Friday, September 18, 2009

How Do You Interpret the Bible?

Previously on this blog, I used a judicial framework to look at why God (if we grant that he exists) would send people to hell. Today I want to use two of the major frameworks we use to interpret the constitution and see how they would apply to interpreting the Bible.

Living Bible

Under this framework, every generation would be free to reinterpret the Bible to adapt to changing societal mores. But that potentially leaves us ignoring pretty much the whole Old Testament, and much of the New Testament. Here are some examples of things that are incompatible with modern views:

“You shall not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.” (Leviticus 18:22)

“And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” (Matt. 19:9).

All of these Biblical commands were transmitted in some cultural context. A living Biblical framework then, allows us to reevaluate the Bible in our cultural context. The problem of course if that a living Biblical framework leaves the temptation to get rid of any command we don’t want to follow. We can say “sure the Bible says don’t divorce, but that was a long time ago, times are completely different now.”


This framework has the advantage of relative simplicity. The Bible says what it means, and isn’t for us to tinker with. We should interpret the Biblical commands the same way the generation that received them would. Of course, there is no way to change it. With a constitution, we could amend it. I can just imagine some church getting together to eliminate some of the Ten Commandments. I wonder how God would take that.

Anyway, one might think that a Biblical originalist would have to defend everything in the Old Testament, including stoning rebellious children. But I think you can say that we should read the Old Testament in light of the New Testamament in the same way that we might read the bill of rights in light of reconstruction and the 14th and 15th amendments.

In the New Testament, when an adulteress was about to be stoned, Christ said “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” This is particularly interesting.

Christ isn’t saying that adultery isn’t a sin anymore. And he’s not even saying that an adulterer doesn’t deserve death. What he’s saying is that no human is qualified to dish out such a punishment. A Christian could be an “originalist” and not follow much of the Old Testament. It seems that a Jew who read Old Testament as an orginalist would be obligated to follow all 613 Jewish laws—as indeed orthodox Jews do.

What do you think is the best way to interpret the Bible?

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