Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Yoder on interpreting scripture

Now, I want us to consider the following which is highly influenced by J.H. Yoder’s book The Politics of Jesus and so war will be the case study.

When modern Christians approach the OT with the question of war in mind, our attitude tends to be a legalistic one and the questions we ask tend to generalize. We ask, “Can a Christian who rejects all war reconcile his position with the OT story?” If the generalization that “war is always contrary to the will of God” can be juxtaposed with the wars in the OT which are reported as having been according to the will of God, the generalization is destroyed.

This approach hides from us the realization that for the believing Israelite the Scriptures would not have been read with this kind of question in mind. Rather than reading with the modern question in mind, whether it confirms certain moral generalizations or not, the Israelite read it as his or her own story, as the account of his or her own past throwing light on who he or she was. A story may include a moral implication or presuppose moral judgements, but it does not necessarily begin at this point.

One of the traits of the OT story, sometimes linked with bloody battles but also sometimes notable free of violence, is the identification of YHWH as the God who saves [God’s] people without their needing to act. When we seek to test a modern moral statement, we are struck by the parts of the story that do not fit our modern pattern; but the Israelite reading of the story was more likely struck by the other cases, where Israel was saved by the mighty deeds of God on their behalf…

(In references to Moses and Joshua’s response to the Amalekites) When Israel uses the sword, in a most fearful and destructive way, the victory is credited not to the prowess of the swordsmen or the wisdom of the generals [or the President’s and Pentagon), but to the help of YHWH…

It is the general rule of proper textual interpretation that a text should be read for what the author meant to say and what its first readers or hearers would have heard it say. Whether taking human life is morally permissible or forbidden under all circumstances was not a culturally conceivable question in the age of Abraham or that of Joshua. It is therefore, illegitimate to read the story of the planned sacrifice of Issac or of the Joshuanic wars as documents on the issue of morality of killing...

If with the cultural empathy that is the elementary requisite for honestly understanding any ancient documents, we measure [Jesus’ or The Bible’s] meaning not by what we can possibly conceive of as happening but by what his listeners can have understood, then we are forbidden to filter the message through our modern sense of reality, of the uniformity of nature and the inconceivability of the extraordinary.

OK having quoted and re-phrased all of that, I think it is safe to say that while the case study is war we should apply this method to all of our theological and hermeneutical issues. We too often try to read Scripture and apply to today before we have even given it any kind of textual consideration (or consideration of our own interpretation methods). To ask The Bile to answer our modern questions regarding specific issues like women in ministry, spiritual demons floating around and impacting our world, women and their veils, slavery, or even wonder what God’s call on my life is this year is completely and utterly irresponsible.

Furthermore, I am just as guilty, as I pointed out in my women in ministry post that we are all guilty of reading Scripture in a way that suits us. We all ignore and explain away the parts that don’t fit our presupposed patterns of living and understanding. We all come to the table with differing experience, tradition, and reason regarding our interpretation. What we have to do, is not be literal in our understanding, but seek to find major themes within that will help our modern sensibilities. (another great example is who we in the church have disregarded the literal Biblical understanding of divorce.)

For example, can we consider what Paul has to say about gifts, hope and faith without considering what he has to say about Love. Love seems to be THE overriding theme throughout the NT, and the entire canon. All of you Calvinists who are trying to teach me the Doctrine of Grace should know this much is true. Grace and love are the only eternal. Consider Paul in his letters to the Corinthians and how he discusses with them their problems and arguments of the abuse of Spiritual gifts and authority. Paul says what is most important? Love. The gifts will all fade away. Authority is temporary. Even faith and hope have their limitations. Love lasts forever. It is above all else. So to follow Jesus command to “love the neighbor as the self,” “to love enemies” is one theme that stands out above all of the little stuff that will all fade away (and has faded away according to our little cannons). Another theme is community. As is pointed out above in AC’s question, what do we do with the selling possessions bit from the beginning of Acts. We consider it in the entire context of The Bible. We ask what it meant for the author and the readers. And we come together and try to make some sense of it for us today. To me, it points, not to a literal selling of goods in order to be communistic, it emphasize the role of the community of faith. The purity and unity of God’s Community is a theme from Genesis to Revelation.

When interpreting Scriptures in our modern age (or post-modern age) we have to be careful as to how we understand Scripture itself. Is it a mirror or window or something altogether different? The diversity of our interpretations is not a liability, it is a strength!

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