June 5, 2020

Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible- by John Polkinghorne, Chapter 4- Ambiguity

Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible – by John Polkinghorne

Chapter 4- Ambiguity

The tapestry of life is not coloured in simple black and white, representing an unambiguous choice between the unequivocally bad and unequivocally good.  The ambiguity of human deeds and desires means that life includes many shades of grey.  What is true of life in general is also true of the Bible in particular.  An honest reading of Scripture will acknowledge the presence in its pages of various kinds of ambiguity.

So John begins Chapter 4 of the book.  He begins this reflection with Genesis 22, the testing of Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moriah.  Why is Abraham, repeatedly promised a son from whom will spring multitudes and become a great nation that will be a blessing to all people, apparently cruelly called upon to sacrifice his beloved only son?  Of course, to Christian interpretation, this is the symbolically anticipatory event of the death of Christ on the cross.  Both images reflect the ambiguity of a world in which there is both beauty and ugliness, fruitfulness and wastefulness, joy and sorrow.  The Bible does not seek to disguise that fact by an attempt at facile piety that closes its eyes to the ambiguous strangeness of creation.

Abraham’s grandson Jacob, patriarch of the 12 tribes of Israel is a man of cunning who swindles his brother Esau out of his birthright and deceives his father in order to be blessed in his brother’s place.  David, “a man after God’s own heart”, iconic figure that he is, still is a man of great moral ambiguity.  He commits adultery with Bathsheba, then treacherously murders her husband who was being honorably faithful to David.  Then there is that ugly incident at the end of David’s life.  He pardons Shimei, a member of Saul’s family who cursed David, in an apparent act of clemency only to make his son Solomon promise to execute Shimei as soon as possible.

Of course, the poster-child of ambiguity in the Old Testament has to be Proverbs 26:4 & 5:

4) Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.

5) Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.

Yep, clear as mud.  Thank God for the perspicuity of Scripture.  I like what Fred Clark, the Slacktivist, says about Proverbs :

Proverbs is like a high-school level introductory class in physics. It gives you the basic formulas — discounting friction and any other real-world complications that would make the math too complex. And it avoids all the weird stuff that happens on the micro or macro levels where the neat little Newtonian formulas melt away into quantum mysteries. The stuff you learn in that physics class is true, but only under certain limited, qualified conditions. It’s true, but not the whole truth.

I’ll bet Polkinghorne, the physicist, would approve of that analogy.

Yet another kind of ambiguity appears in the Gospels.  An ambiguity not of character, but of circumstances.  Life is such that there is often no single ideal choice to be made, but all possible actions have an inescapable shadow side of one kind or another.  Jesus, living a truly human life, was not exempt from having to make this kind of perplexing decision.  In the course of his hectic public ministry, his mother and brothers came to see him, perhaps to try and persuade him to return to a quieter, safer life at home.  Maybe they saw where he was headed; to a dangerous clash with authorities that would result in his being killed.  Jesus must have been aware of his family responsibilities and ties of affection that are so important to Jewish life.  But Jesus knew his allegiance lay elsewhere in fulfilling the will of his heavenly Father.  So he was forced to treat his family with painful coolness, because they saw the danger coming.  Mark 3:21 “21 when his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”  When he is told they are outside asking for him he says (Mark 3:33-35), “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.  Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

Jesus and the Canaanite Woman

On another occasion, Jesus is in the region of Tyre, seeking an interval of rest, not wishing to be disturbed by the almost constant demands of the people.  So he goes to a gentile region, where he figures he isn’t as well known.  Jesus feels his ministry must be concentrated on the “lost sheep of Israel”, but a gentile women, whose daughter is ill, seeks him out.  At first he is unwilling to help her and gives her a harsh reply, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and give it to dogs”.  Calling someone a “dog” is one of the severest insults, to this day, in the Mideast.  Polkinghorne says:

At first sight, this seems a troubling story about the one whose life was so full of compassionate reaction to the needs of others.  I believe that Jesus was wrestling with ambiguous choice between necessary rest and further healing ministry, together with the need to focus his activities on the Jewish people to whom he had been sent.  In his humanity, he was willing to accept the help that the women’s bold response gave him in deciding what he should do.

Another ambiguous figure is Judas Iscariot.  Why did Jesus choose him to be one of the twelve?  He must have partaken in the miracle ministry along with the other 11, otherwise they would have noticed.  Hey, we are all casting out demons and healing the sick, except for Judas, what’s up with him?  Many speculate that, like Peter, Judas did not want to accept Jesus as suffering Messiah, but wanted the warrior Messiah, who would overthrow the Romans and restore the kingdom to Israel.  While Peter seemingly came to grips with this, Judas could not.  Many suggest his betrayal of Jesus was a tactic to force his Master’s hand and compel him to call on a “legion of angels”.  When that didn’t work, he was driven to remorseful despair and suicide.

Peter, too, displays the human tendency to ambiguity.  Boldly confessing Jesus as Messiah, then forbidding him to go the cross (Matthew 16:13-23).  Boldly swing swords and cutting off ears, then denying he even knew the man (Matthew 26).  One of the most ambiguous passages in the New Testament has to be Matthew 28:16-17, “Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus had appointed them.  And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted.”  Those of you who insist on empirical evidence before you’ll believe may want to ponder that passage.

And talk about ambiguity; how about Paul’s soliloquy in Romans 7:

15) I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do… 21) So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22) For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23) but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24) What a wretched (ambiguous) man I am!

What a wretched (ambiguous) man I am!  So are we all, and so the Bible portrays it just as it is.


  1. Ambiguity. Yep. Better to embrace it than brush it off a self-righteous wave of the hand and declare the Bible has no ambiguous or mysterious elements.

    Thanks for sharing your “book report” of this particular chapter, Mike. This is a keeper.

  2. The human, and thus ambiguous, element in the Bible is not only pervasive but central to what it expresses, and the way the Bible expresses it. That creative story rather than logical proposition is the prevalent form of Biblical expression means that ambiguity is not only a bug, but a feature “programmed” into the text; this ambiguity invites creative interpretation that remains open and expanding, and so should the Christian community for which the Bible is sacred and formative.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Otherwise “no ambiguous or mysterious elements” plus Entropy leads tot Party Line duckspeak of “IT IS WRITTEN! IT IS WRITTEN! SCRIPTURE! SCRIPTURE! SCRIPTURE! SCRIPTURE!” like the Talibani and ISIS with their Koran.

      You get that with any Authority without Ambiguity or Mystery; extreme Calvinists, extreme Communists, extreme Objectivists. No need to engage any neuron above the brainstem, just Recite the Infallible Exact Authority.

  3. The problem comes when people want it all in black and white (quick answers and bumper stickers), or want it all ambiguous (an interpret it anyway they want). Some things are clear, some complex, some ambiguous, and some mysterious. God created, and entered into this creation, so we should not expect any less from Scripture.

    • Ronald Avra says

      Very good observations.

    • Excellent point, RD: moral (to me at least) know what you are reading, or try to.

    • Yes, good observation. And there’s definite tension between the black-and-whiters and the I’ll-interpret-it-any-way-I-want-ers, each claiming the other side is mistaken, or if one believes as “those other guys” believe is wrong or harmful.

      I was trying to decide which side is the more unhealthy side. I think the black-and-white folks tend to be more harmful, since they’re usually the ones claiming there is no ambiguity, and that their interpretation is the correct one. Ambiguous folks tend to be a bit more gracious and…dare I say it…tolerant.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        Both may be dangerous in their own way – but I certainly know which side of the fulcrum I’d rather hang out with, or live next door to.

    • Pascal stated this principle repeatedly and often in the Pensees. Pascal is a great antidote to both fundamentalism and skepticism.

  4. Ah the “troublesome” passages!

    Actually the Gospel of Mark is a repository of ambiguity which is why it is so fascinating (and troublesome). It is also why it is a supreme work of art. Mark 3:21 is so troublesome that many translations deliberately mistranslate the passage although the greek is rather unambiguous.

    But what about Mark 4:10-13? Jesus seems to be saying that he teaches in parables so that his listeners WON’T understand. And he talks of mysteries only available to the disciples but even they don’t get it.

    And what about the topper of them all, the original ending of the gospel? It’s always worth quoting:

    “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” – Mark 16:8

    Whaaat? How can that be the ending? Yet in our oldest and best manuscripts, it is. The other verses were tacked on later by folks who were very definitely troubled.

    But all of this begins to make sense if we take Mark as a whole. Nobody understands who Jesus is in Mark, not his family, not his disciples, not the religious authorities, only the demons! And they are commanded to be silent. (Contrast this with the women at the tomb who are commanded to speak and yet…remain silent!)

    Mark has always been my favorite gospel. It was written in a troublesome time for troubled people living in a world of ambiguity and it speaks to those of us living in such a time and place as well.

    I’ve always thought the clue to how we should approach the New Testament writings is how they approached each other. Both Matthew and Luke clearly depend on Mark because they quote reams of his gospel verbatim. But while they clearly regard Mark as authoritative they do not hesitate to adapt and edit him to make their own theological points. And they clearly do not regard Mark as inerrant or infallible.

    • Yep, the Gospel of Mark is my favorite, too…though Luke now comes close behind with his “investigative” nature.

  5. Mike the G. Man, Another great post that leaves me full of certainty that all my thoughts and beliefs are correct and unambiguous except for the ones that I am unsure of, that could or could not be right.
    My favorite word sometimes is maybe, which leaves me plenty of room on the fence that I am straddling. Sometimes I ask my wife Mrs. Right , first name Always, what I should do and the answer is what you think is right or what do you want to do. My wife can never be wrong giving this advice. I always take her clear cut advice as I have come to find out usually what I think is right at the time I was thinking it.
    I think that certainty and being unambiguous is imperative when you are very young and learning the basics. As you get a base of knowledge and grow in your understanding due to your maturity and learning you become and understand it is ok at time to be ambiguous, that it is natural. I think that is called discernment .
    However at the end of the day the Bible is clear , God sent his Son to be the Savior of all whosoever believe in him. To me John 3.16 is unambiguous .

  6. Edward Rhodes says

    (Emerges from lurking)


    Firstly, thank you for this excellent site which has been a great encouragement to me over a number of years, especially since I have been losing many of the certainties which I had back when I identified myself as an Evangelical. Hence the resonance of this particular post.

    When it comes to Proverbs 26:4-5, I’ve long thought of it as presenting more of a dilemma than an ambiguity.

    Should you answer a fool according to his folly or not?

    If you do, you could end up like him.

    But if you don’t, he could end up being wise in his own conceit.

    Perhaps what the two verses together are trying to convey is simply, that it isn’t really possible to give a correct answer in this situation – it doesn’t matter which choice you make, they could both end up being wrong – which, of course, fits in with the point of the post, that the Bible isn’t quite the ‘black and white’ conveyor of clear answers to questions, that once I would have wanted it to be.


    (Returns to lurking)

    • –> “…it doesn’t matter which choice you make, they could both end up being wrong…”

      A Liam Neeson movie called “The Grey” is a bit like this. I absolutely LOATHED the movie when it ended, but after a few days of the movie turning over and over in my mind, causing me to mull over what happened in it and why, I had an epiphany regarding its “message” (a message that I’m not sure the filmmaker intended, but one that I’ve concluded nonetheless).

      Without giving too much away, the message was, “Be careful who you follow, because though they think they’re right, they might just be wrong.” There may have been no “good” options for the people in the movie, but for certain…they’re decision to follow Neeson (who seemed wise, sagely, and like he knew what he was talking about) ended up leading them exactly to the worst place possible.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > Should you answer a fool according to his folly or not?

      I like to think of it as a “conundrum”.

      It is certainly a real issue in public debate.

      Is it reasonable to provide a reasonable response to an unreasonable/unreasoned complaint or argument? It is often a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t kind of situation. That’s how I’ve always read that pairing of proverbs.

  7. senecagriggs says

    I gotta buy me that Tee Shirt.

  8. Christiane says

    ” At first he is unwilling to help her and gives her a harsh reply, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and give it to dogs”. Calling someone a “dog” is one of the severest insults, to this day, in the Mideast.”

    Well, being a mom of a severely disabled son who is often ill, I have a different take on these passages . . . . much different. My understanding of it may not make much sense to many, but it sure does to me, as I have asked for and received intervention for the sake of my son’s care and from this, I can see these passages through the eyes of the mother. So, for what it’s worth, here is what I see:

    How is it that Christ holds up a mirror for us to see our own prejudices so clearly?
    Can the reader not see that Christ lays out the problem confronting all of us:
    who are ‘we’ and who are ‘they’: the others, the ‘dogs’, the rejected, the lepers ?
    What is the difference, if any?
    And what is it that may we have in common that He values far above our differences?
    And what is our obligation to help the ‘others’ ? Must they always be ‘sent away’ unaided?

    Nothing in this incident was ‘incidental’.
    All was planned by God and set in motion to teach us something, if we will quietly look at it without our ‘prejudices’ and without our ‘self-righteous reactions’.

    The Canaanite woman did not come to Christ by chance:
    she was directed to that place by a faith that she would receive healing for her child. In some part of all of us, we know that every mother would go to hell and beyond to get help for their suffering child.
    This woman came to the Lord Christ. And she came to Him confidently.

    Do His Words to her not reflect what many in the crowd thought?
    And therein lies the irony. He is wisely, once again, holding up a mirror, using His Words to reflect the crowd’s rejection of this Canaanite woman.
    And in doing so, He teaches, in a way that is unmistakably His:
    DID he send her away unaided, as they might have done? No.
    He did not.
    And therein lies the resolution of the irony. She, one of the ‘others’,
    had great faith, and so her daughter was given healing by the Lord Christ ‘from that very hour’.

    Nothing in this story is without meaning.
    The story is a lesson that ALL the despised and rejected of this world, who are of strong faith, may confidently come to the Lord Christ for healing, not to be turned away by Him. WE are the ones doing the rejection of the ‘others’. Not Him.

  9. Philadelphia
    Winter grey layered on grey
    Spring crystal follows

    Like looking through glass dimly?
    Are we clear? Crystal!