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Bible Verse Arms Race

Bible Verse Arms Race July 5, 2013

I read a piece by Steven Harrell in Relevant Mag about the Bible Verse Arms Race, which could be called being right without being biblical, or being right without being good. Here’s a brief clip:

I like to call this exercise a “Bible Verse Arms Race.” The key to winning is to pile up as many verses on your side of the argument as you can while simultaneously discounting your opponent’s verses because they aren’t reading them in the correct context or they have the original language wrong.

It’s universally understood that New Testament verses always trump the Old Testament, and Jesus’ Red Letters always trump Paul. The game is most popular among high school students, seminary students and Emergent theology bloggers. (I’ll let you draw your own ironies from there.)

Predestination vs. free will. Consubstantiation vs. transubstantiation. Faith alone vs. good works. Scriptural authority vs. traditional authority. Mysticism vs. orthodoxy. For 2,000 years, each side has had verses that seem to very much confirm their relevance to the faith, while other verses seem to diminish them altogether….

So, what do we do? Is it possible to determine the way we ought to act through Scripture alone? Can we model our actions and beliefs on the whole of the Bible and be certain we’re being faithful to God’s design?

I think the answer goes back to the 2,000-year-old conflict between faith (good theology) and works (good actions).

Here’s one of his kickers to upload into your thinking and into our conversation today: some turn being right into the opportunity to make everything they believe into what is right.

In my (biased) view, many folks “have faith” in Christianity because they believe Christianity is “right.” In other words, that it’s historically true, morally sound and spiritually resonant. But once they’ve taken the name “Christian” and now stand on the “right side,” they reverse-engineer their newfound faith to match their long-standing beliefs, biases and preferences.

Now his second kicker:

This is why the Bible Verse Arms Race is not a very good way to discover Biblical truth. When two people, each with a firmly held “faith,” find as many verses as possible to uphold their belief and dismiss the others, no one leaves convinced of anything except that the other person is stubborn. (Including, I might add, an increasingly post-modern, relativist world that sees these debates as archaic and disingenuous.)

I think Jesus offers a solution in Matthew 7:15-20, when He warns against false prophets. “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit … Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”

In much of our Christian culture, the evidence of “good faith” is belief in the “right answers” of Christianity, defended by a large collection of Bible Verses. Jesus’ words in Matthew 7 directly challenge this notion, as He proposes good deeds are the tangible effects of good faith.

James says it a different way, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like” (James 1:22-24).

As someone who has taught and written about James for thirty years, and attempted to live his message out, I’m keen on hearing someone affirm that text from James. It’s one of those “first this, and then second that” or “first things first, and until you get first things first the whole is distorted”…

Am I saying seeking the solutions to complicated theological problems is useless? No, such work can help perceive the character of God. But unless we strive to live in a way that reflects this discovered character, systematic theology devolves quickly into a clanging cymbal.


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