I’m not much of an exegete, which is probably why Reformed thinking was so attractive to me when I first discovered it—all those biblical interconnections, laid out neatly, explained in detail, tied up with neat ribbons. I read a lot of Reformed writings, and it helped me internalize both the structure and content of the Bible.
I still like a lot about Reformed thinking, but I’m no longer so enamored with the Reformed tendency to look for a pat answer to difficult questions. These days I’m more interested in a sort of Bible reading that I have no name for, but is often found in the writings of liberal or neo-orthodox Christians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jacques Ellul and Wendell Berry, folks who take a superficially troubling passage and rather than explaining difficult implications away will try to wrestle them to the ground, even at the risk of unresolved conflicts in their understanding of the Bible.
One simple example that comes to mind is Mark 10:24, where “the disciples were astonished at his words. But Jesus answereth again, and saith unto them, Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God!” The pat answer, I suppose, is that the danger is not in riches but in trustring riches—as long as you don’t trust in them, go ahead and pile them up. And plenty of writers have made a biblical case that wealth is a blessing, not a curse. But my naive initial reaction to that verse is to think, why would anyone ever want to be rich at all, if riches can put you at risk of entering into the kingdom of God?
So I am drawn to troubling passages, and am grateful when someone points out reasons to be troubled by passages I previously glossed over. Last week I was reading some Ellul, and ended up seeing this passage with new eyes:
In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes. (Judges 17:6, 21:25)
If I thought about that passage at all, I thought of it as a negative assessment of the situation in Israel at the time: these wayward folks needed to be brought under the authority of a king.
But that can’t be right, can it? When the people eventually demanded of Samuel that they have a king, Samuel explained to them exactly what horrors a king would visit upon them. And when he does finally crown Saul, he tells the people “Ye have this day rejected your God.” (1 Samuel 10:19) So, wasn’t it a good (or at least a better) thing that in the days of Judges there was no king in Israel?
Furthermore, is it necessarily a bad thing that “every man did that which was right in his own eyes”? Wouldn’t we expect a righteous man to do that which is right in his own eyes, eyes that have been trained in godliness and so need no worldly authority to guide his actions? In Romans 13:3, Paul tells us “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same.” I don’t read this as a command to do whatever the rulers tell us, but simply to do what is right in our own (godly) eyes, trusting that the rulers will not terrorize us for them.