Friday, June 1, 2012

Humility, Conviction, Faith, and the Landmines of Scripture

Not all passages in the Bible are as easy to understand as others. Though there is general agreement across most Christian traditions about the overall themes and messages of scripture, there are some hairy places where disagreements or confusion occur. Some parts of the Bible are largely ignored, or only come up as a curiosity, such as the unusual story of the Nephilim in Genesis chapter 6:1-4 (click here to see my notes on this weird passage). Other portions are hotly contested, and form the foundation upon which denominational lines are drawn, such as Romans chapter 9 and the question of the will of humanity and the ultimate sovereignty of God.

There are also, of course, details in story accounts that seem to contradict one another in curious ways as well. Most easy to point out are the genealogies, which hardly ever agree. One could not make a single, unified family tree using the genealogies in scripture without defying biology, physics, and the space-time continuum. One could also trip over silly questions when comparing conflicting accounts of how exactly Judas came to die, the day of the week of the crucifixion, the ethnicity of the slave traders that bought Joseph, or how many times the rooster crowed before Peter denied Jesus. These, however, are actually all trivialities in the grand scheme of the overall story.
The unity of scripture vastly outweighs these questionable portions. The Bible is a very old book. It is, in fact, a collection of books, written in multiple languages from the perspective of multiple times and cultures. It is written in many different genres. Different portions of the Bible are separated by thousands of years, hundreds of kilometres. It is written by authors as vastly different as the oral tradition of a nomadic tribe is to an educated Greek doctor at the height of the Roman empire. The fact that there is such incredible agreement about the nature of God and the story of Grace and Justice through a Messiah-King is far more astounding than the portions we perceive as contradictory.

The truth is that we may believe the Bible was written for us, but in the most literal and practical sense it wasn't written to us. This is not a scientific or even historical document in the sense that we use either term in the developed world of the 21st century.

This is why we must approach scripture with humility. We must be prepared to wrestle with what it contains, willing to admit when we simply don't understand. On curious passages like the Nephilim
The oldest known fragment of the New Testament
story in Genesis 6 (Seriously,read my notes. They're fun.) I suggest we hold our interpretations loosely. On silly apparent contradictions like differing genealogies or the verbosity of a farm animal, I suggest we take a deep breath and let it go. An ancient near eastern family may have had different intentions in recording their family tree than you do. Relax.

On the questions that divide us, like our choices and God's, I think we should continue to challenge and question ourselves and each other. Many of these questions affect our understanding of the very nature of God. We shouldn't ignore them. However, I firmly believe that such challenges can be approached in an attitude of respect, humility, love, and freedom. We are talking about matters that are probably far beyond the ability of the human mind to fully comprehend. I hope they are. If we believe we worship and serve a transcendent Creator, I hope we don't arrogantly assume we can completely nail that being down and understand it completely with our created minds. In the light of eternity, in the light of the cross and resurrection and  salvation, I believe that even these questions will appear trivial by comparison. I don't believe we'll be spending our time in the throne room of heaven arguing about what Paul *really* meant about old things passing away in 1 Corinthians 13.

This isn't to say that I believe that answers to our deepest questions can't be found. I am not a universalist or a relativist. I do believe that there is Truth. I believe we find that Truth in the Bible. I believe it is best discerned when we put away our microscopic examination of every word, take one step back from the book, and ask ourselves what the whole thing says. What is the unity of the message?
Here is where we see Jesus most clearly. In fact, this is what he asked the Pharisees to do throughout the gospels. He told them they were missing the point in their minute and specific interpretations of the old Law. They'd strained out a gnat, and swallowed a camel. He called them blind guides. Though they knew every detail of the scripture, they didn't see the fulfillment of it when he stood right in front of them. We must be cautious not to do the same.

Such a perspective inspires me. I do not abandon scripture for fear that it cannot be known. I embrace it and relish the challenge. In it I find more to discover than I could ever even try to understand in one lifetime. This makes me want to get to it!

This year of writing on every chapter through the New Testament is neither the beginning nor the end of my journey. I'm doing my best to understand and write what I believe. But it is daily humbling to realize that my words are only one part of a tapestry of honest and faithful interpreters and theologians that have spanned hundreds of years. Most of them have far more experience and understanding than I. I'm jumping in the deep end with the big swimmers.

Here's to sinking deep into grace, justice, love, and peace.

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