Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary of Chapter 2: What Does It Mean to Say the Bible Is the Word of God?

The question of this chapter is succinctly put: “How exactly do [Plantinga and Craig] and many other biblical theists understand the relationship between the divine and human authorship [of the Bible]?” Or what is the most promising way of understanding that relationship? F&C suggest a starting place is the appropriation model (hereafter AM) as expounded by William Lane Craig.

Craig’s version of the AM is closely related to his Molinism. His view is that an omniscient God knows what humans will freely do when placed in certain circumstances. So God knows that under certain circumstances I will freely choose to eat White Castle cheeseburgers. Should he create such circumstances, God will have brought it about that I would eat White Castle cheeseburgers without violating my free will. In the same way, God knows under what circumstances Paul would freely choose to write the book of Romans. By placing Paul under those circumstances, Paul will freely choose to write Romans, including the content, order, style, and vocabulary, yet God can convey the message he desires. Hence both divine and human authorship is responsible for the finished product.

What makes the writings in the Bible to be the Word of God and not some other writing (like this summary)? Could not one argue that God has providentially allowed me to write this summary? Why isn’t it the Word of God? F&C make clear that it is not God providentially bringing it about that makes a specific writing his word, “Rather it is that God in his providence appropriated the biblical text as his own speech, and he delegated the biblical authors to speak on his behalf—which may have included the possibility that Paul was prompted by the Holy Spirit to write.”

F&C now combine Craig’s AM with the Speech Act Theory (hereafter SAT) of Nicholas Wolterstorff. SAT holds that “speech is an action one performs.” There are three types of action one performs in speaking:

1. Locutionary act: Merely the uttering of sounds or transcribing of words as in “Go to bed.”

2. Illocutionay act: The action one does by way of performing the locutionary act: commanding a child to go to bed by saying the words, “Go to bed.” One can do many illocutionary acts: asserting, warning, arguing, promising, and threatening are examples.

3. Perlocutionary act: The action associated with the intention to being about some effect by way of the illocutionary act. My intention is for the child to go to bed, so I command him to do so.

According to F&C, Wolterstorff suggests that this distinction helps us to understand how God speaks through scripture: “To say ‘God Speaks’ is simply to say that God performs a particular illocutionary act. . . the speech acts he performs are authoritative: what he asserts we are to believe; what he commands we are to obey; and his promises are completely trustworthy.”

So how does God perform illocutionary acts through the writings of human authors? This can be answered through an understanding of Double Agency Discourse (hereafter DAD). This occurs when one person performs an illocutionary act through either (1) the locutionary act or (2) the illocutionary act of another person. An example of (1) would be a secretary who drafts a letter from her boss commanding the staff to attend a meeting and then he signs it. The locutionary act is performed by the secretary, but the boss performs an illocutionary act. The secretary does not have the authority to command, but the boss does. An example of (2) might be when an ambassador speaks on behalf of his government. He has been delegated the authority to speak for his government. In this sense the government is performing an illocutionary act thorough the illocutionary act of the ambassador. The ambassador is much more than just a secretary. He has real authority.

It is this idea of “delegated” or “deputized” speech that Wolterstorff suggests best fits the model of the prophetic and apostolic writings. An individual was commissioned by God to speak on his behalf. However, when it comes to the entire Bible as the Word of God for us today, he believes it is best understood as God’s appropriating various illocutionary acts as his own: “All that is necessary for the whole [Bible] to be God’s book is that the human discourse it contains have been appropriated by God as one single book, for God’s discourse.” F&C affirm:

This is what Craig means when he claims that Paul had been commissioned by God to preach and teach on behalf of Jesus to largely gentile communities. Hence, his writing to Rome was a form of delegated speech on God’s behalf. Later when these writings were incorporated into a single biblical canon, God was appropriating this book alongside various others as his speech.

This explains how one can affirm the Bible as God’s Word with God as the primary author without affirming that God dictated every word. It also explains how one can accept the Bible as God’s Word without claiming that God necessarily affirms exactly what the human author affirms.

With this in mind, Wolterstorff offers a “fundamental principle” for interpreting scripture and distinguishing what is appropriated discourse from what is not: “the interpreter takes the stance and content of my appropriating discourse to be that of your appropriating discourse, unless there is good reason to do otherwise.” So if Bob appropriates Bill’s words is such a way that based on evidence it is unlikely that Bill’s intentions are expressed, then Bob has probably not appropriated Bill’s words appropriately. This involves two steps when it comes to determining what God has appropriated from the human authors of scripture: (1) to work out what illocutionary act the human author performed when he authored the text and (2) to ascertain whether God was saying something different from the author in appropriating the text. To perform the second step one needs to take the Bible as a single literary unit as well as assume certain theological beliefs (God does not utter falsehoods, is morally good, etc. . .).

Wolterstorff suggests five ways in which the illocutionary act of the divine author might differ from that of the human author:

1. The rhetorical-conceptual structure of Scripture texts. Example: When the human author refers to himself as in Paul’s opening statement, “Paul, an apostle called of God,” or David’s claim, “Against thee I have sinned.”

2. The distinction between the point the human author affirms within the text and the way he is making the point. Example: Jesus’s affirmation that the mustard seed is the smallest of seeds. He is not teaching a biology lesson, but a lesson about the kingdom of God. Inerrancy is about what the Bible intends to affirm.

3. If the human author is affirming something literally but the divine author is appropriating it in a nonliteral fashion. Example: Passages concerning marital love in Genesis 2:24 which Paul tells us (Eph. 5:21-23) refers to Christ and the church.

4. Transitive discourse: in performing one illocutionary action we are performing another. Human authors may be telling a story for one point, while God might intend it for a different point. Example: The parable of the Good Samaritan instructs how to love our neighbor.

5. Recognizing the difference between a general principle and its specific application. Old Testament command to place a parapet around roof (Deut. 22:8) is more than just about how to build safe roofs. There is a general principle of safety behind it that God intends to convey.

If biblical theists encounter a text in which the human author seems to attribute to God a command that they have good reason to think God would not command (given our background theological assumptions and taking the Bible as a whole unit), they have three choices:

1. Interpret the text to say that God is saying something other than the human author is saying

2. Conclude that they have misunderstood the text and don’t know what God is saying

3. Conclude that God has not appropriated the text in question

If a biblical theist concludes that the human author commanded some immoral action, it does not follow that God commanded it. However, if one rules out 1 & 2 by the evidence, then one must deny biblical inerrancy. While biblical inerrancy is an important doctrine, it is not on the level of the existence of God, the historicity of the Resurrection, and the atoning work of Christ. However, F&C do not believe that inerrancy need be rejected, for there are strong reasons one can hold 1 & 2.

Returning to Bradley’s four propositions, F&C have shown that the fourth proposition needs reformulating to more accurately convey what Bradley’s claim is. Hence it has been readjusted as follows:

4. The Bible tells us that God commands us to perform acts that violate the Crucial Moral Principle, to

4’. The author of the Bible commands us to perform acts that violate the Crucial Moral Principle, to

4’’. The secondary author of the Bible commands us to perform acts that violate the Crucial Moral Principle, to

4’’’. The divine author of the Bible uses the text to perform the speech act of commanding us to perform acts that violate the Crucial Moral Principle.

In section two of the book, F&C will go on to show that biblical theists are not committed to any of the formulations of Bradley’s fourth proposition and that other alternatives concerning those passages concerning genocide are both plausible and reasonable.

Image: "Bible" by Olga Caprotti. Flickr.com

Mark Foreman

Mark W. Foreman is professor of philosophy and religion at Liberty University where he has taught philosophy, apologetics, and bioethics for 26 years.  He has an MABS from Dallas Theological Seminary and an MA and Ph.D. from the University of Virginia.   He is the author of Christianity and Bioethics (College Press, 1999, [reprint Wipf and Stock, 2011] ), Prelude to Philosophy: An Introduction for Christians (InterVarsity Press, 2014), How Do We Know: An Introduction to Epistemology  (with James K. Dew,Jr., InterVarsity Press, 2014) and articles in the Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012),  Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics (Harvest House, 2008) as well as chapters in Come Let us Reason: New Essay in Christian Apologetics (B&H, 2012) Steven Spielberg and Philosophy (with David Baggett, University of Kentucky Press, 2008) and Tennis and Philosophy (University of Kentucky Press, 2010).  Mark has been a member of Evangelical Philosophical Society for over 20 years and is currently serving as vice-president of the society.  His specializations are Christian apologetics, biomedical ethics and ethics.