First posted on 15 Feb , 2008
On Sunday, the preacher at our church spoke of forgiveness, and used the wonderful interaction between Peter and Jesus recorded in Matthew 18:21-35. It was a good sermon, but it also sparked another thought about how we choose to interpret the Bible (and an afterthought about Scotland making it legal to marry your mother-in-law).
Because of the nature of what I say (and how I say it), I am often accused of abandoning the Christian faith altogther. Nothing could be further from the truth, but that doesn’t deter my detractors. Anyway, I am finding that the most common “root” concern that people seem to have with my approach comes down to one thing: how we treat the Bible.
The methods and techniques we use to interpret Scripture (referred to as “hermeneutics”) are fast becoming a battle ground for Christians. Obviously, its not enough to simply say that we take God’s Word seriously, if at the same time, we don’t use a serious interpretation technique. For example, if we believe that the Gospels are fictional stories, that Jesus was not God, and that the crucifixion stories are just parables told to help us understand a cosmic truth, it is still possible to “take them seriously”. In other words, to treat them as serious literary works, and analyse them as scholars analyse Shakespeare or Wordsworth. (BTW, most literary scholars rank the Gospel of John as one of the greatest pieces of literary in human history). Doing such a literary analysis may even have a profound impact on you. But I am not sure I would like to call it “taking God’s Word seriously”.
So, on the one side we have a group of people who would simply write off the Bible as pure fantasy and analyse it as literature. On the other extreme of the spectrum are the people who take every word absolutely literally, and who make no allowance for the fact that the Bible is, indeed, a written document (i.e. literature). These people are often lumped together under the label of “fundamentalists”. They believe that every verse of Scripture has only one correct interpretation, and most of them are very happy to tell you what that one interpretation is. (More kindly stated, they believe that applying one’s mind to Scripture will always produce the same interpretation because there are standard acceptable hermeneutical methods/tools that will ensure this).
I believe that many of these people worship their Bibles more than they worship God. Earlier today I posted an extract from Deere’s book, “Surprised by the Voice of God”, which I highly recommend: see here.
It is on the battleground of hermeneutics that most of the skirmishes in the borderlands of the emerging church movement will be fought.
I am still trying to discover an adequate hermeneutic – many come close, but most are easily abused. The truly “postmodern” crowd have gone so far over to “abandoning the old” that I think they have lost the plot mostly. If we abandon everything that has come before, and try and start “from scratch” we ignore a key element of Christian practice – that is, the “cloud of witnesses” that have gone before us. Yet, if we stick at one point in history (say, the Reformation, Enlightenment, King James version, or anywhere else), we make an equal if opposite, mistake of not learning from our contexts. The truth lies somewhere between.
All of this was sparked by our preacher on Sunday. He comes from a Baptist tradition, where most conservative pastors would argue for the lietral interpretation of Scripture. Yet, as he read Matt 18:22 (Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”(NIV)), he pointed out two things:
1. The footnote is important (as it invariably is, especially in the NIV!!) – it could also read “70 times 7” (or 490 times). Its interesting how the fact of footnotes does not cause major concern in Biblical literalists. Which is it? 77 or 490? Quite a difference, really?
2. His second point was that it doesn’t matter whether its 77 or 490, because Jesus really meant “forgive as many times as you have to”. Clearly (in the preacher’s words), Jesus did not intend for us to keep a running total, and when we hit 77 (or 490), then we can stop forgiving. He was using a phrase similar to my 3 year old daughter’s “60 million hundred” – which is her little brain’s version of “the biggest number I can think of”.
OK, so why didn’t Jesus just say, “never stop forgiving”? Why the funny maths? And who gave the preacher the right to change Jesus’ words?
You see my point? Fundamentalists shouldn’t be allowed to choose which parts of the Bible we can take literally and which we can’t?
Another example has just flashed across my screen on a news release from Scotland. The Scottish Parliament is to revoke an ancient law that makes it illegal to marry your mother-in-law (personally, I can’t see that this law would have created too many criminals over the years, but so be it). The argument is that the two parties are not biologically related, so there is no health reason for the law. It is just an out of date legal issue that is now resolved.
I hear no moral outrage from the Christian right. I see no protestors in front of the Parliament buildings. I do not hear George Bush wishing to change the Constitution to ensure this heinous subversion of morals won’t happen in the USA.
What? You may ask why I think anyone should be outraged at this seemingly common sense law change. Well, if I take my Bible literally, and know the consequences of such actions:
Lev 20:14: “If a man marries both a woman and her mother, it is wicked. Both he and they must be burned in the fire, so that no wickedness will be among you.” (NIV)
If we’re prepared to get all hot under the collar about homosexuality, then surely we should do the same when Parliaments just abandon good Biblical injunctions? Why the outrage about gay marriage, but not about this?
Its clear that not all parts of the Bible should be taken literally. Its less clear which parts are which! I just wish more Christians would give each other the benefit of the doubt in discussions, not immediately assuming that an alternative hermeneutic meant that the other person had abandoned their faith.
I have not abandoned mine. But I have abandoned my old hermeneutic, and am looking for a new one. And I have a sense that God is pleased with the process I’m on.