Answers Are Not All They Claim

Answers Are Not All They Claim July 11, 2023

The Southern Baptists recently gathered in New Orleans to affirm the “answer” of the Bible that woman cannot be pastors. Reflecting on this claim, it crossed my mind that “answers” may not be the best approach to biblical studies. What if the Bible is not a “Google Search” engine? I went to and searched for “homosexual” in the Bible. The response: “Sorry, we didn’t find any results for your search.” I searched for “abortion.” The response: “Sorry, we didn’t find any results for your search.”

I realize this is a highly charged emotional subject for many. Recently, someone engaging me in fierce argument, asked, “Do you believe in women preaching?” “Believe in women preaching? I retorted. “I’ve seen it.”

In a world that touts certainty, inerrancy, literalism, I am shocked at the lack of clear-cut answers to questions about biblical texts and subjects. As Old Testament professor, Ellen F. Davis puts it, “The Scriptures are chock-full of embarrassing, offensive, and internally contradictory texts, texts we do not wish to live with, let alone live by.”
No one loves “answers” like evangelicals. Bible Gateway asks: “Do you need answers to biblical questions?” And offers this response: “Bible Gateway has the answers.” Ken Ham has built a multi-million-dollar enterprise under the auspices of “Answers in Genesis.”
The claims offer more than they can deliver. “Answers” are tough to come by from the Bible. Look at all the “answers” that have come from Scripture as the major denominations have formed: Catholic, Orthodox, Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, Baptist, Charismatics, and etc.

Evangelicals, like the Southern Baptists and the PCA, place great stress on the “answers” in the Bible as the only true, real, and correct answers. This raises a question about these “answers”? If the Bible is at once so clear and full as the answer to all matters of Christian doctrine and practice, why are Christians so divided over the “answers”? What if the “answers” depend not on Scripture but on “private judgment”?
For example, “Answers in Genesis” raises more questions than it answers. A cursory reading of Genesis 1 – 11 raises questions about creation, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the garden of Eden, the forbidden fruit, and the fall of man. And that’s just the first three chapters. Then we are overwhelmed by stories that seem more related to stories and cosmologies of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. As a boy in Sunday school I asked, “Where did Cain’s wife come from?”

By the time we get around to reading Genesis 6, the answer meter falls to zero and the questions proliferate. “When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. Then the Lord said, ‘My spirit shall not abide in mortals for ever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred and twenty years.’ The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterwards—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.” The line for questioners forms here.
The story of Noah, the ark, and the world-wide flood is hard enough to swallow. Then, after the flood, we are told that Noah got drunk on wine from his own vineyard, one of his sons saw him naked, and Ham was cursed. Southern preachers in the 19th century read this as the “answer” to slavery. God started and ordained and approved slavery. And the questions pour out like a box of overturned Lego pieces.

The tower of Babel in chapter 11 becomes a story that is short on answers. Walter Brueggemann notes, “At some other point, it served as a polemical etiology for the city of Babylon, even though the etymology claimed in verse 9 is false.” And he adds: “The theme of the tower may have referred originally to a Babylonian ziggurat, a temple-tower presented as an imperial embodiment of pride and self-sufficiency.” The story has more in common with Isaiah’s vision of the end result for Nebuchadnezzar in Isaiah 14: “How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit on the mount of assembly on the heights of Zaphon; I will ascend to the tops of the clouds, I will make myself like the Most High.’ But you are brought down to Sheol, to the depths of the Pit.”

The rest of Genesis is not any more adept at answers than the prehistorical chapters of 1 – 11. Sarah’s mistreatment of Sarah and Abraham commanded to sacrifice his son, Isaac, are only two of the strange stories that are short on answers.
“Answers” may not be the purpose of the Bible. This is the Church’s book, not an old-fashioned Yellow Pages with specific answers. This is the book of the human struggle to be in right relationship with God. Answers are an illusion for a people desperate for certainty that never reveals itself.
“Answers” seem irrelevant to the sons and daughters of Abraham, the father of all faith, who are called to go without knowing where they are going. “Answers” seem insufficient for a people, who with St. Paul confess, “For now we see only a reflection, as in a mirror, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

All of us have more in common with Flannery O’Connor’s Hazel Motes than we want to admit. “Later he saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing, where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.”

Faith doesn’t require full answers. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” If there are people suggesting answers from the Bible, there will be people arguing about the proposed answers. Theology is concerned with disagreements about God and this means that rather than reach for the impossible “answers,” we should avail ourselves of arguments and argumentative strategies.
Ultimately, those who preach “faith,” realize that this is not about the preacher with the most answers. It is not the triumph of the certain, nor the triumph of pathos over logos, to put it in traditional Aristotelian terms. Our search for the truth, a more complicated idea than answers, necessitates a turn toward logos – words about God spoken with reticent and humility not arrogance and certainty.

In the end, the answers are suspect, held up as they are my ethical presuppositions divorced from Christian faith, and enforced by the powers that control the hierarchies of denominations.

Since we walk here on holy ground, I offer you the closing words of St. Gregory of Nazianzus as a light to our path: “Finally, then, it seems best to me to let the images and the shadows go, as being deceitful and very far short of the truth; and clinging myself to the more reverent conception, and resting upon few words, using the guidance of the Holy Spirit, keeping to the end as my genuine comrade and companion the enlightenment which I have received from the same Spirit, and passing through this world to persuade all others also to the best of my power to worship Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

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