“The Bible is crystal-clear about Jesus being God, and the Holy Trinity. I compiled several hundred prooftexts about that in the early 80s.”
Bragging about proof-texting in the 80s—this is some fundamentalist Bible church preacher who thinks he’s a hot-shot arguing with my Reformed theology professor in the mid-90s, surely? Nope. These words were written by Dave Armstrong in the National Catholic Register late last week. Oh dear. Register editorial staff, please call the office…
Is the Bible “Clear”?
On the Facebook wall where this fundamentalist absurdity was brought to my attention, a discussion ensued about what, if anything, the Bible is “crystal-clear about.” Given issues of translation, temporal and cultural remoteness of the communities to whom the words were first given, and the diversity of style and purpose of the original authors, most of my friends agreed: very little.
I suggested that, if anything can be called “clear” in the Bible, it would be similar core messages that are echoed by many different voices, speaking to various situations at different times. When we hear the same refrains from such diverse canonical witnesses, we can feel comfortable concluding that this is an expression of universal truth, not just a context-specific application.
And what are those universal refrains throughout the Bible? Primarily commands of social justice: feed the hungry, care for the sick, provide for the widow and orphan. Don’t lie, cheat, steal, or exploit people.
While I’m sure there are some who might debate this interpretative gloss of mine, I think the more interesting discussion would be to consider why we care what is “clear” in the Bible anyway. What is the purpose of Scripture in the Christian life, and what is the aim of interpretation? Not only do I generally prefer discussing orthopraxis over orthodoxy, but this also gives me an opportunity to review the book I just finished: Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, the last book published by Rachel Held Evans before her untimely death this spring.
Law Textbook or Literature?Dave Armstrong’s presentation of the Bible is insipid—as crystal-clear, tasteless, and simple as pure water. A life-giving necessity, to be sure, but hardly sufficient or interesting on its own.
While acknowledging the diversity of authors, literary genres, cultural assumptions, and original languages that go into making the Bible, and the need for “interpretation pointers,” Armstrong presents the Bible as a cut-and-dry, even dumbed-down, instructional manual from God. The Bible is like a grand scientific theory, he says, like evolution or relativity. “Difficulties” are just a product of our inferior minds or gaps in the empirical record. The “infinitely intelligent God… simplifies it as much as possible,” but we’re too dull to understand it without authorized teachers explaining it further to us.
Armstrong seems to be profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of multiple interpretations of Biblical texts. He’s particularly antagonistic to any interpretations that might contract his own reading. “I have always found it to be clear on any given topic I explored,” he says. After noting that “there are many religious groups that reject the Trinity” despite his brilliant accumulation of proof-texts on the matter, he concludes, “That’s why we need authoritative interpretation and the notion of orthodoxy: to have a way to determine truths and stop all the relativistic competing interpretations.”
Armstrong also analogizes the authoritative interpretation of the Catholic Church to the Supreme Court deciding the meaning of laws. I am a lawyer by trade, and while I embraced a similar way of thinking when I was a new convert and before law school, it strikes me as specious now. Most of the Bible isn’t legal text. The parts of it that are, like Leviticus, are not considered to be current law by Christians, since the first Council of Jerusalem dispensed with its application to non-Jewish believers. Furthermore, the Supreme Court doesn’t settle interpretative disputes unless there are opposing parties who are tangibly aggrieved by the interpretation. It doesn’t pontificate about esoteric formulations of the nature of things, as competing theologians often do. And of course, sometimes the Supreme Court gets its judgments wrong. Sometimes its “consistent tradition of interpretation” needs to be overturned. But Armstrong would allow no such course correction for Biblical interpretations by the Catholic Church.
This pursuit of One Right Answer in Biblical texts is a hideous notion to literature lovers like myself, no more appropriate than reading Flannery O’Connor like a SCOTUS decision. I find much more to commend in the rich literary style of “Christian memoirist” Rachel Held Evans when she discusses the interpretation and use of Biblical texts.