I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ! -Gandhi
Christians in America are infamous for being so unlike Jesus. I like the bumper sticker that says, “When Jesus said love your enemies I think he probably meant don’t kill them.” Ever wonder how Christians went from loving their enemies to killing them? We love to blame it all on Constantine, and true enough, he contributed to the problem, but I think the problem goes deeper and farther back—all the way to the Apostle Paul, or at least to the way we view him and his role in the Scriptures—our hermeneutic of Paul.
Don’t get me wrong, Paul was probably a solid guy, but (and he’d be the first to admit) he doesn’t even hold a candle to Jesus. Over the centuries Paul’s words have been used to sanction everything from American slavery to the oppression of women to 5 Point Calvinism. So, why do we give the words of Paul and the words of Jesus equal weight? I think mostly our hermeneutic fails to deal with our worldview and our own “non-objective” perceptions of reality.
I don’t consider myself a biblical expert, but neither am I an armchair scholar. I have all the right creds; the required biblical and theological training, all the right degrees, and I have put in the time it takes to understand how complex this question really is, and most importantly, I could be wrong. I’m not offering a simple solution, just making the observation that some things are very wrong with our traditional hermeneutic of Paul’s writings and that we pay too little attention to Jesus.
The Apostle Paul was correct when he said we all “see through a glass darkly.” What he didn’t say is that in the right light, glass reflects like a mirror. When looking through our own glass lens we bring more of our own worldview and preconceived notions to the Scriptures than we would care to admit. Having bias is unavoidable and it is natural, so why can’t we admit to the deeper levels of our own bias? I think there are several reasons. Identifying and admitting them is the first step in a long process of developing a fresh hermeneutic.
1. Objective Reality
The Western mind has developed a “scientific,” dualistic worldview that favors a skewed perception of this thing we call reality, interjecting something called the objective/subjective split. Other worldviews understand “reality” more holistically with the ability to think easily in gradations. In the Western worldview, the “both/and” scenario is not often seen as reasonable or decisive; it is assumed the truth must be found on either one side of the binary or the other (either/or ‘ism’).
In the Western worldview the objective always trumps the subjective. In other words, the objective is always seen as good, provable, progressive thinking and the subjective is seen as irrational, relative or indecisive and given little weight. The result for the purposes of this discussion is that the doctrine of inspiration is applied generally to all the Scriptures (or at least we like to say that). The Western worldview teaches us to apply the one-size fits all rule to the Scriptures. If not, we assume they can’t be “perfect,” thinking they are either all inspired the same, or not inspired at all.
Interestingly, we don’t do this with the Hebrew Testament. When it comes to interpreting the Hebrew Bible we employ greater variation including dispensational views, or for those of us who are not dispensationalists, we create quasi-dispensational thinking. Either way, God somehow gets converted or partially converted in between the Testaments, which allows us to apply the whole of the Newer Testament more literally. Somehow, we have actually utilized gradations of inspiration (although we don’t call it that), when applying the words of the two Testaments to our lives.
A second reason we are in denial about the bias we bring to the Scriptures is related to #1 but it has a strange twist. Usually the Euro-American worldview creates extrinsic categories and then begins understanding them in ways that make them seem like they are describing the whole of reality. A relevant example of this would be the division of practical theology (pastoral) and theology (for scholars). These are two extrinsic categories–divided from one reality. Interestingly, when it comes to the Scriptures, the European and Euro-American worldview has done the converse. As I said, the Newer Testament Scriptures, each letter with its own history and reality, have all been lumped together into one book and they are given equal weight via the interpretive process described here, and a new reality is created. This is how we can justify using the words of Paul over the words of Jesus when “context calls for it.” Doctrinally, we muddy the waters by saying “it’s all inspired”—as if the Spirit can’t have allowed gradations of inspiration.
Yet, each of Paul’s letters are written with a specific occasion in mind and to a particular group of people, or to several groups, addressing distinct concerns. Each is written in the context of a particular culture, making it difficult, if not impossible for interpreters living two millennia later to fully understand Paul’s immediate concerns. At the minimum, we should view these letters with extreme humility and suspicion of our bias and our own limited understanding prior to forming major doctrines from them like original sin, penal substitutionary atonement and limitations on women’s leadership roles, just to name a few.
Of course there is overlap between Paul’s letters. They contain some universal understandings about who Jesus is and how people are to live in shalom community. But, I don’t think that Paul’s letters were meant to be read in the same way as the four gospels. They should be read more akin to the way we read the Book of Acts. Acts is largely a history that opens a window to certain times and places to allow us to see something about the lives of the early followers of Jesus and the Church. Paul’s letters tell us what is happening among a particular group of believers at a particular time and place. With such particularity present, it is unjustifiable to create major doctrinal stances from Paul’s letters unless they corroborate or are a logical extension of Jesus’ life and teachings. In other words, interpreting Jesus through Paul is shaky ground.
The four gospels, (albeit, each unique in their unique cultural settings) were written primarily for the purpose of spreading the good news about Jesus. They were meant to go far and wide, and in a real sense (again, not taking away from their distinctiveness) were for all people at all times. The message is both particular and universal, which perhaps grants us a bit of official pardon as we try our best to determine their cultural context and meaning.
3. White Cultural/Racial Bias
White Male Supremacy was the placeholder in America for the White Privilege that exists today. There is a long line of European and Euro-American theologians over the past 500 years who have captured the high ground for the battle of biblical interpretation (not to be confused with the “moral high ground”). They have naturally interjected their own cultural worldviews into the grand theological schema and then they, and their followers have normalized them. This happened, not because the best arguments won out but because all other theologies were forced out. Even though European and Euro-American theologies were made dominant through a process of militant colonialism, they are not more objective, or more ordained than any other contextualized theological tradition.
This theological bullying allowed one race to dominate all others through force, unjust laws, and erroneous philosophies like Social Darwinism. The result is that even today, all theologies, except mainstream European and Euro-American theologies are treated as specialties, aberrations and/or sub-categories (remember what they did to Rev. Jeremiah Wright?). What in actuality are White; European contextual-based theologies, are normalized in our theological schools and in our minds with names like “Biblical Theology” and “Systematic Theology.”
4. Written Words and Orthodoxy
In tandem with #3 (above), the European worldview, of which some parts are highly dualistic, understands the written word as a final arbiter in all matters. Law, Constitution, Bible, Doctrine, History, etc., become the means by which “civil” societies are measured. This is true even when those written documents were often constructed after great injustices, “written in blood” by the winners. In such a “civil” system, one can even denounce the very type sins committed in order to obtain such documents, as long as the winners are in the majority, forbidding anyone referring to such actions as hypocritical.
This is why supposedly great theologians (their doctrine) can be revered in spite of their unsavory character, and how supposedly early American freedom fighters and founders (their Law) can construct a constitution (and a new nation state), on the back of atrocities like genocide and slavery. In the same way it is why a man like Martin Luther can be honored for his doctrinal positions while he simultaneously condemned many commoners to death by encouraging the princes to crush the poor peasants in their quest for freedom in the Peasents’ Revolt. It’s why we can revere the mind of a man like John Calvin who was largely responsible for burning Michael Servetus, a fellow Christian at the stake for his non-Trinitarian views. By the same token, many early American theologians like Cotton Mather and Jonathon Edwards were slave owners, as were twelve of our first eighteen Presidents (including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (need I mention Sally Hemmings?).
I think Jesus spoke directly to this type hypocrisy in the following story:
“But what do you think about this? A man with two sons told the older boy, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ The son answered, ‘No, I won’t go,’ but later he changed his mind and went anyway. Then the father told the other son, ‘You go,’ and he said, ‘Yes, sir, I will.’ But he didn’t go. “Which of the two obeyed his father?”
They replied, “The first.” Then Jesus explained his meaning: “I tell you the truth, corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do. For John the Baptist came and showed you the right way to live, but you didn’t believe him, while tax collectors and prostitutes did. And even when you saw this happening, you refused to believe him and repent of your sins. Matt. 21:28-32
Jesus made a clear distinction that favored correct actions over correct doctrine so I ask, why should we hail these and other, unrepentant, murderous and racists people in the hallowed halls of Christianity? Why should we hold their theologies and philosophies as sacrosanct? Some would answer, “They were people of their time.” My reply to their reasoning is that there were many other men and women in Christian history, (during the aforementioned times) who suffered unjustly because they chose to act like Jesus rather than misinterpret and, misappropriate the words of Paul in order to act differently to Jesus’ life and teachings. We dishonor these men and women’s sacrifices when we solemnize these people’s words as powerful, intelligent and creative, when their character did not reflect that of Jesus.
Because the Western worldview can’t imagine “both/and” scenarios well; because we compile them all in one book and call it all the same reality; because we see orthodoxy as more important than orthopraxy—concerned more about what we say we believe than how we actually live; because we have disallowed women, minorities and the marginalized from participation at the “Grown-up Theological Table” and have normalized the voice of White Theological Supremacy, we often fail to see Jesus clearly or understand how we are to live as his followers. If we could develop a fresh hermeneutic to see Jesus clearly, taking all our central doctrines from Jesus in the gospels; giving the words of Jesus more weight than any others; I believe that we (Americans especially), would probably be a lot more like Jesus than Christians have been up to this point.