A brief response to RHE

October 20, 2014

holy-bible

I have been reflecting on Rachel Held Evans’ recent post, “I would fail Abraham’s test,” which includes the following:

While I agree we can’t go making demands and bending God into our own image, it doesn’t make sense to me that a God whose defining characteristic is supposed to be love would present Himself to His creation in a way that looks nothing like our understanding of love. If love can look like abuse, if it can look like genocide, if it can look like rape, if it can look like eternal conscious torture—well, everything is relativized! Our moral compass is rendered totally unreliable. …

My point is this: It is intellectually dishonest to say Christians make moral judgment calls based on Scripture alone. Conscience, instinct, experience, culture, relationships—all of these things (and more) play important roles in how we assess right from wrong. …

My initial reaction after reading this was not as charitable as it could have been. To wit, Evans is obviously making God into her own image, despite her disclaimer to the contrary. If I were to ask one of my fellow millennials what sort of God shares our values, this would be it!

I don’t disagree with the substance of that initial criticism, but it also must be said that I make God into my own image. Last I checked, I am a sinner. I harbor a whole host of assumptions, moral and aesthetic categories, which I bring to my theology and which still predetermine my conception of God. This is why our theology is always a work-in-progress — “theology on one’s knees,” to use one of Balthasar’s favorite images.

My disagreement with Evans (and Enns obviously comes to mind) is how the biblical portrait of God no longer operates in its authoritative capacity for the church. A certain treatment of Christ, which is itself selective, is given the sole normative status for one’s theology. The rest of the Bible is relativized through its cultural framework, with the peculiar christology of one’s own cultural conditioning serving as the norma normans.

While I invariably bring moral and aesthetic categories to my theology — categories which have been predefined apart from the covenantal activity of God and the inscripturated witness to God — these categories have to be rigorously tested, modified, or perhaps rejected entirely. God does not conform to my philosophy; my philosophy conforms to God, using “philosophy” in both its narrow (modern) and broad (ancient) sense. This includes the God of the conquests, just to be clear.

Once again, I do not do this perfectly. Nobody does. But there is a significant theological difference when this “testing” is not even recognized — when God is assessed, as Evans avows, through other criteria and other norming norms. And that is why so many of us are passionate about this, with the unfortunate consequence that we are not always respectful, myself included.

32 Responses to “A brief response to RHE”

  1. cal said

    As a fellow millennial, I am very uncomfortable with my indoctrinated assumptions and presuppositions that RHE embraces whole heartedly. She asks why we can’t trust our moral compasses? Maybe they’re broken, going astray, picking up “magnetic” pull from multiple directions. She is far too away from any deep, yea, even ontological, corruption in our humanity. Her and Enns ask some good questions, but their answers are usually 2d liberal rehash.

    Ultimately, she equates the ancients choices, and God’s Word in them, with our present situation. It seems that God’s Word is equal in power and revelation to the human conscience and moral imagination. I don’t know what to say.

    Cal

  2. Bobby Grow said

    Really good, Kevin! Absolutely. If I was more level headed when I wrote my little blunder-piece now (as it were), this is how it should’ve sounded.

    • Kevin Davis said

      I re-read your piece, and I think it is interesting to read it as if I knew nothing about you or your blog. When I first read it, I thought, “Of course. This is perfectly evident.” But the second time, I could see how newbies would not understand the real point of your theological criticism. That is a common difficulty, for all of us bloggers — we are trying to reach a broad audience.

      • Bobby Grow said

        Yeah, we are, Kevin!

        The interesting thing is that I thought that post of mine would have stayed in the relative obscurity my blog. But nope!

        I have apologized to Rachel about the tone of my original post, and she has graciously accepted my apology!

        I think I will save my critiques about this stuff, in the future, mostly for folks like Peter Enns et al.

      • Kevin Davis said

        I encourage you to continue offering these critiques, including of Rachel too — with the right balance of sensitivity and criticism, of course, however imperfect we all are at times. Yes, Enns is the more important to critique, insofar as he is a scholar engaging these matters at a popular level. But Evans has positioned herself as a teacher too — just as I am, and just as you are. We have an awesome responsibility here, as Jesus’ warnings should remind us (and James 3:1). This is why it is no trivial matter to be a theology blogger, especially of Evans’ stature.

      • Kevin Davis said

        Thanks, Jon. I enjoyed it very much, and it complements Derek Rishmawy’s also excellent response.

  3. Bobby Grow said

    Kevin,

    I really couldn’t agree more! I came to realize that we are teachers as we blog many years ago, and it is a responsibility. And I do think that Rachel has a major responsibility. I have gotten over 4000 views today on that post, just by linking it into her comment meta yesterday (not realizing what that would do). She has a huge influence and following. Pretty amazing!

    I have been itching to follow up with another post even tonight, in regard to where Rachel’s hermeneutic might be coming from.

    • Yes, she has a huge following…because every progressive, whether mainline or disgruntled former fundies or whatever, flock to her blog. By contrast, most evangelicals are split into our various niche groups.

  4. james said

    Later in her article she writes: “When people say this, what they seem to be saying is that God is power. And if God is power, God gets to define love however God pleases.” It is here and elsewhere that someone with theological insight can see the kind of mistakes she is making in her thinking. It sounds like an insight for her to critique others this way, however it is just bad theology all around. God doesnt choose to express love only how he sees fit as if it is a choice, instead in his relationship of father, son and spirit do we see the nature of God’s love. His love, as Barth reminds us, has a definite shape and character and is not some sort of choice or an expression of our cultural notions of love. Both Piper and RHE could learn this. If she approached her concern in a more trinitarian way she could present a more accurate picture of God for her readers. However, being theologically sound doesnt necessarily get people to read a blog. Claiming the God of Genesis 22 is a violent diety does. Lame.

    • Yes, the material in CD II.1 has been enormously helpful for me. Barth defines God as “the One who loves in freedom and is free in His love.” So, Barth structures his entire doctrine of God around the two perfections of love and freedom, not allowing either to define itself apart from the other. It seems to me that Evans and Piper are giving one perfection control over the other — “love” for Evans, “freedom” for Piper.

      Thus, for Piper, wrath is an expression of God’s justice, not his love; for Evans, wrath doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. For Barth, wrath is an expression of God’s love-in-freedom, which means that God’s love is not the cultural notion of love that Evans so warmly embraces.

  5. Robert F said

    Evans asks, “Would you even have gathered the wood?”, thereby betraying what to my thinking is a fatal lack of insight about human nature, including her own. Mothers and fathers, families, routinely “gather the wood” to offer up the burnt sacrifice of their own kin; most of the time, however, these sacrifices are not made to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and not done with literal knife, wood and fire. Rather, they are made to the inner dynamics and relational dysfunction of family networks themselves, and done with the materials provided by familial piety and illusion, on the altar of human vanity and self-centeredness. Evan’s unjustifiably rosy estimation of human nature is typical of “progressive Christianity”. The real question is not, “Would you even gather the wood?” but, “Who, or what, shall we be sacrificing to today: the true and living God, or an idol?”

    • Yes, the text is illustrating the radical discontinuity between our values and loyalties and what it means to truly claim Yahweh as one’s Lord. It it not unlike Jesus’ call to break family fealties if necessary, and “let the dead bury the dead.”

  6. Kim Fabricius said

    I share your dismay over the thinness of RHE’s doctrine of God and its implications for ethics. RHE clearly understands “love”, when used theologically, in a univocal rather than an analogical sense. Still, you (and I) have some work to do when it comes to the biblical texts that disturb her, especially the stories of the ethnic cleansing of the Canaanites in Joshua 7-12. (Wasp Americans in particular, given our primal sin in using the discourse of biblical conquest to justify the genocide of indigenous Americans, have cause to tread very carefully here.) The conventional explanations of “Bible-believing” Christians — the iniquitous Canaanites got what was coming to them, or their slaughter was actually a deed of love (equivocity at its worst!), or hey, who are we to question the Lord? — they don’t cut it, do they?

    Against RHE you say A certain treatment of Christ, which is itself selective, is given the sole normative status for one’s theology. The rest of the Bible is relativized through its cultural framework, with the peculiar christology of one’s own cultural conditioning serving as the norma normans. Absolutely. But like you — or anyone — can avoid this universal hermeneutcal ball-buster, can interpret the scriptures with an <unpeculiar, unculturally mediated Christology? Of course not, as you know. On the other hand, that does not leave us hermeneutically helpless, nor concede game, set, and match to cultural relativism. Rather, with hermeneutical humility we must come as defenceless as we can to scripture, open to its benign assault, open to scripture critiquing our cultural (and exegetical!) presuppositions, but also open to scripture critiquing scripture, and, above all, to Christ, surely the hermeneutical key, critiquing us and scripture, while acknowledging that neither scripture nor Christ will we ever have hermeneutically “neat”.

    And of the God of the conquests to whom we must indeed attend? Yes, but how? For me, finally — or better, finally, provisionally! — according to our Lord’s “You have heard it said … but I say unto you …” Whatever we say about the God of conquests then, I’ll risk the Marcionism of saying he is not the God of conquests hic et nunc. So while arriving at the gathering point by different routes perhaps, personally I’m quite happy to join a peace march with RHE. But then I’ve been on many a peace march with atheists, while Christians were leading the charge for a justified, if not quite holy, war — arguing, of course, from scripture.

    • Kevin Davis said

      But like you — or anyone — can avoid this universal hermeneutcal ball-buster, can interpret the scriptures with an unpeculiar, unculturally mediated Christology? Of course not, as you know.

      Yes, hence my points about theology being a work-in-progress vis-à-vis our categories and such. And I can scarcely think of a better example than how we treat the conquest narratives. I don’t have a final or satisfactory answer. I only have a provisional set of answers or possible rationales, which does include the wickedness of the Canaanites and other stock answers — which I do not find as unsatisfactory as you do, I assume. But, yes, a responsible treatment of this issue would require a lengthy disquisition on its abuse in church history, in underwriting colonialism or simply everyday prejudice.

      • Joel said

        There is another side to consider with the historic use of Joshua though. One thing I’ve realized as I struggle with Joshua is that antebellum American slave theology (as it were) appears to have found it to be a liberating text, going by their spirituals. He gets his own song and several references in others, and the vast majority of the black church remained remarkably nonviolent considering their oppression. I’m not sure exactly where that leads, but it is interesting.

      • Yes, Joel, that is a good point. They saw that the power was with God. It was not until recent forms of liberation theology that these texts were seen as an excellent template for Marxist theorizing, instead of what they actually are in the Triune economy.

  7. Robert F said

    ” Whatever we say about the God of conquests then, I’ll risk the Marcionism of saying he is not the God of conquests hic et nunc.”

    I agree with most or all of what you say, Kim Fabricus. One thing bothers me, though: although the risk of Marcionism is, imo, unavoidable, the greatest threat it poses is that it tends, unless carefully circumscribed, to divorce the Old Testament God from the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. This tendency, I think, has partly underwritten the lamentable history of Christian antisemitism, ny causinh Christians to forget that “salvation is from the Jews.” And it is this tendency that Bonhoeffer was warning against when he said in his Letters and Papers from Prison that it is wrong, and indeed un-Chirstian, to want to get the New Testament too quickly, as if we can sidestep all that is unpleasant to us in the OT by not letting it speak with its own voice. Add to this that whenever Jesus speaks in the NT about God as he is described and depicted in the OT, he always speaks as if there is not the slightest distinction between God the Father/Abba and the God of conquest, and there is great reason to pause before the texts and tremblingly wonder just where our cultural preferences are replacing God’s revelation of himself.

    • Kevin Davis said

      Well stated, Robert. We have a tendency to forget that the deity of Jesus was predicated upon his identification with the God of Israel, and thus we have all of the “proof texts,” so to speak, within both the gospels and the letters making precisely this identification.

    • Kim Fabricius said

      What Kevin said. The God of Israel is the Abba of Jesus. And any suggestion of supersessionism, any hint that Israel has been replaced as the people of God by the church, must be denied in no uncertain terms. Christians — we are but honorary Jews, “wild olive shoots” grafted into the vine (in the imagery of Romans 11:17ff.). In that sense, a very clear Bonhoefferian (and Barthian) Nein! to Marcion.

  8. I would love to read a longer response to RHE.

    • Kevin Davis said

      Thanks. I hope that my follow-up responses here in the comments will suffice for a slightly longer response. As much as I try to keep-up with blogging — including following others and commenting elsewhere — I am actually rather busy right now. I am doing a pastoral internship, plus another part-time job (albeit a very easy part-time job), so my time is limited.

  9. Hey, this sounds promising!

    ‘While I agree we can’t go making demands and bending God into our own image’ …

    Oh, wait.

    ‘…it doesn’t make sense to me that a God whose defining characteristic is supposed to be love would present Himself to His creation in a way that looks nothing like our understanding of love.’

    Ahem.

  10. […] links, I also want to point-out two excellent responses to Rachel Held Evans, to whom I wrote a brief response a couple days […]

  11. After a little bit further reflection, this quote from Bonhoeffer on the conscience seems appropriate:

    ‘This flight, Adam’s hiding from God, we call conscience. Before the fall there was no conscience. Man has only been divided in himself since his division from the Creator. And indeed it is the function of the conscience to put man to flight from God. Thus, unwillingly, it agrees with God, and on the other hand in this flight it allows man to feel secure on his hiding place. This means that it deludes man into feeling that he really is fleeing. Moreover it allows him to believe that this flight is his triumphal procession and all the world is fleeing from him. Conscience drives man from God into a secure hiding place. Here, distant from God, man plays the judge himself and just by this means he escapes God’s judgement. Now man really lives by his own good and evil, from the innermost division within himself. Conscience is shame before God in which at the same time our own wickedness is concealed, in which man justifies himself and in which, on the other hand, the acknowledgement of the other person is reluctantly preserved. Conscience is not the voice of God to sinful man; it is man’s defense against it, but as this defense it points towards it, contrary to our own will and knowledge.

    “Adam, where are you?” With this word the creator calls Adam forth out of his conscience, Adam must stand before his Creator. Man is not allowed to remain in his sin alone, God speaks to him, he stops him in his flight. ‘Come out of your hiding-place, from your self-reproach, your covering, your secrecy, your self-torment, from your vain remorse…confess to yourself, do not lose yourself in religious despair, be yourself, Adam…where are you? Stand before your creator.” This call goes directly against the conscience, for the conscience says: ‘Adam, you are naked, hide yourself from the Creator do not dare stand before him.” God says: “Adam, stand before me.” God kills the conscience. The fleeing Adam must realize that he cannot flee from his Creator.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘Creation and Fall/Temptation: Two Biblical Studies’, p. 90-91)

    • Conscience is not the voice of God to sinful man; it is man’s defense against it, but as this defense it points towards it, contrary to our own will and knowledge.

      Very good. Bonhoeffer develops this brilliantly in his Ethics. There is still the question of whether we can speak of a redeemed conscience, as Newman does — thus, whether we could contrast an untrustworthy conscience (idolatrous) with a redeemed conscience (sanctified). Then the discussion would turn on whether we could talk about an analogous relation between the two — an analogiam conscientiae?

      • The distinction between redeem/unredeemed conscience is important. Bonhoeffer may go a bit too far here and there – it does seem to be a fact of our moral experience that we do have some kind of ‘inner voice’ telling us about right and wrong, and this ‘inner voice’ does seem to *in some sense* align with basic Christian moral teaching. I think something helpful to keep in mind is the Reformers insistence that the ‘natural law’ passages in Romans pointed to natural *revelation*, which could be darkened in a flash by sin (and more often than not is) rather than a natural law, or infallible moral sense (as RHE seems to think it is, despite her insistence that the conscience isn’t infallible).

      • Yes, I think we could consider this as a subset of the discussion over natural theology. Whether reason or goodness or beauty, there has to be some sort of continuity, not the least because language demands it, between the “before” and “after” of Christian knowledge and experience. As long as none of these domains (like conscience/morality for RHE) is given ultimate authority or control over divine revelation, then we are doing sound theology. Though, once again, this is an ideal we are striving to achieve, not a present accomplishment.

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