The survival of chaos after the victory of God

Jon D. Levenson’s Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence is one of the most stimulating theology books I’ve read in a long time. I was expecting something different–a theodicy of sorts; but what I got instead was more interesting. Levenson argues that key passages in the Tanakh/Jewish Bible present creation not as “creation out of nothing,” but as God’s “mastery” of the forces of chaos. These forces continually threaten to reemerge and will not be fully vanquished until God’s final victory at the end of time; hence the “persistence of evil.”

While Levenson recognizes that creatio ex nihilo has become the more-or-less orthodox view in Judaism (as well as in Christianity and Islam), he demonstrates–rather convincingly–that the Bible contains an only partially submerged motif of “creation from chaos.” That is, YHWH creates by defeating those forces that threaten to undo the divinely constituted order, stability, and peace that characterize creation. This victory, however, is precarious or incomplete: violence, disorder, and suffering are all-too-familiar parts of our experience, suggesting “the survival of chaos after the victory of God.” Contrary to many other interpreters, Levenson sees affinities with as much as differences from other Near Eastern creation myths–such as the Babylonian–that posit a primordial battle out of which the world order emerged. Through analysis of key texts, including of course the beginning of Genesis but also several Psalms, Job, and others, Levenson reveals traces of the creation from chaos motif.

A key implication of this view is that evil and suffering are not the result of an inscrutable divine will, but rather of the incomplete, tentative, and agonistic nature of YHWH’s mastery of the forces of chaos, which continually resist his benevolent ordering. Peace, justice, and stability continually threaten to lapse back into the chaos out of which they were brought. This is vividly brought home for long stretches of Israel’s history, and the biblical traditions of lament and apocalyptic can be seen as a cry for God to finally bring about the decisive victory over the elements that threaten God’s good creation.

Importantly, the Bible also attests to the role human beings are to play in this victory. When Israel keeps the commandments of God–including its cultic and ritual obedience–it is expanding the area over which the divine will holds sway in the world. (In this regard, Levenson allows himself some shots at certain Christian theologies that minimize the importance of human action.) The completion of creation only comes when the forces of evil and chaos are vanquished both in external history and in the human heart.

Creation from chaos can seem a bit mythological, and Levenson generally avoids trying to cash it out in more rationalistic or metaphysical terms. Process theology is the most obvious candidate for a compatible philosophical account, but Levenson seems to prefer to let the tension between divine omnipotence and the “groaning” of creation stand. The point is that God’s sovereignty, or omnipotence, is not a static fact, but a true dramatic achievement:

The operative dichotomy, thus, is not that between limitation and omnipotence, but that which lies between omnipotence as a static attribute and omnipotence as a dramatic enactment: the absolute power of God realizing itself in achievement and relationship. What this biblical theology of dramatic omnipotence shares with the theology of the limited God is a frank recognition of God’s setbacks, in contrast to the classical theodicies with their exaggerated commitment to divine impassibility and their tendency to ascribe imperfection solely to human free will, the recalcitrance of matter, or the like. . . . But whereas the theology of the limited God provides exoneration of a sort for God’s failures (for, in Kantian terms, how can we say God ought to do what he cannot?), the theology of omnipotence as dramatic enactment allows people to fault God for the persistence of evil (including, on occasion, human evil) and to goad him into reactivating his primal omnipotence, which is never relinquished but often agonizingly, catastrophically dormant. One might call this latter position a theology of omnipotence in potentia, omnipotence recollected from the cosmogonic past and expected in the eschatological future but only affirmed in faith in the disordered present.

In any event, metaphysical speculation seems less important here than fidelity to experience. Faith in the God who is the source of all good can’t help but stand in tension with our manifest experience of evil and suffering. In this light, Levenson’s conclusion to his discussion of Job could (and probably does) double as a conclusion to the book as a whole:

Though the persistence of evil seems to undermine the magisterial claims of the creator-God, it is through submission to exactly those claims that the good order that is creation comes into being. Like all other faith, creation-faith carries with it enormous risk. Only as the enormity of the risk is acknowledged can the grandeur of the faith be appreciated.

Theodicy–in the sense of explaining why evil exists–is an inherently unsatisfying undertaking. Would you really be satisfied to learn that some tragedy that befell you or someone you loved was the inevitable outworking of the divine plan or the fundamental metaphysical principles of the universe? What Levenson’s biblical account evokes instead is a kind of holy impatience with evil and suffering and a faith–albeit one often sorely tested–in the One who laid the foundations of the world and who will “swallow up death for ever and . . . wipe away tears from all faces.”

Why early Christians confessed Jesus as divine

In his review of Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God, Luke Timothy Johnson readily concedes that neither the empty-tomb stories nor the accounts of Jesus’ appearing to the disciples after his crucifixion prove–or could prove–the Christian confession that Jesus is divine. Rather, Johnson says, this confession was rooted in the early Christians’ experience of being made “new creations” through the power of the Holy Spirit:

To close that gap [between the appearances and the confession of Jesus’ divinity] we must turn to a register of language in the New Testament’s earliest writings (the letters of Paul) that Ehrman’s historicist blinders do not allow him to consider. Paul speaks of the “new creation” as a reality that is experienced, not by a few visionaries, but by all the members of his churches. This new creation is at work through the presence of a personal, transcendent, and transforming power called the Holy Spirit.

The Resurrection experience, in Paul’s letters, is not something that happened to Jesus alone. It is happening now to those who have been given this power through the one Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 15:45 as having become “life-giving spirit”—a statement oddly absent from Ehrman’s discussion of that chapter in First Corinthians. Similarly, Ehrman fails to consider 1 Corinthians 12:3, where Paul states emphatically that “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” The presence of the transforming power of the Spirit among believers is the basis for Paul’s remarkable language about the Holy Spirit “dwelling” in them (Rom 8:9) and their being “in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:2–3). In the same way, Paul speaks about Christ “dwelling” in his followers, and their being “in Christ ” (Rom 8:9–10).

In short, it was not the reports concerning an empty tomb or claims about post-mortem visions among a few of Jesus’ followers that caused the early Christians to recognize Jesus’ divinity. It was the shared experience of divine power—manifested in a variety of wonders and gifts and new capacities of existence—among those who had all “drunk the same spirit” and had become members of “Christ’s body” (1 Cor 12:12–27).

As Schleiermacher would say, the heart of Christian piety is the experience of redemption in Christ. This, not “proofs” derived from historical reconstructions, is the basis for Christian faith. As Johnson notes, both Christian apologists and their critics like Ehrman tend to argue on the positivist ground of historical criticism. “But the good news is not and never has been based in verifiable fact; from the beginning and still today, it is based in the experience of God’s power.”

What happens when we pray the Psalms?

According to Walter Brueggemann, in his essay “The Counter-World of the Psalms,”* the Psalms mediate to us a “counter-world” that subverts our “closely held world”–that is, the narrative or worldview we commonly live by.

What is this “closely held” world like? For Brueggemann, it is a picture of the world characterized by anxiety and scarcity, self-sufficiency, denial, amnesia, and normlessness. That is, we are anxious because we believe that we have to compete for a limited set of resources and cannot depend on others, who are our rivals and competitors for these resources. We deny that this is a dysfunctional way to live and we block out or forget the toll this way of living takes on human well-being. This all leads to a sense that “everything is permitted”–that there is no meaning to life other than what we individually and privately impose on it. This is essentially what Brueggemann elsewhere refers to as a “military consumerist mentality.”

But how do the Psalms counter this? In Brueggemann’s telling, the various types of Psalms (praise, lament, history, wisdom, etc.) counter the elements of our closely held world at every turn. By reciting, praying, and meditating on the Psalms, we are inducted into a world of trustful fidelity, abundance, ultimate dependence, abrasive truth telling, hope, lively remembering, and normed fidelity. In the Psalms, God is the trustworthy ground of existence who creates a world that, in Gandhi’s words, “provides enough to satisfy every man’s need but not for every man’s greed.” It is a world in which trust in God goes hand in hand with neighborly interdependence, we can tell the truth about ourselves and our own failings and even complain to God when things go awry, and in which we believe that God will act to bring about shalom. It is a world in which we remember God’s mighty acts of salvation as both the reason for hope in the future and the basis for fidelity to God’s revealed path to human flourishing (Torah).

At the center of the Psalms stands YHWH, the God of Israel–“a lively character, and an agent of firm resolve who brings transformative energy and empancipatory capacity to all our social transactions” (p. 27). The living God of the Psalms stands in stark contrast to the mute and lifeless idols of nationalism, capitalism, and mastery; of a “conservative scholasticism” that tries to encase the truth in a set of propositions; and of a progressivism that reduces the scope of divine action to the confines of a narrow Enlightenment rationalism.

The Psalms “witnesses to and makes available a God of agency who shatters the serene sedation of our closely held world” (p. 29). By “performing” the Psalms, our familiar world is broken open, and the alternative of abundance, trust, truthfulness, hope, memory, and fidelity comes alive. “It is the work of the Psalter to populate our world with the character of this God. Where this God governs, the world is transformed and transformable” (p. 35).

It’s often said that the Psalms provide an expression of every human experience or emotion. But on Brueggemann’s account, they are also tools of transformation–of refining that raw material of human experience with the truth of God’s self-revelation. This provides a strong reason for keeping the Psalms at the center of both public worship and private devotion, as has been the case in both Jewish and Christian traditions for centuries.

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*Found in his book From Whom No Secrets Are Hid: Introducing the Psalms.

Keep the Bible weird!

Peter Enns recounts a conversation he had with a Jewish colleague in graduate school about the story of Adam and Eve:

So my classmate and I were having lunch talking about this story and I mentioned casually the “fall” of humanity.

“The what?

“The fall of humanity. You know, Adam and Eve’s sin plunged all subsequent humanity into a state of alienation from God.”

“Never heard of it.”

“Really? That’s odd, since it’s so obvious.”

“No it’s not. The story nowhere says what you just said it says.”

“Well then what do you make of Satan tempting Eve with the forbidden fruit….”

“Who?”

“What do you mean ‘who?’”

“Satan? There’s no Satan in the story. There’s a serpent, just a serpent. He’s called the most ‘crafty’ of the creatures that God had put into the garden. He’s a serpent. A crafty creature. That’s what the text says.”

“But the serpent is talking.”

“Because it’s a story.”

It came as a bit of a shock to me that what I thought I “knew” the story of Adam and Eve was about wasn’t really “in” the story itself, but how I had been taught to interpret the story. The dominant Christian reading is rooted in the apostle Paul, in the book of Romans, where Paul seems to place at Adam’s feet (not Eve’s, curiously) the blame for human misery.

I was reading a Bible story book to my kids the other night and was struck by how much interpretation had been imported into its version of the Garden of Eden story. It included a full-blown quasi-Miltonian account of the serpent as Satan, the fallen angel who had rebelled against God. This isn’t exactly explicit in the original text, to put it mildly. This rubbed me the wrong way, because I felt like the Bible wasn’t being allowed to speak for itself, but was being overlaid with the “official” Christian interpretation.

Of course, it would be naive to suggest that you could have a story without some kind of interpretation. But the Bible’s stories can and have generated multiple meanings over the centuries, even within a broadly Christian framework. As Enns points out, the “fall into sin” is a particularly Western Christian understanding of that story–one that is absent from, or at least less emphasized in, Eastern Christianity.

I don’t have a good solution to this, but as I’ve been exposing my kids to the Bible, I’ve become more aware of the fact that many of the interpretations we take for granted are less than obvious. While I want my children to be inculcated with the Christian narrative, I don’t want to drill into them an overly pat understanding of the Bible. The Bible is often richer, weirder, and more interesting than our familiar theology leads us to think. Instead of thinking they have all the answers, I’d rather my kids experienced what Karl Barth called the “strange new world” within the Bible.

Evolution, Adam, Paul, and the Gospel

I’m not sure I was part of the target audience for Peter Enns’ book The Evolution of Adam, but I still got a lot out of it. Enns reviews the scholarship around the composition and authorship of the creation story, as well as its historical context, and argues that the Adam story (i.e., the version of the creation story found in Genesis 2 and the story of the fall in Genesis 3) simply isn’t trying to answer the question of human origins in the way that a scientific account would.

Rather, the creation story (and the OT more generally) is, Enns says, an exercise in Israelite national and theological self-definition in light of competing religions and a history of unfaithfulness, exile, and calamity. In particular, the Genesis creation story can be read as responding to the similar (though also very different) creation stories of the surrounding cultures (Egyptian, Babylonian, etc.), and enunciating the distinctive Israelite view of who God is.

Placing Genesis in its ancient Near Eastern setting strongly suggests that it was written as a self-defining document, as a means of declaring the distinctiveness of Israel’s own beliefs from those of the surrounding nations. In other words, Genesis is an argument, a polemic, declaring how Israel’s God is different from all the other gods, and therefore how Israel is different from all the other nations. (p. 6)

If this is right, Enns says, there is no inherent conflict between Genesis and evolution: the accounts are simply answering different questions.

Christians today misread Genesis when they try to engage it, even minimally, in the scientific arena. Rather, they must follow the trajectory of the postexilic Israelites and ask their own questions of self-definition as the people of God: In view of who and where we are, what do these ancient texts say to us about being the people of God today? (p. 33)

However, things are a bit different when we come to Paul. Enns notes that Adam doesn’t play much of a role in the rest of the OT, and there is certainly no developed theory of “original sin.” Moreover, later Jewish tradition creatively interpreted the Adam story in a variety of ways, many at variance with what became the standard Christian version.

But Paul does seem to think (as demonstrated most clearly in Romans) that Adam was the first human being, historically speaking, and that his disobedience has infected the rest of humanity. For Paul, Adam’s transgression is the cause of sin and death—the predicament from which we are delivered by God’s great act in Jesus. Thus, many have argued, Paul’s gospel only makes sense if there was a historical Adam and a historical fall.

But this is too quick. As Enns argues, Paul is working backwards from the death and resurrection of Jesus, not forward from a theory of original sin. Paul’s reading of the Adam story is not a “straight” reading, but a creative reinterpretation in light of the crucified and risen Messiah (as was much of his use of the OT). As Enns puts it:

In making his case, Paul does not begin with Adam and move to Christ. Rather, the reality of the risen Christ drives Paul to mine Scripture for ways of explicating the wholly unexpected in-breaking of the age to come in the crucifixion and resurrection of the Son of God. Adam, read as “the first human,” supports Paul’s argument about the universal plight and remedy of humanity, but it is not a necessary component for that argument. In other words, attributing the cause of universal sin and death to a historical Adam is not necessary for the gospel of Jesus Christ to be a fully historical solution to that problem. To put it positively, as Paul says, we all need the Savior to deliver us from sin and death. That core Christian truth, as I see it, is unaffected by this entire discussion. (p. 81)

I’ve tried to make a similar point before. I don’t think that when people responded to Jesus it was because they saw him as a  solution to “the Adam problem.” They experienced a concrete liberation from something that oppressed them: illness, possession, guilt, etc. This experience of liberation was not contingent on some prior theory about the origins of sin, suffering, and death. The Adam story can powerfully express the universal human predicament, but we needn’t take it as history to make sense of the Gospel.

Getting by without infallibility

An exaggerated or inaccurate view of Scripture is not a high view of Scripture, it is just a wrong view of Scripture. A high view of Scripture takes the Bible seriously, while also taking its historical context and the humanity of its authors seriously. A high view of Scripture is held by those who actually read Scripture, seek to understand why the human authors wrote what they did, and how they convey God’s timeless will for us today. A high view of Scripture includes not only reading the Bible, but seeking to live its timeless messages, which are discerned in the light of Jesus Christ, who is the definitive Word of God.

That’s from an interview with UMC mega-church pastor Adam Hamilton. (Yes, we mainliners have mega-churches too.)

It’s become a bit of a truism that any adequate Christian view of the Bible has to acknowledge both its human and divine character. What a lot of people worry about, though, is this: if you admit that the Bible contains some errors, even about peripheral matters, then how do you know it isn’t wrong about the major stuff?

The short answer, I think, is you don’t know. But underlying this worry is a questionable model of how God acts, and one which the Bible itself seems to contradict.

What do I mean? Well, people sometimes talk about the inspiration of the Bible in a way that suggests God overrode the freedom of the authors (and presumably editors and compilers) to ensure that not one jot or tittle of the text was wrong. Even though most proponents of such a theory would deny that’s what’s happening, it’s hard to see how “inerrancy” could work any other way. Human beings are finite, limited, prone to error, and sinful; for God to inspire them to write without error would seem to require, essentially, annulling their finitude.

But is this consistent with how the Bible itself presents the relationship between God and humans? Consider the apostles. They all responded to Jesus, who Christians confess is the incarnate Word of God. Presumably this response was elicited, at some level, by God’s Spirit (since Christians generally deny that someone can turn to God without the action of the Spirit). But this didn’t prevent the apostles from erring–sometimes grievously–about what Jesus was saying to them.

If Jesus himself didn’t (couldn’t?) compel an “inerrant” response from the apostles (not to mention from the religious leaders and Roman authorities), does this tell us something about how inspiration works? At the very least, it suggests that there are cases where God allows human beings to err, even though God would presumably prefer they make a different kind of response.

So, unless we have good reasons for thinking that the composition of the Bible occurred under the influence of an entirely different kind of inspiration, isn’t it reasonable to think that the biblical authors could also have been prone to error in what they wrote?

What becomes of faith then? It would be in trouble if we thought that faith is based on a prior belief in the inerrancy or infallibility of the Bible. But why should this be the case? And on what independent grounds could we come to the conclusion that the Bible is infallible in the first place?

What I believe, and what I think many other Christians believe, is that the Bible presents a broadly reliable portrait of Jesus and that the New Testament (along with the Old Testament) provides the authoritative context for interpreting the meaning of Jesus.

But I don’t believe this because of some prior theory about the Bible’s inspiration. I believe it based on my experience (and the experiences of others) as part of the Christian community. There’s an irreducible degree of circularity here, but it needn’t (I think) be of the vicious variety. We trust the Bible because our encounter with Jesus–in the pages of Scripture, in the sacraments, in prayer, in Christian community–has changed us. Yes, we could be wrong. But that’s an unavoidable risk for creatures such as us.

The biblical case for same-sex relationships isn’t new

It’s great that some theologically conservative evangelicals are making the “biblical” case against Christianity’s historic anti-gay position. There are certainly many people–and not just in evangelical churches–who feel in good faith that they can’t accept a revision of the traditional view without sacrificing their trust in the Bible or other bedrock convictions.

But at the same time, most of the arguments mentioned in the article linked above boil down to saying that

(1) what the biblical authors (especially Paul) condemned is not the same thing we are talking about when we discuss monogamous same-sex relationships and

(2) the Bible’s “moral logic” or its “underlying values” point toward an affirmation of loving, mutually enriching, stable relationships, whether they be opposite- or same-gender.

I happen to think this is basically correct, but it’s also what more liberal scholars have been arguing for decades. It’s understandable that evangelicals would want to make the case to their co-religionists in a cultural and theological idiom that they’re more likely to accept, but this isn’t a substantive departure from the “revisionist” case that has been made in mainline Protestant churches. Framing it that way reinforces the view that mainline scholars and leaders don’t take the Bible and Christian theological tradition seriously and have just capitulated to “the culture.” But in fact, the decisions of churches to embrace full equality for gays and lesbians have typically been informed by painstaking biblical scholarship. This scholarship has led to essentially the same conclusions that are now being used by evangelical revisionists. Obviously not everyone has been convinced, but that’s not because the case hasn’t been made until now.