You Think You Know But You Have No Idea, Or Biblical Confidence

This post just kind of popped up. I usually plan them somewhat in advance, but I’m flying on impulse here. Yes, it’s likely to land me in trouble.

The Bible holds immeasurable value in many Christian circles (worry not, I’m not gonna pick on that). It’s usually 4th in line of authority – which runs God (the Father) at the top, Jesus at a very close 2nd, the Holy Spirit a somewhat distant third… and then the Scriptures. For some people the Scripture holds the same weight as God himself, they’re considered synonymous.

Because it is so central, what the Bile says is above any of our ideas, philosophies or theologies – meaning we are often “stuck” with certain ideas because, well, its in the Bible so its off limits to tampering with. It’s settled – that’s that. And I appreciate that devotion, that willingness to submit and lay down whatever notions you have to that authority, even if it hurts.

But you can’t escape the fact that we, today, really don’t understand the Bible very well. And I won’t blame it on a lack of piety, as many preachers do. I think we don’t understand the Scriptures well mostly because our times and our culture are so vastly different from the ancient world.

For instance – I’ve long not liked this verse from Romans 12:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

In my deepest days of doubt one notion kept me hanging onto the way of Jesus – the love of other people, enemies even, without any condition or secret plot to actually change them. So this verse, actually a reference to Proverbs 25, violated this idea to me. The verse started off well – telling you to feed enemies, but I truly never agreed that we were to do at least partly because it would show them how evil and ridiculous they are being.

I thought we were supposed to simply love, and not try for outcomes of any kind.

Well, as it turns out, years after I secretly resented this verse, I heard a very different take on it. In Old Testament times, people were nomadic and as such, needed to transfer fire from place to place. As someone who can primitively start a fire (although a knife and string help me create my tools) I know how freaking long it can take to start a fire from scratch. Therefore the people of that day carried coals on their head from place to place to save them the trouble.

So, through giving them food or water, we are not showing our enemies for how bad they are. No, in fact, we are helping them survive. If you heaped coals on their head in those days, you were passing on survival. That makes so much more sense with what Jesus (and Paul) taught.

The lesson for me is don’t get too comfortable in my understanding. And in fact, maybe look into what I think the Scriptures are saying – because I didn’t live thousands of years ago in the Middle East. So I can’t hold on too tightly.

(Another quick example: at his arrest Jesus puts the ear back on the soldier who has it cut off by a disciple’s sword. We see that act as showing his healing supernatural powers, though having a missing appendage in those days disqualified you from worship in the Temple. So that act was far more than a simple miracle).

Where does the Scripture stand in your mind? Is it 4th in line? Have you encountered any stories like mine where your understanding of it was flipped around?

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14 Responses to You Think You Know But You Have No Idea, Or Biblical Confidence

  1. Charlie: to be totally honest I have never given much thought to the hierarchy of revelation or whatever one might want to call it. I have just taken the Scriptures to be the inspired words of God to man but never thought, “Okay what did God say? And how about Jesus in this whole scheme of things? And doggone it, I need to consider the inspiration of the HS in all of this too before I can say, ‘The Word says this…’ ” They are One so I just don’t even go there. I take the same approach when talking about priorities. I don’t do the “God first. Family second. etc” deal. As for the latter question: I can’t think one off the top of my head at this point. Maybe down the road. Now that I have written all of this…I am not sure I have answered your question. 🙂 Hope you are feeling better and your wife is back up soon.

  2. jay @ bethegospel says:

    I took a Roman Backgrounds class in seminary one time and it revolutionized the way that I read the NT. I immediately starting getting background books and reading them as part of my “quiet times” and also for leisure. There are so many nuances that help reveal a lot. The book of Philippians opened up when I realized the city’s history and the fact that our word for “work” is the same word in Greek as “fight” is. I use this set of commentaries a lot.
    http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_2_50?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=zondervan+illustrated+bible+backgrounds+commentary&x=0&y=0&sprefix=zondervan+illustrated+bible+backgrounds+commentary

  3. Chris says:

    Charlie,

    It seems like you’ve created a bit of a paradox, or conundrum for yourself. Where did you get the idea that: “the way of Jesus (is about) the love of other people, enemies even, without any condition or secret plot to actually change them.”
    Isn’t it from the bible? With the two examples you gave regarding a deeper, perhaps hidden meaning that you discovered later, it seems as though you are saying, yes, it is possible to extract the true (or better) meaning from the text after all.

    From my understanding, there seems to be a sense in which there is a “plain sense” to the text if we come at it as complete novices. This plain sense is guarded by the Holy Spirit and will not be lost. (I don’t say this as a trump card over any opinions to the contrary, rather it’s just my belief and understanding) Many people who have never picked up a bible are very compelled and drawn to the person of Jesus from an initial reading of the book of John, for example. They can get a true picture of the events and the nature of Jesus’ ministry and mission, granted minus some of the contextual nuances that add depth, but nonetheless still benefit from the knowledge (and/or the personal encounter) necessary for true faith. If people (like yourself, in the examples you gave) wish later to go deeper and take on a study of contextual issues that add greater meaning to the text that’s fine. There is nothing wrong with that. But if God had something to do with the communication contained within the bible, then God is a talking God, and that changes everything. Let’s not say that true, meaningful knowledge of God is only for the scholar. And let’s not be so arrogant as to say that God is so inept and that he understands his creatures so little that he is unable to break into our world and cut through all our cultural baggage in such a way that we can understand truly, if not exhaustively. Exhaustive knowledge of God is not a door that is open to us. But true, meaningful knowledge is available.

    Did you ever ask yourself what your faith would look like if there were no bible? There is precious little outside of scripture (except for perhaps the Gnostic gospels which are highly problematic) that tells us about Jesus at all. Would you be agnostic? Or atheist?

    • if someone were to read the verse in Romans I quoted – the initial plain sense reading is actually the opposite of its true meaning (kindness/grace heaps guilt upon them, rather than kindness helps them survive).

      I think I’m still figuring out what I think about the Bible, as cases like these muddy it a bit for me. And that’s fine, I don’t think I need to have a clearly worked out exact opinion on the nature of Scripture. To be able to even think of these matters is a luxury, it means my basic needs are very well met.

      • Chris says:

        I debated in my own mind whether or not to respond here again, because I don’t want to appear argumentative. I won’t follow up again because I know that can get annoying to a lot of people.
        You could very well be right in your “true” understanding of the verse in Romans I, but it struck me as somewhat “off”, only because I think even a first century Jew would know the difference between having coals heaped on their head (which might be helpful towards their survival), and having *burning* coals heaped on their head. It’s the “burning” that makes all the difference in the metaphor.
        Your original analysis of that verse, that we show kindness in order to change someone, or to show them how ridiculous they are, also didn’t sound right to me. Which could be why you might have been so dissatisfied with what you thought was a common understanding. To me it seemed more like it was describing a cause and effect. Much like when the verse in the bible (can’t remember where) says “A kind word turneth away wrath.” It’s describing human nature, or the human condition, rather than, “here’s a way to really get ’em back.” To me this is why the bible seems so profound. It really implies that this is God speaking to us. We don’t worship the bible per se. But we take very seriously that if this is in any sense the Word of God, or God’s communication to us, isn’t it as though he is right there standing in front of you and inviting you to know him better and to follow him? There is something about language that performs a function or works in our interrelationships, with each other and with God, in ways that other means don’t. I don’t discount other means, such as loving relationships, they are powerful. But language can serve as a means to clarify and illuminate in ways that other means can’t.

      • don’t worry Chris I don’t get offended when you respond on my blog. The whole point is to stimulate conversation, not simply preach to a choir that knows what merely echoes my every word. (I do apologize in the delay in my reply).

        Unfortunately I don’ t know if we can settle the true interpretation on the romans passage without going to greek – but I can definitely understand your perspective on it. I do agree that often kindness does overturn wrath, simply by its power, but my post was more interested in the intention behind it.

  4. JamesBrett says:

    i think of the bible as the easiest way to hear from God. i believe there are lots of ways to hear him speaking to me in my life (and i do in other forms), but reading the bible is the easiest way for me to know his desires for my life. and others can help me in the process and hold me accountable to the truth. and that’s all despite the fact that there are some things in there i don’t understand.

    so i don’t know that i like the hierarchy idea because the bible is, in my mind, a tool for revelation. i’m not ranking its authority among Father, Son, and Spirit because it only possesses the authority they’ve given it.

  5. Angela says:

    Great post Charlie. It’s a very interesting concept to think about how we rank ideas about our faith. I agree that we don’t really understand the Bible – we’re all pretty confused by it. I think there is a sense where we can trust the general themes of the Bible – be generous, love others, love God without understanding every single story. I would love to understand every story, and like the example you gave above, we really need to know the context of that place in time. I wish I knew more about that stuff.

  6. David says:

    Well Charlie, I want to get right to the point here:

    Mark 16:17-19 (NIV) 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”

    The above scripture is the mode in which we love others, and love is the method by which we do it.

    We can certainly add to it: the feeding of the poor, visiting those in prison, and caring for widows. (The church, not the government) The method will never change.

    As far as the Scriptures, they tell you how to study them.

    Proverbs 2
    1 My son, if you accept my words
    and store up my commands within you,
    2 turning your ear to wisdom
    and applying your heart to understanding—
    3 indeed, if you call out for insight
    and cry aloud for understanding,
    4 and if you look for it as for silver
    and search for it as for hidden treasure,
    5 then you will understand the fear of the LORD
    and find the knowledge of God.
    6 For the LORD gives wisdom;
    from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.
    7 He holds success in store for the upright,
    he is a shield to those whose walk is blameless,
    8 for he guards the course of the just
    and protects the way of his faithful ones.
    9 Then you will understand what is right and just
    and fair—every good path.

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