Thursday, October 21, 2004

Inspired Ambiguity

Thinking Hard About Why the Bible Requires Hard Thinking

I was chatting on the phone today with a college student who was deeply engaged in a confusing Bible study project when the question came up: “Why didn’t God write what He meant more clearly?”

At first I thought we were bordering on indicting God with a poor performance, but then I remembered the Apostle Peter expressing some of the same consternation: “There are some things in [Paul’s letters] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Pt 3:16). If Peter talks that way, maybe we’re correct… Some of the Bible is tough to understand! But why?

It’s a good question, because surely God has the ability to be clear when He wants to be. If deficiency is ever the problem, it’s in us, not in God! Plus, God’s entire self-revelation, His expectations for people, His plan for redemption are all revealed in a book—a book we must understand in order to obey. So you’d think He’d always speak with absolute clarity, right? Well then, why doesn’t He? (If at this point you’re not tracking with me because you think the whole Bible is perfectly clear, go read Galatians 2:15-21. Now explain it. All of it. Are we together again? Good…) So here are some reasons I think God wrote some relatively unclear stuff in His word...

First, it highlights His wisdom and our dependence when we are forced to pause, ponder, and pray. “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings” (Pro 25:2). Hard parts in the Bible are a constant reminder that we don’t know it all, but He does.

Second, it helps us identify the truths we should feel the most strongly about, since we can reasonably assume that what God made most clear is of greatest importance. Is Jesus really God? No doubt. Bank your life (and death) on it. What music style does God prefer? Umm… well, I doubt it’s Country, but let’s not fight about it, OK?

Third, it’s a built-in reminder, even while studying the truth, of the importance of love for other Christians. If all Scripture were equally clear, all Christians would presumably believe the same things. But then who would notice our love for each other? After all, no one watches the Republican National Convention and comments: “Wow. Those people sure get along well… I wonder why?” But when Christians really love each other even in the midst of disagreement, outside observers are left wondering, “Hmmm… These people really seem to enjoy each other in spite of their disagreements. They must have a really cool God…” (cf. Jn 13:35).

The moral? Pray for God's help to know the truth. Stand up for what matters most; be gentle about the rest. And love, love, love. These are the lessons God has for us, woven right into the fabric of His sometimes hard-to-understand word. Happy hard thinking!


Anonymous said...

Hey, I am so glad you wrote a blog on this conversation! I was able to understand it the
second time around even better. Not that you don't
articulate yourself well, i can just digest it
more fully. So thank you for that encouragement.

Anonymous said...

BOC reporting, sir.

Enjoyed your points & explanations. LOVED your ending/moral. Thanks, Josh.

Anonymous said...

Hi PJ~
Thanks 4 the web-log! This one really helped me think harder about what I read in God's word and the questions I ask...The moral/lessons were also a huge help of encouragement! Thanks again!
~the anonymous duck

BNick said...

Great thoughts, Josh. It encouraged me to be reminded that even Peter found the Scriptures challenging to understand at times.

Although I concur with your conclusions, your second point doesn't seem parallel with the other two. You seem to assert that in the Bible, there is a correlation between how easy something is to understand, and how important it is. John Piper skillfully reveals how important the doctrine of election is to understanding grace and the nature of man, but few would be willing to argue that the doctrine of election is an easy topic to understand. That's only one example, but I presume one could find many more examples of important issues in the Bible that require intense study to fully comprehend.

I suppose you could argue that the doctrine of election is quite clear in the Bible, but that leads to another problem with the second point: there's too much subjectivity in it. What we find easy or difficult to understand has little relavance to the importance of any truth--a point you make when you say that we have deficiencies.

Don't get me wrong; I don't intend to detract from your very good lessons. I share the gratitude of the other commenters here; I needed to be reminded of these lessons. And even if you disagree with my comments, that only gives us an opportunity to display Christian love for each other, right? :-)

Josh said...

Hmmm... very good (hard) question. I wholeheartedly agree with you (and Piper) about the tremendous importance of election as well as its complexity. I’m tempted to argue, however, that election, like the incarnation, is less difficult to understand than it is to accept. The component of our person that struggles the most with these doctrines is usually our will and not our understanding. Nevertheless, your point still stands: election is both important and hard to understand.

Sooo... In the second point I should have laid heavier emphasis on the “ambiguity factor.” I was writing with regard to texts that are unclear or at apparent odds with other texts rather than ones which seem to contradict our reason or expectations. For example, the doctrine of the incarnation seems contrary to reason, but it is quite clearly stated in Scripture. On the other hand, the biblical data on divorce seems mixed, with some passages prohibiting it altogether and others allowing it for certain offenses. It is in areas like this that I meant for us to apply point two—places where both we and our opponent can argue from the Scriptures, with fairly limited data on both sides.

As far as the subjectivity of determining which doctrines are clear and which aren’t, I fully concede that point. That is where the role of Christian community is so important. We should formulate our understanding of the Scriptures in community, not in isolation. The Christian community extends back nearly 2000 years to the earliest Christian pastors and theologians as well as out to all believers of all traditions in today’s world. The historic confessions are helpful, as is a tender sense of deference to believers of other traditions today. Argue forcefully and passionately for the incarnation, for all of Christianity speaks in unison on that point. Be slightly less forceful when arguing for election, and far less when discussing divorce.

One more thing... I feel loved; do you? :-)

BNick said...

Most certainly.

Excellent clarification on the ambiguity factor.