A Way Forward Bible Study and Holy Conversation – Session 2, Interpreting Scripture

Here are notes from our second session where we focused less on General Conference and more on who we are called to be as a congregation as we look beyond General Conference.

How many of you have had an experience like this, where you wanted to know God’s will for your life, or to be inspired in some way, so you opened the Bible and tried to find something, but ended up more frustrated than inspired?  Or you made a commitment to read through the Bible, but had trouble understanding what you were reading or found yourself stuck in some way? That’s because this book is complex and difficult to understand as a whole without understanding certain rules for interpretation.  This book is a collection of  history, poetry, prophecy, song , letters, laws, arguments over laws, differing opinions, parables, stories, with some passages that are straightforward, and many that are highly symbolic, all taking place in a culture that is ancient and foreign to us…AND, on the other side, it is experienced as the Word of God, as divinely inspired, as transformative and so we find it extremely and even eternally valuable.  It is so worth the effort and the internal struggle that it creates.  And so, we keep coming back.

Before we look at some key scriptures, I want to talk some about methods for interpreting the scriptures.  The big, seminary-level, word for this is hermeneutics (on screen).  This word describes the systems we use to interpret scripture and draw our conclusions. When we do not have some clarity about what we are reading and how to read it, that’s when we get lost or come to decisions that may not be the most faithful and fruitful.  Here are a couple of popular hermeneutical methods.

Proof-Texting.” Have you heard this term?  This is a very common method for interpreting scripture.  Proof-texting is when we search for scriptures to prove an opinion.

The next one is a more positive variation of this method. I call it a focus on Devotional Verses.  This is where we focus on key verses for inspiration and guidance.  Employing this method, we focus on parts not the whole – key verses that speak to us.  This method can be very helpful.  At the same time, some caution is in order. Concerning our topic, a version of this method can be used to say that something is right or wrong.   Someone might say, “The Bible says,” and then quote a verse as if that settles it.  Then, perhaps, they can walk away feeling righteous without noticing how hurt others might be, or without dealing with all the other verses that might lead to a different or transformed perspective.  We might think that we are glorifying God by upholding some ideal, and in reality, cause deep hurt to individuals and to the body of Christ.

To avoid this kind of harm, and to open ourselves up to true inspiration, we need a deeper hermeneutic or method of interpretation.  Here are some key principles of what I call a Wesleyan Hermeneutic:

  1. All Scriptures are Inspired. We proclaim that all scriptures are inspired and contain all that is necessary for growth in salvation. The Bible is our primary source for understanding who we are called to be.
  2. There are Scriptural Keys to Help us to Interpret the Whole. There are key scriptures that help us interpret all other scriptures. We can call these “Master Texts” or Hermeneutical “Keys” that open up meaning within the scripture – and help us make determinations about what might be historically conditioned, or how to discern deeper truths beyond the words, or how to make decisions between different perspectives within the scriptures themselves (and yes, the scriptures are full of different perspectives). It is worth noting that Jesus used this principle when he summarized all of the law and prophets with the Great Commandment – Love God and Love your neighbor as a part of yourself.  Wesley, following Jesus’ lead, called this love the “royal law.”  So, for example, Jesus could fulfill the law, even as he broke the law or rebelled against the way the law had been applied around issues related to the Sabbath, to diet, to healing, to who could or could not be touched, to who to include.  His guiding light was the “royal law of love.” And we could list other passages that serve as keys for us.  Last week we looked, for example, at Ephesians 4:1-6 and I Corinthians 13: 1-8. (See Authority of Scripture, A Wesleyan Hermeneutic, and the Way Forward, for a deeper explanation).
  3. Read with Resources. Resources are needed and helpful — commentaries, language studies, interpretations from the tradition. As Methodists we “believe that the living core of the Christian faith is revealed in Scripture, illuminated by Tradition, vivified in personal Experience, and confirmed by Reason.”  We call this the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.  To make a connection with our topic, we might use this principle to ponder a distinction between marriage and unions/covenants. Would it be possible to honor and bless unions of anyone who desires to practice faithfulness and grow in the virtues of love, while also honoring the historic meaning of the term marriage?  How might we apply scriptures to honor the diverse perspective within the body of Christ and actually grow in our ability to love one another?  There are so many resources to help us.
  4. Behavior over Beliefs. Beliefs are so important, but the Holy Spirit is more concerned with behavior and using scriptures as a guide for how we treat one another. In the midst of our denominational struggle, I have heard many say that they have not made a decision because they are hoping for the Holy Spirit to show up and guide us into the right policy or plan.  I see this a bit differently.  As a Wesleyan, I am not focused on the Holy Spirit showing up with some extraordinary sign (Wesley talked a lot about this).  I am interested in the ordinary everyday calling to represent God with patience, gentleness, humility, bearing one another in love, and being eager to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.  I might say that the Holy Spirit enjoys our variety of perspectives and is likely to not give us a uniformed perspective, because the point of it all is how we love one another.  The Spirit is always revealed, less in our opinions, and more in how we treat one another in the sharing of our opinions.  Even in the scriptures we see so much diversity of perspective.  The scriptures do not give us uniform opinions but does give us a common calling.  We need to be the church that focuses on that.  Applying this principle, we could focus on behaviors around issues of human sexuality and give priority to the virtues that we want to promote – monogamy, faithfulness, commitment even when sacrifice is required, treating others with honor without objectifying them or using them only for our pleasure, and all the virtues of love. This level of consideration gets lost in the debate because the focus is on the physical dimension of sexual practice.
  5. Here are a couple of other principles, (briefly): “Discernment happens best in Community.” We engage in life together, not to come to agreement but to learn how to live as the body of Christ with all its blessed diversity. And for one more, “Our Calling is to Self-Examination over Judgement of Others.”  Often when we engage the scriptures and truly practice holy conversation with others, we learn a lot more about our own prejudices and need for transformation than we do about what others might need or about how they should live.

At our tables, I want us to have some conversation around these principles using three passages that are not directly connected to the issue but speak to who we are called to be.  I will read them with some commentary and then we will discuss them at tables and as a larger group, asking: Why is this in the Bible? What are some different ways to interpret this passage? How can we apply it today?  What does this passage say about who we are?”

Genesis 11:1-9 – The Tower of Babel

  • This passage is given the context of God calling the people to scatter and fill the earth…
  • They want uniformity and safety, and it leads them to do some stupid things…
  • Note their use of inadequate resources – baked mud and tar, instead of stone and mortar.
  • Note their arrogance, believing that they made it to heaven and how God has to come down to see this tower.

Luke 4: 16-30 – Jesus in his Home Town

  • Highlight dimensions of purpose he is given.
  • The people are pleased, until he mentions God’s work through foreigners. With this they are enraged…

Ephesians 2: 14-22 – Christ is our Peace

  • The word peace or shalom is about coming together and practicing faith together.
  • Here God’s people are called back together, to give witness to God in a new way…

As a report, the conversation of the 80 people in the room was lively and inspiring.  When we came back together, one of our youth acknowledged the diversity of views within the room, even on the issues at hand, and called us to stay united around something bigger. Another highlighted how stupid we can act when there isn’t someone to say, “Hey, maybe there’s another way to do this.”  One pointed out how diversity is healthy in all ecosystems.  One reflected on how hard it is to change – to “scatter,” to appreciate new “languages” — and yet that is what we are called to do.  One reflected on how Jesus walked away and how he might do that with us if we fail to listen or become enraged by his challenge.  In our current political climate, the need to break down walls and build diverse communities of peace did not go unnoticed, although when I picked the scriptures I was narrowly focused on issues within the church and did not make this connection.  Maybe that was the Holy Spirit at work.

Next week we will apply these methods to some of the texts that are used in the debate before us, with emphasis on Romans 1. 

Authority of Scripture, a Wesleyan Hermeneutic, and the Way Forward

pic- bible and communion“It’s really about the authority of scripture.” “Your interpretation undermines a high view of scripture.”  These talking points are at the core of many arguments around the Way Forward.  In light of this rhetoric, I want to think through the issue of hermeneutics (the system we use for interpreting the scriptures) and reflect upon how we might do this in a Wesleyan way. (It is a longer than usual post).

As Wesleyans, we must start by affirming that all scriptures are inspired and contain all that is necessary for growth in salvation.   At the same time, Wesley makes it clear that some passages take “hold of our conscience” in a special way and serve as “master text” (my language) to help us interpret all revelatory claims, even those in scripture (See Sermon 91, “On Charity” and Sermon 132 “On Laying the Foundation”).  In his notes on the New Testament, Wesley gives us this rule – to interpret every doubtful scripture through the grand truths that run through the whole (Note on Roman 12:6). On several occasions he calls us to assess all scriptures through key passages built around the word “love,” starting with what Jesus calls the summary of it all — Love God and Love your neighbor as a part of yourself.  Wesley also turns frequently to I Corinthians 13, calling the love defined here as the ““chief of all graces” and the “royal law.” This love is patient and kind and never insist on its own way.  In terms of hermeneutics, we are called to filter all scriptures through these and other passages that serve as lenses to provide clarity to the whole.  For you, what would some of the other key passages be?

In one hermeneutical approach that is often criticized, the suggestion has been made that we divide the scriptures into categories, with one category for passages that express the timeless values of God, another for passages that express culturally conditioned values, and a third for texts that do not fit with the will of God as we have come to know it through the lens of Christ. This framework can be helpful for discerning core truths and navigating difficult passages.  Nevertheless, with this method, it is tempting to simply throw out passages that do not fit with our sensibilities.  To provide some perspective, I would say that inspiration is found in the fact that our predecessors did not “clean up” the scriptures. They gave us the gift of struggling with all texts to help us discern how we might live faithfully and fruitfully in the context we are given. The method of interpreting through the lens of key passages is very helpful in this struggle.  We might call it a hermeneutic of struggle in community to discern God’s will for us in our time and place.

As Wesleyans, we honor the whole of scripture by noticing the context, exploring the history, understanding the words, and seeking God’s intended message, not necessarily in the words but through them with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  We believe that the scriptures come to life as we engage them in relationship, using tradition, reason, and experience as resources. We seek common ground in key values that illuminate the whole beyond the sometimes culturally-conditioned realities — and here the list is long – slavery, women, children, diet, dress, war and peace, wealth and poverty, property, inclusion of others, the kind of leadership that is needed, and yes understandings of marriage and divorce, just to get started. When we apply one hermeneutical to an issue that might affect us and then draw a hard line on another issue for others, it perhaps says more about our own prejudices than it does about our desire to live faithfully and practice love.   Wesley consistently call is to self-examination rather than judgment.  This would be another hallmark of a Wesleyan hermeneutic.

When it comes to issues around covenant relationships, this method allows us to give priority to virtues that we want to promote – monogamy, faithfulness, commitment even when sacrifice is required, treating others with honor without objectifying them or using them only for our pleasure, and all the virtues of love. Often, this level of consideration gets lost in the debate because the focus is on the physical dimension of sexual practice. This surface focus can actually foster justifications and excuses for more harmful and self-serving behaviors.

Through this hermeneutic, we avoid “proof-texting,” or the picking of verses to prove an opinion.  And yet this practice continues.  When opinions run strong, it is tempting to select certain texts while ignoring others. Doing this, however, is not unlike the use of the “slippery slope” fallacy (as challenged in a previous post) where negative consequences are assumed while ignoring other possibilities.  Here we can add another official fallacy – the fallacy of misusing an authoritative source to affirm one interpretation on one issue without acknowledging other possibilities. A faithful way forward cannot be built on such sand.

And now a drum roll please.  The most important dimension of a Wesleyan hermeneutic is our trust that the Holy Spirit is at work…and that God is big enough to work uniquely with all of us through our incarnate realities of cultural circumstances, personalities, gifts, interests, and identities this side of heaven.  In God we trust! We do not have to judge.  Our job is to learn how to love one another. This is the way we participate in making the path straight for “all flesh to see the salvation of God.”

Examples from Wesley to support this understanding could fill volumes.  For one example, in his sermon on “The Witness of the Spirit,” Wesley calls us to the “middle way.”  In doing so, he is not talking about politics, party, opinion, or even beliefs; he is talking about behavior.  Even with strong opinions, faithfulness calls us to “behave” in the middle.  The truths of scripture are actually hidden, rather than revealed, when we use the Word to prove something to others and thus cause division.  Wesley likened this to the “worst kind of enthusiasm,” where we are convinced that God is in our opinions and that our job is to come to God’s defense.  When one is “drunk from this spirit of error,” it is almost impossible to see that we may be fighting against God rather than for God.  Scriptures come to life when we engage them together and “steer a middle course.”   As Wesleyans, the witness of the Spirit is revealed when we come together to practice faith and grow in holiness, which Wesley consistently defined with the virtues of patience, kindness, and humility, all wrapped up in the word “love.” The Spirit is always revealed, less in our opinions, and more in how we treat one another in the sharing of our opinions.  That is to be our witness to the world.

Through this hermeneutical lens, I have written a series on Scripture, Wesley and the Way Forward. After an overview (found in Feb of 2018), I dealt with Wesley’s teaching on effeminacy, sodomy, marriage, divorce, and more. Believe me, it is not all one-sided. Room is given for more than one interpretation.  In my opinion, to use the argument that there is only one perspective on the issues before us actually belittles a high view of the authority of scripture. It makes it more about power over others. It might make a good sound bite, but it does not honor the high calling that we have been given to be the Body of Christ in the world.