Inerrancy and mass slaughter

Daniel, that was an amazing defense based on the way Abraham’s willingness to kill his son is praised in the New Testament. I haven’t seen that presented so well before.

It strikes me that one could make the case even stronger by adding another example, and one where God did not stop the killing. Jephtha is also praised in the New Testament; he appears alongside Abraham in Hebrews’ faith hall of fame. Never does the Bible criticize him. Yet he wasn’t only willing to kill his child for God – he followed through. No heavenly voice stopped him before he plunged home the knife and lit the pyre. No substitute ram materialized in the bushes.

When God’s Spirit filled him, he had promised that if God gave him success, whoever first came from his house to welcome him home would become a burnt offering to God. And even when it was his only child who ran out to greet him rather than merely one of his slaves, he kept his vow. What faith! “The world was not worthy of [him].”

But does that praise end the discussion? What does it mean for the author of Hebrews to see people like Gideon, Samson and Jephtha as models of faith? Does this make their actions beyond critique, their conception of God flawless, their perception of God’s voice without error? Or is it possible to see faith mixed with folly in these men, and in Abraham as well?

Part of the reason some are bold enough to question if a passage is as directly from God as it appears is because we follow someone who modelled this – and it’s not Pete Enns.

In Deuteronomy, the statements about divorce are presented as from the mouth of God. They appear within a section bookended by the identical statements, “This very day Yahweh your God is commanding you to observe these statutes and ordinances; so observe them diligently with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut. 12:1; 26:16).

Jesus has a different take. “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but at the beginning it was not so” (Matt. 19:8). It wasn’t God’s righteous command; it was Moses’ allowance to human sinfulness!

This isn’t the only example. Elsewhere, the sacrifice legislation that God spoke to Moses becomes “the gift that Moses commanded” (Matt. 8:4). Back to the sermon on the mount, Jesus refers to words from the Law – including words recorded as spoken and etched into stone by God – as what “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times.” His indirectness is palpable. Walk into a conservative church and speak of Scripture as what you’ve heard was said to people long ago, and you’ll find yourself being walked out.

No wonder Jesus had to reassure people that he wasn’t trying to abolish the law. That must have been an accusation he faced often, based on his seemingly irreverent way of freely correcting (Matt. 5:27-48; 15:10-11), prioritizing (Matt. 22:36-39; 23:23) and filtering (Matt. 7:12; 22:40) the law and the prophets. Then he even had the gall to tell his followers to follow him!

Matthew not only shows Jesus doing this, he gives us a visual illustration of what it looks like. At the transfiguration, when Moses (the lawgiver) and Elijah (the prophet) appear with Jesus, God’s words to the disciples are not “listen to them” but “this is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Matt. 17:3-5). Jesus supersedes the law and the prophets so that only through him are they rightly heard.

Matthew’s gospel reshaped how I view the First Testament. I no longer see the Scriptures as unbending, pristine records, nor do I think the primary purpose of many texts is to reveal historical facts. I accept that unless my reading is pliant and flexible, those ancient words will be too brittle to carry the new wine of Jesus. When I esteem Scripture highly enough to read it with creativity and cruciformity, I can become like a scribe trained for the kingdom who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.


I’m specifically not offering a defense, just discussing why I believe as I do, no one is being asked to agree. But as it is, I would absolutely agree there is folley mixed with faith, that is the very theme of Judges. And yes, in Abraham’s life, too. The record isn’t shy about describing his foibles.

But this action is simply in a different category. Genesis records Abraham as receiving God’s high commendation because of this willingness. And he is then twice commended in the NT specifically and explicitly because of his willingness to sacrifice Isaac. So if this was folley on Abraham’s part, at least two New Testament authors seem to have missed that fact. If I am in the wrong here, at least I am in good company.

Laura, I like to think that Truth has this statement in reverse: If humankind evolved from a basically amoral animal ancestry (albeit with 'glimpses of empathy and selflessness) but with at least the potential to become images of our Creator, then it is God who plans for (not imposes upon) us the desire to achieve Divine Morality. ; to rise above our animal roots. Admittedly, many of us attempt to make God in our Image, rather than the other way around. Justifying genocide is just one example of such a philosophy: making it OK to do what we desperately WANT to do, saying “It’s god’s will.”

The science of biology makes it reasonable to accept death as totally natural, not a punishment. However, it is only the knowledge of Jesus’ passion that can lead us to accept suffering as God’s Will.
Al Leo

I’ve read a few of his books but it has been a while, so please do correct me if I’m mistaken…

I grant of course that Dr. Enns personally chooses to view that saying as authoritative, and uses that as his personal lens and standard by which to judge other claims.

But is it because he claims these two statements were literally inerrant, God-breathed revelation? literally revealed from God as inerrant truth, as opposed to all other things Jesus and Scripture said? I.e., one inerrant fact that came out of the proverbial teachers manual?

My understanding is that he wouldn’t even acknowledge this to be “inerrant” truth spoken from God, but rather because, as he reimagines God, this is the core texts that he personally chooses to use in his own reinvention.

Do correct me if I’m mistaken, it’s been a while and I don’t have time to search more carefully to fact check myself.

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Part of the reason I suggested Jephtha would strengthen the case is because Abraham is a more ambiguous example. He isn’t simply commended for being willing to sacrifice his child. This is clearest in the Hebrews passage:

By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named after you.” He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. (Heb. 11:17-19, NRSV)

Paul repeatedly praises Abraham’s faith and obedience in similar ways, yet without mentioning the sacrifice of Isaac (e.g. Rom. 4:19 where Abraham demonstrates faith that death can’t thwart God’s promises through believing in offspring while being himself “as good as dead”). Hebrews commends Abraham’s trust that obeying God wouldn’t result in his son being dead and God’s promise failing. What made his faith exceptional is that even when told to do something that seemed to obviously lead to one outcome (Isaac’s death), he believed it would lead to a different outcome (Isaac giving him grandkids).

This idea is not at all foreign to the story as told in Genesis. As Abraham and Isaac leave on their fateful journey, Abraham tells his servants, “the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you” (Gen. 22:5). Many Jewish and Christian interpreters saw in this statement not a white lie, but Abraham’s faith that God would not allow him to carry out the command. Abraham obeyed because he expected God to stay his hand. That’s not the only way to read it (the author of Hebrews shows just one of many alternatives), but it is one way with a long history. It is also, of course, what happens in the story.

Because of this detail, I don’t think we can assume that James’ reference to Abraham offering Isaac is simply praising his willingness to kill a child at God’s command. And if he is also not obviously doing that, then these references don’t establish that the New Testament authors view God as sometimes commanding people to kill children and praising them when they obey.

Let me be clear that I still see something terrifying in a person willing to kill at God’s command because he believes God will somehow undo or prevent the death. I’m not trying to argue that because nobody dies in the Abraham-Isaac story it isn’t morally problematic. It does, however, moderate the New Testament references to this story to something less than full-throated endorsements of killing children at God’s command.

Finally, I don’t think the New Testament passages that refer to this story are interested in the question of whether it’s moral to obey God’s command to kill (likewise, in his following example, James [2:25] is not tackling the ethics of deception). They are looking at it as an extreme example of faith, not an ethical dilemma about killing children. Even though the authors might, if asked, side with you rather than me on that ethical dilemma, I don’t think that means we can repurpose their use of the story for our own ends.

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I need fact checking; so thanks. I had posted that he had acknowledged the Golden rule in the podcast, at least obliquely; and I think that was in the substance of another of his books. However, I should have provided reference–and I can’t.

But, good question. There are, as you will read in the Five Views, different aspects of inerrancy (or inspiration, as Dr Enns most likely would put it). There are more than just the Five. I appreciate your post that your interaction with Mohler would be agreeing in the head, but not from the heart, perhaps. However, I would like to see your reaction to Michael Bird and Vanhoozer; both of these are quite orthodox, but more akin to your heart.

Enns would probably agree to some level of inspiration, but I don’t know how much. The reason I quoted those verses was that I would be interested in your view of how much Jesus and Paul would say that they are substantially after God’s heart, based on your view of inerrancy. The details of the OT law have passed away (and if you’re ultradispensationalist, as my grandpa was, there are even further gradations in to the church age). However, I was curious how much you would agree that this “whole law” restates the body of God’s law. It’s an interesting question.

Jesus said we should not miss the important parts of the law–as in His discussion with the Pharisees–and should clean both the inside and the outside of the cup (the outside being the details, and the inside, the heart of the law of loving God and one’s neighbor, if I understood the parable well).

And, in practice, my degree of inspiration acceptance is probably somewhat more orthodox than Enns appears (but I think he acts more orthodox than he speaks; he does attend church, after all). Perhaps I’m more like Bird; my background was certainly influenced by Aussie and English expats, who outnumbered Americans on the missionary compound. I have my own devotions, as well as shared with my wife, daily; and most days, I do a short devotional with my boys on waking them up for school (except Fridays, when I go in early, before they are awake). We also find it helpful to use different versions to understand the text better; I have no Greek or Hebrew, but do use French and English (usually NIV or RSV, but have recently added The Message for my 11- and 8- year old sons’ sakes). I hope that taking Scripture seriously, in its given setting, as it was written, will not only guide my family’s lives but also prevent misunderstandings of how God created the world and loves us. Enns, Lewis and Macdonald help me to avoid college and world shock that would, I am afraid, cause us to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Hopefully, it helps us grasp His word and avoid stumblings and crises of faith at the same time.

Thanks, Brother.

I appreciate your thoughts!

Ps… I should be more careful with my words, I literally meant, “I don’t have time to fact check Daniel Fisher, since his recollection of these things is a bit rusty…”

I didn’t mean, I, myself, don’t have time to fact check you, Randy.

I just meant I’m the one who probably needs to be fact checked. But thanks for your graciousness as always.

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Mr Fisher,

Thank you for your sensitivity! I understood you, and didn’t feel bad about your way of putting things, at all. I wanted to be truthful–and while I had been pretty sure I had read that in his book, I realized I may not have read the quote so clearly.

His friend, Rachel Held Evans, wrote a book that I just finished listening to on Audible–“Inspired.” It’s about returning to the Bible after self-doubt about her faith. I just ran into a young mom who used it in her “Mom to Mom” Scripture study; I found it interesting and insightful, though I think I have not gone as deep as she has.

Thank you, as always, for your graciousness, Brother. I remarked to my wife how nice it is to discuss things with someone as kind as you.



A thought provoking treatment of matters such as Abraham and his obedience to God is provided in ‘fear and trembling’ by Kierkegaard. One important point in this work is the distinction between the ethical as a universal, and faith as distinctly personal (and includes anxiety, experience, and hiddenness). He indicates how incomprehensible Abraham’s faith is to us. I also note that Abraham had a number of contacts and discussions with God, and these may inform us, but may also suggest contradictions (eg Abraham wanted to change God’s mind on destroying Sodom). Yet on his son, Abraham didn’t question God, didn’t complain or weep, he didn’t explain himself to anyone, he simply obeyed God’s orders. He presents paths that Abraham could have taken, all of which might have rendered Abraham more understandable, but these would make him something less than the father of faith. There is no way we can fully comprehend Abraham.


I can only say that, if you are in fact correct, then the authors of James, Hebrews, and Genesis together are some of the poorest communicators i can conceive of.

‘ “now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me… because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son…” but I”m not trying to suggest Abraham was being praised for his “willingness” to offer his son…

And the point I am trying to make with Abraham is far less ambitious that I think you are interpreting. I am not trying to directly argue from “see, God commanded Abraham to kill a child” ergo, “it was OK for God to do the same elsewhere” or the like. My point is far more modest. I am simply explaining why I, personally, cannot simply jump on what seems a common sense (and common) reaction of, “If God ever told me to kill a child, I’d know that wasn’t God speaking.” I’m afraid it is simply a bit more complex than I might like it, given this event in Biblical history.

If interesting, I think it is well established that Paul was quite intentionally referencing this event in Rom 8:32, even using the same Greek word regarding “sparing” his son. But given it is an allusion and not explicit, I would not be dogmatic on that point if you chose to differ.

Fair enough, but I don’t think the binding of Isaac gets us even this far. After all, God did not, actually, want Abraham to kill his child and Abraham did not seem to think his actions would leave Isaac dead. Right or wrong, many interpreters have seen in this story a progressive revelation that Yahweh isn’t like those other ANE deities because God doesn’t require child sacrifice.

So I don’t see how we can use an example where God didn’t want a child to be killed to argue that elsewhere God did want children to be killed at the hands of the Israelites. If someone wants to make that case (and I accept that you may not), I think it needs to be made more directly.

I can certainly see an echo of Abraham and Isaac there, but surely the main reference is to God’s role in Jesus’ actual death, not Abraham’s role in Isaac’s almost death?

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Indeed, they (and the author of Genesis) do now suffer this criticism in the hands of those who want and therefore force the bible to communicate what it does not [a rather constant problem for the YEC, and perhaps for others too]. Abraham’s test of faith is not a passage about the atrocity of child sacrifice, no matter how desperately the modernist wants to use the story for indictment or acquittal of scriptures, respectively. As dismal as the fact is, it remains factual nonetheless that children simply were not recognized as much more than property in those times. So it is anachronistic for us today to search these passages for details to buttress up our modern sensibilities. To the extent we actually do find such buttress, it would have been highly progressive of scriptural writers to push forward to such during their time. So the New Testament writers did not at all have in sight Abraham’s insufficiency with regard to child sacrifice. The only observation made was his absolute sufficiency of trust in God. That, and that alone, is in the view of the New Testament authors as they commended Abraham’s faith.


Yes. Even the interpretation I mentioned about Yahweh revealing that God doesn’t require child sacrifice is, at best, a sensus plenior type of reading. I don’t think all such readings are out of bounds, but they shouldn’t be equated with what the original author and audience understood. But though it is pushing things to say the text abolishes child sacrifice, I’m quite comfortable seeing Abraham’s faith and God’s determination that the child would live as part of the intended meaning.

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Can you explain sensus plenior and so on? I have tried to read “Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testamen” by Enns et al, but found it hard going. Maybe I will post a new thread. It has been a challenge for me! Thank you.

The sensus plenior is a meaning drawn from a text that goes beyond what the human author would have intended. Some link it to what God intended to communicate that went beyond what the human author knew (though when used this way, it often becomes a claim that God agrees with one’s own interpretation even if it can’t be justified contextually). Some only accept such fuller meanings if they are revealed by an inspired author, such as a New Testament passage that creatively uses a First Testament passage. Others think New Testament authors show us how we should read Scripture too.

With the conquest passages, there’s some interesting history in the early church. When Marcion read the passages quite literally and became convinced the First Testament God was a nasty character quite unlike Jesus, he provoked quite a reaction. In response, church fathers like Origen and Gregory of Nyssa suggested the proper way to read these texts was to see how they apply to us, not how they reveal historical details. This view largely prevailed until the rise of higher criticism:

For most of the history of interpretation, the book of Joshua has been a source of reflection on the character of the Christian life. Apart from a few commentators, like Calvin, it was not until the modern era that the book of Joshua came to be interpreted in the light of literary and historical analysis. (Gordon Matties, Joshua, Believers Church Bible Commentary, p. 426)

Both higher criticism and the historical-grammatical method now generally avoid things that would be classified as a sensus plenior. But in this, both methodologies show their distance from how the Bible was read before modernity.


This is very interesting. Thanks. I’m a bit confused, and I need to really read that Counterpoints (and perhaps other books on the subject). To clarify, did Gregory of Nyssa and Origen then not believe that Joshua actually killed everyone at God’s command? I can see that one would focus on trying to apply “trusting God” and a few other principles from Joshua, but how could one take the passage with distaste if one believed that God actually perpetrated the actions? And, how would one want to apply these principles if one believed God actually did call for these actions?

In my Sunday School as a child, certainly they avoided the details and emphasized the importance of Joshua’s bravery against a larger force. However, it seems to me that Gregory and Origen run into the same problems in the long run. I’m also curious as to how Calvin took things more literally. As a covenanter, I’m guessing he thought God continued to act in similar ways; but I’m not sure. Thanks for your time. I’ll probably look for a book I can listen to on Audible on this subject while I’m working at home in the evening–my new way of learning.

I’m pretty sure they thought the killing actually happened. It might be that they saw the focus on how these stories apply to readers without discounting the possibility that they actually happened as told. In other words, they may be true stories of horrific violence, but they were only placed in Scripture because they speak to readers in other times, not because of what they tell us about the past. But I haven’t dug into their writings and am mainly going by secondary sources.

Here’s more from Gordon Matties’ commentary on Joshua:

As the book of Hebrews puts it, past events were reported in Scripture for the benefit of later readers (Heb 11:39–40; cf. 1 Cor 10:6, 11). […]

Origen (b. AD 185) is a master of such discernment. He is clear that his reading does not annul the original text, or rewrite it, but finds in it a way of overlaying the present experience of the church so that what that narrative was telling then is what it is possible to affirm as happening today. And since Origen also reads in conversation with all of Scripture, he knows that Jesus (as well as others) could not affirm the kind of ethnic violence described in the text. […] It is not the words of the book of Joshua that are authoritative for Origen, but the words as they resonate with the Scriptures as a whole. […]

Origen is intent on rescuing the story for Christian faith rather than leaving it as it is in the realm of historical interpretation. Citing Hebrews 8:5 and Ephesians 6:12, Origen suggests that Joshua’s wars are “a shadow and type of heavenly things,” namely, the fight of Jesus “against the Devil and his angels” and “against spiritual forces of wickedness in heavenly places.” And since the believers are not promised “kingdoms of earth” but “kingdoms of heaven,” therefore “we shall not fight in the same manner as the ancients fought” nor against the same kind of enemy.

Gordon H. Matties, Joshua, Believers Church Bible Commentary (Harrisonburg, VA; Waterloo, ON: Herald Press, 2012), 426-27.

I see more hermeneutical moves open to us than would have been seen by people like Origen. They didn’t know the final form of Joshua is separated by about 500 years from the events it portrays, or that archaeology challenges a flat historical reading of most of the battles, or that it appears that Canaanites became Israelites (and Philistines and other groups) rather than being wiped out by them. Those added details, combined with a diversity of descriptions of the conquest within the Bible itself (sometimes successful, sometimes a failure, sometimes God’s work, sometimes Israel’s work, sometimes about killing, sometimes about separating), give us extra reasons to not focus on extracting history – or morality – from these texts.


Thank you. That’s definitely leaning toward the Ennsian point of view (which I lean to as well). I know that he had Sparks on his podcast about where the Hebrews came from; I’m not sure what to make of that. It is intriguing.

Randy, sorry it has taken me so long to get back to you. Some quick thoughts after reading Mohler’s response, it is generally as I expected. Although I generally agree with his basic position, and I would personally have no issue endorsing the CSBI, I nevertheless found Mohler’s approach problematic in various ways.

My biggest issue Is that he defended inerrancy largely on the basis that, if we did not embrace inerrancy, we would lose any logical basis or foundation to hold various doctrines. Now, that is not entirely incorrect, but it is entirely backwards reasoning. One ought never embrace the doctrine of inerrancy because you need it to prove another doctrine that you want or feel the need to embrace. That is completely fallacious logic. Scripture either is or is not divinely inspired, guided by the hand of God, so as to be inerrant. And granted, if it is or is not inerrant, then certain doctrines will or will not follow and/or fall. But we must examine the question of whether scripture is so inspired as to be inerrant on its own merits, not in terms of the doctrinal consequences that may or may not follow based on what we determined to be truth on that topic.

Now trying to be generous, I would grant that perhaps Mohler is just thinking ahead, and observing that some of his colleagues in dialogue have not recognized the full extent of the logical consequences of denying inerrancy. I also certainly grant that: that if one denies inerrancy, there are many, many other popular and traditional doctrines – even plenty held and embraced by the most progressive or liberal of theologians – that will be found to have no logical basis. That may well be worth observing, and I’ll return to that later.

Even so, Mohler still essentially argues from, “these are the doctrinal conclusions we need to reach” to “therefore we must have inerrancy as one of our premises.” It is very faulty reasoning, in this observer’s humble opinion.

Additionally, I found very distasteful the fact he spent far more time exegetical and discussing the CSBI than he did the Bible. An odd approach for someone who thinks scripture alone should be our only infallible guide for faith and belief.

So, first impressions being they are, I personally would never recommend Mohler’s treatment of inerrancy to anyone dealing with or questioning the topic. The overall impression to me sounds like someone committed to holding a traditional doctrine because otherwise they might lose other parts of their precious tradition, rather than someone who has embraced the doctrine solely and simply because he thinks it to be true.

(And for what it is worth, I would far more quickly recommend J.I. Packer’s “Fundamentalism and the word of God” for a far more nuanced, careful, and reasonable approach to the topic.


Mr Fisher, thank you for reading that. I see your point about Dr Mohler. It’s frankly a tendency I have observed in myself (to try to get a conclusion and avoid the reasoning behind it), so I have sympathy for him. I was more impressed with Vanhoozer and Bird, but they honestly didn’t give a positive reason for inerrancy (this is a very difficult argument); though they did give better reasons not to discount it, in my opinion. I will be interested in seeing what you have to say, if you get a chance to read the rest of the book.

You asked about my reasoning for the Atonement conclusions I had come to. I have a risk of doing the same thing as Dr Mohler, if I choose to reject penal substitution for the reason that I don’t like it.

C S Lewis and others have put forward the interpretation of “Christus Victor,” among others; and George Macdonald emphasized other aspects. I bought this book and haven’t finished it. Greg Boyd, one of the contributors and a pastor in Minnesota, attended Princeton with Ehrman, but disagreed with his conclusions and agreed more with their teacher, Bruce Metzger, who was a devout Christian. I do think that some of our opinions of penal substitution have come in part from an erroneous interpretation of Pauls’ arguments. However, throwing out all the substitutionary images would be mistaken; though from my understanding, the sacrificial system always depended on mercy and grace beyond the sacrifices, which were, if I recall correctly, never for intentional sins, anyway. I will try to write more on this. Another thread seems reasonable sometime this summer!