Hermeneutics is the study of how we interpret the Bible. I love hermeneutics. For a long time I believed good hermeneutics would save us in the end. That hope has had a slow and painful death. We have lofty ideas of how we can learn to interpret scripture and clear up all our controversy, but that isn’t the way it happens historically. In the real world, hermeneutics are usually the way the church justifies itself after the fact.

Revolutionary Telescope

Take for example the telescope that changed the world. When Galileo looked at the solar system through the telescope he invented, what he saw demanded a new understanding of the universe and our own part in it. It’s easy to forget now, but at the time Galileo’s claim that the earth rotated around the sun and not the other way around was an existential crisis for the church. At least they thought so.

These new theories about the universe were contradicted several passages of scripture. Making way for Galileo’s theory meant making way for new ways of understanding scripture. In other words, new hermeneutics.

Galileo was a deeply religious man and advocated for new approaches. He suggested that passages speaking about the sun standing still in the sky could be understood figuratively instead of literally. The church rejected this idea as undermining the authority of scripture.

They didn’t reject it because of strict literalism, but because for many centuries the church taught a cosmology that conflicted with the heliocentric model.

They believed in concentric circles above and below our world, traveling deeper into hell below and higher into heaven above. The sun was in one of the heavenly levels. If you’re familiar with Dante’s inferno, you’ll recognize his description of levels leading deeper into hell. They believed the universe was best represented by layers, not orbiting planets, and they believed the Bible taught this. And taken literally, they have a pretty good point.

Changing cosmology seemed like a threat to more than just their current way of doing things. It was a threat to scripture itself. If they were to accept that the earth rotates around the sun, where would it all end? Would all credibility be stripped from the Bible?

But they were wrong. Christianity and the Bible turned out to be more resilient than they thought. Their attempts to protect and defend the scripture did more damage in the end when the church lost credibility.

History On Repeat

Again and again this pattern repeated through history. Political ideas about the equality of all people lead to freedom for slaves. Women were given the right to vote as the understanding that they are equal to men in intelligence and capacity as human beings became undeniable. All these changes were hailed by traditionalists as threats to the authority of scripture. They were wrong, though.

It continues in our day. There is a steady erosion of patriarchy and some traditional churches are try desperately to maintain some vestige of the fading system. They say that men are still the leaders, and women are still the followers. They claim the Bible teaches this, and that if we stop believing it, we will no longer have any trust in the Bible. But are they right? Have these claims ever been right?

We must stop this destructive pattern. It is unacceptable for the church of God to continue standing in the way of the work of God in the world.

Things Change, and the Bible Remains

When it comes to specifics, the Bible has shown itself to be more flexible than we realize. After history marches on, God’s people accept new revelations. Then scholars come and explain why these changes were also hermeneutically sound. But hermeneutics don’t drive change.

Living as we do, confined to a moment in history, it’s hard to see it without looking back. And when we look back, we tend to look back from our point of view, and not understand theirs. We shake our heads at those silly Catholics, most of whom didn’t even look through Galileo’s telescope to see the obvious. We don’t do them justice. They were afraid these new understandings would undermine the faith itself. What looks tertiary to us seemed central to them.

By taking a compassionate view towards those who resisted change, we quickly learn the most important lesson there is to learn about hermeneutics: Hermeneutics are better at making room for the past than they are at making room for the future.

Stepping out of our time, and seeing through another vantage point shows us that what seems unchangeable isn’t. Things can change. Things must change. It will be okay.

It isn’t until after their inevitable changes occur that theologians look back, the quintessential armchair quarterbacks, and explain to us how the real problem all along was our interpretation of scripture. So they devise new hermenetics. They teach us new ways of interpreting the scriptures that make way for the changes that have already happened without undermining the authority of the scripture.

But did Galileo do what he did because his interpretive strategy was better? Or because of his insatiable desire to see and understand God’s creation? Did abolitionists in America work to free the slaves because they had a superior hermeneutic? Or because they excelled in compassion? Was any of this really a theological debate at all? Obviously not.

Real Faithfulness to Scripture

Traditionalists are concerned with loyalty to what the church has always taught and believed. They focus on protecting these beliefs against any change that might be threatening. New ways of living and thinking pose a threat to the system, so they defend the old ways. But by defending against these fresh invasions that seem so central at the time, they miss out on what really is central in the teachings of scripture.

In all these cases, the church in its fear of change allowed a rigid understanding of a few Bible verses to undermine the most important principles of scripture. They lost their way. They lost their heart. In their desire to defend the scriptures, they ignored them.

The only reason we have a church to defend is because of people like Galileo, Martin Luther, William Wilberforce, MLK, and so many others who were heretics and radicals in their day. Jesus told the Pharisees in Matthew 23 that though they venerate the prophets now, they would have killed them, and nothing has changed.

The radicals and reformers harmonized with the Bible all along. Motivating these social changes was a deeper understanding of the true principles and values of scripture. Love. Justice. Compassion. Hope. Truth. The creation of all people in the image of God. What are our petty fears in the face of such as these?

Hermeneutics can’t save us from our fears. Only love can. Because love is the true heart of the Bible. A biblical approach to any topic must be drenched in the uncompromising love of God.

If you’re paying attention, you might realize that I just pulled a switch on you, because what I’m proposing is not no hermeneutics, but new hermeneutics. What motivates our understanding of scripture shouldn’t be a desire to defend it’s credibility, but a desire to live out it’s core principles. Religious leaders of old should not be our models in understanding scripture. Prophets, radicals, and reformers should be.

How do we keep from using hermeneutics to serve the status quo, ignoring the pain our theology causes and stubbornly insisting that our rigid interpretations are correct?

We reorder our hermeneutical priorities around compassion and justice. We think long and hard about the lives of people who will be impacted by our theology. We stop getting caught up in the weeds of literalism and reach instead for the principles of scripture that were prioritized by Jesus. This is biblical hermeneutics. We get so caught up in love, compassion, grace, and truth that we forget we were ever afraid.

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10 Replies to “How Defending the Bible Undermines Scripture”

  1. “We reorder our hermeneutical priorities around compassion and justice. ”

    At the core I think this is where we disagree, (btw I love reading your perspective keep sharing), I’m a deep believer in the importance of sound hermeneutical principles, which we should strive to continuously refine.
    You can’t or dear I say shouldn’t put the cart before the horse: Your would view and hermeneutical presuppositions must be informed by the Bible so, how do you know if what you assume compassion and justice to be, is what the Bible says it is? Without those important questions, we end up reading our pre-understanding of our current “hermeneutical priority” into the text may it be “cold hard propositional truths” or whatever we understand “compassion and justice” to be.

    I’d love having a conversation with you on the topic some day.

    1. I believe strongly in allowing the biblical definitions of love, justice, and compassion to prevail. One of our problems, I believe, is in not realizing that these concepts are at the center of scripture. No interpretation is legitimate if it is in conflict with biblical understandings of loving God and loving our neighbor. But too often we do what I believe is putting the part before the horse and beginning with trying to figure out the finer points of the law before being rooted in justice and the love of God (Luke 11:42). That’s why you find so many theologians telling LGBT people how to live without understanding the most basic aspects of our lives and experiences.

  2. Alicia,
    I saw the video on your coming out and subsequent resignation as an sda pastor. I watched you express feelings and intimate thoughts with humility and candor. I applaud your courage in sharing your convictions with us. I would like to hear more however about how you reconciled your position biblically. From my understanding of Scripture there can be no justification of any lifestyle that departs from righteous living. I am a believer in the overcoming power of the grace of God for any sin. It is my opinion that our modern world has found many creative ways to avoid acknowledging the presence of sin in the pursuit of life and happiness as we now perceive it. I await your response and wish you the successful perpetuation of the peace of which you spoke. God bless.

    1. Thank you for your reply and willingness to learn. It’s much appreciated. There are some articles on the Torah here now, and there is more coming a well as another video and probably some other resources. I have a lot in my head right now and I’m trying to figure out how to get it more clearly and in a way that is easiest for people to consume and understand. Thank you for your intersted.

  3. Hi Alecia, I want to commend you. What you did takes a lot of strength. It would have been easier to be silent. I am praying for you. I know God is still able and willing to use you. Blessings.

  4. Hi Alicia
    I saw your video on twitter and just found that we share a story regarding our personal lives. The difference being that you are a well-trained clergy in SDA and I am a lay Catholic. I have found your story very inspiring and encouraging as a bisexual person myself. I would be happy to receive and share inspirational thoughts/comments from you. I have noticed that when some people come out, they tend to discard their Christian faith because of the negative attitude of the Church? However, I have a deep believe that I am bisexual because God created me with this sexual attraction and I should accept myself as a bisexual female while continuing to worship my God and believe in the salvation of our Lord Jesus Christ. I am very happy to have found you and to realise that we share our life experiences in some way as out Bisexual Christians. May the good Lord continue to bless you abundantly.

  5. Hi Alicia,
    I watched your video about resigning from being a pastor in Az and coming out as bi-sexual person. You mentioned a change in your thinking about what the Bible teaches regarding same sex relationships, and how you focused on five bible texts usually given to show that same sex relationships are wrong in your study. You said there is more than one way to interpret them, but you didn’t say “how”you were able to do that. Apparently you were able to conclude the Bible teaches same sex relationships “aren’t” sinful. Can you show me/us through the Bible how you came to that conclusion using the texts you studied? As the mother of a transgender child I’m looking for a biblical reason to believe that. I really want to believe that but I need help. Thanks.

    1. I am working on just that, and processing all the recent changes in my life. I want to be able to communicate clearly. I’m also trying to get in touch with a friend of a friend who is transgender and a theology student to write something specifically on that topic. There isn’t anything in the Bible against transitioning gender. The argument is only around whether or not God creating men and women means that people can’t ever transition. The truth is we do all kinds of things that are against our natural creation, like traveling at 80mph, running on gravel, flying through the sky, correcting birth defects, etc. I personally think the non-affirming folks are relying more on tradition than anything else.

  6. Wow. Excellent post. I’ve heard the comparison regarding Galileo before but you’ve really fleshed it out well. And i’ve never heard it stated so emphatically that hermeneutics don’t drive change. But when i read that it’s like…of course they don’t! We say we only want scripture to shape our experience and understanding of the world until we’re forced by the world to accept something new.

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