September 14, 2010

Wrestling with Texts

                I must confess that I have put off writing this blog because some of the lectionary texts for this week are so searing in their rebuke of human rebellion, and I want to take them seriously.  Jeremiah 4 warns of physical cataclysms because of the evil of God’s people; Psalm 14 warns those foolish enough to say “There is no God;” and the alternative reading from Exodus 32 narrates God’s fury at the Israelites for their idolatry in crafting the golden calf.  These texts of warning about God’s fierce anger are domesticated in most of the preaching heard in all but the most sectarian conventicles.  How should progressive Christians engage this rendering of the character of God?

                Conventional hermeneutics often finds a way to soften this impassioned vision of God by saying these portrayals are “anthropomorphisms,” i.e., the writers have projected human emotions on God.  Yet this interpretive ploy is not sustained when we read texts that convey the great mercy and compassion of God for the weak and wayward.  The other lectionary texts for this week recount Paul’s joy in God’s overflow of grace in his life, “even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence” (1 Timothy 1:13). The second reading from the New Testament is of the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to pursue the lost one—a parable of God’s great love for sinners.  This is the vision of God we want to cling to, but is this a faithful reading of Scripture to subordinate the other rendering to the one we prefer?

                You may recall that Marcion wanted to cut off the Hebrew Bible from the New Testament because he saw diametrically opposed perspectives on God in them.  Thankfully, early Christianity did not fall for his neat law-and-grace scheme, caricatured as the “God of wrath” and the “God of love.”   Perceptive interpreters saw there was a larger pattern in the Bible, and one did not merely play off one depiction against another.  Students of church history recall the struggle of Martin Luther to find a “gracious God.”  The God of scholastic theology was a terror to him;  how could he find mercy?  His great insight is that one is justified by faith, and that the wrath of God is submerged in mercy through the cradle and the cross.  He understood overarching trajectory of redemption in Scripture.

                The passionate God of the Bible feels deeply toward those created in the divine image.  While we must not ignore texts of warning against human rebellion, we can trust that mercy is God’s way with humanity.  Thanks be to God!

                Molly T. Marshall

                                For more information about Central as a perichoretic theological seminary, visit



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