Beyond the Bible

Interesting post (plus I’m a sucker for Hay’s Moral Vision of the New Testament) – thoughts?


“Beyond the Bible”

Moving from Scripture to Faith & Practice
in Times of Controversy

I am a self-avowed “Evangelical” Christian. I certainly don’t think that this is the only way to be a Christian, and it’s clearly not the dominant approach to Christianity among my own “tribe,” the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), but it is the way that I am consciously and conscientiously a Christian. The late Donald Bloesch once suggested that to be an Evangelical is to “hold to a definite doctrine” as well as to “participate in a special kind of experience.”  And I find that to be a useful definition. I find that being an “Evangelical” Christian means that I believe certain things to be true and that I have a certain lived experience of those truths.

Central to my “Evangelical” experience…

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St. Athanasius on Salvation and Peace-Making

From On the Incarnation:

“Who, then, is it that has done this, or who is he that has united in peace those who hated each other, if not the beloved Son of the Father, the common Savior of all, Jesus Christ, who in his love submitted to all things for our salvation? For even from of old it had been prophesied concerning the peace ushered in by him, the scriptures saying, “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into sickles, and nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither will they learn any more to wage war” (Isa 2.4). And such a thing is not unbelievable, inasmuch as even now the barbarians who have an innate savagery of manners, while they still sacrifice to their idols, rage against one another and cannot bear to remain without a sword for a single hour, but when they hear the teaching of Christ they immediately turn to farming instead of war, and instead of arming their hands with swords stretch them out in prayer, and, in a word, instead of fighting amongst themselves, henceforth they arm themselves against the devil and the demons, subduing them with sobriety and virtue of soul. That is, on the one hand, the proof of the Savior’s divinity, that what human beings were unable to learn among idols, they have learned from him, and, one the other hand, no small refutation of the weakness and nothingness of the demons and idols. The demons, knowing their weakness, because of this formerly set human beings at war with each other, lest if they ceased from mutual strife, they should turn to battle against demons. Indeed, those who become disciples of Christ, instead of fighting against each other, stand arrayed against the demons by their lives and deeds of virtue, putting them to flight and mocking their prince, the devil, so that, in their youth they are temperate, in temptations they endure, in toils they persevere, when insulted they forbear, and deprivations they disregard, and, what is most wonderful is that they scorn even death and become martyrs for Christ.”

This is the kind of paragraph that is worth reading and praying over. 

A Cruciform Reading List

A Cruciform Reading List*

John Howard Yoder
– The Politics of Jesus
War of the Lamb: The Ethics of Nonviolence and Peacemaking
– Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution
– Nonviolence – A Brief History: The Warsaw Lectures
The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism
What Would You Do? (If a violent person threatened to harm a loved one)

Stanley Hauerwas
– The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics
– Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony
– War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity 

Walter Wink
Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way
– The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium
– Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament
– Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces That Determine Human Existence
– Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination

Ron Sider
– The Early Church on Killing: A Comprehensive Sourcebook on War, Abortion, and Capital Punishment
– Nonviolent Action: What Christian Ethics Demands but Most Christians Have Never Really Tried

Christ and Violence

J. Denny Weaver
– The Nonviolent God
– The Nonviolent Atonement

Michael Gorman
– Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross
– Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology
– Reading Revelation Responsibly – Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation

Church History
– Caesar and the Lamb: Early Christian Attitudes on War and Military Service, George Kalantzis

Old Testament Studies
– The Politics of Yahweh: John Howard Yoder, The Old Testament, and the People of God, John C. Nugent

New Testament Studies
– The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics, Richard B. Hays
– Sermon on the Mount, Scot McKnight
– Paul’s Non-Violent Gospel: The Theological Politics of Peace in Paul’s Life and Letters, Jeremy Gabrielson


– Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, Glen H. Stassen
– Atonement, Justice, and Peace: The Message of the Cross and the Mission of the Church, Darrin W. Snyder Belousek
– Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer
– What About Hitler?: Wrestling with Jesus’ Call to Nonviolence in an Evil World, Robert Brimlow
– The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith, Stuart Murray

Popular Level (Non-Academic) Texts
– Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence, Preston Sprinkle
– A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor’s Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace, Brian Zahnd

Secular Texts
– The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People, Jonathan Schell
– The Just War Myth: The Moral Illusions of War, Andrew Fiala 

* Note, I’ve categorized the list first by authors with more than one recommended text and then by topic. This reflects no particular order of chronology or personal preference.

How about you?
Have you read any of the books above?
Which are your favorites?
Are there any excellent non-violent texts I have left off of the list?

Thomas Aquinas on Euthyphro’s Dilemma

Here’s a question that I increasingly find to be foundational to a person’s overall theology:

Does God command a thing because it is good,
or is it good because God commands it?

[From Plato’s Euthyphro]

The question forces one to prioritize what comes first in God’s nature – his freedom (pure will and power) or his goodness (cruciform [self-sacrifical] love)?

The question becomes practical when it turns to questions of some of the “alleged” genocides commanded or committed by God in the Old Testament. Are we forced to say those mass killings were somehow “good and right” – even though it goes against our deepest moral instincts and seemingly the morality of the God revealed through Jesus Christ? If not – then how do we account for their presence in our inspired Scriptures?

In the Medieval Theological Period, the stance that continues to remain popular today was firmly established by Henry of Ghent, Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham. It’s sometimes called voluntarism or nominalism. David Bently Hart describes the rise and logic of voluntarism as such: “They placed an unprecedented emphasis on God’s sovereign will as being the first and highest and primary attribute in God… In such thought, God does not command that which is good, that which is good is good because God commands it. That is, his will is not obedient to his nature as God; his will does not follow from his divine goodness.”

While there are biblical proof-texts for both positions [1] Psalm 115:3, “Our God is in the heavens, he does all that he pleases.” 2] Hebrews 6:17-18, “… it is impossible for God to lie…” – I have long thought it was a grave mistake to place God’s unfettered will above his divine goodness. Roger Olsen has also noticed this trend among Evangelicals and sees it as alarming: A Much Neglected Basic Choice in TheologyWhile I have many reasons for thinking that the cruciform nature of the Trinity guides his will and actions, I came across a quote from Thomas Aquinas on the issue that was quite interesting to me:

It is commonly said that God is almighty. Yet it seems difficult to understand the reason for this, on account of the doubt about what is meant when it is said that “God can do ‘everything'” […] If it is said that God is omnipotent because he can do everything possible to his power, the understanding of omnipotence is circular, doing nothing more than saying that God is omnipotent because he can do everything that he can do. […]
To sin is to fall short of a perfect action. Hence to be able to sin is to be able to be deficient in relation to an action, which cannot be reconciled with omnipotence. It is because God is omnipresent that he cannot sin. […]
– Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 

Aquinas here turns the apparent contradiction of omnipotence and an inability to sin on its head by further defining omnipotence. For Aquinas, omnipotence implies doing everything perfectly – while sin is am imperfect action. Thus – for Aquinas, it is not a denial of God’s omnipotence to say that he cannot sin… it is precisely because God is omnipotent that he cannot sin.

What do you think about Aquinas’ logic?
Where do you fall on the basic issue? Can God do anything (even if it seem or be “evil” for us to do) or is God limited by his loving nature?

Cassiodorus on the Violence in Psalm 137

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare
down to its foundations!”
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!
– Psalm 137:7-9

Psalm 137 is one of the most violent Psalms in the famous Judeo-Christian prayer book. It’s a classic “problem text” for many Christians, as the prayer that the children of one’s enemy may have their head smashed upon rocks seems completely at odds with Jesus’ command to love one’s enemies.

How should Christians read this text?
Can a Christian legitimately pray this prayer about one’s own enemies?
How can we reconcile this text with Jesus’ teachings?

As explained in detail in Mark Sheridan’s Language For God in the Patristic Tradition: Wrestling with Biblical Anthropomorphisms (full review coming soon), the church fathers almost unanimously considered this text to be irreconcilable (on a literal sense) with the teachings of the New Testament. This led them to various interpretive strategies such as the use of allegorical interpretations.

Cassiodorus, in his commentary on this Psalm, quotes 1 Corinthians 10:11 and says that “we must interpret these events spiritually.” He goes on to say:

“They are still addressing the flesh, stating that the person who takes hold of his little ones, meaning his harmful vices, is blessed, because he has already made progress towards controlling them; for when we hold something we take it in our power, and it ceases to be free since it has begun to be enslaved by us…. We do will to analyze their phrase: Thy little ones, meaning sins of the flesh born of a wretched mother. While small they are easily grasped and effectively dashed against the heavenly Rock; but once they begin to mature and reach a most vigorous manhood, sterner struggle is commenced with them, and they are not easily overcome by our weakness.” (Cassiodorus, Explanation of the Psalms; ACW 53:364.)

Notice two things here:
– Cassiodorus agrees with the majority of early Christian interpreters (from both the Alexandrian and Antiochene schools) that a literal sense of the text (the wishing of children’s skulls to be crushed on rocks) is unfitting (“not worthy of” … a common interpretive move by the Church Fathers when encountering anthropomorphisms or violent/angry language) of God and Christians.
– Cassiodorus also agrees with many of the other church Fathers in his interpretation that the “small children” represent the beginning stages of growth of vices which must be put to death in the Christian life, including, ironically, the desire to see enemies punished and killed. (Other Church Fathers who have a similar interpretation: Origen, Eusebius, Hilary of Poitiers, Augustine, and John Cassian.)

What do you think about Cassiodorus’ interpretation?
How would you suggest Christians read Psalm 137’s violent prayer?