Tag Archives: questions

I finally understand the Truly Reformed approach to interpreting the Bible

My interpretation of the Bible is infallible because I’m Elect because my interpretation of the Bible is infallible because I’m Elect.

For all their stated emphasis on grace, some Reformed Christian folks demonstrate such certainty in their own understandings that they actually emphasize their own interpretative stances over anything else, including grace.

What does this have to do with anything? Take a look at a few rounds of this video debate between a Reformed guy and a Roman Catholic guy, as I did recently.

Watch how they both selectively avoid the consequences of the opposing proof texts. Notice how their selective engagements involve work-arounds that have nothing to do with the texts themselves.

The take-away from their exchange, in my opinion, is simply that systematizing the Bible into a complete set of firm answers and airtight conclusions is not possible. But some people can only have a Bible if they have an infallible interpretation of it, too.

Watching the debate also reminded me that the late great French Protestant Jacques Ellul once said “the Bible is not a recipe book or an answer book, but the opposite: it is a book of questions God asks us.”

When You’re Certain You’re Right

Is it possible to know you’re right on a controversial subject and not be proud? Are certainty and pride just peas in the same pod?

Is it possible to believe in a position, stance, doctrine, law, worldview, etc., with certainty while also having real empathy and understanding for someone who does not see the same way? If you are certain about a stance on a controversial issue, do you really have the capacity for empathy and understanding of someone who differs?

Is it possible to write a blog post without a sense of certainty?

Are certainty and pride, or certainty and humility, always operating together? Is either pair ever operating together?

If I say I am submitting to the authority of a school of thought, or to the authority of a text, doesn’t my appropriation or my interpretation ultimately reflect back on me, the appropriator, the interpreter?

Does my decision to submit to an authority, of any kind, ultimately become self-referential? (I decided to submit, after all.)

Can I make my way in the world with contingent operating beliefs that are open to correction, clarification, modification, and addition?

If I make my way in the world with contingent operating beliefs, am I certain? Hopeful? Squishy? Humble? Indecisive? Uncommitted? Judicious? Poor in self-esteem?

Maybe just arrogant enough to get through the day?


A Question About Christian Theology

Why would God tell us to love our enemies if at least some of our enemies are beyond redemption¹ and God has already decided to destroy at least some of them², so by asking us to love them, God therefore is asking us to do something that would be loftier and nobler than what God is willing to do³

¹ This phrase assumes, for the sake of argument, some are predetermined to be beyond redemption (predetermined in this case because of points made in the following notes). Then again, maybe none of “our enemies,” the ones who ultimately really are enemies, are beyond redemption. Furthermore, it might not be clear right now who “our enemies” really are, which might be one reason to love those who appear to be enemies.

² By choosing to save some and to damn others. This point of view, while very present in Christian theology, is difficult because God cannot choose to save some without choosing to not-save others. When One is an all-powerful being*, not-doing must be just as volitional as doing. When all-powerful, choosing not to embrace one sentient being You have created must be just as volitional as choosing to embrace another sentient being You have created.

*or even all-powerful and outside of being

³ This phrase assumes, for the sake of argument, that God does not love those whom He created yet knows ultimately will be His enemies, and additionally, assumes that God has decided to create some to ultimately become His enemies. In other words, God creates some people He does not love or plans to stop loving. So, by calling humans to love their enemies as themselves, God has asked us to do something noble and good that He neither is willing to do nor desiring to do, which you should admit is kind of strange. Again, choosing not to embrace one sentient being You have created must be just as volitional as choosing to embrace another sentient being You have created. Oddly enough, two verses later, Jesus asks, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” So maybe by asking us to love our enemies, God is asking us to follow His characteristics or part of His nature.

The question seeks a coherent explanation of both the command to love our enemies and the interpretative and systematic traditions which affirm non-universalist positions on predestination and election in which some individuals are intentionally created by God for the purposes of committing sins and thereafter being held accountable for the sins without being given grace and therefore damned. Is there some achievable coherence between God’s decision to create some people to experience His wrath and God’s command to love our enemies?

Charles Williams on Dogma

Charles Williams, one of the Inklings, wrote in an essay passage about religious dramatists:

“They might, in fact, take up the business of defining, with intense excitement, the nature, habits and mode of operation of Almighty Love, infusing into their excitement a proper skepticism as to its existence at all. It is not dogma that creates narrowness; it is the inability to ask an infinite number of questions about dogma.” (emphasis added)

That excerpt was quoted by W.H. Auden in his review of Williams’s posthumous collection The Image of the City and Other Essays, selected by Anne Ridler. Auden’s review of The Image of the City appeared in the January 31, 1959, issue of National Review.


A single interpretive tool can save you from the work of understanding.

Easily repeatable narratives often become absolute truths.

When an easily repeatable narrative becomes a socially accepted truth, beware and be wary.

— Question it.

If someone claims to know your motives, be suspicious of his motives.

— What might he gain from your agreement?

Inconclusive Conclusions: Living with Montaigne’s Mentality

Appropriate a “worldview” to have an impostor’s point of view.

Or, develop a point of view that allows for the broadest range of possibilities.

I think I’m onto something with the second option.

Creative Nonfiction and Inconclusiveness

In MFA programs, some writers of creative nonfiction attempt to tell personal stories about traumas and crises.

Even the best memoirs can fail to answer fundamental questions about those personal stories.

But I wholeheartedly support those attempts.

“We read to know we’re not alone,” said playwright William Nicholson (who placed those words in C.S. Lewis’s mouth in Shadowlands, a fictitious account of the Narnia creator’s life).

Someone out there needs to hear he or she is not the only one who has been through a particular situation, or even just a particular feeling.

Written works, if not abandoned, have conclusions — but creative nonfiction is not always conclusive. That might seem self-contradictory for a genre of writing identified by its focus on the factual.

But it’s not self-contradictory.

A certain species of written work sets out to pursue the answer to questions, often unanswerable questions, like the question one of my friends pursued in her creative nonfiction thesis for her MFA: why did her grandfather jump to his death? Why did he commit suicide?

An ultimate, conclusive answer is not possible. But the meditation and speculation on the man’s heartbreaking act might just help bring about some emotional closure.

More importantly, the writer needs to wrestle with the emotion and experience that’s haunting her. For the writer, the wrestling and expressing have to happen. She pursues the question by telling her story.

And sometimes, people have to tell their stories again and again and again because they can’t quite make sense of what has happened.

Some of them are not writers, who at least have a creative outlet for their turmoil. That means non-writers tell their stories again and again and again to anyone who will listen. Their social circles tend to shrink. Their need for answers tends to expand.

Montaigne & Friends

A lack of conclusiveness in some nonfiction is hardly a postmodernist head trip or a morally relativistic innovation. The French writer Montaigne, who lived 1533-1592, was the granddaddy of the contemporary essay, and in his native tongue, essai essentially means to try.

Essays, in other words, were born as tries, as written attempts to grasp an issue, topic, emotion, or experience.

As I’ve been reading through Sarah Bakewell’s outstanding biography of Montaigne, and as I’ve been reading Montaigne’s essays in English translation, I’ve noticed an essayist’s mind roams and meanders and circumambulates.

An essay, in the literary tradition of Montaigne, is more like a tour through the layers and associations of the essayist’s mind than a definitive exposition of a given subject. (Alan Lightman deserves credit for this line of thinking; see his intro to Best American Essays 2000.)

The person’s interaction with the subject matter — that’s the point of the essay. Like I told a creative writing class recently, the relationship between the writer and “the subject” is the real subject of the essay.

And sometimes, people just don’t know what to think.

Essays are great places for saying, directly and indirectly, “Well, it seems like… but then, on the other hand…”

The essayist sets out to make a try, an attempt, at understanding something, and the reader ought to be as interested in the person writing about the subject matter as the subject matter itself. (Lightman again.)

Inconsistencies are welcome. Backtracking is cool. Indecisiveness is not par for the course; it is the course. Back-pedaling is to be expected.

That might seem like a horrible mode for the life of one’s mind, but for Montaigne, in a time of political ferment and religious wars among Jesus’s self-identified favorite children, withholding judgment (as Bakewell notes) and weighing all options and even leaving things unresolved seemed less like being squishy and more like being sane.

Kind of like in our time.

Neil Peart put it this way in a song that might have fit some of Montaigne’s moods: “Everyone knows everything / And no one’s ever wrong / Until later.”

Look—making oneself the sole authority is much, much different from insisting that others take responsibility for the violent results of their opinions and their allegiances. Accusations of individualistic rationalism and solipsism originate from the person covering-up a multitude of sins.

Arranging the Facts for Someone Else’s Conclusiveness

Sometimes the best thing a person can do, as Soren Kierkegaard once said (not in Concluding Unscientific Postscript, but if memory serves, in either Judge for Yourself or For Self-Examination), is to arrange the facts and leave the room so another person may arrive at his own conclusion. The arrangement might be motivated by an agenda. But to merely arrange the facts and leave—that might look inconclusive, and it might be inconclusive.

That probably doesn’t matter. In such a mode, the essayist’s righteousness is probably not the issue. The essayist seems to be operating in a self-deprecating mode: Sure, I’m a clown, but I’m dancing around this issue because it seems kind of important.

Of course, the inconclusive essayist—or dilettante blogger (guilty!)—risks as much by being inconclusive as he does by being confessional.

The better part of anyone’s social life depends upon agreement, unity, and mutuality. That seems both normal and tribal. But if the essayist wants to state an honest appreciation for a not-so-socially-acceptable perspective, the social circle might be less than accommodating to a departure from received doctrine.

So what? The essayist will just have to decide what’s more important—pursuing that uncertainty, that question, in a public fashion, or maintaining social respectability within the given framework.

I suspect no one would have appreciated such trade-offs quite like Montaigne.

Submit to this question!

How can you submit to an authority before you evaluate that authority?

If a religious authority claims to be flawed and broken and sinful, evaluate the extent and nature of his influence and control.

If an academic authority claims to have the best answer on an issue, ask him about the best points his opponents make.

South Park Eric Cartman