Seriously, Not Literally
If you’ve been following my recent blogs, I have written a good bit about theology. I’ve also used a couple of terms that might not be common to some of you, hermeneutics and exegesis. In a Christian context, both are terms describing how one approaches Scripture.
Exegesis refers to the process of studying a passage of Scripture contextually, syntactically, grammatically, historically and lexically. Hermeneutics is the philosophical and linguistic underpinnings of Biblical interpretation. I will confine my comments to Biblical hermeneutics.
Hermeneutics is the lens through which we view the Bible. To understand the difference between the lens of evangelicalism and the lens of post-evangelical Christianity, an American government analogy is appropriate.
Today’s Supreme Court is divided into two camps. One camp is comprised of originalists, those who believe the US constitution should be interpreted according to its ordinary meaning at the time it was written. They believe it is therefore fixed, and not at all fluid. The other camp is comprised of non-originalists, those who believe the constitution is a living document and should be interpreted according to its meaning at the time it was written, but also according to the body of knowledge that has been attained since that time.
Evangelicals hold a view of Scripture akin to the view of the constitution held by the Supreme Court originalists. They practice a hermeneutic that not only believes the Bible should be interpreted according to its meaning at the time it was written, they also believe its words, in the original copies of scripture, are without error. They interpret the words of Jesus that Scripture cannot be broken as a statement of its inerrant nature. We do not have the original manuscripts, so their argument is theoretical.
Not only do evangelicals believe Scripture should be interpreted according to the original meaning of the words, they also claim that approvals and prohibitions contained within those words are as binding today as they were when they were written. If the Bible prohibited homosexual relationships when it was written, that prohibition remains in force today.
The problem with this hermeneutic is two-fold. First, we do not understand exactly what is meant by the words Scripture uses for homosexual behavior, because adult consensual gay relationships were not commonly known in that era. Most homosexual behavior was with those unequal in power, men with boys. That is a very different world than the one we experience today.
The second problem is that some issues in Scripture are treated very differently than others. With some issues, evangelicals readily accept that human knowledge gained since the time of the Bible takes precedence over what was understood to be true or acceptable in the first century.
Though the Bible suggests the sun revolves around the earth, we now know that is not true. Unfortunately the Roman Catholic Church did not understand that in the time of Galileo, who was placed under house arrest because of his rejection of a geocentric universe. Today, you will find nary an evangelical who holds to the notion of a geocentric universe. On that issue, they readily agree that current knowledge supersedes ancient understanding.
The same could be said of slavery, divorce and remarriage, women remaining silent in the church, and other subjects. Evangelicals readily make accommodation for the growth in human understanding on those subjects. For instance, though it was routinely done in the first century of our fledgling republic, you never hear evangelicals defending slavery in modern culture. Our increased understanding has caused us to redefine our interpretation of the Bible’s tolerance of slavery.
This inconsistency in how Scripture is interpreted is a problem. On slavery, there is broad agreement that today’s understanding supersedes the first century understanding. On the subject of homosexuality, however, evangelicals do not believe our current understanding should supersede the first century understanding. By what criteria do they make that assumption?
People outside the Christian camp understand both issues to be matters of basic human rights. They see the inconsistency of the evangelical view, and it reinforces their belief Christianity itself is outdated.
Even Millennial evangelicals understand the problem. While only 36 percent of evangelicals are supportive of marriage equality, 51 percent of Millennial evangelicals are supportive of marriage equality. I believe within 10 to 20 years evangelicals will reach the tipping point on this subject, just as they did on slavery and a geocentric universe.
I do believe Jesus when he said Scripture can not be broken, though I do not know exactly what Jesus meant by that. Even the way in which the canon of Scripture was created was messy, not completed and generally accepted until the middle of the third century. That is the equivalent of America just now coming to a unified position on the actual words and sentences of the US constitution.
I take the Bible seriously. I also take it too seriously to take it literally. It is a historical record of God’s work in the world. It is not a constitution. It is an inspired guide, helping us apply its principles in an ever-changing world.