This is a companion piece to another post of mine, “We might not like it, but it’s in the Bible, so…”
Occasionally I see people back away from their theological hunches, or at least decide to remain agnostic about them, because try as they might they just can’t see “where the Bible teaches it.” The starting point for them is this: The Bible is our necessary, inviolable source for ascertaining truth about God. What it says, goes. Thank heavens we know exactly what it says! They call this a biblical faith.
My good friend Drew Smith stumbled across a post by Angela Shier-Jones at The Kneeler speaking about her philosophical faith, which resonated with me, especially given some recent conversations on this blog. This is almost precisely what I’ve been noticing about my own faith lately, with its roots in the Bible but its trunk and branches reaching and spreading into the air above it.
As a Christian who, although rejecting inerrancy, still loves and feeds on the Bible, I realize that above all it offers important glimpses into the mind of men grappling with the things of God. I value Scripture as I value all church tradition, because the Bible is simply the earliest instance of church tradition available, codified by later church tradition, and hardly less fallible. But for bringing us to meet God, the Bible is uncommonly valuable, so much so that I find it tragic that so many believers could have been led into the company of Jesus by the Bible and then found it necessary to throw out some of the insights gained by the illumination of the fire that he started, just because it wasn’t strictly “scriptural”, i.e. it didn’t sound enough like the glimpses of men of old that are recorded in Scripture. Those men may have written something deemed by later men to deserve inclusion in the Bible, and a few of them may have even known Jesus when he was here, but in their time they could not have benefited from the stream of understanding that has developed through the ages from the seed of truth they planted.
Moreover, as eloquently pointed out by Thom Stark, they themselves set the precedent for this dynamic wrestling with the problematic theologies of their contemporaries and forbears that occasionally shows through in entire books of the Bible: in Thom’s words, the Bible is an argument with itself. How can we simply trust that the arguments ever got settled within the canon we have? Who settled it? Where is their consensus ratified for our use? The closest thing we have, in my understanding, is that “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all,” and even that isn’t “proved” by Scripture. But the hope is sparked there, and in hope we go on to shine that light wherever something our God-seeking conscience considers darkness is imputed to God or His ways, even when that darkness is something one or more of the authors of Scripture believed.
Rather than a definitive end to theological arguments or clearly ringing pronouncement of unquestionable truths, the Bible instead sets a trajectory of understanding about God that does not land within its pages. Shier-Jones in her blog post put it this way (in the form of a prayer):
How sad that religion so often decries the great gift you give to us of collective intelligence, of the progress of knowledge and the slow but inexorable maturing of the mind of humanity. How pathetic when priests, the appointed guardians of the mysteries, perjure their calling by insisting that they already know what the truth is, that we need look no further, seek no harder. We can stop asking and stop knocking at your door because you have already said all you intend to say. The Bible says it all, and what it says is all that we need to know.
Thank you God – that you taught me better than to believe that!
The Bible is your word – but it is not your final word…
There is much in the Bible that does not teach, and even much which disallows, human evolution, which is hands-down the best explanation for the similarities and diversities in the biological forms on this planet. The same thing goes for universalism: only a few passages can be found to support it in Scripture, and there are certainly passages that contradict it, but at least in this case the germ of understanding about God and His nature that blossoms into and nourishes universalism is easily found within Scripture, and in certain places our glimpses into the heart of the Bible’s authors suggest that it had already begun to sprout there.
When I viewed Francis Chan’s recent video, I was annoyed by his suggestion that we should not try to understand God outside of strictly biblical considerations, since we are only like clay to the Potter: “Our only hope,” says Chan, “is that He would reveal to us what He is like, and then we can just repeat those things.” He goes on to show that he thinks God has done so, within the pages of Scripture alone. Rather than literally “only hope”, I suppose he meant, “only hope for knowing with certainty,” but the distinction between those two things are lost on most inerrantists, it seems. If that was our only hope, quite simply, we’d be SOL.
I initially decided I’d let the Apostle George respond to Chan, but a friend reading that post was not convinced. What makes us think, he wondered, that we can impose our ideals upon God? Although it may perhaps be an imposition upon God to say that He must be a certain way because we would like this or that to be the case, this is not the same as applying more factors than proof-texts to our understanding of who He is and what He is like, and weighing other interpretations of Him against those factors. Everyone applies their own reasoning and presuppositions when reading the Bible, of course, but most don’t acknowledge it, and will even condemn it when they see it in others. MacDonald’s insight was that we owe it to the one we worship to self-consciously apply the best of our experience and reason to understand Him, and not simply parrot the prevailing doctrines, even when gleaned from Scripture.
It’s the conscious application of this variety of factors that makes this approach more satisfactory than pretending we’re not “imposing” anything on God when we string bunches of scriptural testimony together, shrug our shoulders, and say, “Well, I guess that settles it; I guess acting monstrously can be just, and showing vindictive spite can be the reflex of love.” We can’t just point to this or that Scripture that describes God doing manifestly evil things like ordering the violent deaths of men, women, and children or (ostensibly) torturing people for eternity and let those instances predominate over our beliefs about what “goodness” means as it applies to God. We must steadfastly avoid placing every insight from nature or from philosophy under the subjection of our even more fallible patchwork quilt of sola scriptura theology, especially when the resultant position makes God out to be essentially unworshippable.
If God has indeed used Scripture to birth something real within our hearts and minds, let’s trust Him to bring us where it leads rather than cutting it down and using it as mulch for some doctrine of our own, based as it so often is in an underdeveloped and immature understanding from those who went before us! I’m not advocating a “chronological snobbery” (Lewis’s phrase) that assumes everything before us was wrong and everything modern is right, but neither should we commit the opposite error of supposing that “greater things than these” can never be done by those who meet God for themselves. Surely an all-out trust in God as a fundamentally good person, as best we understand “good” with all the available data weighed judiciously, is preferable to letting slavish adherence to orthodoxy stand in for a faith that could mature both our souls and our understanding of God.