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Hermeneutics and biblical violence

Hermeneutics is everything. Certainly it is today’s big topic that is shaking the evangelical world more than anything else. Here is a book that, while it focuses on a single topic—violence in the Bible—ends up as a much broader treatise on biblical hermeneutics. It is Disarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives, And Why We All Need To Learn To Read The Bible Like Jesus Did by Derek Flood (Metanoia Books, 2014. ISBN: 9780692307267).     

Non-American readers should ignore the first two phrases in the ponderous subtitle—which reflect the religious scene in the USA—and note the last one, which is what the book is really all about.

The author tackles head-on the incompatibility between Jesus’ command to love our enemies and the OT’s portrayal of God as commanding, among other atrocities, the genocide of the Canaanites. He insists that this issue needs facing up to honestly and rejects the approach of both liberals, who stick to the Bible’s nice bits and put their heads in the sand over the rest, and conservatives, who try unsuccessfully to justify the genocide commands and other violent acts carried out in God’s name.

Derek Flood advocates the much-discussed ‘trajectory’ approach to Scripture introduced by William Webb, but takes it further than Webb. His bottom line, which he grounds in the way both Jesus and Paul handled the OT, is that we should evaluate any biblical teaching on the results in produces in real-life situations. If it produces violence, hurt, pain and suffering it is to be rejected; if it promotes compassion, shalom, wholeness and healing it is to be embraced.

This requires him, of course, to insist that the ‘trajectory’ of revealed truth does not just move from OT to NT but continues beyond the NT and through the centuries. The worst thing we can do, he reckons, is to bring to Scripture ‘unquestioning obedience’, which causes us sometimes to ignore good sense and conscience. Instead, we should approach it in the tradition of ‘faithful questioning’, which we see even in the Bible itself. The bulk of his book then shows, with numerous examples, how we can best go about doing that.

This is a book that will wobble some and exhilarate others. I’m in the latter category as I pursue my own pilgrimage of faith. If you remain—as I no longer do—an advocate of hard-line biblical inerrancy and regard the Bible as a complete first-century ‘frozen in time’ ethical manual, you will be seriously challenged. But if you are open to God’s Spirit as one who is still active in the world, and if you believe that the gospel really is good news and not the bad news it is so often presented as, you might find this book helping you to release the handbrake and surge forward in your walk with God.

I have prepared a PDF synopsis of the book to give you a flavour. It may put you off it completely, or it may prompt you to buy it. I hope it will be the latter!

Violence and bloodshed committed in God’s name is a major theme of the Old Testament. (p10)

Over 100 passages in the Old Testament cite Yahweh as explicitly commanding people to kill. (p13)

The sobering fact of history is that people have repeatedly appealed to the Bible to justify staggering acts of violence over the centuries. (p16)

A big part of the problem has to do with the assumption that faithfulness to Scripture means accepting everything it says unquestioningly. (p21)

The prophetic spirit is one that lovingly critiques religion from the inside, not as a way to destroy it, but as a way to make it good and whole. This was the focus of Jesus, and is characteristic of how he read and applied Scripture in the context of confronting the fundamentalism of his day. (p27)

The priority of Jesus was not on defending a text, it was on defending people—in particular defending the victims of religious violence and abuse. (p35)

The conflict we see described in the Gospels between Jesus and the religious leaders comes down to one of Jesus confronting an authoritarian and hurtful way of interpreting the Bible. (p38)

The Old Testament is a record of dispute. This dispute can be characterized as consisting of an ongoing debate between two key narratives: On the one side is the majority narrative of unquestioning obedience, and on the other is the protesting minority voice of faithful questioning. (p43)

Jesus rejects the prophets’ claim that such judgment (sickness, suffering, etc.) is God’s work, and instead frames his healing ministry in terms of the kingdom of God advancing against Satan’s kingdom (cf. Luke 11:17–20). (p48)

Because of the multi-vocal quality of the Old Testament, we see Jesus embracing certain narratives that speak of restoration and mercy, and rejecting other narratives found in those same Scriptures which instead uphold committing or justifying violence in God’s name. (p49)

The narrative Jesus prioritized when he read his Bible was not the majority narrative of power and violence, but the minority voice of questioning in the name of compassion. If we wish to read our Bibles like Jesus, then we will need to learn to hear the minority voices, and adopt his way of reading from the margins. (p53)

While the particular styles and methods used by Jesus and Paul differ, the common denominator that we can identify as central to how they both interpreted Scripture is this focus on love as the telos of Scripture. (p74)

As Noll illustrates with multiple case studies, it was much easier for those on the pro-slavery side [of the US debate on slavery] to make a direct appeal to the “common plain meaning” of Scripture. Theirs was the stronger and more self-evident biblical argument. Yet that very focus on “correct” interpretation led them to commit acts of unspeakable cruelty and barbarity—all done in the name of submitting to the authority of Scripture. (p74)

Love is the hermeneutical baseline. Paul therefore has no problem with completely misrepresenting a biblical author’s intent, and indeed deliberately reverses the meaning of certain passages in order to focus on Christ’s way of grace and enemy love. This focus on love and grace was the clear interpretive priority that drove Paul's bold interpretive moves. (p76)

The greatest heresy, the most dangerous error by far, is the idea that employing force, threat, and violence to silence those who disagree with you is a good and faithful thing to do. (p85)

There is a major problem with the modern exegetical method: A mere objective reporting of what a text says in its original context, divorced from any ethical evaluation of its content, is simply not enough if we intend to read Scripture as Scripture. Indeed, it is morally irresponsible to stop there. When Jesus and the authors of the New Testament interpret Scripture what they are ultimately doing is an ethical evaluation of the text, based on God revealed in Christ. (p91)

Looking at the record of dispute found throughout the Old Testament, we can begin to trace the outlines of a people’s slow development away from the primitive view of violent tribal war gods so typical of the worldview of the ancient world. Part of this development involved Judaism moving from polytheism to monotheism. However, an unfortunate byproduct of this shift to monotheism involved their attributing both good and evil acts to God. (p99)

Many of the violent acts which the Old Testament portrays as God’s doing, Jesus and the New Testament instead attribute to the work of Satan. A prominent example of this is sickness which the Old Testament attributes to God’s will as a just punishment for sin, but Jesus instead attributes to “the work of the devil” which he consequently does not affirm as God’s righteous judgment, but rather actively opposes in God’s name. (p100)

If the genocide accounts are in fact a fiction—a conclusion that the archeological evidence clearly points towards—this obviously would imply that the claim that God commanded them is equally a fiction. God never said to destroy Jericho, not only because God is not a war criminal, but because Jericho was long empty at the time. (p110)

The New Testament has been (mis)used to justify the institution of slavery, corporal punishment of children, and the legitimation of state violence in the form of war and the punishment of crime, including capital punishment. (p125)

The New Testament not only joins in the Hebrew tradition of faithful questioning of sacred violence, it proposes a new nonviolent vision of who God is and what salvation looks like. The warrior God has become the suffering God. God has been disarmed because Jesus reveals the true heart of the Father. God does not look like a warrior king clothed in the blood of his enemies; God instead looks like Jesus, clothed in his own blood, shed for his enemies. God has not changed; rather, Jesus reveals to us who God has always been. (p129)

Properly interpreting the New Testament—not as detached scholars but as followers of Jesus and his way—thus involves recognizing the redemptive trajectory it sets away from religious violence, and then continuing to develop and move forward along that same trajectory ourselves. In other words, we cannot stop at the place the New Testament got to, but must recognize where it was headed. (p132)

If we truly wish to read the Bible in the way Jesus did, then this means that we need to evaluate everything based on its merit. If something is good, then we should be able to demonstrate its goodness in practice. This is the method Jesus himself proposed when he told us that we could spot a false prophet by looking at their fruits (Matt 7:16). By their fruits you will recognize them—that is the evaluative criterion Jesus gives us to use. (p147)

To continue on a course we know to be harmful, simply because “the Bible says so,” is morally irresponsible. (p150)

Looking at Jesus, we can clearly observe in the Gospels that his priority was on caring for the welfare of people, in contrast to the Pharisees who instead prioritized the maintenance of their moral standards. We need to get our priorities straight and prioritize compassion in our witness towards gays—even if that means, like Jesus, having the reputation among the Pharisees of today of being a “friend of sinners.” (p154)

[Re Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple]  If anything can be taken as normative here from Jesus’ actions, it would be his modeling of civil disobedience and public protest in defiance of the existing religious authorities. (p163)

Obedience is not possible without understanding. Faithfulness cannot exist apart from thought. Enemy love is indeed counter-cultural, but it is by no means unrealistic or illogical. Nor is it opposed to a healthy desire to care for and protect ourselves and our loved ones. (p184)

Restorative justice is a justice that works to repair. Unlike retributive justice which is almost exclusively focused on the offender, restorative justice is primarily focused on addressing the needs of victims, focusing on what their needs are and how offenders can take responsibility to repair and make things right. (p195)

Love of enemies is a general principle, applicable to both individuals and society, which has many different context-specific applications. Turning the other cheek is one particular application of the larger principle of enemy love. As such, it can be deeply effective in its proper context, but irresponsible and wrong in others. P198)

The New Testament must be regarded as a first step along a trajectory in regards to changing oppressive societal structures which at the time as a persecuted minority group they had little power to change. Finding ourselves in a position to effect those changes in [democratic] society today, our task is to work out how to apply the spirit of Jesus’ teaching to our time and circumstance. (p207)

Both Paul and Jesus explicitly present God as our model for enemy love. Jesus tells us that we are to love our enemies so “that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous … Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:43–48). Jesus is reversing a passage here from Deuteronomy [11:13-17] which declares that God sends rain to the righteous and withholds it from sinners. (p208)

When we read statements about “hell” and “torture” in those parables, we need to ask whether these are the main point Jesus is trying to convey or whether they are perhaps instead part of the scenery, reflective of the familiar cultural and religious assumptions of his audience—just as the assumed legitimacy of slavery and dictatorship are—which Jesus is working to dismantle bit by bit, one parable at a time. (p217)

…the interpretive art of recognizing the difference between the flower of the gospel, and the socio-religious soil it grew out of. (p220)

Is it possible that Matthew’s violent additions to the Jesus-story are a reflection of the worldly religious thought-world that Jesus was trying to move us away from, and that Matthew was perhaps, to some degree, still captive to? (p224)

Just as we find in the New Testament a less-than-ultimate view of slavery, we likewise find in places a less-than-ultimate view of God. (p233)

If those who affirm that the Bible is infallible in what it teaches can’t agree on what exactly it is that the Bible in fact teaches—at times vehemently disagreeing—how then can we practically say that the Bible is our “supreme and final authority” on these matters? (p238)

Scripture is not our master, Jesus is, and the role of Scripture is to serve a servant function leading us to Christ. (p243)

While for Jesus and the apostles experience was the primary category that trumped all others, experience has in contrast been given the lowest importance by later Christian theology—sometimes being disregarded altogether. (p248)

If we see that our interpretation is leading to hurt and not love then something is not right, and we need to pay attention to that. (p252)

To the extent that evangelicalism has been shaped by this angry antagonistic book-focused Neo-Reformed theology, it has come to mirror the Phariseeism that Jesus so adamantly opposed. (p262)

Learning to read the Bible like Jesus did means being empowered to faithfully question in the name of compassion. It likewise means learning to read the Bible as morally responsible adults, aware of our own limitations. Because in the final analysis, faith is not about certainty; faith is about humility and trust. (P265)

[I have reviewed other books on renouncing violence here and here.

And there’s a review of another of Derek Flood’s books, Healing The Gospel, here]

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