Monday, August 12, 2013

A Critique of “Holding Biblical Texts in Tension”

A few Sundays ago, I preached a sermon on Psalm 85, which includes a lot of language about the wrath of God. Recognizing that this language has been used abusively in modern times, I spent a little time explaining what it means. "God's wrath" represents the suffering we experience when we (as individuals and as a society) experience the consequences of our own sins. [1] This is not a punishment that God inflicts on us directly, as it is our own actions that create this type of suffering. However, it is a punishment that God inflicts on us indirectly, by stepping back from the situation and allowing sin to run its course. Because sin is intrinsically destructive, this indirect response truly constitutes punishment, for sin – left to itself – will leave its captives in torment. This is, by the way, the essence of hell, which theologians have long defined as the absence of God. [2]

A few days after I preached this message, a member of my congregation sent me a very respectful email that challenged me on this subject. He wrote, "Regarding your observation that God's response to sin in the examples cited was to step back and let the consequences fall as they may, were you suggesting that that is one of several ways God responds to sin in the Biblical record?" [3] As a matter of fact, that is not what I was suggesting. I was pushing it further, claiming that this is a privileged definition of God’s wrath by which we should interpret divine wrath whenever it comes up. Nevertheless, as a Biblical scholar, I can’t help but appreciate the insight of his question. Undoubtedly, there are several cases in the Bible in which “God’s wrath” indicates something vindictive or retributive, not in keeping with the “indirect” interpretation of God’s wrath that I promoted above. I can’t deny that God was
directly punishing sin in the stories of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 and the striking down Herod in Acts 12. Furthermore if I am being rigorously honest, I must also admit that these destructive stories conflict with other Biblical descriptions of God as loving and merciful. [4] So, the million-dollar question is, what should Christians make of conflicting passages of Scripture? If we are called to make claims about God on the basis of the Bible, how can we do this when the Bible itself offers differing views of God?

For our current purposes, I would like to suggest that there are three basic responses to this problem of internal Biblical conflict. First, one could simply affirm those passages that conform to one description of God and ignore or reject those that conflict with that description. This is often dismissively referred to as “picking and choosing,” but there are some intriguing arguments in favor of this approach. [5] Second, we could do what the majority of Christian theologians have done through the centuries, which is to try to find unity within those conflicting passages. This is commonly referred to as “harmonizing,” and it usually involves re-interpreting the texts we find problematic in new ways so that they cohere with the texts we find attractive. These interpretations are not always convincing, but they give us a way to affirm the whole Bible. Finally, a third approach would be to acknowledge that there are irreconcilable differences in the Bible and to make a commitment neither to ignore nor to harmonize these differences. This is generally referred to as “holding Biblical texts in tension,” and it strives for honesty and faithfulness, but at the cost of coming to any concrete conclusions about what the Bible says. 

In seminary, the preference of my professors and classmates was overwhelmingly for option #3: “holding texts in tension.” We were taught that the good scholar or the good pastor acknowledges the conflict or “tension” of Biblical arguments and doesn’t try to twist them to fit her theology. Undoubtedly, there are some merits to this approach. From a scholarly perspective, your best chance at learning something new from a text begins when you set aside your agenda and listen to what it has to say. From a spiritual perspective, acknowledging that the Bible is complex and that you can’t make every verse fit together is an exercise in humility. Upon affirming this approach, my professors guaranteed that the other two approaches would be viewed with some disdain. Anyone who tried to make a Biblical argument that selectively emphasized a certain set of verses would be accused of not “holding the texts in tension.” [6] As a result, we were encouraged to hold the pro-government and anti-government elements in Scripture in tension, the demand for order in the Church and the promise of freedom in the Spirit in tension, the different presentations of God’s wrath in tension, etc.

This is all well and good until you are confronted with a situation in the real world that demands a Biblical response. If you find yourself in a situation where you must choose whether or not to obey the unjust demands of an oppressive government, or whether the need for church order is great enough that you should muffle your concerns about a congregation’s unfaithfulness, or if you are asked whether someone’s premature death is a manifestation of the wrath of God, it won’t suffice to offer a list of verses that could be used on either side of the argument. These situations need a “Yes” or “No.” Now, it should probably be a nuanced “Yes” or “No,” one that proceeds cautiously and sensitively, one that acknowledges the weaknesses embedded in it, one that recognizes its own fallibility, etc. Nevertheless, Christians are required and empowered to speak a clear word of truth in these kinds of complex situations. And the moment that we do that, as soon as we take a stance on the basis of some Biblical texts – with the awareness that other texts could be cited which would oppose this stance – it becomes clear that we do, in fact, have an interpretive preference, that we do privilege some verses over others, and that we are already involved in harmonizing the Bible. And what is wrong with that? Jesus privileged certain verses above others, the apostles reinterpreted OT texts so they would conform with the Lordship of Christ, and the Bible itself is intrinsically a harmonization! [7] Although it has its dangers, harmonizing Scripture is not a bad thing. On the contrary, it is an inevitable part of preaching the gospel.

One of the dangers of harmonization is that Christians can get so comfortable with their reading of the Bible and so convinced by their own hermeneutic that they are no longer able to be challenged and convicted by the text. I think this is one of the main reasons that my professors encouraged us to “hold texts in tension” rather than to quickly harmonize them: on the surface, this seems to prevent the kind of arrogance that claims to have the Bible completely figured out. However, there is a better way to try to integrate this kind of interpretive humility in our lives: to establish communion with Christians who read Scripture differently. Because other Christians privilege different texts and harmonize the conflicts differently, these brothers and sisters can offer us plenty of opportunity for wrestling with the readings of the Bible that we have come to accept. [8] However, genuine dialogue must begin by acknowledging where each side is coming from, and we can’t do this honestly unless we evaluate and own the ways in which we already harmonize Scripture.

So, given all of that, how should I have answered the church member who challenged me for pushing one reading of God’s wrath over and against other Biblical possibilities? Perhaps like this: “You know, I have to admit that there are Biblical passages that don’t seem to take this view of God’s wrath, and I’m not sure what to do with those. But when I read the Biblical story as a whole, this is my best understanding about what God’s wrath is. If you have a better understanding, which incorporates more of the Biblical record, I’d be open to hearing it. However, I am compelled not just to offer a fair interpretation of texts but to make a proclamation about God. And based on my reading of the Biblical story, I genuinely hold this to be the true nature of God’s wrath. How do you see it?” [9]

End Notes

[1] It took a lot of self-restraint for me not to write this sentence as, “I believe that ‘God’s wrath’ represents the suffering we experience…” Of course, I do believe that God’s wrath represents the suffering that our sin creates, but why does it feel so important to add the words ‘I believe that’ at the beginning of the sentence? If all the words indicate are, “I myself hold this to be true,” then there’s no need for me to write them. After all, if I am telling you that something is true, it’s clearly implied that I also believe it. However, that is not all that the words “I believe” indicate.

When I begin a sentence with “I believe that,” I am lessening the force of my claim by moving it from the realm of fact into the realm of opinion. There it is less threatening because it doesn’t impose a truth on someone else. Consider the difference between these two statements: “Sean Connery was the best James Bond” and “I believe that Sean Connery was the best James Bond.” Although they mean the same thing, the first sentence is asking for a fight, while the second statement is just expressing a sentiment.

Living in the United States, we have learned the pluralistic etiquette that teaches us to present all of our religious beliefs as opinions. We are permitted to have our beliefs, even express our beliefs, so long as we promise to contain them in the realm of opinion rather than fact, faith rather than reason, and the private sphere rather than the public sphere. Christians on both sides of the theological and political continuums have unwittingly embraced these assumptions, which necessarily distorts the radical and political nature of Jesus’ message. Perhaps the most challenging task for Christians today is to drop, “I believe,” from their vocabulary. It’s easy enough to tell your non-Christian friends and neighbors, “I believe that Jesus is Lord.” It’s much harder to say, “Jesus is Lord,” in their presence.

[2] For a more thorough defense of this idea, see my post, "Heaven and Hell Reconsidered"

[3] I received permission from this person to include his question in my blog. I am so grateful to be a part of a congregation of people like him who challenge me and dialogue with me on these things.

[4] Consider Ezekiel 33:11, “‘As I live!’ declares the Lord God, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but would rather that the wicked turn from his way and live.” Also consider 2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” These are not the only two verses that oppose a vindictive or retributive view of God’s wrath, nor are the examples cited the only passages that conform to it. This is a deep-running conflict in Scripture. I just offer these as particularly clear articulations of the opposing sides, intentionally showing that they both have a presence in each Testament.

[5] The best arguments I have heard in favor of this selective approach have come from the liberation traditions. These groups point out that specific verses have been particularly responsible for encouraging racism, violence, and genocide, and that these verses should be clearly identified and rejected by churches so that this cycle of violence continues. I am not convinced that this is the only response to oppressive and historically-loaded passages in Scripture, but the point is worth mentioning. The Africana Bible
is a great resource for this kind of thinking.

[6] In my opinion, this is why there is tension between the Biblical and theological departments in many seminaries. Since theologians are no longer allowed to harmonize Scripture, they have no Biblical resources by which to create coherent theologies. Any time they cite Scripture, they risk receiving criticism from their Biblical counterparts for not really understanding the Bible. As a result, they have often times abandoned the Bible as their primary resource and turned to more “centralized” sources such as Augustine, Aquinas, Wesley, etc.

[7] Jesus commonly gave certain texts priority over others. For example, in Matthew 22:34-40, he identified Deut. 6:5 “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength,” as the greatest commandment and Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” as the second greatest commandment. This clearly shows that some passages have more authority than others. In an interaction with the Pharisees in Mark 10, Jesus argued that Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 should overrule the “concession” that God offered in Deuteronomy 24:1-3.

As far as the apostles go, the New Testament and especially the gospels are FILLED with passages that are often taken out of their original context and given new meaning, as any critical scholar would readily admit. For example, Matthew cites Jeremiah 31:5 in Matt. 2:18 as a prophecy that Herod would slaughter infants to try to kill Jesus. But if you read the actual chapter in Jeremiah, especially the verse that follows it, it is obvious that “Rachel” is bemoaning the diaspora or forcible removal of the Jews from their land, not this specific event. However, I don’t think that Matthew is simply misusing the OT. He is trying to frame Jesus’ story as Israel’s story, so that every stage of his life corresponds to one of the key events in Israel’s history. Thus, this quotation gives new meaning Jeremiah 31:5 without necessarily violating the original meaning.

I argue that the Bible is intrinsically a harmonization because the sixty-six books within it were written without an awareness of all of the others or the expectation that they would be compiled into one great “book,” as one grand religious text. By putting the books together in one volume and calling them “the Bible” (i.e. “the Book”), we predispose believers to embrace the (appropriate) assumption that these texts go together, that they somehow constitute one continuous story. If we were really opposed to harmonizing, then we should call this collection of books, “A Christian Anthology” rather than “The Book.” But once we do that, we will start raising questions about what books should and shouldn’t belong to this anthology, which completely undermines the purpose of “holding texts in tension.”

[8] I suppose I need to qualify this claim. It is possible to be “in conversation” with other Christians without being challenged by them, if we accept the pluralistic framework. That framework says that religious views are interesting particularities that reflect on the people who have them but that don’t have anything to say to people of other religious commitments. Unfortunately, this pluralism threatens to undermine the Biblical call to “encouragement, correction, and rebuke” – or what Methodists call “accountability.” John Howard Yoder taught me that true ecumenism involves critiquing other versions of Christianity while at the same time seeking to listen to my own blind spots that other Christians may see. For more on this, read the anthology of Yoder’s works, The Royal Priesthood.

[9] I didn’t answer him with this much wisdom, but perhaps he will read this blog and it will give him a chance to respond.

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