Interpreting the Bible, Part 2

Jesus is the Lens

In my last post, I mentioned Dr. Craig Atwood’s comment that for Moravians, “Jesus is the lens,” the lens through which we view and interpret all of the Bible and theology. For us, Jesus is the greatest revelation of the nature of God, and His words, actions, and sacrifice give us a better “window” into the heart of the Maker than any prophecy, any law, any Psalm.

The problem that is posed for the intellectually and spiritually honest person is that the Bibles is a very complex book: the Old Testament spans centuries, changes in culture, and circumstances of the Israelites. It incorporates Hebrew storytelling and verbal tradition, combines inspiring Psalms with tedious genealogies, and places profound visions of the Kingdom of God right next to the gritty violence and destruction of the ancient world.

Frankly, it is not actually possible to interpret every part of the Bible literally and pretend that sections don’t contradict one another. OK, it is apparently quite easy for some people, but they do this through an intellectually dishonest mental gymnastic that I can’t do. They are like the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland:

“Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

I believe that God gave use brains for a reason, and He expects us to use them. Believing silly things and pretending that self-contradictory things are compatible isn’t faith, it’s just foolishness. So how do we understand some of the difficult texts in the Old Testament that seem to order violence and cruelty, or which seem devoid of the compassion and mercy and grace so profoundly exhibited in Jesus’ actionas and life?

You can list for yourself some of the “clobber” verses currently being bandied about on hot-button issues. Though we ought to discuss them, they don’t actually serve as good examples for how to have the discussion, because the topics are fraught with such a deep level of emotion and burdened with ponderous baggage. So it’s better to select other problematical passages that aren’t the current “hot buttons” for discussion.

Take for example Deuteronomy 21:18-21:

If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. They shall say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid.

Now, I think most normal Christians today would have a serious problem with this Mitzvot. You would find agreement among the Taliban and some radical tribal Muslims in certain parts of the world, but I think most Muslims would be horrified at seriously applying this passage, as well.

So here’s the question, using Jesus as the “lens:”

How do we interpret this passage in light of Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son, where he clearly draws a picture of a defiant son, a glutton and a drunkard who gambles away his father’s fortune? Jesus goes to great lengths to make clear that the father receives him back with grace and forgiveness even before the son has a chance to say anything; the father certainly has not been waiting at the edge of town with a bunch of friends with rocks. The parable teaches us of the patience of the Heavenly Father, who waits for us with bountiful compassion rather than stones and condemnation.

How you answer this question is very revealing of how honest you are willing to be about conflicting passages in the Bible, and how much you understand of the grace-filled message of Christ.

How you answer this question is very revealing of just how honest you are willing to be about conflicting passages in the Bible, and how much you understand of the grace-filled message of Christ.

For myself, I answer this question by first acknowledging honestly that there is a conflict between the command in Deuteronomy and the mercy exhibited by Christ. Pretending that there is no conflict here is simply a fib. And in understanding the teachings of Jesus, I simply must side with the “Jesus version” of God rather than the “tribal justice” version represented in the Deuteronomy passage.

So, does this mean that I am simply throwing out Deuteronomy? No. In this case, I may just be realizing that the rule was handed down in a different time, when these were a persecuted tribal people wandering in the desert, and such rules may have been necessary for their time and for the primitive level of spiritual understanding that they had.

When it’s a tossup between a passage in Deuteronomy or Leviticus and the clear teachings of Jesus, I’ll go with the teachings of Jesus every time. I don’t have to have a perfect explanation about why the Deuteronomy passage was necessary, or even if it was what God intended or only what the Israelites understood at the time.

Incidentally, the email correspondent whose initial query prompted these posts thought that there was no problem with applying the Deuteronomy passage literally, and stoning the disobedient son. In fact, he said “I think God is just and His instructions are the most loving way to solve the issue.” Just kill the kid.  A response so utterly devoid of compassion left me breathless and saddened, and it seemed pretty much time to terminate the discussion. However, we should understand that there are folks out there whose view of God is so warped that they truly see no problem here: and this is just the mentality that resulted in the burning of John Hus at the stake.

Those of us who come from a tradition of those who were persecuted, whose books were burned, have a problem today with Puritans who are so convinced of their own self-righteousness that they see no problem eliminating the rights of others, or even putting them to death, in the name of their vengeful God. But this is not the God that I meet in Jesus Christ, and I fear that these folks do not understand that they have so inverted good and evil that, like the scribes in Mark 3, say “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.”

Maybe we’ll revisit this topic in future posts!

Interpreting the Bible, Part 1

Recently, I received what I hoped was a serious inquiry asking “What Moravian Church doctrine/logic do you use to set the parameters for what biblical theology is accepted and what is up for debate?”

Unfortunately, like many others the inquiry was not honest but merely a fishing expedition for a “hot button” argument. But the question itself is a very important one, and I thought I would use it as the starting point for a post here. Because really the question is “How do we responsibly decide how to apply or interpret passages from the Bible that seem contradictory to the teachings of Jesus.” The Rev. Dr. Craig Atwood (Associate Professor of Moravian Theology and Ministry at Moravian Theological Seminary and Director of the Center for Moravian Studies) weighed in on the conversation and I will share some of his input.

NOTE: As it happens, our Faith and Order Commission has recently published a document that addresses this very question,and it is now available on the web. Look for GUIDING PRINCIPLES OF BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION on this page:

For the Moravian Church as a whole, there is not a simple and pre-packaged response that completely answers the question in a doctrinal or set way. We are a “non-doctrinal” church and are historically suspicious of institutional doctrine, which in many denominations is the result of a fairly complex process of institutional reasoning, compromise, and reaction which is then presented as being nearly equal with the Scriptures when enforced. This is exactly the process that has produced terrible division and suffering in the Christian Church through much of history.

When a public figure (either a religious leader or politician) begins a statement with “The Bible says….” It is almost a sure bet that what follows is NOT actually in the Bible but is a composite of several cherry-picked verses strung together with an elaborate and sometimes questionable structure of interpretation.

This is never more evident that in the public sphere today. When a public figure (either a religious leader or politician) begins a statement with “The Bible says….” It is almost a sure bet that what follows is NOT actually in the Bible but is a composite of several cherry-picked verses strung together with an elaborate and sometimes questionable structure of interpretation. The Rube Goldberg structure and mechanizations that connect the cherry-picked verses always seems very suspicious to me. When recently Franklin Graham held a news conference to pronounce that the “Bible says that life begins at conception,” I came close to apoplexy, because it just isn’t true – and thirty years ago evangelical Christians were adamant that the Roman Catholic position on conception was completely unscriptural. I still have old issues of Christianity Today to prove it. In fact, most people today are unaware that the current Catholic position on the “beginning of life” only dates from 1869, prior to which there was a complex Augustinian theory of “ensoulment” at quickening, but that’s all another story!

In many ways the Moravians (back to the Unitas Fratrum of the 15th century) are the first “Red-Letter Christians” because we have always held the actual words of Christ as reported in the Gospels to be of the highest authority and concentration. Dr. Atwood puts it succinctly that “Jesus is the lens.” We must understand all of Scripture through the revelation of the Word of God, which (gasp) is not the book we call the Bible; the Bible itself says that Jesus Christ is the Logos, the Word of God. To believe in the Word is to believe in the person of Christ.

Some of the folks in the early Unity agreed among themselves to live according to the Beatitudes, a difficult thing in a violent world, and referred to themselves as “Brethren of the Law.” We currently have an intentional Christian community, Anthony’s Plot, which is seeking to hold to the same very difficult standard.

Moravians have always viewed the divisions between denominations as an evidence of human sinfulness, and take seriously the words of Christ in John 13:35 “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” We regard hostile argumentation that divides relationships over “non-essential” issues as being a violation of this principle, and believe that each individual must make up their own mind about issues that are not made clear – by which we mean MANIFESTLY clear – in the Bible. As you might imagine, we have had never-ceasing internal struggles about what is “essential” and what is “non-essential.”

Historically, Luke of Prague differentiated between that which was ESSENTIAL to salvation (the love and grace of God, the life and sacrifice of Jesus), that which was MINISTERIAL to salvation (Scriptures, sacraments) and that which as ACCIDENTAL to salvation (Language, style of music, etc.). Later the motto that we use today was elaborated by Peter Meldenius and adopted by Moravian Bishop John Amos Comenius: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty, in all things love.” This is very similar to an expression used by some other denominations, “we speak where the Bible speaks, and are silent where the Bible is silent.”

I have often oversimplified this (some of our theologians and historians would argue detail but would agree with the underlying thought) by asking “what are the areas that ALL Christians through history have agreed upon?” As a shorthand answer, this very small list could be regarded as the likely “essentials..” We hold up the simplest creed “Jesus is Lord” as the basic one, and while we use the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed, we use the Eastern version of the Nicene Creed previous to the filioque dispute. The things that we disagree about thus sort of automatically migrate to the “non-essentials” bin unless we can establish with clarity that the Lord Himself taught it specifically and clearly.

Dr. Atwood says that he does not find the Meldenius motto to be very helpful because people think that the “non-essentials” are unimportant or arbitrary. He is right about this; and that is why when I teach about this motto I always include teaching about Luke of Prague’s version, which is actually a bit more helpful. Dr. Atwood feels that a better understanding of the core beliefs of the Moravian Church are collected in statement called The Ground of the Unity, which is available online HERE.

We speak where the Bible speaks, and are silent where the Bible is silent.

In today’s politicization of religion, I believe that the many Scriptural commands (OT and Jesus’ parables) regarding care of the poor and the downtrodden, and God’s wish for justice have been swept aside by political agenda and ignored or reinterpreted when the meaning is manifestly and plainly clear; and obscure passages that support a particular political agenda are used as weapons. Most of the current discussion spends huge energy and time on things that are NOT made clear or which are minor issues in the Scriptures. Again, if a statement begins “the Bible says…” and what follows is a Rube Goldberg contraption of cherry-picked verses connected with questionable interpretation, then it’s not going to be a Moravian essential!

A great example would be the Scofield Bible, which teaches a complex interpretive theology of dispensationalism, a relatively new idea, which seems to me to be “finding a button and sewing a vest onto it.” Unfortunately, this century-old complex theology drives a lot of belief today (“Left Behind,” etc.) even though it would have seemed utterly foreign and wrong to the apostles. However, a large proportion of American Christendom sees Scripture through this interpretive glass, and is historically illiterate about Apostolic practices and understanding – as they are about how many other current common beliefs developed in the Middle Ages.

A particular example is our approach to Holy Communion, which is an ideal example since it has divided so many denominations. The Scriptures do not explain what communion means, or speak explicitly about exact practice. However, Jesus commands us to share in the experience without elaborating on it. So the Moravian Church permits individuals to make up their own mind about the understanding of communion (transubstantiation, consubstantiation, memorial) and leaves that to the individual believer – the only requirement being that no individual condemn another’s understanding of the meal. We have never taught transubstantiation or that it is a mere memorial meal. We have developed a particular traditional practice of serving communion which is somewhat unique (wafers and grape juice in individual cups, the pastor brings the elements out into the pews and serves each person individually, but then all partake together). The service is made up of hymns that are thematic for the service, and the pastor says the words of institution from the Scriptures without elaboration or explanation. All practices of serving are permissible (intinction, the use of wine in a common chalice and a loaf of bread, etc.).

Similarly, Jesus commands us to baptize but does not explain it further. Therefore, we also baptize in all forms without elaboration as to what it means or discrimination as to how it is done – the one exception being that baptism involves entry into the congregation, and a covenant on the part of the congregation to love and support the person being baptized, so baptism must be in the presence of the congregation. It is not seen as a “christening” that is done in a home or privately. We accept infant baptism in part because it was a widespread practice already; it could be argued that the Baptists are right about the form of baptism since we do not accept the medieval theology that drove the original development of infant baptism, and all the examples in the Bible are clearly immersion of adults. However, we accept all forms of baptism so long as they are not used as statements to denigrate other forms; and Moravians now see infant baptism as a sign of the New Covenant, and a recognition that the spiritual life does not begin at age 13 or some other arbitrary point.

NEXT: An example of interpretation using Jesus as the “Lens.”