The incomplete jigsaw puzzle of Biblical interpretation (Christian Smith)

The 2nd century Gnostic heretics were very good at constructing airtight, scripture-based arguments for their beliefs. In response to this, church father Ireneaus wrote that the verses in the Bible are like a mosaic of painted tiles that can be arranged in any order. He said that the same set of tiles that ordered correctly create the mosaic of a beautiful lamb had been reordered by the Gnostics to make a fox. This is a very important point about the problem of proof-texting Bible verses out of context and the naivete of assuming that we can or should give perfectly equally weight to each verse. In Christian Smith’s book The Bible Made Impossible, he takes this metaphor a step further.

The Bible functions something like… a particular, enormous jigsaw puzzle with a huge number of pieces… This is a very unusual puzzle… Different pieces can be fit together in different ways to form distinctly different pictures. Nearly all of them are portraits of people. One is of a scowling old man, another of a sweet young girl, yet another a pregnant woman, and still a fourth is a tired-looking police officer…

The puzzlers discover that many of the pieces that make one portrait can be rearranged differently, with some pieces removed and others added, to make other portraits. Not only that, but in any given picture, enough of the pieces fit together to fill in most of the image, but not all of it. Every picture, no matter how well it is put together, still has some missing puzzle pieces. [45-46]

I think this is a very helpful metaphor for describing the inherent nature of interpreting any text. It’s important to name what he’s saying and what he isn’t saying. It isn’t that the Bible is somehow “incomplete.” It’s simply that the Bible is irreducibly multivocal: “it can and does speak to different listeners in different voices that appear to say different things” (47). We should not have the goal of coming to agreement on what each and every part of the Bible says because it’s impossible to do so. It’s impossible for us to read the Bible without giving one part of it more weight than other parts.

Because of who we are and how God has shaped us, one verse is going to speak to us more than another. The verse that resonates with us will not only be more important than the one that doesn’t, but we will, without realizing, interpret the verse that doesn’t resonate through the one that does. Well, because verse A says X, then verse B can’t mean Y even though Y is what it says at face value.

Here’s an example. If we cannot be justified before God by anything other than faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:23-24), then we cannot take at face value what Peter says to Cornelius in Acts 10:34-35: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality,but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” I had to coach a scandalized John Piper disciple through preaching this passage once.

If your whole world comes crashing down without the Four Spiritual Laws which are based upon elevating Romans 3:23-24 over every other Biblical text, then you have to say either Peter didn’t really mean what he appears to say or maybe he didn’t fully understand the gospel at that point, but Cornelius accepted Christ anyway, so it was all good. It’s much harder to admit that parts of the Bible defy our attempts to systematize it exhaustively, and perhaps God did this to deter hubristic theologians from trying to do so.

For much of American evangelical Christianity, following the lead of the Protestant Reformers, all of scripture is interpreted on the basis of the book of Romans which is the canon within the canon and Romans 3:23-24 which is the uber-canon of the canon. But as many evangelicals in recent years have protested, this leaves us with an impoverished view of the gospels and the kingdom of God which they emphasize a lot more than the gospel of justification by faith, which by itself turns into an anthropocentric, consumeristic “personal afterlife insurance” gospel.

So one portrait of the Bible is the Romans Road portrait that creates the individualist consumerist account of salvation that works so effectively in our capitalist society. Another portrait could be based on giving more weight to the direct quotes from Jesus, the “red letters.” Other portraits might emphasize the Hebrews epistle or the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament. But none of these portraits representing different interpretative possibilities can ever do absolute justice to the text.

We will always be missing puzzle pieces, not because anything is missing from the Bible, but because any attempt to say it’s “all about” love or holiness or even holy love is always going to be met with a few verses that completely contradict whatever we’re saying the whole thing is about and we can either ignore those verses or admit that our solution to the jigsaw puzzle is imperfect. By all means, we should keep on trying to solve the jigsaw puzzle. Honestly, I think it should be a comfort to us that we will never have a perfect fit. It’s a game that thankfully lasts forever. Because what would we do after we finished if we ever did?


12 thoughts on “The incomplete jigsaw puzzle of Biblical interpretation (Christian Smith)

  1. Good post Morgan. You’ve articulated what I’ve surmised over the last decade or so in my journey out of fundamentalism. The analogy I was thinking of is something along these lines: When all of the blocks of Scripture must be cut to the same size and shape, the beautiful elliptical archways and soaring spires are not possible, we wind up with a Lego monstrosity.

  2. Pingback: The Weekly Hit List: May 3, 2013

  3. Agreed, and agreed to continue to re-puzzle.

    Remember also, that as we continue to study scripture humanity continues to evolve, and human culture continues to evolve, ever more rapidly now. In fact, we live at the dawn of a new evolutionary phase, where for the first time in the life of our species people of the truth all around the globe are subscribers to a common cosmology. Our 7 billion sisters and brothers on this little rock have more in common than ever. The concept of a brotherhood of all humanity is actually considerable.

    Indeed, we are a mite different from first-century Jews. I find it absolutely untenable to say that scripture does not evolve with us. It does, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, as the meanings of words themselves change. If anything, the number of pieces in the puzzle has multiplied. We now, for example, have sexual orientation pieces to consider. First century Jews didn’t have a word for homosexual or lesbian.

    By the way, here’s a question along these lines for those who claim that scripture is immutable. What scriptural justification is there for condemning lesbians? You know, there are more of them than there are gays! I am familiar with the verses used to vilify gay men, but please enlighten me about how, to paraphrase, ‘women should not lie with women as with a man in the bed of a man.’

    T’aint there.

    The bible is so burdened, through our evolution, with our anti-woman thinking that the writers of Leviticus could likely never even have considered female sexuality as worth talking about. They didn’t care if women had orgasms or not. Why should they care about the “feelings” of their property? Imagine a logic that denies half of your species one of God’s greatest blessings for 99% of its history.

    Pretend, if you want, that this is not the case. Counter punch with other scriptural passages that extoll the value of women. You howl at the moon.

    Celebacy, indeed! Paul was wrong about that, you see. Paul is not divine.

    As if we actually ever practiced what we preached when it comes to sexuality. I have too much experience with priests, after graduating from my Catholic grammar school, high school and university, to be told that the denial of human sexuality is a holy calling. When I went to become a priest, the priest I spoke to put his hand on my crotch. Tell yourself that is not the norm if you want. Give me a scriptural justification that applies. We victims of your false-righteousness are too numerous to be silenced any more.

    Oh, I am getting too personal here.

    But that’s God’s way of handling truth. God allows us to deny it only so long. Then it comes out. Then we publish another newer New International Version. Oddly enough, as long as it satisfies your personal bent, you make it the new correct.

    But you can’t keep humanity from freeing itself from hate, or from worshiping God any more. God doesn’t rely on what we write and print and call our bible!
    Latin is not God’s native tongue. God doesn’t confine himself to St. Peter’s Palace or wear Prada slippers. He doesn’t belong to you. (or me)

    God loves us all, and God doesn’t rely on the bible. The bible relies on God.

    As we all know, Jesus called for new interpretations of scripture. But let’s not use Jesus as an example. We are supposed to worship Jesus, not follow Jesus, right?
    Sometimes we are so prostrated in worship that we can’t see where Jesus went, I think.

    • Hmm… I’m not going to say Paul was wrong, but I do think he was misunderstood. Sex is a very potent force that has a huge potential for becoming idolatrous but also a huge potential for being a vehicle of worshiping God. Every moral issue has to do with whether I am engaging in idolatry (loving things as consumable goods whose purpose is to satiate me) or worship (loving things as works of art which signifies loving their creator’s beauty).

      • Sex is awesome. God gave us the ability to participate with Him in the divine act of creating a soul! It is a great sacrifice that celibates of all faiths make.

  4. Are you familiar with the song “Already There” by Casting Crowns? It kind of makes the same point, about the singer can’t wait to see how all the pieces fit in God’s plan.

    Love reading your blog.

  5. This calls to mind, for me, the words of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg: “A book is a mirror: if an ape looks into it an apostle is hardly likely to look out.” Now he meant it as a way of saying that fools were incapable of comprehending wisdom, which I reject, but taken out of context I like the idea of the Bible as a mirror wherein our scriptural interpretation reflects our own inner state that we bring to it more than any objective meaning at times.

    I prefer, then, Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s similar take: “A book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us.”

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