Exegesis #2 - ethics guides exegesis

Sunday, September 13, 2009

There are many disturbing things in the Bible. One that shakes me the most are the accounts of genocide in the Old Testament. Just as suffering, tragedy, and injustice in our lives can cause us to doubt God's goodness, so can such passages. One of the best pieces of advice I have heard for dealing with questions of theodicy like these is the idea of suspending judgment, as Doug Easterday puts it "everything I understand about God is loving and good, and the things I don't understand... I just don't understand yet." This approach allows one to admit pain, ask questions, but to still hold on. It is about living in the tension, about trusting in God's character, rather than in our limited understanding.

There is however a danger in this. That danger is to accept evil, to stop seeking, to stop crying out. Here we say, "Well, I don't understand what is going on, but if God did it, it must be good. " The difference here is quite subtle on the surface, but the consequences are severe because it basically means we shut down our conscience and call evil good.

Take for instance the aforementioned example of the genocide accounts in the Old Testament: If you heard about this happening anywhere in the world today - in Germany, in Afghanistan, or Darfur you would clearly see it as an atrocity, as horrific, as profoundly evil. If anyone claimed that God told them to do it, we would without exception declare them to be mad. And yet it is common for us Christians to find passages like this in the Bible, and to make arguments as to why this was justified and God's will. This is not just true of average joe Christians - you will find this same type of cognitive dissonance arguments in Bible commentaries, and made by major theologians too.

What's going on here? Isn't it a no-brainer that mass killing babies is bad? So why do Christians (Christians who are appalled at abortion I might add) argue that this would be fine to violently slaughter babies? What would make smart people say such absurd things? What would make loving people justify such horrific practices? I believe it's in part because we somehow think that it is our job to defend God's actions and the Bible. So no matter what it says, we feel compelled to rationalize why God was right to do this. Whatever it says, we reason, must be good, no matter how ghastly. But does God really needs us to defend him? More likely, the real reason behind this is that we feel that if we allow for any critique of the Bible, that the whole thing may collapse under our feet, leaving us nothing to stand on.

So we turn off our moral conscience as we read the Bible, calling evil good, and darkness light Some theologians even go so far as to teach that we should not trust our "worldly" understandings of right and wrong (apparently being opposed to mass slaughter of infants is worldly) and instead let the Bible define for us what is right (meaning that if the Bible tells us to kill babies we should accept this as good). I would like to assert that such an approach is profoundly damaging and irresponsible. God gave us a conscience, and to go against it is one of the most damaging things a person can do to their soul. It is flat out abusive - and I do not use this word lightly. In fact, this is precisely what abuse is about: a person is made to do something that they feel is wrong, and is told that their perceptions are in fact wrong. What is happening to them is not bad, they are bad. This can have devastating results on how a person perceives themselves, their world, and on their relationships - including their relationship with God. No matter what the authority is - your pastor, a parent, a theologian, or a holy book - you should never ever do something, or believe something, that goes against your conscience.

Biblically, the result of this kind of blind adherence to the Bible, regardless of how hurtful it is, is exemplified by the Pharisees (who are not exactly put forward as a model of correct exegesis!). In fact, the #1 rule of theology is that if our understanding of God makes him appear to be evil or unjust, then our theology is wrong somewhere down the line. If we understand something to imply that God is a monster then the answer is not to declare that "monsters are good", but to say "I just don't understand," and live in that tension and weakness until we do understand what is going on.

Going a step further, our understanding of Scripture must always, always, always be done through the eyes of Jesus, and with the heart of Jesus. We need to make sure that our interpretation of the Bible is in line with what we know firsthand from God in a living relationship to be good, loving, and just. Simply put: ethics must guide exegesis. These ethics are not formed from our flawed interpretation of rules in a book, but learned through our firsthand experience of knowing what love is in a personal transforming relationship with Jesus Christ. Then our conscience will "not be conformed to the world, but transformed by the renewing of my mind" so that we will "know the good and perfect will of God". When we then approach the Bible with the mind and heart of Jesus, we will be able, like him, to question false interpretations, having his heart move our own, learning through the Spirit to see people as he does, learning to think as he does.

If we take Jesus as our model for how to properly interpret Scripture, we see that he constantly challenges interpretations of Scripture that block people from grace. His direct knowledge of his father's will and character was his guide for interpreting, redefining, and critiquing, how the Bible was understood. He let his ethics guide his exegesis - his understanding of what love was and who God was was his guide to how he read and understood the Bible. Ethics proceeds exegesis. Or to put it differently: relationship with God is the lens through which we need to interpret Scripture. We love the Bible because in it we find Jesus, but we do not have a relationship with a book, but with the living Word, Jesus Christ. Scripture is not an end in itself, but points us to that relationship, and in turn, that living relationship helps us to understand and interpret Scripture.

This does not mean that our interpretation is infallible just because we know God's heart through relationship. We need to always be aware of our limited perceptions and blinders, and to approach the Bible (and life and faith too) with humility. But one thing we must never do is close our hearts and turn off our conscience when we read.

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