Previous installment: A Review of Thom Stark’s “The Human Faces of God” – Chapter 9
Thom’s last chapter is called Into the Looking Glass: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong.
At the outset, Thom declares his reason for retaining as scripture what he calls “morally and theologically problematic texts.” Because, he says:
“they must be retained as scripture, precisely as condemned texts. Their status as condemned is exactly their scriptural value. That they are condemned is what they reveal to us about God.”
Although this statement is practically nonsensical, I wish to sincerely commend Thom on a very important point, and at the same time, show how his attitude on this point is consistent with that of Jesus. I am speaking of Thom’s appeal to conscience.
Underlying Thom’s critical view of the Bible is, in part, an exaltation of individual conscience. And the exaltation of conscience is a good thing. God said that in the kingdom of God – which is the age in which we live – that He would write His laws on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 8:8-12). We should therefore be living according to conscience. In fact, the world’s ills today can be traced to the root that we as a human race make so many of our choices in life according to our lusts, our habits, and our fears – rather than according to conscience.
If we read in the Bible that David slew Goliath with a slingshot and sword, and thus led Israel to victory, we may rejoice. As we do, however, we know by conscience that this does not mean we are to buy slingshots, or chop people’s heads off, or start a war in the name of God. Do some people do these things? Yes, but only because their consciences have become diseased. How then can a conscience be kept healthy? By reading the Bible, learning of Jesus Christ, and relating to Him. He forgives us our sins and restores our conscience. It’s an ongoing process.
That Thom reads the Bible and doesn’t want to imitate some of the things in that he reads is not necessarily a bad thing. When James and John wanted to imitate Elijah by calling down fire from heaven on the obdurate, Jesus had to rebuke them. He thus “healed” their conscience, and perhaps He would not have had to do so in Thom’s case.
When you read things in the Bible that don’t make moral sense to you, fall back on the things in the Bible that do make moral sense to you. Don’t reject the Bible in the process. It’s one of the primary means God has granted for you to elevate your conscience, as well as keep it healthy.
As a boy, Jesus surely heard divorce from readings in the Law of Moses. It could have confused him. He could have concluded that God approved of divorce. Jesus, however, came to a different conclusion. And this is because His conscience led Him there. To be a bit more specific, it’s where the Holy Spirit through His conscience led Him. How was that accomplished? Jesus tells us that it was through remembrance of Genesis 2. Jesus thus allowed Scripture to interpret Scripture. Through this process He came to see that divorce was God’s temporary accommodation to an evil culture (revelation can be regressive at times). What accommodations is God making today to our evil culture? Are we so much better than ancient cultures? Granted, we don’t enslave one another, but check out the latest news and find that we seem to have invented forms of corruption and deviancy that might raise even jaded ancient eyebrows. Jesus is the moral oasis in the vast desert that lies on either side of His life.
When Thom regards his conscience as a higher authority than an interpretation of the Bible that would cause him to do evil, he imitates Jesus. And, of course, this is good. But note that it is the “interpretation” that misled Thom, not the Scriptures themselves.
Where I part company with Thom – and where I hope you do, too – is that for him the “problematic texts” can never be understood except in a negative way, and must forever stand as that which largely defines the Bible. For me, problematic texts are just those I don’t yet understand. For it can never be that I am more moral than God.
Thom does, however, want to use “problematic texts” as divine, and here’s how:
“God may not have breathed out the text, but God may still breathe into it, giving it a life and purpose its human authors did not intend.”
Of course, if this is your belief, you could apply it to the reading of any book. So, I’m still wondering why he wants to read the Bible.
By the way, you might wonder why I have continued to use quotation marks around the phrase “problematic texts” It’s because what’s problematic is in the eye of the beholder. Thom finds the account that David killed Goliath as problematic. Many people don’t. When you approach the Bible with a mindset like Thom’s you are going to come away with a list a “problem texts” like Thom’s. But everyone doesn’t have Thom’s mindset. Besides, when I go to the Bible I’m more interested in finding God’s mindset than imposing my own.
Thom believes he can hear the voice of God through the Bible, as error-filled as he believes it is. In this, I rejoice. He even spends time in this chapter describing how he finds good in all these “problematic texts” he has been identifying. The common theme is that he himself would never do such things, or if he did, he would feel guilty. I have no problem with that, but if he’s focused on these things instead of on Jesus when he reads the Scriptures, he’s missing the best part.
Here’s a strategy for reading the Bible: Always read it with Jesus in mind. Always acknowledge His presence in the room with you. (See also Practicing the Presence of Christ). Always look for Him in the text. Always listen for the voice of His Holy Spirit whispering in your soul as you read. (Occasionally you may find Him gently chastising you to abandon a desire to interpret passage in a certain way…as He had chastised James and John.)
For further guidance, consider that there’s no better way of learning how to interpret the Old Testament than to watch how the New Testament writers do it. The apostles were trained by Jesus Himself. They weren’t scribes or Pharisees (save Paul). What they knew about the Bible came from their upbringing, their time of following Jesus’ teaching, but most notably in the forty days between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension when Jesus explained how His resurrection changed everything and brought to greater light all that he had been teaching (Luke 24:25-27, 32, 44-48; Acts 1:1-3). Even Paul, who did have the seminary training, considered it worthless in the light of Christ (Philippians 3).
When Thom demonstrates to us how he tries to make some of the “problematic texts” useful as scripture, there is a problem of which he seems unaware. That is, he is simply bringing his own moral code to the passage and applying it. And the moral code he brings is no different than what you could find on, say, the editorial page of the New York Times. In other words, it’s basically a code of social mores – not of personal right and wrong before a holy God. Now, let me quickly say that I don’t expect Thom to put his personal confessions in a book. But interaction with Scripture cannot be about merely confirming your biases about inter-group social justice issues. It’s got to be about whether you yourself are being just today…to your wife, your husband, your children, your neighbor…your God.
Thom wants to distance himself from Marcion. He does. Only Thom’s error is worse than Marcion’s. Here’s why: Marcion made a choice about which books of the Bible should be stricken from the canon and he announced it. Whether you agreed with Marcion or disagreed, you knew where he stood. You either disagreed and kept your Bible as it was, or you disagreed and walked away with a smaller Bible. But you still had a Bible! You still had the word of God. You still had the lifeline that Eve was without: a written record of what God wanted us to know.
Thom does us far worse than Marcion. Thom tells us that there are cancerous cells in the body of our sacred writings. He spends over 200 pages of his book identifying diseased cell after diseased cell. Then he tells us that what he has listed has “not even begun to scratch the surface.” Hasn’t he at least scratched the surface? No. Oh, well, hasn’t he at least begun to scratch the surface? No. So, I’ve got a body of literature on my hands that has lots and lots of cancer cells. What am I going to do with it? What if I’m reading a text and Thom’s not around to tell me if it’s problem free?
Marcion may have been wrong, but he at least left people a path forward. Thom leaves no practical way forward. He has pronounced that the Bible has a disease, and done so with a massive pathological analysis. He gives no method for determining the boundaries of the illness. One can only infer that Thom expects all readers to 1) trust him or some other guru for the list of acceptable and unacceptable passages, 2) go to seminary and learn the tools of critical study so as to create one’s own list, or 3) depend upon a community of faith to provide the list. In all three of these cases you end up trusting a human being rather than God. But if the Bible teaches anything, it teaches that we should have faith in God.
Thom spends some time arguing against the notion that he’s contaminated the Bible. He does so by likening the Bible to our parents. Given that, he says that it’s immature for us to go from always trusting the Bible to never trusting the Bible – as a headstrong teenager might do with his parents. But this analogy does not hold. We are meant to outgrow the authority of our parents, but we are not meant to outgrow the authority of God.
That the Bible is the word of God does not answer our every moral question. But it does mean that we have a place to go to “tune up” our consciences. We have a place to go to learn about the ways of God…which do not come natural to us. Conversely, if we decide that the Bible is merely the word of man and not the word of God, then we deprive ourselves of a sure and certain testimony that God has, in the kindness of His grace, granted us. To reject it as such is to insult Him.
I acknowledge that it is possible for a human being to live a righteous life without the Bible. Abraham did it. But do I think for a minute that Abraham would have rejected a written record of God-inspired thoughts had it been offered him? Not on your life.
And consider once again the great trouble to which God and His servants have gone to deliver this grace to us. These are men of whom the world is not worthy. Shall we deprive their writings of their greatest worth – that God Himself inspired them?
Where there is no word of God there is no fear of God. And where there is no fear of God evil has no restraining force. The word of God can never be fully quenched from human hearts, but God lit the lamp of the Scriptures that we might have what the patriarchs didn’t. And this lamp is that we might continually have the fire of our own lamps stoked when they become weak.
Thom speaks often of “the believing community” or “the community of faith” as if these represent an anchor more reliable than the Bible. Read history and see that such communities are notorious for their unreliability – either in ancient times or modern. People are always going astray, whether as groups or as individuals. The Bible, by contrast, is an anchor sure and stable from the past through the present and into the future. As the Bible itself says, “Cursed is he who trust in mankind; blessed is he who trusts in the Lord” (Jeremiah 17:5,7). If you believe Thom (and those whom he believes) then the Bible becomes to you just the product of mankind. But if you believe with Paul (and those whom he believed) then the Bible is to you the handiwork of God through obedient men.
As for Jesus, Thom writes:
“Jesus was not infallible – or, if he was, we have no access to his infallibility.”
On the contrary, Jesus is as close as the mention of His name. Call on Him and He will hear you. He is holy and just and long-suffering. He is certainly accessible through the Scriptures. This is how I found Him! Do not deprive yourself of the present reality of Jesus Christ. I pray that Thom will stop depriving himself as well.
Thom expresses the fear that if he regards the Bible as the word of God he’ll be attempting to be in control. Well, I believe the Bible is the word of God, and it has persuaded me that I’m in control of hardly anything. It was when I believed the Bible was just the word of man that I carried the illusion that I was in control of my life.
“Some will be afraid to live in a world without foundations. To them I commend the foundationless nature of agape.”
But how could we know there was an agape, or trust there was an agape, without God Himself assuring us of it through an unchanging document?
In the end, Thom declares himself to be a Christian. This declaration is based on a combination of heredity and choice. Because he is a Christian, he says, the Bible – including its many “problematic texts” – is his book, for better or for worse. I commend his loyalty, but he’s placing in things that cannot save.
By contrast, I do not call myself a Christian. I do not call myself anything. I call Jesus Lord. And I call the Scriptures His word. He can save. I am experiencing that.
Put your faith in Jesus – He is all around you – and be done with the Thom’s and Mike’s of the world.
Next installment: A Review of Thom Stark’s “The Human Faces of God” – Conclusion