If the Bible is coherent, then understanding the Bible means grasping how things fit together. Becoming a biblical theologian means seeing more and more pieces fit together into a glorious mosaic of the divine will. And doing exegesis means querying the text about how its many propositions cohere in the author’s mind.
If we are going to feed our people, we must ever advance in our grasp of biblical truth. And to advance in our grasp of biblical truth, we must be troubled by biblical affirmations.
It must bother us that James and Paul don’t seem to jibe. Only when we are troubled and bothered do we think hard. And if we don’t think hard about how biblical affirmations fit together, we will never penetrate to their common root and discover the beauty of unified divine truth. The end result is that our Bible reading will become insipid, we will turn to fascinating “secondary literature,” our sermons will be the lame work of “second-handers,” and the people will go hungry.
“We never think until we have been confronted with a problem,” said John Dewey. He was right. And that is why we will never think hard about biblical truth until we are troubled by its complexity.
We must form the habit of being systematically disturbed by things that at first glance don’t make sense. Or to put it a different way, we must relentlessly query the text. One of the greatest honors I received while teaching at Bethel was when the teaching assistants in the Bible department gave me a T-shirt which had the initials of Jonathan Edwards on the front and on the back the words: “Asking questions is the key to understanding.”
But there are several strong forces which oppose our relentless and systematic interrogating of biblical texts. One is that it consumes a great deal of time and energy on one small portion of Scripture. We have been schooled (quite erroneously) that there is a direct correlation between reading a lot and gaining insight. But in fact there is no positive correlation at all been quantity of pages read and quality of insight gained. Just the reverse. Except for a few geniuses, insight diminishes as we try to read more and more.
Insight or understanding is the product of intensive, headache-producing meditation on two or three verses and how they fit together. This kind of reflection and rumination is provoked by asking questions of the text. And you cannot do it if you hurry. Therefore, we must resist the deceptive urge to carve notches in our bibliographic gun. Take two hours to ask ten questions of Galatians 2:20 and you will gain one hundred times the insight you would have attained by reading thirty pages of the New Testament or any other book. Slow down. Query. Ponder. Chew.
Another reason it is hard to spend hours probing for the roots of coherence is that it is fundamentally unfashionable today to systematize and seek for harmony and unity. This noble quest has fallen on hard times because so much artificial harmony has been discovered by impatient and nervous Bible defenders. But if God’s mind is truly coherent and not confused, then exegesis must aim to see the coherence of biblical revelation and the profound unity of divine truth. Unless we are to dabble forever on the surface of things (content to turn up “tensions” and “difficulties”), then we must resist the atomistic (and basically anti-intellectual) fashions in the contemporary theological establishment. There is far too much debunking of past failures and far too little construction going on.
A third force that opposes the effort to ask the Bible questions is this: Asking questions is the same as posing problems, and we have been discouraged all our lives from finding problems in God’s Holy Book.
Rightfully Respecting God’s Word
It is impossible to respect the Bible too highly, but it is very possible to respect it wrongly. If we do not ask seriously how differing texts fit together, then we are either superhuman (and glance all truth at a glance) or indifferent (and don’t care about seeing more truth). But I don’t see how anyone who is indifferent or superhuman can have a proper respect for the Bible. Therefore, reverence for God’s word demands that we ask questions and pose problems and that we believe there are answers and solutions which will reward our labor with treasures new and old (Matthew 13:52).
We must train our people that it is not irreverent to see difficulties in the biblical text and to think hard about how they can be resolved.
I do not accuse my 6-year-old son, Benjamin, of irreverence when he cannot make sense out of a Bible verse and asks me about it. He is just learning to read. But have our abilities to read been perfected? Can any of us at one reading grasp the logic of a paragraph, and see how every part relates to all the others and how they all fit together to make a unified point? How much less the thought of an entire epistle, the New Testament, the Bible! If we care about truth, we must relentlessly query the text and form the habit of being bothered by things we read.
Reading for Reverence
This is just the opposite of irreverence. It is what we do if we crave the mind of Christ. Nothing sends us deeper into the counsels of God than seeing apparent theological discrepancies in the Bible and pondering them day and night until they fit into an emerging system of unified truth.
For example, a year ago, I struggled for days with how Paul could say on the one hand, “Do not be anxious about anything” (Philippians 4:6), but on the other hand say (with apparent impunity) that his “anxiety for all the churches” was a daily pressure on him (2 Corinthians 11:28). How could he say, “Rejoice always” (1 Thessalonians 5:16), and “Weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15)? How could he say to give thanks “always and for everything” (Ephesians 5:20), and then admit, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart” (Romans 9:2)?
More recently I have asked, What does it mean that Jesus said in Matthew 5:39 to turn the other cheek when struck, but also said in Matthew 10:23, “When they persecute you in one town, flee”? When do you flee, and when do you endure hardship and turn the other cheek? I have also been pondering in what sense it is true that God is “slow to anger” (Exodus 34:6), and in what sense “his wrath is quickly kindled” (Psalm 2:12).
There are hundreds and hundreds of such seeming discrepancies in the Holy Scriptures, and we dishonor the text not to see them and think them through. God is not a God of confusion. His tongue is not forked. There are profound and wonderful resolutions to all problems. He has called us to an eternity of discovery so that every morning for ages to come we might break forth in new songs of praise.
In 2 Timothy 2:7, Paul gave us a command and a promise. He commanded, “Think over what I say.” And he promised, “the Lord will give you understanding in everything.”
How do the command and promise fit together? The little “for” (gar) gives the answer. Think because God will reward you with understanding.
The promise is not made to all. It is made to those who think. And we do not think until we are confronted with a problem. Therefore, brothers, let us query the text.