Yesterday, with a fair dose of exasperation, a longtime friend said to me, “But Roy, on this issue the Bible is clear...”
I responded, “OK, I hear you. I really do — ‘the Bible is clear.’ It probably won’t surprise you to hear I get that a lot…a whole lot. But when you say, ‘The Bible is clear,’ what do you do with the fact that you and I think the Bible is saying 2 completely different things on this issue?”
“When you say, ‘The Bible is clear,’ you must mean it is clear to you and if I don’t see it the way you do something is wrong with either my head or my heart. When someone in a conversation says to me, ‘The Bible is clear,’ it seems to me they are essentially saying, ‘There’s no room for discussion here. There is nothing left to talk about. There are no more questions so move on.’ So I will honor that and not try to answer a bunch of questions you’re not asking. I don’t like hearing myself talk nearly as much as I used to. And I sure don’t want to be presumptuous and tone-deaf with regard to what you’re looking for in this conversation and, more, our friendship of 30-plus years.”
“I do have a question or 2 for you, though,” I continued. “I guess what I would like to ask is this. Is this text also clear to you?”
“‘Slaves be submissive to your masters even if they beat you without cause for to this you were called by Christ…in the same way, you wives be submissive to your husbands.’”
I went on to ask the same question in regard to 3 or 4 other difficult or morally problematic texts, texts that, in my mind at least, “clearly” show the Bible isn’t always as “clear” as many suggest. (Isn’t a Protestant Reformation and thousands upon thousands of denominations in its wake a testament to that?)
I didn’t intend to be coy about my point. It is implausible to me that God has relegated the eternal destinies of human beings to their ability to decode and decipher an ancient text. Or, for that matter, to find and trust the “experts” who have.
Don’t get me wrong. I value and love the Bible. I see it as sacred even. In my tradition the Bible is the guide for both faith and practice. And those aren’t strategic disclaimers made half-heartedly in a polemic attempt to throw someone off in a debate.
I just deeply believe misunderstanding the Bible’s role is a problem so large within Christianity it is almost impossible to overstate.
Viewing the Bible as the ultimately clear and exclusive arbiter of God’s mind and our responsibilities is putting far too heavy of a load on its frame. Trying to get clear and final answers, solely from its pages, on every moral or ethical issue in every culture and in every age is a serious misstep that has yielded tragic results.
It is the equivalent of trying to find a logical answer to an illogical question by way of an illogical method all within an illogical system. It simply does not work. It was never intended to.
So then, responding to my “The-Bible-is-clear” friends with, “It sure is,” and then entering conversations where we valiantly and sincerely attempt to convince one another who is right and who is wrong? Well, not only is that an ill-fated and unfruitful venture, it is a wholly unnecessary one.
Be gentle with yourselves, dear reader, so you can be gentle with others.