Friday, May 02, 2008

Disputes and Doubts

In the last several months I have had a few experiences where I've been reading a debate in theology or biblical studies and have found myself agreeing with the first case presented and seeing no way I could be convinced otherwise, only to read the second case and been surprised to change my view.

Particularly I remember reading the Natural Theology debate between Emil Brunner and Karl Barth. I couldn't see how Barth would be able to argue with Brunner. But he did. Quite convincingly actually. I was left holding two convincing arguments side by side, one in each hand, even while they repelled each other.

Since then I've been reading up on the question of dissimilarities in the Synoptic Gospels and found myself wavering again between alternate theories. Also I've been teaching a Sunday School class on the issue of gender roles in the Bible and have had to face constantly a certain ambiguity in the Bible that forces us to discuss, dialogue, dispute, disagree.

Are we then divided?

I think it depends on how you view Scripture. If you think God wanted it all spelled out and that there should be no room for dispute then you'd have to divide with those who begged to disagree. If you think God wanted to give a text that would have to be wrestled with in community then you'd be ready not only to disagree with one another but to be disagreed with in love, all the while realizing that together you are exercising faithfulness to the authority of Christ by applying yourself to the ongoing discernment of the Scripture in community.

The former tends to think of the latter as a baseless and selfish free-for-all. The latter tends to think of the former as ignorance or idolatry. I think when they come together and speak the truth in love they are challenged to recognize that the word is truth but that it needs the Spirit to guide the Church into all truth. Ultimately, then, our faith is not in a text, per se, but in the Living Word, Jesus Christ, whose authority over us is manifested as we approach the Scripture with the Church and the Spirit together.

But why did God do this? Why not spell it out so we didn't need all this?

Perhaps because God is more interested in a people who wrestle with him than with people who get it figured out and go their merry way. And perhaps God is more interested in community than an individual's abject certainty. Perhaps the ambiguity is there to keep us from making an idol of the text, or ourselves, or even our chosen church. It forces us into faith in the Word made flesh. It forces us to listen to the Spirit reading us as we read the text. It forces us to listen to the Church past and present in order to check our personal understanding. It forces us upward and outward rather than inward and downward.

As frustrating as that is to our idolatrous and selfish nature, it seems like exactly the kind of thing a Triune God might set up as a way of redeeming a fallen people.

Certainly it leaves room for an awful lot of potential division. But even in division we find the diversity we so desperately need. I have come to see diversity as a celebration of our unity in Christ rather than a threat to it.

It also leaves an awful lot of room for doubt. But I'm reminded of the words of Frederick Buechner, who said:

"Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me."

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