September 28, 2020

Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible- by John Polkinghorne, Chapter 2- Development

Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible – by John Polkinghorne

Chapter 2- Development

In the Anglican lectionary, the reading for the sixth chapter of Joshua ends at verse 20, the triumphal entry of the Israelite army into the city, and omits the verse that follows.  That verse states, “Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep and donkeys.”  In 1 Samuel 15, Saul is rebuked by Samuel for not “wholeheartedly” obeying the command to “utterly destroy” the Amalekites, and loses the privilege of being King of Israel. Psalm 137:9 says, “Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.”

Now, just for my own amusement, I googled several apologetic sites to get a sense of how verses like these are explained.  If I had to summarize these explanations in one word that word would be “context”, which immediately brought to mind this video .  Yeah, let’s be honest here, there is no reconciling this picture of a vengeful God with the one given us by Jesus, who tells us to love our enemies:

 Matthew 5:43-48 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Here is a little montage for you to meditate on as we picture swinging these babies by their feet while we smash their heads against rocks.

There is simply no “context” where this isn’t barbaric and attributing this to the “will of God” presents a dilemma to an apologist that goes far beyond any rabbit-cud-chewing or bat-is-a-bird conundrum.  It goes to the very heart of who God is.  Here is Polkinghorne’s attempt at explanation:

I believe that response to this dilemma demands the recognition that the record of revelation contained in Scripture is one of a developing understanding of the divine will and nature, continuously growing over time but never complete, and quite primitive in its earliest stages.

The early Israelites had grasped the exclusive nature of the lordship of God, the One who whose claims denied the possibility of serving other gods.  The first commandment of the Law, after all, is “you shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).  Polkinghorne points out that in the earliest strata scholars can discern, the belief of Israel is “henotheism” or the idea that Yahweh is uniquely the One whom Israel worships and to whom it owes exclusive allegiance, but at this stage the deities of the surrounding tribes are treated as having some kind of reality as well.  It isn’t until the time of the writing of the second half of Isaiah, the so-called Deutero-Isaiah, that henotheism has uncompromisingly become monotheism.  Scholars place this time as being around the exile into Babylon.

In Polkinghorne’s opinion, ancient Israel could conceive no better insight than the use of force against unbelievers as the expression of its faithful following of Yahweh.  He says their interpretation of “you shall have no other gods before me” was a divine command to destroy the followers of false gods in the Promised Land by a ruthless holy war against them.  But by the time of the exile in Babylon and Deutero-Isaiah, there developed the idea of a deeper understanding as reflected in the “Servant Songs”, much different from that delivered from Samuel to Saul.

The four “Servant Songs” are:

  1. Isaiah 42:1-4
  2. Isaiah 49:1-6
  3. Isaiah 50:4-9
  4. Isaiah 52:13-53:12

Cristo na Noite by Chagall

The first of these songs speaks of the Servant as “one who will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench”.  This Servant is not a powerful military figure, like Joshua or David, who would reject the weak and ineffective.  The second song speaks of the Servant as being “a light to the Gentiles” and the last two songs clearly speak of a suffering Servant.  One who “offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting” (50:6).  And finally: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed (53:5).  Polkinghorne says:

Clearly very great development had taken place in between Joshua and Second Isaiah, and who can doubt that it had resulted from a deeper and truer understanding of God and God’s way?  Accepting this enables us to acknowledge the crudities and atrocities present in early Scripture without being drive to discard belief in the spiritual value of the Bible.  We can recognize within it an unfolding process of insight and understanding as God’s nature was progressively revealed.

Another example of this development in Hebrew thought, according to Polkinghorne, relates to the nature of individual responsibility.  Primitive society tended to think in collective terms, with the family spread out over successive generations as the primary unit.  Hence the second commandment can speak of God as a “jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me (Exodus 20:5).  The example would be Achan, convicted of stealing forbidden booty, his whole family is stoned and burnt with him (Joshua 7:22-26).  By the time of the exile, an individual understanding had replaced this terrible way of thinking which condemned the innocent with the guilty as shown in Ezekiel 18:20,

“The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them.”

It seems clear that before the Hebrew Bible reached it final form there was a long developmental process, involving reworking much that had been inherited from the past in light of the understanding and experiences of the present.  Yet the editors who assembled the final text apparently did not find it necessary to smooth out the differences present in the sources they used in order to produce the appearance of a single consistent text.  This exploration of the past was not to be totally obscured from view.  As Chaplain Mike said in the comments to my last post:

“And what I see is that Scripture is clearly an ancient book, written by ancient people in ancient settings according to ancient forms of literature. It is not only a divine book but a divine book inspired through those kinds of human channels. I have to take the humanity of the Bible just as seriously as I do its divine status. And if God chose to work that way and bring us his perspectives in that manner, then I have to read the Bible with that in mind and interpret what I read accordingly.

If I don’t do that, if I just sit back and say, “Well it’s God’s Word, therefore it must be this or that,” then I am not being a faithful steward of the mind God gave me.”

Likewise, in the New Testament, it is significant that the Church preserved the multiple perspectives offered by the four Gospels, rather than attempting a conflated harmonization.  Polkinghorne notes that the unfolding process of developing theological understanding that we find in the Bible has continued beyond the confines of Scripture itself.  The experiences and insights of the New Testament period led to the Christological and Trinitarian conclusions of the Church councils of the fourth and fifth centuries.  These council understandings arose from engaging with the testimony of the Bible, for example, from the way the New Testament writers, despite being monotheistic Jews, used language of divinity that produced an obvious tension unresolved in the New Testament itself.  Those of us who believe in the continuing work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:13) should not find this surprising.  As Polkinghorne concludes:

The role of development, within Scripture and after it, depends upon the fact that revelational disclosure is primarily personal rather than propositional, living and not petrified.


  1. It’s safe to say that it never is, and never has been, okay to smash babies’ heads against rocks, and no good God would ever or order or approve it. Funny thing is, the human race continues to do worse to babies. Nations drop bombs on each other’s cities, and the bombs not only smash the heads of babies, but actually completely obliterate the babies. It seems our view of God’s character has developed in a positive direction, but our own behavior lags significantly behind. I wonder, as barbaric as we continue to be, how can we possibly trust ourselves to use ethics as a guide in interpreting scripture, or understanding God’s true character?

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > our view of God’s character

      Or [simpler in my opinion] it is always incorrect to speak of people too collectively – as in “our” view. Plenty of people continue an ‘undeveloped’ view of God|god|gods. Let’s be honest: in many ways that is profitable.

      > how can we possibly trust ourselves to use…

      By selecting those among us who exhibit the fruits of the spirit [love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control], listening to them, and shunning the voice of the others.

      Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things. – Ph 4:8.

      We are often so easily distracted by the darkness that we fail [refuse] to see the light.

    • Mike the Geologist says

      Some 315,000 children around the world lose their lives to diarrheal illnesses before their 5th birthday, each and every year simply due to lack of clean water. Bringing water and sanitation to all would cost $10 billion a year. That, is one-tenth of what Europe spends on alcoholic drinks each year, about the same as Europe spends on ice cream and half of what the United States spends each year on pet food. “And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.” (Matthew 10:42)

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        Last projection I saw was that US consumers would consume ~140B gallons of gasoline in 2017 [that is B as in Billion]. So an estimated cost of $383,373,900,000 USD. 10B is 2.6% of that.

    • Not to mention ripping off their heads and limbs while in their most vulnerable state and think of ourselves as advanced and compassionate for doing so…

      • Come again?

        • Burro [Mule] says

          Think abortion.

          • john barry says

            William of L and Burro, I thought of abortion also but was afraid of going off topic. At least they waited until the fetus aka baby aka human was born before they smashed their head. William , you are spelling Lion wrong, if I am Lyoning I’m dying. Or President Clinton could be Bill of Lying. Talk about off topic, I am the pot.

            • I instantly knew what it was referring to, and it’s still wrong factually and Biblically. But hey, if it feels right and true, then that is what you choose to believe.

            • @john barry– c’est une ville en france.

              @StuartB– wow, that’s real fast.

              • john barry says

                W of L, I have been to Orleans unfortunately it was the New one. Usually people from Lyon have a lot of Gaul.

                • @john barry– I like you. You’re good people.

                  • john barry says

                    W of L, good to have a friend that speaks a little French. I am ignorant in 9 languages and illiterate in over 50. as you probably tell , Actually , I had an Aunt who thought I was speaking in tongues but I was trying to learn French in fifth grade. Aunt played the drums in her church, my brother and I thought that weird but she actually was a trail blazer.

                  • Lots of good people here, even ones who disagree with each other.

                  • Full disclosure: I used Google translate for that. But I do have a wife who’s part French and speaks it better than I do. Which isn’t saying much…

                    • john barry says

                      W of L, Full disclosure I use French’s mustard not Grey Pupon as I like it yellow, I eat the fries of the French and that is as close as I get to any relationship to the French language. I do not like French cooking as well as I do Scottish and dine frequently at the quaint, tastefully decorated Scottish restaurant in our town called McDonald’s. While not sure exactly how to communicate with the Scots who work there I usually order a #1 or #6 meal. They are very friendly to non Scots and sometimes even ask me to come back again, which is probably a Scottish tradition. I did wear kilts there once , trying to be sensitive to the McDonald heritage but was asked to leave. Of course this was under the administration of the first Mayor McCheese.

  2. Adam Tauno Williams says

    > the Hebrew Bible reached it final form there was a long developmental process

    It is clear that the seeds of what would germinate into what we moderns would recognize as “moral” was there in|near the beginning, planted, waiting…

    Most obviously Leviticus: When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God … And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger:

    Notice the distance between this edict and the going into foreign land and smashing babies.

    Of course, one can argue this text was finally composed subsequent to the era-of-invasion; an insertion of a more developed mind. That’s fair. We can’t date Leviticus to any earlier than 500BC.

    However the admonition about foreigners exists in other places, and I rather doubt it was inserted whole cloth across the Pentateuch. I suspect it was there in some nascent form from early on.

    It isn’t the kind of notion people are going to grab on to quickly; recognizing that is being honest about how humanity is. We divide so easily.

  3. senecagriggs says

    A sovereign God knows what we do not know. I don’t think I can say, “God would NEVER do this or that.” He’s omniscient, I am clearly not.

    [ C.S. Lewis wrote a book; God in the Dock [ i.e. He is on trial by us, His creation thinking we can judge the Creator.] Often in my life I’ve told God what I think would be best in certain situations. I assume He chuckles.

    I’ve often thought of some of the Old Testament hx as God recognizing human cancer and indicating the need for it to be removed or it would be destructive to His chosen people.

    If I held the baby Hitler in my hands, could I smash his head in? Probably not; I’d have trouble killing a chicken frankly. But God knows and I don’t and it would appear that if someone had killed the baby Hitler, humanity would have been well served.

    But again I’m not God.

    FINALLY, if I’m in an airplane that crashes and I alone survive; that’s the providence of God.
    On the other hand, if I’m in an airplane crash and I’m the only one to die; that too is the providence of God.

    These are not easy issues but I think we must be humble about our ability to accurately judge what is just and what is not.

    My oft prayer: “Lord, you know and I don’t.”

    • Mike the Geologist says

      Seneca: Thanks for the attempt to engage the post. I appreciate what you are saying, and I found similar reasoning in several apologetic sites I read, even though I rather sarcastically boiled them down to the one response of “context”. There is a two-fold problem I see with your reasoning, however.

      The first is the assumption that “God told them to kill babies” because of some foresight of God that would bring the most good. This is a variant of the “Canaanites were so evil they deserved it” theory also present in some apologetics. The real life reality of the situation was that the Israelites corrupted themselves regardless of the influence, or lack thereof, of the aboriginal inhabitants. Did the near-extermination of Native American “heathens” in this country result in good or evil for those who carried out the American haram? I think you know the answer to that. The presumption is that the Israelites were the “arm of the Lord” for judgment against the Canaanites. Well, both the Assyrians and the Babylonians were called “God’s judgement” against Israel for her sins. None of that justifies the barbaric atrocities committed nor indicates such atrocities are somehow “God’s will” in some inscrutable form. All people do evil stuff, the evil stuff is evil regardless of them claiming God told them to (i.e. see ISIS). You seem to be trying to maintain some notion of “biblical” justification just because it is recorded in the Bible. Polkinghorne’s “development” is a less morally problematic answer IMNSHO.

      The second problem I see is the basic moral question—could you kill one infant to save millions of lives?—is essentially a more dramatic version of the trolley problem, a thought experiment whereby a person must choose between a speeding trolley killing five people or diverting its course to kill one. The problem with the trolley-problem scenarios is that they frequently cause study participants to laugh, meaning they aren’t taking the experiment seriously—possibly because the scenarios don’t mirror believable, real-life moral dilemmas. The trolley dilemmas vividly distilled the distinction between two different concepts of morality: that we should choose the action with the best overall consequences (utilitarianism), like only one person dying instead of five, and the idea that we should always adhere to strict duties, like “never kill a human being.”

      So, you’re an Austrian living in the town of Braunau am Inn in 1889 who has a strong premonition that the wee baby Adolf is going to grow up to kill tens of millions of people, and you are thus driven to kill him. How do you know your predictions are correct? Because God told you? Do you do it? We put people in mental hospitals who kill their children “because God told them to”, don’t we? For one thing, baked into the premise of this question is the idea that the Nazis would not have risen to power, launched World War II, and carried out the Holocaust were it not for the existence of Adolf Hitler. But you can also imagine a history in which another leader emerged who was even more effective than Hitler. The Nazi Party still takes power, under a leader who, lacking Hitler’s personal character flaws, is able to acquire nuclear weapons, obliterate Moscow and St. Petersburg, conquer almost all of Europe permanently, exterminate the continent’s Jewish population, and carry on a cold war with the US indefinitely. You just don’t know the consequences of your actions, so, bottom line, don’t kill a baby. God doesn’t want you to kill babies, some bible passages seemingly to the contrary. How do I know that? Well, Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        Beautiful response.

        The theoretical moral questions [trolley problem, hilter baby, etc… ] always irk me as no real-world moral quandry exists without – often myriad – entanglements, history, side-effects, and unknowns. I get what they are for, intellectually, but they get trotted out into pastures where they don’t belong; usually to try to convince me|someone that an already assumed conclusion is clearly and simply the obvious one. Argh.

    • As a recovering Calvinist myself, I understand the impulse here. But one thing I have learned, is that God’s sovereignty cannot be taken in isolation, let alone as the primary way we should see Him. Human responsibility and freedom, and God’s redeeming love, get as much if not more airtime in the Bible as does God’s sovereignty.

      • Think of the number of souls saved and lives improved if we replaced Hitler with Calvin in that above example…

        Or Darby. Or Scofield. Imagine cutting out the ideas before the machine distills them into someone believes them so strongly they take action on them.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        But one thing I have learned, is that God’s sovereignty cannot be taken in isolation, let alone as the primary way we should see Him.

        Chesterton once wrote that Christianity is a dynamic balance between many doctrines, any of which in isolation could lay waste to the world.

    • Burro [Mule] says

      Thomas spent fifteen years in Tajikstan in the Peace Corps. Most of his work was simple development work; digging wells, setting up irrigation systems, teaching basic agronomy and animal husbandry. It was difficult work, but he had the feeling that he was accomplishing some good. Then during the Bush years, someone decided that because he spoke fluent Russian and Tajik it would be a good idea for him to teach the Tajiks the basics of Jeffersonian democracy and free-market economics. It was a horrible failure. Most of the time, the Tajik language fought against him, and the Russian language was little better. Most of the concepts he was trying to explain simply didn’t have words in Tajik, and were only roughly equivalent in Russian.

      “I would have have to have spent three generations just laying the foundations before they could begin to understand representative democracy. They’re tribal people. They think in terms of families, clans, and tribes. The idea of a citizen is as foreign to them as the selling of a daughter is to us. I don’t know what it would take to turn these people into a Western-style democracy.”

      “Probably a genetic mutation”, I replied, my lizard-brain betraying me before I could engage my filters. He looked at me and smiled. “You’re right”, he sighed. “I’ve thought that too, but I wouldn’t let that opinion become too widely known.”

      If we are going to use the idea of the development of doctrine and of progressive revelation, it would be helpful to pause a minute and think about why our view of the nicey-nice God who couldn’t possibly order the wholesale slaughter of women and children is superior to the Warrior of the Red Sea. What occurred to make mostly white people of Northern European extraction adopt this view of God? Was it entirely the leaven of the teachings of Jesus, or did the bureaucratic decision of the mediaeval Church to prohibit marriage between cousins of the second degree forcing Europeans to develop institutions to facilitate out-group cooperation play a role ?

      Just sayin’

      It is also hard to chart the course of such development forward. There are plenty of people on this board who think that celebrating the decision of Gerald and Leonard to have sex with each other and not anybody else is continuing along the same lines as allowing Richard and Mildred Loving to do the same. Those of us who feel uncomfortable with what to us is a false equivalence are told “we are on the wrong side of history”, as if history, like evolution, took sides.

      There are a lot of you here who virtue-signal like a lighthouse on a foggy coast. The answers to the problem of the poor kids in their poor countries drinking dirty water were predictable. Somebody should drive less, drink less alcohol, eat less ice cream, or feed their dogs less. Who was the wisdom to decree who should do what? Jesus gave us the answer. Almsgiving. None of us will enter the Kingdom of Heaven without it, or more accurately, none of us will be comfortable there without having practiced it here with a whole heart. I stand with my new friend William of Lyons; if you aren’t tithing regularly, and intelligently, I don’t want to hear your solutions.

      • Mike the Geologist says

        “Was it entirely the leaven of the teachings of Jesus…” Yes, yes it was. And my hope is that a little leaven will leaven the whole loaf. Just sayin’…

        • Burro [Mule] says

          As many questions as I begged in my little screed, I probably had that coming.

          I’ll let it rest.

      • @Mule

        Yes. An interesting thing about almsgiving–at least as I’ve heard it from a traditional perspective–is that it makes no promise of solving the world’s structural problems. Almsgiving is a lot smaller and more particular than the big, virtue-signalling grandstanding of modernity. World hunger–an abstract concept–doesn’t exist; that hungry person I pass on the way to work, however, does.

    • Iain Lovejoy says

      God isn’t just good and loving, the Bible says he actually *is* goodness and love. Goodness and love are real, identifiable qualities within the world which human beings are made so as to be able to recognise. Even human beings who gave no knowledge of God, or who reject the existence of God entirely, can recognise these qualities when they are present in the world. Because God is love, the presence of love and goodness in the world are the signature of God’s presence and action, and the essence of evil is their absence.
      To say something is good is to say that God is in it and acting in it, to say that something is evil is to say that it is not of God. Crucially, it doesn’t work the other way around. A thing that is evil can’t become good because God did it or commanded it: if it is evil it cannot be from God at all. To say “God would never do that” is not to put a limit on what God does or apply some external standard to God’s actions but is saying that such a thing cannot, in truth, be from God.
      Of course, you are right that we are not always in possession of the full facts and understanding so as to know whether something is or is not good, but if God is himself goodness and love you can’t simultaneously not understand how something can be good and loving and at one and the same time claim to understand it as being in truth the action or command of God. These are logically contradictory positions.
      If I read a passage in the Bible where God apparently commands or approves smashing a baby’s head against a rock, and I do not understand how this is good and loving, then I do not understand the passage and can draw no conclusions from it as to what God may or may not in fact be commanding or approving. How can you not know whether a thing is or is not good or just (which relates to things in the world you can see, and which you have a natural faculty for perceiving) but at the same time profess to know whether or not that same thing is or is not the will of God, whom you cannot see and whose thoughts and will are for the most part beyond our comprehension?

    • A “sovereign God” argument essentially distills as an argument for a god more like Moloch than Jesus.

      I have come to see the OT as a narrative of progressive understanding of YHWH, not YHWH progressively revealing himself. If the attempt is made to “harmonize” the OT narrative then the result is a deity of monstrous proportions–albeit “sovereign”.

  4. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    There is simply no “context” where this isn’t barbaric and attributing this to the “will of God” presents a dilemma to an apologist that goes far beyond any rabbit-cud-chewing or bat-is-a-bird conundrum.

    And if the apologetic response is “GOD SAID IT! I BELIEVE IT! THAT SETTLES IT!”?

    (In a way, such a “Here’s the Baby — Where’s the Rock?” response is actually more honest and direct than the convolutions you usually get.)

  5. Christiane says

    well, there are some other ways of looking at ‘The Ban’ that are worth examining . . .

    In His renewing all of Creation, Our crucified Lord has won a great victory for us over evil, and we know that ALL evil will be destroyed so completely by God that even death itself will die.

    I believe that the writings in the OT concerning ‘the Ban’ may be examined in the light of Christ crucified and resurrected . . . . and I actually believe that is the ONLY valid way that Christian people can reconcile the stories of the complete destruction of all evil by God with the gentle Lord Who spoke so lovingly of little ones.

    For those who hold to a strict literal interpretation of the Ban in the OT, it is not possible to see God as Christ reveals Him, no. But if the writings celebrate the complete and total destruction of all evil by God, then looking towards Calvary, we can see how it is that this was taken on by God Himself in the Person of Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Holy Trinity. Having taken our humanity to Himself in the mystery of the Incarnation, Our Lord’s death WAS the victory over evil, and His resurrection speaks to us of the renewal of His Creation in Him and through Him.

    Look at the Ban through the image of the crucified Christ, and there . . . on the Cross, you see the God’s victory over ALL evil and sin, past, present, future. It was HIS death instead of the destruction of His created beings that COMPLETELY takes away the power of evil, sin and death could not hold Him. So He is the One who dies for us. Because of love, for we are His creatures and we needed Him to have mercy on us.

    The gentle Lord Christ is not contradicted by the OT God of ‘the Ban’ because the gentle Lamb of God Himself IS the agent of ‘the Ban’ on evil, sin, and death for the sake of all of His creatures, for all time if they reach their hands out to Him to save them.

    It’s not a ‘literal’ viewpoint of the Ban, but I think there is something in my explanation that evangelical people can relate to if they focus on Christ Crucified. Plus, there is some biblical support for doing this in the fifth book of Revelation.

    • Christiane says

      I often hear evangelical people say ‘the Bible clearly says’ and I think:
      ‘I wonder from what point of view they read the Bible, then ?’

      Why would I think that? Well, in the early Church people also struggled with whether to take ‘the Ban’ (the ‘cherem’) literally or to see it in an allegorical sense. For some, the God of the OT seemed so destructive and different from the revelation of God by Jesus Christ, that these people decided to forget the OT and only use the New Testament. But the whole Church did not accept this idea, no. Instead, it came up that the whole Bible must be read as a ‘unit’ through the perspective of Our Lord.

      And how was this decided on? Well, they thought to read the whole Bible through the understanding of the bible as seen in the fifth chapter of the Book of Revelation, this:

      “1Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. 2And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” 3But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. 4I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. 5Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

      6Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spiritsa of God sent out into all the earth. 7He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. 8And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. 9And they sang a new song, saying:

      “You are worthy to take the scroll
      and to open its seals,
      because you were slain,
      and with your blood you purchased for God
      persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
      10You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
      and they will reign on the earth.”

      So there it was, right in sacred Scripture:

      the Lamb Who was slain, the gentle forgiving merciful lamb was the only one ‘worthy’ to open the ‘scroll’, the only One Who can explain its meaning to us . . . . Our Lord Himself

      I think it is ‘okay’ to read the Bible as a ‘whole’ and to examine its complexities through the lens of Jesus Christ . . .

      one of His titles: the Revealer of God 🙂

      after all, He Himself IS ‘the Word’, the Logos, Who spoke all into being and sustains creation in existence . . . . He alone can give meaning to the ‘scroll’, not Richard Dawkins, or the Marcionites, or the people who demand to only see the Scriptures in a literal sense . . .

      look to the Lamb Who was slain: the Crucified and Resurrected Christ as the Revealer of God, and then it makes sense to see ‘The Ban’ as God’s thorough and complete victory over evil

      • Christiane says

        And why would God NOT destroy His creatures in the way that a literal interpretation of The Ban suggests?

        Look at the Ban through the image of the crucified Christ, and there . . . on the Cross, you see the God’s victory over ALL evil and sin, past, present, future. It was HIS death instead of the destruction of His created beings that COMPLETELY takes away the power of evil, sin and death could not hold Him. So He is the One who dies for us. Because of love, for we are His creatures and we needed Him to have mercy on us.

        A nine-hundred years old Icelandic hymn speaks of a Christian’s trust in this ‘mercy’ of God to His own creatures:
        “‘… Hear me, Creator of the heavens . . . may softly come unto me Your mercy.
        So I have called unto Thee for You have created me . . . “

        • Mike the Geologist says

          Christiane: I can buy this interpretation. If I’m not mistaken, this is also the EO take too. I geuss we’ll have to wait for Dana Ames to weigh in.

          • Christiane says

            Hello Mike-The-Geologist,
            I’m trying to remember the name of the early Christian writer who fought Marcionism and had the idea to read the bible starting with Revelation and then going backwards, so that Christ would be ‘central’ to the whole of Scripture . . . . might have been an EO writer. 🙂 I’ll work on it.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        I often hear evangelical people say ‘the Bible clearly says’…

        My favorite example of “the Bible clearly says” is how the demon locusts of Revelation were clearly helicopter gunships loaded with chemical weapons and piloted by long-haired bearded hippies.


    • Burro [Mule] says


  6. Burro [Mule] says

    I’ll anticipate Dana by saying that the only way to interpret some portions of the Scripture is allegorically, i.e., the way some of the Fathers interpreted Psalm 137 to say that we should show no mercy to the passions when they bestir in us, but that we should ‘dash them against the stones of God’s prohibition’.

    In a beautiful metaphor whose origin of which I am not certain, the waters of the meditation of the Church flow over the stones of Scripture like the Jordan flowed over the head of the baptized Christ, reducing the sharp edges and reconciling the enmities.”

  7. Divine Command Theory, the view that whatever God says to do is right, a view promulgated by many of the most well known Christian apologists, is a fierce way of looking at things. And scary. Because what it means is that if these folks are convinced they are doing God’s will they are capable of anything.

    “I believe that response to this dilemma demands the recognition that the record of revelation contained in Scripture is one of a developing understanding of the divine will and nature, continuously growing over time but never complete, and quite primitive in its earliest stages.”

    Then the question becomes, did this “developing understanding of the divine will and nature” stop at the end of the New Testament period?

    • Mike the Geologist says

      I do not agree with DCT. Also Polkinghorne did not think development stopped at the end of the NT period. Look at the paragraph in the post that starts “Likewise, in the New Testament…

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Divine Command Theory, the view that whatever God says to do is right, a view promulgated by many of the most well known Christian apologists, is a fierce way of looking at things. And scary.

      “Ich habe nur meine Befehle ausgefert.”

  8. john barry says

    The Presbyterian Church USA wanted to change the lyrics of a relative new hymn from “on that cross the wrath of God was satisfied” to “the love of God was magnified” , I paraphrased somewhat, the hymn is In Christ Alone. Why did they want the change, which by the way was not allowed by the writers? It alludes to the thought provoking article above. God paid the price for our salvation after showing man he could not do it, even if man killed all the babies in the world or gave every baby a good life. God demanded a payment for mans sin, then he in his mercy provided the payment. . In my untrained , simple mind it Is the foreshadowing once again of the New Testament and the new for a new convent . Man could never do what only God could do though his actions. The people destroyed in the OT were personified evil in this world, man alone cannot conquer evil or gain salvation alone, it is only though Christ alone who paid for our sins. It seems to me , untrained and simple that once the “wrath” of God equation is removed you have changed the meaning of the Cross. The story of the Bible is love, God’s love for his children. Could God have wrath and love or should we only promote the love, why did they want the wrath part removed for their “new hymnal ?
    Man could never get rid of sin and evil in the world as it is impossible. Jesus came to make personal salvation available though personal trust and belief not corporate actions. You would have to kill everyone on earth including yourself to make the world sinless , man cannot do in any way what God did though his Son. I believe that is the fore shadowing lesson.. My point is the bronze age people thought in corporate,, tribal terms and would understand the “kill them all” violent commandments, then God sent his Son when the time was right . Even before the birth of Jesus you could see the beginning of changing laying the foundation for the NT.
    As usual, Mike the G Man, another thought provoking article. You could provide a cheat sheet at end and give the “answers” to the questions raised. You know why people think Polkinghorne is so smart, because he is ! I am currently applying my 2 years of high school business math to validate Polinghorne’s math work, so far it seems I should have taken 3 years of business math as I do not understand much of his work but I will have to take it on faith, on faith alone or should I say confidence alone? Again thanks for your input here.

    • Mike the Geologist says

      John: you will be very interested to read the Orthodox take on the Wrath of God via Fr. Stephen Freeman. See

      • Another Orthodox site, Eclectic Orthodoxy, speaks of the imprecatory psalms as being directed against demons not humans.

        Sorry, I still haven’t learned how to embed a link…

      • john barry says

        Mike, the G, thanks for the link , , very interesting, very good. Is it the Orthodox take on the Wrath of God or Fr. Freeman take on it , I guess my bad worded question is , is that the “official” Orthodox take or Fr. Freeman expounding on his views? I do not know much about the Orthodox faith, so forgive my ignorance , but I guess I could add that to any of my post, either at the end or the beginning, Thanks again

        • Mike the Geologist says

          My understanding is that Fr. Freeman tries to put the Orthodox take into modern English. I don’t think he believes in “free-wheeling” much.

        • Fr Stephen ALWAYS prefaces his opinion with “In my view,” or “In my experience.” Otherwise, he endeavors to clearly set forth Orthodox teaching.

          In Orthodoxy, we’re allowed to have opinions (as long as they’re not heretical), take ’em or leave ’em – even clergy opinions. However, when priests and bishops are teaching, they are obliged to hand on the faith, not their opinions. Fr Stephen is extremely consistent in this.


          • Christiane says

            I loved how Fr. Stephen ended his post with humility . . . . what a refreshing change from the hubris of so many who are so sure of themselves:

            “I also beg other Christians to be done with their imagery of the wrathful God. They do not know the God of Whom they speak. Forgive me.”

            I am in awe of people who live out their humility in imitation of Christ. Imagine having one of them for a spiritual advisor. Talk about being grounded in the Holy Spirit. Fr. Stephen’s humility gives him a gravitas that many a shrieking preacher full of hubris and self-righteousness could never possess.

            Thanks for sharing those links.

            You know, the tradition of Christian people who have a Catholic/Orthodox understanding of the full meaning of the Incarnation will ALWAYS focus in on Christ as the ultimate ‘Revealer of God’. And for those who are not of that tradition, there are some of great humility, like the Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who also found greater meaning in the Incarnation.
            What a difference for those fundamentalists who are devotees of their own interpretations of sacred Scripture who are reading about ‘The Ban’ and from their own interpretations forming God in their OWN image, rather than seeing God most clearly in the revelation of God in Christ. What a frightening wrathful ‘god’ they have created!
            As Father Stephen noted: ” we cannot portray God as other than as He has shown Himself to us in Jesus Christ. To do so makes the Bible greater than Christ.”

            • john barry says

              Christiane, Hank Williams Jr. was big fan of tradition , his song “Family Tradition” tells of why he does certain things. We know what God looks like because a little 6 year old boy was in Sunday School drawing a picture of God, when told that no one knew what God looked liked , he stated “They will when I am finished drawing this picture”. He was probably a fundamentalist with a greater emphasis on the fun.
              I think even some of the fundamentalist grasp the meaning of Emmanuel , if they have time between the snake handling and speaking in tongues and brushing their tooth.. Where do we learn about Jesus, how do we know about Jesus? We read and study the Bible, we worship and love Jesus, I think that applies to all Christians even fundamentalist,. One of the hickey Christmas songs that the fundamentalist sing when they have their partial dentures in is O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, but the fundamentalist probably believe that is about Emmanuel , the Mexican grounds keeper who should come to put out the Christmas lawn decorations.
              The fundamentalist even have a saying ” the beginning of wisdom is fear” that they may have read somewhere but fear of what? No one has told them. Perhaps they fear going to the dentist. Those who fear the Lord have a continual awareness of Him and a deep reverence for his unknowable power.

              • The fundamentalists are afraid because, much as they pine for him, Immanuel Kant come, O come.

                • john barry says

                  Robert F. , Kant come or will not come? Based on my knowledge of the German language , I believe Immanuel means a ” German philosopher with us”. In modern European history I think the lesson would be fear of the German army is the beginning of wisdom. Can’t believe they spelled Kant with a K, that cannot be right .

  9. Apropos of Christiane’s comments, the Eastern Fathers all pushed toward a Christologic interpretation of all of the OT. They saw the deepest meaning of that “dashing their heads upon the rocks” passage as referring to us destroying our inclinations and thoughts toward sin against the Rock that is Christ. In EO, psalm 137 is featured at the beginning of Lent, when it is chanted very mournfully, and pretty much no other time. Whatever happened in ancient Israel, we know that God doesn’t want us to carry out such things “literally”. The Cross is the end (telos, as well as the ending in time, cultically) of all those unspeakably horrible actions.


    • Mike the Geologist says

      Agreed, Dana. But the problem is that some literalists seem to think that God meant for the Israelites to take him literally, while Polkinghorne’s point is that it was NOT God’s viewpoint ever, but an Israelite misinterpretation of God’s wlll that even they eventually outgrew by the time of the exile.

      • Understood. And even if that all wasn’t “systematically” compiled until around the time of the Babylonian Exile, as a plain document, the Jews were commenting on their own history for their own purposes. Those purposes antedated and were not related to the interpretation Christians understood on the other side of the Cross.

        The Eastern Fathers weren’t literalists and weren’t concerned with “inerrant historical accuracy,” having quite a different view of “history”. Their view was: God gave us the Scripture we have – the OT, remember – for His purposes; the fullest interpretation of it is seen through the lens of Incarnation, Cross and Resurrection of Christ; and whether God commanded herem or not, the things worth actually taking away from those portions of Scripture is 1) the understanding that we have the ability, with our life joined to Christ’s, to interrupt the progression of sin before it gets to the point of real action and damage; and 2) the end of all evil is in the Cross.


  10. Heather Angus says


    The video was perfect!

  11. senecagriggs says

    I think it is in inclination of man to make God in man’s [ or mine ] image. But I believe God overshadowed all the Scriptures though in his wisdom/providence, he allowed to be revealed through quite imperfect vessels.

    But there must be something special about Scripture; how else does one account for the millions of Bible that have been produced and continue to be produced. NOTHING else comes close. How many thousands of martyrs have there been who were willing to die for this book.

    Conservative Evangelicals do not think of O.T. authors as semi-illiterate nomads who were just speaking the culture of the day. but they were vessels for God’s word/instructions and history to mankind and His word is “true truth.”

    Personally, I do a lot of things “half assed” but that surely is not true of the eternal, creator God. There is no hint that I can see of His being casual about truth.

    So though Polkinghorne is quite impressive, he is not all knowing, not omniscient and is in fact also “bent by the sin nature” just like me.

    He has his opinions but he is not God.

    • senecagriggs says

      Quick note: in the relatively near future, ALL of James Polkinghorne’s writing will be O.O.P. [ Out of print }
      Scripture will never be O.O.P.

    • How many thousands of martyrs have there been who were willing to die for this book.

      Honest question: do you have any examples of people willing to die for this book?

  12. senecagriggs says

    I googled your question. Here’s one book listed.

    • Good find. Thank you.

      So we know of at least one 30 year period in the mid-1500s when people died because they chose to translate the Bible into another language.

      I wonder for how long was it a matter of “the bible was guarded by priests in another language” but rather “who would read this if we translate it? no one is literate and there are no printing presses”…

      • Christiane says

        Hello Senecagriggs and StuartB,
        StuartB wrote: “I wonder for how long was it a matter of “the bible was guarded by priests in another language” but rather “who would read this if we translate it? no one is literate and there are no printing presses”

        well, if you trace the history of sacred Scripture in Britain from the King James Bible back into previous centuries, you will come to Tyndale, Wyclif, and before them, Alcuin.
        And before Alcuin, to Ceolfrith and to the ‘Lindisfarne Gospels’ which were copied and illuminated beautifully (in the tradition of the Book of Kells) in the ‘scriptorium’ room at Lindisfarne Abbey (founded by Aiden).
        You see, the tradition of the ‘scriptoriums’ (rooms where Scripture was copied by hand) goes back even further to the time of the Septuagint scholars who were set to work on the island in the harbor of Alexandria and produced a Greek translation of the Old Testament, through Saint Jerome and his Vulgate tradition, through Cassiodorus and his reworking of Jerome’s Vulgate of the old Latin texts.

        The Lindisfarne Gospels represent the ancient tradition of ‘recieving what was handed down and preserving it to pass on intact’,
        and in the scriptorium on Lindisfarne, the hand-written sacred texts were copied with great care according to that tradition.
        The printing-press would not be invented for another eight centuries into the future, so these monastic scriptoriums were an important connection for the sacred writings to be preserved and passed on.

        It’s good to know something of the history of how sacred Scripture ended up in your hands . . . there was a long line of people who cared greatly that this should happen, and they too were members of the Body of Christ and a part of the heritage of all Christian people.

  13. Mike Geologist,

    You might like this article, esp the last paragraph:

    Do read (or listen to) anything by Fr John Behr. He is striding ahead as one of this generation’s premier Orthodox theologians.


  14. It seems to me that “conservative” voices and perspectives are having plenty of input in the comments here lately. And I notice that no one has chased them, or tried to chase them, out of the Great Hall. So if anyone is tempted in the near future to think that only progressive, so-called Justice Warrior, virtue-signalling bleeding hearts like mine are the only ones welcome or allowed at iMonk, please think again. There is evidence to the contrary right here on these threads.

    • Christiane says

      That there is a blog that operates like Lewis’ ‘Great Hall’ is something to celebrate with joy. And we owe this celebration to the memory of Michael Spencer and also out of thankfulness to Chaplain Mike that it IS possible to come here from many different ‘rooms’.
      I think this blog may be especially unique in the diversity of its commentators. Surely there are other blogs, perhaps Wade Burleson’s might fit this model, but Michael Spencer was among the first to begin to open up a space for people to gather and talk to one another civilly and with respect, even people from vastly different Christian orientations. I am grateful for this blog, yes. And very thankful to Chaplain Mike for his devotion in keeping it going in Michael’s memory. I think it is a fitting way to remember Michael who made us all think it was ‘okay’ to come out of our bubbles and meet one another in this ‘safe place’ where we could communicate with other long-separated ‘members of the family’ so to speak. 🙂

  15. john barry says

    Robert F. , I agree with you that this a welcoming and open dialogue site . I want to interact with those who think and have different ideas than I . This gives me a chance to explain why they are wrong (joke). I have met many people who think as I but then they put them on medication and spoiled it. Very good articles and very knowledgeable input with the “regulars”. Christiane , you are right to commend Chaplin Mike and to me his basic goodness comes alive though this site. I am sure Michael Spencer is proud of this part of his legacy still carrying forth and that makes this site a little more special. If I was going to amend something I would make free speech one of the first. I like Robert F. am a social justice warrior as long as it is justice for me and do not mind bleeding hearts as long as it is not mine. Being a progressive thinker I believe the earth revolves around the sun and me. I think John Travolta was the first “bubble boy” years ago and looked what happened to him.

  16. Iain Lovejoy says

    A bit late to the party, but I think I “get” Psalm 137. The problem is that we are reading it as if Israel were still oppressed by Babylon. I think Polkinghorne has got it wrong about “development”: regardless of the age of the writings from which it was taken, the Bible was compiled in Jesus’s time (more or less) and regardless of authorial intention Jesus tells us as Christians it is all about him.
    Psalm 137 is sandwiched between Psalm 136 which recalls God’s earlier deliverance from Egypt, and Psalm 138, a hymn of thanks for salvation attributed to David. More importantly, no-one could pray Psalm 137:9 as a genuine request, because it prays for the destruction of Babylon as a future event. It says that happy *will be* he who brings down this bloody revenge on Babylon, it prays for such vengeance to come upon the Babylonians to free Israel from oppression. But Babylon had already fallen when the psalm was included in the Bible. The Jews had already been freed. The Psalm is a reminder that they despaired in Babylon and in their despair prayed this blasphemous prayer (and it is frankly blasphemous) but God delivered them, as he had done before (Psalms 136 & 138). The Psalm is about taking comfort in the assurance salvation from their current oppressor was coming, as indeed it was in Jesus, and not praying so foolishly and blasphemously again.

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