Practicing discernment and discrimination

Last week I discussed Ps 137, with its celebration of those who would smash the heads of Babylonian infants.  I stated that such a sentiment is unworthy of God.  I think that in previous journal entries I implied that the book of Joshua’s depiction of God commanding the slaughter of men, women, children, and animals is not the sort of thing that we should attribute to God.

This assertion raises the question of human judgment in the reading of scripture.  If we listen to radio and television preachers, we hear loud declarations that we must take the Bible simply as the word of God and that we humans are not allowed to pass judgment on the Bible.  In their view, the words of the Bible are God’s words and we must submit to them.

It doesn’t take long to discover that even television and radio preacher exercise plenty of human judgment in determining the meaning of scripture and that, like the rest of us, they are prepared to ignore or explain away numerous passages that are difficult.

But the question remains: Are we permitted to use human judgment in our reading and interpreting the Bible?  If so, how do we exercise that judgment responsibly and reverently?

Texts such as Ps. 137 force this issue upon us.  Does anyone seriously believe that God approves the killing of Babylonian babies?  Or, take the New Testament’s solemn prohibition of braided hair for women (in 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Peter 3).  Do we really think that God has a moral objection to braided hair?  Admittedly, some Christians have believed so, but it is increasingly difficult to find Christians who believe braided hair to be a problem.

When I present these matters to university freshman in Bible courses, inevitably the question arises, How are we to discern the authoritative word of God in these passages?  What is God telling us in Ps. 137?  How are we to determine the enduring purpose of 1 Timothy 2?

For Christians who take the Bible seriously, the best response to these questions is to read each text in light of God’s total revelation.  This means, for example, judging the Old Testament by the New Testament.  The New Testament writings themselves do this, as when Paul declares that the purity laws of the Old Testament are not binding on Gentile Christians.

But we don’t even have to set the NT over against the OT.  Leviticus 19:18 commands Israelites to love their neighbors and 19:33-34 commands Israelites to love foreigners.  When we read Ps. 137, no matter how much we empathize with the desire for revenge expressed there, we have to judge that this desire falls short of the command to love.

In other words, if we are to read the Bible responsibly, we must discriminate between passages.  Biblical passages, taken individually, do not all possess the same degree of authority.  The prohibition of braided hair simply does not have the sort of authority that the command to love the neighbor possesses.

More carefully stated, responsible interpretation steps away from a focus on individual texts in the Bible and instead asks about the direction of God’s revelation in the Bible.  As my colleague Michael Lodahl has stated, even in the NT’s teaching about love there is development: In John’s gospel and letters, Christians are commanded to love one another; in Luke’s gospel, we must love the neighbor; in Matthew’s gospel, we are to love the enemy.  To grasp God’s revelation, we must see how John’s gospel and letters do not express the full will of God and that Matthew’s gospel represents a more profound revelation of God’s will.

What we have here is a dialog among early Christians about the proper object of love.  John’s community, feeling itself threatened by various enemies, lays the emphasis on loving other members of the community.  Luke’s gospel, without denying the importance of loving each other, wants us to love the neighbor, even if he or she is a Samaritan.  Matthew’s gospel furthers the dialog by telling us to love indiscriminately, as God love (Matthew 5:48).

It is similar to the OT’s dialog about blessing.  Proverbs tells us that the righteous will be live a blessed life.  There is something commonsensical about this–those who abide by God’s commands will often live well and prosper.  But the book of Job insists that Proverbs’ theology is not the whole story.  Sometimes, perhaps often, the righteous do not prosper but instead suffer.  Proverbs and Job, then, constitute a dialog, or part of a dialog that persists throughout the Bible and into the Christian era.  It would be a mistake to take either Proverbs or Job or any other part of scripture to be the full revelation of God.  Instead, it becomes necessary to interpret each part as part of an ongoing dialog that extends to today.  We today are invited to listen in on this dialog and, having learned from it, to live responsibly for God and to contribute to the ongoing dialog among God’s people.

4 thoughts on “Practicing discernment and discrimination

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful reflection, Sam.

    As you likely know, but I was surprised to learn … We find in some early Christian interpreters an interesting approach. Their tendency, if I may summarize, was to affirm that every shred of Scripture had divine value. But they also judged many pieces of Scripture to be loathsome or wrong on the surface or when read plainly. They would, then, look for the symbolic or allegorical truth beneath the *obviously not true or valuable* surface meaning of the text. They maintained these two convictions hand in hand: all Scripture is sacred, but all Scripture cannot be sacred in its plain sense.

    I’m not sure that moderns (or post-/etc.) can reclaim this paradoxical or highly qualified set of views. But it is interesting to see that Christians have struggled with the plain sense of Scripture for millenia.

    Barton talks about this quite a bit and I found his reflection thought-provoking.

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  2. Thanks, Kara. One of the things I want to explore (eventually) is how first generation Protestants, who routinely castigated allegorical interpretation, dealt with problematic texts. I’m sure someone has already written about it. Who is Barton? Which book are you referencing?

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    • John Barton is a Brit and an OT scholar. http://www.amazon.com/Holy-Writings-Sacred-Text-Christianity/dp/066425778X That was the book I was referencing. It’s fresh on my mind, as I assigned it for class last Fall.

      I have to admit that I know next to nothing about how early Protestants were able to abandon allegory so readily. This is probably where a self-conscious canon within the canon begins. But I have to imagine the impetus for the Historical-Critical (contextualizing) approach would have been a by-product (even several generations) of such a move.

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