In the last two posts, we've looked at how the two sides of the slavery argument appealed to the Bible for support during debates over the morality of slavery. (Part 1: pro-slavery | Part 2: anti-slavery)
The two approaches to the slavery issue are representative of two Christian approaches to Scripture in general. Advocates of the first approach—the one used by slavery supporters—put every verse of the Bible on equal footing (at least in theory) and therefore feel free to pull in any verse from anywhere in the Bible to support whatever point they're trying to make. Advocates of the other approach—the one used by slavery opponents—take more of a big picture approach, focusing on foundational moral principles by which our actions can be judged. In this view, the proof texts also must be read in light of the foundational moral principles.
Derek Flood of Red Letter Christians notes that these two approaches can be found within the Bible itself.
In my book Disarming Scripture, I identify these two opposing ways as the way of unquestioning obedience and the way of faithful questioning. What is remarkable about the Hebrew canon is that it contains both, allowing the voice of faithful questioning to speak out in protest against the dominant voice of unquestioning obedience.
This record of dispute pulls us into the argument where we must engage with the text morally. The picture here is that of Israel whose name literally means “wrestles with God,” and there is a long history of Jewish interpretation that is characterized by a healthy and faithful questioning.
This is especially evident in the Jewish Bible, where we see many vivid examples of faithful questioning. Abraham pleaded with God on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, Job insisted that God answer for Job's afflictions, and Jonah demanded that God apologize for being compassionate to the Ninevites. (Jonah's was maybe a less-than-faithful questioning.) The Psalms, too, are rich in faithful questioning (e.g. Psalm 10:1, "Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?", Psalm 22:1, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?", Psalm 44:23-24, "Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?").
In another post, Flood looks at the question of how a fallible Bible can be inspired.
Jesus said that all of the law and the prophets hang on two commandments: Love God, and love others as you love yourself. That’s not just a summary, it’s the very aim of Scripture itself:
The Bible is intended to lead us to love God, others, and ourselves.
That’s the ultimate aim and purpose of the Bible as Jesus saw it. If we are reading in a way that leads us away from love, then we are quite simply reading wrong. That was the mistake of the Pharisees, and continues to be the mistake of many Christians today. If we see that our interpretation is causing hurt, we need to pay attention to that and make a course correction.
This idea is not new. John Wesley, as we saw in the previous post, took a similar approach 200 years ago. Theologian and scholar Thomas Jay Oord examines Wesley's approach to the Bible.
Perhaps Wesley’s most distinctive way of reading the Bible pertains to the lens of love he used to interpret it. Wesley recognized that Christians regard some interpretive lenses as better than others. He writes:
“We know, ‘All Scripture is given by inspiration of God,’ and is therefore true and right concerning all things. But we know likewise that there are some Scriptures which more immediately commend themselves to every [person’s] conscience.”
Wesley scholar Randy Maddox points out that Wesley's view was not original to him; in fact, it developed in part due to Wesley's desire to emulate the earliest Christians.
He particularly valued the writings of the first three centuries of the church, in both its Eastern (Greek) and Western (Latin) settings. In a published letter to Conyers Middleton, he insisted that consultation with these writings had helped many readers avoid dangerous errors in their interpretation of Scripture...
An emphasis emerged early in the church on reading unclear or ambiguous passages in the Bible in light of the “rule of faith” (regula fidei—a Latin translation of Paul’s advice in Rom 12:6 for exercising the gift of prophecy according to the “analogy of faith”). This was a summary of God’s saving work revealed in Scripture, with particular attention to the implicit trinitarian form of this work (the Apostles’ Creed is a key example).
I've gone to some lengths to show the antiquity of this view, because in recent times it has been obscurred by the simplistic, pseudo-literalist view of "God says it, I believe it, that settles it," which lends itself to proof texting in the tradition of 18th century slaveholders.
The choice for Christians is stark. One approach leads to individuals taking a stand on whatever issue suits their whims, whether it is whipping slaves for stubbornness, forbidding dancing and card playing, or refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. The other approach leads to focusing the Bible's teachings inward, recognizing that we ourselves are not without sin, and working on letting ourselves be transformed into the people we ought to be.
Proponents of the first approach often label the second a low view of scripture. They couldn't be more wrong.