Don't answer fools according to their folly, or you will become like them yourself. (Proverbs 26:4)
Answer fools according to their folly, or they will deem themselves wise. (Proverbs 26:5)
Hey, you know what I can do without even breaking a sweat? I can make a biblical argument for the death penalty. I can also make one against the death penalty. For or against war. For or against offering asylum to immigrants. For or against divorce. For or against homosexuality. For or against spousal abuse. For or against genocide. For or against slavery. For or against racism. For or against sexism. For or against communism. For or against sperm donation. For or against vegetarianism.
I can make an argument for or against practically any topic you can think of.
I realize I have just shifted the sand under many feet, and my intention here is not to be disruptive of faith. My intention is, however, to get us to be honest about the Bible. Until we confront this reality, we are not going to be able to progress deeply in our faith. We are also going to continue looking like idiots to others around us. Believe me, they know there are contradictions in the Bible. Just google the topic and several blogs will pop up. If we cannot intelligently address this reality, our witness about why the Bible continues to be authoritative for us will be empty and useless.
I want to instead assert two things. First, I think the Bible means to have these contradictions and it is in fact the contradictions that drive us in the direction God wants for us. Second, we need a different understanding of authority.
So let’s start with the first one, that I think the Bible has contradictions on purpose. Do you honestly think that the people who were deciding what texts should go in the Bible didn’t notice the inconsistencies? I mean, even if they somehow missed that God tells us not to kill, and then there is all kinds of (God sanctioned) killing in the Bible, how could they possibly miss the two Proverbs quoted above? I mean, they are back-to-back and they are giving exactly opposite advice! Let’s not be so elitist as to think we are geniuses who caught the obvious while the people in the past somehow missed it.
Let’s acknowledge that some of the contradictions are present because different contexts have called for a different response. That is the heart of why you list two Proverbs with opposite meanings – part of wisdom is being able to discern when to use which one. But that wisdom is not easy to come by. What we need to discern when to use what is good conversation partners – other people with wisdom about when to apply what.
And that, my friends, is the point of the contradictions – to make us talk to each other.
When Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is, he says to love God with heart, mind, soul, and strength, and then follows it with directions to love your neighbor as yourself. You are never going to love your neighbor, though, if you don’t seek to know your neighbor. And if you have no need to know your neighbor, then why bother? But if you are struggling with your faith because the Bible is confusing as hell, then you might just knock on your neighbor’s proverbial door and say, “I can’t figure this out. Can you help me?” In the course of struggling through the questions together, you learn more about your neighbor and you learn more about God and then your capacity to love both grows.
Look, when the Jews were pulling together the Torah, they also had the Mishnah, which is a collection of rabbinic writings concerning the Torah, and if you read the Mishnah, you see that it is basically rabbis arguing with each other about how to interpret the texts. The Mishnah is almost as holy a collection as the Torah is. What was holy was the interaction, the conversation, the relationships with each other, even across the ages.
That kind of understanding recognizes that the conversation that creates the relationship is really the fulfillment of what God desires for us, because we go to God with our questions as well. I think God cares less about us having a “correct” interpretation and instead cares more that we are trying to interpret in the first place. That we care enough to wonder, to ask, and to seek God and others. There is nothing like a contradiction to spur that sort of action forward.
But now, of course, we have stumbled into the question of biblical authority. If the Bible has no clear meaning, then how can it have authority over us? For this, we need to talk about what we mean by authority. If we mean that the Bible is supposed to give us orders that we follow without question and without regard to context or situation, then we are going to have a problem applying the Bible in that way. Oh, it can be done. In fact, it is done with disturbing regularity. The only way to use the Bible to enforce that kind of authority, however, is to ignore large chunks of it.
But what if we understood authority by going to its root? What if we recognize the power of the Bible to “author” us? What if we talked about biblical author-ity? Now we are talking about being shaped by the text, rather than ordered around by it. Now we can listen to the stories and look for wisdom, and wisdom from stories can come from emulating them, or from learning from the mistakes in the stories and trying NOT to copy those same mistakes. Now we have Scripture that is alive – that can move with time and shape new places. And now we have Scripture that has room for our stories as well.
This is what I hope for my people. I hope they are authored into God’s story. And I hope in that authoring, their understanding of God gets bigger and bigger with every day and every story, because they have grown in relationship with each other and have become part of the stories of their neighbors as well. In that process, they should also learn to love a little more. Then they will truly be authored into becoming a people who loves God and neighbor as themselves.