The Library Basement
Reading under ground

On Obscurity

The term "obscure" in biblical studies is a frequently-used qualifier to explain why a system does not fully square with the biblical witness. For example, Leo Tolstoy in [*The Kingdom of God is within You*][]*:* > The word church is used twice in the Gospels--once in the sense of an > assembly of men to decide a dispute, the other time in connection with > the **obscure** utterance about a stone--Peter, and the gates of hell. > From these two passages in which the word church is used, in the > signification merely of an assembly, has been deduced all that we now > understand by the Church. And as another example, Rowan Williams' [*The Body's Grace*][]: > In fact, of course, in a church which accepts the legitimacy of > contraception, the absolute condemnation of same-sex relations of > intimacy must rely either on an abstract fundamentalist deployment of > a number of very **ambiguous** texts, or on a problematic and > non-scriptural theory about natural complementarity, applied narrowly > and crudely to physical differentiation without regard to > psychological structures. I suspect that a fuller exploration of the > sexual metaphors of the Bible will have more to teach us about a > theology and ethics of sexual desire than will the flat citation of > **isolated** texts; and I hope other theologians will find this worth > following up more fully than I can do here. And, of course, there is me: > *The Prayer of Jabez*: How the prayer of an **obscure** Old Testament > character, if prayed regularly, can unlock the richness of God’s > material blessings. I was of course making a jest, but I think this illustrates how the designation of "obscure" is a common way for students of the scriptures to marginalize an uncomfortable passage. What makes a passage obscure, ambiguous, or isolated? I doubt a satisfactory answer to that question could be stated, except perhaps "you know it when you see it." Indeed, what Rowan Williams deems obscure is of great importance for others. And while Tolstoy regards the Petrine confession as obscure, someone else might regard "resist not evil" as equally obscure. Obscurity is a subjective judgment. In college I learned two hermeneutical maxims which touch on this issue of obscurity: - The few should be interpreted in light of the many. - The unclear should be interpreted in light of the clear. These, more or less, appear to be at the root of Tolstoy's complaint. But the converse question must be asked: should the "obscure" be totally omitted from consideration? I am not sure, especially given the problem of defining obscurity. It seems that any non-trivial constructive theology runs into the problem of obscure passages, so the issue cannot really be ignored. At the very least, biblical scholars should spend some time considering their position on obscurity and reflect on how it affects their positions. **Note**: This article of mine was previously published on another site.

Category: Christianity