The Human Faces of God: peer reviewing the biblical authors

Review: The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It)
Author: Thom Stark
Wipf and Stock, 2010
Chapter 10: “Into the Looking Glass”

By this point in the book, and undoubtedly long before, what everyone’s asking is, “So what’s his solution?” How can we read this very human book with all its human flaws and still think of it in some way as scripture?

Much of this chapter retreads familiar territory in light of Stark’s answer. One might be surprised that they’ve already encountered his answer to that question several times throughout the book. The answer: by confronting the text head on. The earliest texts set the precedent when they argue with one another. Many of the chapters describe a changing understanding of God and His ways, and despite the claims of the canonicists, we cannot assume that we are the beneficiaries of an interpretive victory won long ago by those who had the most recent word on the subject, whether author, canon, or council: that would be similar to what Lewis referred to as “chronological snobbery”, the assumption that the later a belief, the better. Instead, we have to engage the text in a way analogous to the old classical model of the dialectic, i.e. not as an infallible rule or unaccountable master, but as one of our teachers who is occasionally presenting something incorrect. Stark has referred to this type of engagement with the text as a confrontational reading more than once before this chapter. Perhaps another way of thinking about it would be peer review, in which even those accounted as experts (the biblical authors in this case) occasionally have their consensus overturned by new data presented by new researchers.

The key insight from this chapter is laid out in the first section, which at last elucidates the somewhat ambiguous title of the book. Stark’s point is this: the Bible is a mirror. When we read the Bible, we are looking at humanity’s attempt to understand the divine. We cannot even hope to accurately see God’s face in the text until we stare those ancient human faces in the eye and make the intentional and painstaking effort of wiping the egg from our moustaches, washing the toothpaste off of our chins, and taking the beam out of our eyes. When we read the Bible, Stark argues, we are not looking at God, but at ourselves, in all our human shortcomings and failures, subject as we are to the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. It is not only Scripture for us insofar as it accurately speaks to us and convicts us of our shortcomings through its true teachings; no, we cannot fully claim it as our Scripture until we acknowledge our weaknesses, temptations, and unfavorable tendencies writ large within the text, indicting those human flaws in the justification for actions prescribed and described in the text and even in the very motivations for the writing/editing/compiling of the text. We can’t just learn from good examples and ignore the mistakes of our community, both historical and current, by covering up for them or cleverly explaining them away. For Stark, we can only ever hope to use the Bible effectively as Scripture if we consciously read it as a record of history that, when found wanting, we can then do our best to avoid repeating. Stark argues that God may indeed speak to us through the text, but often He does so in pointing out the pitfalls of human nature that produced the text.

The rest of this first section reexamines some of the material from previous chapters under a confrontational reading to show what sorts of insight might be gleaned. I will only focus on a couple of them.

Stark argues that the development of monotheism from polytheism evident in the Old Testament doesn’t mean we just uncritically declare monotheism as the winner. He points out certain harmful tendencies of monotheism that are often noted by anthropologists and sociologists, paraphrased as “if you cannot kill or enslave them, convert them” (p. 221). Indeed, in chapters 4 and 5 he already showed that monotheism in Israel developed amidst such mindsets. But we only notice that when we entertain the possibility that the Bible is not inerrant and is never unchallengeable.

Many conservative American Christians will find the specific “condemned texts” he selects and draws lessons from to be at odds with their politics. But it is such close identification of Christianity with that particular conservative stance that he thinks the text warns us about in cases like the sacrifice of innocents: “…we continue to offer our own children on the altar of homeland security, sending them off to die in ambiguous wars…” (p. 222). Still, no particular party or political ideology is immune from the charge of hero worship and propaganda that he takes to be the most valuable moral of the David and Goliath story.

Reading biblical propaganda such as the legend of David and Goliath at face value may have its rewards; it is certainly an inspirational story. But such a reading can also foster delusion. Moreover, such a reading is not as interesting or as relevant as a critical reading. It is the critical reading that prepares us to face the real world where the true giants are the centralized powers that mask themselves with the ruddy faces of shepherd boys and good ol’ boys. (p. 225)

This doesn’t undermine his main point here, but I daresay that if he thinks a critical reading is more interesting and more relevant, he hasn’t tried to teach the story to young children!

This is the chapter that picks up where he left off in chapter 8, “Jesus Was Wrong”. He spends several pages talking about the problems with the apocalyptic mindset that, as he argued in chapter 8, Jesus was functioning from within. Stark makes a lot of hay pointing out the shortcomings of a dualistic, “black and white” way of viewing the world (“You’re either for me or against me”). The dualism of God vs. the world is somewhat impotent to effect the changes it most wants to accomplish, because waiting for God to come sweeping down on a wire to fix everything stymies progress in the interim:

Time and again, the Christian commitment to justice has been undermined by the expectation of an imminent end. Generation after generation, those who suffer are told to wait it out; authentic justice is impossible this side of the eschaton, but there is hope to be had in the conviction that the end is nigh. Yet the end has never been nigh, and there is no reason to believe that it is nigh today. (p. 227)

Here he acknowledges something I anticipated in my review of chapter 8, that to say that someone thought in apocalyptic terms is not to say that the entire set of his ideas could be boiled down to and dismissed as “apocalyptic”. Stark suggests that if we could recover those aspects of his thinking that Richard Horsley identifies as going back to Mosaic covenantal sources (such as “mutuality and debt forgiveness”), we will find positives in Jesus’ teaching that have the most potential for those “searching for strategies of resistance to domination and for those communities who have voices in democratic societies” (p.229). Supporters of capitalism and personal economic liberty are likely to find it more difficult to let Jesus get that right than the apocalyptic worldview.

As an aside, this highlights a limitation in Stark’s presentation at points throughout this book, and especially here: if he is trying to convince inerrantists they’re wrong, either he needs to underplay the politics (I get the feeling he’s doing his best to do this and falling short) or allow room for fuller argumentation, which certainly seems impractical in this type of book. He seems to work from the impression that getting someone to abandon inerrancy will make the shackles of conservative politics fall off their wrists, which may indeed happen for many, but in the case mentioned above there is a (probably unavoidable) limitation in his argumentation that requires a prior sympathy for social justice in order to have much persuasive value.

But now those wanting to know how what value Jesus being wrong could possibly have had are presented with Stark’s answer:

The revolutionary impulse was right. The curse upon the existing world order was valid. The expression of hope in a new beginning was vital. The creation of counter-cultural communities which function as signs of this new beginning was not only noble but necessary in order for the revolution to be successful. But the waiting for a miracle to make it all happen–that was wrong…Their apocalyptic framework was most likely the best they could do given the limitations of their time, place, and political climate. But we live in a different world. We do not have to wait for the miracle. (p. 230)

This is the recurring type of lesson learned by the negative example recovered in a confrontational reading, and it’s the primary contribution of this book. Admitting there are errors is only the beginning. Stark counsels us in Shakespeare’s words to “gather honey from the weed”, appropriating what works and, vitally, leaving in what doesn’t to serve as an ever-living reminder. This is why the Marcionite charge won’t hold up against Stark and his reading. He rejects it as among the worst possible solutions because it is antithetical to the approach he advocates. There is no more powerful a reminder of the dangers of mowing grass barefooted than when I see my cousin’s feet with its missing toes; when he wears shoes, it’s all too easy to forget. Abandoning inerrancy is only half the battle: we can neither merely cut out the offending texts or acknowledge errors while focusing exclusively on the positive, inspirational messages in what’s left. We must confront the writers of Scripture and their respective communities, and by confronting them, confront ourselves and our own communities of belief.

The final part of this chapter is devoted to diagnosing and addressing objections to a rejection of inerrancy. Stark indicts the mindset that wants all or nothing and a final, infallible, unquestionable authority as “the mark of profound immaturity” (p. 233). This plays into his earlier remarks about the importance of developing as moral agents and inerrancy’s thwarting of this endeavor. “Our Scriptures are like our parents. As much as we disagree with them, we cannot escape the ways they have irrevocably shaped us; nor, in many cases, should we want to” (p. 234); but as we mature, we learn that we can build off of their foundation and learn from their mistakes, and so must we do with Scripture and Christian tradition based off of the readings handed down by our forebears. In this I am reminded of the reminiscence of Rachel Held Evans in Evolving in Monkeytown how the moment she realized her adulthood was when she was able to confront her father’s inadequate theological response to a searing question about suffering. In failing to have a good answer to his daughter’s question, her father did not fail as a father, but had at last succeeded: he had finally produced a woman. As Paul spoke of Torah, the Bible as a whole is a pedagogue that is only as successful as its ability to train us to acquire and apply our understanding beyond its tutelage.

As a parent of small children, I found that this leaves me wondering exactly how I should present the Bible to my children who are nowhere near the maturity level from which Stark wants us to read the Bible: as they get older I can educate them in the dangerous human tendencies on display in the Flood narrative, but I cannot simply wait until they are old enough to understand the nuances before they learn the story. Perhaps a crisis is necessary: perhaps they can take stories like that at face value and I can draw out the good values in them until they’re old enough to 1) face the truth that the story never happened, 2) realize there are some immoral ideas behind that conception of God, and 3) appreciate the lessons we can learn from those bad examples. But hey, Stark never said it would be easy.

The most likely objection to all of this I (and Stark) have been saying is that with this approach, and a rejection of inerrancy in general, we are left “picking and choosing” what is to be accepted and what is to be discarded. But as Stark argues in this chapter, the simple fact is that everybody chooses. Arminians, Calvinists, universalists–all Christian traditions presuming inerrancy choose which passages to read the others through, proposing new interpretations for (or burying) those passages which contradict their anchor doctrines. The other problem is that, even if the Bible were inerrant, no one has access to its infallibility. It is all filtered through our differing mindsets developed in our wildly different communities and cultural histories.

For Stark, being a Christian means using Jesus as our starting point, allowing his valuable teachings to guide us and to serve as both a launchpad and as a home base for our moral development. Living the Christian life is much more about developing workable ethics than defining rigid doctrines. It’s about accepting God’s call to implement his vision for humanity, a vision a church bound up in inerrancy has lost.

Who will get the most value from this book? From my perspective, it’s highly useful for readers like me, who are already convinced that the Bible is not inerrant but want something to do with the passages that cause problems for us. I have approached most of these posts with an inerrantist reader in mind, and when standing back and aggregating the concerns my posts anticipate on their behalf, I still find that it would be a good resource for the type of questioning believer most likely to want to read this book. For the dyed-in-the-wool inerrantists who most want to believe Stark is full of baloney…well, I’m sure he was never under any illusions about overcoming their doubts anyway. I advise commending this book to those in your circle of influence most likely to engage you on these topics, since a book like this is best read in community. In fact, the ideal scenario is for a small group study with plenty of interaction. The possibility of a future edition with study questions at the end of each chapter has been mentioned; I dearly hope that comes to fruition.

I’d like to warmly thank Thom Stark for this book. No, I am not convinced of every one of his particular critiques of the biblical authors nor of the universal applicability of all the principles by which he finds the various texts wanting, but neither does he expect me to be; that would be a replacement of one unappealable magisterium with another. Thom makes the important point that each individual and community must make the judgments as best they can in their circumstances. Regardless, I can confidently assert that for his main arguments, he has made his case.


For more discussion of this material and to hear Thom’s answers to some of my lingering questions, please note our interview with him on the [ad hoc] Christianity Podcast.

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  • Thanks, Steve, for this generously engaging review series. I’ve benefited tremendously from your criticisms and if I ever get to do a 2nd edition, it will be called the “Steve Douglas Edition.”

    Regarding “Everybody Chooses,” one thing I want to highlight that hasn’t gotten any mention yet in any of the reviews is the point I make that, although everybody chooses, it’s the inerrantists who are obliged to deny that they are making choices between texts. Because they are therefore blindly choosing, they are much more susceptible to making their choices arbitrarily or for poor reasons. Conversely, with a hermeneutic like mine, we are being open and honest about the fact that we are choosing, and that transparency obliges us to provide good reasons for the choices that we make. So even while conceding that everybody chooses, it is those who choose blindly who are more susceptible to the “subjectivity” that critics of criticism decry.

    • Confound it, Thom — that very thought ran through my head when I was writing this, and I see now it escaped being addressed. Yes, “transparency” was the word I was thinking of to describe your view: it’s not that the confrontational reader (unlike the inerrantist) somehow gets to skirt past interpretation and get to the source, it’s just that the confrontational reader is committed to “showing his work.”

  • And as for converting the died-in-the-wool inerrantists, if you’ll re-read the preface you’ll find that my only expectation for them was to offer them more fodder for best-selling, 125-page apologetics books. 🙂

    As stated, my intended audience was always those who are already finding the apologetics problematic but don’t know where to go beyond their instincts.

  • Yes, inerrantists decry the “liberals” for not interpreting Scripture strictly enough, but when faced with Scriptural “difficulties” “contradictions” etc., they don’t given themselves all the credit they deserve for being so darned ingenious at coming up with excuses for why all contradictions and difficulties are only “apparent.” Talk about being “ingenious” and “inventive!” Inerrantists are all of those things when it comes to their hypotheses as to how the Bible could “still be” inerrant. The real difficulty for inerrantism of course is that “apparent” contradictions are the worst kind, they remain for all to see in their inerrant book, nothing can ever make them dis-appear.

  • If as Stark says, “Jesus” is our starting point, how do you even get to that starting point if the story about Jesus is merely a collection of logia and miracle tales whose sources we remain ignorant of? We could start with Jesus as a “character” studied via rhetorical criticism, but even that leaves difficulties as the “Jesus” of each Gospel is different, even Paul’s “Jesus” is different from that in the Gospels. Even descriptions of “How to inherit eternal life” differ from the synoptics and John.

    • If it were really as difficult as all that, historians would have to just
      shrug their shoulders and dimiss whole swaths of ancient history. We go with
      our best understanding using the tools of historical studies and realize
      that, despite how differently the Gospels present Jesus, they can to
      differing degrees be derived from a core that Stark, Allison, Harland and
      several other biblical scholars find not so mystifying as you imply. The key
      is that none of it’s slam-dunk proof, but it’s enough for a “starting
      point”. 🙂

      • Steve, I didn’t say a word about Allison’s new book Constructing Jesus. But you seem more hopeful than he is when it comes to discovering THE one and only life of THE “historical” Jesus. Neither did I ever deny an historical Jesus existed, but looking at the earliest Gospel one cannot doubt that it was overlaid with OT constructs related to Elijah, Elisha, some Moses thrown in (more Moses throw in by the time Matthew is composed). Let’s hope that scholars will one day agree on the apocalyptic background and teachings of Jesus instead of each generation having to be dragged kicking and screaming back to noticing it from Reimarus and Voltaire to Strauss, Schweitzer, Allison and Ehrman. Even the meaning of parables contain debates. Probably were debated even by Gospel authors since Mark includes so few explanations and Matthew and Luke add their own interpretations. And consider that all the words of the historical Jesus as relayed in the Gospels merely fills a small 16 page booklet. I used to own such a booklet, All the Words of Jesus, way back in college. And neither are the Gospels much more than collections of sayings and stories, and next Jesus is here, saying this, and so forth. The passion story is the most developed in the bunch, and even then the words of Jesus differ from the cross per Gospel. I’d say the “starting point” doesn’t lead to what you may perceive to be an “ending point.” So really, how does one “start with Jesus,” which Jesus? What did Jesus really say about obtaining eternal life? Compare the synoptics with John and Paul.

        • I don’t recall ever saying anything about needing to find the authentic historical Jesus before we can “start with Jesus.” Jesuses are literary constructs. That’s all we have. And if you’re a Christian, that’s where you start. It’s that simple.

  • I suspect that the world is made up of stories. Stories involve our emotions and our intellect, and expand what we can learn in our own brief lifetimes, since they compress experiences and whole lifetimes of other people’s behaviors and thoughts down to the size of a novel . . . or a Gospel, which allows us to live and see life through several lifetimes of other people’s experiences, condensed versions to be sure, but still it awakens us to a far larger world. So, stories rule. There’s even an article on how our brains function largely based on understanding stories involving others and ourselves. I love stories. But is there only one story that must be taken seriously and influence us all, and is there only one kind of practical moral wisdom? There appear to be a multitude, not just one kind. And today in novels and movies people are mixing stories and matching them and mutating them. Just look at what’s happened to vampires, or zombie stories over the past decade. And how many Jesus’ do you think people have inside their heads based on the different movie versions, the different Gospels, even Kahlil Gibran’s Jesus, or Kazantzakis’s, or different theologian’s Jesus’s. How many different Christianianties as well?


    From silent Trappist monks and quiet Quakers — to hell raisers and serpent-handlers;

    From those who believe nearly everyone (excepting themselves and their church) will be damned — to those who believe everyone may eventually be saved (“Universalist” Christians);

    From those who argue that they are predestined to argue in favor of predestination — to those who argue for free will of their own free will;

    From those who argue God is a “Trinity”– to “Unitarian” Christians (which include not only the “Arian” churches of early Christianity, but also modern day Unitarian-Universalist churches, some modern day Messianic Jewish groups, some primitive Baptist groups, some “cults,” and all of Judaism, since God’s chosen people in the earliest “testament” where taught, “The Lord Your God is One God”);

    From those who “hear the Lord” telling them to run for president, seek diamonds and gold (via liaisons with bloody African dictators), or sell “Lake of Galilee” beauty products — to those who have visions of Mary, the saints, or experience bleeding stigmata;

    From those who believe the communion bread and wine remain just that — to those who believe the bread and wine are miraculously transformed into “invisible” flesh and blood (and can vouch for it with miraculous tales of communion wafers turning into human flesh and wine curdling into blood cells during Mass);

    From those who believed that priests who delivered communion should never have ever denied their faith in the past even under threat of persecution — to those who believed it did not matter whether or not priests forsook their faith when threatened with presecution (I am speaking of a major controversy in early Christianity between “Donatist” and “Catholic” Christiians, both of whom presumed they were the true church on the basis of the division cited above, a division that was never healed, and which ceased only after the North African region where most Donatist churches were located was overrun first by Vandals then later by Muslims.);

    From the many Christians that once taught (or teach today as Reconstructionist Christians do) that heretics and apostates ought to be executed — to Albigensian and Cathar Christians who outlawed violence and taught that the shedding of blood and the killing of any living thing, even the slaughtering of a chicken or ensnaring a squirrel, was a mortal sin (a belief they based on the spirituality and metaphors of Christ’s meekness and forgiveness in the Gospel of John). [See The YellowCross: The Story of the Last Cathars’ Rebellion Against the Inquisition 1290-1329 by René Weis];

    From Christians who believe in damning their enemies by calling down God’s wrath on them (as in certain imprecatory psalms) and who cite the verse, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” — to Amish Christians (among others) who believe in helping the families of those who have offended them. (Case in point, in 2006 a man entered an Amish schoolhouse, gunned down several young female students then shot himself. The Amish later asked what they could do to help the family of the shooter. They planned a horse-and-buggy caravan to visit Charles Carl Roberts’s family with offers of food and condolences.);

    From Christians who view Eastern religious ideas and practices as “Satanic”– to Christian monks and priests who have gained insights into their own faith after dialoging with Buddhist monks and Hindu priests;

    From castrati (boys in Catholic choirs who underwent castration to retain their high voices) — to Protestant hymns and Gospel quartets–all the way to “Christian rap;”

    From Christians who reject any behavior that even mimics “what homosexuals do” (including a rejection of fellatio and cunnilingus between a husband and wife) — to Christians who accept committed, loving, homosexual relationships (including gay evangelical Church groups like the nationwide Metropolitan Baptist Church);

    From Catholic nuns and Amish women who dress to cover their bodies — to Christian nudists (viz., there was a sect known as the “Adamites,” not to mention modern day Christians in Florida with their own nude Christian churches, campgrounds and even an amusement park), and let’s not forget born-again strippers;

    From those who believe that a husband and wife can have sex for pleasure — to those who believe that sex should be primarily for procreation — to those who believe celibacy is superior to marriage (i.e., Catholic priests, monks, nuns, and some Protestant groups like the Shakers who denied themselves sexual pleasure and only maintained their membership by adopting abandoned children until the last Shaker finally died out in the late 1900s)–all the way to those who cut off their genitals for the kingdom of God (the Skoptze, a Russian Christian sect);

    From those who believe sending out missionaries to persuade others to become Christians is essential — to the Anti-Mission Baptists who believe that sending out missionaries and trying to persuade others constitutes a lack of faith and the sin of pride, and that the founding of “extra-congregational missionary organizations” is not Biblical;

    From those who believe that the King James Bible is the only inspired translation — to those who believe that no translation is totally inspired, only the original “autographs” were perfect — to those who believe that “perfection” only lay in the “spirit” that inspired the writing of the Bible’s books, not in the “letter” of the books themselves;

    From those who believe Easter should be celebrated on one date (Roman Catholics) — to those who believe Easter should be celebrated on another date (Eastern Orthodox). And, from those who believe that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (Roman Catholics) — to those who believe it proceeds from the Father alone (Eastern Orthodox view as taught by the early Church Fathers). Those disagreements, as well as others, sparked the greatest schism of church history (the Schism of 1054) when the uncompromising patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, and the envoys of the uncompromising Pope Leo IX, excommunicated each other;

    From those who worship God on Sunday — to those who worship God on Saturday (Saturday being the Hebrew “sabbath” that God said to “keep holy” according to one of the Ten Commandments) — all the way to those who believe their daily walk with God and love of their fellow man is more important than church attendance;

    From those who stress “God’s commands” — to those who stress “God’s love;”

    From those who believe that you need only accept Jesus as your “personal savior” to be saved — to those who believe you must accept Jesus as both savior and “Lord” of your life in order to be saved. (Two major Evangelical Christian seminaries debated this question in the 1970s, and still disagree);

    From those who teach that being “baptized with water as an adult believer” is an essential sign of salvation — to those who deny it is;

    From those who believe that unbaptized infants who die go straight to hell — to those who deny the (once popular) church doctrine known as “infant damnation.”

    From those who teach that “baptism in the Holy Spirit” along with “speaking in tongues” are important signs of salvation — to those who deny they are (some of whom see mental and Satanic delusions in modern day “Spirit baptism” and “tongue-speaking”);

    From those who believe that avoiding alcohol, smoking, gambling, dancing, contemporary Christian music, movies, television, long hair (on men), etc., are all important signs of being saved — to those who believe you need only trust in Jesus as your personal savior to be saved;

    From Christians who disagree whether the age of the cosmos should be measured in billions or only thousands of year — whether God pops new creatures into existence or subtly alters old ones — even some who disagree whether the earth goes round the sun or vice versa;

    From pro-slavery Christians (there are some today who still remind us that the Bible never said slavery was a “sin”) — to anti-slavery Christians;

    From Christians who defend the Biblical idea of having a king (and who oppose democracy as “the meanest and worst of all forms of government” to quote John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, with whom some Popes agreed, as well as some of today’s Protestant Reconstructionist Christians)–to Christians who oppose kingships and support democracies;

    From “social Gospel” Christians — to “uncompromised Gospel” Christians;

    From Christians who do not believe in sticking their noses in politics — to coup d’etat Christians;

    From “stop the bomb” Christians — to “drop the bomb” Christians;

    From Christians who strongly suspect that the world will end tomorrow — to those who are equally certain it won’t.

    All in all, Christianity gives Hinduism with its infinite variety of sects and practices a run for its money.

  • You wrote, “For Stark, being a Christian means using Jesus as our starting point, allowing his valuable teachings to guide us and to serve as both a launchpad and as a home base for our moral development.”

    If Jesus is His starting point, why is Stark’s view of the reliability of the Scriptures so different from that of Jesus?

    • Because Jesus isn’t my ending point. It’s in the book. 🙂

      • Thom, if Jesus isn’t your ending point, your book holds no attraction for me.

        Moreover, I find it hard to conceive of a journey that truly began with Jesus and ended with anyone else. There is none to compare to Him.

        • Thom

          That’s called reasoning from the conclusion to the premise, Mike. It’s precisely because I began with Jesus that I realized I can’t end with him. But I didn’t design my position to be attractive to you. It’s my position because it’s where the text led me. I don’t necessarily like it much either.

          • Thom,

            “That’s called reasoning from the conclusion to the premise, Mike.”

            You’re inferring something I have not implied. I don’t believe in reasoning in that manner.

            “It’s precisely because I began with Jesus that I realized I can’t end with him.

            Your logic is not apparent to me, but I assume you have reasons. However, and as I said, I cannot imagine truly starting with Jesus and ending anywhere else.

            “But I didn’t design my position to be attractive to you.”

            I wasn’t suggesting that you did or that you should have. I was only explaining why I would rush to read your book.

            “It’s my position because it’s where the text led me.”

            This is what I find most mystifying – because I began reading the Bible as an agnostic in my late 20’s and it was the text that led me to Jesus. You’re saying the text led you away from Him. Obviously, there are other factors at work.

            “I don’t necessarily like it much either.”

            This is the most encouraging thing I’ve heard you say. Not that it encourages me about Jesus, but that it encourages me about you.

          • “Thom, if Jesus isn’t your ending point, your book holds no attraction for me.”

            You don’t like my conclusion, so you choose not to engage the argument that led me there. It’s your choice, of course. But a poor one in my opinion.

            “However, and as I said, I cannot imagine truly starting with Jesus and ending anywhere else.”

            Probably because you haven’t read my argument. If you’d read it, then you could imagine it.

            “This is what I find most mystifying – because I began reading the Bible as an agnostic in my late 20’s and it was the text that led me to Jesus. You’re saying the text led you away from Him. Obviously, there are other factors at work.”

            Not obviously. Clearly one of us has a deficient reading of the text.

            But I never said that the text “led me away” from Jesus. What I’ve said consistently is that I champion a critical appropriation of Jesus. That implies a continuing engagement with him. If you’ll give the book a read, you’ll see that what I mean by starting but not necessarily ending with Jesus isn’t what you’re taking it to mean. I haven’t rejected Jesus; I’m critical of aspects of his thought. And as I spell out in the book, in some cases, we start with Jesus and end with Jesus. In other cases, we start with Jesus and, building on his best insights, move beyond. I never said we don’t end with Jesus ever. Just that we don’t necessarily end with Jesus. I take it on a case by case basis.

          • Tell you what, Thom: I’ll read your book if you read mine. What do you say?

          • Not trying to get you to read my book, Mike; just explaining that your concerns show you haven’t. What’s your book called?

          • The Biblical Case for Everyone Going to Heaven. It’s accessible online for free at

          • Very cool. I’ll check it out. Thanks!

          • Thom, I do not have ready access to your book but I have spent most of this afternoon reviewing as much of your material as I could find online – which is quite a bit. I’ve left comments in various places, which you may find.

            I think the most profound disconnect I feel with you is when you say you “start with Jesus” or that “Jesus is your starting point.” I think you are sincere when you say this but the words have a totally different meaning for me. When I say that I start with Jesus, I mean that I want to know and understand His attitude toward the Scriptures…and adopt it. I have not found that to be the case with your book. Rather, your first and foundational chapter is the Documentary Hypothesis – or, more broadly, the historical-critical method. This does not represent Jesus’ attitude, so I can’t accept your assertion that you’ve started with Him.

            I have found ideas in your work that are helpful, particularly your appreciation for Second Temple Judaism and the importance of this mindset for appreciating the meaning of NT texts. Nonetheless, I can’t help feeling a great distance with you – not least when you insist that the text has led you to your position. That same text leads me most of all not to fundamentalism and not to liberalism but to Jesus.

          • Mike,

            Until you read the book, you’re just not going to understand what I actually think. But like I already said to you on another thread here, I am dubious that reading my book is going to benefit you much, so I have no expectations. The only expectation I do have is that if you want to engage what I actually think, you’ll need to do the work necessary to properly understand my position by engaging the full extent of my argumentation. But like I said, I’m not sure how much fruit that would bear in this case, so no hard feelings if you don’t.

            All the best!

          • Thom, it appears from some of the links I’ve seen that you’ve removed the blog posts which originally comprised the core of what became the book – is this true?

          • Yes. Publishers don’t like it when you give away their books for free.

            Out of curiosity, what links have you seen still linking to the original blog posts?

          • Thom, I’m saddened that you seem more interested in promoting your book than in disseminating truth.

          • Mike,

            It isn’t my call to make. But that’s the second time this morning you’ve suggested I have a moral deficiency. Thus endeth my engagement with you.

          • Thom, I was careful to say “seem” so as to give you the opportunity to correct any misimpression. I’m disappointed that you didn’t.

          • I’m sorry, Mike – but he manifestly did not come off as someone who wanted
            you to buy a book, but to read it before making proclamations about his
            methodology or conclusions. They are much too nuanced and developed to do
            them justice in blog comments, and so naturally you’d have to encounter his
            arguments in a place where he had a full chance at explication. Please do
            try to extend a bit more Christian charity, since Jesus is your end point!

  • Paul

    I love this book, but I just can’t reach the same conclusion. Thom is right that the data indicates that the “bible” represents man’s image to understand God. And I used to believe that there was some big picture god behind all that who was more concerned about our hearts and attitudes than right doctrine.

    But in the end that doesn’t make sense. As I said, the data indicates that people create a god based on their culture and knowledge. God changed over the bible books because people changed. The God character did things that were acceptable to people 3000 years ago but horrifying if put into practice today. To say that the writers were wrongly attributing their acts to the wishes of God is obvious. However, why then would we retain some “belief” in this god who allows himself to be slandered? Maybe there is a god, and maybe there isn’t. But if there is, what reason is there to think he/she/it has anything to do with Jesus or whatever is written in the bible?

    I’ve said this before: Thom did a good job burning the house down, but then he wants to convince us that the burned-out shell remains a good place to live. I don’t think so.

    • Paul, I don’t think you’re quite getting my position, but I’m not a proselytizer, so that’s OK.

    • Sorry, Paul – I meant to respond before.

      I’m not big on proselytism either, but I will say that although there are no reasons to believe that are worthy of being called “proof”, they are, taken together, enough to give me a hope worth acting on (this is akin to how Thom defines faith).

      If you don’t have other reasons for believing than whatever proof the Bible can afford us, you’re certainly likely enough to find the whole thing unconvincing in the absence of an inerrant Bible. I do find it significant that the God I found worthy of worship and the faith I found valuable and fulfilling to exercise before giving up an inerrant Bible were distilled from the Bible from of old even with all its flaws, and I still find those things there: the importance of love, self-sacrifice, and the promotion of justice, mercy, and humility. For me, the Christian ethic works, especially when supposing there is a higher reason for its existence, and so I find little enough reason to discount it all as hooey. 🙂

      You’re right that it’s not worth living in a shell, nor, I would return, even in an unburned house of self-satisfied assurance: that’s what the inerrantist insists upon. But for me this whole thing has been about learning not to “live in” the Bible at all, but to live in God [cue the Van Morrison song here]. This still makes the most sense of my experience of the world and inspires me.

      This isn’t to say that your assessment of the chapter wasn’t valid, but to describe where mine came from.

      • Yes, both responses are valid. Mine’s closer to Steve’s.

  • (Given that the margin became so thin, and therefore difficult to read, on my response to Thom above, I thought I should repeat it here.)

    Thom, I was careful to say “seem” so as to give you the opportunity to correct any misimpression. I’m disappointed that you didn’t

  • Steve,

    I am all for granting charity in Jesus’ name. Jesus is indeed worthy that we should always do so.

    However, I have not been uncharitable to Thom. On the contrary, I have given hours to understanding his views (including listening to the hour-long interview with him you have posted at “ad hoc Christianity”). Morever, he himself professes that his book does not bring any new academic arguments to the subject but merely gives the person in the pew a way of dealing with accepted historical-critical consensus. For example, in his preface he says, “In fact, very little of what I have said within the pages that follow will be particularly new to those who are trained in biblical studies.” Why then does he insist that only a person who has read his complete book can understand his arguments? Therefore, I’m surprised at his requirement that one read his book before being able to understand and challenge any of his ideas.

    I would be more agreeable to reading Thom’s book before challenging his ideas if I didn’t see him categorizing and rejecting other author’s ideas without reading their books (my own ideas and books being a case in point).

    I have been charitable to Thom and will continue to do so on this site and others where I have interacted with him or his material. However, I will not be silent while he attacks – whether intentionally or unintentionally – faith in the word of God.

    • He read your book. And you don’t know which not-new academic
      material he repackages and submits in his book. Surely you’re not claiming
      to have encountered and refuted it all before so that his specific curation
      is already ignorable? 🙂

      I’m hoping you didn’t mean “faith in the word of God” like it sounded. I
      would hope your faith had found a better resting place than that!

  • Steve,

    “He read your book.”

    That’s news to me! Which one? How are you able to know that and I am not? Why does his critque of my argument view my argument as identical to the preterist argument when it is not? (You don’t have to answer all these questions; I’m just trying to convey my amazement at your statement.)

    As for the next two sentences in your first paragraph, are you claiming that I have to understand ALL of his arguments before I can challenge ANY of them?

    As for your second paragraph, could you unpack that for me? Your point is not clear. (For the sake of the clarity of my statement, I am challenging the thesis of his book, presuming his title and sub-title accurately reflect it.)

    • He said he read it in an earlier comment to you.

      I am saying that you cannot credibly challenge positions he argues in his book without engaging the arguments he painstakingly presented and documented for those positions. You don’t have to read the book to decide you’re not interested in hearing his arguments, but right now you’re coming across as though you were discounting his conclusions without feeling it necessary to engage them on their own terms.

      Our faith may only ever be in the living God, Mike. Even were the Bible completely and totally accurate in every point, we would be idolatrous and dare I say unbiblical to place our faith in it rather than the one to whom it points. It can only be “God’s word” inasmuch as it points to God and His ways; it is a dispute over that extent which separates you and Thom.

  • Steve, I’ll make this my last comment on this thread as it seems we’re going around in circles.

    As for Thom’s claim that he’s read my book I’ll await evidence in the form of a statement or question from him that reveals an understanding of its arguments. What’s the point of saying he’s read the book if he doesn’t engage its thesis, much less any of its sub-arguments? I took him to mean “I’ve looked at your book,” which, of course, is not the same thing as reading it.

    You have joined Thom in claiming that his arguments are too nuanced to address without having read his book, and yet you reject my argument by characterizing it in its least nuanced form. That is, you characterize me as suggesting that we put our faith in the Bible rather than in the One to whom the Bible points. I would never suggest such a thing. I understand why it’s not fair to ask Thom to respond to straw-man arguments – so why do you and he keep doing that to me? Your unwillingness to either acknowledge doing this or stop doing it makes this a good place to stop this thread.

    My fundamental contention with Thom remains the thesis of his book. That is, I say God has but one face, and it is the face of Christ (2 Cor 4:6). And while the Bible is surely the word of men, it is just as surely the word of God (1 Thess 2:13).

    God’s face has many expressions, but it is indeed one face.

    • This will be my last response, as well, on this topic.

      I asked you for clarification about what your faith was in: “I’m hoping you didn’t mean ‘faith in the word of God’ like it sounded.” Your response indicated no discomfort with my wording your position that way, so forgive me if I misread you.

      I’m afraid you show your lack of familiarity with the book’s thesis here again, Mike, but I will grant that the title itself can be slightly misleading if read literalistically. Thom agrees that God has only one face. He’s just convinced that when we see incorrect and, indeed, immoral things attributed to God, even if it’s written that way in the pages of Scripture, we’re not seeing God’s face after all but the faces of humans.

      We’ll talk again, I’m sure, Mike. But not on this topic. 🙂

    • Mike, I read your book on universalism when you asked me to, but I wasn’t aware you wanted me to write a review. I’m sorry you don’t believe me, but I have no interest in proving anything to you. I hadn’t read your book on the “second coming” because I didn’t know it existed until you began chastising me elsewhere for not having read it. Now I’ve read large portions of it, but still won’t be offering a review.

      All the best in your ventures.

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  • C Stern

    No one was bothered by Thom’s neglect of Kierkegaard?

  • C Stern,

    It was his neglect of Jesus, not of Kierkegaard or anyone else, that bothered me.

  • C Stern

    Fair enough, fair enough.
    I guess I was headed down a more circuitous route. But I stand corrected.

  • C Stern,

    I’m very encouraged to learn of your ultimate intended destination.

  • writer42

    I think we can accept Biblical criticism and still hold to innerrancy. I think the Bible is inspired but that it was also written by human hands. I believe that what God says underlies and works through what man says. So there are no ‘contradictions’ within scripture substantially speaking but there may be legends, variations, developments, duplicates etc. that we are tempted to label as contradictions but if we view them for what they are intended to be they do not truly contradict the mind behind the Bible which is God. Not to use a perfect analogy but there could be shortcomings in a school play because it is put on by children but everyone watching wouldn’t deny the hand of director in it, in fact they would congratulate them for their ability to work with children to put on a performance that is better than they should have been able to. Also, there is no problem with understanding how to approach and interpret scripture and decide what the canon is for Catholics. So maybe everyone should just be Catholic!