Sometimes we best prove our point by demonstrating the very flaw we’re trying to critique.
Last week, I noted the dangers to be found when we proclaim half-truths, statements which embrace part of reality while yet ignoring some of the important or problematic issues. No surprise here, but it seems that such a practice is not as isolated as we’d prefer.
A few weeks ago, a writer at Sojourners made a good argument, but only for about half the article. For the first bit, Stephen Mattson made a case that virtually anyone across the theological spectrum would make: Christians have a bad habit of foisting their cultural concerns onto their biblical interpretations.
As he puts it:
The term ‘biblical’ has become a convenient way of claiming something is “right” or doctrinally sound according to “Christian” standards, but it’s a catchphrase that’s lost its significance. In most contexts ‘biblical,’ or ‘Bible-based,’ or ‘biblically-centered’ can mean anything to anyone, and is commonly uttered to reinforce a particular viewpoint or partisan agenda.
In and of itself, this is entirely non-controversial. While Sojourners is an elder statesman among progressive evangelical journals, most conservative outlets would’ve said the said the same thing, provided you changed a few words over here or an illustration over there. Even yours truly has written an article or two along these lines.
Thus far, this is all very refreshing. Writers at Sojourners and BreakPoint disagree on many issues, so it’s nice to see this shared concern about the cultural cooption of Christ’s church. But, as pleasant as it is to bask in this moment of ecumenical equanimity, there are problems with the rest of piece which make this newfound agreement somewhat untenable.
First off, Mattson contrasts being “biblical” with being “Christlike.” This is kind of his main point, that instead of trying to be right by the words of the Bible, we need to be right by the person of Christ. As he says, “This doesn’t mean we should avoid studying scripture or disregard it as a useless religious icon, but the Bible should never get in the way of following Jesus.” He doesn’t exactly denigrate the biblical text in any overt way, but this comes awfully close.
One part of the problem is that he’s got an idiosyncratic definition of “biblical.”
Even the most anti-Christian messages can be buttressed by scripture, and it’s not surprising that slavery, Nazism, the KKK, and some of our world’s most horrible atrocities were — and are — committed under the guise of ‘being biblical.’
While I might quibble with using the fiercely anti-biblical tenets of National Socialism as an example of something “buttressed by scripture,” it’s clear that slavery, abortion, and other malign effects of the Fall have found those willing to twist the Bible to their ends.
But, that’s the thing. In order to promote evil in the world with the words of God, we have to twist them. As Mattson notes elsewhere, Satan used the Bible in his contest with Christ, but to refer to such diabolical hermeneutics, “being biblical” makes as much sense as speaking of Hannibal Lecter as “a people person.” You can’t call something biblical something which isn’t biblical just because you use biblical words.
Another problem here is that he’s added meanings to these terms that aren’t really inherent in them. This definitional duel of “Christlike” and “biblical” only works by artificially describing the two terms in opposition to one another. There’s just no reason why being biblical and being Christlike are mutually exclusive in any way. I get what he’s trying to get at, but he could just as easily have said it going the other direction, that not everything that is Christlike is biblical.
Now, if he’d wanted to say that not everything that is called biblical is actually Christlike, then he’d have had a point, and a good one at that. And, to his credit, he does sometimes put “biblical” in scare-quotes to distinguish this somewhat.
Even so, the overall concern about not reading God’s word through cultural filters would still work if he’d reversed the image to say that not everything that is called Christlike is actually biblical. He even could have had made a solid point, and I’d say a better one, by saying that not everything that is called biblical is biblical.
We all do this to some degree. Sometimes, it’s pretty simple, such as when we contrast supposedly stark terms like “righteousness” and “holiness” with more approachable words like “goodness,” although in different contexts these words are synonymous. Even the Apostle Paul plays with the definitions of words, contrasting somewhat the concepts of “good” and “righteous.” But, since both Paul and the rest of us make use of various definitions pretty regularly, there’s nothing really fundamental being said by such ad hoc contrasts.
It gets a little more complicated when we assign immutable meanings to otherwise interchangeable terms. We see this with the popular false dichotomy between “religion” and Christianity, a concern I’ve addressed elsewhere. From the emphasis that Mattson puts on the terms, I think it’s fair to say that his contrast is along these lines, that he sees definite daylight between the words of the Bible and the message of Christ.
And, this is the third problem. While Mattson wants to make sure that we don’t let “the Bible get in the way of following Jesus,” the reality is that we can have no understanding of Christlike character apart from an following the biblical message. Trying to ask “WWJD?” apart from the Bible is like wondering “what would Gandalf do?” separate from reading Tolkien. It simply cannot be done.
We only know of Jesus’ priorities from what we hear from the Bible, specifically from the likes of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Yes, we can pick up a few other things the Epistles of Paul and Peter and other New Testament books, and Old Testament prophecies add some color to our image. But, the point is that we have no knowledge of the Word of God (Jesus) apart from the Word of God (the Bible).
There are those who wish to prioritize the specific words of Jesus within the Gospels over against the words of their canonical authors. This is an understandable desire, as it is rather like to wanting to focus on verbatim quotes or primary sources as opposed to whatever editorializing that secondary writers may have added.
As nice as this sounds, even if we set aside questions of the inspiration of the Scriptures, trying to distinguish the words of Jesus from those of John is an exercise in futility. We only know of Jesus’s words, character, and life from what men like Matthew and Luke have chosen to share with us. It’s not as though we can go back to some archive where all of Jesus’ sermons are kept and use them to separate the “grain” of our Savior’s meaning from the “chaff” of His Apostles’ words. Anything we do to search for the one distinct from the other will only tell us what we want to find and what our own desires long to see.
However, the thing is, we can’t set aside the question of the Bible’s divine origin. The Bible is indeed a book, but it’s not just a book. It’s a book with more than a single set of authors. While each of the prophets, from Moses in Genesis to John in Revelation, speaks with a voice unique to his personality and culture’s literary customs, they also speak the very words of God.
Think about it. Paul doesn’t say that parts of Scripture are God-breathed, but “All” of it is. Mattson and others are correct when they call us to see Jesus as the focus on the rest of the Bible, but they err when they suggest that “the rest” possesses less value than the parts about Him. After all, if it’s all about Him, then it’s ALL about Him.
Here’s the bottom line. There is no red-letter Bible. The same Jesus who spoke the words of the Sermon on the Mount inspired Matthew in his description of that very same event. There is no difference between the words of Christ in the Gospels and the equally inspired words of Mark or Luke accompanying them. Despite valiant attempts to find the Jesus of history apart from the Christ of Christianity, this has been a quest without purpose. Thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit in the words of the prophets, we meet Christ in the Bible, fully and truly.
The final problem with the Sojourners article is that it both undermines and proves the author’s main point. That is, it manifests the very problem that the writer is, quite nobly, attempting to avoid. If we set the words of the Bible in a different category from knowing and following Jesus, we don’t clear away our personal and cultural biases from understanding the true nature of Christ; we put them in the driver’s seat.
We don’t avoid false ideas about Jesus by looking for the hidden kernel of truth in the supposedly mythical accounts of the Bible. Instead, it is when we put it on ourselves to find the reality behind the emphases of the biblical authors that we enter the myth-making business. Any “Jesus” we see lurking in the shadows of biblical texts aside from the One presented in those texts is a myth determined solely by our own individual or social priorities.
This is the same failing of the ancient Israelites who wanted to confine to familiar form the Eternal Yahweh who brought up out of Egypt by His power. It is the failing of the Early Church who tried to add adherence to dietary laws onto the all-sufficient sacrifice of Christ. And it is the failing of each and every one of us whenever we try use the imagery of God’s word to create a god in our own image.
There is a deep and abiding danger to be found when we impose our cultural quirks on the word of God, when we baptize our own prejudices with the exalted title of divine writ, and when we rip biblical passages from their contexts and use them for our own ends. Our intrinsic finitude and falleness mean that our hearts are perpetual idol factories, creating new gods after our own fashions that we might worship our own desires.
The works and words of Jesus don’t fit into comfortable categories that can be used to shield us from elements we don’t like. The friend of the poor and outcast rubbed elbows with religious leaders and economic oppressors. The meek and mild Jesus told a woman that she was a dog. The all-forgiving Christ spoke often about the reality of Hell. He will not be confined by our priorities, and any attempt to do so creates not a true image but an idol.
We don’t step away from our limited understanding by deciding for ourselves what is and is not accurate but by accepting the full word of Him who knows all things and has revealed Himself to us in His word. Once we divorce what it is to be Christlike from being biblical, we strip away from our own personal Jesus any reality beyond what we wish for on our own personal stars. Our cultural priorities and prejudices burst like old wine skins when confronted with the living power of God’s work in our lives. Only a God real enough to tear apart the old cloth of our priorities can guide us in this world that He is restoring for His glory.