Truth and the Bible

by Glenn on June 11, 2021

There’s an old joke about the three baseball umpires as described by Walter Truett Anderson. [1] Perhaps I am even beginning to understand the metaphor/allegory in a way I can explain it. Over a beer after a game,

“One [umpire] says, ‘There’s balls and there’s strikes and I call ‘em the way they are.’ Another responds, ‘There’s balls and there’s strikes and I call ‘em the way I see ‘em.’  The third says, ‘There’s balls and there’s strikes and they ain’t nothin’ until I call ‘em.’”

And there we have three approaches to truth we find today. A simplistic approach to this story sums it up this way: Umpire One says there is objective truth; Umpire Two says truth is relative; and Umpire Three says truth is whatever anyone says is true.

But it’s more complicated than that.

It’s as easy to reject the third umpire’s view as it is frustrating to experience this view of truth in daily life. There must be something there even if we might disagree on how to describe it. So we neither throw our hands up in despair (“What do we know?”) or say nothing can actually be known because everything is a power struggle to decide what the truth is.

I used to think the first umpire was the exemplar for what it means to be a Christian living in the truth. Much of the talk I’ve heard over the years on the subject of Christian apologetics seems to hearken to this idea of an exclusive truth that we can discover, understand completely, and then hold proudly and proclaim loudly.

The problem, of course, is that as soon as we announce we have the exclusive truth we find ourselves with the exhausting task of trying to make sense of the contradictions we have with the guy next door who says something completely different but has a similar claim to know the truth in an exclusive way.

This view of truth means you must assume you are right and the rest of the world is wrong or ignore these contradictions. Further, it means you can’t do the important work of taking a look at your own internal contradictions or the way life often goes against what “we know.” As a Christian it means you can’t let the Bible be the story it is. You need to impose order on it and explain why, for example, it has no contradictions. [2]

So both the first and third umpires live in an untenable place. The first umpire is naive (though he certainly wouldn’t consider himself that), thinking he knows perfectly. Perhaps he knows his Bible well but hasn’t taken time to consider how the Bible relates to, say, natural history. Meanwhile the third umpire says nothing can be known. That’s a tough way to live life.

Initially, the second umpire appears weak. He makes truth sound subjective. He looks squishy. But this is reality. The fundamental misunderstanding I’ve lived with for some years [3] is to mistake the thing that is actually relative, which is not truth, but me. As has been said rather elegantly, “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.” [4]

This makes coming to the truth a matter of relationship, which means it’s messy. We take the truth seriously, but ourselves less so. There “are ways of seeing” [5] that need to be factored in. And we need new ways of seeing. The fundamental change I’m learning to make is to recognize that there is something objective out there, but that I am subjective in here. Investigate both seriously and carefully.

All of this matters in how we approach the Bible. First umpire readers (I was one and I hope I am learning how not to be one) take themselves too seriously. They say, in effect, “I see the truth clearly and it’s a shame you don’t” on all sorts of matters—women in ministry, American exceptionalism, the importance of this or that presidential candidate, etc. Third umpire readers don’t take the Bible seriously enough. “It’s just one of many texts. We can’t privilege one over another.”

Second umpire readers take the Bible seriously, but themselves less so. They understand there’s a there there. Not everything is a social construction. But it’s only through dialogue with ourselves and others that we come to know the truth or, better, come to embody the truth in a better way.

I was both heartened and disheartened some years ago listening to Mark Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006). People who took the Bible very seriously—word for “literal” word—saw nothing wrong with promoting and maintaining chattel slavery. In fact, it was a cause worth dying for. They defended slavery using the Bible. They took themselves too seriously and neither the Bible nor the plight of others seriously enough. That was wrong.

We shouldn’t approach the Bible in either a first or third umpire sense. Which means we approach the scriptures as they and we are and allow the scriptures to change us as we live in dialogue with God through his word and with others in the community of faith as they, too, interact with God and his word. We don’t read the Bible, we let it read us. We don’t impose order on the Bible, we let the Bible order us.

 

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[1] See p. 31 and chapter 7 of J. Richard Middleton and Brian J. Walsh’s Truth is Stranger Than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1995).

[2] Ignoring absolutely self-evident evidence to the contrary, beginning with simple things like Proverbs 26:4, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly . . .” (NIV) and Proverbs 26:5, “Answer a fool according to his folly . . .” (NIV), and continuing to the fundamental contradictions in the book of Job where Job’s three friends (and then a fourth guy) do not see that their understanding of the world (bad things only happen to bad people) is not in operation. The ones who think they know the truth don’t, and Job, the one who understands the truth, never really gets an answer for why his life became an exception to the rule.

[3] I don’t think some of our Christian apologists have really helped. The discovery of John Stackhouse recently has been a gift. He doesn’t have the ubiquitous presence that Ravi Zacharias had before his tragic denouement, but he’s got a more satisfying way of describing the way Christians should relate to the truth and other people. He appears to be more deeply grounded in philosophy.

[4] https://quoteinvestigator.com/2014/03/09/as-we-are/

[5] Brian J. Walsh and J. Richard Middleton, The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 1985), p. 17.

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