Studies in Hermeneutics—Lesson 2
By Reta Halteman Finger
In the previous lesson, I mentioned that the Mennonite Church USA was being torn apart by the LGBTQ issue. But this is hardly unique. Not long ago, members of EEWC-CFT had a conversation on our EEWC Community Google Group about the history of our organization and the pain we all experienced when some members left EEWC in 1986 to form Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE). In both cases, and in many more we might name, disagreement over same-sex sexuality was only the presenting issue. Various tensions relating to theology, biblical interpretation, or ethics had no doubt been simmering under the surface for years. But I am not surprised that sexuality, which lies deeply at the core of who we are, is a topic that brings these tensions into the open.
Many practicing Christians base their theological and ethical beliefs on the Bible or on interpretations of the Bible that their church teaches. Those who believe the Bible to be “inerrant” (without error) or at least “infallible” have a much easier time explaining their position against homosexual practice or gay marriage than do Christians they consider “liberal,” who must explain a different and supportive position. Although references to same-sex sexual expression in either Old or New Testaments are few, the texts are uniformly negative. Marriage is always between a man and a woman, not same-sex persons. God set up the pattern in Genesis 2:24, so what is there to argue about? This is the reasoning of many Christians.
Behind Sexuality to Interpretation and Inspiration
In these lessons, however, I am interested in the larger question of biblical hermeneutics. How should we interpret the Bible? In what way is it, or should it be, authoritative in the lives of Christians? Wrestling with these more basic questions can help us know how to think about controversial ethical or theological issues. And it can help us better understand the assumptions of people with whom we may disagree.
We can begin with inspiration. Is the Bible divinely inspired and thus authoritative? Discussions on inspiration often start by quoting 2 Timothy 3:16 from the New Testament. The NRSV reads, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” This is the usual translation, but it is not the only one. A footnote in the NRSV includes this alternative: “Every scripture inspired by God is also…”
The difference is significant. The alternative says that when a scripture is inspired, then it is also useful for teaching, reproof, and so on. It implies that not all scripture is necessarily inspired. However, either translation is acceptable because Greek sentence structure often omits the verb “is.” English requires a main verb, but in this case the Greek does not tell us where it should go.
There are two further limitations. One is the purpose of inspired scripture. It is “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” The goal in verse 17 is ethical—so that believers can be equipped to do good works. Note that nothing is said about scientific or historical accuracy. For example, is the theory of evolution compatible with Genesis 1 or 2? That is beyond the scope of 2 Timothy 3:16-17.
Further, when 2 Timothy was penned, there was no New Testament canon, and some of those books were not yet written. This text refers only to the Hebrew Bible—or more likely to the Greek translation called the Septuagint. But the Septuagint also includes what we call the “Apocrypha,” or the inter-testamental writings. Neither the Hebrew Bible then (or now), nor the Protestant Bible today, include these writings in their canon of scripture. So what “scripture” is 2 Timothy 3:16 referring to?
Here come the experts!
While teaching an introductory course on the Bible to first-year college students, I would often show them parts of a video called “Who Wrote the Bible?” Act I of this series deals with inspiration. The first example quotes Aron Tendler, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi who emphatically stresses that God dictated every word of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai, “as someone dictates a letter to a secretary.”
The late Jerry Falwell of Liberty University follows with, “I believe God used human beings to write the Bible because God’s word was to humans. Each of the forty-some authors wrote verbatim—totally verbatim—as God instructed, but through their own personalities.”
A burning campfire introduces the last option. Stories and genealogies, told and retold around communal campfires, “were conveyed verbally from generation to generation.” Dr. David Barr suggests schools of writers or bands of prophets put strands of various stories together in connected sequences, and then wove them into longer sequences, which scholars today try, with difficulty, to unweave.
My students generally preferred Falwell’s statement, even when I pointed out that it was a contradiction, since “verbatim” means word-for-word dictation. Well, then, some would suggest, God knew their personalities well enough to dictate the texts to make them sound like the authors’ own personalities! So much for human agency…!
In the next lesson, we will trace the development of the role that authoritative texts played in the history of the People of God.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
1. What did or does your church community believe about biblical inspiration? Is a particular theory taught, or just assumed?
2. When you discuss controversial religious or ethical issues with other Christians, can you deduce their view of biblical inspiration?