The Rub

St. John the Baptist Preaching (ca. 1650), Mattia Preti (1613-1699), Oil on canvas, 68 x 47 3/4 in., Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

When I read scripture I try to look for the “rub”—things I find confusing, difficult, or surprising. It’s a way of allowing the familiar to become fresh. Using this approach I often see something I hadn’t seen before. In Matt. 3:1-12, the gospel reading for Sunday, John the Baptist preaches a fiery sermon on the need for repentance in light of coming judgment. For me the rub is not only John’s televangelist tactics but also his message of God’s wrath: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” His imagery is apocalyptic: wood is thrown into the flames; chaff is burned in “unquenchable fire.” The reference to hell is clear. John puts the fear of God into his hearers, literally. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant believed an act could not be morally praiseworthy if it was motivated by self-interest (like avoiding eternal damnation), but that’s exactly what John appeals to. It’s got me thinking about what motivates people to come to faith.

In his Confessions, St. Augustine says to God, “You made us for yourself and our heart is restless, until it rests in you.” St. Paul said it’s the goodness of God that leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4). What is it that draws people to God anyway? Is it fear of punishment (John the Baptist), a sense of restlessness (St. Augustine), or God’s goodness (St. Paul)?

Maybe there’s no one right answer. Perhaps God is a pragmatist who uses whatever works to draw us to himself.  Maybe it takes a combination of carrots and sticks for most people. Unlike Kant, I’m not sure we can act with purely unselfish motives, even (or especially?) when it comes to matters of ultimate importance like faith. What do you think? And wherein lies the rub for you?



Filed under devotionals

8 responses to “The Rub

  1. Glenn Bratcher

    Thanks Travis,
    I think I agree with St. Paul…”God’s goodness”…draws us to Him. Because…”Know that the Lord is God. It is he who made us, and we are his.” (Psalm 100:3) As my Creator, God gave me all that I am…and it makes me want to share with others, what He has given me. My “rub” is why don’t others interpret the Bible, like I do? Does that make sense?

  2. Glenn, I too wonder sometimes why everyone doesn’t interpret the Bible like I do. Even when I think my explanation is perfectly logical and satisfying, not everyone agrees. The upside is that we often learn new perspectives, which would never have occurred to us. Interpretation is as much an art as it is a science. The Bible is rich enough in meaning that it keeps the most learned scholars busy and yet simple enough that even a child can understand it.

    I know my some of my friends bristle when I say it, but interpretation changes with the times, and that’s not a bad thing. Each generation brings new questions and concerns to the scriptures for answers. Old prejudices that caused certain readings are gone with new ones in their place. So not only can we learn from other individuals but also other generations and cultures both past and future.

  3. Glenn Bratcher

    Travis, I agree with most of your statements. So much of life is a “mystery”…and I can understand that we don’t/can’t know everything about this very complex world. I wasn’t clear in stating my question…another way is:
    If we are to rely on the Holy Spirit to interpret the Scriptures for us, then why don’t we arrive at the same understanding? I think it must be because each of us have different experiences and are at different levels of maturity.
    However, are you saying that something (e.g. a “sin”) could have been wrong before and during the time of Christ’s life, but “okay” now…because we have a new interpretation of it…by another generation? As I understand it, the Bible has not changed…and is clear on some issues, but not all. By “certain readings are gone with new ones in their place”…you are not including the Bible in this group of “readings”… are you?
    Thanks, I do appreciate your wise counsel.

  4. Great questions, Glenn! Unfortunately I cannot answer them briefly.

    You asked, “If we are to rely on the Holy Spirit to interpret the Scriptures for us, then why don’t we arrive at the same understanding?”

    There are three possibilities for why we arrive at different understandings of the Bible: (1) biblical texts have multiple meanings, (2) interpreters have multiple viewpoints, or (3) both.

    In premodern times, theologians believed that the Bible had multiple meanings, not just a single meaning for each text. They did not believe that scripture could contradict itself but rather that there were layers or different types of meaning within each text (e.g., literal, allegorical, tropological, analogical). The Holy Spirit was necessary for the interpreter to find all but the literal sense of the text.

    In modern times, a scientific approach to scripture replaced the earlier, more symbolic and mystical one. In the modern approach, each text could have one and only one meaning. It became the interpreter’s job to study history and languages to develop tools necessary for discerning the Bible’s meaning. It’s a lot less subjective than the earlier approach, but it also does not require the Holy Spirit. In fact, a well-educated biblical scholar who is an atheist could do a better job interpreting scripture than a pious pastor or layman without the scholar’s academic background.

    In recent, postmodern times, truth has become relative, so there are as many interpretations as there are interpreters and there can be no fixed, correct understanding of any passage. Since all truth is relative, the enterprise becomes the search for meaning instead of truth. The Holy Spirit is allowed back into the interpretive process but truth with a capital T is not.

    In each of these three approaches the interpreter’s viewpoint can affect the meaning of the text. In the premodern and modern approaches, new meanings (which were there in the text all along) can be discovered or rediscovered. Martin Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone might be one example of this. In the postmodern approach, new meanings are not merely discovered; they are created.

    Now, about your other question, could something that was a sin in biblical times be okay now?

    On the one hand, there are things that were acceptable or encouraged in the Bible that are usually considered sins today (e.g., slavery). On the other hand, there are things the Bible forbids that are usually not considered sins today (e.g., usury). In a pre-capitalist society charging interest took advantage of the borrower. In a capitalist society with a market economy not charging interest would take advantage of the seller and stifle investment, so both Jews and Christians have permitted moderate interest to protect sellers and encourage investment. In this case the Bible has not changed but society has.

  5. Glenn Bratcher

    Travis, believe it or not…I think I know/understand what you are telling me. And, it makes sense…thank you so VERY much! I am satisfied!

    Until the next time.

    • Kristi May

      I have to admit, I’m struggling with this one. Not the original post, but the discussion that follows. Still, I appreciate the discussion and I’ll have to stew over it. (Or maybe that’s part of what led me to the Catholic church!)

  6. James

    Self-interest is about the only benchmark we have for something’s worth. Even if we’re helping others, our compassion must be informed by empathy.

  7. James,

    Thank you for your comment. Your thoughts are welcome here. I agree with your second statement above, but not the first. It’s a little too Ayn Rand for me.

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