2006-08-29

God-Wrestling: Struggling with God through Scriptural Ambiguity

[After wrestling with Ya-qov from dusk till dawn, the God-man] said, "Your name shall no longer be called Ya-qov [the Swindler], but Yisra-El [the God-Wrestler], for you have wrestled with God and humanity, and have endured." Then Ya-qov asked him, "Now, tell me your name!" But he said, "What is this that you ask my Name?" And right there [the God-man] blessed him. So Ya-qov named that place "Face-of-God", saying, "I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered." (Genesis 32:28-30, Authors translation)

All who call the God of Ya-qov their God are called to walk in the footsteps of his faith, and wrestle with God in the same way Ya-qov did. After Ya-qov wrestled with God (dare I say fought with God?), he was injured. He limped. But he was blessed by God in a way that he would not have been if he had not fought with him. When I read this passage I think of Lieutenant Dan screaming at God in the hurricane in the movie "Forrest Gump". At the end of the movie, Lieutenant Dan came back from his life-long fight with God physically limping, but blessed and made whole in ways that far exceeded his physical circumstances.

If we want to walk with the real God, we will have to wrestle with Him to get the blessing He wants to give us. We will come back limping, but we will be blessed in ways we cannot imagine. There are all kinds of ways we wrestle with God, in life, in love, in tragedy, and in prosperity. But there is one way we wrestle with God above all, and it is a way that not only affects our personal lives, but also our life as God's Church. It is a wrestling match that has sent the Church away limping time after time, century after century. It is our wrestling through Scriptural ambiguity.

Now that I have thrown down the gauntlet by putting "Scripture" and "Ambiguity" in the same sentence, let me explain why I say this as a person who loves Scripture, and not as a revisionist who wants to change Scripture or creatively "edit out" or "ignore" large sections of it. I believe what the apostles wrote in 1Timothy 3:15-17 and 2Peter 1:19-21. All Scripture- cover to cover- is the work of God's Spirit inspiring people to write exactly what he wanted written, even while using their own culture, vocabulary, and even bad grammar, to say it. And all of that Scripture- even the genealogies and kosher laws- is useful to help us learn how to live for, and wrestle with, God. Now, the fact that it is useful does not mean that we know what it is useful for! Sometimes it is like someone giving us a power tool we have never seen and saying "you are going to need this, it is useful!" All Scripture is inspired and useful, even if we do not yet know how or why to use it.

That's the first level of wrestling. The second level of wrestling is in what way we should use it, even if we think know what it means. Do we treat Scripture as a "negative warrant" for faith and practice? This means that we will only be able to do something if Scripture says we can, and if Scripture is silent, we cannot act. A classic example of using Scripture as a negative warrant is provided by the Restorationist tradition in their use of choral music only. Because the New Testament is silent about the use of instruments in worship, it is assumed, de facto, that musical instruments are prohibited. Scripture is silent, so the instruments are silent. On this basis, shall we exclude electricity, indoor plumbing, sound systems, life-saving medical procedures, scientific discoveries, altar calls, the word "Trinity" to describe God, and the phrase "accepting a personal relationship with Jesus" (none of which are found in Scripture)?

Or, if we do not like this, shall we treat Scripture as a "positive warrant", in which we can do anything that does not contradict Scripture and assume, de facto, that if Scripture is silent on the issue, then the issue is permissible. Using Scripture as a positive warrant some have allowed almost anything- from rock concerts to fitness centers to coffee shops to clothing stores to eating during worship- to be done in the Church building. On a first consideration, it seems like using Scripture as a negative warrant can exclude too many good gifts that God wants to share with us, while using Scripture as a positive warrant can include many frivolous or even sinful things under the banner of Christian "freedom".

If we see the inherent problems of the positive and negative warrant, we can try using Scripture as a "trajectory warrant", and say that the key to following God is to look at the general trajectory of where Scripture is going, and then make explicit what is implicit in the Biblical message as it unfolded over time. Both the Christian anti-slavery and women's rights movements of the 1800's claimed to fulfill the true "trajectory" of the Biblical message, while their opponents quoted the voluminous material in Scripture that could be marshaled in support of both slavery and patriarchalism. In our age we take it for granted that racial and sexual equality are the fulfillment of the Biblical message, but this was not always so.

Now, I tend to be a trajectory thinker. But there are problems with this model as well. First of all, trajectory arguments are notoriously hard to "proof text", while issues diametrically opposed can be proof-texted all over the place. Take slavery for instance. Only one verse condemns "slave traders", and even the meaning of that Greek word is highly contested (1Ti 1:10). While dozens of whole passages can be quoted out of the Torah, the Pauline Epistles, and even the Gospels to implicitly and explicitly support slavery as a "normal" human institution (cf. Deu 15; Rom 6; 1Co 7:20-24; Luke 7, 12, 14, 17, 19). I agree deeply that the end of slavery is God's will for human society, and I think the freedom, equality, and social justice passages of Scripture provide a strong trajectory to get us there. But it is impossible to get there by simply quoting proof texts as a positive or negative warrant. In fact, if we want to be supported by simplistic proof texts, it would be easier to be a slavery advocate!

The other problem with trajectory arguments is that they leave the door open to abusing our freedom in Christ. Everything from homosexual marriage to use of mind-expanding drugs to charismatic abuses to crusades have been supported on the basis that they fulfill what is implicit in the Bible. Yet, eating non-kosher foods and meat sacrificed to idols, allowing uncircumcised gentiles to become Christians, creating Christian liturgy and music, and even developing modern medicine and science, have all been supported by the same type of trajectory arguments (not to mention ending slavery and the mistreatment of women and children!). How do we tell a good trajectory argument from a bad one? How do we evaluate it when someone says "the Holy Spirit is doing a new thing", as the openly gay Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire has done?

How do you tell the difference? How do you use Scripture? How do you wrestle with God?

This is the part of the article where I am supposed to have a good answer, but I don't. If you want an easy way out, then I suggest you find a way to ignore or edit out the parts of the Bible you don't like. That will eliminate the problem and give you clear answers, but I do not think it is very honest. It certainly isn't wrestling with God. It is running away.

In fact, I see ambiguity and paradox all over Scripture on some very touchy subjects. This does not mean I think Scripture is contradictory. On the contrary, I think it is completely reliable. In the truths that it affirms, and the problems it raises, God uses Scripture perfectly and inerrantly to bring us to what is closest to his heart. I am not sure the Bible is inerrant by humanistic, post-enlightenment, pseudo-scientific standards. It may be, but that is a faith statement that far exceeds any evidence I can see. But I am sure Scripture is inerrant for God's purposes. Yet, this does not mean God does not put ambiguity and struggle in the text. He makes us ask questions. He makes us say "What the heck are you up to, God?". These questions and problems bring us to the heart of God through Jesus Christ. In the struggle, the ambiguity, the two-steps-forward-and-one-step-back we find throughout Scripture, I think we can discern a central Plot- a trajectory- of where he is leading His people.

Let me illustrate this ambiguity by pulling out a short laundry list of supposedly unambiguous moral goods and evils in Scripture, and how conflicted the text is when you actually read it:

Unambiguous good #1: Marriage and family values. God created Adam and Eve, blessed them, and told them to multiply. Jesus and Paul validate the permanent nature of marriage and its goodness (cf. Mat 19; Eph 5). Honoring your father and mother is on God's top 10 list. Case closed, right? Wrong. In the same passage that Jesus says marriage is good, he says that becoming a "eunuch" is even better (Mat 19). And Jesus was unmarried himself. Being a "eunuch", by the way, actually got one kicked out of the Jewish religious system and being unmarried was a huge affront to "Jewish Family Values" (cf. Lev 21:20). Yet, Paul (who himself seems to have been unmarried for all or part of his life) paints marriage as the lesser of two goods. It is better to be unmarried, but if you can't control your lust, marriage is a second-rate alternative (cf. 1Co 7). And, several times when Jesus is confronted with family values, he puts mom, dad, brother, sister, and even children below the Kingdom, even going so far as to tell people to "hate" them (Mat 10:34-37; 12:46-50; 19:29; Luke 14:26). And, did I mention Scripture never even questions polygamy except in the case of the king of Israel and Christian clergy (Deut 17:17; 1Ti 3:2, 12; Tit 1:6)? And to top it off, we find blatant Jerry-Springer-esque incestuous relationships almost celebrated in Genesis. Lot's two daughters seduce him so they can have children, which is mentioned without any moral condemnation of their actions (Gen 19). Later on, Tamar is applauded for seducing her father-in-law and becoming pregnant to fulfill his legal requirement for levirate marriage (Gen 38). Now, even in light of all of this wrestling, I think that God does have a positive purpose for marriage and family. But it is found on a trajectory that is followed through much struggle and ambiguity.

Unambiguous good #2: Fairness and justice. We are supposed to be fair and just to all people, just as God is just to us. If we do good, we get good. If we do evil, we get evil. It is very clear cut. Read Deuteronomy. But what do we do about Job or Joseph? Heck, what do we do about Jesus? They all did good, and got bad. And while we are at it, what do we do about Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon? They did horrible unjust things, and yet got good. Jacob is even praised and lauded for how he is able to swindle Esau and his father-in-law. And then there is God ordering Abraham to kick out Hagar and Ishmael into the desert. Is that fair? And what do we do about grace? How about the parable of the guy who hires workers all day and pays the guys who worked one hour the same as those who worked all day? How is that fair? And what about grace in general? Is Ephesians 2:8-9 fair? Is it fair in Romans 9-11 where Paul talks about unconditional election that God "hated Esau and loved Jacob" even before the two were born or had "done anything good or bad"? We don't complain when injustice is in our favor (grace), but boy do we complain when it is not! So even fairness and justice is not unambiguously good or uniform in Scripture.

Perhaps that is why Jesus said "None is good except God alone".

Now lets look at some things that we all know are unambiguously bad in Scripture.

Unambiguous evil #1: Murder. It's always wrong. Check the ten commandments. It is always wrong to kill someone who has not done something to directly and knowingly deserve being killed. Except of course for all of the children who were killed by God in Noah's flood or Sodom's destruction. Or all of the Canaanite women and children that were killed by the Israelites at God's command in the book of Joshua. Or Ehud assassinating the Moabite king in cold blood in Judges. Or any of the dozens of battles and wars fought by David and his descendants in the Name of the Lord to gain territory for Israel. Looks like maybe murder is not always unambiguously evil, but perhaps the lesser of two evils. I think there is a rationale going on behind all of this, but you can't get there without wrestling through some atrocious, heart-rending realities.

Unambiguous evil #2: Anything to do with idol cults. Idolatry is always wrong. Nothing is clearer in the Bible than that we should flee idolatry and anything associated with it. Says so in the first two commandments. It is re-iterated more than perhaps any other theme in Scripture. Stay away from anything that even smacks of idolatry. When the early Church decided what the minimum requirements were for Jewish Christians to be in fellowship with Gentile Christians (in Acts15), they told them to abstain from four things, three of which have to do with idol-worship: blood, strangled animals, and idol-sacrificed-meat (Greek: eidolothuton). Nothing could be more clearly wrong, and more clearly spelled out across both Testaments! And yet, Paul says tells his churches it is just fine to eat "eidolothuton" so long as they consecrate it to Jesus with thanksgiving and don't do it around people who may be offended (cf. 1Co 8, 10; Rom 14; 1Ti 4:3-5). The reason is that all things are God's, and all things are good in themselves. The only thing that might make the meat bad is NOT its use in Pagan rituals, but the conscience of those who think it is bad! In doing this, he seems to go expressly against what his fellow Apostles had decided- and he had agreed to- at the Jerusalem council. So not even idol sacrifices are an unambiguous evil!

Unambiguous evil #3: Divorce. Genesis 1-2 and Matthew 19 make it clear that God's plan for sexuality is man and woman in covenant marriage forever. This is what is good, and all else is sin. God hates divorce (Mal 2:16). He hates it, period. End of story. At least this is where the Roman Catholic Church stops. Yet, even with God's hatred of divorce, it seems like there is something he hates more: destroyed lives. On this basis, Jesus allows divorce on the grounds of adultery and sexual immorality (cf. Mat 5, 19). Paul also appears to allow divorce on the grounds of neglect or abandonment (cf. 1Co 7). Jesus says that the only reason Moses allowed divorce was because of the hardening of people's hearts (cf. Mat 19; Deu 24). Yet Ezra, spokesman of God, actually compels Israelite men to divorce foreign wives and send away their children (Ezra 10)! And may I add that most Christian pastors would advocate divorce if faced with a persistently abusive spouse, because this seems to fulfill the trajectory of passages such as Ephesians 5:21-33. Yet, no allowance of divorce is ever permitted in Scripture on the basis of abuse. Divorce, far from being an unambiguous evil, seems to be the lesser of two evils. When faced with killing a person's soul or amputating a marriage through divorce, it seems like divorce is the lesser evil. Like a doctor who hates amputations, but sometimes has to do them to save the patient, so God allows divorce because of our "hard hearts" as the lesser evil.

So, even in looking at supposedly non-ambiguous issues Scripture is surprisingly ambiguous. In fact, it is a wrestling match. How much more for issues we think are ambiguous in Scripture, some of which are tearing our churches apart! I believe the answer is in there, and God is putting us on a trajectory to find it. But we will not find that trajectory by sloganeering or proof-texting or short-cutting the wrestling match. We will not find that trajectory by ignoring the kind of world we live in, and the real choices that people have to make. We live in a really good world filled with really good people that have both been radically corrupted by sin. We live in a world where often our choices are not between right and wrong, but between bad and worse. Many times we have to choose the lesser of two evils. Starve or steal food? Sell my body to prostitution or let my child starve? Lie to the secret police or allow them to find the Jews hidden in the basement? Be abused or get divorced? Face a life of tormented celibacy or live as a homosexual? Assassinate the dictator or stand by while he kills and imprisons the innocent? Allow another country to commit genocide or go to war? Deny Christ or be killed for my faith?

Do I think there is a truly non-ambiguous good found in Scripture? Yes. God, as he has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ. He is our unqualified, unambiguous good. He alone is without sin. Yet much of what he did in Scripture then, and does in the Church now, remains a mystery to us. And it is this God with whom we struggle. We will have to wrestle with God and man and endure- just like Ya-qov. And we will limp, just like Ya-qov. And we will be blessed, just like Ya-qov. May the Lord Jesus Christ, the risen King, grant us the grace of his Spirit to be God-wrestlers. Amen.

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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.