This is the fifth part of my review of Brian Zahnd’s teaching at The Meeting House. You can read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. In this series am reviewing Zahnd’s sermon and a Roundtable podcast he participated in during his visit to The Meeting House.
His sermon was called “Bad Idea: The Bible Trumps Jesus” in which he argues for what can only be described as an incoherent view of Scripture. To Zahnd, the Bible is inconsistent, contradictory, and contains erroneous “assumptions” about God. Because of this, he advocates that we interpret all of Scripture through the lens of Jesus. This results in the rejection of any Scripture which doesn’t fit his preexisting view of what he thinks Jesus should be like. We have seen so far that to prove his point, Zahnd handles the Scriptures dishonestly, argues illogically, and does so with a contemptible level of mockery.
In this post I’m going to address the examples Zahnd gives of using the Bible to trump Jesus.
Examples of using the Bible to trump Jesus
Zahnd gives some examples of what it looks like to “trump Jesus” with Scripture. He says:
“If Moses says to practice capital punishment by stoning certain kinds of sinners and you want to endorse capital punishment – there ya go! Or if Elijah calls down fire upon his enemies and you like the idea of your enemies being burned up – there ya go! But the problem is, you are using the Bible to trump Jesus because if Moses says to practice capital punishment Jesus says ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ If Elijah calls down fire from heaven on his enemies Jesus says ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ If you like the idea of reciprocal justice, or even retributive justice you can say ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is my favourite verse in the Bible.’ But Jesus says ‘You’ve heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth in the Bible but I say unto you don’t resist the one who is evil, if they strike you on the right cheek turn to them also the left.’ ” (19:16)
These are supposed to be examples of Jesus contradicting what the Scriptures had previously taught. “Trumping Jesus” means that in the face of this contradiction, you push Jesus aside and give the greater authority to the Scripture, thereby disobeying Jesus.
But is it really true that these examples Zahnd gives force us to choose between Jesus and the Scriptures? Are they really at odds? Are we in danger of possibly “trumping” Jesus? Of course not.
Let’s look at these examples one by one.
1. Moses says to practice capital punishment, but Jesus says “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”
Two points should be obvious. First, capital punishment and sacrifice are not the same thing, so how is this an inconsistency? Second, Jesus uttered these words in Matthew 9:13, but he was quoting Hosea 6:6. Neither text has anything to do with capital punishment. In both instances the Word of God is rebuking the hypocrisy of those who think that by the simple act of giving the right sacrifices, participating outwardly in religious activity, that they are righteous. God has mercy on those who recognize that they are sinners and come to him with a true heart of love and repentance. Jesus nowhere repudiates capital punishment but instead affirms the righteousness of the Law. If Brian Zahnd wants to prove it’s unchristian he would have to demonstrate that Jesus thought God’s law was unjust, when Jesus’ testimony in Scripture is the exact opposite. Of course, he’s also said in this sermon that what the Bible says or doesn’t say “doesn’t matter” anyway.
Zahnd’s first example of using the bible to “trump Jesus” falls way short. All it proves is that Zahnd cannot handle the text of Scripture with any level of fairness or accuracy. Confusing sacrifice and capital punishment as if they are the same thing is, at best, irresponsible.
2. Elijah calls down fire on his enemies but Jesus says “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
I do not understand how these two are connected. God sent the fire down on Elijah’s enemies, two groups of soldiers who came to arrest him on the orders of Ahaziah, the idolatrous king of Israel (2 Kings 1:9-12). Jesus said “love your enemies, etc.” in Matthew 5:43-44, which was a reiteration of the Old Testament Law in Leviticus 19:18 (and elsewhere), and a correction of what some had said – “love your neighbour, hate your enemy”. We see two separate things here – God’s wrath against idolatrous contempt toward God’s prophet (and by extension God himself), and Jesus correcting a twisting of the existing Scriptures.
Later in the message, Zahnd comes back to this example by contrasting it with Jesus’ rebuke of James and John who ask Jesus if they should call down fire on Samaria when they were refused accommodation (Luke 9:51-56). Zahnd wants to say that this is an example of the fact that Elijah, whom Zahnd later accuses of having an anger issue, was not an example to follow in this instance, instead we should follow Jesus on this. The implication, obviously, is that Elijah was in sin for calling down fire on his enemies.
But did God think Elijah was in sin for doing this? Apparently not, since God responded to his request by sending fire to consume the enemies of the prophet! To hear Zahnd tell it, you’d think that Elijah just “went rogue” and started burning people up while God sat in the heavens, ringing his hands, unable to stop him. Elijah has the power to utter the words to call down fire, but he doesn’t have the power to make it happen. Yes, Elijah called down fire, but God sent it! So, what Zahnd ends up doing is pitting Jesus against God! Yes, Jesus rebukes James and John, but not because he thought what Elijah (and God) did was wrong. Obviously, when God consumed his enemies with fire it was righteous, when James and John wanted to, it was not. If there is any unity in the Trinity at all, Jesus was not offended when God sent down fire to consume Elijah’s enemies.
This second example that Zahnd gives, then, is exposed as ridiculous when we actually consider the text. Zahnd doesn’t even consider the obvious implications of the texts he cites. Ultimately, Zahnd is accusing God of sin. In fact, Jesus was correcting those who had added to the Scripture in order to contradict it – something we see Zahnd is guilty of in his next example.
3. If you like the idea of reciprocal justice, or even retributive justice you can say ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is my favourite verse in the Bible.’ But Jesus says ‘You’ve heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth in the Bible but I say unto you don’t resist the one who is evil, if they strike you on the right cheek turn to them also the left.’
Again, Zahnd is drawing from the sermon on the mount in Matthew 5:38-39 but with one important difference. He attributes to Jesus the words “You have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth in the Bible“, but that is not what Jesus said. Jesus never said they had heard it said in the Bible. Of course, it does say that in the Bible, but Jesus is not correcting the biblical teaching. Jesus is correcting the errant teaching his audience had heard that “an eye for an eye, etc.” was given as a justification for personal vengeance. In fact, Jesus was using the Scripture in context to correct that errant teaching.
What Jesus is teaching here is that the instruction Moses gave in Exodus 21:24 was judicial in nature, not a command to personal vengeance. The text specifically says that the type of case it speaks of is to go before the judges. On a personal level we are to allow for justice to be meted out by God and by the judicial system God has placed us under. Far from contradicting the Scriptures, as Zahnd is saying, Jesus was correcting false teaching on the authority of the Old Testament text. Even if you did not have Jesus’ direct teaching here, a fair, contextual reading of Exodus 21 would be enough to correct this. So, if someone says “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is my favourite verse in the Bible” I would have no problem with that (although, it’d be strange as a favourite verse), just so long as they understood it in context as Jesus and Moses did.
So this third example Zahnd gives demonstrates that he must twist and add to the words of Jesus, as well as ignore the context of the command in Exodus. We recognize, then, that this is a false teaching.
In the end, when we look at the examples of “Scripture trumping Jesus” that Brian Zahnd offers we see that there is no contradiction. The teaching of Scripture and the teaching of Jesus are not at odds in any way. In fact, every example he gives, when examined in the light of Scripture, is an example of Jesus upholding something from the Old Testament and correcting those in his hearing on the basis of what the Old Testament says. The truth of the matter actually refutes the point Zahnd is attempting to make. It’s not a case of Scripture trumping Jesus, it’s simply a case of handling all of Scripture in a way that honours it all as God’s truth, the same way Jesus did.
Zahnd’s position is indefensible in the light of Scripture. This is false teaching. Obviously, Bruxy Cavey agrees with Zahnd, and handed him the stage at The Meeting House to propagate these false teachings to the people there.
As we’ve seen, Bruxy Cavey and Brian Zahnd’s theology cannot accept a harmonious, consistent view of Scripture. Their overriding presuppositions about Jesus will not allow it. So they see inconsistency and error because their position demands it, not because it’s actually there. The “problems” they see are only problems for their view, not for the biblical truth.
In my next post, we will conclude my review of Zahnd’s message warning against using the Bible to trump Jesus. We’ll see what Zahnd considers to be a great sin that God expressly forbids – using all of Scripture to inform our understanding of God.