My duty to the Bible’s living interpretive tradition

bibleI had a good discussion yesterday with my pastor covenant group about our discernment process as a church in the wake of the Frank Schaefer trial and controversy. I know that I got a little hot-headed in the debate online so I wanted to offer more circumspect reflections. I believe that each disciple of Jesus Christ not only has the right but actually the duty to contribute to the ongoing living interpretive tradition of our faith. Some Christians think that the Bible doesn’t require any interpretation, but I contend that the way we interpret it is by living it and sharing our testimony with each other.

The Corinthian church was perhaps about as contentious a group of Christians as the United Methodist Clergy facebook group. Paul spends much of his first letter to the Corinthians chastising them for their factionalism, but then he makes an interesting statement in 1 Corinthians 11:19: “Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine.” The Greek word that gets translated as “genuine” is dokimos, which is the word used for coins whose metallic purity has been confirmed.

So basically Paul is saying that we’re supposed to argue. It’s part of our vocation as Christians to engage in an ongoing discernment process. Just because the Bible is already written doesn’t mean that the discernment ever stops. We’re testing the coins to see which ones are silver and which ones are counterfeit. Obviously this needs to happen in a charitable way that I generally suck at. The responsibility that I often fail to recognize is that whenever I’m arrogant, patronizing, or vicious in my communication, I betray the contribution God has given me to make.

We each have an individual faith journey that God has shaped through our scripture-filtered experience of life. I wrote a series several months ago called “Five verses God has tattooed on my heart” describing my own journey. The problem with Albert Outler’s concept of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (scripture, tradition, reason, and experience) is that our faith journey never happens independently of the interpretive filter of scripture (unless we don’t read or trust the Bible as canon). If our relationship with scripture is what it’s supposed to be, then our personal experience should always be narrated through scripture.

Every individual Christian discovers different Bible verses in a different order at different points in their lives. The word God speaks through each of these verses is irreducibly unique to that individual discipleship journey. Let’s take John 1:5: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness could not seize it.” What that verse means to me depends on the lived context in which I read it. Am I going through depression? Am I under some kind of persecution? Have I just discovered a horrific betrayal? Each Christian’s lived encounter with scripture contributes to its ongoing interpretive tradition insofar as they share their testimony with others.

So part of my responsibility as a member of the body of Christ is to share my lived interpretation of scripture in order to contribute to the Bible’s living interpretive tradition. This is more than just “personal experience” or “subjective feelings.” It is the journey of interpreting scripture. In fact, when scripture is not lived but only cut and pasted into Facebook threads in its undigested proof-text form, then it has not really been interpreted. Interpretation is not just a role for old (or dead) white guys. The recognized tradition is severely lacking in the perspectives of people who don’t look like me at all.

My contribution to the interpretive tradition involves a powerful encounter I have had with 1 Corinthians 1:27-28 which talks about God choosing the outsiders: the weak, the foolish, and the despised. I read this in the context of my deliverance from severe depression which took place partly while attending my first United Methodist congregation that happened to be mostly LGBT.

Another primary verse that shapes everything about my experience of the world is Matthew 9:13, where Jesus tells the Pharisees who are judging him for his solidarity with sinners to “go and find out what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'” This filter shapes how I size up other Christians, some of whom have been made merciful by God’s mercy and others of whom leverage their gestures of sacrifice, just like the Pharisees did, to give themselves power.

There have been many other chapters in my journey. A couple of years back, I blogged through Psalm 119. About a year ago, I was taken on a journey in contemplating the fear of the Lord. More recently, I have taken to memorizing lines from the psalms in Hebrew that God has used to “order my steps in [His] word” (Psalm 119:133).

I have a duty to the living interpretive tradition to share my own lived interpretation of the Bible as part of our church’s discernment process. Regarding our present homosexuality debate, I have a very specific contribution to make. Because of the people God put in my life to join me in my lived interpretation of 1 Corinthians 1:28, I have become increasingly convinced that gay Christians are, at least in our day, the fulfillment of Paul’s prophecy that “God has chosen what is low and despised in this world… to bring to nothing the things that are.”

What needs to be brought to nothing is the notion that American Christianity exists to legitimize the suburban family-based consumerism that smothers the church’s missional vocation like a giant wet blanket. The hyper-competitive “focus on the family” of suburban existence is analogous to the religious zeal competition of the 1st century Pharisees which Jesus brought to nothing by letting women they viewed with contempt rub his feet erotically with their hair and dump perfume on his head.

It makes sense to me that the kingdom of mercy which is God’s ultimate goal for humanity would be best established among people whose legitimacy is constantly under attack and who can say nothing to legitimate themselves beyond their trust that the God who wouldn’t respond to their tearful pleas to be made different actually loves them and wants them to have a full experience of life which doesn’t depend on denying their identity.

People who are illegitimate know and live God’s mercy a whole lot better than those of us who spend our lives legitimating ourselves with our moral and doctrinal correctness. This is not about “condoning sin” and eschewing holiness. The goal of holiness is not the sanctimony of being able to judge everyone else without hypocrisy but rather a heart entirely unopposed to the reign of God’s mercy. As 1 John 4:12 says, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”

Jesus’ statement that the “first shall be last and the last shall be first” (Matthew 20:16) has only a quaint, abstract meaning when those whom we see Jesus making first ahead of us are not utterly despised like “the prostitutes and tax collectors [who were] entering the kingdom of God ahead of [the Pharisees]” (Matthew 21:31). The only way to break the death grip of suburban consumerism in the booming megachurches of American Christianity is through people who cannot be “normal” suburbanites. So this is a somewhat hasty summary of why I think 1 Corinthians 1:28 is prophetically fulfilled by gay Christians.

Having this prophetic hypothesis, I have wrestled with the so-called “clobber texts” on homosexuality in scripture and found them to be a lot more tenuous and contingent upon a patriarchal social framework than many Christians realize. That doesn’t mean that I’m right, but it is my duty to share this prophetic understanding as part of the church’s interpretive conversation. For me to shut up and go away would betray God no less than for me to shut my ears and ignore what other witnesses are saying.

When the apostles gathered in Jerusalem at the first council of the church in Acts 15 to decide whether the Gentiles should be required to follow Torah, they didn’t make their decision to drop the circumcision requirement based on scripture related to circumcision. They shared testimony of the spiritual fruit revealed among the Gentiles, and the Holy Spirit gave Jesus’ brother James the insight that this was the fulfillment of Amos 9:11-12 in which God had proclaimed that the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple would make it “so that all other peoples may seek the Lord.” This would seem an utterly bizarre and illegitimate discernment process to the traditionalists today if it were about homosexuality instead of circumcision.

The question is whether other voices in the interpretive conversation corroborate or contradict what I believe that God has revealed to me (if in fact they engage my interpretation directly, which is somewhat rare). My individual interpretation has very limited authority that must be proved like a coin being tested for its purity along the lines of 1 Corinthians 11:19. I must be willing to listen to God clarify what I think He has been speaking to me through His word according to the corroborations and contradictions of other Biblical interpreters.

Without confirmation from others, my interpretation rightly has little authority. The challenge is learning how to be faithful to a word that I believe I was given to share while being absolutely open to God’s correction through others and renouncing any investment in my rightness. It is our duty to be zealous for the truth; it is deadly spiritual poison to be zealous about being right. I conflate the two often.

This doesn’t mean I’m going to roll over for just anything, but I need to have the integrity to admit that I’m wrong when God shows me through someone else’s testimony. This is why it’s so helpful to me when those who disagree can speak with patience and grace and not be snide jerks about it. If you have something God gave you to share with me, and I blow it off because you were patronizing or caustic, then you’re the one who has betrayed God. If you are faithful to your word by speaking it in a spirit of Christ, the onus is on me.

The testimony of the past is of course very important and legitimate. I respect its authority but with qualification. I’m not going to be waved off with only a disembodied quote from Thomas Aquinas or John Wesley about a particular issue. I want to see the logic within which they make their determinations. Some of it is derived from scripture itself; but some of it is contingent upon presuppositions about ontology, epistemology, psychology, etc, that history has proved inadequate.

For example, the Enlightenment rationalist account of human psychology in the 18th century simply does not do justice to what humanity is really like, so I have to read John Wesley with this qualification in mind. All this is just to say that while I take the past seriously, its witness does not dismiss me or relieve me of my duty to speak what I have been given to share.

All of us have the authority and the duty to bear witness to the Biblical truths to which we have given flesh in our lives. Likewise, we have the duty to listen attentively to other voices, particularly those who haven’t skewed the interpretive conversation through centuries of privilege like rich white straight males have. I recognize this can get dicey when someone else has a different level of commitment to the Bible’s canonical authority.

Outsider voices, like secular feminist critics, people from other religions, or scholars who read the Bible strictly as an academic literary work, do have an important contribution to make to the Bible’s living interpretive tradition. But interpretation itself is sabotaged when someone decides to throw out its canonical foundation, so adversarial contributions can only be engaged to a point.

Basically, it’s not enough to submit to whatever your megachurch pastor has to say about the Bible as “the truth.” The Bible can only be interpreted through its performance. We learn what it says by acting it out. So read prayerfully, live faithfully, and speak boldly. And do this with enough grace so that people who dismiss and ridicule you will not be able to do so legitimately, but will reveal their own coins to be counterfeit in doing so.

9 thoughts on “My duty to the Bible’s living interpretive tradition

    • Thanks so much Cynthia. I think I’ve finally figured out the angle for my book that I was telling you about. It’s going to be “Mercy not Sacrifice: Jesus against the Pharisees” with a set of readings in which Jesus’ holiness is contrasted with the Pharisees’. That basic dichotomy should be the loudest thing that we notice in reading the gospels, but of course it isn’t because the church is run by modern-day Pharisees.

  1. Thanks, Morgan. I have also chosen a similar lens through which to consider our lived faith and the role of scripture in that consideration. Like you, I have recognized that there are particular texts and themes that speak to me in different ways at different times in my life. I have heard from others that this has often been their experience as well. Sharing together those stories where the Biblical story and our story have intersected has been a rich source of life-giving blessing for me. Like you, I can point to particular times in my life and the ways in which the story of those who came before me found in the Bible have helped shape and guide me in my life. We rarely engage in those conversations. We use the Bible more often as a weapon to defend our cherished beliefs or attack those beliefs that threaten us.

    • What will it take for us to listen to each other’s journeys with the assumption that God has something to say rather than trying to end the conversation with our Bible verse quotes?

      • Morgan, what I frequently encounter, especially online, is that the lack of personal connection hinders that conversation. Participants are not always nameless or even faceless, but they too easily become stereotypes, props in our own drama acted out online. So people write more of the “we” than the “I” and of “my church” rather than “God’s church.” There is also, sadly, often too little serious training for clergy in counseling skills and approaches that I now think should be essential for any minister. As an ordained Elder who works in the mental health field specializing in additions, I receive regular clinical supervision. I covet that supervision! When I served churches my supervision was far from clinical and often threatening, but always from someone whose dual role was problematic.

        We have, I think, constructed an institution that is now showing the signs of collapse as the world more swiftly changes every day. The pace of that change accelerates and the church cannot manage its response to the always new unfolding context of a new day. Often I sense ministers and laypersons holding dearly to what has served them well, seeking some homeostasis, some stability, some sense of tradition, comfort and assurance.

        If we were designing a denomination from the ground up, it would never look like the United Methodist Church today. It flies in the face of so many principles of personal and group effectiveness. So we rearrange the deck chairs as the iceberg of history continues to rip an ever growing deadly gash in our belly.

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