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January/February 2013

Discover more articles from this issue.

Looking Ahead

So often in the past we have called upon the “guardians” of the American experiment for their advice on what they meant by such things as democracy, freedom, and religious liberty.

An Edict

The year A.D. 313 is an important date in the history of religious freedom.

A Model for Freedom of Religion

Is America really secular? The state and the church are two separate institutions, and no formal dominance or relationship exists between them.

By What Authority?

What happens when biblical absolutes become politically inconvenient?

In the Whirlwind

Robert A. Burt asks numerous questions about the authority of God as presented in the Bible. While it might seem overtly blasphemous to most religionists to even ask such questions, Burt does.

When Religious Liberty Issues Aren’t

What is, or is not a bona fide religious liberty question?

History of Sunday Laws

While in Colonial days, and in some of the cases tried in the early history of the nation, the question of religion did enter into the decisions by the courts, the tendency today seems to be strongly away from such a course.

Racism and the Golden Rule

The best way to overcome racial bigotry and promote racial understanding and harmony is to practice the golden rule.

Lincoln’s Noble Character

We desperately need today many more men and women of Abraham Lincoln's nobility of mind, spirit, and character.

Defenseless Minorities In Constant Fear

Only when its citizens can be persuaded that civic responsibility begins with tolerance will Pakistan step out of the Dark Ages and strive for the dignity all of its diverse people deserve.

Arab Spring, Democracy, And Antichrist

As our Christian brothers and sisters in Syria pray and hope that whatever comes next will bring them peace, we are reminded of both the virtues and liabilities of democracy.

Magazine Archive »

Published in the January/February 2013 Magazine
Book Review, by

Most folks who grew up in that rapidly decreasing institution of a two-parent home learned pretty quickly that you obeyed Father. How many kids, when told by Dad to do (or not to do) such and such, answered, "What gives you the authority to tell me what to do?" Though a few might have answered like that (a few times at least, till consequences appeared), most kids know, implicitly, that Father has the authority, and that he is to be obeyed.

That's fine with our earthly father. But what about our heavenly Father? In most Western religions–Judaism, Christianity, Islam–there is an inherent if perhaps unspoken assumption that God is to be obeyed because, well, He is God and we are humans, and humans are to obey God. Period!

And in the Scriptures, at least in a Jewish and Christian context (which is the context of this book), that assumption is heartily presented. Right from the opening pages of the Bible, from the Creation onward, up until the events that lead to apocalypse, it's pretty much understood that God is boss, and that we humans are to obey Him. Period.

Not so fast! At least that's the opening premise of the book In the Whirlwind, by Robert A. Burt, the Alexander M. Bickel professor of law at Yale. Burt asks numerous questions about the authority of God as presented in the Bible. While it might seem overtly blasphemous to most religionists to even ask such questions, Burt does. He starts his book with these lines: "No authority, whether divine or secular, deserves automatic obedience." While most folks would have no problem with the question of secular authority—dare this mere flesh-and-blood mortal (even though he's a Yale law professor) presume to question whether we owe God absolute, unquestioning loyalty and obedience?

Yes, he does, and the premise of his book is that, contrary to the common notion that God demands unquestioning obedience, the Bible, he asserts, isn't quite as clear-cut and dry on that matter. In fact, Burt claims that the Scriptures are actually a kind of primer, or guidebook, on how to confront authority–both secular and divine.

Again, it's the "divine" part that is most interesting in his thesis—and most troubling. From the Abolitionists in America to the liberation theologians south of the border, the Bible has been used to foment challenges to authority, both secular and even religious (i.e., the church). That's no big deal. (Some of us might even remember those posters from Latin America, done in the rather gauche style of Soviet realism, depicting Jesus as a Marxist worker!) But Burt asserts that we have grounds for questioning the authority of God Himself. While that, in and of itself, isn't so revolutionary, he asserts that we can find the grounds for this questioning in the Bible itself.

No further than the first page, he wrote: "I believe that this conventional view [God demands implicit obedience] is based on a misreading of the biblical texts. It ignores the fact that God's specific claims to absolute authority are regularly, if for the most part indirectly, denied in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles themselves."

That's quite a thesis, one that he then purports to back up by referring to various stories in the biblical account, from the Creation, up through the patriarchal era and into New Testament times, including the death of Jesus on the cross. In these and other stories Burt draws some interesting conclusions about the power of God and what could be perceived as the limitation of that power.

For instance, in the famous Job account, God allows Job to be tormented beyond belief by the devil, all of which gets Job to seriously question the goodness and fairness of the God whom he had, up until that point, so faithfully worshipped. Of course, even after the calamities struck, Job bowed and worshipped, uttering the famous words "Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord" (Job 1:21). That expression of worship, however, didn't mean that Job wasn't seriously questioning the fairness of God in all that happened to him, and only near the end of the book do some issues (but not all) get resolved.

For Burt, however, this means "that the book of Job expresses the most visible challenge by a human being to the legitimacy of God's authority in the Hebrew Bible." For Burt–whether from the fall in Eden to the death of Jesus on the cross, where Jesus' cry revealed a sense of Him being abandoned by God—these accounts reveal that this idea of utter, unquestioned submission to God's authority isn't as clear-cut and simple as traditionally presented.

And in a sense he's right, even if he misses the grander background behind these apparent challenges to God's authority. Burt notices, and rightly so, lack of outward coercion by God in the Bible. But God not forcing people to obey Him is not the same thing as Him not demanding absolute obedience. One can't read the Bible for very long without seeing that God does tell people what to do; He over and over (think of the book of Deuteronomy) commands them to obey Him. But there's a crucial difference between demanding that people obey you and forcing them to.

Demand is not the same as coercion, and that is a crucial motif all through the Bible, a point that Burt picks up on but seems to misunderstand. He seems to read that lack of coercion as somehow inherently implying that God is not worthy to be obeyed.

The issue is, really, not whether God demands absolute obedience. He does. What He doesn't do, however, is force it. And in an absolute sense. He can't force love. Love, to be love, has to be freely given, or it's not love at all. The God of the Bible can force every creature in the universe to fear Him, to obey Him, and to worship Him. But He can't force anyone to love Him. The moment love is forced, it's not love, and hence, whatever else the Bible teaches about the relationship between humans and God, freedom, human freedom, is a foundational motif out of which so much of the drama flows.

Thus, a great deal of the counterplay in these stories, many of which have left Burt as baffled as the rest of us, unfolds against the background of inherent human freedom, which means folks just don't always worship and obey God as He wants. There is an element of God needing, in a sense, to "prove" His worthiness to them. After all, just because a God exists doesn't mean He's worthy of worship.

All this, to some degree, Burt wrestles with, even if he doesn't seem to grasp the larger implication behind it: the cosmic struggle between good and evil, sometimes called the great controversy, which many see as the ubermetaphysic of the Bible.

Now, Burt is a law professor, and he goes from the question of obeying God to the question of obeying secular authority, not necessarily a seamless transition. Indeed, a profound difference exists, because while God's government works by love (we obey because we love Him), not force, secular governments work by force, not love. As Machiavelli said, it's better for the prince to be feared than loved. Though Burt draws some parallels between obedience to the Divine and obedience to the secular, he doesn't push them too far, and rightly so.

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