“When two denominations, or theologians who love God deeply and both have a high view of scripture, disagree on a doctrinal issue, the problem may be ant language.”
When I gave this answer, I was responding to a series of questions fired at me by a small group of college and post-college students I was leading through Europe, teaching the history of Christianity and biblical worldviews. We were sitting in a sidewalk café in Geneva, Switzerland, discussing Calvinism, in John Calvin’s town.
Here’s what they wanted to know; “Why is it that people who claim to love God and read the same Bible as the next person, can come to polar opposite conclusions on so many issues? That drives us younger Christians nuts. Why give your life and energy to fighting each other over theological issues instead of just loving people and introducing people to Jesus? That’s one reason kids our age are simply walking away from the church.”
If you’re interested in dialoguing with your children or grandchildren about these questions yourself, you might find the next few weeks’ blogs helpful.
I told them of a conversation I once had with a woman named Becky. Over a cup of coffee, she told me her own faith journey story.
“Neither my husband, or I were Christians, but a friend had been trying to tell me about Jesus. One day I was sunning myself in my backyard and found myself watching a colony of ants. To pass the time, I asked myself, “I wonder if these ants have any idea that there is a whole world of people, buildings, airplanes, and other activity all around them.”
Simply for her own amusement, she kept asking questions. “Can they actually see me? Even now, are they warning their friends to watch out for “the human”? Do they even have a word for human? Or is their eyesight so limited that they only sense something is out there because my shadow passes over them?”
Mentally, Becky began exploring ways she could somehow communicate this information about her world, to the ant world. She came to the conclusion that there was only one way it could be done – she’d have to become an ant and speak to them in “ant language”. Almost immediately, she burst into tears, as it dawned on her for the first time who Jesus was and why he had to become a human.
This isn’t an unusual story. I’ve heard similar stories of people coming to faith imagining how they might communicate with animals and making the link to Jesus. But, even if Becky could have become an ant and had learned ant language, I think she’d still have had a problem.
My guess is that ants have a limited vocabulary, a limited capacity to understand and limited vision. They’ve never actually seen the things Becky would be trying to describe to them. So, how would she explain, for example what a building was in terms they might understand? “Well, a building is like one of your ant mounds, where humans live and work, but taller and more complicated with light even in the interior.” That’s probably about as good as she could do given their limited vision, language and mental capacity – their ant worldview. But, the truth is these ants still wouldn’t really understand what a building is, even though they might now think they did.
From a human perspective, it would be like trying to describe Switzerland to a blind man. You could use all the correct words, take them for a walk up a mountain to feel the grade change, put their hand in snow and describe the beauty of snowcapped mountains to them. Even if they could regurgitate back to you correctly everything you’ve told them, nobody would think a blind person really understood what Switzerland looks like!
I think God has a similar “problem”.
How does the Son of God, the creator of the universe explain to humans, things they’ve never seen or experienced – things for which there may be no human words? For Jesus, trying to describe the current and future kingdom of God must have been like trying to describe Switzerland to a blind man. In fact, he repeatedly used phrases like, “the kingdom of God is like”… and, “the kingdom of heaven can be compared to…” I believe that’s why Jesus, attempting to express some of the deeper mysteries of God used so many parables, expressing them in our “ant language”.
Paul admitted as much when he said, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (I Corinthians 13:11-12) Someday, when we see Jesus face-to-face we will know fully – but not in this life.
It could also be that God simply has chosen not to explain some aspects about himself or the “back story”, the rationale for why he does what he does because it isn’t necessary for us to know. It’s only our need to figure God out that compels us to endlessly question “why?” Theology is man’s best attempt to explain biblical truth – useful but probably not always entirely accurate. Personally, I’ve found God difficult to organize.
The Holy Spirit teaches us.
Having said that, I want to make it clear that because we are created in the image of God, by the power of the Holy Spirit believers have all the mental and spiritual capacity to understand all they need to live lives that please God and live in harmony with one another. “What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.” I Corinthians 2:12-13
Because of the Holy Spirit we can understand mysteries others cannot – but we don’t know everything that God knows. And, that’s ok. Jesus said all he requires of us is to have the faith of children and trust and obey that which we can’t fully understand.
So, occasionally when I’m teaching what I believe the Bible is saying on a subject such as, why God allows suffering and someone else who has also seriously studied scripture, comes up with a completely different explanation and we both can’t possibly be right – I’ll often say, “Maybe this is an ant language problem.” Meaning, perhaps one or both of us lack a complete understanding on this issue. We can agree to disagree and still embrace each other as brothers in Christ. N.T. Wright nails the issue on the head in this quote;
“Most heirs of the Reformation, including evangelicals, take it for granted that we are to give scripture the primary place and that everything else has to be lined up in relation to scripture. But, I find two things which cause me some concern. First, we imagine that we are “reading the text straight,” and that if somebody disagrees with us it must be because they, unlike ourselves, are secretly using “presuppositions”. This is simply naïve, and actually astonishingly arrogant and dangerous.
It fuels the second point, which is that evangelicals often use the phrase “authority of Scripture” when they mean the authority of evangelical, or Protestant theology, since the assumption is made that we (evangelicals or Protestants) are the ones who know and believe what the Bible is saying. If we are not careful, the phrase “authority of scripture” can, by such routes, come to mean simply, “the authority of the evangelical tradition, as opposed to Catholic or rationalist ones.”1
The Bible is true – but there’s not always unity on its interpretation.
I believe the Bible is absolutely true – every word of it! But, particularly with young people, in disputable matters, rather than declaring dogmatically, “the Bible says…”, I’ll often put it in these terms, “respected, godly theologians have put forward “X” and “Y” explanations for this teaching in scripture. I favor “X” for these reasons…” This approach allows me to teach what I believe the Bible says, but exposes them to other interpretations put forth by serious biblical scholars. It changes the tone of the discussion from arrogance to openness without sacrificing historic orthodoxy.
I know exactly what you’re thinking right now.
If you’re under 40, you’re delighted. “Yes!” you say, “Finally, someone will admit they don’t have all the answers.” You’re content with leaving some of the mysteries to God and the debates over election and freewill, and infant, or believer’s baptism to others. You don’t need to know “why?” to everything. You’re comfortable with ambiguity in these areas. Even if you have an opinion, you’d never break fellowship with another person who you believe is a fellow follower of Jesus over honest differences on debatable issues.
However, if you’re from another generation raised on the red meat of doctrine all you can see before you is the slippery slope of liberalism and you’re wondering why you bothered to read this blog. You’re thinking to yourself, “A simple reading of the Bible tells me all I need to know about…”, then just name about any doctrine you can think of.
Here’s an example; I believe in the Trinity, one of the most foundational doctrines of Christianity. But ask 1,000 theologians to explain the Trinity and you’ll get 1,000 slightly different answers- ant language. That doesn’t mean every answer is equally accurate, or inaccurate. Some are surely closer to the truth but all probably fall short of being completely true.
Don’t worry, next week I think you’ll feel better about my orthodoxy, if you’re feeling queasy. And, I’ll give you an exercise you can do with your teenage children and young adults to help them identify the core doctrines that Christians have believed for 2,000 years and must believe 2,000 years from now if they hope to call themselves Christians. My goal is to help you, help them to get steel in their spine for the doctrines that truly define Christianity – the framework for an authentic biblical worldview.
My Question: Are there ant language issues, things in scripture that you once believed for which you now have a different understanding?
1 Edited from, How Can the Bible be Authoritative, N.T. Wright. Vox Evangelica, 1991, 21.