Symposium Introduction

At one point near the end of Iain Provan’s Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why it Matters, Provan writes, “I hope. . . I have done a decent job of explaining biblical faith.” Such a modest statement belies an underlying sense of frustration concerning the necessity of such an explanation. Though the book acts mainly as a biblical theology driven by a narrative critical reading of Genesis, SDR also acts a response to a “thoroughgoing modern assault on the Old Story from all sides,” namely, proponents of the so-called “Axial Age,” “Dark Green Religion,” and “New Atheism.”

In his previous book, Convenient Myths: The Axial Age, Dark Green Religion, and the World that Never Was, Iain Provan soberly dismantles the idea that the key to solving our ecological crisis is to give up on monotheism and retrieve earlier myths that arose between the 8th and 3rd centuries BCE or in prehistoric primitivism, respectively. In Seriously Dangerous Religion, Provan includes other subjects of his frustration, namely, the “New Atheists” and really anyone else who ignorantly dismisses the Old Testament as a trustworthy guide to modern life, or worse, considers the Bible a dangerous tool promoting violence against people and the earth.

Seriously Dangerous Religionis a more constructive response to Christianity’s critics than Convenient Myths. Most chapters begin by posing broad philosophical question—”What is the World?” “Who is God?” “Who are Man and Woman?” etc.—which Provan answers through close readings of Genesis. Genesis, he explains, is the foundational story upon which we “can build a moral vision,” and though his book is primarily theological, the moral vision Provan details in his exegesis of Genesis makes up the heart of SDR—the “why it matters” from the title. “How am I to relate to God?” asks one chapter, followed by “how am I to relate to my neighbor?” (‘Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none’) “How am I to relate to the rest of creation?” (by “look[ing] after the earth on behalf of its owner”), and “Which society should I be helping to build?” (“biblical faith does not advocate passivity with respect to politics, but it does not advocate, either, a utopian approach”). These questions are all answered based on Provan’s exegesis of Genesis in the context of the Canon while directing the reader back to the earlier chapters that lay the theological foundation for his ethics.

One of the more unique aspects of SDR comes at the end of each of the chapters where Provan compares what the Old Testament says about the world, God, and our neighbors to other religions, including, but not limited to Ancient Near Eastern polytheism, Platonism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. Thus, SDR is no less than a biblical theology, a collection of detailed exegeses, a biblical ethics, and comparative religion, all packaged in the conceit of a response to the Bible’s critics.

Though Seriously Dangerous Religion ostensibly continues an ongoing conversation (argument, really) between Christianity and its cultured despisers using a multiplicity of tools to construct a sound argument, one cannot help but notice a sideways glance toward a large contingent of Christians themselves—those who hold the Bible in one hand while in the other hand degrade God’s creation, exploit the poor and weak by destroying the Sabbath, mistreat the foreigner, and more. The exegesis and interpretation, therefore, shows that the Bible is not what the New Atheists, Dark Green Religionists, and Axial Agers think it is, but nor is it what many of the Bible’s popularizers think it is, either.

As careful and reasonable Provan is in his writing, he still participates in an argument and argument invites response, even by those largely sympathetic to his positions. What follows is a dialogue between Christian scholars of the Old Testament and Theology and Provan, himself, regarding SDR. Ephraim Radner expresses concern that the very nature of apologetics is not dangerous enough to warrant the title of the book, despite Provan’s skills in undertaking the project, especially given the mysterious nature of suffering in the matrix of human life. Sara Koenig questions the assertions of truth underlying Provan’s argument and which he addresses directly in chapter 13. That is, is “what the Bible really says” really just “what Iain Provan prefers the Bible to say?” Douglas Earl expresses a similar concern regarding the certitude of Provan’s claims, arguing that SDR is more colored by Christian tradition than is let on in the description of his exegesis. In other words, SDR is not “what the Bible really says” but what Christian tradition says the Bible really says. Stephen Chapman expresses a related concern, but wishes Provan had engaged more explicitly with Christian tradition in his book. More importantly, Chapman is impressed by the breadth of Provan’s engagement with other religions and wonders how accurate are the descriptions of those religions’ beliefs. Lastly, Barnabas Asprey is concerned that Provan is repeating some of the mistakes of the biblical theology movement by offering a perspective, “detached from any reading tradition.” Provan has responded to each of these panelists and we invite the conversation to continue between them and you.


Ephraim Radner

Sara Koenig

Douglas Earl

Stephen Chapman

Barnabas Aspray

About the Author

Iain Provan is the Marshall Sheppard Professor of Biblical Studies at Regent College in Vancouver, BC.



Not Dangerous Enough

IAIN PROVAN HAS GIVEN us a tremendously exciting venture in Scriptural apologetics. As he explains his purpose in his introduction, Provan wants to present the biblical story in a way that can confute various alternative modern “stories,” ones that often misrepresent and misread the Scriptures. The “old story,” as he describes the Bible, has a compelling integrity in the face of the perennial questions of life that modern stories, despite their pretensions, fail to address adequately.

As Scriptural apologetics, the book is wonderful and unique. I can’t think of anything else quite like it, and with such broad and detailed scope. Christian apologetics pursues a winsome presentation of the truth, in the face of specific questions posed to the gospel. In this case, Provan addresses a range of central contemporary questions, through the lens of the biblical story: What is the world? Who is God? Who are man and woman? And several other key questions involving ethics and politics. In each case, he compares the Scriptural outlook on the matter with alternative stories—the pertinent claims of so-called “axial” religions, like Islam and Buddhism, or of contemporary versions of primitivist naturalism (“dark green religion”), or finally of scientific positivism.

There is always a theological risk inherent in apologetics: winsomeness gives in to the gravitational pull of the culture and its questions. The challenges posed, for example, by a culture of egalitarian justice might drive a Christian apologist to downplay the culturally difficult realities of embedded social or magisterial asymmetry bound up with Christian existence. Thus, a specifically Scriptural apologetics such as Provan provides should guard against this tendency. He engages the Scriptures deeply and concretely, focusing most fully on Genesis, before reaching out from its foundational chapters for confirmation in other Old Testament texts. At the end of the book, Provan establishes continuities of vision between these Old Testament contours to the biblical story and the New Testament (“Further Up and Further In”). The biblical story is robustly established as the vantage point here, to the point that some readers might worry about a loss of apologetic persuasiveness. After all, when Scripture becomes the only rhetorical instrument used in responding to cultural questions and to intellectual assault upon the gospel, the response itself often devolves into proof-texting. Provan’s carefully structured model, that progresses from thematic question to in-depth Scriptural discussion to narrative comparison, rightly attempts to avoid such a pitfall.

The result here is impressive, even as the method is laudable. Despite the critique that follows, I need to emphasize that I would happily put this book into the hands of an intelligent inquirer or Christian teacher and learner. I am not, however, sure how far the method succeeds, which is more a reflection on the project of Scriptural apologetics itself than on Provan’s skills. I will take one example only—though it is central to his argument—in order to follow this intuition out. In this particular case, my sense is that even a large bundle of Scripture such as he deploys cannot resist the cultural tide undermining its power, when that Scripture is made to function apologetically as an “answer” to a question, or as a “story” told to an inquirer, or as an argument made to a skeptical critic. The example I will use is Provan’s posing and answering of the question “Why do evil and suffering mark the world?”—a question that bleeds into the next one on his list: “What am I to do about evil and suffering?”

Provan wants us to read Genesis 2–3 as a story about suffering and evil, but not exactly as a thorough explanation of their reality. I think this is fair. Genesis doesn’t give us a theodicy in any systematic way. He works his way through the biblical text, with its serpent, temptation, choices, consequences, divine curse, and exclusion from the Garden. In all of this, Provan argues that we must place the story within a larger narrative of God’s goodness and creation’s instrumental context as a movement towards the fulfillment of God’s beneficent purpose. Whatever we may think of suffering and evil, they find their way towards divine resolution. This positive contextual construal is very important for Provan, because it allows him to propose certain concepts for evaluating evil through its proper categorization: some evil or suffering is, he says, “intrinsic” to creation; and some is “extrinsic” to its form. Intrinsic suffering is suffering that comes with the territory of being alive and living in the world the good God has created. “Sunk costs,” as it were. Such suffering is to be accepted and discounted. Without the fall and the divine curse, that is, childbirth would still have been “painful,” and farming would still have “hurt.” There is a good deal of pain and hurt that are simply a part of being alive; but since being alive is “good,” this kind of intrinsic suffering is not fundamentally problematic.

By contrast, “extrinsic” suffering, as Provan defines it, is that evil which derives from our own actions and wills. We impose it upon our created existences. Extrinsic evil is something we choose or that we are embroiled in because of the choices of others like us. So, for instance, the pains of childbirth referred to specifically in the curse of Genesis 3:16 go beyond the simple travails of delivery that are bound up with being alive; now they envelop family systems (Provan makes deft use of some word studies here). Farming, under the curse, will now no longer simply require hard work, but will be met with resistance from the earth, and will sometimes be accompanied by the environmentally horrendous consequences of human disorder.

When it comes to living in such a fallen world, Provan answers in terms of human character and of responsible and faithful behavior. Provan returns to the intrinsic/extrinsic suffering dichotomy for help here: the world as creation is not in fact “blighted” (Provan uses the term from Thomas Hardy only to reject it), because it is in fact still “good.” A lot of suffering is just what we must get through because we are alive. If the world is “fallen,” that is only to the extent that we experience the consequences of human choices—extrinsic evil. Hence, the proper human response to evil and suffering is continued, if often difficult, labor within the context of original goodness, as given in Genesis 1 and 2: the male-female order of family and community, and then the chosen practices of devotion to God within a context of sometimes existential resistance. In addition, our responses to extrinsic or moral evil must involve ways of making things better, within the limits of our capacities and contexts. In both cases, we need to engage practices like endurance, prayer, compassion and hope. Ultimately, Provan adheres to an “Irenaean” vision of divine pedagogy, as he tells us in an endnote (452n56): God is “in the business of ‘soul-making.’ Suffering, much of which (Irenaeus agrees) is indeed intrinsic to the way in which the good world works, is also necessary in pursuit of that goal, both in the present world and in the next. It teaches us knowledge and compassion, and it builds our character as we make good choices in the face of it.”

Provan admits that this isn’t how many in the Christian tradition have read Genesis. As in Athanasius’ perspective, the tradition has tended to view the fall in the Garden as the site of a spiraling descent into death and nothingness, which only the incarnation’s critical intrusion could reverse, like a knife thrust into a wicked heart. The Garden on the day of the fall was a place where horrendous events occurred through our first parents, rending from top to bottom the fabric of the world. For Provan, by contrast, evil is a decidedly human phenomenon. The natural world remains reassuringly normal, if sometimes unruly, but for our misdeeds. He is certainly right that the opening chapters of Genesis do not delineate, and to that degree do not concern themselves with the full scope of sin and evil that later Jews and Christians especially came to attribute to the narrative’s significance. But his reading is nonetheless inadequate, I think, to the fuller scope of Scripture’s own repeated struggle with the world that Genesis only briefly limns. Genesis may well found the rest of the Bible’s revelation of God and creation; but it is also only a prelude to a long and often agonized Scriptural description of that reality. This is why, in part, Genesis was rightly read figurally and allegorically within Jewish and Christian tradition: its words were saturated with deeper meanings in a self-evident fashion, just because the world is the way it is, and Scripture says what it does in all of its diverse ways.

Thus, Provan’s talk about “natural” evil disarmingly picks up on contemporary scientific claims—plate tectonics and the rest—that are both familiar to our own cultural store of knowledge, but that are also themselves untethered to the Scriptures. The latter have no interest in how continents shift upon the crust of the earth, or of seismic faults and unstable planetary liquids. Provan assures us that the earth’s “molten interior is essential to life on the planet, because it is responsible for the shield around the earth that protects it from radiation (which is itself a product of nuclear fusion, which is necessary to life)” (370). The Bible instead, when it comes to earthquakes and volcanoes, famine and disease, speaks of God who “looketh on the earth, and it trembleth” and who “toucheth the hills, and they smoke” (Ps 104:32); or who “makes peace and creates evil” (“weal and woe” in the RSV’s nice alliteration; Isa 45:7). Provan chooses to engage the challenge of natural or intrinsic suffering, with respect to God, by adopting a Leibnizean response—when it comes to the shape of natural existence, we live in “the best of all possible worlds.” This may be theologically compelling at the end of a powerful argument that grapples with the nature of being itself, in the manner of a Job-like logic. But here it savors more of the domesticated uncertainties of our era’s exhaustion with divine metaphysics.

Our culture doesn’t know how to talk about suffering or about evil in religious terms. The political philosopher Judith Shklar dated one of the “modern age[’s] many birthdays” to the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which, on a brilliant Sunday morning during mass, destroyed the city and tens of thousands of its inhabitants. “It was the last time,” she writes, “that the ways of God to man were the subject of general public debate and discussed by the finest minds of the day. It was the last significant outcry against divine injustice, which soon after became intellectually irrelevant. . . . From that day onward, the responsibility for our suffering rested entirely with us and on an uncaring natural environment, where it has remained” (Faces of Injustice [Yale, 1990], 51). While I hardly believe that Provan would embrace this modern shift, I worry that he has become too attuned to its settled inevitability as an apologetic given. The dichotomy between extrinsic and intrinsic evil is not only too easy, it is arguably unbiblical, and finally impossibly applied in any case. And once applied, much is obscured.

The Christian tradition, after all, rarely made the distinction itself, but struggled with whether it could be made at all. Is creation itself horribly out of whack? To what degree are the orbits of the planets, or the molten mantle of the earth’s undercurrents themselves the product of sin? How does one see the ordering of providence, given the various alternatives? These were all live questions for centuries. Indeed, it was only with the “modern birthday” of the eighteenth century that suffering itself was no longer cast in terms of objective evil, through and through. In one famous Leibnizian reflection on the Lisbon earthquake, Louis de Beausobre wondered why it was any worse to have thousands of people die all at once, as opposed to separately over the course of their still-limited lifespans. Suffering, after all, is simply what it is for each of us, whether in a heap or one at a time; it has no intrinsic moral weight. The same question still engages philosophers. But these are specifically modern attitudes, that have little historical or theological rootedness behind them.

Hence, I was indeed startled to see Provan dismiss the suffering of childbirth as itself “cursed.” After all, childbirth has been positively deadly, and not simply “painful,” for mother and child for all of human history until recently. Is such deadliness “intrinsic” or “extrinsic”? Just “the way of the world,” or bound to the radically evil reality of our situation? I am not suggesting that the answer is obvious; just the opposite. Job’s family losses hardly makes a mention here; the intensely lurid rites of purification after childbirth; the laws in Deuteronomy over still-births and dead mothers; the infant death of David and Bathsheba’s son, and its strange moral context—none of this seems to have any traction in Provan’s discussion. Something is missing here, whose loss the supposedly clean line between intrinsic and extrinsic suffering cannot contain.

By contrast, Provan moves his discussion of suffering into the New Testament in a striking way. In the face of evil and suffering, he underlines a human-centered response as the important aspect of the “story”—we are to live with faith, hope, endurance, compassion and prayer. Jesus, to be fair, is not simply a moral example in this, but is God himself, something that Provan stresses over and over. In Jesus, God becomes a servant, and in the New Testament that servanthood is displayed as utterly trustworthy. But the gift given in the fact of Jesus, Provan argues, is a newly powerful way for human beings to live through suffering and evil, a way that is similar to Jesus. And to this extent, the exemplarist payoff is finally the central one: in a world of suffering, what is important is how we navigate it faithfully, neither with a sense of fatalism nor of arrogant mastery. Hugely telling here is the almost complete absence of the cross.

But how can one offer a Scriptural apologetic without the cross? The question raged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries during the so-called Chinese Rites Controversy (early Jesuit missionaries in upper-class contexts deliberately avoided discussions of the Passion until after baptism, so repellent were they to educated Chinese sensibilities). Provan’s Genesis-platform and generally literal hermeneutic perhaps makes it difficult for him to identify the cross centrally within the Old Testament. This is worth another discussion. But even without touching on issues of Scriptural reference and canon we can see what happens when this hermeneutic is made to carry a significant doctrine of God. His approach is to move out from Genesis, and only from that direction, never backwards into Genesis. Not that one should appeal to the cross as a solution to the challenge of suffering and evil. But the cross was never presented as such in Scripture in any case. Rather, the cross stands in the New Testament as a strange opening to something that is always there in Law, Prophet, and Psalm, but that we cannot grasp morally outside of its revelation. Moving from New Testament to Old Testament, we discover the forms of that which disturbs us at all times: Judas, driven by an interior devil, can now figurally name the divine spirit who leads Ahab to his death with deceptive counsel . . . God hovering over all. A Leibnizian theodicy, Scripturally embraced, should drive us into directions that are inherently unsettling: if this is God’s “best” world, his most loving world, love itself, then God is much more mysterious than we had realized. Of course, the Old Testament itself works towards a new realization of God as much as does the New.

Provan’s story is one of American Christian realism: evil is real, and the human vocation is self-limiting and sober; yet evil is also a thing to be confidently wrestled with, so that our sober vocation is also a tremendously activist one as well. On this score, his treatment of the New Testament mirrors precisely his vision of the Old: the world is good but tough, people are often bad, and we are called to humbly persevere in resisting what is wrong, with God as our help and hope. It is a good Reformed approach, in all its modest Puritan ethos. But a huge part of Provan’s realist apology is to present a biblical case for an optimism about God. So that, what goes missing from the Puritan ethos are the strange apprehensions regarding realities like election, depravity, and the awful counsels of God. Who shall explain the suffering of the world except the crucified creator, whose giving of the world to itself is too wrenching a beauty for words? I much prefer Provan’s writing over Jüngel’s; but God as the Mystery of the World is by far the better title.

Precisely because “divine mystery” implies neither optimism nor pessimism, divine mystery is not an obvious apologetic claim. And on the other side, the quite apologetically winsome claim that the Bible is a “better story” than other contemporary stories is not quite Scriptural. It is true, as Provan compares the Bible’s discussions of good and evil, creation and human personhood, creatures and compassion—it is true that, compared to the conceptual orders of other major religions and of today’s primitive naturalism and scientism, the Bible comes off as richer and more compelling. But the Bible is not a story. It is filled with stories, to be sure. As a category, however, the Bible is a Word, in the person of God, which comes in many rhetorical forms. Taken as a whole, it is the divinely communicated “this is the case” of reality. Something is the case in the world, the Scriptures disclose, and it is the case so deeply as to defy our ability to offer alternatives. Impossibilities are rarely winsome. When we encounter them, we accept them only through a kind of conversion.

I am wondering, then, if Scriptural apologetics can ever really work. If it is Scriptural, it will upturn us; if it is apologetic, it will feed our dulled desires. The two aspects lie in an almost violent embrace. For what is the case is only one thing: God as we encounter God in this world that is entirely God’s. Yet the fact that this is the case, means that what is the case is so powerful as to rend our rebellions themselves. We cannot reason ourselves into the truth; we can only be shaped, made, broken, and remade by it. Gentle persuasion? Or rather what is frightening and astonishing.

I am deliberately exaggerating here, but just a little. Provan turns to his own title at the end of his volume, and explains that “biblical faith is dangerous only in the sense of promoting the good” (380). I am certainly persuaded by the “good” that Provan outlines in the course of the book. But that is because I can grasp this good through something that unseats all my goodness itself; and because he creates goodness itself; and because he creates that which is and in the face of whom all that is is shown to be nothing but what his grace has given it to be. I am persuaded of the good because I am “dominated” by it—dominus, Lord, from which comes the English word “danger.”

As I said, Provan has written a wonderful book. But in the end, Seriously Dangerous Religion is still not dangerous enough.

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    Iain Provan


    Not Dangerous Enough? A Response to Ephraim Radner

    I am honoured that these five colleagues should have taken time to engage with my new book Seriously Dangerous Religion with such seriousness and attentiveness, and I am glad for the opportunity to enter into a discussion with them about its contents. I am also delighted with the tone of the conversation so far, and I hope that we can maintain this throughout our engagement with each other, even though we shall be writing to each other rather than speaking face to face, which always creates certain problems. I apologize in advance for any infelicities of speech that may cause irritation or offence—I hope that all participants may be assured that it is not my intention to cause such, but only to respond just as seriously to their reviews as they have sought to respond to my book in the first place.

    I was unsure how to order my responses, so I decided that I would simply take the essays in reverse order, alphabetically—and therefore, Radner, Koenig, Earl, Chapman, and Asprey.

    Not Dangerous Enough? A Response to Ephraim Radner

    First of all, I am grateful for Ephraim’s enthusiasm for the book! I have been living with this ambitious project for a number of years, and it is close to my heart. I have been, therefore, more than usually nervous about the kind of reception it was going to receive from academic colleagues, given the various prevailing moods in biblical studies. As Ephraim deduces, the strategy I adopted in writing it was carefully chosen, after much thought. I was aiming at reasonably “cool” communication for the most part—a descriptive rather than an overtly argumentative style, as a result of which I hoped at least to clarify what our biblical story has to say about important human questions, for those who may not have engaged much with that story for themselves. Only in the closing chapters does the book become more overtly argumentative, by which time I hope that I have bought “credit” with the reader that allows this argument to be heard. The “intelligent inquirer or Christian teacher and learner” represent precisely my intended audience, so I am delighted that Ephraim would put the book into such people’s hands.

    As to the substance of his critique, I take it to center on a concern, generally, that “the project of scriptural apologetics” is problematic, because it must always dull the edge of Scripture in seeking to make reasonable connections between the world as we find ourselves embroiled in it, on the one hand, and God’s address to the world, on the other. And then, specifically, he thinks that as a matter of fact I have myself allowed this “dulling” to occur, at least in my “Irenaean” treatment of evil and suffering: “Even a large bundle of Scripture such as [Provan] deploys [here] cannot resist the cultural tide undermining its power, when that Scripture is made to function apologetically as an ‘answer’ to a question, or as a ‘story’ told to an inquirer, or as an argument made to a skeptical critic.” My reading of these themes he finds “inadequate . . . to the fuller scope of Scripture’s own repeated struggle with the world that Genesis only briefly limns,” and the distinction that lies at the heart of my argument (between extrinsic and intrinsic evil) is “not only too easy, it is arguably unbiblical, and finally impossibly applied in any case.” The consequence is that “in the end, Seriously Dangerous Religion is still not dangerous enough.” Interestingly, Peter Leithart said almost exactly the same thing about the book in First Things: “At many points Provan tilts his explanation of X ever-so-slightly toward the prevailing outlook of contemporary culture,” such that the distinctive voice of Scripture on those points is not fully heard.

    As to whether the general project is essentially problematic—perhaps it is! And yet Christians all through the ages have engaged in it, evidently firmly believing that scriptural truth ought to cohere with other kinds of truth and that there is merit in trying to show that this is in fact the case. “We cannot reason ourselves into the truth”—of course, that is true. Yet the truth that Scripture proclaims is truth about the real world in which we live, and we are surely obliged to try to work out what this means, not least when it comes to what we modern people call “scientific truth.” Origen and Augustine certainly thought so; so did Calvin. Is there a danger that in entering into this apologetic space we shall compromise the truth of Scripture, and end up by allowing culture to domesticate God’s Word? Yes, the history of biblical interpretation is littered with examples of this. But isn’t there at the same time a danger in not entering into such an apologetic space? Isn’t there a danger that even Christians might then find it difficult to connect God’s Word deeply with the world that he has also created—and people outside the church even more so? Isn’t it valuable at least to try to remove some intellectual obstacles that might prevent people from seriously considering the Christian faith? Isn’t it even valuable, in bringing extra-biblical truth into conversation with biblical truth, thereby to prompt Christians to consider whether their current understanding of Scripture is truly the best understanding available?

    As to whether I myself, in this particular project, have caused the power of Scripture to be undermined—well, I hope not. I would be distressed if I came to believe that this were so, since my very purpose has been to allow Scripture itself to speak out clearly on some very important matters—something that I believe it can and should do (as will become clearer in the course of my responses to other participants in this symposium). But here everything depends, of course, on what we believe that Scripture does in fact teach. Somewhat like Goldilocks with her three bowls of porridge, it has not been my intention to write a book that is either more or less dangerous than it ought to be, but only a book that is exactly dangerous enough. I fully acknowledge that my reading of Genesis (and indeed the OT as a whole) varies in some degree from how other Christians have read Scripture (although for the most part, I must say, it seems to me that I have friends in the reading tradition on the various particular points). Yet I am conscious-bound to propose, nevertheless, what I believe the best way of reading to be. And I stand by what I have said in the book when it comes to evil and suffering in particular, especially on the point about how much of what we call by these names is, in fact, best thought of as intrinsic to the goodness of the world that God has made. Much hangs on how we parse out “creation” and “fall,” and their relationship to each other, as Ephraim notes; I’m just not convinced that some of the parsing, historically, has been sufficiently attentive to Scripture. Is Genesis 3:16 really intended to tell us about childbirth, for example? I profoundly doubt it; and I doubt it, in the end, not because of cultural pressure upon me to believe otherwise, but because of the likely meaning of the Hebrew words on the page. Does this make my book insufficiently dangerous on this point? Well, if I’m right, it surely makes it just as dangerous as it wants to be—no more and no less.

    Have I said everything, in this book, that might be said about a Christian view of evil and suffering? Undoubtedly I have not, and Ephraim is right to point this out; it is already a very long book. But I hope that I have said enough to help people to begin to think biblically about such matters, and then to build further on a solid foundation as they go on to expand upon what I have said and make further connections with other things. I look forward to further conversation about whether this is actually true!

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      Douglas Earl


      Creation and the Persistence of Evil

      I enjoyed reading Radner’s response to Provan, and found the reflection on suffering and evil helpful. In terms of modern philosophical debates, perhaps there are resonances here with D.Z. Phillips’ essay ‘On Not Understanding God’ (in Wittgenstein and Religion (St. Martin’s Press: 1993, 153–170)). Philips argues that, in the context of discussion of suffering and evil, the great divide in the discussion is not between those who offer theological explanations (theodicies) and secular explanations, but rather it is between those who accept that there are some things that are necessarily beyond human understanding, and those who do not. For Philips theodicies ‘testify to the philosopher’s confidence that not even God is beyond human understanding.’ (153) Philips’ essay is perhaps a development of Wittgenstein’s remark that ‘what’s ragged should be left ragged’ (164). It strikes me that in the case of evil and suffering there is much that is to be left ragged, and part the theologian’s vocation involves learning to embrace such raggedness and ultimately offer praise, even as it is the task of theology to push back our practical understanding of these categories as far as we can—the difficulty being that of knowing where to stop. In this sense, I wonder if Provan’s appeal to scientific discourse—whilst not of course biblical—cannot in fact help us to fill out our understanding of these categories and the cries and reflections we find in the biblical text. The question then is how one pursues apologetics well in the face of such raggedness—or mystery to use the more traditional term.

      Given the limitation that these comments suggest, I would like to ask my main question, primarily to Provan although I would be interested in Radner’s response too. My question is how to respond to the kind of thesis that the Jewish scholar Jon Levenson advocates in Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988). In brief, his thesis is that many readings of creation in the Old Testament, and the place of evil within it, have been coloured by later Greek and/or Christian conceptions of an omnipotent God creating ex nihilo, without opposition. He suggests that ‘The concern of the creation theology [in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible] is not creatio ex nihilo, but the establishment of a benevolent and life-sustaining order, founded upon the demonstrated authority of the God who is triumphant over all rivals. Their elimination, together with the joyful subordination to the divine victor of all that survive, is the tangible proof of his lordship and the enduring availability of a friendly world.’ (47) Levenson develops the idea of the drama of creation, that in creation God’s hard fought battle with evil is reflected, with an uncertain outcome, although with victory confessed in an apocalyptic or eschatological faith: ‘Apocalyptic is, in large part, born of the contradiction between the rhetoric of the First Temple period and the reality of the Second’ (32). ‘What makes this [YHWH’s sovereignty] a confession of faith in YHWH’s mastery rather than a shallow truism is the survival of those potent forces of chaos that were subjugated and domesticated at creation. Creation itself offers no ground for the optimistic belief that the malign powers will not deprive the human community of its friendly and supportive environment . . .  Leviathan is still loose, and the absolute sovereignty of the absolutely just God lies ahead.’ (47–48).

      Levenson regards the fragility of creation and its vulnerability to chaos to have been played down in traditional (Christian) accounts, leading to a view of creation that is too static. He suggests that there are in fact differing voices or traditions reflected in the Old Testament, perhaps with Genesis 1 and Psalm 104 more closely reflecting the traditional portrait of creation, whilst other texts do not, such as Job 40:25–32. It is Israel’s vocation, through the cult and covenant, to participate in ordering creation over and against chaos: ‘Among the many messages of Genesis 1:1-2:3 is this: it is through the cult that we are enabled to cope with evil, for it is the cult that builds and maintains order, transforms chaos into creation, ennobles humanity, and realizes the kingship of the God who has ordained the cult and commended that it be guarded and practiced. It is through obedience to the directives of the divine master that his good world comes into existence.’ (127)

      Whilst I fear that I cannot do justice to Levenson’s carefully nuanced thesis here (see perhaps Humphrey’s review (http:/C:/dev/home/ for a fuller but still brief summary), hopefully I have said enough to indicate the kind of difficulty I envisage that it raises for Provan. For Levenson draws attention to the different kinds of portraits of creation that we find in the Old Testament, and the place of evil within it (see e.g. Levenson, 49), situating practical response to it in the (Mosaic) cult and covenant. So the first part of my question is then that of how ought we to identify what the Old Testament ‘really says’ about creation and evil and appropriate it as Christians? Whilst I would not follow Levenson on every point, it strikes me that here is a well-informed, thoughtful reading of what the Old Testament says, a reading that I fear is problematic for Provan’s approach. So, secondly, and relating to what Radner touched upon, how do we negotiate well the kind of reading that Levenson offers of what the Old Testament really says on its own terms with a reading of the Old Testament back through the Incarnation (and the New Testament) as being that which is the primary reference for Christian reflection?

      My fear is of course that in seeking answers to these questions, especially as regards evil, that I run against the note of caution on which I began. Nonetheless, I would be interested to see how Iain and Ephraim would respond in the hope that it will take the conversation forward and bring greater clarity to what we can say about evil and suffering as witnessed to in the Old Testament.

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      Iain Provan


      Creation and the Persistence of Evil

      Douglas asks: how may we best respond to the kind of thesis that Jon Levenson advocates in Creation and the Persistence of EvilMy own response is to agree with Levenson that a lot of the emphasis in the OT with respect to creation does lie on “the [ongoing, as I would say] establishment of a benevolent and life-sustaining order, founded upon the demonstrated authority of the God who is triumphant over all rivals,” that “Israel’s vocation, through the cult and covenant, to participate in [the ongoing] ordering [of] creation over and against chaos,” and that the forces that oppose God in the cosmos are indeed “potent” and do indeed require ordering, because their threat to the human (and indeed non-human) community is real.  Leviathan is indeed still loose.  I do not agree, however, that the OT envisages that “God’s hard fought battle with evil” has “an uncertain outcome.”  God is really God, after all, and the rivals are not; indeed, the latter are creatures.  There is no eternal dualism with respect to God and his opponents in the OT – so from which point evil “persists” is an interesting question.  When did (the creature) Leviathan get loose?  The “differing voices … reflected in the Old Testament” with respect to creation are, to my mind, simply addressing differing aspects of the overall picture – speaking now of the reign of God as a present reality, and now of the reality of the battle between good and evil which impinges upon us all in the present, in which the reign of God might well be called into question.  I do not see that this creates a problem for my argument in Seriously Dangerous Religion.

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      Ephraim Radner


      The Limits of Apologetics

      It would be ungratefully captious on my part to fasten on to particular points Iain raises in his vigorous response to his readers, including myself. His response is at one with the book itself, provoking us to engage the biblical text seriously and on the basis that it is about the most important things in our existence. That is why his book deserves to be read just as it is. No apologies on that score are necessary from him (nor has he given them!)

      So let me just stick to the general issue of a scriptural apologetic, which remains for me a difficult one. I think all of Iain’s readers in this forum sense that there is an uneasy question that the attempt, in itself, must raise for us, and inevitably so. We have put it differently—issues of cultural location, viewpoint, theological filters, and so on. If I understand Iain right, he accepts the question, but insists that not only is it inevitable, it is morally imperative to speak despite it: we all have our lenses that we bring to the Scripture, but there are givens in the Scripture that, according to human reason and reasonable reading, and given the reality of faith’s own engagement of these, are patent of normative expression. I certainly agree with this. But the question isn’t resolved by this admission; our ignorance in the face of Scripture’s claim to normative truth points to unsettling aspects of that truth itself. These too must be expressed.

      I will take my 21-year-old son’s cohort as an example. Millennials, we are told, think very poorly of their own generation’s values: narcissistic, cynical, narrow. Yet more millennials than any other generation exempt themselves from their own generation’s character! In other words, they actually have a strong dose of desired responsibility in the face of the hard moral challenges they think their peers are not facing. And they recognize that there is little out there to help them engage this desire. I believe that Iain’s book is the perfect one for my son and his peers: it provides the biblical sense that a tentative and sceptical, yet deeply yearning, generational outlook is after. Sara writes that “though the book may not have been convincing to me in the way Provan hoped it would be, again, it was not written primarily for me.” Whatever his intention, I believe that his book has a very particular cultural resonance. And that’s good.

      But Sara’s point opens the issue up: what happens as my son’s generation ages? Getting older is, it seems (and my observation confirms) associated with growing pessimism and cynicism, of a kind rooted in experiential realities different from young-age negativity. The “goodness” of the world and of God’s more fundamental character guiding this world turns out to be at best a profoundly complicated reality. The arguments about God’s creative nature will surely be differently couched in speaking to this older crowd. Is there a way to do it that can comprehend both generations? From an apologetic standpoint, I doubt it. Instead, there is simply a word that is spoken by God, and that word is the one we must deal with because it is the truth. But “sense”?

      I come back to the reality of the Cross of Christ, which, as I mentioned in my initial response, is not an orienting reality in Iain’s book. I would hardly say that, apologetically, the Cross is primarily a word to old age (in Luther’s time, it was perhaps more vital to younger folk, for quite specific cultural reasons). But the Cross’s reality is surely one that spans the experience of young and old together in a fundamental fashion. It is a universal fact and form. Is that spanning, however, a reasonable one? Foolishness and scandal are what Paul says it comes to in most people’s encounter with the Cross. Iain wonders why Scripture cannot be “reasonable and dangerous” at the same time. It might be, as long as the reason in question is divine reason – “wisdom”—which we cannot nor should not claim to grasp. How our human reason intersects or engages or analogizes from such divine wisdom, though, isn’t obvious. Which also means that there is no adequate apologetic that can unfold the wisdom of Christian truth, for young or old both.

      Indeed, I am not convinced that the Cross is amenable to an apologetic in any normal sense. In the Christian tradition, thinking about the Cross in its truth-bearing and truth-revealing mode has generally been an intra-biblical task, rather than a task of general human reasoning – collating texts, comparing Old and New, prophecies and queries, the rise and fall of individuals and peoples as scripturally articulated. This is why the hermeneutical questions raised by Iain’s respondents are deeply important, however one chooses to engage them. Reading Genesis, in the Christian tradition, and just because of the Cross, involves at some point reading it as a piece of movable type (and types), not as the basis for an apologetic regarding the order of the world.

      It’s not the only way to read Genesis, of course. But for the Christian, any other way of reading it—apologetically, for instance—must at least permit an opening of the text to that truth that overturns our every sense of order, including an apologetic one. Otherwise, we will not be able to see a fundamental truth about God—normative in every respect—that God is utterly Other and thus mysterious to our hopes and expectations, even while utterly self-giving to us in his Son. If an apologetic is true to God, then it must at least work to alienate these hopes and expectations, to unveil them as inadequate to reality and not simply as the grid according to which solutions are evaluated.

      The Scriptures surely open us to this disorientation of our reasoning. I do not have answer to how Scriptural apologetic will do this without at the same time driving many away (as did Jesus’ own words to his own disciples). I remember with a shiver an old Plymouth Brethren missionary I knew when I worked in Burundi in the 1980’s, speaking, with wide and wondering eyes, about the “strange victory of the Lamb” spoken of in Revelation. The words themselves were not unexpected from this Darbyite pastor. But the social and political context of the moment gave them a tone that escaped his tradition, and opened up the reality into which, and from which, God’s word surely proceeds. The missionary in question proved among the most faithful I knew, staying in that nation through all its worst experiences, and witnessing to some of the moral imperatives millennials must yearn after, and hence need to be shown properly (as Iain’s book does). But the source of such a witness seems dizzying to me, and – let me be honest – frightening. The Lamb reigned in those years and in that land in ways I can only struggle to comprehend.

      Iain’s book mutes this “strange” reality. Why? In part, I think, because apologetics can only go so far, as an invitation and as a way of loosening the mind for some further engagement with and by God’s truth. While the Scriptures can surely be a part of the invitation, their root and being lie on the “further” side of the invitation itself. To enter their divine reasoning is to give up human reasoning in a very real way, or to have it taken from one.

      How one explains this truth about Scripture and its meaning is bound to a range of historically malleable assumptions, as all the respondents have emphasized. But the grasp of a wider interpretive community does show some larger direction (and temporal distance can see that more clearly, which is why the history of interpretation is integral to Scriptural interpretation itself). There is a broad, if shifting, river bed of attitudes that can be generally, if imprecisely mapped. And, it seems to me, the common sense of this river bed of interpretive flow both relativizes apologetic questions in the face of the Scriptures, and unveils the Scriptures themselves as something bound to the mystery of a God whose ways inevitably break apart our own construals of them, over and over. This is a “normative” claim on my part, from which one might well and should attempt to articulate further interpretive norms.

      So, I am with Iain in asserting that the Bible “really says” certain things, and that it is appropriate to debate the “really-ness” of Scriptural speech so as to submit to it in faith. To that extent, a scriptural apologetics is necessary, inevitable and, in its attempt, commendable, as stepping stones for this or that person or generation or cultural feet to set out upon. Iain is right, too, that there are normative orientations from which to receive God’s word, God’s “goodness”, for instance, being one. Nonetheless, complicating our sense of such divine goodness, as Jesus himself surely did, is not the same as “interpretive pluralism” relativizing Scripture’s truth. Such complication is a moral imperative for the Christian reader of the Bible.

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      Iain Provan


      The Limits of Apologetics

      I am really grateful for the quality of all the responses in the symposium to my book, and not least for this latest response from Ephraim.  We are really talking together about important stuff!

      There are two things, I think, that I’d like to say in reply.  The first relates to the question of resonance.  I’m delighted by the response to the book among young adults, and of course in retrospect I realize more clearly than when I was writing it just how much my own engagement with my young-adult children (ages 22 up to 30) and their peers, who would include many of the students that I teach, inevitably shaped the way in which I approached the project.  At the same time, I would be disappointed to discover that it was generally true that “older folks” could not resonate with the book.  I’m fairly old myself (58)!  And as such, of course I too am painfully aware that “the ‘goodness’ of the world and of God’s more fundamental character guiding this world … [is[ a profoundly complicated reality.”  But that is precisely why I myself needed to explore afresh many of the questions that I discuss in the book, and find answers that are better than some of those I had previously been given.  I guess that only time will tell whether these answers are helpful to my own peers (and will perhaps remain so to younger people as they grow older).  True answers should make some sense to people of all ages – shouldn’t they?  That is certainly my working assumption.

      And as to the Cross, secondly: well, I must say that I personally find some ways of thinking about that important reality much more reasonable and helpful than others, even though I grant completely and willingly much of what Ephraim says about its fundamentally mysterious nature.  All of God’s interactions with the world are mysterious in this same way, aren’t they – how Jesus can truly be both God and Man; how God’s sovereignty and human moral freedom can both be real; and so on?  They are mysterious, and ultimately unfathomable; but that doesn’t mean we cannot say anything true about them, or indeed that certain ways of thinking and speaking about them aren’t much more truthful and helpful than others.  So yes, I agree that there are limits to apologetics; but don’t we want to press right to those limits, as well as we can and with as many people of different ages and cultures as we can, so as to help as many people as we can to enter the kingdom (which entering is itself a mysterious thing, but often has something to do with preaching, argument, and persuasion)?  I believe that we should want to do this; and I don’t think I see quite the radical disjunction that Ephraim does between this human reasoning and the “divine reasoning” of the Scriptures, the latter of which he believes requires us to “give up … in a very real way” the former.

      Yet as to where he ends, I am very content!  The Bible “really says” certain things, “it is appropriate to debate the ‘really-ness’ of Scriptural speech so as to submit to it in faith,” and “to that extent, a scriptural apologetics is necessary.”  Complications I can live with, in this context.



Which Story Do You Prefer?

AFTER I FINISHED READING Ian Provan’s Seriously Dangerous Religion, I was reminded of Yann Martel’s novel The Life of Pi. In the final chapter, the title character—Pi Patel—is interviewed by men who are seeking an account of why the ship on which he was traveling sank, and how he survived for over six months at sea. Pi tells them two stories: the first is a fantastic one about being on a lifeboat with a fully grown Bengal Tiger, and the second is a gruesome account in which the few other human survivors kill and cannibalize each other. Neither story gives a precise explanation as to why or how the ship sank, so Pi then asks his listeners, “Which story do you prefer? Which is the better story?” They answer that the story with the animals is the better story, to which Pi responds, “Thank you. And so it goes with God.”

Provan is doing something similar to Pi, but obviously, “similar” is not “the same.” One major difference is that instead of simply asking questions of preference or comparison, as Pi does, Provan tells his readers that the biblical story, or, as he calls it, “the Old Story” is better than others. Those others include the three other major metanarratives he introduces in the introduction: the story of the axial age, the story of the dark green golden age, and the story of the scientific new age. Provan discusses the first two in greater detail in his other book, Convenient Myths, which he describes as a “companion” to this one. The third metanarrative, that of the scientific new age, is the one told—and preferred—by the new atheists. Throughout Simply Dangerous Religion, Provan highlights how his reading of the Old Story differs from these other “competing” (348) narratives.

Provan also compares and contrasts “the Old Story” with Western and Eastern thought, including philosophers like Plato and Confucius, and other religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. While he points out places of overlap and similarities—such as how individual elements of Buddhist thought are compatible with biblical faith (215)—he is particularly concerned with clarifying the differences. For example, Provan writes, “There is one important respect, however, in which Plato’s thinking about the natural world is somewhat similar to biblical thinking, so long as we are prepared to make some important distinctions” (243). And in reference to the question “How am I to relate to my neighbor,” Provan explains, “The case of Confucianism is instructive, not least because it illustrates well the problem in assuming that any particular religion or philosophy is similar to another in its overall teaching just because it happens to possess certain apparent similarities in the details” (217). Indeed, Provan is especially concerned with sweeping generalizations about religions that reduce them all to a common core (218, 392). The character Pi understands himself to be a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim. When told by religious leaders that he must choose, Pi responds by saying, “Bapu Ghandi said, ‘All religions are true.’ I just want to love God.” Such a response may seem to fall into the generalizing or reductionistic traps that Provan seeks to avoid. However, I find in Pi’s answer something important about the relational aspect of religion that rings true with my own confessional stance as a Christian seeking to have a relationship with a personal God.

Another place where Provan differs from Pi is that in the novel, choosing one story over another is a question of preference, while for Provan it is a question of “truth.” Early in Seriously Dangerous Religion, Provan explains that he is not primarily interested in the historical and scientific veracity of the biblical texts and instead seeks to explore its religious and philosophical claims (15–17). Toward the end of his book, in chapter 13, Provan examines the question of truth, which includes such sub questions as, “Is it coherent? Is it true to the facts, and does it make sense of them? Is it truer to the facts and does it make better sense of them than competing stories?” (348). Provan desires for Christians to use reason and logic to examine their claims of faith, and he provides a model for this when he writes, “I accept the obligation to justify what I said in chapter 1 . . .” (353). Much of Seriously Dangerous Religion reminds me of other theologies of the Old Testament, such as those written by Walter Eichrodt, Gerhard von Rad, and Walter Brueggemann. Chapter 13 caused me to think that instead, Simply Dangerous Religion is a book of apologetics, more concerned to clarify “what we should believe,” than simply “what we believe” or even “why we believe.” For von Rad and Brueggemann, in particular, the Old Testament is a record of Israel’s testimony about God, and while testimony does have a persuasive element to it, testimony is never solely about the facts. Truth—in testimony—becomes something more experiential than something that is simply factual. Whenever I think about the nature of truth, I cannot help but be reminded of Pilate’s question to Jesus in John 18:38, “What is truth?” It has always struck me as ironic that Pilate asks the question to the one who is truth incarnate. In John’s gospel, in particular, truth is not simply a philosophical or intellectual preposition, but is embodied, desiring a relationship of love.

Provan is honest about his personal preferences for “the Old Story.” He argues that the biblical story is a compelling one, a story that deserves to be taken seriously as a series of truth claims about the world and human place within it (17). Against accusations of biblical faith as escapist, he asserts that biblical faith calls humans to work for good in the world (152–53). What makes the biblical text dangerous is its insistence on good, and its ability to clearly point out—and ideally work against—what is not good. Provan even asserts that “when the biblical story is properly understood, it provides a point of departure for precisely the path out of trouble and into a better future, for humanity and for the planet, for which its detractors are often looking”(353).

In fact, one of the problems is that the biblical story has been misunderstood or told in inaccurate ways. Provan explains that there is a “gap between what the OT really says and what the modern storytellers claim it says” (13). He also explains that misunderstanding has affected both outsiders and insiders; moreover, it is some of the insider mistakes that have influenced the views of outsiders as to what it says, particularly insofar as outsiders level accusations against “the God of the OT.” In reference to Richard Dawkins, specifically, Provan asks, “Is he even reading the literature that he so freely criticizes, or is he simply picking up his opinions about it secondhand?”(71–72). While I cannot speak as to Dawkins’ reading or lack thereof, I would offer two other possibilities. First, perhaps those who misunderstand are reading selectively. It is not easy to read the entire Old Testament—a fact which probably gives me some job insurance—but reading texts in conversation with other texts, as a canonical whole, does help prevent taking particular texts out of context. Second, every reader reads with a particular lens.

These two possibilities—that those who misunderstand are reading selectively, and that we all read with a particular lens—point to my areas of concern about Provan’s work. First, I found that Provan’s focus on Genesis meant a neglect of other troublesome OT texts, including those in Deuteronomy, Joshua and Judges about ancient Israelite war, but also other texts where God seems overly angry such as Numbers 11 or 16. A few disclaimers are in order here: first, Provan explains why he focuses on the book of Genesis; because it is the canonical beginning of the story, and because it has been so misunderstood. Indeed, there has been a long-waged culture war between those who read Genesis scientifically, and those who read it more literally or confessionally, so it is clearly important to enter the skirmish. Second, Provan has already published in other areas of the Old Testament, including Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs, and one must limit one’s focus. Third, Provan does send feelers out to other biblical texts as he answers the questions about the nature of God, human beings, etc. And third, I found many of his particular observations about Genesis insightful and astute; I made marginal notes to share with my students his work with certain Hebrew words, for example, and his insights about Cain and Lamech. But in particular reference to the assertion that God is good—a confessional stance I would personally take—I wanted to read what Provan would say about the book of Joshua, or Psalm 88, or those other texts that call God’s goodness into question. Then again, I am—as Provan himself acknowledges!—not his ideal reader. This is not only because I am among those colleagues in the academic community (18–19), but also because I see in the biblical story less clear-cut answers, particularly when texts are read as a whole.

And while I also seek to read biblical texts in conversation with other texts, as a canonical whole, I also view the whole in a different way than Provan does. Though that is my second concern with this book, it may just be that he and I have different methodologies. Provan refers to “the” biblical story in the singular, as a metanarrative. I understand “the biblical metanarrative” to be a helpful framework to understand, for example, how the canon was organized, or how the children of Jacob become the twelve tribes of Israel. But a metanarrative is always reductionistic, and for that reason, I prefer to read the Bible as a canonical collection of varied and various books, in which different testimonies and counter-testimonies of God are placed in conversation with one another. I also read those conversations as genuine dialogues, in a Bakhtinian way, where there is more truth in the “both-and” than there is in a single or singular answer.

My third area of concern is that I did not find where Provan directly acknowledged that we all read with a particular lens. He hints at this on p. 22 when he writes, “We do not simply enter a world at birth: we are, in fact, progressively given a world in which to live. In this world, meaning and significance are already attached to things, and we are guided by other people in ‘making’ what we ‘make’ of them” (22). And, in reference to Islam, Provan explains that Allah’s mercy and compassion is the frame of reference within which everything else in Islam must be understood (73). Indeed, anyone who reads the Old Testament does not simply read it, but does so within the framework presented to them by teachers, communities of faith or lack thereof. Thus it was surprising to me to read this quote on p. 347: “I hope that in chapters 2–12 I have done a decent job of explaining biblical faith. If so, it should at least be clear how the Old Story told in the two Testaments of the Bible answers the enduring human questions we have been exploring. If that is the case, then I have at least rescued the Old Story from the violence that has threatened to silence it, and it has been allowed to speak for itself.” In particular, those last four words gave me pause, especially given that Provan acknowledged that he was “explaining it.” For the Old Story does not, in my experience, “speak for itself.” Even if that were possible, we still listen with particular filters.

This point—that we read with a particular lens, and listen with particular filters—came up for me recently as I was grading final reflection papers from my introductory Bible class this spring. A number of students, at the end of the quarter, ended the class as Marcionites, still convinced that God in the Old Testament was angry and cruel. Notwithstanding my own self-doubts about my teaching abilities, I have come to believe that one must start with a belief (or at least a willingness to believe) in the goodness of God in order to read that in the text. Once I have that lens, I will see evidence to support God’s goodness throughout the Old Testament books, but is it not something that simply happens “sola scriptura.”

I found Simply Dangerous Religion to be incredibly thought-provoking, and am grateful for the opportunity to reflect on it. Though the book may not have been convincing to me in the way Provan hoped it would be, again, it was not written primarily for me. I already could say that I prefer the Christian faith and its stories, and I find in them better resources to help me, as Pi said, love God.

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    Iain Provan


    Pi, Pluralism, and Prophetic Scripture: A Response to Sara Koenig

    I am grateful to Sara for her attentive reading of my book and her appreciative comments. Her choice of The Life of Pi as the lens through which to view Seriously Dangerous Religion is an intriguing one, and (to be honest) it temporarily flummoxed me in terms of how to respond, given the very different genres of the two books and Sara’s sometimes indirect style of engagement with respect to SDR (not so much dialoguing with its substance as expressing a preference for a perspective illustrated by Pi). But I quickly got myself unflummoxed, and I decided that the best way to proceed was simply paragraph by paragraph through the review, responding as best I could to the various observations contained therein. This will enable me, among other things, to create a platform for the responses that follow this one, because Sara raises issues in her comments that reemerge in different forms in later reviews.

    Sara draws attention, first, to the way in which Pi illustrates the self-conscious pluralism of our times, with its disarming “I just want to love God”; and she tells us that she finds something important in this “about the relational aspect of religion.” From my point of view, however, I can see no reason to accept the idea that “all religions are true.” Scripture strongly predisposes me not to accept this idea, and as I survey the different religions empirically I see them each making very different truth claims about the world, not least in what they claim about who “God” is, what “love” is, and how far “love” is in any case the appropriate way in which to relate to “God.” These are competing truth claims, to a very large degree, such that to accept the classical Hindu view of the nature of ultimate reality is at the same time to reject the Christian one. When we read, then, that Pi “understands himself to be a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim,” the educated reader is forced to the conclusion that Pi simply does not know very much about any of these religions, and is somewhat confused about their nature. In this respect, he is a fine representative of much of the post-Christian culture currently washing around us in the West, which represents precisely the background against which I wrote SDR, hoping among other things to convince Pi and his soul mates of the impossibility of their position. Relational it may be; coherent it is not.

    As to whether SDR is intended as OT theology or as apologetics: well, it is intended as both. It first sets out to describe, as well as I can accomplish it, what the OT has to say about important human questions—what it “really says” about such matters. But then it also wishes to address, as well as it can, pressing contemporary questions about the truthfulness of the OT and its virtue. It is indeed concerned to clarify “what we should believe.” I was unclear as to whether Sara found this to be problematic. I entirely agree with her that “truth—in testimony—becomes something more experiential than something that is simply factual.” Yet facts are important, whether historical or philosophical. And Scripture certainly makes truth claims that centrally involve facts—for example, that God rescued the Israelites from Egypt.

    Sara mentions next her concern that my focus on Genesis leads to a neglect of other, “troublesome” OT texts, “including those in Deuteronomy, Joshua and Judges about ancient Israelite war, but also other texts where God seems overly angry such as Numbers 11 or 16.” Here I must say that my choices about which OT texts to focus upon and how to do so, within the constraints of the space available to me, were quite deliberate. I profoundly believe that Scripture itself insists that we must read the kind of texts that Sara mentions within the overall context of a belief in the goodness of God, and I have tried to follow Scripture’s own lead on this matter, neither giving these texts more attention than they deserve, nor reading them in ways that Scripture itself does not encourage. Specifically, I do not agree that “the book of Joshua, or Psalm 88, or . . . other texts . . . call God’s goodness into question.” It is indeed precisely those biblical writers who are so convinced of God’s goodness who have passed these very texts on to us. It is only because of their decision to do so that we can read them at all. Are we really to imagine that they intended us to read them as testifying, after all, against God’s goodness? I very much doubt it. And I want to follow their lead, as closely as I can, in interpreting them in their canonical context. It is not, then, that I have nothing to say (for example) about the settlement of Israel in the promised land; but what I have to say is largely to be found in compressed form in the footnotes to chapter 3, rather than in the main text. And this is a result of deliberate policy.

    No doubt this policy-decision will be a matter of further discussion. It is certainly bound up with my conviction that in Scripture we are in fact dealing with a canonical whole—an overarching story within which are embedded various other genres. Sara says that she “prefers” to read Scripture rather as “a canonical collection of varied and various books, in which different testimonies and counter-testimonies of God are placed in conversation with one another.” For myself, I see little justification within either Scripture or Christian tradition for approaching Scripture in such a manner, however much I appreciate the work of scholars like Walter Brueggemann (whose language Sara reflects here) in helping us to read the various parts of Scripture attentively. In the end I believe, with strong dominical and apostolic warrant as I see it, that the parts must be regarded as making up a God-breathed whole, the very prophetic “words of God” (Rom 3:1) that are capable of “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). I do not see how the notion of “counter-testimony” is ultimately consistent with such a view of the Bible, and I would not myself describe a text like Psalm 88 as “counter-testimony.” Indeed, it is the ongoing existence of such “counter-testimony” as the jury “trickles in” to give its verdict at the end of Brueggemann’s Old Testament Theology that makes me think of that impressive book as not yet an OT theology at all, but only an excellent survey of the texts that must ultimately be drawn into one.

    As to the question of “lens,” finally: yes, of course I am happy to acknowledge, if I have failed to make this clear in the book, that we all come to Scripture with particular filters. I am puzzled, though, by Sara’s apparent conviction that this makes problematic my comments about allowing OT Scripture “to speak for itself.” I am sure that she would agree with me that we certainly do not wish to impose ourselves, with our filters, upon Scripture, suppressing its voice—that indeed, one aspect of regarding OT Scripture genuinely as “the very words of God” is the determination to submit to it even our filters, so far as we can. That is certainly part of my own commitment in reading Scripture, and then communicating what it says to others. If, in fact, it is impossible for Scripture to “speak for itself” in this way, then how can it actually succeed in the business of “rebuking” and “correcting” as mentioned above? To this important matter I shall return in later responses.

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      Sara Koenig


      How singular is the unity?

      Thanks to Iain for his charitable reading of my response to SDR. I apologize for flummoxing him, and am grateful for his willingness to reply to my less than systematic response to his work! I am also grateful for his clarification that SDR is both an Old Testament Theology and a work of apologetics. Iain asks if I find the apologetic aspect problematic. I do, though my reasons have more to do with the “how” than the “what.” That is, as I note, I personally take the confessional stance that God is good. “What” I believe includes that God is “the father, the almighty, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.” I also understand that as a professor, I profess. But I would rather profess what I believe to my students than profess to them what they should believe, although I know that the dynamics of power in a classroom might make that distinction less than clear.

      Iain points out that his choice to compress his comments about the settlement of Israel in the promised land in footnotes to chapter 3 is “a result of deliberate policy,” something he expects to be “a matter of further discussion.” I do find this policy worthy of discussion, in particular as it relates to Iain’s convictions about the canonical whole of scripture. Certainly, it is a truism to say that problematic readings come when a single text is read outside of its larger narrative (and historical) context, as happens with some of the “dangerous” readings Iain wants to combat. But Iain takes this in a different direction than I would, as is evident in his description of Brueggemann’s OTT as “an excellent survey of the texts that must ultimately be drawn into one.” Why must they be drawn into one? And how singular is that unity? Does it flatten the nuances of the varying texts?  The fourfold gospel in the NT is a helpful analog for me, especially in contrast with Tatian’s Diatessaron. The NT canon includes four different witnesses to Jesus Christ, not a singular, harmonized gospel.  As I mention, I am heavily influenced by Mikhail Bakhtin’s writings about the dialogic nature of truth, and I see many of those rich dialogues between the rabbis in the Talmud and Midrash.

      Iain also challenges my assertion that texts like the book of Joshua or Ps 88 call God’s goodness into question. I concede that the authors of those texts may not have intended us to read them in that way, but I am also more circumspect about what the author intends than Iain seems to be. Additionally, whether or not an author may have intended one thing or another does not prevent readers from doing what they will with texts.1 And obviously, readers do harmful, even dangerous things with biblical texts. Still, for the reader who has the experience of God’s absence and silence, Ps 88 might give voice to her experience in a way that encourages her to “read” her experiences in the broader context of the entire Bible.

      My critiques and questions notwithstanding, I want to share an anecdote with Iain, which I think illustrates my overall appreciation for his work. Two weeks ago at my church, a man who is a layperson approached me after the service to ask me some questions about the language used in Genesis to describe creation. (He had read an article that used some translations of Gen 1 to pit science against theology.) After I answered some of his questions about the Hebrew, I recommended that he look at SDR. “It provides a really helpful perspective on how we can read Genesis in a way that encourages our ecological sensitivity,” I told him. “Even though it’s scholarly, and thoroughly researched, it is accessible. I think you would find it useful and thought provoking.” I do. I am not only grateful to Iain for writing it, but also grateful for the opportunity to engage it through this platform.

      1. To this end, I have appreciated how Brennan Breed encourages us to move us away from asking the question of “what a text means” and instead ask “what a text does.” Breed is drawing on theories from Giles Deleuze about the nature of objects, but also reviews what the book of Job has been able to “do” in reception history. Brennan Breed, Nomadic Text. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 2014.

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      Iain Provan


      How Singular is the Unity?

      Many thanks to Sara for this follow-up response, and not least for the encouraging anecdote with which it ends!  The first thing to say is that I have a lot of empathy with what she says about teaching students in the classroom.  Education is not (should not be) indoctrination, even if we hold the things that we are teaching to be true and important; there is an important difference between the two.

      As to her important question about why we must draw all the Old Testament texts into an Old Testament theology: well, I believe that all these texts are given to us together, by Christ and through the apostles, in order to teach us what we should believe and how we should live – that is, I think, what the New Testament tells us about how to regard them.  They are not given to us willy-nilly, however, but already canonically shaped, and I believe that the New Testament encourages us to read them precisely with attention to this canonical shaping.  Nuance is not “flattened” in this process, but it is nuance in respect of the whole overall direction of the Old Testament story within which all the other genres are embedded.

      It is not clear to me, then, that among the post-biblical writers, Bakhtin is as helpful to us in reading Scripture as Irenaeus, in the latter’s insistence that we must read individual texts within the context of the whole biblical story, avoiding the temptation to rearrange the pieces of the jigsaw to as to produce (as he puts it, as I recall) a picture of a fox rather than of a king.  Thus (for example), Psalm 88 already has a context within the book of Psalms, in which the goodness of God is everywhere proclaimed (including in the laments), and the book of Psalms already has a context within the Old Testament canon, in which that same goodness is also everywhere proclaimed (and not least at its beginning).  The accounts of Israel’s settlement in the land of Canaan share this latter context.  We are thus invited to read both the judgment of God and the extremity of suffering within this same context.  It is precisely the point, then, in Psalm 88 – as Sara rightly suggests towards the end of her response – that the reader of that psalm is invited to “give voice” to her experience in a way that encourages her to “read” it “in the broader context of the entire Bible.”  The unity is certainly not singular in the sense of not allowing for all sorts of perspectives and experiences.  Nevertheless, Scripture invites us to understand all such perspectives and experiences, in the end, within the context of one great narrative whose author is a God who is fundamentally and eternally good.

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      Douglas Earl


      How singular is the unity?

      First of all, I’d like to echo what both Ephraim and Sara have said in regard to the value and scope of SDR, and that I would gladly give it to an appropriate enquirer. But like Sara, I don’t think that I am really the kind of reader that Iain had in mind in writing the book. As has been suggested, I think that the concept of education is important here in considering the audience of the book, and for whom the book will be most valuable. Indeed perhaps the kinds of concern that I have are not those that it is helpful for the imagined ‘ideal reader’ to be burdened with, and this is important for considering how best the church can promote Christian education, in the broad sense of Christian apologetics, teaching and discipleship. Different kinds of book, with different kinds of assumptions and concerns will be helpful to different people. In the contemporary pluralistic context I think it is helpful to recover a framework within which the Christian faith can be nurtured, and to be shown how there are robust responses that can be made to challenges from all directions. It seems to me a key task to indicate how the Bible—and perhaps especially the Old Testament—has enduring value as a witness to the triune God. I would have found SDR more robust however if the assumptions and claims had been a little more nuanced or modest, acknowledging (in particular) a greater indebtedness to the Christian tradition to map out how to appropriate Scripture well in a way that is life-giving. I think that a number of my concerns and worries are to be wrestled with further down the journey, at a latter point in the Christian education of those whose vocation it is to wrestle with difficult hermeneutical issues, than for the ideal reader of SDR. This is in no way to say that SDR is merely basic or simplistic, which it certainly is not, but rather to suggest where it best fits in the life and mission of the church.

      With this in mind, I’d just like to try to develop the conversation through a couple of points that Sara made regarding dialogue, and in Iain’s concern with unity. Sara suggested:

      ‘I prefer to read the Bible as a canonical collection of varied and various books, in which different testimonies and counter-testimonies of God are placed in conversation with one another. I also read those conversations as genuine dialogues, in a Bakhtinian way, where there is more truth in the “both-and” than there is in a single or singular answer.’

      And in response to Iain’s concern for unity that:

      ‘Why must they [the texts] be drawn into one? And how singular is that unity? Does it flatten the nuances of the varying texts?  The fourfold gospel in the NT is a helpful analog for me, especially in contrast with Tatian’s Diatessaron. The NT canon includes four different witnesses to Jesus Christ, not a singular, harmonized gospel.  As I mention, I am heavily influenced by Mikhail Bakhtin’s writings about the dialogic nature of truth, and I see many of those rich dialogues between the rabbis in the Talmud and Midrash.’

      I wonder here however if we could actually root a dialogical view of the canon in Scripture itself, in the wisdom tradition—or approach—in particular. The wisdom tradition seems inherently dialogical, juxtaposing sometimes contradictory statements (famously Proverbs 26:4–5). We live with this tension. It seems to me that perhaps we could understand ‘canonical shaping’ (whatever this might mean historically or in terms of intentionality) of different texts and traditions in these terms, and approach the biblical narrative more with a ‘wisdom mindset’. I think that the gospels are a good example of this, even in the case of somewhat metaphysical issues. For instance it seems to me that for Luke, it is crying out as a sinner seeking grace that is constitutive of an adequate response to Christ (Luke 18:9-14; 23:39–43) whereas for Matthew it is more doing the will of the father (Matthew 7:21–23). I would not want to pit one text against the other, but I would not want to harmonise them either in order to try an offer an account of what is essentially constitutive of an adequate response to Christ. Together, the gospels paint different portraits of the Christian life, and perhaps this brings us back to the role of education, and wisdom. For both portraits say something important, but in different context. To an inquirer whose life is in a mess I would point to Luke; but to a somewhat complacent Christian I would point to Matthew. But this is not to resort to a form of pluralism, for clearly there is a unity in the gospels. Once we are clear about the basic unity, more or less, then we can look at how we may negotiate the differences and difficulties well.

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      Iain Provan


      How Singular is the Unity?

      A brief response to Douglas on this one: I have no problem at all with what he says.  Inappropriate harmonising is of course to be avoided.  So I agree that “unity” is not “singularity” (in Douglas’s example, there are different good ways of responding to the fool in Proverbs, and wisdom must weigh the upside and downside of answering a particular fool or not), “Once we are clear about the basic unity, more or less, then we can look at how we may negotiate the differences and difficulties well.”  Indeed.  But I think that lots and lots of people, both inside and outside the Church, are not at all clear about the unity of Scripture, and especially have no substantive place for the OT in their thinking and living – and that is my main concern in SDR and at the present moment in general.




What the Old Testament “Really Says”

PROVAN’S TIMELY BOOK REPRESENTS a comprehensive attempt to clarify what the Old Testament (OT) “really says” and reestablish its enduring value in the light of various recent readings within competing worldviews in which its witness and role in shaping a vision of life is discredited. He does this primarily through a reading of Genesis in the context of the OT and its ancient Near Eastern context under ten themes relating to God, the world and life in the world lived out in relation to God and each other. Each theme forms a separate chapter (chapters 2–11). The themes are also discussed using other philosophies and religions as a foil, such as Western philosophy, Eastern philosophy and Islam. The distinctive voice of the OT is then brought out in dialogue with its recent critiques by, e.g., Richard Dawkins and Karen Armstrong. These main chapters are framed by an introductory chapter setting out Provan’s interpretative framework, and three subsequent chapters dealing with new dimensions arising from the New Testament (NT) (chapter 12); questions of truth (chapter 13) and consideration of whether the story is dangerous (chapter 14).

Provan’s interpretative framework involves inhabiting a story (3), where he considers what the OT “really says” on its “own terms” (11–13). He considers it to have often been misunderstood, partially by reading through the NT, even if the OT is to be reinterpreted through the NT after inhabiting the OT story itself (14). Provan grounds his book in Genesis, but branches out “to connect each theme with other Old Testament texts” (14), focusing on questions of what the text says in regard to informing how we should live (religious and philosophical questions), rather than on historical and scientific questions (15–17). He will conclude that the story is indeed true to the facts and makes better sense of them than competing stories, even if the story does not engage with questions of modern science for instance (chapter 13). He concludes that the story is dangerous for those who do not wish to think of every other human as their image-bearing neighbour (chapter 14), and reflects on the erosion of the biblical idea of humanity in the context of contemporary Western societies that move towards permissive attitudes to abortion and euthanasia (386), bringing the book into dialogue with contemporary issues.

Whilst there is much that I appreciate in Provan’s project, I would like to probe his assumptions. First, he assumes that one may identify “what the Old Testament really says.” For Provan there is an identifiable fact-of-the-matter both regarding the OT’s contents and what it advocates. He talks freely of “biblical faith” or “the biblical understanding,” suggesting a univocal conception is given. However, it is not clear that is the case for the literature at hand, or indeed appropriate for narrative literature read as story generally, which is what Provan claims to do.1 Any “serious” narrative, including biblical narrative, invites multiple construals, some of which may be poor and some good. Various good, faithful construals are generally available. So for instance the NT witnesses to several different construals of Abraham’s story (esp. Gen 15 and 22) in Romans 4; Hebrews 11:8–19; James 2:18–24. These differ again from traditional Jewish readings.2 Presumably on Provan’s account I must choose what the OT text really says? Either the NT witnesses to multiple faithful construals of Abraham’s story or multiple examples of poor interpretation. The latter option seems problematic. So the challenge is to show why construals of the OT by Dawkins et al. are poor, and what family resemblances we expect good construals to possess. Thus I am not convinced that the task of contemporary Christian interpretation of the OT is to recover what it “really says”—often associated with the modern philosophical tradition of identifying this with authorial intention (cf. 59)—but rather it is to develop ways of reading the OT well in the contemporary context so that it nurtures our mutual growth in the Christian life.

Perhaps the decisive difference between Provan and (e.g.) Dawkins is in the texts they take as being hermeneutical keys to the whole. In this I suspect that Provan’s choice is more informed by the Christian tradition than he grants, with readings such as his running more on the invisible tracks of tradition than on what the text “really says.” How does one construct a hermeneutic to account for the OT’s “multiple voices”? Is it possible to read the same narrative in different ways and draw different conclusions regarding, say, the issues of divine jealousy, wrath and judgement and remain “faithful” interpreters, both to the text and to the Christian faith? Given the breadth of vision of the OT one can choose to place different weights on different texts dealing with different themes, choosing which texts to select as the hermeneutical keys to the whole. This choice is part of the interpretative task. So a contemporary Christian apologist such as Provan might emphasize the significance of texts dealing with divine mercy, love, forbearance, etc. whilst a secular critic such as Dawkins might focus on texts dealing with violence, etc. The trouble is that both kinds of text run through the OT. The result, it seems to me, is often then that people “talk past” each other with different readers giving different priorities to different texts, or different forms of interpretation. The issue is that of why one prioritizes one set of texts (or form of interpretation such a symbolic or literal) over another. Provan’s treatment of the problem of texts advocating violence (in the context of God’s jealousy and vengeance) seems all too brief, with his main discussion spanning little over a page. He adopts the well-trodden (although I find unconvincing) apologetic account that justifies Israel’s Canaanite “conquest” in terms of divine justice and the sinfulness of Caananites (70–72). Perhaps one might (rather crudely) characterize the trajectory of this approach as Augustinian-Calvinist-Evangelical, but it is worth remembering that within the resources of the Christian tradition there is another approach, exemplified by Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, in which moral (and historical) difficulties in narratives are seen as hermeneutical cues to a figural or symbolic hermeneutic (to adopt contemporary categories), a hermeneutic flowing out of the revelation of the love of God in Christ. There is much more to be said here, given the gravity of the issues and their centrality to the OT’s critics.3

Provan moves freely between Genesis and the remainder of the OT in a way that he seems uncomfortable with as regards moving between the OT and NT. This appears problematic in the light of Walter Moberly’s thesis, The Old Testament of the Old Testament.4 Moberly probes the commonly observed difference between “patriarchal religion” (a construct based on the Genesis narrative) and “Mosaic Yahwism” (a construct based on the revelation of God to Moses and its outworking in the OT). He argues that the hermeneutical relationship between Genesis and the remainder of the OT has important analogies with the relationship between the OT and NT. Indeed, the question of the extent to which the patriarchs followed the Mosaic Law has troubled interpreters for centuries—witness the book of Jubilees. So the relationship of Genesis to the OT requires attention just as the relation of the OT to the NT needs to be addressed. So how does one assess the observation that the marriages of the patriarchs were incestuous according to Leviticus 18:9–18, and that Joseph is (perhaps) portrayed as practising divination (Gen 44:1–17)? What then is the significance of Genesis “on its own terms” as a resource for the Christian life? If one accords it significance on its own terms then, on a literal reading, it seems possible faithfully to worship God in an incestuous relationship, or whilst having several spouses. If one does not accord it significance on its own terms, then according to Moberly’s analogy, reading the OT on its own terms seems less illuminative than Provan implies, and we return to the question of interpretation as guided by the tradition of which the text is a (foundational) part.

My next concern relates to Provan’s appeal to the concept of accommodation as demonstrated in his discussions of subordination in certain relationships, especially female subordination and slavery (chapters 4 and 12). He suggests that Genesis 1–2 offers a vision of “right relationships” in contrast with descriptions of what actually follows (92). In chapter 4 he discusses attitudes to women in other religions and philosophies, but does not consider NT perspectives or those from the Christian tradition in any detail, in line with his stated overall interpretative approach. However, it seems curious that here he quotes Augustine as a foil, being a paradigmatic example of the church’s misinterpretation of Genesis 1–2 for Provan (90). Presumably though, Augustine’s reading was shaped by the NT, and is thus a candidate for what Provan repeatedly claims as the “biblical understanding.” In chapter 12 Provan discusses slavery and female subordination in terms of accommodation and conformity to cultural norms and social reality, especially via NT texts (339–40; cf. 1 Pet 3:1–2; Titus 2:9–10). He suggests that people “see the biblical accommodation, but mistake it for the biblical moral vision” (341). I think that appeal to accommodation is helpful here. But it seems problematic for Provan’s claim to the existence and normativity of the constructs of “biblical faith” or the “biblical understanding” and their relevance to the Christian life. In what sense can one trust the Bible as a guide for a moral or ethical vision, for a vision of faithful Christian living? How may one separate the real Christian moral vision from the shifting sands of cultural accommodation? This is a question of contemporary relevance. Is the vision of a monogamous heterosexual marriage part of the enduring Judeo-Christian moral vision, or is it one of accommodation to certain cultural norms? How might one decide? To take another issue of contemporary relevance, is the prohibition of charging interest on loans part of the enduring moral vision formed by the OT (Exod 22:25; Ps 15:5; Ezek 18:17), as the church supposed throughout much of her history, or of contextual accommodation that seems rather quaint?5

Provan pays careful attention to reading the OT in its ancient context so as to illuminate the text, reflecting a well-established hermeneutic of the modern era. Yet rather less is said in relation to the significance of the contemporary horizons of the reader for engagement with the text, the significance of which has been highlighted by recent sympathetic interpreters of the Bible such as Paul Ricoeur. Provan offers some helpful remarks on the significance of Darwinian evolution (which he takes to be compatible with biblical thinking), noting (helpfully) that design is not antithetical to process (356–58). However, given the pervasive influence of a scientific if not scientistic worldview on contemporary Western readers, I wonder if a much fuller engagement is not called for? How might one construe the nature of humanity according to the trajectory from Genesis 1–3, through Romans 5, to contemporary evolutionary biology if one wishes to take all these seriously, and accept that contemporary scientific worldviews significantly affect the expectations of contemporary readers, even at an existential level?

Finally, Provan suggests that implicit in the contemporary perception that the OT is problematic, no longer effective, and dangerous is the supposition that it is untrue. He considers the question of truth to be paramount. The OT story is in fact true (or truer) to the facts than competing stories (17, 348). My impression is that Provan is helpfully moving discussion away from debates surrounding biblical inerrancy and historicity toward the question of whether the OT story as a whole offers a true description of God, humanity and the world. I think that Provan adopts a concept of truth along the lines of Paul Ricoeur’s in his discussion of truth-claims of fictional narratives;6 roughly, that truth in fictional narrative is a “true-to-life” concept rather than a “correspondence with historical facts” concept. This is helpful, but I still wonder if “truth” is the best category to use. Philosophical analyses of the concept of truth indicate that it is a surprisingly slippery concept.7 Moreover, the Christian story encourages existential engagement perhaps more than intellectual assent to propositions (cf. Jas 2:14–26). Might it be preferable to frame discussion in terms of Scripture’s trustworthiness, in the context of a living tradition, as our fundamental witness to and resource for our flourishing in relationship with God? Is anything lost by reframing the discussion in this way?

I appreciated reading Provan’s book. It contributes toward the important goal of reestablishing trust in a theological “meta-narrative” stemming from the OT upon which flourishing communities can be built. Indeed, perhaps many of today’s problems stem for the loss of this narrative. However, I think Provan claims too much in claiming to identify what the OT “really says,” and does not acknowledge his debt to the living Christian tradition in responding to the critics. A greater pluralism of faithful readings of the OT sharing some family resemblance seems appropriate, with the tradition of the interpretation of the church (broadly speaking, and provisionally and fallibly) pointing toward faithful enacted interpretations that we may trust to be more fully life-giving than other narratives, as testified to in Christ.

  1. See, e.g., Paul Ricoeur, Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1976), esp. 79.

  2. E.g., J. D. Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).

  3. See Origen, On First Principles, Latin Text, IV.ii.9, in G. W. Butterworth, trans., Origen: On First Principles (Gloucester: Smith, 1973), 285–87. I deal with these issues in detail in The Joshua Delusion? Rethinking Genocide in the Bible (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2010) in dialogue with Chris Wright. See also the essays in H. Thomas, J. Evans, and P. Copan, Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an Old Testament Problem (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2013) in which these issues are wrestled with in depth from various Evangelical perspectives.

  4. R. W. L Moberly, The Old Testament of the Old Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992).

  5. See “Usury in the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament,” http:/C:/dev/home/

  6. P. Ricoeur, “The Narrative Function,” Semeia 13 (1978) 177–202.

  7. See, e.g., B. Taylor, Models, Truth and Realism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

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    Iain Provan


    A Perspicuous Scripture? A Response to Douglas Earl

    I appreciate Douglas’s appreciation for SDR, and I am glad to enter into some dialogue with him about it, which must begin where my conversation with Sara just left off. For Douglas, too, wishes to push back on the idea that it is possible to identify “what the Old Testament really says.” Any serious narrative, he begins, “invites multiple construals.” This is a very bold assertion, and I immediately find myself wondering why I should concede the point. Does he really mean “invite” (which implies a welcome extended by the text itself), or does he simply mean that serious narratives, as a matter of fact, tend to be construed in numerous ways? In view of the manner in which the argument develops, I think that he must mean the former: serious narratives “generally” allow “various good, faithful construals.” Again, a bold generalization, and one that I think requires some justification. How does Douglas know this? On what basis is the judgment being offered that this or that construal is indeed good and faithful? He does not appear to be happy with any reference to authorial intention in this context, although authorial intention is generally a significant factor for us in trying to work out what someone else is “really saying”—a concept, incidentally, with which we have no difficulty when it comes to everyday discourse, whether oral or written. I am indeed myself currently endeavoring to discover what Douglas is “really saying” about my book, and his authorial intention is weighing heavily on my mind as I pursue this question. I’m sure that he is glad about this, and I believe that he would feel disrespected if I were not so resolute in the pursuit. Surely any “good, faithful construal” of his words will be intrinsically bound up with his authorial intention, and surely he would be unhappy (and rightly so) if I chose to “construe” his words in ways that did not centrally take account of that intention. And I doubt very much that there is more than one such construal. Yet in the case of OT Scripture, he is rather quickly dismissive of any role for authorial intention in assessing “construals” of texts, and I would like to hear more about why this is so. I would also like to hear, in the absence of such help with respect to “intention,” how we are supposed to know what “reading the OT well in the contemporary context” looks like. I heartily agree with the goal. It is indeed what I am intent upon myself in seeking to discern “what the OT really says.” But how can someone “read well” if he does not share the conviction that we can in fact work out what the text is “really saying” (and not saying)? What does “reading well” even mean?

    As I seek to listen to Scripture in this way, am I “more informed by the Christian tradition” than I think? No, I don’t believe so. I believe that I am informed by the Christian tradition just as much as I think I am, neither deceived in myself about this reality, nor wishing to deceive others. Of course, I could be deluded. Yet in any case I am determined on the point that Scripture, as God’s written word, must be the reference point and the measuring stick for what I believe and how I live as a Christian, as I seek to listen to what the text “really says.” So I press on, putting failures of reading and living behind me.

    As I press on, is it possible for me to embrace the kind of interpretative pluralism that Douglas would apparently like me to embrace? If I understand him correctly, the answer is “no, it is not possible.” I am aware, of course, that as a matter of fact people have read and continue to read the OT in various ways. But as I read the OT Scriptures myself, I believe that I am obliged to seek the truth of the matter about what these Scriptures “really say” (I take this indeed to be a matter of obeying dominical and apostolic imperatives concerning how I approach Scripture), and I am obliged to come to a judgment upon which readings truly are faithful ones and which are not (which takes us back to where we began). That is not a matter of “choosing to place different weights on different texts dealing with different themes, choosing which texts to select as the hermeneutical keys to the whole”—as if we were dealing with questions of personal preference. It is a matter, rather, of compulsion—of deep convictions, shaped by Scripture itself, about the right way in which to read the parts in the context of the whole. It is not a matter of choice, but of paying attention. In the end, it is a matter of being under Scripture, rather than over it—of willingly giving in to what Brevard Childs refers to as the “coercion” of Scripture, rather than imposing ourselves upon it. And that is why (as I sought to explain already in my response to Sara) my treatment of the biblical conquest narratives is “brief.” I am trying to follow Scripture’s own guidance on how much weight to give these narratives in a construal of the entire OT, and on how to interpret them in that larger context. My question back to Douglas at this point is: is this also his approach? For I find it rather disconcerting to hear him describing these texts as “advocating violence” (which I do not think they can reasonably be construed as doing, in the context of Scripture as a whole), and especially to hear him saying that he finds “unconvincing” the justification of the conquest in terms of divine justice and the sinfulness of the Canaanites—when that justification is actually prominent in Scripture itself! It may be “Augustinian-Calvinist-Evangelical”—but before that, as far as I can see, it was simply biblical. It is what Scripture says about the matter.

    Well, I’ve taken a long time to write along these lines, and there is not much space left. Discussion of Douglas’s other points will largely need to await a future time. One final comment will suffice for the present. I note that Douglas finds it “problematic” for my “claim to the existence and normativity of the constructs of ‘biblical faith’ or the ‘biblical understanding’ and their relevance to the Christian life” that I also believe that there is such a thing as divine accommodation in the OT. I am baffled by this. Does he really think that there is no distinction visible in Scripture between moral vision, on the one hand, and pragmatics, on the other? Surely it is patently clear that there is. That is why we have apodictic commandments on the one hand, for example, and casuistic law (rooted in the “if” of sinful occasion), on the other. That is why Job does not appeal back to OT law in defending his virtue in Job 31, and it is also why Malachi can say that God hates divorce even though the OT law allows for it. It is also why Jesus can say that it was for hardness of heart that Moses legislated for divorce, but “in the beginning it was not so.” Law and ethics are not the same thing in Scripture, although they overlap; and the presence of gracious accommodation to sin does not imply the absence of high ideals toward which all of God’s people are called. I do not think that this is a controversial point.

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      Douglas Earl


      A perspicuous Scripture?

      It strikes me that Iain’s response to me centres around several related concerns: my claim that there are, in general, ‘various good, faithful construals’ of serious narratives; the role of authorial intention; and what ‘reading well’ means. I must confess that I do not have a carefully worked out answer here, and that the way in which we tackle these is likely to remain open. I think that these concerns are precisely those that we must wrestle with as interpreters of Scripture. One of my worries with the way in which these concerns are addressed in the literature on hermeneutics is that often discussion seems rather abstract, rooted more (at least, this is my impression) in discussion of what are taken to be a priori principles. One easily forms the impression that there is a fact-of-the-matter regarding ‘where’ the meaning of a text is located – and thus what counts as good interpretation – than in the nitty-gritty details of the interpretation and appropriation of actual texts, especially biblical texts.


      Iain appears concerned that I am unwilling to wed good interpretation – or more boldly perhaps, what the text ‘really says’ – with authorial intention. In particular, he asks how I know that serious narratives allow a variety of construals, and how I know what constitutes a good or faithful construal. Indeed, Iain takes our dialogue here to indicate the importance of authorial intention.

      So in response then, first of all, I think that his comment that I do not ‘appear to be happy with any reference to authorial intention’ goes beyond what I said (or at least beyond what I intended to say!). I do not wish to claim that authorial intention is never relevant in assessing what constitutes a good, faithful construal of a text. Rather, I am not convinced that it is the determinative factor, and I think that its significance varies according to the case in question. It might be largely determinative, or it might have rather limited significance. I agree that in much day-to-day discourse, and in our dialogue here, that authorial intention is extremely important, perhaps even determinative. But this is different from cases such as the interpretation of poetry or of a literary work such as one of Tolkien or Dostoevsky’s, or a national constitution such as the American constitution, or, I would say, Old Testament narrative. In these cases I think that the role of authorial intention is rather different, being less significant at least as regards the ongoing appropriation of such texts. This is not to say that one should embrace a radical pluralism, but that there are a family of good readings – as witnessed to in the traditions of the church’s interpretation, and in the Midrashim as Sara pointed out. Of course, there are no doubt poor readings here too. There is a distinction to be made between ‘meaning’ and ‘significance’ or ‘use’ (and this relates to the point below about moral vision vs. pragmatics), but I wonder whether such distinctions are in fact often rather less clear and more interwoven than might be supposed. Here, I would wish to appeal to a particular text together with the tradition of its use of which it is a part in shaping what is to be considered as good interpretation. So, to avoid the pitfalls of abstract discussions that I alluded to above, let me ask Iain a specific question about the appropriation of a specific text. If I may begin with a quote from Sandra Schneiders (with apologies for the long quote!):

      ‘The development of the text of the Declaration of Independence is an example of the interaction of effective history and surplus of meaning. The text “all men are created equal” generated an historical experience in the new nation that gradually revealed to Americans the humanity and therefore the equal rights of all people, including women, children, people of color, immigrants, poor people, and handicapped people, as well as adult, white, male property owners. The text was susceptible of reinterpretation, without verbal change, because the word “men” as it occurs in a semantically autonomous text is not limited to the meaning intended by its eighteenth-century users. … Thus no matter what the framers of the Declaration intended (and they certainly did not intend to acknowledge the full humanity of women, children, and slaves, i.e., the inclusion of these classes in the term “men”) the text intends whoever is recognized as human. … The result of this expansion of meaning is part of the effective historical consciousness of the American people, that is, of the developing awareness of what humanity entails and how its requirements must shape the socio-political-economic life of the nation. As that consciousness has developed, it has enabled the American people to look to their founding documents, subsequent laws, actual legal practice, educational assumptions, national customs, and so on and to draw these documents and practices forward out of the very limited past of the eighteenth century into an expanded present. Although the actual words on the page have not changed, the text of the Declaration of Independence has changed, because the textual meaning of the document has expanded.’[1]

      Whilst I might quibble here with the notion of the intentionality of a text, the main point is clear. The clause that ‘all men are created equal . . . endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights’ has been foundational for American life and for various rights movements, and was quoted by Martin Luther King Jr. in his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. Whilst of course there are differences between America’s foundational documents and Scripture, there are surely important analogies too. So my question to Iain: Do you think that contemporary application of the clause ‘all men are created equal . . . endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights’ of the Declaration to ‘women, children, people of color, immigrants, poor people, and handicapped people, as well as adult, white, male property owners’ is good interpretation (or appropriation) of the Declaration or not? Is it an example of ‘reading well’ or not?

      Secondly, as regards OT narrative in particular, which author’s intention should we be concerned with? If we suppose that the books of the OT were complied from various sources (as the book of Kings itself witnesses to, let alone modern scholarship) is it this author’s intention? Or the compiler / final editor of the book? Or the compilers of the OT canon – or the NT canon? What is more, I think that the concept of intentionality, especially with reference to objects of intention, is rather slippery (I have in mind Elizabeth Anscombe’s work on intention). Two examples she uses indicate the difficulty. The first example is the case of somebody worshipping a wooden idol (believing it to be a real god) – an intentional action. But what (in a metaphysical sense) does the worshipper worship? It seems wrong to say simply a piece of wood, as this is not the description the worshipper would give, but it also seems wrong to say the god in question, given that the god does not in fact exist. Another example: if a man takes aim at what he perceives as a stag and shoots it, but in fact it was his father that he mistook for a stag and shot him, what should we say that he shot at? Again, it seems problematic to say either ‘a stag’ or ‘his father’.[2] This may seem a long way from OT interpretation. But what about the more metaphysically oriented texts of the OT, the use of the plural pronoun of Genesis 1:26 for instance? Did the author intend to imply the existence of a divine assembly here, and if so what did the author perceive its nature to be? How similar or dissimilar to the Mesopotamian conception was it? (cf. Provan, 53) Does good interpretation of the text depend on reconstructing the object of the author’s intention – or may we say that the reference of the text transcends the object of the author’s intention, and that perhaps we can read, with Augustine, a glimpse of creation as a Trinitarian act? Similarly with regard to the reference to the image here. Are we limited to interpreting the image in terms of what the author intended to refer to in the ancient Near Eastern context?

      Thirdly, again to press to the point with a particular example with regard to my claim that there may be multiple faithful construals of a scriptural text, my question to Iain is: If it is the case that we may identify what the OT really says (and perhaps that we are to equate this with what the author intended to say), then are we not obliged to have to say, when pressed, whether it is Paul in Romans 4 or James in James 2:18-24 who gives us the correct account of what the OT really says as regards the story of Abraham – or that they are both wrong?

      Finally, (on this point) there is the question of the burden of proof regarding the normativity of authorial intention. I think that Iain regards the burden as mine, but I hope that I have pushed the burden back. Of course the kind of reading that I’m advocating makes the task of the interpreter a difficult one – what does constitute reading OT texts well as Christian Scripture (an intentional stance of the reader)? I made reference to Paul Ricoeur’s work, and I think that a tension remains in his account. He speaks of the triple event character of discourse, but perhaps seeks to resolve the tension in ‘the world of the text’. I want to reject the dilemma that one must either seek the author’s intention or the text alone as the locus of meaning (or the response of the reader for that matter). I see this as a false dilemma, chasing after a chimera, a ‘fact-of-the-matter’ that does not exist – at least not for the kind of texts that we find in the Bible. Of course this indicates how difficult the task of interpretation is. I think that Iain is right to appeal to the canon – although I am much more cautious about speaking of an intentionality to the shaping process. It could well be that we have preserved in the canon a collection of texts that were together taken to be part of the tradition handed down, worthy of preservation, even if their meaning and significance might have been unclear. But I think that the canon, coupled with the tradition that it is foundational for the life of (i.e., the church) gives us the lens with which to read a particular text well – that it is read as Christian Scripture, which is what grounds the preference of one construal or story over another.


      I’d like to turn now to the question of texts (apparently?) advocating violence. Iain suggested,

      ‘I find it rather disconcerting to hear him describing these texts as “advocating violence” (which I do not think they can reasonably be construed as doing, in the context of Scripture as a whole), and especially to hear him saying that he finds “unconvincing” the justification of the conquest in terms of divine justice and the sinfulness of the Canaanites—when that justification is actually prominent in Scripture itself!’

      I find it hard to read, e.g. Deuteronomy 7:1-2, ‘When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations … and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy’ (NIV) as not advocating violence. Or 1 Samuel 15:3 – ‘Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’ With careful study and reflection one might want to say that such texts only apparently advocate violence, or only advocate violence at face value, but it seems to me that if one is to help the reader worried by some of e.g. Richard Dawkins comments for instance, then we ought to be realistic and honest about the texts before us. In their plain sense I don’t see how we can avoid the conclusion that the texts do advocate violence. Perhaps the qualification here that Iain makes, ‘in the context of Scripture as a whole’ is what is needed, but it seems to me that we should face the difficulties that particular texts raise full on. Furthermore, I don’t find ‘the justification of the conquest in terms of divine justice and the sinfulness of the Canaanites … prominent in Scripture itself.’ Such justification is not absent, but I would not say that it was prominent, and no such justification is offered in the book of Joshua. Moreover, the suggestion that divine justice against a sinful society is reflected here seems hard to swallow – the text advocates the killing of infants and donkeys. To put it crudely then, how can a donkey be irredeemably sinful and warrant slaughter as an act of divine justice? In a way I am sympathetic to Iain’s strategy not to major on texts like this as the Bible doesn’t. But on the other hand, this is surely one of the stumbling blocks that readers of the OT face today, and in that sense a full, careful and developed response is what we owe to people struggling to make sense of the OT and its enduring value.


      Finally then, regarding the question of accommodation (which I think relates to the discussion with Ephraim on the limits of apologetics), I fear that we risk ‘talking past’ each other here. I think that Iain has read my comments on this as being bound up with the ability to identify the biblical understanding of X. For me, there are two separate issues. The first, and this relates to the discussion with Sara, is that I wish to question the assumption that there is always such a construct as ‘the biblical understanding of X’. Rather, in some cases, I would want to say that we find in the Bible different traditions that reflect different understandings of X – such as whether Israel is essentially constituted genealogically, or at least by an ‘in-group’ (e.g. Deuteronomy 7:1-5 & Ezra 9:1-2) or by those who pledge allegiance to YHWH, whatever their origin (e.g. Rahab in Joshua 2 & 6 and Ruth). The second issue relates to the question of accommodation – and the difference between a moral vision and pragmatics. I do not want to question that there is such a distinction (although it might be interesting if one did) – the question is in knowing how to draw it, especially in cases where the Bible does present something like a uniform voice. Does a uniform biblical voice imply enduring normativity of the biblical witness on a particular point or concept, even (or perhaps especially) when it cuts across the assumptions of a culture? Iain’s discussion of relationships involving subordination would suggest not. But how are we to know this? This issue relates, I think, to the discussion with Ephraim, as well as my earlier point about meaning and use. Should we in fact sharply distinguish between meaning and use, suggesting that some texts may be well-understood but simply otiose? Perhaps the central question is that of how we may discern where it is that Scripture speaks with an enduring vision that cuts across and confounds the expectations and values of contemporary culture. Conversely, how do we know where Scripture speaks pragmatically in such a way that contemporary culture presents us with a vision or worldview that should also shape or reshape the church’s? So, to be specific, I’d be interested to know how Iain would respond to the example of usury that I alluded to. Is the prohibition of charging interest on loans part of the enduring moral vision formed by the OT that Christians should seek to practise (Exod 22:25; Ps 15:5; Ezek 18:17), as the church supposed throughout much of her history, or of pragmatic accommodation that is now otiose in the 21st century world? It is interesting to note that Muslims continue to take this vision of the OT as having enduring significance as part of the moral vision of society …

      [1] The Revelatory Text: Interpreting the New Testament as Sacred Scripture (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2nd ed. 1999), 175-76.

      [2] See her essay ‘The Intentionality of Sensation: A Grammatical Feature’.

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      Iain Provan


      What the OT Really Says

      I am grateful to Douglas for clarifying what he really meant in his previous contribution, regretful that I misconstrued aspects of it, and committed as always to attending carefully to his communicative intent in everything he writes.  I remain puzzled by his resistance to the idea that “authorial intention is extremely important, perhaps even determinative,” not only in day-to-day discourse such as our ongoing conversation here, but in our reading of Scripture – which so far as I can see we are required by Scripture itself to approach, just as attentively, as a collection of documents possessing communicative intent which derives ultimately from God himself.  Scripture itself insists that it Scripture really says certain things and really does not say others, and that we should aim to grasp the former and let go of the latter, lest we be found among those (for example) who are “foolish … [and] slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken” (Luke 24:25).  It is a far more serious matter, indeed, to fail to grasp what Scripture really says than it is to grasp what each other is saying, or indeed what the American Declaration of Independence says.  On this last point, I would respond to Douglas’s question in this way:  I do not believe that contemporary application of the clause “all men are created equal” to various kinds of persons mentioned in his list is “good interpretation” if the intent is to claim that this represents the communicative intent of the framers of the Declaration.  It would be good interpretation, however, if the intent is to claim that it is represents the communicative intent of the contemporary “American people” who now cite it as a “canonical” text – that this is what these words in the Declaration mean now.

      And this brings me to the question of the OT, including OT narrative.  “What the OT really says” (and I think we are duty-bound to strive to grasp this, for the reasons cited above), it says ultimately at the level, not of individual texts, but of texts in their contexts, and most decisively at the level of their whole OT canonical context and then their whole biblical and canonical context.  To borrow an example to which we have already referred in another part of the Symposium: what the OT really says about answering fools is not found either in Proverbs 26:4 or in Proverbs 26:5 alone, but in both of these taken together (and the same would be true of what the NT says in Romans 4 and James 2:18-24 about the story of Abraham).  The unity of the OT, we can agree, is not a “flat” singularity – I hope that my agreement with this statement is more than evident from the book itself.  Any attempt to state “what the OT really says” must fail to the extent that it cannot account well for all the texts that are found therein.  At the same time, however, its diversity of content should not be construed as implying that it is not “really” saying anything at all.  Proverbs 26 really is offering the reader advice on handling fools: there is an upside and downside to answering these people, and you must weigh these in considering the best course of action in the individual case.  Crucial to my approach here (and Douglas indicates this) are convictions about the intentionality in the canonical shaping process – that it was not just the originators of our OT texts who possessed communicative intent, but those who passed them on and related them to other OT texts.  I find the evidence for this to be strong, and nowadays I am certainly in good company in thinking so.

      This, in turn, leads to the question of “the conquest narratives.”  Here I must insist, consistent with what I have just said above (I was going to say that I would stick to my guns, but then I thought better of that metaphor in this context), that what these narratives mean, they mean in context – in an ANE where hyperbolic language is commonly found in conquest narratives (and indeed more widely in the OT – consider the frequent and imprecise use of “all”), and in a biblical context where (1) war is commonly portrayed as judicial process, and (2) the wars in Canaan, in particular, are portrayed as judicial process with respect to the Canaanites (I do not see that it matters where in the Law and the Prophets this is said, because the book of Joshua is not designed to be read alone).  All of this needs to be factored in when deciding what “the plain sense” of the text might be.  That the texts at any rate do describe some military violence, even after careful reading of them has occurred, of course I do not at all dispute.  It is the statement that “the texts … advocate violence” with which I have a problem.  As we read these texts in the context of the OT, what is it that justifies such a construal of a book like Joshua?  The Exodus is frequently presented to readers of Scripture as a paradigm of lasting significance for them – a basis for their ethics.  The Conquest is not.

      And finally, the question of accommodation.  Let me respond briefly in turn to Douglas’s two points.  On the first: where we find in the Bible “different traditions that reflect different understandings of X,” I believe for the reasons already stated that we are obliged to go on to attempt to say what it is that the Bible really says, overall, about X.  Both canonical shaping in general and explicit Scriptural guidance in particular help us with this task, which in the end is to understand as clearly as we can what God is saying to the church and to the world through Scripture about X.  I do not think that is acceptable, in the end, for Christians to set at odds with each other “different traditions about X in the Bible” and “the biblical understanding of X.”  I simply do not believe that this is how Scripture demands to be read.  Secondly, I would be quite astonished if a Christian did wish to question a distinction in Scripture between moral vision and pragmatics, when Jesus himself clearly teaches that there is one (Matt. 19:1-12), so I am glad that Douglas does not wish to do so.  As to “how we may discern where it is that Scripture speaks with an enduring vision that cuts across and confounds the expectations and values of contemporary culture … [and how] we know where Scripture speaks pragmatically,” I believe that we do so by paying careful attention, again, to texts in their larger canonical context, with particular attention to explicit Scriptural guidance where it exists.  On the specific question of usury: yes, if we are convinced that the OT overall is against interest on loans absolutely, and not only when it becomes oppressive, and if we are also convinced that the OT rules on this topic are intended to carry over from the OT to the NT people of God (i.e. they are more like “do not murder” than they are like “do not mix fabrics”), then of course we should avoid usury so far as we can, even in the modern capitalistic world.  Not every case will be equally clear, of course; but where there is clarity, action should follow.  For when the OT really says things, it intends them to be believed and obeyed.

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      Douglas Earl


      What the OT really says: A ‘battle cry’?

      I’m glad to be able to continue the discussion with Iain. I think, or at least hope, that it is fair to say that there is probably more that Iain and I agree upon (as in our exchange in the responses to Sara) than some of our discussion might suggest, but that it is interesting and helpful to continue to probe where and why it is that we see some things differently.


      If I may begin by reflecting on the conversation on the road to Emmaus that Iain refers to, it is interesting to consider the implications of the observation that the disciples walking along with Jesus needed enlightening both as regards the interpretation of the Scriptures (i.e., the OT, at least roughly) as witnessing to Christ (Luke 24:25-27), and as regards their ability to recognize Jesus walking at their side (Luke 24:30-32). There is much to explore here that will have to wait for another time. For now, I simply want to observe that this conversation hardly testifies to the perspicuity of Scripture, or that scriptural interpretation is a task that may be conducted by an arbitrarily situated reader with the task consisting in an inquiry in to what the authors of the OT intended to say in their original (even canonical, at least as regards the OT canon) context. If this were the case, one would have expected the witness of the OT to have been clear already to the disciples on the road to Emmaus. That said, it would be unreasonable of me to suggest that Luke 24:25 does not (at least on the face of it) lend support to Iain’s claim – that the prophets have spoken, and that we are to grasp what it is that they are really saying. However, if we push this a little further, I don’t think it is clear that Luke here – or at least the gospels more generally – support the kind of interpretative stance that Iain promotes. For let us reflect upon how the gospel writers themselves understood the prophets to have spoken in the OT, and witness to Christ, i.e., what the gospel writers take the prophets to have ‘really said’. Take for example Matthew’s citation of the prophet Hosea (Hosea 11:1) in Matthew 2:13-15. Matthew takes the words spoken by Hosea with reference to Israel, as God’s son being called out of Egypt, to be a prophecy that finds its fulfillment in God’s Son Jesus being called out of Egypt. This seems to be presented by Matthew as what the prophet ‘really said’. But does Matthew’s interpretation of what the prophet spoke here model Iain’s interpretative assumptions? Reading on in Hosea, Hosea 11:2 states, ‘But the more I called Israel, the further they went from me.’ (NIV) I find it hard see Matthew’s interpretation of Hosea here as a reflection of what the OT really says in the sense that Iain wishes to claim. With reference to Joshua, further on in his response to me, he suggested ‘what these narratives mean, they mean in context – in an ANE …’. It is not clear to me that we can say that what Hosea [really] means, it means in context, either in terms of its ancient Israelite or its textual context in the book of Hosea. At the very least then, I think that a contemporary Christian interpreter of Hosea (or any other OT text) would want to say that we best understand what the text means now when we read backwards through the Incarnation, and not simply the text in its originary context.


      This leads me to my next point, Iain’s reply to my question about the interpretation of the Declaration of Independence. I agree with Iain’s analysis here, although perhaps it lacks a conclusion or clarity regarding the essential point at issue – the issue is not that of what interpretative options we have (and Iain sets this out very nicely), but rather that of which interpretative option is to be preferred. What I would want to know as a member of the community that is shaped by the Declaration is whether I am using the Declaration faithfully or well now or whether I have in fact strayed from the world that unfolds before it. The example of Matthew’s use of Hosea does I think lend support to the view that good scriptural interpretation is not exhausted by consideration of the meaning of a text in its originary context, or in the intention of its author. However, for the sake of clarity, I should say, as I said earlier, that I do not think that authorial intention, or the meaning of a text as read in its originary context are to be disregarded. In some cases, I take them to be determinative, but for me this is to be judged on a case-by-case basis, with it being the tradition of reception of the text that helps to inform us. As an example, I think that Walter Moberly’s careful analysis of the term ‘fear of God’ in Genesis 22 in terms of what the idiom means within the OT’s own frame of reference is foundational to reading Genesis 22 well in the contemporary context, as against readers such as David Gunn & Danna Nolan Fewell who take the response of a contemporary reader to the word ‘fear’ as constitutive of contemporary interpretation.[1] Thus I do not advocate the radical ‘reader-centered’ approach of Gunn & Fewell, but neither do I advocate a purely author or text-centered hermeneutic either, especially when coupled with the claim that there is a single ‘correct’ reading. I think that a willingness to consider what constitutes good interpretation and use of texts on a (contextual) case-by-case basis gives a better account of what it is that we in fact generally recognize to be instances of good interpretation. I suppose then that I am seeking to consider what constitutes good interpretation on a case-by-case basis, drawing upon various resources to do so, rather than seeking to identify what constitutes good interpretation once for all, for all texts. I hope that the examples that I have given are helpful in indicating this, although there is the danger that people will see my position as being confused or lacking in method.


      Regarding what texts really say, I think that (sometimes at least) there is an issue concerning the level of specificity involved when claiming to be stating what a text ‘really says’ in particular instances of interpretation that in fact gives Iain and me some ‘wriggle space’ to find common ground in terms of what we want to say about using a biblical text in practice. What I mean is this. In places I am with Iain completely – I would agree that, to quote Iain, ‘Proverbs 26 really is offering the reader advice on handling fools: there is an upside and downside to answering these people, and you must weigh these in considering the best course of action in the individual case.’ However, I am less convinced in mapping such a similarly vague account of interpretation across to Paul and James’ use of Abraham’s story. The difficulty that I have is in specifying the level of precision that we give in trying to identify what a text is ‘really about’. In the case of Proverbs, I think that the level of specificity or precision that Iain gives is just about right, being entirely appropriate to the text. But in the case of, say, Genesis 22, it seems to me that if one wishes to claim that the text is really about X, then X ought to be specified reasonably precisely if the claim that it is really about X is not to be trivial. So, I would think that many could agree that Genesis 22 is about responding faithfully to God – but, at least for the kind of stance that Iain advocates, I think such a statement lacks sufficient precision to give his interpretative claim sufficient content or bite to do useful interpretative work over and against other interpretations. So, the fairly broad and rather unspecific interpretative claims that Iain makes with regard to Paul and James’ use of Abraham’s story make his interpretative claims feel more to me more like ‘idle wheels’ or ‘battle cry’ in the interpretative process. With such a broad claim to the text’s meaning, it seems that in practice there is probably very little difference between the sort of reading that I would propose and the sort that Iain would – the difference being perhaps how we each claim to get there.


      As regards canonical shaping, my worries remain regarding the intentionality that Iain (and others) suppose, especially when coupled with the view that the Christian tradition is a tradition often of misinterpretation of the OT, or at least largely irrelevant for reading the OT. I think that the point is nicely put in one of John Barton’s criticisms of Brevard Childs:

      ‘On [Childs] view it is in principle possible that the very same generation of Christians who fixed the main outlines of the canon is also a hopelessly unreliable guide to the correct way of reading the canon. … [I]f we practise canon criticism on the understanding that we are thereby being true to the mind of the Church that gave us the canon, we shall need to explain why our actual conclusions are so different from theirs. If we are not prepared to say that tradition furnishes any guidance to the correct way of reading the text, then why should it be considered normative when it tells us what the limits of the text are to be?’[2]

      Or, to put the matter more explicitly in the terms of our discussion here, if we are to be guided by the intentions of those who shaped the canon in our interpretation of it, then how can we also say that they are a hopelessly unreliable guide to reading it, and that their interpretations of it are irrelevant or even misinterpretations?


      On the question of the conquest, I guess that we have each indicated our positions on this. I think it is fair to say that Iain stands in the well-established Augustine-Calvin-Evangelical tradition in his reading, whereas I stand more in the tradition of Origen’s reading, even though Iain would, I guess, rather not regard his reading as shaped by a tradition, although I’m quite happy to be corrected. It is perhaps worth indicating as a historical note that I think that it is fair to say that Origen would see the literal reading of, e.g. Calvin, of Joshua as essentially Marcionite in orientation. In his homily on Joshua 10:20-26 Origen remarks,

      ‘But Marcion and Valentinus and Basilides and the other heretics with them, since they refuse to understand these things in a manner worthy of the Holy Spirit, “deviated from the faith and became devoted to many impieties,” bringing forth another God of the Law, both creator and judge of the world, who teaches a certain cruelty through these things that are written. For example, they are ordered to trample upon the necks of their enemies and to suspend from wood the kings of that land that they violently invade.

      And yet, if only my Lord Jesus the Son of God would grant that to me and order me to crush the spirit of fornication with my feet and trample upon the necks of the spirit of wrath and rage, to trample on the demon of avarice, to trample down boasting, to crush the spirit of arrogance with my feet, and, when I have done all these things, not to hang the most exalted of these exploits upon myself but upon his cross. Thereby I imitate Paul, who says, “the world is crucified to me,” and, that which we have already related above, “Not I, but the grace of God that is in me.”

      But if I deserve to act thus, I shall be blessed and what Jesus said to the ancients will also be said to me, “Go courageously and be strengthened; do not be afraid nor be awed by their appearance, because the Lord God has delivered all your enemies into your hands.” If we understand these things spiritually [i.e. not literally] and manage wars of this type spiritually and if we drive out all those spiritual iniquities from heaven, then we shall be able at last to receive from Jesus as a share of the inheritance even those places and kingdoms that are the kingdoms of heaven, bestowed by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, “to whom is the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen!”’[3]

      I think that the point for Origen is that it is not worthy of the Holy Spirit to understand the text literally, i.e. as actually advocating physical violence towards others. Origen takes the depiction of violence at the literal level to be a cue to interpret the text in some other way, i.e. spiritually in the way that he outlines here (cf. his On First Principles, 4.2.9). It is interesting, moreover, to observe that we have said very little about the role of the Holy Spirit in fostering good interpretation. I suppose that sadly I have very little to say that would be helpful on this point, so I’d be grateful for any comments.


      To head off now in a slightly different direction, I put it to Iain that we find in the Bible ‘different traditions that reflect different understandings of X’, suggesting that there is a certain raggedness to the unity of Scripture. Iain’s response is that ‘we are obliged to go on to attempt to say what it is that the Bible really says, overall, about X’. But in light of what has just been said about Proverbs 26, this seems problematic. I think it is in places like this that I am happier with an open-ness or raggedness than Iain – I want to stop short of resolving or collapsing different voices in to one where they do not speak together. I think that Proverbs 26 is a reasonable and fairly uncontroversial example – two approaches to the fool are given, and it is not possible to collapse this in to a single, definitive approach to any arbitrary fool. Perhaps this is not a great example or analogy, but is one that can be stated briefly and I hope makes the point. I suppose that I still feel that it is not clear why one would prefer (or even should prefer) one tradition within the Bible over another; why one subordinates one tradition to another, or interprets one as the moral vision and the other in terms of pragmatics or accommodation, rather than leaving things ragged. The impression I have is that on Iain’s account’s own terms I really ought to choose – whereas I prefer an approach that is more like that reflected in the wisdom literature of the OT, as our discussion of Proverbs has indicated, and as in the discussion of Sara’s response.


      As regards Iain’s reply to my question about usury, I suppose is that what is interesting is that in practice it looks like Iain and I would probably try and deal with the question along similar lines, facing the same kind of issues to do with discernment. It is not clear to me how one would make good progress here, but I think that this is a difficulty both for Iain and for myself in our different approaches to the OT. Again, it strikes me that it is quite easy for either of us to make fairly general statements of principles, but very hard to translate this in to making progress on a specific issue like this. I guess that if the answers to Iain’s ‘ifs’ on the question of usury are in the affirmative, then the OT is ‘seriously dangerous’ for contemporary society – and perhaps rightly so.

      [1] R.W.L. Moberly, The Bible, Theology and Faith: A Study of Abraham and Jesus (Cambridge: CUP, 2000), esp. 80-97. Cf. D.M. Gunn & D.N. Fewell, Narrative in the Hebrew Bible (Oxford: OUP, 1993).

      [2] J. Barton, Reading the Old Testament: Method in Biblical Study (Louisville: WJKP, rev. ed. 1996), 97.

      [3] Hom. Josh. 12.3, in B.J. Bruce (trans.) Origen: Homilies on Joshua (FC 105; Washington: CUA Press, 2002), 123-124.

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      Iain Provan


      Perspicuity, Originary Contexts, and the Blessed Origen

      A very few, final, and relatively brief thoughts from my side on this excellent discussion with Douglas – “final” as well as “brief” because I’m beginning to feel like the juggler in the town square who gets an extra ball thrown in from the crowd every so often just to make his life more interesting.  Apologies, along these lines, to Ephraim and Sara, if they’ve left further posts elsewhere to which they are expecting a reply – the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak and time is short, and I need reserve some time and energy for the final two participants in the Symposium.

      On Luke 24: well, this is not the only place in the Gospels where Jesus expects people to have understood already what the OT really has to say, before he launches into a teaching session.  Is he not blaming the disciples on the Emmaus Road for the fact that “the witness of the OT” is not “clear” to them?  And does he not also blame others for the same thing – on quite a number of occasions?  We surely do not wish to say (do we?) that what the OT in general teaches was unclear before Jesus came to clarify it (even though he did “fulfil” it).  So far as I can see, that would make a nonsense of much of what Jesus himself actually says.  The perspicuity of Scripture is not something that I believe in because I personally find all of it perspicuous; I am obliged to believe in it, I think, because of what Jesus and the apostles tell me about it (and therefore also to communicate as best I can, with all of my blind spots and flaws, what I believe it really says).  It was perspicuous before Jesus came (which is why those who failed to believe and to behave in certain ways were critiqued by him), and it has been perspicuous ever since – which is not to say that its perspicuity does not pertain in this latter period to more truth than was evident in the former (not least that it is, in fact, Jesus of Nazareth to whom OT prophecy refers), nor that everyone “gets” everything that Scripture says (obviously not – consider the fools on the Emmaus Road).

      As to Hosea 11:1, I disagree on the question of whether Matthew’s interpretation represents “what Hosea [really] means … in context.”  I think that Matthew is reading here and elsewhere in a thoroughly contextual manner: he is declaring, in the words of my colleague Rikk Watts, “that Hosea’s hope of God’s accomplishing his initial purposes in Israel is now eschatologically fulfilled in Jesus, his truly obedient son.”  The book of Hosea expresses genuine hope, as a whole book and in the context of the Law and the Prophets read together overall, and Matthew announces that this hope has genuinely been fulfilled.  Matthew is not reading something into the book of Hosea, but reading something out of it that is actually there as a matter of communicative intent (which is precisely what modern readers of the Declaration of Independence are not doing, however noble their ideals may be).  “Originary context” is the term that need to be unpacked here; the originary context of Hosea is not just what the prophet said to certain people now and then back in the 8th century BC, but what his whole message was understood to mean in the context of the developing canon in the aftermath of Exile.  This does bring us right up against the question of canonical shaping, however, about which Douglas has expressed some “worries.”  Here I only wish to clarify that I would certainly not want to say both that “we are to be guided by the intentions of those who shaped the canon in our interpretation of it” and at the same time that “they are a hopelessly unreliable guide to reading it.”  That would not be a good description of my view, and I am sorry if I gave the impression that it is.

      On the question of the conquest, finally, I am no doubt influenced by the tradition that Douglas mentions, but that is not why I hold the view that I do; I think that all tradition must always in the end be measured by Scripture, read fundamentally in its literal sense (which includes its canonical sense), and that Origen often (much more often than Augustine or Calvin) does not fare at all well when this exercise is played out.  He is just a really poor reader of the OT in so many ways, not least because of the speed with which he often seems to fly away from what he thinks of as the literal sense before he has even struggled properly with the text – it really seems to function often only as a starting point for a “spiritual” thought.  If he had spent a bit more quality time with the text, with a predisposition at least to consider that the problem might not be with the text but with his own philosophical (and indeed ethical) presuppositions as these had developed in his own cultural context, he would have been more helpful to us.  We are, after all, supposed to sit under the text, and not over it (not even for the sake of reputation of the Holy Spirit, who I venture to suggest is perfectly well capable of looking after this all on His own).  Perhaps this sounds a little harsh, but if it does, it is only because I believe that the very ability of Scripture to function authoritatively as it demands is at stake here – its ability deeply to critique the reader’s “horizon” (as well as particular beliefs and practices).  Origen really gets under my skin when it comes to this issue.  Actually, on reflection, I will only sound especially harsh to those who have never read Luther.



Shopping the Marketplace of Ideas

IAIN PROVAN’S NEW BOOK usefully defies customary genre expectations. Is it an Old Testament theology? A work of apologetics? A study in comparative religion?

In fact it is all of these. The main emphasis throughout lies on describing the content of the Old Testament, as the book’s subtitle indicates (What the Old Testament Really Says and Why It Matters). As part of an introductory statement about the fundamental importance of “story” and “worldview,” Provan draws a contrast between the “Old Story” of the Christian tradition (i.e., the biblical story) and its contemporary competitors—stories of an “axial age,” a “dark green religion” and a “scientific new age.” Provan isn’t content, as others have been, merely to criticize the weaknesses of these competitors. Instead he intends to do the constructive heavy lifting needed in order to demonstrate how the worldview on offer in the Old Testament is preferable to its alternatives.

To this end Provan begins each of his following chapters by treating a particular aspect of the biblical witness. Chapters 2 through 6 explore what he calls “the five central questions of human existence” (163), each time beginning with the Genesis narrative and working out toward the rest of the canon from there. Each time Provan also engages in detailed comparison between the Old Testament’s “worldview” and the “worldviews” found in other major philosophies and world religions. This is how his book becomes just as much a work of comparative religion and apologetics as an Old Testament theology. I am unaware of any biblical theology that attends in such detail to other religious traditions. The scholarly ambition and range of this particular feature of Provan’s project is most impressive.

After treating basic questions about the world, Provan proceeds in chapters 7 through 9 to discuss the moral vision of the Old Testament. Chapters 10 and 11 treat politics and eschatology. Chapter 12 considers the relationship between the two testaments of the Christian Bible, and whether the New Testament confirms or corrects the Old. Here Provan strikingly insists on a high degree of continuity: “The New Testament does not tell a new story. It only takes an older story further—further up and further in” (346). In his two final chapters Provan returns to the conceptual framework with which he began. In chapter 13 he considers the truth of the Old Testament’s worldview in comparison with other modern claimants to truth. In chapter 14 he takes up the charge of “danger,” which has persistently been levied against the Old Testament in modernity, and stands it on its head. For those who wish to destroy the environment, erode respect for life and evade social responsibility, yes, the Old Testament is indeed “dangerous.” But understood correctly, the Old Testament is eminently reasonable. It is not only true, it is rational and accountable to evidence and logic (351–53).

Provan’s strong appeal to reason may thus threaten to confuse and undermine the force of his main title (Seriously Dangerous Religion). On the one hand, as suggested by the cover illustration of Samson overturning the pillars of the Gaza temple, Provan’s point seems to be that the message of the Old Testament is itself dangerous (although the illustration is also so dark that it is difficult to see clearly; the cover designers get bad marks for this). Indeed, Provan offers statements to that effect: “Biblical faith is dangerous . . . to those among the powerful who would like to be left alone to use and oppress the weak and those among the rich who would like to be left alone to use and oppress the poor” (385). But as this quotation also suggests, Provan’s polemic turns on an ironic use of the term in which the true danger of the Old Testament finally confronts only those who misunderstand, misuse or contradict it. Is the Old Testament in and of itself really dangerous or not? Can it be all that dangerous if in the end it is so very reasonable?

Nevertheless, the first thing to say in terms of evaluation should be an expression of gratitude. These days anyone who takes the Old Testament “seriously” enough to reflect on it theologically deserves thanks and admiration. This particular book is especially brave because it opens itself to all sorts of criticism from scholars of comparative religion and religious thinkers in other traditions. Who can truly achieve the academic competency necessary for this kind of work? And yet Provan has given it a valiant effort, which is far more than most of us could do and certainly more than I will ever be capable of. In fact I do not even feel fully competent to review the comparative aspect of Provan’s project. I hope that others will do so in detail. His interreligious claims should receive considered response.

I do want, however, to make two general comments about this aspect of the book. First, whether Provan is finally correct in all his details or not, his work urges an important caution with regard to the way in which other religious traditions are often romanticized in contemporary culture. Perhaps this phenomenon occurs in part due to a sense of cultural fatigue with Christianity and to the allure of novelty. Some of it may also be rooted in the foundational myth of religious studies, namely, that “religion” is a single thing occurring in various local manifestations, that all “religions” are ultimately the same. They are not all the same, Provan insists, and discernment is needed in order to draw appropriate distinctions among them. (See, e.g., his devastating treatment of the “Wikipedia belief” about the universality of the Golden Rule, 218.) Provan is surely right that in an increasingly multicultural world, all religious adherents will need to be more discerning about their own beliefs and the beliefs of others, even as they are also more charitable.

But—and this is the second point—I felt an increasing sense of unease about a possible absence of methodological parity within Provan’s comparative arguments. In describing the worldview of the Old Testament, Provan relies on his own scholarly engagement with the biblical text. Indeed, it is necessary for him to do so, he reports, because many “insiders” (i.e., Christians) have misunderstood their own story (13). He therefore writes theologically and normatively on his own authority, at times correcting the history of interpretation (e.g., the treatment of the “curses” in Genesis 3, 134; the christological reading of Gen 3:15, 286; the subordinate role of women, 320–21). Sometimes this correcting is explicitly acknowledged, but sometimes it is not. Provan’s discussion of God’s goodness thus skirts numerous difficult passages (e.g., Isa 45:7) in order to make the best possible case. While he concedes the reality of divine anger, jealousy and vengeance (62–72), he explains them quite tidily as entailments of God’s love.

The point again isn’t whether Provan is right in these claims, but whether he applies the same burden to the Christian tradition that he employs with regard to other religions. When he describes the teachings of Buddhism, Hinduism or Islam, he builds upon the comparative work of descriptive religious scholars rather than “theologians” or practitioners within those religions. Christianity, or a Christian understanding of the Old Testament, would take on a different character in a study produced by that kind of religious scholar. Of course, Provan means to be normative, to contemplate questions of truth, and I welcome that intention (although others may fault him for it). My worry is instead that if Provan is going to characterize Christianity normatively and sympathetically, then would it not be fairer and more charitable to cut other religions the same sort of slack? (See, e.g., how Provan acknowledges the possibility of a more sympathetic view of gender roles within modern Islam during his discussion of Sura 4:34, pp. 99–100, but then proceeds to discount that possibility in favor of how the text has been understood “historically”). Would it not be more charitable to engage the emic presentations of theologians in other religious traditions rather than to rely upon the etic academic textbooks featured in Provan’s footnotes? To be fair, I do realize that such internal, participant-oriented descriptions can be challenging to locate and use.

However, this worry leads to my next critical observation. For a book about the Bible and theology, this one has remarkably little explicit engagement with biblical scholarship and the Christian theological tradition. Again, to be fair, Provan announces in his introduction that he wants to write broadly for a nonspecialist audience. Yet there is no reason why he might not have engaged biblical and theological scholarship more fully even while maintaining such a goal. He does provide isolated references, for example, to Athanasius (approvingly, 281), Theophilus of Antioch (critically, 283), Aquinas (approvingly, 284), Irenaeus (critically, 286) and Augustine (approvingly, 90, 346). But the impression given is that these figures are finally only other “readers” of the biblical text from history. There is not really a sense of a Christian tradition of interpretation or, for that matter, any significant role for the church. Doctrinal statements are not employed as providing a “grammar” for theological discourse or rule of faith. There is little sense of a “people of God.” Rather, the stress falls on the way that individual readers of the Bible can “help build” society according to the biblical vision of a “kingdom of God” (337).

Yet this handling of the biblical material also sounds distinctly Reformed. The emphasis on reason, the view of salvation history as a series of increasingly narrower covenants (294), the advocacy of a social “common good” are all deeply Reformed reflexes, as is the fundamental category of “worldview,” a notion that has had a major impact on contemporary pedagogy in Reformed circles. Indeed, Provan’s treatment of the Old Testament reads very much like an outgrowth of this kind of educational theory—with the possible exception that Provan treats the Old Testament largely in cognitive terms, as a collection of beliefs that can be isolated, identified and compared with similarly isolated beliefs in other religious thought-systems. But even worldview-type Reformed thought has moved away from this old-fashioned reliance on the cognitive aspect of religion in order to appreciate more fully the precognitive, affective formation of individuals within religious cultures. (See, e.g., James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009].)

By treating the Old Testament as a cognitively-framed worldview, Provan is certainly able to draw useful distinctions. But he also runs the risk of confirming that the Old Testament is just one more product on offer for individual consumption in the modern religious marketplace of ideas. By reading the Old Testament as a collection of worldview beliefs, Provan’s study may ultimately be a symptom of the same consumer-sickness that he is attempting to treat, as his easy and acknowledged reliance on Leon Kass’s The Beginning of Wisdom (Free Press, 2003) would appear to confirm. (Kass’s book is a fine study in its own right; what I mean to call attention to is the oddity that its secular perspective should dovetail so neatly with Provan’s avowedly Christian approach.)

Provan’s handling is also evangelical and socially conservative. Although he offers strong support for Christian egalitarianism (317–20), he argues for “design” in creation (356–57), against abortion and assisted suicide (386–87), and for a “nonnaked public square” (401–3). On these and other points, whether readers agree or disagree with Provan, it seems fair to say that the biblical witness is not quite as clear as Provan wants his readers to think. Or at least that Christians in fact disagree on such matters in good conscience and appeal to differing aspects of the biblical witness in making their case.

From the purview of Old Testament scholarship, it appeared to me that Provan sometimes made possibly anachronistic historical claims (e.g., his assertion that Israelite temples were aniconic, 82). His claim that in Genesis 1 God “simply speaks” creation into existence has been successfully contested. (See, e.g., Terence E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation [Nashville: Abingdon, 2005], 37–38.) I was also disappointed to see Provan characterize all sacrifice in the Old Testament as operating on “the principle of substitution” (66), without acknowledging any debate, given the large body of work now contradicting this position. However, I found Provan’s discussion of biblical ethics as “subversive accommodation” (339–42) to be intriguing and helpful. I would be happy to read a follow-up account from him in which he went into greater detail about this way of understanding politics and the Bible.

I hope that I have been able to pose a few incisive questions in response to Provan’s impressive work. Nothing here is intended to diminish the significance of his accomplishment. Seriously Dangerous Religion is a major synthetic statement of unparalleled scope, deserving a wide readership. It illuminates and challenges, even as it confirms that rumors of the Old Testament’s demise are greatly exaggerated.

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    Iain Provan


    Reason, Religion, and Reformation: A Response to Stephen Chapman

    I am very grateful to Stephen for his many kind words, and I welcome the opportunity to enter into dialogue with him about his reservations concerning my book. He is concerned, first, that my “strong appeal to reason may . . . threaten to confuse and undermine the force of his main title.” I was a little surprised when I read this. Why should we think that Scripture could not at the same time be reasonable and dangerous? Reason is given to us by God, is it not, who makes reasonable claims upon our lives and even asks us to come and reason together about our relationship with Him? This reasonable truth is dangerous to us, so far as I can see in Scripture, only because of our rebellion. I’ll be glad of further conversation on this point, because I fear that I may be missing something. I do not think that the OT is hostile to reason. I do think that it is hostile to autonomy with respect to God.

    Secondly, and with respect to my treatment of other religions: I think that it is important to remember what the point is of these little excursuses in the main chapters of the book. It is not to enter into an exhaustive account of the religions in question, and certainly not to describe all the arguments among those within those religious traditions about how best to interpret their own scriptures and teachings. It is simply to clarify what I believe Scripture to be saying about a number of perennial and important questions by comparing and contrasting its teaching with other ways of looking at things. Therefore, the fact that some modern Muslims (e.g.) are trying to develop a view of gender roles that is very different from the majority Muslim views throughout history and in the present is not, strictly speaking, very important for my purposes (although it is of course very interesting). I do not see myself as “discounting” this revisionist view (although most Muslims themselves discount it)—but it is not the main focus of my interest, which at that point in my argument is about what the Qur’an says and how its form makes it challenging for anyone to “re-read” it in divergence from past reading (which I think is true). I would have been happy enough to deploy “emic” readings had I come across many of them, and had they possessed good illustrative value; but their general absence, I think, is not very important in context. Having said all this, though, let me make it clear that if any Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist (and so on) were to demonstrate to me that I have misrepresented their religion in what I have written, I would regard this as a major failure on my part. I have tried very hard to be accurate, if not exhaustive. To this point, no such protest has been entered; but it is of course early days.

    Thirdly, Stephen chides me for my lack of explicit engagement with “biblical scholarship and the Christian theological tradition” in the book, and he sees no reason why I “might not have engaged biblical and theological scholarship more fully” even while maintaining my goal in writing. I confess that I am unrepentant on this point. The book is already very long, and even those who love it typically tell me that it is too expensive for it to get “out there” widely among my intended readership. I took a conscious decision to draw a large map for readers, and not to get bogged down in details. To be frank, the creation of that large map is actually what I think is the more important thing. Once people are engaged with OT Scripture again (or for the first time), and actually care about finding out more about it because it has become meaningful (and reasonable!) to them, they can easily go on to other books that make further connections. At present, however, most Protestants in the West don’t care much about the OT (and that includes many preachers), because they do not see its relevance to them. They don’t need more “detail books,” in my opinion, and they typically don’t have much idea what to do with them when they encounter them. Do they need to know about the church fathers? Sure! Do they need to know about them more than they need to know how the OT itself answers life-questions? I do not believe so. Many Protestant readers will already find it novel that I make so many references to the history of interpretation (including that of the church fathers). I believe that scholars reading the book will know, without my drawing attention to it, that I am well-versed in the biblical and theological scholarship; for the rest, I am not clear what is to be gained for the readership by making this clearer than it is. And on the topic of being well-versed, incidentally (and without feeling in the slightest defensive, let the reader understand!), let me make it clear that I did not write that “Israelite temples were aniconic,” but that “Israelite temples built and furnished in line with this [i.e., Moses’] commandment were . . . aniconic.” I also did not “characterize all sacrifice in the Old Testament as operating on ‘the principle of substitution,’” but stated that “the principle of substitution . . . is found throughout the biblical texts about sacrifice” (which is true). I do maintain in spite of Fretheim’s work that “in Genesis 1 God ‘simply speaks’ creation into existence.” I say this just for the record. I am sorry if my wording was responsible for the misunderstandings; perhaps I could have been clearer.

    Almost finally, let me respond to Stephen’s comment that my handling of the biblical material is “Reformed.” My strong hunch is that my Reformed friends would think, in fact, that it is not Reformed enough. I certainly did not set out to be Reformed. If my view of salvation history is that it is “a series of increasingly narrower covenants,” it is because I believe this to be, in fact, true of the biblical story. If I were to be striving to be Reformed, I would be reading Genesis 1–3 along the same lines, introducing the notion of covenant into the mix there. The reader will look in vain, however, for any such idea, since I do not think that such a reading is true to Genesis 1–3, and in fact I think that it has done a lot of theological and pastoral damage over the centuries. Perhaps we can discuss this further. Does the OT present a “worldview.” Yes, I believe so. Must it compete in the marketplace of ideas? It always has had to do so! Even though I believe it to be true, I surely must recognize that it is competing for consumers (or much better, converts). And as to Leon Kass, I take him to be a Jewish reader, not a secularist (see the preface to his book). Am I mistaken in this? And suppose he is a secularist? Cannot he also be a really attentive reader of the OT—possibly a better reader than some Christians? Certainly I find him so.

    Finally, I am of course aware that people disagree with me on such matters as “design” in creation, abortion and assisted suicide, and the “nonnaked public square.” But I do not agree with Stephen that “the biblical witness is not quite as clear as Provan wants his readers to think” on such matters. Had I thought so, I would not have written as I did. This brings us back to the issue of interpretative pluralism, which seems to be something of a theme in the responses to SDR. So let me remind my colleagues that, no doubt quite unfashionably and terribly politically incorrectly, I am arguing in this book for what I believe to be the correct way of reading the OT Scriptures. I am really happy to have people argue back, and put a different case. I shall be delighted to find people trying to persuade me that I am wrong (in which case I hope that I will change my mind). It is not reasonable, however, to ask me not to say forthrightly what I believe to be true, just because other people take a different view! At the heart of what I am about is hearing God’s voice through the OT Scriptures. Where I hear it clearly, I must inevitably receive it and communicate it, whether people agree with me or not.



Belonging to a Reflective Tradition

UP UNTIL LAST YEAR Iain Provan was primarily known for his “maximalist” approach to Old Testament historicity in A Biblical History of Israel, as well as a few commentaries on individual OT books. In this new volume we have a different kind of book altogether. It is nothing short of a “cracking good read”: academically rigorous, accessible, and devotionally edifying—three virtues rarely found together.

Not many books today successfully bridge the gap between academy and church, and those that do are almost never rooted in the Old Testament. Apart from the inherent difficulties in making academic research accessible, the discipline of OT scholarship has further struggles to overcome. Anyone wishing to demonstrate the contemporary relevance of the OT must first acquire an opinion about its overall theological message, and the current structure of the discipline is implicitly hostile to such an enterprise. Instead, it encourages (1) fragmented expertise limited to tiny portions of the biblical text, and (2) research that is restricted to historical description alone, purged of any theological implications. To raise one’s head above the parapet and say something about the “theology of the OT” in general, is to invite criticism from everyone defending their own territorial area of research. It is easy to tear down someone else’s generalisation by insisting that they have failed to take your own biblical passage seriously, and preferable to say nothing yourself that steps outside the boundaries of that biblical passage for fear of receiving the same treatment. The result is an increasing mass of disconnected historical research, and a dearth of “big picture” attempts to cohere that research into something theologically robust and relevant.

In the face of these obstacles, Provan has written a daring retrieval of the OT’s answers to the questions that form a worldview: What is the world? Who are human beings? Who is God? What is wrong with the world? What is my role in putting it right? Provan is not afraid of generalising the OT’s answers to these questions—nor should he be. It is the task of philosophy to generalise, and the human mind must do so in order to form a foundational worldview. That being said, in what follows, I offer a (hopefully gentle) critique of Provan’s hermeneutic as being overly modernist and not aware of the limits of its own historical location.

Modernist Methodology and the Limits of Reflection

Although Provan’s book avoids many of the mistakes made by the biblical theology movement, he has not escaped one of the most inscrutable of them—the temptation to epistemological autonomy.

In the heyday of biblical theology (ca. 1940s–1960s), there was much enthusiasm about throwing off the shackles of ecclesially-imposed dogma and instead reading the Bible afresh on its own terms. Like the subtitle of Seriously Dangerous Religion, their slogan could easily have been “What the Bible really says” where the substance of that “really” was a stripping away of doctrinal constraints and their replacement by rigorous historical-critical investigation.

But within only a couple of decades the elusiveness of such a project became apparent. An anarchic multitude of conflicting theologies arose, which disagreed profoundly with one another over their most basic assertions. Eventually scholars such as James Barr and Brevard Childs exposed the problematic assumptions behind the entire project, and by the 1970s it had been laid to rest.

Looking back, we can see the extent to which every biblical theologian’s work in that period was shaped by their historical location, how much their interpretation was inescapably filtered through the lens of a pre-reflective cultural outlook. What emerged clearly from the movement’s demise was that there will always be multiple tenable readings of the Bible, each one academically defensible yet none victorious over the others. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we all bring our presuppositional framework to the text, and the line between exegesis and eisegesis is harder to draw than it might at first appear. The mistake made by the biblical theologians was to adopt a methodology that Bernard Lonergan labels the “principle of the empty head.” This principle, says Lonergan,

bids the interpreter forget his own views, look at what is out there, let the author interpret himself. In fact, what is out there? There is just a series of signs. Anything over and above a re-issue of the same signs in the same order will be mediated by the experience, intelligence, and judgment of the interpreter.1

And of course, the interpreter’s experience, intelligence and judgment are shaped profoundly by his or her own place in history. Such embeddedness within history should not be seen as a deficiency or problem—otherwise we are wishing for the Platonic detachment from the world that Provan is so keen to combat. Rather, awareness of our created nature leads to a refreshing humility about the limits of our human perspective.

What worries me about Provan’s book is that there are times when he seems to slide unwittingly into the error of assuming a superior, transcendental perspective, detached from any reading tradition or place in history. For example, in several places he talks about the OT (like the biblical theologians do) as if all we need to do is read it “on its own terms.” He writes, “Later interpreters of the Old Testament may have understood [x], however, the Old Testament itself does not lead us to read [y] in such a way” (135). Or, “[A certain] conclusion . . . appears to me to be obviously correct. Many other readers . . . however, have not come to such a conclusion” (90). Even more disturbingly, he talks of reading the OT through the lens of the NT as if it were an “unfortunate tendency” and then speaks as if nothing were easier than reading the OT “for its own sake” (13).

If Provan is saying here merely that we must avoid jumping too quickly to the New Testament in order to dismissively explain the Old—that the Old and the New must instead mutually interpret one another, rather than the New simply trumping the Old—then it is hard for any Christian to disagree with him. But if he means that we can have access to “what the OT says in itself” and that the NT would be a hindrance to discovering this, then he is assuming a critical distance from any reading tradition including the Christian one. The problem, as Robert Jenson observes, is that “when reading Old Testament texts christologically or ecclesially is contrasted with another reading which is said to take them ‘in themselves,’ or in their ‘original’ sense, the churchly reading inevitably appears as an imposition on the texts.”2

If we believe the New Testament when it says that Christ is the true meaning of the Old Testament, then that is what the Old Testament “in itself” has always meant, and to see Christ in its pages is not an imposition of meaning. To be a Christian is to read the OT through the lens of the NT. Not to be a Christian is to read the OT through another equally mediated lens—an Enlightenment, or Jewish, or historical-critical tradition—which is no more neutral than the Christian one. The supposition that we have unmediated access to the text is a temptation to be avoided, especially if it includes the assumption that others have blurred vision due to their traditions, while we alone see clearly. As Paul Ricoeur neatly summarises:

Modern exegetes are like us. They work and think at the end of a history. In this sense, the one thing that would be criticisable would be the naïve claim of an exegesis that held itself to be without a history, as though it were possible to coincide, without the mediation of a tradition of reading, with the original signification of a text, even with the presumed intention of its author.3

We “work and think at the end of a history” not only when interpreting texts, but when interpreting reality more generally. As Heidegger has taught us, our grasp of reality has the complication that we are always inside it and a part of it, never removed to a critical “objective” distance. Unfortunately, Provan attempts the same critical detachment from history in chapter 13, in which he presents an apology for the worldview he finds in the Old Testament. The goal of that chapter is to assess whether the philosophy gleaned from the OT is “truer to the facts, and [makes] better sense of them than competing stories” (348). How are we to determine this? The answer is, apparently, through the light of natural reason and evidence (353).

First, Provan criticises the attitude of the “practical man” (quoting Keynes) who, by being unreflective, is captive to certain philosophical ideas from the past without realising it (349). He then goes on, by means of rational reflection and evidence, to correlate the Old Testament’s claims with those of modern science (354), with basic observations about human nature (368), and with “historical reality” (371).

Several questions present themselves here. First, if simple observation and reflection should lead us to see the biblical account as most plausible, then why have so few people in history ever naturally coincided with the biblical worldview? Why are there so many alternative philosophies and religions and how did people come up with them? What is wrong with them that is not wrong with Iain Provan? How is he able to see so much more clearly than everyone else that the facts of science, history and reason point in the direction of the Bible? Is he just more reflective and rational than anyone else? Or are his powers of reason and observation as much under the influence of preceding philosophies (in this case, the Old Testament itself) as everyone else?

It is noteworthy that in chapter 13 there is a shift in Provan’s tone from the preceding chapters. Where previously the Old Testament text was foregrounded through Provan’s training and expertise in its interpretation, in this chapter we find instead a plethora of subjective admissions: “it seems to me” (355, 368), “I believe that it is” (353, 359), “I am convinced” (356), “I think” (357), “I suggest” (358, 377), “I myself find [x] congruent/persuasive” (366, 371). Suddenly Provan’s own perspective is in the foreground. What has happened here?

Probably this is an implicit admission that what seems plausible to him may not, even after much reflection, seem plausible to others. But if true, this carries more significance than Provan gives to it. It means that, as Paul Ricoeur put it, “reflection always comes too late”:

The idea that one can somewhat neutrally reflect on theology and detachedly consider experience, tradition, and the Scripture is challenged by the emphasis that humans emerge in tradition and experience that is already shaped in deep and pervasive ways that can hardly ever be brought to conscious reflection.4

The creeping danger here is that of intellectualism: to imagine that if we simply think hard and clearly enough then we will arrive at the truth. In fact even the most intelligent, rational and reflective being among us is still under the influence of philosophies and ideologies from the past, and the sooner we admit that, the sooner the intellect and reflection will find their rightful place in theology.

Provan’s excellent book would have been even more excellent if he had built into it an explicit awareness of its belonging to a philosophical/religious tradition and speaking on its behalf, rather than an ostensibly autonomous analysis of the veracity of the Old Testament. If he had done so, the book may have contained less of the half-hearted apologetics of chapter 13, and more striking insights like the one in chapter 14 that human rights are far from “self-evident,” and “the ‘Western’ view of human rights is intrinsically connected with the [Biblical] Story that has historically shaped Western culture” (385–86). This insight goes against the grain of chapter 13, in which reality, properly understood, does “self-evidently” support the biblical worldview.

In 2010 I took my first class with Iain Provan. It totally transformed my relationship to the Old Testament, opening my eyes to its philosophical power and relevance. I am delighted that I now have on my bookshelf a volume encapsulating much of that experience, and I will not hesitate to recommend it enthusiastically to anyone seeking a robust, coherent, and devotionally rich understanding of the Older part of the Old Story to which we all belong.


  1. Lonergan, Method in Theology (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972), 157.

  2. Jenson, On the Inspiration of Scripture (ALPB, 2012), 30.

  3. André LaCocque and Paul Ricoeur, Thinking Biblically: Exegetical and Hermeneutical Studies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 332.

  4. Dan Stiver, Ricoeur and Theology, Philosophy and Theology (London: T. & T. Clark, 2012), 55.

  • Avatar

    Iain Provan


    Overly Modernist? A Response to Barney Asprey

    I am delighted to see Barney in this conversation, and grateful for his kind words on a number of fronts. He will not be surprised, however—since this is only the latest phase of a conversation that has been going on for several years—to find me robustly objecting to his suggestion that my hermeneutic is “overly modernist and not aware of the limits of its own historical location.”

    It is obvious, is it not, that “every biblical theologian’s work” is “shaped by their historical location”? It does not follow, however, that there will also be “multiple tenable readings of the Bible, each one academically defensible yet none victorious over the others.” Or at least, as my high school math teacher used to tell me when I would arrive at an intuitively brilliant solution to a problem without apparently having done the work to get there, “I’d like to see the working.” I fully grant a history of multiple readings of the Bible. But “tenable”? According to whom? “Academically defensible?” Again, according to whom? As I look at the history of biblical interpretation (and not just in the modern period), I see good readings, “dodgy” ones, and completely awful (and dangerous) ones. And I have come to such conclusions about them all because, although “the line between exegesis and eisegesis is harder to draw than it might at first appear,” it is in fact possible to draw it—which is just as well, otherwise we would all be well advised to abandon this conversation right now and go fishing instead. It must also be possible for an interpreter to say true things even though his/her “experience, intelligence and judgment are shaped profoundly by his or her own place in history” (otherwise even the truth of what Jesus had to say would come into question). I am all for humility in response to such realities, but I am not at all for giving up on perfectly sensible notions like reading the text “on its own terms” (as opposed to some other terms) and “for its own sake.” These are simply ways of speaking about the objectivity of the text, for all that we recognize that we are subjectively relating to it. I’m reading Barney’s text “on its own terms” and “for its own sake” as I write this (subjectively). Like Douglas, I’m sure that Barney is glad of this.

    So what is “disturbing” about my writing about the problems involved in many ways of reading the OT and the NT together? I write as a Christian (obviously). I am not assuming “a critical distance from any reading tradition including the Christian one” when I write. I am standing, as a Christian, within the tradition. But as I do so, I am not assuming, either, that every Christian in that “Christian reading tradition” has always generated acceptable readings of OT (or for that matter NT) Scripture. Surely Barney is not saying that this is a problem? That to stand in “the Christian reading tradition” means that I am required to think that every Christian reading of the OT before me is just fine? If he is, “I’d like to see the working.” There’s a good reason why “churchly reading” sometimes “appears as an imposition on the texts,” as Jenson concedes. It is because it actually is. And sometimes in the process an enormous amount of disrespect is displayed, in my opinion, toward Holy Scripture. I flatly disagree that “to be a Christian is to read the OT through the lens of the NT.” To be a Christian is to receive the OT from Christ as our primary Scripture, “in accordance with which” everything from the beginning of the church had to be demonstrated to be, throughout the apostolic period and then all the way down as far as Irenaeus. To be a Christian is then to accept also the NT as the deposit of apostolic exegesis of the OT in the light of the Christ event. I am not interested in “neutrality.” I am committed to being a Christian. But I understand this as it relates to Scripture, it seems, in a rather different way from Barney, and his failure to realize this (or perhaps my failure to explain it well) has led him to characterize my stance quite wrongly. I possess no deficient grasp of “the limits of [my] own historical location”; but even so, I believe that Scripture, in this location, is capable of speaking God’s word and holding to account (among many other things) poor and even perverse readings of it.

    The same theme comes to expression later in his review when Barney turns to my apologetic for the truth of OT Scripture in chapter 13. Apparently here, too, I attempt “critical detachment from history.” How so? Simply in the fact, it seems, that I attempt an argument for this truthfulness, deploying rational reflection and evidence. Barney seems to think that this is unwise. I fail to see why. First, he asks, “if simple observation and reflection should lead us to see the biblical account as most plausible, then why have so few people in history ever naturally coincided with the biblical worldview?” But I don’t expect them to do this “naturally”; that is precisely why I am engaging in persuasion. “Why are there so many alternative philosophies and religions and how did people come up with them?” he asks. This is so because people’s minds are darkened, and they are sinful and foolish. We need to help them to see the truth, and argument (Christians have often believed) is one way of doing this. “What is wrong with them that is not wrong with Iain Provan?” Barney proceeds. “How is he able to see so much more clearly than everyone else that the facts of science, history and reason point in the direction of the Bible?” I do not know if I do see more clearly; but I am obliged (surely) to communicate what I have seen, in the hope that it helps some (perhaps even many) toward Christian faith. Or does Barney think that our awareness of our limitations and sinfulness should prevent us from doing such things? Which parts of Scripture or tradition would he bring to bear in support of such a surprising contention? I simply do not follow the argument.

    In sum, I cannot escape the impression that Barney brings a particular lens to my book that distorts his perception of important dimensions of it. He has got it into his head that “modernity” involves a false claim to “neutrality,” over against “tradition,” and therefore that “modern biblical scholars” are committed to foolish notions like, “if we simply think hard and clearly enough then we will arrive at the truth.” This is, unfortunately, a caricature (at least when it is generalized), itself arising out of a particular (and sadly increasingly popular) (post)modern tradition, often clothing itself in much older clothing. And so he comes to perceive my book as lacking “explicit awareness of its belonging to a philosophical/religious tradition and speaking on its behalf.” For my own part, I do not think that there is any lack of clarity at all in SDR about where I am coming from, as I interpret Scripture and write about it. But at the same time, I am definitely making claims about what the OT actually has to say, objectively speaking. I am unapologetic about this, even as I recognize that it is unfashionable in some quarters to proceed in such a manner at the present time.

    In conclusion, let me repeat that I feel honored that so much effort has been expended by my colleagues in interacting with my work. Some very important matters have come up for discussion as a result, and I trust that we shall all be helped as a result to engage in better Bible-reading, better church history and theology, better communication of the gospel, and better education of and support for ordinary folk in our churches and beyond, who have much greater need of us scholars clarifying things than they have of us complicating them, even as the complications must of course be attended to.

    • Avatar

      Barnabas Aspray


      Can any text be read “on its own terms”?

      Iain is quite right to ask that I “show him the workings” for some of my conclusions. He is perhaps also right to push back a little against some of my rather hasty assertions about the method. I am willing to concede that Iain is careful with his language in his introduction, especially in regard to objectivity and neutrality of interpretation. He was obviously mindful of the kind of critique I am suggesting during the course of writing, hence his resistance to my pressing the charge nonetheless.

      I shall attempt to articulate, more slowly and carefully, the difference between Iain’s hermeneutics and mine. I engage in this exercise in the hope that this showing-the-workings will advance the conversation productively. What follows is in three sections: (1) ‘general’ hermeneutics of text, providing the background for (2) ‘special’ hermeneutics of OT-NT relations, leading to (3) what “standing in the Christian tradition” does and doesn’t mean. (For the sake of space I shall bracket out the question of apologetics, although I am keen to pick that discussion up again if this one grinds to a halt!)

      1. Reading a Text “on its own terms.”

      Reality is objective. Truth is objective. But knowledge is not objective. As Aquinas says, the known object is received by the knower according to the knower’s own mode of being. Language is also not objective, but arises from the shared life experiences of particular cultural-historical milieux.

      If knowledge and language are not objective, it follows by extension that text is not objective. Or perhaps it is better to say that as an object, a text is singularly uninteresting – a series of black lines on white background. But as discourse, a text suddenly becomes worthy of attention: a series of signs pointing to a reality beyond itself.

      As discourse, the meaning of a text is a product of the relation between the author and the reader. Iain is quite right to stress (contra a couple of other reviewers) the vital importance of authorial intention for understanding the Old Testament (or any text). Even Derrida called authorial intent the indispensable “guardrail” to protect authentic reading. But Iain would be wrong if he supposed that authorial intention were sufficient to determine the meaning of a text. The reader also contributes to the meaning from his/her end. Therefore, although there are many wrong readings of a text (i.e. readings which do violence to the authorial intent), it does not follow that there is only one right reading. In fact there are as many right readings as there are readers – each unique but all mutually compatible.

      If the above is granted then it follows that there can be no such thing as reading a text “on its own terms.” We bring our whole understanding of reality to bear on our interpretation of a text. The world of the text cannot be isolated and made to mean something “by itself” because each word in the text is pointing to the wider reality, mutually shaping and being shaped by the reader’s broader worldview. Iain says that he is reading (for example) my commentary “on its own terms” and expects that I am glad of this. But in fact I sincerely hope he is not reading my text “on its own terms.” I hope he is reading it in conjunction with everything both of us know about Old Testament studies, philosophical hermeneutics, and Christian history. My text would be incomprehensible apart from this bigger picture.

      In light of the above, we can see the misunderstanding in play when Iain says (quoting me) that “although ‘the line between exegesis and eisegesis is harder to draw than it might at first appear,’ it is in fact possible to draw it—which is just as well, otherwise we would all be well advised to abandon this conversation right now and go fishing instead.” The misunderstanding here is to see the reader’s contribution to meaning as an error to be avoided, obscuring the pure and unadulterated authorial meaning of the text. The fact that we can never draw that line perfectly – the fact that we can distinguish but not separate the author’s and reader’s contributions to meaning – leads the modernist to “despair and go fishing instead.” Why? Because the modernist thinks that the goal of interpretation is to eliminate the reader from the equation. Any residue of the reader’ eisegesis is due to sin and imperfection, rather than to being created and human.[1]

      Iain also says (again quoting me) that “It must also be possible for an interpreter to say true things even though his/her ‘experience, intelligence and judgment are shaped profoundly by his or her own place in history’.” I only disagree with the words “even though” here. They reveal that Iain thinks of our historical shaping as an obstacle to saying true things, rather than an essential part of any true statement. The implication is that we should keep trying to remove our limited historical nature from obstructing true interpretation, and if we try hard enough we can succeed in “saying true things.” But are we really trying to achieve the right thing? Do we really have the right conception of truth here? Should we really use the Bible’s “own terms” to read it? When considering the attempt to eliminate the self’s perspective from interpretation, Richard Rorty says “We should not regret our inability to perform a feat which no one has any idea how to perform.”[2] We have no choice but to start from our own experience and categories. As James Barr says, “The use of concepts and categories taken from ‘without’ the Bible is both natural and necessary.”[3] This is not a problem or a flaw but a correct understanding of our own created nature and the nature of truth.

      1. Reading the Old Testament with the New Testament

      All this abstract theorizing suddenly touches the ground when we consider the question of whether Christians should read the Old Testament through the lens of the New. It should be clear by now why I think we should. The New Testament has a particular interpretation of the Old which we either stand inside or outside. To attempt to read the Old Testament without the lens of the New is inevitably to read it with some other lens. If the New Testament is the best lens, then why should we shun it in favour of an inferior one? There is no “lensless” reading – our interpretation is guided by our understanding of all of reality, and our position regarding the truth of the NT is a pretty large factor in that understanding. As Walter Moberly puts it, reflecting on Luke 24:

      “The disciples of Jesus are Jews and as such would already possess an extensive familiarity with the content of their scripture. The clear implication is that the story of Israel in Hebrew scripture is no different from the story of Jesus – it is possible to know the material without understanding it (v. 25). The key is provided by a particular perspective, on which is indeed rooted in the actual content of the scripture, but which is only realized, and so made accessible, through the passion and resurrection of Jesus (v. 26). So, as Jesus cannot be understood apart from Jewish scripture, Jewish scripture cannot be understood apart from Jesus.”[4]

      But there is another reason we should gratefully read the OT through and NT lens, and this is because the two form part of a continuous narrative.  In order to make this point clear I must offer an extensive analogy.

      Let us suppose that someone said “We should interpret The Fellowship of the Ring without reference to The Two Towers or The Return of the King.” This could mean one of two things:

      1. It could mean “let us see what The Fellowship of the Ring contributes uniquely to the overall story known as The Lord of the Rings.” This is hard to argue with as a hermeneutic, since every part of the story is a valuable contribution to the whole.
      2. Or it could mean “let us pretend we hadn’t read The Two Towers or The Return of the King and imagine what The Fellowship of the Ring would mean by itself without these continuations of the story.” This might be a fruitful exercise if one were imagining multiple alternative endings. But I fail to see what value this has for any other purpose. We know how the story continues. Why should we pretend we don’t?

      Furthermore, imagine that someone, claiming to “read the Fellowship on its own terms” declared that the best way to continue the story would be for Gandalf to return from the darkness and apparent death of Moria. Would we not be a trifle suspicious of how they had come to that conclusion? Would we not wonder whether their reading of the Fellowship really was unbiased, unaffected by their reading of The Two Towers? I think we would rather say that, for their reading to coincide so closely with the true continuation of the story, they are either consciously or unconsciously “reading the Fellowship through the lens of The Two Towers.”

      Therefore the important question is this: is the New Testament the true continuation of the narrative begun in the Old Testament? If so, then there is little point imagining that this decisive event has not occurred and coloured our understanding of the Old. Every movie with a twist in it transforms your understanding of what went before – not that the later part of the movie imposes its categories on the earlier part, but quite the contrary – the later part turns out to bring greater clarity to what was already there.

      1. Standing in the Christian Tradition

      But all this is irrelevant philosophising if it fails to answer Iain’s reasons for reading the OT the way he does. Iain claims that

      To be a Christian is to receive the OT from Christ as our primary Scripture, “in accordance with which” everything from the beginning of the church had to be demonstrated to be, throughout the apostolic period and then all the way down as far as Irenaeus. To be a Christian is then to accept also the NT as the deposit of apostolic exegesis of the OT in the light of the Christ event.

      My position does not differ very far from Iain’s, but I think that nonetheless it carries far-reaching implications. I would like to argue that “the apostolic period all the way down to Irenaeus” actually saw OT interpretation as given its fundamental orientation from the event and person of Jesus Christ as revealed in the New Testament.

      In a passage already discussed in this symposium, when Irenaeus deals with false interpretations of Scripture, where does he turn? Here are two quotations from him:

      But Jeremiah also says, “In the last days they shall understand these things.” For every prophecy, before its fulfilment, is to men [full of] enigmas and ambiguities. But when the time has arrived, and the prediction has come to pass, then the prophecies have a clear and certain exposition. And for this reason, indeed, when at this present time the law is read to the Jews, it is like a fable; for they do not possess the explanation of all things pertaining to the advent of the Son of God, which took place in human nature; but when it is read by the Christians, it is a treasure, hid indeed in a field, but brought to light by the cross of Christ. (Haer. IV.26.1)

      Irenaeus believes that the OT is inherently ambiguous and subject to multiple interpretations, until the time of its fulfilment in Jesus. And again:

      [H]e who retains unchangeable in his heart the rule of the truth which he received by means of baptism, will doubtless recognise the names, the expressions, and the parables taken from the Scriptures, but will by no means acknowledge the blasphemous use which these men make of them. For, though he will acknowledge the gems, he will certainly not receive the fox instead of the likeness of the king. But when he has restored every one of the expressions quoted to its proper position, and has fitted it to the body of the truth, he will lay bare, and prove to be without any foundation, the figment of these heretics. (Haer. I.9.4)

      The first clause of that quote is the most important. Who is equipped rightly to know the meaning of the Scriptures? He who has in his heart the rule of the truth. Irenaeus recognises that there is something transformative about being a Christian that changes the way one interprets the Old Testament. This makes sense when we remember that one of the primary interlocutors of Christianity for the first few hundred years was Judaism, i.e. an alternative interpretation of the Old Testament. The distinguishing feature for the early Christians was not that they were interpreting the OT “on its own terms” – the Jews had a far stronger claim to be doing that – but rather that they saw Jesus as the key to what the OT “really means” and had always really meant.

      Irenaeus comes from a tradition which sees knowledge, not as amassing of information or accumulation of facts, but as formation according to a particular “rule of truth.” For the Christian tradition, that rule is the apostolic faith, handed down and preserved by the New Testament (among other things). This is how I would answer Iain’s question about what it means to stand in the Christian tradition. He says:

      Surely Barney is not saying that … to stand in “the Christian reading tradition” means that I am required to think that every Christian reading of the OT before me is just fine? If he is, “I’d like to see the working.” There’s a good reason why “churchly reading” sometimes “appears as an imposition on the texts,” as Jenson concedes. It is because it actually is.

      Iain is quite right: I am not saying that he must think every Christian reading of the OT to be just fine. What I am saying is this: if Christianity is true, then churchly reading of the OT is the opposite of an imposition – it is a clarification. This is, I would argue, the way Irenaeus and the other church Fathers saw it. This is what it means to stand in the Christian tradition.


      [1] On this, see James K. A. Smith, Fall of Interpretation, The: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic, 2nd ed. (Baker Academic, 2012).

      [2] Cited in James K. A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Relativism? (The Church and Postmodern Culture): Community, Contingency, and Creaturehood (Baker Academic, 2014), 6.

      [3] Cited in Anthony C. Thiselton, The Two Horizons: New Testament Hermeneutics and Philosophical Description with Special Reference to Heidegger, Bultmann, Gadamer, and Wittgenstein, 1st American ed (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1980), 9.

      [4] R. W. L. Moberly, The Bible, Theology, and Faith: A Study of Abraham and Jesus (Cambridge, U.K. ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 51.

    • Avatar

      Douglas Earl


      Authorial intention?

      I find myself much in agreement with Barnabas’ initial and subsequent responses to Iain. For instance, although I might wish to nuance the claim about what the OT ‘has always meant’, I think that I would generally agree that

      ‘If we believe the New Testament when it says that Christ is the true meaning of the Old Testament, then that is what the Old Testament “in itself” has always meant, and to see Christ in its pages is not an imposition of meaning. To be a Christian is to read the OT through the lens of the NT.’

      I say ‘I think’ here because the discussion is rather abstract, and not focused on any particular texts or interpretations as examples to flesh out what this means in the actual practice of reading Scripture. Without some ‘worked examples’ I’m not quite sure if my readings would look more like Iain’s or Barnabas’, or whether all our readings would actually look rather similar in many cases. Undoubtedly poor Christian readings have in fact been ‘imposed’ on the OT text at various points. But I also think that some Christian readings that might be described as ‘figural’ (to use a modern category), or readings that emerge from taking the text as in some sense an ‘icon’ have fruitfully illuminated and shaped Christian life and identity down the ages in a way that transcends what the text ‘originally meant’ however this is to be understood.


      What surprised me in Barnabas’ subsequent response to Iain, especially in the light of his apparent indebtedness to Paul Ricoeur, is his focus on authorial intention:

      ‘As discourse, the meaning of a text is a product of the relation between the author and the reader. Iain is quite right to stress (contra a couple of other reviewers) the vital importance of authorial intention for understanding the Old Testament (or any text). Even Derrida called authorial intent the indispensable “guardrail” to protect authentic reading. But Iain would be wrong if he supposed that authorial intention were sufficient to determine the meaning of a text. The reader also contributes to the meaning from his/her end. Therefore, although there are many wrong readings of a text (i.e. readings which do violence to the authorial intent), it does not follow that there is only one right reading. In fact there are as many right readings as there are readers – each unique but all mutually compatible.’

      I had formed the impression that Barnabas and I were in fairly substantial agreement at a number of points (which I think is the case), but it seems that there is in fact an important difference regarding authorial intention that might be fruitful to explore. So I wonder if Barnabas could clarify his position here: First, does he think that he is with Ricoeur regarding ‘the vital importance of authorial intention’? I suppose I find it curious that Barnabas seems indebted to Ricoeur in many ways (although perhaps I have misread him), whilst (on my reading of Ricoeur) there is a fundamental difference between the two authors as regards the significance of authorial intention. For Ricoeur suggests that writing

      ‘produces a form of discourse that is immediately autonomous with regard to the author’s intention. … [I]n this autonomy, is already contained … the issue of the text which is removed from the finite intentional horizon of the author …

      By [the “world of the text”] I mean that what is finally to be understood in a text is not the author or his presumed intention, nor is it the immanent structure or structures of the text, but rather the sort of world intended beyond the text as its reference. In this regard, the alternative “either the intention or the structure” is vain. For the reference of the text is what I call the issue of the text or the world of the text. The world of the text designates the reference of the work of discourse, not what is said, but about what it is said. Hence the issue of the text is the object of hermeneutics. And the issue of the text is the world the text unfolds before itself.’[1]

      In the quotation from Barnabas above it is interesting that he focuses explicitly on the author and the reader but not the text, whereas in the quote from Ricoeur it is the text that is the focus of interpretation. Of course for Ricoeur it is not the text in isolation (‘on its own terms’?), but the text in the context of the tradition of which it is a part as the reader appropriates it from their horizon. So perhaps this is a long-winded way of asking Barnabas whether he sees his approach as essentially in continuity with Ricoeur’s or not, and why.


      So, to try and flesh out the implications of this a little, when Barnabas says

      ‘Therefore the important question is this: is the New Testament the true continuation of the narrative begun in the Old Testament? If so, then there is little point imagining that this decisive event has not occurred and coloured our understanding of the Old. Every movie with a twist in it transforms your understanding of what went before – not that the later part of the movie imposes its categories on the earlier part, but quite the contrary – the later part turns out to bring greater clarity to what was already there.’

      I find myself in agreement – perhaps. The question is what is meant by ‘to what was already there’. If he means in the Ricoeurian ‘world of the text’ sense then I agree, although it is hard to see then what the significance of authorial intention is – it seems like an ‘idle wheel’. But if Barnabas means in terms of the intentions of the authors then I would disagree, at least partially, for the sorts of reasons that Ricoeur sets out, and owing to reflection on the history of reception and use of the biblical texts. I think that for Ricoeur part of the issue here concerns the nature of symbol, metaphor and poetic or fictional discourse – as having an excess of meaning that transcends the intentions of the author. Serious narrative somehow captures ‘more than’ the glimpse of the world that the author has, and I would think that a good case could be made that this is even more the case with the OT than with literature in general.


      Part of my concern to distance myself more from authorial intention that Iain or Barnabas seem to be happy with then is that various OT texts have in fact evocatively shaped the Christian imagination and identity down the ages in a life-giving way by reading them in a way that seems hard to reconcile with the prioritization of authorial intention. If a majority critical view emerges that suggests that the most plausible reconstructed authorial intention that is reflected in some text is somewhat at odds with an established Christian reading, what are we to do amid this desert of criticism if we wish to stand within the Christian tradition and read the text as a Christian, and as Scripture? Should we really abandon the traditional reading, however fruitful and theologically illuminative it might be? There seem to be a good many Christian interpretations of OT texts that seem to be better understood in terms of a focus on the world of the text, suggesting that this is indeed a better focus for interpretation than authorial intention (and also what it is that offers a hermeneutical control). Ricoeur suggests that literary texts function as icons; we should allow the world of the text of Scripture intertextually to unfold before us as we appropriate it from within our tradition. This does not mean that any reading is as good as another – as I indicated in my discussion with Iain, Ricoeur was clear on this. I am reluctant to dispense with readings that have shaped Christian identity for almost two millennia based upon what is a modern ideology of reading. I favour the adoption of reading with a second naiveté, as Ricoeur suggests.


      So my second question to Barnabas is that of the extent to which we should or should not be held hostages to the presumed intentions of the authors as regards OT texts (and of course, as I asked Iain, which author? – see Samuel Wheeler’s ‘Intentionalism and Texts with too many Authors’ on for a discussion of this point, along with a discussion of the difficulty of setting out a good account of ‘authorial intention’). This is where I think we need to turn to some examples. For instance, what account do we give of Paul’s allegorical reading of Genesis in Galatians 4, or the tradition of the identification of the serpent in the garden of Eden with Satan (Wisdom of Solomon 2:24 and Revelation 12:9), or Christian metaphysical appropriations of the image of God in Genesis 1:26 (which Ricoeur discussed), or Christian appropriations and liturgical uses of Isaiah 52-53 or Ezekiel 37? I find it hard to reconcile any sufficiently robust account of the priority of authorial intention with the later appropriations of the texts, appropriations which I take to be good uses of the texts. I take it that, for example, a strong case can be made that the author of Isaiah intended to portray the nation of Israel metaphorically as the suffering servant of the Lord, and Ezekiel to portray the raising of the bones as metaphorically portraying the restoration of the nation of Israel from exile, rather than evoking individual resurrection from the dead. I would be glad if Barnabas could clarify what his hermeneutic looks like in practice when it comes to dealing with these (or similar) examples.

      [1] P. Ricoeur, ‘Toward a Hermeneutic of the Idea of Revelation’, in P. Ricoeur (ed. L.S. Mudge), Essays on Biblical Interpretation (London: SPCK, 1981), pp.73-118, here 99-100.

    • Avatar

      Iain Provan


      On Right and Wrong Reading of Scripture

      First, I am glad that Barney and I agree on “the vital importance of authorial intention for understanding the Old Testament (or any text)” – that “authorial intent [is] the indispensable ‘guardrail’ to protect authentic reading.”  As a reader reads, then, and “contributes to the meaning from his/her end,” one of the questions to be asked should be: is this reading authentic, or not?  We may well “bring our whole understanding of reality to bear on our interpretation of a text,” but can this fact not itself lead us to inauthentic reading – to “readings which do violence to the authorial intent” and are therefore (in Barney’s own words) “wrong readings”?  The point is not (and I must emphasis this again in the light of the reappearance of the “modernist” straw man in Barney’s response – a “man” does not help us in the slightest in this conversation, no matter which illustrious scholars have invoked him) “to eliminate the reader from the equation” or “to eliminate the self’s perspective from interpretation.”  The point is to ensure that the reader (any reader, including myself) is in an appropriate relationship with the text, listening to it rather than imposing himself/herself upon it, and perhaps even twisting it to his/her own ends (e.g., as Satan does in Matthew 4 – which does raise a question in one’s mind about Barney’s “there are as many right readings as there are readers”).  It is surely extraordinarily important to ensure that we find ourselves in an appropriate relationship with the text especially when the text in question presents itself to us as the very Word of God.  It is such a relationship that I myself sought in writing in Seriously Dangerous Religion.

      Secondly, the issue with respect to the OT and the NT is not whether as Christians we should read the “New Testament [as] the true continuation of the narrative begun in the Old Testament?”  Of course we should, as the closing chapters of Seriously Dangerous Religion themselves make clear.  The issue is whether the earlier part of that story “really says” things in advance of the writing of the later part.  The NT itself tells me that it does, and indeed it tells me (I am quoting my own response to Barney now) “that I must receive the OT from Christ as our primary Scripture, ‘in accordance with which’ everything from the beginning of the church had to be demonstrated to be, throughout the apostolic period and then all the way down as far as Irenaeus.”  This being so, it should be possible to describe what the OT really says, pointing ahead to Christ, in advance of the writing of the NT, which points back to him – even while embracing the whole biblical story as one story.  And this is what I have endeavored to do in SDR, trying to help readers (including Christian readers) to get into an appropriate listening mode with respect to the literal sense of OT texts with which they are probably not very familiar.  It is seems to me that there is great value in such focused attention to this part of the biblical story.

      Barney wants to say, finally, that “if Christianity is true, then churchly reading of the OT is the opposite of an imposition – it is a clarification.”  But he also tells me that it is all right not to consider “every Christian reading of the OT to be just fine.”  So which readings are impositions, and which are clarifications, and how shall I know?  Does this not take us back to the first point: “wrong readings” are “readings which do violence to the authorial intent”?  And the next point would surely be that the Jewish opponents of Jesus and his apostles missed the intent of the OT that it always possessed in itself, not that there is “something transformative about being a Christian that changes the way one interprets the Old Testament,” such that I am now able to comprehend what were previously texts “[full of] enigmas and ambiguities.”  I do not see either Jesus or the apostles treating the OT as a body of literature “[full of] enigmas and ambiguities.”  I do see them holding people to account for ignoring what OT Scripture clearly says, and not only because Jesus has come.  So Irenaeus is not completely helpful in the first quote, although his insistence in the second that good reading is always reading that places texts in their proper context (i.e. the whole sweep of the biblical story, which is what “the rule of truth” consists in) is of course sound advice.  It is, unfortunately, precisely an emphasis on “hidden meanings,” however, that in large measure does lead on, in the post-apostolic church, to what often cannot be said to be “clarifications” of the OT at all, but are certainly “impositions.”

      One final question for Barney, in order to focus this discussion lest it become too abstract.  What is it, exactly, in SDR – and I am thinking “specific claims” – that he would think of as an error in the interpretation of the OT that arises from my “mistaken” approach to it?  It would be helpful to deal with something concrete, rather than going around the block again on the intricacies of philosophical hermeneutics.

    • Avatar

      Barnabas Aspray


      Reply to Douglas

      I would like to thank Douglas for his engagement and interesting questions. He is quite right to suppose that I have been influenced by Paul Ricoeur in my theory of interpretation – and also by Gadamer, who Ricoeur drew on and modified. I also think that Douglas is right that at the practical level “all our readings would actually look rather similar in many cases.” If this turned out to be true, it would remain to be seen whether such was the case because we had all accurately deduced the authorial intent of the text, or because we were all reading unconsciously through the lens of our own tradition. I would suggest that much evidence points to the latter being the case.

      I share with Iain a concern for “getting things right,” “saying true things,” and for unity and agreement in the meaning of a text. Thus, while I am happy to admit multiple correct interpretations of a text, I am keen to insist that they should all be compatible and mutually enriching. There are two kinds of pluralisms – the kind that can all be true at once without excluding one another, and the kind that cannot all be true at the same time. That is why the community of interpretation is so essential to good reading. It is not only that many people can correct one another, whereas a lone individual more easily slides into error. It is also that many people can receive mutual benefit from the insights gleaned from one another as to the meaning of the text.

      It seems to me that authorial intention serves as a helpful anchor to any understanding of the “true” meaning of a text. Where I differ from Iain is that I don’t see authorial intention as determinative (to use Douglas’ word), i.e. I don’t believe that we cannot or must not go beyond authorial intent. I would suggest instead that we go beyond authorial intent immediately upon understanding and appropriating a text. To quote the famous line from Gadamer, “understanding is not merely a reproductive but always a productive activity as well.”

      When Ricoeur talks about the text’s detachment from its author, in the lines Douglas quoted, I do not understand this to mean that we shouldn’t even look for an implied author when debating the meaning of a text. Instead, I understand Ricoeur to mean that the text opens up a space (or a world) which grows and expands with every new reader’s entry into it. So perhaps this is a long-winded way of saying that I think I am in continuity with Ricoeur, but may be interpreting him falsely too (it is worth noting that even when discussing Ricoeur’s texts we can’t avoid some notional appeal to authorial intent).

      When I say that the New Testament “brings greater clarity to what was already there” in the Old Testament, I think I mean in terms of the world of the text, not the pure authorial intention. I am not sure it’s possibly to be a Christian and stick dogmatically to authorial intention in this regard. Surely some of the Old Testament prophecies acquire new meanings in the New Testament that were never in the mind of the author? But at the same time, even to understand the text’s new meaning properly, it is necessary to refer back to what the author meant as a taproot of meaning. When we consider Jesus’ fulfilment of Isaiah 53, we must remember both that (a) Isaiah never envisaged this type of fulfilment of his prophecy, but also (b) we understand how Jesus fulfils it more the better we understand what Isaiah did mean.
      Douglas says:

      “If a majority critical view emerges that suggests that the most plausible reconstructed authorial intention that is reflected in some text is somewhat at odds with an established Christian reading, what are we to do amid this desert of criticism if we wish to stand within the Christian tradition and read the text as a Christian, and as Scripture? Should we really abandon the traditional reading, however fruitful and theologically illuminative it might be? … I am reluctant to dispense with readings that have shaped Christian identity for almost two millennia based upon what is a modern ideology of reading.”

      This is a hugely important question and one I do not have a full answer to yet. But for now I would simply caution that in the past we have often proven too quick to jump on the bandwagon of the “latest research” imagining that it overturns a lot of traditionally held readings. The “latest research” keeps changing, almost by definition, and if Christianity changed with it each time then we would already several times over have taken a position which, twenty years later, would have to be reversed again. There is also a large number of both bible scholars and theologians who each insist individually that if we all paid close enough attention to his/her own work, we would undoubtedly agree with it and with all the changes to historic Christian faith that it implies. But such a position is not yet even close to a “majority critical view” nor is it likely ever to be, simply judging by the quantity of rival alternatives.

      On the theoretical question of what we should do if a majority view ever arose, I do think that, among other things, we would have to interrogate our judgment of what counts as a “fruitful” or “illuminative” reading, since our understanding even of what is life-giving is ultimately subject to Scripture. I do not think we need assume that everything that has shaped the Christian tradition is unambiguously good. But it is also possible for us to say, as Augustine says in de doctrina Christiana, that one has arrived at the right destination by a wrong path. The path doesn’t become correct simply by virtue of the destination. For example, when I first learnt that historical-critical readings of the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25 undercut the overwhelmingly common usage of this parable, I did not cease to believe that we should treat those in need – either Christian or non-Christian – as if they were Jesus. I think there is ample evidence elsewhere in Scripture to support such a view. But in arriving at the more critically supported reading, I learnt something about the early Christian community’s struggle to find comfort amidst great persecution, and the way in which Jesus offers them encouragement, that I would not otherwise have learnt.

      Once again, many thanks to Douglas for his engagement. He has forced me to think hard about some issues which have not yet become crystal clear to me, which is the best one can hope for as the result of a symposium!

    • Avatar

      Barnabas Aspray


      The Expanding Meaning of the Text

      I had wanted to give Iain the final word, but he has asked me so many questions it would seem rude not to attempt to answer them! Suffice it to say that this will be my last comment (unless Iain says something so outrageous I simply can’t help myself).

      Implicit Perspicuity

      I don’t have a problem with any specific OT interpretations in SDR. My concerns are about what these interpretations claim as their authoritative basis – why we should accept Iain’s interpretation over against other interpretations. Iain’s stance towards the text is quite no-nonsense “look-at-what-it-actually-says,” tempered on rare occasion by the admission that “this is the way it seems to me. I can only describe the way it seems to me, can I not?” Iain also (again, occasionally) acknowledges that he is reading as a Christian. But the muscle of SDR – the main thrust of it – is a claim, not about a Christian perspective on the text, or about a Provanian perspective, but a claim about what the text simply and plainly says. As has already been discussed in Douglas’ commentary, Iain believes in the perspicuity of Scripture, and this belief underpins much of his approach.


      The perspicuity of Scripture is not something that I believe in because I personally find all of it perspicuous; I am obliged to believe in it, I think, because of what Jesus and the apostles tell me about it (and therefore also to communicate as best I can, with all of my blind spots and flaws, what I believe it really says).  It was perspicuous before Jesus came (which is why those who failed to believe and to behave in certain ways were critiqued by him), and it has been perspicuous ever since – which is not to say that its perspicuity does not pertain in this latter period to more truth than was evident in the former (not least that it is, in fact, Jesus of Nazareth to whom OT prophecy refers), nor that everyone “gets” everything that Scripture says (obviously not – consider the fools on the Emmaus Road). [from previous commentary]


      Now, as I am sure Iain is aware, the doctrine of perspicuity has morphed in recent times to mean something it never meant when Luther articulated it. Luther meant that there are no sacred mysteries in Scripture which patient historical research cannot reveal. In modern times the same doctrine has come to mean that anyone with basic literacy can pick up a Bible and come to the right conclusions about what it is saying.


      But in either case, it seems to me that perspicuity is a matter of “zoom level.” If you zoom out far enough, then what the Bible says is clear: Jesus is somehow important and you should do what he says. Love seems to be preferable to hatred, and there seems to be a dramatically reduced number of deities hanging about.


      But if you zoom in closer, you find less clarity and more debate among Christians. What are the proper grounds for divorce? Should infants be baptised? Should Christians commit to pacifism? Is hell eternal or are the lost annihilated?


      The trouble with appeals to perspicuity at a closer zoom level is that they can’t easily explain the proliferation of interpretations without implying derogatory things about everyone who doesn’t interpret it the same way as myself. They lead to the attitude, “the way it seems to me is the way it obviously is if you just look at it.” In short, the doctrine of perspicuity tends towards a denial of the reader’s finite perspective. If my reading is the obvious one, then why do other people fail to see it? What are they lacking that I have?


      I admit that someone like Iain, who has devoted his life to Old Testament scholarship, has a reasonable claim to knowledge lacking in others. But such a vantage point doesn’t explain why so few other Old Testament scholars have arrived at the same conclusions. At the beginning of this discussion I said “there will always be multiple tenable readings of the Bible, each one academically defensible yet none victorious over the others.” Iain challenged me to “show the workings.” But Iain is more familiar with the average SBL meeting than I am and should be well aware of the massive plurality of interpretations currently out there, among scholars of equal standing to himself. What are they lacking that he has? What does it imply about them – and about him – that they have failed to notice what the Old Testament clearly says?


      The second major problem with the doctrine of perspicuity is that it contains a flattened view of human knowledge and viewpoint, without having any concept of the growth or development of perspective through cultivation of certain disciplines and practices. As Dale Allison says,


      What we see is always a function of our being. Adults see differently than do children, and bats perceive the world differently than do flies. … Knowledge of Jesus has a similar correlation. For Jesus was, among other things, a moral teacher, and the truth of his teaching is in the living. Those who seek to conduct their lives in the light of the canonical accounts of his life and speech will understand him differently than those who find guidance elsewhere.[1]


      Allison has captured here something of Irenaeus’ insistence on conformity to the rule of faith as a prerequisite for good reading of Scripture. Jesus chastised people for not seeing what they should have seen, given their level of training and formation. He treated each person individually and judged them according to what light they had already received. Consequently I do not think that we can derive the doctrine of perspicuity from attention to Jesus’ or the apostles’ treatment of the Old Testament.


      If we cannot proceed with “what the text actually says if we just look at it,” then what other stances are available to us? Well, all I can suggest is what I would do – and try to do – when I am writing about a biblical passage. First, where my reading corresponds to that of the Christian tradition, I do not claim even implicitly to be an independent witness to the veracity of that tradition. Instead I preface my interpretation as emerging from someone steeped in the Christian community and to whom sympathetic readings will come more naturally due to my plausibility structures. Second, where my reading challenges traditional Christian readings, I present it as a suggested contribution rather than a final conclusion. The key is in the way it is worded, not necessarily in the substance of the interpretation itself.

      Growth of meaning

      Iain says:

      Barney says that “if Christianity is true, then churchly reading of the OT is the opposite of an imposition – it is a clarification.”  But he also tells me that it is all right not to consider “every Christian reading of the OT to be just fine.”  So which readings are impositions, and which are clarifications, and how shall I know?  Does this not take us back to the first point: “wrong readings” are “readings which do violence to the authorial intent”?


      I reply: “in a sense yes and in a sense no”! There are two ways we can understand “readings which do violence to the authorial intent”:

      1. It could mean “interpretations which contradict / run in the opposite direction to what the author originally meant.” On this construal there is room for growth and development, for increasing meaning over time. This is why Paul Ricoeur talks about the ever-expanding world of the text, but why he also denies that every new interpretation is valid. A new meaning to the text is only valid if it follows the direction in which the text started. Here, authorial intent is an anchor but not a straitjacket. It is indicative but not determinative.
      2. It could mean “interpretations which go beyond the original historical situation in any way whatsoever.” This is a univocal approach to interpretation, which unfortunately is rife in the discipline of biblical scholarship. It is against such a fragmentary hermeneutic that Brevard Childs raised the banner of canonical interpretation: the intent of one author must be put in dialogue with the intent of other authors elsewhere in the canon – not to discount it, but to develop it. Indeed, any community of interpretation will fragment into pieces if it tries to adopt this univocal hermeneutic, and it is precisely this fragmentation which we see so lamentably in the current discipline of biblical studies. Thankfully, I am pretty sure Iain is as much against such a limited hermeneutic as I am.


      If we take the same principle we use on canonical interpretation and extend it towards the Christian tradition, then we arrive at “churchly readings” which are not impositions but helpful and wonderful extensions. Each new reading brings greater illumination to the interpretive community. The text’s meaning can expand infinitely as long as it expands in one direction only – the direction set by the original authorial intention.


      In conclusion, I would like to highly recommend the book Thinking Biblically, which is co-authored by André LaCocque (an Old Testament scholar) and Paul Ricoeur. The pattern of thought I am tentatively outlining in the above is much further developed in that book, especially the chapter which deals with Song of Songs.

      [1] Allison, The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus, 47. Italics mine.

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      Iain Provan



      Well, since we want to wrap this Symposium up (as we have slipped off the front page and into the backlist), I think I have a duty to try not to provoke Barney any further, so that he absolutely must respond.  And anyway, I need to stop blogging and get on with my new book, which appropriately enough is on the topic of Protestant biblical hermeneutics.

      So let me just underline that I do indeed believe in the perspicuity of Scripture, and that I feel compelled as a Christian to do so; and affirm that I am, of course, aware that this means different things to different people, and that not every version of what Barney calls “the” doctrine of perspicuity is as defensible as every other.  Some version of that doctrine is in my view pressed upon us by Scripture itself, however.  It is indeed a necessary doctrine, if Scripture, rather than the interpreter (or the interpretive community) is to have the kind of authority that it also patently claims, in terms of shaping our belief and practice.  I think that Barney is in fact mistaken in his assertion that we cannot“derive the doctrine of perspicuity from attention to Jesus’ or the apostles’ treatment of the Old Testament.”  They do not appear to have believed that reading Scripture well was a terribly complicated matter on the whole, requiring constant recourse to a “rule of faith” (somehow distinct from Scripture itself) in order to adjudicate endlessly multiplying and competing “readings” – even if some things were acknowledged to be difficult to understand, and some things were understood to have become clearer with the passing of time.  I think they were absolutely intent, in fact, in proclaiming simply what the OT Scriptures really have to say.  As to whether I, in attempting to follow their example, have unpacked the OT’s essential meaning well or badly, that is for others (and ultimately and most importantly) for God to judge.  I anticipate with keen interest all the preliminary among these judgments (being only truly fearful of the last), for the reader will understand that, given my underlying convictions, I am in many ways much more interested in discussing what it is that the OT really says (and whether I am mistaken in this matter) than in discussing whether we can really say what it really says, or even in speculating as to why others may have come at present to different conclusions to my own about this important topic.

      And there I shall let the matter rest, with renewed thanks to all the participants in the Symposium for taking the time to read Seriously Dangerous Religion carefully, respond to it thoughtfully, and engage in civil yet committed conversation about it in all the continuing interactions.