Beware the Pendulum

Posted by on Jan 23, 2012

A common mistake in popular reasoning about complex issues is to swing from one unhealthy or inaccurate extreme to an equally (or worse) unhealthy or inaccurate extreme in the opposite direction. We swing the pendulum from one bad place to another.

Young adults, new to the Christian faith, may be especially prone towards this tendency. But they’re not alone in their zeal to overcorrect.

Sometimes we pit evangelism against social justice as opposites and say we need to stop doing only verbal proclamation of the good news and start including good deeds. The implication or, in some cases, the explicit declaration is that all our previous evangelistic efforts were only through words with no tangible display of concern for hunger, clothing, medicine, etc. Even a cursory review of the history of missions will prove this dichotomy to be false.

Often, people are trying to correct a real imbalance. I recently heard someone wanting to show how we had under-appreciated the level of suffering Jesus experienced in the Garden of Gethsemane. He bemoaned that we skipped this crucial moment in redemptive history and only (there’s that telltale word again) cared about the cross and the resurrection. I appreciated his concern. But then he swung the pendulum too far. He argued that Jesus’ suffering in the garden was actually greater than what he experienced on the cross. Why the need to overcorrect? “Greater” than the cross? In the Garden, Jesus still conversed with the Father. On the cross, he was forsaken. We don’t need to overreact to make our point.

Even scholars are not exempt from the pendulum’s lure. In a recent Mars’ Hill Audio interview, Baylor professor David Lyle Jeffrey wanted to show a greater appreciation for poetic literature in the Bible than we ordinarily experience. But I think he went too far.

Here’s what he said:

“In the transmission of wisdom, it is just not the case that propositional discourse is the preferred vehicle. Jesus taught, as Matthew tells us in his gospel, everything that was important in parables. Much of the scriptures is couched in poetic language and figurative speech. In fact it can be argued that the most authoritative expressions that are attributed to the divine voice in the Old Testament (passages like the “comfort ye my people” section in Isaiah or the whirlwind speech to Job would be two examples that come to mind) or the fundamental magisterial teachings of Jesus is couched in forms of story.”

I understand Jefferey’s concern that many Christians undervalue the poetry in the Bible and seem to spend a disproportionate amount of time in the epistles. I share his concern and have written about it. But I think he overstates his case. He claims that Matthew tells us that Jesus taught us “everything that was important in parables.” What a context-violating way to read the Bible (especially by a literature professor). Matthew does indeed tell us that Jesus “did not say anything to them without using a parable” (Matt 13:34). But surely Matthew must have meant that in that instance, on that particular occasion he only used parables. Surely we can find many other places where Jesus spoke with propositional discourse, non-parabolic prophecy, and clear-as-can be-denunciation of sin without any poetry involved.

Jeffrey is surely right to observe that “much of the scriptures is couched in poetic language and figurative speech.” But to then swing the pendulum to claim “the most authoritative expressions that are attributed to the divine voice in the Old Testament” are spoken poetically is to take a hierarchical view of scripture that must be rejected by anyone who believes that “all scripture is inspired by God” and equally authoritative.

Correcting imbalances is vitally important. But we need to do so with the balanced, complex, multi-faceted, highly nuanced Bible in our hands and resist the temptation to use a pendulum for the task.

1 Comment

  1. Anne Wenger
    January 23, 2012

    You always write with thoughtful insight that is helpful to the rest of us.


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