I was taught in seminary to always determine the original meaning behind a text. Study the Greek or Hebrew. The literary, cultural, and historical contexts. Comparative passages and themes. That way I would get to know what the author meant.
Good work that must be done. However, what happens when I discover that what the author meant was contrary to the basic teachings of Jesus?
This is the essential problem with saying that the Bible is literally infallible. If it is, then Leviticus is equal to the Sermon on the Mount. Try to reconcile that one.
There are two basic ways to approach the Bible. An interesting history lesson reveals the differences.
The Constitution and the Supreme Court
In 1857 the Supreme Court rendered the Dred Scott decision. It defined a slave as property and thus couldn’t be free. Race and slavery aren’t mentioned in the Constitution, so the justices tried to discern the original intent of its framers. Since the Constitution was considered sacred text, trying to get into the minds of its writers when they wrote it seemed wise. The result was, from our perspective, a thoroughly racist judgment.
Fast-forward 100 years.
The Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) ruled against racial segregation in schools. The justices, interpreting the same Constitution, came to a totally different understanding than that of their predecessors a century before. Their ruling paved the way for the civil rights movement.
How could two sets of judges see things so differently?
The modern justices didn’t decide the case by doing a word search for “separate but equal” in the Constitution. The phrase wasn’t there. Nor did they speculate on the original intent of the constitutional authors. Rather, they combined their understanding of the basic values and rights inherent in the Constitution with what they knew in 1954. In explaining their decision they “cited evidence based on several recent sociological studies, concluding that segregation by race in schools was inherently discriminatory” (Joseph J. Ellis, American Dialogue: The Founding Fathers and Us, p. 152).
In other words, the justices treated the Constitution as a living document. Its bedrock values of human rights, dignity, and freedom had implications for issues and situations that arose, such as segregation and racism. New learnings enabled justice and equality to be realized in ways consistent with their values.
The Bible as a Living Document
Which way do we approach the Bible?
If we view it as mythologically sacred, as the Dred Scott justices seemed to have viewed the Constitution, then the whole Bible is on equal footing. The writers’ “original intent” can be used to justify: preserving slavery; killing disobedient children; destroying every living thing in Canaanite villages; subjugating women; stoning homosexuals; discriminating against Gentiles. All these things, and more, are codified in black letters on white pages.
But the Bible isn’t mythologically sacred. It’s realistically sacred because it’s a living document.
We discover God’s will through those pages when we use our minds in reading them. Using what we’ve learned from science, the social sciences, and history helps us hear God’s voice today. It helps us realize new expressions of Kingdom imperatives.
The Power of Amendments
The good thing about the Constitution is that it enables itself to be amended. The founders knew it wasn’t a perfect document because they could not have imagined all the issues and new learnings that would evolve over the centuries.
The good thing about the Bible is that it also enables itself to be amended. Jesus is the great Amender.
He understood Scripture as a living testimony to the will of God in our midst. Maybe that’s why Matthew placed the Sermon on the Mount early in his Gospel: there’s a new, fresh, grace-filled way of relating to God, and it starts now.
The Law and the Prophets are no longer to be misinterpreted. They’re not to be treated as a set of unimpeachable regulations. Rather, they’re to be read by shining the Light of the world upon them. They are to be read within the larger context of God’s mercy and justice. Isn’t that why Jesus used the “You have heard it said…But I say to you” manner of teaching (Matthew 5:21-48)? Isn’t that what a great Amender would do?
This enraged the Pharisees. It’s much safer and more satisfying if you treat Scripture more as a mummified corpse of laws and customs handed down and preserved centuries before. The Amender was a threat to the embedded prejudice and oppression such a view can yield.
And he is still a threat to those who forget that between Leviticus and 2021 came Jesus the Amender.
The Bible has to be interpreted as a living book. Too many people have been turned off by those misusing it in Dred Scott sort of ways.
The Bible must lead us into taking stances for justice, like the Supreme Court did in Brown.