Embracing Ambiguity in the Bible and Theology

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.

A Bible with a pen

By Ryk Neethling from Melbourne, Australia (Open Bible with pen) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Embracing Ambiguity

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.

*****

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51 Responses to Embracing Ambiguity in the Bible and Theology

  1. crossroman says:

    I don’t think Jesus was much into ambiguity? The Spirit is the truth. Hope this helps and best regards.

    Liked by 2 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Hi Crossroman, thanks for your contribution.

      I agree with you that things were not so ambiguous to Jesus, but he did not provide us with details on doctrines. What he did do is show us how to live better with love toward God, ourselves and each other. He supplied us with principles–but not much detail.

      The Spirit may be truth, but the spirit does not give us much detail either. Do you think we have clear direction on doctrinal beliefs? If so, how do we access it?

      Liked by 3 people

      • Chas says:

        Tim, we may not get much direction on doctrinal beliefs from God, but I do think that we should expect to ‘hear’ from God. Our church is currently in a series of preaching on the subject of prayer. The Bible concentrates, almost exclusively, on asking God for things, but if we are to be in a relationship with God, then we need to hear from Him as well as speak to Him. What might be less clear is that this relationship with God is an individual one, so what He communicates to one might not be relevant, or applicable, to another. Also, our ability to respond to what He communicates to us is likely to differ from person to person, according to our personality and experiences. All that can be said is do what you can with what you receive, and remember that it is reasonable to ask God to make clear what you find is unclear at present.

        Liked by 1 person

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Chas, I like what you are saying, especially that if we hear from God it is for us but not for everyone. It is wonderful to receive guidance, but it is important to not codify our guidance into standards for everyone else.

          I also agree that prayer is more of a relationship and should not be primarily about asking for things. And, as you say, the relationship is an individual one.

          Like

        • Garth says:

          Hi Chas. What you say is common in most churches I have experienced however I cant help but feel it is perverting the gospel for our own ends. Sure Jesus states, ask anything in my name and it will be given you. But go back a few verses and we see that there is a proviso and that is that we must obey His commands, Go forward a few and we find out he will tell us what he knows, then go back a few chapters and we find out that he did nothing without seeing the father do it first. The point is the church has adopted this great big shopping list mentality when all we should be asking for is Gods will. Do you think Jesus had been praying all night to heal one man at Bethesda, I dont think so. I think the spirit would have touched him and shown him what to do and he did it. All Jesus did was listen and obey and when he did one day ask for his own will it was ignored (let this cup pass from me) God knows what is best for us so all we need is what He wants. We will be free if we dwell in the Word and that is not the bible it is the spirit. We will see the answer to anything we ask, when we ask according to his will. To say The Bible concentrates, almost exclusively, on asking God for things, is a doctrine that has been perverted strongly by the doctrines of men. If you are going to base your doctrine on the bible then please read it in a broader sense as taking verse at random is very dangerous and quite perverting.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Chas says:

            Garth, I very much agree with you. I think that Jesus would have known what the Father wanted him to do, and would have always done that. I also agree that we should dwell in the word that we receive from God/the Spirit rather than the words in the Bible, and that would be both what He wants us to do and what He wants us to believe/understand. (but you won’t find many other people who believe that is possible!)

            Like

      • crossroman says:

        From the Spirit.

        Liked by 1 person

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Cross, I am very serious about this question: How do we distinguish the Spirit from our own thoughts? Might my own thoughts be the guidance of the Spirit?

          Like

          • crossroman says:

            Yes your/our own thoughts may definitely be those as guided by the Spirit. That’s why you have to be sure of what/who the Spirit is, so you can submit to him. Of course what this means is to submit to Jesus as the one who “bore our sins” and became this living Spirit. Just as salvation is gained by faith so is the Spirit. They are the same. The Spirit of life, of love, of God, results in the spirit of submission to him. If we don’t know who it is to whom we are in submission then we shouldn’t be listening further until we do. (:)

            Liked by 1 person

          • Chas says:

            Tim, Your question is one that many people ask. The only answer is to do what you think you are receiving. Only by doing that are you going to find out whether you are receiving from God or from yourself. If it is from God, you will experience interesting and surprising things, but things will always turn out the better for it (although you might not realize that until later, maybe much later).

            Liked by 1 person

  2. Myra says:

    Tim – you mentioned “I told a friend excitedly that I would finally find out why Buddhists pray toward Mecca.” Was this meant to be incorrect? Buddhists don’t pray towards Mecca, Muslim’s pray toward Mecca. I tend to enjoy your blogs and haven’t responded to any, but this just stood out to me and I wanted clarification.

    Liked by 2 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Good catch, Myra! Actually, that is exactly what I said. It demonstrates my ignorance of other religions at that time.

      I am glad you tend to enjoy my blogs and that you responded to this one. Join in anytime you wish!

      Like

      • Myra says:

        Thanks for clarifying that for me! I find that ignorance of other religions is a huge problem in today’s society (not only today’s society but I’m sure since the start of time) and a large reason I no longer attend Church.Rather than becoming informed with what other people believe and why they believe it, people become scared and run, they make harsh judgments, and sometimes bad decisions. Fear is something we should explore – find out why we are scared of it, and try to learn about it and understand it. Perhaps if everyone of every faith and belief started to do that we wouldn’t live in such a hateful world.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Rob Kinsey says:

          Myra, I hope you are not secluding yourself from other Christians completely by remaining away from church. We attend an Episcopal church and we are not asked to check our brain at the door with our coats. Although, like all other brands Anglicans can be jjudgemantal too, we find great community in those who are not that way. I hope you are in good community with others, I can tell you have a kind heart from your post.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Myra says:

            Rob, no I’m not secluding myself from other Christians completely by staying away from the church. There are other reasons too that I don’t attend. And I do have good support and community around me. I’ve learned quickly who I want to surround myself with. My thoughts are one day I may return to church but I’m just not ready for it right now.

            Liked by 1 person

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          I agree, Myra. Ignorance of other religions does cause a lot of problems. In many cases, we are automatically opposed to them just because they are different, and we don’t even know anything about them.

          Fear of other religions is very harmful and unproductive.

          Liked by 1 person

      • fiddlrts says:

        I laughed at the Buddhist Mecca line. 🙂 I recognize my own teenage self there too. Often, what we were taught about other religions turned out to be at best a caricature, and at worst, grossly inaccurate.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. tonycutty says:

    Great article Tim, thanks 🙂 Love this bit, “…God would not give us a book that’s unclear”. And of course there’s the rub; it is so unclear, in places (especially about what the stories etc. mean), that there’s no way certain doctrines should ever have been formed. And that’s why there are so many Christian/quasi-Christian denominations!

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      I agree, Tony. So many denominations, and they are all convinced of their beliefs because the Bible is so clear.

      Like

      • Chas says:

        Tim, So many divides between denominations have arisen from different interpretations of the Bible that one wonders whether God allowed it to be what it is so it would act as a means of dividing the ‘church.’ Surely He knew that it would have this effect. Since I think that He does not destroy, He must have allowed these words of man to have authority, in their own eyes, so that it would ultimately destroy or reshape churches that did not meet His requirements.

        Liked by 1 person

        • sheila0405 says:

          Do you think that’s why Jesus said he did not come to bring peace, but a sword, causing conflicts within families?

          Liked by 1 person

          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            Sheila, you raise a good question about this passage. In my opinion, Jesus does not mean he intends to create conflict but that if we follow Jesus this conflict can be expected as a natural response to people who reject our following of Jesus.

            Jesus was for reconciliation rather than alienation; but not everyone responds to, or cooperates with, that.

            Like

          • Chas says:

            I think that the author of that passage was already aware of divisions that belief caused in families and in congregations. In families because some believed and some did not, and in congregations because what was believed differed from one person to another.

            Liked by 1 person

          • mark says:

            You know, I always looked at this as Jesus telling his HEBREW audience that conflict would arise over His message because it tends to negate the Pharisees oral tradition of what Moses had said. The Law according to the “traditions” was all the populace ever heard. So yeah I could see the metaphor of the “Sword” being used there..
            Indeed from my early days way back when….our Southron Baptist “traditions” were called up front and center by the very words of JESUS……yeah we loved Him but we weren’t gonna do what he said…..seems Paul knew better. 😦

            Liked by 1 person

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Chas, I don’t think God ‘allowed’ the Bible to be as it is in order to separate churches into those who do and those who do not meet his requirements. I think he ‘allowed’ people to write what they thought at different time and places, just as he has ‘allowed’ theologians to write what they thought at different times and places.

          People write about their thoughts all the time in every field–like medicine, philosophy, and literature. They just do it; I don’t think God ‘allows’ or disallows it. The Bible is no different except that sometimes writers have excellent insights and, of course, the followers of Jesus wrote about him from their experience and his impact on them–for which I am ever thankful.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Chas says:

            My use of the word ‘allowed’ was used since God could certainly have prevented us from having any words that He did not wish us to have. I do not say that division would be His primary purpose for us having particular words, but it would be one of the things of which He was aware they would cause. We have so little idea of what God is capable, because our intelligence is so limited by comparison with His.

            Like

        • crossroman says:

          There are so many OBVIOUS errors that this simply reveals the large difference between Spirit and flesh.

          Like

  4. robstanback says:

    Even as a small child I was repelled by the conflicting ‘certainties’ of the Bible. I was an agnostic most of my life, keenly aware of the contradictions, yet drawn to much of the teachings, especially the parables of Jesus. As an outsider I was free to pick and choose which parts I would allow to guide me, but I certainly was unable to call myself a Christian.

    Much later in life I discovered that there are Christians who do not take every word of the Bible literally, who acknowledge the inconsistencies, and who find much of the bible to be true only as metaphor, or only when understood in the context of when it was written. With the help of a Sunday school class that studied authors like Buechner and Borg, I began a tortuous process of reconciling my beliefs with the Bible. I was finally baptized a year ago at the age of sixty.

    You and I come from opposite ends of the religious spectrum, yet have arrived at much the same place: living the questions, accepting the ambiguity, and embracing the mystery.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. jesuswithoutbaggage says:

    Robstanback, we have both had remarkable journeys, though they were quite different. And look where we are–so close together. I am glad you found a different expression of the community of Jesus that finally makes better sense for you.

    Like

  6. sheila0405 says:

    I found that the so-called “teachings” of Jesus are contained in Gospels whose authors are unknown, not eyewitness accounts, and with added sections depending on which POV the unknown author was trying to present. That’s why i am a nonbeliever. However, there is great value & wisdom that is found in the Gospels. I don’t believe they are divine, but they are certainly good additions when it comes to how we treat other people.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Sheila, I agree that the Gospels are not written by eye-witness and that they each carry a measure of emphasis based on the experience of the local church at the time. But I think what we have has a great amount of integrity in that they reflect the experience of eye-witnesses that were shared with their congregations and passed down verbally for the next generation or two.

      I think the character of Jesus that shines through is consistent.

      Like

      • sheila0405 says:

        I think I made that point at the end of my comment. The Gospels have some really good ideas about respecting others. The narratives of Jesus, true or not true, make compelling moral stories for us. Be kind. Be forgiving. Go the extra mile, even for someone who is an enemy. Engage with others, even if they think differently than you do. Honor peace. All very good things to live out.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Thank you for sharing your pilgrimage. I am about where you are, it’s just taken me longer to get there.

          Liked by 1 person

        • mark says:

          Sheila what was bothersome and pushed me on edge was that as I looked into other main religions ( sticking to topic),…dog gone-it they were near verbatim in the message…..not all,..but most mainstream religions ( as a native american , even my ancestors beliefs) A savior, disciples…death and resurrection…message of piece and love…. and that our Creator loves and cares for us…and all had the golden rule/s.
          Seems the sticking point in all of it was that most were written before our “Lord” walked the earth….but same or very similar message. As a fundie back then I was told that the devil had orchestrated this to supplant the Holy bible. Hey I also knew I could pray for a parking space at the mall.

          Like

    • Garth says:

      Sheila, I have thought the same way as you and so have sought out varying opinions and read atheist, agnostic and christian works. I really just want truth and it seems so many people twist or lie or leave out things that are important. I have just read an interesting book with some very valid arguments called ‘the case for Jesus’. I would recommend having a look at it, especially if you have read ‘did jesus exist’ already.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: The False Power of Theological Certainty in Conservatism | Jesus Without Baggage

  8. Reminds me of a seminary professor who once told us when he was asked if he takes the Bible literally responded by saying – “No, but I try to take it seriously.” Another professor was fond of saying that the Bible raises more questions than it answers. Both, very helpful insights in my journey.

    Liked by 1 person

    • fiddlrts says:

      Good point about the difference between “literally” and “seriously.” In my own experience, those who take the bible most literally often do not take it seriously, in the sense of letting it change their way of living. It’s all fun and games arguing about whether the flood or Jonah is literal history, but when it comes to opposing violence or accepting the untouchable other into the Kingdom, well, that isn’t what they want to do…

      Liked by 2 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      LacedUp, I really like your distinction between taking the Bible literally and taking it seriously. I also like the statement that the Bible raises more questions than it answers.

      You had some great professors!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. fiddlrts says:

    My own journey has also been a realization that the black and white beliefs of my teens do not work in the real world – and they don’t fit what the bible actually is. It has been revolutionary to view it as a conversation between the followers of god and the divine, with everything filtered through “a glass, darkly.” It makes the bible less of a book of answers – or worse, detailed instructions – and more of a record of the great questions, and the promise of a better answer to come when we can see face to face.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Wow Fiddlrts, this describes my transition so well–beginning with my black and white teens.

      Like

    • Chas says:

      That ‘through a glass, darkly’ is a very misunderstood/mistranslated passage. NIV has it as ‘dimly, as in a mirror’. Mirrors of the time were made of polished bronze, so the image of the subject that was formed was the wrong way round, of the wrong color and not very good, so it represents well their ideas about God. Now we have very good mirrors, which show the right color and give an excellent image. In the same way, we know much more about the power and capabilities of God, since we know there are at least a billion billion stars in the universe and we know about the near-infinite possibilities for life in the DNA molecule. However, our view of Him is still the wrong way round. We tend to think of Him in human terms, not as an infinitely superior being in all ways. One who designed us as we are, for His purposes.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. nedliz says:

    I loved this post so much! I grew up Lutheran, and wanted so badly to be a good Christian. But eventually I had questions. I remember feeling personally attacked sometimes when I would express doubt or even ask questions about the applicability of a teaching when I was younger. Some of my Bible school teachers were perhaps not very imaginative. I felt alienated from religion because of that. Only when I got to college and started studying religion and theology did I feel a connection to God or my faith again, because I was allowed room to doubt! Of course, it would be easier if there were no ambiguity. But being allowed to use critical thinking and ask questions is a wonderful part of finding your faith!

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Nedliz, wouldn’t it be great if there was no ambiguity! Yes! It would. But that is not reality; we do not know all things in their entirety, and that applies to religious beliefs as well. There are, indeed, many churches that do not like questions and doubt, but if we never question then our beliefs are not our own at all–they are someone else’s.

      Most of us here have questioned and thought critically about our faith–often over opposition–so you are in good company. Thank you for your kind words about the post; I am glad you liked it.

      Liked by 1 person

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