Previous installment: A Review of Thom Stark’s “The Human Faces of God” – Chapter 8
Thom’s ninth chapter is titled Textual Interventions: On the Need for Direct Confrontations with Scripture. The previous chapter was based on Thom’s full acceptance of the relevant scriptures in order to portray Jesus as erroneous. As we saw, it was a departure from all the previous chapters in which he had been portraying the Scriptures themselves as erroneous. As he begins this chapter, Thom returns to his primary theme and summarizes his indictment against the Bible.
In this summation, Thom says:
“…we have seen that the Bible suffers not only from scientific and historical problems, but also – and much more significantly – from moral, ethical, theological, and ideological problems.”
As if that were not a strong enough denunciation, he goes on to say:
“In all of this, the fact is that we have only begun to scratch the surface of the problems that exist within the Judeo-Christian scriptures…”
Wow! I am eager to read on and find out what possible reasons a man with such a view would have for wanting to continue reading the Bible at all, and with what “strategies” he would do so.
We will have to wait another chapter for that, however, because for the remainder of this chapter Thom wants to tell us that, in addition to reading the Bible as if were trustworthy, there are three other reading strategies that will not work.
Before I deal with those three reading strategies, I need to acknowledge the lens which Thom says he is using to see the problem he’s trying to solve. That lens is fashioned by the language of “12-step programs.” He says the problem texts of the Bible exist within a “family” of all the texts, and are “the alcoholic uncle,” whom we must “confront” with an “intervention” lest we become “enablers.” This language is important to Thom because it’s the means by which he distinguishes himself from Marcion, who sought simply to remove the passages of the Bible that offended him. Thom wants to retain and embrace the offending passages, while being sure to recognize them as offensive.
Thom’s approach is impractical from the start. He does not give his readers a list of all the “problematic texts” so that they can distinguish the good uncles from the alcoholic uncles. Perhaps he assumed his readers were highlighting every passage he attacked in his first eight chapters. That would make for a lot of yellow in a reader’s Bible. But even if a reader had done this, Thom’s now told him that “we have only begun to scratch the surface of the problems that exist within the Judeo-Christian scriptures…” Should folks just dip their Bibles in a bowl of yellow ink?
Putting it another way: If this many people in the family are alcoholics, how are you going to find enough sober relatives to do the intervention with you? Maybe it’s time to just find something else to do when family reunions roll around.
Though Thom doesn’t seem to realize it, he is – by virtue of denigrating so much of the Bible – asking readers to transfer what faith they have in the Bible to his book. Instead of trusting what is read in the Bible, Thom wants readers to trust what he is writing. Thom could say in his defense, “I’m offering arguments and proof for my point of view so people are really deciding for themselves.” But the same is true of the Bible. Therefore, should you be persuaded by what Thom has written, be aware that you are still operating in faith…just as you were before. The only difference is that you have changed the object of your faith…from one book to another. You are saying that you think The Human Faces of God tells more truth than the Bible. If you think Thom is more worthy of your faith than those who wrote the Old and New Testaments, then go right ahead. I just cannot imagine anyone in his right mind thinking this. Even assuming that Thom is a righteous man and does good to those around him, should he be compared to the prophets and apostles who suffered great derision, torture, and death for the truth of their testimony?
Now some of you might want to say, “But wait, Mike – Thom is not the only one with his view of the Bible; others feel the same way.” On this point, I would readily agree with you. In fact, you could find a number of equally well-written books by authors with even more degrees than Thom who would reinforce his point. Thus, you’d have a collection of books espousing Thom’s point of view. But that’s just what the Bible is: a collection of books by respected authors. Therefore, you have to decide which crowd you respect more: the ones with degrees and modern educations, or the ones who lived the times, in most cases were eyewitnesses, and declared their veracity with their own blood. With all due respect to Thom and his crowd (and they are due respect), there’s no comparison here.
I promised to address the three reading strategies, along with inerrancy itself, that Thom condemns.
First, let me address inerrancy as a reading strategy. As is probably clear to you by now, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI), against which Thom argues throughout the book, speaks to more than just inerrancy – it speaks to interpretation (hermeneutics) as well. A document that long can’t just be speaking to inerrancy, because it wouldn’t take that many words to make the point. I don’t have any problem with Thom’s injunction to avoid the interpretive mandates of the CSBI, as long as you stick to the belief that the Bible is the word of God. To be specific about what I mean when I say that, look to 2 Peter 1:20-21. The key point there is that the Holy Spirit inspired what has been written, and works on the receiving end as well, enabling the interpretation. Thus the Holy Spirit helps the reader of the Bible as well as the writer.
The first of the other three reading strategies that Thom decries is “allegorical reading.” I agree with Thom that approaching the Bible as nothing but allegory doesn’t make sense. However, if a worthy allegorical meaning is apparent, why ignore it? The apostle Paul himself in Galatians 4 spoke allegorically of an Old Testament passage. The Holy Spirit is the interpreter of Scripture, as He was the author of it. If He shows an allegory, who are we to say He’s out of bounds?
Although it’s not completely clear, Thom seems to lump any spiritual reading of a text along with allegory as inappropriate. Yet, to read the text spiritually was one of the chief distinctions of Jesus the Messiah. False messiahs generally sought to gain a physical throne over a political Israel through military victory – just as David had done. Jesus would have none of this and even chastised Peter when he wielded a sword in defense of Jesus. Jesus said to Nicodemus “That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of spirit is spirit.” Nicodemus, typical of a Jewish rabbi and leader of the time, knew only the way of flesh. Jesus came to show the way of the spirit, and Old Testament would never be viewed the same again. Specifically, we are to look for Jesus in it (John 1:45; 5:39-40; Luke 24: 25-27, 32, 44-48), and rejoice when we find Him there. To disallow any spiritual interpretation of the Old Testament is to muzzle the apostles. And if we muzzle them, to whom are we going to turn to learn about Jesus? Pilate and the rest of the world, not surprisingly, chose not to bear Him witness.
The second reading strategy Thom discourages is that of “canonical reading.” This is a largely an academic reading strategy. It focuses on creating or finding a faith community’s way of interpreting Scripture and seeing the Bible through it. I don’t have any problem joining with Thom in discouraging you from using it. For one thing, it’s academic and, as we all know, Jesus does not require academic degrees from those who would be His disciples. Rather, Jesus is looking for people who want to do what is right in every aspect of life – not just teach about it. The second problem for me with this strategy is that it’s built around a community’s interpretation. That seems to me to substitute the community of faith for role of the Holy Spirit. That’s a bad trade.
The puzzling thing to me about Thom’s description of the canonical reading strategy is that he doesn’t seem to realize how closely it resembles his own. Thom clearly holds his views of the Bible with a community of faith – that is, those who are like-minded with him about these issues. If this is not apparent anywhere else, it’s apparent in his footnotes and in the endorsements to his book. Thom’s view of the Bible, apart from his so far inexplicable continuing attachment to it, sounds very much like that of a liberal or Democrat. His views on gender relations, the advancement of western civilization, and a host of other social issues become apparent in the first chapter and are predictable thereafter. (I keep wondering if there’s an Alex P. Keaton in his family who continually participates with Thom in a scripted argument about globalization, culture wars, and the CSBI.) I hasten to say that I do not consider the views of a conservative or Republican on these various issues any more or less legitimate than Thom’s. But they are all just that: group opinions, and largely political. They are not relevant to a discussion about Jesus our Lord. Christ will not be successfully co-opted by either side of the political spectrum.
“Canonical hermeneutics” is groupthink, and Thom’s perspective is very much a product of groupthink. Thom has certainly been individualistic in his expression of the liberal Christian point of view, but it is nonetheless a group opinion he is expressing…and it is that group who has rallied to him and his book.
I think you are much better off not taking your understanding of the Bible from any other group. Let the Holy Spirit reveal Jesus to you, and walk with Him alone. (And be sure that this will not lead you away from people, but rather to them.)
The third reading strategy to incur Thom’s disapprobation is what he calls “subversive reading.” He is way off base here, because his first example is the New Testament’s appropriation of the martial language in Psalms 2 and 110 to apply to Jesus’ battle with the spiritual forces of wickedness in heavenly places. Though it may be needless to say, I side with Jesus and the apostles on this point. And they weren’t being “subversive” to the Old Testament texts at all. The spiritual application of these passages had been the ultimate intent all along. Everything written about ancient Israel was for the purpose of foreshadowing the eternal age in which we now live. The Bible is full of types and shadows – mainly of Christ Himself. Their literal, historical meaning was accurate…but temporary. Everything in the Bible points ultimately to Christ. It is in Him that we live and move and have our being. There is nothing “subversive” about finding Christ in the Bible – He is its purpose.
We come therefore to the end of this chapter from Thom as we have all the others: with no compelling reason given by him for why we should read the Bible. On the contrary, this chapter consists of his summation that his previous nine chapters have only “begun to scratch the surface” of what’s wrong with it, along with the insistence that any method of reading it that does not find these things wrong with it is ipso facto invalid. The only way he wants you to accept the Bible is as a deeply flawed book. The mystery remains: why does he want you to read a deeply flawed book? Maybe in the next chapter we will find the answer. The good news is that it’s the last chapter of the book. Therefore, if he’s going to tell us at all, it’s got to be there.
Next installment: A Review of Thom Stark’s “The Human Faces of God” – Chapter 10