Asking the right questions when the Bible answers questions we aren’t asking (and ignores the ones we are)

One issue that often surfaces when interpreting passages of the Bible is the desire to expect answers to questions that the text isn’t asking. Without getting into the whole hornets nest surrounding the opening chapters of Genesis, I think it is fairly uncontroversial to note that some people wish for a level of modern scientific answer and accuracy that the text was never designed to answer. Whatever those opening chapters might have to say about the mechanisms God may or may not have used to create the world, it shouldn’t be controversial to say that the writer was not primarily writing to satisfy our modern scientific questions about natural mechanisms and ecosystems. That much should be obvious. The problem is not with the text. It is with our desire for the text to answer questions that it was never intending to answer.

It is a bit like my reading the telephone book and wondering why it isn’t answering my questions about the partition of Ireland. It should be obvious enough it won’t answer those questions because it never intended to answer such questions. Now imagine I start reading a lot into the origin of the names in the phone book to draw specific points about the partition of Ireland. I won’t necessarily draw wrong conclusions, it’s just there is going to be a very, very limited amount of information I am going to find about those questions.

When it comes to biblical interpretation, we have to understand a passage on its own terms and recognise it may not answer all the questions we have. That isn’t because the text is errant. Nor is it because our questions are invalid or wrong to ask. The point is that the text is answering the questions God intended it to answer, not necessarily all the ones we are determined to ask of it.

The other problem we can have when it comes to biblical interpretation is the exact opposite of this. Sometimes we are determined to ask questions of the text it had no intention of every answering. But other times, the text insists on answering a whole bunch of question we never had any intention of asking. If the problem of expecting answers to questions the text isn’t addressing is to read far too much into it, the risk when we hit passages that address questions we aren’t asking is that we take away far too little.

I have been reminded of this as I have started preaching through the book of Hebrews. The first week, in the first few verses of chapter 1, everything was fine. But the last two sermons have both focused on a question that hardly anyone I know is asking. The basic question from 1:5 to the end of chapter 2 is this: is Jesus greater than the angels? The problem is, I don’t know anybody actually asking that question. I don’t know many people in danger of angel worship. I don’t know many people tempted to sack off Jesus in favour of angels or, perhaps closer to what the text is getting at, demote Jesus to angelic level so as to happily head back to a monotheistic Judaism whose laws were believed to have been mediated by angels.

If I don’t know anybody asking those sorts of questions, it is quite tempting to just skip over them. Most people I know either think Jesus AND angels are a total irrelevance to them in equal measure (if even real) or they don’t think Jesus is inferior to angels. Even my Muslim friends think prophets (among whom they number Jesus) outrank angels in importance. So, whilst they don’t recognise Jesus as divine, they do reckon he is more significant than angelic beings.

Rather than skip over these verses because it appears (on face value) to be addressing questions with which we aren’t concerned, we have to think again about the passage on its own terms. We might never have asked the question being answered, but that doesn’t change the fact that it might be relevant to us if we bothered asking. I used to hate learning French at school. It was one of my most loathed subjects for which I saw no point or purpose. That was until I found myself in France unable to get anywhere without looking like a complete imbecile. Suddenly, questions I had determined were irrelevant to me became painfully relevant. Similarly, we should not dismiss the questions the biblical text is answering – even if they are not questions we are asking ourselves – because they may just be (or become) more relevant to us than we realise. God might be wanting to say something to us that we need to know, even if we don’t recognise its value right now.

By the same token, we might not be in danger of relegating Jesus to angel level. We might not be in much danger of worshipping angels themselves. But if Jesus is genuinely greater than the angels and has instituted a new covenant fulfilling the one they mediated to God’s people, the implications of that are huge and speak into all sorts of questions we might be asking. We may not realise the relevance of the angel question, but the answer to the stuff about angels might seriously impact on a load of questions we are actually asking and wish we understood. I am not going to list any of those things here, you will have to listen to my sermon from Sunday (which starts at 15:10 if you are bothered) if you want to see how I determined it was relevant to folks in Oldham (and, potentially, to you too).

Nevertheless, my point here is a simple one. It is not that questions are wrong or bad. Nor that we shouldn’t ask searching questions of the biblical text. My point is that we have to make sure the questions we are asking of the text are the ones it has any interest in answering. Just as it is no good pressing the figurative and metaphorical language of a poem for scientific and historical accuracy, so it is no good asking questions of a text that it was never hoping to answer (a point you could learn for yourself, over and over again, by writing a blog and experiencing loads of people insisting you haven’t answered the specific questions you weren’t trying to answer!)

We have to attempt to understand authorial intent – what the writer was actually wanting to convey – before we can start asking relevant questions of the text. We similarly have to understand authorial intent and understand the specific questions being answered to decide whether, if we haven’t done so yet, they might be questions we do want to know the answer to. On top of that, we need to know what questions are actually being answered in order to understand the implications of those questions. It is only when we know the implications of the things being answered that we can we know whether those things might be relevant for the questions we are asking.

It is like someone cacking onto me about some tedious scientific principle I could not care less about. Which is all well and good, but you can bet your bottom dollar that I care about the implications and applications of a great many scientific principles. Similarly, someone banging on about engineering does nothing for me whatsoever. I could not care less how things work in all honesty, I just care that they work. But you can guarantee I care deeply about the implications and applications of those things. I am pretty mithered about my car not working or my phone breaking. By the same token, we might not care all that much about certain questions the biblical writers are posing of themselves, but you can fairly well guarantee that we will care – somewhere, somehow – about their implications and application.

I get bored reading scientific text because it isn’t interested in answering the things I am interested in. But that doesn’t change the fact that what they have to say is quite important for understanding the world around us (and I am interested in that). It is no good me getting angry that a Haynes Manual isn’t telling me anything about the current state of politics. It just isn’t designed to do that. At the same time, I can’t then dismiss the Haynes Manual as useless just because it isn’t answering a question I wanted to answer. It is useful in telling me how to fix my car and may be the answer to a question I need to know, even if I am not particularly interested in asking the question right now. It is only once I know what it is for that I might ask the right questions about it. It is only when I understand the implications of what it is saying that I might understand its relevance to me.

In the same way, unless we understand the questions the Bible is actually asking, we will demand things of it that it wasn’t designed to answer. By the same token, if we ignore it because it doesn’t seem to be answering anything I’m interested in right now, I may be overlooking some really significant stuff I need to know that may yet become especially pertinent. Even if it doesn’t feel directly relevant to me – the specific theological point at issue might seem particularly arcane – we may just find the implications of it answer so many other questions we are asking and addresses so many other things that do matter deeply to us. All of which is to say, it pays to understand what the Bible is trying to say and to ask questions of it that it is intending to answer.