Monday, December 27, 2010

On Being Biblical

*originally posted on December 10, 2010

I was born and raised in a particular brand of Christianity that championed the superiority of the Bible. Above all, we were exhorted in church, camp, and college to "hold fast the faithful Word," to "think biblically," to "run everything through the grid of the Bible." In a very real way, the Bible was the mediator between us and God. We did not ask if something was holy or godly or good. We asked if it was "biblical."

We didn't worry too much about spiritual disciplines, we worried about our "quiet time," which was code for a academic version of inductive Bible study. We slapped each other on the back for making new observations from the biblical texts. We argued over the merits of various interpretations of just about every biblical passage. And we studied Greek and Hebrew so that we could do our study in the original languages, which we surmised got us even closer to God.

This approach to the Christian life is helpful in a lot of ways. With the Bible as an anchor, it keeps people from wandering through life like a person who has lost her compass. It also drives people toward searching, questioning, and seeking ... Which is good, of course, if the Bible is the only place they look for answers. And, all in all, it's not a bad thing to have ever-increasingly thoughtful Christians.

But as with so much else I was raised with, I'm starting to have my doubts about this kind of Bible-centered Christianity.

First, I consider what Jesus said in John 5 to the biblical scholars of his day, "You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you possess eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life." Jesus seems to indicate that the Bible is not the mediator between us and God; he is. How similar have we become to our ancient forefathers who knew the Scriptures but not God when he was speaking to them? That's a probing question that needs to be honestly considered.

Second, I'm beginning to wonder if being "biblical" is the best way to judge a theological system. With so many interpretations, how do we know which one is really right? With so many approaches to belief and life, how can we say with any confidence that I've got it figured out and you are mistaken? With so many worldviews, how can we say that one is true while others are not?

If our standard is simply what is “biblical,” we are left with having to choose who has made the most convincing case based on biblical grounds. And if the history of the church tells us anything, we may live to regret what we claim the Bible teaches:

•The case for the Crusades was made on “biblical grounds.”
•The case for slavery was made on “biblical grounds.”
•The case for torture is being made on “biblical grounds.”

In addition to these, the Bible has been used to justify war, oppression, the death penalty, bigotry, polygamy ... and just about anything else we want to try to justify.

Maybe “biblical grounds” are more shaky than we realize. Maybe we need some other way of discerning what belief systems are good, bad, and ugly. Maybe we need to listen to Jesus again.

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them." (Matthew 7.15-20)

Jesus does not say that we will be able to discern the validity of someone's belief system based on their ability to prooftext their argument. He says very clearly that it is the fruit of a person's belief system that will be the indicator of whether or not their approach to theology and life is good or bad. Fruit is what matters.

How do we know whether or not fruit is good to eat? We look at it, smell it, squeeze it, tap on it and listen to find out if it sounds hollow. We discern and examine it against what we know good and ripe fruit to be.

In the spiritual realm, we know what good and ripe fruit is. It is that which is loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled (Galatians 5.22-23).

So, if I am going to follow God in the way of Jesus, and I am examining the validity of a theological system or a belief structure, I need to ask these kinds of questions:

•Does this belief system promote sacrificial service of others, particularly those who have been unloved previously?
•Does this belief system foster a deep and abiding joy and satisfaction in life?
•Does this belief system make the world a more peaceful place?
•Does this belief system slow people down enough that they can seek to understand one another better?
•Does this belief system lead to gracious actions?
•Does this belief system encourage people to be present in the lives of one another?
•Does this belief system affirm a posture of vulnerability?
•Does this belief system encourage people to be true to themselves?

Recently, I heard a young woman speak about her struggle to find acceptance in the Christian community. She talked about how she tried to conform to the expectations of others, expectations produced by their belief system. And after years of trying, she was unable. The fruit of that belief system was a fragile and fractured young woman, depressed and suicidal. That can't be good fruit, can it?

In all honesty, I don't know where this journey will take me, but I do know that I've got a new compass and a new map. I'm going to begin to care less about whether or not something lines up with my interpretation (let alone someone else’s) of a given biblical passage and more what its fruit looks like


Laurie said...

Bravo. I heartily agree. And once again I am amazed at how parallel our journeys and our thought patterns are.

And just an additional comment, I am also realizing more and more how guided by desire for control some of these stances can be in the evangelical world. Something else to think about.

Jonathan said...

Well stated. But I also have to admit there is a level of uncomfortability as I read it...although I think it was good.

I don't think we as a universal church, encourage critical thinking enough. It is easy to get paralyzed by what we read and not critically think about what we just read. I'm not arguing for a purely rational, scientific approach, just stating that it is ok to use our heads every once in awhile instead of mindless following a text.

These are just some initial reactions, but I'm going to keep thinking on it. Thanks for posting.

P.S. This is my first time reading and posting here. I'll have to pay more attention to it (i.e. add it to my Google Reader).

Gerbmom said...

Great post!

Lisangirls said...

Loved this blog! I was posting something so similar the other day on a FB friend's wall. I am often called one of those ferocious wolves in sheep's clothing because I embrace theology/conversations that are no longer in line with the conservative, fundamentalist upbringing that I had. But when the rubber hits the road --- when I'm trying to discern whose truth I am going to believe --- I look at someone's life...What does it show???? All the rhetoric in the world doesn't make someone a follower of Christ. Thanks for posting!

Sara said...

I am emailing some thoughts :)

Anonymous said...

Wow, I'm a little surprised & taken aback by two things you are using to manipulate yourself, history, theology, & other people.

1. I assumed you knew that just because someone (an individual or a group) takes or took in the past one verse to support a view doesn't make that view "biblical." Anyone can twist a single verse to mean whatever they want or a group of verses for that matter. (It's called proof-texting.) Biblical theology only looks at the Bible from the perspective of what the writers & hearers of the Bible understood about God and his redemptive plan at the time of the revelation. While this is important to consider it must be combined with Systematic theology to understand what the whole Bible says about a subject. Then we are able to use the Bible properly to know if something is true

2. You default into using your own experience to be your grid for understanding your world, which will naturally distort your idea of truth. Of course we all have distorted views, but that's the point of trying to be "biblical" we submit our own ideas to what the Bible teaches. We should use it as a grid to understand our world and in turn use it to help us make since of our experiences. The Bible itself claims this authority over us. If you're going to through that out you might as well through the Bible out. Why even bother with it?

So first you've given assumed right "biblical" interpretations to historically faulty premises that were derived by mishandling God's word to us. And second, you've used historically faulty assumptions of the what is "biblical" to support your own faulty assertion that we can never know what is right or wrong and therefor made your self arbitrary judge over what the Bible says.

You judge over the Bible? That's dangerous! It's exactly the same thing that you are accusing those in past and present of doing to meet their own ends. And by the way I would agree that that has and is still happening today. There will never be an end to people mishandling God's word, to use it to justify there own selfish ends.

I know you probably will not appreciate what I've written and I know this conversation could go much deeper. Just know that I am a concerned and loving brother.

Robb Ryerse said...

I don't mind if you disagree with me. I'm simply sharing how my own thinking has developed in the past few years.

I am trying to make that point that there is a vast difference in the standard set by Jesus for evaluating a viewpoint or teacher and the one that I was taught.

Jesus did not say, "By their hermeneutics you will know them." He said, "By their fruit."

If the fruit of fundamentalism, for instance, is division and distrust, what does that say about the validity of fundamentalism?

Maybe there are beliefs that we thought were "biblical" that don't pass the fruit test. And maybe there are beliefs we had previously rejected that need to be reevaluated because they have turned out to bear good fruit.

If there is a different way to read Matthew 7.15-20, I'm open to hearing it. I'm not trying to be judge over the Bible. I'm trying to let the words of Jesus shape the way I evaluate theologies.