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A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible Review: it’s all about grace

August 3, 2015

A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible Review: Chapter 3 – Life in Three Dimensions: the Blessings of Father Abraham

The third chapter of John Dickson’s A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible explores the implications of Genesis 12:1-2. Dickson speaks very highly of the promises made to Abraham here in which ‘it is impossible to exaggerate the significance of the promises made to Abraham’ (p.53).

Dickson claims that these promises ‘mark the reversal of the three diminishing elements of human existence’:

  • Spiritual element: the search for God
  • Social element: relationships with one another
  • Physical element: the connection with the environment

Dickson unpacks each in turn.

The nature of biblical theology?

The chapter is pivotal in understanding the message of the Bible and Dickson does a good job of explaining the significance and implications of Abraham’s promises and how they find their fulfilment in Jesus. He draws sensible theological conclusions from the promises to Abraham.

I agree with Dickson’s understanding of the promises, mainly because I am familiar with the concepts. Though, I do wonder if more needs to be said to the ‘doubter’ who doesn’t realise that the Biblical narrative involves transformation? This ‘transformation’ is known as ‘biblical theology’ where the same theme is transformed or transposed into a different key. e.g.. the promises of physical land to Abraham find their completion and fulfilment in a ‘spiritual’ (yet still physical) heaven. Hence the promise is ultimately unfulfilled in one sense, but is very much fulfilled and completed in a more satisfying and wholesome way.

Dickson is appealing to this narrative structure of the Bible and what he says is clear. Yet I do wonder if further explanation is required? Thus explanation of why we can see ‘promises fulfilled in Jesus’ in a different sense to the way they were promised to Abraham. Or similarly, further explanation of how Dickson can claim that ‘the Promised Land is no longer theologically significant at all’ (p.62). Further explanation may help to avoid some potential confusion.

Hence a question for the ‘doubting’ audience, how do you understand the concept of ‘fulfilment’ within the overall biblical story and this idea of ‘biblical theology’? Do you appreciate the idea of ‘transformation/transposition’ within the biblical narrative? Would be very keen for thoughts.

It’s all about grace

One of the other things to comment upon in this chapter was Dickson’s exploration of ‘grace’. Dickson says, ‘Even the great patriarch [Abraham] the father of Israel, was not chosen for his goodness, and neither so goes the Christian story, is anyone’ (p.54).

Dickson goes on to explain the difference of the Biblical story to other religious understandings of ‘salvation’. Namely, ‘The structure of relationship with God in a typical religious framework is: obedience first, favor second. The structure of relationship with God, found in the call of Abraham and then throughout the Bible, is: favor first, obedience second’. (p.59).

I agree with Dickson’s assessment of the biblical narrative. It is all about ‘grace’ and I was wondering if this was your understanding of the Christian message? Perhaps it’s not your experience of Christianity at all – i.e. to understand it as primarily a message about favor first?

Dickson has targeted his message of this chapter at the ‘ignorant’ doubter – he is outlining the message of the Bible. Hence, in this chapter there is less to critique for the more hostile ‘doubter’.


This chapter was helpful and clear and well written in it’s explanation of some very important biblical themes. However I am unsure of how ‘doubters’ understand how the whole Bible fits together and may not quite understand Dickson here.


From → Bible, Comment

  1. Two words come to mind in trying to absorb this material: Incoherence, and irony.

    In the Abraham/Jesus cycle, one aspect of incoherence for non-Christians is the apparent biblical obsession with blood sacrifice. Initially for Abraham it was livestock and birds, before the test of faith in which he was to murder his son, Isaac. Further, the fulfillment in Jesus apparently required his torture and death.
    An actual God would be capable of communicating better messages to His world than the need for people to slaughter animals and other people in a gesture of either appeasement or faith. Rather, ritual sacrifice is something borne from powerful human superstition, which has been back-fitted to religious history. To the non-superstitious it is barbaric and bizarre, and utterly incoherent in the context of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent entity. If the God of ‘sophisticated’ Christianity were real, it is not believable that faith would need to be demonstrated in these ways.

    The notion of Christian fulfillment seems to make absolutely no sense to anyone except to those that have already become believers in the divinity of Jesus. Christians themselves might not agree (and in all likelihood, I doubt that we’ll ever convince each other), but I just don’t accept that people become and remain Christians because of the theology of fulfillment. The overwhelming majority of Christians are so because they are born into it. Those converted into it, I strongly suspect, are folks searching for some promise of spiritual life after death and need for worship, who then cross paths with the Christian message by happenstance (or campaigning/proselytizing).
    The point is, Christians don’t believe because of this fulfillment story and, I strongly suspect, not that many of them of truly understand anyway “…how the whole bible fits together”. A thought that frequently comes to my own mind is if God truly wants our faith, then the demonstration of both His nature and His existence could be done in a way that is far less obscure. If the 2nd covenant with Jesus was obviously true, then why don’t modern-day Jews believe it? In fact, why aren’t all of us Christians?
    More on the Calvanist notion of non-regenerate souls in a moment…

    “Favour first, obedience second.” Really?
    The story of Abraham as I understand it, is that God makes all of these promises to Abraham about his descendents occupying half of the world. He instructs him to commit adultery, makes his 90+ year-old wife pregnant, then orders him to murder his own son. Sure – he stays his hand at the last moment (which aparently makes it all ok), but that’s a pretty clear demonstration of obedience first. The favour is promised, but it isn’t actually delivered until (long, long) after the demonstration of obedience.
    Furthermore, the promise in Christ of salvation – life eternal with God after we die – is again obedience first, grace (or any meaningful demonstration of it) second. In the Calvanist (and other Christian) traditions, one is required to have faith in order to be granted salvation and ever-lasting life.
    There is no demonstration of favour first. Instead it is “take my word for it (which I deliver incoherently and ambiguously), and this is what you’ll get”.

    There is an irony in Dickson’s reference to social restoration – the idea of gathering people into a great nation. God is making these promises to Abraham, but somehow misses the opportunity to communicate similar messages to everyone. The very notion of a “chosen” people is so obviously perverse and discriminatory that I continue to be flabbergasted that believers don’t see this image of their God as anything but bigoted. It is further reflected in the Calvanist notion of Sola Fide: Believe in me and you make it into heaven. Conversely, don’t believe in me and it’s the fires of hell for you, me-laddie-o.
    The lines are therefore conveniently well-demarcated: Happy descendents of Abraham and Moses get to inherit the middle-east, erasing the unfortunate non-Abrahamics (including the women, children, and animals) as they go.

    “…‘doubters’ […] may not quite understand Dickson here.”
    Understanding Dickson is irrelevant. If God truly wants us to believe, His messages to us would be consistent, coherent, unambiguous, and universally inclusive. The fact that they aren’t demonstrates that the messages are manufactured from the imaginations of people rather than the grace of God.

    • James Garth permalink

      I think this response from The Skept illustrates that two very different sorts of ‘doubter’ might be engaging here.

      The first is the person who isn’t particularly familiar with the biblical meta narrative, they may have a sort of default secular posture but are conceptually at least doxastically open and would like to hear the message presented and translated into a form comprehensible to their culture.

      The second is very ably illustrated by The Skept. This is the doubter who is very familiar with the message and has thought about the underlying theology and already has a set of well thought out objections to it. These objections are pre-queued and ready to go, and will rapidly venture into areas not covered by this particular book (eg Calvinism, reprobation, the hiddenness of God and so forth). These objections will be presented with considerable emotion and verbosity, and are unlikely to be easily assuaged. They may well employ a mixture of philosophical arguments and robust ridicule (use of strong terms like ‘incoherent’ and ‘utterly’ for example). In my experience this second sort often (but not always) have a residual psychological distaste towards Christian theism as a result of exposure to a particularly retrograde, dogmatic and unreflective form of it in their youth.

      I that Dickson’s book will be well suited to the first type but less so to the second type.

      That’s not a criticism of the book, more of an acknowledgement that these different types of ‘doubters’ are actually rather different.

      • That’s fair enough, James, although I’m not engaging with Dickson in my comment, I’m engaging with Rob. Rob’s goal here has always seemed to be about grappling with “the bigger questions”, rather than being a go-to place for the group that you categorise as the first type of doubter. He’s merely used Dickson’s book as means of provoking comment.
        As to the psychoanalysis, well, that doesn’t apply in my case. If you read ‘distaste’ between the lines of my remarks, understand that is less to do with Christian theism per se, or even the individuals that practice it. Rather, it is more an exasperation and incredulity that apparently intelligent people don’t seem to recognise the obvious flaws in these aspects of religious belief. I have a low tolerance for faith-based myopia, which is directed also at other religions, homeopathy, astrology, communicating with the dead, anti-vaxxers, and followers of any other industry with foundation of bullshit.

      • James Garth permalink

        Thanks for your reply, Skept. I certainly share your concerns about homeopathy, astrology, anti vax and the like. I find being forced to share the stage with these groups to be quite uncomfortable and perhaps not quite fair when it comes to thoughtful Christian theism. I think we always should be willing to revise our views if new information is presented, especially evidence of the sort which might falsify a belief (as I think exists for astrology and homeopathy).

        You express exasperation and incredulity at ‘apparently intelligent’ people who can’t see ‘obvious’ flaws. I’m interested that you say ‘apparently intelligent’ rather than simply ‘intelligent’. Is the only reason you introduce ‘apparently’ because these thinkers happen to disagree with you?

        Why not simply embrace & accept the fact that formidable thinkers come to different conclusions & have different worldviews for complex reasons. Personally, I have no problems in recognising the intelligence of non-theistic thinkers. I have the greatest respect for Nietzsche & Mackie, and in the present day Ruse, Oppy and Singer continue to command my respect. I think their worldviews are internally consistent. I’m not persuaded that those worldviews are the best ones on offer; I think under examination they rely on some assumptions that have some serious deficiencies, but that’s my personal judgment. I wouldn’t question a person’s intelligence simply for disagreeing with me.

        You mention that you weren’t exposed to retrograde religion in your youth. However I can see that you’ve given theology more than a passing glance. What prompted that investment of time? Have you ever had the pleasure of a long, thoughtful engagement with a friend who is a theist who you respect? Do you have a similar list of thoughtful Christians who you respect analogous to the list I provided above?


  2. Thanks for the questions, James.

    “Is the only reason you introduce ‘apparently’ because these thinkers happen to disagree with you?”
    Well, stepping back, perhaps it is. When one appears to have the same access to information and personal resourcefulness, why shouldn’t they share the same type of awareness about the natural world as me? 🙂

    “What prompted that investment of time?”
    [Reading this back sounds like a life story, but I’ll leave it all in just for the record. Apologies in advance.]
    Yes. I hadn’t even heard the word ‘atheist’ until I was about 19 or 20. As a cultural Christian with little exposure to alternative beliefs, I think up until that time I passively assumed that almost everyone else assumed, or somehow knew, that God was an actual thing. More exposure to religious believers during my university days on one hand, and an embedding in undergraduate and postgraduate biology on the other, eventually drew fairly clear lines between atheism and creationist theology. (And I am certainly aware that theism doesn’t equate with creationism, but at that time it was a convenient way of thinking about what I believed or didn’t believe about the natural world and spirituality.) There was nothing cathartic, and no specific bad experiences with churches or people of faith.
    I didn’t bother giving a great deal of thought to my atheism for the following 20 years or so. Only relatively recently I discovered the Christian backlash against the so-called (pejoratively) ‘New Atheist’ movement, with a particular focus on Richard Dawkins.
    I read a Dawkins book maybe 20 years ago (and another fairly recently). He has given the most succinct and evocative descriptions of the process of evolution by natural selection I’ve ever read, and further, they are always supported so richly by mountains of observable examples.
    Of course, I’m also aware (again, recently) of his anti-theistic position, which I support generally, although I don’t follow his views on that so closely. I’ve never read The God Delusion. I don’t parrot Dawkins (or anyone else) – my views are all my own.
    The Christian ‘attacks’ on Dawkins have always been petulant and insulting in my view, and I’ve found it a little hard to resist the temptation of joining online arguments against the most earnest believers. Engaging in those discussions has been entertaining and educational, because it has prompted me to do my own research into theistic beliefs and philosophy. Not that much, mind you. I still have a normal job and family to look after, so it’s just a side hobby.

    “Have you ever had the pleasure of a long, thoughtful engagement with a friend who is a theist who you respect?”
    I mean, there are theists I respect, although not because of their religious beliefs. I’ve had plenty of online engagements with theists, and many have touched on complex topics. I don’t know that I’ve had the type of long, thoughtful engagement that you’re referring to.

    “Do you have a similar list of thoughtful Christians who you respect analogous to the list I provided above?”
    Assuming you are asking if there are any theists that present their ideas in a way that compels me to consider they might be correct?
    No such list.
    I realise that might sound either arrogant or naive. If so, it would be an accusation I don’t care to contest.
    Again, there may be plenty of folks with these views that I could get along with and respect personally.
    But, I’ve never heard/read an argument, or a collection of arguments, supporting the existence of God, that I respect.

    Thanks for asking. I appreciate the interest.

    • James Garth permalink

      Thanks, that’s a genuinely interesting response. I appreciate it.

      I guess it’s a shame looking back that your exposure to creationist theology tainted the waters, so to speak. I’m personally of the view that this can be a major turn off for a lot of scientifically literate people. And it needn’t be this way. You won’t find that view being promoted by the Pope, or the Archbishop of Canterbury, they will urge careful genre calibration on the biblical text, as I do.

      I also encountered hardliners at uni who probably would’ve put me off considerably, were I not already a believer at the time. That said, these days I’m likely to ascribe their over-enthusiasm to the perils of youth. Nowadays, like you I’m also a busy guy with a family, so I’m tending to focus my reading on just the very sharpest work from both sides, & reigning back on the more populist, rhetorical stuff. I’ve read Dawkins/Harris/Onfray/Atkins etc but honestly didn’t find them particularly insightful, or particularly threatening. They seemed to be targeting a god who I didn’t believe in either, and their engagement with issues like the historicity of Jesus was, frankly, embarrassing. My opinion of Dawkins has dropped still further after checking him out on Twitter. He’s a gifted author who writes well on biology, but I that he’s tarnishing his legacy, to be honest.

      The sort of atheist I very much do respect would be Alain de Botton. Julian Baggini is also worth a read, and I’m particularly getting into Massimo Pigliucci these days. They’re careful thinkers and don’t embarrass themselves with the sort of positivism and scientism that I think leaves the new atheists very exposed philosophically.

      In terms of Christians, Francis Collins heads the list, together with Miroslav Volf, Owen Gingerich, David Bentley Hart and Ard Louis. I’d hope that these sort of folk could at least marshall an argument that you might respect, if not find fully compelling. Perhaps the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics & the elegance & beauty of the laws which undergird the universe? Or existential arguments? Or a sophisticated version of the ontological argument as espoused by Malcolm, Godel or Plantinga? Or NT Wrights formidable examination of the resurrection, probably the best historical argument out there.

      Reading great theists from the past such as Heisenberg and Kepler has brought me unexpected joy. These pioneers were genuinely devout, one could not question that their views on God were well thought out. This fact alone doesn’t constitute an argument, of course, though it does more than neuter that persistent caricature that believers are either mad, bad or sad. If that were truly the case, I wouldn’t want to be part of Christianity either!

      My conclusion in all of this is that genuine, fruitful, thick discussion between our groups is possible. But it requires careful listening and is best built on a foundation of friendship. Fortunately, most of the sceptics and atheists I’ve met in person in my city have tended to be quite enjoyable conversation partners, and my experiences with them have been genuinely positive.


      • Thanks also for your considered response, James.
        You’re way more widely read than me – no doubt that will give you a rich perspective on different views. I’d probably have the time and interest only to attempt a summary of a ‘reader’s digest’ version of any of those folks. I take interest in engaging with an argument or idea (depending on what it is), more so than the opinions and influences of any particular figure.
        We might find common interest in some of the topics that you mention, although I suspect not a lot of agreement.
        For example, the apparent backlash against so-called ‘scientism’ (again a perjorative) seems silly and misdirected to me. It looks like philosophy professors wanting to own and protect their own piece of intellectual turf. Kind of like an anti-‘physics envy’. (A physics-spite, perhaps.)
        Regarding the types of arguments you mention, I’m not sure I get your shorthand about the ‘unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics’, or existentialism (what about it? 🙂 ). As to the ontological argument, I don’t know how many versions are out there – I’m probably aware of the basic one – but this seems to me to be perhaps the most vacuous and pointless argument ever made for the existence of God. I’m sure I’m not the only the one to notice this, but in it’s most basic form I don’t even see how it qualifies as philosophy; it seems more like a word game. It doesn’t inform or illuminate anything.
        As to the authors you mention, apart from Dawkins (whom I’ve mainly absorbed for his work on evolution), I’ve read some of Plantinga (not much) and some of David Bentley Hart (not much). Plantinga I found verbose and repetitive, and apparently confused about aspects of basic biology, let alone evolution. David Bentley Hart merely disguises his arguments from incredulity behind an over-exercised vocabulary and hubris. Reading the little bits of these authors that I have done so far has been edifying, in terms of understanding what seem to be some of the strongest arguments of theism. However, none of their material (so far) has been compelling. All I’ve encountered is variations on old arguments that don’t successfully address any of the pre-existing objections.
        “My conclusion in all of this is that genuine, fruitful, thick discussion between our groups is possible. But it requires careful listening and is best built on a foundation of friendship.”
        Well, we can agree on that point at least. It’s part of the reason I’m here…

  3. Ann permalink

    I think you would have to classify me as a “hostile” doubter. To me it comes down to – am I supposed to believe this is allegory or the literal word of god or at at least a historical account of what happened to some actual person called Abraham. It seems to me that author is remaining non-committal on this point? Either way, I completely agree with the previous points and I can’t get past the idea that if there was a god why would he single out a small group of people in this way, and why would all of his demands and instructions for humanity be so complex- favour, grace, sacrifice – why not just – live a good life, love each other, do your best and it will all be OK? The contradictions, the cruelty, the “testing”, the very fact that all of this interpretation of the bible is required. I find it amazing that theology has to exist – surely anyone should easily be able to interpret gods’ message without needing years of study and most people are not that clever, let’s face it! God created them and should have known to make the message much simpler. The amount of contradiction in the bible is staggering, for example.

    Grace, favour, promises and salvation – all of these are just a nonsense. You would hardly look at the Middle East and say that the promises were fulfilled! As for individual promises of grace and favour – I listen to preachers (which I do for amusement) and hear what they tell their constituents about what god will do for them and then I look around in real life and see no evidence of rewards for the good and punishment for the bad – in fact often the opposite. Believe me if there was any promise of ultimate justice, it would be the best argument ever for believing in a god – the prospect of last minute repentance and salvation for the worst offenders is in fact what I find most offensive!

    My atheism cannot be explained by negative experiences in my youth – I was brought up in a non-religious family, although attended Catholic school. I did top Biblical studies in my final year when we studied world religions and read the Quran – I think that may have been the final straw for me. Religion to me persists mainly as a result of people’s fear of death, and your particular brand of religion is an accident of geography.

    • James Garth permalink

      Ann, thanks for those comments.

      I too find the idea of ‘live a good life, love each other, do your best’ to be an elegant and noble mantra. The problem is, if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that we don’t live up to our own standards. We can’t attain perfection and we often spoil even the finest of ideals.
      Francis Spufford calls this tendency the HPTFTU (google it 😉 and I think there’s as much evidence for this as anything in our world.

      And this is the whole backdrop against which serious discussion about grace and forgiveness must be had. CS Lewis proposed that two principles were necessary for clear, moral thinking: first, that there really are objective standards, rights and wrongs, and second, that we violate them all the time. What makes the biblical metanarrative so interesting is this realism, these deep insights into the human condition which go way beyond simply “just be nice & it’ll all be ok’

      Why wasn’t God clearer in the past in the Old Testament, I hear you ask? That’s a complex question, but it seems to me that when he gives his creatures the chance to help write the grand story, that implies that their culture will be imparted on it. It can’t help but be that way. There’ll be detours and rough edges aplenty. That’s what keeps it real. I’m not persuaded that if a cultivated copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had plonked from the sky into a nomadic late Bronze Age people that it’d be any better received than how cultures today receive liberal democracy when it’s exported and offered to them on a platter. Often they reject what seems to us to be a lifeline and unquestionable good. It’s the HPTFTU at work.

      At any rate, the bible is what it is. I see it as an invitation to a discussion, a provocation, a stimulus. Sometimes it’s beautiful. Sometimes it’s profound. Sometimes it’s outrageous. But I rather relish the warts and all of it. We just need to take the time to get our literary genres right, to understand the context, and so on. Too often very valuable material is jettisoned by the modern skeptic because this hermeneutical homework isn’t done.


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  1. A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible Review: Is the Old Testament Law really good? | Atheist Forum

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