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I’ve long thought of Christianity as a large extended family:

Prone to in-fighting, consumed with squabbles that seem, to outsiders, to be insignificant verging on pointless, and riven with the sort of factionalism that makes family get togethers problematic at best.

Yet for all that, Christianity resembles a large extended family, as well, for the fundamental unity that it possesses. Intramural squabbles notwithstanding, our large extended family holds together around that which gives us our common identity: our confession of the crucified and resurrected messiah.

In that spirit, several years ago, a friend of mine named Rachel organized a “Rally to Restore Unity.”

#Christianity resembles a large extended #family. Click To Tweet

She organized the online rally, “Because we can disagree without calling each other heretics. Because our commonalities are more important than our differences.” Evans urged people to pose for pictures of themselves holding signs with their own “restore unity” slogans.

Some were amusing…

glasses

…and some thought-provoking:

eyes

But there was one that really stood out to me–so much so that four years later I’m still thinking about it. To be honest, it really bothered me–and it continues to bother me to this day. Here it is:

arrogant

Not Arrogant?

Now, I am self-aware enough to admit that my reaction is not solely a matter of the content of this gentleman’s sign. I’m also reacting to the seemingly smug expression on his face, which gives his sign more “oomph” than it might otherwise have.

Ordinarily, I might simply dismiss this gentleman and his sentiment, but in this case, I think that I should at least argue for why I think he’s wrong in what he seems to assert.

Let’s get right at the heart of the matter: the question here is whether or not we can really understand the Bible.

It’s true that the texts of the Bible were written in ancient languages, to people in cultures that are removed from us not only in their outlook on life, but also by as much as 3,000 years.

Ancient, ancient, ancient says this man, and indeed, the texts of the Bible are ancient.

But does that mean that they cannot be understood?

Photo credit: DAEllis / Foter / CC BY

Photo credit: DAEllis / Foter / CC BY

To answer this question, we have to differentiate between certainty and confidence, and it’s on this distinction that my frustration with this gentleman turns.

To be certain in our interpretation is to assert that it is not even possible that we are wrong. When we are certain, we either do not have–or, what is more likely, do not entertain–doubts regarding whether we are correct.

Certainty in interpretation is, I would argue, as arrogant as this gentleman suggests, not only because any human product is bound to be as flawed as its maker, but also because these texts are not only ancient, but also difficult to interpret.

So we should be skeptical of anyone who avers certainty in their interpretation.

Confidence

Yet to be certain is not the same as being confident.

Being confident in our interpretation means that we have done the difficult work of biblical interpretation.

It means that we have studied those ancient documents, that we have pored over them, have labored to understand them.

To be certain is not the same as being confident. Click To Tweet

It means that we have tested our ideas against the scholars and our peers alike, that we have done the important work of studying the ancient languages and cultures, that we have tested our theories against competing views.desk

Confidence in our biblical interpretation means that we have made some conclusions, backed up by patient study and careful scholarship, supported by our best arguments, and tested against contrary views.

This does not, of course, mean that we are free from doubt.

Indeed, doubt is a cornerstone of confidence, because doubt keeps us honest. Doubt means that although we are confident, we admit that it’s possible that we are wrong. Being confident, but not certain, means that we remain open to the possibility that our interpretation is inaccurate, and it means that we will give an argument a fair hearing, rather than dismiss it out of hand simply because it challenges our views.

That does not necessarily mean that we will change our minds, and it certainly doesn’t mean that we are blown about by every wind of doctrine. It simply means that we hold to our best understanding of the text, unless we can be shown a better one.

The problem, it seems, is that many people see no difference between confidence and certainty.

Reasonable Option

The sneering gentleman in the picture above puts me in mind (though I don’t know if he’s one) of the people who hold that since biblical interpretation is difficult, and since certainty is undesirable, therefore any interpretation of the Bible is as good as any other.

This attitude seems to rule out confidence as an option, leaving only room for certainty, or anything-goes. And since we all know that the biblical interpretation is difficult (”ancient, ancient, ancient”) and since we know certainty is undesirable (if not impossible), then anything other than anything-goes is inherently arrogant.

Nevertheless, contrary to the gentleman above, I must insist that it is possible for a person to know more than others about these texts, the languages in which they were written, and the cultures in which they were received.

It is possible, to have confidence in our interpretations, and to stand our ground in them (provided, of course, that we retain an open mind in the way I described above).

Indeed, if the Bible truly is the authority for the life and conduct of the churches and the people in them, then it is incumbent upon us, especially if we are leaders in those churches, to learn enough to be confident in our interpretation of the Bible, even in the face (no pun intended) of the smug dismissal that confidence is a real possibility.

Confidence Applied to Real Life

This is especially true as we interact with broader culture of the cities that our churches are a part of.

coffee mugsWe will encounter contrary opinions, not just on general matters, but on matters of the faith.

We will encounter people who, through no fault of their own, have erroneous views of what Christianity is and stands for.

We will certainly encounter other Christians who would challenge our perspectives on things.

If we are to represent Christ well, in our communities, we must be prepared to confidently articulate and defend our understanding of the Bible, not only to establish the members of our church well, but to articulate the good news of which the church is a steward.

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