God and Guns. The Dialogue– Part Four

God and Guns. The Dialogue– Part Four February 9, 2022

Q. From the perspective of Biblical theology, I don’t really find the pick and choose approach of Shelly Matthews at all helpful, not least because ‘all Scripture is God-breathed’. What are the implications in your mind for Biblical theology of a high view of Scripture and also taking into account the varigated witness in the Bible about violence?

Prof. Chris Hays answers:

A. Like the last question, this one goes to serious and deeper issues of hermeneutics and interpretation. Although I’d love for Prof. Matthews to answer the question, she’s delegated me. And it’s my pleasure, since her essay has been one of the most helpful and thought-provoking in the volume, to me personally.

I suspect, Ben, that I was brought up to think about the Bible kind of like what you’re describing. I thought that we ought to do justice to the whole Bible and not simply choose a “canon within a canon” that affirms us and makes us feel good. And, if you put it that way, I still think that.

However, I’ve been teaching the Bible for two decades, and my thinking about our task as interpreters may have changed over that time. When you look at the history of interpretation, you see how many conflicting ways the Bible can be and has been interpreted. One reason is the simple fact is that the Bible is polyvocal. It presents different perspectives on the same issues. There are two creation stories, four gospels, and multiple points of view on whether people ought to marry foreign wives, or whether they ought to eat meat etc. Some of these things are differences between the testaments, but there are differences within the testaments as well. I don’t have to tell you about the disagreement between James and Paul on the importance of works… So whatever 2 Tim 3:16 means, it doesn’t mean that the Bible is self-interpreting or self-applying, or that interpreter doesn’t have to make choices.

Given that the Bible is polyvocal and sometimes flatly disagrees with itself, it is the task of the interpreter to make decisions. There is an enormous amount of good in the biblical tradition, and it’s the job of the interpreter to figure out how to apply that to our own situation, by the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s what “God-breathed” means to me: It means that the Bible becomes the Word of God through the ongoing power of the Spirit. If we stop making room for the Spirit’s surprises, it becomes a dead letter.

As we see, for example, in the Book of Acts, the Holy Spirit sometimes inspires us to change our thinking radically, in ways that seem shocking to many people who are the heirs of a tradition. We shouldn’t pretend that the church has always been consistent, and in fact it shouldn’t always be consistent. Sometimes the church need.

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And Ben responds briefly.  I also have been teaching the Bible for many decades, closing in on 5 decades. And I’ve written a commentary on every book of the NT, so I’ve wrestled again and again with the very issues you and Prof. Matthews are raising. And after all that probing I can honestly say I don’t agree that there are opposing views on the same issue of theological or ethical importance in the NT.  Paul also affirms good works as a manifestation of genuine faith, and so the old James vs. Paul simply doesn’t work. The fact that there is a long history of various misinterpretations, including purely anachronistic ones, and misuses of the Bible is a very different issue than deciding whether the NT in its own assertions contradicts itself. 2 Tim. 3.16 is not talking about later interpretations of the Bible, nor is it saying what Barth later said namely that the Bible becomes the Word of God when the Spirit acts with or on it. It simply says that the ‘graphe’ themselves are God-breathed.  Plain and simple.  And lastly the real danger of the pick and choose approach is that it makes the interpreter the final arbiter of the truth of Scripture, or even whether it tells the truth at all, and frankly that places us as exegetes over the text, rather than under its authority.  That’s my two cents worth.


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