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Picking and Choosing

I remember a church board meeting years ago, where one member arrived highly indignant. I have mercifully forgotten the issue, though it was probably something like a special music piece he thought too secular-sounding, or someone had gone up front wearing a wedding ring. Back then, those seemed very important. He fussed and fumed and scolded the other board members, insisting they should have forcibly intervened on the spot. Someone said, “Gerald, please: it isn’t that big of a deal. Jesus was accepting of people who didn’t do things exactly like he did them. Look at how he treated Zaccheus and the woman caught in adultery.”

Gerald would have none of it. “Jesus also cleared the moneychangers from the temple with anger and violence!” he shouted, pounding the table. “He said that our enemies would be of our own household, that we would have to hate even our father and mother for his sake. He’s pictured in Revelation carrying a sword! If we don’t stand for the right, no matter who gets hurt, our church will fail to be what God wants us to be in the end time!”

Gerald and his would-be calmer were citing the same Bible, even the same part of the Bible. But they found quite different things there.

You can tell a lot about someone’s faith and nearly as much about their psychology by which passages of Scripture they emphasize. One style of Adventist believer leans heavily on the Old Testament and the Apocalyptic books, and a few chosen passages from the rest. There are others that emphasize mostly the gospels and the epistles, with selective forays into the Old Testament and Revelation.

The Bible, unlike, say David Copperfield, wasn’t written by one author. The unity we find there is because (as Peter explains it in 2 Peter 1:21) all the authors, over several thousands years, spoke at the urging of the same Spirit — though in astonishingly different cultures and circumstances. So the Bible is a unity, but the difference in culture, as well as God’s apparently evolving approach to humankind over time, makes it a rather tense unity. Even knowing that, we don’t always study with context in mind: we pick and choose as though we were doing case law research, where I try to cite a case to trump the case you cite.

I’ve heard people say that all the passages are descriptive of God, even when in conflict with one another — we just don’t understand them yet. And perhaps that’s true, although that isn’t necessarily a practical answer. We still want to know, in any given situation, how does a Christian know how to act, or what attitude to take? Where do you look to find the heart and soul of your faith? It seems self-evident to me that we Christians look to Jesus Christ — whose life and teachings, it’s important to remind ourselves, were heavily skewed in the direction of love, acceptance, grace and humility, one table-tipping temple-tax-tossing temper tantrum notwithstanding. We Christians also overlook that he was completely non-denominational, and was patient with well-intentioned people even if they had a different theology than his.

But not everyone agrees with me. So you can (and some do) make a case for an angry, judgmental kind of God who’s very concerned about small things, especially if you draw heavily upon the Old Testament prophets and Revelation. Still, the problem with that very hard-edged theology isn’t what the Bible says about God, but that people use the Bible selectively for warrant to do themselves things that God alone has reserved the right to do, like judging and punishing others.

Something similar happens with Ellen White’s writings. Within the same week, I was emailed a compilation of quotes on the evils of compromise in the church, and another on grace and the acceptance of change. Those who mostly quote The Great Controversy sometimes seem to be of a different religion than those who quote The Desire of Ages and Steps to Christ. (My friend Fritz Guy, when asked “What does Ellen White say about that?” replies, “Which Ellen White?”)

Which is primary? Do Jesus’ accepting, loving teachings tell more of God than the Old Testament imprecations and jeremiads? Is God depicted more accurately in The Great Controversy or Steps to Christ? We’re not sure, and we don’t have a sufficiently flexible hermeneutic to guide us. So we merely resist rethinking our traditional points of view, even when there’s reason to.

An important question, it seems to me, is which comes first: do people form their theology because of the texts they read or are instructed in, or are they attracted to certain texts because of how they feel and what they believe? Does the theology come first, or the psychology? I see evidence of the latter: that we’ve a strong temptation to use our inspired texts to say what our hearts, so often selfish and hurt, drive us to say.

Still, some of my friends will insist that their theological perspective isn’t personal, only scriptural — as we each try to trump the other with our own set of texts.

So we’ve got a hermeneutical challenge, and probably a systemic challenge as well. We can’t agree to disagree. We can’t even agree that we don’t know everything, and so should practice a tolerant humility toward one another. We want to be certain, and finding certainty in writings with as much variation as ours have makes that a very complicated proposition.

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