We sat at narrow tables in the large classroom and soaked in his words. He spoke with authority and conviction. He had barbed comments for those who didn't see things the same way he did, be they from a different theological tradition or within the school's administration. Occasionally his soft heart would shine through and endear him to those who listened carefully. But most often his steely demeanor justified his nickname "Iron Joe."
Iron Joe taught us a lot about the Bible and theology. His affect on the way I think is ongoing. But as my horizons have widened so too has my perspective on some of the things Iron Joe held with such ironclad conviction. One of his mantras is that the Bible is "propositional truth."
Railing against the emotional drivel that sometimes passes as serious theological reflection, Iron Joe would tell us that we had to study the Bible, study it well, in the right way so that we could begin to plunge the depths of our incomprehensible God. And we did that by recognizing and learning the propositional truth presented in God's Word, the Bible. In Joe's theological world, the Bible is full of objective, verifiable truth that can be, in essence, taken off the shelf, handled and examined, and then returned safely to its home.
Joe is not alone in this approach to the Bible. On any given Sunday, thousands of preachers around the country and the globe present sermons, not dissimilar to Iron Joe's lectures, that present the truth in propositions - points in an outline, principles to be memorized and appropriated.
And the Bible is reduced to a medical manual, which can be taken down to address a specific malady with easy how-to steps to follow. Or it is reduced to an encyclopedia in which any odd curiosity can be researched and debated. Or it is a users manual with an index (we'd call it a concordance) that gets searched on the occasion of something breaking.
But is the Bible "propositional truth"? Certainly some parts are. The letters of Paul, Peter, James, and others are clear and concise statements of belief, often with neatly drawn applications. But much of the Bible is messy and downright disturbing. And it is written in genres that lose their punch when they are reduced to neatly packaged statements.
In the movie Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams' character makes fun of the American Bandstand approach to poetry because it negates the power of the poem by fitting it into a formula. The propositional truth approach to the Bible can do the same to the powerful narrative unfolding in its pages.
The vast majority of the Bible is narrative. Much is the written account of the great oral tradition, the stories told for generations around bedouin campfires. And the Bible contains much poetry, the honest and authentic cry of the soul to a God who is baffling. Compared to the prose and poetry, proposition is a small percentage of the Bible.
The thing that gives the story its power - its ability to capture us - is lost when we try to reduce it to principles and propositions. We need to let the Bible be read for what it is, a compelling and arresting story of betrayl, conflict, redemption, and hope.