July 22, 2019

What the Bible Actually Teaches (5) — Open Mic Edition

God Judging Adam. William Blake

What the Bible Actually Teaches (5)
Open Mic Edition

Let’s do something a little different today. One of the main points of Pete Enns’s book is about how the Bible depicts God.  in various ways according to the culturally-conditioned understandings of its ancient authors.

We will discuss that more next week, with examples from the book. But for today, I will simply put out a couple of quotes that summarize the basic argument, giving everyone a chance to ponder them and contribute reactions and thoughts.

The Bible does not leave us with one consistent portrait of God, but a collection of ancient and diverse portraits of how the various biblical writers understood God for their times. These biblical portraits of God are not there to test how clever we can be in making them all fit together nicely. They illustrate for us the need to accept the sacred responsibility of asking what God is like for us here and now. (p. 153)

We respect these sacred texts best not by taking them as the final word on what God is like, but by accepting them as recording for us genuine experiences of God for the Israelites and trying to understand why they would describe God as they do. God met the ancient Israelites on their terms, in their time and place, stepping into their world.

We follow the lead of these writers not by simply reproducing how they imagined God for their time, but by reimagining God for ourselves in our time, which for us (as we’ll get to later) includes taking into account the Christian story as well. In doing so, we will necessarily commune with God differently with respect to those who went before.

The ancient ways the Bible describes God drive us to work through what God is like for our own time and place. And, as I’ve been saying, that process is an act of wisdom, of asking, “What is God like? What God do we truly believe in?” (p. 144)

Comments

  1. Pellicano Solitudinis says

    “The Bible does not leave us with one consistent portrait of God, but a collection of ancient and diverse portraits of how the various biblical writers understood God for their times.”

    The Bible as resource library. I like this.

    • Susan Dumbrell says

      Way to go Pellicano.
      There is a lot in this topic.
      We all have to make steps.
      Mine are going backwards today as my good friend’s husband died this morning so I am watching and waiting for Grace.
      Hugs for you,
      Susan

      • Pellicano Solitudinis says

        Hello, Susan. Good to see/ hear from you.

        I am glad that your friend has you to watch and wait for her, and I wish you strength.

        • Susan Dumbrell says

          Thank you.
          She has just trod the path John and I are on.
          Makes it close to home.

      • Robert F says

        Greeting, Susan. In one way or another, we all watch and wait with you; it is the lot of humankind, I suppose. God bless you and John, and your friend.

        • Susan Dumbrell says

          Thank You Robert.
          I have just spoken on the phone with my friend and she is coping but the next few days, weeks and months is where we, her friends, need to be there to support her.

          She and I have gone through anticipatory grief for our men, but when the departure of the loved one happens, even when we know they are in Paradise with our Lord, it takes a further blow to the heart.

          She is now holding up through her family support. We as friends need to be there in the future days to gather up the shreds that grief leaves as a trail behind as the loved on who is left reestablishes a life without her heart’s love.

          Please pray for my friend Joan. Her grief is palpable.

          Susan
          Susan

      • Christiane says

        Hello Susan,
        I will pray for your friend that she is comforted in time. Grief is a process and we all enter it in our own way and all I know from experience is that we can sense God’s calming Presence in the midst of our grief so we know we are not alone in our suffering. I’m glad she has you near for support. I wished I had been closer to my people when they needed me.

  2. Iain Lovejoy says

    “We respect these sacred texts best not by taking them as the final word on what God is like”
    The final word in what God is like is surely Jesus, and he himself said that they all point to him. Understanding the Bible is like reading a whodunnit crime novel where we have already peeked at the final page: we know who did the crime and are now trying to work out how the clues in the rest of the book point to them.

    • Robert F says

      the final word in what God is like is surely Jesus…

      I agree. But we still find ourselves with the tasks of having to interpret, as best we can, and understand the words and actions of Jesus, of how to apply them to our lives and world; and, most difficult of all, how to wrestle with the mystery of his personal depths and complexities, which must be far greater than the normal depths and complexities of the average human being, which God knows are daunting enough even without the mystery of the Incarnation included. For these tasks, wisdom is tremendously helpful….though of course the grace of God is more helpful yet.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > For these tasks, wisdom is tremendously helpful

        Agree.

        However, those words burn the notion of Sola Scrpitura to the ground; which is going to make a whole lot of people unhappy.

        > though of course the grace of God is more helpful yet.

        Note: we’ve been unable to agree on even what that is [or who it is for: elect vs. non-elect, yada yada…].

        • My personal theology, to which I guess I’m as entitled as anyone else, says that when even our best stabs at wisdom fail, God will pick up the pieces, including us. To me, that’s grace, and everybody’s included.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > The final word in what God is like is surely Jesus

      And the “new testament” scripture provides one clearly unified Jesus? Clearly not.

      I know that is the correct thing to say in Christian/Evangelical circles. Yet, it is not particularly helpful.

      • Christiane says

        I agree, Adam.

        Sometimes even the most profound of Christian teachings coming from the shallow voices of ’empty white-washed tombs’ are more like a vaccination against the faith . . . . the ‘casual’, the “I’m saved, but the ‘others’ are not”, the pointing of the finger, the strident anger-filled culture warrior . . . . their voices don’t ring true anymore for the many who would know Christ as ‘the Revealer of God’,

        and
        IF THOSE PEOPLE WHO SEEK GOD only know that angry, proud, and judgmental representation of Christianity in their small town lives,
        THEN it will surely take a powerful act of grace for them to experience the God of the ages in their own livES

        but they will know Him . . .

        life is like that

        comes a time, an event, a crisis maybe, and it happens that they realize they are not forsaken in the darkness, and that’s a GOOD day

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Sometimes even the most profound of Christian teachings coming from the shallow voices of ’empty white-washed tombs’ are more like a vaccination against the faith . . .

          Vaccination:

          Expose an organism’s immune system to a dead/fake/harmless form of a pathogen; then when exposed to the REAL pathogen, the immune system will immediately and automatically REJECT it.

  3. Cultures are constantly asking “who/what is God?”. Europeans began asking this question in earnest during and after WW1 and throughout the 20th century. One thing that we should have concluded is that the deux ex machina god is a hoax of our imagination. Perhaps Bonhoeffer’s speculation that the modern world is “come of age” and we have pushed God out of the world and onto the cross.

  4. Because of its length and the time span involved most of the real variation in the concept of God is in the Hebrew Bible and this is were scholarship can really be illuminating. There has been a veritable tonnage of work done in this field in the last fifty years augmented by archeological and textual discoveries. Of course not everyone is wiling to wade through dense scholarly monographs to glean whatever insights that are available.

    Fortunately there are writers who combine excellent scholarship with high readability. One of those is Jewish scholar JAMES L KUGEL who taught at Harvard for many years. Anything he writes is valuable but in this case I’m thinking specifically of his 2004 work THE GOD OF OLD which is precisely about the subject of today’s post. For me the best part of the book is his chapter on the mysterious figure of ‘The Angel of the Lord’. Terrific stuff!

    • With respect to the variation of the concept of God, in the late nineties my wife gave me a copy of “A History of God” by Karen Armstrong which helped me immensely. It went past Biblical times to include Church Fathers and even Islamic thinkers. Later, “God, A Biography” by Peter Miles was also beneficial. Its focus was the changing conception of God in scripture.

  5. It is both liberating and constraining to approach scripture from this perspective. Liberating because it means I don’t have to defend literalism, always shoving a square peg into a round hole. On the other hand it places on each individual the terrible responsibility of being the living, genuine article and hearing the voice of God, however God is willing to speak in our day and age, in just the same way that every forefather and mother did in their age. It inherently requires everything, with nothing held back, to be part of the continuation of that free flow between Spirit and flesh that we see in print and venerate so highly. Of course not everyone is Moses or Elijah or Mary or Paul though no less commitment and responsibility for dying to self is called for. It is of no less importance and holds no less weight in the Kingdom of God that Joe the janitor has opened his heart than it was that Mary opened hers.

    • The thing is, Joe the janitor and his family are likely to belong to the Pentecostal Prosperity Gospel mega down the street, where they claim to interpret the Bible literally, they believe in that Old Time Religion, and Peter Enns along with many of us here at iMonk are considered at best unsaved, and at worst damnable heretics. And that’s the way many, maybe most, religious people will always handle “the terrible responsibility of being the living, genuine article and hearing the voice of God”: by remanding it over to the nearest charismatic preacher man or authoritative Church they can find, as soon as they can find them. Such responsibility is often felt as not just as a heavy burden, but a crushing one, and many people will perform whatever psycho-religious sleight-of-hand they must to hide it from themselves, and manufacture the illusion that it has been placed on someone else.

      • Randy Thompson says

        Despite the Reformation, you can’t escape tradition. The sad thing is, “the nearest charismatic preacher” is all that many know or want, especially if he (and it usually is he) makes them feel good. That “chaismatic preacher” has a vested interest in keeping his (see parenthesis above) people unaware of The Great Tradition that is the Christian’s true heritage.

        Better to own the reality of tradition and find a good one.

        • What I find ironic are the folks who take every opportunity to decry “tradition” and then spend the rest of their time name checking all their “confessions” and “doctrinal statements”. What do they think tradition is made of?

      • It’s certainly untidy, no question about it but life is always that way. Frankly, I am more concerned with the potential dangers embedded in the neat, orderly gospel. Only obedience is required. Obedience to who is of course the question. When religion gets into the business of influencing believers to cede their personal mandate to the hierarchy, the potential dangers are frightening and large scale. National and international. Certainly more perilous in my mind than the occasional loon who has been told by God directly that we must all wear tiaras as children of the king.

        • I too prefer local untidiness to the “neat, orderly gospel” monolith; I would call this the Protestant preference. But see Randy’s comment right above yours for a different, opposite, and compelling preference for the Catholic option. Is there a way of approaching it that honors both the Catholic and the Protestant impulses, while keeping our eyes open to our own responsibility on both sides of the two options?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Liberating because it means I don’t have to defend literalism, always shoving a square peg into a round hole.

      Swinging the sledgehammer to the tune of “YOU’LL FIT! YOU’LL FIT! YOU’LL FIT!”

  6. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    These biblical portraits of God are not there to test how clever we can be in making them all fit together nicely.

    Including fitting them together nicely into Something That Agrees Completely With ME.

    And anyway, nothing Evangelicals have done along these lines since John Nelson Darby has been able to top Darby’s Dispy cut-and-paste.

  7. “We follow the lead of these writers not by simply reproducing how they imagined God for their time, but by reimagining God for ourselves in our time”

    Seems like that makes God the product of our imagination. My imagination can often generate fictitious accounts. I don’t consider Jesus to be a fictional character.

    • While your point is completely valid it is also valid to say that God created our minds with the imaginative capacity for a reason. I am convinced that imagination is an essential element in ‘knowing’ the unknowable God. A holy but brave imagination if you will. The Holy Spirit engages in our flights of fancy when they are flights to a heavenly terminal. All sorts of wonderful worlds open up in the meditative realm of childlike imagination.

  8. senecagriggs says

    About tying Scripture to culture.

    “God dwells in eternity but time dwells in God. He has already lived all our tomorrows as He has lived all our yesterdays.”

    God is not bound by time, He is not limited by the men He used to pen Scripture. When He authored Scripture in A.D. 50 or B.C 1000, God already knew 2019 A.D.

    To opine that Scripture must be defined within the era of its writing is to limit God; as if He could not give us EXACTLY what he wanted whether or not it was penned in 1,500 BC or 2010.

    God is not limited by time; but we are. God has given us eternal truths; millenia before Western Culture appeared.

    God is not Bill Gates and Windows; always moving on to the next update. Evangelicals belief, you can trust Scripture and apply it to the here and now.

    • anonymous says

      ” Evangelicals belief, you can trust Scripture and apply it to the here and now.”

      The problem is that 81% think they have:
      https://www.unverifiedsource.com/home/2018/6/6/pictures-showing-jesus-with-trump-may-have-been-photoshopped

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Eagle has a theory as to why so many Born-Again Christians are also Trump Fanatics:

        Trump’s behavior is similar to that of an abusive charismatic MegaPastor — behavior that these abusive charismatic Celebrity MegaPastors have groomed their sheeple to see as Godly. And Trump exhibits the same “Anointed” behavior, only more so. So to the pre-groomed sheeple, Trump must be More Anointed by God.

        (Like the story of a boy raised in a Holiness church environment who converted to LDS/Mormonism as a young adult — his reason? “Mormons don’t drink or smoke”, i.e. they exhibited external behaviors he’d been raised to think of as Metrics of Real True Christians only more so, so they must be More Christian.)

        And a lot of the Celebrity MegaPreachers – what Professor Fea calls “Court Evangelicals” – bend the knee to Him and their sheeple follow suit. Remember “Screwtape Proposes a Toast”? Corrupt a Celebrity and Our Father Below gets ALL his fans and followers for free?)

        P.S. Anonymous? Here’s now far it can get FOR REAL:
        https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/trump-christ-billboard-st-louis/
        As far as Snopes or other fact-checkers can find, THAT BILLBOARD WAS FOR REAL.

        • Christiane says

          St. Louis, huh?

          well, heading a little further north, you can get yourself to the new white homeland in Bainbridge Ohio under the Christian Identity leadership of ‘Pastor’ Mullet (see picture below) and there, you can get yourself the whole package: antisemitism, neo-Nazism, white supremacy, ‘hail Trump’, and all under the guidance and bona fides of an ex-KKK clan leader (Mullet), dontcha just love his name . . .
          https://www.gannett-cdn.com/-mm-/0c2643e534e1de3d8cc8876b1154e7da47c7159f/c=105-0-258-204/local/-/media/2017/11/01/Cincinnati/Cincinnati/636451527252846543-Mullet.jpg?width=534&height=712&fit=crop

          that billboard was mild stuff compared to what’s coming at us, Headless

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            Few people know about it these days, but in the Roaring Twenties the Great Lakes area was a Ku Klux Stronghold. The Second Klan, largest and most powerful of the KKK’s four incarnations. Some of the remnants still survive up there; I had a contact from Southern Michigan (da Mitten) who related running into a Klan cross-burning meeting when he was in his teens hunting in the boonies (would have been 1980s/1990s). Though my informant was 1/4 black himself (“1/4 black, 1/4 Jewish, 1/4 Swede, and 1/4 German”), he just racked a round into the pump shotgun he was carrying and passed through without incident.

    • As I’ve said before, I wish I had the same completely consistent, never contradictory, easy-to-understand everything, book that makes God perfectly understandable and that produces an entirely unified body of Christian doctrine that you have. Unfortunately, that is not the Bible that God has given the rest of us. He acted and spoke in specific times to specific people in specific cultures, and much of what the Bible contains is clearly related to, bound by, and in many obvious cases, specifically applicable (only) to the culture of that time. But no matter how many examples I could give (with chapter and verse) the banjo only plays one string.

  9. Robert F says

    How exactly alike God and Adam look in Blake’s print — except that Adam is naked, and God is not…

    • Robert F says

      …..and what is judgment, if not nakedness before and beneath the gaze of one more powerful than we?

      • anonymous says

        judgment comes next generation when the sins of their greedy fathers leave the young with a world so destroyed that it can no longer sustain life . . . that is judgment indeed

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          judgment comes next generation when the sins of their greedy fathers leave the young with a world so destroyed that it can no longer sustain life . . .

          And the sons remember that the Christians cheered it along.
          “It’s All Gonna Burn Anyway.”

  10. Burro (Mule) says

    Once again, how can the Bible change our perception of God?
    Punting off to tradition is no help.

    There is plenty of evidence for the furious God in both Scripture and Tradition? There is even a wrath of the Lamb. How could all y’all be convinced of that line in the spectrum if you don’t have a temperamental attraction to that sort of God?

    It took Flannery O’Connor and Johnny to stiffen Richard Beck’s spine. Bless her heart.

    • Robert F says

      I’m not attracted to a wrathful divinity, but creation often seems so wrathful, so angry, and it’s hard to align such an angry-feeling creation with a creator who lacks all anger. There are theodicies that explain how that could happen, but they always seem to me to explain it away rather than really explain it.

      Does the creation reflect the character of God, or does it not? When I personalize the turbulence of creation as anger, am I inappropriately projecting human feeling onto the world’s indifference? And why would I prefer a creator who made an indifferent world to one whose creation reflects his own wrath? Is indifference a more divine attribute than anger?

      • Dana Ames says

        God is not angry; the writers of Scripture who portrayed God that way were saying something about themselves and their view of things (including God) Neither is God indifferent. The Second Person become Incarnate, teaching us, going to the Cross, rising from the dead in victory over its sting, taken up by the Father to his own throne (as a human being as well as God), and sending his Spirit is the proof of that.

        Creation reflects the anger, confusion and convulsion of humanity, not the wrath of God (though some may perceive it as that). Romans 8: Creation is groaning as it waits for the full redemption of its priests, human beings.

        The divide is only between Uncreated and Created, not anything else.

        Dana

        • Robert F says

          I understand there are theological reasons to affirm that he is not angry, and that they make sense; and I’m glad that you are personally compelled by them; but as for myself, the theology does not compel me existentially when I’m confronted by the ireful face of creation, and cannot be sure if is the reflection of my own anger, or the judgment of God speaking to me in the whirlwind. I just can’t be sure.

        • Dana-

          Is your stance coming from EO teachings, or more Enns/Boyd teachings (or somewhere else)? Thanks.

    • anonymous says
    • Yes, there is certainly biblical evidence for God’s anger. But, if we are going to take Jesus and the NT seriously, that Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God, then who Jesus got angry at is of primary consideration. And He tended to get angry, not at tax collectors or prostitutes, but high-minded moralizers.

      • Robert F says

        This is true, but at the same time some of the judgment of Jesus in the gospel accounts pointed at high minded moralizers has a quite universal dimension. For instance, it is easy to see how the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican is not just for the professionally religious, but for anyone, including myself, who sometimes thinks well of themselves in comparison others who transgress moral and social codes in more egregious ways than we do. There is a universal application to the parable — the Pharisee represents not just the high-minded moralizers, but a wide cross-section of humanity. In actuality, many of the critical texts in the New Testament pointed at the the high-minded moralizers require only a little imagination to see how they apply to many other kinds of people, including ourselves; and applying our imagination to those texts, rather than taking them in a limited “literal” way, is something iMonk generally encourages.

        • anonymous says

          if people want to get ‘more’ from the bible, then they darned well better let it speak to their souls in images and in parables

  11. johnbarry says

    So the 64, 000 dollar question, Did Jesus rise up from the dead, was he the Son of God, Emmanuel,, is that that part of the Bible to be believed and if it is not to be believed, what is the point of declaring yourself a Christian. Jesus would be just another self help, great guy who was not what he said he is.

    If Jesus did not rise from the dead he is the David Korish of his day or is he not? Is Easter a real event or just another metaphor? Do we trust the Gospels as the Gospel truth? I as usual am confused.

    • Christiane says

      J.B.

      the thing about ‘tradition’ is this:
      it holds the history of the blood ‘witness’ of the faith of Christian people prior to the formation of the Canon of the Bible

      It was the practice of the early Christians that on the places where martyrs fell, where the ground was soaked with their blood, that Churches were to be built right over those very places . . . .
      and, in future centuries, it came to be that the bones of the martyrs were placed under the altars of the Churches

      the Bible itself testifies to the way in which the early Christians marked where the martyrs fell, as sacred to the witness of Christ the Risen Lord:
      “9And when the Lamb opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony they had upheld.” (Rev. 6:9)

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Discounting all tradition leads to two things:
        Year Zero Syndrome
        and
        Reinventing the Wheel (over and over and over)

  12. Christiane says

    “Once again, how can the Bible change our perception of God?”

    if you want to knock the socks off of those fundamentalists who worship ‘the God of Wrath’;
    then try reading the whole Bible backwards with Christ as THE lens: Christ, the Lamb of God, who alone is worthy to ‘open the Scrolls’

    . . . . . start with this from Revelation:5
    “9 And they sang a new song: “Worthy are You to take the scroll and open its seals, because You were slain. . ”

    ” the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New”
    (credited to Augustine)

  13. Rick Ro. says

    Love the post, love reading most of the comments. Good discussion today!

  14. Norma Cenva says

    Long time Blake fan here, love the print up-top.
    I take a Jewish view on ‘What the Bible teaches’.
    For me it teaches only two things:
    Be a Mensch (Yiddish for good person), and don’t do the kinds of things to others you wouldn’t want done to yourself.
    The rest is just commentary.