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True North—Reflections on a “Lincoln” Quote

“A compass? I learned when I was surveying, it’ll point you True North from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp, what’s the use of knowing True North?”

-Abraham Lincoln, “Lincoln” (2012)


The above quote from the movie “Lincoln” provoked me. First, Daniel Day-Lewis plays an amazing Lincoln. Second, the content of the quote is the empitome of the juxtaposition of simple and profound. Third, the meaning of the quote challenged me on a few fronts:

  • I live in a society that will not compromise for the common good.
  • I am a person who can overemphasize right belief to the exclusion of right behavior.
  • I am a person who respects the authority of the Bible but finds that the Bible alone in one’s faith leads to legalism and does not always correlate with greater Christ-like character.

It’s on this latter point that I want to share some brief notes. First, let’s take the key parts of the quote and apply them to the conversation regarding the authority of the Bible.

  • What is the compass? True North? Swamps, deserts, chasms?
  • What does it mean to survey?
  • What does it mean for a compass to point to True North?

If you overlay biblical authority with this quote (follow me for a second) there is a helpful guide for biblical hermeneutics (the lens through which we read the Bible):

  • Our compass is the Bible. It is a trusted guide that orients us and offers us direction. It is only as good as its True North.
  • True North cannot be the Bible. That would be like a compass directing you to the compass. Sure, it’s directing you, but you will not go very far.
  • True North is something transcendent from the compass to which the instrument is drawn. Might I suggest that our True North is Christ? If your True North is tradition, then you never leave the geographic boundaries of your town. If True North is your interpretation, then there is no need to go anywhere. Just pull up a chair and bicker with your neighbor about the direction of their compass.
  • True North as Jesus helps us realize that all over the planet (in different countries, time zones, and continents) people are coming to the specific point/person of Jesus. No, I’m not saying all roads lead to Jesus. Anything other than Jesus as our True North is idolatry (even your personal opinion about/interpretation of the Bible). I’m saying that there are numerous paths/points of origin to Jesus. Jesus is the only road to God.
  • Surveying is the real challenge for us. We realize that the Bible alone points to Jesus but it is unable, by itself, to move us forward into the mission which Christ has called us. Surveyors use a variety of tools and instruments to accomplish their tasks. Might I suggest a few for us in biblical hermeneutics (in order of importance):
    • Spirit: Without the Spirit the Bible is just another book. The Spirit convicts us, inspires us, provokes us to greater Christ-likeness through the pages of Scripture.
    • Tradition/Heritage: People have been discerning the meaning and import of Scripture for centuries. Do you arrogantly think you don’t need their perspective on the scriptures?
    • Community: The Bible is a communal text that is best discerned in community. Tradition/heritage is the community of history. The church is the community of the present in which we open the Bible and discern together, across many voices and backgrounds.
    • Reason: God has blessed us with intellects to creatively and faithfully apply the scriptures to our particular context. I put this last because it should submit to the above tools but is an important tool in our hermeneutical toolbox.
  • These instruments are important because Bible believing Christians struggle to understand why their impacts are not greater in the worlds in which they find themselves. Might I suggest that society presents numerous swamps, deserts, and chasms? If you read the Bible and do not use the toolbox above, you may find yourself in a swamp, a desert, or a chasm (literally or figuratively).

So, let’s paraphrase Lincoln’s quote for the life of the church (in light of the above content):

“The Bible? I learned when I was interpreting, it’ll point you to Jesus from where you’re standing, but it may have little direct advice about the challenges of society that you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of Jesus, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to live in an echo chamber, what’s the use of having a Bible?”

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