How many times have you heard the expression, “the clear teaching of the Bible”? It seems to be a common notion that there are certain things which the Bible plainly teaches and that there can be no argument about those points. Whenever I personally hear that expression, “the clear teaching of the Bible”, I wonder if the speaker has been reading the same book that I have. During my own lifetime I have seen and understood the Bible in several dramatically different ways. I am more and more convinced as time passes that the Bible is a study in subtlety and counterintuitive reality. Its study has been described as similar to peeling an onion; under each layer of understanding lies a new layer to be explored and hopefully grasped. This may be a crude analogy, but it more nearly describes the continuously dynamic book I perceive than the orthodox notion that all truth was understood and certified by the various creedal councils over the past 2000 years.
The people of his day more often than not misunderstood Jesus and his message. Jesus said that the use of parables was for the purpose of veiling the truth. Christ was deliberately and purposefully obtuse. Likewise, the Old Testament scriptures are ripe with symbolism and hyperbolic prophetic language, much of which is not understood until it is amplified and clarified by the New Testament scriptures. Any claim of clarity in the Old Testament without reference to the New is clearly misplaced. “Clear passages” by definition don’t require clarification.
There are 2000 pages to the Bible for a reason. No one begins to see the true picture of God and how he operates without considering every last word of the book. People often speak of the necessity of understanding the Bible passages in their context, but then they turn right around and attempt to quote a few isolated “proof-texts” to support a certain doctrinal position and claim that this settles the matter. Well, for me the context of a particular text is the rest of the Bible in its entirety. No verse or series of verses by themselves settle any doctrinal issue, period. If a relatively small portion of the Bible proves all the essential doctrinal issues, then what is the remaining text all about? Are they superfluous? What about the verses that no one ever quotes as “Proof-texts”?
What about verses that seem to contradict or modify other “clear verses”? These contradictions are undeniably there. What are we to make of this? Is the Bible in error? Again, I see these contradictions as an example of God’s subtlety and counterintuitive nature. For mankind, especially under the old law, everything needed to be black or white. There was no allowance for shades of gray. Truth could not cut both ways at the same time. Ultimate reality, however, is not necessarily so straightforward. We learn much from the physical world, which helps in our appreciation of the spiritual realm in which God operates. For instance, we now know that physical reality, at least at the subatomic level, is nothing like straightforward. Classical Newtonian physics, the kind we studied in high school, does not apply. The operation of these minute “particles” is completely baffling and counterintuitive. What, if anything, do these “particles” teach us about the spiritual realities? I am not sure exactly, but I’d suggest that we will ultimately find those realities to be equally counterintuitive. Anything we glean from the Bible which seems clear, obvious, and simple is probably not the complete picture. In fact, it is more than likely to be completely the wrong picture.
In my youth I was taught that the Bible was our instruction book, which must be understood, believed, and followed in order to be acceptable to God. In my young adulthood, the Bible became a rejected source of personal frustration. No one could willingly embrace this story of the fickle God who could create but not maintain. In stage three, for the benefit of my children, I again tried to return the Bible to a place of prominence but the old issues kept cropping up. What kind of God demands love? Can love be demanded? What kind of God creates in declared perfection and then has that perfection overturned by his own created being? What kind of God asks me to love my enemies and then condemns his to eternal hellfire? All of these questions came up because I continued to perceive the Bible as a “Salvation Instruction” manual. Finally, in my later life, I have entered what I hope to be a final but yet dynamic stage of understanding. I now recognize that the Bible is not a book about what man must do for God but rather a book about what God has done for man. At last I have reached a point where I no longer ask myself to believe what to me is morally and ethically repugnant, just because somebody quotes a scripture that seemingly supports that idea.
I know for a historical fact that almost anyone can find a “proof-text” for whatever hateful thing they want to justify. Everyone wants to be their neighbor’s instructor in righteousness because it just feels so good to be “right”. There is a powerful name for that “feel good” sensation; it is called “self-righteousness”.