Earlier today, Jonathan Fitzgerald of Patrol Magazine posted on the delightful ambiguity of Scripture. He reflects, as he often does, on his time growing up in Christian environment that was on the fundamentalist/charismatic end of the spectrum and how, as a boy, went searching for the hard and fast rules he was certain lay in the Bible’s depths. He found, to his then frustration and now delight, that a very small portion of Scripture was made up of rules and regulations. Rather, it’s mostly stories.
In light of the abundance of story in God’s Word, Fitzgerald concludes that ambiguity is a hallmark of our faith. He writes,
Those of us who are Christians believe God inspired both its creation and compilation, but this does not change the fact that because it is an ancient written text, it is full of ambiguities; it is open to interpretation. Further, and rather importantly, its very existence, beyond even what it contains, tells us something about the nature of God. That is, God values the written word; he works through interpretation; he is comfortable with ambiguity. And, so should we be.
Fitzgerald essentially touches on two topics, one to do with the nature of God, the other with the nature of the Bible. Surprisingly, I have thoughts on both.
As he concludes, Fitzgerald remarks that God is comfortable with ambiguity, since all of Scripture, as a written document, is by nature open to interpretation, and all the more so as time passes. While I believe Fitzgerald’s thrust to be accurate, I would tweak it slightly. More likely than not, I believe each document in the Bible was clear enough to the people for whom it was originally written. So baffling to so many of us in 21st century America, Deuteronomy likely made pretty good sense to the Hebrews preparing to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land 3500 years ago. Originally, these texts, even the stories, made sense to their original audience (if a writer can’t make sense to her intended audience, she doesn’t write long).
Moreover, we must be careful that we’re not saying that God is ambiguous about things in God’s own mind. (This isn’t exactly what Fitzgerald is saying, but it’s not far, I don’t think.) Can we apply ambiguity to an omniscient being? I think God’s probably fairly certain about most things.
What I believe God is perfectly comfortable with is process. I don’t believe the Lord is confused or frustrated one bit by the notion that anyone isn’t a finished product just yet. That, I believe, is what we ought to learn comfort in. It’s OK that we don’t have all the answers right now. The Lord has shown again and again throughout history that He’s willing to walk through the ambiguities (from our perspective) with us.
Secondly, though Fitzgerald nowhere brings it fully to surface, submerged throughout the article is the question of Scripture’s authority. Many Evangelical churches have a statement on the authority of Scripture, finding the topic worthy of a central statement of faith. At my church, though it’s similar to most other churches, it’s actually shorter than most: “We believe the Bible is God’s authoritative word and direction for our lives.”
But what does that mean? Ask twenty Evangelicals what “The Authority of Scripture” means, and you’re likely to get 19 unique replies.
The thoughtful Christian will affirm, as Fitzgerald has, that the Bible isn’t actually made up of a set of rules to live by. Perhaps that’s a portion of the text, but a very small portion. This collection of documents that we call our authority for life is, as Fitzgerald has rightly identified, primarily a collection of stories. Throw in a hefty body of poetry, a healthy load of prophetic material, and a handful of personal letters, and you’ve got yourself a Bible. How does that amount to a trustworthy rule for life and practice?
Unquestionably, the best treatment on the subject that I’ve seen has come from NT Wright (who else?). (It’s available in The New Testament and the People of God, pp.139-143, or from his Laing and Griffith Thomas Lectures, available here.) A crude summary: Imagine the discovery of a lost Shakespearean play – a masterpiece if ever there was one. But in the midst of the jubilation at such a find, there is sorrow. The final act has not survived the years. Still, everyone generally believes it ought to be performed. And yet, no one dares presume to write the fifth act. Instead, a different course is taken. The first four acts are given to the premier Shakespeare company in the world. These men and women have devoted their lives to studying and acting the bard. They will perform the lost drama and, on the basis of their own extensive knowledge – nay, experience – of Shakespeare and the first four acts of this masterpiece, complete the performance with a fifth act they believe to be in line with the extant text and Shakespeare’s own tendencies.
This is the authority of Scripture. The first four acts, along with Shakespeare’s body of work (all of it story), is the authority for how this fifth act of a lost play ought to be produced. We have four acts of God’s work on the earth in the Bible. We are acting out the fifth and final act, but we must do so in the spirit and authority of what has come before. What outcome fits the outset of the drama? That’s our job. That’s the ambiguity and certainty in which we live.