I was all set to sit down and write something about bad Biblical interpretation and better Biblical interpretation, using all of my expert theology knowledge, to helpfully (and slightly smugly) correct all those who are doing it wrong.
Then I remembered that there was another post I’ve also wanted to write for a while. Which sort of totally contradicted what I was about to say. So that threw me a little bit, and I’m not sure what the answer is. I mean, I’m normally alright with having a bit of tension in my thoughts and unresolved dilemmas. Holding things in tension is usually a decent enough answer to difficult questions like “do we choose God or does he choose us?” But on this one, I just seem to be being flat-out hypocritical by thinking two opposite things. I want to say that other people are wrong for doing Biblical interpretation in one way and yet in the other post wanting to say I’m right for doing just that, and vice versa.
So here’s what I thought I’d do – I’ll write a summary of each of these two posts I wanted to write, in all of their contradictory mess. Then anyone who fancies trying to work this problem out for me would be most welcome to comment and explain where I’m going wrong here! Do you think this is an example of where the contradictory tension is okay? Or am I right in one post but not the other? Am I looking at it all from entirely the wrong angle? Does my flawed logic make any more sense to you than me? See what you think…
The old post I’ve wanted to write for a while:
Alarm Bell Theology
There are some bits of the Bible that make alarm bells go off in our heads. Or at least, I think they should do. There are some verses in the Bible that sound out of place, that seem to contradict what we know of the rest of the Bible.
Verses like 1 Timothy 2:15 which says “But women will be saved through childbearing – if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.” Now we know that there is nowhere else in the rest of the Bible that suggests that salvation for women is achieved through giving birth. We know that would make no sense, because it would make salvation a work not a grace; it would mean we earn it rather than receive it; it would mean salvation was different for men and women; it would exclude all the women who can’t or otherwise don’t give birth to children. If women are saved through childbearing, it would contradict all those parts that say things like “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”(Romans 10:9)
So at the very least, that verse sets off an alarm bell in our heads which makes us think, it shows us there must be more going on here than meets the eye. There must be more context, more that Paul was trying to say that we don’t totally understand on first reading. It leaves us with a few options – perhaps there’s a more obscure translation or interpretation that makes more sense, like those who take the singular Greek pronoun in this verse as referring to Eve who (along with all of us) would be saved by Jesus Christ, the offspring she was promised in Genesis 3:15 who would crush the serpent’s head. Or we can conclude that it must have made some sense to Paul’s intended audience, who are not us, and that therefore it’s an obscure verse which we can set aside. In any case, it would be foolish to try to build a doctrine on it.
While I think most Christians would agree with me on that particular verse, I’d say there are more which we should consider in just the same way, and I think that the verses where Paul seems to tell women not to preach fall into this category. I think they’re alarm bell verses because they seem to contradict what Paul himself says elsewhere. At the very least they should make us stop and think, to try to see what more is going on here beyond a surface level reading of them. So, in 1 Corinthians 14:34 where Paul says “women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak”, and similarly in 1 Timothy 2:12 which says women should not teach but be quiet – they seem to contradict 1 Corinthians 11:15 which assumes that women will be standing up in church praying and prophesying. He can’t mean they’re to be totally silent. They seem to contradict Galatians 3:28 which announces the removal of social divisions and barriers. There’s got to be something more going on.
For some people, that can be best explained by reference to the contexts of Corinth and Ephesus where these letters were being written to, by accepting that for reasons about which we can only really speculate, it was better for those women in those churches at that time in that culture, to be quiet. Or for other people, we can best explain it in the context of Paul’s broader argument, for instance in 1 Corinthians, about individuals laying down their rights for the sake of the better reception of the gospel. Whatever we conclude, the alarm bell should have gone off and made us reconsider how we interpret it.
I’m not really saying anything beyond the old phrase “interpret Scripture with Scripture.” It’s all traditional stuff. I think I’m just suggesting that we should listen out for the alarm bells more often, and be prepared to see those places where we’ll have to do a little bit more work to understand what was going on. It might be easiest to take those verses at face value and keep women quiet, but thank goodness for the rest of the New Testament that doesn’t let us do that. The alarm bells should ring, and it’s not safe to ignore them.
The post I wanted to write today:
We keep putting words in their mouths.
For people who love and respect the Bible so much, I feel like as evangelicals we don’t always show the same respect to its authors.
Sometimes there are difficult verses in otherwise ‘good’ bits of the Bible, and because we like it and respect it and treat it as God’s word, we can’t just ignore those bits – we’ve got to do something with them. When the Bible seems to be wrong, and to contradict what we know very well to be the truth, we just tell the authors that they don’t mean what they say. We interpret Scripture with Scripture.
As an example, there was a difficult verse that we can across in our Bible study at Focus this week. (Dear Focus table, this is in no way a criticism of our collective efforts to work out what to do with this verse! It’s just a handy example.) In John 20:23, Jesus says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Now we all know that forgiveness of sins is something God alone can do; indeed Jesus shows clearly his divine authority by forgiving the sins of a paralysed man (Mark 2:5). So our first move is to go off to other parts of the New Testament, to reassure ourselves of what we know, and to try to find a way to fit the difficult verse into that framework. It might be a good fit or it might be pretty awkward, but we’ll have to jam it in there to make sure that the New Testament message holds together without hint of contradiction.
But what about the author? John hadn’t read the New Testament canon, he hadn’t had the centuries of doctrinal formulations to reflect on, and yet he still decided to put this line in. He still meant something by it. The problem with jumping straight to interpreting Scripture with Scripture is that we move away from what the author wanted to say by including that particular line in his gospel or letter, and move instead to what we expect the Bible to say. We tend to close our eyes to the diversity of the images and the language and the contexts in which the authors communicate, even on something as fundamental as how we can be saved.
Taken as they are, the story of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15, the conditional forgiveness in Mark 11:26, the authority of the disciples to forgive in John 20:23 and of course the salvation through childbearing in 1 Timothy 2:15, all give a slightly different picture of what forgiveness or salvation looks like and how we get it. Moulding them all into this one, ‘Biblical’ model, doesn’t seem to do justice to what each author wanted to say and why. Besides, how do we decide which is the Scripture by which we interpret all those other bits? It’s a discussion for another day, but it’s struck me recently that a lot of our theology on penal substitution seems to come from interpreting Scripture according to what we assume other parts of Scripture say. We end up with this entirely circular reasoning where, when it comes down to it, there are very few verses (if any) which actually say that Jesus was punished in our place, and yet that statement has become the interpretative rule by which we understand all other references to the cross in the New Testament.
Perhaps we do it because it’s a little bit dangerous to start talking about what John, or Luke, or Paul or even Isaiah wanted to say. It’s much safer to stick with what Jesus said (forgetting that it was recorded very differently by our four evangelists), or what the Holy Spirit inspired (forgetting the agendas of the writers and the needs of the communities they wrote to). Taking the Bible as it is, with all of its differences and complexities and even contradictions will leave us with some difficult parts to work through, and probably a lot of unanswered questions. But maybe that’s better than jumping straight into “interpreting Scripture with Scripture” – which often means having a preconceived idea of what the Bible should say and forcing all the inconvenient parts into that framework.
See what I mean? Almost entirely contradictory, and yet I still mean both of them. If I were examining my motives, I’d note that the first is about something important to me, so it particularly frustrates me when I see people take those verses at face value. The second is much more related to having academic integrity in the way we study the Bible, it’s definitely the way I think when I have my theologian hat on. I think I’m coming to a similar conclusion both times, in that it’s important to understand what the author was trying to say. But I seem to be advocating opposite principles to get there. I want to try to unpick this further but I have no idea where to go next… Any clues?