The incomplete jigsaw puzzle of Biblical interpretation (Christian Smith)

The incomplete jigsaw puzzle of Biblical interpretation (Christian Smith) May 2, 2013

The 2nd century Gnostic heretics were very good at constructing airtight, scripture-based arguments for their beliefs. In response to this, church father Ireneaus wrote that the verses in the Bible are like a mosaic of painted tiles that can be arranged in any order. He said that the same set of tiles that ordered correctly create the mosaic of a beautiful lamb had been reordered by the Gnostics to make a fox. This is a very important point about the problem of proof-texting Bible verses out of context and the naivete of assuming that we can or should give perfectly equally weight to each verse. In Christian Smith’s book The Bible Made Impossible, he takes this metaphor a step further.

The Bible functions something like… a particular, enormous jigsaw puzzle with a huge number of pieces… This is a very unusual puzzle… Different pieces can be fit together in different ways to form distinctly different pictures. Nearly all of them are portraits of people. One is of a scowling old man, another of a sweet young girl, yet another a pregnant woman, and still a fourth is a tired-looking police officer…

The puzzlers discover that many of the pieces that make one portrait can be rearranged differently, with some pieces removed and others added, to make other portraits. Not only that, but in any given picture, enough of the pieces fit together to fill in most of the image, but not all of it. Every picture, no matter how well it is put together, still has some missing puzzle pieces. [45-46]

I think this is a very helpful metaphor for describing the inherent nature of interpreting any text. It’s important to name what he’s saying and what he isn’t saying. It isn’t that the Bible is somehow “incomplete.” It’s simply that the Bible is irreducibly multivocal: “it can and does speak to different listeners in different voices that appear to say different things” (47). We should not have the goal of coming to agreement on what each and every part of the Bible says because it’s impossible to do so. It’s impossible for us to read the Bible without giving one part of it more weight than other parts.

Because of who we are and how God has shaped us, one verse is going to speak to us more than another. The verse that resonates with us will not only be more important than the one that doesn’t, but we will, without realizing, interpret the verse that doesn’t resonate through the one that does. Well, because verse A says X, then verse B can’t mean Y even though Y is what it says at face value.

Here’s an example. If we cannot be justified before God by anything other than faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:23-24), then we cannot take at face value what Peter says to Cornelius in Acts 10:34-35: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality,but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” I had to coach a scandalized John Piper disciple through preaching this passage once.

If your whole world comes crashing down without the Four Spiritual Laws which are based upon elevating Romans 3:23-24 over every other Biblical text, then you have to say either Peter didn’t really mean what he appears to say or maybe he didn’t fully understand the gospel at that point, but Cornelius accepted Christ anyway, so it was all good. It’s much harder to admit that parts of the Bible defy our attempts to systematize it exhaustively, and perhaps God did this to deter hubristic theologians from trying to do so.

For much of American evangelical Christianity, following the lead of the Protestant Reformers, all of scripture is interpreted on the basis of the book of Romans which is the canon within the canon and Romans 3:23-24 which is the uber-canon of the canon. But as many evangelicals in recent years have protested, this leaves us with an impoverished view of the gospels and the kingdom of God which they emphasize a lot more than the gospel of justification by faith, which by itself turns into an anthropocentric, consumeristic “personal afterlife insurance” gospel.

So one portrait of the Bible is the Romans Road portrait that creates the individualist consumerist account of salvation that works so effectively in our capitalist society. Another portrait could be based on giving more weight to the direct quotes from Jesus, the “red letters.” Other portraits might emphasize the Hebrews epistle or the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament. But none of these portraits representing different interpretative possibilities can ever do absolute justice to the text.

We will always be missing puzzle pieces, not because anything is missing from the Bible, but because any attempt to say it’s “all about” love or holiness or even holy love is always going to be met with a few verses that completely contradict whatever we’re saying the whole thing is about and we can either ignore those verses or admit that our solution to the jigsaw puzzle is imperfect. By all means, we should keep on trying to solve the jigsaw puzzle. Honestly, I think it should be a comfort to us that we will never have a perfect fit. It’s a game that thankfully lasts forever. Because what would we do after we finished if we ever did?


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