Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Panentheism and Theodicy: What do we do with the Bible?

In comments on my original theodicy post, Jennifer made several comments like this:
You could reject special providence, but I find it hard to reject the special providence if you're going to hold that the Scriptures contain anything that resembles truth regarding the nature of God

Sure enough, it is a royal mess. You have God dropping pillars of smoke and fire, smiting people hither, rescuing people thither, impregnating a virgin, sending angels here, sending angels there. You have Jesus walking on water, miraculously healing people, miraculously feeding people, and rising from the dead. You have tongues of fire, apostles freed by strategic earthquakes, casting out evil spirits, and raising the dead.

And then you have me sitting here, saying that this sort of behavior poses a logical dilemma that can best be resolved by saying that, in fact, God didn't do those things.

Now it's easy to see how I could maintain this belief and reject the validity of the Bible. And it's easy to see how I could abandon this belief and accept the validity of the Bible. The odd thing is that I'm saying that the Bible is valuable, but that God didn't do all these things that the Bible says God did. If the Bible contains all this misinformation about God, how can it be valuable?

I'm going to begin my answer by making an assertion about the Bible: The Bible was not written by God.

For some people, this statement will be terribly obvious, and for others it will be terribly offensive. For those who find it offensive, I'll just mention the internal contradictions in the text (variations in the number of Solomon's stalls and horses in 1 Kings 4 and 2 Chronicles 9; insects with four feet in Leviticus 11, how long Jesus spent in the tomb, yada yada). But if none of that makes *any* impression on you, please consider the following biblical story from Numbers 31:

"Have you allowed all the women to live?" he asked them. "They were the ones who followed Balaam's advice and were the means of turning the Israelites away from the LORD in what happened at Peor, so that a plague struck the LORD's people. Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man."

And the LORD was displeased with Moses for his lecherous and genocidal counsel, and struck him dead on the spot.

Oh, wait, that's not how it ends, is it? It ends like this...

The LORD said to Moses, "You and Eleazar the priest and the family heads of the community are to count all the people and animals that were captured. Divide the spoils between the soldiers who took part in the battle and the rest of the community."
The plunder remaining from the spoils that the soldiers took was 675,000 sheep, 72,000 cattle, 61,000 donkeys and 32,000 women who had never slept with a man.

I find that offensive. So now we can all be offended.

Really, though, my point is that it's difficult to read the Bible as a Perfect Book provided by a Perfect God. Either God's severely messed up, or the book is, and (based on the theological axioms I mentioned earlier) I have to prefer the latter.

Now if you're still with me, let's go on to another assertion: The Bible is, first and foremost, a collection of stories. It is not a divine rulebook. It is a story about how people - mostly, Israelite people - have experienced God in some unusual circumstances. Like all stories, it was written by a person (actually, many people) with differing goals, values, biases, priorities, perspectives and ethical blind spots. Like all stories, it was written for a particular audience, within a particular society at a particular point in history. This doesn't mean that other people can't read the story and learn things from it, but it does mean that there's probably a disconnect between what the text meant to its intended audience and what it should mean to us.

These two assertions encourage us to approach the text very cautiously and interpret it with an eye to the likely biases of the writers. When a writer says, "God said this," we should read that not as a divine claim that "God said this," but, "I think God said this," a statement that could be true even if God didn't really say such a thing.

This is the generous approach, by the way. The cynical approach would assume that the writer was intentionally putting words in God's mouth to get the God Trump for manipulating people.

So there's one way in which the Bible could be considered true: it's true insofar as when people say, "I heard God say this," we can assert that those people are telling the truth, although it's possible that they could have been mistaken about what God actually said.

But I don't think this goes far enough. The Bible has been revered for thousands of years by millions of people, and seems to capture some deep truths about the human experience of God.

I think this is the sense in which we should understand the Bible to be true. Somehow, it distills many human experiences of God into a single compilation. And so rather than trying to figure out whether we have to be baptized to be saved, or whether God created the world in 7 days, we should be looking for broad themes that are woven throughout the Bible. It's here that we can expect to see God's inspiration, threading hints about Divinity through its disparate stories, occasionally surprising us, continually nudging us toward goodness and love.


bpb said...

You're exactly right! You're the first person (besides my husband) in the U.S. that I've heard say these things! Indeed the Bible was not written by God. It is a collection of stories. And things such as 40 days and 40 nights is not a literal term (similar to us saying "a month of Sundays"). Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John were written by the disciples of these men.

Another thing that really really bothers me is that our versions of the Bible (in the U.S.) are just different forms of the King James Bible. This Bible was printed to absolve the king of his divorces. Too many people here take the King James as the original manuscript.

Richard Beck said...

I think if people would look at how the bible interprets the bible (e.g., when NT authors use OT texts) people would realize that biblical interpretation is very much like an art form. Some people paint by numbers (e.g., literalists) and others are like Picasso. This means that recognizing “good” biblical interpretation is not a rational event. It’s an aesthetic event.

Jennifer B. said...

kI'm glad you posted this... it explains a lot about how you arrive at-- and maintain-- the conclusions you do. And it definitely explains where our paths diverge.

So then my question becomes (in response to your previous response to my comment on the theodicy post)-- who/what ordered the world? I ask because it seems to stand to reason that if God is not responsible for Horrors... if they are merely the product of how the world is ordered, then who/what-ever ordered the world is responsbile for said horrors (Assuming, of course, that you're assigning some force to the task of ordering the world... if not, then it's a moot point).

If our basis for understanding the Bible as true is that it's been widely revered for a long time... well, there are other manuscripts about which the same might be said (even if to a lesser extent for some of them). Do you then also accept any other long-revered manuscript as likewise revealing the human experience of God? And if we can accept manuscripts in this way, how many other manuscripts might we see distillations in... and are they on par with accepted Scripture?

I'm coming at the same problem from the other direction. I believe Scripture to be true and perfectly inspired, although not at all perfectly transmitted (Although I must admit I find the degree to which the manuscript has been preserved as a coherent whole-- particularly relative to other manuscripts of similar age-- quite impressive).

Consequently I accept things like 7 day creation, and a God who creates and controls both good and evil. I have to accept a God who does an awful lot of intervening... and yet for reasons I may never understand chooses not to intervene in an awful lot of situations. Who is love, yet somehow doesn't have a problem with allowing his own son to be killed in a horrid way. This leaves me with a God I often don't understand... and sometimes a God who makes me angry. And I take comfort in the Job-poet, who writes about a God who doesn't seem to mind being yelled at... and whose answer to being asked about his justice is, essentially, I am God and you are not.

But I also get the interventionist God... who at least in some times and places does amazing, mind-boggling things. And I find meaning in the horrors, through lessons learned and resilience seen and sometimes merely in knowing that this too is the will of God, and in the Jewish ideas about worshipping God though suffering.

If you have an all-good-- but uninvolved-- God, I'm not sure what use such a God is... what would inspire you to worship this God, or what following him would be like if he's uninvolved. But perhaps most importantly...I don't know how you make sense of a Holocaust with your all-good-but-uninvolved God. Does he not have the power to intervene and stop such things? Or does he have the ability to be involved, but choose not to? What about him is compelling, or inspires you to worship or follow him? [Him, of course, being used in the most general non-gender specific sort of way...] Do you have relationship with an uninvolved God? Can you?

Cody said...

Jennifer asked: "Do you then also accept any other long-revered manuscript as likewise revealing the human experience of God?"

My answer (not answering for Matt) would be: Yes, in the same way I accept the Bible as revealing the human experience of God, with great discernment. After studying the origins of the Bible (just scratching the surface really) I think it would be a great idea if all people used a bit more discernment when reading any ancient text (or really any text at all).

Matthew said...

A related post from Scoots:
What I'm doing here

Connor said...

From Jennifer - "What about him is compelling, or inspires you to worship or follow him?"

Now thats what I call a question, not only for Matt, but I would love to hear her reason too.

Matthew said...

"But perhaps most importantly...I don't know how you make sense of a Holocaust with your all-good-but-uninvolved God."

Now I'm very confused. This approach is only necessary because I can't make sense of why a God who opens doors for apostles didn't intervene to prevent the Holcaust.

"Does he not have the power to intervene and stop such things? Or does he have the ability to be involved, but choose not to? What about him is compelling, or inspires you to worship or follow him?"

I'll try and address this in a new post.

FrenchExpat said...

Matthew, bpb and richard beck, I agree with you guys 100%!

I love the Bible and I worship God, but I believe the Bible is a mixture of revelation, inspiration and human invention; the whole thing heavily edited along the centuries, with a wide range of books added or kept away from the canon.

How do I get to know God then? Well, I can never get to know God while on this world other than through imperfect scriptures and my own imperfect knowledge, self-knowledge and throuhg the action of the Holy Spirit.

I guess I choose to see the Bible a guidelines and I pray and read all I can in order to gain more knowledge and be as close to God as I possibly can.

jennifer b. said...

@matt: Now I'm very confused. This approach is only necessary because I can't make sense of why a God who opens doors for apostles didn't intervene to prevent the Holcaust.

I understand why you adopt the theodicy you chose, for the most part, but if your all-good-but-non-interventionist God doesn't prevent such things (making the assumption that he has the ability to do so if he so desired, but let me know if that's a false assumption for you)... then isn't he just as culpable as my not-necessarily-all-good-but-intervening God for the end result?

jennifer b. said...

@Connor-- see my blog for a very rough draft of an answer.

Paul said...

To me you point here to the fundamental problem with the fundamentalist approach. The idea seems to be that a text can only be inspired by God if God actually came up with the language. The resulting exegetical framework is basically "God said this in exactly these words and God knows everything so every word must be true."

I don't see how it could be more obvious that human brains and hands wrote the words. Any and all language that we regard as inspired came to us through human hearts, minds, and hands - which aren't inerrant. And to me, it's just too much of a stretch to believe there ever was a time when they were. It flies in the face of massive, overwhelming evidence to the contrary from present and historical times.

To speak in a fundamentalist style, I think fundamentalism commits idolatry when it comes to scripture.

ConcernedEngineer said...

All the OT judgments were just.

I know this is a tough pill to swallow, but it is the truth.

People are offended by this because of sinful attitudes. We often think that we don't really deserve the wrath of God. But, we are sinners, and we do deserve the wrath of God. So, when God poured out His wrath on people in the OT, the sinners were getting nothing less than what they deserved. And God did that which is holy and just.

People need a Copernican revolution. People, in thinking so highly of themselves, think that they are competent to judge the Word of God. The problem is that God will not be judged by man; man will be judged by God.

God backs up His Word with Himself. He is all-sufficient within the Fellowship of the Trinity. He backs Himself up with His own glory. He's God, so He can do that.

Blessings to all. Thank God for the cross.

Connor said...

ConcernedEngineer - "think that they are competent to judge the Word of God"

Are you competent to judge that the bible is the Word of God?

Cody said...

I must be a prophet because I can see circular argumentation in the future.

ConcernedEngineer said...

Cody certainly beat me to the punch. I have every intention of arguing in circles. I will be upfront about that. Furthermore, I will assert that there is nothing wrong with circular arguments. Every appeal to authority ends up being a circular argument - or a spiral argument - as I call it. But at rock bottom, I start with this presupposition: God is, "I AM!" He exists.

How do I know? Because He has revealed Himself to me and He has backed Himself up with His own glory. I know that on faith.

It is by faith that I hold to the inerrancy of Scripture.

Check this out:


As long as you intend to challenge my presuppositions, then I challenge you with this question: How do you know that murder is wrong?

Matthew said...

CE, please just link us to one of your previous "is murder wrong" discussions. I'd rather not discuss that at length here.

Paul said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Connor said...


I have no problem with you making the claim that the bible is the Word of God and that it is because it is. The point is you made a decision (or a decision made itself) that the bible is the Word of God, and that is making a judgment.

ConcernedEngineer said...

But it is a right judgment, and that makes all the difference in the world. The point remains that all of us will be judged by the God of the Bible. When we stand before God on Judgment Day, we will not be the ones making judgments. We'd do well to learn that lesson now, and to learn it well.

Connor said...


This has all been nice. I never really was asking for your reasons as to why the bible is the inerrant Word of God, nor anything about judgment day, but I'm totally up for trying to increase the comment count to new records.

It does seem to me that if we are held accountable in the end for these judgments that we make then hopefully we are at least somewhat competent to make them. But as you have said, we are not due to our fallen natures. I guess its just a luck of the draw for whoever stumbles in the right direction. Congratulations on lucking out.

PS - If you happen to be of the Calvinist stripe then I could totally see where you are coming from but I don't think that is you.

ConcernedEngineer said...

I'm a quasi-Calvinist.

There's no luck here. God is Sovereign. He blesses. He curses. All according to His wisdom, love, justice, and mercy.

I do thank God that He chose me and died on the cross for me.

grumblefish said...

The Bible sure makes a good lightning rod! I don't know about
peoples' atttendance at Sunday|
First Day|{religious ed} school,
but we've cataloged much more
information about the cosmos than
was commonly understood 2 millenia ago. Even if our contemporary
understanding of life during those
times isn't encyclopaedic, it's a
mistake to superimpose 2007-vintage
judgements on the value of the
lessons and observations from back
then. The magnitude and coarseness
of things like time and populations
may seem quaint now, but they're
in terms that would have made sense
to someone who'd misplaced her/his
Rolex, at the time. Allowing for
the worlds changes since then, the
observations may be a bit more
meaningful to current readers.

Sorry I don't have something a bit more current to offer- the Google
wunderkinds changed the locks on my
blog, hence, no new posts. Still,
it's good to hear from you again.
Hopefully, I'll find some way to
put my $0.02 somehow, without
compelling visitors and friends
to cough up a Dunn & Bradstreet report before leaving a comment.
Are you folks having an extended snowball season this year?

Samuel Maynes said...

If you are interested in some new ideas on religious pluralism, the Trinity, and panentheism, please check out my website at www.religiouspluralism.ca. It previews my book, which has not been published yet and is still a “work-in-progress.” Your constructive criticism would be very much appreciated.

My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.

In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universe Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.

The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or "Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the "body of Christ" (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

* The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.

For more details, please see: www.religiouspluralism.ca

Samuel Stuart Maynes