Quotes & Sayings

We, and creation itself, actualize the possibilities of the God who sustains the world, towards becoming in the world in a fuller, more deeper way. - R.E. Slater

There is urgency in coming to see the world as a web of interrelated processes of which we are integral parts, so that all of our choices and actions have [consequential effects upon] the world around us. - Process Metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead

Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem says (i) all closed systems are unprovable within themselves and, that (ii) all open systems are rightly understood as incomplete. - R.E. Slater

The most true thing about you is what God has said to you in Christ, "You are My Beloved." - Tripp Fuller

The God among us is the God who refuses to be God without us, so great is God's Love. - Tripp Fuller

According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater

Our eschatological ethos is to love. To stand with those who are oppressed. To stand against those who are oppressing. It is that simple. Love is our only calling and Christian Hope. - R.E. Slater

Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger

Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton

I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – Anon

Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII

Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut

Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest

We become who we are by what we believe and can justify. - R.E. Slater

People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – Anon

Certainly, God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater

An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater

Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann

Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner

“Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14) or, conversely, “I AM who I AM Becoming.”

Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton

The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens, we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – Anon

The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul

The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah

If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – Anon

Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord

Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another, so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

To promote societal transition to sustainable ways of living and a global society founded on a shared ethical framework which includes respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, universal human rights, respect for diversity, economic justice, democracy, and a culture of peace. - The Earth Charter Mission Statement

Christian humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, and unencumbered rational inquiry are compatible with the practice of Christianity or even intrinsic in its doctrine. It represents a philosophical union of Christian faith and classical humanist principles. - Scott Postma

It is never wise to have a self-appointed religious institution determine a nation's moral code. The opportunities for moral compromise and failure are high; the moral codes and creeds assuredly racist, discriminatory, or subjectively and religiously defined; and the pronouncement of inhumanitarian political objectives quite predictable. - R.E. Slater

God's love must both center and define the Christian faith and all religious or human faiths seeking human and ecological balance in worlds of subtraction, harm, tragedy, and evil. - R.E. Slater

In Whitehead’s process ontology, we can think of the experiential ground of reality as an eternal pulse whereby what is objectively public in one moment becomes subjectively prehended in the next, and whereby the subject that emerges from its feelings then perishes into public expression as an object (or “superject”) aiming for novelty. There is a rhythm of Being between object and subject, not an ontological division. This rhythm powers the creative growth of the universe from one occasion of experience to the next. This is the Whiteheadian mantra: “The many become one and are increased by one.” - Matthew Segall

Without Love there is no Truth. And True Truth is always Loving. There is no dichotomy between these terms but only seamless integration. This is the premier centering focus of a Processual Theology of Love. - R.E. Slater


Note: Generally I do not respond to commentary. I may read the comments but wish to reserve my time to write (or write from the comments I read). Instead, I'd like to see our community help one another and in the helping encourage and exhort each of us towards Christian love in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. - re slater

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Roger Olson - How American Evangelical Christianity Has Changed in My Lifetime

"Investing the past with too much power will
divest the future its actionable power of relevancy."
                                                                                                 - R.E. Slater

Just a quick side note to Roger's blog post below.... I too grew up in a very similar Christian culture. Mine, like his, was steeped in fundamentalism to be later superseded by evangelicalism. As I read through his "Top 10 List" of things remembered I too could look wistfully upon those far-off days and whistle a similar tune of either alarm or dismay.

However, when revisiting the often inexact "nostalgic" memory of past church movements creedal culture I believe that where the present church is now is in many ways a better place to be than where it was decades earlier. For instance, the social programs we now have are amazing in their synergy between community and public, church and state, as can be demonstrated by recent charts, polls, and surveys showing social agency's more comprehensive, more adept support to the poor and disabled, the unemployed and under-insured, the homeless and forgotten. In comparison to the community outreaches of yesteryear, today's agencies offer a greater range of social, medical, educational, and supportive services to more people now than the modern church in the 1950s and 1960s could have individually undertaken alone in their parishes and communities. And yet, it was from the hearts of those socially-minded churches that today's social agencies exist and continue to thrive.

And, I suppose, we could ramble along each of Roger's other 9 points and nick-pick them to death. However, when reading his observations of past church culture I would rather wish to take to heart his earnest wish that the church of the postmodern 21st century might similarly form a heart-line of spiritual dedication and singularity of Jesus-driven-purpose. Though I think in many more important and differing ways it already does, though it shows it differently. But nonetheless with the same fervency of alacrity and dedication of purpose not unlike our brethren of yesteryear gone by... those whom I still remember in my mind's eye with a smile and prayer of thanksgiving for their labour and love.

As example, the postmodern church of today must continue to educate and catechise its own generations of earnest Christians devoted to Jesus and His gospel but without the sufficient biblical background to push the desires of their heart beyond that of wistfulness and good intentions. A conservative form of Christianity doesn't address this need so much as to distract believers from reading good progressive theologies and great biographies of postmodern day Christians who are not conservative.

Banksy, Follow Your Dreams

To know the bible without worshiping the bible. To be sincere, devout, committed, and purposefully living Jesus Christians everyday to the world about. But to also have the theological understanding of mature men and women in order to attend to the task of missions and evangelism to the world in all its cares and concerns. From the streets of poverty, to the groves of denuded forests, to the polluted oceans of this world, to a better form of governance than we currently are seeing in its wars and greed.

To remember that we live in a pluralistic world where many other ethnicities, religions, and faiths, will be met with which are similarly burdened to live and work in a harmonious world of love and devotion to humanity and this good earth. That Christianity's greatest strength is one of adapting and absorbing the differences between mankind and pushing forward into the unknown knowing God is there. Is present. And is sovereign in all the affairs men as is given in His heart, and plans, and purposes, for this lost world.

Thus, conservative Christianity, though laudable in some respects, mostly needs to be distinguished from its past unbiblical social stances, dogmas, and church creeds considered to be of God, but not of God. Which movements pushed forward a religious form of excluding Christianity as good and righteous when it wasn't either good nor righteous. That the many writers and theologians we follow here have noted the same even as our present blogger has in his own past posts and writings against his wistfulness in today's post.

In the end, nostalgia, used correctly, can be a helpful corrective. But we do not look to the past for living in the future. The past is, well, past. We take from past church history and testimony what we can for our own day and age, while pushing forward towards our Lord and Savior praying discernment and Holy-Spirit-help every day of our lives. Even so, my brothers and sisters, go do and be blessings to the world around. Amen

R.E. Slater
July 1, 2014

* * * * * * * * * *

How American Evangelical Christianity Has Changed…

June 26, 2014

How American Evangelical Christianity Has Changed During My Lifetime

The “American Christianity” I will talk about here is specifically evangelical Christianity. But I use that category broadly to include numerous denominations and organizations. They all used to look to Billy Graham for unofficial leadership—leadership by example. I grew up in the “thick” of American evangelicalism. My uncle, with whom I have always been close, was on the national board of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). My father was pastor of two evangelical churches throughout his fifty-plus years of ministry. Many of my aunts and uncles were evangelical ministers and missionaries. Our home, and the homes of most people we knew, including most of my relatives, were filled with evangelical literature, radio and television programs. Our Sunday evening church services and youth group meetings often included evangelical films. As a child and teenager I was deeply involved in Youth for Christ—an evangelical youth-oriented organization. I grew up attending “Back Yard Clubs,” reading evangelical “comic books” and books about The Sugar Creek Gang—an evangelical childrens’ series. My family took my brother and me to special evangelical events in many different denominational settings (and many trans-denominational ones). My extended family including evangelical Reformed, Pentecostal and Holiness people. Our family reunions always included prayer and Bible reading and discussions about God and salvation and how “worldly” the world around us was becoming.

All that is to say I grew up in an evangelical “hothouse.” My social environment was evangelical—way before Newsweek magazine named 1976 “The Year of the Evangelical.” And I’ve been in the “thick” of evangelicalism my whole life. I attended an evangelical college and an evangelical seminary. I have taught at three evangelical institutions. I have served as editor of an evangelical journal and on the editorial board of Christianity Today. I have published articles in evangelical magazines and journals and had books published by evangelical publishers. I have served as chair of the Evangelical Theology Group of the American Academy of Religion (AAR). I wrote The Handbook to Evangelical Theology published by Westminster John Knox Press. I have been a member and sometime deacon of about ten evangelical churches in my life. I have served on the steering committee of city-wide evangelical evangelistic crusades. I could go on. I doubt there are very many people in America with stronger evangelical credentials than I have.

People sometimes ask me why I hang onto the moniker “evangelical” when it has become so sullied by the media and in the public mind—as synonymous with angry, right-wing religious politics and the “culture wars.” My answer is twofold. First, “evangelical” is so much a part of my personal identity that I can’t imagine giving it up. Second, I’m too stubborn to let people own it and take it away from me.

However, in my seventh decade of life, and being an evangelical, I look back and wonder what has happened to evangelical Christianity during my lifetime. It has changed so dramatically it’s hardly recognizable.

What are the most dramatic changes?

First, when I was growing up - and well into my early adult years - evangelical Christianity in America focused much attention on the return of Jesus Christ (the Second Coming). I almost never hear or read anything about that anymore. We evangelicals seem to have dropped that—not as a doctrine but as something we look forward to and talk, sing and preach about. Now, it seems, only crazy fundamentalist “date-setters” even talk about the return of Christ.

Second, and related to “first,” when I was growing up and into my early adult years evangelical Christianity in America focused much attention on heaven and hell. I almost never hear or read anything about that anymore. We evangelicals seem to have dropped that—not as doctrine but as something we look forward to (heaven) and talk, sing or preach about.

Third, when I was growing up and well into my early adult years evangelical Christianity in America focused much attention on missions and evangelism—including “witnessing to the lost.” I almost never hear anything about those anymore. We evangelicals seem to have dropped those—not as things that would be good to do but as things we talk about and actually do. When I was a kid every evangelical church virtually had something like a “missionary barrel” somewhere inside it—to be filled with goods missionaries could not find in their “fields of service.” And they had large posters in some hallway with pictures of the missionaries they supported and maps of where they were serving. Missionaries frequently spoke in evangelical churches and a “missionary offering” was taken monthly. And many sermons included a call to become missionaries. Those evangelical customs hardly exist anymore.

Fourth, when I was growing up….evangelical Christianity in America focused much attention on “separating from the world.” That did not mean physical separation but lifestyle separation. We evangelicals knew there was a line of holiness between us and the “secular world” and “nominal Christianity.” We did not drink alcohol, go to movies that included immorality, nudity, vulgar language or even allusions to such. We had our own “Christian culture” that included, for example, “graduation banquets” in place of high school proms. Dancing was frowned on. But more importantly, perhaps, we evangelicals considered marriage sacred and divorce a sin (unless it was due to spousal abuse, chronic alcoholism, abandonment or sexual immorality in which case evangelicals encouraged separation and divorce only as a last resort). It’s been a long time since I heard the word “worldly” uttered in an evangelical church. The line between us and the secular world and its forms of entertainment (etc.) has just about disappeared.

Fifth, when I was growing up…evangelical Christianity in America frowned on “conspicuous consumption.” Evangelicals didn’t spend money on luxuries. Disposal income was supposed to be either given to the church, the poor or missions, or saved for a rainy day. Today evangelicals drive the finest cars, live in “McMansions,” and take luxury cruise vacations.

Sixth, when I was growing up…evangelical Christianity in America frowned on all forms of government welfare including subsidized home loans. I remember when this was a debate among evangelicals: Should evangelicals accept government help for anything? I remember when an evangelical minister my family knew accepted a government subsidized home loan to buy a new house. He was harshly criticized for that. Evangelicals believed Christians should be as self-reliant as possible and, when that was impossible, they should rely on the church for help (and churches should share to meet the needs of the truly needy among them). Today evangelicals are just as likely as anyone else to rely on government financial help.

Seventh, when I was growing up…evangelical Christianity in America loved “America” but was suspicious of politics. We were as patriotic as anyone (and extremely suspicious about communism and “creeping socialism”) but generally stayed out of politics. We believed the world was going to hell in a hand basket and government was not any solution to the world’s problems. Our task was to win souls for Jesus and get people ready for the inevitable and imminent world conflagration that would precede the return of Christ to earth. I have not heard anything like that from any evangelical pulpit or mouth or pen in many years.

Eighth, and related to “seventh,” when I was growing up…evangelical Christianity in America prepared its people, especially young people, for persecution and expected it. We fully expected that someday, probably in our own lifetimes, society and even government would arrest us and possibly even torture us for our fervent loyalty to Jesus Christ above “this world.” When I watched on TV the ATF assault on the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco and the ensuing FBI siege of the compound and eventual attack on it with a tank and gas I thought to myself: “That’s what we evangelicals used to expect would happen to us—someday.” I don’t know how many evangelical youth events I participated in where we pretended to be a group of Christians worshiping in secret only to have other members of the youth group “break in” (pretending to be government agents) and “arrest” us. That was a common practice in evangelical youth groups in the 1950s and 1960s. It was evangelical churches’ way of preparing their youth for persecution which they should experience on some level even now (then) if they were being “good Christians” in public (at school). I haven’t heard any talk of persecution among evangelicals for many years (except in other countries).

Ninth, when I was growing up…evangelical Christians knew their Bibles forward and backward. Any evangelical worth his or her salt had read the Bible “through in a year” at least once. “Family devotions” were normal and expected among evangelicals and it included the father or mother reading a chapter or more from the Bible before or after dinner. Most evangelical churches engaged in “Bible quizzing” with the youth. (The churches I grew up in even had elaborate contests between teams of youth sitting on electric pads on chairs that buzzed when you lifted your butt off them. A contestant whose pad buzzed and caused a light to go on on a light board had to answer the Bible question which often involved quoting a verse if not a chapter from memory.) Evangelical churches emphasized Bible memorization. Every good evangelical had a “life verse” he or she could quote at the drop of a hat. All that has gone away. The vast majority of evangelicals, in my experience, know very little about the Bible and never memorize any portion of it. Evangelical sermons are as likely to quote Dr. Seuss as Paul the Apostle.

Tenth, and finally, when I was growing up…evangelical Christians talked a lot about “the blood of Jesus.” Liberal minister-theologian Harry Emerson Fosdick called it “slaughterhouse religion.” We had “passion plays” in our churches on the Sunday night before Good Friday. We sang songs that included lyrics about Jesus’ blood. We “pleaded the blood” over our cars before lengthy road trips. (Now that’s called praying for “traveling mercies.”) We were not ashamed or embarrassed about the blood of Jesus. In fact, whether a church used that language or not was one marker identifying evangelicals over against “mainline religion.” Those “mainliners” didn’t like to talk about the blood of Jesus. It offended their sensibilities. I haven’t heard “the blood of Jesus” mentioned in an evangelical setting in a long time.

So what conclusions do I draw from all this change? Some of it may be for the better. We 1950s evangelicals had obsessions that were probably unhealthy. However, on the other hand, taking it all together, I suspect we American evangelicals have become “comfortable in Zion”—a phrase that we used about mainline Christians (who weren’t really Christians at all) to describe how their religion was non-threatening to themselves or anyone else. And by “threatening” I don’t mean we thought Christianity ought to be physically threatening, but we did think authentic Christianity should shake people’s comfort in this world and focus their attention on sacrifice and separation.

Transparent Moments of Scholarship when a Theologian Must Either Stay or Change, Part 4 - Daniel Kirk

Daniel Kirk

“AHA” moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (3): Daniel Kirk
June 30, 2014

Today’s “aha” moment is brought you by Daniel Kirk, associate professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, where he has taught since 2008. When he’s not watching a Coen Brothers movie, Kirk blogs at Storied Theology (“telling the story of a story-bound God”). His has written Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?: A Narrative Approach to the Problem of Pauline Christianity and Unlocking Romans: Resurrection and the Justification of God. His current project is a volume on early Christology in a Jewish matrix to be published by Eerdmans.

Kirk’s aha moment concerns the resurrection accounts of Christ.


Each summer during college, I worked at Christian summer camp. No, it wasn’t pretty. The other counselors called me “the enforcer” because I was so hung up on everyone keeping the camp rules.

But I digress.

One year they let me teach sailing. Since I was not the true sailing instructor, this mostly meant that I sat on the shore and shouted encouraging words at anyone who hadn’t managed to get their Sunfish out of the cove.

In other words, I sat there on the shore for about three hours a day with nothing to do.

So one day I decided that the logical way to spend my time would be to create a chart of what each Gospel says about the last week of Jesus’ life.

Have you ever tried it? Go ahead. I’ll wait.

I told one of my fellow counselors about my project. He knew just what I’d find: “Wasn’t it beautiful how it all lined up?”

Um… No, actually. They don’t line up at all.

O.k., so “not at all” is an overstatement. But there are interesting differences.

One example: does Jesus go into the temple to cast out the money changers as the climactic moment of his “triumphal entry” (Matthew)? Or does he wait until the next day (Mark)?

Another: Does the fig tree whither immediately upon being cursed (Matthew)? Or does the withering happen overnight (Mark)? For that matter, does Jesus curse it before going to the temple for the clearing incident (Mark)? Or after (Matthew)?

Details, details, right?

But then there are potentially more troubling questions: did Jesus have his last meal with the disciples on Passover (Matthew, Mark, and Luke)? Or was Jesus killed on the day when the Passover Lamb was slaughtered, such that the religious leaders were scrupulous to keep themselves pure for the feast that would take place that night (John)?

Though I had not been raised in a fundamentalist church, I was attending one during my first two years of college. Somehow the idea of “inerrancy” had lodged itself in my mind. And here I was, reading the Bible, and discovering that the Bible we actually have doesn’t seem to line up with the Bible I was told to believe in.

As I prepared to go to Westminster Theological Seminary a couple years later, I got introduced to the idea of “hermeneutics.” Guided by the biblical studies department, a way forward began to open up, in which I might be able to affirm inerrancy with respect to the Bible we actually have: maybe we need to think about reading and interpreting differently, bringing a different set of expectations to the text with us.

This, frankly, carried me very far through my studies.

At Westminster (at the time) I was given ways of affirming inerrancy by attributing historical inconcinnities to authorial purposes that lay beyond the bounds of historical accuracy. Historical problems were due to differing expectations of the ancients, or they were due to the fact that the Bible’s history is “preached” history rather than “objective” fact.

Moises Silva, formerly a New Testament professor at Westminster, even wrote an article in which he stated the possibility that pseudepigraphy might be part of an inerrant New Testament.

Learning all of this at Westminster, and spending my first 4.5 years at Duke while I was at the same time pursuing ordination in an inerrantist denomination, I actually found that the view of the Bible I had been given had a lot of staying power.

See, what I had learned by the side of the lake at Camp Willow Run was that (1) the idea I had of an inerrant Bible couldn’t contain the Bible we actually had. What I learned in the classroom at Westminster was that (2) we can put the horse before the cart and allow the phenomena of scripture to define what we mean by “inerrant.”

When I left my conservative denomination for a mainline church shortly after graduating from my doctoral program, I did not change my doctrine of scripture. I simply realized that what I had been given as “inerrancy” in seminary is not how most people understood and used the term.

“Inerrancy” offers itself as a term to both predict and determine beforehand the results of historical and scientific and theological investigation. What I discovered early on is that it fails as a theory precisely because its predictions are wrong.

My co-counselor was right, in this sense: if the doctrine of scripture he was learning at his Bible college were correct, the last week of Jesus’ life would line up in a glorious harmony (the likes of which is nowhere to be found in any of our canonical gospels).

That’s not how they function, because that’s not what the authors wanted (Matthew, after all, was intentionally changing Mark, for instance), and because inerrancy aims to describe a Bible that, in the end, we don’t have.

One of the most compelling things about landing at Fuller Seminary six years ago was finding myself in a Bible Division practically devoid of inerrantists, and yet brimming with Evangelical colleagues who affirm that the Bible is the Word of God, who seek it for divine guidance, and who seek God as a direct and active participant in the lives of God’s people.

In the manner somewhat analogous to my time in a conservative denomination, I discover afresh that communities have tremendous power.

Formerly, my communities helped me hang onto something (inerrancy) that I had been willing to let go of for years. Now, my community of godly colleagues affirms for me what folks from my past would claim to be impossible: those who reject inerrancy handle the scriptures with reverent humility, and live fruit-bearing Christian lives, demonstrating that here is a place where not only the word of God but the very Word of God is living and active.

Index to Series - 

Transparent Moments of Scholarship when a Theologian Must Either Stay or Change

Transparent Moments of Scholarship when a Theologian Must Either Stay or Change, Part 3 - John Byron

John Byron

“aha” moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (2): John Byron

June 27, 2014

Today’s “aha” moment, the second installment in the series, is by John Byron (PhD University of Durham), professor of New Testament at Ashland Theological Seminary. Among his books are Cain and Abel in Text and Tradition: Jewish and Christian Interpretations of the First Sibling Rivalry and a recently released commentary on 1 and 2 Thessalonians.


When Pete asked me to write on my faith journey as a biblical scholar I was glad to oblige. This is a topic that I have blogged on in the past and something I talk about with my students regularly.

It seems that Greg Carey’s Huffington Post article “Where do Liberal Biblical Scholars come from?” struck a chord with many. I found myself agreeing with many of Greg’s points, but especially with his statement: “The best way for conservative churches to produce ‘liberal’ biblical scholars is to keep encouraging young people to read the Bible.”

I suppose we all come to this juncture in our faith journey at various times and in various ways. Like Greg, the questions that began confronting me were a result of reading the Bible. And it was the result of having a solid knowledge of the Bible’s contents that caused questions to surface and sometimes got me in trouble.

The earliest example occurred in Bible College. The instructor was discussing Mark 2:23-27, which narrates the challenge of the Pharisees to Jesus over his disciples picking grain on the Sabbath. Jesus responds to their question by referring to the story in 1 Samuel 21:1-9 of David and his men eating the consecrated bread from the tabernacle.

The problem, however, as I pointed out to my teacher, is that Jesus got it wrong. The story in 1 Samuel 21 relates how David fled from Saul alone. When he stops at the tabernacle and asks Ahimelek for help the priest enquires why David is alone. David seems to lie when saying that his men well meet him later (v. 2).

Moreover, Mark has the wrong priest. In 2:26 Jesus states that the priest was Abiather, but 1 Samuel 21 clearly states that it was Ahimelek.

When I raised these points with the teacher in the middle of class (I wasn’t as tactful then) he looked at me with confusion. He had never noticed these discrepancies before. I was asked politely to be quiet. Years later I was pleasantly surprised to read that it was this very same passage in Mark that signaled the beginning of Bart Ehrman’s faith journey, although he and I are, in many ways, in very different places.

In the end, of course, it wasn’t just one problem like Mark 2:26 that caused me to reexamine how I understood the Bible—but it was a hook and it began a process. Over time numerous passages forced me to conclude eventually that the Bible wasn’t a history book, meaning the authors were not trying to give me a blow-by-blow account from creation to the end of the first century.

Instead I came to realize that the Bible was first and foremost a theological book that contains history and uses history to direct me towards God. I would come to realize more and more that true faith—the faith God calls us to—was not focused on the Bible, but on the God to whom the Bible bears witness.

Now some will say to me: “God’s plan is clearly laid out for us in the Bible. Had you not gone and destroyed your belief in the word of God through theological education you would not be in the fix you find yourself!”

Well perhaps they are correct. But it is too late now for me to change what has happened and I am unconvinced that I will ever be able to revert back to the way I was. My approach to the Bible is as complicated as everything else in my pursuit of faith.

Here’s where I’ve come out

I consider the Bible to be a book written by fallible human beings who were attempting to describe their own faith and religious experiences and did so in an imperfect way. Yet at the same time, what I find within the Bible are words of life.

I am all too aware of the difficulties that arise when reading the Bible and the way that its influence on society has at times caused undue suffering even in the most sincere pursuit of faith. But I also cannot escape the wisdom found on its pages, nor can I ignore the way it has helped to shape the modern world in a positive way. But in the end I am not called to have faith in the Bible but in God.

There are some who would read what I have just written and conclude that I have become one of the many casualties of a (liberal?) theological education. A particular encounter in my “pre-educated” life seemed to predict such an outcome.

My wife and I had served in a church for three years. As we were preparing to leave and begin my seminary training I received the usual jokes about attending “cemetery” and becoming too smart for my own good.

One individual in particular warned me in an almost conspiratorial tone, “Be careful brother, too much of that stuff can be dangerous and cause you to take your eyes off of God.” I assume that he meant I would lose my faith.

In some ways I think he is right. My education has been extremely dangerous to my faith, at least a faith that was taught to me, a faith that is shaken by things like Mark 2:26. On the other hand, through my serious study of the Bible and the questions that arise from it, I continue to find that faith—a true resting and trusting in God—is more present to me now than ever before.

I am like the man who said to Jesus, “Lord, I do believe. Help me in my unbelief!” As a biblical scholar, I think that’s is a good place to be.

Index to Series - 

Transparent Moments of Scholarship when a Theologian Must Either Stay or Change

Transparent Moments of Scholarship when a Theologian Must Either Stay or Change, Part 2 - Peter Enns

Peter Enns

“aha” moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (1): me

June 25, 2014

Following on my last post, here is the first installment of a series–biblical scholars from evangelical backgrounds telling their stories about their “aha” moments that convinced them they needed to find different ways of handling the Bible than how they had been taught.

In the last day I’ve already gotten 10 scholars who want to participate and I expect more to come. My plan is to post their thoughts as they come in rather than all right after the other.

The purpose of this series, more than anything, is to encourage followers of Jesus who are on similar journeys–those who are finding that how they were taught to think about the Bible does not have adequate explanatory power for engaging the Bible as they now read it. You’re not alone. And it’s all good.


OK, I’ll go first.

Like most of those who will contribute to this series, there wasn’t just “one” moment that moved me from one place to another. It was more a culmination of many moments over many years–some feeling like a 2×4 over the head and others more a whisper.

Overall, as I continued to pay more and more attention to the details of the Bible, it became harder and harder to shake the feeling that the Bible wasn’t behaving as I had always been told it most certainly needs to behave.

What drove this home to me–one of these culminating “aha” moments– happened during my doctoral work and centered on just one verse: 1 Corinthians 10:4: “for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.”

I try to be brief here, since I touched on this quickly in The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically and Religiously, and will lay it all out in chapter 1 of my upcoming book The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. But here’s the gist.

In this verse Paul refers to Christ as the “rock that accompanied” the Israelites through the desert. Paul is alluding to the episode–actually 2 episodes–in the Pentateuch, where the Israelites get water from a rock while wandering in the desert for 40 years.

For Paul to equate Christ with the rock is a typical example of his Christ-centered reading of his scripture (our Old Testament): the savior was present with God’s people then as he is now.

What threw me, though, was that word “accompanied.”

One day in class, my professor James Kugel was lecturing on the creative ways that Second Temple Jewish interpreters handled these episodes. He explained that water coming from the rock twice–once at the beginning of the wilderness period (Exodus 17) and again toward the end of the 40-year period (Numbers 20)–led some Jewish interpreters to conclude that the “two” rocks were actually one and the same, hence, one rock accompanied the Israelites on their 40-year journey.

There is a certain “ancient logic” at work here. After all, if the Israelites had manna given to them miraculously every morning, are we to think that the corresponding miraculous supply of water was only given twice, 40 years apart!? Of course not.

So, to solve this problem, the water supply became mobile. For some interpreters it was a stream through the desert, but for others the rock of Exodus 17 followed the Israelites for 40 years and was mentioned again in Numbers 20.

Evangelicals could write off this bit of biblical “interpretation” as entertaining or just play silly, but 1 Corinthians 10:4 complicates things. When Paul refers to Jesus not just as the rock but the accompanying rock, he, as a Jewish interpreter, is showing his familiarity with, and acceptance of, this creative Jewish reading of the Old Testament.

Let me put a finer point on that: no rock moved in the Old Testament, but Paul said one did. Paul says something about the Old Testament that Old Testament doesn’t say. He wasn’t following the evangelical rule of grammatical-historical contextual interpretation. He was doing something else–something weird, ancient, and Jewish.

My Bible was no longer protected under glass. It was out there, part of its very odd, ancient world that I really didn’t understand.

For Paul–an inspired apostle–to accept such a strange legend and treat it as fact is not something that can be easily brought into an evangelical framework. “But Paul is inspired by God! He would never say something like this!!”

But he did.

And it struck me that Paul probably couldn’t get a job teaching at the seminary that taught me about Paul.

Understand, as I said above, that this "aha moment" didn’t happen in isolation. It came in the context of years of pretty intense and in-depth doctoral work where my main area of focus was Second Temple biblical interpretation.

But here, at this moment, some tumblers clunked heavily into place. I was seeing a bigger picture, not just about this one verse but about the Bible as a whole. I was seeing right before my eyes that Paul and the other New Testament writers were part of this ancient world and they too handled their Bible in highly creative ways that were not anchored in the “original meaning” of the text but were transposed and altered in keeping with Jewish interpretive conventions of the day.

Evangelical attempts to make Paul sound more evangelical and less Jewish–to make him into a “sound” interpreter rather than a creative one–immediately rang hollow, and continue to. And I knew back then, as I do now, that the older model of biblical interpretation I had been taught was not going to cut it. I couldn’t deny what I was seeing. I knew I had some thinking to do.

That happened over 20 years ago, and the memory is still vivid. And it’s fair to say this aha moment, along with others before, and since, have shaped my life’s work of trying to understand the Bible rather than defend it. And that is to me much more interesting, meaningful, and spiritually enriching.

Index to Series - 

Transparent Moments of Scholarship when a Theologian Must Either Stay or Change