Dangerous Assumptions

By Paul Koch

We all do it. We all assume things. We assume things about our friends and family, about strangers and perceived enemies. Assumptions function as a sort of lazy shortcut so that we don’t have to do the hard work of actually engaging in the details of an argument or the context of a statement. It’s easier to assume things are written or spoken with a particular agenda in mind and then speed to our judgment.

Assumptions certainly aren’t irrational, but they should be challenged from time to time. We should take time to ask questions of our assumptions: Are they valid; do they still hold water? Or is it time to revise them?

When I was still a seminary student, one of the most difficult and important classes that I took was on biblical hermeneutics (the study of the principles of interpretation). The source of the difficulty was bound up in the main text for the class, “What Does This Mean?” by Dr. James Voelz. This was not an easy read by any stretch of the imagination, and it challenged me to take a step back and question some very fundamental understandings of how I viewed myself and my role as a (soon-to-be) pastor.

At the very beginning of his text, Voelz asserts that it is impossible for an interpreter to achieve a truly neutral reading of any given text. That is, all interpreters interpret from a stance shaped by their own baggage which they themselves bring. Part of the task of interpreting Scripture is to be aware of what assumptions one brings to the text. In fact, this is where the creeds and confessions of a church prove to be most helpful as a sort of map of faithful assumptions. The confessions of the church then shape my assumptions to aid in my desire to be a better reader of the Bible.

Yet, as I’ve come to realize that my assumptions have a major impact on how I interpret a given text, I’ve also learned that my assumptions prove to be far more dangerous in how I carry out my vocation as a pastor. It turns out that what I assume about the people to whom I am called to preach, teach, and administer the sacraments will drastically shape just how I do those things.

As we near the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I think it is worthy to reconsider our assumptions. If you were to ask a Christian today if they are saved by their works or by Christ’s, they would most likely say Christ’s. In fact, among most Christians, the confession that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ will simply be assumed—meaning it will not need be stressed or even proclaimed all that often. If I simply assume the freedom in Christ in the lives of the people I am called to serve, then my task will mostly be one of managing and guiding that freedom. In other words, by assuming the Gospel, I will naturally default to the Law.

This assumption is dangerous.

Such an assumption can leave in despair the consciences of our brothers and sisters who are bound up in their own sin. After all, the Law is written on our hearts; it can be found throughout our government, in places of employment, at school, and in our homes. We can hate the Law, use the Law to our advantage, act against the Law, or even try to ignore the Law, but the Law remains that in which our lives are saturated. Each of us will lean towards some part of the Law that fits best with our political leanings, seeking to take ahold of the Law and tweak it around the edges to make it work better for us while punishing those we disagree with. If we assume the Gospel, then the managing of the Law is the never-ending game of our lives.

However, perhaps a better way would be to assume the Law. Assume that the people we gather together with on a Sunday morning come together bound up in a system of the Law, a depressing shell game they can’t win. They don’t come together filled with wide-eyed wonder of how to be most faithful with their freedom but with the exhausted and wearied faces of those who are in a losing battle. In fact, the reason they gather around the Word and sacraments is that they provide the hope and assurance they cannot find within themselves.

The only hope for those bound in sin is an assurance that comes from outside of themselves, outside of their tweaking of the Law and managing of their ethics. By assuming the Law, the Gospel takes center stage. And when the Gospel is boldly proclaimed, even those words of guidance and exhortation begin to serve the cause of freedom in Christ.