Lean (Not?) on Your Own Understanding

John at Johnny’s Blog emailed me a thoughtful response to my recent post on balancing the authority of Scripture, tradition, and reason. I’ve quoted it below since comments are turned off:

What a fascinating article – it really made me think. I however keep on coming back to two particular verses which I find difficult to interpret in any other way than the straight forward meaning of the words.

The first is in Proverbs – Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. (3:5)

The second is in 2 Tim 3:16 – All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

In the first case, it seems to definitely place human reason on a lower wrung, so to speak. In regard to the second – and other verses that refer to the Scriptures as “The Word of God,” – it would seem to me that it places Scripture (in terms of our understanding God’s will) as the ultimate and final authority. Even given these verses, the believer is faced with a conundrum, in fact a few conundrums – firstly – what constitutes Scripture, and secondly, even if we can all agree on what constitutes Scripture – how are these scriptures to be interpreted.

I had a discussion the other day with a friend with regard to the concept and word trinity. He quite rightly stated that the word ‘trinity’ does not appear in any scripture and is – to that extent Tradition rather that the Word of God. He preferred to use the word Godhead. I stated that the word Godhead was not in scripture – He quickly responded with three verses where the word “Godhead” does appear in certain English versions. I pointed out to him that the word is a translation of a word that is various translated as divinity or “God-ness” – and as such the word Godhead was in itself an effort to describe something that does not really translate well into a single English word. Suffice to say that the concept of a Godhead, exists in scripture, as does, the concept of Trinity – in fact – it not unreasonable to say that in fact “Godhead” and Trinity are really two sides of the same coin.

As I wrote in my blog post “XII Angry Men” – it becomes a question as to what qualifies an individual to be the authoritative interpreter of Scripture – we can look at a very many issues in the history of Church – the whole predestination verses freewill, baptism issues, issues about the meaning of communion (This is my body, this is my blood), to say nothing about the whole creation versus evolution debate, and debate regarding very ethical issues that challenge people today.

The conclusion I came to is that each individual must a) be willing to hear/read ALL sides of the discussion (I think many Christians fall down on this aspect), and then b) reach a conclusion that he or she can be satisfied is correct or justified and act accordingly. c) realise that people with strong opinions that differ with the stance taken by the individual may give fierce, even vociferous opposition, and may even call into question the person’s relationship with God, and d) must realise that it is possible that something may occur in the future which will unequivocally show that the wrong decision was arrived at, and at that point be willing to say, I was wrong, please forgive me. (This is not a defeatist point of view – simply being realistic. )

What I do believe as a thorough going evangelical protestant, is that no one gets into heaven, or is denied salvation on the strength of his or her right theology, as it is the Work of Christ on the Cross, that accomplished our salvation, and we play no part in that. We, are like the audience who stand back in wonder as God did it all. If I have wrong theology – as no doubt, I have somewhere along the line, The Lord will graciously point it out and still I will be his child.

I recommend the “XII Angry Men” post for a more detailed look at how to read Scripture with humility and awareness of multiple perspectives. I’m going to push back a little, though, against John’s use of the Proverbs and Timothy verses, because I’m not totally convinced that they’re really meant to address the question at hand.

“All Scripture is God-breathed.” First of all, what is Scripture? Can it be self-authenticating? In other words, the author of 2 Timothy is making a claim for the authority of Scripture, but it’s circular reasoning for us to prefer this claim over others solely because it’s in Scripture: “The Bible is true because the Bible says so.” Furthermore, by “Scripture” the epistle-writer would have meant the Hebrew Bible. We can’t assume that he knew that he himself was writing Scripture!

“God-breathed” is also capable of a broader meaning than “inerrant”, as John would appear to agree. A friend of mine has suggested that divine inspiration means “every word in the Bible is how God intended it to be”. Thus, for instance, the six-day creation story can be divinely inspired without needing to be literally, scientifically true; God put that in there to teach us about something other than science.

Could the second half of that quote from 2 Timothy give us some better guidance about the uses and meanings of Scripture? That is to say, look at the real-world consequences of your preferred interpretation and see whether it has proven itself useful, or counterproductive, for “training in righteousness” and equipping the hearer for “every good work”.

I’m not sure why we’re so eager to decide spiritual matters based on a priori logic. When it does touch on questions of hermeneutics, the Bible seems to me to have a stronger pragmatic streak than many of its conservative fans.

“Lean not on your own understanding.” As I’ve argued ad infinitum in this space, all knowledge of God (or of anything else) is filtered through some individual’s consciousness. It’s psychologically incoherent to trust God without relying on our own understanding–either our direct experience of God, or our perception that others are trustworthy sources of spiritual knowledge. So I don’t think this verse is referring to that epistemological problem at all. Besides which, the verse says “trust in the Lord“, not “in Scripture” nor “in the religious authorities”.

The author of Proverbs, I believe, is simply reminding us that God’s intentions toward us are steadfast, and His knowledge of our situation surpasses our own. In times of crisis, we may not see the way forward because “our own understanding” is limited, and so our hope rests in the one who promises that “all things work together for good to those who love God” (Rom 8:28).

I have experienced the fulfillment of that promise in my own life, and I am working hard to keep that memory alive despite bitterness about how Christians have used Scripture to abuse vulnerable people and drive them to despair. Leaning only on my own understanding–my experience of hard-heartedness among those who are thoroughly schooled in Scripture–I might venture down the well-trodden path of rejecting Bible, creed, and church. God has been good enough to save me from self-hatred and emotional breakdown at several key points in my life, so that I might have the fidelity to say “No–I will not let Pharisees capture the name of ‘Christian’ and define you in ways that are less loving than what I have experienced.” It’s not theology that leads me forward; I know this in my heart and I struggle to find arguments that will give me permission to know what I know.

Am I trusting God, or leaning on my own understanding? In the healthy life of faith, I believe, these two are one and the same.