Saturday, June 09, 2007

Recognizing Good and Bad Theology: Bible Playoff Test

Have you ever seen a tournament playoff bracket? Think of the March Madness basketball bracket, or the road to the World Series, the Superbowl, or the World Cup. The key feature of the playoff system is the quest for one champion. Along the way, other players are eliminated.

Last time that I posted on recognizing good and bad theology without recourse to doctrinal preconceptions, we looked at the analogy of leftover parts: if an understanding of the Bible systematically excludes parts of the Bible, we can already know it's a bad system. In the world of theology, the main way in which passages of the Bible become excluded is by a certain playoff mentality which is the subject of this post. In such playoff theology, certain verses win and other verses lose; some passages of Scripture overturn or eliminate others from the final result.

I am not arguing that all parts of the Bible are of equal interest. Compare the Bible passages listing inventory returned to the Second Temple to the Golden Rule and you'll see why I would not argue that all parts of the Bible are of equal interest. But I would argue that all parts of the Bible are relevant for their own purposes, and that none of them can be dropped off without losing something that should have been kept.

Certain passages of Scripture are contested in their interpretation. And in far too many cases the question is not about what the words meant as a matter of interpreting them from the original language and culture to ours, but about how they could be re-interpreted given that they do not fit into a certain theological system.

So in the Bible Playoffs, what is the winning verse? Does John 3:16 make it into the Sweet 16? Does it get taken out by Romans 9:18 before it gets to the Final Four? If so, you get Calvinism. If John 3:16 takes out Matthew 25:41, you get universalism. Does James 2:17 take out Galatians 3:25? Welcome to a sect of self-righteousness and earned salvation.

And if you get into playoff theology, "my prooftext can beat up your prooftext", well, ok, first off Scripture already lost because one of its passages was abused; but secondly there goes any objective way of knowing if the right prooftext "won". If one passage is supposed to win at the expense of the other, then what if the other one should have won? Objectively, how can you know that it shouldn't have? My premise is that one passage "winning" in such a way with another is "losing" -- a way that makes the Bible fight against itself -- ruins any chance of understanding the whole of the Bible, because it's not considered as a whole anymore. If you ever find someone saying "this passage cannot mean what it seems to mean because it would not fit into System X", there's only one thing to do: find the nearest exit from System X.

Scripture tells us time and again not to fall off to the left or the right, not to swerve to the left or the right. What we have is too many people who look at one passage that says, "Don't fall off to the left!" and so they rush off to the right as far as they can and fall off there; and another group that mocks them, and points at a passage saying "don't fall off to the right" (which the other people really should have taken seriously), and then the second group will rush the off to the left as far as they can (just to show those other folks) and they fall off to the opposite side. Each side (while falling off its own side) seems to count itself better than those who fell off the other side.

When I say "right" and "left" here, I do not mean any current political movements that go by those names. There is a Biblical sense of these words, that of setting boundaries on each side of us. Or to turn the sports analogy a different way, the ball is only in play when it is within the opposite boundaries, and the opposite boundaries define the field. The "opposing" passages of Scripture are seen as the left and right boundaries, things that complement each other rather than overrule each other. Understanding God is a wide field with boundaries extending to the limits of our minds and our senses. As soon as "opposing" passages are seen as one-sided, overruling each other, or forming a single line with no room in between, we have put ourselves in an untenable position for understanding God, and have cut ourselves off from areas we were meant to understand. By the same token, when we cut ourselves off from part of the mind of God, we also cut ourselves off from part of our humanity. If you doubt that, just check with anyone who has decided that either truth or love can be dispensed with, or that either faith or works really isn't that important, and so on for the practical results of taking sides for one or another of the "opposing" passages. Bad theology always has practical implications: in the end, it dehumanizes us.

2 comments:

Angie said...

And didn't Luther rue the book of James? There's always a danger that we'll try to mold scripture into our own image, instead of the other way around.

Good insights.

Dan Lower / KKairos said...

So in the Bible Playoffs, what is the winning verse? Does John 3:16 make it into the Sweet 16? Does it get taken out by Romans 9:18 before it gets to the Final Four? If so, you get Calvinism. If John 3:16 takes out Matthew 25:41, you get universalism. Does James 2:17 take out Galatians 3:25? Welcome to a sect of self-righteousness and earned salvation.

If you ever find someone saying "this passage cannot mean what it seems to mean because it would not fit into System X", there's only one thing to do: find the nearest exit from System X.

There is much truth here. But I don't think we can follow this advice to the letter without abandoning every theological system ever known to man that is at all systematic. And maybe we should abandon systematic theology entirely, but that's not a route I'm willing to go.

I guess I'm more okay with certain interpretations of certain verses, being cancelled out entirely, and with systems influencing how this happens. I'm not okay with all reasonable interpretations of a given verse being cancelled out just because it doesn't square with another system, or a "canon within the canon" in which it is not privileged.

Hopefully this made some sense.