Thursday, September 03, 2015

A Hermeneutic of Love, or How I Read the Bible (Part 1)


With a couple of exceptions, I have been mostly quiet (at least here on my blog) as over the past several years I have been actively wrestling with just about every major point of doctrinal difference or theological argument you can think of:
  • Calvinism/Arminianism/Open Theism (The Open View of the Future)
  • Hell: Eternal Conscious Torment vs. Annihilationism/Conditionalism vs. Christian Universalism (This is a great post on these 3 Biblical Options for a Theology of Hell)
  • Atonement theories (Penal Substitution, Ransom Theory/Christus Victor)
  • Women's roles in the church/Christian Feminism*
  • The inerrancy/infallibility of Scripture**
  • What do we do with the violence and even genocide that would seem to be sanctioned and even commanded by God in the Old Testament?** 
  • 6 Day Literal Creation vs Creation via evolution
  • And the list could go on and on...
And a large part of what has kept me from writing about this journey so far, is the tendency among many Christians (not all) to be so quick to accuse/question other Christian's commitment to Scripture. I agree with this statement from Rachel Held Evans:
"In some cases, folks are so committed to their particular views on these issues they seem incapable of making a distinction between the Bible itself and their interpretation of it, and so any critique of that interpretation is seen as a critique of Scripture itself!  And so we miss one another entirely. Instead of a lively, impassioned debate about the text, we engage in lively, impassioned debates about one another’s commitment to the faith. " -RHE, When our interpretations differ...
Please hear me on this. I still believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God, I just don't buy into all of the same interpretations that I used to. And I am still working all of this out. But I read the Bible much more literarily now and much less literally, and this does not make it any less true.*** I believe I am being more faithful to the text when I read it this way, keeping in mind the genre or type of literature a particular book is and the historical and cultural context. (And don't even get me started on the "slippery slope" argument. My friend April just wrote a great post on that very topic.)

Some try to say "the Bible is clear..." about fill in the blank (if women can/should be pastors/teachers, as one example). But what about all of the times the Bible has been "clear" in the past?

The Bible has been used in support of a great many things that none of us today would support:
  • manifest destiny,
  • the earth is flat
  • anti-Semitism
  • slavery
  • “separate but equal”
  • banning interracial marriage
On the issues of biblical interpretation and slavery I highly recommend The Civil War as Theological Crisis by Mark A. Noll: “For over thirty years Americans battled each other exegetically on the issue, with the more orthodox and the ones who took most seriously the authority of Scripture being also the ones most likely to conclude that the Bible sanctioned slavery.” (Noll, 115)

Today, we see how wrong it was to use the Bible to defend slavery. And yet people are still making the same mistakes when it comes to interpreting the Bible on different issues.

In Torn, Justin Lee writes, “virtually all Christians recognize that there are passages in the Bible that can’t be fairly applied with only a superficial reading. We need context and interpretation, and sometimes that means we need historical insight or other kinds of analysis that comes only from a lot of study.” (Think Titus 2:9 - “teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything”; 1 Corinthians 11:6 - “if a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved, she should cover her head”; 1 Corinthians 14:34 - “women should remain silent in the churches; they should not speak…”.)  

Obviously, we do not follow these commands today, so how do we go about deciding which passages are speaking to a specific cultural context and which ones still apply in our time and culture?

Well, when Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment, he responded by saying “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

In light of this passage, I would argue that the love of God and our love for God and people should be a lens for interpreting Scripture.

Augustine actually wrote about this same thing in On Christian Doctrine: “anyone who thinks he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, has not succeeded in understanding them.” (DDC I.35.40)

I like what Dr. Paul Allen wrote about this too: "God is continually acting in the power of love. It is a kind of love that moves the universe into existence. It is a kind of love that moves Israel and thence the world through the person of Christ into a loving relationship with God. God the creator and God the savior are two ways of talking about the God who is love." - Dr. Paul Allen

I'll end this post with two of the questions I am asking as I read the Bible these days:

  • How does this passage fit with the truth that God is Love?
  • How do I apply this passage with a true love for the people around me?


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*Finally Feminist by John G. Stackhouse and A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans were really helpful to me on this topic.

**Derek Flood and Peter Enns have both written good books recently that deal with these topics:
Disarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives, and Why We All Need to Learn to Read the Bible Like Jesus Did by Derek Flood and
The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It by Peter Enns

***Tim Fall had a good post on reading the Bible literarily recently: I Read the Bible Literally

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