How a Strict View of the Clarity of Scripture Leads to Christian Division

I grew up in churches which stem from the American Restoration Movement. In our history, we had great concern for the way churches were divided. But many within this movement thought that the centuries of creeds and disputes and theological interpretation were, despite good intentions, accretions that kept us from seeing clear teachings of the Bible. We thought that the way toward doctrinal unity was pushing past the muddled history of creeds and doctrinal disputes and getting to the clarity of the Bible. This can sound condescending, as if we could look at the denominational leaders, tell them they simply needed to read the Bible alone, and these leaders would finally understand Christian truths. It could sound like a couch potato telling their favorite but struggling NBA team that they just need to get back to fundamentals. (Don’t the professional athletes know the fundamentals?) But this was no naive ecumenicalism, which thought that one could brush the disputed doctrines and practices under the rug and pretend like all the churches were united. We thought that true unity would be through an open-minded, fresh reading of the Bible.

But, somehow, this commitment to the Bible led to our group becoming one of the most divided and divisive Christian groups. How did that happen?

Though this issue is complex and involves issues like anti-intellectualism, our Biblical hermeneutics, and social divisions, there is one way of thinking that contributed to this.

The problem was our strong commitment to the Bible’s meaning being very clear.

This might make you uncomfortable. The clarity of the Bible (or, to use the technical terminology, the perspicuity of Scripture) is an important assumption of evangelicalism. Everyone can understand the Bible, we often say. As one preacher told me in the midst of a heated discussion, he thought that even a fairly uneducated man who spends his day riding a tractor on his farm can understand the Bible if he just reads it “without the opinions of men.” He didn’t need any knowledge of biblical scholarship or Greek.

Think about what this teaching means for Christian unity amidst Christian disagreement. If the Bible’s message were difficult to understand on that point, we would just chalk it up to a disagreement on a difficult, complicated, and somewhat confusing topic. We would even try to discuss and dialogue more so that we could collectively come to understand these difficult to understand doctrines. If the Bible’s teachings are clear, though, than you only have two real options for those who disagree with you on any topic: either they are stupid, or they are evil.

Let me explain: if the Bible’s teachings on any subject are simply clear to any normal person who reads and studies the Bible, then what does that say about the person who doesn’t understand it? It says they might be too stupid to understand the Biblical teachings. If the average person can understand the Bible’s teachings on a particular doctrine, then someone who cannot understand the same passage is ignorant. They are simply incapable at thinking at a high enough level to understand this Biblical teaching.

But what if the person isn’t stupid or uninformed? What if you know they have read the right passages and have access to enough resources to be able to understand the passage? What if you know they are intelligent? You would then have someone who looks at the appropriate Scriptures, can understand the passage properly if they so choose, but who is still mistaken about the Bible doctrine in question. The only serious option left is that the person is willfully misunderstanding the Bible and choosing to believe something false about God or some other topic.

Notice, then, what happens. When you think that a certain teaching of the Bible is clear, then you are forced to categorize someone who disagrees with you on that topic as either evil or stupid. That’s dangerous. And destructive. You cannot have unity with others if you think your disagreements with them are due to their stupidity or their sinfulness.

This is one reason that my Christian tradition became so divided. When churches fall into the mindset that everything they teach –– or at least everything they hold near and dear –– is plainly taught in Scriptures, they have already laid the foundation for sectarianism and disunity. There is no room for listening to those with whom we disagree and working toward a shared belief. There is only room for teaching and correcting those with whom we disagree.

Accepting the Bible Isn’t Clear

What if we just accepted that the Bible is not very clear? What if we just accepted that there are some teachings in the Bible that are difficult? That people rightly divide over them, because the evidence (even if it actually tilts in one direction) is within a reasonable, faithful person’s margin of error?

This requires us to be humble. This requires us to go to discussions to learn and not only to teach. But it will keep us from insulting other Christians and dividing from them.

Let me place a caveat here: I am not saying that every sentence of the Bible is opaque, hard to understand and apply. Many, maybe even most, parts of the Bible are clear. But there’s quite a distance between everything in the bible is crystal clear and some parts are not clear.

Some Important Caveats

First, the illumination of the Holy Spirit has to be accounted for. The Holy Spirit helps guide God’s people towards the truth. But the Holy Spirit doesn’t teach us everything little detail. I used to misunderstand that teaching. I remember once hearing someone say that the Holy Spirit guided Christians into truth. I pointed out that this person disagreed on some doctrines with one of his close friends. “Which one of you,” I asked, “isn’t listening to the Holy Spirit?” But that is not how the church has historically conceived of it. We read the Bible and discuss theology. We alter our views when we need to do so. And the church has disagreements. But the Holy Spirit is working within the church (usually in a way beyond our awareness of it) guide us into the truth. Paul said Philippians 3:15, “All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.” Paul taught that God was working to make the Philippians Christians aware of the truth. But he also taught that was consistent with the Christians not being fully taught now.

Second, a teaching doesn’t have to be clear for its denial to be considered a heresy. For centuries, Christians have been discerning what the Holy Spirit is teaching us. With some issues, Christian tradition has seen in God’s revelation a certain truth that is so important that its denial is heresy. I have often been tempted toward saying that these doctrines — the ones whose denial is considered a heresy — should be clearly taught in the Bible. I don’t currently hold this position. Instead, I think something is a heresy when it is a denial of a crucial Christian truth, not necessarily a clear Christian truth. Many of the Trinitarian and Christological heresies are not clearly wrong; but they get something critically wrong.

And So…

And so, we have to be more exacting when we discuss the clarity (or perspicuity) of the bible. Can God’s people understand it well enough — is it clear enough? — for them to honor God with their lives? Yes. Is it clear enough for the average person to read and be encouraged by it? Yes. But is it clear enough that anyone who disagrees on any Christian teaching is thereby stupid or evil? No!

We must walk the narrow path between believing the bible is too opaque for the average person and thinking that anyone who disagrees with me is evil or stupid. That’s a tough path to walk in practice, with many questionable cases and much wisdom and grace needed. But narrow is the way.

George Washington’s Secret Six: A Review

For Christmas, my wife gave me a copy of Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger’s George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution. Like thousands of other people, we have been enjoying AMC’s Turn, which is a television series based on the subject-matter of the book. Watching the show sparked a renewed interest in the American Revolution, prompting me to begin reading histories of that time period.

The book is a short read, and I recommend it to anyone who watches the show and wants a history of the spy ring. Even if you don’t watch the show, I think you would find the story of the spy ring interesting. Here were a few people trying to provide information about British troop movements to Washington. Their lives were in danger – Nathan Hale had been killed in Manhattan for spying in the months preceding the formation of this spy ring – and they were amateurs. The pressures they would have been under would have been tremendous. One of the members was forced to provide quarters to the British troops, and other members served soldiers daily during their day job. They had to find ways of smuggling information from under the nose of thousands of British soldiers, and they developed secret codes and used invisible ink to do so. Interestingly, at the end of the book the authors report that they learned that the CIA used the history of the spy ring to introduce people to espionage methods (215). To complicate matters, the British forces set up their own spy ring, partly to discover the American spys around Manhattan.

The most famous part of the American Revolution that the spy ring affected involved Benedict Arnold. The spy ring did not uncover the plot that Arnold was hatching, but their information helped the Americans put the pieces together when they captured the British epionage leader who had letters from Benedict Arnold on him.

What Bothered Me

As I said, I do recommend this book. But there were a few things that bothered me.

First, the way that Turn altered the story. Okay. I know that htis isn’t the authors’ fault. But it did impact my enjoyment of the book. I wasn’t frustrated at Kilmeade and Yaeger. I was simply frustrated that the writers of Turn felt the need to alter the story the way they did. For example, they switched the storylines of Abraham Woodhull and Robert Townsend. Since I went into the book assuming that Turn was more accurate than it really was (someone told me it was very historically accurate), I didn’t expect this. The cognitive dissonance confused me at first. I did get over this. And, again, this is not the authors’ fault and should not keep you from reading the book. It is something to be aware of, though, before you start the book.

Second, the fictionalized dialogue bothered me. The authors write in the book’s Authors’ Note:

“Much of the dialogue contained in this book is fictional, but it is based on conversations that did take place and, wherever possible, incorporates actual phrases used by the speaker.” (xiii)

I understand why the authors chose to do this. For the average person, it probably makes the book more engaging. But I usually don’t like this in history books. Why? It is simply that I don’t know what was a historical statement and what was fictionalized. Since the authors used “acutal phrases used by the speaker,” this makes it even more difficult. Part of the dialogue is historical; part isn’t. How am I supposed to tell them apart? I would like to know what was really said by those involved. I kept wondering throughout the book if Washington really thought what was being expressed in the dialogue, or was it part of the authors’ imagination. It’s not even that I want to know if he used the exact phrase in the dialogue, but I found myself wondering if Washington even had the sentiment or thought expressed in a particular piece of dialogue.

Third, I would have liked for the book to be more detailed. The authors don’t pretend to give a comprehensive history of the spy ring, so this doesn’t hurt my overall recommendation for the book. Nor do I think they failed in their task. I just have a preference for historical details.

Still Educational

But despite the brevity of the book and the lack of historical detail I prefer, it still informed me about events during the Revolutionary War of which I was previously unaware.

The Danger to Women

For example, I had never thought about the danger to women of the increased number of British soldiers who came to America during the war. But the women of Long Island, which was occupied by British soldiers for most of the American Revolution, faced constant danger. On page 48, the authors write:

“All around the British-occupied areas of New York and New Jersey, reports of attacks upon local women by both individual soldiers and groups of the garrisoned troops were made with startling regularity as early as the summer of 1776. Many cases were hadnled with a casual nonchalance as simply part of the collateral damage of war.”

On the same page, he proceeds to quote from a letter written by a British calvary officer. The letter says:

“”The fair nymphs of this isle are in wonderful tribulation, as the fresh meat that our men have got here has made them as riotous as satyrs. A girl cannot step into the bushes to pluck a rose without running the most imminent risk of being ravished, and they are so little accustomed to these vigorous methods that they don’t bear them with the proper resignation, and of consequence we have most entertaining courts-martial every day.”

The war, as most wars are, had to be truly terrifying to the women of the Colonies.

John Champe

I have never heard of John Champe before, but his mission is one of the most interesting of the American Revolution. John Champe volunteered for a secret mission, which he learned about only after being chosen. Benedict Arnold had recently betrayed the Americans, and Washington wanted to punish Arnold. So Champe’s mission was to pose as a deserter and traitor from the American side to the British. The hope was that he would eventually have the chance to meet Arnold. In doing so, he could study his behavior and determine the best time to kidnap, with the help of others, Arnold to take him back to territory controlled by the Americans. Arnold would then be put on trial.

It worked for a while. Champe showed up on the British side and eventually convinced them that he was a traitor. He met Benedict Arnold and was even put under Arnold’s command. He formed a plan to kidnap Arnold, but before he could carry it out, the British force he’d been assigned to was shipped out on a campaign.

I have never heard of Champe’s mission, but it is perhaps the most daring and interesting of the American Revolution.

Closing Recommendation

So I do think the book is worth reading, particularly if you are interested in the American Revolution, or even just enjoy watching Turn. My only complaints against it can be seen as positives: it is a quick read unencumbered by tons of historical detail, and so it holds one’s interest pretty well. Just start reading the book expecting it to be what it’s trying to be, and I think you’ll enjoy it.

A Politician Admitted in 1909 That Some Laws Have Secret Purposes

I have been listening to the audiobook of Ari Berman’s Give Us the Ballot: The Struggle for Voting Rights in America, which so far has been interesting. I am aware of the deep injustices against African Americans that existed. But despite being exposed to the history–-and perhaps because I have been around people much of my life who, for ideological reasons, wanted to minimize the level of racial discrimination–-I was not aware of how blatant the voting discrimination was and how protracted the struggle against it has been. So Berman’s book has been a revelation for me.

In the book, Berman mentions a letter that I found appalling. And I thought it would be a good reminder for us today.

Obama Health Care Speech to Joint Session of Congress

Politics has always been divisive. And that means that the partisan spirit leads one to be overly generous to the politicians we support and malicious towards those we oppose.

One way this partisan spirit manifests itself is in how we interpret the motives behind legislation. We are tempted to assume that the politicians we support are being straightforward with their legislative intent. We refuse to think that they would pass a law to achieve some secret motive. During the Bush Administration, the Republicans passed a bill outlawing online gambling. Many Republicans believed the Republican politicians’ claims that it was done to fight against gambling addiction. But this seemed to me at the time misleading, even though I was Republican. It was revealed that the law was pushed by the lobbyists for the casinos as protecting their financial interests. And the law had loopholes allowing online betting on horse races. I guess the Republicans were okay with gambling addicts gambling at home on horse races…just not on poker games.

Not only do we refuse to believe that “our side” would have secret motives behind legislation, we are certain that all the legislation behind the politicians we oppose have secret motives. The healthcare reforms are meant to secretly push us towards socialism. These laws aren’t about religious values but oppressing women. Etc.

But we should be convinced that both sides have secret motives. We should assume that some, maybe many, of the laws that both sides pass have some ulterior motive behind it. And one reason I made a note to look into the letter that Berman mentioned is because it is one of the clearest admissions of ulterior motives behind legislation.

Frederick Bromberg’s Admission of Ulterior Motives

Frederick Bromberg was an attorney and politician from Mobile, Alabama. He served in the Alabama legislature, was elected to the U.S. Congress, and also served as the President of the Alabama Bar Association. In 1909, he wrote an open letter to legislators in Alabama that was published in the Mobile Register (today he would have simply published it to Facebook). Blomberg was “expressing support for a pending bill to amend the Alabama Constitution explicitly to outlaw black office-holding.” This letter is an open admission of the ulterior motives of legislators. The letter was important to a 1980s court decision to change the way voting was done in Mobile since it admitted that some of the city’s voting laws were adopted with the intent to disenfranchise black voters. In fact, I’m going to quote the sections that are quoted in the legal opinion from that case. You can find the entire opinion here. (I’ve emphasized parts of this.)

Respectfully now recall to your mind that portion of my address as present [sic] of the state bar association, a copy of which I sent to you, which refers to the expediency of amending the state constitution so as to exclude negroes from holding elective offices in this state.

You know that it was the effort to obliterate the negro vote in the past which led to all of the methods of fraud perpetrated at the ballot boxes by sworn election officers in order to defeat the negro vote, which demoralized the growing generation of young men, and to cure which was the avowed purpose of the sections in the present state constitution regulating the franchise.

We have always, as you know, falsely pretended that our main purpose was to exclude the ignorant vote, when, in fact, we were trying to exclude, not the ignorant vote, but the negro vote.

The present measures are so framed that if honestly carried out they will not and cannot disfranchise the negro. If not honestly carried out sooner or later, probably sooner, a case will be made up having back of it competent counsel, which will go to the supreme court of the United States, and which will overturn the present methods of applying the registration laws.

The only safety of our people lies in availing themselves of their rights under the constitution of the United States to disqualify the negro from holding any elective office.

[…]

The counties of Dallas, Wilcox, Monroe, Marengo, Perry, Greene, Hale and others, composing the Black Belt of the state, will become increasingly black with increasing years, and the negro with intelligence, and property will demand and insist on his legal rights through the courts. Not only that, but ambitious men amongst them will avail themselves of their superior numbers in said counties to offer themselves as candidates for offices of power and profit. As surely as the war between the free and slave-holding states followed from the existence of slavery, just so surely will race war in this state follow the present condition of our laws; unless the remedial measure suggested above be adopted: the oldest of us will yet live to see my prophecy fulfilled.

At present the masses of the colored race are indifferent to the right to vote and still more indifferent to the right to hold office; by adopting remedial measures now we shall cause no discontent, because of the present apathy of our colored citizens.

This is fully recognized by all statesmen.

Curing Our Partisan Blindness

This should help cure us of our partisan blindness. I know it is a weak inference from one legislator from 150 years ago admitting to ulterior motives to the conclusion that all legislators have ulterior motives in what they do. And I really don’t want to make such an inference. I just think such a stark admission of a secret agenda behind legislation reminds us that it is possible. Elected officials on both sides of the aisle do this. Here is legislator, at the time influential and well-known, who admits to misleading people about the main purpose of the law. He publicly mislead his own supporters. I’m sure many of his supporters would have defended him.

But they were wrong.

And notice that he isn’t simply admitting that he mislead people. He is implicating his other legislators. A group of legislators mislead the public about the purpose of a law they passed.

Just like we deceive ourselves when we assume we are more intelligent than the people of the past, so we deceive ourselves when we think we are more virtuous than people of the past.

We must admit that there is more to the actions of politicians than meets the eye – especially the politicians we wholeheartedly support!