He Treats the Bible Like It’s Some Kind of Gospel Truth!: A Couple Scattered Thoughts

on Wesley Hill’s review of Christian Smith’s new book, a book I 100% haven’t read and doubt I would understand. Amateur night at the Apollo!

It took me a while to grasp what Hill was doing with the example of the Catholic Church. He’s actually arguing, I’m pretty sure, that since Catholic doctrine has a lot of specific, settled positions which come from a Christocentric reading of the Bible but with which most evangelicals will disagree, you can’t escape Christian disagreement by just encouraging us all to read the Bible Christocentrically. That’s totally right and he explains it well at the end of that paragraph.

It took me a minute to get it, though, because I worried that Hill was overemphasizing the places where Catholic doctrine really is settled, acting as if the Church has answered all the big questions with a yes or no. Sure, right, women’s ordination is Right Out, but there are plenty of major controversial issues on which simply being Catholic doesn’t get you out of the argument: soteriological questions (both who gets saved and how), ethical ones e.g. use of violence, etc. Noting this diversity and argument within the Catholic Church actually makes Hill’s own point, though, that Christocentric reading of Scripture doesn’t settle every controversy.

My own basic position is that the polysemy of the Bible isn’t a problem to be solved. It’s the nature of the text, it has a whole lot of beauty and richness, it responds to the weirdness of human life, it’s a problem to live through as a Christian and a reader of the Bible. The fluidity and crazy collisions of the text are part of the point.

I don’t want to denigrate the longing for clear answers. Figuring out if and when you can use violence, or whether your Communist grandparents are going to Hell, are pretty intensely important and emotionally-fraught questions. In general I would like answers to these questions, not “yay, freedom and diversity of opinion (about when you can hurt people)!” But the Bible is really not an answer key to these questions, and if it were such a key, it would be a much less vital, responsive, challenging, almost fleshy text.

I would distinguish “Scripture doesn’t have a clear position on tons of important stuff” from the community/authority questions, “Where did you get your Bible? With whom and in obedience to whom do you interpret it?”, which really do need answers.

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