According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

Monday, April 16, 2012

Accepting the Complexity and Ambiguity Inherent in Scripture, Part 1


Taking the Bible seriously means
embracing its tension and complexity
March 5, 2012
*R.E. Slater:

[I have included my comments within the body of the text this time, rather than before the article itself, as I normally do. I did this to be helpful and to further illustrate Smith's propositions and ideas that we've been discussing these many months. If you do not wish to read these comments then please skip ahead. Thank you.]

 
Rachel:

This week, we’re wrapping up our discussion of Christian Smith’s excellent book, The Bible Made Impossible.

As expected, this book has been a fantastic conversation-starter and a great launching point for our yearlong series on learning to love the Bible for what it is, not what we want it to be. Next we’ll be discussing N.T. Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God. So if you want to read along, consider ordering the book this week.

In The Bible Made Impossible, Smith tackles the problem of “biblicism,” which he defines as “a theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability.”

Biblicism falls apart, Smith says, because of the “the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism,” for “even among presumably well-intentioned readers—including many evangelical biblicists—the Bible, after their very best efforts to understand it, says and teaches very different things about most significant topics.... It becomes beside the point to assert a text to be solely authoritative or inerrant, for instance, when, lo and behold, it gives rise to a host of many divergent teachings on important matters.” (p. viii)

While Smith does not question the inspiration and authority of Scripture, he questions attempts to reduce the Bible to a “blueprint for living” with a simplistic attitude that begins with, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”

First, we looked at some of the problems of Biblicism. (See The Problem with Biblicism, God Hates Cretans?, and A Very Biblical Blog Post.)

Then we discussed Smith’s case for a Christocentric hermeneutic as an alternative to Biblicism. (See Is there a difference between a Christian worldview and a biblical worldview? and "You think that by Scripture you possess eternal life...”)

Today we look at Smith’s admonition to move beyond Biblicism by accepting the complexity and ambiguity inherent in Scripture.

Writes Smith:

“[We ought to humbly] accept the real scriptures that God has provided us as they are, rather than ungratefully and stubbornly force Scripture to be something that they are not because of a theory we hold about what it must and should be. One of the strangest things about the Biblicist mentality is its evident refusal to take the Bible at face value. Ironically, while Biblicists claim to take the Bible with utmost seriousness for what it obviously teaches, their theory about the Bible drives them to try to make it something it evidently is not... Regardless of the actual Bible that God has given his church, biblicists want a Bible that is different. They want a Bible that answers all their questions, that tells them how to have marital intimacy, that gives them principles for economics and medicine and science and cooking—and does so inerrantly” (p. 127).

I certainly relate to that! I don’t know about you, but sometimes I really miss the security of thinking I had an infallible, comprehensive road map for life sitting on my nightstand, that there was no question the Bible couldn’t answer, no decision it wouldn’t help me make, no argument it couldn’t help me win. I still struggle sometimes to accept the fact that faith isn’t about having everything figured out ahead of time, that it’s about trusting God daily—with or without a road map.

Here Smith quotes our friend Pete Enns:

“I have found again and again that listening to how the Bible itself behaves and suspending preconceived notions (as much as that is possible) about how we think the Bible ought to behave is refreshing, creative, exciting, and spiritually rewarding... One must observe how scripture does behave and draw conclusions from that... We are to place our trust in God who gave us Scripture, not in our own conceptions of how Scripture ought to be.” (p. 128-129)

And Gordon Fee:

“God did not choose to give us a series of timeless, non-culturally-bound theological propositions to be believed and imperatives to be obeyed. Rather, he chose to speak his eternal word this way, in historically particular circumstances in every kind of literary genre. By the very way God gave us this Word, he locked in the ambiguity [...more to the point, the human language carries in it's very structure linguistic ambiguity; which also comes from how God created us as His-image bearers in our symbolic linguistic makeup. - RE Slater].

One should not fight God and insist that he give us his Word in another way, or, as we are more apt to do, rework his Word along theological or cultural prejudices that turn into a minefield of principles, propositions, or imperatives but denude it of its ad hoc character as truly human. The ambiguity is part of what God did in giving us the Word in this way.” (p. 129)

Smith reminds readers of the idea of divine accommodation, which suggests that “in the process of divine inspiration, God did not correct every incomplete or mistaken viewpoint of the biblical authors in order to communicate through them with their readers... The point of the inspired scripture was to communicate its central point, not to straighten out every kink and dent in the view of all the people involved in biblical inscripturation and reception along the way." (p. 129)

*R.E. Slater:

[In response, Evangelics have forced this point in the 1980s by bringing into Christianity the additional unnecessary burden of "inerrancy" by which Evangelics now speak of the bible as being inerrant, or "without error." However, it would be better to dismiss this concept altogether than to force this post-interpretive, theological concept of inerrancy upon the natural linguistic ambiguities of the human language. In the process it also has skewed the theological understanding of the process of divine inspiration through the Holy Spirit by flatly expecting that Scripture be error free since its written by God through human automatons. Rather than positing that God allowed (sic, free will) the New Testament disciples/apostles to write (sic, free will again!) their burden and vision of the gospel through their own words, experiences, knowledge, cultural context, and personal idiosyncrasies. This would then account for the wide breadth of interpretation over the entirety of the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation.

But by creating a context of inerrancy Evangelicalism has unfortunately created a theological concept that allows no exceptions in its black-and-white dualistic mindset. Consequently, Evangelic theologians are discovering that if they wish to modify this concept they must do so moving from an inerrant basis rather from a non-inerrant basis as many non-inerrant theologians are now doing. Thus, it has become an uninspired theological theologumena that is neither necessary nor helpful.]

Rachel:

Smith therefore concludes that “there is no reason whatsoever not to openly acknowledge the sometimes confusing, ambiguous, and seemingly incomplete nature of scripture... All of scripture is not clear, nor does it need to be. But the real matter of Scripture is clear, ‘the deepest secret of all,’ that God in Christ has come to earth, lived, taught, healed, died, and risen to new life, so that we too can rise to life in him.” (p. 132)

*R.E. Slater:

[I would propose that Christian Smith's assertion be the lowest, minimum attitude of biblical authority.... NT Wright had also mentioned this and it certainly has helped to place many of the dogmatic questions on inerrancy into their rightful place. However, this assertion can also be unduly limiting by saying that the Bible is simply a book about salvation. Assuredly it is, but it can be much more than this too without necessarily becoming dogmatically restrictive. Which is why Smith and Wright have written about God's communication with man in the way that they do, by saying that God has clearly told us about His evolving plan of salvation. And ultimately this plan came through, and is centered in, Jesus Christ as man's Redeemer. They say this to help avoid the unnecessary dogmatic restrictions that have occurred by not saying this.

Nor do they wish to make the argument that everything the Bible teaches is true. This would be to show gross naivety on the part of the reader and would-be teacher/preacher. Which is why it is important to understand the cultural context of Scripture; the purpose of a passage; the inherent spiritual concepts that are relevant; as well as the physical concepts that are not relevant; various themes and concepts that have either continued or been discontinued within their cultural/societal context; that bear either Christological import, or anthropologic/social import; along with a wide variety of other themes pertaining to worship, life, being, love, hate, maturity, witness, etc. and etc. Interpreting Scripture bears with it the heavy duty to interpret it in a way that is authenticating. And when authenticism is discovered than will come spiritual authority. Not a dogmatic authority, but a Spirit-driven authority. Not a human authority, but a godly authority as if by the hand of God.

Thus, to say that the theme of redemption is God's primary communication to us vis-a-vis biblical inspiration, should be the lowest, minimal denominator because there are many non-redemptive subject themes in the bible that can be beneficial as well. But by saying this we are trying to allow for the "pervasive interpretive pluralism" (aka, Christian Smith) found within Scripture. We are not trying to reduce the Bible to simplistic, daily living beliefs and attitudes. No, on the contrary, we are recognising the infinite number of possibilities that God has given to us about Himself who is an infinite God, eternal in wisdom, pervasive in His cosmos, and infinitely committed to revealing Himself to us in as many ways as we can behold Him through our limited, self-centered, prideful, sinful hearts. We dare not reduce God's Word to mere religious statements, formulas and platitudes. But must hold up God's Word to be wiser than ourselves. Wiser than our thoughts. Wiser than our very concepts of who we think God is, is doing, has done, and will do.

So then, biblical inspiration should spur us on towards allowing Scriptural authority and authenticity to work its way through to us on as many themes and subjects as possible. It's what drives this web blog towards examining the Scriptures on as many contemporary matters as can be possible since start up in the spring of 2011. Themes of situational ethics; human standards of morality; the meaning of our meta-narratives for us, for others, for the church, Israel, and God; creation stories; the role of science and philosophy in the bible; the role of theology in the bible; the church's place of being; understanding what ministry is and isn't; not to mention the many other thematic areas about God, the world, and ourselves. The statement that God primarily wishes to teach us about Jesus is certainly true, but it is too simple an explanation to fall back on when trying to explain the purpose of God's revelation to man. God has communicated many things to us, including the reason and meaning for His Son Jesus. But we also will find communication speaking to the area of hermeneutics, relational theism, scientific discoveries, postmodernism, the interrelationships between the Gospels and Paul (and vice versa), besides Christological themes, to mention a few.]

Rachel:

And I love this:

“Where scripture is sometimes internally at odds with itself, even apparently self-contradictory, we would do better to let stand the tensions and inconsistencies than force them into an artificial harmony” (p. 133).'

*R.E. Slater:

[Amen! A postmodernist does not mind ambiguity and dangling questions like "Is God in control? Why is sin so uncontrollable? Why does evil seem to win? (if you prefer dualisms; myself, dualism seems to force unnecessary qualifications leading to unnecessary dogmatic statements and assertions claiming God is this or that; and that Christians who are truly Christians must believe this or that!). However, that does not mean that we cannot work through those tensions towards providing a temporal, cultural interpretation that might be helpful towards our understanding of God and ourselves."]

Rachel:

I’ll never forget how, when I was struggling with doubts about my faith and questions about the Bible, someone recommended I check out Gleason Archer’s massive Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, a book which promised to resolve every possible conflict or tension within Scripture. The book only made things worse, of course, because I didn’t even realize half of those conflicts existed!

While there was a certain security to having this infallible road map on my nightstand, there was also a deep fear that came along with my belief that if just one thing was out of place in Scripture, if just one thing didn’t resolve, the whole thing would fall apart.

And so, for me, leaving behind biblicism and embracing the ambiguity, tension, and nuance of Scripture has been both frightening and liberating. I no longer live with the security of having a simple, infallible blueprint for living...but I no longer live in fear and denial when the Bible turns out to be difficult to understand and apply.

As I tell students when I speak in chapel: If the Bible were a blueprint, if it were a clear-cut list of do’s and don’ts and bullet points for living, we would have nothing to talk about—with God or with one another! There would be no theology classes or midrash or Bible studies or 2:30 a.m. dorm room debates about predestination and free will...because there would be nothing for us to talk about.

We’re part of this dynamic, centuries-old, ongoing conversation with God and with one another precisely because the Bible is difficult to understand. I believe that God wants us to wrestle with Scripture like this because being a person of faith isn’t about being right; it’s about being in relationship with God and a community.

A blueprint would do nothing to draw us into communion with God and with one another. But this beautiful and frustrating collection of stories, letters, laws, poetry, and prophecies certainly does. The Bible is meant to be a conversation-starter, not a conversation-ender.


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Continue to Part 2 -

Accepting the Complexity and Ambiguity