Spurgeon on the need for affective preaching

OK, so I know I said no posting ’til after the exams, but it’s a Saturday…and it’s Spurgeon. One can never be too busy for Spurgeon…

“To win a soul, it is necessary, not only to instruct our hearer, and make him know the truth, but to impress him so that he may feel it. A purely didactic ministry, which should always appeal to the understanding, and should leave the emotions untouched, would certainly be a limping ministry…

I hate to hear the terrors of the Lord proclaimed by men whose hard visages, harsh tones, and unfeeling spirit betray a sort of doctrinal desiccation: all the milk of human kindness is dried out of them. Having no feeling himself, such a preacher creates none, and the people sit and listen while he keeps to dry, lifeless statements, until they come to value him for being “sound”, and they themselves come to be sound, too; and I need not add, sound asleep also, or what life they have is spent in sniffing out heresy, and making earnest men offenders for a word. Into this spirit may we never be baptized!”

…Amen! And ouch. How often do I lead Bible studies in the same spirit of dessication and then feel smug for being ‘sound’? May God grant us hearts that feel: that ‘get’ the wonder of the Gospel; that see the beauty of the Lord Jesus; that mourn for sin in our own lives and those of others; that keep on hoping for His resurrection life to break into the darkest corners… Otherwise we can be saying all the ‘right’ things about the LORD and still be misrepresenting Him grievously. He is the God who:

who loves His people like a nursing mother (Is 49:14-16), hates sin (Is 61:8)), is jealous for us (James 4:5), who pities (Judges 2:18), who longs for us (Matt 23:37), who rejoices over us (Zeph 3:17), who entreats rebellious sinners to repent as their Father and a Husband (Jer 3:11-14)

Would we be people who, more and more, reflect our God.

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10 Responses to Spurgeon on the need for affective preaching

  1. HonWai says:

    The Old Testament portrays a mixed picture of Yahweh. Some parts portray a morally uplifting deity, such as the passages you cited. Other parts portray a malevolent, tribal deity exhibiting abhorrent morality by modern standards. For example:

    – Deuteronomy 32: 39-43. Yahweh is a blood-thirsty (“I will make my arrows drunk with blood and my sword shall devour flesh with the blood of the slain and the captives”) up-and-coming young deity on the ascent against the pantheon of gods.
    – Yahweh takes vengeance on his adversaries and is bent on ethnic cleansing (Deut 32:43).
    – In 2 Kings 2:23-24, some kids tease the prophet Elisha, and Yahweh sends bears to dismember them, as punishment for their childish actions.
    – Yahweh threatens his people with immoral punishments in the form of causing cannibalism:
    • “But if, despite this, you disobey me, and continue hostile to me, I will continue hostile to you in fury; I in turn will punish you yourself sevenfold for your sins. You shall eat the flesh of your sons, and you shall eat the flesh of your daughters” (Lev 26:29).
    • “And because of all your abominations, I will do to you what I will never do again. Surely, parents shall eat their children in your midst, and children shall eat their parents; I will execute judgements on your, and any of you who survive I will scatter to every wind.” (Ezek 5:9)
    • “I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their neighbours in the siege” (Jer 19:9)
    – Yahweh mandates the stoning of disobedient sons (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)
    – Yahweh, via Moses, condones the rape of virgin Midianites whom the Israelites are allowed to rape as spoils of war. (Numbers 31:18)
    – Yahweh accepts the vow of human sacrifice offered by Jephthah (Judges 11:30-31), thereby empowering him in battle (Judges 11:32). The rest of the passage in Judges portrays Jephthah as a tragic hero, not a monstrous father who sacrificed his daughter to Yahweh. Author of Hebrews affirms Jephthah’s faith and character (Hebrews 11:33-34)
    – “Samaria shall bear her guilt, because she has rebelled against her God; they shall fall by the sword, their little ones shall be dashed in pieces, and their pregnant women ripped open.” (Hosea 13:16) Yahweh punished Samaria for worshiping other gods by sending a savage army to dash their infants into bits and to rip unborn children out of their mother’s wombs.
    – Yahweh orders revenge killings: “Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. 3Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’” (1 Samuel 15:2-3)
    – Yahweh sends a lying spirit to deceive people (1 Kings 22:22).
    – Yahweh sends an evil spirit to torment Saul, his former servant and follower (1 Samuel 16:14-15).
    – Yahweh sent famine, drought, blight, pestilence and destruction against Israel as a punishment for sin and an incentive for repentance (Amos 4:6–12).
    – Yahweh deliberately hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he can display by power, by sending the Ten Plagues, culminating in the slaughter of innocent first-borns. (Exodus 11)

    May Christians have the common sense to distance themselves from these portrayals of God.

    • kirstindykes says:

      Hi Hon Wai,

      Welcome to the blog :)

      I’m afraid Jesus doesn’t give us the option of rejecting the God found in the Old Testament scriptures while calling ourselves Christians: Jesus called the Old Testament the Scriptures which “testify about Me” (John 5:39). Similarly, we cannot have ‘God the Son’ but reject ‘God the Father’ – Jesus says that He only does what He sees His Father doing (John 5:19).

      I’m afraid I genuinely don’t have the time to do justice to all the examples you give above until after my exams, but a few initial thoughts:

      Num 31:18 – I’m not sure it’s warranted from the text that these girls would be raped. That they were not killed was an act of mercy, and laws given by God to regulate the treatment of women captured in war meant that Israelite men who wanted to take women captured in war as wives had to wait at least a full month after their capture to do so (Deut 21:10-14).

      Judges 11 – Jephthah (like many of the Judges) was a bit of a mixed character, and we have to remember that Judges does not aim to provide us with models of moral excellence to imitate, but instead to record the actual actions of flawed human beings. In the same way, many ‘heroes of the faith’, including others praised in the same chapter of Hebrews were similarly flawed – think of Abraham pretending Sarah was his sister; Moses killing the Egyptian; David committing adultery. We see God’s grace in the fact that He still deigns to use them for His purposes – good news for us, given that we’re all flawed too!

      Also, Jephthah’s vow is not explicitly one of human sacrifice but “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” (11:30-31) which could easily have implied an animal sacrifice was intended. When Jephthah’s daughter came out to meet him Jephthah had a choice as to whether to go through with the vow. Given that Mosaic law said that if keeping a vow would cause someone to sin then they were released from their vow, he was disobeying God’s law when he sacrificed her. God’s pretty clear that He hates child sacrifice (e.g. Deut 12:30-31)

      1 Sam 15:2-3 Here, as in several other places in the Old Testament, God is commanding the Israelites to act as His instrument of judgement. This isn’t a human ‘revenge killing’, but righteous judgement against a people who have sinned against God – and that’s ‘game changing’ in the words of Peter Williams. I’m sure you remember that seminar at the ‘Reasonable Faith’ day a month or so back, and he explained it much better than I would be able to, so I’ll refer you to that!

      Finally, Amos 4 – God sends suffering to bring people to repentance: YES! Hallelujah! That’s exactly the point: God’s discipline of His people is an invitation to repentance (and on some occasions we see that invitation extended even to those outside His people, e.g. in the book of Jonah). In his mercy He uses temporal suffering to save them from eternal suffering. Indeed, that helps to make sense of some of your quotes about cannibalism too: God says ‘don’t sin and turn away from Me because the end-result of that path is terrible’ – it’s a warning that is supposed to wake His people up to the danger that they’re in and make them realise their need for repentance.

      Anyway, as I say, I’m afraid I’ve got limited time at the moment so I can’t spend longer on this, and won’t really be able to reply again ’til next wednesday now. But a few questions for you, Hon Wai: why do you find the OT portrayal of God distasteful – what criteria are you using to judge His behaviour as acceptable or not acceptable? What do you think God is like, and where do you get that idea of God from? Who do you think Jesus is and how do you understand the relationship between Jesus’ identity – and the identity of His Father – and that of the God of the Old Testament?

      Best wishes in Him

  2. HonWai says:

    Good to read your response, Kirstin, especially given your exam schedule. I enjoy reading your blog. I will type up my rejoinder later today, but will delay posting until after next Wednesday. For now, a short response to your question, one that I will elaborate later: “what criteria are you using to judge His behaviour as acceptable or not acceptable?”
    Answer: By the criteria of common sense, ethical reasoning, our innate moral sense, evidence, facts, comparison to other situations all of us agree are immoral, and by the principles other parts of the Bible affirm. The abhorrent behaviours attributed to Yahweh by some of the ancient Israelite writers are incompatible with a God of perfect love, justice and mercy, but are the flawed portrayals of tribal Israelites with their political agendas.

  3. Hin-Tai says:

    (short comment – thanks for this, was a very timely encouragement and warning as I prepared a preach :)

  4. HonWai says:

    Hope your exams went smoothly. Here’s my rejoinder to your comments:

    1.1 Jesus’ attitude to the Hebrew Scriptures
    Conservative evangelicals may argue that Jesus doesn’t give Christians the option of rejecting the God of the Old Testament: Jesus called the Old Testament the Scriptures which “testify about me” (John 5:39) and that one cannot have accept “God the Son” but reject “God the Father”.
    In response, the first thing to note is that Jesus’ affirmation of the Old Testament scriptures in so far as they testify about him, has little to no relevance to Jesus’ views on the morally abhorrent portrayals of God. The Old Testament can testify about him, and at the same time contain abhorrent divine portrayals. Perhaps (even this point is debatable) the Old Testament taken as a whole, as an evolving record of Israelites’ understanding of God’s involvement in history, points to a messianic figure as the climax. But it is clearly false that every verse and every chapter talks about the messiah. The idea of a messiah didn’t emerge in Israelite history until there was a need for a messianic figure, when Israel and Judah were conquered by surrounding nations. The second point to note is that in any serious discussions about what the historical Jesus said and did, the gospel of John is a poor place to begin. Anyone who has done a New Testament course at a leading theology department like Cambridge should know that.
    Jesus was a good law-binding Jew who recognised the authority of the Pentateuch. He sided with some Jewish sects like the Pharisees over and against other sects like the Sadducees on the authority of the other Hebrew religious texts that include the Prophets and the Writings. Therefore he would not have rejected the God of the Jewish scriptures wholesale. Nothing in my argument suggests that the Old Testament should be rejected wholesale. As I began my post, there are morally uplifting depictions of God in the Old Testament. There are more references to God upholding and demanding justice, being patient with sinners by giving them many chances for repentance, with the long-term intention to bring about utopia where there will be no more wars. My critique is directed against the moral abhorrent minority of passages scattered throughout the Old Testament. Many of these passages make perfect sense when understood as the portrayals of fallible ancient authors with tribal mindset or political agendas. The problem isn’t about the Old Testament as a whole. Christians need not reject the God of the Old Testament, but they need to reject the doctrine of biblical inerrancy – a narrow and evidentially indefensible theological position. It is precisely in order to retain a coherent commitment to the belief in the God of love, mercy and justice that Jesus would have believed in, that Christians should recognise the morally abhorrent parts of the Old Testament as the work of fallible men. None of the gospel evangelists record for us any instance of Jesus commenting on the morally abhorrent passages I am elucidating. It would be very illuminating if he did. As the situation stands, all we can do is to infer how his teachings on other issues help us evaluate these passages. I have attempted to make inferences based on his teachings such as “love your enemies” and “put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52).
    Further points need to be made about the use of the “dominical trump card” to defend the abhorrent depictions of God in parts of the Old Testament. First, Jesus affirmed the authority of the Hebrew Scriptures; he did not affirm its inerrancy on every detail. Second, the historical Jesus never made acceptance of all parts of Hebrew Scriptures as the acid test for his followers. According to the Johannine Jesus, the acid test is love for one another: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35) According to the Matthean Jesus, the acid test is charitable works – welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick and those in prison (Matthew 25:35-46). James 2:17 emphasises importance of works in similar terms. Third, the New Testament contains abrogation of Old Testament teachings: according to Acts, Peter received a new revelation that the Mosaic Law with regard to consumption of unclean animals is no longer to be kept. A recurring theme in Paul’s letters is that the Law is no longer applicable. In Matthew 5:38, Jesus cited Leviticus 24:20 (“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”) and then proceeded to give a new version of the teaching. The Mosaic Law allows divorce. Jesus reinterprets it by making it unacceptable (though a case can be made that he was not making an absolute ruling, only one in the first-century Jewish legal context of “without cause” – a qualification we also find in the rabbinic writings). These examples show a hermeneutics of critical re-evaluation of Hebrew Scriptures by the New Testament authors. Therefore, Christians should not feel they need to endorse verbatim every portrayal of God in the Old Testament.
    The very notion of “God of the Old Testament” requires scrutiny. The Old Testament is a collection of books written over centuries by people in quite different historical situations holding different theologies on a range of issues including the nature of God, reasons for suffering, importance of animal sacrifice for pleasing God. It should come as no surprise that there is a variety of views on the nature of God in the Old Testament, when few Christians deny that the Trinitarian understanding of God is only revealed (or emerged) in the New Testament, and is not found in the Old Testament. If there can be revisions to understanding of the nature of God in the New Testament compared to the Old Testament, there is no reason to reject the possibility of a developing understanding of God within the Old Testament itself. There are traces of passages espousing a polytheistic view in the oldest portions of Old Testament. Later passages endorse a henotheistic view of God (other gods exists but only Yahweh is to be worshipped). By the time we come to post-Exilic books, monotheism became dominant.

    1.2 Rape of the Midianite virgins

    If we define rape by modern standards, then putting war captives in such a situation that they have no viable option but consent to be concubines or additional wives of soldiers constituents rape. Deuteronomy 21:10-14 says nothing about obtaining the consent of the female captives. Whatever the leniency of the regulation by ancient standards in giving the girls time to mourn, it is abhorrent by modern standards. Once the month of mourning is over, the Israelite men are entitled “go in to her”. These girls would have their loved ones, their parents, their brothers and older sisters butchered by the invading Israelites. They are then forced to marry these murderers. Numbers 31:18 reflects the preoccupation of ancient societies regarding the desirability of virgins. They are to be spared from the sword, while those who have “known a man by sleeping with him” are to be killed. According to Exodus, the Israelites fled Egypt with their entire families. There would have been no shortage of Israelite girls for the men to marry. So those who married war captives are likely to be taking on additional wives, or at the very least are likely to have other Israelite girls whom they could marry. Given the negative impact on the size of the male population at times of war, there can hardly be a shortage of Israelite widows and young girls to choose from. Deuteronomy 21:10 alludes to “a beautiful woman whom you desire”. The undertone is lust. It is irrational for Christians to defend the morality of killing non-virgins while sparing the lives of virgins. If the married women are to be killed because of the collective evil of the Canaanite society (even this stretches ethical reasoning to the limits; as Jesus taught, violence towards the enemy is not the way forward), then the virgins are just as likely to have a morally corrupting influence on the Israelites. In short the Deuteronomy warfare regulation amounts to: Israelite men, you are permitted to find a beautiful war captive, bring her home, shave her nails, give her new clothes, wait one month, then she is yours; if she does not please you for whatever reason, you may divorce her. Neither the girl’s consent to marriage nor her objection to divorce is solicited. This practice of treating women as property is morally unacceptable in the modern world. If the Canaanite genocide is supposedly a divine mission to purge the land of all evil, then it is exactly the right opportunity to implement a far superior moral standard. The Israelites did not have to limit their standards relative to the acceptable practices of their day. They should have set an absolute moral standard. At the very least, they could have spared the lives of the women and children, if not also all non-combatants.

    1.3 Jephthah and human sacrifice in Israel

    Nowhere in the Bible is Jephthah is ever portrayed as a morally mixed character. He is only ever mentioned in Judges 11 and 12. This is all the author of Hebrews (11:33-34) has to go on to assess his character. The author gives Jephthah a resounding endorsement of his faith and character based solely on this short passage. Jephthah made his vow because the Ammonites were a formidable enemy, and he needed that extra divine boost in order to ensure a victory. Although in some instances, Old Testament books describe the actions of the Israelite heroes without endorsing or condemning every one of their actions, Judges 11:39-40 describes a subsequent custom in Israel lamenting the daughter of Jephthah. Now, if author of Judges views the sacrifice as an evil act, then he would not have refrained from any censure of Jephthah. Subsequent Israelite tradition mourns for the girl as the victim of an unintended tragedy, not the victim of a murderous deluded father. The girls affirms the logic of human sacrifice: “My father, if you have opened your mouth to Yahweh, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, since Yahweh has taken vengeance against your enemies on your behalf”. The logic of the narrative implies that a man’s vow to Yahweh was more valuable than a human life. She takes the news rather calmly. This shows that human sacrifice to the deity was a normal part of Israelite life in that period. No repudiation of human sacrifice is found in the text. Nor does Yahweh intervene to spare the girl as he did during Abraham’s attempt to sacrifice Isaac. If Yahweh intervened to Jephthah’s vow by delivering the Ammonites into his hand (Judges 11:32), it is very peculiar to refrain from intervening in the human sacrifice which is the result of the need to fulfil Jephthah’s part of the bargain. Everything in the narrative points to the legitimacy of human sacrifice. In Hebrews 11, Jephthah is listed along with other men of great faith, including Abraham who too faced the situation of having to sacrifice his beloved child. If the author of Hebrews had disapproved of Jephthah’s sacrifice of the girl, he surely would have condemned Abraham also. By affirming Abraham’s willingness to carry out the sacrifice of his son, the author has every reason to affirm the morality of Jephthah’s sacrifice, tragic though it was. Jephthah didn’t lament having to sacrifice a human being; he lamented having to sacrifice his beloved only child. Yahweh wants real sacrifices, not easy ones. Child sacrifice was considered noble in this world precisely because it was the greatest possible sacrifice that could be made. Children who were made subject to sacrifice weren’t despised by their parents; they were beloved. Sacrificing them was very hard, and that’s precisely the point. But as Jephthah’s own daughter said, the bigger picture was the security of Israel, and she was happy to sacrifice herself for that cause. Her calm composure is remarkable. She requested and was granted two months to “bewail her virginity” before returning voluntarily to his father to die at his hands.
    When Jephthah made the vow, he had in mind a human sacrifice, not an animal: “whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me” (Judges 11:31). Yahweh is shown to have accepted the vow by empowering him in battle. The keyword is “whoever”, implying a person. Any animal that is suitable for sacrifice can hardly be said to have the capacity of come out of the house to meet Jephthah. It is doubtful if ancient Israelites kept dogs in the house as pets. Lambs, cows and goats did not live inside the house, and lacked the cognitive ability to come out “to meet” Jephthah. In any case, surely a military leader like Jephthah was not as idiotic as to think that the first being to come out of the house to meet him on his return from battle would certainly be an animal rather than a human. In all likelihood he had in mind a servant, or some other member of his presumably large household he was willing to sacrifice. The tragedy starts to unfold, when his daughter, possibly in a celebratory mood having heard his father’s victory, comes out to “meet him with timbrels and with dancing.”
    Apologists may argue that given the Mosaic Law said that if keeping a vow would cause someone to sin then they were released from their vow, he was disobeying God’s law when he sacrificed her. God’s pretty clear that He hates child sacrifice (e.g. Deut 12:30-31). This argument rests on the assumption that human sacrifice was disobeying the Mosaic Law available at the time of the incident. This assumption is incompatible with critical scholarship. The consensus in scholarship is that these portions of Deuteronomy are late compositions, belonging to the Deuteronomistic corpus, which scholars date to the seventh century BCE, written to buttress the highly novel and often very violent religious reforms of King Josiah – long after the era of the Judges. According to Ezekiel 20:25-26, Yahweh has twisted motives in giving the Israelites statutes and ordinances that are deliberately “not good”. In particular, these ordinances entail sacrificing the firstborn children “in order that I might horrify them so that they might know that I am the Lord.” Far from prohibiting child sacrifice, Yahweh demanded it. Indeed if Yahweh can command the slaughter of children and infants (e.g. 1 Samuel 15:2-3) on a genocidal scale, then he should have no moral compunction against child sacrifice. Or put the issue in another way: why is it morally acceptable to slaughter another tribe’s infants but unacceptable to sacrifice one’s own beloved children?
    If apologists have no qualms about pointing out the moral flaws of the great heroes of the faith described in the Old Testament, then they should have even less reason to defend the moral infallibility of the authors of the Old Testament (e.g. Judges, Samuel, Kings, Deuteronomy), some of whom are anonymous and of their moral character we know nothing. In fact, recognising the moral fallibility of biblical authors resolves a lot of the difficulties with problematic passages regarding their depiction of God. God is in fact morally perfect; but some of the biblical authors had an incomplete understanding of what God is actually like.

    1.4 God sends suffering to bring people to repentance?

    “Amos 4 – God sends suffering to bring people to repentance: YES! Hallelujah! That’s exactly the point: God’s discipline of His people is an invitation to repentance (and on some occasions we see that invitation extended even to those outside His people, e.g. in the book of Jonah). In his mercy He uses temporal suffering to save them from eternal suffering. Indeed, that helps to make sense of some of your quotes about cannibalism too: God says ‘don’t sin and turn away from Me because the end-result of that path is terrible’ – it’s a warning that is supposed to wake His people up to the danger that they’re in and make them realise their need for repentance.”

    In rejoicing over the belief that God sends suffering to bring people to repentance, one is joining the camp of fundamentalist Christians who are all too willing to proclaim major disasters around the world as divine punishment for some alleged wickedness of the population: The tsunami that swept over the island of Bali over Christmas 2004 was due to wickedness of the local Muslim population; the 2010 earthquake in Haiti due to immorality of the population; devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina 2005 was divine retribution on the sins of the city or America’s abortion policy or the city’s tolerance of homosexuality (one Christian fundamentalist claimed: “God judged New Orleans for the sin of shedding innocent blood through abortion….Providence punishes national sins by national calamities….Greater divine judgment is coming upon America unless we repent of the national sin of abortion.”); human-induced atrocity such as the destruction of World Trade Centre in September 2001 are due to America’s abandonment of God.
    If Yahweh was prepared to inflict awful suffering on his people for their sins even to the extent of causing cannibalism, these die-hard fundamentalists have legitimate exegetical support for their suggestion that such and such contemporary disaster could be the result of divine retribution to bring people to repentance. Even if one is prepared to allow the possibility that God uses calamities and suffering as divine retribution, there is the huge theodicy problem of the arbitrariness. Often people who suffered or are killed happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. When human wrongdoing contributes to the calamity – as is the case of corruption of officials allowing building constructors taking shortcuts to cut costs – the victims are not culpable. Innocents often suffer instead. When famine, drought and pestilence hit in the modern world as in the ancient, it is the poorest and most vulnerable who are most vulnerable to the worst effects. In the severe famines foretold by Yahweh, sent as punishment for the sins of the adults, young children become the victims. They were killed by their parents and then eaten. It is immoral for Yahweh to punish the children for the sins of their parents.

    “In his mercy He uses temporal suffering to save them from eternal suffering.” This contradicts Old Testament theology. The Old Testament never talks of temporal suffering induced by God to save the victims from eternal suffering. Often the punishments in the Old Testament entail death through famine and military defeat. It makes no sense to suggest that by dying, the victims will be saved from eternal suffering. All the divinely induced punishments and blessings in the Old Testament have their detriments and benefits on individuals in this life, and on the future prospects of the nation of Israel as a whole. The belief in the afterlife only emerged in Judaism in the 2nd century BCE, the form of belief in physical resurrection in 2 Maccabees. Daniel 12 expresses hope in post-mortem judgment, with some awakening to everlasting life and others to everlasting contempt. However, it is widely acknowledged in biblical scholarship that the latter chapters of Daniel were written centuries after the early chapters, based on historical and linguistic considerations. Daniel 12 was likely to be written near the end of the reign of the Greek Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164 BCE). Old Testament passages that show absence of belief in afterlife:
    • Psalm 115:17: “The dead do not praise Yahweh, nor do any that go down into silence.”
    • Psalm 6:4-5: “Turn, O Yahweh, save my life; deliver me for the sake of your covenant faithfulness. For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise?”
    • Job contrasts the fate of humans with that of trees. Unlike humans, “there is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will grow up again, and that its roots will not die” (Job 14:7). Water can bring a tree back to life, says Job, but when mortal humans die, there is no coming back. “As waters evaporate from the lakebed, as a river wastes away and dries up, so mortals lie down, never to rise again” (14:11–12).
    • Ecclesiastes 9:5-6 “The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no more reward, and even the memory of them is lost. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished; never again will they have any share in all that happens under the sun.”

    One fanciful way inerrantists attempt to explain away the immoral verses like Leviticus 26:29, Amos 4:6-12, Ezekiel 5:9 and Jeremiah 19:9 is by arguing that God was describing the calamities the Israelites would experience in war, the result of disobedience. God is omniscient and sovereign, hence his description of the cause-and-effect consequences of sin sounded like prescription of divine punishment. Those who commit evil deeds, say murder, may naturally find themselves at the sharp end of the sword by relatives seeking revenge. A grossly unjust society will eventually implode as its social structures crumble. The problem with the attempt is it defies the grammatico-historical exegesis required by the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy: “The correct interpretation is the one which discovers the meaning of the text in its grammatical forms and in the historical, cultural context in which the text is expressed.” The grammar of these cannibalistic verses mandates the interpretation that God is issuing threats of what he would do. Neither historical nor cultural context permits alternative interpretation. It is only by imposing a theology onto the text – namely from God’s perspective, description sounded like prescription – that one could avoid the abhorrent interpretation of God issuing and therefore approving immoral acts. Even if this imposition of a theological cop-out is permissible, it raises the new problem of knowing when description is in fact prescription. Throughout the Old Testament, God issues threats and blessings. The problem is how can we tell in which cases, God is giving moral approval? When God was commanding genocide against the Canaanites, was God approving such acts?
    Inerrantists may argue that the passages are not saying that Yahweh causes cannibalism, any more than he is the cause of evil, but that he is sovereign over all events. Therefore disobedience will result in horrific wars and cannibalism. However, Ezekiel 5:9 does not allow this cop-out eisegesis. The verse is very specific that because of Israel’s “abominations”, Yahweh will do to them what he will never do again (the phraseology seems to mimic Genesis 9:21 where Yahweh vows never to destroy every living creature by flood). Cannibalism as the result of starvation following a war siege continued in human history after the Babylonian Exile. So Yahweh could not be vowing never to permit in his sovereign will the evil of cannibalism. Instead he must be vowing never to be the direct cause, as the execution of judgment.
    “God says ‘don’t sin and turn away from Me because the end-result of that path is terrible’ – it’s a warning that is supposed to wake His people up to the danger that they’re in and make them realise their need for repentance.” Let’s examine the causal relationship between rejecting Yahweh’s ordinances and statutes (Ezekiel 5:6), and suffering military defeat and severe famine leading to cannibalism. How is it that the former leads to the latter in a casual way? If anything, some of the victorious nations in ancient history, like the Romans, achieve their military success through brutality. The New Testament authors did not hold Greco-Roman society and culture in high regard. Yet the Roman Empire thrived for centuries afterwards. Hebrews 11:35-38 alludes to the content of book of Maccabees: the Maccabean martyrs including seven youths who endured martyrdom hoping for resurrection. They were tortured, skinned alive, one after another, in front of their mother, for refusing to break the Mosaic laws such eating pork. Here they suffered awful fate precisely because of their faith in Yahweh and commitment to observing his laws. In all these cases, national victories are not the result of repentance; national calamities are not the result of rejecting God’s laws. The only way rejecting God’s laws can be the cause of national calamities is God directly punishes the nation because he is angry that his laws are not followed. Yahweh is issuing a threat in Ezekiel: follow my statutes and ordinances, or else I am going to do something really nasty to you.

    1.5 Revenge killing in 1 Samuel 15:2-3

    “Here, as in several other places in the Old Testament, God is commanding the Israelites to act as His instrument of judgement. This isn’t a human ‘revenge killing’, but righteous judgement against a people who have sinned against God.”

    A deity who orders his people to seek revenge by wiping out their former enemies is incompatible with Jesus’ own teaching to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Luke 6:27-28). The immorality of the revenge killing is amplified in light of the fact that it seeks to avenge the actions of the Amalekites’ distant ancestors centuries ago when Israelites were coming out of Egypt. For their crime, their descendents are now to suffer annihilation, including children, infants, and not even the livestock are to be spared. The text suggests nothing about the moral standards of the current-day Amalekites. The author may well have thought the Amalekites a wicked lot, as all conquering armies throughout history did hold such an attitude towards their enemies. But the only reason cited in the text as sufficient to deserve annihilation of the race is the action of the distant ancestors centuries back. Therefore the pretext of punishment for current wickedness evangelical apologists frequently appeal to justify the Canaanite genocide, doesn’t even apply to the Amalekites. It is revenge killing, not “righteous judgment”.

    1.6 Why do I find the OT portrayal of God “distasteful”

    I find these portrayals of God morally abhorrent (to call it “distasteful” is an understatement), for the same reason you and any other open-minded modern reader would come to the same conclusion if these portrayals are found not in the Bible but in some other texts treated as sacred by other religions. If the Quran speaks of Allah punishing people with genocide, cannibalism and child sacrifices, you would then have no qualms in concluding Allah is a monstrous deity, and cannot possibly be a God of infinite love and moral perfection.

    1.7 Criteria I am using to judge Yahweh’s behaviour as acceptable or not acceptable?

    Yahweh’s behaviours in the highlighted passages are immoral by the criteria of common sense, ethical reasoning, our innate moral sense, evidence, facts, comparison to other situations all of us agree are immoral, and by the principles affirmed by other parts of the Bible (e.g. “love your enemies”). The abhorrent behaviours attributed to Yahweh by some of the ancient Israelite writers are incompatible with a God of perfect love, justice and mercy, but are the flawed portrayals of tribal Israelites with their political agendas.

    1.8 What do you think God is like, and where do you get that idea of God from?

    At a later post, I will address my personal view on what God is. For now, I will outline some of the ways Christian thinkers have come up with their views on what God is like. In historic and contemporary Christian thought, the sources of knowledge of God are scripture, nature, philosophical discourse and human religious experience. Other religious traditions including Islam and Hinduism would also appeal to these sources for their formulation of what God is like, though coming to quite different conclusions, partly because of different religious scriptures, different philosophical discourse and different religious experiences.


    There are a variety of approaches to scripture that are used to build a picture of God. On the conservative end of the spectrum, one can read the Bible as an inerrant collection of books, and accept at face value every description and word attributed to God as actually coming from God, unmediated by human fallibility and limitations. On the less conservative end of spectrum, one can view the Bible as the product of divine revelation in terms of God’s cooperative guidance of many diverse human minds as they reflect on their experiences of God during the long history of Israel or during the time of the Jesus and the early Christian communities. They are the founding documents of the Church, but need to be read with discernment, distinguishing their central important truths from the cultural or psychological conventions or the very limited scientific knowledge of their day, and reinterpreting their insights in the very different circumstances in which Christians may now live. Revelation is progressive, with the later biblical authors gaining a deeper and more accurate understanding of God building on the insights of the earlier ones, sometimes correcting earlier insights.

    This is the approach of natural theology. Romans 1:19-20 provides scriptural warrant for natural theology: through observation of the created world, humans can comprehend something about God’s eternal power and divine nature. From the beauty of the natural world, the mathematical nature of physical laws, the astronomical scale of the cosmos, and the ability of the human mind to comprehend the world, so the argument goes, one can infer that there is a creator God who is incredibly powerful, is a mathematical genius, and of immense intelligence capable of designing the remarkable natural laws governing the cosmos. He has endowed humanity with a reflection of his attributes, thereby enabling them to understand the world.

    Philosophical discourse
    The Church Fathers in the late Patristic period have integrated Greek philosophical discourse (which has a comparable intellectual status in antiquity as science has in modern day societies) into Christian theological thought. The doctrine of the Trinity was formulated using Greek philosophical vocabulary. Medieval thinkers like Anselm formulated concept of God as the greatest possible being. In contemporary Christian apologetics, the likes of William Lane Craig promote philosophical arguments for the existence of God based on cosmological argument, and the morality of God based on the moral argument for theism. Traditional philosophical theism defines God as an eternal, perfectly free, omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect Creator of all things. The moral perfection attribute (which I appealed to in my evaluation of Old Testament passages) can be derived from the following argument:
    P1. Objective moral values exist.
    P2. For objective moral values to exist, there must be a being who provides an ontological basis for objective morality.
    C. That being must be morally perfect.

    Once it is established that God is morally perfect, the next step to come up with an epistemological framework for determining what moral perfection entails. Or more modestly, one needs to have a framework for evaluating if a certain action or behaviour is moral or immoral. Broadly speaking, the framework would entail use of common sense, ethical reasoning, our innate moral sense, evidence, facts, and comparison to other basic situations all of us agree are moral/immoral. Coming from your medical background, you should be acquainted with the many challenges of bioethics: Is euthanasia ethical; the ethics of stem cells research using human embryos; the ethics of introducing sections of the human DNA into animals to produce medical products; the ethics of animal experimentations. Ultimately, the concern of bioethics is the evaluation of certain actions as morally right or wrong. People of all types of religious backgrounds or of none have the capacity to engage with these difficult challenges, based on the criteria outlined: common sense, ethical reasoning (which has a kind of intrinsic logic), our innate moral sense, evidence, facts, and comparison to test-case hypothetical scenarios on which there is consensus. Societies around the world engage in ethical discussion relating to social policies, international relations, corporate ethics, economic policies, human rights – without appeal to religious beliefs. If humanity has the capacity to evaluate these complex ethical situations, then we have the capacity to evaluate the morality attributed to deities in the sacred texts of the world’s religions, be it the Bible, the Quran, the Hindu Vedas.

    Human religious experience
    Ultimately, the depictions of God in the Bible are shaped by the religious experiences of ancient Israelites, Jews and the early Christians. The Old Testament regularly reports the “words of the Lord”, often prefixing or suffixing with “Thus says the Lord” and “The Lord says”. In vast majority of cases, no elaboration is ever given on how exactly the prophet or the author “heard” the words of the Lord. Given that in most cases, the words were delivered to an individual in private, the words are the result of human religious experience.
    Today, people of all theistic faiths have experiences of God, some of which are described in lurid details, in other cases, a lot more subtle and tentative. If God does indeed communicate to humanity, then given the abundance of human religious experience and the transformative impact these experiences sometimes have on the individuals, religious experience is a source of knowledge of God.

    1.9 Who is Jesus?

    In a nutshell, the historical Jesus is a first-century Jewish apocalyptic prophet, messianic claimant and healer who taught via words and deeds that the kingdom of God, the apocalyptic son of man (a different figure from himself) and the final eradication of evil, would all come in the generation of his disciples. He was willing to suffer and die to bring about his goals. Jesus would have seen himself as the son of God in the Jewish, as opposed to the Hellenistic sense. He would have worshipped the God of the Old Testament and addressed him and prayed to him as his Father, who is “greater than the Son”. Unlike the Father, there were periods in his life when Jesus was not omniscient or perfectly wise:
    • In his youth, he went through a period when he “increased in wisdom” (Luke 2:52). This is only possible if his wisdom was not perfect to begin with. Instead he had to go through a learning process just as all children do, including learning obedience (Hebrews 5:8).
    • Jesus did not know the timing of the end times: “But about the day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mark 13:32)
    His lack of omniscience and perfect wisdom during at least some part of his life proves that Jesus can be mistaken on certain matters owing to being inculcated with the fallible cultural knowledge of his day. A being who is not omniscient can make mistakes of fact and beliefs.

  5. kirstindykes says:

    Hi Hon Wai,
    That’s a very long post! You’ll excuse me if I don’t engage with every point you make, I think I’d be here all night…
    I think the key thing here is, as you have noted, we differ very sharply on:
    1. Who Jesus is
    2. The nature of Scripture
    3. How we can know about God

    How we deal with passages of the Bible that are difficult to understand or bits that seem hard to reconcile with each other will be completely different depending on where we start on these points.

    To give you an idea of where I’m coming on each of the above:

    1. In terms of who Jesus is (I hope you’ll forgive the single reference to John, the rest are all to books you may perhaps find more ‘palatable’. However, I’m not sure rejecting John will get you very far, unfortunately: I don’t think his Christology differs significantly from that of the rest of the New Testament, to be honest):

    I believe Jesus is whom He claimed to be when He forgave sins (Mark 2:5-12); said that He is the only way to know the Father (Luke 10:22); said He is one with the Father (John 10:30); declared that He will be the One to judge the world (Matt 25:31-46) – and even that the criterion for judgement will be whether or not we acknowledged Him (Matt 10:32-33); and said that the only way to true, eternal life was for people to choose to lose their lives for His sake (Mark 8:35) – i.e. I believe Him to be the Son of God in the Christian sense of that title, not just the OT use of that title for the (merely human) King of Israel, and certainly not just ‘an apolcalyptic prophet and messianic claimant’. (what do you make of the straight parallel between Luke 9:26: Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father” and Matt 10:33: But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in Heaven?)

    2. In terms of the nature of Scripture:
    Because I believe Jesus is the Truth, I believe that when He said that ‘For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. (Matthew 5:18) He affirmed the reliability of the Hebrew Scriptures. He also said His ministry fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah (Luke 4:21), quoted another part of Isaiah to explain how He ran His ministry (Matt 13:13-15), claimed that His arrest *had* to happen the way it did ‘because the Scripture must be fulfilled’(Mark 14:49), and when He referred to all the righteous blood ‘from Abel to Zechariah’ (Luke 11:51) He was acknowledging the whole of the Hebrew canon.

    I also believe Him when He says that He will send His Holy Spirit on His disciples to ‘lead them into all truth’ (John 16:13). So I believe that the New Testament is truth, the product of the Holy Spirit’s inspiration of the early Christians. (NB, I think your characterisation of the ‘inerrancy’ position is a bit of a caricature, if you’ll forgive me for saying so. It’s possible to believe in inerrancy without denying that God spoke through real human brains with their own personalities and experiences, and also without denying some degree of progressive revelation).

    3. In terms of how we can know about God:

    Your discussion of the four ‘pillars’ of theology is fain enough, but doesn’t get to the heart of the matter: how can we know an infinite, holy God when we are finite and sinful? If we truly believe in that sort of God, then our only hope is Him revealing Himself to us in grace. And if we truly believe that we are fatally flawed by our sin and rebellion, and that that ruin extends to our reason, then our only hope of being able to understand any revelation that God *does* deign to make of Himself is His gracious enabling. Human reason (even a la William Lane Craig) will never get us to God.

    You say that arguments from nature are sanctioned by the Bible in Romans 1, but in fact Paul’s point in Romans 1 reflects exactly what I’ve discussed above. Although human beings *should* be able to know God from His creation (because God has graciously ordained that it should be so: “since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse”) humans have rejected knowledge of Him in wilful rebellion: “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools “ (Rom 1:21-23) Throughout the chapter humans failed to retain the knowledge of God that He graciously gave them access to in Creation because they fail to acknowledge God as God. We cannot sit in judgement upon God using our finite, fatally-flawed rationality, and hope to find Him, we can only accept, humbly and gratefully, His gracious revelation of Himself to us, in creation, in Scripture, and ultimately in His Son Jesus.
    1 Corinthians goes further, saying that ultimately the wisdom and philosophy of this world can never get you to God:

    “For it is written:
    “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
    the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”[c]
    20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” (1 Corinthians 1:19-25)

    If we’re looking for knowledge of God through philosophy and human rationalism, the Bible says that we’ll be sorely disappointed. Instead, we have a choice: accept with thankful hearts God’s self-revelation and self-giving in Jesus and His death on a cross for our sin, and be welcomed into real, living relationship with Him. Or reject Him, and ask for sign (like the Jews) or wisdom (like the Greeks), and remain without any true knowledge of God.

  6. HonWai says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Kirsten. Likewise, I won’t deal with all the points of exegesis, theology and philosophical presuppositions in your post. I agree with some of your arguments – I’ll skip mentioning these for now. A couple where we disagree:

    – I actually haven’t said anything about my personal view on how we can know God. I only articulated what I understand parts of the Bible to teach, and what Christian thinkers throughout the centuries have said on the topic. So if you feel that we disagree sharply on how we can know God, then perhaps you also have problem with some of the great Christian theologians, exegetes and philosophers.

    – I don’t reject Gospel of John at all. I think it is a beautiful gospel from which Christians have much to learn; just that it does not provide reliable information on the historical Jesus.

    – Jesus’ authority to forgive sins (Mark 2:5-12):
    I am currently writing a commentary on the gospel of Mark. For convenience, I will paste my exegesis on Mark 2:5-12 here:
    The scribes “in their hearts” accuse Jesus of blasphemy (2:7) which is precisely the charge on which Jesus will be condemned to death at his trial (14:64). Perhaps Mark wants to link Jesus’ healing ministry as a cause of the blasphemy charge levelled at the trial. There are two distinct questions to tackle: is the view of the scribes on the issue of blasphemy in line with Jewish understanding of the period, namely, it is blasphemous for anyone other than God to forgive sins; does Jesus or the evangelist agrees with their view. Christians today take for granted that Jesus is God, based on their reading of the Gospel of John and the late Patristic affirmations that have subsequently permeated into all the mainstream Christian traditions. However, our focus here is exegesis of the Markan text, without presuming Mark is affirming the divinity of Jesus in this narrative. One can argue theologically that the forgiveness of sins is ultimately the prerogative of God alone. But this does not rule out human intermediaries being delegated with the authority to forgive sins, as is the case with the disciples in John 20:23. There, the apostles are given the authority to forgive sins of others. The forgiving of sins is not seen as the sole prerogative of God, but can be delegated to human agents. Evangelical commentators who are eager to extract from the passage Jesus’ claim to divinity could argue that even though human agents can be delegated to forgive sins, only God himself can authorise the delegation, so in delegating to the apostles, Jesus is claiming to be God. This is not the only interpretation: one can equally argue that Jesus believed that God the Father has spoken to him and given him the authority to forgive sins, and in gaining the ability to forgive sins, he could also give the delegation down the chain .
    Verse 5 uses the “divine passive” to suggest that the forgiveness comes from God (“your sins have been forgiven by God” rather than “I forgive your sins”). Mark 1 tells us that John the Baptist also has a ministry of repentance and forgiveness of sins. Yet we do not read of anyone charging him with blasphemy . In the Second Temple period, through the Temple system, priests have the authority to forgive sins. Therefore, the scribes’ charge of blasphemy, if it is historical, is technically incorrect by their own standard, for surely they would not accuse their own priests of blaspheming when the priests declare someone’s sins are forgiven. The prima facie evidence is that by describing the scribes’ accusation as “in their heart”, it is not historical – what goes on in people’s mind is not observable, but an interpretation Mark imposes on the scribes, who are in fact silent but could be showing looks of disapproval. Maurice Casey reconstructs the passage to identify the underlying Aramaic source behind Mark’s Greek account of the incident. Verse 7 comes from the author, not from the underlying Aramaic oral tradition . The only other time in the gospel when Jesus is accused of blasphemy is in the trial narrative (14:64). It is this charge that lead to Jesus’ conviction. Mark may be redacting a historical accusation at end of Jesus’ ministry onto this incident at the start of his ministry. It is hard to tell if Mark himself agrees that “God alone can forgive sins” based on what he thinks Jesus’ opponents are thinking. Clearly, in Mark’s view, the thoughts of Jesus’ opponents are not necessarily correct. Given that Jesus’ immediate response to the paralytic is to forgive his sins rather than healing him – which to modern readers would have seemed his most pressing need – Jesus is expressing the view that the forgiveness of sins is integral to physical healing of sicknesses, at least for severe conditions as paralysis. In sending out the disciples to healing and exorcism missions, Jesus would have in effect authorised them to forgive sins also. The striking thing in Jesus’ action in this story is not that he sees himself possessing the authority to forgive sins, but that he can do it in such an impromptu manner, without going through elaborate ritual such as baptism as in the case of John the Baptist, or the Temple sacrificial system. N.T. Wright argues that one of the central themes of Jesus’ ministry is his implicit replacement of the Temple system . His thesis as a whole is compelling . However, there are other ways Jews in the Second Temple period can obtain forgiveness, without going through the Temple, such as by almsgiving . In addition, the Hebrew Bible has a strand of thought that diminishes the importance of sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins: “For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt-offering, you would not be pleased” (Psalms 51:16). Instead, forgiveness of sins comes from inward repentance: “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalms 51:17). The opening of verse 9 has taxed exegetes. Mark reports Jesus saying, “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic ‘Your sins are forgiven’, or to say ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’?” Commentators get into a discussion about which option is in fact easier. They argue, from a theological perspective, it is easier to perform a miraculous cure than to forgive a person’s sins. But from the perspective of providing external proof of accomplishing the feat – which is at stake in the passage – it is superficially easier to verbally declare the forgiveness of sins, as anybody can utter the words without being shown to be a fake. Not everyone can heal a paralytic. By miraculously healing the man, Jesus is providing evidence of his authority to forgive sins. So goes common commentators’ discussion. Maurice Casey provides an illuminating and compelling angle on the story, by reconstructing the underlying Aramaic tradition. Casey argues, Jesus cannot have said “Which is easier” because there is no comparative word “easier” in Aramaic. Mark’s “easier” (Greek: eukopoteron) is however a natural translation of the Aramaic qallil, meaning “light”, as in weight. Like its opposite homer, “heavy”, qallil is used metaphorically with regard to commandments, or legal judgments. It means that they are comparatively of lesser importance. The semantics of qallil extends further to mean “lenient”, “insignificant”. Its legal usage is of particular interest in this passage, partly because it makes excellent sense of Jesus’ comments, partly because it makes excellent sense in the presence of the scribes who are experts on Jewish laws. Jesus is using a conventional legal term to ask which one of his two proposed actions, is “light”, in other words, is a matter of no great significance. As we noted earlier, Jews in Jesus’ day believe in a casual connection between serious sicknesses and sins. We recall also that by using the passive case, Jesus is pronouncing the forgiveness of sins by God. With this in mind, the answer to his question is “neither”: pronouncing forgiveness of sins by God is a matter of the greatest importance because it enables the healing to go ahead in accordance with the will of God. The cure itself is of central importance, because the healing plays a central role in Jesus’ ministry. The translation of “Which is light…” from Aramaic into Greek by Mark (or by the underlying oral tradition) was difficult, because the terminology of this significance was not available in Greek. The permanent comparison between “light” and “heavy” may however lead a translator to use a comparative. Moreover, “light” commandments are by their nature easier to observe than heavier ones. Hence Mark goes for the eukopoteron, “easier”. He would have agreed with Jesus that neither matter is a light one.

    – In Matthew 5:18, Jesus was not talking about the Hebrew scriptures as a whole, but about the Torah. He was saying every Mosaic Law must be kept.

    – There was no “Hebrew canon” in Jesus’ day. The Hebrew bible wasn’t canonised by the Jews until end of the 1st century CE. The Patristic Church had extended debates about status of the Septuagint.

    – Jesus’ affirmation of the fulfilment of the prophetic writings really tell us very little about his view on the inerrancy of the Hebrew scriptures. The Bible can be reliable and authoritative without being inerrant.

    – “And if we truly believe that we are fatally flawed by our sin and rebellion, and that that ruin extends to our reason, then our only hope of being able to understand any revelation that God *does* deign to make of Himself is His gracious enabling.”
    The first part of your argument reflects your Calvinist perspective. I find Calvinism too pessimistic about human nature. In Christian thought (this is not my own idiosyncratic view), “revelation” takes many forms: revelation in nature (Romans 1), revelation in scripture (most strands of christianity), revelation in history (Wolfhart Pannenberg), revelation in human experience.

    – “Human reason (even a la William Lane Craig) will never get us to God.”
    Most Christians would agree with you. But “getting us to God” (i.e. attaining salvation) isn’t the subject of our discussion, which was about ways we can know something about how God is like.

    – “(Rom 1:21-23) Throughout the chapter humans failed to retain the knowledge of God that He graciously gave them access to in Creation because they fail to acknowledge God as God.”
    I’m afraid this is quite different from what Paul is arguing. He is saying that even pagans “knew God” (1:20) i.e. they do have knowledge of God, but their sin is not honouring God or give him thanks. Everybody, according to Paul, has the innate ability to recognise God’s eternal power and divine nature, from observing “the things he has made”. Of course Paul is not arguing everything about God can be known from observing nature. Neither was I.

    – 1 Corinthians 1:19-25 is quite specific about “message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing”. The idea of a crucified messiah is indeed foolish to the Gentiles of Paul’s day and stumbling block to Jews in 1st century as it is to Jews in modern world (and I think Jews do have a point – the Hebrew bible never talks of a suffering messiah). Paul was not indicting all aspects of human intellect or innate capacity to understand something about God.

    – “If we’re looking for knowledge of God through philosophy and human rationalism, the Bible says that we’ll be sorely disappointed.” The Bible said no such thing. For much of Christian history, the view has been that when philosophy and human rationalism are properly utilised in submission to the truth and to the creator, they help humanity to understand God and explicate scripture. That’s the view of many great Christian thinkers e.g. Augustine, Aquinas. As far as I am aware, Calvin did not hold a negative attitude towards philosophy.

    – “Instead, we have a choice: accept with thankful hearts God’s self-revelation and self-giving in Jesus and His death on a cross for our sin, and be welcomed into real, living relationship with Him. Or reject Him, and ask for sign (like the Jews) or wisdom (like the Greeks), and remain without any true knowledge of God.”
    I think you are conflating many different issues here.

  7. kirstindykes says:

    Hi Hon Wai,

    Sorry if I was unclear. I’m all for the four pillars of revelation, and I’m definitely not against rational thought ‘properly utilised in submission to the truth and to the creator’, in order to ‘help humanity to understand God and explicate scripture’, as you describe. What I’m getting at is something *behind* these things. Yes, we can know God in all of these ways, but *only* by Him graciously making the first move. There is therefore a *givenness* to revelation; we must humbly accept God on His own terms – as you say: our rationalism must be used ‘in submission to the truth and to the creator’. If I have conflated issues and failed to exegete passages as thoroughly and carefully as you’d like then I’m sorry. But we’ve talked about these things enough in real (rather than virtual) life that I hope we each have a fair idea where the other’s coming from.

    I think the key issues are:

    1. Do you believe Jesus is who He says He is, and who the rest of the Bible claims Him to be?
    2. Do you allow the Bible as the word of God to exert authority over you (allowing it to judge you), or do you set yourself up in authority over it (judging its contents by your own moral standards etc.)?

    If Jesus isn’t the completely divine, completely human God-Man Jesus, who died to pay for humanity’s sins and rose again to give us new life and intercede for us before God the Father then Christianity is not good news. If God has not spoken to us in a way we can trust (rather than having to apply a hermeneutic of suspicion) then we have no hope for hearing a word from outside ourselves, or having any true knowledge of God. I don’t know about you, but I need to hear a word from outside myself: I know the truth of the statement ‘The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick’ (Jer 17:9) in my own life.

    Anyway, I doubt anything I say is going to change your mind ^_^ we’ve had enough debates before, haven’t we? But I wish you well with all your thinking and reading.


  8. I’ve sent a short reply to your gmail account.

  9. Weldon says:

    My dream retirement would involve a great log cabin in the mountains. Who needs a beach?

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