Does the Bible lean left?
Someone recently asked me that. Truth be told, the question was more of an accusation than a question. It was, as I recall, “Clay,do you think the Bible always leans left?” More about me than about the Bible. The question is whether I characteristically read the Bible in a way that makes it, the Bible, seem to lean in the direction I would like it to lean, which my interrogator thought to be left politically. Do I do this? I hope not, but one ought always to be wary of one’s own interpretations. It’s good practice in reading the Bible, as well as other books, to distrust one’s own predilections. They may be quite wrong.
But take the question apart from me: does the Bible in fact lean left? It depends on what you mean by “left,” of course. If leaning left means leaning to the side of the poor and the powerless, then indeed the Bible leans left. The message of the Bible is cross-shaped. As the early Christian poem in Philippians 2 has it, “Think among yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought, who being in form of God did not consider equality with God something to be grasped but poured himself out, taking the form of a slave. . .” Throughout, the Bible echoes the Song of Mary: “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-3; NIV). That sounds left to me. But then, perhaps that’s only me.
That said, I don’t think it’s an interesting or even answerable question. Our 21st century political configurations, left or right, do not map neatly onto the Bible. To ask whether the Bible leans left or right is to put to the Bible, a book from the 1st century and earlier, a question framed in 21st century terms. It doesn’t work.
Usually, when people ask such a question, they are invested in a certain answer. Often, they want the Bible to say no to something: no, say, to women preachers. Or, no to same-sex marriage. No to any number of other things on the cultural horizon. The question is whether, interpreting the Bible as I interpret it, one can ever get to no. The perception among some people is that people like me never say no to anything.
But this is false. I believe, like you, that the Bible says both yes and no. It’s the nature of the yes and no that is in question. Those of us who reach what are considered to be conclusions on the left side of the political spectrum are as emphatic in our yeses and noes as those who are on the other side of the political spectrum. We are not saying that anything goes.
One can frame the yes and no question in terms of the beginning or end of history. If you frame history in terms of the beginning, then the end of history will be pictured restoration, a going back to what was originally there. This does not mean that nothing has been learned in history, of course, but that the essential structures of creation will be restored to their original form. What’s important about this is that it is a movement back towards the beginning. In practice, this usually means that one says yes to the way things were in the past (closer to the beginning) and no to the present. This is perceived as being “biblical.” After all, by its very nature, the Bible portrays the past. But is it in fact the intention of the Bible to call us back, back, say, to Leviticus?
The problem lies in this view creation is understood. Creation is often thought to be what was at the beginning. But that is a serious misunderstanding of creation. How does one get at what creation is? In traditional Christian (Reformed) theology, there are two ways. Two books, as it is sometimes said. One is the world around us, the world we call “creation.” To get at creation in this way, one studies the world given to us. We do science in the broad sense. But this does not get us to creation; it only gets us to nature.
And nature is not moral. Human beings, as it turns out, far from being the idyllic beings of Genesis 2, are descended from apes and by nature (and, perhaps, by necessity) selfish and sometimes fairly nasty creatures. The story told by science is not that we were once perfect and then fell, but that we have always been imperfect beings come only lately to a consciousness of moral obligation. We could go on. Studying nature does not establish a created order.
The second way traditional theology tries to get at creation is to turn to the Bible and especially to the biblical creation texts (and other references to creation in the Bible). Or, rather, to some of them. Often this means reading Genesis 1-3 (as if they are one, although Genesis 1 and 2-3 say quite different things) together with a handful of other “creation order” order passages like, say, Matthew 19 on marriage and I Timothy 2-3 on whether women should allowed to be preachers in the church. I have argued in earlier posts that these readings are misappropriations of these texts. I’ll not make that case here again. Instead, let me make a larger and perhaps more important point about this way of looking for creation in the Bible.
Creation is a theological concept, not a historical one. This is important, a point made already by church theologians long ago. Creation is not what is now but what will be in the end. It’s the finished product, what God has in mind, that to which God calls us. As Gregory of Nyssa observed long ago, creation is an eschatological concept.
The problem with the traditional way of construing creation is that it is backward looking, as if creation were to be found in the past. And because it is backward looking, it sees the task of human beings as preserving the old order of things—whatever the current generation considers the old order of things to be, which is usually not old at all but say, the 50’s in the US. The habit of mind created by this view supposes that we are getting farther and farther from God’s intended order. God’s intended order is what was. In this way of thinking, anything new is a falling off from creation.
But if creation is not what is but what finally will be, then we will not discover what creation is by looking back but by looking forward. Or, better, by listening for and to the call of God. This is a persistent theme in the Bible. Hearing God’s word is to listen not only for what God has said in the past but for what God is calling us toward. This is what Jesus teaches. He calls it, “kingdom of God.” It’s not a return to the old order but the embrace of coming rule of God.
What the coming rule of God looks like is not something one can fully describe in the present age. We lack the words and images. We often lack the imagination required to lean into the future. The present age can only understand the future in terms of the present. But we can grope towards it. When pressed to explain what the coming rule of God is like, Jesus told stories, parables. It’s like this, Jesus said, like a mustard seed or a treasure found in a field or a pearl of great price. From these stories we can learn some things about the coming rule of God but not everything. It’s only in desiring it and looking for it and leaning into it that we begin to that we begin to understand what it might be.
It’s this orientation to the future—to what wonders God has for us—that makes the Bible come alive. The Bible is a long conversation in the direction of God’s future. In this conversation, God says both yes and no. Yes to what is coming. Yes to a new way of being human expressed in Jesus. Yes to the gentiles (which includes most of us). Yes to love as the fullest expression of God. But no to the exclusion of others. No to what is not loving. No to slavery. No to misogyny. No to homophobia.
Hearing the call of God requires us to read the Bible sensitively, not just as text but as trajectory. It requires us also to pay attention to what we discover in our life together, the life of the Spirit. It requires us to lean into God’s future. When, in the gospel of John, Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my word [lógos],” it’s this, I think, that he has in mind.
We will sometimes get this wrong. We will think something to be God’s future when in fact it is not of God at all. In listening for the call of God, we risk hearing not the voice of God but our own voices. We should, therefore, be cautious about what we conclude, ready to confess mistakes. But what we cannot do is simply stay put. This is the point of Jesus’s parable of the talents. Unless we risk investing in God’s future, we will not get God at all.
As I write this, Russia has invaded Ukraine. On our screens we see hollowed-out buildings and hollow-eyed victims of war. It seems to me, perhaps it seems to all of us, a throw-back, something from another age. It’s not. We too have gone to war, and not long ago. But we see in this war, as perhaps we have not before seen, the senselessness and brutality of war. We see this more clearly in this war because it’s not our war and because the Ukrainians look so much like us, at least, like many of us. Their culture seems like our culture. Their lives seem like our lives. We cannot help but think, this could be happening to us.
Not all our outrage is noble, but one hopes that in seeing the brutality of war, we may see that war is always so. Seeing this may drive us back to our Bibles, and when read them again for what they say about kindness to strangers, about the coming kingdom, about love for enemies, about grace, about peace, we will discover that all this time we have been wrong about war. We have been wrong about weapons. We have been wrong about violence. And we will learn little by little to embrace new ways. In this way, we are drawn into God’s future. And being so drawn, we come closer to that creation that God has always had in mind.
Does the Bible lean left? I don’t know. But I do know the Bible calls us into a future glory we can scarcely imagine.