Sunday, January 18, 2009


Review: The Gospel of Grace: Tools for Building a Positive Understanding of the Bible (Mark Wickstrom, 2008)

How about this (a humorist writing to a Fundamentalist Christian): 'I've heard you say you take the whole Bible at its word. Please help me understand the following: Leviticus 25:44 states that I may possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can't I own a Canadian?'

Most modern Christians would not take this text literally. But why does one verse demand a literal interpretation and another verse does not?

Dr Wickstrom, a progressive Lutheran, helps address these problems by using the analogy of a building:

[1] 'The gospel of grace is the inerrant and divinely inspired framework that holds the Bible together' [p. 14]. And God's mercy is shown to people throughout the whole biblical drama.

[2] 'Timeless truths' are the internal walls: here 'literalists' and 'selectivists' mostly agree: All are sinners, God invites us to pray, God wants us to love our neighbour etc. However, they may also disagree: literalists might hold a particular view of baptism, or the role of women in leadership, or even the value of snake-handling to increase their faith. Selectivists would rather emphasize timeless truths (eg. 'in Christ there is neither male nor female') rather than apply literally ancient ideas to modern church-life.

[3] Then there are 'cultural norms' (the analogy being the colors of paint with which we decorate our house): like all decorations, these 'cultural norms' are changeable. For example, the Roman Catholic church in medieval times believed in 'limbo' (where unbaptized infants go after death) but this was revised in 2006. Strict Pentecostals believe everyone should speak in tongues (even real foreign languages as in Acts 2); most Christians are flexible on that one.

[4] The fourth category: personal opinions - like those of Job's comforters or the philosopher in Ecclesiastes, or Paul's opinions about marriage in 1 Corinthians 7. Most Christians believe these opinions might be valued, but are not authoritative for us today.

[5] Then there are 'random, unusual texts' about whose meaning no-one can be certain. Who are the 'Nephilim' in Genesis 6 who married the daughters of human beings? Then, in Acts 5, the sudden death of Ananias and Sapphira: 'Is there any message about grace to be gleaned from this story? I don't see it' writes Wickstrom. (See for my attempt to understand this dramatic event). Later, Paul was 'caught up to the third heaven'. Meaning what? No one can be sure.

Summary: Which texts will we categorize as a timeless truth or a non-binding cultural norm or personal opinion? We must each decide, but on the basis of some wise hermeneutical principles which Wickstrom unpacks in the last half of this little volume. His discussion of homosexuality (pp. 87 ff.) is particularly helpful.

Here's a book, with exercises for individual and group study, written by a pastor for his thoughtful parishioners. I'd recommend it for that purpose, rather than as a textbook for scholars (there's no reference I could find to household names like Crossan or Marcus Borg, for example).

Rowland Croucher
January 2009

No comments:


Here's a Blog of articles and reviews.
For more, visit our website (with its 20,000 articles: so get comfortable!)


Rowland Croucher


Blog Archive

About Me

My photo
Melbourne, Australia
Husband, father, grandfather, great grandfather, pastor, teacher, writer, used-to-be-academic... See here for more: