By Charles Scriven
In the current issue of Spectrum, diverse perspectives on the interpretation of the Bible come across like tires screeching, and jerk you awake.
Richard Davidson and Roy Gane are of the same mind. All scripture (Davidson) “transcends cultural backgrounds as timeless truth.” The “entire Bible” (Gane) is the “Word of God.” This is what I will call a “flat-line” account of scriptural authority. It’s not just the Bible as a whole that defines Christian life, it’s all the bits and pieces. Every book and text has equal sway.
This account leaves Gane troubled by a God who (in some Bible passages) endorses—mandates—genocide. The trouble comes because this claim about God must be seen as timeless truth. Under the correct theocratic conditions (as with Israel of old) the command to commit genocide is the very Word of God. So under the right conditions, genocide is God’s truth.
Gane ends up, it is true, wishing people would embody the “truer religion” that reflects Christ’s sacrificial love, but he provides no argument, certainly no biblical argument, for privileging Jesus over genocide. His account of the Bible won’t let him.
In the same Spectrum issue Sigve Tonstad contends that, with its vision of reconciliation among Israel and its enemies, Egypt and Assyria, the book of Isaiah, in chapter 19, announces a wholly startling prospect. It is a “paradigm shift,” an anticipation of Jesus’ prayer on the cross for the forgiveness of his enemies (Luke 23:34).
Tonstad’s view suggests an “ascending line” theory of Bible authority: understanding shifts to something different from, and sometimes better than, previous understanding. David Larson makes this “ascending line” premise explicit in his response to Gane, and quotes Hebrews 1 to say that the final measure of Christian truth is Christ. Thus, says Larson, genocide is never God’s truth.
Luke reports Peter’s saying that Jesus was raised up and “exalted at the right hand of God” (Acts 2:32, 33). John the Evangelist tells us not just that the “Word” is God, but also that it “became flesh” (so we can see) in Jesus (John 1:1,14). The author of Hebrews declares that Jesus Christ, by contrast with other prophets, is the “exact imprint” of God’s being; he declares further that Jesus Christ is the same “yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 1:3 and 13:8).
I do not know how Davidson and Gane read these passages, but I myself see them as support for Tonstad and Larson. What is more, my conclusion does not depend on the “historical-critical method” (which Davidson anathematizes and I myself substantially reject). It depends only on an “ascending line,” as opposed to “flat-line,” theory of biblical authority. It assumes that the Bible is a story tending in the direction of God’s ultimate revelation. It assumes, in other words, what the first Christians assumed, what the Radical Reformers assumed, what Adventists like John Weidner in Nazi Europe and Ginn Fourie in violence-torn South Africa assumed:
Bible believers really can know God’s true will because God’s true will is the will of the resurrected Christ to whom the New Testament bears witness.
But the issues are complex, and I know it. Let me just say that unless Adventism is a lifeless shell—too dead to hear screeching tires—this cluster of articles should get attention and comment. That attention and comment should come from laypersons and scholars alike, and certainly from seminary professors.
Is the juxtaposition of the Davidson and Gane articles the death knell for the “flat-line” theory of the biblical authority? Or does it prove that we don’t know—and cannot know—how to make a biblical argument against genocide?
If the latter is the case, what moral authority can our church possibly have? And why would our neighbors want to join us, or our kids want to stay?