Friday, May 14, 2010


Biblical interpretation is a controversial and often confusing field; there are as many methods for extracting meaning from the Bible as there are people who have ever tried to do so. Disagreement over interpretation has fueled countless schisms (and more than a few wars) over the centuries and arguably caused at least as much harm as good.

What, then, is the solution? As long as people are people, wherever two or more are gathered there will be disagreement. Perhaps our demand for agreement and the high value we place on being right lie at the heart of the problem. This is not to suggest that our understanding of the Bible is unimportant, simply that what we don't know will always outweigh what we do know.

A better way forward may lie within our willingness to embrace uncertainty, focusing less on intellectual agreement and outward conformity, and more on the values that Jesus emphasized: compassion, charity, humility, forgiveness and the like. Rather than worrying about whether we have the One Right Answer that will apply equally to everyone in every time and place, we could allow for disagreement while testing our doctrines according to the following criteria:
Does it contribute to a higher vision of God, a deeper engagement with Christ, a more profound experience of the Holy Spirit? Does it motivate us to love God, neighbor, stranger and enemy more wholeheartedly?
(Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity)
There's more to the study of theology than that, certainly, but if our dogmas fail to produce positive change in our lives, then perhaps we've missed the point no matter how carefully we've conjugated our Greek verbs and cross-referenced our verses. In my experience, the most zealous defenders of orthodoxy and doctrinal purity are often very unpleasant people to be around; a heavy focus on being right seems to almost inevitably stunt the development of empathy and compassion.

Similarly, those who treat the Bible as a rulebook often develop an avoidant approach to life, in which the things one abstains from take precedence over the development of positive qualities. Such individuals are often perfectly nice people (as the rules require them to be), but they rarely become catalysts for positive change in the world; such innovation requires a willingness to risk stepping outside the lines.

Expanding on McLaren's quote, we might ask some of the following questions when evaluating the efficacy what we believe:

-Does our theology challenge our prejudices and shatter the boxes we've tried to place God in, or have we merely painted a self-portrait and labeled it "God"?

-Does our theology compel us to get to know those that are different from us on their own terms so that we can better serve them, or does it validate our all-too-human desire to force those others to become more like us?

-Does our theology inspire us to make the world around us a better place for everyone, or does it drive us to create bunkers (literal or figurative) where we can wait in comfort for God to destroy everyone who isn't one of us?

-Is our theology truly invitational, or does it require fear of hell to motivate people (either directly or implicitly) to action?

-Are "sinners" irresistibly drawn to us like they were to Jesus, or do we find ourselves loudly insisting that we're actually very compassionate as they walk away from us?

-Does our vision of "freedom in Christ" truly liberate people to unleash their full God-given potential, or is our use of the term just an attempt to put a positive spin on a lifetime focused on sin management?

-Would a neutral observer agree that we're accurately answering the above questions?

While the above questions don't represent the end of the discussion by any means (and may, in fact, inspire more debate about their appropriateness), we still face one grave consideration: if we fail the test of love, what's the point in pretending that we have anything at all to offer?


Bobby B said...

Great one Eugene!

tom said...

hey there,

just discovered your blog, and i spent a couple of hours reading through it. i think i'm embarking on the same journey as you, and your thoughts through the years this blog has existed have been really helpful to me. keep it up.


Eugene said...

Tom and Bobby: Thanks. Glad you found your way here...

BrianY1977 said...

Excellent stuff!

Unknown said...

Most excellent. There is alot to ponder in that post.

I find this to be so true in my own life: "a heavy focus on being right seems to almost inevitably stunt the development of empathy and compassion."

Thanks so much, Eugene. I always look forward to your posts!

Kim said...

Eugene, this awesome and some of the stuff I've been pondering on lately, Thanks! Gonna try to post your link on my FB page :)