Why my argument against the traditional doctrine of "hell" is not liberalism

Sat, 06/08/2011 - 12:47

I want to take the opportunity provided by a rather vexed comment on my post Tim Keller gets a lot right but gets hell badly wrong to make it clear that my narrative-historical argument about “hell” has nothing to do with liberalism. Ryan kicks off with this rather rash assertion about what liberals do:

A lot of liberals […] will throw out statements like, “You really need to know the context of what he is saying in order to understand it”, or “you really need to read more and educate yourself more to understand it.”

That is not liberalism. Liberalism, as classically understood, is the accommodation of the message of the New Testament to the worldview of the modern period. I. Howard Marshall defines “liberalism” as:

the peeling off of those aspects of biblical teaching about Christian faith and ethics that are held by many people today to be incompatible with a so-called scientific worldview and an “enlightened” understanding of morality.1

For most people the narrative-historical method is quite the opposite to liberalism: it alienates them from the texts; and we have to ask the sort of question that Hilary has just asked.

Modern liberalism, of course, was only one stage in a long process of accommodation to the cultures under which Christianity has existed. In the first place, the gospel was accommodated to the worldview of Hellenistic and later Roman Europe, a development which determined the initial shape of a good part of our current theology. Then the gospel had to be accommodated to the much more hostile environment of the post-enlightenment period. Again much of our current theology, including the theology that Ryan champions in his comment, is the result of defending traditional European theology against the onslaughts of modernity. Then finally, at least in the West, various attempts are being made to make sense of the gospel within a postmodern context.

This process of accommodation is unavoidable, but I think we are now well-advised to take stock of the situation and recalibrate. The best way we have of doing this is to consider how Jesus’ teaching functioned in its original context. We cannot do this perfectly, but we have the tools and the opportunity to do it quite well.

Rob Bell’s Love Wins seems to me to be an attempt to recalibrate within the postmodern context.

So what I am arguing for is the accommodation of the gospel to the worldview of first century Judaism—that is, to Jesus’ worldview. It’s a matter of putting the theology back where it came from. You can disagree either with the method or with the outcome of interpreting Jesus’ teaching in this way, but you can’t call it liberalism—except by way of a blanket insult.

I realize that to those who have inherited an understanding of the New Testament accommodated to the intellectual needs and constraints of European Christendom and the clash with modernity this looks like the abandonment of the solid foundation of the Word of God. As Ryan puts it:

Jesus said that man builds his faith on a foundation. Liberals believe that their ‘enlightened minds’ about 1st century judaism and contextualization gives them an air of authority and understanding of the Bible that surpasses others. That is why they can throw out those statements and think themselves humble—”You really should go read some NT Wright or Sanders and find out that Paul was really talking about a covenantal gnomism [sic] and not individual salvation… etc etc..” But the sand they stand on is shaky because it’s of their own development. They have stepped outside the Word of God as their foundation and are now standing in education and historical research.

But I strongly disagree with this argument. It appears to me that if we make two simple assumptions—first, that Jesus took seriously his historical context, and secondly, that he understood the Jewish scriptures—we are bound to arrive at a reading of the New Testament that in certain respects diverges quite significantly from the inherited reading—not least in shifting the focus from the individual to the community. Neither of these assumptions should be controversial. There is nothing terribly clever or devious about this approach.

My argument about “hell” illustrates how the hermeneutic works: Jesus uses the language of the Old Testament in a rather literal sense to interpret the historical circumstances faced by first-century Israel. I think that this reading is simply much more true to scripture and to Jesus than the view that he is teaching a doctrine of eternal conscious torment after death.

So although I would certainly not accuse Ryan of pride, I think that he has to face squarely the possibility that the tradition which he represents has misconstrued—perhaps even for good reasons—the manner in which the Bible is authoritative.

  • 1. I. Howard Marshall, Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology, 31.


 Andrew -you prioritise a story of Jesus and his mission which, you say, would have been understood by his 1st century hearers and followers. You accept that there is a wider story (my comment and your response) at work in the background, but Jesus does not give much, if any, attention to this.

The 'wider story' raises many of the issues which the 'smaller story' apparently disonnects from on-going human experience by historic contextualisation. For instance, the 'smaller story' assumes a limited historical context for Jesus's references to Gehenna, disconnected from a generalised Christian theology of hell.  But what of the issue in the 'wider story' about God's purpose for humanity in creation, and the rejection or acceptance of that purpose? What happens to people who are unwilling to participate in the new humanity introduced by Jesus, beyond the catastrophe of AD 70?

It is here that much of what Jesus came to say and do cannot, in my opinion, be separated from the 'wider story'. In fact, the whole story fails, through multiple illogicalities and inconsistencies, if the 'smaller story' is prioritised over the 'wider story'. For instance, the 'wider story' of the renewal of creation depends on Jesus being a divine figure. It was God, not man or God's delegate, who inaugurated the renewal of creation. There was no human figure who qualified for this task. Jesus cannot be 'man' alone in the synoptic gospels, and then become the 'God-man' in John and the letters, without enormous inconsistency.

A better way of reading the gospels then, including references to Hades or Gehenna, is to read them with this enlarged perspective. The gospels make wonderful sense if read from this viewpoint, drawing on rich layers of reference, echo and overtone from the Hebrew scriptures, and are consistent with the letters. This, to my mind, is a much more fruitful way of doing historically contextualised reading.

The small story of Israel is not disconnected from the big story of creation. It is a circumscribed story, but i) it mirrors the creation story (Abraham is called as the progenitor of a new creation), and ii) its players share in the fallenness of the world in which their story is embedded—this is Paul’s argument to the Jews in Romans, that they have proved themselves to be as much under the power of sin as the Gentiles. In fact, the small story about Israel is thoroughly subject to the conditions of the big story about creation.

But what of the issue in the ‘wider story’ about God’s purpose for humanity in creation, and the rejection or acceptance of that purpose? What happens to people who are unwilling to participate in the new humanity introduced by Jesus, beyond the catastrophe of AD 70?

The answer to this question seems to me pretty straightforward. Humanity that rejects the purposes of the creator God shares in Israel’s fate: it is destroyed. The wages of sin is death. Humanity that co-operates with the purposes of the creator God, who has made Jesus Lord, will live and will be part of the new creation.

This is true both for individuals and societies. National Judaism was destroyed, the pagan oikoumenē was overthrown. Jesus addressed the particular and peculiar problem of Israel, warning—as Rob Bell correctly points out in his book—that rebellion will lead to disaster. Paul warned the pagan world that it, too, faced the destructive wrath of God, judgment by a man whom God had appointed.

For instance, the ‘wider story’ of the renewal of creation depends on Jesus being a divine figure. It was God, not man or God’s delegate, who inaugurated the renewal of creation.

This is not the place to get into christology, but it seems to me that the core statement about the renewal of creation is that God raised Jesus from the dead.

We must regularly guard from being reactionary in these situations. As you say, even if one thinks the historical-narrative approach and its conclusions wrong, we have to engage in the discussion-conversation rather than just labelling everything we disagree with as liberal or wishing to denigrate the Scripture, etc. We will accomplish so much more in dialogue than reactions.

This diagram is a particularly helpful one, Andrew.

You note Rob Bell's 'recalibration' based on a post-modern perspective. The discipline of Contextual Missiology also attempts to facilitate a recalibration, based upon missiological understanding of the dynamics of Intercultural studies. At times, the protagonists of this view have also periodically come under fire from the assertion of liberalism and it is equally misapplied.

Contextual Missiological analysis relies upon a fairly simple appreciation of the cultural grids and world views from which we all view and interpret reality. Again nothing terribly clever, nor devious and certainly not unbiblical. The end result is a fresh appreciation for context, principally cultural, which is enormously significant in how we understand Scripture.

Andrew, I stumbled upon your blog through Leithart's review of your book on Romans, and have found much of what you've written interesting and helpful.

Maybe you've talked about it elsewhere, but how do you understand the relation of resurrection to eternal punishment? In other words, if the wicked as well as the righteous are to be resurrected, are their resurrected bodies immortal, and does that mean by implication their suffering will be eternal, however we interpret Jesus' statements about Gehenna, etc? I'm inclined to agree with a good bit of your exegesis, in other words, but I'm wondering if eternal conscious suffering is still a necessary implication of the doctrine of resurrection. Unless you want to say either that the wicked are not raised, or that once they are they are annhilated.

Daniel, this is a bit of a rushed answer, but jacob z was getting impatient.

A crucial background text for the understanding of resurrection in the New Testament is Daniel 12:2. At the time when Israel is delivered from the pagan aggressor (in this context, Antiochus Epiphanes), many of Israel’s dead will be raised—”some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt”. It’s difficult to tell whether this describes a real personal resurrection or is a metaphor for the restoration of the nation. The unrighteous are rewarded not with suffering but with shame and contempt.

Elsewhere in the Old Testament the fate of those who rebelled against YHWH is invariably death or destruction (cf. Is. 66:24).

The New Testament picks up on the first part of Daniel’s account of resurrection in a number of places (e.g. Matt. 13:43), but less clearly the second part. John 5:28-29 speaks of an imminent time when the dead will come out of their tombs, “those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment”. This is also, I think, a reference to the judgment of Israel on the basis of what people have done.

At the final resurrection in Revelation 20:11-15, all the dead are raised—not only Israel’s dead—and those whose names are not written in the book of life are thrown into the lake of fire, which is the second death. What I think John does here symbolically is simply reaffirm the fundamental existential fact that the wages of sin is death or destruction.

So my view is basically that in the end one group is raised to life and becomes part of a new creation; and another group is raised only really for the purpose of finally ratifying the inescapable judgment on human sinfulness, which is death.

However, this is distinct from the “resurrection” that takes place as part of the restoration of Israel through the suffering of Jesus and his followers, which is what the New Testament is mostly about.

Thanks for posting this. I find it frustrating that someone would suggest that concern for context (whether historical, cultural or literary) is a matter of liberalism. When self-proclaimed literalists encounter a text that is too demanding or not believable literally in light of our current knowledge - whether it be Jesus' demand that his followers give up all their possessions, or something at the intersection of science and cosmology - suddenly context matters. 

Acknowledging that context always matters, in verses I could hit my opponent over the head with and not only in ones that they could quote at me, is not about liberalism but consistency, honesty, and respecting the Biblical text not as something one pretends was written in English and published today, but as something actually found on ancient manuscripts written in other languages, which requires scholarship and awareness of linguistics and cultural context in order to render it into the intelligible translations that then get misused by those who say they are authoritative to them, but have apparently not considered where they come from.


But I can understand why someone like Ryan would confuse your standpoint with liberalism. From the perspective of a conservative, both you and liberals are trying to relativise "what the bible says" - i.e. both refuse to read the text of the bible as if it was written in the 20th Century. Liberals do it by appealing to modern scientific and enlightenment epistemologies against the historical claims of the bible, and you do it by appealing to modern historical research methods and cultural awareness against the traditional Evangelical hermeneutic.

Also, I don't think Ryan or anyone like him will be persuaded by an alternative hermeneutic as long as they see no difference between "what the bible says" and "what we conservatives understand the bible to mean."* As long as you take the view that your reading of scripture is obviously the only correct one, and everyone else's is blatantly flawed because it "doesn't take the bible literally (or seriously)" then you will be blind to any argument for cultural-historical sensitivity, and doubly blind to the conclusions drawn from it.

My own way of tackling this issue is to examine the hermeneutical lens that people like Ryan, often unwittingly, have placed over the text, which is leading them to understand it a certain way without even being fully aware that they are understanding it a "certain way" (normally it feels to them like the only sensible way to understand it). If Ryan**, for example, believes that women should wear hats in church, and that Christians should greet one another with a holy kiss when they meet, and that failure to do so is tantamount to direct contradiction of scripture, then I will with respect call his hermeneutic consistent. Otherwise, if he picks out some bible passages as "culturally contextual" and others as "timeless truth" then he is guilty of just as much relativisation of the bible as any of the liberals he attacks. He just chooses the bible passages which make sense to him, and relativises the ones that don't.

The only solution, if you believe the bible has any value or importance, is to see the whole thing as culturally contextual, and, becoming as aware as possible of your own hermeneutical lens, then try to align it as best you can with the lens it was intended to be read through - i.e. that of its original audiences. It's only when you do this that the bible's characters come alive, their significance stands out in full colour, and you are inspired by them to serve the same God who they served. Through all the multitude of differences and changes in the world, there is a common love, a common purpose, and a common mission.


* nb// I don't mean to highlight or attack conservatism per se, but since I'm using a conservative as a case study it may seem like that's what I'm doing.

** Likewise, I'm only showcasing this guy Ryan because he represents quite well a particular school of thought. There's certainly nothing personal.

Good comment, Barney, thanks.

It occurs to me, though, that my argument about what Jesus meant by the Gehenna language is not really a matter of contextualization at all—other than the self-evident observation that the word geenna occurs in the literary context of the Synoptic Gospels.

We come across the word geenna in the text, where it forms part of a particular argument. It’s not immediately obvious what the word means—it doesn’t belong to a standard Hellenistic vocabulary. So we look around for other places where it is used or possible precedents for its usage, and we come across the passage in Jeremiah 7 (setting aside the question of whether the Old Testament background is more relevant than the mostly later Jewish apocalyptic texts).

We take into account both the story that is being told in the Gospel, the fact that it purports to have reference to a particular historical period, and we ask why Jesus might have chosen to make reference to Jeremiah 7 at this point. We would do exactly the same with any other word whose meaning was not immediately obvious. It’s called interpretation. It’s the only way we have of determining what was said. It can be done well or it can be done badly.

You said:

"The only solution, if you believe the bible has any value or importance, is to see the whole thing as culturally contextual, and, becoming as aware as possible of your own hermeneutical lens, then try to align it as best you can with the lens it was intended to be read through - i.e. that of its original audiences."

Why is this particular hermeneutical construct more valuable or important than Ryan's?  I guess I'm asking, in what way it is more valuable?  Closer to objective truth?  More accurate regarding God's intended narrative-historical interpretation? More authentic in some way?


Well, more broadly "hermeneutics" has to do with asking how you might understand any communication attempt correctly. The question is one of how language works.

Example 1: while I'm putting my kids to bed, I ask, "did you brush your teeth?" "Yes," they reply, meaning that they have brushed their teeth once in their life. I then have to clarify, "did you brush your teeth today?" But in reality that's what I meant before, and my kids knew this as much as anyone else. The word 'today' was implicit in the sentence, to be understood by context.

Example 2: "I worked all day today." The literalist will tell me that this is a lie, because I wasn't working from the hours of midnight to 5am. But that's not how language works. Of course I didn't mean literally all day, but I am except from the charge of lying if I can assume that everyone who hears what I said will understand what I meant. Language by its nature is deeply rooted in culture and context, it cannot be separated and made to say objective things.

These kinds of things - metaphors, hyperboles, implied additional words - our language is drenched with them. And so is the bible. When you begin to uncover the nature of language, you begin to see that understanding the cultural context behind every sentence in the bible is only an extension of learning the meaning of each word that made up the sentence. And if we learn the meanings of words without learning how their meanings change in context, then we are fooling ourselves if we think we understand the message of the bible.

So, to answer your question: I believe learning the historical-cultural context is the only way of truly understanding what the bible means. And what the bible means is infinitely more important than what the bible says.


You believe the scriptures are communication: from God to us?  From God to first century Judaism/Christians?  from the authors of the texts to other believers/non-believers?  from the authors to us?

You want the communication to be as clear and accurate as possible.  Your value judgment about narrative-historical interpretation is about this interpretation as being more accurate regarding the communication that scripture is meant to be; that this interpretation is true to the intended meaning of the communication.  Am I understanding you correctly on this?

Because I'll bet Ryan feels the same way about his interpretation-- that his is true to the intended meaning of scripture as communication.


You're right, but there's a big difference which I think is given away in this sentence of Ryan's here:

That is why they can throw out those statements and think themselves humble—“You really should go read some NT Wright or Sanders and find out that Paul was really talking about a covenantal gnomism and not individual salvation… etce tc..” But the sand they stand on is shaky because it’s of their own development. They have stepped outside the Word of God as their foundation and are now standing in education and historical research.

The distinction Ryan makes between (a) "the Word of God" and (b) "education and historical research" is a telling one. What does it reveal about Ryan's view of the bible? I would suggest the following things:

1. Ryan sees little or no distinction between "the Word of God" and "my understanding of the Word of God" - that is, he assumes that his understanding is not only the correct one, but the only obvious and straightforward one. It follows then that anyone who doesn't understand the bible the way he does must have "stepped outside the Word of God." For Ryan, it's impossible for there to be many plausible meanings (even if only one correct meaning) of a particular bible passage: all meanings which are not those he sees are clearly wrong and therefore not the Word of God.

2. Ryan accuses liberals of standing on ground "of their own development" i.e. that they have researched history, linguistics, context, etc. and therefore they have distanced themselves from what he sees as the plain and obvious meaning of the bible. This is fascinating, because it shows that he is completely blind to all the assumptions - historical, linguistic, theological, etc. - that support his own viewpoint. It is like jeering at someone for all the complicated ingredients they use to make a cake, because I simply buy a cake from the store. He doesn't realise that there is no way to make a cake without all those ingredients - that there is no way to read the bible, or any text, without philosophical, historical and linguistic assumptions to back it up. The only difference is whether those assumptions are questioned, thought about, analysed, and argued for, or just unwittingly received from someone else's making.

3. Consequently, Ryan believes that his faith is on a foundation of "just the bible" whereas liberals' faith is instead based on the many ingredients that make up their own reading of the bible. To shift analogies, he is unconscious of the hermeneutical lens in his eye, colouring the way he reads everything. Now, I don't believe that anyone can read the bible without a lens, but it makes a big difference whether you've spent a long time trying to focus it, construct it, clean it, etc. so as to see as clearly as possible. Ryan's approach in the senetence above disparages such an attempt, because he thinks he is reading without a lens and I am reading with a lens. I, however, would suggest that everyone reads with a lens, only peoples' lenses are of varying quality.

Does that make sense as an important difference between the two hermeneutical approaches?

Barney, if I had more time and was a nicer person, I would have written what you just did.

Instead, I mocked Ryan, which admittedly was fun.

To add to your point, since language and people's perceptions of the world around them changes so much, it really is impossible to write an inspired book that will mean the same thing to every person throughout history.

I no longer take for granted that the bible's authors agree on what we would call theology. The writings encompass a variety of viewpoints that refelct the changing ideology of the writers and their culture. But if anyone attempted to write a book over a thousand years whose meaning would remain static for thousands more years, it would be futile, becaus the meaning would change as the readers' world changes.

There is no way to know exactly what the authors meant and if we could I suspect it would be more bizarre than we could imagine.


I want to come back to this comment of yours; it's interesting. But before that, would you look back at my comment, the one you've responded to here?  Would you talk about your understanding of scripture as communication?  Who do you feel is communicating with whom?


I think any decent answer to that question is complex and multi-layered. A couple of analogies may help.

1. I write an open letter to a politician. The primary audience is the politician - he/she is the only person I mean when I use the word "you" in the letter. But because it's an open letter, I also intend other people to read it, so in a sense I am also communicating to them, but indirectly.

2. I own a book titled The Collected Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Now, Tolkien didn't write them to me, nor did he ever expect anyone other than his addressees to read them. But someone else thought they would be valuable for me to read and would communicate to me something of Tolkien's character and thought. In this instance there are four hermeneutical parties:
(a) Tolkien
(b) Tolkien's addressees
(c) The publisher of the book
(d) myself

The interesting point here is that (a) is communicating to me, even though he didn't intend to, but (c) is also communicating to me, but only through the thoughts and words of (a). But I will misread the letters if I think of them as addressed to me, or even if I think that (a) ever meant them to be public. In this case, the only way to accurately read the letters is to remember the aims and intentions of both (a) and (c) as well as the cultural context of (b).

3. One final point. The U.S. constitution was not written for me, because I am not an american. Even though I can learn things about the character and intentions of the authors of the constitution that can enrich my life, I cannot gain what is really intended by the constitution unless I become a U.S. citizen. By belonging to a particular community, the constitution takes on a whole new meaning for me, even though its objective meaning remains unchanged.

So to bring the analogies home:

God says things to a community. That community writes them down and passes them on to posterity. Posterity must, in a sense, read them as someone else's mail. But in doing so they learn something of God's character and his relationship with his people. It's important to note the agency of the community in writing down God's communication - they are party (c) in the above analogy. However it is arguable that God intended them to pass it on somehow, in which case the bible is more like analogy 1.

We now read the bible across a vast cultural and philosophical divide. We have to do our homework (historically, linguistically, philosophically) to learn what was really being said and avoid misunderstanding. But however much we learn, and however well we grasp the historical facts and details, the document does not have the same meaning that it has for people who see themselves as belonging to the community to whom God originally spoke. Someone inside and someone outside the community may agree on all the objective material and original meaning, but the document only comes alive if you become a citizen of the kingdom.


Great analogy.  If you feel scripture is communication from God intended for a particular community, who then writes that communication down and passes it on for posterity, I think your narrative-historical interpretation of these texts is a spot-on authentic way to discern the meaning of the communication. 

One would like ‘message sent’ by God to match ‘message received’ by the community.  Narrative historical discernment is our attempt to understand the meaning of ‘message received’ by the first century Judaistic community.  And presumably with the expectation that this meaning coincides as accurately as possible to the meaning of the ‘message sent’ by God.  And that this meaning will then be of value to us as well.

The intended recipient community feels that ’message received’ by them is of posterity value to others.  The ‘message sent’ by God was not intended for these others, but rather for the initial community; the value to others was not the intent of God’s ‘message sent.’  It’s a perk.  Or it’s mission creep.  (Andrew’s picture on another thread of you and I as outsiders looking in on first century Judaism comes to mind.)

But that’s not the only way to perceive intended recipients of the message.  I think Ryan would argue that ‘message sent’ by God was not only, or even primarily, for the first century communities; rather, the intended recipients include you and me.  Even though you and I might not think so.  And because he sees you and me as intended recipients, he can’t accept your understanding of who is sending the message to whom, or your and my (and his!) roles in the communication.

I’m guessing that he feels that ‘message sent’ by God is accurately receivable by you and me without any contextualization whatsoever, if we would but affiliate ourselves with a tradition or faith community which has accurately gotten the meaning of the ‘message received’ that coincides accurately with the meaning of the ‘message sent’ by God.

The two interpretations on the table (yours and Ryan’s) are similar in that both understand scripture to be ‘message sent’ from God; the difference is in the intended message recipient (first century community only vs. a contemporary faith community as well), and the accuracy of ‘message received’ by the two different communities.

Another difficulty I have with scripture as communication from God is this: if a community perceives ‘message received’ accurately from the ‘message sent’ by God, if the two are congruent, how would you know?  How would you authenticate it?  And if a community perceives ‘message received’ inaccurately from the ‘message sent’ by God, if the two were not congruent (either separate entirely or overlapping to a certain degree) how would you know?


Thank you for engaging so thoroughly with this hermeneutical exploration.

Answer to first difficulty (different hermeneutics)

You're right, Ryan would probably argue for an unchanging community culture and language. "The bible was written to us as much as to its original audiences." At this stage I would probably ask Ryan the following questions:

1. Does he see a difference between the command "thou shalt not steal" (Ex. 20:15) and the command to destroy your house if you find mold in it (Lev. 14:45). If so, on what basis are these commands distinguished?

2. If he picks through the New Testament to find all the commands (laying aside the loss of all the depth and richness of worldview-shaping narrative), he will find commands like the following:

  • Greet Philologus (Rom 16:15)
  • Stop drinking only water and drink some wine (1 Tim 5:23)
  • A man ought not to cover his head (1 Cor 11:7)
  • Prepare a guest room for Paul (Phlm 22)

If he obeys these commands as faithfully as all the other commands he finds in the New Testament, he may be congratulated on a consistent hermeneutic. But if he thinks these commands don't apply to him, then I would ask him why these don't and the others do.

We also have a very clear change in the community demonstrated in Matthew 19:8. Jesus sweeps away Moses' rules about divorce and supplies his own. If these rules apparently applied to the Jews and not to us, then how can we maintain an unchanging-community hermeneutic?

We even have unclear boundaries to commands from Jesus himself. Compare Mark 10:11 and Matthew 19:9, in which the words "except for marital unfaithfulness" have crept in. Well, which is it?

But even that is still missing the point. The commands we all agree on as applying to us, are subject to interpretation. How do I know when I've loved my neighbour as myself? How do I practice hospitality? Etc. Etc. But that brings us to your second point, that if epistemological/hermeneutical certainty.

Answer to second difficulty (certainty of hermeneutic)

I guess the first test is if the "message received" makes sense, i.e. if it is consistent with itself and with the world to which it speaks. Once we have passed that test, we have a more difficult problem.

I would suggest that a number of factors all come into play, and no one of them trumps all the others. The following three things may be considered as a start:

  • "Judging them by their fruits" is a dangerous and risky operation. First, how do you determine what the fruits are before you have understood the message? Second, what if the fruits take so long to become evident that you are dead by the time you're vindicated? But it is nonetheless an inescapeable duty. If a person's hermeneutic is leading them to a character further and further matching those things which all interpreters of the message agree as being good: love, compassion, humility, courage, patience, self-control, etc. then it is worth at least paying closer attention to their hermeneutic - i.e. it has checked one box, if not passed the entire test.
  • Subjecting the hermeneutic to full critical analysis and holding it open to any argument against it that may present itself. Granted that nothing is certain, is it the best explanation that fits the facts when all the available facts and interpretations have been put forward? What if a new fact or interpretation presents itself? Well, I guess we just go over it all again and see which makes most sense now. Again, this doesn't by itself solve the issue, but it checks another box in favor of that interpretation.
  • Does the resulting worldview make the most sense of all other data and experiences which we encounter? Does it shed light on our understanding of the world we live in, our daily interactions, decisions, communications, etc.? Or does it only make them harder to understand?

Doubtless there are more considerations than this, but I would at least start here, and gain confidence by the degree to which each of the four items above passes the test. To summarise, they are as follows:

  1. Internal consistency
  2. Positive results
  3. Continued success against alternatives
  4. External illumination


Your response is so rich; I want some time with it.  I’ll get back deeper late tomorrow.  It’s a great response; I just need some thinking time with it.  In the mean time, a few quick thoughts:

1) You seem to measure consistency of hermeneutic specifically by consistency of obeying commands.  I’ve not thought of this a rigor of hermeneutic consistency; I need to think about this.  I do think that consistency is a sign of accurate ‘message received,’ I’ve just not thought it through to ‘consistent in what way.’  More later.

2) Consistency of any type, be it obeying commands or something else, is going to be difficult to sustain over a long period of time.  So if consistency of obeying commands is your yardstick, Ryan’s interpretation is going to be hard to sustain—so he’s inclined to see more value in ‘timeless truths’ than consistency over time.  And in Ryan's defense, there are arguments in the Christian scriptures that consistency over time of obeying commands is not the essential element of God's ‘message sent.’

3) To your list I would add: 5) is it executable?  Can the thing being asked actually be done to a sense of completion, or at least in a noticeable way? And 6) is the value of this interpretation transferable to other communities, even communities that won’t accept the theological tenants of the initial interpretation?  Is there material here that is worth filing the serial numbers off of and calling one’s own?

More later.  Thanks for a great conversation.


I look forward to your longer response. Just to reply to these brief clarifications:

1) I don't mean to suggest that a hermeneutic's consistency is only,  or even most importantly, measurable by obeyed commands. A particular hermeneutic applied to the bible gets a particular worldview out of it, and that will include praxis, i.e. how do we live as a result? If your hermeneutic is very simple ("what the apostles said to the early church community = what God is saying to us now") then its praxis will also be very simple ("the commands given in the New Testament books are commands given to us"). Doubtless this hermeneutic will have other praxes, and other theoretical features which could have been tested for consistency as well. But I thought the easiest - or the quickest - way to test the consistency of that particular hermeneutic was to look at the explicit commands. Do the people who apply that hermeneutic apply it consistently to all commands in the New Testament?

2) I'd like to know more of what you meant by "consistency of any type will be difficult to sustain over time." Do you have any examples to explain what you mean? I also am not sure I understand this sentence: "there are arguments in the Christian scriptures that consistency over time of obeying commands is not the essential element of God’s ‘message sent.’"

As for your two other tests for accuracy, I think they're good additions. Can you give an example of a hermeneutic that is transferrable and also of one that isn't? I'd like to know further what you mean.



My participation over the next few weeks will be…inconsistent; I’m travelling and I don’t have my notes and resources at my fingers.  I appreciate your keeping me honest, as some of my responses are notions that feel right, and perhaps without evidence.  Also, my thanks to Andrew for being such a great host; he could have told us to ‘get a room’ at any time in this discussion.  Thank you, sir. 

I’ve moved my answer to a new comment below; we’re loosing column-width here.




The first century Judaism recalibration you speak of is a kind of liberalism.  Here’s what I mean:

If you take Ryan’s ‘evangelical interpretation,’ and apply classical liberalism as defined by Howard Marshall, stripping out parts incompatible with scientific world view and enlightened morality, you are left with ‘evangelical-lite, version A.’

If you apply recalibration liberalism, stripping out parts that are incompatible with historical, geographical, and cultural context of first century Judaism, you are left with ‘evangelical-lite, version B.’ 

While the two won’t be congruent by any means, both are similar in that they will be altered versions of Ryan’s strongly-believed original evangelical version.

The issue is not the ‘lite’ versions themselves, or the liberalism methods by which these versions were derived, but rather how a strong believer of the original evangelical interpretation (like Ryan) feels about these versions.

If the believer is a centrist (as in ego-centrist) who believes ‘my way is the only way,’ these other versions are threatening, or at least wrong and without value.

If the believer is a chauvinist who believes ‘my way is the best way,’ these other versions are not as ‘true,’ not as valuable.

If the believer is a polymorph who believes ‘my way is only one of many ways,’ these other versions are interesting and may hold value.

Most of the strong-believing evangelicals I know are centrist; the rest are chauvinist.  None are polymorph.

I think Ryan is centrist about his evangelical interpretation, and finds any altered versions of it threatening, or at the very least without value.



I think that you have nailed it exactly Lamont in regards to it being threatening.  I personally grew up in a Dutch Reformed Church in Australia and consequently was raised on a fairly strict modern evangelical worldview.  As far as a centrist outloook the Dutch Reformed take the cake since Luther got it all right, it's been reformed and no argument need be undertaken.  

I can vouch that it is somewhat threatening when confronted with the weaknesses of your theological upbringing.  I didn't buy in too heavily into my Reformed heritage but have still battled to recalibrate my thinking.  For myself I came at the historical-narrative approach a little roundabout going via a lot of trinitarian theology in Torrance and Kreuger and Barth before reading some of NT Wright which I think helped soften the blow in that you are prepared for the fact that things are not as they should be.  

However it is still uncomfortable especially as when you start reading guys like Wright and Perriman it takes a bit to realize and follow through all the implications of what they are presenting.  When you realize what you are actually reading (that maybe Jesus and the New Testament writers didn't have the things in mind that we have in mind and have based all our theology on) then it can feel as though the carpet has been pulled from underneath and your matrix, or foundation of understanding is gone.  That is uncomfortable and I know for myself that when I first launched into this blog I was flat and depressed for days (to the point my wife was worried and I had to tell her I was ok, it was just a theological crisis!) as I tried to make sense in my head of what I was reading.

In the end it can create something of an ongoing theological/existential crisis for some if their core identity is wound up in their intellectual understanding of life and faith aka Ryan.  The easiest response is to reject it and further withdraw into your worldview because it feels safer when you know all the answers.  It's hard to wake someone who is pretending to be asleep.

Personally I relish the ride and the exciting venture of finding a new language and way of speaking about the story of God and what it means for us on the other side of Western Christianity's dominance on recent history.




I am still interested to hear your response to Daniel H., well above. He asks about implications of the righteous and unrighteous being resurrected. Are these new bodies annihilated?

Great post, Andrew, and a ton of good discussion in the comments! For whatever it may be worth, I'll note that Marshall's definition of liberalism may generally be an accurate one, but in many cases (such as my own), it's not all that descriptive. My own slide into "liberalism" hasn't had so much to do with conforming my theology to fit modern/postmodern worldviews, but rather with trying to be respectful of the biblical writers, allowing them to speak for themselves, without imposing modern evangelical/inerrantist frameworks on them.

I have become convinced that not only do some of the biblical writers affirm genocide, but some affirm human sacrifice, and some polytheism/henotheism, to note several of the chief difficulties. The scriptures are an ongoing, unfolding argument, and they present a theological trajectory from (to be overly simplistic) violent tribalism toward pluralism. Of course, the trajectory is not perfectly linear. But why shouldn't we continue to pursue that trajectory? Why discontinue the pursuit at the point at which 1st/2nd century Jewish/Christian thought left it?

My own slide into “liberalism” hasn’t had so much to do with conforming my theology to fit modern/postmodern worldviews, but rather with trying to be respectful of the biblical writers, allowing them to speak for themselves, without imposing modern evangelical/inerrantist frameworks on them.

But why call it “liberalism”? Why not call it “literalism”—taking the Bible at face value. Clearly that presents us with a different set of problems, as you point out, but at least they are problems that are there rather than problems that we have created.

Oh I completely agree, Andrew. I placed liberalism in quotes intentionally. Thom Stark from Religion at the Margins wrote a great essay a little while back on why he is a conservative, and why it is mainstream evangelicals who are liberal.

Jeff - I read the essay you referred to because I am probably one of the mainstream evangelicals you mention, but I also like to think of myself as committed to a historical-grammatical hermeneutic, or at least, taking that hermeneutic as one of the essential tools of biblical interpretation.

I have to say that I did not recognise myself in the definition of evangelical which Thom Stark provides. In particular, neither I nor many evangelicals that I know hold to a strict doctrine of scriptural inerrancy, and in any case, the term has no logical definition, so that it is virtually meaningless. (It is usually qualified by the phrase 'as originally given', which since we have no access to such documents, renders the doctrine less than useful).

Nor do I hold that the historic creeds have absolute authority over the scriptures. The creeds, on the other hand, must be held up to the critique of the scriptures, and as such, can be shown to have shortcomings, which are recognised by many evangelicals. (Eg in the Nicene creed, did Jesus 'descend into hell'? Why is there no reference to his life and ministry? Why is the Holy Spirit given so little attention?).

I think we have to employ more than a stripped-down narrative-historical hermeneutic in interpreting the scriptures, but in the discussion on this site, I am interested in a friendly questioning of whether Andrew's particular interpretation, which I take to be valid, but not in all respects, is an exclusive interpretation. My questioning rests on some rather fine points of difference, but which when pursued, take us to some very different places. I have to concede that Andrew is very good at providing apparently watertight replies to my now occasional forays into the discussions.

Maybe we have to accept that 'mainstream evangelical' is not so much a definition as a spectrum of possibilities within a range. Even Andrew describes his theology as evangelical!

Hi Peter -

"Maybe we have to accept that ‘mainstream evangelical’ is not so much a definition as a spectrum of possibilities within a range."

I'll certainly agree with that. Evangelical is such an amorphous term that I'm not sure it's even a useful term. Maybe fundamentalist is a better term for my purposes here, but I'm not sure that's a particularly useful or precise term either.

Labels aside, there is a wide cross-section of Christians for whom Stark's description is quite accurate. I used to fit his description. They adopt, in practice, an inerrancy-at-all-costs hermeneutic, or a dogma-at-all-costs hermeneutic. I would say, for example, that Paul Copan's recent Is God a Moral Monster displays the inerrancy hermeneutic clearly in many places. (I mention Copan's book specifically because Stark has interacted at length with it.)

Peter, there is an enormous world of right-wing christians who would consider you hopelessly liberal for even engagimng in the kind of dialogue you have with Andrew here.

I am curious, Andrew, since you seem to acknowledge these problems (ie, biblical affirmations of genocide, human sacrifice, polytheism, etc.), what is your view of scriptural authority, in a quick nutshell? If you affirm sola scriptura (or something similar, if that rings too much of reformed theology) how do you reconcile that with the serious difficulties mentioned above?

Or perhaps I've misunderstood you, and your goals here could better be described as something like this: If we are to step beyond sola scriptura (or again, something similar), we must at least make a serious effort to understand, as best we can, the bibilical writers on their own terms; failing to first do that, our efforts will be largely misplaced.

I'm certainly not trying to subject you to an inquisition!  I'm genuinely curious. Thanks!


Here’s a systemic example of ‘consistency of any type will be difficult to sustain over time:’ historically there’s been countless divergences in Christianity resulting in particular denominations.  A recent(!) one in my faith tradition is the schism over the Vatican II reforms.  There is the ‘mainstream’ Roman Catholic Church, beholding to the Pope, and there is the Society of St. Pius X, which was formed by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvrein in response to perceived inconsistencies.  One of the issues precipitating this schism was the celebration of the Latin Mass; Vatican II mandated vernacular liturgies, and the Society didn’t want to give up the Latin Mass.  There were several possibilities: Latin Mass only, vernacular Mass only, or allow both.  When the Roman Catholics chose vernacular only, it was with one sort of consistency in mind; when the Society faction chose Latin only, it was with a different sort of consistency in mind. One can argue practical and theological pro’s and con’s for each position; one can argue institutional consistency for each position.  But the outcome of the perceived inconsistency on the part of one faction about the position of the ‘other faction’ in this case was schism.  Oddly enough, today the Roman Catholic Church allows both vernacular and Latin masses (a choice I think they should have made in the first place).  The Latin-only people I know <i>still</i> won’t participate because of their perception of inconsistencies in the Roman Catholic liturgy.  It’s difficult, at least institutionally, to sustain consistency over time.

But I think it’s hard to sustain <i>personal</i> consistency over time, as well, otherwise people wouldn’t experience conversion.  Here’s another example:  there’s a woman in my old parish who had three children.  Each grew up and was married, all had children, one is divorced.  None of her children go to church, Catholic or otherwise.  In her discussions with me, she angrily tells me of her childrens' faith short comings, and tells me of her ‘writing them off’ because they didn’t maintain their faith.  She has little contact with them; she doesn’t go to visit, and doesn’t talk on the phone with them much.  I asked her if she misses her grand children.  ‘Not really,’ she says.  They aren’t being brought up Catholic. ‘But you could influence them if you were a part of their lives,’ I say.  ‘My children don’t want me to talk with the grandchildren about religion.  So I don’t talk with them about anything.’

In the same parish, there’s a guy who had three children.  Two of them are married with kids, one is openly gay.  This woman lives monogamously with her partner and wants to have a union ceremony, and wants her father to come celebrate with her.  I talked with him when this trip was in the works, and you could see that his love for his daughter, and his desire for her happiness, was at great odds with the traditions of his faith.  He chose finally to go, but it was not easy for him.  (This was two years ago).  I spoke with him again recently, and asked about his daughter and her partner.  He smiled and told me they were expecting their first child (artificial insemination).  I asked him how he reconciled his daughter’s lifestyle with his Catholic faith.  ‘Well,’ he says, ‘the older I get, the more I see what really matters to me, and what doesn’t.  She’s happy, my wife’s happy (another grandchild), and somehow I can’t believe that God cares that much about who sleeps with whom.’

Each of these people had to make choices about their relationships with their kids based on their consistent following of particular theological and social principles, and each chose a different principle.  So consistent adherence to one’s principles, as circumstances in one’s life change, is difficult to sustain over time.

More later.  Thanks again for a great conversation.




Let me tell you about my scripture study experience.  Over the past several years, I’ve been involved in scripture study primarily with Roman Catholics, ages 40-80.  I’ve centered our studies around the three year cycle of lectionary readings, as these are familiar and available to almost every Catholic. 

Sessions begin with personal experiences; ‘how does this text resonate with you’ and the like.  The interpretation that is first and foremost for these people is rooted in their conventional traditions, and to a lesser degree, an interpretation of ‘timeless truth’ in the texts. They’re a lot like Ryan, but with a different conventional tradition.

I then present a narrative-historical-critical piece that pertains to the text, and let them respond.  ‘How does this piece of history change your understanding of the text’ and the like.  I find that they are extremely hungry for the narrative-historical-critical interpretation, but that they often can’t let go of very much of their conventional tradition interpretation when the two are in conflict.  I don’t force the issue; I articulate the conflict, and let them make up their own minds about what they are wrestling with.  Sometimes there is a reply in defense of their conventional interpretation, but often there is a sense of suspending judgment until more information comes in, or until the conflict is held in the mind a bit longer. 

I think all of us carry a mixture of these interpretations (narrative-historical-critical, conventional tradition, ‘timeless truth,’ and others) to the table when we study scripture.  Your mix is not my mix is not Ryan’s mix is not an 80-year-old staunch Catholic widow’s mix.  You and I are in the conversion business; we would like for Ryan to see great value in the narrative-historical-critical interpretation of scripture.  And that’s really what I hope for.  I don’t expect Ryan or my catholic scripture study partners to convert whole heartedly to a narrative-historical-critical way of thinking (although it has happened in scripture study); but I really, really, really want them to see value in it.  I want them to move from a centrist ‘my way is the only way’ understanding to a chauvinist ‘my way is the best way’ understanding, which acknowledges that other understandings of value exist.  In my experience, a centrist experiences true conversion in the face of physical, mental, or existential catastrophe, and I don’t wish that on any of my study partners.  A chauvinist, however, experiences conversion when someone shows them a better way than the one they current understand to be ‘the best,’ and in order to influence this type of conversion, I have to first move my study partners from a centrist to a chauvinist position.

Some of the people who hold to the narrative-historical-critical interpretation are chauvinists; their way is ‘the best,’ but they see value in other interpretations.  Others are converted centrists; they used to understand a conventional tradition interpretation as the ‘only way,’ but have been converted to a ‘narrative-historical-critical interpretation is the only way to interpret these texts’ position.  They’re still centrists, just about a different interpretation. 

If we really want to convert people like Ryan, we have to see and acknowledge and accept real value in their conventional tradition interpretations, and then present narrative-historical-critical interpretations to both affirm some of their understandings and challenge some of their understandings, in such a way that the narrative-historical-critical interpretation is not over-and-against their conventional tradition interpretation, but rather enriching and stimulating (and I consider both affirmation and challenge to be enriching and stimulating).  Then, if we present things well, the narrative-historical-critical interpretation that you and I feel is so important becomes valuable.


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