Archive for December 12th, 2008

I accidentally picked up an old issue of Books and Culture yesterday. It was the March/April 2008 issue. It wasn’t a particularly compelling issue and since I had already read most of it, I only perused through a couple of articles. Near the back, I found an essay I hadn’t read. It was a review of a book by Mark Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Robert Tracy McKenzie. A preview can be found here.

The review is titled ‘Both Read the Same Bible’ which is a quote from the second inaugural address of Abraham Lincoln. The context reads this way:

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. {…}

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. [my emphasis]

I have often wondered about Christians in this regard. How is it that I can read my Bible and be perfectly at ease in God’s grace that His sovereignty makes much room for my freedom of contrary choice and another can read the same Bible and be perfectly at ease in God’s grace that He has doomed some to hell simply because he decided it to be that way?  How is it I can read my Bible and be perfectly at ease with my understanding that immersion is the last step in conversion and others read the same Bible and come to the conclusion that baptism is the first step of obedience? How can we read the same Bible and some come to a pre-mill idea of the ‘end times’ and others read it and come to a ‘a-mill’ or ‘pan-mill’ or ‘post-mill’ point of view?

Certainly we are not all heretics because we differ on points of view? Have we not all prayed to the same God? Have we not all ‘read the same bible’? Have we not all ‘been baptized into Christ’ (Galatians 3:27), drunk from the same Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13), called upon the One Lord (Romans 10:13)? Certainly the church is bigger than what our puny minds seem to think, right?

I mentioned in another post that God takes a great risk when he permits local church autonomy. Well, doesn’t he also take a great risk when he gives us Scripture and says: “Discover meaning?” ( “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings” Proverbs 25:2). It’s not like Scripture is a bullet-point or power-point or even that it can be nicely bundled into formal creeds (even if those creeds are useful and perfectly orthodox.) The Bible is a majestic book, grand, varied, multi-faceted. And that’s how God intended it to be. He gave us stories, poems, proverbs, parables, riddles, letters, apocalypses, narratives, novellas, prophecy, and preaching.Then he said: Search. Discover. Interpret. Ultimately, he said: Find Jesus, not an orthodox theological system (e.g., John 5:39; Luke 24:25-27, 44; 1 Peter 1:10-12)

He didn’t hand us a rule book (even if there are rules to be followed). He handed us a story, to an extent, an idea. Some folks clearly cross over the line of what is the boundary marker, but the bottom line is this: Not every single interpretation or idea is an assault on orthodoxy. Strange, isn’t it, that many who held to the pro-slavery position “came to equate the antislavery crusade with an assault on orthodoxy”? (B & C, McKenzie, 45) And yet, were those who held slaves any-less Christian than those who did not? After all, their interpretation of the Scripture, our ‘only rule of faith and practice’, didn’t condemn the idea. Was God’s grace any less efficacious to them? (Please don’t misinterpret me. I am not saying slavery in the American South (or the American North!) was justified. I’m only pointing out that as far as we know, Robert E Lee was just as much an orthodox Christian as Abraham Lincoln if Scripture has anything to say about it.)

One wonders why many folks in the church today are not given such freedom and consideration. One wonders why every time an interpretation of a parable doesn’t match someones preconceived idea of the meaning we must automatically conclude that person is assaulting orthodoxy?

McKenzie, the author of the review I read concludes by noting this:

Of greater significance to the lay reader should be the implications of Noll’s analysis for contemporary Christians. Although Noll never moralizes, there is a sense in which the entire book is a cautionary tale. The Civil War as a Theological Crisis reminds us of how easily cultural conventions can shape definitions of ‘orthodoxy.’ It warns us that an aversion to complexity is not the same thing as a commitment to scriptural authority. And it demonstrates, powerfully and pertinently to the present moment, the consequences that follow when Christians in a society given to the ‘voluntary and democratic appropriation of Scripture’ come to disagree passionately about what Scripture actually teaches. (46)

Do our disagreements about Scripture now, in our present day, present the same sort of problems as they faced then? Do these incessant arguments portend a greater problem in the church that will not be resolved apart from violence? Is it possible that another civil war could result from our anger towards those who, because the Bible tells me so, disagree with ‘me’? Or is it possible that we are already engaged in a theological civil war? Isn’t this really a matter of ‘how much must I know or how right must I be in order to be saved?’ Isn’t that an assault on God’s grace?

Is there room, and how much, for interpretation? Am I still your brother if we are on opposite sides of the millenial debate? Baptism debate? Atonement debate? Communion debate? Musical instruments debate? (Etc.) Is not He that is in us greater than our interpretations? Or will we continue believing that every contrary idea is necessarily an assault on orthodoxy?

Doesn’t the very nature of Scripture compel us to search and delight and not search and destroy?

  • Share/Bookmark