Is There Ambiguity in the Bible? (RJS)

Chapter four of Dr. John Polkinghorne’s little book  Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible explores the ambiguity he finds in the bible.

The tapestry of life is not coloured in simple black and white, representing an unambiguous choice between the unequivocally bad and the unequivocally good. The ambiguity of human deeds and desires means that life includes many shades of grey. What is true of life in general is true also of the bible in particular. An honest reading of scripture will acknowledge the presence in its pages of various kinds of ambiguity. (p. 33)

In many ways ambiguity simply means real life, the incidents and characters in scripture are multidimensional. Even the best of humans are not all good and fail at times, sometimes quite spectacularly. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David are good examples here. They lie, they steal, they swindle, they murder and they benefit from their deceit. The bible whitewashes none of this.

The violence and the outworking of justice in the Old Testament provide other examples of ambiguity. Achan died for his theft and deceit, and his family died with him despite the fact that he confessed when confronted (Joshua 7). David suffered no such fate for violating God’s commandments (2 Sam 11-12). Jesus, Matthew tells us, is descended from Solomon, son of David by Uriah’s wife. (Luke has the descent of Jesus run though Nathan to David, avoiding Solomon … another kind of ambiguity to consider).

Do you see ambiguity in scripture? If so, where?

There are other aspects to the ambiguity in scripture, aspects that deal with God and the character of God. Dr. Polkinghorne begins with Genesis 22 where God tested Abraham telling him to sacrifice Isaac on an altar at Mount Moriah. This story seems pointless and unnecessarily severe. Perhaps this story was intended to teach Israel that the child sacrifice practiced by neighboring nations was not God’s will. Perhaps we should read it Christologically. The story of Abraham and Isaac is a type (a symbolically anticipatory event) of the death of Christ on the cross. But there is ambiguity in the event and in its purpose.

Dr. Polkinghorne sees ambiguity as well in some of the NT stories of the life of Jesus.

The miracle at the wedding at Cana seems out of place. Is this a matter of fact report of a miracle at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus? The placement in John just before the cleansing of the Temple must have a symbolic purpose.  Is the transformation of water to wine a real event? Or could it be a symbolic narrative incorporated as if enacted to make a point about Jesus? Of course it could be both – an enacted symbolic event.

The interaction between Jesus and the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28 is another incident Dr. Polkinghorne finds ambiguous. He suggests that Jesus in his humanity was unsure what to do in this instance. Jesus was persuaded to action by the woman’s bold stance.

Judas Iscariot is an ambiguous character. He was chosen by Jesus and yet he betrayed Jesus.

Much Christian thinking has seen Judas as wholly evil from the start, as if he were a kind of devil incarnate. I do not think this is credible in the light of his having been chosen by Jesus. I find helpful the interpretation of Judas offered by Dorothy Sayers in her play-cycle about Jesus, The Man Born to be King. She suggests that Judas, like Peter, found it difficult to accept that Jesus was not going to be a militant Messiah who would destroy the forces of the Roman occupying power, but that he was to be a crucified Messiah, accepting the way of the suffering (Mark 8:31-33). (p. 39)

Perhaps Judas tried to force the matter and when it led to crucifixion he was overcome by remorse and driven to suicide. (Mt 27:1-5)

The ambiguity doesn’t end with the gospels. Dr. Polkinghorne also sees ambiguity in the writings of Paul. Paul wrestles around many different issues, at times his deep humanity and his struggles show through, at other times he writes with deep theological insight.

The presence of ambiguity in the text of scripture should shape our approach to scripture. The bible is not an answer book for all of life’s problems and questions, but a window on God’s interactions with is people and their reaction, good bad, and indifferent with shades of grey.

Do you find any of the ambiguities in scripture troubling? If so, what and why?

What attitude should we take as we study and meditate on scripture?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

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  • Rick

    Is the ambiguity “in the text”, or in our understanding of the text (including potentially making too much of a text: “not an answer book for all of life’s problems and questions)?

    If “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”, then even the ambiguous portions play a role in that. We just have to dig deeper, and/or look at the bigger picture, when reading it.

  • Paul W

    Sure there are all sorts of ambiguities throughout the Scriptures. I’d be utterlly suprised if anyone disagreed. As to an attitudinal stance toward it I’d say that curiosity would be a good one.

    I know when I come across some sort of ambiguity I wonder all sorts of things about it: am I being dense, is there an inherent trouble in the translation, is it purposeful and so on and so forth.

  • http://whatyouthinkmatters.org/blog Andrew Wilson

    I wonder if, like Empson (and probably Polkinghorne), distinguishing between different types of ambiguity would be helpful. Most of Polkinghorne’s examples here are not texts which are ambiguous in the everyday sense of “capable of two or more meanings”, but ideas and individuals who are ambiguous more in the sense of “complex, variously expressed, or mysterious”. That’s not to deny that the former exist, though – just to say that this is different from the ambiguity of Judas, or the sacrifice of Isaac.

  • RJS

    Andrew,

    I think that these texts and others we could mention are capable of two or more meanings because they are complex and variously expressed. The individuals are complex, the situations are complex, the messages are complex. The surface reading doesn’t plumb the depths and just may get the “real” intent and meaning wrong.

  • JT

    Add that we lack understanding of political and historical context. We often read scripture with the understanding of the 20th century mind. I found the question as to how to interpret God’s request of Abraham to sacrifice Isaac interesting. Surely the symbolism of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son as God sacrificed His isn’t a new idea? The purpose of ambiguity is to keep the Bible from being regarded as a big law book so that we will learn to seek God at all times for wisdom and mercy. It is this individual faith that sets Christianity apart from other world religions. This is why Jesus taught in parable, so that we would think and ponder and seek, rather than just blindly accept “do this and do not do that” legalism. This was the purpose of the Jewish laws – to help us realize our inability to follow them and just fall on God for guidance and grace – as Paul says, “to lead us to Christ.”

  • Richard Jones

    Judas was no more an “ambiguous” figure than any of us were prior to the renewal of our minds.

    The fact that God can take evil people (Nebuchadnezzer, Xerxes, Cyrus, among others) and accomplish His purposes speaks more to God’s greatness rather than any moral equivalence.

  • Amos Paul

    Of course there’s ambiguity. Even the literal Biblicists, if I may be so bold, accept that when they look for genre and type of text to figure out what’s going on.

    That being said, for one specific pushback–I think that:

    “The interaction between Jesus and the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28 is another incident Dr. Polkinghorne finds ambiguous. He suggests that Jesus in his humanity was unsure what to do in this instance. Jesus was persuaded to action by the woman’s bold stance.”

    Is going too far. I accept *plenty* of ambiguity even in the Gospels, but probably take them far more literally than I do most other Biblical texts. In this case, Jesus was acting so radically and definitively (presumably insulting somone to their face–common behavior for Him?), that I believe the story *begs* to be interpreted with meaning more than simply, “Oh, He was human after all.

    And let us not forget, this situation is *also* important because it is one of the only two instances that Christ praises someone for *great faith*. The woman and the centurion–each gentiles who took big risks to overcome barriers and profess trust in Christ as merciful and powerful Lord.

  • RJS

    Amos,

    It doesn’t help to be dismissive. Polkinghorne is not simplistic here as in “oh, he was human after all”. He only discusses this briefly and is suggesting that there is a real interaction with give and take, not a set-up lesson for the later church. Did Jesus change his mind and relent?

  • Amos Paul

    RJS,

    Ah, but here is where saying the story has no intended meaning *makes no sense*, because this isn’t a video camera that followed Christ around documenting everything he did. It’s a narrative *written by a person* to teach us about Jesus and His life.

    With the Gospels, virtually every line is dripping with meaning. It’s not because every single action Jesus took was a symbolic lesson to the church–but because the Gospels were wrtten specifically to teach us about Jesus. Both the style and brevity of the Gospel texts themselves are such that they focus on things that the writers saw as imporant for us to learn about nature of Jesus. The Gospels have an agenda.

    It would, IMO, be weird if this entire exchange was included within the narrative with *no* specific meaning(s) in mind. And, as I stated, the whole scene is just so un-characteristic of Christ (on the surface) that it sticks out like a sore thumb. Jesus insults random woman. Praises her for great faith. What?

  • Amos Paul

    Addendum: But, no, my personal opinion is not that Christ changed His mind in that scenario. I believe that He was prepared in the Spirit to tell her the truth–that what she asked for was not something she deserved. She was not holy. She wasn’t even one of God’s people. Is it right to take potential blessing from God’s people and give it to some stray un-holy animal?

    She admitted everything He said with the caveat that, while nothing but an un-deserving animal, she trusted Jesus to be a merciful and plentiful master. So much that even his ‘scraps’ are more than enough for her.

    This confession was ‘great faith’.

    I don’t believe that Jesus nor the Gospel writers would insult this random woman asking for help without a reason.

  • J Williams

    If you’ve never done this I would highly recommend it. If you have a friend who was not raised in a Christian home, whose willing to admit they’ve never really read the Bible, and may or may not have an aversion to Christianity – read through the first 11 or so chapters in Genesis together and pause each time they have a question/concern about any aspect of the text. You will see how often you default to filling in gaps with explanations that are either based on systematic categories, or influenced by your reading/interpretation of the rest of the Bible. What I found interesting is how little can be answered based on a reading of Genesis alone. If nothing else it attests to the ambiguity in the Genesis text itself.

  • Glenn Sunshine

    Auerbach in Mimesis points to the spareness of the scriptural accounts compared to the fullness of the descriptions in Homer. This ties to the Jewish concept that only God knows a person’s thoughts–even our own heart is a mystery to us, but not to God. Therefore the narrator rarely if ever tells us why someone acts or wht they thought; they only report what they did and said. This introduces ambiguity into the text automatically, e.g. with Judas. It is simultaneously a theological statement, but also I think an invitation to us to engage in some midrashic explorations of the text and to find ourselves in it. So yes, depending on definitions I think the text does include ambiguity, and for very important theological and hermeneutical reasons.

  • http://www.thefaithlog.com Jeff Doles

    Yes,there are ambiguities in the Scriptures. But a hazard I see is how easily we can impose our own ambiguities on the Scriptures. If we don’t understand someting, or if we disagree, we an move pretty quickly to assuming that the problem is not in us but in an “ambiguous” text.

  • Rick

    “Dr. Polkinghorne also sees ambiguity in the writings of Paul. Paul wrestles around many different issues, at times his deep humanity and his struggles show through, at other times he writes with deep theological insight. The presence of ambiguity in the text of scripture should shape our approach to scripture. The bible is not an answer book for all of life’s problems and questions, but a window on God’s interactions with is people and their reaction, good bad, and indifferent with shades of grey.”

    Is Paul’s thinking ambiguous, or is our understanding ambiguous.

    I greatly appreciate Dr. P and his work, but I do wonder how much his scientific mindset impacts his view of Scripture. Does his stance on the perpescuity of Scripture have a scientific foundation, so that when he struggles with a passage, he assumes it is an issue in the text, rather than the observer? I am just thinking out loud.

  • RJS

    Amos Paul (#9),

    Dr. Polkinghorne would agree (and so do I) with your point that the gospel writers had a theological agenda in the incidents they relate and the way in which the organize the incidents and tell the story. But this is where a level of ambiguity comes into play. The story of the wedding at Cana is dripping with meaning. John then moves into a description of the cleansing of the temple, an event placed in the final week of Jesus’s life and ministry in the Synoptics. This placement is also ripe with meaning – but I don’t think it means that Jesus cleansed the temple twice.

  • RJS

    By the way, I am not convinced that “ambiguous” is quite the right term to describe these features of scripture. As a contrast to clear and certain it is a useful description.

  • http://virtualclaritymagazine.org Phil Schomber

    I agree the Bible can be ambiguous in the sense that on the surface it is open to more than one interpretation in various places. But, that surface ambiguity doesn’t change the fact that the author of any given passage intended to say something in that passage and our goal is find that intended meaning, even if it is difficult to do at times. I agree with Polkinghorne that the Bible serves as a window on God’s interaction with His people, rather than an answer book for all of life’s problems. But, that seems to me to be a function of God’s desire to teach us about Himself. Presumably, the specific interactions recounted are recounted because they say something about God, which both God and the author want us to understand. That’s not to say there’s never any tension inherent within the truth conveyed. But, even then there is truth being conveyed.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    RJS#16 has hit the nail on the head for me. All day I have been struggling with this and I think it is the word *ambiguous* that is giving me the problem.

    As Rick (and Amos, and likely Jeff…) implys, there is a negative connotation to ambiguous in most circles today so people feel compelled to defend the bible when someone says something negative about it.

    I prefer to think about the bible being open ended or closed. It is the openness of the text that gives it power.

  • John W Frye

    RJS, you responded to Andrew with this: “I think that these texts and others we could mention are capable of two or more meanings because they are complex and variously expressed. The individuals are complex, the situations are complex, the messages are complex. The surface reading doesn’t plumb the depths and just may get the “real” intent and meaning wrong.”

    As your response stands, IMO it needs to be reined in a little. Your response, like you as a complex person, is a complex comment. Do you want us to delve for deeper meanings in it? If we take it at face value–the plain reading—will we miss the “real” meaning? I am not quibbling with the topic–the ambiguity of Scripture texts, but with your broad-stroke response to Andrew.

  • RJS

    John,

    Let me edit and clarify my response a bit, I don’t think the first attempt quite made my point.

    Polkinghorne’s discussion of the wedding at Cana incident got me thinking about a number of things here. And I went back and read through the first few chapters of John as a result. I’ve heard many sermons, probably more than a dozen, where this passage about the wedding in Cana was discussed in some detail. The things that were emphasized include the fact that Jesus obeyed his mother, that he was his hidden divinity was known, that he produced good wine from water, premium stuff. I don’t think I’ve heard anyone discuss the role this miracle plays in the story of Jesus that John is putting together in his Gospel.

    The significance of the incident is far more profound than the “surface” reading isolated from its context suggests. Polkinghorne toys with the idea that perhaps the miracle didn’t really occur, not because it recounts a miracle (after all he does believe that Jesus performed real miracles) but because the story has a deep theological impact in the greater context of John’s theological shaping of the Gospel. Perhaps, he muses, John constructed the story for his theological point.

    Polkinghorne doesn’t say this, but I think it more likely that Jesus turned the water to wine to enact the deeper theological point. It was a deeply symbolic act and John realized this and used the incident in his construction of the Gospel story.

    I don’t know if every sermon and bible study I’ve seen or heard on the wedding at Cana has missed the point or if I’ve just missed the point. Ambiguity isn’t really the right word for this – but there is a depth that we miss in the “plain reading” that isolates this miracle from the greater scheme of John’s presentation.

  • Gart

    Scripture is God breathed. It doesn’t say all scripture is God hammered, chiseled, cast, etc.


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