How to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: the question about the violence of God

Read time: 7 minutes

Brian McLaren asks, thirdly, ‘Is God Violent?’ We can eliminate the effects of the Greco-Roman distortion of the biblical narrative, we can read the Bible as a library rather than as a constitution, we can bring into the focus the stories of God as good creator, passionate liberator, and reconciling king, but we are still left with the fact that there are some much less palatable images of God to be found in scripture – ‘violent images, cruel images, un-Christlike images’ (98). We do not see anything as frightening as the Greco-Roman Theos-Zeus-Jupiter ‘god’, who sponsors religious totalitarianism and consigns the greater part of humanity to ‘eternal conscious torment’. But the problem is real enough.

The answer, McLaren argues, is to recognize that scripture presents us with an evolving and maturing understanding of God. This is apparent in five different areas: 1) in the development of an exclusive monotheism; 2) ethically in the shift from a preoccupation with ‘religious and ceremonial fidelity’ to a prophetic concern for social justice; 3) in the development from tribalism to universalism; 4) in changing perspectives on divine agency, from sporadic and exceptional intervention to a more balanced providential presence; and 5) in the development of the divine character, from violent and capricious to gentle and compassionate (100-102). The following statement is a little convoluted, but it summarizes the thesis quite well:

I am saying that human beings can’t do better than their very best at any given moment to communicate about God as they understand God, and that Scripture faithfully reveals the evolution of our ancestors’ best attempts to communicate their successive best understandings of God. As human capacity grows to conceive of a higher and wiser view of God, each new vision is faithfully preserved in Scripture like fossils in layers of sediment. (103, italics removed)

In other words, because scripture is a library and not a constitution, its record of Israel’s understanding of God is cumulative and untidy rather than systematically coherent. A more narratively constructed theology would obviously be able to accommodate this sort of theological development in a similar way. McLaren then adds a rather controversial corollary: if our understanding of God has evolved thus far, there is no reason to think that it will not continue to evolve. ‘To be a member of a faith community, in this understanding, is not to be a lucky member of the group that has finally arrived; it is to be in a cohort that is learning together’ (105).

It is also important to understand, McLaren argues, how the biblical stories of divine violence were, generally speaking, a significant improvement on other narratives being told in the Ancient Near East. For example, although today many people would think that a God who destroys the whole of humanity bar one lucky family in a global flood ought not to be counted worthy of honour, in the Gilgamesh Epic the flood is ordered ‘in part because human beings are too noisy, keeping the gods from getting a good night’s sleep’ (109). So at least in the biblical story it is ‘humanity’s inhumanity and injustice’ that provoke the catastrophe – there is a legitimate morality at work here.

The point is that while we may struggle to understand the God of the biblical narrative at this point, the story is a moral improvement on its predecessors. Jesus, of course, pushes the biblical concept of God even further. McLaren suggests, for example, that the stories of the healing of the daughter of a Canaanite woman and of the feeding of the four thousand (Matt. 15:21-39) are ‘perfectly poised to overturn the original encounter between Jews and Canaanites’ as it is told in Deuteronomy 7 (110-111).

McLaren appreciates the hazards involved with an evolutionary model of our understanding of God. The risks are not so great, in his veiw, that we should abandon our quest, particularly in view of the ethical abuses of the Bible that have been described so far; but we may avoid falling into serious error, nevertheless, by keeping three guiding principles in view as we plot the evolutionary trajectory. First, ‘we must align ourselves with the trajectory set for us by the Scriptures read in a narrative rather than constitutional way’; secondly, we orient ourselves towards a desired future, defined by the biblical prophets, beyond which, thirdly, we keep in sight the person of Jesus, who is ‘for us as Christians the ultimate Word of God’.

Now we have not only a rich sense of the biblical narrative in the past and a sense of a desired future, but also a profound sense of the character of God whose light shines through the whole story, from beginning to end, alpha to omega. In this way, God’s character is never revealed fully at any single point in the story, nor can it be contained simply in any list of propositions or adjectives derived from the stories of the past. Instead, we can only discern God’s character in a mature way from the vantage point of the end of the story, seen in the light of the story of Jesus. (114)

This argument is worth taking seriously – a narrative theology must grasp the inherent contingency of its theoretical conclusions. There is no reason in principle why scripture should not present us with an evolving understanding of God – closely linked, I would argue, with the political nature of the people’s existence in the world, as a nation threatened, bullied, pulled this way and that, by other more powerful nations with their seemingly more powerful gods. This seems hardly less true even today, though we are for the most part blissfully ignorant of the extent to which our conception of God has been shaped not only by the Greco-Roman argument, but also by modern Western philosophical traditions, and the complex experiences of (post-)imperialism.

There are all sorts of questions about the details. The argument about the progressive emergence of a universal ethical monotheism in scripture should be largely uncontroversial, but the relationship between ritual observance and social justice cannot be adequately represented by a linear evolutionary model. The conventional distinction between a brutal, vindictive Old Testament God and a kind, forgiving New Testament God who looks like a passivist Jesus is a massive over-simplification. The God who brings his people out of Egypt is no less compassionate than the God who sends his Son into the world to save sinners – whatever we mean by that exactly. The problem is that Israel repeatedly abused the grace of God. Conversely, the violence of God is not restricted to the Old Testament. Central to Jesus’ message is the warning to Israel that the nation faces destruction and that this destruction will be an expression of God’s anger against his irremediably disobedient people. When he says, ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the land. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword’ (Matt. 10:34, my translation), he is not speaking metaphorically. This is the Roman sword by which hundreds of thousands of Jews were to perish. Yes, Jesus embodies a self-giving non-violent response to both Jewish and Roman hostility, but this still belongs to a historically constrained narrative of divine judgment.

The problem is that if we stand back far enough to get a sense of the shape of the whole forest, the individual trees inevitably become indistinct. This will be a substantial challenge for the renewal of theology – can we maintain, with sufficient intellectual, pastoral and prophetic integrity, the necessary alternation and interaction between detailed interpretation and expansive re-imagination?

In the end, though, it seems to me that we arrive at oddly orthodox conclusions. If the evolutionary trajectory of our understanding of God is determined retrospectively by the prior biblical narratives and prospectively by the prophets’ visions of the future and by the person of Jesus as the ultimate revelation of the character of God, it seems to me that McLaren has actually given us a cautious – and remarkably biblical – framework for the further evolution of a Christian understanding of God.

peter wilkinson | Wed, 03/10/2010 - 13:42 | Permalink

I am saying that human beings can’t do better than their very best at any given moment to communicate about God as they understand God, and that Scripture faithfully reveals the evolution of our ancestors’ best attempts to communicate their successive best understandings of God. As human capacity grows to conceive of a higher and wiser view of God, each new vision is faithfully preserved in Scripture like fossils in layers of sediment. (103)

McLaren worries me when he uses words like ‘evolution’ in relation to an understanding of God. Doesn’t he realise that the word is loaded - especially as it has influenced a ‘history of religions’ paradigm - in which we have (supposedly) evolved from primitive stages of religion to the more advanced, just as we have (supposedly) evolved from primitive to more advanced stages of civilisation?

Likewise he uses the word ‘reveals’ (‘scripture reveals’ etc) to describe not a divine but human process of understanding, through which a more advanced view of God evolved. Confusing for anyone who has the slightest feeling for the word ‘reveals’ as it has been applied to God in the bible. ‘Progressive revelation’ is a fairly standard category for describing God’s self-presentation in the bible. To speak of a developing capacity of the human mind to comprehend God is at best only a half-truth, and at worst could be said to be very misleading without further clarification.

And is ‘fossils in layers of sediment’ really a good way of describing ‘each new vision’ of God in the Old Testament? If McLaren means what he says, it says a lot about his view of the Old Testament as a body of literature which can speak (or from his point of view, fail to speak) to us today.

Is McLaren in danger of imprecision in his use of terminology?

I’m sure he realizes the word ‘evolution’ is loaded and may well have used it for precisely that reason. You’re right about an imprecision of terminology – he is often accused of being evasive, and that may be part of the problem. My feeling is you have to look beyond his rhetoric, but of course it will be hard to agree about what we find there.

If to speak of the developing capacity of the human mind to comprehend God is getting on for a half truth, that is still rather important. To my way of thinking any account of revelation has to reckon with the human medium through which revelation occurs. How significant are the personalities of the prophets or the cultural and educational backgrounds of men like Matthew and Luke for the form that ‘revelation’ takes in their works? My understanding of God has ‘evolved’ over the years – would it be inappropriate to say that God has, therefore, been ‘revealed’ to me progressively, with some significant corrections along the way?

Plus, as I said, I suspect (no more than that) that we grossly underestimate the extent to which the Christian understanding of God has mutated since the New Testament was written. We do not read scripture the way the early church did – or the Byzantine church, or the Roman Catholic church, or the Protestant Reformers, or the Pietists… or the emerging church, and so on. Why then should we want to contradict the obvious historical assumption that the Biblical communities – in so far as they constituted the necessary social medium through which revelation was received and interpreted and expressed – developed in their understanding of their place in the cosmos and amongst the nations, of their relationship with God, of the workings of God? As McLaren points out, Job must to some extent qualify the outlook of Deuteronomy, Isaiah sees God differently to Exodus.

What is really at stake, theologically, in thinking that the biblical narrative presents us with a messy, complex, not entirely coherent, developing understanding of God? Human culture is always in a state of flux. Why shouldn’t that be true of the culture that wrote and gathered the ‘library’ (to use McLaren’s metaphor) of scripture?

It occurs to me that this all has to do largely with the problem of the texts in which God commands violent destruction of life. In the end, McLaren wants to find some way of dealing with what for many is a show-stopping contradiction between the God of the conquest and the God of Jesus. The problem is a real one. Is McLaren’s solution really any worse than others on offer?

He uses other metaphors than the fossils one – the cumulative process of learning and unlearning that is involved in the process of education, for example.

I still haven’t read ‘A new kind of Christianity’ - I think the title puts me off as much as what you have described about the content.

Trawling throught the archives of Open Source Theology, I came across the thread at from 2006, in which you seem to express similar sentiments to those above, and I make some furious objections - but not to you; rather to another contributor at the time.

There’s a problem, I think, in not giving enough credence to the place of revelation (of God, about himself, his purposes) within the biblical writings, just as there’s a problem in giving too much credence to the view that this was always clearly understood - or even (as in the thread) that religions are just human constructs, pure and simple.

I think there may be a middle ground between andrew and peter’s response to mclaren’s use of “evolutionary” language. It involves staying anchored to covenantal revelation.

God reveals himself differently through the principal covenants and at each juncture created by those covenants, he is (fairly) clear about what is involved in covenantal faithfulness. In this sense, there is a progression in what is revealed about God’s nature. However, it would be inaccurate to call it an evolutionary progression—implying subtle, inaccessible, practically indiscernible changes.

In the messiah, Yeshua, Jesus, and the “new covenant” that he inaugurates, there is a sense that there is an ultimate, final revelation of God’s nature. In this sense, the idea that there is more to understand has a limit to it. It is not that God will reveal more, it is that we see in a glass dimly — but we do see.

Comblin, in The Meaning of Mission: Jesus, Christians and the Wayfaring Church, explores the historical and cultural progression of Christianity and the development of our shared, corporate understanding of what mission is. Missiology as a discipline is increasingly aware of the reality that Christianity historically has adapted within every culture within which it has established itself. There is no one cultural expression that can claim to be definitive. 

It seems to me that the emerging church is another adaption, a post-Christendom adaption, that is taking place and will continue. The more we measure faithfulness to the covenant in terms of our missional faithfulness, rather than our doctrinal faithfulness, is the more at home we will be with that reality. That is an observation, by the way, not a value judgement!