“Inspired Ambiguity”


One of my favorite blogs is “Think Theology” written by the British theologian Andrew Wilson [http://thinktheology.co.uk]. He consistently delivers on this title, he makes me “think theology.”  Last week as I was preparing for the “Listening to Scripture” component of the discernment process that the elders of the church I serve have undertaken in faithful response to the Supreme Court ruling on same sex marriage, I came across a blog entry that Andrew Wilson wrote back in 2013 called “How to Get Rid of Awkward Bible Passages: An Eight Step Guide.”   It begins –

boyIf you’re going to be a widely-read Bible teacher, you have to have a few tricks up your sleeve. It won’t be long before the people you’re teaching realize, with or without your help, that there are some biblical passages they don’t like very much. What will you do with them? That question keeps many of us awake at night. If you teach them as they are, then not only will people not like the Bible, but they won’t like you. But if you are to get rid of them somehow, then you will need some clever hermeneutical sleight of hand.

Whenever I am teaching or preaching I often remember what James Smart of Union Theological Seminary in New York City a generation ago said about the Bible always having in it elements that are “congenial” and elements that are “uncongenial” to our ordinary ways of thinking and being, and how it is in those “uncongenial” things that the Bible says that we will often hear the living Word of God being addressed to us most directly and most powerfully.  At least in part, I think that this is what the author of Hebrews meant when he wrote – “The word of God is alive and active, sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing souls and spirit, joints and marrow, it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

costaBack in 1988 Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California, was interviewed by the editors of Leadership for their “Sex” issue (Winter Quarter).  Because Chuck had such an amazing impact for Christ on the youth culture in Southern California during the days of the sexual revolution of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, they wanted to know how he handled the “hot potato” topics of what the Bible says on sexuality.  The interview was called “Treating the Casualties of the Sexual Revolution,” and in it Chuck was asked about how he handled the “clobber” texts – those parts of the Bible that directly address matters of sexual behavior in rigorously uncompromising ways – knowing that they were not going to sit well with what many of those who were there in church listening to him preach and teach?   The Apostle Paul warned about how people will accumulate spiritual teachers for themselves who will just tell them what they already think, or what they just want to hear. “Tickling their ears” is how he put it (2 Timothy 4:4).  And so, the folks at Leadership were interested in knowing how Chuck handled the parts of the Bible that would directly challenge the sexual attitudes and actions of the people sitting under his teaching ministry.  Chuck answered –

My method of teaching the Word of God is to go straight through the Bible.  As I’m covering a book, whenever I get to the issues of fornication or adultery, I don’t dodge them.  They’re not always popular subjects, but I’ve got to relate what the Word of God has to say on these issues.  I don’t soften it.  I try to be just as straight as God’s Word in declaring the standards that God has set.  (132)

And this brings us back around to Andrew Wilson’s observation that there are some biblical passages that people don’t like very much, and that “if you teach them as they are, then not only will people not like the Bible, but they won’t like you.” The rest of Andrew’s blog posting on “How to Get Rid of Awkward Bible Passages” was his facetious counsel to people like me – no doubt gathered from his own observation and experience as a Bible teacher – about how to dodge the difficult texts, or what John Alexander of The Other Side  described as trying to convince people that the Bible doesn’t really mean what it most clearly says.  Andrew had an eight step strategy for doing this –

  1. Introduce the text as a “Difficult Passage” (capital letters are the new scare quotes). This will immediately set your readers on high alert; after all, who wants “Difficult Passages” in their Bibles?

  2. Populate your discussion with as many synonyms for “difficult” as you can: debated, disputed, confusing, controversial, awkward, challenging, obscure, demanding, etc.

  3. Mention a really, really stupid interpretation that some oddball in church history has come up with. For those who don’t know about the fallacy of the excluded middle, this will make it seem that the only two options are the really stupid view and your view. Never, ever, mention a nuanced presentation of the view you don’t like by a credible scholar. This is fatal.

  4. Transition quickly to explain what you want the text to mean, preferably using language like “A more probable view is …” or “More likely, we should …” Your reader will breathe a sigh of relief that the text doesn’t mean what it says.

  5. Make it clear that the author of the text isn’t oppressive, abusive or incompetent. Some readers will immediately assume that all alternatives to your view are somehow oppressive, abusive or incompetent.

  6. Quote the maxim that “clear passages interpret unclear ones”, which is the standard euphemism for “other texts can drown out this one, if you bring enough of them into play”.

  7. Mention an obscure bit of background information, ideally one for which there is scant evidence, that appears to support your interpretation. Fortunately, when people want to believe what you’re saying, they don’t check things like this with primary (or even secondary) sources.

  8. Conclude your discussion with a confident wave of the hand: “For all the debate that surrounds this passage, the main thing we must remember is …”


I stand deeply convicted by Andrew’s observations and Chuck’s – “of blessed memory” – example.  I also live daily with the burden of James 3:1 – “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” One of my greatest burdens in 40 years of preaching and teaching has been a fear of misrepresenting God, “to be found to be a false witness about God” as Paul put it in I Corinthians 15:15.

drownJesus said that it would be better to have a large millstone hung around your neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea than to lead “a little one – someone who believe in Him” astray (Matthew 18:6).  I take this to mean that Bible preaching and teaching is indeed serious stuff, and it informs my greatest desire as a preacher and a teacher “to be found faithful as a steward of the mysteries of God” (I Corinthians 4:2).

And so I hold up Andrew’s list as a mirror to what I say when I preach and teach.  I don’t want to be known as “an ear tickler.” As a preacher and a teacher I want to be someone who “rightly handles the Word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). And it is from this desire to be faithful that I find myself pushing back – gently to be sure, but pushing nonetheless – at the implication that Andrew seems to be making, that what the Bible says on any given topic is uniformly clear and obvious.

The Protestant Reformers taught that the Bible speaks with a loud and unmistakable voice when addressing its main point, namely that Jesus Christ – “for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate” (The Nicene Creed 325/381).  They called this the “perspicuity” of Scripture, and the Puritan Westminster Assembly defined it in 1646 as – “…Those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.” And I believe this.  You don’t need a seminary degree in order to understand the meaning or the importance of John 3:16.  But there are other things in Scripture that lack this kind of clarity, lots of other things.  In fact, Scripture itself freely acknowledges this. The Apostle Peter said of the Apostle Paul’s writings that while he wrote “with the wisdom that God gave him,” that nevertheless “his letters contain some things that are hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:15-16), and to suggest otherwise is seriously mislead the Bible’s readers from the outset.

dudeIn the early history of my own spiritual tradition is was customary for our founders to speak and write about the Bible as if it were a “blueprint” or a “constitution.”   By these terms they meant that we had in the Bible a clear picture of what it was that God wanted His church to be and to do, and a complete and exact set of instructions about how we were to actually go about being and doing that kind of church.  All we needed to do was follow the directions.  But even with everyone agreeing on this general approach to things, it wasn’t very long before churches and Christians in my spiritual tradition were ferociously arguing with each other about what the “directions” actually said and what they really meant.  We had some pretty good clarity when it came to answering the Biblical question, “What must I do to be saved?”  But on lots and lots of other Biblical matters, there was very little consensus, and sometimes even less civility.  And this wasn’t just because we are a particularly stubborn and opinionated lot as readers of the Bible.  It had something to do with the Bible itself.

In a watershed article on the use of the Bible in the Stone/Campbell tradition, Russ Dudrey (“Restorationist Hermeneutics Among the Churches of Christ: Why Are We at an Impasse?”Restoration Quarterly) concluded that the model of Scripture that our founders adopted was “ill-suited to the nature of biblical literature.”  He observed that the “the New Testament documents are far less systematic and far more historical, particular, and occasional – far more “missionary” – that we have recognized.” And then he warned that if we were to “handle these documents [more] responsibly [in the future, then] we need to develop a much greater literary and historical sensitivity than the restorationist hermeneutic tradition has this far demonstrated.” No less convinced of the Bible’s authority for Christian faith and practice than were our founders, Dudrey was just saying that for the Bible to truly function authoritatively for Christian faith we needed to have a much better understanding of the Bible actually is.  As he put it, “The New Testament is not an abstract treatise of systematic theology written in the quiet confines of the study.   … [And so rather than] approaching Scripture as a revelation of propositional truths… [we must learn to approach it instead as a revelation] of the heart of the Father.” It has to do with what we see the Bible’s primary purpose to be.

holyHave we been given the Bible in order to have all the “right answers” to our questions about God?  Or, have we been given the Bible to guide us into a “right relationship” with God?  With Russ Dudrey I believe that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and not that we are saved “by doctrinal correctness.” Now, this is not to say that doctrinal correctness is unimportant. Wrong ideas about who Christ is and what Christ has done can lead to some very dangerous dead-ends for us spiritually.  It can interfere with our relationship with the God who is there. Still, I believe that the purpose of the Bible is not to give us an encyclopedic knowledge about God so that we can be the smartest kids in the room, the winners of some kind of cosmic theological spelling bee, but it is rather to usher us into a relationship of love and trust with God through Jesus Christ.  And with this being the case, I am then neither surprised nor am I alarmed by just how complicated some of the things that I read about in the Bible turn out to be.  With Peter I can honestly say that I find in the Bible “some things that are hard to understand.” And this is what makes me so uneasy about Andrew Wilson’s wholesale dismissal of “difficult” as a legitimate category when talking about what the Bible teaches.

  • In the very first lecture that I heard in seminary, the professor told us that a five minute synoptic lesson would disabuse us of any illusions that we might have of the Bible being anything but complicated.  Matthew, Mark and Luke (the “Synoptic” Gospels) cover the same ground, but each with their own particular point of view.  While they  are looking at the very same event, they saw very different things, and so they have very different emphases, and it’s a mistake to harmonize them too quickly or too easily.
  • The Gospel of John and the Synoptic Gospels are very different animals, and modern critical scholarship was not the first to notice this fact and report it.   In the early church it was widely recognized that John was, well, different, and in some ways even “difficult.” Early church fathers described John as the “spiritual” Gospel, and as the “supplemental” Gospel in order to try to account for the differences in the stories it told and the meanings it attached to the Christ event.
  • Paul with his “saved by grace and not by works” emphasis seems to be a direct counterpoint to James’ insistence that “faith without works is dead.”  Genesis chapter 1 and Genesis chapter 2 are clearly different stories of creation.  The book of Job is a story that was told about how bad things happen to good people at a time when most people were operating with the big assumption of the Deuteronomic historian that bad things happen when bad people make bad choices, and that good things happen when good people make good choices.  I and II Kings cover the same exact ground as I and II Chronicles cover, and when the books of the Bible were being collected it was consciously decided that there was real spiritual value in being told these same stories twice, from different points of view.
  1. Paul Stephens, a professor of applied theology at a very fine Canadian seminary, wrote an article for Christianity Today back in January of 1992 about how equally faithful and competent students of the Bible can and often do wind up on very different sides of a question on what the Bible says about a particular issue [“Breaking the Gender Impasse” – January 13, 1992 – p.p. 28-31).

Both groups claim the authority of the Bible.  It is a frustrating situation.  The debate seems to hit an impasse, with many people “solving” the problem by finding churches where everyone already agrees with their position.  To me, this seemed to be less than ideal.  And yet, what were the alternatives?  I did not want merely to add my voice to the polemical chorus.  And then I had a thought:  What if the ambiguity at the root of these differences is not accidental but God-inspired?


“Inspired ambiguity”?


R. Paul Stephens then continued his astonishing argument –

[On any number of questions] Scripture presents us with seemingly irreconcilable truths… [Our]  unconfessed [and unchallenged] presupposition is that the fundamental truths of Scripture can be systematized, which will then eliminate all paradoxes and yield unequivocal answers.  [But] I am proposing an alternative method – a “contemplative” approach. This approach views the ambiguity of Scripture as a pointer to God, an indicator of truths so great that – they can only be seen in full from God-height.   …The deepest issues of our life in Christ resist reduction to manageable ideas…  [And] Biblical teaching is often ambiguous in just these areas. …These tensions can generate friction and frustration. Or, they can be resolved by an artificial choice to live out only one side of the Biblical witness.  Alternatively, the tension can be embraced in a contemplative manner.  The ambiguity can be seen as pointing to a God-sized issue.

Reading, thinking and writing about “what is the Gospel message to our church as we relate to Gay and Lesbian Christians” has been one of the dominant considerations “on my watch” as a member, minister and, at times, leader of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The discernment process that the elders of Northway are currently working through is based on the denominational discernment process that I helped to develop more than 15 years ago together with a group of some of the finest Christians and clearest thinkers in our church that I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.  Getting ready to lead the elders of the church I serve through a survey of what the Bible says about sex, marriage, divorce and inclusion over the last few weeks was a journey through familiar territory, across well-travelled terrain for me. I have worked with these texts, their interpretation and application for more than 30 years now.  And my keenest insight about them is that they are complicated, which is why I am so impatient with the absolutism of both my traditionalist peers and my progressive colleagues who announce their positions with the imprimatur that “it’s what the Bible really says,” or “it’s what the Bible really means.”  I know way too much about these texts and their use by the church to find such simplistic claims to be credible.  Frankly, I am much more “taken” by Dr. Stephens’ suggestion of “inspired ambiguity,” and with the idea that when we find ourselves straddling a biblical paradox that we are being pointed to something important in the person and purpose of God Himself.

god small

One of the most important books I’ve read in recent years is David Wells’ God in the Whirlwind (Crossway – 2014).  At its core it is an argument for people of Biblical faith not to let go of the revealed paradox that’s at the heart of God’s very being, what he calls God’s “holy-love.” It seems to me that the traditionalists I know and love have hold of God’s holiness, and the progressives I know and love have hold of God’s love.  As for myself, I’m trying my hardest to hang onto both God’s holiness and His love.  And because I am, the more convinced I am becoming that the key text in the conversation about same sex marriage is Matthew 19:3-12.

Having just spent five hours in a marathon Bible Study with a couple of dozen elders putting the Bible’s “clobber” texts on homosexuality into direct conversation with some of the key texts in the Bible’s “glorious vision” of the created goodness of human sexuality and its proper expression, and then putting all of that “sex” talk in the Bible into direct conversation with the Gospel’s overarching message of God’s actively inclusive love in Jesus Christ, I am more convinced than ever about just how complicated all of this really is when you take the Bible seriously, and that the one passage in the Bible that seems to me to recognize, and even “honor” this complexity, is Matthew 19:3-12.  Here is a picture of God’s “holy/love” at work.  Here is the Bible’s “inspired ambiguity” in black and white.  And so this is where I will be “contemplatively” hunkering down for a while as I continue to wrestle with this “God-sized issue” from a “God-sized height.”  And believe me, with all due respect to Andrew Wilson, it is difficult.



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