A Third Path for the Theology of Scripture
A Feature Review of
The Word of a Humble God: The Origins, Inspiration, and Interpretation of Scripture
Karen R. Keen
Reviewed by Andy Stanton-Henry
Growing up in an evangelical church, I heard many passionate discussions about the authority of the Bible, but one stands out from the rest. It took place in my young adult group. After the service one evening, a group of us were having an informal discussion about theology. That particular night, the son of a prominent church member was visiting. He was home for the summer after his first year at a fancy seminary in New England and was sharing his views on a hot-button social issue. Another young adult in the group grew increasingly upset at what the seminarian was saying and his “righteous indignation” boiled over. He stood up from his chair, grabbed his Bible, and proceeded to rip out pages from the holy book while he declared: “It’s either all true or none of it is true!”
While most discussions about Scripture’s authority don’t escalate to the level of Bible-ripping, this story from my young adult group highlights how heated they can become. I have heard the line about the Bible being all true or not true at all many times. One word that is rarely used about these discussions is “humble.” Neither the people debating nor the God they portray come across as particularly humble. So, when biblical scholar, author, and spiritual care provider Karen Keen identifies scripture as “the word of a humble God,” I’m intrigued.
In her book The Word of a Humble God: The Origins, Inspiration, and Interpretation of Scripture, Keen offers a surprising proposition: “the origins of the Bible reveal a humble God who teaches us humility” (6). This thesis about the humility of God and God’s word is, ironically, bold. It is bold because it provides an alternative to two common extremes in discussions about biblical inspiration and authority.
One is the conservative extreme that turns scripture into a kind of “divinized” document that resulted from God overriding human agency and perfectly presiding over the process of writing, preserving, and collecting the text. This simply doesn’t match the textual evidence and misunderstands the purpose of scripture. The other, more liberal, extreme is to view the Bible as a purely human document with little to no divine agency. It was inspired, written, and revised by the powers of human imagination and the forces of historical events. Scripture then becomes, at best, a lovely collection of human wisdom or, at worst, a dangerous document full of patriarchy, homophobia, and violence. This takes a low view of God and a not-so-humble view of our human capacities to make moral judgments on historical communities and discern the historical veracity of their stories. Something more complex, interesting, and spiritually grounded is needed.
Thankfully, Karen Keen forges a kind of third way alternative to the common extremes. She recognizes the “creaturely” nature of the text; it is a human document. She also recognizes God’s presence and activity across the whole process of biblical origins, inspiration, and interpretation. It is also a divine creation. She puts it this way,
“The collaborative nature of Scripture’s formation reminds us not to equate God’s involvement with God dropping the Bible from heaven. We cannot ignore the creaturely realties of the Bible’s production. Some consider the human elements of Scripture an embarrassment, believing such traits require dismissing the Bible as no different than any other human writing. Others significantly downplay the human fingerprints as if they don’t exist, essentially “divinizing” the text. But human agency in Scripture’s formation is not the liability that some think it is…Creatureliness is not mutually exclusive with the Spirit’s activity” (6).
Many scholars have wrestled with the human and divine dynamics of Scripture. But Keen’s contribution is unique because she steps away from the human/divine dichotomy common in these discussions and suggests we see these dynamics not as an embattled tension but as a deliberate divine design. In her thesis, God intentionally co-created the Bible in a way that both displays and inspires humility. How so? Keen sees humility in four characteristics that show up across the processes of biblical origins, inspiration, and interpretation: variety, dynamism, context, and community. God did not create the Bible through an exercise of dominating power but co-created it as a communal project in various contexts through a dynamic process across time.
Humility, then, becomes the “hermeneutical key” to interpreting scripture (173). We know we are interpreting scripture correctly when we witness divine humility and are inspired to imitate it. As Augustine wrote, if an interpretation does not “build up the twofold love of God and neighbor” then it is not the correct interpretation (173). Keen also reminds us that humility, properly understood, is actually a form of agency. “Humility is when I use my power for self-giving love that elevates your well-being. Humility comes from a place of positive self-esteem” (188). Humility is not about passivity or weakness but about actively creating space for others and using our agency to lift others up.
As an open and relational theologian, I was particularly drawn to the sections that referenced divine power and relationality. Keen portrays a God who is powerful but committed to sharing power with creatures. She writes that “God wants to share a throne with us. But how can we effectively rule without growing into that role? It’s not that God is impotent to act but that God is teaching us to act” (195). In her theology, God could control everything but voluntarily limits God’s power so that we can grow into the fullness of our humanity. She concludes: “Our relationship with God is not so much that of helpless children but as young adults who have been given responsibility” (195). Thus, the divine-human relationship is one of stewardship, responsibility, and growth—whether we are talking about cultivating the Earth, governing communities, or forming a sacred text. It involves sharing power, claiming responsibility, and practicing self-giving love. In other words, it is all an exercise in humility.
Keen is speaking my open and relational language when she argues that God’s sovereignty is not primarily about control and states that “Divine humility is always relational in its self-giving love” (111). But I struggle with her claim that “Human agency is not in conflict with an all-powerful God” (111). I agree with the premise of God being powerful but using that power to empower and make room for others. But when we get into the “all-powerful” language of omnipotence, we move into an idea that creates problems with theodicy and the character of God. I prefer the language of “amipotence,” coined by philosopher and theologian Thomas Jay Oord. Amipotence means that God’s power is shaped by God’s loving nature. It’s not that God could be controlling and violent and chooses not to. It’s that God is, by nature, loving and can only act in ways that are consistent with faithful love. Nevertheless, that distinction is peripheral to the major themes of the book.
The Word of a Humble God is accessible to most readers with a basic biblical knowledge. Though Keen travels into nuanced literary and theological territory, she takes the time to provide examples and explanations. She teaches without coming across as condescending. The book could be an excellent text for a college or seminary course. It could also be useful for someone wrestling with the meaning of biblical inspiration and authority and looking for a thorough but readable resource to explore. Whoever picks up the book will find a genuine contribution to a complex and controversial topic. And ultimately, they will find an invitation to encounter a God of revolutionary humility.
Andy Stanton-Henry is a writer, Quaker minister, chicken-keeper, and distraught Reds fan. He holds degrees from Barclay College and Earlham School of Religion, and is a doctoral student studying Open and Relational Theology. He carries a special concern for rural leaders, leading to his recently published book Recovering Abundance: Twelve Practices for Small-Town Leaders. He currently serves as associate director of the Quaker Leadership Center at Earlham School of Religion. A native Buckeye, Andy now lives in East Tennessee with his spouse, Ashlyn, their blue heeler Cassie, and their laying hens. Find him online at: https://recoveringabundance.com/
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