The speed limit is not up for interpretation. Sadly, I have had more than one occasion on which I have learned this. Plead as you might, you cannot make an argument against any reasonable officer that you just interpreted that 65mph meant 80mph or that you could drive 40mph in a 20mph zone because you thought that speed was better suited for the case. In some cases, interpretation is neither necessary nor welcome. When learning to drive a vehicle you are not offered a book of suggestions you might want to follow how you best see fit. 16-year-old aspiring motorists are given strict guidelines that are, under no circumstance, appropriate to re-interpret.
Most things in life however are not as cut and dry. Take the United States constitution for example. Many at the outset might say that the Constitution has a plain face value meaning. It is strict and literal. However when one begins to apply the text of the constitution into lawmaking and law upholding, term literal itself begins to be up for interpretation. How literal? Who’s literal? Was this not the case there would not be unbridled angst when Presidents are afforded the ability to appoint new Justices on the Supreme Court. The Justices job is to stand as final interpreter for specific cases; they are commissioned to take the text of the law and appropriate it accordingly. The very act of determining legality or the absence of legality is an act of interpretation into which we being our values, beliefs, presuppositions and worldviews.
As Christians we have projected the democratic system onto our religious traditions. Many hold that interpretations should be made on a very limited basis, if at all, when it comes to the appropriation of Scripture on life, while others believe that great interpretation and exception should be made in every case of the intersection of scripture and life, allowing for forgiveness in the divide between conception and application.
What if however, the way we approach scripture as a whole is largely misinformed? Taking the Constitution of the United States, that document is only good, worthwhile, and influential in the American life and democracy as we allow it to shape the culture of America. In other words, were we to disregard the Constitution as a whole, perhaps in favor in anarchy but more likely in favor of another theory for social life, the Constitution would lose meaning. The truth in it would not necessarily stop being true in some sense, but in another, once the document ceases to shape the community, the truth by which it used to shape has become irrelevant. Whether or not one had a strict or loose view on Constitutional interpretation would be irrelevant because neither view would have maintained the ability to shape the American culture. As Christians we appoint our own authorities of interpretation, an appointment we consciously make in agreement with our already held preferences. Typically, if those we read, listen to, hear sermons from, etc, begin to disagree with our preference, we cast them aside for someone who will appease us.
Stanley Hauerwas, one of the most Influential theologians of the 20th and now 21st centuries regarding political theology (the intersection of social life with the Gospel) reflected in A Community of Character that Scripture is not meant to give a list of rules or of dos and don’ts but rather to shape a community in what they should do. For those of you who think those two options sound synonymous, allow me to explain.
The one who is truly transformed by scripture should not feel shackled by the mandates but freed by the influence. Perhaps we can tie specific words to the two options: obligation and aspiration. The point no longer is, “I should give my money to the poor because the Bible says so,” or, “I need to show her kindness even though I find he annoying,” becomes, “I give my money to the poor because the type of person I have become ought to meet the needs of the impoverished,” or,” I show her kindness because the person I have become ought to show kindness to all people regardless of who they are.” The first case communicates obligation to follow a moral code, the second, aspiration to continuously be transformed into the person who no longer ought to act as Jesus did, but acts like him out of their genuinely transformed spirit. Therefore, unless we truly allow Scripture to transform us as the community of believers, interpretative endeavors are all lost causes. Interpretation must first stem from life intersection and transformation not from bias and preference.
We have reached an intersection in history where it seems like Scripture has lost nearly all ability to influence the culture we live in. That is not to say it cannot but it is to say that we are unwilling to let it. We feel freedom to throw out all sort of should and shouldn’t that perpetuate our way of life. The word of God sits static on the table or in the pulpit as we seek for it to establish the parameters of our life. While it often doesn’t is create parameters around us, preventing us from engaging with culture, preventing us from being relevant in the world. We take major political issues we are passionate about and seek out Scripture to justify them. We decide the way to raise our kids, manage our money, construct our diet, donate goods, and then we go to scripture and low and behold we are able to construct a mangled mess of words and phrases that support our beliefs. The truth is however, what we have arrived at is not Scripture and often not even Christian. We have lost sight of what Scripture is to do.
We try to do this in good conscious because it is the only way we can see that we can make it, that we can possibly follow all the rules. Newsflash, since the begging of time we have not been able to follow all the rules, even when there is only one. God doesn’t need us all to follow a bunch of rules; he desires to be transformed into the type of people who no longer have a need for rules. It is as if he is in the process of raising us as children, the rules we receive in adolescents are meant to transform reckless youth into responsible maturity. It is unhealthy for a 30 year od male to still have a curfew from his parents. He must reach a point that he has been transformed into the type of person that he can determine healthy lifestyle choices on his own.
If you have ever heard anyone say they either don’t understand the Bible or don’t think it is relevant, do you think it is because Scripture really no longer has the power to transform the hearts of humanity, or more likely, has the way they have seen Scripture implemented is not compelling enough to give their life to? We allow our culture to shape Scripture as opposed to allowing Scripture to shape our culture.
We have appropriated scripture out of obligation not aspiration in such a way that we are continuously doomed to fail. We have made the Christian walk an impossible task, filled constantly with the guilt of letting down God and ourselves that we have been unable to jump through all the hoops. As a point, ask this question: with over one billion Christians in the world, shouldn’t the world look a lot different? What if instead we journey on of perpetual transformation, what if we abandoned the obligation that has been such a turn-off for so many, and embraced the ability of God to move in our lives and transform the brokenness of our world.
Karl Barth famously and controversially stated that Scripture is only what is inspired by the Holy Spirit. Barth was not stating that anything, from the People magazine you read at the salon to Romans chapter 8 all can be inspired with a simple sprinkling of Holy Spirit pixie dust. Instead he was making a commentary on what was and still is the current state in Scriptural interpretation in Christian communities and individuals. Like lawmakers and judges understand when dealing in their medium, the words on the page are not as clear as the words on the page. Just because you read it does not mean you can apply it in any way you like. Barth’s point was that the Holy spirit must be present and guiding in reading and interpreting Scripture, otherwise, you may have read words on the page, but that’s about it.
Scripture shouldn’t cause you to ask the question, “did I meet my quota today?” or, “did I follow those rules today even though my heart wanted so desperately to break them?” Instead the question it should spark it, “what type of people are we, and what type of community ought we be?” We can never transform the world if we have not ourselves been transformed.