I’ve had a few conversations recently about epistemology (how we know what we know), especially when it comes to knowing what we know about God. People are becoming suspicious of talking about the Bible being ‘clear’ on any particular issue – Rachel Held Evans’ blog post The Bible was ‘clear’… demonstrates pretty well this kind of attitude. Similarly, 5 churchy phrases that are scaring off millenials:
Saying, “This is where study and prayer have led me, but I could be wrong,” does infinitely more to secure our trust than The Bible clearly says…
I can understand this attitude: I think there has been harm done in the past (as Rachel points out) by saying that the Bible is ‘clear’ on a particular topic. But, the suggestion to hold our interpretations with an ‘open hand’… you know, I’m not sure about that either. Let’s be honest here, I think the real elephant in the room – the topic which we’re not allowed to hold a certain opinion on – is sexuality: it is the issue of our day – does the Bible condemn or affirm gay relationships?
Unfortunately, what I think it means to hold on to an interpretation ‘with an open hand’ is to ultimately diminish its importance so that you’re not really holding to that particular interpretation. If I, for example, believe that the Bible’s teaching on sexuality is authoritative, and that teaching describes a lifelong exclusive relationship between a man and a woman, and that that teaching is fundamental to the Biblical ethic on sexuality, to hold that interpretation with an open hand is meaningless. I think holding it with an open hand means that I might teach what I thought was the Bible’s clear instruction, but in practice be open and perfectly accepting of others who believe differently. In other words, however clear I believe the Bible is on that particular issue, that belief cannot be put into practice fully because other people believe differently. I can’t hold someone else to account for it.
It all seems to be very post-modern to me. The fact that people have got interpretations wrong in the past simply means that people are capable of getting things wrong and claiming the Bible’s authority. It doesn’t make them right. In particular, if someone is claiming an interpretation of a Biblical passage which is out of step with much of the rest of the church – and I include the church throughout history in this – then you need to have some pretty compelling argument to back it up. I do wonder, for example, what the church throughout history would have made about the Bible’s ‘clarity’ on interracial marriage.
Anyway, the reason I mention all this is because we have been reading some of De Trinitate by Hilary of Poitiers for one of our college classes. In Book I, chapter 15, Hilary starts talking about Heretics. He starts out talking about their use of Scripture:
While I was thus engaged there came to light certain fallacies of rash and wicked men, hopeless for themselves and merciless towards others, who made their own feeble nature the measure of the might of God’s nature. They claimed, not that they had ascended to an infinite knowledge of infinite things, but that they had reduced all knowledge, undefined before, within the scope of ordinary reason, and fixed the limits of the faith. Whereas the true work of religion is a service of obedience; and these were men heedless of their own weakness, reckless of Divine realities, who undertook to improve upon the teaching of God. De Trinitate I.xv [My emphases]
Do you see what he’s saying? These heretics had actually brought understanding of God down to their own level. They claimed that God could not be as he revealed himself to be; that he must conform to their own ideas of logic and reason. Hilary’s claim is that ‘true religion’ – true understanding of God – is a work of obedience: we can only know about God through what he has chosen to reveal to us (i.e. Scripture). But the heretics (in this case he goes on to talk about the Modalists and Arians) effectively denied that – although Jesus is revealed as a ‘Son’ in Scripture, they effectively denied that Jesus was actually a Son. They thought they knew what God could and couldn’t do, and what was revealed in Scripture wasn’t it.
How does this play out in the debates around sexuality? I read a comment the other day from a Christian LGBT supporter. He was talking about “the transformation which infinite, unconditional love brings”. Now, I have to wonder – where does this idea of infinite, unconditional love come from? Is it a Biblical idea? Or, has this person (or this group of people) simply decided that they know exactly what love is, and whatever it is the love revealed in Scripture cannot be it?
I believe Hilary would say, defining love as these people do (seemingly without reference to the fact that we are fallen creatures in need of redemption) is actually a Biblically deficient understanding of love and seeking to ‘improve upon the teaching of God’.
All this is a roundabout way of saying, if God is perfect and infinite, and if he has revealed himself to us in his word (his Son and the Scriptures which testify to him) – our posture to it must be one of obedience. We must come to it humbly, to give room for the fact that (gasp!) God might disagree with us. We sit under and are judged by Scripture. Our motives are important.
All this talk of holding onto interpretations of Scripture lightly make me uncomfortable because, although there are many issues on which I think the Bible is not ‘clear’ (e.g. specifics on how to do social action, organise a church, lead a service and – perhaps controversially – baptism!) I think there are nonetheless issues on which the Bible is clear, there are some things which are worth standing up for.