Judge for Yourself

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Last time I discussed how to interpret Scripture like Jesus did, and concluded that unlike the way many of us learned to interpret Scripture in seminary (something called “exegesis,” consisting of discerning what the intended meaning or message of the passage is) the task of interpretation cannot stop there. Reading the Bible like Jesus requires going further, asking with Jesus whether a passage fulfills the intended telos of love.

Let’s consider the paradigm of exegetical interpretation. Here the paradigm is that of the objective scientist. The biblical scholar seeks to approach the biblical text the way an archeologist approaches a dig. Their aim is to uncover the meaning by examining the evidence. They do not offer any sort of evaluation of this, they simply reconstruct and report. In a sense it can be seen as a form of translating.

In other words, exegesis by definition does not involve making any evaluation at all about whether the content of a text is good or not, and instead simply focuses on what it says. Consequently, while biblical scholarship has helped us to understand how to read texts in their proper context, it has for the most part ignored— and in many ways, actively resisted— dealing with the ethical issues raised by these texts, doing so on academic grounds. To the extent that this is true (and there does seem to be some movement towards correcting this) it means that seminaries neglect one of their core missions, which is to equip future pastors to guide people in how to interpret and apply Scripture as a moral guide in their lives.

If the paradigm of exegetical interpretation is that of the lab scientist, I’d like to propose that we can understand the way Jesus and Paul interpret Scripture in the context of how our judiciary interprets the laws of our country. In our legal system, the role of the courts is to interpret the laws. On a very basic level this involves establishing guilt or innocence. But it does not stop here. The higher courts also evaluate the laws themselves, for example finding that a particular law is unconstitutional. In other words, the Constitution is seen as the telos or aim of the law, and thus laws can change and even be overturned if they are found to conflict with that aim.

Here the concept of interpreting the law is not simply a matter of rigidly applying what it says to do, but of evaluating it to see whether that law serves the purpose for which it is intended, and further to see whether it upholds the deeper intent of the Constitution. In the case of Jesus and Paul, the parallel to the Constitution is not the written Torah or even the ten commandments; their “Constitution” is love.

Paul proposes that there is a higher law than the written Torah, and that is the law of love. He uses various ways to describe this, saying “you are not under the law, but under grace” (Ro 6:15), and “Christ is the culmination of the law” (Rom 10:4), and “Whoever loves others has fulfilled the law… Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom 13:8-10), and “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Gal 5:18). This all points to a common denominator of Spirit-led Christlike love and grace as Paul’s “Constitution” by which he then interprets the law. We might sum this all up by saying that the goal of love is the core of how Paul interprets and applies Scripture, “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal 5:14). The same can be said for Jesus, “’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.” (Mat 22:37-40).

You may recall that Brian McLaren has said that the Bible is “not a constitution but a library.” I agree that the Hebrew Scriptures are like a library in that they contain many conflicting visions of the good, rather than one guiding theme. We get it wrong therefore when we try to read the Old Testament as a way of interpreting Jesus, because it is simply not possible to synthesize these conflicting moral visions into one. However I would add to this that while the Hebrew Scriptures are not a “Constitution” for Jesus, love does function as his Constitution. That is, love is the guiding principle that drives how Jesus (and Paul) interprets and applies the law. Only to the extent that we apply Scripture in a way that leads to love can we claim to fulfill it.

That means that when Jesus overturns the way of an eye for an eye, repudiating that command along with the principle of retaliation behind it, replacing it with the way of reconciliation and redemption, he is in fact fulfilling the aim of Torah. In other words, he frequently seems to break commands (not following an eye for an eye, healing on the Sabbath, touching the unclean, not stoning the adulterous woman as the law commands) in order to fulfill the aim of Torah. It was for this reason that it was necessary for him to say “do not think that I have come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it,” because looking at how he broke the commands of the law (and yes, he did technically break them), one can see how those with a different understanding of what it means to apply the law could have gotten the wrong impression. Indeed, the Gospels tell us that Jesus was frequently accused by the “keepers of the law” of being a lawbreaker and blasphemer. Seen in the context of Jesus interpreting Scripture as our higher courts do, perhaps we should not say that Jesus “breaks” laws when he overturns them, just as we would not say that the Supreme Court breaks laws when it overturns them. Basically, the “keepers of the law” see Jesus as a criminal who either keeps or breaks the law, when the Gospel writers present Jesus instead as a judge who interprets the law, which includes the authority to overturn or repudiate. Doing so is what it means to fulfill it. Just as we are all called to be priests in Christ, we are also all called to be judges.

It may surprise and even threaten some readers that I say above that Jesus overturns commands. You may have been taught that Jesus perfectly kept the law and was thus sinless. However, the Gospels tell us that the way that Jesus in fact fulfilled the law was sinless, and demonstrated that God’s love involved “breaking” commands. Again, understood in our framework of higher courts interpreting laws, and at times overturning them, Jesus is showing us how to judge what is good. As Paul writes,

“The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.” (1 Cor 2:15-16)

I want you to fully appreciate what Paul says above. Paul imagines an interlocutor’s objection who quotes from the Bible, thus challenging Paul “who are you to question God’s Word?!” Paul counters this objection by insisting that those of us who have the “mind of Christ” are qualified to make such judgments. That is, those of us who have learned to think like Jesus are the ones who are able to make these judgments about what is good.

This type of legal interpretation, just as is the case with our higher courts, involves an evaluation of the law itself in relation to its intended purpose of leading us to loving action. Just as a court may declare a law to be unconstitutional, we are in Christ likewise enabled to judge whether a law itself, or an interpretation of the law (i.e. how it is applied in our lives) is Christlike or not. Some may balk at our being empowered by Christ to act as judges over the written law, but I remind you of Paul’s words regarding believers involved in legal disputes,

“Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! (1 Cor 6:3)

That is of course a lot of responsibility, and is not something to be taken lightly. It is something we should do together in relationship and community, taking special care to listen to the voices of the least as we do, and it is something that calls for much wisdom, maturity, and perhaps especially humility. It is the task of developing an adult faith, the task of taking moral responsibility for our lives, including taking responsibility for how we interpret Scripture.

We should not kid ourselves in thinking that we will be able to do this perfectly. We will make mistakes and get things wrong, even with the best of intentions, even with the aim of love. That is why the process of interpretation as ethical evaluation is an ongoing task.

Here I think it is instructive to understand how Jewish interpretation has developed. While Christians look to the New Testament as the guide to how to understand the Hebrew Scriptures, Jews look to the Talmud. A big part of the Talmud consists of records of rabbis debating how to interpret various parts of the Torah. There is a saying “ask two Jews a question and you will get three answers” and this reflects the nature of how these debates are presented in the Talmud. Each argument is placed side by side, and the reader needs to evaluate them all. Meaning that while the Talmud has the role of interpreting the Torah, it does not do so by giving a definitive answer, so much as it invites the readers into the process of thinking through these issues.

We have as Christians, to a large extent, been taught not to think, told that it is wrong to think for ourselves, and that we instead must simply submit ourselves to God’s written word (often meaning to submit to what our morally underdeveloped authoritarian pastor says the Bible says). Jesus and Paul, along with the prophets, and later the rabbinical debates recorded in the Talmud, all invite us instead to learn how to think morally. That is hard work, but it is the work of a mature, responsible, adult faith.

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At 3:45 AM, Blogger gingoro said...

IMO the Biblical scholars should continue to report on their finding of what the text says. The theologians should then apply not just Love which you champion but all of the plain messages found in scripture as a corrective and check..., especially those found the NT. By plain messages I mean that commonality common to all orthodox Christian churches and by orthodox I have a broad definition including Protestants, RC and Eastern/Oriental Orthodox. Dawit

At 3:48 AM, Blogger gingoro said...

I see many of what normally we call OT laws as setting limits on the retribution/penalty imposed on wrong doers. Not the minimum sentence as we use often today. Dawit

At 7:59 AM, Blogger Owen said...

This goes way beyond our indoctrination - we're not qualified, either educationally or spiritually. Interpret scripture for ourselves ? We are to be told/instructed as to the meaning, with no possibility of doubt/questioning.

At 8:44 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Told by who Owen? What would qualify someone, educationally and spiritually, in your opinion?

At 8:55 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


The category that I am presenting as the baseline for Jesus and Paul as their hermeneutic is whether it is loving or unloving. Love is complex, but there are no attributes of God that are unloving. So if something is unloving it is wrong, period. If the way we apply Scripture results in treating people in an unloving way, that is flat out wrong.

For too often, when people propose that love needs to be amended to say things like "God is love, but God is also..." invariably what is added is in fact a contradiction to love and is unloving. To state it differently, these kinds of statements do not act to deepen our understanding of what love entails, but to water it down by tempering it with other priorities that are opposed to love. That is wrong. To the extent that this is what you are saying, I adamantly disagree.


At 12:58 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Again spot on, Derek.
(p.s.just enjoying a delicious Chihuahua)


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