Synopsis: In The Human Faces of God, Thom Stark takes aim at the conservative Scriptural doctrine of inerrancy and sets forth what he believes to be a more mature and logically consistent paradigm for understanding the Bible. Through examining the many points on which the Christian Scriptures set forth diverging views on the same topic, exposing “trouble texts” (such as those condoning genocide), and reviewing the philosophical inconsistencies involved in holding an inerrant view, Stark argues that the Church ought to view her sacred texts as a kind of divine argument – “a collection of writings marked by lively internal debate.” In the end, Stark believes that the doctrine of inerrancy is both untenable and harmful to our moral development. By redefining what the “authority of Scripture” might look like, Stark urges Christians to become real moral agents by critically engaging with our texts, and reminds us that, even if God didn’t breathe out a text (i.e. an infallible Bible), He can still breathe into it. By listening within a Spirit-filled community, we must use our own reason and experience to discern the voice of God.
Overview: Stark starts off his work by trying to display two things – first, that Scripture is a very diverse set of writings (for Stark, “an argument with itself”), and second, that understanding the Bible in terms of inerrancy is both logically inconsistent and potentially harmful. He then tries to show several cases in which the Bible is a very “fallible” book, before concluding with his thoughts on how to deal with fallible and sometimes morally questionable texts, and the Bible as a whole, within the Christian community.
Diversity and Inerrancy
In regards to his first point about the diversity of Scripture, two examples of “Biblical Bickering” are initially given – (1) the nationalistic and “xenophobic” understandings of Ezra and other Old Testament texts vs. the universalistic understandings of Amos and the author of Jonah (I would probably add Second Isaiah, Jesus, and most NT writers to the list!), and (2) the “justice is served now” (i.e. if bad things happen to you, it’s because you sinned) understanding of many proverbs, the book of Chronicles, much of the Pentateuch, etc. vs. the “justice doesn’t happen now” and/or “justice is hoped for in the future” understanding of Ecclesiastes, Job, Jesus, and almost all of the NT writers.
To be honest, I think this section is fairly weak considering the fact that seeing Scripture as an “argument with itself” is the primary way Stark wants Christians to view the Bible and one of the main theses of this book. Yes, I think those are real tensions within the Canon, but if Stark wants to convince an Evangelical audience that Scripture presents very different views on the same topics, he is going to have to give more than two examples. Delving into differences in views on government, faith and works, judgment, “fearing God”, the status of Mosaic Law for Christians, issues within Mosaic Law itself, the use of violence, etc. would have been helpful. In short, even though he sprinkles more of these kind of arguments in throughout the book, I think he could have spent more time dealing with “opposing viewpoints” data in an organized way.
In regards to his second point, that understanding the Bible in terms of inerrancy is both logically inconsistent and harmful, Stark points out several loopholes that those espousing inerrancy tend to use to maintain the doctrine (appealing to “inspired interpretation” of biblical authors, hiding behind genre, cultural truths vs. universal truths, accommodation, “progressive revelation,” etc.) and then makes his case that adopting the view that Scripture is inerrant “stunts your growth” – in that you don’t have to make your own moral choices, but simply “defer to the book” (or your pastor’s interpretation).
Stark’s analysis of the philosophical problems involved in adopting the Chicago Statement of Inerrancy is detailed and he does a good job of pointing out just how many loopholes are available within that definition. We would both be in agreement that the doctrine of inerrancy seems to “die the death of a thousand qualifications,” many of which he examines in this section.
The next five chapters are devoted to showing how the Christian Scriptures are fallible. And not only are they fallible; to Stark they are, at times, morally repugnant. Stark spends time dealing with (1) the development from polytheism to monotheism, (2) the potential practice of human sacrifice within Israel, (3) justifications of genocide, (4) texts that could be categorized as “propaganda,” and (5) the false eschatological expectations of Jesus and some NT authors. Of these 5 chapters, Evangelicals would probably have the hardest time fitting justifications of genocide and false echatological expectations within their doctrine of Scripture.
What to Do?
So if one were to adopt Stark’s view of Scripture – that we are dealing with fallible and sometimes morally repugnant (condoning genocide, etc.) texts – the big question remains…what do we do with the Bible? To this Stark offers a new way of looking at Biblical authority – that of a parent and child:
When adolescents first discover that their parents are not infallible, often they become paralyzed and begin to doubt everything their parents have taught them. Many adolescents go through a stage in which anything and everything their parents say cannot be trusted; or rather, something is wrong precisely because it was uttered by their parents. This seems to be the mindset of the modern-day inerrantists: the Bible is wrong on one issue, then there is no reason to listen to anything it says….Yet this is the mark of a profound immaturity…A mature individual is one who learns that discernment must be exercised when appropriating the teaching of an authority figure, but also that disagreement with the authority figure does not entail that the figure has ceased to be an authority…The ability to engage scripture in argument without rejecting its rightful place in the community is a mark of spiritual maturity, a testament to the scriptures’ power to fashion authentic, self-determining moral agents.
So although the Bible remains an “authority figure”, we must critically engage it and, at times, reject certain views within it. But when we do so, Stark believes we are in good company, for this is exactly the activity that many of the Biblical authors engaged in.
Stark sums up where we are left with this model as follows:
So where does this leave us? The scriptures are not infallible. Jesus was not infallible – or, if he was, we have no access to his infallibility. So where is our foundation? Upon what doe we build our worldview, our ethics, our politics and our morality? The answer is that there is no foundation. There is no sure ground upon which to build our institutions. And that is a good thing. That is what I call grace. An infallible Jesus, just like a set of infallible scriptures, is ultimately just a shortcut through our moral and spiritual development. To have a book or a messenger dropped from heaven, the likes of which is beyond the reach of all human criticism, is a dangerous shortcut. It is no wonder humans have always attempted to create these kinds of foundations. And it is a revelation of God’s character, from my perspective, that cracks have been found in each and every one of those foundations. Yet while we are are without a foundation, we are not left without resources. The truth is that God has given us many resources to use together to struggle toward lives that reflect justice and peace. Our scriptures are some of those resources. The unique witness of Jesus of Nazareth within those scriptures is a resource in its own right. But we have other resources. We have our faculties of reason, our experiences, and the experiences of others. We have the voices of the past, the voices of the present, the voices of our elders, our peers, our children, and our enemies. We have the voices of other religions and the voices of atheists. We have the voices of those who suffer. We also have scientific methods of inquiry. We have critical theory, and philosophy, that help us to subject our own basic assumptions and frameworks of thought to critique. We have the Spirit of God. We have our individual minds, and the organic machinations of our communities. We have resources we know not of.
In the end, although some of the characterizations of God within Scripture reveal an “all too human” perspective, Scripture as a whole remains one of our primary resources for living a life devoted to God.
What I Liked: One of the strengths of this work was the evaluation of the doctrine of inerrancy and the problems inherent in adopting it. I think Stark did a good job analyzing the Chicago Statement and the loopholes that are available within it which allow theologians to hold onto the doctrine, but qualify their way out of biblical data that seems to contradict it. The other main strength of this work was Stark’s own reflections on his spiritual journey and his thoughts on what to do when you feel forced to give up an inerrant Bible.
What I Didn’t Like: One of the big turn-offs for me when reading this book was the tone in which it was written. At times, Stark sounds angry with “fundamentalists” and uses rhetoric that would instantly put off a conservative reader. For instance, lines like “admittedly, anybody who knows anything about the horrible kinds of things the Bible tends to say would be well within their right mind to be afraid of an actual inerrantist” (15), labeling a section title “Only Some Women are Inherently Stupid” (41, when discussing female submission), and seemingly playfully mocking the fact that Jesus had false expectations (184, “The only part he got wrong was that little detail about the end of the world as we know it. But nine out of ten isn’t that bad.” ). Throughout the whole work, I kind of got the sense that he was trying to hide smouldering resentment with conservative Christianity, but just couldn’t keep himself from taking jabs. Writers like Stark would be much more effective if they showed sympathy (which, in fairness, he does at times) towards people holding opposing views. I kind of got that “Ehrman-esque”, I’m-going to-pretend-I’m-OK-if-you’re-a-conservative-Christian-but-then-spend-much-of-my-book-mocking-your-belief feeling when reading this book.
Personal Takeaways: I found a fellow pilgrim in Stark in the sense that, after rejecting some tightly held beliefs, he still wants to remain within the Christian fold. I would echo his statement that his new understanding “while initially threatening to my identity – has now set me free” (xviii). His articulation of what a non-Evangelical use of scripture might look like has helped me in my own reflections.
Final Thoughts: The Human Faces of God is probably best suited for those in an academic Christian setting, not the layman. But it is a good resource that “puts the finger on” many of the issues that Evangelical theologians will have to engage. For a brief review from a more conservative perspective, see tillhecomes.org and for a more detailed counter perspective check out blogforthelordjesuscurrentevents.wordpress.com. More information about Stark and the book can be found at humanfacesofgod.com.