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How to Read Scripture

12 May 2008

Wow, that’s an embarrassingly ambitious title for a blog post.

Still, it’s what comes to mind after working my way carefully through Hays’ two chapters on divorce and homosexuality in The Moral Vision of the New Testament.

It reminds me again of why my nascent studies in seminary (ACU Graduate School of Theology, in case you’re wondering) are proving so wonderfully fruitful.  Had it not been for Craig Churchill, Trevor Thompson, and Dr. John Willis there at ACU, I would never have met Hays, Meeks, Hauerwas, Yoder, Mitchell, Malherbe, Brueggemann…just as I was introduced to Willard by Eldredge, and Peterson by McCay (some local talent).  In every case, I have learned how to read Scripture.

Or I should say, “I am learning how to read Scripture.”  In any case, it’s clear that I need help; I’ve been teaching Bible for years from a deep, deep reservoir of ignorance, and only the active grace of God has saved any of my hearers from disaster, especially if they were ever tempted to follow what I said.

In fundamentalist circles, where I tend to live and work, it is common to hear a Bible teacher say something like, “it’s important to let Scripture interpret Scripture.”  Which, in fact, sounds noble.  But I am finding as I read these thoughtful authors that letting Scripture interpret Scripture, as such, frequently leads me into a ditch, where I am as likely (a) to dilute Jesus’ austere teaching as I am (b) to make Paul’s contextually shaped, moral opinions legally and universally binding.  The great message that I am receiving, especially now from Hays, is that I must allow Scripture to stand in dialectical tension with Scripture.

There are many bearings to that.  Most importantly for now, I have come to recognize that the New Testament writers disagree on some important points; or at least they seem to emphasize different aspects of Jesus’ teaching at the expense of others.  For example, how we are to formulate a coherent doctrine on divorce and remarriage when the gospel authors present different pictures of the moral framework?

One approach, of course, is to go in search of the least common denominator, which is implicitly a recipe for moral laxity.  Another approach is to be safe and adopt the most stringent approach presented, which is a recipe for legalistic abuse (and probably makes us vulnerable to charges of selective reading when we encounter something that challenges the moral choices that we have made in our own lives).  But the idea of a dialectical relationship is something quite different.  Hays asks that we allow each text to stand on its own and view all of them through a threefold set of what he calls “focal images” that pervade the NT text:  community, cross, and new creation.

One thing I appreciate about Hays is that he does not simply formulate a hermeneutical strategy in general terms and then leave the reader to fend for himself.  Of the numerous strengths on display in Moral Vision, the one I find most refreshing is that Hays wades neck-deep into five contemporary, deeply significant, highly controversial, moral quandaries to show us how his dialectical strategy might work out in practice.  Had he applied his reasoning to things like murder and thievery, I would not have been impressed.  But he does not.  Instead, he sticks his neck way out there and addresses violence/war, homosexuality, marriage/divorce, abortion, and ethnic conflict.  How’s that for courage?


Here’s an arresting thought to give you a flavor of where Hays ends up.  Although one cannot read Hays and honestly conclude that he is morally permissive – his term for the NT’s, and indeed the Bible’s, view of homosexuality is “univocal” condemnation of homosexual practice – he does conclude that establishing heterosexuality as a fundamental and explicit criterion for ordination is “arbitrary” and therefore unjustifiable.  (He wryly notes that ordination standards specifically pertaining to “lesser” sins, like honesty and integrity, are conspicuously absent from most church law.)



4 Comments leave one →
  1. Ben permalink
    13 May 2008 10:10 am

    Brent, your observations are a refreshing reminder of the joys of study. Regarding biblical studies, the customary approach as highlighted by Hays (per your description) opens the door for other authors to provide something genuine about the text. It affords us learner types the possibility of gaining additional insights on great Truths by exploring other veins of thought and informed opinions as valuable to the discussion. In other words, we are not so quick to employ the “opinions of man” hammer that our forefathers felt obliged to use when an opinion challenged the majority view of the text. Instead, authors such as Nouwen, Hauerwas, Hick, and others provide us as readers an invaluable service by challenging us to examine our own presuppositions under the demands of our own virtuous sense of justice and integrity.

  2. queueball permalink*
    13 May 2008 1:31 pm

    Of course, in retrospect I cannot believe I failed to give due credit. Who was it, precisely, who encouraged me to look afresh at ACU for seminary in the first place? Our good friend, Ben. “Joys of study,” indeed.

    That hammer has my fingerprints all over it, by the way. I’m glad to be rid of it. qb

  3. 15 May 2008 10:49 pm


    You might appreciate this from Stephen Finlan’s PROBLEMS WITH ATONEMENT: “The Bible is part of the problem . . . and most of the solution. We have reached a stage in theological development when we need to acknowledge that the Bible is full of diverse viewpoints and admit that it is not likely to be a transcript straight from the mind of God, though it may indeed be the heavily filtered human reflection of the mind of God, a record of the gradual and partial human reception of God’s initiatives.” Coop

  4. queueball permalink*
    16 May 2008 9:33 am

    Coop, that’s exactly the perspective I’m being forced to consider adopting. As you undoubtedly know by experience, which I only “know” by induction, the pastoral implications of adopting that perspective are, er, shall we say, dramatic. As one fellow put it to Hays: “How can I ever preach from that text again?” It’s not all about preaching, of course; my own pet concern for the moment is, “how can I be a blessing instead of a curse during Bible studies with friends and family?” I think the answer probably lies in patiently raising patient questions under the sensitive guidance of the Holy Spirit. But even that begs the question, because at some point, I have to decide whether I’m going to raise an issue or not. Interesting quandary. Thanks for popping in. qb

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