The Jesus Lens: Can we question the New Testament?

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Many people have proposed the need to interpret Scripture through a Jesus-shaped lens. Some recent proponents include Peter Enns in Inspiration and Incarnation, Christian Smith in The Bible Made Impossible, Eric Seibert in Disturbing Divine Behavior, as well as Wayne Jacobsen in his video series The Jesus Lens, and many others.

It's an attractive proposal, but as soon as we attempt to practically apply it we bump into a lot of questions as to what this would look like in practice. The first question is what one means exactly. There are basically two camps here: 

One uses the Jesus lens to show how all Scripture points to Christ and thus would argue that troubling texts like the commands to commit genocide are actually good and loving (Wayne Jacobsen for example takes this approach). Others would instead use the Jesus lens as a way of evaluating which texts reflect Christ and which do not and conclude that genocide and Jesus are incompatible (an example here would be Eric Seibert). So while I have a deep appreciation for Wayne Jacobsen in many regards (there is a lot of great stuff in his series!) I disagree with him here, and instead take the approach of Eric Seibert.

This still leaves us with the question of application: how does this second approach of using a Jesus lens to critique religious violence play out in practice exactly? This is of course a huge topic, which I will be addressing in detail in my forthcoming book, but the value of a blog like this is it allows for a conversation to take place and thus for theology to be interactive, communal, and collaborative. With that relational goal in mind I'd like to address a question that was asked in the comment section of a recent post here.

Re: using a Christocentric hermeneutic to critique OT (or even NT) texts... once you make the decision to use Christ's way of using Scripture as a way to make judgment calls on whether, for instance, Numbers 31 accurately reflects who God is, then one has to call into question how we can be sure that the Gospels themselves are fully accurate in their portrayal of Jesus. Should they be considered 100% reliable, or do certain parts need critique as well... and if we do critique a NT portrayal of Jesus, what reliable yardstick must we use?

Reading theologically, our primary focus needs to be on ethics and discipleship, so by asking "are they 100% reliable?" I don't take this to mean "are they historically reliable in regards to science and miracles?" (a question that modernism seemed to get stuck on) but rather "are they completely reliable as a guide to life and behavior as we seek to follow Jesus today?"

Of course the expected answer would be "Yes they are!" but this very quickly gets us in trouble. Consider Jesus statement "if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off." Raise your hand if you have obeyed this 100%. Gosh, that's funny, I don't see any hands (or should I say mean amputated stumps?). How about where Jesus says "If anyone does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple." Which of you who are parents hate your kids? Would you want to go to a seminar on parenting where they taught you to hate for Jesus (and also taught your kids to hate you, too!). I don't think so. 

So when reading Jesus it becomes imperative that we not simply and uncritically apply what he says without question. In fact, taking Jesus literally would clearly lead to abuse--hatred, chopped off body parts, and so on. We thus need to really think through how we can apply the teaching of Jesus in a way that is not hurtful. While I don't know anyone who has chopped off a limb, there are quite a few people who have been told by their pastor or priest to stay in a physically abusive domestic environment because Jesus would want them to.

The point of all of this is that we must question as we read the New Testament, we must seek to understand, otherwise if we instead simply blindly accept and obey without understanding this will inevitably lead to abuse and hurt. Obedience is not possible without understanding. So we must approach the text critically, we must question. Anything less is morally irresponsible. Jesus' own practice of questioning Scripture models this for us, and it applies equally to our reading of Jesus. The main thing Jesus is trying to do with his provocative statements of "love your enemy" and "hate your family" is to get us to think, to get us to question our assumptions of how the world works and what justice and power are like.

Now there's more to be said here. For example I have not addressed the New Testament in regards to the issues of slavery, child abuse, and state-sanctioned violence, all of which it does not seem to speak out against in a way that we would want to today. That brings up the question: do we follow the NT in what it affirms (and thus we can keep slaves as long as we are kind to them) or should we go further in the trajectory it begins which leads us to abolish slavery, not hit our kids and outlaw capital punishment. 

I would argue for a trajectory approach here. So again, we see that we are not viewing the NT as 100% reliable if that means they are the final word as to Christian practice. In that regard, let's again have a show of hands of who here owns slaves? Nobody. We now call that human trafficking. It's the other things that we are inconsistent with--corporal punishment and how we see the legitimacy of the state to torture people or to kill them in the name of justice, claiming to be a "Christians nation" as we do.

Let me end with the question of the yardstick we must use as we evaluate what it means to faithfully follow Jesus today in the 21st century, especially when this takes us beyond where the NT itself stopped in the 1st century. I'd suggest that the yardstick is what the Anabaptists call the "hermeneutic of obedience." That is, as we as a community seeking to follow Jesus and his way of enemy love put this into practice in our lives, we will be able to evaluate from that life of discipleship what faithfulness to Jesus needs to look like. We look at the fruits, the results of the life we are living as to whether it produces flourishing and peace or whether it results in harm and damage. That's our yardstick, and that is the yardstick that Jesus' first disciples used, too.

That's my proposal. But since our yardstick is one formed together in Jesus-shaped community, this is something that we need to work through together, in a dialog not a monolog. So let's talk about it together in the comments!


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18 Comments:

At 10:21 AM, Blogger kent said...

Having thought on this alot lately, I think maybe a better term for describing the "Jesus lens" approach would be to use "love lens." I would argue that everyone in their spirit knows what love is because love is the image of God in which we are created. This knowledge is innate to our being human, and although some of us are more marred when it comes to the image of God we bear, His image is there nonetheless. That being said, it is not hard to see truth and error within the Scriptures. Love is self evident, and when Jesus or the Father are shown in a light that is other than love we can dismiss this as the author's perspective according to his paradigm and revelation. Oh, by the way, I'm sure some will disagree that love is innate to us as humans. I would suggest that Paul's description in 1 Corinthians 13 would be universally accepted as a true description of love for all people in all times. This is my perspective, and right or wrong, I think love always prevails.

 
At 10:04 AM, Blogger Judy Gale said...

Kent, I'm with you. Love is the key ... Love never fails! I see I Cor. 13 as a description of God AND humankind. We're all imagebearers, right?

Derek, I also appreciate Richard Rohr's way of explainingThe Jesus Hermeneutic:
.
The Jesus Hermeneutic
Friday, January 10, 2014

You deserve to know my science for interpreting sacred texts. It is called a “hermeneutic.” Without an honest and declared hermeneutic, we have no consistency or authority in our interpretation of the Bible. My methodology is very simple; I will try to interpret Scripture the way that Jesus did.

Even more than telling us exactly what to see in the Scriptures, Jesus taught us how to see, what to emphasize, and also what could be de-emphasized, or even ignored. Jesus is himself our hermeneutic, and he was in no way a fundamentalist or literalist. He was a man of the Spirit. Just watch him and watch how he does it (which means you must have some knowledge of his Scriptures!).

Jesus consistently ignored or even denied exclusionary, punitive, and triumphalistic texts in his own Jewish Bible in favor of texts that emphasized inclusion, mercy, and justice for the oppressed. He had a deeper and wider eye that knew what passages were creating a highway for God and which passages were merely cultural, self-serving, and legalistic additions. When Christians state that every line in the Bible is of equal importance and inspiration, they are being very unlike Jesus . . . .

Jesus read the inspired text in an inspired way, which is precisely why he was accused of “teaching with authority and not like our scribes” (Matthew 7:29).

 
At 11:41 AM, Blogger Ryan Myers said...

Derek,

The "hermeneutic of obedience" is an intriguing yardstick. But I think the way we're using it is problematic. In essence, I think we're starting with the assumption that "genocide is wrong" and then using that belief (which I definitely hold) to shape our reading of Scripture. As you said in an earlier thread with regard to genocide and rape, we're using a hermeneutic of "Duh." This, I think, is where the problem lies.

In the comment thread for the previous post, you said the following: "Finally, let me say that there are no cultures in which genocide and rape are accepted, nor have there ever been times in which it was. There are cultures in which such horrific and traumatizing events are more common, but that does not mean it is not profoundly traumatizing." I definitely agree that cultures for which genocide and rape are more common are profoundly traumatized. However, there are cultures that live in a constant state of trauma, for which trauma is the norm.

In the Rwandan genocide of 1994, the majority of Hutus believed that all Tutsis needed to die, and the majority of the victims were macheted by members of their own villages. There were many heroes who saved many lives, some of them Hutus, but the proportion of complicit aggressors to victims was much higher than in the more "sanitized" and mechanized genocides of Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot. Another example is the Auca tribe of Ecuador who murdered Jim Elliot and Nate Saint. The Aucas were dying out because inter-clan genocide was simply a way of life. In fact, it was for that reason the missionaries came to them with the Gospel.

How can we preach a message of nonviolence to such peoples if Scripture must first be shaped by an a priori assumption of nonviolence? To such peoples this would be an impenetrable feedback loop. Instead, they would need a self-contained hermeneutic, one that is founded only upon Scripture and not upon a centuries-long development of what are essentially Western (Judeo-Christian) cultural assumptions.

 
At 3:50 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Ryan,

Let's back up for a second. Are we speaking of a culture that is foreign to Christianity, or one that already is Christian?

If it is a culture that is not familiar with Christianity, then I would not begin with the Bible because they would not regard it as authoritative at all. I would instead simply argue from a practical understanding of social thinking and empathy why genocide is wrong. This would be a very easy argument to make.

In the case of the Rwandan genocide this was a Christian culture and there were pastors there using the Bible to call the people to commit genocide. So there we have exactly the problem I am focusing on: People using the Bible to justify atrocity. The same has happened in our own American history with the genocide of the native peoples here, people using the Bible to justify the enslavement, torture, rape and mass murder of indigenous people.

Here the Bible would not be a help, but would instead be a huge problem since they are convinced that the Bible gives them the divine right to commit genocide. As pascal said "people never do evil quite fully so cheerfully as when they do it out of religious conviction." Those are chilling words.

What's going on here is people effectively shutting off their brains and consciences in order to participate in this mass act of evil. In the cases or Rwanda and the slaughter of the American Indians this was often fueled by their approach to the Bible which allowed them to follow its commands without question. That is profoundly dangerous.

So how should we approach the Bible? Something that is critical to understand is that the Bible simply does not have one single voice (so the goal is to find the correct interpretation). It has multiple conflicting voices (so the goal is to deliberate which among many is the right one). One says hate your enemies and commit genocide in God's name. Another says love your enemies. This is not just in the OT vs NT, but in the OT itself. We see there multiple conflicting views presented throughout. So we need to be able to deliberate among the many voices. We cannot use the Bible itself because it simply does not have one single position, but multiple conflicting positions. So we must choose, and to do this we must evaluate. This evaluation is something that we see throughout the OT and it is also common to Jewish exegesis. It is the approach we see Jesus himself taking.

Finally, in answer to your question of "how we preach a message of nonviolence to such people?" I would simply say: Based on an argument of it's merit independent of any appeal to authority.

 
At 3:52 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Kent,

I like the idea of love being our lens. Fits a lot with what Paul says about "love bring the fulfillment of the law."

 
At 5:16 PM, Blogger Celeste Song said...

I'm a bit confused, I must admit. Are we questioning why genocide is evil? I suppose in one sense, it's "self-evident" but in another sense, the Bible itself is a source of condemnation for such an action.

Ultimately, though, I think we are making genocide a proxy issue for an even deeper question we must wrestle with: when we encounter "narrative history" in the OT ascribing certain acts to God's will, how far are we to trust that the OT author's take on events is perfect, however inspired it may be?

Let me use an example to make this deeply personal. A couple of years ago, I became estranged with some family members. Not because I wanted it to happen. In fact, in my view, I did everything in my power to try to work things out but didn't get any cooperation. It was the most painful thing I ever endured in my life.

If I were to tell the story now of what happened, I would do my best to be fair to all parties involved, but I have no choice but to admit that the relationship was abusive toward me and my wife, and though I didn't want it to happen at the time, it was healthy to get distance from the abusive dynamics. I'm sure my family members would take the very same events and put a very different spin on them. They would likely blame me for what happened.

Maybe the truth is somewhere in between. We all share responsibility for what happens in life, and none of us are perfect.

But herein lies the problem: when you put human brains into the equation, storytelling is not so easy as "just the facts, ma'am." The facts can look very different depending on the point of view.

Now some might prefer to think that as long as God was inspiring the author, issues related to points of view in storytelling are obliterated. But then I think you'd find yourself doing a lot of heavy mental gymnastics to try to reconcile conflicting images of God.

I think this is a good discussion to have and we should continue to question exactly how God and humanity interacted in producing the inspired pages of the Bible.

 
At 5:18 PM, Blogger Samurai said...

Oops it was actually me above, but I was accidentally logged in under my wife's name. I didn't want her falsely accused of theological war-mongering ;)

 
At 9:37 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Haha, I did notice that :) The tip off for me was the name "Celeste" which is not a dude's name and you saying "my wife."

As to the biblical authors having their own take, I think what makes this undeniable is that they have differing and contradictory views.

So if we take your analogy of your disagreement with your family, it would be like you got to write one book in the OT explaining how your perspective was the right one, and they wrote another book in the OT stating that theirs was the right one.

It's common to claim that the Bible is all a single voice and harmonized, but that simply isn't true. I'll blog about this with more examples next time.

 
At 7:07 AM, Blogger Lorri Hardin said...

Hi Derek. I'm surprised you didn't mention the hermeneutic approach I developed in The Jesus Driven Life (and expanded upon in the 2nd edition); it seemed fairly congruent with the direction you take.

 
At 7:08 AM, Blogger Lorri Hardin said...

I had to use Lorri's gmail account but this is Michael commenting.

 
At 8:31 AM, Blogger Samurai said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 12:15 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hey Michael, I certainly didn't want to leave you out!

To put this in perspective,
(1) as I said above Wayne Jacobsen's approach is ultimately one that I disagree with because it ends up justifying human violence in God's name rather than unmasking it.
(2) The others I mentioned (Enns, Seibert, and Smith) do not actually give details as to what a "Jesus-shaped hermeneutic" would mean, but rather simply call for its development.
(3) I do not think that a Jesus-lens approach is actually tenable (that is, saying “does this look like Jesus?”) because (a) there is disagreement as to what the “real/right/historical” Jesus view is, and (b) this does not help us when dealing with problematic NT texts.

Because of this I actually take a different approach which is to seek to understand how Jesus read his Bible, and then to learn to approach the Bible that same way. The bottom line here is that we DO need to think, to question, to engage morally with the text. Said differently, we need to reject all authoritarian approaches, and instead allow Jesus to emancipate us. Simply put, my proposal would be:

(1) Jesus shows us that its good to question religiously justified harm.
(2) We need to evaluate Scripture (and our interpretation and application of it) in terms of merit. Or as Jesus would say: by looking at the fruits it produces.

From my understanding, you also do not use a "Jesus-lens" approach (as I described above), but instead have a more complex way of reading. The key is interpreting the Bible through a Girardian grid. That is, you see two perspectives in the OT in tension with each other: one from the perspective of the victimizer (which I would say is the majority voice), and the other from the perspective of the victim (the minority voice), and maintain that Christ embraces one perspective (that of the “least”) and rejects the other (that of power). In other words, to quote Girard, the OT is a “text in travail” which contains conflicting visions of God, and the Gospels are “the climactic achievement” of that struggle. That means the work of OT exegesis is disentangling human’s violent projections onto God (what you call “myth”) from what is truly “revelation” and “gospel”.

I would only want to stress that in the NT we still have a “text in travail” in many aspects (corporal punishment, the legitimacy of state violence, slavery, subjugation of women, etc.). So we need to take it further ourselves today rather than stopping where the NT does. It is the floor, not the ceiling. That’s why the “hermeneutic of obedience” (which you also endorse) is so vital. We need to continue to develop in our world what it means to follow in the way of Jesus. We need to take that further than they could in the 1st century.

P.S. Does your new edition of JDL use Arabic numerals in the footnotes? Those Roman numerals just kill me :)

 
At 4:33 PM, Blogger kent said...

Wouldn't critiquing the scriptures (OT & NT) through a lens of love solve all these issues? If God is love, we know what He looks like, how He acts (and doesn't act), and what He would and wouldn't say. If Jesus is the exact image of the Father in the flesh, then we should be able to use this filter for the gospels as well. As far as the other NT writings, it appears to me that the authors were trying to figure this all out in their own time and paradigms. Therefore, we should be able to filter their writings from this same perspective of love. If it fits with love, embrace it. If it doesn't fit with love, reject it. Maybe this cut and paste approach would make some nervous, but isn't this what we all do anyway?

 
At 6:03 AM, Blogger Samurai said...

Kent,
The "love lens" is a hermeneutic I suggested in an earlier post, so I'm board with you there. However, one thought that struck me is that it's hard to agree on just what love means, even in a Christian sense :)

Of course, you could do a close study of just how Jesus showed love in the Gospels, which I'm doing now - and that is most fascinating! However, to have some credibility here, you have to assume that the Gospel accounts of what Jesus said and did are relatively accurate and reliable (even if not perfect).

Which brings me to the friendly challenge I wanted to give our illustrious resident theologian Derek: there's a pressing need, I think, to demonstrate why the Gospel record of how Jesus used the Scriptures is any more "reliable" than an OT account of genocide. Both are, after all, presented via inspired but human storytelling about God.

I think I *get* what you mean by hermeneutics of obedience. You're referring to Jesus' teaching that "you shall know them by their fruits." What he meant by "fruit" is a fascinating study in and of itself, but I think this idea deserves greater and more solid development in the future.

The final idea I had is that, like Scot McKnight's thesis in the Blue Parakeet, we need to demonstrate how even the most hardcore fundamentalist actually reads the Bible much like you already are advocating.

Now that I've dropped a bomb, time for me to exit ha ha. But it is true. We ALL pick and choose, even the inerrantists and infallibilists. This isn't a discussion therefore of WHETHER we should pick and choose - but HOW?

 
At 12:40 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Kent,

I agree with Samurai that the issue becomes "what is loving"? For example, for centuries people thought (and some still do) that beating kids was "for their own good." The Bible reflect this sentiment.

Samurai,

"there's a pressing need, I think, to demonstrate why the Gospel record of how Jesus used the Scriptures is any more "reliable" than an OT account of genocide. Both are, after all, presented via inspired but human storytelling about God."

I would want to stress that we should not regard ANYTHING in an authoritarian way where we follow it without question. So if we follow Jesus we should do this because we recognize and understand that it is good.

 
At 4:38 PM, Blogger Samurai said...

Derek, you say:
"So if we follow Jesus we should do this because we recognize and understand that it is good."

Ah, but just do we know that something is good? To play devil's advocate - I'd question the assumption that as long as we have good intentions and think critically, we're going to automatically arrive at the right answer. The same, I propose, applies to reading in community. One reading community may arrive at the consensus that hitting kids is Jesus-like. Another might arrive at the opposite conclusion.

Of course, I'm enthusiastic about critical thinking (hey, I'm an educator!), and about reading in community. They are two types of checks and balances to mitigate individuals going off the deep end. But they are not enough.

So how do we make the case that hitting kids is not okay? The Bible, including the words and actions of Jesus, can give us a clue - but there is no clear directive that can stand by itself. But emerging social science evidence about the traumatizing effects of harsh corporal punishment is truly helpful in shedding light on the situation.

In this case, we see that sola scripture is simply not realistic. Rather, we need to believe that God gave us not only the Bible, but also our brains, our experience (including the arts and sciences), and the tradition of our larger reading community as sources of information. In other words, not sola scripture, but the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.

So I propose we need the Wesleyan Quadrilateral as an important, albeit imperfect, tool in the hermeneutic of obedience.

 
At 9:35 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Samurai,

Yes, I think you are spot on here. What I'd want to add is that Wesley developed the Quadrilateral at the dawn of the scientific era. Today we of course know a lot more about "experience" (by which Wesley meant empirical evidence) than he did way back then. As you say, social science evidence is why we do know (not just think, but know) that mental and physical abuse is harmful. We know based on observing the effects in people's lives, and science (including the social sciences) have developed quite sophisticated ways of determining this. So the evidence that a social scientist can bring to the table has a lot more weight than anything in Wesley's time, which is why we know a lot more about people and how they tick then they did back then.

In light of that, if we are going to use the Quadrilateral (and I'm all for it!) we would need to have an updated version of it that takes all this into account. In my experience, theologians are often woefully uninformed about the social sciences and how they work, and are working from a paradigm that is several centuries out of date. I'd like to have a theology that works hand in hand with the best of what we know from psychology, neurology, and all the sciences.

 
At 5:34 PM, Anonymous Robert said...

Excellent article and discussion here Derek so wanted to add on to resurrect it!! I think the final comment you make is sooo crucial Derek to ongoing dialogue and sharing from all sides. I think you hit a major nail on the head when you say theologians on the whole are uninformed about the social sciences and how they work, also so much of common hermeneutics appear to originate from the protestant reformation!!!! If only Paul could have been alive to see believers take either Arminius or Calvin as their vanguard *facepalm* lol

An interdisciplanary theologymakes for a great paradigm as you say Derek. I am on board with Kent too in his *lens of love, but like samurai I want further focus to keep it from being entirely subjective and having people declare their onw interpretation of *lens of love* because they can. Hope that makes sense. So glad i came across this post!!

 

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