Today’s guest quote is by Brian McLaren, from A New Kind of Christianity:
As I look back on my own experience with the Bible, I figure I’ve heard or given over two thousand “live” sermons on the Bible, not counting radio and TV sermons I’ve taken in. I’ve also read thousands of theological books and engaged in thousands of theological conversations. How would I describe the way we typically use the Bible, especially in conservative settings like my own heritage? In short, we read and use the Bible as a legal constitution} It shouldn’t surprise us that people raised in a constitutional era would tend to read the Bible in a constitutional way. Lawyers in the courtroom quote articles, sections, paragraphs, and subparagraphs to win their case, and we do the same with testaments, books, chapters, and verses.
Like lawyers, we look for precedents in past cases of interpretation, sometimes favoring older interpretations as precedents, sometimes asserting newer ones have rendered the old ones obsolete. We seek to distinguish “spirit” from “letter” and argue the “framers’ intent,” seldom questioning whether the passage in question was actually intended by the original authors and editors to be a universal, eternally binding law.
As a result, we turn our seminaries and denominational bodies into versions of a Supreme Court.3 At every turn, we approach the biblical text as if it were an annotated code instead of what it actually is: a portable library of poems, prophecies, histories, fables, parables, letters, sage sayings, quarrels, and so on.
Read as a constitution, the Bible has passages that can and have been used to justify, if not just about anything, an awful lot of wildly different things. For example, let’s say we approach the Bible with this question: How should we treat our enemies? Matthew 5:44 tells us to love them. Romans 12:17—21 tells us to do good to them and never seek revenge against them. First Peter 3:13-17 tells us to suffer at their hands and set an example for them. Psalm 137:9 says we should joyfully dash their infants against a rock. Psalm 139:19 says we should hate them. Deuteronomy 7:1-6 says we should destroy them utterly and show them no mercy. If we want to call down fire on them, we can reference 1 Kings 18:20-40, but before we do so, we’d better check Luke 9:51-56, which condemns that kind of thinking. Similarly, we could find verse precedents in the Bible to justify polygamy and celibacy as equal or better alternatives to monogamy (Gen. 4:19; Exod. 21:10; Deut. 25:5-10; Titus 1:6; 1 Cor. 7:1, 29), not to mention a wide array of rules governing dietary, sanitary, clothing, personal grooming, and agricultural matters.
To deal with these tensions, Christian scholars have suggested any number of interpretive techniques. For example, some say “first mention” is primary. Others say that last mention trumps first mention. Some say the Old Testament is valid unless the New Testament overturns the Old Testament. Others say, no, it’s a new Testament, so it doesn’t depend on the old, but replaces it. Some say the Bible permits whatever it doesn’t forbid, and others say it forbids whatever it doesn’t permit. Some say, “Interpret Scripture with Scripture,” but they never quite make it clear which Scripture trumps the other—does Psalm 139:19 trump Matthew 5:44, or vice versa? Some say the more general trumps the more specific, and others say the specific eclipses the general. How do we decide?