Tuesday, February 25, 2020

What Scripture Doesn’t Tell Us

Yesterday in this space I mulled over the question of whether or not pets go to heaven. The post was mostly speculative. Why? Because, as is the case with so many other topics of interest to us in this life, the Bible simply doesn’t tell us. God chose not to weigh in on that one, at least not directly. Sure, there are hints and clues and principles in scripture which we can draw on to lead us to some more-or-less-satisfactory conclusion, but nowhere do we find plain teaching that settles the matter beyond controversy.

This is true of many, many other subjects of interest to Christians today.

Searching in Vain

You will search in vain through your Bible for direct statements from God about the Christian position on global warming, endorsing or having an abortion, videogame addiction, viewing pornography, capital punishment in a non-theocratic setting, the use of birth control, the legalization of marijuana, the building of oil pipelines, globalism, mass immigration, free trade or gun control. Instead, we are left to infer the answers to these important questions from the data we possess about God and his dealings with men and women at other times and places.

Want to know whether a Christian should or should not use the pronouns his or her friendly neighborhood transgender person insists upon? Sorry, you are just going to have to work that one out for yourself. The apostles were busy writing about other subjects and never got around to telling us.

The Problems with Spelling It All Out

So why are there so many things God didn’t deign to explain to us in short, clear sentences?

Well, I suppose I could make the case that dealing with every possible question which might be raised in every single possible culture and circumstance would make the Bible too unwieldy to carry and impossible to read through. That is certainly true. Or maybe I could argue that turning scripture into a massive tome full of clauses and sub-clauses might mislead readers into thinking salvation comes through the keeping of laws rather than by grace through faith. That too might be a serious problem. I could also point out that including all kinds of instructions about avoiding sins that were either impossible or had yet to be conceived of 3,000 years ago would have been massively confusing for the original audience of the Old Testament, not to mention that it might have provoked a few of the ancients to sin in ways they had never previously contemplated. Certainly God would not have wanted that.

Intellectual Interest and Love

But I suspect the reason the Bible is constructed the way it is has more to do with the fundamental difference between intellectually exploring a system of belief and coming to love and trust a person. God is after the latter, not the former.

The Bible is not first and foremost a book about how to live out our lives perfectly, making no mistakes that will get us in trouble; rather, it is a book that teaches us to understand and love God as he is. It is a moral book, certainly, but it is not primarily a book about morality.

This is easily seen from the Lord’s response to the lawyer who asked him, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” The answer Jesus gives is not strictly speaking a legal one, even though it comes out of the Law of Moses.

All About Love

In fact, the Lord’s answer is all about love:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Love of God first, love of neighbor second. Everything else follows from that. If those two commands were all we had, and if we really believed them, I suspect we could work out all the rest from just that much.

This seems to be what the apostle Paul was thinking when he wrote the following:
“For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”
Here we are given a principle which, if properly applied, covers every possible moral question in a mere two sentences.

Sorting Out Confusion

Confused about abortion? Love of others trumps love of self, and love of God trumps both. Nothing further need be said. The way forward is clear.

Confused about how a Christian ought to respond to the possibility of global warming? Look carefully at the proposed remedies. If they take necessary food out of my neighbor’s mouth and impoverish his family, they are not loving to my neighbor. If a remedy is to be found (and it has yet to be conclusively demonstrated that such a remedy is either necessary or even possible), it must be one that does not destroy the lives of others. The real-world effect on my neighbor of my actions in the here-and-now must always be considered of primary importance, even in the face of hypothetical future catastrophes.

Confused about the wisdom of legalizing marijuana? Hey, it’s being tried. Pay attention to its effects on society. Personal freedom is all well and good, but if my exercise of freedom increases my chances of running over my neighbor in a foggy stupor, I am not being loving.

Need I go on?

Theory and Practice

It was never the purpose of the Law or the Prophets to answer our theoretical questions about optimal social policy or this and that minor technical detail. It was certainly never a major concern of the Lord Jesus or his apostles. If we love God, we will keep his commandments. Moreover, if we love God, we will take a fine-tooth comb to his word looking for things that please him and things that don’t. We will not need a specific command to avoid every new evil that pops up over the course of human history; rather, we will apply what we know about God’s character to every new dilemma and seek first to love God with all our choices. Why ask for a rule when a general principle will do? Nit-picking is the habit of a pedant, not a loving son or daughter.

Applying a principle is also a whole lot easier than reading thousands of pages of legalese, no?

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