Could Theological/Ethical Reasoning Be Like Jazz?

I would like to suggest that there are multiple faithful communities of Christian understanding and practice who prioritize adherence to biblical instruction, although they emphasize varying aspects of it. All of these communities might be described as “faithful,” even though they are all also to some degree “faithless,” again in a variety of ways. Recognizing that this reality has persisted across history, I propose that the Bible may serve faith and mission best when it generates a dialogue among faithful readers from varying perspectives.

What if interpretation were understood to function in light of relational fact: all who call upon Jesus as Savior/Messiah share a single identity and primary purpose, but reflect a different utility within the over-arching Body of Christ?[1] Thus conceived, interpretation would provoke a lively interchange among interpreters who speak from the particularities of their unique gifts and experiences, and we might begin to celebrate the contribution of each distinct community. None of whom might be said to faithfully reflect the infinite image of God on their own, but all of whom may highlight a particular facet of His image, which the world is certain to be in desperate need of observing and experiencing.

Old Testament scholar, Daniel Hawk, writes:

“As in the musical work, so in interpretation. Strongly held convictions may be fervently expressed, not as a means of bending other voices to a single, agreed-upon melody, but rather as an expression of distinct voices in a complex conversation that becomes greater than the sum of its parts….

Decisions about how the Bible guides … will always have to be made and lived out by individuals and Christian communities. Contrapuntal reading would allow for conclusions to be clarified and nuanced by insights gained from an ongoing conversation with other faithful followers who respect each other….

Christian interpretation, in other words, is both determined and improvisational, not unlike jazz. Jazz integrates diverse melodies into a holistic musical experience that values the voice of each musician as a necessary component of the unified musical enterprise. Jazz requires that musicians listen carefully to the other musicians in the ensemble and follow the flow of the musical conversation. When this is done well, the result is a unified musical work, which nevertheless preserves the distinct voices in the ensemble….

Debates about the rightness and wrongness of interpretations perpetuate the antagonistic character of modern society, abet a smug assurance that one occupies the biblical high ground, and maintain divisions between Christian confessions. Conversations among disparate Christian parties, as an ongoing corporate exercise in discernment, however, underscore the relational bond that all followers of Jesus share, remind participants of the complexity of ethical decision-making in a sinful world, and may even yield new, Spirit-inspired insights. Interpretive jazz ensembles would allow all perspectives to be heard but would not demand that anyone change one’s views—only that one listens actively, with respect, and with the sense that one’s understanding of the biblical witness and its relevance for contemporary problems is enriched by the conversation.”[2]

Undoubtedly, this way of walking might be (and has been) abused and taken too far. However, it seems to me that this practice, if held in conjunction with the foundational conviction that the Word of God expressed in all of Scripture functions as the primary expression of God’s ultimate authority continuing to instruct the redeemed of every generation, will yield abundant fruit in the lives of God’s people.

While the Bible points to God’s ideals, it also describes Christlike accommodations to sinful brokenness.[3] And, indeed, as Elmer Martens has reminded us,[4] Christ empowered the Christian community to “bind” or “loose” (Matt. 18:15-20), which means that any given Christian community may be more restrictive or more permissive than the straightforward teaching of Scripture itself. Given that the Holy Spirit has been given to the entire body of Christ, not all community decisions will be universally adopted by all other communities of faith.[5] May we be a people shaped by God’s Word, and committed to relational exegesis and application in concert with other communities of God’s people across history and geography.

As we forge colonies of heaven in the midst of the surrounding cultures of despair, may God’s word guide us in the shaping of a biblical culture for our time and place. May the watching world say, “What kind of god is this, who gives these people in our midst such wisdom and joy?”[6] And may they discover that it is not a god, but the God who inhabits us and is our Wisdom.

In the future I plan to further articulate the following matrix:

Theology

Like

Jazz

Creed Scripture enduring; non-negotiable
Read Reason competing; complementary
Rule Tradition practical, local, living application

[1] 1 Corinthians 12

[2] L. Daniel Hawk, The Violence of the Biblical God: Canonical Narrative and Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2019), 201-203.

[3] Exodus. 21:1-6; Deuteronomy 15:11-18; Mark 14:7

[4] Elmer A. Martens, “Moving from Scripture to Doctrine,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 15.1 (2005): 77–103.

[5] this is one reason why reason must precede tradition in the interpretational hierarchy of scripture, reason, and tradition

[6] Cf., Deuteronomy 4:5-8

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