Chapter 4: Games Evangelicals Play

This chapter presents the origins of American evangelicalism in the late forties as a group slightly more aware of the original meaning of the Bible, as well as somewhat more intellectually and socially respectable than its fundamentalist forebears.  Its basic tenets are the centrality of Scripture, the importance of a personal relationship with Christ, and an emphasis on evangelism (Becoming Respectable).  The second section shows how pop-evangelical Christianity smuggles in modern cultural assumptions into its preaching and interpretation, such as in its assumptions of what a “personal” relationship might mean.  The Message translation is used as an excellent example (Cultural Assumptions). 

A third section shows how evangelical scholars smuggle legitimate Christian tradition into their interpretations of passages that originally meant slightly different things.  It uses various translations in the NIV as examples (Traditional Glasses).  Finally, the chapter suggests that there is a kind of “spiritual common sense” that by-passes the game playing of trying to make the biblical text say what most Christians recognize it should say.  Christians sometimes engage in a kind of Pharisaic style interpretation to get the Bible to say what our hearts know it should say about issues like divorce, women, etc. (Spiritual Common Sense).

·        Becoming Respectable

·        Cultural Assumptions

·        Traditional Glasses

·        Spiritual Common Sense

 

The original

Chapter 4

When Cultures Decide

 

Cultural Assumptions

The last few decades have seen an explosion of Bible translations: The New International Version, The New Living Translation, The Message, The New Revised Standard Version, The English Standard Version, etc.  The multiplicity of versions is sometimes as confusing as the countless denominations out there.  Aside from the never-ending desire of publishers to make a profit, one of the main culprits behind this diversity is (you guessed it) the potential ambiguity of words.

 

The bulk of the Old Testament was of course written in ancient Hebrew, with a few scattered instances of a related language called Aramaic.  All the books of the New Testament were written in Greek.  As you may know from an experience with Spanish, French, or some other language, there is never just one way to translate from one language to another.  Different languages express themselves in different ways, and the range of meanings a word or phrase can have in one language is almost never the same as its equivalents in another.  In other words, it is perfectly understandable that so many different translations could come from the same original texts.

 

There is always more than one way to translate words from one language to another.

 
English translations basically fall somewhere on a line in between two ends of a spectrum.  On the one end are those translations that try to stick fairly closely to the original wording and sentence structure of the original Greek and Hebrew.  These are “formal” equivalent translations like the King James Version, the New American Standard Bible, or the English Standard Version.  On the other end are those that more try to find concepts in our culture that roughly match the concepts of the original ones.  These are “dynamic” equivalent translations like the New Living Translation or The Message.[1]

 

Readers of versions like the New Living Translation love how understandable and readable they are.  They often can’t understand why someone wouldn’t want to read something in as clear English as possible.  Those who prefer versions like the Revised Standard Version protest that the ease of understanding comes at a cost.  There is more than one way to interpret most sentences, and dynamic translations don’t let the reader make any of the choices for him or herself.  If the translation made the right choice, you’ll see the meaning more clearly than ever.  If it made an incorrect decision, you’ll see a meaning clearly all right, but one that is incorrect.

 

For example, the New International Version (NIV) is somewhere in the middle of our spectrum.  It is more formal than some and more dynamic than others.  The Revised Standard Version, a formal equivalence translation, renders 1 Corinthians 7:1 as “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.”  The NIV, trying to make the verse clearer, translated it as “It is good for a man not to marry.”  If the NIV was correct, it made the verse much clearer.

 

But the NIV was almost certainly incorrect in this instance.  Accordingly, the update of the NIV, Today’s NIV, has corrected the translation: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.”  This time the translation has truly made the meaning clearer.  We could mention any number of other controversial translations, particularly among versions aiming at more dynamic equivalents.

 

In one sense, dynamic equivalent translations are misleading.  Don’t get me wrong; I am all in favor of them in the context of the church.  But they are misleading in the sense that they lull us into thinking that the Bible was actually written in our categories and idiom.  But of course the Bible was written in the categories of its ancient audiences, not in ours.  At least one reason why formal equivalent translations are harder to read is because they actually reproduce the categories of the original meaning more accurately.   

No translation can do complete justice to the original meaning because our culture doesn’t come equipped with all the same categories as those of the Bible’s original cultures.

 
But ultimately no translation can do complete justice to the original meaning because our culture just doesn’t come equipped with the same categories as those of the original cultures of the Bible.  For example, we know that a sacrifice is when someone kills an animal and offers it to a god.  But try as hard as I might, I don’t think I’ll ever really understand how the ancient psyche thought and experienced them. 

 

The idea that I would kill an animal to appease the wrath of a god just isn’t a concept that really translates easily to the Western world today.  I can read words like “propitiation” and “expiation” in a translation (e.g., Rom. 3:25, KJV, RSV)—even “sacrifice of atonement” (NIV, NRSV).  But it’s going to take a lot of work to “translate” the real dynamics of the Greek word behind these translations (hilasterion) into my categories.

 

More often than not we are unaware of how differently the words strike us than the way they struck their original audiences.  In making this comment I do not imply that it is necessarily bad for us to read the words differently.  But part of our pilgrimage to a deeper understanding of Scripture is a realization of just how differently we read these words than they heard them.

 

Let me share a simple illustration from my own pilgrimage.  Matthew 5:45 says that God “sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”  For a very long time I took this verse to mean that God allows bad things to happen to everyone from time to time—even to good people.  It never even occurred to me to examine my own assumptions about rain.  I grew up with the attitude, “Rain, rain, go away; please come back another today.”  So I unthinkingly assumed that the rain God was sending was bad.

 

Of course rain is a very good thing in an agrarian society where draught is all too common.  In other words, the saying actually meant that God gives good things to everyone—even to bad people.  Suddenly I noticed the context of the statement.  It is in a paragraph where Jesus is saying to love our enemies.  Matthew is using the example of God in this verse: if God can give good things even to those who are unrighteous, then I can love my enemies too.

 

We bring basic assumptions like these to every page of the Bible without even realizing it.  The meanings that result for us are not necessarily wrong or contrary to God’s purposes, but they are nonetheless different from the original meanings and connotations.  For example, we miss a crucial element of the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) if we think that feeding pigs in the story is only bad because pigs are so dirty (15:15-16).  Since Jews were forbidden to eat pork or herd pigs (cf. Lev. 11:7-8), we can infer that the wicked son of this story had not only left his father and village, he had left Israel and its faith as well.

 

We bring cultural assumptions to every page of the Bible, often without realizing it.

 
Another element of the story we tend to miss in our culture are the honor/shame connotations the story originally had.  We miss how serious and shameful it was for a son to dishonor his father like these sons do in the story.  These were acts many no doubt thought worthy of death (cf. Deut. 21:21).  We especially miss this aspect of the elder brother’s actions, since we tend to sympathize with him.  We miss the shame of an older man running, particularly to a dishonored son (15:20).  Instead we process the story within our own categories.

 

I heard a story once of a missionary to Papua New Guinea who was struggling with how to convey the concept of Jesus as the lamb of God to a people who had little acquaintance with sheep.  The missionary observed that pigs functioned in a similar way in their culture.  So he translated the concept for them as “Jesus is the pig of God.” 

 

To our ears this sounds disrespectful, because a pig is dirty to us and undesirable in our cultural dictionary.  It is so difficult for us to realize that so many of the things that seem self-evident and obvious to us are simply assumptions and constructs we inherited from our culture as a child.  We subtly change the connotations of the Bible’s words all the time without even realizing it.

 

In the end, the meaning of “pig” for us is not the absolute meaning of a pig.  After all, the Gospel of Mark declares all foods clean (Mark 7:19).  And we no doubt don’t even realize how differently we probably understand the phrase “lamb of God” from the Bible’s original audiences.  The connotations we see in these words are more often than not constructs of our culture, just as they are for Bible readers from other cultures as well.  In this case, “pig of God” proved to convey the meaning of the Bible for the New Guineans far better than “lamb of God” did. 

 

 

Filling in “Gaps” in the Story

Some of the most helpful sermons and Christian books today are those that subtly “fill in the gaps” of the biblical story with contemporary cultural assumptions.  What was Mary feeling when she became pregnant, knowing what everyone was thinking about her?  What was going through Noah’s head as he obeyed God and started building an ark—when he had never seen rain before? 

 

Max Lucado is an extremely popular Christian author.  We can tell how great his ministry to Christians is today by how well his books sell.  We will find him and other Christian authors and preachers filling in the gaps of the biblical story in exactly these sorts of ways.  It is often at these points that we find them most ministering to our felt needs.[2]

 

For example, Lucado’s book And the Angels Were Silent takes us through the final week of Jesus’s earthly life.[3]  Throughout, Lucado addresses the kinds of questions we might have about the motives of various individuals and what they were thinking and feeling.  Why did the disciples keep the blind men away from Jesus?  What did it mean to Jesus for Simon to invite him over to his house?  How did Simon feel toward Jesus after Jesus healed him of leprosy?  These are the kinds of questions that naturally jump into our minds as we read the biblical text.

The questions we bring to the Biblical text determine the answers we find there, and these usually have more to do with our context than with those of the original audiences.

 
 


We regularly fill in gaps like these as we read the Bible.  These are often the parts of the sermon we enjoy the most and find most relevant.  After all, it is often the significance of the questions for our lives that leads us to ask them of the text.  And the answers we see are usually those that seem to make the most sense in our lives.

 

As you might expect, the questions we raise of the Biblical text usually have more to do with our context than with that of the Bible’s original audiences.  After all, we naturally ask about the kinds of things that flow directly from our lives.  Yet our lives and world are different from the lives and worlds of the original audiences of the Bible.  In other words, the questions they asked of these texts were likely much different from ours.  Since the questions you ask largely determine the meanings you take from the text, we see once again how the meaning of these same words subtly shifts from person to person and from culture to culture.  The answers we give to our questions will frequently differ significantly from anything the original authors and audiences had in mind.

 

What five leadership principles can we take from Paul’s writings?  What three lessons on failure can I learn from Peter?  What can I learn from Job about surviving suffering?  In each case the question is something very pertinent to my life today.  But we are bound to approach these issues with unconscious cultural assumptions about leadership, guilt, and feelings, reading into these ancient individuals the categories of a modern, Western individualist.

 

Again, I ultimately believe God speaks to us in this way.  But we should note on our pilgrimage just how differently people of other cultures, times, and places have thought and experienced the world.  Indeed, an African is far more likely to read these texts with the “right” cultural assumptions than someone from the Western world.

 

We alluded earlier in the chapter to the fact that the ancient world largely operated with the categories of honor and shame.  The Western world is much more of an individualist “guilt culture.”  In other words, the Western world formulates personal identity largely in terms of individuals.  In contrast, most people throughout history—including those in the Bible—belonged to “group” cultures where their identity had everything to do with the groups to which they belonged.

 

We can catch a glimpse of the difference by looking at marriage customs.  Because we define ourselves so extensively as individuals in our culture, we practice “dating” in preparation for marriage to see if we are “compatible” with one another.  Do you squeeze your toothpaste in the middle or roll it from the end?  Do you drink coffee?  Regular or decaf?  With cream, milk, or black—half and half okay?  Cappuccino?  Mocha Java?  Burger King used to have a jingle: “Hold the pickle, hold the lettuce; special orders don’t upset us.” 

 

People from other cultures find this degree of “individuation” in Western, particularly American culture, astounding.  Accordingly, we tend to be introspective and self-preoccupied.  We want to be known “for who we are,” not because of our relationships to other people.  We live for ourselves rather than for our families, our nation, or the other groups to which we belong.  And when we do marry, we want to have intimate relationships where our innermost needs and desires are fulfilled.

 

Other cultures, including much of the Bible world, have marriages arranged—sometimes even before the children are born.  Basically, two people are compatible if they come from the right genders, families, and races.  Divorce is less common in group cultures in part because marriage is not viewed as an intimate relationship between two people.  Identity is much more an external feature of a person than an internal one. 

 

Women are one way, men another.  There are exceptions, but they usually involve shame.  Greeks are this way; Jews are that way.  Conformity to our common values is honorable; the independent thinker is a deviant.  There are group-sanctioned ambitions, but the roles are well defined by the culture.  Individuals are stereotyped into certain fixed categories—people don’t change their character; they stay the same from birth.  Acceptance of your lot in life is more the name of the game than personal responsibility for “what you do with your life.”

 

In contrast, we are introspective and intimate in orientation.  We want deep fellowship where we share our innermost, personal secrets.  We value a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”  These are largely foreign categories to the biblical world, as to much of the world outside the West today.  I see myself as an individual when I read the word you in the Bible, as if it is addressed to me individually.  In reality, “you” is more often than not plural in the Bible and addressed to whole communities of faith.

 

Not too long ago another very popular Christian book came out called the Prayer of Jabez.[4]  Again, this book must have ministered greatly to Christians simply on the basis of how many copies sold.  This small book found incredible significance in a one verse prayer by an otherwise unknown person named Jabez, hidden in the middle of a seemingly endless family tree (1 Chron. 3:10).  In the book, Bruce Wilkinson does what we all tend to do when we read the Bible: he puts himself into Jabez’s “shoes” and looks around. 

 

Of course much of what Wilkinson finds thus relates significantly to the way we think as individualists.  Jabez looks back on past struggles with nervousness.  He feels vulnerable and has a sense of urgency.  He steps out in faith and asks God to enlarge his borders.  We relate to this Jabez, because this is the way we would feel if we were in his situation.  Accordingly, his story ministers to us.

 

But the historical Jabez would not likely recognize much in this book.  Here is a man who successfully fought against the people who lived around him and expanded the territory of his family.  To do so he no doubt killed some of them and perhaps left others without their homes.  These accomplishments gained him honor among his people, for the acquisition of land was a value of his culture. 

 

We are not told that he was attacked or that his neighbors were hostile.  The Bible does not tell us that his motives were to purify the land.  There was no command from God to obliterate the Canaanites.  It is far more likely culturally that Jabez was simply ambitious, and God granted him success.

 

My point is not to deny that God prospered Jabez.  Indeed, we troublingly find any number of other places in the Old Testament where God seems to sanction the killing and plundering of other peoples, including the slaughter of women and children (e.g., Josh. 6:21).  But the thought processes of individuals like Joshua and Jabez did not work anything like the way ours work as individualist Christians today.

 

We fill in the gaps of the story with filler that makes sense given our cultural and theological assumptions.  We connect the pieces with the glue of our perspectives on life and the world.  The words and stories take on a mirror quality in which, by the Spirit, we see ourselves and our lives.

 
Because we bring our cultural dictionary to the words of the Bible, its words and stories often take on a kind of “mirror” quality in which we see ourselves and our lives.  As we do with movies and stories today, we will often find that we identify with one of the characters in the biblical story.  That character in the divine story becomes a catalyst through which we see ourselves, both our strengths and our weaknesses.  We fill in the gaps of the story with filler that makes sense given our cultural and theological assumptions.  We connect the pieces with the glue of our perspectives on life and the world.

 

The words of the Bible in this respect are therapeutic for us, sacramental.  The Holy Spirit leads us to self-knowledge by way of the text.  The truths we see are indeed truths about ourselves, even if they often have little or nothing to do with the meaning the texts originally had.  I see nothing wrong with this process, especially if we engage in it with a clear awareness of how God is speaking as we read. 

 

  

Spiritual Common Sense

There are some instances where it is fairly easy to spot cultural aspects of the biblical text.  My Christian “brother” might not react too well if I went up to him and greeted him “with a holy kiss” (1 Thess. 5:26).  And from the look of things most Christian women don’t feel that they need to cover their heads when they pray in church—or even that it is wrong for them to have short hair for that matter (1 Cor. 11:5-6).  Christians have goatees (Lev. 19:27), eat pork (Lev. 11:7), and wear polyester (Lev. 19:19; Deut. 22:11) regularly without a thought. 

 

Christians who pass over passages like these implicitly acknowledge that the books of the Bible were originally written to contexts that were different from ours.  They are using what I like to call “spiritual common sense.”  These are instances where we might not fully be able to explain why we don’t feel compelled to follow the letter of the Bible.  But most Christians have nevertheless come to the same basic conclusion.  They have “caught the Spirit” on the issue in question.

 

Christian men who don’t greet each other in church with a kiss and Christian women who don’t veil their heads in prayer implicitly acknowledge that some of the biblical material was written to address a different culture.

 
Of course there are a number of Christian groups that do try to take every word of the Bible as if it addressed them directly.  Mennonite women wear prayer bonnets on their heads.  And there are a number of Christian groups in which the men do greet each other from time to time with a kiss on the cheek.  I even know of Christians who try to keep the food laws of Leviticus regarding pork and other animals forbidden in Leviticus.

 

I deeply respect Christians who demonstrate such a high degree of devotion, especially in a broader culture that views them as oddities and the butt of jokes.  At the same time, this approach to Scripture is subject to any number of critiques.  One is of course the fact that doing what the ancients did is not “doing what they did” in the sense that the meaning is not the same.  There were reasons for God’s commands; they were not rules given simply for their own sake.  A woman who uncovers her head in worship today is not shaming her husband, as the women of Corinth possibly were (1 Cor. 11:5).  The act has no significance for us today; it has become an idle act.

 

Doing what the ancients did is not doing what they did if the significance of the action is different.

 
More importantly, the Bible itself as a whole does not model an unchanging ethic or teaching.  Seventh-Day Adventists do not worship on Sundays, in contrast to the vast majority of Christians.  Nevertheless, they have rightly recognized that the Jewish Sabbath of Exodus 20:8 took place from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday.  Accordingly, they worship on Saturdays.

 

The Bible itself as a whole does not model an unchanging ethic.

 
However, in so doing they ignore two things.  The first is that all the evidence we have from the New Testament indicates that the early Christians worshipped on Sundays.[5]  They came together on the first day of the week, Sunday (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2).  The witness of the early Christians from the early 100’s makes it clear that this was the tradition of the earliest Christians—to get together on Sunday in memory of Christ’s resurrection (Mark 16:2).

 

Secondly, the New Testament does not consider Sabbath observance binding for Christians, particularly non-Jewish Christians—even though it was one of the Ten Commandments!  Colossians 2:16 says, “do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths.”  Paul similarly says in Romans 14:5: “Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike.  Let all be fully convinced in their own minds.”  In other words, it is up to the conscience of the individual Christian as to whether s/he observes the Jewish Sabbath.

 

Some who look for a unified meaning in the Bible have tried to harmonize these statements with the Old Testament in one way or another.  For example, many Christians “glue” the pieces together by supposing that Sunday has taken the place of the Jewish Sabbath.  Some even transfer the commandment not to work on the Sabbath (Exod. 20:9) to Sunday.  Thus in the movie Chariots of Fire, a Scottish runner refuses to run in the Olympics on Sunday as a matter of conscience.

 

But the New Testament never equates Sunday with the Jewish Sabbath, and the New Testament actually forbids requiring a Christian to observe the Jewish Sabbath.  Someone might object, “But the Sabbath was instituted at creation” (Gen. 2:2; Exod. 20:11).  I know—isn’t it amazing that God would allow such a drastic change in what he expects of his people?

 

The main difference between Jesus and the Pharisees in the gospels and between Paul and his opponents at Galatia is that both Jesus and Paul used “spiritual common sense” when they applied the Bible’s words.  They followed the “spirit” rather than the letter of the Scripture (2 Cor. 3:6).  While the Pharisees were concerned about the Sabbath law, Jesus was concerned with his disciples getting fed (Mark 2:23-28).  While James was concerned with the purity laws of Leviticus, Paul was concerned with the unity of Jewish and non-Jewish believers (Gal. 2:11). 

 

Jesus summed up the rule of thumb well when he said “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27).  In other words, a person’s life is more important than a rule, even if it is one of the Ten Commandments.  Jesus backed up these ideas with an astounding reminder of an incident that took place in the days of King David (Mark 2:25-26).  David’s soldiers were hungry, and a priest allowed them to eat bread from the sanctuary (1 Sam. 21:1-6).  This priest was way out of line according to the law (Lev. 24:9).  But he was right on target with regard to the Spirit. 

 

Except for the command to love, neither Jesus nor Paul were legalistic or absolutist in their appropriation of Scripture.

 
Many see an opportunity for abuse in anything but an absolutist ethic that does not allow for exceptions.  On the one hand, they are right—we are prone to “take a mile” when given an inch.  And we as humans cannot always be sure when people are sincere and when they are taking advantage of a “loophole” in the rules.  Further, our “common sense” can mislead us—the “common sense” of one person isn’t always the sense of someone else.

 

And can’t cultures be wrong?  Isn’t part of the Bible’s role to be counter-cultural?  What if we find that American culture as a whole comes to accept homosexuality?  Does that mean that God approves of homosexuality and that Paul was only thinking “culturally” when he wrote? 

 

These are all the right kinds of questions and concerns.  Allowing for the cultural dimension of the Bible makes applying the Bible to today a “sloppier” and more imprecise process than we prefer.  Allowing for changes in the rules over time and for exceptional circumstances does not give us the clarity of a “God said it; I believe it; that settles it for me.” 

 

But we must press on for several reasons.  The first is that we are simply stuck with this situation.  As the ancient saying goes, “Abuse is no excuse.”  I cannot deny a truth or the correct action simply because someone might abuse it.  The Bible was written in the categories of the ancients.  The New Testament does modify the teaching and requirements of the Old Testament.  And the New Testament teaching will not play itself out the same way today unless we translate it into our categories.  It would be easier if I could just apply the words directly to myself, but this tactic almost always leads to the path of the Pharisees Jesus opposed and the “literalists” Paul opposed.

 

We are also getting our own role out of perspective.  God is ultimately the judge and the one who dispenses judgment (Heb. 10:30).  Certainly the Bible also models confronting those who have spiritual problems (Matt. 19:15; 1 Cor. 5:5).  But ultimately “catching the wrong-doer” is God’s business, not ours.  Someone might escape our notice, someone might “get away” with something down here.  But God sees, and God knows (Rom. 14:22; Heb. 4:13).

 

Most importantly of all is the fact that it is the nature of love to be willing to bend and make exceptions.  When my son was two years old, he was very talented at opening things.  We put a special knob on the front door, but it seems like he was the only one in the house who could actually turn it.  We put special gizmos on certain windows, but he could still open them.

 

Let’s say I had told our baby sitter during that time not to let Tommy out of the house.  “I’m afraid he’ll run out into the street,” I might have said.  Let’s even say I became emphatic: “Under no circumstances are you to let Tommy out of the house.”

 

Then let’s say our house caught on fire.  Can you imagine the baby-sitter telling Tommy, “I’m sorry, Tommy.  I know you’re going to burn, but your Dad said I wasn’t to let you out of the house”?  Of course not!  The right course of action would be immediately obvious—take exception to my rule and get him out!

 

Christians regularly take the Bible’s words in rigid ways that are like this legalistic baby-sitter.  In so doing they read the words significantly out of proportion to the limits originally intended.  What if a husband beat his wife regularly, but never had an affair?  Let’s say he claimed to be a Christian and didn’t want a divorce.  Let’s say he commanded his wife to stay with him and forbade her to leave the house.

 

You could make a case from the Bible’s words that she must stay with him.  He hasn’t had an affair, so she cannot divorce him (Matt. 5:32).  He is pleased to live with her, even if we conclude he is not really a Christian—thus she is still bound to him (1 Cor. 7:13).  Further, 1 Peter 3:1-6 describes a situation in which a wife accepts the authority of her husband even if he is an unbeliever: “Sarah obeyed Abraham and called him lord” (3:6).

 

God forbid!  It would go soundly against the Spirit of Christ for us to tell a woman in this situation that she must remain with this man.  God no doubt shakes his head at Christians who read the Bible so out of focus with his Spirit.  Jesus would no doubt look at us with complete disbelief if we presented this way of using his words back to him.  It goes against every example he has left us.  “I never intended those words to be used in a situation like that,” he would say to us.  We have twisted words intended to benefit God’s people and made them instruments of torture.

 

To be faithful to God’s Spirit, there must be flexibility in the way we appropriate Scripture that allows both for exceptional circumstances and changing cultures.  We will also want some sort of “check” to make sure we also allow for God to critique our culture.  With individuals, the best check is for us to read the Bible together.  By reading in community we subject ourselves to the critique of other Christians with the Spirit inside them. 

To be faithful to God’s Spirit, we must be flexible in the way we appropriate Scripture, allowing both for exceptional circumstances and changing cultures.

 
 


We can balance and check the short-sightedness of our culture by reading the Bible in community with Christians of other cultures.  Even better yet, we should become aware of how other Christians throughout the ages have read these words.  If the Spirit lives in the entire body of Christ, then the more other Christians we read with, the more likely we are to “catch the Spirit.”

 

 

Guiding Principle One: Loving Interpretation

The guiding principle behind “spiritual common sense” is love.  When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he responded “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the Law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:37-40).

 

Other New Testament writers, particularly Paul (Rom. 13:8-10; Gal. 5:14) and James (Jas. 2:8), say exactly the same thing.  Notice that Jesus taught that we must love our enemies (Matt. 5:43-48).  He certainly believed we should love our friends.  No one is left—God requires us to love everyone.

 

What this observation means is that any appropriation of the Bible that involves hatred of someone is incorrect; it is not a Christian use of Scripture.  Some forms of Christianity get so focused on the words of the Bible that they forget Christ’s bottom line.  They bring the Bible’s words into contradiction with Christ.  Clearly Christ trumps any biblical interpretation that involves hatred of a human being—it would be wrong to obey the “Bible” of this person.

 

Any appropriation of the Bible that is in keeping with love of our neighbor is appropriate; any appropriation that involves hatred of a person is not Christian.

 
We have arrived at the first of two basic “guidelines” for the Christian use of the Bible’s words.  I would argue that any interpretation that fits with these two guidelines is an appropriate interpretation of Scripture, even if it has nothing to do with the original meaning.  The first guideline concerns interpretations that relate to how we should live.  Here the guiding principle is love.  Any appropriation of Scripture that is in keeping with love of our neighbor is appropriate; any appropriation that involves hatred of a person is not Christian.[6]

 

We saw in chapter one that the Bible has any number of verses that a person could use to justify an evil action: “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” (Ps. 137:9).  We saw in the previous chapter that Jesus filtered Old Testament teaching through the lens of love.  He holds the magnet of love up to the Old Testament law.  Whatever sticks he retains; whatever doesn’t falls by the way.

 

Thus in some instances the requirement is deepened: it is wrong to even contemplate adultery, not just to do it (Matt. 5:27-28).  In other cases the law becomes obsolete because the principle of love undermines the very reason the law existed in the first place.  Thus the person who is truthful does not need to make oaths at all because his or her word stands on its own as trustworthy (Matt. 5:33-37).  In still other cases it becomes wrong to keep the law, such as when the law of retaliation says to “show no pity” in the exacting of retribution (Deut. 19:21; Matt. 5:38-42).

 

While it may stretch our way of thinking, the same must also apply to the way we use the New Testament today.  There may be teaching in the New Testament that would not play itself out in the spirit of love today if we enacted it rigidly.  New Testament teaching on issues like whether we should eat with a disobedient Christian (e.g., 1 Cor. 5:9-11; 2 Thess. 3:14) may or may not accomplish Paul’s goals in our context.  We could argue that the church has already abolished slavery as a fundamentally unchristian practice, even though the New Testament implicitly accepts it (e.g., Col. 3:12-4:1). 

 

Of course deciding what is loving and what is not needs to be a corporate rather than an individual task.  While we must ultimately decide how to live as individual Christians, deciding such things in communities of faith helps us “catch the Spirit” more accurately than as individuals.  This process is bound to involve some frustration, especially for those of us who want hard and fast, black and white answers.  But this process is part of what it is to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12).  The word you is plural here, and Paul refers to that corporate process of helping each other make it to the end.  So too we must struggle to figure out the specifics of what God requires of us in every generation, time, and place.



[1] Versions like the New International Version and Today’s New International Version stand somewhere in the middle.

[2] D. Drury and J. Drury have written an article entitled, “‘Purpose Driven Catechism’: Is The Purpose Driven Life the Evangelical Catechism.”  In this article they argue that R. Warren’s best selling book gives us a snapshot of the faith values of current evangelical culture. 

[3] And the Angels Were Silent: The Final Week of Jesus (Portland: Multnomah, 1992).

[4] Bruce Wilkinson, The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life (Portland: Multnomah, 2000).

[5] Actually, the evidence seems to indicate that Jewish Christians did continue to observe the Jewish Sabbath (e.g., Acts 17:2) in addition to the “Lord’s Day” on Sunday (cf. Rev. 1:10).

[6] Of course the Bible also portrays God as a God of justice and holiness.  But these other dimensions of God’s revealed character do not contradict the absoluteness of Jesus’s love ethic for us.  For one thing, I am not God.  The New Testament rarely envisages the Christian individual or community as agents of God’s justice. 

Secondly, justice in its purest sense is blind.  In this sense neither hatred nor love determine what would be just, and justice can be administered without hate or prejudice.  Finally, the teaching of Jesus implies that mercy ultimately triumphs over justice and judgment in terms of how we are to live our lives on earth (Matt. 18:21-35; 23:23; Jas. 2:13).  In other words, mercy is a higher principle than justice for the Christian in this world.