By Ian Hodge, 20 September, 2012
It is not often you get the chance to design your own collection of anything.
But now you can have your own collection of theology pieces. Mix-’n’-match.
For example, consider these words:
“But I say unto you . . .”
These are the words of Jesus in his teaching known as the Sermon on the Mount. They are used by many to promote the idea that Jesus changed the Old Testament teaching with a new “corrected” – or updated – version of what God requires.
A similar approach to biblical interpretation was taken by Marcion who said that St. Paul’s words “you are free from the law” was an indication that Old Testament law was now replaced by a new legal code. The New Testament had indeed superseded the Old. In the case of Marcion, the church eventually held him out to be a heretic because his teaching was wrong. For Paul’s words needed to be read in a broader context. And if read rightly, the words would not lead to the Marcionite conclusion.
Well, the same can be said for Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount. For just before he said the words “But I say unto you . . .” Jesus also said that he did not come to abolish any part of Torah — God’s law.
Here’s the issue. We’ve been taught and trained that the right way to read the Bible is to grab hold of some of the words that we read and use these as a battering ram to prove a point. Yes, Paul did say the words that Marcion found. Yes, Jesus did say the words, “But I say unto you… ” But words by themselves prove nothing.
Even these words can be found in the Bible: “There is no god.” And every atheist could hang his hat on that statement and shout “I believe!”
Until, of course, he reads the context: “The fool has said in his heart, ‘there is no God.’”
None of us likes to be a fool. But we have a fool’s method of biblical interpretation masquerading as scholarship. It is a method apparently open to anyone, for each of us is capable of taking a few words and giving them any meaning that suits us.
Many people have difficulty putting biblical words in context. They struggle, in other words, with systematic thinking because they struggle with systematic theology.
But systematic theology requires systematic thinking, and systematic thinking can only be done by leaving no stone unturned in the discussion. Unfortunately, this kind of thinking and the discipline necessary for it, are too often foreign to those in our churches and our society.