I was with my daughter Shari recently. She’s a mother of four, works fulltime at Arapahoe Community College in Littleton, Colorado, as a career and academic counselor, and is deeply committed to Jesus.
She and her husband Jeff are obsessive readers, and their house is cluttered with great books. One that caught my eye is A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband ‘Master’. Yes, for a whole year she did exactly what the Bible tells women to do.
Ok, here we go. Objections please. Correct me. Correct her. Join the Rachael Held Evans boycott. Misquote me on social media.
Because, really, she’s not “biblical” even though she put that holy word in her title.
For those of you who are troubled right now, I’d like to recommend another Christian book: Adventures in Missing the Point.
Maybe your reaction is actually proving Rachel Evan’s point, that “biblical” isn’t just what you think. Or that what you believe is more biblical.
Did you know Jesus talked about how being really biblical may not be really good? He said this to the biblical scholars of his day, “You pore over the Scriptures because you presume that by them you possess eternal life. These are the very words that testify about Me, yet you refuse to come to Me to have life” (John 5:39-40, Berean Study Bible).
What’s the point? Some God-followers have come to believe that those who have most correctly interpreted the Scriptures are those who are closest to God. They are people who know the Word—and also know that, more than others, they know the Word most correctly. In obsessively searching the scriptures, they think they have eternal life, that eternal is somehow related to biblical correctness. Yes, even people who believe we are saved by grace alone can be downright legalistic.
It makes me uncomfortable to think that the biblical scholars of Jesus’s day were, perhaps, the most legalistic people in the Jewish community. Why does this happen to us, that though we are following Jesus, we slip into the religion of? Jesus came full of grace and truth, but it seems that often I’m filled mostly with truth and not too much grace. Like Saul, later Paul, before he met Christ. He was a biblical scholar on steroids, and what was the outcome of his fanatical correctness? He killed people who had a different view of the Jewish Scriptures. Saul is an example of how Christians, for centuries, have tortured and murdered other Christians over heresy and false doctrine. Except when Saul did that, he wasn’t a follower of Christ.
People are surprised and sometimes confused when I tell them that Greek word for “truth” (alētheia ) does not mean “correct concepts, doctrines or beliefs,” which is the way we use our English term “truth.” Alētheia means, more precisely, “reality.”
On trial, Jesus told Pontius Pilate, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth [alētheia]. Everyone on the side of truth [alētheia]. listens to me.” Pontius Pilate famously replied, “What is truth [alētheia]?” Those hearing him in way back then would have understood it this way: “What is real?”
Or when Jesus announces he’s “the way, the truth [alētheia] and the life,” it could be translated: “I am the way, I am what’s real, and I am the life.”
I discovered this important truth about truth, alētheia, when I did research for my book Experiencing the Power of the Cross (Bethany House, 2005). A year or so ago, I asked John DelHousaye, about this. He’s Professor of New Testament Greek at Phoenix Seminary. “Yes,” he said, “alētheia is not equivalent to our English word ‘truth’ and means ‘reality’ or ‘what is real’.”
Oh, don’t get me wrong. Getting it right is important. I should know. I have two graduate degrees in theology and ministry, and I’ve been obsessive about correctly understanding the Bible. It’s why I did research on alētheia. But like the ancient Pharisees, I don’t get eternal life because I get it right.
Biblical scholar Paul put it this way: “If I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge … but didn’t love others, I would be nothing” (New Living Translation). And in his letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes, “We know that ‘We all possess knowledge.’ But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God” (1 Corinthians 8:1-3).
I think some people should rewrite the old tune, “My hope is built and nothing less than Jesus blood and doctrinal correctness.”
The earliest manuscripts of the Athanasian Creed date from the late 8th Century. This classic description of the Trinity, written to counter the ancient Arian heresy (in a nutshell, Jesus is not God) has no less than forty-four statements to explain the nature of the Triune God, the Three Persons of the Godhead, and how they relate to One Another. It remains the dogma of Catholics, Anglicans and most Protestants.
The extraordinary creed ends with this warning: “This is the catholic (small “c”) faith, which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved” (italics mine). I remember reading this years ago as a student in my Lutheran college and thinking, wow, I’m not sure many people can be saved. My guess is that most if not all you reading this article have not even heard of the Athanasian Creed, let alone read it. It’s a beautiful but complex document.
I can only imagine an illiterate dirt farmer in the Middle Ages trying to explain this to his shoe maker in the local, smoky tavern. How could the common people at that time understand the creed’s theological nuances and depth? And at what point did their ignorance risk the loss of God’s love and life after death?
And what about today, with the wide range of Christian doctrines searchable on the web? Putting right-and-wrong aside, how do we deal with rampant polarization and hostility over just about everything? Have you seen the popular sports talk show “Undisputed”? Two “experts” essentially take opposing views and yell at each other. Or Democrats and Republican on a panel on CNN? I feel pain just writing about this!
We live in a culture of rage. Is there hope? Yes, indeed! But only as we bring our ethnic, cultural, doctrinal and personal differences to the foot of the Cross. Paul says this so simply: “Submit to one another out of reverence to Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). Our differences don’t go away, but in the presence of Jesus, the Cross puts our sin, our self-centeredness, our hostility ad rage to death.
Hear this: “For he [Jesus] himself is our peace, who has made the two groups [Jews and Gentiles, Catholics and non-Catholics, Democrats and Republicans?] one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall [not of differences, but] of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations [believing and doing everything correctly]. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.”
I’ve come to believe that the more I think I’m correct, the more difficult it is for me to love others the way God loves me. God is a mystery, not a matter of fact. God is love, something we can practice. We can do love. We can experience love. We can describe love, but we can’t really define it. Like love in marriage, it’s a mystery (Ephesians 5:31-32).
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
1 I’m indebted to my good friend for this dreadful thought.
2 It is a Greek word variously translated as “unclosedness”, “unconcealedness”, “disclosure” or “truth”. The literal meaning of the word ἀ–λήθεια is “the state of not being hidden; the state of being evident.” It also means factuality or reality (Wikipedia).
3 A doctrine without mystery. Gnosticism is one of the most sinister ideologies because, while unduly exalting knowledge or a specific experience, it considers its own vision of reality to be perfect. Thus, perhaps without even realizing it, this ideology feeds on itself and becomes even more myopic. It can become all the more illusory when it masks itself as a disembodied spirituality. For Gnosticism “by its very nature seeks to domesticate the mystery”, whether the mystery of God and his grace, or the mystery of others’ lives. When somebody has an answer for every question, it is a sign that they are not on the right road. They may well be false prophets, who use religion for their own purposes, to promote their own psychological or intellectual theories. God infinitely transcends us; he is full of surprises. We are not the ones to determine when and how we will encounter him; the exact times and places of that encounter are not up to us. Someone who wants everything to be clear and sure presumes to control God’s transcendence. (Pope Francis, Rejoice and Be Glad).