In Part II of this series of posts, we talked about how ambiguity expands the number of things that scripture can say to us in a single passage. This time, let’s talk about how ambiguity makes room for faith, theology and humility.
We have discussed a few examples of ambiguity in scripture, so I’m not going to devote time to trying to prove that scripture is often ambiguous and subject to human interpretation.
If you want more than a literary analysis to reveal Biblical ambiguities, I would suggest reading Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus. As you’ll probably see in other posts, I have some significant reservations about Ehrman’s approach to the historical Jesus, but I can guarantee that you will learn something valuable if you listen to or read something he’s done. I don’t remember anything in Misquoting Jesus that my general criticism of his work extends to.
Misquoting Jesus will walk you through the many practical problems with interpreting and understanding the Bible. In the New Testament, for example, Koine Greek was written without punctuation and without spacing between words (writing media were quite expensive, after all). When we read the gospels in English (or anything other than the original Greek), all those interpretive aids of syntax and structure are at best guesses by the scholars who edit translations of the Bible. By way of example about how a mere comma can change meaning entirely, compare, “Let’s eat, Grandma!” to, “Let’s eat Grandma!” With a little research, you can find a number of passages in the New Testament—some of them the words of Jesus—about which the proper punctuation and structure remains hotly debated by Biblical scholars.
Here’s my first new point about how ambiguity in the scriptures really is a good thing: without ambiguity, there can be no faith. Faith, by definition, is a conviction of the truth of something that cannot be proved. Existentially, we could not have faith in God if we could readily prove God’s existence—God’s hiddenness from us creates room for faith. The same is true on a smaller scale within Biblical interpretation—because ambiguity allows for multiple interpretations, none of which can be unassailably shown to be correct—none can claim to have the definitive understanding of Jesus.
On the one hand, as we’ve already touched on, this allows us to see more of an infinite God through competing possible interpretations, some of which may be dismissed when weighed against other passages of the scripture, experience, tradition or reason, some of which remain simultaneously potentially valid.
For purposes of this post, I want to focus on the fact that ambiguity is the great equalizer in terms of our faith in God and our following of Jesus. Were salvation, or even an understanding of Jesus, predicated upon intellect, education or interpretive ability, we would have a de facto form of Calvinist or Augustinian election. But, as Ephesians 2:8-9 tells us, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” This includes works of interpretation, I think.
As important, we are told, “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 8). If God is love, by the transitive property the converse must also be true: anyone who knows love also knows God.
One cannot know love except by experience and personal encounter with it. One cannot reason one’s way into understanding love by intellect alone. In this way, human experience itself allows (through the experience and practice of love) the ability to follow Jesus and to be sanctified.
In this way, theology ought to be viewed as an exploration of what it means to love, what it means to follow Jesus, but it is not the thing itself. Those who do not grasp complex theological concepts, whether by choice or ability, are not to be excluded from Christ’s reach. I find the egalitarianism of that concept awesome in the classical sense of the word.
As someone who derives a great amount of his identity from being an intellectual, I find this realization amazingly humbling. For all my theologizing (which, obviously, I greatly enjoy), I’m not going to enlighten someone; I’m not going to reveal some truth heretofore unknown. As an amateur theologian, all I really do is help people to find ways to think about what it means to follow God or to live in a world where God exists. I’m at best a glorified moving guy—I can help you unpack, but I can’t get you the stuff in the first place.
There’s also an important point in how we deal with theological disagreements. Because we cannot be absolutely sure of the truth of our own theology (or theologies in the collective), we ought not to be too oppositional when discussing matters of faith with others. Overconfidence in one’s theological position leads to persecution of others, turning away the unchurched and generally working against Christ’s goals for us.
Important caveats here. First, I am not saying that theology is relative. I firmly believe that there is an objective truth to reality in all things, including theological matters and the way we are supposed to think about and relate to God and each other. My thoughts are not borne from a lack of belief in objective truth, but a healthy dose of skepticism about human intellectual capacity to clearly understand that truth.
Direct human knowledge of the capital “T” Truth, I think only comes from direct revelation from God. Every other method of understanding requires approximation. I believe that direct revelation from God has occurred and continues to occur, but this doesn’t really change things for humans as a whole. One person may have a revelation from God and know the truth, but since I cannot occupy that person’s consciousness to verify the reality of claims to know the truth, I cannot rule out the possibilities of self-delusion, misinterpretation of experiences, or outright lying. Someone else’s revelation carries with it the same ambiguity as any other form of indirect revelation—like the scriptures. Unless I’m the one who directly receives the revelation, I cannot be absolutely sure of its truth. To date, I have not received any direct revelation of truth from God—nor do I expect to. Everything I have to say is interpretation and should be treated as such.
Along with this, I don’t mean to imply that the lack of direct access to the Truth makes theology worthless. Quite the contrary. We need continuous theological investigation to evaluate our theology and allow it to progress into what we think is the closest approximation of the Truth. Theology may be an asymptote that comes ever closer to infinity but never touches it.
There is still ground for theological debate, and competing theologies can be weighed against one another by the amount of support we find for them through scripture, the application of logic and conformity with experience.
And, as I’ve mentioned above, I think that there is one thing in scripture (and reality) that is completely unambiguous. We are to love God and one another. For me, that’s the only Truth I need; I can live with the ambiguity of everything that follows.
Point Three: Ambiguity in scripture shows us that we are equal in the eyes of God, regardless of interpretive or intellectual ability.