Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Heterodox Aftershocks 5: Verses Vs. Verses

Mat 20:28 & Mar 10:45 "even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for MANY."


VS.


Luk 3:6 And ALL flesh shall see the salvation of God.

Tit 2:11 For the grace of God hath appeared, bringing salvation to ALL men,

1Jo 2:2 and he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the whole world.

Fight!!!

Here is an interesting issue. You can have one set of scriptures lined up against another set. Each group gives a certain impression or states a certain fact. What does a good Christian do in this case? These are the options I can think of…

  1. Ignore the set that you disagree with.
  2. Interpret away the set you disagree with.
  3. Remain undecided about the issue.
  4. Try to come up with a middle ground.
  5. Accept both to be true and live with a paradox.

Well, as I stated in part one of this whole ordeal, I’m not a fan of number one. It happens all the time, probably to the best of us. But I think it is a bad practice and should be stamped out whenever possible.

Option two is prone to eisegesis, but I don’t think that automatically invalidates it. It is no secret that many Bibles have been translated poorly. Ask any Biblical scholar to name a few bad translations and they will start rattling them off. So whatever reinterpretation a verse goes through should be held to close scrutiny. Just because some guy comes along and says Paul’s statement that homosexuality is sinful, was actually only referring to temple prostitution, does not make it so. But I wouldn’t base that rejection on simply tradition. The argument fails on several levels under its own weight. The weight of tradition is not necessary to overcome a poor hermeneutic.

Option three (remaining undecided) presents a host of challenges. For me, the main challenge is that I can’t hold many variables in my head at once. So composing a consistent worldview can be problematic if many basic assertions are up in the air. On the other hand, a great advantage of this option is that it does leave a lot of room for growth and new understanding. If I were to decide that I hate France before I visit I don’t think I would have much fun. If I decided that I love everything about it before I visit, I won’t come away with a very balanced view of it. But leaving the issue undecided, pending more data would allow me the fullest possible range of experience for my visit. You can also use this metaphor in regards to meeting new people, investigating a career path, evaluating a collage or political idea, etc. This is a concept I will come back to in a later entry because I think it is very important.

Four (finding a middle ground) only works when the verses present vague impressions rather than opposite views. It really doesn’t work for this particular issue. Jesus can’t save less than everybody AND everybody.

Number five is the option my pastor preaches. See my entry, “The difference between balance and paradox” for more on that. Here, we take contradictory ideas and simply state that they are both true. We say that we can do so because there is a higher understanding that eludes us in this life. I have to say that I’m unsatisfied with this approach. Not because I don’t think there’s plenty of stuff us humans can’t comprehend, but because it leaves the soul unsettled. I don’t think a human mind can actually accept two opposing ideas at the same time. We all have inconsistencies with our world views, but that’s not because we truly believe contradicting truth claims. It’s because we have not explored them enough to realize that there is a contradiction or we are too stubborn to admit that one exists.

Here is my best example of how paradox doesn’t work. We Christians (mostly) state that Jesus was fully human, but also fully God. I believe we make this claim to stay away from slippery slopes that can take us down two separate ideas that effectually render Christianity moot. Jesus as just a man gives you a great prophet and teacher; but nothing more. Jesus as just God gives you a Gnostic idea of physical reality being evil or other such conclusions that make Christ’s sacrifice less than what the Bible makes it out to be. In all honesty, I’m not sure what the ramifications are of believing that Christ was a human, fully-imbued-with-God’s-nature-and-spirit, incarnate-first-born-from-before-the-foundations-of-the-world, would be. I don’t know if that technically makes Him not fully God or not.

Anyway, my point is that when we meditate on Christ’s words, life, etc. we can not settle in our minds the source of those things. Well… I can’t. I may be deficient. I tend to lean towards the Godhood side of Christ and take His words and deeds as those of God. But when reminded that He is supposed to also be a totally real human, I have to flip into another way of thinking about these things. I can’t hold both at once.

Beyond this, you have to take a philosophical leap that can be pretty dangerous when you decide to embrace paradox. You are basically ignoring the logical law of non-contradiction. It is a subtle turning, because we say that there is in fact NOT a contradiction, only that there appears to be one due to our limited perspective. But it seems to me that the more you exercise this particular theological device, the lazier your critical thinking becomes. If you can wave away one sticky point with this device, why not more? And when you erode the law of non contradiction, you are eroding the foundation of your faith. Because if we can allow for some contradictions in our beliefs we can not very well criticize other belief system's contradictions, nor can we fairly compare and contrast ideas, leading us to the inevitable mire of relativism. Maybe this is a slippery slope we all must tread, but I think it's important to know that we are on one when we use the paradox device.

Anyway, I certainly don’t think we should take the issue of partial or full salvation for humanity and categorize it as a paradox. That would be like saying "Everyone on the Titanic died, but not everyone died… I guess it’s just a paradox!"

So I’m going to go back to option two for a bit. (reinterpretation) I sort of misrepresented the idea by calling it “explaining away verses”, probably because that’s what it has been used for so often. But like a hammer, this process can be destructive or constructive depending on the intent and method with which it is employed. I guess what I’m essentially talking about is trying to discover the context and intent of a scripture that seems out of line with other scriptures. This can get pretty complicated and involves several different fields of expertise like history, sociology and language. And none of those will help you unless you have a mind guided by God’s Spirit.

When you have contradicting scriptures, you can argue both ways, pitting verse against verse. It seems like the best way to determine which side should get the closest scrutiny is the side that sticks out against the grain of the Bible as a whole. Though determining that may be problematic. Because any particular person reading the Bible as a whole will be bringing all their biases into that reading. Their mind will be emphasizing passages that tickle their fancy, and glossing over parts that don't. What I find in arguments for Hell™ time and time again is the phrase, "God is love, but…" Then come the qualifiers. It is as though they are attempting to balance the positive attributes of God with the negative. I would accept this angle if we were talking about a great man. "Bob is really smart, but… he has a temper." But we are not talking about Bob. We are talking about God. Rather than balancing, why don't we look at it this way: God is love. Everything He says and does grows out of that. There are no conflicting attributes to His love. If that were so, the scripture would say God is loving. So "God is Love… but He is also Just", would be better stated, "God is Just because He is Love." So what kind of Justice comes out of Love? Simply punitive justice? Or remedial, refining, purifying Justice? When a concept can be thought of both ways, I say it's best to read it the way that flows from God's Love, not against it. When we read about God's jealousy, wrath, indignation, etc, are we reading it as those attributes would apply to Bob? Or are we reading those attributes as they would flow out of Love, from a perfect God? Are we balancing conflicting, bi-polar emotions, or harmonizing the way we view the nature of God?

When evaluating the words of Jesus when He says He will give His life as a "ransom for many." You can see it a couple of different ways. If you use the Jesus-saves-us-from-Hell™ paradigm (nowhere explicitly stated in scripture) you will read that as Jesus' ransom is paying for some to be free from Hell™ . Whereas if you read it from the Jesus-saves-us-from-our-sins-in-this-life perspective (found in many places in scripture), you see that it makes perfect sense that only some are ransomed. Specifically: those who accept Him in this lifetime. He paid the ransom that our human nature demands, so that we can be free from our wicked nature that enslaves us. To me, that harmonizes with all the verses that plainly state that Jesus saves everybody. And even more importantly, it harmonizes with the way God describes Himself. (Just, merciful, loving, etc.) It harmonizes with all the parables He gives about finding every single lost sheep, searching for the lost coin until it is found, and others that clearly show His intention to redeem every single human He made.

So there you have it. That is how I 'explain away' Matthew 20:28 and Mark 10:45. I've read many, many, many attempts to 'explain away' the several verses that point to universal salvation, and found them all much more convoluted and questionable than my argument. That certainly doesn’t mean that I'm right and they are wrong. But it showed me that a lot of extra-biblical, theological presuppositions are required to pull it off. I've found that if you strip away those extra complications you are freer to read more scripture at its face value than otherwise. I realize I do so at my own peril, and recognize that those complex doctrines may be safety buffers keeping me from careening over a chasm. That's why I'm driving slowly and doing my best to examine the road ahead of me.

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