Biblical Diversity and Harmonization: The Case of James McGrath

Many biblical scholars affirm that the biblical writings are diverse from one another in their ideas. Conservatives assert that the Bible never contradicts itself because it is divinely-inspired, whereas liberals have no problem claiming that the Bible is contradictory, since it was written by different people who did not share the exact same religious worldview.

But how do religious liberals (or even conservatives who acknowledge biblical diversity) find spiritual value in a contradictory document? Do they accept some things in the Bible while rejecting others? Do they seek a common thread that runs through all of the diverse biblical writings, such as a loving God or social justice? Do they think that the Bible contains a “big picture” that is more than the sum of its diverse parts?

I’m sure that each of these approaches has someone who follows it. Today, I want to look at how James McGrath interacts with such issues in some of his blogposts. But please remember this: James McGrath has been blogging for a long time, and I haven’t read all of his posts and comments. Consequently, this post of mine is not an exhaustive treatment of his beliefs.

My format in this post will be as follows: I will identify a topic, include links to McGrath’s posts, and then interact with them. The topics will be biblical diversity, the deity of Christ, Christian exclusivism, and the substitutionary atonement.

1. Biblical Diversity

The Bible: Pure or Special Blend?
Review of Bart Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted

In the “Review of Bart Ehrman,” McGrath disagrees with fundamentalist tendencies to harmonize the Bible’s passages on Jesus’ resurrection. He also states that fundamentalism often goes against what the Bible actually says, and that fundamentalists themselves “pick-and-choose” what they deem to be authoritative in the Bible, even if they assert the contrary. In “The Bible: Pure or Special Blend,” McGrath says that Christians would do well to appreciate the diverse voices in the Bible. In these posts, McGrath seems to affirm biblical diversity while dismissing fundamentalist attempts to harmonize biblical contradictions.

2. Deity of Christ

Incarnation in Luke-Acts and in John?
Following the Historical Jesus

In a comment under “Following the Historical Jesus,” McGrath implies that one should not conclude that Jesus is God on the basis of the Gospel of John. His reason may be that the Gospel of John is later than the other Gospels, which do not claim that Jesus was God. Here, McGrath prioritizes the earlier Gospels over John in his attempt to understand what Jesus believed about himself. In “Information in Luke-Acts and in John,” however, McGrath asks a profound question: Often, Christians read Luke and the other synoptics in light of John’s claim that Jesus is God. But suppose we read John’s claim in light of Luke? According to McGrath, Luke presents Jesus as filled with God’s Spirit. Maybe John, when he calls Jesus God, is saying that Jesus was so filled with God’s spirit and transparent to God’s purposes that he was practically identical to the divine, even though he also affirmed that the Father was superior to him. McGrath draws a parallel with Islamic mystics, who subsumed their own identities in their devotion to God. Although McGrath affirms biblical diversity in this post, his approach here seems to be rather harmonistic, in that he tries to reconcile the different Christologies of Luke and John.

3. Exclusivism vs. Inclusivism

Is Jesus the Only Way? Not according to most Christians…or the Bible!
Krister Stendahl on Religious Pluralism

The issue here is whether or not non-Christians can be saved. Christian exclusivists maintain that belief in Jesus is absolutely necessary for salvation and a relationship with God, thereby excluding people from other religions. In “Is Jesus the Only Way?,” McGrath asks why Christians must prioritize exclusivist passages such as John 14:6 (“No one comes to the Father but through me”) over more inclusivist passages of Scripture, as when Jesus heals people and commends their faith, without requiring them to convert to monotheism or understand who he is. Here, McGrath seems to prioritize certain passages over others. In “Krister Stendahl on Religious Pluralism,” however, he’s open to Krister Stendahl’s non-exclusivistic interpretations of John 14:6 and Acts 4:12. Ultimately, McGrath may have problems dismissing the exclusivistic passages in favor of inclusivist ones, so he’s open to alternative interpretations of the former.

4. Substitutionary Atonement

What’s Wrong With Penal Substitution?
What Do You Say That I Did?
Celebrating Easter with the Doubting Disciples

Did Christ die in place of sinners and pay the penalty for their sin, a doctrine known as “penal substitution”? McGrath says “no.” For him, not only is that unfair, but the Bible doesn’t even teach it. The Bible often presents God forgiving people without a blood substitute, and it also affirms that one man cannot die for another (see Exodus 32:33, which McGrath does not actually cite) but that people die for their own sins. For McGrath, the model of atonement that Paul presents is participatory, in which believers die with Christ, rather than Christ dying in place of believers. McGrath does not deny that certain passages in the New Testament view the blood of Christ as expiatory for sin, a position that is salient in Hebrews. Although McGrath asks in “Celebrating Easter” why Christians prioritize Hebrews so much, since it barely made the canon, he interprets Hebrews without reference to penal substitution. For McGrath, in Hebrews, the blood of Jesus atoned for our sins by cleansing the heavenly sanctuary, as blood is a cleansing agent within Leviticus. McGrath sees no need for the substitutionary atonement here!

So what is my point in all of this? My point is that even a religious liberal like James McGrath sees some need to harmonize the diverse passages of Scripture, as much as he may oppose harmonization. We can appreciate biblical diversity, but (in my opinion) certain questions are unavoidable for those who want to view the Bible as authoritative on how God relates to humanity. “Which opinion within the Bible should I select as authoritative, and why that opinion and not another one?” Like many conservatives, McGrath desires some consistency throughout the Bible, rather than viewing it as a mess of contradictory ideas that confuse believers on what God actually wants.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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2 Responses to Biblical Diversity and Harmonization: The Case of James McGrath

  1. Bryan L says:

    Interesting post and analysis.

    Bryan L


  2. James Pate says:

    Thanks, Bryan. I’ve enjoyed the posts on your blog lately–about converting later in life, sin, and inerrancy.


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