Last time, we talked about how ambiguity in the Bible prevents us from absolute certainty about theological concepts, and how this leaves us all on level ground when it comes to really following after God. I concluded by mentioning that this does not mean that we should not seek to come to what we firmly believe is the closest approximation of God’s Truth of which we are capable.
In this post, I want to talk about the method of weighing competing theological positions when we find potential evidence for both positions within scripture—or when the same passages could be interpreted in different ways. Things will be clearer, I think, if we do this by looking at really tough and large-scale “problems” in scriptural interpretation.
Let’s start by way of example. In Exodus 22:20, God says, “Whoever sacrifices to any god, other than the Lord alone, shall be devoted to destruction.” Later, in Deuteronomy 2:34, we read, “And we captured all his cities at that time and devoted to destruction every city, men, women and children. We left no survivors.” In Deuteronomy 3:6: “And we devoted them to destruction, as we did to Sihon the king of Heshbon.”
In these passages (and many that surround them in the early story of the Israelites and their conquest of Canaan), we’re told that God has commanded the Israelites to murder the women and children—the non-combatant, civilian targets—of their enemies. That in and of itself is not ambiguous, but it becomes very much so when we compare it to the commands of Jesus to love our neighbor and to turn the other cheek.
What does God want from us? Is it simply that the words given to the Israelites were meant for them alone and the words of Jesus are meant for us? In other words, was this behavior okay then but not now? That answer may provide some moral guidance for us, but it leaves unresolved some very troubling questions about the nature of God.
Adam Hamilton does an excellent job of looking at this issue (and a great number of others) in his book Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today.
I favor the approach of German theologian Karl Barth. His systematic theology is daunting even to the most educated theologian (which is not me), but I’ll try to summarize the salient points for your use.
For Barth, we should not confuse the Bible and the Word of God. As the Book of John tells us, Jesus Christ is the Word of God, not the text of scripture. Though he takes a while to say it, when Barth uses the term “Word of God,” he means a personal encounter with the Christ. This sometimes occurs through the reading of the Bible (and perhaps the ability to bring one to a personal encounter with God is the greatest power of scripture) but the two are not synonymous. I have to admit that it took me a short while to wrap my brain around that (especially given Barth’s rather circumlocutious writing).
In short, what Barth is saying that its Christianity—our goal is to encounter, know and follow the living Christ, not simply to read about him. Reading scripture helps us open our hearts and minds to Jesus, but the reading is a means to an end more than an end in itself.
I’m reminded of a Magritte painting called (in English) “The Treachery of Images”. It’s a painting of a smoking pipe, under which is written “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” (“This is not a pipe.”). And it’s not a pipe; it’s a painting of a smoking pipe. You can’t smoke with it. It tells the observer something about pipes, but it’s no substitute for the knowledge gained by the experience of the real thing. Latinate languages capture this distinction well, using separate words to denote the cold intellectual knowledge of something (saber in Spanish, savoir in French) from the more intimate knowledge of familiarity (conocer in Spanish, connaître in French). That, I think, is what Barth is telling us about the Word of God.
With Barth’s conception comes a shrewd warning that we be careful not to make an idol out of the Bible. Shocking and perhaps offensive at first, the point that we worship God and not words about God remains a powerful one.
Our understanding of Jesus, as the incarnation of the living God, ought then to be a lens through which we view the rest of scripture. When we see things like the murdering of innocents in Exodus and Deuteronomy, I think it’s fair to say that that behavior does not comport with the words and life of Jesus Christ. Those passages might better be understood as words put by the writers of those books in God’s mouth that represent their own understanding of the nature and person of God rather than the objective truth.
This brings us around in a complete circle to the kind of poetic truth that speaks to our hearts. Ambiguity in scriptures requires us to lean on Jesus to understand them—to put our faith in our savior to resolve discrepancies and inconsistencies in the text of the Bible. It’s not simply that ambiguity requires us to have faith; ambiguity shows us that faith in God—as we understand God through Jesus—works and moves.
Point Four: Ambiguity in scripture leads us to rely on the person of Jesus to interpret and harmonize differing passages within the Bible and to resolve difficulties.
P.S. – Since we’re talking about ambiguity, I’d like to throw just one more wrench into the works. Above, I’ve argued that ambiguity in scripture pushes us to seek the Christ to resolve ambiguity, but there’s another layer to all of this. Revelation and personal relationship with Jesus—understandings which cannot be proved to anyone else—aside, the scriptures themselves provide our best view of Jesus through his words and life. God-breathed though they are, the gospels were written by human hands and likely compiled decades after the events they describe, so we ought to be cautious in thinking about them as providing a prefect picture of Jesus.
There are many resources to investigate what scholars know and believe about the origins of the gospels. Having conducted my own exploration of the issue, I’m pretty comfortable in holding the gospels as generally reliable, but I still see plenty of room for reasonable disagreement in the interpretations of the scriptures about Jesus.
So, there is perhaps this inescapable level of ambiguity that lies below all the other things we’ve discussed, ambiguity that might beg the question, “How well do we know Jesus?” For an incarnation of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent and infinite God, our answer can never be “completely.” But we might always try to know him better, and that journey itself bears fruit.
 Interestingly, Islam has had a similar debate for much of its history about the nature of the Quran. Is it revelation about Allah or is it part of Allah? The answer is an important one and a key part of conservative and liberal theologies in Islam. Reza Aslan gives an excellent primer on the subject (and much more about Islam) in his book, No God but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam.