Ted Grimsrud—February 27, 2017
It is common in my circles of friends and acquaintances to encounter people who are former fundamentalist or evangelical Christians and who now distance themselves from that past faith perspective. Often, the rationales for the changes have to do with the Bible. For the sake of opposition to violence, to religious arrogance and exclusivism, to judgmentalism and the like, my friends will say the Bible is so hurtful, so damaging. Maybe they will add that they like Jesus but they see the Old Testament as profoundly problematic—and maybe Paul and Revelation too.
I am sympathetic with such sentiments. I spent a period of my life in my late teens and early twenties as first a fundamentalist and then evangelical Christian. Starting with my embrace of pacifism at the time of my 22nd birthday, I fairly quickly came to distance myself from those traditions (I tell the story of that evolution here). And I agree that the way the Bible is used by many conservative Christians is problematic and helps underwrite violence and other hurtful attitudes and actions. And I do think it is true that there are materials in the Bible that do lend themselves to hurtful uses.
However, at the same time I love the Bible and most of my theological work consists of engaging the Bible as a positive resource for peace (several of my books focus on the Bible and peace: see, for example, Triumph of the Lamb; God’s Healing Strategy; Instead of Atonement; and Arguing Peace). I often have been told by post-fundamentalist friends (and others) that while they admire my attempts to wring some peace from the Bible, they think I am engaged in spin, at times even in ways that seem dishonest or at least overly and misleadingly optimistic.
I had one such conversation just recently after preaching a sermon. As we talked, I realized that my friend was actually still reading the Bible in a quite conservative way. It’s just that now she disagrees with what she finds there. So I suggested that it would help if she could move past her fundamentalist hermeneutic. She agreed, but also noted that such a move is very difficult. Not so much because she still wants to believe in that approach, but that it is so deeply ingrained in her psyche that she can’t simply by a quick and easy decision get rid of it.
One small aid to help a post-fundamentaist move away from a fundamentalist biblical hermeneutic might be simply to articulate what a post-fundamentalist approach to affirming the Bible as a peace book might look like.
Exiting the House of Authority
Fundamentalists are not the only Christians who make authority central to their faith. And the priority on authority is a problem for all Christians who prioritize it. But for fundamentalists, it is really a problem. My sense is that in practice, the belief that the Bible is authoritative is more important for fundamentalists than the actual content of the Bible. Over and over again, they will call a view “biblical” as a way of lending authenticity to that view without actually delving into the Bible itself. This emphasis on authority over content helps explain how fundamentalists can make the life and teaching of Jesus so peripheral.
A number of years ago, theologian Edward Farley wrote a helpful book on how authority works for many Christians (not only fundamentalists). In Ecclesial Reflection: An Anatomy of Theological Method (Fortress, 1982), Farley analyses what he calls the “House of Authority,” where he shows that to have authoritative teachings, Christians must have three elements at work: the revealed scripture, church hierarchies to interpret the Bible, and church structures to enforce the authoritative interpretations. He points out that Catholics are upfront about these dynamics with their understandings of how Tradition works. However, Protestants, including fundamentalists, also in practice have the same structure. They have to for their practice of biblical authority to work. The text cannot enforce its own authority but needs human agents to do that.
One problem with the House of Authority is that the actual authority does not rest with the content of the Bible but with the human interpreters and enforcers. However, the emphasis on biblical authority is crucial because it provides an illusion of divine sanction for what actually are human efforts to define truth.
The power of the House of Authority stems mainly from how it cultivates a sense of fearfulness about the consequences of not have such authority in place. Fear of chaos, of vulnerability, of not being in control. The main beneficiaries of the work of the House of Authority are religious institutions that are able to dominate their members.
One fact about this authority-centered theology is that to a large degree it is modern. In the past two hundred years or so, Protestant Christians have tended to begin their articulations of theological convictions (often in the form of systematic theology) with a discussion of biblical inspiration and authority. One of the main reasons for this move is the need to establish at the beginning the bases for theological claims in a world that does not automatically accept the truthfulness of the Bible. That is, with the rise of secularism and skepticism, Christians have felt the need to respond with apologetics that rationally support their truth claims.
So, at its heart, fundamentalist Protestantism is a modern reaction to the breaking down of the Christian consensus in the West. This priority on establishing that the Bible is authoritative before considering its content was a defensive move from the start that made it even more difficult for Christians to focus on the life and teaching of Jesus—and the embodiment of Jesus’s message in communities of faith. Instead, fundamentalist Christianity evolved to be quite rationalistic, defensive, and otherworldly. And the centrality of authority became deeply embedded in fundamentalist communities. It became simply part of the spiritual air fundamentalists breathed. As part of their embedded theology, the centrality of authority over content in relation to the Bible is not questioned, not even consciously recognized. And this lack of self-consciousness is true for many of those who when they grow older leave fundamentalism. They leave that faith community, but don’t always realize that they are taking with themselves a certain approach to biblical authority and content.
One element of the fundamentalist way of approaching the Bible is to give authority to the pieces more than the whole of the Bible. The doctrine of biblical authority has at its center the notion of what is called “verbal plenary inspiration”—the idea that each word in the Bible is directly inspired by God (and hence without error). So isolated texts have great authority (or, in reality, isolated texts which are interpreted by church leaders and whose interpretation is enforced by those leaders). And little effort need be exerted to discern historical contexts and literary dynamics for those texts.
It is an unfortunate irony, then, that for many post-fundamentalists, when they don’t like something in the Bible (such as the divinely commanded genocide in Joshua) they feel they have no choice but to reject the Bible altogether. They may not realize that the reason they take such an all-or-nothing approach is because when they look at the Bible they still look at through the lenses of a religious system they have rejected. They may not realize that that fundamentalist approach to the Bible is only one option—and far from the best alternative even for those who continue to affirm their Christian faith.
What post-fundamentalists need to know about the Bible
I have been thinking for some time about how to encourage post-fundamentalists to affirm the Bible in a different way. One version of such encouragement with a helpful title is Marcus Borg’s book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time. Borg was not strictly a fundamentalist as a young person, but his conservative Lutheran background had quite a bit in common with more fundamentalist Christians. I appreciate Borg’s work a great deal, and I think just about all of his books are well-suited for post-fundamentalists. My approach will be a bit different, though. I want to focus more on approaching the Bible as a story and am less interested in historical-critical issues than Borg.
I will mention five points that I think if taken seriously might help post-fundamentalists exorcise the ghosts of fundamentalist approaches to the Bible—and thereby possibly free such folks to embrace a much more affirmative view of the Christian scriptures.
(1) Recognize that fundamentalist Christianity is modernistic
The fundamentalist approach to the Bible—inerrancy, verbal plenary inspiration, Bible authority as central to Christian faith—is modern; it does not have special weight as the way Christians have always approached the Bible. There is nothing sacred or even time-validated about it.
The fundamentalist approach only makes sense in the light of modern rationalism and of efforts to use apologetics to establish truth based on irrefutable arguments and evidence. The desire for a fundamentalist approach to the Bible was the result of the rise of modern skepticism. So it is a defensive approach that does not arise out of the actual living of the faith over the years. It is much more consistent with the actual content of the Bible and with pre-modern ways of reading the Bible simply to dismiss the fundamentalist hermeneutic as unnecessary and to approach the Bible in non-fundamentalist ways.
(2) Non-literal truthfulness
One can affirm the truthfulness of the Bible without taking it literally (in the fundamentalist sense). We may find truth in the Bible in similar ways to how we find truth in great literature, in poetry, in music, in visual art, in the stories of indigenous and other traditional cultures, and in many other ways that do not rely on scientifically-verifiable facts or utterly consistent logic.
The truth of the Bible has to do with how it inspires creative and love-enhancing ways of life. This affirmation about the Bible’s truth actually is confirmed by how the Bible presents itself. A famous text from one of the latest writings in the Bible, the Second Letter to Timothy, affirms that the Bible is “inspired” for the purpose of training us in the practice of justice. The point of the “inspiration” is not that the Bible hence is perfect and error-free and therefore an absolute authority; rather, the Bible as inspired is a guide to life.
One big stumbling block for many post-fundamentalists are stories of violence in the Old Testament. We may learn from those stories without assuming that they tell us accurately that the real God literally told, say, Joshua, to lead the Hebrews in the practice of genocide when they took over the promised land. There is truth in those stories even as we are not bound to take them as literal history (more on this in point #4 below).
(3) Jesus and the Old Testament
Jesus is central to the Christian Bible, and Jesus loved the Old Testament. Most post-fundamentalists like Jesus a lot, but do not seem to share Jesus’s love for the Old Testament. However, if we take seriously Jesus’s positive view of the Old Testament, we perhaps might be better able to see it as a positive asset for a humane philosophy of life rather than as a problem.
Jesus’s “antitheses” (“You have it said…, but I say to you…”) are not aimed at the Old Testament itself but at ways he believed the tradition misinterpreted and misused the Old Testament. If we take Jesus’s positive view as our starting point, we will notice the kinds of emphases in the Old Testament that would have fed into his message and way of life. Just of few of these emphases include: the positive view of the created world as reflective of God’s love, the model of forgiveness that we find in stories of characters such as Esau and Joseph in Genesis, the centrality of the concern for vulnerable people in Torah, the critique of power politics in the story of the elders of Israel asking for a king in 1 Samuel 8, and God’s power expressed in servanthood in the “servant songs” of Isaiah 40–55.
(4) A narrative approach
A narrative approach helps the reader resolve (at least partially) many of the problems with the Bible that have undermined so many people’s faith. The emphasis on each word being equally “inspired” (coming directly from God) makes it difficult within the fundamentalist hermeneutic to appreciate the larger dynamics of the Bible’s teaching. It is more helpful to understand the meaningfulness of the Bible in relation to the big picture. The words have meaning in sentences, the sentences have meaning in paragraphs, the paragraphs have meaning in sections, and the sections have meaning in books. The books were written as narrative wholes and that is how they are best read.
Then, when the books were gathered into collections that ultimately made up what we call the Bible, they gained an added depth of meaning in relation to each other. A narrative approach looks at the bigger collection as an important clue for the meaning of the particular parts. Thus, for example, in relation to the difficult stories of God-ordained violence such as Joshua, we may read Joshua in light of what follows in the big story. As it turns out, the establishment of a territorial kingdom as a channel for God’s promises to establish a people that will “bless all the families of the earth” (Gen 12) ended up as a failed approach. Once the Hebrew kingdom, which had become fundamentally broken, was destroyed by the Babylonians, it disappeared as an option for the peoplehood.
In terms of the overall biblical story, the point in telling the story of the violence of Joshua’s time is to show why such violence could never be a possibility again. God will never again channel the promise through territorial kingdoms. At the same time, we are not bound to believe that the Joshua story ever actually happened as it is told. There is no reason why we can’t recognize the story as a legend.
Based on the Bible’s overall story, the political message of the Old Testament, then, is not that God might on occasion command genocidal violence to establish and defend a territorial kingdom. Rather, the story is that the kingdom of God is no longer ever to be linked with possession of a particular territory. This lesson, of course, is reiterated in the life and teaching of Jesus.
Post-fundamentalists are not bound to a way of reading particular texts as truthful and authoritative in isolation from the overall biblical story. They are not required to find meaning (or, to reject meaning) in specific, isolated stories of violence and punitive anger. Those stories are interesting and important and should be scrutinized for meaning. But their deepest meaning is as part of broader story that ultimately points toward (in the positive sense) the inclusive, compassionate, healing work of God that culminates in the healing of the nations (Revelation 21–22) and points toward (in the negative sense) a sharp critique of domination and power politics that Jesus’s summarized as the way of tyrants that should not characterize his followers (Mark 10:42-45).
(5) Meaningful more than authoritative
Finally, it is better to think of the Bible as “meaningful” than as “authoritative.” One of the reasons post-fundamentalists distance themselves from the Bible is because of their sense that the only valid way to read and use the Bible is to see it as an absolute authority that one must simply bow down to. However, they actually would be hard pressed to find evidence internal to the Bible that presents it in that way. The notion of absolute authority comes from much later doctrines of the Bible rather than from the teaching of the Bible itself.
I think that to treat the Bible as meaningful rather than authoritative might make it easier for post-fundamentalists to approach the Bible as a positive resource and not as something oppressive and coercive. The meaningfulness of the Bible is a affirmation based on the actual experience of the Bible as life-giving and encouraging. If we expect that the Bible does give a message of peace and restorative justice, we will be better prepared to recognize the presence of that message—and won’t be overly distracted by the elements that seem to undermine such a message.