Evangelicals are passionate about Scripture. It’s foundational to who we are. Well, first and foremost, evangelicals are called to be passionate about the evangel (or gospel) of Christ and his kingdom. But Scripture is still of utmost importance, a strong bedrock in our theological and life formation.
So, it would follow that how we interpret Scripture must become crucial as well. However, biblical interpretation is no easy task…AT ALL. And to champion the perspicuity, or clarity, of Scripture, as most evangelicals do, could cause a bit of confusion if you simply read Scripture itself, as well as the multiplicity of interpretive approaches across the broad scope of 2000 years of Christian church history (I, of course, am referring to the non-heretical interpretations).
I’m currently thinking about this topic (well, I think about it often, though I’m considering it a bit more today) because of some interaction I came across from an acquaintance and his study of the book of Jonah – here’s a Facebook conversation and here’s his blog article.
The big question surrounding the 4-chapter work, Jonah, becomes this: Is Jonah literal or figurative?
Is it straight-up historical narrative or does it fall within another literary genre where Jonah is representative of Israel at the time of writing (is it written as satire to shock the people of Israel)?
But here’s the biggie for me.
When questions like these arise, it can easily be argued: “Well, if we can’t confirm that Jonah is literal and historical, how can we confirm that Jesus literally rose from the dead?” Or it comes with the imperative angle – “Well, if we deny the literal historicity of Jonah, then we are likely to deny the literal historicity of Jesus’ resurrection.” Something of that nature.
And the question can be formulated around a plethora of other interpretive challenges with passages such as the early chapters of Genesis, the exodus, Job, etc.
This approach – the italicized question/statement above – is a fallacious argument properly known as the slippery slope. If you believe A, then you’ll believe B. Or, more practically in this regard, if you believe A, then you’ll believe H (something way down the line that is essential to the Christian faith, such as affecting Christ’s resurrection).
The problem is that slippery slopes can’t be empirically proven. They can be considered anecdotally, encompassing stories of folk who have denied the literal resurrection of Jesus (moving from point A to, say, point H). But then you’ve got plenty of theologians, pastors and Christians-in-general that are willing to consider a non-literal, historical journalistic reporting for the early chapters of Genesis or Jonah or the exodus or Job and still truly believe that Jesus, the Son of God, was raised from the dead by the power of God.
And if we aren’t aware of this, we need to read wider than our own theological tradition.
Another argument that might come forth and, if I’m honest, it feels quite manipulative, is when certain evangelical leaders make everything a “gospel issue.” You have to believe A because it’s a “gospel issue.” I’m not saying I hear that much with discussions surrounding the literary genre of Jonah. But you definitely hear it within discussions on the historicity of early chapters of Genesis (and other issues like women in leadership, for goodness sake!).
Believe that Genesis is not a literal journalistic report of history, then you’ll put the gospel at stake – because you won’t believe in original sin and compromise about an historical Adam, which means you’ll believe Christ’s death and resurrection were not real nor necessary.
Again, the problem is that most arguments fall under the slippery slope fallacy or the anecdotal story. Both are worth pondering, but they don’t produce any solid confirmation that if you believe A (Jonah/early chapters of Genesis are not literal, journalistic reporting) then you’ll believe H (Jesus didn’t literally rise from the dead).
Ladies and gentlemen, we have a problem here, or multiple problems, at least from my assessment. We are extremely prone to over-react towards those who fall outside of our own tribe and we are fear-driven in our approaches, which leads people to use emotional manipulation in keeping people in line – “If you believe this, then you’re gonna believe that – oh, and you’ll compromise the gospel!” No, that’s not a solid conclusion, and there’s evidence to the contrary!
This is very unhealthy. And this shines brightest amongst varying groups of people who have self-assigned themselves the mantle of evangelical law officers, policing the theological world of what is and isn’t acceptable. No rock unturned, searching every nook and cranny.
Listen, I don’t even think they have ignoble hearts in this approach. They are doing the best they can. I did the best I could pastoring, and I still failed miserably at times. I do the best I can as a theological educator, and I still fail miserably at times. We are all doing the best we can with the gifts God has imparted to us.
But I am wary of the reality that things can be done out of fear, maybe fear of losing control of our parishioners (in the old days, it was, “If we don’t proclaim drinking alcohol as sin, they’re liable to get drunk.”)
Of course, part of shepherding involves the ministry of protecting the sheep from false teaching (see Acts 20:28-31; 1 Pet 5:1-4). This is important, I do not deny. I’ve had to engage in this in specific situations, but also find myself doing it in a general sense on a regular basis. But, at times, I find the necessary call that we protect against over-protection. I’ve seen too many pastors lead out of fear – fear someone might read a Rob Bell book or listen to a TD Jakes sermon or attend a Benny Hinn gathering. This is not good, my friends.
So how do we get past fear-driven interpretation of Scripture and pastoral leadership with regards to theological formation. There’s no easy answer, but I’ll simply offer two thoughts.
1) Recognize the fear-driven focus. It’s hard – we don’t like to see our brokenness, frailty and sin. And we don’t like to see our obsession with control. Only God can help us see such. But we’ve got to be aware of our tendencies. Of course, many will say I need to recognize my lack of true commitment to Scripture. Perhaps. I need to be open to that, really I do. But if people are not denying central tenets of the faith (as highlighted in statements like the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds), let’s be careful in how we approach those with varying views from us.
Can you recognize the possibility of fear-driven leadership and interpretive measures?
2) Appreciate the height, depth and breadth of interpretive efforts in the 2000 years of the Christian faith. I’m not asking for one to celebrate Arianism or Docetism or Marcionism. But the wider, well-trodden Christian faith. How does one develop an appreciation for the broader Christian church and faith? By reading folks outside of your own background. If you’re Calvinist, read an Arminian (and not just around the topic of soteriology, the theology of salvation). If you’re Pentecostal, read a cessationist (and not just around the topic of baptism in the Holy Spirit). As we take up this spiritual discipline (yes, discipline), we might find ourselves appreciating Mennonites and Presbyterians and Methodists and Baptists and Anglicans and Pentecostals – all at the same time.
And what I hope is that the appreciation will lead to celebration.
I have no eggs in the basket for whether Jonah is historical or non-historical. I’m happy either way. I know the arguments both ways. But I will say that I’m open to the non-historicity of Jonah. And, remember, just because Jesus speaks of Jonah in the gospels, this does not necessarily mandate that “Jonah must be history.”
Or let us not forget the theological impact of non-historical parables. Has anyone ever questioned the theological impact of the parable of the Good Samaritan, even though it’s not “literally historical”? Could Jonah impact our lives even if it is not literal history (though Jonah was most likely a Hebrew prophet of old)?
I say the answer to that question is a resounding, “YES!” The little book found in the minor prophets has, is and will continue to affect people’s lives, shaping people in the ways of Jesus for compassion, mission, mercy, justice and grace.
So, might we recognize where we are fear-driven and could we appreciate a wider theological interpretive grid? I do hope so.