood’s Inadequate Conception of Biblical Authority