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Plenary Indulgence

January 23, 2012

You’re not going to like this post. That is, you may like this post, but if you do, you’re not the “you” I’m writing to. So back to the first “you.” I’m pretty sure what I say will irritate you, but my purpose is to give you something I hope you will appreciate.

And even worse, I’m going to presume to speak for “us,” not you-and-me us, but us as contrasted with you. Sorry. Not meaning to exclude you, but just to talk about a subject on which we seem to differ. I’m not alone in the point of view I’m going to address, though “we” are far from unified in general. I hope and think, though, that I capture enough of what I share with some of my fellow “us,” that this resonates at least a bit with them.

So here it goes, my conclusion after years of chatting with you:

While you fully believe in the God-Man who was crucified and rose again, you do not want to be obliged to believe in a talking snake.

I’m using the serpent as an example, of course. If this is not an issue, substitute the bĂȘte noire of your choice. I think you know the kind of thing I’m talking about. Something you see many of your fellow Christians accepting “literally,” though you can’t bring yourself to–don’t really want to. And you dang sure don’t want to be told you “have to.”

You believe everything all Christians believe–must believe or not be Christians. But some things only “fundamentalists” believe, or the more fundy-sided evangelicals, anyway. The serpent, for example. You can’t, won’t, don’t. Not as a factual part of history.

Now for the good part, my gift to you: you don’t have to. You are under no obligation. You are free from any requirement to acknowlege any particular entity or event to be in the “actually happened” category. I mean, at least as far as we are concerned. Really, though, it doesn’t come from us–much less me personally–this liberty. You’ve always had it, and I hope you already knew that you had it. But I thought it important to give you this “license to (dis)believe” on behalf of “us,” because you kind of feel it is we who place the obligation on you. Well, no more. On behalf of us, I hereby absolve you from the aforementioned obligation.

Thing is I thought I needed to say it, because what seems to place the onus on you is the very fact that we believe the things we believe. Why it should be a problem for you, your brothers and sisters who “believe too much,” I don’t know. Best I can figure is that since we think that these are things “good Christians” believe, ipso facto you are not a “good Christian.” I agree you are well in the right to object to such a doom placed on you. I’m sure it has happened to you. That is why I want to disavow the verdict explicitly.

Who are [we] to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. (Romans 14:4)

This goes both ways, of course. So at this point I’d like to lay a little of our point of view on you, and discuss a few of the measures you seem to have been led to take by this perceived obligation. By “measures” I mean ways of speaking and dealing with us and with the text of Scripture that are unnecessary, absent pressure from our quarter. And, frankly, I’d just as soon you wouldn’t. I think both you and I and we, all of us in fact, would be better off without, and so I guess my granted “indulgence” is not without self-interest.

For some reason, you seem to be intent on showing us we are wrong about believing the Bible to be right.

Now understand, I at least cannot claim to be a very exemplary disciple of Jesus Christ. I’ve got me plenty of days that would make Simon Peter’s night of shame seem worthy of a badge of honor. And my best days… well, best I not make any claim for myself. “Crappy disciple” would be putting on airs, okay.

But I consider, we consider, that being disciples of Jesus Christ entails, at the very least figuring that when He and I disagree–He’s right and I’m wrong. In other words, He, the Master, knows better than me, the lowly student. And He, my Teacher, has some recommended reading, the Bible, which as far as I can see He takes to be true in every way. My faith is in Him, of course. Belief in Christ is salvific, not belief in the Bible, as such. We understand that. But within that faith in Him is the conviction that He knows whereof He speaks. Our persuasion then is that, like Him, and for His sake, we approach the Bible with the assumption that it is true.

Yes, I did say “assumption.” I’m sure some of us will want to use a stronger word. And I’d be happy also to use a stronger word: conviction, persuasion, confidence, faith. Fine. But for now I will work with “assumption.” By that I mean any time I encounter something affirmed as true in the Bible that is different from what I otherwise think is true, my “assumption” is the Bible is right and I am wrong. The reasonable course of action then is to correct my thinking. Can I turn my belief system on a dime, at will, on a simple reading of a Scriptural proposition. No, of course not. At least at first I’m sure I hold to contradictory opinions at different levels. Somehow I believe X down inside, simultaneously believing God contradicts X and is right to do so. Thank God His Holy Spirit comes to sort out my inward mess, by His grace.

So when the Scriptures present me as factual and historic–as I think they do–an episode in which a serpent communicates verbally with a woman, I am persuaded that my appropriate response as a disciple of Jesus Christ is to affirm it along with the Bible. Sure, I’d recommend this to you, too. But nothing I think or say obliges you. Believe me, I’m well aware you may be a zillion times the disciple I am and not see eye-to-eye with me on these things. Your best Braveheart now, on three: “FREEDOM.”

Now for the “measures.” First, I’d like to talk about the concept “true” and what you choose to do with it versus what I’d like to do with it. I’ve said above, we see the Scriptures as “true” in every way. It’d be fine with me to just leave it like that, but you, or some of you, come along with something like: me too, completely true, and by true I mean not necessarily factual or historic, here and there. Forgive me if I say that is playing a little fast and loose with “true.” I mean, go out an do a survey of actual usage among English-speakers. I’d predict that by and large, the way we use it generally includes both “factual” and “historic.”

But I suppose there’s enough leeway in usage so that you can legitimately use it to mean the non-factual kind of “true,” if you so desire. Fine. It’s just that now we have to find another way of expressing what we mean by true-including-factual as opposed to true-but-not-factual. So we use “inerrant.” Yes, there’re some drawbacks with this word. It’s kind of technical, needs a whole “statement” to specify what we mean and don’t mean. It tends to emphasize the “factual” part of true, though we know as well as you do that “true” means more than “factual.” We just don’t think it means “less.”

Understand too, we know perfectly well that there are sections of Scripture that are deliberately fictional narratives, parables for example. Obviously, those should not be taken as “factual” or “historic,” since the Scripture does not claim that they were. Now it’s entirely possible some of what we take as historic or factual really should be placed in the same category as parables and such. The original readers would have spotted them as such, but we’ve missed it, taken them wrong. Okay, let’s agree that’s possible. So what’s the best course of action? Understand, if we knew X text was not intended to be factual (a parable or metaphor or such) we’d be happy to take it as intended. No problem.

But this can happen the other way around too. One could take a text as non-factual that was intended by author as “true” in the sense that includes “factual.” Now this may not be the end of the world, but it is not desirable, as a sincere disciple of Jesus Christ.

That’s one reason I think it is important to hold the persuasion I mention above, that the appropriate stance for a disciple of Jesus Christ to be ready to accept correction from the Scriptures. It would be far too easy otherwise to categorize a given text as “not-intended-to-be-factual” for my own convenience. In other words, I’m comfortable making that decision about the text, if something in the text tells me to, but not if it simply gets me out of “having to” believe something I’d rather not have to.

Is that what I think you’re doing? Well, I don’t know about you personally, but I sure think I see a lot of people taking that kind of route. And if you should decide to, remember, that’s your business, not mine. I mean, I’m happy to talk with you about it, show you why I take a different position on it, but you don’t “have to” for my sake.

However, some of you go to a great deal of trouble indeed to demonstrate that a certain passage is this kind of text and not that kind. Some of the techniques employed are a little far fetched. Some are considerably more than far-fetched. What can we say about this? That’s what makes horse races, right. Only thing is, sometimes your verbage gives you away. It’s this “have to” kind of phrase. This doesn’t “have to” mean X. Frankly, it’s a red flag that someone is avoiding one of those “rather not believe” situations. So I can’t read your mind, certainly, but if you find yourself taking one of these “I don’t hafta and I ain’t gonna” positions, I’d try my hardest to examine my own motivations if I were you. Of course, I’m not you, and I don’t know how successful I’d really be if I did try it. Do what you think best, of course.

Some of you don’t particularly like our word “inerrant.” Well, first of all, we wouldn’t need it if it weren’t for… well, you… LOL. Sorry. But a lot of you object to the word because you think it is not true (ironic, isn’t it?). You seem to have some vague notion that there are plenty of places where the Scriptures deviate from factuality or historicity (I mean unintentionally). Ergo it has errors and therefore is not “inerrant.” Now, these are harder to come up with than one might initially suppose. Very frequently it is plain to see that not a lot of thought has gone into some of the examples cited. I’m actually not aware of too many instances that are not pretty easily dismissed.

But here’s the problem: if Scripture contained an error, how would you know? Again, if I approach it as assuming it it right and I am wrong in case of uncertainty, when am I going to correct the Bible? Okay, I’m afraid that if the Bible makes an error, I’m going to make an error right along with it, this way. I don’t know what other choice I have, frankly. The servant is not greater than his Master. And the Bible isn’t my Master, Jesus is, but again, it’s His book, His recommended reading. So, yes, my pre-committment to Him, and secondarily to His book, is going to mean I take it as “true” as an a priori. Therefore, you’re probably spinning you’re wheels to try and get us to buy a particular “error.” The vast majority of them aren’t, and should you manage to find a “true error” (LOL), we’re going to give the Bible the benefit of the doubt.

Another thing we hear from you is “it doesn’t matter.” That is that we’re barking up the wrong tree even to think in terms of the “factual” and “historical” part of “true,” since what really matters is the “teaching” or “theology” part of “true.” You’ll excuse us, I hope, for not finding this a very fruitful direction to take. I’m not ready–not smart, wise, insightful enough–to know when the “fact” part is unimportant. Our faith is firmly rooted in the “actually happened.” And at some point it was important enough for a writer to record the events, and if he (she?) intend to communicate, along with it’s theological meaning, that it also happened to actually happen, well, we’re going to assume the author is right–whatever we might otherwise suppose.

But again, that’s just us. Don’t feel constrained to do likewise, simply because we are so persuaded. We do think its better over here, but we’re not you.

So what is my bottom line? I just suggest, that if there is a part of the Scripture you don’t believe, don’t wish to believe, don’t want to “have to” believe–then don’t. I hope you will feel this freedom, rather than try to build a mechanism that allows the text of Scripture to happen to agree with what you already believe. I just think that is a suspect procedure. Sorry. I’m not totally sure how you’ll know when you’re doing it. I guess you could ask me, and I’ll tell you. LOL. Just kidding. (Or not.)

When you hear yourself say things like “I’m willing to accept X or Y or Z interpretations” but the one you are not really that “willing to accept” is the one “we” do, you might take this as a clue. When you hear yourself saying this doesn’t “have to” mean that, you might find you’re up to something.

Listen, from our point of view no text “has to” mean something, it just does. And I think if you felt free to disbelieve whenever, wherever, you might see it that way too. Many of these situations are pretty obvious, without the “have to” business clouding them up. We know you’re clever enough to find a way around the cloud. That’s not in question. When we don’t buy the “clever” though, many on your side concludes it’s due to lack of brain power on this side. That’s a bit sad when it happens, and it does happen quite a bit.

Well, I’ve said enough, I think. Probably more than enough. I do wish you the enjoyment of your freedom, though I still suspect I was right about your not liking this post. Oh, well, you can’t please everyone.

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