The Bible and Clarity

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 GodDe 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.

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14 thoughts on “The Bible and Clarity

  1. Great post.

    I agree, that the bible can be interpreted in whatever way we like, ‘the bible was clear’ demonstrates that.

    How can you be judged by scripture when scripture is constantly contradicting itself and can be used to support or chastise what ever cause I want. I can use the bible to shield myself from any argument, or promote any cause. The more knowledgeable you get the easier it is to use for your own purpose. Leviticus is a great example of that.

    Slavery was an accepted practice all those years ago, they were not heretics, just had different morals.

    As an Atheist, I love this kind of stuff, it does nothing but promote the fact that the bible was written by a load of blokes a few years ago, and is not to be taken seriously.

    Stop reading books and go out more. Live life to what you think is personally morally acceptable.

    • “How can you be judged by scripture when scripture is constantly contradicting itself and can be used to support or chastise what ever cause I want. I can use the bible to shield myself from any argument, or promote any cause.”

      Of course people can and have used the Bible to justify many things. That doesn’t automatically legitimate their understanding of the Bible. Here’s a good blog about so-called Hermeneutical ‘Humility’ – i.e. just saying, “oh, there are many Bible interpretations, how can you possibly have the right one?” Claiming that the Bible contradicts itself or supports anything is not the same as demonstrating that to be true.

      “Live life to what you think is personally morally acceptable.”

      Ok, I’m going to take your advice. Personally I think slavery is morally justifiable. Tomorrow I’m going to go and buy a slave. You OK with that?

      I’ve argued here before, and we’ve had this conversation before, that morality cannot be prescribed by atheism. You cannot say what ought or ought not to be moral – what makes your morality better than anyone else’s?

      It’s not a quick read but I’d highly recommend the debate between Christopher Hitchens and Doug Wilson here. I came across this again recently and Wilson says everything I want to but more eloquently.

  2. Hermeneutical ‘Humility’ – erm… really, what a lazy article skimming over the actual facts that are that the bible can be interpreted in many different ways, I can cherry pick text to say that you must not eat fat (for example), or that if you swear at your parents you should be stoned to death. In the end the bible can be interpreted in many different ways and its down to the priest, chaplain, etc as to where they want to take it to suit their message.

    I agree the bible does generally convey the same message… however if I wrote an excellent essay and within that essay I buried a handful of very strong opinionated comments with swearing. Do you then go and ignore those comments? “Oh yea hes a mad racist but that’s ok cos most of the stuff he talks about is okay….”

    ‘Ok, I’m going to take your advice. Personally I think slavery is morally justifiable. Tomorrow I’m going to go and buy a slave. You OK with that?’

    I don’t agree with it – and neither does 99.9% of the population which is one of the reasons (there are others) why we have laws against it. But being equal beings ( I believe but you are free to disagree :)) you are entitled to your view, the law is there to stop you practicing your belief as your belief causes pain and suffering to others. You can try to change belief but it is down to the individual.

    ‘You cannot say what ought or ought not to be moral – what makes your morality better than anyone else’s? ‘

    – Nail on the head yes – Atheism cannot prescribe morality, I agreed with you in a previous post that an ‘atheist’ church was absurd.

    But then what makes your morality better than mine? You would say that its a divine morality learnt by teachings of Jesus and ultimately the bible. – yes?

    Well as I am atheist, I would argue that your morality is based on someones morals from years ago, and on a book that has been manipulated to suit the speakers personal morals. Not from ‘God’.

    I will have a read of Hitchens etc when I get a chance.

    Got my juices flowing this morning. 🙂

    • “the bible can be interpreted in many different ways” vs “I agree the bible does generally convey the same message”

      Don’t those two statements contradict each other? Bit below the belt, maybe 🙂

      No Christian in history has thought you can interpret the Bible any way you like. That’s just not how literature works (unless you’re postmodern, which I don’t think you are). There are some things which are clearer than others, e.g. that there was a man called Jesus, that he died on a cross for our sins, etc. It’s a lot less clear about, for example, how the church should engage the world with social action.

      Anyway, this argument is basically boiling down to you asserting that you can interpret the Bible any way you like, and me saying “no you can’t”. Without looking at a specific example I don’t think we can go further on this.

      “Nail on the head yes – Atheism cannot prescribe morality”

      So, morality is based on… what, exactly?

      Let me give you an example. Imagine for a second that Hitler had won WW2 and brainwashed everyone into believing that his programme of ethnic cleansing was morally right. Does that make it right?

      H.G. Wells, and others even today, believe that eugenics is a moral imperative, from our understanding of evolution. Are they right? Is it right to prevent ‘bad genes’ from reproducing in a human context, however you define bad genes?

      What I’m saying is that I don’t see anyone acting like you claim they do. Behind your argument you seem to be assuming, beyond all of this, there is actually a right and wrong. There is a standard beyond ourselves which we can hold people to, even if they disagree with that standard. Look at any blockbuster Hollywood movie – the battle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ is as clear as day.

      Let me give you another example. I don’t look at the corruption in governments in other countries and think “oh well, that’s just the way they do things there”. I think “No, that is actually wrong“. And I think the only thing that gives me the right to think that is that God created all humanity in his image with a knowledge of right and wrong, that there is an actual standard of good and it is God.

      What makes Christian morality better than yours is that it is a morality which actually exists. As in, God exists, and God is good, God is love, etc. These things are not just abstractions which can be redefined at the whim of a society, they really exist and we don’t get to redefine or ignore them. I think, and I believe the Bible teaches, everyone acts as if this is true whether or not they believe it to be true.

  3. Good try at a reply.

    Now let me tell you why your wrong…. In my opinion. lol. (being purposely cheeky)

    ‘“the bible can be interpreted in many different ways” vs “I agree the bible does generally convey the same message”

    Don’t those two statements contradict each other? Bit below the belt, maybe 🙂 ‘

    Good point let me clear that up – The bible is unclear, so there is the ‘bible’ message that is generally understood and accepted as being roughly the same, (love your neighbor etc) however, you can use it to convey whichever message you choose.

    Specific examples –

    Ok Lets take … yup you guessed it leviticus, just two lighter crazy quotes:

    “For everyone who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death. He has cursed his father or his mother. His blood shall be upon him.” (Leviticus 20:9)

    “Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.” (Leviticus 19:27)

    ….

    Need I say more? (cos I can if you want…:) )

    I understand what you are saying about morality, and this is where our beliefs change our opinions. I don’t believe in god, so I believe that morals are a social construct that ebs and flows with the times. I think engrained in us is a moral sense that is passed on from generation to generation but it changes, I have no doubt that my children will see things differently to how I see them, as will theirs etc. Just look at recent Victorian morals, and what came before then and what we have now. Its all changed/changing.

    You say Christian morals underpin our society’s morals, I would agree, but I would also add that before Christian morals there will have been a different set of morals that underpinned those.

    It seems to me that looking back at history we tend to build on previous morals. People use the bible to create I don’t think god comes into it.

    Wow this is a deep one – and there is so much more I want to say, and loads I haven’t but it would take an age to write it all.

    Thanks for a good blog and making me think, again!

    • Well… I’m flattered that you call my reply a “good try”. Better than nothing I suppose 😉

      First things first: those two quotes cannot mean ‘anything’. Even if you take them as being applicable to Christians today, their meaning is pretty clear, right? So you cannot use the Bible to justify literally ‘anything’.

      Secondly, it’s interesting that you go to Leviticus. That was a specific set of commands given to a specific people at a specific time for a specific purpose. In other words, those commands are not for us today. Although we don’t know exactly why all of the commands are there, we do know some. For example, there’s a command about boiling a young goat in its mothers milk – I’ve heard that may be to prevent Israel from engaging in the pagan practices of other nations who did practice that. We don’t have all the context, from this distance in time we can only guess.

      The key thing is, I don’t think any Christian argues that the whole of the law is binding for us today. The law was part of the so-called ‘covenant’ of the Old Testament, which was made new with Jesus. And that covenant is no longer applicable in the same way today, e.g. Hebrews 8:13 says, “By calling this covenant ‘new’, [God] has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.” Christians do disagree on exactly how to apply the law today, but no-one says it should be taken wholesale.

      And this isn’t some fancy theological argument, this is what happens if you read the New Testament. Which, by the way, I suggest you do. Go on, I dare you. Read through Matthew’s Gospel (for example), cover to cover, in one sitting. Or Luke. See what you think. I often find most people who criticise the Bible have never actually read it, or at least only ever read bits like the verses you mention quoted on websites. Why don’t you read the source material? It will say far more than I ever could.

      “I don’t believe in god, so I believe that morals are a social construct that ebs and flows with the times. I think engrained in us is a moral sense that is passed on from generation to generation but it changes, I have no doubt that my children will see things differently to how I see them, as will theirs etc”

      You didn’t answer my question about the Nazis. Or, if you like, pick any other violent fascist regime. There are plenty of them in the 20th century to pick from (mostly secular, by the way). If there is no absolute right and wrong – and as I understand it that’s what you’re saying – how do you have the right to say that what they did is wrong? If another country makes a different choice to you, what gives you the right to say that they made the wrong choice?

  4. Those commands are not for us today – hmmm your interpretation – and are they clear?

    One could take from it that you should be killed for insulting your parents, or be punished or is there another meaning still. I could use it to argue that death means sleep and so everyone who insults their parents should go to sleep. Now I know that’s uneducated of me, (that is the point) but if I said it with enough conviction and people believed me and thought it was the word of god, who is to say otherwise… This is obviously a ridiculous point, but I think you understand the point I am making.

    ‘We don’t have all the context, from this distance in time we can only guess.’ – Exactly – to all of the bible.

    ‘Christians do disagree on exactly how to apply the law today, but no-one says it should be taken wholesale.’ – Mmmm again your opinion.

    Yea sorry missed nazi bit – sort of – just so much to say, and fingers were being tired… lol. Will answer now:

    ‘Let me give you an example. Imagine for a second that Hitler had won WW2 and brainwashed everyone into believing that his programme of ethnic cleansing was morally right. Does that make it right?’

    If I was brainwashed I’d argue yes, but I’m not brainwashed by Hitler. But brainwashed does not count as you are not in the correct state of mind.

    My morals have been passed down from my parents, society, religion, social etc etc, you say they have devine routes I say they have non divine routes in our past.

    You also didn’t address the issue of changing morals. I think that’s the issue, that morals are a river that moves and changes constantly with the time.

    My issue with your morals is that you treat them as a fixed, a known. And you base it on a book, church, religion that ultimately is not clear.

    Morals flow and change. In my opinion there is right and wrong, but I know that they are personal rights and wrong, some I share with people, some I don’t. Either way I try to live my life as best I can, for me and the people I care about.

    • I think your basic argument against mine when it comes to interpretation is saying “that’s just your opinion”. But the majority of the worldwide church throughout history HAS agreed on principles of interpretation, i.e. it’s important to pay attention to context, it’s important to pay attention to what the rest of the Bible says, etc. In particular, I don’t think the church has ever argued that we need to obey those laws you quoted from Leviticus, whatever position you take on the law in general.

      In short, if you wanted to argue those particular laws you’d have to ignore the rest of what the New Testament said. And that is not just my opinion.

      “But brainwashed does not count as you are not in the correct state of mind.”

      Maybe ‘brainwash’ is the wrong word. Let’s say no-one was persuaded against their will. Now what?

      “I think that’s the issue, that morals are a river that moves and changes constantly with the time.”

      So, you can’t ever claim that anything in the past was immoral, because morals change with time. You also can’t believe that any morals you hold dear now will be the same 100 years in the future.

      If morality really is so fluid, there seems to be little reason to believe that what we have now is anything other than an arbitrary set of morals, you can’t call anything ‘good’ beyond your own society because it changes.

      “My issue with your morals is that you treat them as a fixed, a known. And you base it on a book, church, religion that ultimately is not clear.”

      Actually I think morals are rooted in God, in a person. He has revealed himself through Scripture, but I think also through our consciences (because we are all created in God’s image). The point is not that we don’t have a conscience, the point is that I don’t think atheists can justify why we have one in any meaningful way.

      In other words, I’m sure you know the difference between right and wrong, pretty much. I just cannot see that, if atheism is true, that would be the case.

      I repeat my challenge to you to read a gospel. What are you afraid of? At the end of the day the gospels have had a massive influence historically on British society and culture so they’re worth knowing for that reason. And if God doesn’t exist, you don’t need to worry, do you? 😉

  5. Thinking about this it boils down to the one fact, you believe in God and I don’t.

    You think morals are a solid rock that never move and I think the opposite.

    For me this is an excellent example of religion clouding judgement and stopping progress and people advancing.

    Found a saying that sort of fits, and says it better than I can:

    “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” ― George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman

    ‘If morality really is so fluid, there seems to be little reason to believe that what we have now is anything other than an arbitrary set of morals, you can’t call anything ‘good’ beyond your own society because it changes.’-

    Yes they are, society morals they are temporary, whilst personal ones are perhaps a bit more fixed but still are temporary. Do you see things exactly the same as you did 10 years ago?

    ‘In short, if you wanted to argue those particular laws you’d have to ignore the rest of what the New Testament said. And that is not just my opinion.’

    Sure but its not every ones opinion – and that is what I was getting at – I can cherry pick as people have done and do to promote my point.

    ‘So, you can’t ever claim that anything in the past was immoral, because morals change with time. You also can’t believe that any morals you hold dear now will be the same 100 years in the future.’

    To judge what happened 100 years ago to our morals is nonsensical – Yes you have your view on it using your current morals but you really cannot judge it by the morals of the day. Because you do not know what the morals were like at that time. That’s not to say we don’t still hold the same morals for things like murder etc. But on the whole you are in no place to judge as you are coming to it with a hindsight point of view.

    For example – do you believe woman should vote? – 100 odd years ago if your answer was yes, you would have been deemed crazy and non sensical. But with time and effort people have realised that woman should vote. And now it is deemed morally unacceptable to think that a woman would not be allowed to vote. People certainly i

    ‘Actually I think morals are rooted in God, in a person. He has revealed himself through Scripture, but I think also through our consciences (because we are all created in God’s image). The point is not that we don’t have a conscience, the point is that I don’t think atheists can justify why we have one in any meaningful way.’

    – Lol rubbish, I certainly don’t think your reasoning, ‘cos god sed so’, is valid. I would imagine there need to be studies done on this, (if there haven’t been already) but I would imagine it stems from our survival instinct becoming more elaborate as our society grew, but I have no evidence (just like you) and will happily be proved wrong and talk about it.

    ‘In other words, I’m sure you know the difference between right and wrong, pretty much. I just cannot see that, if atheism is true, that would be the case.’

    Yes I can – but its my right and wrong and thats probably similar to yours and my parents, but its not the same.

    ‘I repeat my challenge to you to read a gospel. What are you afraid of? At the end of the day the gospels have had a massive influence historically on British society and culture so they’re worth knowing for that reason. And if God doesn’t exist, you don’t need to worry, do you? ;)’

    Reading a book isn’t really a challenge, maybe a slog… lol, and I have read it in the past, but many years ago, so I may as well have forgotten it, it certainly is on my list, currently getting through rasing steam by terry pratchett, made the mistake of starting there (my first pratchett book) … anyway, I hope I don’t offend (that isn’t what I’m going for) I just want to challenge and be challenged. I still love having these debates really gets me thinking.

    Anyway, enough guff, to finish off, I think we will not agree on this matter, down to my first point – you believe in God and I don’t. I belive that morals are what you make of it, and in the end you need to live with yourself.

    • Well I think it’s best to quit while we’re ahead and leave off discussion there, lots more that could be said but much of this we’ve talked about before and, let’s be honest, neither of us have infinite time 🙂

      If you read the gospels a long time ago (as a child) it’s definitely worth coming back to them as an adult. You’ll notice much more going on. I notice more every time I read them. Reading a physical book is better but there are loads of online free versions, e.g. here.

  6. I agree, think we could keep going until we are both blue in the face. 🙂

    Agree to Disagree I think is the key term,

    May give it a read at some point. Thanks for the link.

    • Like I said about the previous article you linked, it’s very biased. I mean, it’s factual but the interpretation of those facts is very negatively slanted.

      Codex Sinaiticus is one of the most important manuscript witnesses we have. The “changes” that are mentioned are all pretty minor and well-known to Bible scholars. Example: the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8 – these days the story is bracketed out of modern Bible translations because of the manuscript evidence (i.e. it appears in some manuscripts but not in others). But, apart from the end of Mark’s gospel, those are the only two which manuscripts disagree significantly about. Most of the so-called ‘changes’ and ‘corrections’ are copyist errors and trivial stuff.

      Biblical scholarship of this kind is a real academic discipline and the people who do it are aware of all this stuff. It’s not “fundamentalists” who are ignoring the evidence here.

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