Thursday, June 25, 2015

A Hermeneutic of Totality

I get asked an awful lot--by prospective churchgoers, by fellow pastors, by nonreligious friends, basically by everyone who doesn't have the profound blessing/curse of putting up with me on a weekly basis--what I think about the Bible.

Here's the problem with that a question: that's like asking a doctor what they think of medicine, or a construction worker what they think of brick or lumber.  You're asking me what I think about something that is the fundamental basis for my entire trade: the documentation of God's relationship with humanity.  Of course I think the Bible is going to be the best thing since Prometheus gave us fire: it is what informs, wholly and deeply, my vocation.

What I discover that folks are really asking me, though, is this: "What do you think the Bible is?"  You have people who say it is the inerrant and infallible word of God and that every single word of it is true, you have people who say it is a collection of fairy tales in the vein of Hans Christian Andersen, except not as well-written.  Most of us fall somewhere on that spectrum, myself included.

Notice, though that I said "people who say...," not "people who think..."  In my experience, people who say they believe the Bible is inerrant and infallible don't actually think that--they are just as eager to do mental somersaults to get out of Jesus's command to sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor as I am to get out of "you shall not sleep with a man as with a woman" in Leviticus 18 and 20.  By the same token, people who say the Bible is all horsepucky are still more than happy to follow two of the most fundamental and foundational teachings of Jesus Christ: do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 7:12 and 22:39, respectively).  At both ends of the spectrum, we end  up following our interpretations of the Bible rather than what the Bible actually says.

So let's be honest with ourselves about what we really think about the Bible, yeah?  I've spent a lot of time back from vacation this week trying to do that (in addition to, you know, emptying my inbox and catching up on my regular dosage of facilities minutiae), and this is what I have come up with:

I can finally label my own hermeneutic--my own view and interpretation of Scripture.  I realize that admitting I have to this point been unable to do that probably disqualifies me from professional ministry in some peoples' eyes; at the very least, it puts me firmly in the back of the pack of many Christians who call themselves Sola Scriptura Christians, The Bible Says It/I Believe It/That Settles It Christians, Red Letter Christians, Burnt Siena Letter Christians (okay, nobody I know calls themselves that), and so on.  But I don't claim to be a precocious pastor or Christian; if anything, I am only slightly better at this than all of you, and yet you let me teach you.  Suckers.

But I have finally figured out how to label my belief about Scripture: it is a belief of totality.  Not the totality of every chapter and verse--I believe that's impossible for any modern-day Christian, and anyone who claims they follow and believe every chapter and verse isn't because I know they're lying, and that violates at least one verse: Exodus 20:16, the commandment (one of the Big Ten Ones) banning false witness.

No, what I am talking about is the totality of Scripture as a singular expression of God's love.  The main thing holding me back from that view was the argument--completely well-reasoned and well-founded, I believe--that the Bible isn't a singular expression, it is 66 different books pretending to be one book, that we shouldn't view the Bible as "the Good Book" but as "the Good Library."

But here's the thing: separate volumes can still be written by the same author or sets of co-authors.  And God is a co-author, in some form or fashion, of each of those 66 books that make up the (Protestant) canon.

When one looks for God in each of those books, then, I believe in looking at what carries over from one book to the next.  Yes, one can reach for one of the half-dozen or so verses condemning same-sex relations, but they don't carry over from one book to the next: basically, they start in Leviticus (the story of Sodom and Gomorrah has nothing to do with gay sex and anyone who says otherwise is full of it) and then skip over the entire rest of Scripture to land in Romans, and that's basically it.  There's no arc to that particular lesson, no form or emphasis.  We get away with doing this because we treat individual verses as fully-formed thoughts when often they are not--which isn't something we do with any other book which lacks verses.  In essence, the chapter-and-verse setup (which was not a part of the original manuscripts, but which was added much, much later) enables our butchering of Scritpture into not just bite-sized pieces, but nonsensical crumbs off the table.

In contrast, let's take another Levitical law: the one commanding us to not oppress foreigners and to treat the foreigners in our midst as citizens (Leviticus 19:33-34).  It is just as vulnerable as the Leviticus 18:22 or 20:13 bans on same-sex relations to being taken horribly out of context, but unlike the same-sex relations verses, there is an arc and emphasis to this particular lesson: the Levitical law cites the Hebrews' own status as foreigners in Egypt, Isaiah teaches that God will gather the foreign believers to him just like the Israelites (Isaiah 56:6-8), Jesus fraternizes with foreigners and teaches parables such as the Good Samaritan parable in which the protagonist is a foreigner, and Peter eventually welcomes the Gentile Cornelius into the church and proclaims the Gentiles as loved and a part of the covenant as the Israelites (Acts 10).  Heck, the entire book of Ruth centers around the welcoming of a foreigner whose name is attached to the story itself!

Do you see the difference between the two?  One is largely outside the scope and arc of the Bible's narrative while the other is interwoven frequently into Scripture.

A hermeneutic of totality requires me to consider as fundamental to my belief that reality, that one lesson that gets cited over and over may in fact not be a genuine part of the totality of Scripture while another lesson, in fact, is.

This is why I care so much, and write so much, and teach so much on issues of welcome, hospitality, economic equality, social justice, and innate identity: the totality of Scripture dictates that I must.

That doesn't mean there aren't exceptions to a totality.  Take that very same example of treatment of foreigners, for instance.  Even as the Bible contains stories like Ruth's, and Cornelius's, it also contains stories of the foreigner initially being turned away, like the Canaanite/Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30).  But those instances tend to be remedied, including the Syrophoenician woman's.

Additionally, any story as lengthy as the Bible is bound to have contradictions within it.  The Harry Potter series is fundamentally about love, sacrificial love especially, for one another, but that doesn't keep some of its characters from exhibiting discriminatory behavior towards house elves, or from exhibiting hateful behavior to one another.  But nobody could reasonably claim that Harry Potter endorses discrimination or hate.

Well, the same is true of the Bible.  Scripture may depict stories of, say, discriminating against foreigners, or denying the identity of a hero (like the bestowal of a Babylonian name to the Israelite Daniel), but that does not mean the totality of Scripture calls for such action, because the totality of Scripture moves in the opposite arc of such sentiment and sin.

This is something that, like I said, I have thought an awful lot about and have finally found a way to put into my writing for you.  I hope that my explanation of my understanding of the Bible makes sense to you and that, if you feel so inclined, you will be able to apply it to your own study and love of Scripture.

Now I've just got to turn this post into a 30-second elevator speech..."Have I told you about the good news of (my hermeneutic of) Jesus Christ?"

That'll get 'em running...

Yours in Christ,

(image courtesy of

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