Thursday, June 15, 2023

"The Bible is Clear"

 I saw something on Twitter recently that kind of made me laugh a little, in a “I-can-identify-with-that” kind of way. It was the beginning of a thread of tweets, and if you know how Twitter works then you know that the first tweet in a thread has “(1/X)”, where X is the total number of tweets in the thread. So most threads will have (1/4) or (1/6) or maybe even (1/10) or (1/20), if the poster has a lot to say.

     This person tweeted “The Bible is clear on this issue” as the first tweet. I actually don’t remember what the issue in question was, honestly, but he took the rest of the thread to show how the Bible is clear on it. What really stood out to me were the numbers in parentheses after this tweet — (1/32).

     So this was the first in a thread of thirty-two tweets. Purporting to show how clear the Bible is on whatever issue he was addressing.

     I don’t believe I have ever seen a 32-tweet chain. About anything.  I’m not saying they don’t exist, just that I don’t believe I’ve ever seen one that long. Close to that long. That’s almost 9,000 characters. That includes spaces and punctuation, and I’m not sure what it comes out to in words, but that’s a lot to say to make the case that the Bible is clear. 

     As I said, I laughed, but I didn’t intend it in a belittling way. I laughed because I think I’ve probably done the same thing in one way or another. I think I’ve represented the Bible as being clear on something that, upon further review, isn’t actually so cut-and-dried. I think I’ve probably used tortured interpretation and logic to “prove” that the Bible says this or that. I think I’ve probably used a lot of words to tell people who saw things differently to sit down and be quiet, because the Bible is clear, as clear as it can be, and anyone who doesn’t see it just has another agenda.

    If I may, two rebuttals to this tendency — that, again, I share  — to misrepresent the Bible as being clear when it’s anything but.

     First — it’s OK to acknowledge that the Bible is not clear, at least sometimes. I think we’re sometimes afraid to admit that, afraid that maybe it means we don’t acknowledge the Bible as authoritative, or that we don’t know the Bible well enough. Sometimes we equate respect for the Bible with certainty about it, but those aren’t the same. 

     Sometimes it is clear, that’s true. But not always. There are some reasons for that.

     Sometimes there are significant linguistic and cultural questions that we just don’t have answers to. A good example is the word authentein in 1 Timothy 2:12 — “I do not permit a woman to teach or authentein a man.” The word is translated in various ways: “assume authority over” (NIV), “usurp authority over” (KJV), “have dominion over” (ASV), “control” (CEB), “tell a man what to do” (CEV), “dictate to [men]” (NTE). Some translations say “have lordship over” or “wrench authority from” men. Most translations — though not all — include something about authority in their renderings of the word.

     The word isn’t used anywhere else in the Bible. In other Greek literature, it is always a negative and even violent word — one usage of it refers to what parents do when they sacrifice their children! Paul discusses authority quite a lot in his letters, and never uses authentein. Perhaps some hint of the improper use of authority is in view, but women having authority over men does not seem to be the big problem. (By the way, if you can get through 1 Timothy 2 without saying, “I’m not sure about….”, you probably need to recheck your interpretation!) In this case, the Bible isn’t clear because no one is 100% sure about that word.

     These days Deuteronomy 22:5 gets quoted a lot: “A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing….” The Bible is clear, right? But it’s also clear — from the same chapter — that we should all build our houses with parapets around the roof, and that a rapist must marry the woman he victimizes. In this case, the Bible isn’t clear about what crosses culture and time and what doesn’t.

     Sometimes the Bible isn’t clear because there seem to be contradictions. The Bible is clear: “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him.” With some people who are intransigent and disingenuous, it doesn’t pay to argue with them. They’ll just pull you down to their level.

     But of course, the Bible is also clear in the next verse: “Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.” Sometimes, a person who is deeply entangled in foolishness needs to be answered, lest he not see and repent of his foolishness. Either way, the Bible is clear. So which is it? 

     Sometimes, the Bible isn’t clear because the questions we ask aren’t always the question it answers. People who feel very strongly for and against gun control find support for their opinions in the Bible. So do people who support and argue against capital punishment. Most of the varying theologies of baptism different “tribes” of Christianity embrace are at least partially from Scripture. The issue, of course, is that to make our cases we have to argue from biblical principles and emphases. The Bible isn’t alway as clear as we imagine it is because quite often our opinions on specific questions are constructed of our interpretations of the text — and those constructions can be pretty rickety. 

     And so it goes that we have to use 32 tweets (or the equivalent) to explain how our opinions and convictions are “very clearly” supported in the Bible. We don’t see the irony; just maybe, if we need word piled on word to support our ideas of what the Bible says, it isn’t quite as clear as we’d like to think.

     And here’s my second rebuttal to our tendency to say, “The Bible is clear….”:  Almost always, that statement is intended to shut down discussion and debate. “The Bible is clear…” is the nuclear option, the big gun churchy people pull out to obliterate dissent. It’s what you say when you want to cast people who disagree with you as disingenuous, deluded, and just not all that interested in actually understanding and obeying Scripture. We never say “The Bible is clear…” about God’s love for us in Jesus or that Abraham was from Ur or that stealing is wrong. Of course, the Bible is clear about those things — it’s just that no one really debates them. You don’t need the big gun when there’s no one to shoot it at. 

     But get into a debate with someone about, I don’t know, what to do in a worship service or the role of women in the public life of the church or divorce and remarriage — issues about which there have been centuries of disagreement in the church — and someone will pretty quickly bust out, “The Bible is clear on this issue….”, or something similar. And then they’ll write books and blog posts and dissertations, start podcasts and preach sermons and make videos and post 32-tweet threads on Twitter, all to show how clear it is. “The Bible is clear on this issue…check out my 13-week course that will convince you, too, how clear it is.”

     Saying, “The Bible is clear….” doesn’t invite anyone to read it with you. It doesn’t tell anyone that their opinions are important to you, that you want to hear what they think. It doesn’t convey the idea that the Bible is best read in community. It contains no humility. When you say those words, you place yourself in the position of Supreme Authority on the Bible.

     Let’s use other words to have discussions about the Bible: “How do you read it?” “What does this text mean to you?” “What do you think it says about this issue?” It’ll sure require fewer tweets.

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