Tag Archives: Hermeneutics

Should we use love to understand Scripture or Scripture to understand love?

This week I’m diverging from my typical book review/summary to review a cartoon I read a few weeks ago. In it, Jesus says to a group of modern Pharisees “The difference between me and you is you use Scripture to determine what love means and I use love to determine what Scripture means.” The implication of this cartoon is clear: We should interpret the Bible like Jesus did, through the lens of love.

The problem in interpreting Scripture through love

While this cartoon contains an element of truth, which I will get to later, I want to begin by pointing out a rather obvious danger: Who is to say what “love” means? “Love” is an especially ambiguous word with an incredibly broad range of meaning. That meaning is culturally bound. If 100 cultures use “love” to interpret Scripture, you will come up with 100 – probably wildly divergent – interpretations. In most of those cases, Scripture will end up being said to value whatever that culture already values (whatever the culture loves.) To put it more bluntly, a culture that equates love with sexual expression and freedom will interpret Scripture as permissive, even celebratory, towards sexual expression and freedom. In other words, to use one’s cultural conception of love to interpret Scripture will likely simply lead to an interpretation that already agrees with one’s preconceptions. 

The question remains, though, did Jesus read the Scriptures through this hermeneutic of love? Consider, for instance, Mark 2:23-28:

23 One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”

25 He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 26 In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”

27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

Jesus counters the Pharisees’ interpretation of the Sabbath law with one that gets at the heart of the Sabbath. The Sabbath was given to man to give life. The Pharisees failed to love, so they arrived at a rigid understanding of the Sabbath. Jesus loved, so he saw the deeper meaning of the Sabbath. Or so the argument goes. But, more subtly, we see that Jesus didn’t interpret the Sabbath through an abstract concept of love. He interpreted the Sabbath law through Scripture, namely, the story of Abiathar the high priest feeding David and his companions (1 Samuel 21).

The necessity of love in interpreting Scripture

Jesus made it clear, however, that love and God’s commands should never be separated. Loving God and loving neighbor are the two greatest commands and “all the Law and Prophets hand on these to commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40). The apostle Paul agrees:

The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:9-10)

Interpreting Scripture apart from love would be a dangerous thing indeed. “Knowledge puffs up,” says Paul, “while love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). Again, in the famous love passage, “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2). Without love, interpretation of Scripture, no matter how scholarly, is of little value.

We need something like the “hermeneutical cycle” I learned about in seminary. We use Scripture to correct and refine our cultural conception of love (this is not Pharisaical) and we read Scripture through the lens of love, recognizing that the two (when properly understood) will not contradict each other.

A brief note on this point: Should we expect any continuity between our human/cultural conceptions of love and God’s apart from Scripture? We should, for two reasons. First, God has given each of us a basic understanding (Romans 1:20) and the law (Romans 2:14-15). Since God’s law is fulfilled through love, we will all have a sense of God’s love and his law of love. However, we should not trust that conception to surely, since it can be warped by our fallen minds, our fallen cultures, and Satan’s deception. 

A third component to our cycle

To this “hermeneutical cycle” we must add a third component: Jesus. I know, that’s the Sunday School answer, but Scripture itself invites us to interpret Scripture and love through the Messiah. 

How do we know what love is? “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16-20). Jesus’ life and sacrificial death cut through many of our cultural misconceptions of love. In Jesus, we see love personified. 

Likewise, Jesus instructs us to read Scripture in a “Christo-centric way.” Jesus says, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40). Jesus’ words and life fulfill the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 5:17). In the passage from Mark quoted earlier, Jesus’ interpretation of the Sabbath, gave future generations new insight into its core meaning. His interpretation of the Sabbath was right for two reasons: First, because he used Scripture to interpret Scripture, but second, because He was Lord of the Sabbath. In a theological sense, he wrote the law, so he can give its authoritative interpretation. And, because all Scripture points to him, he fulfills the Sabbath (Colossians 2:16-17). 

But, the picture gets more complex: How do we know about Jesus in the first place? We know about him through our Christian communities, but also through Scripture in whom he is revealed. And, once again, we cannot help but bring our cultural conceptions of love to the table, the good and the bad.

At the end of the day, then, we have a hermeneutic cycle: Love, Jesus, and the Bible. Each helps us come to a clearer understanding of the others. But of these three, in a twist of Paul, the greatest of these is Jesus.


An Exercise in Hope


Esau McCaulley grew up immersed in the gospel, church, and Scripture. But when he attended a university that was 98% white to double major in history and religion he found himself thrust into the middle of a “hundred years’ war between white evangelicals and white mainline protestants.” (9) 

McCaulley was frustrated to discover that this debate had been carried out without the witness of his tradition in the Black church. He began to look to Black theologians in the academy but discovered that they did not share the high regard for Scripture that he had experienced in his home and church. His book, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope captures his attempt to identify a “fourth thing” between white progressives, white evangelicals, and African American progressives: the Black ecclesial tradition. 

A fourth thing 

Before we describe “African American Biblical interpretation” and how it is “an exercise in hope,” let’s define McCaulley’s conversation partners.

White progressives: McCaulley’s white progressive professors saw biblical fundamentalism as a problem. They saw the Bible as a tool in the hands of white slave-holders to oppress Black people. They had a point. But, McCaulley saw that the solution these progressive pastors offered robbed their Black students of a crucial spiritual resource. 

How did the white progressive story do this?

“In this story, Black students do not really enter in as actors. We are acted upon, our suffering functioning as examples of the evils of white supremacy… But there is a second testimony possibly more important than the first. That is the testimony of Black Christians who saw in the same Bible the basis of their dignity and hope in a culture that often denied them of both. In my professor’s attempt to take the Bible away from the fundamentalists, he also robbed the Black Christians of the rock on which they stood.” (8, emphasis added)

McCaulley felt alienated from the white progressives that surrounded him. They undermined Scripture by saying that it justified slavery. McCaulley, drawing on his upbringing, saw in Scripture a source of dignity and hope for Black Christians, a tool of liberation, not oppression.

White evangelicals: McCaulley next turned to evangelicalism, again in a primarily white environment. Evangelicalism, as defined by Historian David Bebbington, has four pillars: Conversionism (the need for new birth), Activism, Biblicism (high regard for Scripture), and Crucicentrism (stress on Jesus’ sacrificial death). On these beliefs, Black Christians and white evangelicals have much in common.  

However, while McCaulley felt comfortable with evangelical theology, he felt alienated from evangelicalism as a movement. He observed that along with the four pillars of evangelicalism listed above, white evangelicals held unspoken fifth and sixth pillars. “These are a general agreement on a certain reading of American history that downplayed injustice and a gentleman’s agreement to remain largely silent on current issues of racism and systemic injustice.” (11) 

McCaulley appreciated evangelicalism’s high view of Scripture but took issue with the way that the Bible functioned. It “had been reduced to the arena on which we fought an endless war about the finer points of Paul’s doctrine of salvation” but had next to nothing to say about the suffering and struggles of his community.  

Black progressives: Discontent with white progressives and white evangelicals, both of which mostly ignored Black voices, McCaulley turned to Black Christian voices within the academy. Here, however, he learned that there was a disconnect between what happened in the Academy and what happened in the Church. Because only white progressives had invested in Black pastors, the African American academy had become theologically progressive. Meanwhile, the African American Church felt stuck in the middle. COGIC pastors he talked to agreed with the theological analysis of evangelicals and the social practice of progressives but lacked an academic source for both.  

The Black Ecclesial tradition:

McCaulley calls this fourth way the Black ecclesial tradition. This “ecclesial” tradition is embodied within the Black church. It carries with it both a high view of Scripture and a deep concern for justice and liberation.

A socially located reading of the Bible

We must pause for a moment and address a possible question in the reader’s mind: Why should we seek a uniquely African American interpretation of Scripture? Doesn’t Scripture have but a single interpretation, regardless of one’s culture? McCaulley frames the question like this: “The social location of enslaved persons caused them to read the Bible differently. This unabashedly located reading marked African American interpretation since. Did this social location mean Blacks rejected biblical texts that did not match their understanding of God? Did Blacks create a canon within in a canon?”

His answer to the latter question is, in part, “yes”, but in this, they were not alone. Slave-holders had the letters of Paul as their canon within a canon, specifically, the passages which they believed justified slavery. Slaves, on the other hand, emphasized the exodus, the suffering of Christ, and the liberating character of God. Both read the Bible from a social location and, in this instance, the slave reading of Scripture proved correct. 

While Scripture has a single, objective meaning located in the authors’ (human and divine) intent, no one comes to the text from a purely objective perspective. We all bring with us our cultures and experiences. I saw a book in our church library called A Shepherd’s Look at Psalm 23. The title acknowledges that we can expect the author’s shepherding experience to yield insights not readily available to someone who has lived his entire life in an urban jungle. Likewise, we should expect that the African American experience will provide a certain perspective on Scripture not easily available to a member of the majority culture. 

McCaulley does not say that African American interpretation trumps other interpretations, but that we should enter into dialogue with it. Biblical interpretation is an exercise in dialogue. The interpreter brings her questions to Scripture and, at the same time, Scripture asks questions of the interpreter. Entering into a diverse community broadens the dialogue between people of different backgrounds and social locations. Sometimes these social locations leave us with blind spots and reading in dialogue helps us overcome our otherwise anemic interpretations. 

A Hermeneutic of trust

If McCaulley’s evangelical flank challenges the notion of a uniquely African American interpretation then he faces another challenge from the progressive flank: distrust of Scripture. Progressives, and what he calls “Black nihilists,” question whether Scripture can yield any fruit at all in the question for justice. Why would African Americans adopt the very religion and sacred Text used to oppress them? 

In the face of this challenge, McCaulley argues that we should “adopt a hermeneutic of trust in which we are patient with the text in the belief that when interpreted properly it will yield a blessing and not a curse.” (21) He does not call us to a naivete that buries hard questions glosses over difficult passages, but to enter into a careful, canonical, and theological reading of Scripture.

An exercise in hope 

Reading Scripture in this way produces hope. “The point of the very process of engaging these Scriptures and expecting an answer is an exercise in hope.” (166) I heard McCaulley say in an interview that, while the title went through several iterations, he always included the word hope. Hope saturates Reading While Black. McCaulley finds hope in God who brings physical and spiritual liberation. He finds hope in Jesus, who entered into our suffering and forgives our sins. He finds hope in the resurrection and the coming kingdom of God. 

McCaulley has much to teach us in the American church, no matter our social location. How do we read Scripture in a diverse community? What can white Christians learn specifically from the Black ecclesial tradition? How do we approach the Bible from the position of trust? How do we face the brokenness of our world with hope?