“The difficulty, as I see it, is when we place the authority of our particular interpretation of the Bible … beyond question and above the gospel imperative to love.” This quotation comes from a letter published in the Church Times a couple of weeks ago. It leapt out at me as soon as I read it, and I have been wondering ever since whether I am alone in seeing a more fundamental ‘difficulty’ in this thinking.
I should first of all say that the letter concerns the dangers – and increasingly recognised reality – of ‘spiritual abuse’. I concur with those concerns and endorse them whole-heartedly. I do not want my critique of the quoted sentence to suggest otherwise.
So why did it leap out at me? I have noticed over the years an increasing tendency (or perhaps I have increasingly noticed a tendency?) to sum up and crystalise the gospel’s expected response as one of ‘love’. There are obvious grounds for doing this of course: when asked about the ‘greatest commandment’, Jesus replied by quoting texts about love for God and love for neighbour. So far, so good, we might think.
But that is where the difficulty arises, and it is this: how to interpret those texts? No matter how convenient it may be to presume that these ideas are ‘self-evident’, they are no less in need of being interpreted than any other text or idea.
The unavoidable fact is that all texts need to be interpreted, and only in extremely rare cases is such a process simple, straightforward, or beyond contention. In his latest Grove book, How to interpret the Bible, Ian Paul addresses this very point in the first chapter: that all texts require interpretation. He even cites texts from the Bible that illustrate this very point (Neh 8.6-8; Luke 24.27).
I am not going to enter into a discussion of the interpretation of the ‘love’ commandments here; the important point is to note the complexity of such a task. Just the word ‘love’ is particularly wide-ranging (and therefore ambiguous) in contemporary English; besides which the meaning of the biblical text must necessarily be rooted in what Jesus meant by the word, not by how it is used today. Let me point out just one more difficulty: the two uses of ‘love’ in ‘love God’ and ‘love neighbour’ must mean different things, since we do not, and cannot, relate to God in the same way that we relate to other people.
So the (even more highly condensed) phrase ‘love God and love your neighbour’ is by no means a self-evident or unambiguous or simple summary of a gospel ethic.
But the matters that I have discussed so far pale into relative insignificance when it comes to claiming that ‘to love’ is the gospel imperative. To make such a claim is effectively to interpret not only a specific text but the whole of the canonical witness. It implies a vast extent of detailed theological analysis of a diverse range of material, with decisions and judgements being made along the way. And I really do not believe that it is a claim that can be sustained, at least not without substantial explanation and qualification. Yet my usual experience of such a claim is that it is made somewhat lazily, not based on careful analysis and reflection, but out of a desire to simplify and avoid more sophisticated thinking. In other words, decisions and judgements are made without any recognition, or perhaps even awareness, of that being case.
The underlying complexity can be readily illustrated by the range of phrases that could be substituted for ‘love’ in the phrase ‘the gospel imperative to love’. How about ‘the gospel imperative to obey God’, or ‘to serve the poor’, or ‘to establish justice’, or ‘to be holy’, or ‘to follow Christ’? These all fit the context and can all be justified on the basis of a reading of the Bible. One can argue, of course, that to ‘love God and neighbour’ encapsulates all of these ideas, but that is to admit that the term ‘love’ is extraordinarily broad and requires interpretation. Indeed, it is to offer an interpretation of ‘love’.
Thus the irony in the original quotation, that immediately stood out to me, is that it effectively says: “The difficulty, as I see it, is when we place the authority of our particular interpretation of the Bible … beyond question and above my particular interpretation of the Bible (which is beyond question)” (bearing in mind that the writer almost certainly has other people in mind when using the term ‘we’).
Debates about the meaning of specific biblical texts, let alone about the meaning of the Bible as a whole, are never going to go away. But we will make much more progress in such debates if we recognise that every reading of every text is an interpretation. As responsible readers, we should aim to recognise that process of interpretation as we exercise it ourselves, if we are to justify our own position with any real credibility. We cannot simply shoot down the ‘self-evident’ interpretation of others, while falling into the same trap ourselves. Which is reason enough to thoroughly commend Ian’s new book.