Previous installment: A Review of Thom Stark’s “The Human Faces of God” – Introduction
The title of Thom’s first chapter is The Argument: In the Beginning Was the Words.
The point Thom tries to make with this chapter is not just that the Bible contains contradictions, but that it is characterized by them. Wow. I’ve heard people say that the Bible is filled with contradictions (I used to say that myself – before I started reading it), but Thom gets really bold and says it’s so full of competing views that it should be called “the Argument” or “the Words” instead of the “Word.”
To say that the chapter fails to make its point is to give it too much credit. It is spectacularly unconvincing. It’s clear that Jesus and His apostles did not view the Bible the same way that Thom does. It is Thom who contradicts the Bible, not the Bible which contradicts itself. How does Thom contradict it? How about starting with the first sentence of this chapter. In it he alludes to John 1:1, and changes “Word” to “Argument.” In other words, where the apostle John wrote “Word” Thom says “Words.” So, in trying to demonstrate that the Bible contradicts itself, Thom begins by misquoting it. Thus the contradiction lies between Thom and the Bible, not between the Bible and itself.
In golf, they say you should play the ball as it lies. Thom, however, prefers to pick the ball up and place it on some tuft of grass that gives him a chance to really whack it. That is, he just changes the words of the text to suit the point he wants to make. Not only that, he changes the words so that they will mean the exact opposite of what they meant as written. Thom wants to say that “the Bible is an argument with itself” so he takes a passage that says that the Bible has a clear and focused message about Jesus Christ and changes it to say that it is an argument with itself.
Let us, however, give Thom the benefit of the doubt and assume that he’s not trying to mislead, nor even trying make his point, with these initial words. Let’s assume he’s just introducing the subject in a novel way. Okay, next step.
Thom sets up a hypothetical conflict between Ezra and Amos because he reads ethnocentric strains in one and universal strains in the other. But it’s just that – a hypothetical argument, existing only in Thom’s mind – not in the pages of Scripture. How can ethnocentrism be reconciled with universalism? Easily. God chose Abraham that all the nations might be blessed through him. The focus on Abraham is ethnocentric and the focus on the nations is universal. Thus the ethnocentrism is for the sake of promoting universalism. The former is pursued in service of the latter.
The Messiah had to be from the line of David precisely so that all folks – whether of the line of David or not, could be saved. Ethnocentrism and universalism are not at odds with each other in the mind of God. They complement one another by virtue of the fact that the former is the means and the latter is the end.
Next, Thom attempts to offer another “contradiction,” this time bringing in the book of Jonah as representative of the universal focus of God, and suggesting that Ezra and his colleagues – by contrast – wanted to “hide [Israel’s] light under a bushel.” Nothing in the book of Jonah challenges the book of Ezra, nor does Ezra challenge Jonah. Thom just reads this “argument” into the text. The only readers persuaded by this sort of thing are those who are looking for confirmation of their belief that the Bible contains contradictions.
Like any good parent, God fashions His counsel around the circumstances and needs of His children. If you have child who has a messy room, you talk about the value of an ordered room. On the other hand, if the child spends too much time in the room, you encourage him to get out and play with the other children. There were times in Israel’s history when they were too myopic and thus forgot their role as a light to the nations. In those times, God nudged them to look outward to the Gentiles. At other times, Israel lost sight of the need for its own purity – for how could they be a light to the Gentiles if they themselves were abiding in darkness?
It’s as if Thom has never read Ecclesiastes 3 (“there is a time for [this}, and a time for [that]). It’s like Thom is insisting that there is a contradiction between summer and winter or that there is a contradiction between day and night. These are not contradictions; they are different states of being. God speaks to us according to the need of the moment (Ephesians 4:29). As the needs change, His emphasis to us changes.
Next, Thom tries to suggest that Job and Ecclesiastes are “subversive” to the rest of the Bible. Huh? Let’s take them one at a time. If you are looking for an argument in the Bible, we certainly have one in the book of Job. But it’s not God giving conflicting ideas about Himself, it’s human beings arguing about God’s ways. The fundamental point of the book of Job is that while it’s true that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked, there is such a thing as undeserved, or at least unexplained, suffering (which foreshadows what will happen to Messiah), and, in any case, we can’t always understand the workings and justice of God in this life because of our limited human perspective. This is why Ecclesiastes says, “Although a sinner does evil a hundred times and may lengthen his life, still I know that it will be well for those who fear God, who fear Him openly” (8:12). And for all the Teacher’s supposed despair in Ecclesiastes, he ends with “The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments…because God will bring every act to judgment…” (12:13-14). Those are not the words of a hopeless man. Moreover, why would he say such a thing if, as Thom suggests, resurrection was off the table?
I could go on, but Thom simply invents “contradictions” and “arguments.” He fails to see the rich tapestry that is the Bible, instead seeing various strands of color that seem to him as clashing. He seems to want the Bible to read like a grade-school catechism or an FAQ page. And if it doesn’t, then it must be contradictory.
In the closing section of this chapter, Thom narrates his view of how the Hebrew Bible came together. He assumes Wellhausen’s Documentary Hypothesis (or some variation thereof) which insists that Moses couldn’t possibly have written the five books attributed to him. Yet Thom just assumes this without offering proof for it. And against it we have the view of Jesus who said, “If you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for He wrote of Me” (John 5:46).
Do you notice when you read the gospels that Jesus just doesn’t seem torn and troubled about “contradictions” in the Law and the Prophets? On the contrary, He seems to think they are the word of God and is constantly saying that “such and such must happen in order that the Scriptures be fulfilled.” If it’s just a bunch of arguments, how could it ever be fulfilled? Was the Messiah to be a schizophrenic?
Thom’s view of the Scriptures and Jesus’ are diametrically opposed. Thom wants to make a case that we should accept his view, but he only offers a few contrived and artificial “contradictions.”
Thus, as I said at the outset of this post, Thom fails spectacularly to make the point he sets out to make in this chapter. Had he tried merely to say that there are parts of the Bible hard to understand, that some parts are more easily reconciled than others, or that diversity of writings and writers sometimes staggers the comprehension – any of these conclusions, I could have supported. But Thom chose to go much farther than that. He chose to mis-characterize the Bible and thus discourage faith that it has a unifying voice in the Holy Spirit. This is not right. I must speak against it.
I have written bluntly. I respect Thom as a fellow human being, but this first chapter portrays the Bible falsely and it does not seem appropriate to mince words in saying so. Thom is bringing his assumptions and reading them into the text. He is accurately reporting on what he sees when he reads, but he’s seeing through unclear lens of his own choosing. Set them aside and let God speak for Himself to you through the Holy Scripture.
Prophets wrote and spoke the words of Scripture at risk of their own lives. They have borne witness with their blood. What the Holy Spirit whispered in their souls, they have spoken boldly to the world. Let us not dishonor their sacrifice. Nor let us dishonor the One of whom they spoke so highly…and so consistently: the Holy One of Israel.
Next installment: A Review of “The Human Faces of God” – Chapter 2