Beginning as a child, I read the Bible incessantly. I won a Bible in Sunday school for learning more Bible verses than any of the other kids, and I took it with me to school every day; both my fifth and sixth grade teachers called me their ‘Bible student’.
As I grew older, I found the Bible easy to understand because it was clear in what it said. And I could argue biblical doctrines confidently because they were easy to understand as well—and they happened to match the doctrines taught by the teachers and preachers of my denomination. How about that!
The basis for my arguments was proof-texting. I could quote one or more passages of ‘scripture’ to prove anything I believed. I was absolutely certain of my beliefs because the Bible was clear; every issue was black and white to me.
I was the teenage Bible answer man! Just ask me any question.Critical Thinking Changed My Mind on Certainty
Then several things happened. In 11th grade, I was accepted into a select class on world religion. I told a friend excitedly that I would finally find out why Buddhists pray toward Mecca. I really disliked some of what I learned. One day I protested against a religious point and proved it with a proof-text—one so important that it’s in the Bible twice—Proverbs 14:12 and 16:25:
There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death. KJV
The teacher replied, ‘Why that could be anything!’ I was stunned. That had never occurred to me before, but I knew she was right. I thought the verse applied to anything that questioned what I believed, but it wasn’t as clear as I thought.
Though I didn’t think those religions were true, just learning about them caused me to begin to think differently.
In 12th grade I discovered a book titled Handbook of Denominations. I knew a bit about denominations already: there were Baptists who falsely taught ‘Once saved, always saved’, the Church of God taught ‘Three works of grace’, and other churches taught ‘Jesus only’. And of course there were Catholics and liberals who were hardly Christian at all. In this book I learned about the histories and beliefs of these and many more denominations, and they seemed more reasonable than I had thought.
Then the summer after graduation I began to question whether our restriction against movie theaters was valid. There were two clear proof-texts against it: ‘Abstain from all appearance of evil,’ (1 Thessalonians 5:22 KJV) and ‘It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak.’ (Romans 14:21 KJV), the idea being that, even if something is not a ‘sin’, if someone else thinks it is then don’t do it.
I worked through the arguments and, after considerable struggle, concluded that the prohibition against movies was not biblically valid. Christians were free to attend movies. This was not rebellion; it was critical thinking. In fact, I had no particular interest in seeing movies.
Now, critical thinking does not mean approaching an idea with intent to criticize it and tear it down. It means considering things we have been taught were true, or something we think is true, and examining them to see whether they really hold up.
Not attending theaters was the first belief in which I questioned what I was taught. It was certainly not the last. Over the next three decades I examined everything; and one thing I discovered is that the Bible is not clear on much. Even for a dedicated follower of Jesus, there is a lot of ambiguity. And I am now comfortable with that.
Recently a friend was aggressively defending creationism to me. One of his most emphatic statements was, ‘I know this is true!’ It reminded me once more of the great need for theological certainty, as we discussed last time.
When the Bible is thought to be clear on everything, and one’s beliefs are supposed to be just as clear, it is very frightening to question them, evaluate them, or change one’s mind about them. There are many warnings to be careful of being deceived by Satan or his false teachers or you will burn in hell forever.
If God has dire, eternal consequences for us if we don’t do, or believe, the right things, then we want to know for sure what they are! Are there rules we need to observe? Are there beliefs we must get right? We want certainty—beyond a doubt! Without question!
When we suggest that doctrines are ambiguous in the Bible, the retort is often that God would not give us a book that’s unclear. Why would he not give us detailed truth about everything? But the Bible is not a book with answers to all our questions. Sure, I would like a comprehensive answer book, but that is not what we have.
So what can we believe?
Essentially, my entire belief about God comes from what Jesus tells us of the Father. Jesus tells us good news–but it is limited in detail; however, it is all we need to know. One cannot really produce a book of systematic theology from the Bible. The Bible does not satisfy our curiosities about the attributes of God–or of the end-times. The longer I follow Jesus the less I know about these things, but this is sufficient. Jesus knows and that is enough.
But the Bible DOES tell us about God’s love for us, the tremendous importance of genuinely loving others, and growing as a followers of Jesus.
Those who are certain about all they believe often cause division, judgmentalism, and hostility because of it. I believe there is greater value, and reality, in embracing ambiguity.