WHILE the Bible is central to understanding Christianity, it is not an easy book to read; nor, at first sight, is it always attractive. These two books by Baptist ministers deal with both issues, Paynter on some of the apparent morally unacceptable aspects of the Old Testament, and Parsons more generally on Bible-reading strategies.
Paynter first notes that God in the Old Testament is portrayed as loving, faithful, merciful, and compassionate. Further, he is seen as the principal cause of all events. She defines violence as far more than physical conflict and is glad that the Old Testament is not silent about it.
Commenting that forgiveness is “gritty”, she sees the imprecatory psalms as inviting us to surrender our rage to God and leave it with him. Throughout her book, much emphasis is placed on God’s creating order out of chaos — a continuous process within scripture. Judgement is seen in a positive light and talion recognised as a good first step in limiting personal vengeance.
For Paynter, the hardest texts are those in which God commands violence, as in the Deuteronomic injunctions to destroy the Canaanites utterly. But she needs to recognise that the Deuteronomists used the ban as a theological explanation for the Babylonian victory. The fact that the Canaanites and their cult were not exterminated had, in their view, led to Israel’s apostasy and God’s inevitable punishment. For the Deuteronomists, the Canaanites were a “moral cancer”, whereas, in fact, Israel was in part indebted to them.
Parsons begins by acknowledging that the Bible as a human creation is neither inerrant nor definitive. It does, however, preserve and communicate divine revelation. But reading the Bible must never take the place of listening; for the reader’s aim must be to hear the voice of God.
First, he outlines two “macro-strategies” that enable scripture to be embraced as a whole. It is God’s story in which we are invited to place ourselves. He recognises the necessity for improvisation which is due to our limited knowledge and understanding. Black and white answers are not always possible.
He then turns to “micro-strategies” for reading individual texts. These should lead us to God beyond the Bible. There then follows detailed practical advice inviting the reader to engage positively with the text; for ultimately it is about “divine grace, not judgment”.
Finally, Parsons enumerates things to take into account in reading scripture, ranging from the inadequacy of language in talking about God to the Last Things, which emphasise “the already/not yet aspect of Christian existence”. All of this is good sound advice for the novice.
In both books, the biblical text is accepted uncritically without any thought about how it reached its present form. While Parsons argues that “we need a biblically literate church to-day,” this will of necessity involve a more critical study of scripture than these books, helpful as they are, provide. But for that the reader will need responsible guidance.
Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.
God of Violence Yesterday, God of Love Today: Wrestling honestly with the Old Testament
Church House Bookshop £9
How to Read the Bible: So that it makes a difference
Church House Bookshop £8.10