The Power of Positive LinkingNovember 17, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
Jayman brings up another interesting topic in relation to our on-going discussion of Hell and Universal Restorationism.
Nearly all Christians point to the Bible to support their views on the afterlife. Justice and compassion are in the Bible so you can’t call them extra-biblical factors. You can’t go to a site like http://www.tentmaker.org and say the Bible is not playing the primary role in the arguments of Christian universalists.
The Bible is indeed playing a role, or rather, is being used as a tool, by both sides in this debate. And that brings up the matter of how the Scriptures can be used to lay claim to prophetic authority for one’s opinions, without incurring a prophetic responsibility to be right all the time.
We’ve all heard the stories about so-called prophets and psychics who claimed to have some special gift, only to be publicly embarrassed when their predictions and declarations turned out to be false. There’s a great risk in claiming prophetic authority, to the point that certain Old Testament passages even impose a death penalty on those who claim to be prophets, and aren’t.
One of the consequences of the Babylonian Captivity, however, was that the Pharisees stumbled onto a really clever scheme. Denied access to their Temple, they transferred their devotion to their Holy Books instead, and thereby hit upon an ingenious system whereby you invest the full power of prophetic authority in the books, and then draw on that authority as needed.
The power of this system cannot be overestimated, and is a big part of the reason for the success of the Judeo-Christian tradition. By transferring the prophetic authority away from themselves and into their Scriptures, the Pharisees managed to create a source of ecclesiastical authority that had the full force of God’s divine decrees, without incurring any personal liabilities—if anybody ever manages to prove you wrong, you just admit that you’re only human and you must have misunderstood what the Bible was saying. The Bible’s authority remains unscathed, and since you’re only claiming to derive your authority from what the Bible says, your authority remains untouched as well. You can have your cake and eat it too!
The engine that drives this scheme is the natural tendency people have to judge things by their associations. We saw this in a negative sense during the recent presidential campaign: the McCain campaign tried to imply that Obama was a radical because he had an association of some sort with William Ayres. And what works with guilt by association works with esteem by association as well, which is why advertisers like celebrity endorsements. (“Angela Lansberry talks about pain relievers…”? What the heck does she know about pharmacology??)
“Esteem by association” is the mechanism a lot of people use to inject their own, extrabiblical opinions into the Bible, and thereby to obtain Biblical authority for their opinions. If you make a claim, and then associate that claim with a particular verse of the Bible, it’s easier for people to associate your claim with what the Bible says, and to therefore categorize your claims as being Biblical, i.e. having the authority of the Bible behind it.
For example, Matthew 16:18 is cited by Roman Catholics as Scriptural authority for the papacy. The verse says absolutely nothing about establishing a permanent office of supreme authority within the Church hierarchy, it just says, “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” But because the Church associates Peter with being the first Pope, and because they associate the establishment of the papacy with the establishment of the Church, Catholics believe that the papacy is biblical. Not because the Bible says the Pope is the earthly head of the Church, but because they associate the papacy with Matt. 16:18.
This approach works just as well for Protestants as it does for Catholics, and is used for everything from abortion to creationism to gay rights to eschatology. The natural side-effect of this approach is that everybody wants the power of the Bible on their side, so everyone tries to create this linkage between what they say and what the Bible says. As Jayman points out, “Nearly all Christians point to the Bible to support their views on the afterlife.” And so they do, even though these views can contradict one another in some fairly fundamental and significant ways. The Bible doesn’t actually say who’s right and who’s wrong, but as long as you can find some passage or phrase or even a single word that sounds at least harmonious with the point you want to make, you can create the linkage between your concept and the Bible.
So yes, I can indeed say that it is extrabiblical to apply the concepts of justice and compassion to the Bible in a way that goes beyond what is explicitly written about them in the Bible. Anybody can point to the Bible and claim that in such and such a passage the writer was thinking about what they claim. In many places, the writer’s actual intent is ambiguous, and leaves a lot of room for interpretation. But that’s something different from having one particular interpretation singled out, by the Biblical text, as being the correct interpretation.
In sum, then, an interpretation that points to the Bible ( I => B ) is not the same as the Bible pointing to an interpretation ( I <= B ). The Bible says only what is actually written in the Bible; commentators come along after the fact and supply interpretations that are extrabiblical, i.e. they’re not written in the Bible, they’re opinions about the Bible. All interpretations are extrabiblical because if they were written in the Bible, we’d call them “quotes.”
People like to call their interpretations “biblical” because they want to claim the Bible’s authority as their own (without incurring any personal prophetic responsibilities), but there is no valid, reliable, and objective standard for determining whose interpretations are correct. The things that the Bible talks about that require interpretation (like Hell, for instance) are things for which we have no real-world point of reference to compare to, in order to determine whose views are closest to reality. People are simply voicing their own personal, uninspired opinions, and then doing their best to borrow the Bible’s authority to dress them up in.