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Allan Bevere: We Need the Whole of Scripture for Christian Ethics

from the personal blog of Dr. Allan Bevere, pastor, professor, and author of Politics of Witness: The Character of the Church in the WorldColossians and Philemon: A Participatory Study Guide, and more
Bible Psalm 119Christians have always struggled to view the whole of Scripture as authoritative in a practical sense, but it has become fashionable of late to deliberately argue that 21st century Christians should have a canon within a canon, that we modern, enlightened, scientifically-oriented believers have the wisdom to decide which Scriptures are relevant only for today and which are only for a by-gone more primitive era.
The problem with such a view is that the church hasn’t left us with that option. All Scripture is authoritative and necessary for Christian ethics, for Christian life– from law to prophetic pronouncement, from poetry to prose, from parable to narrative– all of it is authoritative. Once we realize this, we are freed from the arrogance of suggesting that we know more than the ecclesiastical wisdom of the ages what God has and has not said, and we can spend our time reading, interpreting, struggling, and wrestling with the biblical narrative from Genesis to Revelation in all of its complexity. (Read more … )
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  1. Allan, as a Progressive who promotes the idea of a “canon within the canon,” I must object to the way you have characterized us. We are not standing in judgment of Scripture; we are merely doing what every interpreter does—organizing thoughts around a perspective. In my book, I’m right and You’re Wrong, (available through Energion) I argue that Jesus did this very thing with the two Great Commandments. He encouraged us to measure all the Bible against these two principles, and was his canon within the canon.
    One of the issues of biblical interpretation that describes this challenge of coming to a complete understanding of any text is called the hermeneutical circle. It posits that in order to understand a single verse, one must first understand the entire Bible, but to understand the entire Bible, one must first understand each verse. This, of course, is an impossibility. Therefore, many have suggested a way of drawing from the Bible the useful, and identifying the not so useful, irrelevant, and downright harmful. It’s called a canon within the Canon. This is an effort to approximate or summarize the essence of biblical teaching for the purpose of comparing portions of the Bible to it. We who argue for this are not trying to eliminate any of the books of the Bible, a la Luther and Marcion, or remove any of its offending parts, such as Thomas Jefferson. In fact, it’s just the opposite. It’s intended to help the reader evaluate all its parts in a hierarchy of values.
    Surely there are those who stand in judgment of Scripture, but the use of a canon within the canon does not automatically put one in that camp.

    1. Steve,
      Thanks for your comments. Of course, in any position there are differences. When one speaks in generalizations those differences are not always highlighted. But the truth is that of late, there has been a movement within the “progressive” camp (e.g. Adam Hamilton) to do exactly what I am critiquing… rejecting some Scriptures as Scripture because it does not live up to modern progressive sensibilities. Those harmful texts, of which you speak need to be understood within the larger context, to be sure, and that is exactly my point.
      And I realize that all of us struggle with the canon within the canon, but I dislike that image. I think it is not helpful and detracts from how to understand the entire biblical narrative. I prefer the imagery of the lenses through which we view all of Scripture, which is how I think Jesus read Scripture. He did not have a canon within a canon; he had his own christological lens through which all of Scripture was put into context.
      For example, Hamilton suggests we need to reject the tribal portrayal of God in Joshua as not expressing the will of God, but I suggest that while God ultimately wants to move beyond being a tribal deity, he indeed acts as one with Israel working within the context of the situation. I suggest elsewhere that God entering into Israel’s history to fight for Israel is a proto-Incarnational event, in which the trajectory throughout Israel’s history would lead to the Incarnation in Christ in which the fullness of Incarnation is non-violent and indeed embraces suffering. If God works within the context of the situation, then it sadly means that God must also enter into its violence in order to bring God’s people to the place where violence is no longer an option. God goes from fighting for his people to embracing suffering on behalf of his people, and expects his people to do the same for the world.
      This is an attempt to understand all of Scripture as Scripture through a particular lens instead of relegating the conquest narrative (an other texts) to de facto deutero-canonical status.

      1. Alan, thank you for your serious response. I will ponder over it as it an angle I’ve not seen anyone take. It is vastly superior to fundamentalist apologists who approve of a violent God and justify God’s violence as an appropriate response to idolatry. (One such said God had to destroy all the Canaanites because they were full of syphilis and couldn’t let Israel be so contaminated.) Yet, I am not with you as yet.
        As I argue in my book, the choice in one interpretation over another hinges on which lens one views the text through. I am with you there. My lens is to filter every text through how they measure up to the two Great Commandments. I see this as Jesus’s lens, as well (or I wouldn’t use it!). We differ here.
        I would characterize your answer above in this way: “We have to accept everything that is in the Bible as having value. Here is how I find value in areas where others don’t.” I know you are not a Biblicist and treat the Bible as though it fell from heaven, yet the outcome is much the same. “If it’s in the Bible there must be a higher purpose than what meets the eye.” This seems to me to be a position one could take as a conclusion, not an a priori. Since I don’t begin there (or end there), I find room to evaluate biblical statements, especially in view of the two Great Commandments.
        Adam Hamilton writes, “When we read through portions of the Law, we’re right to ask, Did God really demand that a priest burn his daughter alive if she became a prostitute? Or that husbands must kill their wives with their own hands if their wives tried to lure them to worship any God but Yahweh? Did God really demand the death of every man, woman, and child among thirty-one kingdoms of the ancient Canaanites? Or take the lives of 75,000 Israelites as a punishment for David’s sin of taking a census?” I shudder to think that God would indulge in this to teach Israel to become nonviolent. If this means to some I am standing in judgment of the Bible, I prefer to think of it as recognizing that some of Scripture does not measure up to Jesus’ standards.
        A more benign example is Proverbs 22:6 “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” (KJV) This is just bad advice. I have counseled several couples who are riddled with guilt because, having done their best, their child turned out to be a mess. They blame themselves because of this text. My advice is do the best you can in raising your children, and the rest is no longer in your hands. That I think would be a better proverb!
        A proto-Incarnational event seems to me to be a way of having your cake and eating it too. Surely God deals with people where they find themselves. But to encourage a people to be nonviolent through acts of violence is a bridge too far from the incarnation for me to cross over.

  2. Allen! You need to zip your mouth up! You know NOTHING about politics! Tell us why you got fired!

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