Thom Stark, The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It) (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2011).
Review by Mike Warren
Review at Amazon.com: here
Modern American Christianity is dominated by Pietism, and after pietistic Christians have found the Bible verses that give them their ticket to heaven and God’s comfort through trials until they get there, they don’t pay much attention to the rest of the Bible. If such Christians would ever read a book like this one, they would be an easy target for Stark’s attack on the Bible. Stark was such a target himself at one time. He says that he was raised in the Stone-Campbell movement (e.g. Churches of Christ, Christian Churches/Disciples of Christ), which promotes the typical pietistic slogans like “No Creed but Christ,” “No Book but the Bible,” and “No Law but Love.”
But even though some Christians would have a difficult time answering some of Stark’s arguments, his arguments are not without many glaring faults. There’s a bad argument on nearly every page, but obviously in a review I can only hit some highlights.
Stark starts off the book claiming to find an example of divinely-sanctioned racism in Ezra 9 and 10, where some of the men had married foreign women contrary to the Law of God. Stark claims that “there is no hint in the narrative that the intermarriages posed any threat to genuine Yahwism.” Yet Ezra says that these foreign women “practice these abominations” (Ezra 9:14) – the same “evil deeds” that caused God to cast the Israelites out the land to begin with (Ezra 9:13). The original law gave the reason against intermarriage with the seven nations that occupied the land of Canaan as “they will turn your sons away from following Me to serve other gods” (Deut. 7:4). Israelites were free to intermarry with nations other than those seven (Deut. 20:14-18).
The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy defends the historical-grammatical interpretation of Scripture. To refute this, Stark claims to find some passages that can’t be interpreted using the historical-grammatical method. One is Matthew’s quote of Isaiah 7 that the “the virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him Emmanuel” finds fulfillment in the birth of Christ. Stark is unaware that there is a historical-grammatical interpretation that does not ignore the obvious fact that the boy mentioned in Isaiah 7 would be born in Isaiah’s own day, still a youth when the Assyrians would invade, destroying the crops and leaving nothing but curds and honey to eat. And yet the prophecy still applies to Christ because it’s an example of God rescuing a remnant in Israel because of the ancient promise to bless all the nations through Messiah who would descend from Abraham and David. See here for a fuller explanation: http://www.crivoice.org/immanuel.html.
Stark also uses Paul’s interpretation of Deuteronomy 25:4, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” as an example that contradicts the historical-grammatical approach. Paul comments, “Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was written for our sake. . .” (1 Cor. 9:9-10). The historical-grammatical approach does not exclude reading the Bible with some common sense and logic. Why would God have to command the owner of an ox to feed his income-producing animal that has a high replacement cost? Pure self-interest would take care of that. Using such common sense and logic, Paul reasons analogically from the oxen to humans: If brute beasts should be paid for their work, even though God is not really concerned that they won ‘t be, a fortiori, human laborers should be paid for their work.
Stark makes a big deal about Ezekiel 20:25-26. He claims that it’s an example of an inspired error. He says that it teaches that God commanded the Israelites to kill their first born as sacrifices, even though God condemns it in other places: “I gave them statutes that were not good and rules by which they could not have life, and I defiled them through their very gifts in their offering up all their firstborn, that I might devastate them.” But it doesn’t make sense that by obeying God’s command the Israelites could become “defiled” (v. 26). Stark claims that this law is to be found in the law of Moses (i.e. Exo. 22:29), but obedience to the law of Moses was intended to make the Israelites more populous and prosperous (Deut. 28), whereas this law is supposed to “devastate them.” And it doesn’t make sense that, despite Starks claim that redactors have changed words, sentences and whole chapters in the Bible, they didn’t notice that in the verses that immediately follow that God condemns child sacrifice (v.31). Of course, his interpretation also contradicts many other passages in which God condemns child sacrifice. Isn’t there an interpretation with less problems? There certainly is: God gave them these evil statutes indirectly, by allowing evil rulers to institute these evil statutes (cf. Rom. 1:28). Chapter 20 of Ezekiel is explaining that the Israelites are being held captive in Babylon as punishment for years of rejecting the law of God, and as 2 Kings 17 recounts in regard to the northern kingdom, burning their children as an offering was one of those unlawful acts. From Jeroboam onward, most Jewish kings offered sacrifices to foreign gods, but child sacrifice is not mentioned until closer to the captivity. Like Pharaoh in his confrontation with Moses, in Ezekiel 20 God is saying that He hardened the hearts of these latter kings to institute child sacrifice as a judgment of depopulation against them for their persistent idolatry. Those who have a problem with Calvinism will have a problem with this interpretation, but as Stark admits, the Bible teaches Calvinism.
Like other skeptics of the Bible, Stark is scandalized by Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac (Gen. 22). But this was a unique case that does not support a general practice. The situation was that God had previously promised Abraham that “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned” (Gen. 21:12). When God commanded Abraham to kill Isaac, he reasoned as one who trusts in God, that there was a logical explanation that allowed God to keep his promise even while God’s command was obeyed. Abraham realized that both could be true if Isaac was resurrected after he was killed, and he trusted God to do so. He told his servants that he and the boy would return (Gen. 22:5; cf. Heb. 11:17-20). In contrast, when the pagans and their Jewish imitators killed their children as sacrifices, they stayed dead. And of course, God stopped the sacrifice of Isaac from being completed, Abraham having shown that he trusted God by not assuming that superficially contradictory statements are a reason to reject God’s word. He who has an ear let him hear.
Another major claim that Stark makes is that Jesus was wrong about his coming in judgment within a generation. He says that N.T. Wright’s argument in Jesus and the Victory of God equating that coming with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple is “novel,” but apparently Stark is uninformed about the long history of this interpretation and the many recent defenses of this preterist view of the Olivet Discourse (See J. Marcellus Kik, An Eschatology of Victory; David Chilton, Paradise Restored, and Days of Vengeance; Kenneth Gentry, Before Jerusalem Fell, and He Shall Have Dominion; Gary DeMar, Last Days Madness. There is a curious lack of citations by Wright, as if he was the first to think of this view). Jesus predicted that the temple would be destroyed within a generation of his sermon (Matt. 24:34), so that not one stone would be left upon another (Matt. 24:1). He told his disciples to flee to the mountains when the saw the abomination of desolation (Matt. 24:15), when Jerusalem would be surrounded by armies (Luke 21:20-21). A generation in the Bible is about 40 years (the Israelites were condemned to wander in the wilderness for a generation, and it lasted 40 years), and in A.D. 70, almost 40 years after Jesus’ sermon, the temple was destroyed down to the last stone. As Eusebius reports, Christians in Jerusalem were able to escape the slaughter because they heeded Jesus’ warning to flee to the mountains when they saw the city surrounded: “But the people of the church in Jerusalem had been commanded by a revelation, vouchsafed to approved men there before the war, to leave the city and to dwell in a certain town of Perea called Pella.” (History of the Church 3:5:3). The Arch of Titus in Rome depicts the articles of the temple being carried off and the Jews being led away in chains. It stands to this day as a testimony that Jesus’ detailed prophecy was fulfilled. (The details of Jesus’ prophecy hardly compare to the statements of Jesus bar Hananiah, who went around simply yelling “A voice against Jerusalem and the temple” over and over a few years before the Roman invasion.) Stark says that Jesus was wrong because Jesus says that his coming is after the temple is destroyed, so his coming cannot be equated with the temple’s destruction, but must refer to a bodily appearance, which never happened. Stark assumes that the “abomination that causes desolation” is the desolation itself. It’s not. Jesus says that there is still time to escape at that point. The armies have surrounded Jerusalem and the destruction is “near” (Luke 21:20). The armies of the Roman General Vespasian surrounded Jerusalem in A.D. 68; the temple was not destroyed until August-September of A.D. 70. Also, Stark claims that the tribulation must be global based on “all the tribes of the earth” (Matt. 24:30), but it makes more sense to understand this as “all the tribes of the Land,” as in the land of Israel, especially since the tribes are “those who pierced him” (Rev. 1:7).
Stark devotes a chapter to the claim that remnants of an early Israelite polytheism are found in a few texts. Psalm 82 depicts God holding council among the “gods,” and then denouncing them for judging unjustly by being partial to the wicked rather than upholding the rights of the poor and weak. Who would have a job like that? Heavenly beings or human rulers? The latter makes more sense. It’s a common complaint that God makes against human rulers (Exo. 23:6-8, Isaiah 1:23, Jer. 22:1-4, Prov. 18:5, Amos 5). God says that these “gods” will die like any other human ruler (Ps. 82:7) – because that is what they are. The fact that some of the terms used are similar to terms found in the Ugarit myths of a father god that ruled over his family of lesser gods is not enough to equate the two, given the context. And even if these gods are heavenly beings of some sort, they are not ontologically on par with the God who is judge over all the nations on earth (v. 8). On this view, Psalm 82 could be seen as mocking the Ugarit view and eradicating its lesser gods. Many Ugarit gods (Baal, Asherah) and Ugarit practices (worship of dead ancestors, worship through drunken orgies, making images of the gods, worshipping multiple gods) are repeatedly condemned by the Hebrew prophets. On the other hand, some of the names and descriptions of various Ugarit gods are used for the Hebrew God (Yahweh, El Shaddai, El Elyon). Similarity of language does not prove that the same exact beliefs are being adopted, no more than the use of Greek by New Testament writers proves that Greek philosophy was being adopted them. They worked with the language that was available and adapted it for their own uses. The Higher Critics simply beg the question of naturalism – they assume that all knowledge must come from earthly sources and not from an absolute God that speaks in the midst of history in propositional language to humans. Assuming the truth of the Bible, polytheism is a degeneration from an original monotheism; and it might be that the various names used to describe the true God eventually became names for different gods in Ugarit.
Stark also appeals to Deuteronomy 32, arguing that a god named Elyon (“Most High”) (v.8) is depicted as ruling over the god Yahweh (“the Lord”) (v.9). But Elyon is not a name, it’s an epithet, a description. Deuteronomy 4:19-20 has Yahweh doing the job of Elyon in Deuteronomy 32: Apportioning the possessions of all the nations and actively taking Israel as His unique possession – not passively receiving it. There certainly is no necessity to Stark’s interpretation (following Mark Smith). You only find two gods there if you want to.
Which brings me to another issue. Stark claims that proponents of higher criticism aren’t biased. They just follow the facts. Well, gee, if Stark says it, it must be so! His declaration isn’t accompanied by any philosophical defense of any kind. His statement ignores the demise of the falsification criterion of logical positivism. All facts are interpreted facts. It ignores how secularists define “science” to mean naturalism, making it a foregone conclusion that their “scientific facts” will exclude evidence of the supernatural. More specifically, it ignores interpretive issues that directly relate to biblical archeology. Stark pretends that debates in archeology over theoretical methods don’t exist, like the debate over processual archeology versus postprocessual archeology. He pretends that there cannot be secular biases in research. Modern secularism is anti-authoritarian and morally pluralistic, so interpretations of evidence that undermine monotheism and promote polytheism will tend to be very attractive. Secularists often take pride in their “humble” attitude that the “scientific” approach to truth is that truth is never achieved because new evidence can always overturn previous views, in contrast to “close-minded” absolutism. But when they find evidence that they think undermines the Bible, it becomes the indisputable Final Answer. Stark presents his claims as if he has found the Final Answer on the Bible. You would never know from Stark’s book, for example, that any scholars have challenged Smith’s view of polytheism in the Bible (see, e.g., Richard Hess, Israelite Religions: An Archeological and Biblical Survey).
Stark’s treatment of the arguments for inerrancy are shallow. He makes the common but false claim that inerrantists think that the Bible’s own claims of inerrancy are sufficient to make it so. Rather, the reason that the Bible’s own claims of inerrancy are important is because it gives us a reason to consider the claim. But after denouncing appeals to the Bible’s teaching on its own inerrancy, Stark tries to prove that the Bible is not inerrant because the claim of inerrancy is not explicitly made for some of the books. He completely fails to address the arguments by implication that inerrantists have given for the inerrancy of many books in the Bible.
Stark’s treatment of inerrancy also completely fails to consider the basis for inerrancy. He says that the all or nothing view of inerrancy begs for a psychological explanation. No, it begs for a philosophical explanation, which Stark never addresses. He calls the philosophical argument “the core” of the inerrantist argument, but then simply dismisses it as unbiblical. The inerrancy of the Bible is based on the nature of the absolutely sovereign Creator as the source of all facts and knowledge. By His nature, God cannot err regarding any fact, whether spiritual or material. He is the one that assigns the meanings to all facts. As argued in such books as The Protestant Doctrine of Scripture by Cornelius Van Til and Inerrancy: An Inescapable Concept by R.J. Rushdoony, such a God necessarily exists in order for intelligible experience to be possible, and this entails a uniquely Christian theistic epistemology involving Biblical apriorism.
Stark claims to find several contradictions in the Bible, but they are all refutable, most of them easily, although a few require a skilled knowledge of ancient Hebrew. This is not to say that I or anyone else can resolve every difficulty that presents itself in Scripture. Stark discusses various problems with connecting the chronology of the Old Testament with archeological research into what was happening in various cities at particular points in history. It’s true that there are some disconnects between the two in a number of cases at this time, but as the secularists say, science is always provisional. Empirical evidence can’t even settle who shot JFK just a few decades ago.
Stark mentions that according to the standard view of the archeological evidence at Jericho, Israel entered Canaan about 200 years after Jericho had been occupied. Stark fails to mention that every other detail of the conquest of Jericho has been confirmed: The walls fell down so that the debris fell outward, forming a ramp for the Israelites to attack the city that sat on higher ground; the city was completely burned; the city was destroyed at the time of the year that the Bible says – after spring harvest; the city fell quickly as evidenced by the abundant grain that remained; the outer wall had houses built into it like the one Rahab is described to live in, and a section was found still standing, which would have spared Rahab and her family. An Egyptian siege would have been by starving the city before the harvest, and then ramming the walls in. Although C14 provides the older date, the era of the pottery supports the Biblical chronology. Recent C14 dating of the Egyptian New Kingdom dynasty also gives an age that is systematically up to 200 years older than archeological dates (see Hendrik J. Bruins, "Dating Pharaonic Egypt," Science, Vol. 328, 18 June 2010).
Stark criticizes the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy because the authors say that the doctrine of inerrancy is upheld despite the fact that not all difficulties in Biblical revelation have been resolved. Stark makes the false assumption that Christians arrived at the doctrine of inerrancy by a purely a posteriori method of examining all the statements in the Bible and not finding any that that they didn’t fully understand in relation to all other facts. Because the human mind is finite, no worldview is without unresolved problems. When comparing rival systems of beliefs, the issue will be which presuppositions of each worldview, despite the lower-order problems, make most sense out the world. We all treat contradictions as merely apparent when treating them as real would undermine the intelligibility of our world. Atheist physicist Richard C. Lewontin observed in his article “Billions and Billions of Demons,” “Carl Sagan accepts, as I do, the duality of light, which is at the same time wave and particle, but he thinks that the consubstantiality of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost puts the mystery of the Holy Trinity ‘in deep trouble.’ Two's company, but three's a crowd.” Why not treat the duality of light as a real contradiction because the physical world is irrational? Because everything in life would unravel. Ditto with the Bible. The Biblical worldview, with its insistence on the absolute rationality of the Creator, is actually the historical and philosophical basis for science (see How Should We Then Live? by Franky Shaeffer’s dad). The Enlightenment philosophes claimed science as their own after the foundations had already been laid in medieval Christendom.
A major theme in Stark’s book is that the Bible is immoral, particularly when the Israelites were commanded to completely destroy the seven nations that occupied Canaan, including the women and children. His argument is mainly a repeated use the fallacy of appeal to pity, with an ad Hitlerum fallacy thrown in for good measure. He makes an attempt to find a logical contradiction in saying that God’s commands for humans are derived from God’s character, and yet saying that it is permissible for God to do things that humans are forbidden from doing. But just as a judge in a human court can do things that a private citizen is prohibited from doing, like putting people in jail, God’s position as Judge of the cosmos puts him in a position to ethically act in ways that are forbidden to humans. God’s commands to humans are derived from God’s character, but fitted for the limitations of the human condition.
Stark condemns God’s commands, or rather, claims to prove that God did not command those things but they must be a human invention, because “we all know” that killing children is always immoral. (Abortion is immoral then, and we all know it?) Stark makes vox populi, vox dei the adversary of the God of the Bible. Stark himself acts as the prophet of this rival god, or more accurately, rival council of gods. He confidently claims to know that the council of divine humanity will condemn Hitler and Stalin. But his mortal gods are fickle beings. They may condemn mass killings by Hitler and Stalin today, but have not condemned such acts in the past, and may not in the future. Stark claims that the genocide commands in the Bible are purely human commands, but then proposes that humans would be better gods than the God of the Bible. He ends up at the same place that he was trying to escape. Or actually a worse place, because not only can he not condemn genocide in the conquest of Canaan, he can’t condemn anything. He admits that his view provides no foundation for morality, yet claims that he is not advocating relativism. But with no rules to restrain the will of the majority, anything could be deemed ethical.
The result of Stark’s naïve ethical philosophy is the same as modern secular philosophy of ethics in general. As Arthur Leff says, “I will put the current situation as sharply as possible: there is today no way of ‘proving’ that napalming babies is bad except by asserting it (in a louder and louder voice), or by defining it as so, early in one’s game, and then later slipping it through, in a whisper, as a conclusion.” This is where attempts at ethics without God – ethics in terms of an ultimately impersonal, amoral universe – have taken us. Infallibility is an inescapable issue for any worldview because we all have some ultimate ethical authority, something that defines good and evil and has no higher standard of judgment to question its judgments. The only ultimate standard that is not self-destructive is an absolute ethical Person who is maker of the world in which ethical judgments are made, and such a Person will necessarily serve as the ultimate standard of all ethical judgments. And since the human mind is finite and fallen, God’s laws cannot be expected to always conform to human intuitions about what should be right or wrong.
Stark repeats the common liberal charge that the composition of the Bible is a product of schemes to secure political power. Yet in the last chapter of Stark’s book, he reveals that the purpose of his book is to make the world safe for liberal political causes. (He mentions opposing the capitalists and granting political power to the homeless and illegal aliens.) Stark claims that he is still a Christian because of his Christian upbringing and because he still thinks that Jesus is an engaging person. But Stark denies that Jesus is Lord or Savior. Stark claims to still believe in God, but he says that he rejects a God that issues moral commands. It would be equivocation to call Stark’s finite being “God” with a capital “G,” or to call Stark a Christian. Thom Stark is the prophet of the religion of secularism, proclaiming his own way to political salvation by turning away (literally, apostasy) from the Biblical God and Christ.