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Sunday, July 19, 2015

Failure to Choose is a Choice Too

The other day I came across a paperback a few years old called “Hard Sayings of the Bible” credited to a number of generally reputable authors.

Why not? There are more than a few commonly misunderstood or genuinely obscure sayings in scripture to work with, perhaps even enough to fill a decent-sized book.

But I wonder if we don’t make some sayings harder than they should be.

There can be a tendency among Christians to mistake indecisiveness for graciousness. Thus a waffling, cover-all-the-bases interpretive position may be thought humble when it is merely uncommitted. A failure to point out the logical fallacies on the other side of a scriptural question may seem charitable when it is merely cowardly.

The Example of Christ and the Apostles

The Lord was not this way. Recall his unwavering commitment to logical consistency (or the integrity of scripture, if you prefer). He asks the Pharisees how the Christ of prophecy can be the son of David, if David “in the Spirit” (I love that bit) calls him Lord. Such a statement requires one of two things: the respondent can either throw up his hands and say “Scripture is impossible to understand”, or else accept the simple, unanswerably logical proposition that the Christ must be God as well as man. There is no other explanation.

Again, there was no waffling when the Lord stumped the Sadducees with his response to their hypothetical nonsense question about the woman with seven husbands and resurrection. He simply said, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God“.

Now of course the Lord was not mean-spirited, arrogant or presumptuous about it. He did not flaunt his superior interpretive skills, boast or show off. But he was certainly decisive. He shut mouths. And the disciples learned from him. If it is argued that his confidence about interpretation was simply a function of omniscience, how do we explain the authority and confidence with which much of Paul’s epistles are delivered, or the scathing indictment of Jews by Stephen, for which he was summarily murdered? How do we explain the book of James, for that matter, in all its blunt relentlessness?

So maybe certain “hard sayings” are only hard when we lack the confidence to single out the best interpretive choice and stick with it.

A “Hard Saying” That Isn’t

One example of a “hard saying” that isn’t hard at all is the Lord’s comment about the woman who famously anointed his feet, wet them with her tears and wiped them with her hair. The one Luke refers to as a “sinner”.

To Simon the Pharisee, his host, the Lord comments:
“… her sins, which are many, are forgiven — for she loved much …”
From this, we are told, many have drawn the conclusion that salvation is a consequence of love and therefore the saying is “hard” because it allegedly conflicts with the doctrine of salvation by faith.

And yet other than between the pages of this particular book, such an interpretation is not easy to locate. A Google search for the meaning of this verse turns up a large number of correct interpretations from all across the evangelical spectrum. It seems to be well understood, for the most part.

A Case of Conjunction-itis

Still, our worthy authors find themselves hung up on the Greek conjunction hoti, which is translated in our verse with the English word “for”, as in “for she loved much”. At least it is in the ESV. But some grammarians see the word as expressing result, so in a few other translations it has been rendered “because”. There are translators in both camps.

In short, whatever confusion may stem from the verse is centred on this question: Did the woman love as a consequence of being forgiven, or was she forgiven as a consequence of her love? Chicken or egg? The linguists are on the fence about that.

(We may safely ignore the rare-but-conceivable formulation that the Lord forgave the woman because she performed her immoral acts lovingly, since such an understanding of the passage simultaneously nails all three components of the interpretative stupidity trifecta, being speculative, wildly implausible and blissfully inattentive to context all at the same time.)

Examining Context

But for me (and evidently for many others as well) there is no legitimate question about the Lord’s meaning here. We simply need to read the entire account to understand the Lord’s statement. Jesus has discerned what is in Simon’s heart as he looks on disapprovingly, so he tells Simon a parable:
“A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.”
Having exacted from a grudging Simon the correct answer, to make his point so clear that even a Pharisee cannot miss it, the Lord specifically applies the parable to Simon and the woman wiping his feet with her hair. Simon is the equivalent of the debtor who owed the small amount. The woman at his feet is analogous to the debtor owing ten times more. The Lord points out that Simon has given him no water, no kiss and no anointing, exactly like a man who does not perceive himself to have been forgiven a particularly large debt. The woman, on the other hand, has done all these things.

In this context comes the statement in dispute:
“… her sins, which are many, are forgiven — for she loved much …”
With all that background, there is only one way this statement can be reasonably understood, and this is that the woman’s excess of love is evidence that she is aware she has been forgiven a massive debt. No other reading makes any sense.

And in case there is anyone left that still clings to the notion that her love has caused her forgiveness, the Lord adds this:
“Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Not love, faith. The love is mere evidence.

The Most Important Principle

There may be those who differ with me here, but it seems to me that the principle of interpreting contextually is in most instances considerably more authoritative than any analysis of etymology or Greek or Hebrew syntax performed thousands of years after the speaker and his audience have left us, even if such analysis is performed with world class expertise. There are simply too many things we — and they — don’t know.

Grammarians and translators do us a great and worthy service. But having rendered the text to the best of their ability and footnoted us (as they often do) when in their humble opinions there is some ambiguity about the meaning of a word or its relation to the words around it, they are best to get out of the way. I don’t mean that unkindly, and I certainly don’t mean to suggest that their expertise is not appreciated. But they have done their job. It’s time to go home. Contextual interpretation does not require the same specialized expertise as translation or syntactical analysis. The ordinary reader of the receptor language can do it as well as the expert linguist. The spiritual reader can do it better.

Ask the Author

Unlike other ancient documents we might parse for meaning, we still have the author of this particular book with us, and the spiritual reader can appeal to him for insight into what Luke and others wrote as the Spirit carried them along all those years ago. And since the Holy Spirit is God and cannot disagree with himself, we can also trust him to have left other clues in the passage to settle anything of real importance. He cannot have been unaware that ambiguity is inherent in language, and he certainly was fully aware that the passage of time tends to allow for greater confusion of meaning.

The Holy Spirit is authoritative: “He will guide you into all truth”, not a bunch of possible options.

Caveats and Confidence

Now of course not every opinion expressed by a Christian about the meaning of scripture is authoritative, because not everyone is guided by the Holy Spirit at all times. Sin gets in the way: ego, emotions, competitiveness, the need to be heard, the need to be seen to be somebody, the desire for respect, and so on; all these and more can impede the Spirit’s work. Our shouting can drown out the still, small voice of truth. Also, ignorance, immaturity and even lack of intelligence can prevent us from handling scripture well. False assumptions, cultural presuppositions, bad teaching and a reliance on incorrect information may factor in.

That’s a lot of ways to fail. There are probably more wrong interpretations out there than correct ones, by a long shot.

But such failures do not entitle the Christian to declare that the truth is unknowable or too hard to grasp. We make significant life choices every day by weighing options and choosing the one for which the evidence is strongest. There are no brownie points awarded for opting out of the responsibility to make interpretive choices because doing so is sometimes difficult.

Test everything. Hold fast what is good.

Because failure to choose is a choice too.

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