Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Does the Bible Teach Anything Clearly?

Photo courtesy Rushay (RUSH) Booysen
"Well, that's an odd title for a Christian blog," you may say to yourself.

Maybe, but a scholarly blog I ran across recently (thanks to Twitter) quotes Wayne Meeks, a famous biblical scholar, who believes we should stop using the phrase, "The Bible clearly teaches..."

So let us renounce the phrase, “the Bible clearly teaches” (says Dr. Meeks).  And every time we hear it let us immediately be on our guard... In our situation, when people say, “the Bible clearly teaches,” instead of, for example, “we can learn from the Bible if we stand within a certain community’s tradition,” or “we can find these ideas in Scripture if we construe Scripture in such-and-such a way”… when they do that, they are really masking the locus of the authority they are claiming.


Now, I have to agree with Dr. Meeks in one sense. Most of the times that Christianity has had egg on its face over the last 2000 years have been times when we weren't actually insisting on some scripture but on our own explanation of it. Handy example: the legendary conflict between Galileo and the Catholic Church. What the Church actually ended up defending was the greek scientist Ptolemy's idea of how the universe works -- not that "God the Father Almighty [is the] maker of heaven and earth," as the old creed says. Galileo himself believed that too, after all.

Teachers of Christianity always have to make sure that what we're defending is what the Bible itself says and not our explanation of what the Bible says.

That isn't my main point today but it would make a good topic, so I may post on it in the future.

Fuzziness

That doesn't seem to be Dr. Meeks' main point either. He appears to be saying that the Bible itself isn't clear, that you can't say the Bible clearly teaches anything because it clearly doesn't. To get anything worthwhile out of it at all you must "construe" it or draw its meaning from a "certain community's tradition."

But think about this: All of the things the Bible contains were written by people who knew what they meant at the time. And much of it was written to other people who also knew what they meant. And although we live at a 2 to 3 thousand year remove from their time, it is still entirely possible to recover what they meant. Historians and textual critics and archaeologists do it all the time and with all kinds of books -- not just the Bible.

Have you ever read Homer's Iliad and Odyssey?  You may not have gotten every cultural nuance but did you pick up the main points? Doesn't the Iliad clearly teach that Agamemnon and Achilles, both full of pride, quarrelled over the captured princess Briseis causing Achilles to leave the battle (trust me, it does).

What about Plato and Aristotle? Do we know pretty clearly what they taught? Yes. Why? Because we know a lot about them, their world, and can read their language. Sort of like any other book you read. Including the Bible.

If we read it intelligently, the Bible is quite clear on most things. True some passages are a bit obscure (nobody is sure what St. Paul is getting at here, for instance. Or here.). But it is not a fuzzy, obscure book, and there are a disturbingly large number of things that 'the Bible clearly says'.


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