A Plethora and a Biblical Principle (Joe)

31 Jul

In one of my favorite comedies, “Three Amigos”, the villanous El Guapo asks one of his henchmen about the largess of his criminal domain.  The loyal sycophant enthusiastically replies, “El Guapo you have a plethora!”  To which El Guapo after pondering that big fancy word asks, ‘well what exactly is a plethora?”  At this point his right hand man admits he doesn’t know.  Then El Guapo pursues the issue further asking, ‘why do you tell me I have a plethora if you do not know what a plethora is?’ 

Often I hear people sling around big words or phrases without having much of a grasp as to the meaning or implication of what they say.  Lately, I’ve begun to wonder if “biblical principle” is just such a word.  I’m not saying we should retire the phrase from the Christian lexicon, but to paraphrase El Guapo, ‘why do we talk about biblical principles when I’m unsure we really know what a biblical principle is?’ 

Just start off trying to name one.  “Love thy neighbor” immediately comes to mind.  But how does this become a principle?  Let’s think about how large the Christian Scriptures are.  ## books that span across eons in the time span of the world, human history, and the history of a specific people.  The word love is referenced ## times in what most Protestant Christians consider to be the complete Bible.  How do we scoop up a phrase like Love thy neighbor and attribute to it the weight that we do?  Maybe because its in the first ten commandments of Torah.  Then we cross-reference it with Jesus’ recounting of the most important commandment.  Later, the Apostle Paul gives his ‘Amen’ when in 1 Corinthians 13 he tells us how great love is.  It’s a plausible route, but admittedly circuitous.  I mean it seems to fit together, but how many passages offering counter testimonials have I overlooked in hopping from Torah, to Jesus, to Paul?  To mention a few, I wonder if Cain’s “Am I my brother’s keeper” just a foil to this Principle.  I wonder if love thy neighbor extended to the Egyptians who in Israel’s exodus drown in the waters of the Sea of Reeds.  I say these things not because I’m against loving thy neighbor, even if that person ends up being thy enemy.  But I raise it to ask if we know what we are doing when we try to read the Bible and sift some practical insight from it. 

Recently I heard a sermon that I felt quite fairly dealt with the issue of biblical interpretation.  In it the pastor cited biblical precepts, patterns and principles.  But the more I examine the categories, I realize how hard it is to divide up the biblical narrative in such a artificial way.  What if, as Soong-Chan Rah’s recent book The New Evangelicalism suggests, our surefire ways of reading the bible are part of our cultural conditioning?  We will be reviewing the book on this blog soon.  But for now I present this thought.  Perhaps chasing after precepts, patterns and principles is a perculiarly Western mode of reading sacred Scripture, or reading any book when you think about it.  Is it just me, or have you noticed how captivated Westerners, particularly Americans are by putting numbers and bullet points in front of ideas.  We hunger for 5 habits, 6 minute abs, 7 ways to please your man, 8 ways to lose him, and the ubiquitous top ten list.  These pithy ways of organizing ideas come about when we necessarily comb through and choose knowledge from a chaotic world full of information.  But are the kinds of ancient narratives we find in the Bible, or our life stories today, amenable to this kind of treatment?

I’m not sure.  I’ll give you another example.  A recent conversation brewed up on Scot McKnight’s blog about whether policing or soldiering is a genuinely Christian vocation.  This is a difficult and easily contested issue.   Both those who favor and support those vocations and those who do not feel they are upholding valuable tenants of the Christian faith and tradition.  What surprised me was the confusing and sometimes convuluted way in which Scripture was used in that conversation.  Yet again I saw how inherently difficult it is to know that we know what we are talking about when we start searching the Bible for a solution.  John the Baptist’s warning to potential soldiers and Paul’s words concerning the Roman authorities were cited in contrast to Jesus’ ‘turn the other cheek’ in sermon.   But should all these passages be weighed equally?  I wrestle with whether we should assume John, Jesus and Paul are on the same page, or necessarily agree with each other all the time.  Alittle exploration into 2nd Temple Judaism, and the riffs and tensions between John’s movement and Jesus’ movement come into view.  Should we therefore take John’s approach with a grain of salt when it differs with Jesus? 

The conversation also turned towards an examination of biblical characters whose positions or actions, regardless of their violence or distastefulness brought about blessing.  But just because the Centurion was a soldier, Rahab was a prostitute and Jacob was a John, does that mean these professions are to be commended or preferred?  None of this is to say there is a simple answer to the question of violence and vocation.   In this case, as in many others, I get the feeling we are somehow chasing the wind if we’re seeking the last word on the issue. 

We desperately need some ways to break these impasses, but where are they? Sorry to end this with more questions, but I certainly hope we find them.

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