Love of God and neighbor are the two great commandments upon which everything else in the Bible hangs—and, interestingly, the Bible happens to be the only book in the world written by both God and neighbor. So, for Christians, love drives hermeneutics.
Just like love drives all interpretation and discussion of online articles and social media in the United States.
Or not. Come to think of it, I can’t remember the last time someone on the Internet actually read an entire article before firing off an angry or a self-righteous opinion about it. Some historians do believe love-driven interpretation has happened online—once in 1987 in Denmark, I think it was—but so far no direct evidence has come to light.
Okay, that was hyperbole, because I have some awesome readers here at the Logos Blog who engage in meaningful discussion without flaming. But I think we can all agree that even we Christians need what writer Alan Jacobs called the “Hermeneutics of Love.”
Love God with all your mind
Some readers try to master interpretation by chasing the supposed ideal of “Cartesian alienation”—an effort to doubt everything one knows in order to get in as objective a frame as possible.
But the Great Commandment tells us that isn’t the right approach. If the Bible, in particular, is a book written by God and neighbor, then a Hermeneutics of Love won’t let me doubt everything I know. I know God. I love God. How does one bracket out a love that consumes his or her whole heart, soul, mind, and strength?
Our loves necessarily shape all our reading. People don’t come to any text with a blank slate; and when they share articles on social media, they reveal their hearts. At the bottom of every “Like” is a love.
The verbally brilliant Muslim debater I recently heard interpreted the anarthrous θεός (theos) in John 1:1 the way he did because of his loves. He gave pedantic and unsympathetic readings of multiple biblical texts because of his loves. The Unitarian minister I once met who insisted, “You can’t take the Bible literally,” likewise failed to take God’s Word seriously because of his loves. He dismissed anything in Scripture not validated by American culture because of those loves. And it isn’t just non-Christians whose loves drive their interpretation: at both my best and my worst, my interpretations also grow from the center of my heart.
We are not word-processing machines gathering data, turning cranks, and spitting out more data. We are persons relating to other persons when we read. And when we read the Bible, we are relating to a perfect tri-personal Person—through his words as expressed through human persons like us. So the solution to hermeneutical difficulties in Scripture is, ultimately, not obtaining objectivity but right affection. We need to love God with all that’s in us if we expect to interpret his Word well.
Love Moses as yourself
And we need to love those fallen persons through whom God gave us his Word. We need to love Moses—and Paul and Matthew and Obadiah and Hosea and Jude and whoever wrote Hebrews—as ourselves. Neighbor love is an essential key to biblical hermeneutics.
When Moses said (quoting God), “Honor your father and your mother,” it should have been plain to readers that people of all ages have an obligation to their parents. But the Pharisees’ twisted hearts found a way to interpret him that could excuse their disobedience (remember when they declared those gifts “Corban” in Mark 7?). There’s no way a single Pharisee would have admitted to rejecting God in their hearts. But Jesus can see through rib cages: “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!”
The Pharisees were doing what my kids do when I tell them to stop making a particular annoying and repetitive noise, and they come up with new annoying and repetitive noise. They think they’re clever. Really they’re rejecting the hermeneutics of love. Do I really have to spell it out? Does Moses?
When secular Bible readers dismiss Paul as a misogynist, they’re not loving Paul as themselves. When Christians commit our own hermeneutical sins, we’re failing adequately to love that subset of the class “neighbor” which includes all the biblical authors.
Love and the clarity of the Scriptures
Alan Jacobs asks in his A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love,
What makes the difference between a reading that is manipulative and selfish and one that is charitable?…. Fundamentally, it is the reader’s will that determines the moral form the reading takes: If the will is directed toward God and neighbor, it will in Augustinian terms exemplify caritas; if the will is directed toward the self, it will exemplify cupiditas…. That one can read charitably only if one’s will is guided by charity is a pretty obvious point, yet it is neglected in hermeneutical theory even more than the charitable imperative itself. (31)
So to my favorite definition of the clarity of Scripture—”God’s communicative act, [which] ensures its meaning is accessible to all who come to it in faith“ (A Clear and Present Word, 169–170)—I’d like to add “and in love.”
How do we get this love? Jacobs observes,
Various Christian thinkers might characterize agape as the fruit of spiritual discipline, the achievement of moral labor, or the unearned gift of the Holy Spirit, but no one would say that the kind of love, of God or neighbor, that Jesus commands and Augustine endorses simply “happens to us.” Rather, it is a matter of the will, and thus in the etymological sense voluntary, rather than given. How, and by what force, the will may be redirected is a matter of theological dispute, but that it requires redirection in order that we might meet Jesus’ commandment is axiomatic for Christian theology. (32)
Love for God doesn’t guarantee accurate interpretation. But rebellion against him does guarantee inaccurate interpretation. Even if an individual rebellious reader gets some things right, he’s bound, ultimately, to misunderstand the Bible. Paul says categorically, “The natural person … is not able to understand” the things of God’s Spirit, “because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:14 ESV).
Bible study is not the time to set aside your presuppositions and clear your mind; it’s the time to fill your heart with love and bring to bear on the text everything your mind knows about those who are communicating to you, so that you can read charitably.
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