Sometimes I contradict myself (or, When I am a massive hypocrite).

I was all set to sit down and write something about bad Biblical interpretation and better Biblical interpretation, using all of my expert theology knowledge, to helpfully (and slightly smugly) correct all those who are doing it wrong.

Then I remembered that there was another post I’ve also wanted to write for a while. Which sort of totally contradicted what I was about to say. So that threw me a little bit, and I’m not sure what the answer is. I mean, I’m normally alright with having a bit of tension in my thoughts and unresolved dilemmas. Holding things in tension is usually a decent enough answer to difficult questions like “do we choose God or does he choose us?” But on this one, I just seem to be being flat-out hypocritical by thinking two opposite things.  I want to say that other people are wrong for doing Biblical interpretation in one way and yet in the other post wanting to say I’m right for doing just that, and vice versa.

So here’s what I thought I’d do – I’ll write a summary of each of these two posts I wanted to write, in all of their contradictory mess. Then anyone who fancies trying to work this problem out for me would be most welcome to comment and explain where I’m going wrong here! Do you think this is an example of where the contradictory tension is okay? Or am I right in one post but not the other? Am I looking at it all from entirely the wrong angle? Does my flawed logic make any more sense to you than me? See what you think…


The old post I’ve wanted to write for a while:
Alarm Bell Theology

Old fire alarm bells, Belfast (2)

Old fire alarm bells, Belfast (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are some bits of the Bible that make alarm bells go off in our heads. Or at least, I think they should do. There are some verses in the Bible that sound out of place, that seem to contradict what we know of the rest of the Bible.

Verses like 1 Timothy 2:15 which says “But women will be saved through childbearing – if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.” Now we know that there is nowhere else in the rest of the Bible that suggests that salvation for women is achieved through giving birth. We know that would make no sense, because it would make salvation a work not a grace; it would mean we earn it rather than receive it; it would mean salvation was different for men and women; it would exclude all the women who can’t or otherwise don’t give birth to children. If women are saved through childbearing, it would contradict all those parts that say things like “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”(Romans 10:9)

So at the very least, that verse sets off an alarm bell in our heads which makes us think, it shows us there must be more going on here than meets the eye. There must be more context, more that Paul was trying to say that we don’t totally understand on first reading. It leaves us with a few options – perhaps there’s a more obscure translation or interpretation that makes more sense, like those who take the singular Greek pronoun in this verse as referring to Eve who (along with all of us) would be saved by Jesus Christ, the offspring she was promised in Genesis 3:15 who would crush the serpent’s head. Or we can conclude that it must have made some sense to Paul’s intended audience, who are not us, and that therefore it’s an obscure verse which we can set aside. In any case, it would be foolish to try to build a doctrine on it.

While I think most Christians would agree with me on that particular verse, I’d say there are more which we should consider in just the same way, and I think that the verses where Paul seems to tell women not to preach fall into this category. I think they’re alarm bell verses because they seem to contradict what Paul himself says elsewhere. At the very least they should make us stop and think, to try to see what more is going on here beyond a surface level reading of them. So, in 1 Corinthians 14:34 where Paul says “women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak”, and similarly in 1 Timothy 2:12 which says women should not teach but be quiet – they seem to contradict 1 Corinthians 11:15 which assumes that women will be standing up in church praying and prophesying. He can’t mean they’re to be totally silent. They seem to contradict Galatians 3:28 which announces the removal of social divisions and barriers. There’s got to be something more going on.

For some people, that can be best explained by reference to the contexts of Corinth and Ephesus where these letters were being written to,  by accepting that for reasons about which we can only really speculate, it was better for those women in those churches at that time in that culture, to be quiet. Or for other people, we can best explain it in the context of Paul’s broader argument, for instance in 1 Corinthians, about individuals laying down their rights for the sake of the better reception of the gospel. Whatever we conclude, the alarm bell should have gone off and made us reconsider how we interpret it.

I’m not really saying anything beyond the old phrase “interpret Scripture with Scripture.” It’s all traditional stuff. I think I’m just suggesting that we should listen out for the alarm bells more often, and be prepared to see those places where we’ll have to do a little bit more work to understand what was going on. It might be easiest to take those verses at face value and keep women quiet, but thank goodness for the rest of the New Testament that doesn’t let us do that. The alarm bells should ring, and it’s not safe to ignore them.


The post I wanted to write today:
We keep putting words in their mouths.

English: By Rembrandt.

By Rembrandt. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For people who love and respect the Bible so much, I feel like as evangelicals we don’t always show the same respect to its authors.

Sometimes there are difficult verses in otherwise ‘good’ bits of the Bible, and because we like it and respect it and treat it as God’s word, we can’t just ignore those bits – we’ve got to do something with them. When the Bible seems to be wrong, and to contradict what we know very well to be the truth, we just tell the authors that they don’t mean what they say. We interpret Scripture with Scripture.

As an example, there was a difficult verse that we can across in our Bible study at Focus this week. (Dear Focus table, this is in no way a criticism of our collective efforts to work out what to do with this verse! It’s just a handy example.) In John 20:23, Jesus says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Now we all know that forgiveness of sins is something God alone can do; indeed Jesus shows clearly his divine authority by forgiving the sins of a paralysed man (Mark 2:5). So our first move is to go off to other parts of the New Testament, to reassure ourselves of what we know, and to try to find a way to fit the difficult verse into that framework. It might be a good fit or it might be pretty awkward, but we’ll have to jam it in there to make sure that the New Testament message holds together without hint of contradiction.

But what about the author? John hadn’t read the New Testament canon, he hadn’t had the centuries of doctrinal formulations to reflect on, and yet he still decided to put this line in. He still meant something by it. The problem with jumping straight to interpreting Scripture with Scripture is that we move away from what the author wanted to say by including that particular line in his gospel or letter, and move instead to what we expect the Bible to say. We tend to close our eyes to the diversity of the images and the language and the contexts in which the authors communicate, even on something as fundamental as how we can be saved.

Taken as they are, the story of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15, the conditional forgiveness in Mark 11:26, the authority of the disciples to forgive in John 20:23 and of course the salvation through childbearing in 1 Timothy 2:15, all give a slightly different picture of what forgiveness or salvation looks like and how we get it. Moulding them all into this one, ‘Biblical’ model, doesn’t seem to do justice to what each author wanted to say and why. Besides, how do we decide which is the Scripture by which we interpret all those other bits? It’s a discussion for another day, but it’s struck me recently that a lot of our theology on penal substitution seems to come from interpreting Scripture according to what we assume other parts of Scripture say. We end up with this entirely circular reasoning where, when it comes down to it, there are very few verses (if any) which actually say that Jesus was punished in our place, and yet that statement has become the interpretative rule by which we understand all other references to the cross in the New Testament.

Perhaps we do it because it’s a little bit dangerous to start talking about what John, or Luke, or Paul or even Isaiah wanted to say. It’s much safer to stick with what Jesus said (forgetting that it was recorded very differently by our four evangelists), or what the Holy Spirit inspired (forgetting the agendas of the writers and the needs of the communities they wrote to). Taking the Bible as it is, with all of its differences and complexities and even contradictions will leave us with some difficult parts to work through, and probably a lot of unanswered questions. But maybe that’s better than jumping straight into “interpreting Scripture with Scripture” – which often means having a preconceived idea of what the Bible should say and forcing all the inconvenient parts into that framework.


See what I mean? Almost entirely contradictory, and yet I still mean both of them. If I were examining my motives, I’d note that the first is about something important to me, so it particularly frustrates me when I see people take those verses at face value. The second is much more related to having academic integrity in the way we study the Bible, it’s definitely the way I think when I have my theologian hat on. I think I’m coming to a similar conclusion both times, in that it’s important to understand what the author was trying to say. But I seem to be advocating opposite principles to get there. I want to try to unpick this further but I have no idea where to go next… Any clues?


About Claire

@claireylegs Keen on Jesus. Keen on justice. Ministry assistant in the Great North East. Blogger. Find me in: coffee shop / church / pub / bed.
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25 Responses to Sometimes I contradict myself (or, When I am a massive hypocrite).

  1. Persto says:


    People within one religion cannot and will never agree on all the details. That, in my mind, is one of the most beautiful things about religion. It is all a matter of interpretation–exegesis and hermeneutics–and we all interpret things differently. What you take away from one passage or verse is different, on most occasions, then what someone else takes away from that exact same passage or verse, even if it is only a subtle distinction.

    God speaks to each individual differently. No one gets the same message and if they say they do, then they are lying, which is why interpretation of Scripture is such an integral part of religious study: everybody wants to find the right interpretation. But attempts to construct a comprehensive interpretive process are doomed to failure because all of the sacred texts contain ambiguity regarding certain aspects of existence, even the seemingly straightforward verses are ambiguous in a sense. God says don’t kill, but under what circumstances am I allowed to kill? Surely there are some, right? Even that direct command must be interpreted and usually it will be interpreted differently by different people. Does it mean one should not kill anything or does it mean one should not murder? Or are both of these wrong? Kill might be too broad of an interpretation and murder might be too narrow an interpretation. The point is that the sacred text was never about being inerrant or literal or one single interpretive framework; it is and always was about spiritual application. God telling humans not to kill, to keep repeating the same thing, is not a command per se. It is a tangible expression of one’s conscience. It is a reminder, if you will. It reminds us that our actions and thoughts are consequential. They matter. Sacred texts are reminders that our soul’s are in our keeping alone.

    Jesus reminded us what was important: to love God (Deut. 6:5) and our neighbor. (Lev. 19:18) These are the boundaries; the rest is up to us.


    • Persto

      You say that verses like “you shall not murder” create difficulties in application for different people at different times, but then I am puzzled that you then imply that the Bible is clear that we should love God and love others. How is one unclear when the other is clear? Especially as Jesus affirms and spells out both the murder command and the love command in the sermon on the mount and how he expects Christians to act in light of this.

      • Persto says:

        Hi David,

        Great question!

        I would say that nothing, meaning not anything, is clear in the Bible. Everything is up for interpretation, even the verses that are most unambiguous to me. We all have the opportunity for private interpretations of text. One can interpret the text in a myriad of dissimilar ways if one so chooses, but the interpretive process has almost always been about shoring up contradictions rather than embracing them, which is *not* what I am advocating. I embrace the idea of many different interpretations. One reason for this is that it is most opposed to dogmatic doctrines–something that has been a problem for the church since its early days–and the other reason is that subjective interpretation is the essence of human creativity, in my mind. It is that most respected philosophical trait: thinking for one’s self.

        And this approach is not at all novel. It has a storied history in Christianity, specifically, and religion generally. As Feuerbach reminded us God is what we make Him. The prophets did just that and so did Jesus and so did the early church Fathers and so did the Schoolmen and so did the Reformation Protestants and so did the relatively recent evangelical movement. Christianity has a long history of reinvention, remodeling, and interpretation. Luther’s Treatise of the Freedom of a Christian is a great example of intellectualism and individualism in Christianity, although I fear Luther would have regretted its broader appeal. The age of priestcraft has passed and people determine for themselves now what is important, disgusting, and noble about Biblical passages. The idea that the Bible makes claims about the world is faulty reasoning. It doesn’t. It tells stories that represent some of the best in human experience and imagination. Of course, a number of people like their dogma and doctrine, but you won’t find that dogma and doctrine spelled out propositionally in the NT. It developed over time, more than likely as social teaching based, primarily, on vague biblical references, the origins of which are difficult to locate. In my opinion, the early Christians did not accept Jesus because they believed he lived or died or because they read Paul–they couldn’t read–but because they believed the Gospel, which was a summary of things believed by early Christians. It is in the very late first century and early second century that we get the beginning of the image of Jesus as he is now portrayed.

        Furthermore, the canon was not a spontaneous development. The canon is the regulation of sources that supported a growing consensus about who Jesus was, or rather, what was to be believed about him, which became non-negotiable on certain points. And they found their support for this view in a fairly small number of sources that they believed dated from apostolic times.

        So, to answer your question: when I read the Bible the thing that is most clear to me is that one should love God and all of humanity. In fact, I can’t think of anything that Jesus put more simply and, as He reminded the Pharisees, ‘All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.'(Matt. 22:40) Which is why I said at the end of my last comment that, ‘these are the boundaries.’

        Apologies, for the long comment.

        • Claire says:

          Really interesting discussion, thanks both for your input – a couple of things I’d question:
          “The idea that the Bible makes claims about the world is faulty reasoning.” You contrast the idea of telling stories with making claims, as if stories don’t do this. I think you’re definitely right that the Bible tells us stories of a whole range of human experiences and of how people have encountered God in all their different contexts etc. But I think those stories also make value judgements about human experience. There are stories which are told as warnings, as memorials, as reflections on the tragedies of life or the distortion of human nature, stories of rape and abuse and murder which are not neutral stories – they do make claims about the way the world is and how it should be. Does that affect the chances of their being a ‘right’ interpretation of stories? Or is it easier to find a wrong one..?

          Also “they couldn’t read” – wondering if you could clarify how we know that early Christians couldn’t read? Which early Christians are you talking about? Just out of curiosity as to where this idea stems from!


          • Persto says:

            Hi Claire,

            Thank you for allowing me to comment. Let me know if I become a nuisance.

            Perhaps, I should clarify my point. Of course, the bible stories say things, useful things, about the world and its potentiality. No argument there. However, the bible stories are not a collection of claims or, better yet, a collection of propositions. The Bible does not claim God made the world; it tells a creation story. It does not say Jesus rose from the dead, it tells a few stories, none of them consistent, about a resurrection. Certainly, specific sects try to systematize their teaching as dogma and doctrine, but, even still, their teaching is an interpretation of an inconsistent collection of stories that were not presented as a set of logical conclusions about the world, although these Biblical stories are discussed as if the Bible is some sort of proof-text for an all-encompassing doctrine. The Bible evolved, not propositionally, but emotionally and imaginatively. The idea that the Bible is a book of claims will, inevitably, lead one to error. Atheists and fundamentalists are alike in this regard in that they both view the Bible as a collection of propositions. One says, ‘Jesus rose from the dead.’ and the other says, ‘No he didn’t. People don’t do those things.’ The much more reasonable option is not discussed–that Jesus lived at a time when people were thought to rise from the dead. My point succinctly put is that the Bible is a collection of stories; not arguments.

            Regarding literacy at the time of Jesus, my view is that of W.H. Kelber, who claims that, in first-century A.D. Palestine, “writing was in the hands of an élite of trained specialists, and reading required an advanced education available only to a few.” Also, William Harris in his book Ancient Literacy estimates that, at the very best of times, only 10 percent of the population of the ancient world could read at all. Furthermore, Catherine Hezser, professor of Jewish studies at University of London, postulates that only about 3 percent of the population in Palestine could read at the time of Jesus.


        • Thank you for the long comment, I think you’ve brought out the crux of your argument which saves me a lot of guessing!

          From what I’m reading your main point seems to be that Christianity proper is not built upon a set of prepositions or doctrines, I do not think that is the case. Let me try to back up my point.

          The sermon on the mount is largely Jesus refuting the Pharisees, in the manner of “you have heard that the pharisees tell you this, but I tell you this”. The best example is here:

          31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’[f] 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

          Here Jesus deals with the perversion of the divorce laws, in Jesus’ eyes there is a right application of the OT divorce laws and a wrong application.

          The same attitude comes from Paul, in 1 Cor 15:

          3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance[a]: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,

          He even goes so far as to say if he is wrong on the resurrection happening he is wasting his time

          If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.

          So from examples such as these I conclude that Christianity started with claims and prepositions which were taken by Jesus and his apostles as orthodox.

          Sorry I couldn’t go through all your points (library kick out time!), I think that is the heart of your point.

          • Persto says:

            Hi David,

            Thanks for the response. I am enjoying the discussion!

            Here again, it is all interpretation. Surely, (Leslie Nielsen in Airplane: ‘Don’t call me Shirley.” Can’t help it) you are not suggesting that the issue of divorce in Christianity is straightforward? Did Matt 19:1-9 precede or follow Mark 10:1-12? What was Jesus’ view of the law in Matthew 5? What does πορνεια mean in the Matthean texts? Was the “exception clause” original to Jesus or was it later Matthean redaction? And there are many other questions about this issue. The notion that Jesus settled the issue of divorce in Christianity, unambiguously, once and for all with his sermon on the mount is a bit dreamy.

            As for the Resurrection, Paul is only pointing out–once again, his interpretation–that without the Resurrection Christianity seems to be worthless, in his opinion. I wouldn’t agree nor would Thomas Berry nor would Henry Ward Beecher. In my mind, Jesus’ Resurrection can be viewed as a symbolic event only–I am not saying it was a symbolic event only–that imparts the message that triumph over death can be ours. The idea of the Resurrection is much more than a singular event, it has a deeper meaning. A meaning that is ongoing. A meaning that is spiritual. A meaning that highlights the plight of humans and offers us a way of dealing with the captivity of humanity to sin and death. We don’t need Jesus to have literally rose from the dead for God to be able to empathize with our struggles and intercede on our behalf.

            I appreciate your kindness.

            • Persto,

              Ok well I will avoid going through divorce! What does seem clear however is that Jesus thought one view of divorce was completely unacceptable, and he expected his followers to take another. The fact that Christians debate about what it is he expected of them is besides the point, nowhere did Jesus say “there are many acceptable views”. I don’t personally see a problem between Mark 10 and Matt 19, one seems just to be an abridged version of the other, the Bible would be a very tiring book if every Gospel author wrote down every word Jesus said! [I apologise for not speaking on some of the textual issues, I am out of my depth on this one!]

              Now as for the resurrection I’m a bit more familiar with the debate. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead was crucial to the Apostolic preaching (Acts 2:24) of which there were witnesses to testified to it (Acts 2:32). The resurrection was central to the early church and its message.

              Now I agree with you that the resurrection is not just a singular event but continues, as in the case of Jesus being sat at the right hand of the father. And I agree with you that Jesus offers a way of dealing with death. But if Jesus’ resurrection is not physical then how can a Christian say like Paul “where is death’s sting?”.

              I don’t personally see that the Apostles didn’t believe in a physical resurrection, the idea seems to be brought from outside the Bible, and from what I’ve read about the rise of Liberalism in the early 20th century there can be a case made for that.

              • Persto says:

                Thanks for the response David.

                Now, the question is not whether different views of the Bible exist. They do. The question is whether all of these are acceptable to God, if you will. In my opinion, they are. Just look at the number of contradictions and inaccuracies, both large and small, contained in the Bible. It seems to be, in certain areas, rife with conflicting beliefs. Yet, in spite of that, the biblical writers seem to advocate that all of the Bible is from God. (2 Timothy 3:16,17; 2 Peter 1:20,21; 1 Corinthians 14:37) Apparently, all of it is right, perhaps even all of the world’s sacred texts have it right. (As an aside, universalism and inclusivism are respected theological concepts. In fact, I believe C.S. Lewis was an inclusivist and I believe Billy Graham is as well.)

                Furthermore, Jesus says nothing on any social issue except divorce. The Jesus of the synoptic gospels says little on the subject of sex. He is against divorce. He speaks of adultery as a vice, and perhaps includes in adultery all extramarital intercourse. Although, Jesus preaches a humane and forgiving attitude towards sexual errors, as the story of the woman taken in adultery in John shows–which is not a synoptic gospel but it is of synoptic character. Jesus never recommends knowledge, beauty, or reason. He does not pronounce on war, capital punishment, gambling, justice, law, equality of sex, equality of color, tyranny, freedom, slavery, or self-determination. The original teachings of Jesus contain five major precepts: love God, believe in Jesus, love man, be pure in heart, be humble. This is Jesus’ message, as best as I can understand it, and anything that is added to it is a later development in the Christian tradition. Consequently, if what we mean by Christian is what Jesus taught according to the synoptic gospels, then there is a great deal we must work out for ourselves. And that, in my estimation, facilitates and, perhaps even encourages differing interpretations and beliefs, which will, inevitably, lead to disagreement and personal opinion on the matter, if one is convinced there is only one interpretation of the text.

                However, there are number of difficulties with this approach. For instance, it would be nearly impossible for one to demonstrate Jesus’ historicity with this only-one-interpretation method. I mean, if belief in Jesus is to be argued historically we have to read the Gospels differently then the way the Gospels are written. Normally, to prove the existence of a historical person you would have records, reports, artifacts, or writings of other people who mention that person in specific occurrences. We do not have that. What we have are the writings of people who had very specific and self-interested reasons for portraying Jesus in a certain way. And this portrayal differs markedly from the writings of histories by the Romans in the second and third century. For this reason, scholars have admitted for a long time the problem of deriving Jesus from the Gospels or Paul or any NT writing for that matter. I am not saying the Gospels are entirely fabricated. Just that the line between the supernatural and reality is not always obvious in ancient writings. Just look at Homer or Herodotus(and those are histories.). So, if one is going to prove something about Jesus that individual must read the bible differently than the way the bible was written. That person must attempt to separate fact from myth and attempt to create a plausible framework for Jesus’ actions and life, which, in all likelihood, will be markedly different from the explanations of Jesus in the NT.

                In light of all this uncertainty–though the early Church fathers were less concerned with a historical Jesus and more concerned with a fully human Jesus–it is not at all surprising that early Christianity comes in a variety of flavors. Gnosticism, Marcionism, Valentinianism to name a few. Of course, these ‘heresies’ forced the Church to separate themselves from the heretics–Docetists and Gnostics–and anything that resembled them–Arius and even Iranaeus’s friend, Justin–because they would not submit to Church authority. But all of these ideas were highly influential in the development and formation of the canon, which is what we read from.

                “if Jesus’ resurrection is not physical then how can a Christian say like Paul “’where is death’s sting?'”

                I guess, for most Christians, belief in God and belief in Jesus may be the same sort of belief because of the inclinations of Christian theology, but the beliefs are, in truth, different. It is only through a category-error that they can be brought into alignment. Belief in God can be argued philosophically and theologically. (If theologically the arguments are similar to Anselm’s or Aquinas) but the existence of God is not a question for history, though certain ways of thinking about him are of historical importance. Belief in Jesus on the other hand can be argued historically or theologically–though it is a different sort of theology, but not philosophically. In fact, the only commonality between Jesus and God is that they are both discussed in the bible. Jesus just much later.

                I suppose my point is that even if Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, and I am not saying he wasn’t–although Hume and Mackie have both pointed out (undeterred by the fact that they acknowledge that miracles, as violations of the laws of nature, are logically coherent and are not logically impossible) that one is never justified in believing in a miracle, which creates some huge issues for miracles in general and the Resurrection specifically–God still exists, if you could follow that.

                I hope this addresses some of your concerns and sorry for all of the long comments.

                • Persto,

                  Last post for me, exams call.

                  As for the social issues that Jesus takes on, I agree that there are many issues that Jesus doesn’t tackle, I take that as rebuke that perhaps Jesus wasn’t as concerned about political issues as I am, and I should be thinking whether I grasp that Jesus is the Christ (Mark 8:29).

                  But I still feel that your claim that the Bible is full of contradictions is lacking. Seeing as Jesus only ever used the OT to settle theological debates it would be hard to say we were being consistent with Jesus’s approach to theology and yet hold to a view of scripture that states it errs. So if you could convince me that Jesus used the Bible “as a point of discussion” as opposed to “settling a matter” (to quote a favourite theologian of mine) then that would change the ball game entirely.

                  It’s been a pleasure speaking to you on this, it has been very helpful for me to revisit these topics.

                  • Persto says:


                    I’ve enjoyed the conversation as well and thank you for your civility.

                    Firstly, the OT is full of errors. For instance, the extent and splendor of the realms of David and Solomon were almost certainly exaggerated. The archeological finds originally attributed to David and Solomon were misdated by a full century–the result of taking the historical narratives of the Bible at face value. The new dates place the appearance of monumental structures and fortifications precisely at the time of their appearance in the rest of the Levant, and these new dates are supported by pottery sherds found at Jezreel after the invasion of Hazael, ceramic evidence, architectural parallels, C14 dates, and non-biblical sources.

                    Additionally, the material culture of the highlands in the time of David remained simple. The land was rural with no trace of written documents, inscriptions, or even signs of a requisite literacy that would be necessary to maintain a properly functioning monarchy like that described in the OT.

                    Furthermore, at the time of David, the population of Israel was hardly homogenous–Judah was pastoral, marginally agricultural, isolated, and a small, scattered population of maybe five thousand. While their northern counterparts possessed orchards, vineyards, natural overland routes to neighboring territories, and a moderately-sized, crowded population of maybe 40 thousand–and Jerusalem was no more than a typical highland village. These were not the ingredients for maintaining or creating a powerful monarchy or a unified culture. David and Solomon were more chieftains than monarchs. Succinctly, there was no big empire, there were no monuments, and there was no magnificent capital.

                    One would look to the Omrides for Israelite splendor if history was fair, but the writer of the books of Kings only wanted to belittle, denigrate, and lie about them.
                    The Deuteronomistic History was political propaganda and theological hopes. It was a seventh century vision of national revival “that sought to bring scattered, war weary people together, to prove to them that they had experienced a stirring history under the direct intervention of God.” On top of this, we know, as many Jewish scholars and rabbis have acknowledged, that the Exodus was almost certainly fictitious, the Creation myth is just that a myth, and perhaps Moses nor Abraham even existed. Of course, the exilic and post-exilic writers seem to be more historical but, even still, they have their own historical problems.

                    Admitting that the Bible is errant does not destroy the Faith or Jesus and this approach is not at all novel or radical. Augustine noted that if a Christian takes the Bible literally he should not be surprised if a non-Christian laughs. And Origen pilloried the anti-Christian Celsus for his lack of imagery and allegory concerning the NT. Origen even believed that certain portions of the Gospels were false like the temptation of Jesus by the devil; the writer of the Epistle of Barnabas preferred an allegorical approach to the OT–the Church of the Middle Ages took a similar spiritual interpretation approach with the NT, at least to a certain extent–and the writer of the Epistle of Diognetus highlighted the ‘follies of Judaism’ as ‘too nonsensical to be worth discussing;’ Paul, while a proponent of Scripture, was integral in separating Christianity from Judaism–he self-identified as ‘the apostle to the gentiles.’ Hardly, a person overly concerned with the law of Moses; C.S. Lewis’ even acknowledged that much of the early OT is ahistorical. This idea that the Bible must be interpreted literally and must be without error is a fairly new theological concept, a concept that I find dangerous and unthinking. It is the same sort of theology as the preacher who claims to speak for God. It is intellectually easy and black and white, but a cursory study of history, philosophy, theology, and life shows us that the black-and-white portrayal of human existence and spirituality being propagated by the ‘fundamental’ adherents isn’t an accurate representation of human experience nor the Bible.

                    In a word, the OT, however one feels about the it, must be viewed by Christians from the standpoint of the NT; from the framework of the gospels, which some may argue was the goal of the OT. So, it does not at all appear obvious to me that the non-historicity of the OT terminates Christianity, particularly since, the NT presupposes the OT. Yes, the OT comes before the NT chronologically, but, in my mind, the NT precedes the OT.

                    Secondly, and lastly, Jesus was not omniscient, so I am sure he had wrong beliefs. Just like he didn’t address a number of very important social issues. If Jesus knew all truths–omniscience–then he would have been incapable of learning. Jesus learned. Therefore, he was not omniscient.


  2. siobhanj says:

    “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald.

  3. Carwyn Graves says:

    No time to answer properly – but I think you can definitely have your cake and eat it here. Of course scripture can only ever interpret scripture with the help of the Holy Spirit (who seems to speak to different people in different ways….) Um, penal substitution – do you know Eastern Orthodox theology on this one? Also, how well do you know NT Wright? I have a feeling you’d have a very good time with him – How God Became King and Surprise by Hope – intellectually very satisfying but not heavy theological reading….. 🙂

    • Claire says:

      I wish I could claim to know Eastern Orthodox theology on anything… but not at all! I’ve read a bit of NT Wright, but I’ll put those on my summer reading list, thanks!

  4. Lasseter says:

    I will admit, I found this essay a bit hard to digest well enough to comment, although I did feel like commenting when I first read it last night. For instance, I don’t really see much of an issue with the salvation through childbirth verse. The Apostle Paul does not say that a woman is saved by childbirth, and he does not say that a woman must give birth to a child in order to be saved: he merely says that, (reading the prior verses) although she should not be a teacher in church, she may find her salvific path or calling elsewhere, as in having a child (a role, by the way, that has a pedagogical quality). I have never taken that verse to challenge being saved by grace in the slightest, even just reading the verse all by itself. It does, after all, conclude that the childbearing woman must continue in faith, love, and holiness in order to be saved.

    And Galatians 3:28 doesn’t announce the removal of all distinctions in church governance, so I fail to see it as contradicting the other verses you mention. Whereas I Timothy is particularly a letter about pastoral care and practice, Galatians is in that verse, that chapter, and in the whole epistle concerned with those who insisted on legalism and Jewish practice in their churches. The point of “neither male nor female” and “neither Jew nor Greek” and “neither slave nor free” is that all are allowed admission to the body of Christ and are to enter by way of faith in the Gospel rather than legal practice. (And that women may pray or prophesy in church does not contradict the Apostle Paul’s other comments that they should not be the heads and teachers of the churches.)

    Anyway your concerns there puzzled me a bit, as did the second essay. When you talked about interpreting Scripture with Scripture, it sometimes seemed that what you were talking about what you actually did at one point describe as just plum trying to make Scripture fit a theory one holds–as in trying to put it all together to support the theory of penal substitutionary atonement, something no one in the modern era just divined from reading the Bible: everyone, I think, who subscribes to that theory was taught it elsewhere. That doesn’t strike me as interpreting Scripture with Scripture, at least not in any honest way. And I really don’t see the huge controversy about John 20:23. There are several similar passages in the four books of the Gospel, passages about getting the keys to the kingdom and judging the twelve tribes and so on. Forgiveness comes from God, but He also explicitly gives authority to His disciples, and the Holy Spirit inspired them. Whatever He granted them, it all came from Him.

    I’m sorry. Really. I hate being one of these commentators who mostly just pipes up on someone’s blog when he is feeling contentious. I think you’re trying to work through an issue (contradiction in one’s ideas or process of thought) that is worth exploring, but I’m not so sure that you’ve chosen the best examples or laid it out in the clearest way. Of course you do say that you are hoping to start a discussion rather than present a definitive solution. And it is early in the morning here (and it was late in the night when your post first came up in my reader), so my own approach to your essay may suffer its own liabilities on my end. In any case, I tip my hat to you for starting to address these matters anyway.

    (Apparently this is what I do when I neglect my own “blog”: post massive essays in the comment sections of others’. For that I owe an apology as well.)

    • Claire says:

      Hi Lasseter, thanks for your comments – no need to apologise at all!

      To pick up on a few things you said… “she may find her salvific path or calling elsewhere” – do you think there is a difference between these two things? I think it’s a product of having evangelicalism as my mother tongue so to speak, that I naturally think of “salvation” as this one defining, separate thing, and then the rest of life, calling, vocation and holiness and everything else as another thing. So in my head, salvation and calling sometimes have this big gap between them, but I think I could do with learning more from traditions that allow the whole of life and salvation to be one messy journey all together.

      I guess that makes some sense of what I meant about Galatians 3:28 – I referenced it in that way only briefly, knowing that I was making a bit of a sweeping statement about it! I think you’re right that it is about the role of Jewish practice in that church, and how the gospel makes a way for all without it. But I don’t think that it’s meant to be a declaration isolated from the effects it has social relationships and status and so on. If it was just about Jewish practice, Paul could have stuck with “There is neither Jew nor Gentile”. But I think he’s also making a wider point, one which shows how the gospel creates unity where there were social divides – otherwise the unity between slave and free and male and female would be totally irrelevant to what he’s saying.

      On penal substitution, you said: “everyone, I think, who subscribes to that theory was taught it elsewhere.” Totally agree – which is fine, if that is recognised. The problem, for me, is that people who subscribe to it tend to also argue that they do take it right out of Scripture, that it is the way the Bible tells us to understand atonement. As you say, I don’t think it’s completely honest.

      You’re probably right that the examples I used aren’t the most helpful for everyone in exploring these questions. I picked them because they’re the ones that have come up for me, in discussions at church, or in other things I’ve read. I guess every strand of Christian thought has it’s own difficult verses to work out – John 20:23 and those other verses on keys and judging that you mentioned would be far less problematic to Christians with a different understanding of church authority say, than they are to the sort of conservative evangelical tradition I’ve grown up with.

      Sorry for the long reply, do come back at me on any of it!


      • Lasseter says:

        Hello, Claire, and thank you for your thoughtful reply. You too, by the way, have nothing to apologize for in the length, and thanks also for the offer to come back at you, which I shall now do. 🙂

        You pretty well hit a major issue when you note the differences in understanding salvation between Western and Eastern traditions, and in particular in how you say that we speak different mother tongues. From what I have learned of Evangelical and overall Protestant notions of salvation, most especially in the last year or so, these traditions place a strong emphasis on a moment of justification, the essential saving moment, after which all the other stuff (sanctification, a life of holiness, and so on) should or may or may not happen. In Western parlance one will often hear phrases like “decision for Christ” and (in what I think is an extreme version of Perseverance of the Saints) “once saved always saved,” for example, but these phrases are not so often heard in the language of Eastern Orthodoxy–indeed, “once saved always saved,” (which, I take it, is even controversial among some Evangelicals and other Protestants) is a concept that makes little sense in Orthodox soteriology.

        So, I understand that, to a Western eye, if a woman is saved through childbearing, and if by saved the Apostle Paul particularly meant justified, this poses a problem: an alarm bell verse, as you call it. Indeed, though, such a concept of “getting right with God” (a phrase I’ve heard often among Baptists in America, and perhaps other denominations favor it as well, but it won’t be found much in Orthodoxy)– such a concept of getting right with God (which would be to say in terms more comprehensible to the Orthodox, setting oneself squarely at the beginning of the way to eternal life) by merely becoming a mother would be perplexing even to the Orthodox eye.

        I’ll just briefly note, on the topic of keys to the kingdom, judging the tribes, and forgiving others’ sins, that Orthodoxy differs from Roman Catholicism in this, while it also differs from much of the Protestant West too. We do not have so hierarchical an authority structure, and we absolutely do not have the kind of Papal authority that Rome claims (although, interesting side note, two of the Orthodox bishops do use the title Pope). If one goes to an Orthodox priest or bishop for confession, the presbyter will, in the normal course of such a thing, spend most of the time listening. Forgiveness comes from God, and the Orthodox episcopate may act as His agent by way of Apostolic Succession. If, however, some wayward priest or bishop were to “deny” forgiveness to a penitent soul, I don’t think any Orthodox worth his salt would take it seriously, except to the extent that he would take the deviancy of such a minister to be a serious matter.

        On the topic of penal substitution, since you are a student of theology, you may find the following article by Panayiotis Nellas, broken into three parts and kindly published by a fellow with a Blogger account, interesting:

        Penal theories of the atonement tend not to be regarded favorably in Orthodoxy.

        Thank you for expressing the interest in the Eastern view. I’m always delighted to talk about it.

  5. Rosie says:

    I think this is a really interesting and helpful post. I’m sorry I missed the study on Thursday – would have liked to hear where you all got to with John 20:23!! Personally I think the best approach to a difficult verse if you’ve got the time (which often we don’t at Focus), is to try to have a bit of a two-pronged attack along both of your approaches.

    Firstly take the verse at face value within its context and try to work out what Paul/John/whoever is driving at, trusting that they phrased something that way for a reason. I find a useful trigger for me is when I find myself thinking “I really wouldn’t have put it quite that way, Paul…” to try and then think, ok, well, how is what Paul is trying to communicate about women/justification/Jesus/whatever different to what I already think – is it a difference in his audience/context, a difference in what he’s trying to emphasise (could he be using hyperbole etc), a misapprehension on my part, or am I just wrong!

    But as you’re doing this you hopefully can be doing a bit of biblical theology in parallel – so as you study Jn 20:23 you can be looking at what all of scripture says about forgiveness or whatever. And obviously whilst John didn’t have the whole canon, a good OT biblical theology is going to be pretty essential for accurate interpretation of John’s intention in writing.

    The very handy outcome of a high doctrine of scripture is that I think you can have confidence that as you take these two approaches your understanding of both the one verse and scripture as a whole should be converging! Because it’s all true – so it must hang together. I guess we’ve all experienced this where a once troublesome verse ceases to be troublesome as we get to know the bible better. I recently experienced this with John 19:34 – had always thought it a bit weird that Jesus’ side spurted blood and water and I’d only ever heard it preached as proof that Jesus really was dead… which really can’t have been the reason why John wrote it that way. Doing the bible overview as we have done at Focus and zooming in on the themes of water in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, John 4 gave me a bit of help, and then when I read Zechariah which is the bit John quotes “they will look on the one they have pierced”, it was so exciting to realise that this is all about the fulfillment of prophecy from Zechariah “on that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem… the Lord will be king over the whole earth” and “on that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem… on that day I will banish the names of the idols from the land”. And it made me love Jesus more as I realised that as he died he really is the fountain who can quench my thirst, even as I desperately scrabble around to quench it from broken cisterns, etc. Which is a bit tangential! And I know that John 19:34 is not nearly as difficult as some of the other verses you mentioned, but I think the basic principle stands. Basically – I totally agree with both of your blog posts….

    • Claire says:

      I liked the tangent, thanks for all of it!

      “High doctrine of scripture” is a useful phrase and not one I’ve come across, thanks for that. So a question on having a high doctrine of scripture and using these sorts of methods for understanding difficult verses – do you think holding that high view allows us to come to the conclusion “I don’t know what that means”, or even “we won’t ever really know what that means”? Or does it hold us to believing that we can in theory understand the meaning(s) of any given verse, no matter how obscure or difficult? Is there any chance that the meaning of a phrase is hidden away in lost correspondence with a church, or in idioms of Greek or Hebrew that we simply don’t know about any more? Or does it require us to say that God makes sure the whole meaning is there for us to see if we look hard enough at it?

      • Rosie Brock says:

        Have been musing on your question. I think I think that it’s very possible to have a high doctrine of scripture and conclude that you don’t understand all of it – in fact I think any other conclusion boils down to a high view of yourself… As to whether we can in general expect to eventually understand all of scripture – I think that the Spirit will guide the Church corporately as she submits to the Word, hence the utility of commentaries, sermons, and listening to historical theologians, and within that context I think bible study can be expected to be generally fruitful and enlightening for the individual believer too. I think there’s cause to be optimistic about difficult verses that generally God wants us to understand them and so he’ll probably get his message across to us somehow, so I wouldn’t give up on even 1 Tim 2:15, but I don’t expect to have perfect knowledge and understanding of all scripture this side of heaven!

  6. jmar198013 says:

    At the end, you named some passages as descriptive of salvation or forgiveness: Matt. 25.31-46; Luke 15.11-32; Mark 11.26 (Matt. 6.15); John 20.23; 1 Tim. 2.15 and commented, “all give a slightly different picture of what forgiveness or salvation looks like and how we get it.” I want to (as) briefly (as I can) treat each separately and then deal with them together.
    1. Matt. 25, the parable of the sheep and the goats. Jesus names the eschatological fate (this is the meaning we often assign to “salvation,” though I am not at all sure it is correct; probably it is too narrow a meaning) of two groups he calls the sheep and the goats. The sheep are called into a home in the kingdom because they cared for the needy and marginalized, while goats are sent away because of their failure to so act. My suggestion for appropriating this text: the sheep have embodied in their lives God’s concern for the poor and hurting. Perhaps salvation and forgiveness name this quality of being merciful like God. Our lives become touchstones of forgiveness. Salvation means being saved from something, in this instance a careless life that is not compelled to act on behalf of those who are weak.
    2. Luke 15, the prodigal son. In the West, we are acculturated to read the story with the emphasis on the son’s repentance, on his “coming to himself” in the pig pen. We fail to remember the surrounding context–this is the third in a series of parables about lost things being found; they are parables about God’s joy in finding someone who has been lost. We don’t place the emphasis on a) the prodigal’s experience as a victim of famine, b) the inhospitality of the people in the land where he sojourned (“no one would feed him anything”), c) the father’s joy at his return, or d) by contrast, his brother’s sharp condemnation. Notice that the Parable of the Prodigal Son is set in a context where the Pharisees are arguing with Jesus about eating with sinners. Jesus’ point is this: these sinners live in an unmerciful world, the type of world that would allow a lost boy to starve to death. I welcome these people to my table, and my welcome is God’s welcome. You are acting like this bitter brother–you are not sharing in God’s welcome. Again, perhaps salvation and forgiveness name this particular quality of becoming like God: when you recognize what it means for God to accept you and offer you a place at his table, that is what forgiveness and salvation means. You then want to open your table to others in need of forgiveness and salvation. Salvation means being called out of an unforgiving world to a place at God’s table.
    3. Mark 11.26/Matt. 6.15. Mark 11.26 is probably spurious–most likely a gloss. Go back and look at it in Matt. 6.15. There, it’s an interpretive gloss on the petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” I want to think about the Lord’s Prayer a little more. The forgiveness petition comes off the back of the petition, “Give us this day our daily bread.” I would suggest that those two petitions have to be interpreted together, and then you are able to understand why Matt. 6.15, “if you don’t forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your sins,” stands as it does. A people capable of trusting God for our daily needs is capable of forgiving others their debts, because we recognize that our survival depends not on others giving us what is “due” us, but on God’s generosity. Furthermore, to be a people that petitions God daily for bread reminds us that we are ever beggars and debtors before him. People who are not often reminded of their debts will get it in their heads that they don’t owe anyone anything. People who believe that they don’t owe anyone anything are incapable of forgiving others, or of seeking forgiveness (for that would mean that you owe someone something). If you are unwilling to forgive others, it is because you have not learned how to live as a forgiven person. I would suggest that forgiveness names not a merely ontological declaration by God, but a way of life formed by God’s acceptance of us. Mark 11.25/Matt. 6.15 are thus not about “conditional” forgiveness, but about not burning the bridge that we all must cross to get to God.
    4. John 20.23. I’m going to go way out on a limb here and suggest that we read John 20.23 in light of the moral reasoning/forgiveness protocol in Matt. 18.15-20: “If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together. If they listen to you, then you’ve won over your brother or sister. But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses. But if they still won’t pay attention, report it to the church. If they won’t pay attention even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector. I assure you that whatever you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. And whatever you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven. Again I assure you that if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, then my Father who is in heaven will do it for you. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.” In the immediate context of John 20, Jesus is gifting the disciples with the Spirit’s presence (see v22). My suggestion is, if we read John 20.23 as a commentary on Matt. 18.15-20, we get this cool image of Jesus promising that the Spirit will guide us to truth as we go through the reconciliation/moral reasoning practice described in Matt. 18. I know–I’m interpreting Scripture with Scripture. Point is, in Matt. 18, Jesus is basically saying that a person who refuses to be forgiven isn’t living as a forgiven person. On the other hand, truth claims about who did somebody wrong are hard to verify–there are always hurt feelings and defensiveness and whatnot in the mix, which is why we need the Spirit to help us parse out what’s really going on in these conflicts. John 20.23 isn’t a word about people arbitrarily deciding what sins they will or won’t forgive. It’s about the Spirit’s presence in our reconciliation process.
    5. 1 Tim. 2.15. The big bugaboo in the hermeneutical continuum here is, did Paul write this, or did “Paul”? I am inclined to say that “Paul” wrote it, and to agree with Brevard S. Childs that there is some degree of distance between the Apostle Paul and the Canonical Paul. That being said, to the extent that 1 Timothy is in our canon, we can’t just say, “I’m not going to listen to that passage.” I don’t think that means we have to apply it literally; I would suggest that we can still learn something from it. I would suggest that “Paul”‘s bizarre claim that woman will be saved through childbirth probably does have something to do with Jesus entering the world through a woman (Mary). I would suggest that one meaning we can derive a word about redemption from this–that we may sin grievously, but one of the things that makes God God is his ability to bring forth forgiveness, reconciliation, and salvation from the chaos we make.

    Having spoken to all these separately, I think we can weave them into a tapestry that pictures forgiveness and salvation. Forgiveness names the gifts that come into our lives when we own our pasts–when we are willing to accept that we will never have the pasts that we wish we did (I think I copped that from Anne Lamott), but we are willing to name our wrongs and the wrongs we have suffered to our selves, to God, and to a community of others so forgiven. Salvation names being found by God, finding ourselves in his presence and among his people.

    • Claire says:

      Thanks for your comments, all really interesting and helpful.
      I think I’d agree with almost everything you’re saying, at least as starting points for exploring each of those verses. Some of those in particular rely on a view of Scripture that is perhaps more human-centred than some would argue for – for instance, taking a phrase as a gloss, or considering the “Paul” who wrote 1 Timothy. I’m all in favour of those being helpful parts of our understanding of the texts of the New Testament, in fact I think they’re essential. But there are others who are committed to a view of the Bible that can’t allow for pseudonymity or struggles with editing of Jesus’ words by the evangelists – perhaps it’s the commitment to those views that leads to a tendency to force different perspectives to agree with each other where actually the different angles are helpful as they are?

      • jmar198013 says:

        Well, I mean my reading of 1 Tim. 2.15 doesn’t demand that it wasn’t written by Paul, though I’m sure that many of those who would insist that it was would be unhappy with my saying we don’t have to apply it literally.

        I suppose what I meant by breaking the examples apart and trying to weave them together as I did was that perhaps our ideas about what broad concepts like forgiveness and salvation mean in Scripture. It could be that 2000 years of interpretation have served not to refine what we mean by these words, but to attenuate what the authors of Scripture had in mind when they wrote them. I would offer that if this is the case, we may be disrespecting the Bible in a manner more fundamental than my suggestion that Paul may not have written 1 Timothy.

        Thank you for plowing through my overlong comment. I actually had some things I wanted to say about penal substitutionary atonement, but I believe I’ve said plenty already. I look forward to seeing what you have to say about that topic at a later date.

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