Unconvincing Arguments for Why Married Couples Must Have Children

Last year I wrote a response to Tim Challies, and what I thought were some weak arguments showing why married couples should not deliberately remain childless. Before we got married, my wife and I agreed that we were not persuaded biblically that couples must procreate in order to be obedient to God. The result of that position has been numerous conversations in the past few years. Therefore the arguments listed below are predominantly points that we have heard or discussed. Unfortunately I do not remember all of the respective sources. But they are certainly commonplace in the debate about deliberate childlessness. Let me say that I do not claim to comprehensively refute these positions. Rather my purpose in writing this post is to encourage conversation.

Two paths in the New Testament: singleness and marriage

Most likely an erroneous extension of Paul’s quite bemusing argument in 1 Corinthians 7, this idea says that Christians can choose either to remain celibate or get married, with the latter necessarily entailing children. This is a reductionistic and narrow point. If the second path involves marriage and children, can we not then conclude that adoption is excluded from the path of singleness? Or that couples that are unable to have children are required to adopt? While those are undeniably the two paths before Christians concerning marriage, it remains an unproven assumption that the path of marriage requires children.

The creation mandate of Genesis means we must have children

This is a statement that warrants a much more detailed and lengthy post, so I will be brief here. The command given to Adam and Eve in Eden must first be considered in its Old Testament context. It was tied to the human commission to fill the earth, specifically given to Israel under the old covenant. As George Athas commented on a previous post on Malachi 2:15, “These words were written within and to people in the old national covenant, for whom having offspring was a national duty. In the new covenant, this is simply not the case, because the new people of God are not a country with citizens inheriting holy land from the previous generation. Those national elements are no longer part of the framework for how we operate as God’s people. As such, if someone posits that everyone needs to try to have children, they would need to do so on other grounds.”

Having children will sanctify you

“…in a way that nothing else will,” is often appended to the above statement. By this people generally mean having children will especially sanctify you. Apart from the fact that this idea is not explicitly taught anywhere in Scripture, it implies some plainly wrong conclusions. If a type of sanctification is on offer in raising children that is not repeatable anywhere else in human experience, we can expect parents to be the most mature and godly Christians. If this were the case, then certainly Paul would not have desired celibacy for anyone (1 Corinthians 7:8). In fact, for marrieds to tell childless couples – and similarly for marrieds to tell singles – that their own path breeds greater godliness is just insulting.

Furthermore, on this point, if you will allow me to be a little silly, becoming a missionary in North Korea or planning a church plant in Eritrea will also sanctify you, tremendously. Though we do not hear missionary organizations appealing for missionaries on the basis of how God will use it to make you more holy. Many decisions will sanctify us, but this does not amount to biblical imperatives to make those decisions.

When married couples choose childlessness it is always selfish

This point has some connections with the previous one, but I will address it separately. There is no denying that there is some truth in this position: for children prove a remarkable imposition and threat to idols of leisure, autonomy, and freedom. Therefore there may be selfish reasons for choosing childlessness, as there may be selfish motivations for remaining single. There is, I think, a double warning that knocks this position back: firstly, we should be very slow to pronounce on motives, since we do not know each other’s hearts. Secondly, we are must be very careful not to make our preferences into virtues, and others’ into vices. Calvin (2.3.2) wrote of the hydra of wickedness that lurks in each of our breasts. Selfishness can certainly be behind the decision to have children, only I am yet to hear someone who has chosen a childless marriage accuse those with children of sinful motivation. Without knowing my neighbour’s heart I should be slower to reach conclusions about her decisions. And when those decisions differ from mine I certainly should not demonize them. 

Birth control means seizing control from God

One of the most staggering things I have encountered is that people using this argument have taken contraceptive measures. Calling on other Christians to fully trust God in the area of reproduction eliminates the decision to reach your desired number of children before intervening. Perhaps I am being unfair, or exaggerating the ad infinitum conclusion of this statement, but I feel that it requires those using it to surrender all of their procreative outcomes to the Lord. No contraceptives. Either, birth control, planning the size of one’s family, is prohibited because any such action removes God from the picture; or Christian freedom means we make decisions – that are neither right nor wrong – trusting our God who is sovereign in them. People in glass houses should not throw stones.

Children help marriage fulfill its New Testament role

What is that role? It is clearly laid out that in Ephesians 5, to make the gospel plain. The self-sacrificial love a husband is to show his wife is designed to illustrate Christ’s love for his people, the church. But I honestly cannot fathom how having children illuminates the relationship between Christ and his church, especially since nowhere in the New Testament is the link explicitly made between marriage and children. I am not denying that the New Testament assumes marriages will produce children, but pointing out that nowhere do we see an imperative to do so. Rowan Williams, in his essay The Body’s Grace, points out that regarding marriage the New Testament is noticeably nonbiological in its emphasis. He also quotes John Boswell, who observed that the Old Testament idealises marriage in terms of sexual attraction, not procreation. Finally, he comments that both Jesus and Paul discuss marriage without using procreation as a rationale or functional justification. Children do not help marriage fulfill its New Testament role. I would venture further, though more reading is required, in suggesting that while procreation was a function of marriage in the Old Testament that was not God’s purpose in creating the institution.

I hope you will do some of your own thinking, perhaps even respond to some of the points above, or add a more convincing position that I have overlooked.

Responding to Challies: Is It Okay To Deliberately Not Have Children?

Christopher AshYesterday Tim Challies posted asking if Christian couples can decide not to have children. The article relies on and develops a few points Christopher Ash makes in his excellent book, Married for God. However, I cannot agree with the reasoning of either Challies or Ash. Having heard similar arguments in numerous conversations, I remain unconvinced that Christian couples must have children or that the decision not to is sinful. I have planned a series of posts on the topic, and we might call this short response some of the first fruits.

Challies’ first point addresses the false dichotomy between having children and serving God. Quoting Ash, “We do not serve God rather than having children; we serve God by having children.” It is a true point: the married couple need not choose between having children and serving God, since rearing children is certainly one of the places married couples serve God. But that does not make it an essential means of serving God in marriage.

Later in the article, Challies presents his own false dichotomy: embracing children as blessing from God or calling them a curse. Really? When a friend chooses to remain celibate for whatever reason do we accuse him of calling marriage a curse? Or, let’s consider a passage often dragged into this discussion, ‘Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of children’ (Psalm 127:5). Does the couple that decide to have just two children call the “full quiver” (four, five, a Catholic dozen) a curse? We are not strung between calling children a curse or a blessing.

Finally, Challies makes a point that I really appreciated: children are uninvited strangers that couples must extend sacrificial hospitality to. Unlike our spouse or close friends we cannot choose children that suit us. However, reading this point did bring to mind another, made by Stanley Hauerwas, “We never know whom we marry; we just think we do…give it a while and he or she will change…The primary problem [then] is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.” On top of Hauerwas’ point, both Old and New Testaments encourage believers to entertain and care for strangers. Furthermore, if ever there was a place that forced unlooked for and very often inconvenient relationships it is the local church. Sure, children interrupt marriages causing sanctification and forcing hospitality. But they are not the only place where couples can practice hospitality and putting strangers ahead of themselves.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I hope to write more on this topic. I admit that this response is rushed and does not present any arguments in favour of deliberate childlessness, nor does it deal with the question of Genesis 1-2 and the creation mandate. Hopefully those will come. But in the mean time, it is frustrating to hear the poorly thought-out arguments mentioned above that prove nothing, yet somehow are persistently plied as if they did.

How Aronofsky’s Noah Misrepresents God, Man, and Sin


As the dust settles around Noah and Christian audiences set their gaze (or crosshairs) on Son of God I thought I would throw some brief and no doubt far from novel thoughts into the cooling cauldron of Aronofsky’s film. James has written a balanced post here; though making many qualifications, he suggests three features that we ought to appreciate and discuss. For despite the movie failing to clearly communicate the message of Genesis 6-9, many of its details and interpretive salvos are colourfully thought provoking, even helpful. However, in this post, I want to highlight areas where Aronofsky’s eisegesis contributed to the film’s failure in conveying Noah’s story, immediately embedded in Genesis and ultimately the seedbed for all of Scripture.

1. God is vague

From the outset of the film “the Creator” is palpably distant. This God, tending towards silence, gives Noah dreams. The interpretation of these dreams is however not offered by God but rather through an encounter with Methuselah the mystic. Noah is not lead by God but left by him, to ponder what on earth the Creator hoped to tell him. To risk pointing out the glaringly obvious, in Genesis we read that God spoke to Noah (see 6:13; 7:1); later he would establish a covenant with Noah and reiterate the promises of the Abrahamic covenant (8:20-9:17). But perhaps the most significant detail is found in Genesis 6:9, “Noah walked with God,” casting our minds back to Eden when God walked with Adam and Eve (3:8). The picture is one of closeness and intimacy, indicating that Noah was in the presence of God. Yet Aronofsky’s Creator is vague and unclear, leaving Noah to not only piece together the dreams but also determine the course of human history, which almost backfires when he decides to end human progeny. Aronofsky’s God is more akin to Dawkin’s “blind watchmaker” or George Lucas’ “Force” than the personal presence that we meet in Genesis, walking with and talking to his creation. To steal the wording from a post I wrote a while back: in Noah, God is denied the ability to reveal himself to what he has made, as we are asked to imagine he either has no qualms with being completely misunderstood and misrepresented or is simply incapable of making himself known. Without suggesting that Noah was unsure, even unconvinced about what God promised to do, we must maintain that his doubts were never because God was unclear.

2. Man and sin

Aronofsky's NoahI agree with James that Aronosky clearly showed the need for mercy in the light of evil. However where the film missed the mark was in its depiction of sin, which was implicitly defined as the mistreatment of creation. The city dwellers, led by Tubal-Cain, thought that their God-given dominion justified a rapacious handling of the created world. I have written regarding the covenant of creation, here and here, where I showed that Adam and Eve were appointed as custodians, rather than conquerors, over creation. This task involved faithful obedience to God’s authority, retaining the created order where God rules what he has made through his image-bearers. Therefore, responsible rule is not measured in care for the creation but submission to the Creator. Sin, seen in exploiting the environment or fratricide, stems from disobedience to God. Wickedness may become manifest in the abuses Aronofsky vividly portrayed, but is ultimately defined by man’s relation to God rather than what God has made. Aronofsky’s Noah completely muddied this point. Surely Noah’s description as righteous and blameless man, who walked with God (Genesis 6:9) means more than that he had green fingers. Oppositely, the wickedness of Tubal-Cain and his followers is grander than their distasteful misuse of creation. Unwittingly the film comes close to showing sin for what it is – in fleeting references to Eden as well as Tubal-Cain’s final speech – but this is unfortunately obscured by Aronofsky’s redefinition, away from obedience to the Creator and towards worshipping the creation.

Conclusion of sorts

The details might be unclear, because the Creator is vague, and the verdict of wickedness imprecise, because the urgency for environmentalism is an easier implication than repentance. Yet in the film, Noah correctly diagnoses humanity, as inherently evil. The solution he reaches is startling: the rebirth of creation cannot happen without the death of mankind. Tentatively, in closing, I want to suggest that Noah’s disturbing conclusion is not far from biblical truth. The curse of death is God’s just ruling for a world that has, since the Adam and Eve, embraced the rebellion of our first parents. More than simply embracing it, the biblical as well as empirical evidence shows that we are enslaved to it. Paul says that only one who has died has been set free from sin (Romans 6:7). Through faith we are united to Jesus in his death (6:5), the old self is put to death with him (6:6). This has brought about not only the hope of resurrection life in the future but also newness of life in the present (6:4). Paul exhorts those who have died to live to God and die to sin (6:10-11). Here Noah, the apostle Paul, and John Calvin collude, “[It is] as if God had declared that for us to be reckoned amongst his children our common nature must die” (Institutes 3.3.8). But the magnificent news is that this happens through the nearness of God, initially through union with Christ in his death and through the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit.

3 Things I Appreciated in Aronofsky’s Noah

Noah PosterI watched Noah with my Bible study and we had some interesting discussion afterwards. It’s a movie that most of the Christians I hang out with will (and do) hate and I understand why. Aronofsky’s Noah was never going to follow the biblical story accurately though was it? A helpful question to ask of the movie, “does it retain the message of the Biblical account?” Asking that sort of question allows us to get over stowaways, stone giants and the bloodthirsty Noah we had never imagined.

Honestly, I quite like the fact that it didn’t look like a children’s Bible with a happy giraffe poking his head through a window and a blissful Noah smiling out of the page. Both the happy giraffe and the stone giants are equally interpretive and incorrect. However, both could be used to tell the message of the story. At first glance, I would even guess that the grim face of Aronofsky’s blockbuster would be more likely to do it. So for the Christians who hate this movie and can’t see any redeeming features in it (or aren’t even going to go and watch it) here are three things that I appreciated from it. Far from endorsing the movie, however, I have to say that it failed at communicating the message of Noah and even among the positives I’ll make some qualifications.

1. Evil Must Be Destroyed

God Clicks DeleteTell the average person the story of Noah and you’re bound to hear about how the Christian God is a bloodthirsty, cosmocidal (that’s a word right?), angry old man and everyone should hate him. That’s because it’s pretty difficult to show someone how it could be good that God blot out everything he’s made. It was Gregory Alan Thornbury’s blog at TGC that I read before watching Noah that made me notice the way Aronofsky shows us a world in which evil is “really that bad“.

This is a critical starting point for Noah because, as Thornbury points out, only “against radical depravity can mercy actually make sense” and the point is, through the movie, I found myself on God’s side. I wanted the world to be destroyed and I wanted evil to be judged. I saw evil spread in a Tolkienesque way across the planet (not the most creative image any more) and I wanted God to fix it. I didn’t want to see his creation being ravaged and I didn’t want the dreary land of Mordor to swallow up everything good (and I wondered how Methuselah’s mountain had survived). If the only way to stop the advance of evil was to start again, so be it, clear the slate.

I was disappointed that Noah went to help the preyed on antelope and didn’t get attacked by it. I wanted to see animals as part of a creation in rebellion against God. After all, I would think a fallen world would make it hard to survive and fight against human flourishing. It made perfect sense why I didn’t get my wish when I found out why God was saving anything at all, it turns out the animals are innocent. A theological error I could have lived with if it weren’t the basis for so much foolish application today. The innocence of the animals also undermines mercy because they deserved it, a characteristic that does not belong to those in need of mercy. The need for evil to make sense of mercy never came into play anyway though as “Creator” is pretty much indifferent when it comes to “mercy” I also think that the evil I saw was not an evil that I thought was present in the world in which I live.

2. Flood Restores

New LifeThis is definitely my favourite point. One of the first things that excited me as I watched Noah was that first drop of water. If memory serves, it was the first hint of judgement. It was not only a hint of judgement though, it was also a promise of restoration. I appreciated the fact that Aronofsky’s flood was not purely destructive but that it had the underlying purpose of restoration and recreation (not relaxation, “re-creation”). The movie regularly invites to think of the “new world” or “paradise” and look forward to it.

In his New Testament Biblical Theology, Beale speaks of a five part sequence he calls “Inaugurated Eschatology”. He describes the pattern in the creation account (1) chaos of earth and waters (2) creation (3) commission of Adam as king for divine glory (4) Adam’s sin (5) Adam’s judgement and exile. This pattern Beale then identifies in the flood account: (1) chaos of earth and waters at flood (2) new creation (3) commission of Noah as new Adam for divine glory (4) new Adam’s sin (5) judgement and exile throughout the earth at Babel (see pg59-60). I have found Beale an incredibly compelling read and he is certainly worth working through. Nevertheless, consider the Genesis account.

I first noticed the “decreationalness” of things in 7:17-24 (you should read it before you carry on and think about creation as you do so). I don’t know whether the ark “floating on the face of the waters” is supposed to remind you of the Spirit’s hovering but I think the connection is what made me look for more. Looking for more, I noticed a whole bunch of creation parallels. Firstly the reason for the flood is framed in creation language: “I will blot out man whom I have created … from I am sorry that I have made them” (6:7). Animals sorted by kinds come onto the ark, as God created them. The sea covers the earth, the reversal of the time God had once gathered it, letting dry land appear. I mean really, everything dies in contrast to everything coming to life. The lynch pin for me though is in 8:16-17 where the recreational stuff comes to the fore and God says, as Noah is preparing to disembark, “Go out from the ark … Bring out with you every living thing … that they may swarm on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth” and then 9:1 “God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them …” the creation mandate!

So although the flood is “decreational” in judgement it is recreational in purpose and I think that was evident in the movie.

3. Everyone is Evil

Evil InsideIn an incredulously profound moment, Noah explains to his wife that the same evil that had plunged God’s world into chaos and disaster was alive in him and indeed in everyone on the boat. Profound because Aronofsky’s Noah has seen something that Joe Bloggs either can’t or won’t. Incredulous because in spite of the fact that it is a revelation, it is difficult for the viewer to truly believe (there is just too much love by this point in the movie).

This realisation shapes the primary motivation for Noah’s character. Noah decides that he must prevent any human offspring from surviving in way that will enable procreation in the new world. This drives him down a path of homicidal insanity which works very hard at undermining all the gains made concerning as far as the justice of God. It is still a valuable point to take from the movie and Noah proves his case pointing out his own evil in his willingness to kill for his sons (although this point the audience would naturally think is an indicator of innate goodness rather than evil) and the base passions that in turn drive them (lust, for example – which is another passion not terribly concerning to our society).

The real weakness though at this point is that the viewer no longer sympathises with Noah and, as Nathan Lovell pointed out in his reflection, we sympathise more with the loving family members. That’s what it’s about after all, love (and the animals of course).


Christians, in my experience, make pretty poor audiences. On the one hand, we reject things because we don’t like them or they don’t fit our theological framework. On the other hand, we thoughtlessly embrace things we shouldn’t in the name of art. It’s worth reflecting on these things though so that we are better able to engage our culture. I wouldn’t recommend Aronofsky’s Noah but I would watch and discuss it with my Bible study again because the reasons for which we criticise things are as important as whether we reject or embrace them.

P. S. I am thinking about following this up with posts on (1) the good reasons to criticise this movie, (2) whether the biblical covenant with Noah has any value since God is going to destroy the world again anyway, (3) whether we can/should pity demons, (4) who the Nephilim were. So tell me if you’re interested in one of them (or something else) and I’ll write on that first.

Risks in Reading for the Art of Biblical Narrative

Poetry is a dangerous game-by-whitefeatherGraham has recently written a couple of posts (here and here) on Alter’s seminal work, “The Art of Biblical Narrative”. The “New Literary Criticism” movement is not new any more although it certainly retains its exciting lustre for Bible students. This is true because the literary movement (the “new” one anyway, as opposed to the old “redaction critical” type of “literary movement”, in case any nerds were wondering) has a number of great strengths over its predecessors.

First, I love the fact that we are encouraged to view texts as a whole, assuming the author/editors were not idiots and were constructing something coherent. I love the fact that discernible shifts that would previously have caused scholarship to break texts apart now inspire attention to why they would have been brought together and how they build on one another.

Second, because the shift (especially in Old Testament studies) has been from a “looking through the text at the period in which it was written” kind of approach to an analysis of the text itself, I appreciate the new focus. Now the text is at the forefront. This is great news for people who think the Bible is living and active and suitable for training in all righteousness. It great news for people who think Scripture is God’s Word and has something to say to us today.

Third, studying the Bible does not have to be an obscure scholarly discipline dependent on thorough knowledge of original languages, etymology and some strongly held opinions on historical reconstructions that are mostly best guesses. It is something anyone can do because much of what should be gleaned from a narrative can be gleaned in a secondary language. It’s like the reformation or the translation of the Bible into English that saw the lay person empowered to interpret Scripture for him/herself. Of course it comes with its own set of problems but they’re a better set of problems than the alternative. One thing to note is that this is less and less the case as literary techniques are carried over and the field once again becomes filled with jargon and defined methodologies not apparent to the lay person. Nevertheless, pointing someone to the text and saying, “read it and try to make sense of why it was written” is not a bad start and it’s encouraged by the literary movement.

There are, however, two dangers associated with literary techniques. If you’ve read this far, you should check out Longman’s article, “The Literary Approach to the Study of the Old Testament: Promise and Pitfalls” which I have found valuable to my own thinking and has been formative in my thinking on the subject. The critiques I’m raising are not ground breaking nor are they necessarily the most significant. They are simply the concerns that are at the forefront of my mind and are simply raised to contribute to the discussion Graham has started.

1. Loss of Grounding in History

Well GroundedI think the most disturbing trend in literary readings is the willingness to abandon external objectivity. If all that matters is the text and its effect on me today, then reference to anything historical loses significance. One of the most disturbing features of The Art of Biblical Narrative is Alter’s dismissal of David’s historicity. As far as Alter is concerned, there was perhaps a king named David but all that stuff about giant slaying (and most of the rest of his life actually) is myth built up around him so that Israel have something in their history to be proud of.

Alter’s perceptive observation of type-scenes, while insightful, results in a further severing of text from history. Now every time we find a meeting at a well we know that we are not reading actual occurrences, it’s just the “ol’ hookup at the well scene” – the Hebrew idiom for engagement. To be honest, this doesn’t seem like much to lose – and it’s not if the well scene is just the Hebrew idiom for engagement – in fact it’s a superior reading, but only if we are right that an account couched in historical setting is really idiomatic. The advantage is that we realise how often historical grounding doesn’t matter much (and so we don’t have to fight to the death over how many years the Judges period covers, for example) but the danger is that we similarly don’t worry when it does. The question is, are we losing something if we read the stories of David as ahistorical? It’s a question that I’ve been wrestling with for quite some time but not one I think is anywhere near being solved.

Down The Rabbit HoleNevertheless, in his article, Longman (1985:394) quotes Frye, “The Bible possesses literary qualities but is not itself reducible to a work of literature.” This seems an important corrective. As we venture down the literary rabbit hole – often in flight from historical-critical methodologies – we need not (perhaps, we must not?) let go of history. In their major contribution to the subject Provan, Long and Longman (2003:81) write, “The ahistorical path is a dead end. Where biblical texts make historical truth claims, ahistorical readings are perforce misreadings – which remains the case, whatever one’s opinions may be regarding the truth value of those claims.”

If in our quest for literary readings, we gain textual unity and prominence but lose its historical roots I think the quest will, in the end, have been futile.

2. Loss of Stability in Interpretation

JengaLongman’s (1985:391) fourth concern is “the danger of moving completely away from any concept of authorial intent and determinant of meaning of a text.” In recent years the idea of textual meaning outside of its reader has been radically challenged. In “Narrative in the Hebrew Bible”, Gunn and Fewell’s follow up to Alter’s “Art of Biblical Narrative”, we find one of the more eloquent defences of reader response interpretation. We read (1993:xi), “Most significant, however, it differs from all these books in its hermeneutical assumptions. Unlike the others … our book understands interpretation to hinge crucially upon the reader, and not just in terms of a reader’s ‘competence’. Meaning is not something out there in the text waiting to be discovered. Meaning is always, in the last analysis, the reader’s creation, and readers, like texts, come in an infinite variety.”

To be fair, my experience of Gunn and Fewell has been that they are pretty responsible. The point is that when the author’s stabilising influence is lost, the stabilising influence of the text is lost for the same reasons. In the end, the many and varied interpretations of the reader(s) are all that is left. This means that there is no stability to meaning. Whether or not this matters is the topic for another oversized post, I’m going to assume that it is.

An example of this was given in a recent Christianity Today article about the Bible and Technology,

Bible tech has provided personal epiphanies, such as when he [Evans] learned the Hebrew word for bread, lehem. “Lehem is bread! Bethlehem means ‘House of Bread’! Jesus is the Bread of Life! Hebrew is magic!” But the same software that draws such connections also taught him to think more skeptically—even about the very connections that got him so excited, Evans said. “What we’re doing here makes it very easy to run with theological scissors.” The tools can be used, to use an example several people referenced, to develop an intense numerological theory about the significance of the 153 fish caught in John 21. It’s kind of a throwback to the early church, when preachers loved pontificating on repeated words, images, and numbers in disparate biblical books. But database-driven interactive text seems to especially encourage this kind of reading, where one simple mouse click pulls up thousands of pages of cross-references and commentary on each word. It’s an awful lot like 2001’s A Beautiful Mind, where Nobel laureate John Nash is able to see real patterns no one else had seen—but also sees patterns that don’t really exist.

In his small masterpiece, Exegetical Fallacies (an absolute must read), Carson speaks of “Verbal Parallelomania” in which the “bare phenomena” of verbal parallels are said to “demonstrate conceptual links or even dependency” (2nd Ed. pg43). Carson is particularly critical of these parallels when they are found in extra-biblical literature (à la Babylonian creation myths?).

It is remarkably easy to find parallels (in fact Carson speaks of “conceptual parallelomania” later in Exegetical Fallacies as yet another way of finding dubious parallels) especially with the power of Google on your side. In the era of literary readings, it is difficult to critique the abundance of parallels that can be discovered because those parallels are discovered by the reader and, for better or worse, the reader has become the hermeneutical pivot around whom meaning revolves. Maybe it’s just that I’m a stodgy conservative but that is a bit of a problem for me. Carson noted that of the 300ish parallels found by Bultmann and Dodd in the prologue of John there was only a 7% overlap.

Running with ScissorsThis is not to say that parallels never exist and certainly not that they never matter. It is, however, a caution to this author. I have often found myself making the argument “the writer of this passage of Scripture has the entire corpus of biblical literature memorised, so of course when he says this similar sounding thing he has in mind that primary idea which he is extending”. It is very easy, by means of methodologies introduced by the new literary criticism, to introduce radical instability into textual exegesis or to, “run with theological scissors”.


The loss of history and the loss of stability in meaning are not inevitabilities in literary readings but they are both pitfalls into which literary critics have already fallen. In our era it is in vogue to be a sceptic but I am confident that as the philosophical tides change we will look like real plonkers if we are found to have succumbed to absolute relativism, having detached everything from anything. In the process of investing our time and energy into the new literary criticism which, as has been seen, promises much fruit, we must coordinate our text with history and we must not descend into a myriad of meanings that leave us in a sea of meaninglessness waiting and hoping the tide will carry us back to land.

Readings Cited

Carson, Exegetical Fallacies. 1996.

Longman, The Literary Approach to the Study of the Old Testament: Promise and Pitfalls JETS 28:4 pp. 385-398.

Provan, Long, & Longman, A Biblical History of Israel.  2003.

Yee, The author/text/reader and power: suggestions for a critical framework for biblical studies eds. M. A. Tolbert, F. F. Segovia – pg109-118.


Hey, Parents, Leave Them Teachers Alone

faitheducationI recently came across an article1 in which the idea of education that is self-consciously ideological has again come under fire. The ideas are not new or even surprising, what I did find surprising was that these recurring ideas, which rest on patently fallacious reasoning, continue to be promoted. I decided, therefore, to take the opportunity to outline the argument’s main flaws.

Firstly, the idea that when taught something that I don’t believe I am being oppressed. This is all too common an argument in our society; even the biggest, most vocal groups lay claim to the poor persecuted minority card (strangely, it’s never the actual minority groups that get any kind of hearing). Surprisingly however, it is not oppression to be taught something with which you disagree, in fact, it’s really okay to disagree. It only becomes oppression when it’s not okay to disagree. So the atheist in church who is made to say the creed, is oppressed. Likewise, the Christian who is required to find “(ultimate) meaning in activity” in her Occupational Therapy studies is oppressed. To claim that you’re oppressed because you or your child or a friend of a friend is taught something with which you disagree is the academic equivalent of pulling the race card. None of the major groups are innocent of this and we’re not going to make any progress in inter-ideology dialogue if this is the way we interact.

Secondly, the idea that “secular” somehow means neutral. The myth of neutrality has been well debunked and yet again and again people claim that they are somehow able to soar above their own minds; their upbringings, experiences and opinions, that they are somehow able to escape having to interpret anything. When looking at the world, a Christian must see intentionality, an Atheist must not. What Modernism has shown us (and, in so doing, undermined itself) is that there is no fact that escapes the need for interpretation. Education teaches us to interpret the world around us (or at the very least, spoon feeds us interpretations). Education that is secular then, is anti-everything that isn’t secular. Islam is not secular, Christianity is not secular, Shembe is not secular. A secular education teaches an ideology. Promoting “secular” education is exactly the same as promoting any other flavour of ideological education. It’s not neutral, all education is ideological and we can’t escape that so we need to figure out some other way of dealing with it.

intelligenceThirdly, “secular” doesn’t have a monopoly on the ability to think or be intelligent. There are brilliant minds that come from numerous different ideological backgrounds, many are not secular. We can have dialogue in which we call each other stupid and blinkered and there will be just as much ammunition against the secularists as against anyone else. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking any particular ideology enjoys the subscription of all the intelligentsia (or, that we automatically jump a few IQ points by adhering to any particular ideology).

Where do we go from here though? If it’s true that we escape none of the ideological biases by having “secular” education, what solution is there? I am not sure that anyone has an adequate answer to the question. In the interim however, isn’t it better to know what you’re going in for than for schools to glibly tell you that they’re going to be “neutral”? Let’s allow the schools to tell us what they’re going to teach our children so that we know what we want to correct when our children get home in the afternoons and let’s realise that it’s not the state’s job to raise everyone’s children in the way we want ours raised.

Finally, imagine a school in which all the teachers are Christian but the school calls itself “secular”. Knowing why your children come home wanting to pray or thinking that God made the world would then be inexplicable and likely evoke some heated reaction. What we must realise is that the likely reaction of seeing to it, in court if necessary, that teachers deny their own understanding and interpretation of the world – their ideology – in order to teach your children, is in fact oppression.

1. See http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2013-04-17-hey-teacher-leave-them-kids-alone/#.UXD2HIaXezQ. I have not attempted to respond to this article in particular but to the thought patterns in general. While writing this up I also discovered this somewhat amusing article: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/7951358/Richard-Dawkins-faith-schools-should-not-be-allowed-to-opt-out-of-religious-education.html