On a Historical Old Testament

Yesterday I posted the following status on Facebook:

The problem with abandoning the historicity of the Old Testament is that every few years another aspect of it is vindicated.

To which I received this response:

Yet we would acknowledge the role that varying styles of literature in the ancient Near East has to play, right? The historical consensus, as far as I am aware (and I’m not necessarily taking a position), is that the Old Testament starts out as more metaphorical and increases in historicity until the time of David, after which it becomes much more reliable. For example, we still have not found any evidence of a large population of Israelites having lived in Goshen around 1400 BC. It makes little difference to me, though, which side turns out to be right, but I’m interested to keep up with it!

I do have some empathy here, but there are several issues involved on which I would like to make a special point. Approaches along these lines are gaining traction in Evangelicalism, both with and without a doctrine of inerrancy. I do not see this as a good sign. The historicity of the Old Testament is more important than even most Christians who believe in it give it credit for. So here are some thoughts on the issues raised in this coment.

First, with respect to literary styles, it is simply not the case that there are any convincing reasons to believe that most, much, or even just a decent slice of the Old Testament is not intended as basically “historical” literature. While there are thematic differences between different parts, and the form of the narratives can vary based on the “zoom” factor, there are no clear shifts in the basic use of narrative from Able to Zechariah. The account of Ezra is literarily much like the account of David which is like the account of Abraham which is like the account of Noah which is like the account of Cain. The only passage which might plausibly seem an exception to this is Genesis 1, which is clearly very different from most narrative accounts. Yet it is clearly not poetry (since it lacks parallelism or most other features of Hebrew poetry), and a narrative account of something which happened before the cosmos was fully in place or humans existed is naturally and necessarily going to be different from other narratives.

This brings me to an extremely important point. It is true that Genesis 1 and basically all the narratives in the Bible have meaningful, carefully constructed literary features and forms. There are chiasms, parallels, recapitulations, non-chronological sequences, modified repetitions, typologies, and all sorts of good stuff. For some bizarre reason, though, people treat this as an indication of a narrative not referring to literal history. If Genesis 1 is clearly arranged into a theologically relevant pattern of forming and filling, with the significant number of seven days being associated with temple construction, then many scholars will be willing to stop with “We see a theological meaning to this text, so a literal, historical meaning is superfluous.” If the Bible presents Noah as a new Adam and Ham as a new Cain, peopel imagine this means that one or both of the stories never actually happened.

This is, of course, logically absurd. Literary richness does not prove, or even vaguely imply, that a story is unhistorical. Indeed, for Christians we must understand that the same Spirit who authored the Scriptures has authored history. We should expect patterns, structures, and typologies with theological significance in real, tangible history. And even if we didn’t have that theological link, it should be recalled that even a perfectly historical event can be written down truthfully but stylistically to produce an account with certain intended levels of meaning beyond the “bare facts.”

Moving on, then, to the point about historical consensus. My friend explained what he understood as the consesus this way: “the Old Testament starts out as more metaphorical and increases in historicity until the time of David, after which it becomes much more reliable.” This is problematic in three ways.

First, for the secular historical consensus, it’s not so much that the Old Testament starts off metaphorically as that it simply starts of as myth or legend with amibiguous relationships to events which may or may not have happened. Whether the events recorded are supposed to have any actual metaphorical significance would be a side debate, akin to the question of whether The Illiad is metaphorical.

Second, for the Christian historical consensus, there simply isn’t one. Even within the relatively small sphere of Evangelical Protestant scholarship, opinions range from quasi-fundamentalist hyper-literalism to the view that almost none of the Old Testament is historically reliable except where it is confirmed by secular accounts. As far as I can tell, there’s not even really a majority view on the historicity of any part of the Old Testament before around the time of the Exile. This is not to deny that there are trends, of course. And the trend seems pretty clear: a dehistoricization of Genesis 1-11 at the very least, but often including much more, especially the Exodus. But this brings me to the third problem with the question of historical consensus.

Third, the closest thing we get to a historical consensus is the stuff on which secular historians agree with a decent number of the moderate Christian scholars. The problem with this consensus is that it is bunk. There are three notable problems with it. First, its arguments against the historicity of biblical events are usually from silence, i.e. “we can’t find extra-biblical evidence for that.” These often, and I mean very often, get overturned by later discoveries. It’s the same story every time: historians said there was no King David, until they found archaeological evidence of King David. They said there were no Hittites, and lo! they found that there were Hittites. They doubted countless minor details of customs and names found in the Bible until more evidence confirmed that they existed in the time the Bible seems to claim. It seems that if we have functional pattern-recognition, we should expect this to be the norm: historians deny biblical claims for lack of evidence, only for evidence to show up later.

The second problem with the historical consensus is that it quite unjustly minimizes the Bible as a historical document. I don’t mean that they simply fail to believe every word as historically true. I mean that they don’t even give it the minimal benefits of the doubt which they extend to other ancient literature, and in proportion they give it much less historical weight where it stands alone than they do most similar works. Basically, in researching and hypothesizing about the Ancient Near East, they try to rely as little as possible on what can be justly called the largest, most internally diverse, and most well-preserved collection of texts from the Ancient Near East. This is bound to go wrong, and it is only natural that doing this for such a distant period of history would lead to tension with the biblical account even if it were mostly correct (or, you know, inerrant).

But the third problem with the historical consensus is a plain historical issue: the historical consesus account of the ancient world is largely constructed on a very weak and increasingly questionable foundation: a hypothetical chronology built from Manetho’s list of Egyptian kings and dynasties. This matter would be difficult to address in detail here, but I’ll give a summary. Almost all historical work on the ancient world around the Mediterranean relies on a specific chronology of Egyptian history. This chronology is based on adding up the lengths of the reigns of all of the Egyptian kings in what we have of Manetho’s work. Two major problems present themselves here, because (1) scholars have noted that some or many of Manetho’s dynasties may have ruled simultaneously in different parts of Egypt, and (2) the conventional chronology requires that Mantheo made few or no errors or intentional falsifications. This produces a host of issues which have the potential, if solved, to radically reshape the history of the Ancient Near East. This appears quite likely to change things in the Bible’s favor. Donovan Courville in his work The Exodus Problem and Its Ramifications analyzes many of these issues, and his work has been followed up by others. Even if not perfect, it opens up many interesting possibilites. This, by the way, is not a mere desperate Christian apologetic. The book Centuries of Darkness argues the same basic point from the perspective exclusively of secular historical academia and has inspired plenty of further research.

All of these issues add up to make the point that the historicity of the Old Testament does not deserve to be dismissed the way it so often is, or really even be approached with half the skepticism usually aimed at it. It might take faith to expect the whole Old Testament history to be vindicated, but if anything it is a reasonable faith grounded in precedent and evidence.

None of this even begins to deal with the theological problems involved with dehistoricizing Old Testament narratives. That alone could be the subject of a book, but in the meantime I think this piece of Peter Leithart satire says the gist just as well.

On a Historical Old Testament

Jesus the Apocalypse: A Study on Mark

This is the third and final new series I’m starting now. I thought it would be fun to do a Bible study series on a particular book of the Bible. My recent studies have led me to Mark. The shortest and (according to most scholars) earliest of the Gospels, as well as the most cryptic, it begged for good study. So, on to the background details.

Date and Authorship

Mark is widely believed to have been the first Gospel written. More conservative dating puts it in the AD 50s, while more mainstream scholarship says 65-70. Very few people date it any later, simply because the book gives no indications that the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 70 had yet happened, which would have been very theologically significant if it had since Jesus is recorded to have prophesied this event.

While no solid historical evidence exists surrounding the author of Mark, and the book itself does not specify the author (remember that the titles were added later), the tradition of the early church was that a disciple of Peter named Mark wrote the book based on Peter’s preaching. Modern historians mostly disbelieve this tradition, but the reasons for this seem to be mostly involve skepticism about the historical truth of Mark. If Mark is taken as overall a reliable work, then there is no obvious reason to question the traditional claim.

Theme: Let the Reader Understand

The idea which I have recently run across, and which I plan to explore with this Bible study, is that Mark is essentially an apocalypse. At first, this may not make sense, but this is probably because of the widespread misunderstanding about what an apocalypse is. So in order to explain how and why Mark might be an apocalypse, I should address briefly what apocalyptic literature actually is.

In popular imagination, “apocalypse” means “end of the world.” But that’s not quite right. Our word apocalypse comes from the Greek word apokalupsis, which basically means an “unveiling” or a “revealing.” Specifically, the genre of apocalypse involves God revealing His secrets in mysterious ways, usually by strange visions or dreams. Daniel, for example, consists of much apocalyptic material. Sometimes they are interpreted there (like often happens in Daniel), and sometimes the reader is left to understand by himself. Often times, these revelations have to do with what God is about to do in the future (such as end times matters), but they can also refer to the present and the past, giving the heavenly, theological perspective on earthly events.

How does Mark fit into this category? It seems that Mark portrays Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection like a series of apocalyptic visions. The events of His life are written as short and cryptic, strung together like the scenes of a dream or visions with the word “immediately,” and ultimately ending in suspense. “Let the reader understand” seems to indeed apply to the whole of Mark; he gives us a mysterious picture of the Messiah which only those with ears to hear will truly understand.

Coming Up

With this context in mind, my next post will start at the beginning in Mark 1:1 and move on from there. I’m hoping to find lots of interesting goodness in this book, a book which testifies of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. Any fresh riches to find about Him are worth the search. So until next time, maybe try reading Mark with what I’ve mentioned in mind, if you’re at all interested. Comment if you find anything to say, as always.

Jesus the Apocalypse: A Study on Mark

Early Evidence for Belief in Jesus’ Deity

[This is an article I made for an apologetics forum. I decided I might as well post it here as well.]

An argument frequently made by those who deny orthodox Christianity is that Jesus was not believed to be God until a very long time after His death. Among those who have the Internet but nothing else to their credit, this development supposedly came as late as the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451, or at least the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325. Not everything is this absurdly extreme, of course. Among the more reasonable and learned of skeptics, Jesus’ deity is acknowledged to reach back to at least some time in the first century. The best example of this is probably Bart Ehrman, who believes that some kind of belief in a divine Jesus existed by the time John was written.

I do not intend to argue particularly against Ehrman’s account of belief in Jesus’ deity here. I merely intend to lay out some of the basic evidences from the New Testament that Jesus’ deity was already at least partially present, or perhaps strongly so, in Christian doctrine within a generation of Jesus’ death.

Paul

Paul’s epistles (mostly AD 50-60) do not often make any explicit statements about Jesus’ deity, though there are verses in the contested Pauline letters which make such a statement (Titus 2:13, 2 Pet. 1:1). However, in all of Paul’s letters Old Testament verses which spoke of Yahweh in the original context are applied to Christ, with YHWH appearing in the Greek citation as adonai, “Lord.” Examples include Romans 10:13 (cf. Joel 2:32, probably the strongest), 1 Corinthians 2:16 (cf. Isa. 40:13), and 2 Corinthians 10:17 (cf. Jer. 9:24).

Also in Paul we have the early Christian hymn in Philippians 2, which is difficult to interpret in ways which do not ascribe to Jesus in some way a preexistent divine nature. In 1 Corinthians 8:6, Paul reworks the Shema, which was the defining declaration of Jewish monotheism, around the Father and His Son Jesus in a way which applies the lordship, oneness, and role as creator to both of them (of particular interest would be the new developments on this by Crispin Fletcher-Louis).

Hebrews

The anonymous letter of Hebrews, most likely written sometime before the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, has an undeniably high Christology. While an exact and explicit identification of Jesus as deity is not present, the entire first chapter demonstrates a strong belief that Jesus shared a relationship with God that far surpasses the royal sonship in the psalms which he cites. He clearly sees in Jesus a nature as the Son of God. This appears to cross the line into affirming true deity when he cites Psalms 45 and 102. There he not only says that the Son is addressed by God as God (and in the context of his argument he seems to take this beyond the original sense of royal adoption), but even speaks of the Son as the Lord (YHWH in the cited verse’s Hebrew text) who created the universe and is eternal before and after it.

John and Revelation

Remaining to mention are John and Revelation, both supposedly the work of the apostle John, who tradition says died around the close of the first century. Both of these books are usually dated to the 90s, which is a little later than the rest of the New Testament evidence, though still just within a lifetime of Jesus’ death. Of particular interest, though, is the theory increasingly considered by even secular and liberal scholars that John was actually written in part before the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. This is argued mostly on the basis of John’s portrayal of the Temple authorities, along with a peculiar feature of John 5:2.

John opens up with what is arguably the highest Christological declaration in the New Testament: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Since, by the end of the passage, this Word is clearly identified as Jesus, there is no possible way of understanding this except to say that Jesus had, at least in some way, a preexistent divine nature. Even Ehrman admits this, though is careful not to anachronistically assume this takes a post-Nicene shape. Adding interest, most scholars think John’s prologue is came from earlier traditions. If this is the case and it were the case that John was written before the Temple fell, then we have an extremely strong statement of Jesus’ deity dating very early.

Revelation, although without doubt later than all of the other books in the New Testament, with consensus placing it during Domitian’s rule (AD 81-96), is nonetheless an interesting case. By this time there can be no doubt that, even if no one else agreed, the author held a view which somehow identified Jesus as God. The entire books operates on that assumption, repeatedly attributing to Jesus divine attributes and actions, especially in allusion to Yahweh’s roles in the Old Testament. Citing verses would be a tedious task here, but enough evidence can be found simply by reading the book with a good list of cross-references. A clear theme is that the Lamb who was slain shares in every way the life, names, character, and roles of God Himself.

Early Evidence for Belief in Jesus’ Deity

Misconceptions about Misconceptions about the Bible

People have a lot of funky ideas about the Bible. And it’s no wonder, given that it is the worldwide bestseller, was completed 2000 years ago, and is revered as God’s word by many millions of people. Anything with that kind of place in the world is bound to find several strange receptions.

One thing which frequently happens with the Bible is the publishing of articles in print and online which claim to reveal the truth about misconceptions people have regarding the Bible. A quick Google search proves this. This is unsurprising and often necessary. After all, there’s quite a bit of nonsense the average Joe, and even the average born-and-bred Christian, believes about the Bible that is not true at all. So let those with knowledge correct the ignorant. Deal with misconceptions about the Bible.

But there is a troubling trend which is evident from even the top search results. Many of the so-called “misconceptions” the top articles correct are in fact orthodox Christian teachings, or at least something closely related. Here’s an example from one of the articles on Google’s first page of results:

The character “Yahweh” in the Hebrew Bible should not be confused with the god of western theological speculation (generally referred to as “God”). The attributes assigned to “God” by post-biblical theologians — such as omniscience and immutability — are simply not attributes possessed by the character Yahweh as drawn in biblical narratives. Indeed, on several occasions Yahweh is explicitly described as changing his mind, because when it comes to human beings his learning curve is steep. Humans have free will; they act in ways that surprise him and he must change tack and respond. One of the greatest challenges for modern readers of the Hebrew Bible is to allow the text to mean what it says, when what is says flies in the face of doctrines that emerged centuries later from philosophical debates about the abstract category “God.”

Um, is that okay? Of course there are lots of people who argue this, even some within Christianity, but is that really a misconception about the Bible, or the result of different worldviews and how they address the questions surrounding the Bible, divine revelation, and the divine nature? After all, Calvin and Bavnick handled the OT weirdness pretty handily with their theology of accommodation. But here it is asserted without consideration of debate that a traditional view is one of people’s misconceptions about the Bible.

The problem I’m seeing is how many people use the guise of “Guess what you never knew about the Bible?” to promote skeptical, anti-Christian views as the facts. This is standard fare. I could multiply the examples:

  • Lots of articles says, “Moses didn’t write the Pentateuch!” (the first five books of the Bible), “We now know that it came way later from four distinct and contradictory sources edited into one book.” This is far from settled, except in the minds of people who have ruled out a priori the possibility that the Creator God really did reveal Himself to the people of Israel in word and powerful deeds. And this isn’t merely a conservative Christian vs. the rest of the world matter, either. The popular JEDP theory touted by blogs and magazines galore has been under increasing question in recent years, partially due to the way that a robustly historical and contextual reading of the Pentateuch seems to work best if it is taken as a whole.
  • Many will say, “Guess what? The word for ‘virgin’ in Isaiah 7:10 actually meant ‘young women’ and was mistranslated into Greek, so Matthew and Luke actually invented the virgin birth to fulfill a mistranslated prophecy!” In fact, a large number of people consider this a settled fact. Yet the debate continues, even among real scholars, over the meaning of the word almah and, perhaps more importantly, the way that the NT authors cited the OT. This is not a settled matter by any means.
  • Of course, there’s also the classic “The Bible has really changed from the originals,” which is patently false as far the evidence can lead us. Every new discovery leads towards the opposite conclusion, but that doesn’t stop bloggers and journalists from reporting it as a scholarly consensus and fact that the Bible we have is totally unreliable.

I could go on, but I would risk making a fool of myself by speaking on matters above my pay grade (as if I’ve completely refrained from doing so already). My goal here certainly isn’t to prove the skeptics and secular scholars wrong. I merely want to point out the secret you won’t find in popular writings: none of these misconceptions about the Bible are as settled or certain as people on either side of the aisle would like to pretend. 

I say “either side of the aisle” for good reason, too. There’s no airtight case for most of what we believe about the Bible and history as Christians. Yes, there are rational reasons to believe, but the evidence isn’t overwhelming and demanding. But likewise, the consensus among many who aren’t orthodox Christians is far from guaranteed. There are compelling arguments, but no proof which can force the hand away from faith.

This brings me to the crux of the matter, namely the spiritual perspective. Despite what we assume about matters of facts, proofs, and evidence in today’s scientific and technological world, there is no objective and impartial judge over all these matters. Everyone stands either from a place of faith or of unbelief, either thinking as one united to the mind of Christ through the indwelling Holy Spirit or thinking according to the wisdom of this world in resistance to the One who is Truth. Therefore we have to own up to that, and in the case of sensationalist bloggers and reporters claiming to know why classical Christianity is false we must hold them accountable. They are not objective, and their claims are not settled reality. There is debate and, although it sounds awfully silly to those without the rule of faith, spiritual warfare going on.

Basically, don’t believe the common misconception that basic Christian doctrine is a misconception about the Bible. ‘Cause that’s not necessarily true.

Misconceptions about Misconceptions about the Bible

The Bible Is Not a House of Cards

What do very many Christians and very many atheists have in common? Believe it or not, they view the Bible pretty similarly. What could an atheist and a Christian both think about the Bible? Both often act as though the Bible were a house of cards.

We’ve all seen card houses. As children, we all made them. They were always a very difficult project, trying to stack each flimsy card just right to keep the whole building from falling down. And fall down they did. At the slightest disturbance, if even one card was removed or wiggled, the entire house crashed.

To far too many people, the Bible works more or less the same way. Every statement in Scripture is a card, and the whole Bible is the house. If a single statement were found false, mistaken, or even just a bit uncertain, the falling card would mean the collapse of all 66 (or 73, for my filthy papist Catholic friends) books and indeed the Christian faith as at all trustworthy.

The logic behind treating the Bible this way is usually quite straightforward. According to the Christian side, the Bible is the word of God. Since God can’t lie or even make a mistake, every word in the Bible must be certainly true. Therefore if a single word in Scripture were less than completely true, the Bible could not be God’s word. So Christianity is false.

But this is a completely wrong way to approach the Bible. Let’s say we found for sure a definite error or contradiction in Scripture. What would be the possible implications? There are, generally speaking, two options:

  1. The house of cards logic is correct, which means that because of this error, the entire Bible is not trustworthy. So Christianity is almost certainly false. This position is taken by many pop-level atheists, and is also the fear many Christians would have if they found an error.

  2. The house of cards logic is false. Even though there’s an error, the Bible can still be considered the word of God. But in this case the “word of God” does not mean every last individual word comes straight from God’s mouth. A more flexible theory of Biblical inspiration is probably true (see my post on the different theories). Christianity can still be true. This position is assumed by very many Christians outside pop-theology.

Obviously, option 2 is preferable to option 1 for multiple reasons. For one, remember that Christianity is based on Jesus first, and the Bible second. Historically, Jesus did rise from the dead, regardless of whether the Bible has errors or not, so Christianity is true. As well, remember that no other book is held up to an all-or-nothing standard. If the Bible was not the word of God, we would have to treat what the Bible says just like we treat what every other book says. In that case there would be still good reasons to believe that Scripture is at least generally reliable, that Jesus did rise from the dead, that the apostles spoke authoritatively for Christ’s church, and even that the Old Testament is a useful historical resource. Based on pure facts, evidence, and human reason all of this would be true even if the Bible wasn’t God’s word.

If that is not enough to persuade you, I would also suggest that the Bible can easily be God’s word even if there are errors. There are several theories of Biblical inspiration out there. Some allow for errors, some don’t, but most of them still call Scripture “God’s word,” say that He actually speaks using the Bible, and agree that our Bible has final authority over the faith. I wrote a post about the major theories a while back, and you can look at that list to understand what I mean if you don’t. So if the Bible did have an error, maybe verbal, plenary inspiration would be wrong, but something else like dynamic inspiration—which does say the Bible is God’s word and final authority—could be the truth.

So I propose a different analogy for the Bible. God’s word is not a house of cards, but a house of many materials built on a firm foundation. That foundation is the history of Jesus Christ, including the history of the Israel who brought Him into the world, the history of His own life, and the history of the church of His apostles. All of these things really happened, and behind them all is the work and word of God, His powerful acts and equally powerful words by which He brought Himself to humanity. Even if the Bible was never written down and passed on to us, this all still happened in our own space and time history. God through Jesus is a physical part of our human past. So with this firm of a foundation, even if there were cracks or rot in the walls or floors, the house of God’s word would still stand.

The Bible, then, is more than anything a testimony to these foundational facts of history. What God did and said in the past are now fixed realities, and the words of Scripture tell us about them. We can see the Bible as the word of God because God’s own prophets and apostles, led by the power of the Holy Spirit, wrote it as permanent witness to God’s revelation in the human world, including His greatest and final revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ.

If this is how we see the Bible, then errors become less important. The text we read in Scripture is the, to use an analogy, courtroom testimony of witnesses to what God has done and said. So even if the witnesses were to make mistakes, forget things, or interpret something wrongly, what God actually did and said remains solid and fixed. The Bible is built on a firm foundation, and so is no house of cards but the house of the wise man.

All this, by the way, is not to suggest that the Bible actually is full of errors and needs special defense. No, I think that Scripture speaks for itself (actually, the Holy Spirit speaks for, through, and with Scripture), showing us that we can trust the Bible. Yet for the sake of the faith of many people, and to keep ourselves from being ridiculous before skeptics, I do propose this understanding so that we do not have to worry about errors in the Bible even if they do exist, since our faith is focused on something, make that Someone, who is Himself the undefeatable Truth. My concern is truly a pastoral one: I want people to know their faith in Christ needn’t be shaken just because they can’t find any answer to reconcile two genealogies or Resurrection accounts.

In case this isn’t clear, by the way, I’m not actually saying there are errors in the Bible. I’m not convinced that there are, but I definitely wouldn’t stake my life that there aren’t. If we are to be faithful to the God who created the real life world, we have to judge that based on what is actually in the Bible, not by our doctrines of inspiration. What we believe about the book God gave us has to be based on what is really true about what He gave. My true attitude is this: if there are no errors in the Bible, I praise God for giving us such perfect record of who He is and what He does! If there are errors in the Bible, I praise God for even making human mistakes work towards His all-consuming purpose of redemption, just like He does in our lives all the time! Either way, God is glorified, because we have a book from the Father, about the Son, given through the Holy Spirit for our sanctification. Amen!

(P.S. To any of you more learned readers out there, you may think my explanation of the Bible sounds really Barthian. While I do find Barth a very helpful influence with his language of witnesses and testimony, I am more conservative on Scripture than he is. My theory of inspiration is not actually Barthian, and honestly I still default to verbal, plenary inspiration.)

The Bible Is Not a House of Cards

God Is One, The Bible Is Not

When it comes to a good book, Stephen King’s résumé just can’t compare. Thirty-nine plus twenty-seven equals sixty-six books. And if you’re Catholic, there’s even more.

So goes the absurd rap parody, “Baby Got Book.” And it is correct. The Bible is actually 66 books. But from the way many people, both Christians and skeptics, handle the Bible you’d never know it. Instead, you’d probably get the impression that the Bible is only one book, maybe a theological encyclopedia or something. At first glance this might not seem to make a difference, but behind the scenes the way you interpret the Bible can be and often is affected by whether you treat the Bible like one single book or a collection of many books brought together in unity for God’s people.

One of the biggest ways this comes to matter is when people debate interpreting the Bible “literally.” People on all sides tend to insist on one thing: however you interpret the Bible, you have to do it the same way for the whole thing. You must not interpret one part differently than another, or else you’re being inconsistent. Conservatives will say that if you don’t take Genesis 1 as literal history, then you shouldn’t take Jesus’ death and resurrection as such either. Skeptics scold us for interpreting references to the corners of the earth as metaphorical while maintaining other stuff as literal truth.

All of this back-and-forth commits the grave mistake of acting like the Bible is a single, homogenous book. But it’s not. Scripture is many books, most of which were written very independently of all the rest. They are all different genres. Some are songs or poems. Others are biographies. Many are letters, historical records, or prophecies. None of these genres should be or even can be treated like all the others.

What we have to remember, then, is that we have to let each book be and do its own thing. More than that, we have to do that to each part of each book. We should not and cannot treat Jesus’ parables the way we treat a vision from Daniel. A psalm shouldn’t be read like a census.

This continues to apply even to narratives in different parts of the Bible. For example, when we read Jesus speaking in the Gospels we must take the words we read as basically what He said, give or take a few words or phrases. But in Job, we would be silly to think that Job and his friends all actually took turns giving long, poetic discourses. These are different books of different kinds with different purposes. Wisdom literature is not the same thing as a theological biography.

The point of all this is that the Bible doesn’t have to be forced into all or nothing on every question. The inconsistent person is not the one who treats different parts of the Bible differently, but who insists that all the Bible be treated the same but not every book in a library. Really, this even applies to inspiration. While I am pretty certain that all the Bible is inspired equally, it doesn’t have to be. Some books could theoretically be more or less inspired, or inspired in different ways. Again, these are 66 books written by dozens of people over thousands of years, united by God for the purpose of bringing people to know His Son.

On one hand, I say this all to dispel silly arguments that demand we treat the whole Bible the same in every way. But there is a more practical, helpful point to all this, too. Since Scripture is made of such variety, we don’t need all of the books to say the same things in the same ways. It’s okay that Paul talks about faith and works from a different angle than James does. Words don’t always have to be used the same way in the Old and New Testaments. Authors can use explanations and analogies for things that wouldn’t work together because they are making different points to different cultures under different circumstances with different backgrounds. The diversity of Scripture, when allowed to do its own thing, keeps us from having to scramble to explain what would be contradictions if it was really one homogenous book. This helps us respond to silly skeptics and even can settle some of our own nagging questions with a dose of perspective. So just remember: God may be one, but the Bible is not.

God Is One, The Bible Is Not

God Took the Blame (Or, A Little Thought About the Problem of Evil)

If God exists, why does evil? Is He too weak to stop it? Does He refuse? Did it catch Him off guard? These questions have challenged philosophers and theologians for thousands of years, and goodness knows I can add little or nothing to their many answers. But I just felt like sharing this thought on my mind.

In Christian circles, there are usually two answers given, one by Calvinists and one by almost everyone else. To the Calvinist, evil exists by God’s decision. He ordained before time that Satan should fall, and Adam after him. He did not directly cause evil, but knowingly set up the world with causes, effects, and stuffs which led to evil. Why did He do this? To bring Him glory in conquering and judging it. God’s glory is the greatest good for both Himself and the elect.

The problems with the Calvinist answer are many. Can the intense evil and suffering in the world really bring glory to a good and kind God? Did the same God we see in Jesus imagine the Holocaust to make Himself look good? Moreover, this reasoning smacks of utilitarianism, an unbiblical ethic system where the ends justify the means, and you can get away with anything for “the greater good.” Is God a utilitarian? That’s not what we see of Him in Jesus’ life.

On the other hand, Arminians, Molinists, and self-styled “Biblicists” usually go with the free will defense. I’m sure you’ve heard it. God wants us to freely love Him, but with free will necessarily comes the possibility to do evil. He can either force us to love Him, which wouldn’t be real love, or He must allow for the possibility of evil. This is considered by many a strong and intuitive answer to the problem of evil.

Yet this approach is not without its problems. For one, how do we know free will exists? That debate is ages old, with many arguments of both sides. Moreover, if free will is real, then God has it, but we also know that God cannot sin, and indeed always truly loves. So in that case why could He not make people in the same way, free, truly loving, yet unable to sin, like He is? Besides these problems, is free will by itself a strong enough concept to bear all the weight of the world’s evil? I don’t think we can really reduce the answer to every “Why, God?!” to “That’s easy, free will.”

If these answers don’t work, then what will we say? Shall we cite Karl Barth and his doctrine of nothingness? Maybe go with Augustine in saying evil doesn’t truly exist? Somehow, I don’t think any of these work well enough. So where do we go? How do we exonerate God from evil?

Maybe we don’t.

When we look at Scripture, God never tries to explain or defend Himself on this subject. The Bible never tells us how evil came around, or why God let it. We’re completely in the dark.

In fact, in God’s fullest revelation—Jesus Himself—speaks no excuse, apology, or even rebuke. He instead did the unthinkable: He took the blame. God the Creator, as a created human being, took on full responsibility for the evil of all His creation, and He suffered the consequences. He did not fight to prove His innocence or protect His reputation, but let us punish Him as we saw fit. On Calvary humanity judged God for evil, and God submitted to their sentence.

None of this means, of course, that God actually has done anything wrong and deserves blame. What it does mean is that God is a big boy, one who doesn’t need our philosophies or even sophistry to be justified. He is perfectly capable and willing to take responsibility for the state of His world.

Of course, the other thing the Cross proves in this subject is that God definitely loves us. Whatever else may be at work, and whatever questions He leaves unanswered, we can trust that Jesus loves us. So if nothing else, we can know that God is for us.

God Took the Blame (Or, A Little Thought About the Problem of Evil)