Baker Academic

Friday, August 23, 2013

My Ongoing Struggle with Scripture (one Christian's response to Larry Behrendt's problem text) - Le Donne

Larry Behrendt, my counterpart in this Jewish-Christian exchange, offers his first take on so-called “problem texts” here.  My first observation is that Larry might be spending a bit too much time on the internet.  His post has more links than a Latvian sausage factory.  Speaking of which, Larry and I might be a tad too sausagy to be discussing Ephesians 5:22-24 with any credibility.  But here we are.

Like most Christians, I begin with the premise that my Bible is true.  I must quickly qualify this statement by admitting that the truth of many passages are not clear to me.  I often feel like the disciples who gape at Jesus like slack-jawed fools because “they did not understand about the loaves” (Mark 6:52).  I have no clue how to interpret “the loaves” in this context.  I’m even further from figuring out how to draw truth from this passage.  So here I acknowledge that I am fallible.  Scripture, as filtered through me, is not to be swallowed uncritically.

To make matters even trickier, Paul acknowledges something similar when he instructs the Christians at Corinth about marriage and then qualifies it by saying, “I do not have a command from the Lord, but I give an opinion…” (1 Cor 7:25; cf. 7:12).  Maybe Paul didn’t get the memo that such statements would confuse us modern Christians.  Was Paul wrong to think that he might not always be right?  But Paul can’t be wrong, so we must agree that he might have been wrong sometimes.

I’m joking, of course.  The problem isn’t really about right and wrong. It’s about how directly we’re perceiving the Word of God in the words of Scripture.  According to Paul, his words can be “trustworthy” without being directly attributed to the voice of the Lord.  Don’t get me wrong.  I have a high view of Scripture.  I couple this with a realistic view of how well Christians can interpret our scriptures.  Let’s be honest: we fail more often than not.

In Larry’s parade example, the author of Ephesians instructs: “Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands” (Eph 5:24).  In this case, it seems that the author is instructing followers of Christ to live by the paterfamilias culture common in first-century Ephesus.  In this case, I not only have trouble with my own cultural webbing, I have a great deal of trouble with author’s cultural webbing.  And it is exactly here where I find Larry’s insight particularly helpful.  He writes:
An honest exploration of problem texts requires us (in my opinion) to at least consider the possibility that some texts might be problems that cannot be made OK. Please don’t misunderstand: if we can make the problem go away, that’s fine by me! I’m not looking to create problems where they don’t exist, and I’m willing to solve them when I can. But I’m not willing to assume in advance that all Bible problems can be made to disappear.
Passages that betray ancient social dysfunctions trouble me because I do not have the liberty to disentangle myself from them.  For those who do not count the New Testament as holy, there is little harm in condemning such passages as outmoded.  It is a tempting move.  But, for me, the Christianity imparted to me by my forebears is not something that I can shed.  It's fused to me, even when it disfigures me.

For me, the truth of Scripture manifests as a disjointed hip.  I’m willing to wrestle till sunrise without any assurance that I’ll get anything for my efforts. (Yes, I’m allegorizing; I learned it by watching Philo.)  More often than not I fail.  And even when I do prevail, it’s painful.  Sometimes I limp away from Scripture and wonder what sort of God I’m dealing with.  Worse, this wrestling match comes with an inherent identity crisis.  The struggle (re)defines me in ways that I cannot explain.

As a Christian who values the Bible as holy, I love these words by Phyllis Trible:
“Storytelling is a trinitarian act that unites writer, text, and reader in a collage of understanding. Though distinguishable and unequal, the three participants are inseparable and interdependent” (Trible, Texts of Terror, p.1).
She then quotes Ursula K. Le Guin. Trible quotes only the first line of a larger passage, but I'll give you the full monty: 
In the tale, in the telling, we are all one blood. Take the tale in your teeth, then, and bite till the blood runs, hoping it's not poison; and we will all come to the end together, and even to the beginning: living, as we do, in the middle.
When I read the Bible it is never just me and God in the room.  It’s me and Paul and Paul’s understanding of Moses, and it's Augustine, and Luther, and my childhood pastor, and countless flannel boards, and the text in front of me… and, more often than not, God is hidden. Maybe God is crawling along the strands of these relationships like some great Spider. I’ve never been comfortable with spiders. But their lacework is beautiful.  I am always trapped in the perilous middle.

In my next post, I’ll take Larry to task on a couple matters just to spice things up.  Then I’ll turn it back to him for rejoinder.


See Larry's reply here. Good stuff.


  1. This dialogue has so far been extraordinarily helpful and insightful. Thanks very much.

  2. Larry's reply here:

  3. Wow. That was a fun and refreshing(ly honest) read. On the side, I'm happy to hear other Bible folk know and love LeGuin's work—and don't just fawn over Lewis. Her Earthsea stuff is great. And Trible's quote was amazingly illuminating—so thank you for sharing this.

  4. Hi Anthony,

    Thanks for you honesty. I think many interpreters of the New Testament can resonate with the difficulties you describe.

    One book I have found particularly helpful on the debate about gender in the New Testament is William Webb's classic, "Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals."

    In that book, Webb argues that the Apostle Paul is urging the early Christians toward a higher marital/sexual ethic than what was common in the first century. Paul pushes for “redemptive movement” away from patriarchal norms toward a more egalitarian ethic, according to which there is neither "male nor female" in Christ. However, Paul's push is not so extreme a break from patriarchal norms as to compromise the spread of his gospel message by demanding a form of equality which (in that day) would have been considered unthinkable. In other words, Webb argues that many of Paul's statements about gender were revolutionary and liberating – but point forward to a more ideal ethic (as was their intention).

    For what it’s worth, Paul Copan applies a similar hermeneutic to law codes in the Pentateuch which, by modern perceptions, were far from perfect.