Summer Reading Group: “A Slave Revolt Retold”

This is the fifth post in a seven-part series for Spectrum’s 2017 Summer Reading Group. Each post will be drawn from chapters of the book Humanism and the Death of God by Ronald E. Osborn. You can view the reading/posting schedule here.

In arguing for a “crude reading of Nietzsche” against commenter Ole-Edvin Utaker’s “friendlier” reading, Ron Osborn stood up for his own take of Nietzsche the other day: “I think we must allow Nietzsche the full integrity of his revolt rather than trying to appropriate him for our own Christian or liberal purposes.”

Replace Nietzsche with Paul (and other New Testament writers), and Osborn’s comment sums up my initial reaction to his Nietzschean jujitsu of Nietzsche’s genealogy of morality, even as I’m awed by what he has wrought on these pages.

For sure, contrary to Osborn’s own modest concession that his narrative is “insufficiently nuanced” and not “a comprehensive apologia of New Testament ‘problem passages,’” “The Genealogy of a Slave Revolt Retold” is a richly nuanced and deftly argued Osbornian apology of the New Testament and 1st century Christianity as a counter-pagan tour de force that gifted the world with a vision of moral equality of all persons.

It is quite stunning to be confronted with Osborn’s chiaroscuro, for example, shining light on the “radically equalizing message” that was at the core of Paul’s writings (chiaro, light), in stark contrast to the “deeply engrained belief in human inequality” that was at the core of the Greco-Roman worldview (scuro, darkness).

During my first read, the recovering preacher in me, inspired, immediately started envisioning a five-part, maybe ten-part, sermon series based on this upending genealogy of morality. Adventist preachers should indeed welcome this revelatory wider-angle view of the Great Controversy.

Even as I gear up to quibble with Osborn below, I want to be on record as declaring: I’m with him. He provides a blueprint with which Christians – Adventists, in particular – can respond to any culture, ideology, philosophy, and theology. In that sense, this narrative is a sufficiently nuanced, comprehensive, stand-alone apologia of the Christian contribution to the world’s understanding of human dignity and equality.

If only to fulfill any self-respecting book reviewer’s mission to nitpick, I offer two quibbles.

As stunningly beautiful as “The Genealogy of a Slave Revolt Retold” narrative is, I fear Osborn’s intended chiaroscuro of “contrasting darkness and light in order to make the light shine all the brighter” (170) tends to be too generous with the New Testament and 1st century Christianity. I fear that he does not allow Paul, for example, the full integrity of his messy 1st century in-situ-ness and appropriates Paul as too strong a moral visionary of equality and political subversive in service of Osborn’s – and our shared – liberal purposes.

To touch first on the scuro, darkness, Osborn surveys ideas about human inequality in ancient belief systems, while focusing on the Greco-Roman, and argues that classical views of shared dignity and equality (such as what Aristotle captures in Nichomachean Ethics) failed to override “classical beliefs in the natural inequality of persons” (such as what Aristotle also subscribes to in Politics). Osborn appears to join Davina Lopez’s gender-critical analysis of Paul as well as other empire-critical interpretations of the New Testament in privileging the “problem passages” of classical antiquity and the Roman imperial practices and artifacts as illustrating the “deeper meaning” and true reality of the classical/pagan consciousness of anti-equality. With Lopez, Osborn points to Roman coins depicting nations conquered by Rome as violated women trampled by deified emperors and gods and the myth of the Rape of the Sabine Women as “the paradigmatic model of, and justification for, Roman expansionism” whose purpose “was to make imperial violence appear noble” (161-2).

While I too appreciate Lopez’s approach of re-imagining the real world of Paul’s letters by looking at coins, sculptures, and myths, I wonder whether we end up creating an overly dark caricature of the Roman world – without allowing ancients to be of their times (whether we like it or not) – in order to make the Pauline and 1st century Christian light “shine all the brighter.”

We can denounce Aristotle’s view of the natural order that permitted tyrannical force by masters upon slaves and helped sustain systems of slavery and the imperial rape of the nations, while crediting that same view with ultimately providing an ontological key to progressive human equality in the medieval and modern world. That histories of human rights never fail to acknowledge the teachings of Aristotle, the Stoics, and other classical authors (notwithstanding their “problem passages”) says something about the value and contribution that these ancients and their world provided to the development of our understanding of human dignity and equality.

Thus, my first quibble is that the scuro of Rome is too scuro.

My next quibble is with Osborn’s chiaro, light. He acknowledges that the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament contain a number of “problem passages” that “continue to reflect the dominant values of the ancient world” and “taken in isolation, might be used to endorse oppression, inequality, or violence” (165). But Osborn’s thesis remains that classical beliefs in the natural inequality of persons was “radically undermined by the scandalous particularity of the Christian narrative.”

As examples of the “radically equalizing message” of Christianity, Osborn points to the parable of the sheep and the goat (“whatever you did to . . . least of these”), the story of Philemon and Onesimus (sending Onesimus, a runaway slave, back to Philemon, his master, but telling Philemon to treat Onesimus as “a beloved brother”), and Paul’s admonition to husbands and wives to submit to each other. Osborn also addresses the “frightening images of seemingly divinely authorized violence” in Revelation, which he views as “a mode of anti-imperial critique.” He doesn’t appear to think that the use of violent images and rhetoric undermine the “radical core” of the New Testament.

My problem is that I see the “problem passages” not as problematic, but as emblematic of how early Christians actually understood and lived out their ideals.

Regarding the violent imagery in Revelation, I am reminded of Osborn’s earlier critique of Marx(ists): “Once violence is seen as a purely tactical or instrumental matter . . .it is no great leap to the idea that violence might actually be a positive good in itself.” Osborn is much quicker to implicate Marx with his followers’ violence than he is with Scripture vis-à-vis Christian violence and imperialism. I think Osborn’s critique of Marx could very well be extended to Revelation’s instrumental use of violent imagery, even if it isn’t prescriptive. (Because Osborn doesn’t address it directly in this section, I avoid a discussion on whether Scripture provides a source of Christian violence. As Lisa Clark Diller gently points out, “Dostoevsky might not be enough.”)

It’s probably more intellectually honest to say that early Christians, even as they pledged to love their enemies and pray for those who persecuted them, believed in a God who also avenges enemies and persecutors (“Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” as quoted in Romans 12) and who slays those who failed to live up to the extraordinary communal sharing standard of early Christianity (Ananias and Sapphira). The church that was “united in heart and mind” in sharing “everything they had” (Acts 4) was also where “great fear gripped” its members when hearing of the story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5).

For a Nietzschean respondent, Acts 5 and Revelation may very well serve the role of coins depicting the actual currency that Scripture’s lofty ideals of human equality and dignity had in early Christianity. The Story of Ananias and Sapphira may very well be Christianity’s Rape of the Sabine Women – a founding myth illustrating an individual’s, a family’s, violent relationship to God, church authority, community, and property.

I am not that respondent. But I think it’s a stretch to view the New Testament as the kind of intentionally subversive document against the imperial violence and prevailing social hierarchy that Osborn, Lopez, Crossan, and others wish it to be. To be sure, there are ingredients of subversion. But it seems a stretch to call the New Testament a “radical” book, at least in the sense that Osborn wants it to be.

Even as Paul confessed that, in Christ, there was “neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:28), Paul and 1st century Christians lived and embraced a world where distinctions between Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, and men and women remained. There is no indication that Paul actually advocated for, or even provided ground for, abolition of these distinctions. (As an aside, I’m comfortable with using Galatians 3:28 as a rallying cry for equality, but we should acknowledge such use to be a re-appropriation of the text, much like the way Paul used Old Testament texts.)

We must recall that, as the parable of the sheep and the goats ends, the sheep enter eternal life, while the goats (those who do not feed, clothe, and care for the least among them) “go away into eternal punishment,” which is later described in fiery and furious terms in Revelation (of Jesus Christ). That surely represents justice, as Osborn asserts. But Jesus – a Godforsaken God and a Footwashing and Self-sacrificing God – also is a forsaking God who calls us children of God and slaves (doulos) of God. Just as the image of violence is lurking at every corner of extraordinary grace, the image of slavery is infused in multiple layers of New Testament relationships.

Thus, my second quibble is that the chiaro that the New Testament represents appears to be too chiaro.

Rather than agreeing with Hart’s Nietzschean proclamation that the Christian gospel represented “cosmic sedition,” I wish Osborn had drawn more of a double chiaroscuro – one each for the classical world and the 1st century Christian world. Each showing the depth of struggles with its own ideals and failures. Perhaps that would help us see better why the world needed, and continues to need, the Christian message.

Again, these are quibbles and probably in the realm of nuance that Osborn caveated. I do think, though, that taking the New Testament to task with the same intensity as Osborn does with Nietzsche – and painting a grayer, more complex picture of the message and experience of 1st century Christians – would have made this apologia even more compelling and persuasive.

Julius Nam writes from Loma Linda, California.

Image Credit: Oxford University Press

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8239

Julius, thank you for your stimulating critical reading of my book. Rather than attempting a point by point reply, let me simply share how I would interpret one of the difficult passages you quoted from: Romans 12, in which Paul declares that God is a God of “vengeance”.

Were you not struck by the fact the chapter ends with these words: “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone [. . .] Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. ‘But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:17–21). Next come some instructions about submitting to earthly authorities that are often cited as proof that Christians can participate in violence and sign up for military duty. But, lest there be any doubt on the practical ethical demands of following Jesus, Paul returns to the theme of Christian nonviolence begun in Chapter 12, driving his point home with systematic rigor. First, he instructs believers to render to all their due (13:7). Then he says that believers should owe no one anything except love (13:8). Next he defines what love is: “Love does no harm to a neighbor” (13:10 NKJV).

Read carefully, and in historical context, I would submit, Paul is telling the early Christians in Rome, in the face of increasing persecution by a brutal and tyrannical pagan regime, to love their enemies. He is also telling believers to trust in God’s controlling power over history. God can use even the pagan authorities and their armies for his own redemptive purposes; and, ironically, even as instruments of his justice.

You would be hard pressed, I suspect, to find anything remotely this radical or morally demanding anywhere else in the canons of Greek and Roman antiquity. If you still find the passage “dark” or disturbing, I would suggest that it is only because we now stand in some sense in the light the Christian story itself, looking backward. But by what available criteria in Paul’s or Jesus’ own day would you render such a judgment of darkness on this description of how Christians ought to answer the violence of Caesar with his bloody arenas and public crucifixions? Do you find Aristotle or Plato, noble though they are (and not Roman by the way), proclaiming a superior or even remotely equivalent vision of how we should respond to those who hate and inflict suffering on us?

I could understand if your critique of the earliest Christians was that they made impossible demands, asking us to love the Other in ways that are humanly unbearable. Who, after all, can really pray for the good of their persecutors and mean it? But is it really “darkness” to say that punishment of evildoers belongs to God alone? It is all the more puzzling to hear this objection coming from a Federal prosecutor! If judgement and punishment can ever be righteous or just or necessary, should believers have less faith in God’s ability to mete it out than they do in Riverside County?

The section of my book that you have reviewed was first published in The Hedgehog Review and republished online by the Veritas Forum. I am happy to share the link here so others can read my argument (or at least an early version of it) for themselves.

http://www.veritas.org/the-scandalous-origins-of-human-rights/

Arresting, Julius. Thanks for the energy and nuance you put into this.

Couldn’t you and Ron agree that the NT, in its cultural context, is radical, even if also flawed? (There’s a reason why the early church hesitated to speak of written words as God’s Word; Jesus was God’s Word.)

The Roman establishment dotted the countryside with crosses in order to intimidate the masses. Roman poets sang its praises. Although signs of resentment and flirtation with violence are surely present in the NT, it’s still a profound and prophetic No to humanity’s all-too-ordinary bloodshed, which both pagan and modern cultures have been too timid, or too indifferent, to denounce.

Again, thanks.

Chuck

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as a rule, selectively perceive what they hold as “facts” of human behaviour and thereafter , proceed to reify euphuisms, which are either demonstrably untrue, and/ or despite the obvious latter , further “double down” when challenged. A simple appraisal of the findings of the relatively new science of the Psychogenic Theory of the Historical, and Current motivations of Human behaviour is what I find to be of far greater value than Nietzsche , et al. Yet, practicing academics must study the works of these men, if only gto alert students to their limitations. The same may be said about the writers of several Bible narratives , whose work seem to further darken than add light to their often contradictory proposals. In seeking more light, I engaged in a lengthy series of correspondrnce with a woman from the star system Zeta Reticulum , Commander Sanni who was the Leader of the exploring mission involved in the Roswell crash . She was severely injured but just as she was exitiny her body in a US Military facility her father appeared to her in spirit and sentenced her to reincarnate on earth and teach us to avoid what happenned to their species. They made an agreement with President Eisenhower(The Greada Treaty) and so on, but I learned more from her about human nature than from terran philosophers. she now writes a column for a UFO specialist newspaper. The nature of God as depicted in the Bible in a matter which we should strive to understand despite the simple views of some writers. God gave us not only the Bible Text , but also the TORAH CODE where we can find bthe REAL PROPHECIES . I am confident that the details of WW3 are in the Torah Code but no one has claimed to have indisputably found this as yet. The Galactic Federation, a group of about 200,000 planetary systems in this galaxy , is most likelyn aware of what we are now facing. I hope they wish us well.

The way society perceives God is dependant on the cultures that define Him. While Christianity, at this point in time, influences even secular social concepts, whether acknowledged or not; but, human nature appears to undergird all human actions and interactions, as well as, human tendencies. Isn’t that the point of Romans 7…

It’s the traditional Adventist contention that human nature can be tamed (to the point of total control), but in the real world, that nature keeps popping up, also whether we acknowledge it or not. Thus we have a “dark” side all through history, even Christian. So, the big question is whether or not mankind can ever make judgements about “God’s morality” with any degree of legitimacy, outside of its cultural biases. In other words, is there a “truth” about God devoid of human cultural perceptions… According to Paul there isn’t - as he declares “we see as through a mirror darkly”. Adventism is , of course, an exception since we get our parameters from EGW??? - and she, of course. wasn’t influenced by her culture in the least???

If nothing else., there is a visceral sense all humans seem to possess that gives us a very basic morality, whether consciously held or deliberately ignored - even if it’s based on our instinct for self-preservation. But isn’t our quest for salvation based on that same self-preservation - the dark side of Darwin? the bottom line - we are flawed.

The cynic in me would say - the only truly Spirit guided people are atheists who live selflessly, doing the good deeds described as the fruits of the Spirit. I t think there might be one or two throughout history.

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Your comments, friends, lead me to think that I failed to make my point clear, which isn’t surprising at all. I’m not advocating for any kind of moral equivalence between Rome and Christianity of the 1st century. Do I sound that like I am, Chuck?

I totally agree with Ron’s conclusion re Rom 12-13. Rom 13:1-7 can’t be understood without the passages that precede and follow.

What I was trying to suggest was that contrasting the degrees to which Rome and Christianity blended ideologies of equality and inequality (and of peace and violence) and to which each failed to live up to its ideals of equality would have been more persuasive. I think that’s a more fair comparison than contrasting Roman crucifixions with Christian martyrs.

It’s hard to fairly compare Rome and Christianity because Christianity didn’t really have the same means to wield the sword the way Rome did, right? With what we see in the New Testament – and the the NT apocrypha – we’ll have to project and imagine what kind of rulers 1st C Christians would have made or what imperial Christianity would’ve looked like had Claudius or Nero converted. Based on what I see in the NT and the NT apocrypha (because painting a picture of 1st C Christianity only through the canonical books creates an anachronistically skewed portrait), I’m not sure we’ll end up with a portrait that’s much different from what we see in the 4th C Christianity.

By the way, Ron (and Chuck), I had a third quibble-ish. It seems that you’re arguing for a unitary foundational (I might even call it “unnecessarily originalist” and “liberal fundamentalist”) vision of 1st C Christianity that had a consistent moral vision of equality and peace/pacifism. (Nonetheless, please forgive the broad brush.) I think I have a messier view of the NT and 1st C Christianity that can’t quite make up its mind as to what it wants to become. (Please forgive the lack of nuance.) I see 1st C Christianity as a mosaic to which Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Menno, and many others, legitimately trace back their genealogy. (By the way, I also see 1840-1850s Adventism as a mosaic from which the different strands of Adventism emerged – all legitimate heirs.)

There’s much to unpack but this is getting way too long.

Sir Je: You quote one of my favorite passages from Scripture – “a mirror darkly.” I think that’s a blessing – seeing darkly. What would we do without mystery?

Julius, I really did try to reflect the kind of nuanced reading you are calling for, perhaps not clearly or strongly enough:

“Deeply ingrained beliefs in human inequality did not go without a fight; nor did Christians cease being people of their time. Evidence of this may be found within the biblical text itself, which frequently lays bare the shortcomings of the early believers…”

“There are, to be sure, passages in both the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament that continue to reflect the dominant values of the ancient world and that, taken in isolation, might be used to endorse oppression, inequality, or violence. The apocalyptic book of Revelation, for example, contains frightening images of seemingly divinely authorized violence against the unrighteous on the day of God’s final judgment. These passages have been widely misread by individuals without any understanding of how ancient apocalyptic texts functioned in literary and historical context as a mode of anti-imperial critique. Still, Revelation is a singularly misreadable text and the source of endless violent fantasies and wild speculations among believers. Do these parts of Scripture thus negate or neutralize anything positive that might be said about earliest Christian beliefs and practices as a source of humanistic values and equality?..”

“The story of the Christian subversion of pagan values through its scandalous identification with “the scum of the world” and the “dregs of all things” would over time become the story of a tragic double subversion. The retrenchment of hierarchy and domination within the Church—particularly after Constantine made Christianity the religion of the empire in the fourth century, reversing several centuries of persecution of believers—means that Christianity is today fully vulnerable to the charge of being a net force for inequality, hierarchy, violence, and oppression…”

“However problematic these statements [of Paul about women] might sound to readers today, it is important to judge their emancipatory force in the social context of Paul’s day rather than our own. It was in fact a common slur against Christianity that it was a religion for women. Insofar as women in the ancient world very often had their dignity violated by powerful men, the slur was entirely accurate…”

I think we’re commenting degrees of nuance and satisfaction with Scripture. For me, whether taken in isolation or in context, the “problem passages” of the NT do endorse and embrace oppression, inequality, and/or violence. Revelation may fairly be read as a violent fantasy of the marginalized. Inequality and equality are interwoven in the core of Scripture.

In my view, an honest reading of the Scripture makes these acknowledgments, while also acknowledging that other strands within Scripture inspire us to capture the interlinear moral, prophetic insight to critique the “evil” that is present within Scripture.

I’m not sure Scripture is ever a satisfying source of ideas about radical human equality and peace. It’s too annoying and frustratingly passivist when it comes to such ideas. I appreciate efforts to recover, re-imagine, and redeem Scripture. Such efforts are beautifully eisegetic; Paul (when reading OT) and Lopez (who interprets Paul today) are wonderful examples. But I’m not convinced with readings that tell me that equality and peace (as we understand them) were there all along from the start.

This sort of gets at the “unnecessarily originalist” comment I made above, from which my quibbles bubble.

Paul was a master reappropriation artist whom we can reappropriate ourselves along the path of equality and peace. I celebrate that. I also believe an entirely fair reading of Paul takes us down the path of bigotry, misogyny, and hypocrisy. As to what the original intent and core was, I don’t know and, I dare say, we don’t need to know. Not all strands of our moral genealogy need to trace back to Scripture.

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Julius,

You write, “Revelation may fairly be read as a violent fantasy of the marginalized. Inequality and equality are interwoven in the core of Scripture.”

Once, in a public exchange with Miroslav Volf at Washington Adventist University, I objected to his (as it seemed to me) untroubled agreement with the book of Revelation’s assigning of violent punishment to God. I agree, it turns out, that the book is, to a worrying degree, a violent fantasy of the marginalized, just as some imprecatory Psalms are. But what mitigates these problems, if not entirely eliminating them, is the principle of Christological interpretation of Scripture. What matters also, of course, is the non-violent substance of Revelation, at least when it comes to discipleship.

You also write: “I also believe an entirely fair reading of Paul takes us down the path of bigotry, misogyny, and hypocrisy.”

This just puzzles me. If you had said “plausible” instead of “entirely fair” I might come closer to agreeing with you.

Here’s an exercise to consider: Try to construct even a “plausible” reading of the Greek and Roman sources that makes them prophets of non-violence and of universal human dignity.

Your “mirror darkly” point does apply, not just to us, but also to the Bible writers themselves. So your engaging of these issues is something I am grateful for.

Chuck

Let me ask both Ron Osborn and Julius Nam a question for clarification: To what extent can the “problematic” ethical/moral passages in the Pauline NT and the efficacy of its witness to “principalities and powers” be explained by the difference between the apodictic and the casuistic in the biblical writings (or the ideal and the real, or principles and cases–whatever). Galatians 3 does not directly address a “case” so much as a communal challenge; hence, the apodictic element. Philemon, of course, is about a case which may not be resolved in the ideal way at that time (complete freedom for Onesimus) but is brilliant pastoral counsel which clearly points in that direction.

Or am I missing something?

“Not all strands of our moral genealogy need to trace back to Scripture.”

Thank you. So many, in their exasperation over the authoritative misuse of Ellen White in and by the SDA church, fall back on “sola scriptura” as the only means of dealing with theological and personal perplexities. Many seem not to trust themselves as a source of wisdom and common sense, especially when scripture has either nothing concrete to offer or offers untenable or contrary solutions to “life’s perplexing problems.” When discussing the women’s ordination issue, for instance, why do we have trouble admitting, as you seem willing to do, that in some regards we have come a long way (or,if not a long way, we have inched forward) since St. Paul’s day?

Julius, your reading of the book of Revelation is, as far as I can tell, identical to Nietzsche’s, who said it is “the most wanton of all literary outbursts that vengefulness has on its conscience.” I understand the appeal of Nietzsche’s reading because Revelation is, frankly, a disturbing, bewildering book.

But are you convinced that Nietzsche is a better reader of Revelation than any number of contemporary New Testament scholars who approach the text with great care and rigor in its historical and literary context? Are you prepared to say that Nietzsche is the true exegete while, say, Richard Hays (to cite a single example) is a mere “reappropriation artist” engaged in an anachronistic and highly selective mining of the text that amounts, at best, to beautiful “eisegesis”?

It is a hard to know what to make of your simultaneous certainty and agnosticism about Scripture’s multivalent meanings. An “entirely fair reading of Paul takes us down the path of bigotry, misogyny, and hypocrisy”, you write-- but also, “what the original intent and core was, I don’t know…we don’t need to know”. I’m puzzled as to what a “fair reading” of Paul could possible be if, at the end of the day, “we don’t need to know” if the reading even has anything to do with Paul’s intended meanings. Are you committed to the view that Scripture has clearly discernible albeit “dark” meanings that outweigh or simply neutralize the “light”? Or are you committed to a path of radical deconstruction that refuses to allow that exegesis of either the “dark” or the “light” is ever possible, so that it’s really just all eisegesis, all the time, all the way down?

I realize the idea that authorial intent actually matters in interpretation is not en vogue. But as an author myself I can tell you that it certainly matters to me personally whether or not a reviewer makes an effort to know what I am trying to convey!

Rather than entering into a long back and forth about hermeneutics, though, I think it might be most helpful to try make explicit where I suspect we are each coming from and so where we also part ways.

I wrote Humanism and the Death of God from a commitment to what can perhaps best be described as classically orthodox Christianity. For me this does not mean wooden literalism or “originalism” when it comes to how I read Scripture, since like Karl Barth I do not think that Scripture is God’s “revelation” in the proper sense of the word. I think that Scripture is a witness to the revelation of God which is God incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. Because I see Scripture as witness rather than as revelation, I am not unsettled by the fact that Scripture continues to reflect aspects of the culture(s) in which it was written, which were unquestionably cultures of inequality and violence. I think that the Bible gives us not only pictures of who God is but also pictures of human beings wrestling in highly imperfect ways with God–and ultimately with what to do with a shattering fact: that the ultimate reality of the universe has been most fully and bindingly made known in the person of a poor provincial laborer from a defeated backwater of the empire who was tortured and executed by the political and religious authorities of his day on charges of sedition and heresy.

I agree with you, then, that the Bible is not a “satisfying source of ideas about radical human equality and peace” if we are attempting to read it in some kind of flat, univocal way, as fundamentalists read it (and as many liberal Christians or post-Christians then react against it). In that case, genocide in the book of Joshua would have to be as authoritative and normative a “revelation” of God’s character as the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. But it is only in the person of Christ, I would suggest, that we find the interpretive lens through which to re-read the rest of Scripture faithfully, discerning its troubling human elements precisely as troubling while at the same time seeing the story’s true moral arc.

This is not, I gather, where you are coming from.

You write, “Not all strands of our moral genealogy need to trace back to Scripture.” I agree. In my introductory chapter, for example, you will find me quoting favorably from the Tao Te Ching and praising the tolerance of the third century BCE Buddhist emperor of India, Ashoka. I later praise secular Enlightenment thinkers (with reference to John Witte) for providing new theoretical frameworks for expanding the idea of equality. I agree with theistic evolutionist and Thomist theologian Stephen J. Pope that morality is in some ways embedded (albeit non-reductively) in our biology and evolutionary past. So I take it to be an uncontroversial and obvious fact that Christianity has no monopoly on morality or values.

But my book is not concerned with “all strands of our moral genealogy”. It is concerned with the core humanistic values of inviolable dignity, rights, and equality attaching to each individual person. You can be sure that these ideals are not widely embraced in Sudan where I currently reside, nor in Myanmar where I pursued a fellowship a few years ago and where even my former hero, Noble Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, has forever tarnished her name by serving as an apologist for the Burma Army’s ongoing ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims.

Perhaps what you meant when you said, “Not all strands of our moral genealogy need to trace back to Scripture”, was something closer to what Harvard historian Samuel Moyn argues in a number of books, namely, that no strands of our moral genealogy need to trace back to Scripture. Moyn actually goes further, arguing that it is impossible to trace any contemporary values to ancient sources and faulting “church historians” for engaging in what he deems an entirely selective and retroactive game of “connect the dots”. It is difficult, in any case, to see how your view that Scripture is “too annoying and frustratingly passivist” to serve as a wellspring for the idea of equality differs from the views of any number of secular humanists who also want to locate our ideas about equality elsewhere, and who see Scripture at the end of the day primarily as a problem to be overcome. But why labor away at “beautifully eisegetic” selective readings, as you favor, if Moyn’s acerbic view is right and the work of a historian of ideas like Larry Siedentop (Inventing the Individual) is sheer fantasy or poetry?

The challenge I think you face, if I have understood you correctly, is to provide a coherent and compelling account of how you are able to pick out the “moral, prophetic insight” in Scripture, as you put it, in order to simultaneously “critique the ‘evil’ that is present in Scripture”. Put simply, from where exactly are you deriving the values of dignity, rights, and equality that enable you to detect and critique the parts of the Jesus Story you find problematic? I have suggested by way of Barth that this is both possible and necessary to critique violence in Scripture by placing the person of Christ at our hermeneutical center. But, barring such an approach as I think you have, is your alternative source of values–the position from outside of the Christian narrative by which you are able to sift and judge the Christian narrative–itself immune from suspicious critique? How does liberal pluralism resist the charge of being itself arbitrary picking and choosing in the aftermath of the death of God, and in the light of the anti-humanism of a Nietzsche or Foucault?

Thanks for your comment Jim. I think your distinction is helpful and accurate. Here is what I wrote in my book on the question of Paul and slavery, which Julius finds to be problematic:

Paul’s letters do not include any explicit condemnations of slavery, although in one of his letters of ad hoc pastoral counsel (written from a Roman prison) he urges a Christian slave owner, Philemon, to receive back into his household a runaway slave, Onesimus, in order to be reconciled to him. Some readers have concluded that on the question of slavery Paul therefore endorsed the status quo. But Paul’s response was deeply subversive of the practice in other ways. In his letter to Philemon he in fact redefines the relationship between master and slave in a way that rules out the Aristotelian view of “natural” subjugation and inequality. Because Philemon is now a Christian, Paul writes, he must view Onesimus “no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, as a beloved brother.”

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Exactly. But “neither slave nor free” in Jesus is an apodictic principle that is subversive of slavery, it seems to me, even with the fact that the Greek “doulos” (often translated servants as you know) is best translated “slave.” Still, “slave” in that milieu meant something quite different than it means
today, a meaning that was “progressive” in the kind of imperial society Rome created. And lastly, I agree with you that Hays and his like are closer to the thrust of the book of Revelation than Nietzsche.

Thanks for the response. Am starting your book very soon. An admirable achievement!

Ron, I’m grateful for your willingness to respond to your reviewers and critics. I’m amazed that you seemed to have anticipated their criticisms by simply pointing to and quoting statements in your book. To reviewers in general, not only to Julius in particular, I highly recommend M. Adler’s classic book, How to Read. Thank you!

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” - S. Covey

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Chuck, Jim, Michael & Ron:

I wrote a concurrence but not a dissent. If I may recapture what I tried to do in the review: I agree with and embrace Ron’s project in the section I reviewed. As I wrote, “I’m with him.” My two modest quibbles (a word I chose to signal that they weren’t criticisms of substance) were to suggest ways to strengthen the apologia - to make it more compelling and persuasive for what I surmise to be Ron’s intended dialogue partners (as Ron makes clear in his quoted description of “dialogic pluralism” in chapter 1, which by the way is a magisterial yet strikingly confessional introduction to the book - one I’ve meditated on multiple times in the lead-up to my review). That is, those of differing perspectives, such as philosophical naturalists or materialists, secular humanists and anti-humanists, and Christians who hold historical views different than Ron’s. Thus, my primary thrust was to ask Ron to consider giving more credit to Roman contributions and being more critical with Christian shortcomings than he did in the chapter so that Ron’s conversations partners would become more friendly to his main argument, which he makes explicit in chapter 1. I think a slightly more humble and self-critical approach might suit Ron’s substantive argument better and allow his dialogue partners to become more open to subtly adopting and appropriating (to use Wolterstorffian language) what Ron has to say. As I concluded the review, “taking the New Testament to task with the same intensity as Osborn does with Nietzsche … would have made this apologia even more compelling and persuasive.”

It’s within that framework that I began and have continued the conversation, though I admit I strayed outside that framework in the latest comment.

Regarding “fair readings,” Chuck suggests “plausible.” I like and appreciate Chuck’s entirely fair critique of my use of “fair.” What I generally like about “fair,” though, is that it acknowledges that the interpreters who hold those readings aren’t being unreasonable in reaching those conclusions – that there’s room in the text and the context for those conclusions. In the specific example of Paul and bigotry, though, I accept that “plausible” would have been a better choice. I agree entirely with Chuck’s comment, including the implications of the “exercise” he asks me to consider.

Did Ron read my latest comment regarding Revelation fairly in equating it with Nietzsche? I think he read it hastily and wrongly, but I don’t find it unfair. My choice of a passive voice (which was intentional) invited his reading when I wrote, “Revelation may fairly be read as a violent fantasy of the marginalized.” I used “may” and “fairly” to suggest that Ron’s intended conversation partners may reasonably read Revelation that way. I can recognize that a fair reading of Revelation can lead one to conclude that 1st century Christians envisioned a world in which God ultimately punished evil, evildoers, and evil empires through violent means – even as I don’t share that particular reading. I don’t believe in a God who kills, whether now or in the eschaton.

As Ron has demonstrated :wink:, Revelation and my comments have one thing in common: they both are “singularly misreadable text[s].” Any misreading of Ron’s text on my part, I attribute it to my own shortcomings.

It is I who brought in the extra quibble regarding hermeneutics in my comments. That’s an extremely interesting (but ultimately not so consequential) side point in the context of the forum that Ron is inviting his conversation partners to join in his book from the perspective of “dialogic pluralism.” In an early draft of my review, I included this extra hermeneutical quibble in response to Ron’s 2-page “Beyond Suspicion” section that serves as a conclusion or epilogue to the “Genealogy” section and the Nietzsche chapter. What Ron does in those two pages is absolutely beautiful.

However, after what must’ve been my 12th read of the Genealogy section and several close reads of Ron’s first chapter, I understood (hopefully correctly) that his project is not about a hermeneutical dispute or to resolve what he calls the “problem passages.” So, by Draft 9 or 10 of my review, I painfully excised the hermeneutics discussion (which contributed to the delinquent posting of my review), which explains why it wormed its way back here.

See how authorial intent and process are so important to me when it comes to my own writing? So I get that Ron feels similarly about his – and, by projection, biblical authors. (My “don’t need to know” comment was to say that understanding authorial intent with clarity is not a prerequisite to understanding the range of fair or plausible interpretations. It was a bit of tongue-in-cheek comment. An accompanying emoji would’ve been hermeneutically helpful. :smile: )

That said, Ron’s and Chuck’s Christological readings of Scripture are entirely fair and I’m largely in agreement with them. My reading is probably better characterized as Pneumatological - trying to understand the work of the Spirit who is active in humanity (whether biblical or otherwise) in each era and continues to work in me as I read Scripture. The question of coherence, consistency, and hermeneutical control that Ron raises vexes me always as I try to understand Scripture.

With Ron, I think Jim’s question is very helpful. But I’m not sure it’s accurate to characterize interpretation so dualistically, if that’s what Jim is suggesting. My premise is that the apodictic is necessarily casuistic (even the most basic abstractions have contexts), and the casuistic provides apodictic approaches to addressing real-life issues. I used the word “problematic” to refer to the Philemon-Onesimus story because Ron used the term “problematic passage.” As I indicated at the outset, I like to think of those passages as “emblematic” – textual eruptions that help us understand the relationship between principles and applications. They help us determine the range of fair interpretations.

I am guilty of importing the eisgesis/exegesis discussion. I actually reject a sharp dualism of the two.

(Relatedly but randomly, as Zane and I discussed over pizza last Saturday night, did Paul keep copies of his letters? I doubt it. Not through the storms, beatings, and imprisonment he endured. Did Paul remember what he wrote to the Galatian and Corinthian churches when he wrote the Roman church? Was he even trying to be consistent with the fine, nuanced points he made elsewhere? How normative is Paul’s rage at the frustrating Corinthians? We trust the Spirit who guided him, but perhaps we, certainly I, have too high an expectation of coherence.)

Which leads me to Michael’s comment regarding sola scriptura and the women’s ordination example. I tend to think it’s just outside the range of fair readings to say Scripture supports women’s ordination. But that’s certainly an entirely fair and Scripturesque appropriation whose trajectory can be traced to Scripture, all the way back to creation.

As I close, I want to reiterate that Adventists should absolutely welcome Ron’s “revelatory wider-angle view of the Great Controversy,” which I admire as “a sufficiently nuanced, comprehensive, stand-alone apologia of the Christian contribution to the world’s understanding of human dignity and equality.” I’ve quibbled with how he achieves this remarkable apologia and suggest ways Ron could’ve been more persuasive, but my quibbles are my own feeble attempts at appropriating Ron’s brilliant essay at the table of dialogic pluralism.

I’m confident Brenton Reading will next offer a much Better Reading of Ron’s book.

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Thank you Julius. This has been one of the finest, most elevated discussions I have ever experienced among serious SDA scholars who care deeply about apologia. On your kind reference to my question:

With Ron, I think Jim’s question is very helpful. But I’m not sure it’s accurate. My premise is that the apodictic is necessarily casuistic (even the most basic abstractions have contexts), and the casuistic provides apodictic approaches to addressing real-life issues. I used the word “problematic” to refer to the Philemon-Onesimus story because Ron used the term “problematic passage.” As I indicated at the outset, I like to think of those passages as “emblematic” – textual eruptions that help us understand the relationship between principles and applications.

I agree with your premise. I also agree with you that Paul’s best application [in his era] of the Galatians principle would fall short of the ideal, but its formulation within the community of faith (“In Christ there is . . .”) would have to be subversive of any culture, time and place which did not recognize what being “in Christ” meant. This is why the WO issue resonates so strongly in many cultures that seem to have reified this principle without the Adventist witness (but with the witness of so many other Christian church groups). You may intend that but I got the feeling that you would not go that far. In any case, this is probably a quibble about a quibble and it in no way takes away from your perceptive and careful reading of Ron’s book. Thanks.

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Jim.

Thank you. You may now have seen that I revised the portion addressing you in my last comment. I didn’t realize that you quoted that portion in response. Sorry about that. I appreciate the subversive force of Gal 3:28 that you highlight. I think I was trying to say that whatever Paul’s conscious intent was there does not need to limit our understanding and application of the text. I appreciate your gracious questions that help me understand better what it means to converse “in Christ”!

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Julius, points well noted, although I remain somewhat puzzled by some of your comments. For example, to suggest that someone’s reading of Scripture is not an interpretation of the text so much as a projection onto the text seems like more than a quibble. I agree that the book of Revelation “may” be read as Nietzsche read it (or for that matter as David Koresh read it) because, as I wrote in my book, it is a “singularly misreadable text and the source of endless violent fantasies and wild speculations among believers.” But I would still argue that Nietzsche’s reading is a misreading and that this case can be made on solid exegetical grounds. I don’t think Richard Hays is simply engaged in “eisegetical” moves, and I hope that I am not either. Likewise John Dominic Crossan’s reading of Paul in the context of Roman empire.

Regarding Roman contributions to the idea of inviolable human dignity and equality attaching to each individual person, I am not entirely sure what contributions you are referring to. I don’t think that pre-Christian Rome contributed much to Western philosophy (in contrast to the Greeks). There’s Cicero, Lucretius, and a few others who we still read, but Rome’s legacy for the history of western thought seems to have been largely in the areas of politics and law. And as I pointed out in my book, Roman law defined slaves as “non habens personam”–literally, “not having a persona” or even “not having a face”. I am therefore not entirely sure how or why Christian humility dictates that we critique the New Testament with “the same intensity” as Nietzschean will to power or Roman brutality. It’s an incommensurate comparison.

On the question of what a proper Christian humility demands of us, I agree that Christian generosity toward the Other should extend to how we think about the great “masters of suspicion”. Yet I would push back against calls for Christian humility that begin to sound more like calls for Christian self-flagellation. It is perhaps worth noting that many Christian thinkers have shown considerable generosity to Nietzsche and to atheism in general. After calling attention in my book to this long history of friendly Christian reception of Nietzsche, I wrote the following that I hope you might agree with even if it does not satisfy your call for a critique of the Christian faith mounted with “the same intensity” as my critique of Nietzschean will to power:

The respect and appreciation that Christian thinkers have extended to Nietzsche might perhaps reveal something important about the expansiveness of the Christian vision as well as the depths of Christian concern for the Other. Do we find the same hermeneutics of generosity extended in the opposite direction? [Merold] Westphal’s suggestion that Christians read Nietzsche for Lent raises the question: Who do dedicated atheists read for whatever their equivalent of Lent is? If at least some Christians are willing to enter into a place of radical doubt as part of what it means to be self-reflective about their faith, to listen and absorb the most powerful criticisms of others, and even to journey with Jesus along the via negativa that passes through the death of God, are atheists as willing for their part to make a sincere effort at entering—even imaginatively—into the life of religious faith? Although it would not be a bestseller alongside the polemical tracts of the New Atheists, there is perhaps a parallel book to Westphal’s [Suspicion and Faith] to be written: St. Francis, St. Aquinas, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Simone Weil, Flannery O’Connor, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer for atheists as an annual discipline of intellectual humility.

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Ron, just some markers.

  1. I’m afraid you’re couching my words in much stronger terms than I intended. I’m not saying one’s reading of Scripture is NOT an interpretation of the text so much as a projection onto the text, nor am I saying Hays and Crossan are “SIMPLY engaged in ‘eisegetical’ moves.” I’ll concede that you read me fairly, but I think still wrongly. As I’ve written, I reject the exe/eise duality, as if one can happen independent of the other. I do think exe provides fair ranges and limits of eise. And (re)appropriation, particularly the way later biblical authors do it with earlier materials (biblical or otherwise), is an acceptable mode of biblical interpretation, especially as a believer.

  2. I don’t think I’ve said anything about Nietzsche’s view on Revelation. In a previous comment, You did quote Nietzsche’s line on Revelation. But I’ve kept my comments at a general level - the way you did in your discussion of “misreading[s]” of Revelation in your book without referring to Nietzsche’s line. I agree with you, though, that Nietzsche misreads Revelation “devoid of how ancient apocalyptic texts functioned in literary and historical context,” as you wrote. But I’d still say his reading is within the edge of fair – precisely because Revelation is, as you’ve said, “a disturbing, bewildering book.” As an aside, I feel similarly about Ellen White’s and historical Adventist readings of Revelation. No, I’m not equating White and Nietzsche. Only that both make fair readings that are misreadings. (Here’s an analogy from law. I think it’s a misreading to see individual right to bear arms in the Second Amendment, but I concede that it’s a fair reading.)

  3. Regarding “Roman” contributions, I should’ve written “Greco-Roman,” as I did in the review itself. You’re right to distinguish the Greeks from the Romans. And it certainly is harder with the Romans. I’d argue that in conjunction with your critique of dignitas, you could’ve given some credit to the concept of humanitas. Because you begin with Plato and Aristotle and return to Aristotle in your Genealogy, I felt greater concessions could be made as to the classical contributions overall. Again, in that you began chapter 4 by admitting that your Genealogy section was narrated in “outrageously simplifying brushstrokes,” I concede that my quibbles are probably unfair, which is why I wrote in my review that all my quibbles are “probably in the realm of nuance that [you] caveated.”

  4. What you quoted from an earlier part of chapter 4, which is echoed in the last two pages of the chapter, I love. It was very cathartic to read it.

PS: Just so that I have a better understanding of your critique of Nietzsche, I read again Genealogy of Morality and Ecce Home in the weeks leading up to my review. I read Nietzsche more as a Trumpian provocateur than a systematic thinker – a topic you address in the first half of chapter 4. A precocious dotard, if you will, since Nietzsche died at 46. I’m not trying to start another conversation with this. I look forward to talking to you about this the next time you visit.