Thursday, April 12, 2012

Defending Scripture. Literally - Carolyn Arends

What follows is my April CT column, documenting a bit of my journey with understanding the Bible. I'm curious to know how you interact with it. Are these ideas new and challenging, or issues you resolved years ago? Am I touching on things that are obvious (even cliche), or controversial?

Blessings on your own journey with the Word.

Defending Scripture. Literally.

Not everything the Bible has to say should be literally interpreted. But that doesn't make it less powerful.

Carolyn Arends In the April, 2012 issues of Christianity Today, posted online 04/01/2012

I attended a Christian university in the long ago days of acid wash denim and Commodore 64s. One of my classmates, Ken Jacobsen, had a gift for impersonation. He was renowned for his imitation of Bono on the U2 song "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." "I have spoke with the tongue of angels," he'd croon when he got to the fourth verse. "I have held the hand of a devil." But then he'd alter the lyric and sing, "N-o-t literally. It's only a metaphor." That always got a huge laugh.

It's been decades, but I still remember the joke. I realize now it was humorous not only for its inherent silliness, but also for the way it held up a mirror to something funny about ourselves.

Most of us were earnest, sincere evangelicals. We weren't biblical studies majors, but we saw the defense of the Bible as our sworn duty. Against the onslaught of those who sought to undermine Scripture's authority, we committed ourselves to upholding it as the reliable Word of God.

One of the unintended side effects of our fervor was that we took almost everything literally, at least in spiritual matters. Generally, we weren't very good with oblique metaphors and analogies. And if, like Bono, you talked about spiritual things in a seemingly unorthodox way, well, we worried.

There was much that was good about our impulses, and maybe they were necessary in a time when the "battle for the Bible" was raging. But for me, and, I suspect, others like me, our "literalist" convictions left us confused in significant ways—not only about song lyrics, but, much more tragically, about Scripture itself.

All these years later, I'm learning that understanding the literal meaning of the Bible is a more nuanced adventure than my college friends and I imagined. We'd been blithely unaware that there is more than one genre in the Bible, or that literary context profoundly matters to meaning. We didn't understand that when we read ancient Hebrew prose poems (like Genesis 1), wisdom literature (like Proverbs), or apocalyptic literature (like Revelation) as if they were science textbooks, we were actually obscuring their meaning.

For me, the most negative consequence of all that well-intentioned literalism was the conviction that Yahweh, having given us his straightforward Word, was completely comprehensible. This paradigm both diminished my perception of God and set up my faith for crisis when I discovered aspects of God that remain stubbornly shrouded in mystery.

If you'd told me back then that the language we have for God—even (especially) much of our biblical language—must be understood analogically, I would have prayed for you and backed away slowly. I wouldn't have understood that there are no words that can be applied to God exactly the same way they are applied to creaturely things, no language that can be used "univocally."

When I say that I am "alive" and God is "alive," the word "alive" is analogical, not univocal—it does not apply to me (a temporal creature) the same way it applies to God (who is eternal). The same goes for words like "good" or "powerful." Connotations of imperfection or limitation must be deleted from any word when it is applied to God, and the notions (as best as we can conceive them) of total perfection and completion must be added.

Understanding this sooner would have helped me with biblical descriptions of God's "wrath." I can only get a glimmer of what God's wrath looks like when I divest the word of the human implications of self-centered, reactionary anger, and condition it with the unchanging goodness that must clarify all of God's attributes. Or take the word "Father." The claim that God is our heavenly "Father" can ultimately mean something wonderful, even to my friends who had terrible human dads, because the word is not used univocally when it's applied to God.

J. I. Packer likens our relationship with God to that of a two-year-old with a father who has a brain of Einsteinian proportions. To make relationship possible, the father will have to accommodate himself to the toddler he loves. The child will know her daddy, but she won't completely comprehend him. What the father reveals to the daughter will be true, as far as it goes. But there will always be more.

We shouldn't be surprised (or worried) that in his overtures to us God uses every kind of language available—straightforward (but culturally lensed) historical narrative, analogy, metaphor, parable, poetry, apocalyptic vision, and, hallelujah, the Word made flesh, Jesus. The best way to receive his Word is with the humble conviction that not only can we find what we're looking for, it (he) will be more than we could hope for, imagine, or fully comprehend. That's the best news there is.


Copyright © 2012 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.


Diana said...

Very well put, Carolyn. It's taken me a few decades and much prayer... and studying a lot about Jewish culture, both in Jesus' day, and now, to get a glimmer of what God is saying to us. And to understand that, really, we do get only glimmers. Beautiful glimmers, but "through a glass darkly."

I praise God for His grace as we struggle to comprehend.

violet said...

I think I hear what you're saying. But it leaves me with questions ... like who decides what is metaphorical and what is literal? Do I decide for myself? Does some seminary prof with his insights into Hebrew/Greek, history and customs? Or do I flow with the evangelical consensus of the day? Huge chunks of Christianity have split apart from each other over disagreements in these matters. (The current controversy over the existence of a literal hell is one such issue.)

Peter Black said...

Thanks Carolyn,
I take no issue with your views as expressed here, and I've enjoyed the stimulation and challenge you present.

Diana's journey reflects what I suspect many a dedicated and thoughtful Christian believer encounters. That is, that one's increasing knowledge of the cultural and spiritual / religious milieu of Bible times –as well as the languages and literary genres out of which the biblical scriptures were written, while presenting difficulties (such as those Violet correctly raises), does not necessarily lead to a retreat from true faith.
Rather, the process can ultimately be enriching to one’s faith and lead to an even more authentic expression of it in life. (Hmm. Long sentence, eh?)

Carolyn Arends said...

Diana, Violet and Peter - Thanks for your comments!

Violet, I think you are asking the right questions--ones as believers we all need to wrestle with. And you're pointing to a huge implication of the discussion - our awareness of our propensity to misunderstand aspects of an inspired-but-ancient-and-culturally-situated-document should make us humble listeners and students rather than contentious combatants. I'd suggest a lot of the "splits" you describe are a product of underestimating the complexity of our relationship with the text. Fortunately, our primary relationship is with the Living God, whose Holy Spirit will help us at all times with this adventure with his Word - if we let him!

Part of that adventure just might be, as you allude to, making use of the critical and linguistic scholarship available to us. If I was living on a desert island and I just had my English Bible - would I have enough? Of course! But I'm not on a desert island - and to whom much has been given, much is expected, right?

Anyway - thanks to all 3 of your for your thoughts - there is much more here to ponder! said...

Brilliance is what best describe the wordings.

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