I find in the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel an apt image of our struggle to know God through scripture. Jacob was wounded in his struggle with the angel, as we all are in our struggle to know God. But Jacob persisted and ended up with a blessing. If we can persist in our struggle to know God through scripture, we will not find certitude, but we may well discover the blessing.
In my struggle with scripture I typically ask three questions. First, what did the biblical writer mean in saying what he/she said to a particular group of people in a particular time and place? Because we are so far removed from that historical, social and cultural context, we can never be certain in our conclusions about authorial intent. Who can enter into the mind of a historical person and assume we know exactly what they meant? That’s part of the struggle.
The second question I bring to the text after I have come to some conclusion about what I think the writer was saying is this: Is what the writer said to the people in that time and place true and helpful? If I apply the instructions the writer gives, or if I believe what the writer presumes or says about God and God’s relationship to the world, will it inspire me to be a more loving, gracious, generous and grateful person?
If what the writer says helps me to become more loving like Christ and inspires me to do mercy, pursue justice and walk in humility, then I can trust that what the writer says is from God. If it doesn’t, then I can’t. The biblical writers were not beyond projecting their own interests, biases and shortcomings onto God. They were flawed human beings, conditioned by their culture and context, just as we are.
There are many biblical texts that are highly enlightening, inspiring and transforming. But there are some biblical texts that are unenlightening, uninspiring and more life deforming than transforming. The biblical writers could reflect the very best and even the worst of the human condition. Discerning what is of God and what is not of God is the struggle we enter into in the biblical text. It mirrors our own struggle of faith.
My third question logically follows from the previous two. So, in light of what (I think) the author intended, and in light of the transforming or non-transforming nature of the text, I ask: What might I learn about God and God’s will for humanity, or about the human condition from this text? What might God be saying to me through this text? It’s best to ask this question in community with others. God often makes known God’s will through the comments and observations of others in our community with whom we study and discuss the text.
When I was a student in a theological school committed to biblical inerrancy, one of the great ironies of my seminary education was that I was trained, as well as anyone, to apply historical, social and linguistic resources to discover the meaning of a biblical writer. However, when I applied that methodology (and here is the great irony), if I came to a conclusion that did not fit the theological system and doctrinal beliefs I was taught to uphold, then I was conditioned to automatically reject that meaning. My teachers would say, “Try again, that can’t be what the biblical writer was saying.” Why? Because it went against the doctrinal grid that had to be applied to every interpretation.
“If Jesus is truly our guide then we should expect to fully struggle with the scripture in the way the Gospels demonstrate that Jesus did.”
Most Baptist Christians were taught to approach scripture in a similar fashion. Many of us were indoctrinated into belief systems as children or converted into them later in life, where it was impressed upon us that such doctrines as the virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, the deity of Jesus, etc. were absolutely true according to the Bible. We were most likely given a few proof texts and told, “This is what the Bible says.” So whenever we went about the task of reading and interpreting the scriptures we were automatically limited in what the text could mean by what we were already taught the Bible says. Thus we never really struggled with the text.
Biblical inerrantists trained in a particular theological system assume they already know what the text can’t mean before they even study it. This approach to the Bible is quite appealing because it eliminates doubt, ambiguity and mystery and offers people certainty, security and simplicity. It eliminates any need to struggle with the text. What it really offers, though, are false assurances. They settle for security at the expense of truth.
If Jesus is truly our guide then we should expect to fully struggle with the scripture in the way the Gospels demonstrate that Jesus did. Rather than assuming that what he was taught by the Jewish religious leaders of his day was true, he drew from his own direct, personal, intuitive, common-sense experience of God, which he brought to bear in his struggle with scripture.
Sometimes Jesus expanded the meaning of the scriptures such as when he said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.” (Matt. 521-22). Jesus suggested that the “ancient” scripture didn’t go far enough in expounding God’s will. He competed the arc.
Sometimes Jesus rejected scripture and replaced it with a more complete understanding of God’s will. Such as the time Jesus dismissed the scripture that allowed for a man to divorce his wife if he found something “indecent” in her. Jesus rejected the notion this came from God, even though the text says it came from God. He argued that Moses allowed for this concession because of the hardness of human hearts, but this was never God’s intention from the beginning (see Mark 10:1-9).
In another instance, Jesus rejected the biblical law of retaliation, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” admonishing his followers not to violently resist injustice. In its place Jesus offered some creative ways for an enslaved, oppressed people to courageously, at great personal risk, protest injustice (see Matt. 5:38-41).
Jesus offers us a model of how we might struggle with our sacred texts and bring our own personal, intuitive, common-sense experience of God to bear on our interpretation and application of scripture.
Persons who are vengeful and biased will read and apply scriptures in vengeful and biased ways. Persons who are being transformed by love will read and apply scripture in gracious and inclusive ways. When we enter into this struggle honestly and sincerely, we open our hearts to have our prejudice, hate and sin exposed. If we refuse to enter that struggle and settle for a second-hand faith, we will simply use scripture in simplistic ways to affirm our prejudice, hate and sin.
It’s all about what’s in our hearts. If our hearts are open, honest, humble and true, we will not mind entering into the struggles, contradictions, ambiguities and mysteries of the text. In fact, we will welcome them. For we will hear God speak to us through them, and in our struggle with them we will discover the blessing of God’s transforming grace and love.