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God in the Old Testament


Conference Notes

It’s a clear and crisp morning here in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania. I’m on site at St. Thomas’ Church for an exciting Biblical Studies conference entitled “Making Sense of the God of the Old Testament.” For the next two days, I’ll be checking in on Covenant with some “Conference Notes,” including excerpts from interviews with Old Testament Professors Walter Brueggemann, Peter Enns, and Carolyn Sharp, as well as my host, Fr. Marek Zabriskie, rector of St. Thomas’ and founder of the Center Biblical Studies (CBS).

The Bible Challenge

What’s the Center for Biblical Studies? I’m glad you asked. Subscribers to The Living Church may remember a recent article by Fr. Zabriskie, which gave a history of the ministry. Founded only in 2011, the Center for Biblical Studies has grown precipitously in the last year and a half into an international network of dioceses and churches focused around a simple mission: to read the entire Bible in a single year. What began as a pulpit challenge from a parish rector to read Scripture together has blossomed into a Communion-wide call, involving now one thousand churches and fifteen bishops, to become re-immersed in Scripture.

The lectionary, Fr. Zabriskie observes, presents a “sanitized and censored” version of the Bible, expurgated for Sunday decorum. One could go a lifetime reading only the lectionary and hardly touch certain books and stories, especially from the Old Testament. This problem, it must be said, exists primarily in modern lectionaries. For instance, while the reading of Judges in the 1979 BCP Daily Office stops with chapter 18, the gruesome tales of Judges 19–21 are indeed included in the Calendar of the 1662 book.

The other reality faced by Anglican pastors, however, is the dwindling practice of Morning and Evening Prayer. Gone are the days when Samuel Pepys could casually report attending both services in his local parish. The reality is that many Episcopalians simply do not read the Bible other than on Sunday. The Revised Common Lectionary has made a valiant effort to restore certain narrative portions of the Old Testament to the summer Sunday readings. But even so, time simply does not allow for the kind of engagement offered by a full diet of daily Morning and Evening Prayer.

The Bible Challenge offers a practical alternative for a busier laity: simply read the Bible. This is not to remove the Bible from the context of prayer. Indeed, Fr Zabriskie notes that in working out the Bible Challege daily digest—three chapters of the Old Testament, one Psalm, and one chapter of the New Testament—he was constructing an alternative lectionary of sorts. The aim is ultimately Cranmerian, envisioning a people who immerse themselves in the Word. “The reading of scriptures is a great and strong bulwark or fortress against sin,” writes Cranmer. “The ignorance of the same is the greater ruin and destruction of them that will know it not.”

Although the Bible Challenge is formally a one year commitment, the goals of the Center for Biblical Studies are to inculcate more permanent habits. As Fr. Zabriskie puts it, the aim is not to inspire people to read the Bible in a year and then move on to other great books; rather, the Bible Challenge provides a point of entry, whose end is to foster a “lifelong, spiritual, daily discipline” in reading the unique Word of God. This seems to be working: when I asked parishioners at St. Thomas’ whether they had done the Bible Challenge, they nodded and said: “We’re in our second year.”

Making Sense of the God of the Old Testament: 27–29 April 2012

“Making Sense of the God of the Old Testament” is the first conference the CBS has hosted. Only about a quarter of the registered participants, however, come from St. Thomas’. In addition to attracting people from neighboring cities in Pennsylvania, the conference has drawn attendees from as far as Easton, Maryland; Arlington, Virginia; Hendersonville, North Carolina; Nashville, Tennessee; South Bend, Indiana; and Mystic, Connecticut.

The theme for the conference was sparked from conversations among participants in the Bible Challenge at St. Thomas’ Church. Time and again, as Fr. Zabriskie led discussion groups called “Intelligent Talk about the Bible,” people would notice a seeming difference between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New. This prompted the inevitable question: “Do Christians worship two gods?”

The necessary answer to this question, as Professor Sharp pointed out yesterday evening, is “No”: to say otherwise would be heresy. But simply saying “No, we do not worship two gods” does not answer all the questions that a thoughtful Christian might have. Hence the need for further discussion.

“Making Sense of the God of the Old Testament” is not the first conference to address the difficult issues of God’s character in the Old Testament. For instance, the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame hosted an interdisciplinary conference in 2009 on a similar subject entitled “My Ways are Not Your Ways,” featuring talks by analytic philosophers including Bob Adams, John Hare, Eleanore Stump, Richard Swinburne, and Nicholas Woltersdorff, as well as biblical scholars Gary Anderson and Christopher Seitz. The proceedings of this conference were published in the monograph: Divine Evil?: The Moral Character of the God of Abraham (Oxford, 2010).

To my mind, however, the CBS conference stands to make an important contribution on a number of scores. I’ll highlight just two. In the first place, this conference features top-flight Biblical Studies professors, but is being held in the context of a parish. On Sunday morning, Professor Sharp, recently ordained to the priesthood, will be celebrating the Eucharist with conference attendees. On Sunday evening, Professor Brueggemann will be preaching at Choral Evensong. The integration of faith and scholarship offered by the CBS is a model for future conferences where the church may come alongside the academy and reclaim its place as both a house of prayer and a house of study.

Second, all three conference speakers, in their lectures and publishing, present a similar (though not identical!) ideological and political reading of Scripture, which holds the OT as central and indispensable to Christian faith, while also noting the problems it causes for believers. In particular, both Professors Brueggemann and Sharp have championed the polyphonic and multivalent characterization of Scripture, which renders its meaning, in the final assessment, indeterminate. Far less than presenting a monological theology, as Professor Brueggeman notes, the OT presents us with a “contest of interpretations.” This partial homogeneity in methodological approaches of the conference speakers might be regarded as a weakness to some extent, but it also lends the conference a certain coherence and means that the differences which emerge between the respective speakers will be all the more interesting to tease apart, as iron sharpens iron.

For example, in last night’s introductory lecture, Professor Bruggemann presented a provocative reading of Exod 20:1–2 which interpreted the Covenant of Sinai as an “act of counter-imagination” meant to challenge Pharaoh’s “ideology of empire.” The commands of the Decalogue (Exod 20:1–17) spell out a new system of living which is fundamentally at odds with the production ideology of Pharaoh, who in Exodus 5 repeats (ten times?) a single commandment: “make bricks.”

This is a compelling reading, which will certainly “preach.” In listening to Professor Brueggemann, however, one did get the impression that, according to his interpretation, the program of God was entirely opposed to “empire” of any kind. To which the obvious objections arise: What about God’s Covenant with King David? And didn’t Jesus preach a Kingdom? Enter Professor Enns, who, while quite sympathetic to aspects of Brueggemann’s position, noted that the New Testament in fact “ratchets up” the language of empire. So which one is it? No empire or more empire? The difference may sound subtle, but at stake are ultimately issues such as the precise role of the Davidic monarchy and the historical people of Israel in salvation history, the possibility of Christian empire, and the right use (or non-use) of military force, a major point of contention in the ongoing debate between Christian pacifists in the Origenist/Anabaptist tradition and Just War theorists walking in the steps of St. Augustine’s De civitate Dei.

Not surprisingly, St. Thomas’ already has another conference coming up on the horizon: “Emergence Christianity — What It Is, Where it Came From, Why It Matters,” 19 May 2012, led by Phyllis Tickle. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to the current offering. If the next two days are anything like tonight’s discussion, then hearing the dialogue between Brueggemann, Enns, and Sharp alone will justify the time spent in study and prayer with the Church here in Fort Washington.


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