“And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?” Luke 12:57
It is easy, when reading the words of our Lord, to pass over some sentence of his which is couched in a larger context, and therefore to fail to see some great truth. We are eager to get to the heart of his meaning, the kernel of the truth, and, from this earnestness, we do not let our eyes rest and our hearts dwell on absolutely all that he says. We would do well to remember the words of the Canaanite woman: even the crumbs can be eaten, if they fall from the Master’s table.
This problem of not seeing our Lord’s words is compounded by the fact that, in many Bible translations, we have for us inserted paragraph breaks and summary headings, as well as superscripts and footnotes and commentaries. Such things serve to distract us from dwelling on the words of the text itself. When meditating on the words of Jesus, as well as those of the writers of the Epistles, it is of benefit to remember three things. First, our Lord spoke native Aramaic, probably of a Galilean dialect, not English or even Greek. Second, the Greek of the text is already both a language and a country removed from Christ the historical man himself. And, third, in the original text there is no punctuation: that is, there are no periods or commas, nor are there phrases and sentences which are woodenly interchangeable with our English phrases and sentences and their theologically loaded implications. The more one spends time with the Greek of the New Testament, the more one shall see that this third point is so.
Allow me to present an example. In the first case, I present the text as it reads from a common translation of the English Bible. In the second, as it reads as a transliteration of the Greek. Both are from Mark 14:21.
1). For the Son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.
2) For indeed [the] Son of man goes as it has been written concerning him; woe however to the that-man by whom the Son of man is betrayed; good for him [it would be] if had never been born the man-that.
Now, do you see the possible difference in meaning here? In the first rendition of the text, the structure of the sentence demands that it to mean that it were better for the one who betrayed the Son of man never to have been born. In the second rendition, however, it is more naturally seen as it being good for the Son of man had not the betrayer been born. Thus here is a case which, by the mere movement of words and placing of commas, we arrive at completely different meaning of the text of the New Testament, nay even of the words of our Lord. Indeed the meaning is as different as that between night and day, one may say even of Molech and Jehovah. For the first rendition can be read, as fit in with its earlier context, as implying that Judas was predestined to do that which brought upon him a necessary fate so terrible it would be better if he had never been born. It may suggest that it may be have been better if God had never created Judas at all; as if Judas himself had any choice in either his being born or the fact that such a God could predestine his damnation. Yet in the second rendition we can more clearly glimpse a hint of that infinite compassion that Christ I think had for Judas, and, indeed for every man. It was the same compassion that groaned in his breast when, after Judas betrayed him with a kiss, said, “friend, why have you come?” For Jesus pronounces woe upon Judas in this second passage, not because of a divine fate which he could not withstand which made him betray the Son of man, but because of how low he had sunk, and how terrible his agony and self loathing must be, when he came to see that he had freely betrayed one who loved him so dearly. What more terrible thing can befall a man, than that he betray an innocent friend? Nay, a friend who loved him so much that he would gladly be tortured and crucified for his sake? And yet before we pass judgment on Iscariot, let us look into our own hearts, and see if we have not ourselves taken money from the world and helped drive the nails through the hands of our Lord.
Note well my point here. It is not to squabble about which interpretation of this verse is correct. Indeed, for the purposes of argument, I could be mistaken altogether, and Judas could have been divinely determined to betray Christ and so be consigned to Hell because of it. I mean only to show, not the right meaning of a particular text, but the possibility of the wrong meaning of it. If it is so easy to misinterpret the very words of Christ, and to draw from them interpretations and implications so vastly different, we ought to approach the New Testament with a certain profound awareness of this fact.
Neither is my aim to cast doubt upon the inspiration of the Scriptures. Though, should such a doubt arise consequently from what I shall say, I would not for that reason be silent. There are far worse things than to doubt the infallibility of the Bible, my friends. For assent as to inspiration is purely a matter of intellect, and may be held by even the most wicked willed heart. The demons believe in God, you will remember, yet that does not stay their hand; and many a man has tortured and enslaved and pillaged with the words of the New Testament on his lips. Yet I will go so far as to cast doubt upon, not the Bible, but our understanding of it, to say this. Unless you have asked yourself what you would do were you to read something in the Bible that contradicted your own purest notions of goodness and the loveliness of God, and unless you have answered which you would trust – your own honest conscience, or the words written down in the book – you cannot know God.
Suppose you read in the New Testament something from the mouth of Christ that seemed to contradict your best and truest notions of what is best and true: yea notions you may have heard from his own mouth before. Or suppose you were a modern Abraham who became convinced that God had commanded you to make a bloody sacrifice of your son. Let us go a step further. Suppose that you read in a letter from Paul some passage which seemed to logically imply that you ought to slay in your heart and mind all love you have for your fellow man and humanity, they being but potsherds to be broken and cast aside at the arbitrary will of one to whom you must bow unquestionably in obedience. It matters nothing to my purpose whether the text actually does say such things. It matters only that it could, or, if it could possibly seem to say so to you, for the two are the same. What would you do, dear brother or sister? What would you do if the Bible told you to murder every love and joy and dream you ever had, and to worship and adore – or to try thy best to adore – all that seemed to thee wicked? Would you turn to the commentary of some learned theologian to see what mazes of words could be strung to make the text unsay what to you it plainly and undeniably does say? Would you go to some saint to get his spiritual understanding of the passage and to try to conform your mind to what he had of his own labor began to believe he understood by the words? If so, what good would such a thing do? Ah, you would take the whole question off yourself, and have another answer it for you! You ought to know, friend, that buying the knowledge of God at that price would make it of no worth. For the decision – the settling of the question – must come from within you, from thyself. Thou must choose what thou shalt think, and thou shalt be the better for it, even if thou art factually mistaken, if thou choose what seems right and true. If thou art mistaken, the Lord of life and truth will set you right, so long as you keep following what thou knowest and seest to be his truth, his light, his will. If this were not so, we could not trust him. The burden – the step out onto the shaky bridge – you must take up and do, else the entire investigation, the entire reading of the scripture, the entire attempt to know God and be a disciple of Christ, is of no use.
And besides, even supposing some deliverance did come on some difficult passage by some other person, are we to imagine that for every subsequent dilemma we encounter there will always be similar clarity given? A thousand such dilemmas arise to the thinking mind who tries to be good and understand the words of the New Testament; and the more one thinks and the more one tries the more certain are such things to arise. There is no getting around the fact: at some point we must look at the thing ourselves, and with our own eyes, and speak our own judgment on the matter.
What, would you have another man live your life for you? Would you have him raise your children and love your wife and direct every impulse of your soul – not to mention the most religious and God oriented? Would you have a man think for you and feel for you? Would you have him be a child of God for you. Would you have another be you? Would you, man or woman, have another look up into the face of Jesus for you?
It cannot be so, friends. It is dreadful to come upon the fact that we must be, that we must meet the burden of existence, must wrestle it, must cry out in the midst of our struggle with it, and grope for some solid ground on which to stand to fight against it. I well remember the discovery – like an earthquake of the universe rocking the depths of my soul – that I am my own self, my own choosing me; and that the decision of being lay in my lap to do with what I would, though I knew not where to turn with it nor where to direct my steps. Yet for all that, the fact remains unshakable. In some deep region of the spirit, we cannot escape our individuality, our own personal response to being – to God himself. The sooner we admit this, the better. For the sooner we can then cry out to the Father, knowing better our needy condition. “Lord, we know we must live in the midst of nauseating uncertainty, reaching into regions of profoundest depth in consciousness and feeling. How we wish for some sure footing on things: some pure light, some faith! Help us, father, in the midst of such an existence, be!”
Ah, brother. Until you can see that you owe your allegiance first to what seems to you good and right and true and of God, and only secondly to something else and it only insofar as it gives you clearer light into what you can already see, you are the slave to the thoughts and religion of other men. Such thoughts which, by the way, for all you know, may not even have been in the minds of the men who you think they belong to, or at any rate who may have been in their minds, indeed, but not with the logical implications that you extract from their words. I can well imagine meeting Saint Paul and describing to him the system that some theologian contrived out of the few letters of his that we have in our Bibles, with all its logical deductions. I can well imagine, I say, showing him such a thing, and hearing him exclaim “God forbid!” In his own explication of what he meant, may he not reference other letters of his, myriads it may be perhaps, to modify and clarify those of his that have been twisted, much in the same way that we now use the epistles of the New Testament to modify and clarify some single letter or passage in it themselves? Then again I would not be surprised if Paul could not quote a single line of his own inspired words in the Bible, him having his essential life, every moment, by the Spirit rather than the letter.
Do not be afraid of this fact, but know it well, yet neither take it further than need be: the same book in thy hands called the Bible has done tremendous benefit to humanity; but it has also done tremendous harm. In every age there are men and women who use it to justify actions which the best Christians in subsequent ages abhor with utmost loathing in the name of Christ himself.
To whatever revelation or knowledge may exist in any man, be he an Einstein or an Aquinas or a preacher or a Paul, it does no good to the one who cannot understand what is said. In that sense – in that sense – it is useless, and can serve only to darken the mind and further the distance from the light of the one who assents to what he does not see as true. Where truth is not seen but still sworn to in allegiance can be nothing but falsity and dishonesty, and serves naught but to increase doubt and put plaque in the arteries that long to have flow strong in them the life blood of Jesus.
I have nothing to do with apparent discrepancies in the Bible regarding facts, such as whether or not Judas hanged himself, or fell off a cliff, or did both. Rather, I speak here only regarding teachings and pictures of God which themselves reflect on and carry implications regarding his nature and the person of Christ. Let us go back to my initial hypothetical. Let us suppose Scripture says – which it in fact does say – that God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all. Further, let us suppose that the Bible says – which it in fact does say – that God is love, and desires all to be saved, and takes no delight in the death of the wicked, and that he is the universal Father who causes it to rain on the just and unjust alike. Thus we have on one hand a scriptural datum – God’s absolute loveliness and perfection. But let us suppose, on the other hand, that we read a passage in the Bible which seems to logically imply something about God that is inconsistent with this picture. Suppose, hypothetically, we were to read “God delights in torturing the innocent and extracting pain from the defenseless for all eternity.” Now, of course there is no such verse in the Bible. But again I want only this hypothesis in front of the mind to bring out my point, which is this.
If you cannot answer what you would do in the face of such a glaring contradiction, you cannot really know the true God, if He is good.
If our theory of scripture leads us to conclude that God is “beyond our categories of good and evil” or that God is not what we mean when we call him Good and Loving, may the real God himself help us find another theory of scripture! For if God is in fact good and not evil – if we really can apply words to him – then we have by a mere theory of inspiration forfeited the only real way we have for knowing him in the first place.
A being to whom nothing is true or false, or everything true and nothing false, is a being unintelligible, for it may be true to deny that which we affirm of him. If therefore God really is good and not evil, if he really is love and not hate, then certain things will be true of him and certain things false of him. He will not delight in suffering for example. He does desire all to be saved. But if we say that we cannot “really” know that God is what we mean by good, then, if God were in fact really what we meant by good, we would be paralyzed in principle from knowing so. Us negating the very thing necessary to gain knowledge in the first place – namely, our own intuitions of what goodness already means to us – we would be incapable of growing in our knowledge of goodness, and therefore God, as well.
Again, to learn what something is like is to be able to form some positive conception about that thing – to be able to make statements that are true and deny things that are false about it. But if, when we run into passages in the Bible that would seem, when taken to their logical conclusions, to make God’s character no different than Satan’s, and if we accept those passages as telling truths about God even though they seem to us wicked, then there becomes no way to differentiate God from Satan. A consequence of this being that we can either form no positive conception of God, since anything at all may be true of him, or form no conception of him which is different from the devil’s. Once this occurs, friends, we have lost all ability to ever approach a good God, if such a one exists.
Consider the following train of thought. A certain reading of Paul can imply that God has predetermined some of his creation to be eternally damned and suffer unimaginable torture, apart from and before any action on the part of the creature itself. On such a reading, the creature cannot help but go the fate that such a god has predestined it to go. Consequently, on this view, God intends this – he intends to create beings in whom for all eternity he generates a necessary and infinite desire for himself, and in whom also he has eternally decreed never to give them (though he could) the very thing he is creating them to want. Nor does he take them out of being: but rather he makes their state something which itself deserves further punishment, and serve to heighten the blessed in heaven who were arbitrarily spared a similar fate.
I ask, if this picture of God can be accepted while also maintaining that God is “love” and “good” what possible picture of God could not be? If you grant that God can torture sentient beings forever who he need not have created, and who he could have saved if he wanted, simply because he enjoys it or because he can or even for any reason at all, what possible moral action would be inconsistent with his goodness? Could not such a being do anything at all, and he still be loving and good? Such an approach to God, where one attaches any possible action to his character while simultaneously affirming that that character is still “love” and “good,” makes meaningless the very words “love” and “good” to begin with. And therefore it renders knowledge of the truly good and loving God impossible.
Any idea of God or theory about how we come to know him in a text which destroys our ability to distinguish between good and evil and love and hate ultimately refutes itself. For if our theories of knowledge entail that we cannot know God’s nature as positively good and infinitely trustworthy and altogether lovely, then for all we know, God may punish us for doing exactly as he commands us to do in the very Bible itself which leads us to such conclusions about him. If all our “whites” are really God’s “blacks” what he conceives of as heaven may be what we conceive of as hell. His evaluation of meaning may be so different than ours that he may delight in torturing obedient souls rather than disobedient; and there may never be a reconciliation amenable to our intellect as to why this is so. It may just be.
“The ultimate question is whether the doctrine of the goodness of God or that of the inerrancy of Scriptures is to prevail when they conflict.” When the two are at odds, we must hold to the goodness of God. This is not to spite the Bible, but to honor the one who gave us the Bible. For accepting a notion of Scripture which entails that God is either evil or beyond the categories of good and evil altogether refutes itself, in that it denies the possibility of any such being as a good God who could give the Bible to us in the first place for our benefit.
I know the weight and force of the Bible, brothers and sisters. I know the power and feeling and life it holds in many a mind and many a soul. I do not wish to dispute this truth with any man. But I do wish to ask questions about what the implications of the words of the Bible – at least as this or that man may understand them – mean. Does that trouble you, friend? Does it frighten you to suppose that the words on the pages that you have held so dear to your heart, and built up into a world-system of comfort and answers, may be such as to have never been uttered by the Lord or thought by his followers? Is the very hypothetical that I ask you to form where you must ask what you would believe were the Bible to say something false, is this very question something which you shrink from, nay cannot even possibly entertain?It is no matter. Thy turning the question aside will not move the question one inch. Neither does it remove the fact that you are already doing the very thing you claim to be too blasphemous to entertain. Or do you not think that you are reading the Bible and taking some of it as it seems right to you, and leaving other things, as they seem too terrible? Dost thou pluck out thy eye when thou lookest with envy? And if you do not, is it not because, regardless of what the words say on the page, the Lord could not have meant that – that is, what he said, what is plainly on the page.
Here I repeat the question: when the two conflict, what should thou trust – the goodness of God, or the Bible? It sits immovable, as uncompromising as the choice between life and death, between Christ and the world. One must encounter the Word oneself. It matters not what conclusions other men have reached about it if you cannot see their conclusions yourself. All their answers and every book of theology ever written could be piled on top of each other from the beginning of the world, and such will not tip the scales one mite in favor of thy own answer to the encounter. You must live and be and think. Do you see how useless fear is, how pointless evasion? You but postpone the inevitable, must answer in either case. Indeed you already do answer, every time you read the Word and take it into thy heart and mind and try to assimilate it into thy life. You are just as of yet unaware of your own answering thus far. Perhaps the next step for you is simply to become aware of this fact: no other man can stand between you and the words of Christ. There is no authority which you can hide behind, no other’s feet you can stand on, but those of your own. You have been doing it, perhaps at unawares, all your life. Continue to do so now, with more conscious intention, boldness, freedom, and honesty.
Or do you say that you have never yet come across such a passage which you suppose is inconsistent with what your God given conscience tells you is true? If that is honestly so, then I have no more to say to you. If you have not yet found any such thing, I think you shall, if you come to the Word seeking answers to the questions of life. And if you do not ever come to such a crisis, then you shall never be in the danger of falsely listening to the voice of God or Christ, since the dilemma on which the whole problem can even possibly arise will never be before you.
Yet I would press the man who answers but faintly, or who has not yet answered in the full at all. Have you never questioned the Bible? Has you not ever had one inkling of a feeling that the words you read did not exactly ring true to the truest and highest and best notions in thy breast? Or if thou hast not questioned the book itself, has thou not at least questioned thy own understanding of it purpose? Has thou never even asked thyself what it is and what it means, and what, if it was sent by God, it was intended to do? If you have not asked or felt these things, I do not blame you, though truly I cannot understand you. I only ask you to ask yourself: are you being true soul – that is, a true lover after the truth? Do you desire it with your whole being? If so, then you are my brother or sister, and we fight on the same side. May the Son of man come quickly, and find such faith on earth when he does alive in our own hearts.
Or do you, friend, sometimes sensing the truth approach – it may be in the form of an uncomfortable question or unwanted logical deduction – do you shut the door of thy mind to her and sit content with thyself? Dost thou remain comfortable in thy own small world that thou hast conceived and spun out of thy own wishes or the thoughts of other men? Does such a possibility not even frighten you? Or, if it does frighten you, does it do so enough to make you long to cast off what appears to be true for very truth itself? If such ye are not, ask thyself, what could the Bible say, that ye would not accept unquestionably? Nothing at all? But what if it called black white and white black, or asserted any manner of evidently self contradictory conscious fact? If there is nothing that you would not accept and would not believe, I have no more words for you. The man who could believe anything is one who could also believe nothing. He is not sturdy enough to stand up and walk of himself, let alone to grapple with. He is such as to hold that either his best or his worst notions are equally consistent to describe an All Perfect God.
I will be misunderstood if what I have written leads any to believe that I hold that Paul or the writers of the New Testament spoke falsehoods about God or misunderstood Christ’s teaching or that Christ himself was anything less than the perfect God-man. With all my heart I believe that the New Testament is the closest thing to Jesus Christ himself as may be come across in our world today. Do you agree? If so, yet see, how even in such a thought, the preeminence of Christ holds sway with you. For the New Testament is the thing which approximates to the standard, which is Jesus. It is not Jesus who approximates to it. What we must therefore use then to interpret and read the Bible, is none other than the person of Christ himself, the Son of man, who “reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature.”