Ambiguity in Scripture, Part IV

For the previous post in this series, click here.

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.[1]

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.


[1] 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.

Ambiguity in Scripture, Part III

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.

For the next post in this series, click here.

Ambiguity in Scripture, Part II

In the previous post in this series, we looked quite generally at ambiguity in scripture and how it draws us in to wrestle with difficult concepts of theology, metaphysics and existence in general. Today, I want to look at one passage in particular.

It’s the passage often referred to as “The Rich Young Ruler.” It appears in both all three synoptic gospels, but I’m taking the text here from Matthew 19:16-22 in the English Standard Version:

16And behold, a man came up to him [Jesus], saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17And he [Jesus] said to him [the rich young ruler], “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” 18He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, 19Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” 21Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”

What happens at the end of this passage? Does the young man surrender his possessions and follow Jesus? The traditional answer is, “No,” and the following statement of Jesus about rich people and camels and heaven seems to support this interpretation.

But look closer. We don’t actually know what the rich young ruler does, we only know that he goes away with sorrow. We assume that he goes away sorrowful because he is not willing to give away his wealth, but he could just as easily be going away sorrowful because he has decided to give away his wealth and is suffering the angst and upset that inevitably follows the loss of material things.

Jesus’s statement about getting into heaven being more difficult for a rich man than a camel passing through the eye of the needle doesn’t really tell us anything that gives us logical support for either interpretation. Jesus could be implying that this young man has triumphed where others may not, or that this man, like many others, will be unable to let go of worldly things, or even that we don’t yet know what the young man will do and Jesus is simply describing the difficulty of the choice he has to make.

Which is the correct answer? We don’t know, and—purposefully, I think—we cannot know. Without a definite answer, we have to consider each possibility; we cannot cast any aside.

When we acknowledge the ambiguity in this story instead of glossing it over with the traditional answer, we are given to contemplate: (1) the difficulty of surrendering worldly things to follow Jesus, (2) the inevitable sorrow that would result from choosing to give up worldly things to follow Jesus, and (3) the difficulty of being within that choice, the struggle to decide one way or the other and to be willing to live with the consequences.

One story, three points. If we were definitively told that the rich young ruler goes away because he will not do what Jesus has asked, we lose meaning in this passage rather than gaining meaning.

Ambiguity allows several points to be put forth at the same time, simultaneously multiplying the meaning to be found in a passage while providing syntactic and stylistic efficiency the communication of those multiple meanings. In other words, the Bible says more with less when ambiguity is (under the right circumstances, of course) employed, as it is throughout.

Think about why Jesus speaks in parables. Parables are analogies; analogies have slippage between the two things compared, creating ambiguity. Thus, in parables, Jesus can convey more complex meaning than by making direct and unequivocal statements. This is, in part, why we often hear people say, “Every time I reread the Bible (or a particular passage), I get something new out of it.”

Your state of mind at the time you read a passage will influence how you resolve ambiguities. Therefore, at different times in your life and under different circumstances, the scriptures will speak to you in different ways, with the most applicable ideas from a particular passage always seeming to float to the top.

This is not to say that there is relativism in what Jesus says; on the topics of greatest importance, Jesus speaks clearly—“Love your neighbor as yourself,” for instance. Even in this passage, the meaning that following Jesus is the goal is not equivocated or made ambivalent. The Bible uses ambiguity selectively to force us to consider those things that are not ambiguous. It is clear that we are to love our neighbors, but what does it mean to love them? This is a serious theological question and, in current church issues, at the heart of the debates in various denominations about the approach to the LGBTQ community within the Christian faith.

I’ll talk a little about how I think we should approach resolving difficult ambiguities like the one above in a later post in this series. For now, I want to point something out about the ambiguity of how we love our neighbors. If Jesus meant for us to move away from the legalism of the Old Testament, such an ambiguous command is a perfect way to do it. Without detailed and clear guidance, we cannot easily say to ourselves, “I have done enough; I need do no more for my neighbors.” Instead, we must always ask ourselves, “Am I loving my neighbors? What more can I do, or what can I do differently, to love them better?” The ambiguity of how to carry out the command demands more of us than a black-and-white commandment, elevating, empowering and extending the exhortation itself.

Point 2: Ambiguity allows greater meaning in fewer words through the incorporation of alternative possible resolutions of the ambiguity.

For the next post in this series, click here.

Ambiguity in Scripture, Part I

In the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, a German Jew who had fled to Istanbul to avoid the Nazis wrote what I think is one of the foundational books for any literary understanding of the scriptures. His name was Erich Auerbach; the book was Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature.

If the stories are to be believed, circumstances forced Auerbach to do much of his work by memory, for he did not have access to all of the texts drawn from and cited to in Mimesis. While a fascinating thought, it is largely irrelevant; Auerbach was a genius whatever the strength of his memory.

It is only the first chapter of the book, entitled “Odysseus’ Scar,” that concerns us for the time being. In that chapter, Auerbach argues that there are two major iconic styles of storytelling running through western civilization, at least historically speaking. Like Tolkien, Auerbach was a philologist by training, born at the end of the 19th Century, and with a penchant for looking backward, far backward, rather than at the contemporary.

Two iconic styles of literature in historic western writing. Only two. The first, Auerbach tells us, is the style best exemplified by the works of Homer, in the Iliad and (as the chapter’s title suggests) the Odyssey. By way of example, Auerbach carefully describes the scene in which Odysseus has returned home in disguise after his long journey. He is recognized for his true self by a scar on his leg, and Homer gives us great detail about that scar—how it was got, where it is, etc.—as it plays its pivotal role in the plot.

That is Homer in a nutshell, overflowing with detail, carefully crafting images in our mind’s eye, little left out for us, all with the purpose (Auerbach says) of giving us a profound sense of awe, and therefore pleasure. This is a pagan style, rich in sensory data and concerned with worldly delight.

Homer is to be contrasted with the Biblical style—a Dragnet-style, “Just the facts, ma’am,” and not even all of the facts we want to know. We get the bare bones of the story, just enough information to understand the flow of events, but not enough to become cognizant of all that is going on in the story.

Auerbach’s example of this is one I never forget and often use. You should play along. Think about Abraham and Isaac in Genesis. We know that Isaac is Abraham’s son, that God has commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as a test of his faith, that Isaac seems to go along willingly. But how old is Isaac? Before you go back to the text to check, I want you to see if you can recall the answer by memory. What does Isaac look like in your memory? How old is he?

Of course, I’m pulling one over on you. Genesis doesn’t tell us Isaac’s age at the time of Abraham’s trial. We tend to think of him as young, perhaps pre-adolescent, seemingly innocent and only wanting to please his father. But that’s not the only possibility.

In the middle ages, theologians largely believed that Isaac was thirty-three when Abraham took him to be sacrificed. An adult! One who might have moved out of his parents’ home! Who might have his own children! My age, in fact.

Does an adult Isaac willingly going along with Abraham seem strange to you? For the medieval theologians, it was strange to think that he was only a boy. Why? Because they believed that Jesus was thirty-three at the time of his crucifixion; they were searching for parallels that showed continuity between the Old Testament and the New.

What Auerbach wants to show us here is that the Bible often, seemingly purposefully, leaves out details from the story, even potentially important ones for the story’s meaning. The literary effect could not be farther from the Homeric one. Where Homer fills in all the details, forcing the reader to step back and spectate in awe, the Bible forces the reader to fill in the blanks, engaging with the story. The reader of scripture must make choices to resolve ambiguities in the text, must interpret, must participate.

It is commonly argued that the gospels are written in both style and substance in such a way as to force the reader to ask and answer the same question as everyone else in the narrative: who do you believe Jesus is? But Auerbach takes this idea even further—the very style of the entire scriptures (though he was more focused perhaps on the Old Testament) does not allow us to stand idly by and watch—we must struggle with the text (and here Jacob wrestling with God comes to mind quite readily) to make it mean something. We must invest ourselves in it and synthesize it with ourselves for the text to come alive. The sparsity of detail naturally pulls us in to do just this, even if you don’t recognize it’s happening.

Point One: Ambiguity forces us to engage; we cannot simply absorb.

For the next post in this series, click here.