I was recently having a discussion with my brother and sister in law. During our conversation, we spoke about the way some people have particular tastes, and anyone who disagrees with these opinions are wrong or “stupid.” Granted, we all have tastes and opinions that we hold very dear; however, we live in a world with divers opinions. In many ways, it's a matter of opinion. The same could be true with Sacred Scripture.
Ever since I was very young, my dad always taught my brother and me a lot of the theology he was learning. One program he enjoyed was “The Bible Answer Man” with Walter Martin. He even purchased some of his tapes. Usually these teachings deal with various cults (Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormon's, etc.). However, other teachers like John MacArthur taught against the Charismatic movement or Pentecostalism. Anyway, this is a rather round about way of stating that much Christian dialogue deals with differing interpretations of Scripture and the Christian experience. In other words, Christians slamming other Christians.
While I don't mean to demean the contributions of all of these faith perspectives, I am greatly perturbed by this line of reasoning that claims that certain views are “orthodoxy” while others are outside the revealed truth of Scripture. Moreover, such reasoning fail to recognize the messiness of interpretation and the limits of human understanding. In her essay entitled "De profundis: Augustine's Reading of Orthodoxy" Carol Harrison refers to diversity as the “dark side” (254) of Christian doctrine.
This subliminal layer to doctrine is “an unavoidable undercurrent of ambiguity, difficulty, and obscurity; of fluidity, change, and flexibility that, unless it is acknowledged and consciously appreciated, can only lead to unexplained conflict, disagreement, and potentially dangerous fractures and divisions” (254). In other words, Harrison challenges the notion that Scriptural truth is so “plain.” Understanding Scripture often emerges from adversity and not simple musings. Moreover, the Charismatic and Pentecostal movements represent a reaction towards the more modern and rationalistic Christian practices of Protestant churches. Whether they simply inherited the Romantic religious view is not something I can speak to; however, they do have a foot stand on in their interpretation and help remind us of God's continual influence and involvement in history. In some ways, they stand in the mystical tradition of Western and Eastern mystics. God is more existential than intellectual. Of course, there's no reason to have one at the expense of the other. Both can contribute to our understanding of God. However, in what way can we justify this apparent compromise? Harrison turns to St. Augustine for some insight.
According to Harrison, Augustine felt that there was a certain “improvisation” (255) to interpreting Scripture. Using the 2 great commandments of loving God and loving neighbor as his foundation, Augustine declares that these commandments serves as “rules that effectively enable [us] to freely improvise on the particular details of scripture to arrive at new, shifting, diverse meanings, which, nevertheless, resonate with the faith and do not diverge from its truth – in other words, which are orthodox” (255-56). Therefore, ideas and doctrines are constantly changing to fit the needs of the present community. For example, when Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, he stated that “all men are created equal;” however, in practice African slaves were not covered by this ideal. When Lincoln became president, he quoted this exact line from Jefferson to include those who were enslaved. While this might not be the best example, we note that it shows how events and development alter the way we view important truths within a society. This does not mean that we find every absurd interpretation to be valid. What we mean is that varying interpretations of Scripture should be weighed equally because we know that we are finite of understanding. This prevents the “me and my Bible” routine and allows the community of Christ's body to determine and grow from their different practices.
While such an approach does not terminate the arguing and fighting over different views of Scripture, I do think it might help cool some heads about how they debate such issues. People feel strongly about their faith views, and they should. There is nothing wrong with debate; however, we should be open to different views because ultimately all knowledge and wisdom comes from God. As Christ told Peter, “[Flesh] and blood hath not revealed [my Messianic identity] unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven” (St. Matt. 16:17). It is God who reveals Himself to humanity and not our powers of deduction or reason. Therefore, if God has chosen to grant someone one understanding of Scripture, then does it not behoove us to have an open ear? We must not allow our need to be right or correct to silence the voice of God in our fellow brothers and sisters. Such an attitude does not love her or his neighbor, which demonstrates a lack of loving God. The authority of Scripture is not something to be wielded by His Church (though at times it may be mediated through her), but through Him that speaks.
Matthew Jimenez is a graduate student at USC with a MA in Theology and the Arts. He currently lives in Carson, California.
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