The Big Argument: A Contrarian’s Guide to Reading the Bible

Each Sunday we read from the Bible, affirming that it is the word of God for the people of God. We draw on it for strength and inspiration. We search it for truth. And we turn to it for answers to our most vexing questions.  Many of our most troubling and intractable debates turn on how to interpret the Bible. And yet, the Bible itself contains disagreements. For instance, Joshua and Job disagree with each other about what causes suffering. Ruth and Ezra disagree with each other about who can belong to the community of faith. Paul and Titus disagree with each other about whether women may serve as leaders in the church. Biblical people are contrarians!

My contention is that the communities that canonized the Bible intentionally included disagreements and that these disputes are not threats to the authority of the Bible, but essential to how it functions as an authority for us. “Israel,” after all, means “one who struggles with God.” To be Christian, then, means to join in that struggle, and being a member of a biblically serious community of faith is an invitation to join in The Big Argument. 

As we work our way through key biblical narratives, I plan to introduce a series of biblical arguments and advance the claim that there is a canonical principle for biblical authority, which is rooted in faithful argumentation. It is no accident that our canon includes disagreement. The Hebrew and early Christian communities that called these texts sacred intentionally canonized not only the substance of individual books, but also the principle of disagreement within boundaries. Those boundaries are like the foul lines in baseball. No one tells you where to hit the ball, only that it can cross certain lines. Once the lines are set, though, there are nearly infinite possibilities for where that ball might go. So too with faith: within certain boundaries, we are free to express our faith, to disagree, to argue!

So, all biblical texts affirm that God is one, that God wants justice, and that God works in history, but…

  •  The Deuteronomist and Job disagree about the relationship between sin and suffering.
  • Ezekiel and Joshua disagree about how Israel became a nation.
  •  Ruth and Ezra disagree about immigrants.
  •  Ecclesiastes and Proverbs disagree about the afterlife.
  •  Paul and the Pastoral Epistles disagree about the role of women.
  •  Luke and Matthew disagree about whether Jesus preached about material or spiritual poverty.
  •  Matthew and Paul disagree about the status of the law in the Christian community.
  •  Luke in Acts and John in Revelation disagree with Paul about whether Christians may eat meat sacrificed to idols.
  •   Matthew and John propose different responses to persecution.

It’s not that no one noticed these disagreements. These aren’t contradictions – the accidents of bad argumentation. These are intentional differences that the community of faith canonized. Our forebearers knew these disagreements were there and didn’t even try to cover them up; otherwise surely someone would have moved Genesis 1 and 2 farther apart!

It should not be surprising that a community named for wrestling with God also wrestles with itself. We shouldn’t be scandalized that there is disagreement in the Bible, we should consider it an invitation to join in the argument. This is what it means to be the people of God. It means that we embrace each other in love and dispute with each other in faith.  

So, we all affirm the lordship of Jesus Christ, but…

  •  I disagree with my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters about the nature of ordained office. I think they are wrong, but I love them and acknowledge them as fellow Christians.
  •  I disagree with my Southern Baptist sisters and brothers about the status of women. I think they are wrong, but I love them and acknowledge them as fellow Christians.
  •  I disagree with my Methodist brothers and sisters about freedom of the will. I think they are wrong, but I love them in their error; I embrace them in faithful disagreement.

We disagree about economics and sexual identity and polity and, well, you name it. We disagree. There are simply things that Christians in good conscience are not going to agree on. We are contrarian people, baptized into a community that has wrestled with God and with others for millennia. Welcome to the big argument.

Those of you who have been in the class for a while have explored some of these disagreements with me. What I want to do here is offer a more systematic introduction to the idea that the Bible is intentionally contrarian. This will serve as a refresher for some of you and as an introduction to others. Periodically I’ll post a “Big Argument” essay here.  Over time, I hope to build up a set of essays that newcomers can turn to if they want to make sense of what we’re doing in class.

In the meantime, if you weren’t able to be with us last fall, when we talked about how we got the Bible, please take a minute to review this post:



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