Episode 110: Clever Hermeneutics

What is a thoughtful, compassionate Christian to do with all the outrageous violence and hatred in the Old Testament? Many liberal Christians will reject the notion that these texts are inspired by God but in rescuing God’s character they sacrifice the divine authority of the scriptures. Fundamentalists will often bite the proverbial bullet and accept that God really did command these atrocities but how can one give any intelligible account of God’s holiness if He commands such evil deeds? Are these the only options available to a believer who wishes to keep the Bible and their conscience too? Apologist Randal Rauser doesn’t think so. He advocates an approach to interpreting the Old Testament which he calls a “qualified embrace” of the scriptures. It’s a clever hermeneutic but does it succeed in providing an intellectually sound way out of this dilemma? Also on this episode: Jesus shares your political views but he is more extreme, the Boy Scouts of America consider admitting gays and we conclude the episode with a touching Polyatheism segment.

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  1. johnwolforth says

    It was your episode on CS Lewis that helped me realize I did not need to give these modern apologetics any more benefit of the doubt than the old guys. The only book on hermeneutics that I have read that has any merit is “Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed”. It does not discuss his existence or claim to interpret the entire Bible’s symbolic message, instead it analyzes a few parables as the political messages he (or whatever author) might have been attempting to make. He only attempts to determine what the parables symbolize in terms of social groups and the cultural context that existed during the time the parables were being told. For me, this is the only valid hermeneutic.

  2. misanthroptimist says

    The more I talk to theists and theologians the more I’m realizing that factors like science and humanist values have essentially reduced theology to a mission of salvaging as much positive supernaturalism and authority/sovereignty as possible. For example, many liberal theologians no longer interpret Jesus’ death as a means of atonement, but rather an unfortunate consequence of his radical teachings. They know that no thinking person these days is going to want to be associated with the justification of human sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins; not that I’ve ever heard of this being taught from the pulpit, though.

    While conveniently subscribe to some fantastical Pauline conflate of Jesus (minus the blood atonement thing, of course) they ignore passages in the Gospels which scholars like Ernst Troeltsch and Walter Kaufmann point to as clear evidence of Jesus’ radical message of “unlimited and unconditional individualism” for the purpose of gaining treasures and rewards in Heaven (which is exemplified by the Sermon on the Mount)…and NOT, as is so often claimed, a message of social justice and/or love.

    They also claim to have no problem with scientific facts like evolution, but then also seek to minimize its significance and theological implication by invoking unsubstantiated assertions, like that their god introduced morality and altruism into the world to basically help us transcend our evolved nature of base, narcissistic survival instincts. Indeed, theology has been reduced to a desperate salvage operation!

  3. misanthroptimist says


    *…They know that no thinking person these days is going to want to be associated with the justification of human sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins. Rather they hold Jesus up as an exemplar of what it means to be human, loving, and godly, and claim that his death (while unfortunate) points us back to god; not that I’ve ever heard of this being taught from the pulpit, though. …

    *While they conveniently subscribe to some fantastical Gospel-Pauline conflate of Jesus…

  4. says

    The cult Children of God, now known as The Family International was founded by David Berg. In one documentary he is referred to as the Love Prophet, as his cult was known for awhile as the Family of Love during its heyday of religious prostitution known as Flirty Fishing. Berg believed that his prayers caused the worst aviation disaster in history, which I wrote about in a blog entry revealing for the first time to the general public a secret publication that the cult had attempted to destroy all copies of. I obtained a copy from a cult expert professor in Canada. Here’s an excerpt from my blog article: http://chainthedogma.blogspot.ca/2011/11/secret-letter-claims-family.html


    Although that deluded cult leader, David Berg, did not actually kill anyone himself, death threats against his enemies are scattered throughout his writings, and he claimed in secret letters to his followers that his curses and prayers caused the deadliest aviation disaster in history. He praised God for killing nearly 600 innocent people and considered the disaster proof of his exclusive, direct connection to God. He even published a comic based on those letters for the specific purpose of indoctrinating the group’s children with ‘proof’ that he was God’s prophet.

    Such heartless arrogance, empty sympathy and bible-based immorality. According to leaders of The Family International, the death of hundreds of innocent people, including children, was God’s will because somehow that all-powerful, prayer-answering God was unable to differentiate between the guilty and the innocent on those two airplanes. And what about the 61 people on board the Pan Am plane that survived the disaster? If God spared them, why not spare all the other innocents? I can think of a dozen other related questions, but Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals never ask questions like that, because in their world doubting and questioning God are sins. But believing in biblical literalism always leads to irrational conclusions such as the belief that mass killings and genocides are justified when God commands or causes them. And it also leads to irrational explanations such as the claim that even if innocent children are killed along with their guilty parents, God is actually doing those kids a favour by taking them straight to heaven, or some nonsense like that. Here are two Berg quotations that illustrate that point. The first refers to famines in Africa and the second refers to the genocide of Canaanites in the Old Testament, where Joshua’s army slaughters everyone in Jericho, including children: Joshua 6:21

    55. I FEEL SORRY FOR ALL THE WOMEN & CHILDREN OVER IN THOSE COUNTRIES THAT ARE STARVING TO DEATH, BUT WHOSE FAULT DO YOU SUPPOSE IT IS? It’s probably their men’s fault to begin with, & probably the women’s fault as well, because they worship false gods & idols & images & the dead & the Devil & are into all kinds of evil practices & cruelty & horrors that the mothers are just as guilty of as the fathers! The only innocent ones in those crowds are their poor little children, & they’re better off dead than to live in societies like that with mothers & fathers like that! Maybe that’s why the Lord lets them starve to death & it seems to hit the children the hardest & they die the quickest. That’s merciful! Thank God! I told you time & again, don’t fear death! Don’t fear starvation, it’s the easiest way in the World to die! It only takes a little while, & you may wish you could die quick. http://www.exfamily.org/pubs/ml/b5/ml2138.shtml

    10. AFTER THE WALLS HAD FALLEN DOWN, JOSHUA PUT THE ENTIRE POPULATION TO DEATH, as God’s Word had commanded–because they were wicked, filthy, vile people! Some people say, “Oh, my! What a cruel God He must have been in those days!” Well, God knows the earth needed to be cleansed of the horror of those people! If you knew some of the sins that they had–sodomy & so on, which is one of the vilest sins known to mankind … ,

    YOU CAN UNDERSTAND WHY GOD HAD TO COMPLETELY WIPE OUT THE POPULATION! Everybody except who? Rahab! Compared to these men of Jericho, even a harlot was a saint! http://www.exfamily.org/pubs/ml/b5/ml1153.shtml

    David Berg was referred to by some as the Love Prophet. He created the immoral doctrines called the Law of Love and Loving Jesus. He insisted, as the Bible does, that God is love, and he changed the name of his group to Family of Love at one point. He claimed that his biblically-based moral system was superior to all others, and yet he has no qualms about celebrating the mass murder or mass starvation of children.

  5. lancefinney says

    Regarding the question at about 16:00 of the existence of free-thought-friendly scouting opportunities, there are a couple in particular out there:

    Navigators USA was started by a New York City-based UU-affiliated Boy Scout troop that was kicked out of BSA because of incompatibilities on religious and sexual discrimination. Navigators has a focus on inclusiveness and diversity, stemming from its history as a group that worked to give inner city kids a chance to experience nature.

    Baden-Powell Service Association (BPSA) is led by a former Boy Scout leader who returned his Eagle Scout award after he was forced to quit being a scoutmaster because he was an atheist. BPSA has a focus on original scouting, with uniforms and policies drawn from what Lord Baden-Powell himself preferred when he started the global scouting movement.

    I’m part of a group of parents at the Ethical Society of St. Louis who went through this process and chose to work with Navigators USA.

    Additionally, there’s a group called Scouting for All that is trying to change BSA from the inside.

  6. lancefinney says

    FYI, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod isn’t being hypocritical when it prohibits joint prayer meetings with other religions but joins with other religions in legal matters. Their restriction on religious mixing applies only to prayers and worship – it doesn’t apply to legal and political proceedings.

    So, they weren’t making an exception in order to be able to suppress the gays – that activity simply didn’t fall under the prohibition.

    I’m not saying this to defend LCMS in general (I’m not a member and I don’t want to be), but this insinuation of hypocrisy here would not shame anyone in the church because it wouldn’t apply.

    Now, if they joined with other conservative denominations to have an anti-gay prayer and worship service, you would have a point…

  7. Lucretius Carus says

    This was a great episode and well worth the wait. You guys have really good synergy when you’re all together. Please keep it up. Definately one of the best freethought podcasts out there if not the best.

  8. articulett says

    I really enjoyed the polyatheism section! What was the name of the god– Bass? Bess? This god sounds way cooler than the 3-in-1 zombie god that I was raised with.

    (Oh, I see Mabus is loose again.)

  9. andrewviceroy says

    Even if we presumed Randal’s hermeneutical approach is correct, I can’t help but think how it would have gone a long way placed within the writings of Paul or the Gospel writers. Why should so many Christians and non-Christians have been denied the kind of theological explication that countless struggling theists- and non-theists- needed over the centuries? At best, this just highlights the remission and inelegance in a supposedly divine salvation plan that failed to both reach everyone in a superficial sense (i.e. the chance to even hear it at all- say, if you were born in Siberia in 1432), and be comprehensible in a practical sense (an intellectual sense that succeedes in preventing sectarianism or apostasy- and you’d have to be in serious denial to think that these kinds of verses don’t contribute to apostacy or deflect conversion in the first place).

    Overall, this is a terrible plan: use venal humans, who are historically vulnerable to mistake, agenda, and delusion, to serve as the impetus for a divine salvation plan that requires PhD level hemenuetical nuance. Divine miracles and teachings IN PERSON? Fine by Yahweh! Transmitted over written language? NOT fine by Yahweh. When it comes to the written word, that has to be filtered through human inadequacy- but hey! At least SOME humans got to hear the real deal, right? Suck it up.

    Well, thank goodness Yahweh finally provided the answers thousands of years later via an American apologist! I KNEW it was a great divine plan afterall. Call all the dead people and let ’em know we finall got it!

  10. Afzal says

    Once again – people seem to put 2 and 2 together or rather 1 & 1 & 1 together – it seems Marcion would be right proud.

    The Old Testament god – I’ll call him Yahuwah – is the very being who becomes incarnate as Jesus who is fully God, and full (unfallen) human being. jesus and Yahuway are one and the same: true god of true god, one being with the father etc.

    Therefore when yahuwah speaks in the OT it is Jesus who speaks.

    It is Jesus who commands those with whom he has a personal relationship with to go and kill babies being breast fed.

    It is jesus who says if you don’t do what I say, I’ll make you eat your own children.

    It is Jesus who savages/mangles 42 small children using wild animals…

    This is let-the-children-come-to-me jesus the child killer.

    Jesus ain’t no new waiting-in-the-wings God….

    hence (pace dawkins)

    [JESUS in] the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

    Xtians if honest, would use a single colour when Yahuwah/HolySpirit/Jesus speak. They’re one and the same.

    This is the ineluctable consequence of the Nicene/Chalcedonian creeds…

  11. Afzal says

    Correction: Once again – people seem NOT to put 2 and 2 together or rather 1 & 1 & 1 together – it seems Marcion would be right proud.

  12. El Cid says

    Granted that I’m at a different place than that in which many might find themselves — I no longer find the question of whether or not there’s some ‘God’ or whatever to be that interesting a question, nor do I find myself confronted personally with someone else’s religious beliefs necessitating any need to debate on my part.

    Nowadays when encountering this or that Biblical tale, I’m mostly struck by the notion not that people would choose to believe that such a thing had happened, but that this tale somehow made them consider the deity in question to be worthy of admiration, faith, and adherence.

    Imagine the God of the tale of the Amalekite slaughter were in fact real. Actually existed.

    Outside of one’s own cowardly terror about having such a lunatic magic being send them to some sort of Hell torture for eternity, what about that story would convince someone that this is a being worthy of following?

    Further, what about that story suggests that this God, omnipotent or not, is worthy of any notion of “Supreme Being” of the entire Universe which grown-up, adult humans would respect and follow?

    Really? His best approach to helping humanity (outside drowning them all except one family again) was to give wartime advice to one tribe in a little part of the eastern Mediterranean? Really?

    That’s it? That’s the end result of the thinking of the grandest, most omnipotent, most omniscient being even possible to imagine? That’s the smartest thing He thunk of?

    But no fear, because later on it’ll get better and He will be able to stop all the killin’ He does and urges because He will send His Son to live for a while, at some point in the future, and afterwards only THEN can He somehow feel He can send us in some direction with less killin’? This is just the dumbest stuff ever.

    This is the most provincial and pathetic ‘Supreme Being’ anyone could possibly suggest. If there were other Gods of other Universes in the Multiverse, surely they’d be shocked at this inanity and would keep Him out of whatever club They could.

    If your notion of a Supreme Being, Lord and Creator of All, is not more but less mature, insightful, strategic, and sensible than grown up people, in fact is the equivalent of a freaked out toddler or jealous and bitter person having a nightmare but with super-powers, then by all means, don’t follow its advice.

    Stand up for yourself. Let such a malicious idiot deity do what it will — that’s no reason to follow it. You don’t choose to agree with the powerful simply because they have power over you. With human tyrants you can pretend and they will eventually go away, but choosing to grant one’s soul to such a knucklehead being? Absurd.

    After listening to the most ardent defense (and lame sophistry) defending the Amalekite genocide on your earlier podcast, I wondered what many would want to say to that God if then possessing the opportunity to speak with Him.

    My response would be to tell Him to ‘Go away — if this is the best that you as a supreme being could think of to guide this species to some sort of glory, leave us alone to whatever fates exist, because You clearly are incapable of the reasonable thoughts of a calm and insightful human. Don’t help us. And for that matter, don’t create any other beings which you can mess up, either.’

    There is nothing about any of this which any kind, smart, pensive human would choose to admire and obey outside the pathetic and cowardly fear for one’s own fate from this malicious nitwit and the completely non-thought-related axiom that whatever this God does it’s right and thus I love it.

    If there truly is a ‘God’ in the sense of some Universal intelligence, with the power to know all and intervene (or not, maybe, whatever), it could only be insulted or disappointed if it learned how it was being defined.

    What’s the use of going to the effort of believing by willpower in a magic Supreme Being if that Being is defined by you as a ridiculous, clumsy, mean nitwit not worthy of the term “Supreme Being”?

  13. Peter the Rock'n'Roller says

    Randal Rauser stated that God “… was being Ironic”! ?
    LOL! Really? Apologists are assuming the role of God’s psychiatrist by telling us what God really means by his words in the scrpitures. LOL! [again].

    and oh yeah…
    @ Perry Bulwar for [Hebrews 13:8 “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever”]

    Mate, in your Bible, there are numerous passages where Jesus & even moreso O.T God have their collective minds changed about a specific issue. I reckon that’s indicative t of an evolving being.

  14. Peter the Rock'n'Roller says

    @ Afzal

    “JESUS….is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction:….petty, unjust, ….megalomaniacal,…..

    I agree, Matthew 15:22-28 is a good example of this. [IMO…of course]

  15. says

    Peter the Rock’n’Roller: You ain’t my mate, mate, if you can’t even spell my name right. I think you need a little reading comprehension lesson too. Its not my fucking bible. Afzal made the argument that the child murdering god in the OT is Jesus and Jesus is that OT god. I merely cited a bible verse that supports that argument that Jesus is a baby killer, not the savior of children. As for an evolving ‘being’, if the god of the OT was already omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and omnibenevolent, etc., that doesn’t leave much room for evolving. Furthermore, if that deity really did evolve, why does Jesus condemn innocent people to everlasting torment in hell? That’s not evolution, that’s devolution (homophone intended).

  16. Ethan Savickas says

    I’m glad that Luke’s face was mentioned when the argument was made along the lines of “…the overall tone of the Bible is Jesus…”, because my own face was contorted in a bizarre manner by the sheer ridiculousness of that statement. Luke, knowing vastly more about the Bible than I probably ever will, must have been truly a sight to see.

  17. Peter the Rockstar says

    @ Perry Bulwer

    Settle down buddy we’re just talking here…but if you want to get all stroppy like you’ve just dropped your lollies, I’m more than happy to get medieval if you are :)

  18. says

    Peter, don’t patronize me. I don’t need to settle down, and I am definitely not your buddy. I have no idea what the rest of your comment is saying.

  19. Ethan Savickas says

    Uh, I think what we have here is a minor misunderstanding. I’d like to draw attention to it so maybe we can stop it now rather than snowballing any further.

  20. Maggs says

    First, let me state my biases. I’m a queer woman. I’m also an atheist and a huge fan of RD. I namedrop your show, I’ve played podcasts on long road trips with my (also secular) roommate. Not only do I really enjoy the show, but I also feel that it has helped me grow with its rich blend of critical thinking skills, facts, and biblical scholarship. All of which makes the first half hour or so of this episode so incredibly frustrating and disappointing and surprisingly hurtful.

    I admire you, the hosts, for your clear thinking sharp wit, and amazing collective knowledge base, but the best jokes you could come up with gay men and scouting is that gays are fey and prissy? Your best thoughts on the matter were that allowing gay Scouts was that they would help neaten up because they are feminine. (Also irksome, but that’s a kettle of toxic fish for another day, I suppose.) It definitely made the rest of the show hard to listen to.

    I understand that you do not make the show because you want to be ambassadors of godlessness. But if the way you will approach the intersection of religion and LGBT issues is with offensive and offensively -dated- stereotypes, you make yourselves look like asses. You make yourselves look like asses, which is fine and dandy and often helpful to progress, but you make yourselves look like asses and tread old ground already tamped down flat by the kind of reactionary, dogmatic, hateful people to whom you object so strenuously. Leave the outright demeaning and dismissal to people like Focus on the Family. It doesn’t suit you.

  21. clamboy says

    Thank you very much for the episode, each one is like a draught from an oasis. As others have said, the polyatheism segment was brilliant. But, even as an anonymous listener who has never done anything to help you, I have to side with what Maggs posted above. You all have the talent to be funny without turning to ridiculous and offensive cliches, and the strong proof of your comments was diluted by your doing so.

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