The Bible is not a constitution!

I love this quote I read today from Brian McLaren’s book, A New Kind of Christianity. I fully resonate with his opposition to reading the Bible as a constitution, and to the assumption that sola scriptura entails such an approach. Also, I agree with him that the Bible is not an answer compendium, but an invitation to conversation. Thus it is not designed to give answers, but rather to ask the questions we are not asking, or the questions we thought we answered:

“Does the Bible alone provide enough clarity to resolve all questions as a good constitution should? No. We have no reason to believe it was ever meant to do that, as much as we’ve tried to force it to do so. From all sides it becomes clear that the Bible, if it is truly inspired by God, wasn’t meant to end conversation and give the final word on controversies. If this were its purpose, it has failed miserably. (This fact must be faced.) But if instead it was inspired and intended to stimulate conversation, to keep people thinking and talking and arguing and seeking, across continents and centuries, it has succeeded and it is succeeding in a truly remarkable way.” (p. 120)

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5 thoughts on “The Bible is not a constitution!

  1. Anyone who thinks that constitutions are written in order to end discussion should take a look at American constitutional history! Basic rights are defined, and principles are set in place, but these serve to shape debate, not squelch it. As it contains an in-built capacity for change, some might argue that the U.S. constitution is a work-in-progress. No one believes that it has ended discussion, or that it was ever meant to.

    One interesting feature of the constitution is that it is the standard by which laws and legal decisions can themselves be judged. If the Supreme Court deems, after much debate, that a law or ruling is unconstitutional, then that law or ruling will not stand. This is not unlike the Reformers’ understanding of their very own assemblies and documents. They admitted that if any of their statements were proven to be counter to the Scriptures, then their teaching were in error. In that way, it works similarly to a constitution, but the Bible is still so much more.

    If McLaren is trying to counter the fundamentalist rhetoric of “All the answers are here in black and white,” then his point is well-taken. I’ll take honest questions over contrived answers any day, a preference found in the Scriptures themselves. It seems to me, though, based on this quote alone, that he is reducing the Bible to nothing more than a discussion starter! Serious engagement and exegesis, as guided by the Holy Spirit, will reveal the that the Bible stimulates not only thought and debate, but growth. Along the way, sometimes we even find answers.

  2. What you are saying about the constitution is very interesting indeed, Aaron. This proves to me even more that even what seems like clear rules and regulations are actually never final and beyond discussion.

    You are right in assuming that McLaren is being polemic towards the fundamentalist rhetoric. That is exactly what he’s doing. I don’t understand however why you assume that he is reducing the Bible to a discussion starter. That’s not what I understand from this quote at all, but perhaps I have the advantage of having read the whole chapter, which is called “Revelation through conversation”. That is always the danger of quotes, I guess – when texts taken out of context become pretexts.

    But one shouldn’t understand McLaren’s concept of ‘conversation’ as mere chatting. Oh no, that would be to miss the point entirely. The fact that we are in a ‘relationship’ with God implies a constant conversation. God never cuts the conversation by saying: “This is final, now shut up!”

    That’s what Brian is saying, and I agree with that. Also, who says conversation is not conducive to growth? My goodness, I don’t think I have grown at all without conversation. Final sayings and ‘wise’ words that killed conversations never helped me to grow. It did build self-control and patience though 🙂

    Thus I wouldn’t separate thought and debate from growth. It escapes me why you would make that separation. They were certainly never separated in the Jewish mindset. That’s how disciples of rabbis learned – in a variety of interpretations, in conversation, in thought and debate. I really don’t think final answers are conducive to any kind of growth. Only children need to be told what to do in that fashion. Children are too immature to handle ambiguity, uncertainty and open-ended realities. I think the whole point of growth is that we learn to accept that the more we know, the more we have to still discover.

    Ranting over.

    • “Who says that conversation isn’t conducive to growth?”, you ask. I don’t know, Daniel. I certainly didn’t.

      When McLaren states that the Bible was “inspired and intended to stimulate conversation, to keep people thinking and talking and arguing and seeking, across continents and centuries,” I wonder how he considers that conversation different from discussion prompted by other great literature. According to McLaren, how does biblically inspired conversation lead to revelation in a way that other conversation does not? It is not clear from the quote, but maybe the answer to my question lies in the chapter you have read.

      I can’t think of a time God has ever said, “Shut up!”, either in the scriptures or in my own personal journey of faith.

      In Job 38, though, the voice of the Divine certainly comes down pretty harshly on Job’s questions.

      In the Gospels, When Jesus has a conversation with the tempter in the wilderness, we read replies that definitely have an air of finality about them.

      It is fascinating to read the conversations that start in Matthew 20:23, with questions being asked of Jesus and by Jesus. He actually silences the Sadducees and the Pharisees with his questions!

      A final example can be found in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, about which you preached recently. The pericope begins with questions, and Jesus asks a question after the parable as well, but his last words here are, “Go and do likewise!” This is his final answer to the lawyer’s questions. It is not just for children and acceptance of it is not an indication of immaturity.

      I think, among other things, these examples offer us a warning against sweeping generalisations, about questions or anything else.

      As an aside, but related, I would caution you against generalisations regarding “the Jewish mindset.” Finally, if there is such a single phenomena, it is probably best to avoid describing it in the past tense!

  3. Thanks for your reply, Aaron. Like I said, conversation and dialogue IS conducive to growth, as we wrestle with ideas, and debate different points of view. Some people are surprised when I tell them how much I enjoy this…

    I agree with most of what you said, and yes, Brian McLaren does make the distinction between the Bible and other literature; it only takes a careful reading of his books to realize that, so I’ll leave it at that.

    When you wrote: “Bible stimulates not only thought and debate, but growth”, to me it seemed that you separated thought and debate from growth, as if they were unrelated. In other words, you can have thought of debate, but you need something else for growth. Perhaps I misunderstood the use of the word ‘but’. English IS my second language. I can always use that excuse.

    I might have been misunderstood regarding children and immaturity. When you talk about the Good Samaritan, I cannot view it as a final ‘answer’. It just isn’t. A parable is by definition open-ended and expansive in meaning. As Eugene Peterson said, a parable releases meaning, it doesn’t capture it. You can certainly interpret it as having a single, final meaning, but that would do injustice to the biblical text. The ‘Go and do likewise!’ is not a final answer in my view. It is an invitation to action, an exhortation. Jesus is not suggesting, I think that we should stop thinking, accept the final answer and swallow it. Thus the ‘Go and do likewise!’ is much more complex, I think.

    It terms of generalizations, I fully agree with you that it is dangerous. I will say, however that when we talk about a ‘mindset’ that implies in itself a generalization, with all the pitfalls included.

    Having said that, I do not refuse or refute the idea of moral absolutes. Not at all. I have the impression that you suspicious of me in that regard. What I do refuse is the right of any human being to define those moral absolutes, and attaching a finality clause to them. Only God can do that.

    • I’ve enjoyed this conversation, too Daniel. One interesting thing about the lawyer’s questions in Luke 10 is that they are not particularly genuine. He is either trying to test Jesus or to justify himself. In this way, the conversation in Luke 10 might be different from questions posed in an honest search for truth.

      Remember, though, that when the lawyer asks the challenging question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life,” Jesus asks him what he thinks. The lawyer’s answer is from scripture, Jesus replies, “You have given the right answer; do this and you will live.”

      Why would we avoid recognising answers when they are explicitly labeled as such? (And if we insist that they are NOT answers, are we doing justice to the text?)

      In neither of Jesus’ responses does he suggest we should stop thinking. He does seem to be saying, though, “You KNOW the answer to this. Go do it.”

      I do not see anything in the parable or its frame that could be interpreted as, “There is really no one answer to your question. The point is to keep thinking about it, though.”

      Thanks for engaging in this discussion with me. I’m looking forward to your next blog post!

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