It’s Sunday. We’re with family and friends, enjoying our Sunday dinner. And what’s on the menu? Roast preacher! We’re talking about what the preacher said, and how she got it wrong, or right, and how “some people” need to hear this sermon because they’re so wrong…
Someone will take issue with what was said, and assert that, “Well, the Bible clearly says…” Then when you try to explain that perhaps other interpretations do a better job of opening up the text, but maybe it requires comparing translations, a little Hebrew, a little history, maybe a certain sensitivity to literary form… they say, “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it!” Often this is followed up with, “I can see you don’t really take the Bible literally! But I have a high view of scripture!”
These comments, like most clichés, work because the arise from something that’s really true. The church has always confessed that the Bible’s essential message is readily evident to any competent reader coming to the text with a good will and open mind. Some theologians use the word “perspicuous” to name this quality, while others find the word misleading. Still, in every age, despite heresies, controversies, schism, and corruption, the Church has been able to find the gospel and the path to godliness in scripture.
And of course, that’s true. The Bible wouldn’t be much of a criterion for faith if it was so loaded with ambiguity and obscurity that we couldn’t even figure out what it was talking about. If it required one already to be a believer to understand it, then John’s purpose, writing “that you might believe” makes no sense. This plain sense of the Bible is God’s overture to the world, his public attestation of his message and call.
… this notion is about the main points of the faith, the sorts of things stressed in the great creeds of the church, the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed. It’s about the great themes that animate the entirety of scripture, what Irenaeus in the late 2nd century called the “scope” or intention of scripture. It is not necessarily about the details, the nuts-and-bolts. It was never about what’s going on under the hood of the faith.
Some might say “that’s all we need anyhow! We don’t need all this intricate theology!” Of coure, that’s what we say when we don’t care about a particular issue. But when it comes to something we’re invested in, whether it be the Second Coming, evolution or creation, predestination, illegal immigration, the legitimacy of war, the Israel-Palestine problem, the economics of poverty and race … suddenly we’re all about nuance, nuts and bolts. We’re under the hood. And we’ll always declare that there is a “biblical view” on the topic, chastising others for not conforming to it.
But like anyone who has tried to work on their own automobile for the first time, under the hood, things are not always perfectly obvious.
Which is the problem with “God said it…” Of course, orthodox Christian doctrine affirms the Bible is God’s word, and that “When the Bible speaks, God speaks.” This affirmation, however, was never intended justify flinging snatches of texts taken out of context, from translations that “say it the way we like it,” without any thought of the whole setting in which God conveyed his word through the inspired authors. Also, the authority of Scripture has always placed a priority on the whole of scripture as the framework for the parts, and on the end of scripture’s vision of redemption as shaping how we view the process.
It certainly is the case that even where the task of interpretation is involved and technical, and even where alternatives exist and must be assessed, still on many topics there is indeed a consensus biblical view, a position that is the clear thrust and witness of scripture seen as a whole and in context. The reader might decide that consensus of scriptural witness is simply wrong, or might decide that it fails to address the issue adequately for today, but they nevertheless cannot claim the Bible, despite its formidable challenges to interpretation, is ambiguous. That’s another matter and not about whether the Bible has a consistent teaching on a topic. But this clarity is not gained by snatching half-verses from all over the Bible and hooking them together into a questionable quilt of quotations and cross-reference. This is a clarity, I daresay even a simplicity, that comes at the end of a long road of study, thinking, struggle and grace.
Sometimes the consensus of the best biblical exegesis on a subject defines a clear position. Other times, it establishes a set of boundaries, within which a number of equally legitimate possibilities exist. Still other times, what we get are statements that provoke us to think and act in one direction, along with other statements that criticize those very ideas and actions, demanding that we struggle toward a deeper integrity and purity. In such cases, to say “The Bible does not give a definitive statement” is not to throw our hands down and fall into relativism. It’s simply to realize that scripture is not primarily about establishing positions on subjects, so that we can boss other people around. It’s about God’s redemption and renewal of a lost, corrupt world through the process of redeeming and entirely transforming the human occupants of that world.
Two examples always come to mind. One is the creation-evolution debate. So often, we hear reminders that “The Bible is not a science textbook!” Which is true enough. But then, often the same people, will try to tell us the Bible is a textbook in economics, calling us to incorporate its “teaching” or “principles” on economics into modern life. So how can the Bible simultaneously not be a science textbook but can be an economics textbook? Likely, there is an answer, but it’s not obvious, and almost nobody seems to give it a second thought. We spurn the “fundamentalism” of so-called creationists, but then lecture on about “biblical economics”as speaking directly to modern issues of wealth and poverty, or treat “the biblical view of the stranger” as if it spoke directly to the problems of illegal immigration in modern national states.
So the clichés about “the biblical view” on various topics seem to cut across left and right. All of us are guilty, and all of us need to ponder carefully how we discern what topics scripture speaks to, and how we make the connections to contemporary life and, most importantly, why?
And, there will always remain questions in which we must take John Wesley’s famous advice: “We think, and let think.”
I guess… the operative word here is… THINK.