A Positive Reading of the Old Testament

[This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite Congregation, the fourth in a series on salvation and human flourishing. Here’s a link to the third in the series, “Positive Theology”]

Ted Grimsrud—July 9, 2017 [Gen 12:1-3; Lev 19:2-18; Hos 11:1-9]

I have this little joke. On the Sundays I preach I make sure to bring my Bible with me. It’s a pretty big book, weights a lot, has a hard cover. My joke is that the reason I bring the Bible with me on these Sundays is so that if anyone challenges what I say in my sermon I can wop them over the head with my Bible—the Bible as weapon….

Seeing the Old Testament as a “problem”

It is interesting that most of the weight in the book comes from the first section, the Old Testament. In my The HarperCollins Study Bible, the New Testament is about 20% of the whole. But I imagine if you could measure what parts Christians actually use, the New Testament would make up about 80% (or more) of our Bible in church.

So, we’ve got this interesting dynamic where Christians profess to affirm the authority of the Bible, the Bible is the inspired Word of God. We say we base our faith on the whole Bible. But we only pay attention to a little bit of it. And in fact, for many Christians, the part we don’t pay attention to, the biggest part, is seen as a problem, a hindrance to faith, not even as something kind of neutral or just unnecessary. Now, I am grateful to Valarie and Sophie for their sermons these past two weeks that showed us how to wrest blessings from difficult Old Testament texts. But I imagine that for most of us that kind of interaction with the Old Testament in a sermon was pretty unusual.

When I was early in my pastoral career, I led a Bible study that met weekly for several years. We worked our way through Mark and Romans. When we discussed what to look at next, I said how about something from the Old Testament. One of our members, an older woman whose late husband had been a Presbyterian minister, protested. “I don’t want anything more to do with that bloody book,” she snapped.

I’ve met with resistance on other occasions when speaking favorably about the Old Testament. I well remember after a theology class where I had had a couple of guests, both self-avowed agnostics. We got into an argument that went on for some time. They teamed up on me. They both argued for a literal reading of Old Testament violent portraits of God, treating my attempts to nuance the texts with scorn. They defended a literal reading of the Old Testament not because they believed in it but because they wanted to dismiss it as of value today. Continue reading “A Positive Reading of the Old Testament”

Exorcising the ghosts of fundamentalism

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 LambGod’s Healing StrategyInstead 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. Continue reading “Exorcising the ghosts of fundamentalism”

Refuting the evangelical rejection of same-sex relationsips: A response to James Brownson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality

Ted Grimsrud—July 5, 2016

Evangelical Christians in North America are evolving—gradually—to become more welcoming of LGBTQ Christians. One indication of this movement is the growth in the number of books that come from a relatively conservative theological perspective arguing on biblical grounds for such welcome. One of the best of these books is Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships (Eerdmans, 2013) by James V. Brownson.

Brownson is a long-time New Testament professor at Western Theological Seminary and an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America. The RCA resembles Mennonite Church USA in the wide theological diversity among its congregations. As a whole, it appears to fit into an interesting space between the evangelical world and the “mainstream” Protestant world—active in ecumenical relationships on both sides.

However, as far as I know, Brownson represents a minority perspective in the RCA with his argument for the affirmation of same-sex marriage. His views as expressed in this book surely will evoke strong antipathy from many corners of the RCA world.

A parent’s response

One way to situate this book is to see it as a father’s response to his son coming out at gay. This event, which Brownson calls a “dramatic shock to my life,” challenged him “to re-imagine how Scripture speaks about homosexuality” (p.1). Most fathers in this situation (and I know quite a few who made a move somewhat like Brownson’s—becoming affirming of same-sex relationships as a consequence of one’s child coming out) don’t have the expertise to write a 300-page scholarly treatise that chronicles this “re-imagining.” We should be grateful that Brownson does.

Of course, Brownson’s transparency could lead a suspicious reader to dismiss his book as special pleading. Brownson’s bias of acceptance of his son could be seen as undermining his scholarly objectivity, perhaps fatally. On the other hand, for some of us this confession of personal interest actually helps validate Brownson’s work. It shows that he will understand the human issues involved, in particular the pain caused by restrictive arguments that all too often show a profound disregard for the emotional and relational costs of their agenda. Continue reading “Refuting the evangelical rejection of same-sex relationsips: A response to James Brownson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality

One of the best books yet: A response to Mark Achtemeier’s The Bible’s Yes to Same-Sex Marriage

Ted Grimsrud—May 24, 2016

I tend to think it is a good thing that the North American Christian debate about whether churches should be inclusive or restrictive in relation to LGBTQ folks has generated so much literature. The sheer mass of writing is too much to keep up with, but out of this ferment have come some good materials. One of the very best books I’ve yet read on this theme is by a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) pastor and theologian, Mark Achtemeier.

The Bible’s Yes to Same-Sex Marriage: An Evangelical’s Change of Heart (Westminster John Knox, 2014) has many strengths. It’s of manageable length (131 pages), clearly written, based on solid research, a nice mixture of personal engagement and theological reflection, and coherently argued. I would recommend it as a solid book to help those already in the inclusive camp to understand better how the Bible is actually a positive resource for faith communities that have already made a commitment to be inclusive. I would also recommend it for those who aren’t sure what they believe and would like to check out the best advocates for inclusion. And, as well, I would recommend it for those who are confident of their restrictive convictions but would like better to understand the strongest arguments for inclusion. I believe it will contribute to a more accurate and fair-minded conversation going forward.

An evangelical’s change of heart

Part of the appeal of this book is that Achtemeier himself used to affirm the opposite point of view. He cites an article he published in 1996, “The Upward Call of God: Submitting Our Sexuality to the Lordship of Christ,” that was written in support of the movement in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to forbid ordination to openly gay and lesbian ministers. Not long after that article, though (which did contribute to the formal reinforcement of restrictive denominational policies), Achtemeier began to change his view. In time he became an advocate for overturning the restrictive policies concerning marriage and ordination—which happened in 2011.

It would have been nice to learn a bit more of Achtemeier’s heart and mind as a restrictive advocate, but he keeps the book focused on his constructive argument for affirmation of same-sex marriage—which is a strength of the book. Achtemeier uses his thinking process in his emerging affirmative view as a device to drive the narrative. This makes the book more readable, though at times it may feel a little contrived. Continue reading “One of the best books yet: A response to Mark Achtemeier’s The Bible’s Yes to Same-Sex Marriage

A Kinder, Gentler Machine-Gun Hand? A Response to Preston Sprinkle’s People to be Loved: Why Homosexuality is not Just an Issue

Ted Grimsrud—March 31, 2016

Back in the early 1990s, Neil Young recorded a song, “Rockin’ in the Free World,” that protested social circumstances in Reagan/Bush America. It included this line, referring to the language of the Bush campaign calling for a “kindler, gentler America” and pointing to “a thousand points of light” that reflect the goodness of the country: “We’ve got a thousand points of light for the homeless man, we’ve got a kindler, gentler machine-gun hand.”

Young called out the Bush campaign for its misleading message, its claims to seek a more humane country that was contradicted by the actual policies that only exacerbated the dynamics leading to homelessness and that sought expanded militarism.

I’m a little uneasy with using this rhetoric in relation to the current discussion in evangelical Christian circles about whether and how to be welcoming toward sexual minorities. However, I think the question raised by remembering Young’s critique applies.

Is the effort Preston Sprinkle makes (echoing numerous others) to emphasize the call to love gay people actually a signal of a “kinder, gentler” evangelical community—or is it only reflecting a façade of “kindness” that does not actually signal much of a change at all? I’m afraid my reading of the book People to be Loved: Why Homosexuality is not Just an Issue (Zondervan, 2015) leaves me with a strong impression of a deeper-seated “machine-gun hand” that remains solidly in place.

Do actual people really matter much?

Sprinkle is a New Testament scholar with a PhD from the University of Aberdeen and is currently an administrator at Eternity Bible College (Boise, ID). He has written several widely circulated books. He begins and ends People to be Loved with attractive reflections on the need to “love the sinner.” But he also spends the large majority of the book focused on how the Bible supposedly clearly describes and condemns the “sin” that must be hated. These dual foci, “love the sinner; hate the sin,” widespread in evangelical writing on these issues, are difficult to reconcile.

Continue reading “A Kinder, Gentler Machine-Gun Hand? A Response to Preston Sprinkle’s People to be Loved: Why Homosexuality is not Just an Issue

Is the Book of Revelation on Falwell’s side?

Ted Grimsrud—December 9, 2015

Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University, recently made the news with his provocative statement—proclaimed before thousands of cheering students at his college—that Christians should arm themselves to assure their ability to defend themselves against “Muslim attacks.” Responses, which have been many, range from strong support to a kind of ridicule that dismisses Falwell and Christianity as a piece. In my circles, most of the responses have been horror at what many see to be a terrible misrepresentation of the message of Jesus.

Happily, one of Liberty’s faculty members—biology professor Daniel Howell—has written a biblically-oriented response to some of Falwell’s critics with the clever title, “Falwell’s gun remarks on target.” There are many points that Howell raises that I am tempted to argue with. His Jesus is way too positive about violence, I’d say.

I want to focus on just a small part of his argument though. That’s his use of the Book of Revelation. I am sure that if Howell and I had a discussion about Revelation we would discover many differences. However, for the point I want to make here, I am willing to grant a lot to what I expect to be his assumptions about Revelation (most of all, that it is a book that gives concrete prophesies about the future—about what will be). Let’s accept that Revelation might be doing this. Even so, does his use of Revelation to support his affirmation of Christians preparing for and using violence in “self-defense”? This is what Howell writes:

“Unbelievers and others lacking knowledge about the true character of God sometimes refer to Christ’s moniker as the Prince of Peace to conclude Christianity must be a wimpy, defenseless teaching. Of course, this is one of many titles for Jesus, another being the Lion of Judah. While Jesus was exceptionally mild and meek at his first coming, we are assured by Scripture that he will not be so at his second coming. He is described in Revelation 19 as the King of kings who leads the armies of heaven on a white horse and utterly destroys his enemies with the word of his mouth (visualized there as a sword). In a world littered with violence, the Prince of Peace knows that real tranquility is only obtained through strength.”

Revelation and violent self-defense

Let me note several things about his points that relate to Revelation. My thoughts here would work equally well within a future-prophetic view of Revelation or a historical-symbolic view. My concern is what the text actually seems to be saying. Continue reading “Is the Book of Revelation on Falwell’s side?”