More From Iain Provan on “Dangerous” Religion

Poussin,_Nicolas_-_The_Victory_of_Joshua_over_the_Amalekites dsWe recently finished a long series on Iain Provan’s new book Seriously Dangerous Religion. The final post (Dangerous or Not? … We Can’t Ignore Joshua) touched on an issue that concerns many in discussions of the Old Testament. I outlined Provan’s approach as I saw it in the book and offered some thoughts of my own. Today I have a response from Iain Provan on this topic. Although he offered this response to be posted, he won’t be available to participate in comments.

(The images in today’s post are of paintings by Nicolas Poussin, ca. 1625-1626, depicting his view of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan.)


Dear RJS:

I’ve been following with great interest your posts on Seriously Dangerous Religion for the last several months, and all the comments they have generated. I want to thank you very much for your thorough and accurate reporting on the content of the book – I feel very well represented!

Now that your posts are concluded, I wonder if I could enter the discussion on the point that is the focus of the final one? In this post, you say that “a valid case can be made that The Old Story is intrinsically dangerous if it actively teaches and encourages violence and warfare.” I do agree with this sentiment. So the question is: does the Old Testament do such things? It certainly describes violence and warfare in the ancient world – but does it actively teach and encourage us to engage in these activities? After all, there are many actions described in the Old Testament that cannot reasonably be taken by the alert reader of Scripture as intended for our imitation (e.g. David’s adulterous actions with respect to Bathsheba). This includes many actions commanded by God – since the alert Scripture reader knows that God commanded ancient Israelites to do many things that are not required of the Church (e.g. to engage in animal sacrifice). So we need to be discriminating in our judgments when it comes to questions of “teaching” and “encouragement.” My own judgment with respect to herem warfare very much agrees with your own: “We are not called to purify the land or to establish a holy kingdom by force.” That is absolutely correct, in my opinion.

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The Soul and New Creation

Lake and SkyThe next couple of chapters in John Polkinghorne’s little book The God of Hope and the End of the World address the questions of personhood, the soul, and new creation. Christianity hope is founded in God and his work in the world through Jesus, the Messiah of God; it is founded in the reality of resurrection – individual, personal, physical resurrection. But resurrection and the age to come lead to questions of their own.

What is the essence of a human person?

What is the soul? What is preserved or resurrected?

What will new creation be like?

New creation can’t simply be more of the same (subject to decay and the never-ending increase in entropy). But it also doesn’t seem likely that it is simply beautiful scenery, peace, and singing alleluia in timeless eternity. In the new creation we continue to live, learn, and experience.

What is the soul? Polkinghorne asks “What is it that will connect our present life to our future life in that new world whose character will be so different?” The human psyche is attached to a material body in an inseparable fashion. Psychology and neuroscience are making this ever clearer. A simple dualistic view of body and soul simply doesn’t seem appropriate. We are better described as animated bodies than incarnated souls. Polkinghorne ruminates on the nature of the soul.

Whatever the human soul may be, it is surely what expresses and carries the continuity of living personhood. We already face within this life the problem of what that entity might be. The soul must be the ‘real me’ that links the boy of childhood to the ageing academic of later life. If that carrier of continuity is not a separate spiritual component, what else could it be? It is certainly not merely material. … What does appear to be the carrier of continuity is the immensely complex ‘information bearing pattern ‘ in which that matter is organised. This pattern is not static; it is modified as we acquire new experiences, insights and memories, in accordance with the dynamic of our living history. It is this information-bearing pattern that is the soul. (p. 105-106)

This information bearing pattern requires some kind of material body, but it is not simply material. In this way of thinking, the preservation of the human soul depends on God’s faithfulness and re-embodiment in resurrection is an act of God. Simply put, immortality is not an intrinsic feature of human existence, body or soul. The connection between a material body and the ‘real me’ is complete. Death is a real end. This means that immortality is (and always was) a divine gift. God is in control and death need not be the ultimate end. God can, and in Christian belief will, re-embody the “information bearing pattern’ that constitutes the human ‘soul.’ Polkinghorne goes on:

In other words, there is indeed the Christian hope of a destiny beyond death, but it resides not in the presumed immortality of a spiritual soul, but in the divinely guaranteed eschatological sequence of death and resurrection. Only a hope conceived of in this way can do full justice to human psychosomatic unity, and hence to the indispensability of some for of re-embodiement for a truly human future existence. The only ground for this hope – and the sufficient ground for this hope, as we have already emphasised – lies in the faithfulness of the Creator, in the unrelenting divine love for all creatures.

Although the discussion thus far is focused on individuals, Polkinghorne suggests that there is a significant relational and collective dimension to the ‘information bearing patterns’ (souls) that comprise the individuals. Resurrection will involve a perfected incorporation of believers into the ‘body of Christ,’ the church, imperfect and yet so necessary even in this life. Individuals are resurrected into community and relationships intact, healed, and continuing.

What kind of world will the resurrected re-embodied soul inhabit? The current world is the kind of world God purposed. The ongoing development and unfolding history is part of his plan. This includes natural history in the development of the universe and the diversity of life and and it includes the unfolding of human history. This is a world of transience.

The age to come, new creation, must involve a real discontinuity and have a fundamentally different character. From our current perspective we simply cannot know how this will work and must take it on trust. Although the current world takes the form it does as part of God’s plan, Polkinghorne notes “there is no reason to suppose that the Creator can not bring into being a new creation of a different character when it is appropriate to the divine purpose to do so.” (p. 114) He looks to scripture for some hints as to the form the new creation will take.

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Dangerous or Not? … We Can’t Ignore Joshua

Seriously_Dangerous_ReligionWe’ve now finished Iain Provan’s book Seriously Dangerous Religion with subtitle: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why It Matters. In the postscript to his book Provan sums up his argument. There are a variety of different worldviews at play in our world each with its own particular story of the past. In this mix of stories some claim that the biblical story is an outgrown superstition, with the Old Testament focused on tribal gods and bronze age ethics and the New Testament not much better. The biblical Old Story is said to be downright dangerous. Provan counters and concludes:

It is this Old Story, I propose, into which we still need to read ourselves even in these late modern or postmodern times, as many have done in earlier times if we want to understand who we are and how we ought to live. In fact, it is this Old Story that provides the most secure foundation upon which to build the better future for humankind (and for the planet) for which many of its detractors are looking. It is an Old Story that is big enough and deep enough and long enough to ground a New Age—whether that age is “axial” or not. (p. 409)

Provan’s book is excellent, and I learned much from reading it and interacting with the questions he raises. The Old Story is is big enough and deep enough and long enough to ground a our age and many ages to come.

Still important questions remain. Provan is an Old Testament scholar and his book is focused on the sweep of the Old Testament. He is particularly intent on countering the claims that the Old Testament is, quite simply, a problem. He does this with a detailed discussion of what the Bible really teaches. In some areas he did this quite well – in others, perhaps not so well. A commenter on the last post accused him of stacking the deck to make his point.

That’s cherry picking.

Let’s try a different set of questions.

Is collective punishment justified? Can we ask that question instead?

(The commenter goes on to relate this to the current Israel-Palestine conflict – see the original comment if interested.) The warfare described in Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 Samuel can certainly raise some important questions here – as can some of the passages in the prophets calling down judgment on various people groups.

And a second comment after I made a short response to the first:

I’m working off your summation above, which seems to pitch softball questions with acceptable answers. You could interview Nixon, and if you asked the right questions, you could paint a (selective) portrait of a man that is very positive. And then you could question why people ever had a problem with him in the first place. Dawkins and others have criticized barbaric bronze-age morality in the Old Testament. If you selectively pick and choose what moral issues and examples you tackle and how, of course you can at the end of it sit back and say, “well there’s no problem to see here. Why all the criticism?”

These comments raise important points. I have some thoughts in response and welcome thoughts from others as well.

First, Dawkins and others who have criticized “barbaric bronze-age morality in the Old Testament” can be accused of cherry picking as well – this time picking the particularly bad, worm infested, rotten cherries. These passages are present – but it is also true that justice, generosity to the poor, care for the weak, the powerless, the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner among you runs through the Old Testament. This theme is inescapable and overwhelming – and it certainly is not “barbaric” morality, in the bronze age or any other age. It is no more justifiable to negate this ethic running through the Old Testament than it is to ignore the “problem passages.” The real shame is that so many Christians, while purporting to believe the Old Story ignore this deeply running theme.

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The ˀādām in Genesis 1-5

Lost World of Adam and EveThe next two propositions in John Walton’s new book The Lost World of Adam and Eve focus on the use of the word ˀādām in Genesis 1-5 and on the purpose of the creation accounts found in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. In this post we will consider both of these propositions.

Once upon a time there was a man named Human. The first thing to note is that the word ˀādām is a Hebrew word meaning human. It is used in a variety of ways in Genesis 1-5. It is used as the term for human referring to human beings as a species, it is used to refer to the male of the species, and it is used to refer to a particular male individual functioning as a name. However, Walton also points out that ˀādām is a Hebrew word and Hebrew as a language did not exist until “somewhere in the middle of the second millenium B.C.” that is, after the Patriarchs.

If these are not historical names, then they must be assigned names, intended by the Hebrew-speaking users to convey a particular meaning. Such a deduction leads us to the second observation. In English, if we read that someone’s name is “Human” and his partner’s name is “Life,” we quickly develop an impression of what is being communicated (as, for example, in Pilgrim’s Progress, where characters are names Christian, Faithful, and Hopeful). These characters, by virtue of their assigned names, are larger than the historical characters to whom they refer. They represent something beyond themselves. Consequently, we can see from the start that interpretation may not be straightforward. More is going on than giving some biographical information about two people in history. (p. 58-59)

This is a case where transliteration into English may obscure the meaning of the text. Walton suggests that the only places where the word should be transliterated as a name are in the genealogies of Genesis 5:1-5. Genesis 4:1 and 25 are anomalous. But in Genesis 1-3 the word is generic referring to mankind or is referring to “an individual serving as a human representative.”

Such representation could be either as an archetype (all are embodied in the one and counted as having participated in the acts of that one) or as a federal representative (in which one is serving as an elect delegate on behalf of the rest). In either case the representational role is more important than the individual. Only in cases where the word is indefinite and by context being used as a substitute for a personal name would the significance be tied to the individual as an individual, historical person. (p. 61)

The story of the man named Human and the woman named Life is about more than two people with given names Adam and Eve. Walton considers Human and his wife, Adam and Eve, to have been genuine historical characters. This will come up later in his book. However, the purpose of the text is bigger than relating the history of these two individuals. Consideration of the structure of Genesis 2 helps to make this clearer.

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Is the Story Dangerous?

Seriously_Dangerous_ReligionThe final chapter of Iain Provan’s book Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why It Matters gives an answer to the question suggested by the title. Is Christianity, grounded as it is in the Old Testament Story with new dimensions from the New Testament, actually dangerous? Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything) among others have suggested that religious belief in general and Christian belief in particular is downright dangerous.

I have argued in chapter 13 that the biblical story about how the world came to be, what the human place in it is, and how we should live here is plausible. Is it at the same time dangerous? As the biblical book of Proverbs observes, a prudent person will always want to avoid danger. Is there danger, then, in biblical faith, from which we might wish to “take refuge,” rather than “keep going and suffer for it”? My argument in this chapter, in brief, will be as follows: there is some danger, but not of the kind that people often imagine. Biblical faith is dangerous only in promoting the good. (p. 379-380)

A key point here – there are versions of the biblical faith (although Provan would claim that they are not really biblical) that are dangerous. There are versions that lead people to consider creation as a consumable and to consider others as subhuman or subservient in some fashion. These perversions are dangerous, but the Old Story is only dangerous in promoting the good. Provan divides his discussion into six sections and I will follows his outline here.

On God and the World. Is devotion to one God, the (supposed) creator of the world dangerous? Provan quotes several writers who make this claim. But the danger of monotheism must depend on the character of the one God and what this means for the way that his/her followers should live.

For example, if the one God is not “for” all creatures, but only “for” human beings, and he wills that I should live in a manner consistent with this “truth,” then it may well be that nonhuman creation will suffer. Again, if the one God is not “for” all human beings, but only “for” me and my tribe or my state, and he wills that I should live in a manner consistent with this “truth,” then bigotry and violence toward other human beings may well follow. If, however, the one God is the kind of person that I have described in this book, such consequences do not at all follow. In this case, I find myself obliged to imitate a God who is generous to all of his image bearers, and who cares for all of his creatures, human or not. I am obliged to “keep”both neighbor and garden. (p. 381)

Provan has argued that God is for all and we are to view all humans as his image bearers while keeping his “garden” on earth. This isn’t dangerous. Far from it. Now it is certainly possible to point to examples of people who acted in rather unfortunate (even despicable) ways in the name of Christianity. But in the same times and places it is possible to find examples of Christians who were governed by the command to love and keep both fellow humans and the earth. The belief in the one God of biblical faith as such cannot be the problem. Nor is abandonment of such belief the solution. Certainly absence of such belief has not prevented violence. Violence is as old as the human race and penetrates all forms of human society, monotheistic, polytheistic, spiritualist, atheist.

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A Tossed Salad

saladWhen I was growing up we had tossed salad with dinner quite often, especially during the summer. My dad would make the salad, with tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, radishes, and such, cut up small and tossed together, well mixed. When we had company he would also make the salad and the mixed up tossed together nature would get comment. He used no salad dressing, only some celery salt and pepper. The rest of us often added dressing (I’m partial to blue cheese myself). Today I will add bacon bits, croutons, and cheese to the mix as well. In his new book A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together Scot McKnight uses a metaphor of a salad bowl to describe church – the way it too often is as opposed to the way it should be. He would approve of my dad’s salads, a mixture of flavors unspoiled by a strong and uniform dressing.

I read A Fellowship of Differents over the weekend and heartily recommend the book. It will make a good discussion starter in a wide range of situations, raising important and thought provoking questions.

The point is simple, but not easy. As a good tossed salad, the church should be a mixture of different kinds of people, not a uniform gathering of “likes” – the same age, race, culture, class, education, or even precisely the same theology slathered over with uniform tastes. The church is not called to be a melting pot. Scot adds personal reflection to his book, and I will take the same liberty. I was fortunate to grow up in a church with a broad range of ages, educational levels, and income. The racial mix was rather (but not completely) uniform – however, this matched the surrounding community. We were not fundamentalists, and tolerated discussion and a range of views on many kinds of issues. Not big on “end times” discussions, with something of a range of views in the church. There were also a range of views on the age of the earth. I learned later that our pastor had played a role in keeping the local conference of our denomination from adopting a young earth type position. We were not separatists – but we certainly viewed ourselves as different from the surrounding culture. And this shaped the way I view the local church – even yet today.

Scot comments:

So here’s my claim after that romp through the church of my youth: Everything I learned about the Christian life I learned from my church. I will make this a bigger principle: a local church determines what the Christian life looks like for the people in that church. Now I’ll make it even bigger still: we all learn the Christian life from how our local church shapes us. These three principles are a way of saying that our local churches matter far more than we often know. (p. 15)

The message I learned growing up was that we were different, not on grounds of strict theology, but because we were not “Sunday morning Christians” (like those Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Episcopalians). Today I realize that many of the others were as committed as we, but this was the message I picked up at the time. Church wasn’t something we did for an hour or two each week, but a community we were a part of and were committed to. This certainly shapes my views today – church focused on a short staff run service for one hour a week hardly seems real. Community requires a much larger range of opportunity for participation and interaction. Small groups were not a part of the church I grew up in, and although I’ve had some good experiences in small groups in later years, I remain convinced that they can’t bear the entire load. Small groups are too homogeneous – generally intentional gatherings of peers rather than a fellowship of differents. We need a broader range of interactions.

No local church is perfect, but the local church matters. And the form it takes and teaches shapes the people who attend. The question then becomes “what form should the church take?” Throughout A Fellowship of Differents, Scot looks to Paul’s letters, the various early (imperfect) churches described, and the picture of Christian life Paul envisions. There is far too much in the book for one short post, so I will focus on a few points that stuck out as I was reading.

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Posted in Christian Life, Church

And It Was Very Good

Lost World of Adam and EveJohn Walton’s new book The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate explores a topic at the center of much of the controversy between science and Christian faith. Following the format used in his earlier books The Lost World of Genesis One and The Lost World of Scripture the chapters are organized according to propositions about the text and its interpretation. The first five propositions summarize concepts from the first two books and his more scholarly book Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology. These propositions focus on the nature of scripture and the interpretation of Genesis 1 to provide a necessary foundation for the move into Genesis 2 and 3 and the problem of Adam. Today’s post will outline the major ideas in this foundation.

Genesis is an Ancient Document. The better we understand the ancient context, the better we will understand the message of the text. Walton will often remind us that Genesis was written for us but it was not written to us. As scripture it is for everyone, but this does not remove the need for continued study and interpretation. Every translation involves interpretation.

lucas_cranach_God_as_Creator_Luthers_BibleSome ideas in the text are incidental arising from the ancient Near Eastern culture, they are not part of the message of the text. For example, Genesis assumes that the waters above are separated from the waters below by a solid dome of some sort. Most people until very recently would have had no trouble believing this and it was a common view in the church, as the picture from Lucas Cranach included in Luther’s bible illustrates. Today we know this isn’t true and most don’t feel that this “error” undermines biblical authority. Likewise, we no longer view people as thinking with their intestines, even though this language is used in the text of scripture. Genesis isn’t a science text and it isn’t teaching science. We would do well to remember this and to avoid reading modern science back into the text or out of the text.

The need for expertise and scholarship to dig the depth of meaning from the text is simply a fact. We all walk alongside and stand on the shoulder of others as we read and study the text. Walton goes on:

Such study is not a violation of the clarity (“perspicuity”) of Scripture propagated by the reformers. They were not arguing that every part of Scripture was transparent to any casual reader. If they believed that, they would not have had to write hundreds of volumes trying to explain the complexities of interpretation at both exegetical and theological levels. They were, instead, trying to make the case that there was a “plain sense” of Scripture that was not esoteric, mystical, or allegorical and could only be spiritually discerned. Everyone could have access to this plain sense. (p. 22-23)

A better understanding of ancient Hebrew, ancient Near Eastern culture, literature, expectations, genres, styles, daily life, all of these will improve our understanding of Scripture. We need careful scholarship and we all need to pay attention to this scholarship.

Creating Focuses on Establishing Order by Assigning Functions. This is a big part of Walton’s overall argument. When we read Genesis 1 with modern eyes it seems obvious that the point is the material creation of the world. Before we can draw such a conclusion, however, we should dig into the text in its original context. Within the ancient Near East creation involves establishing order rather than producing material items. It isn’t that the latter is out of the question, it just isn’t the primary focus.

Our translations can illuminate and also obscure the ancient meaning of the text because every translation involves interpretation. Walton argues that the words translated made or created in Genesis 1 generally refer to establishing order or assigning function rather than to material creation. For example, “God made two great lights” could as easily be translates as “God provided two great lights” in the same way that God provided families for the midwives who defied pharaoh.

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