The Common Good

Biblical Ambiguity Doesn't Diminish Authority

A student once asked me whether in my opinion Mark Twain actually said that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco. Taken aback for a moment, I replied, of course, that it wasn't a matter of opinion: he either said it or he didn't, and there were reliable ways of finding out which. (In fact, he did.) If, on the other hand, she'd asked me whether I thought Twain was exaggerating (as was his wont) for dramatic effect or giving an accurate weather report, I would have offered an instant and confident opinion, being an enthusiastic reader of that rascal who, like Huck, "tole the truth, mostly."

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Exaggeration was his stock in trade, and, for him, a way to deliver truths that urgently needed to be told, making them palatable with a generous serving of laughter. The incident reminded me of how important it is to distinguish, in our scriptural and theological debates, between matters of opinion (remembering that not all opinions are equally informed) and matters of fact (which are at least theoretically subject to historical verification or rational validation or scientific proof). Not all facts can be proven, not all opinions are worthy of consideration, and scientific method is not the final arbiter of factuality, but to consider the basis on which we accept as right, true, or useful what we find in the morning newspaper and, most importantly, in scripture, is an indispensable criterion of responsible reading.

At the same time, God meets us in our uncertainties. God meets the physicist in the exhilarating indeterminacies of field theory and string theory and chaos theory, and in the wave that is also a particle. God meets the poet in the pun that opens two paths to two truths and the image that evokes conflicting associations. And the doctor in the moment of discernment about what this particular body might respond to. At the end of our certainties, the Spirit waits with guidance good for this occasion, this instance, this circumstance, not necessarily transferable to next time.

And to acknowledge ambiguity in scripture in no way diminishes its authority. Indeed, its ambiguity and paradox are necessary instruments of truth: Truth will not let us limit or diminish the complexity of what comes from the hand of a transcendent God. Ambiguity is not vagueness, but rather a form of precision. Plurality of interpretive possibilities is not the same as rampant relativism. Criteria of validity always apply, and always entail some understanding of the contexts and purposes of both writer and reader.

Within the broad embrace of the church, under the bright wings of the Spirit who breathes life into the conversation that takes place among the faithful, right reading of sacred texts is not necessarily uniform reading. To read faithfully is to read prayerfully, not necessarily consistently. "Love changes," Wendell Berry writes, "and in change is true." In its way, this claim applies as much to our love lives with God as to the long love between spouses, the focus of Berry's poem.

Marilyn McEntyre, author of Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies: Stewardship of Language in a Culture of Lies (Eerdmans, May 2009), is a Fellow at the Gaede Institute for the Liberal Arts, Westmont College.

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