How Should We Use the Bible?

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 30
October 29, 2023
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: There are three reliable methods for hearing what God wants us to hear from a biblical passage: seek out preaching and teaching that is faithful and well-informed, let scripture interpret scripture and apply the rule of love.

The sermon title poses the question, "How should we use the Bible?"

That may strike you as an odd question to ask Christians, but it's worth exploring because the Bible is not a single entity. In fact, it's a whole library in one volume.

Large portions of the Bible are stories, many of which relate to God's ongoing covenant relationship with people of faith, which forms us as a people of God.

But the Bible is many other things as well. It's a history book, as in Genesis and Acts; a hymnbook, as in Psalms (even if we no longer have the music); it's a practical manual for living, especially in books like Proverbs and James; it's a guide for living in a godly way, as Jesus' Sermon on the Mount and Paul's letters emphasize; and it's a connecting point to God himself throughout the whole book.

The lawbook

But many people also think of the Bible as a lawbook. There are literally hundreds of laws in the Bible, from the Ten Commandments to the intricate holiness code of Leviticus, to rules covering ceremonial behavior and daily conduct in a semi-nomadic society with no central government.

Some laws, like the Ten Commandments, we still revere today. Others ... not so much. Who, today, for example, thinks that, if a man should suddenly die, leaving his wife childless, it is the duty of the man's brother to marry his former sister-in-law? Deuteronomy, chapter 25, commands him to do this even if he has a wife already. Then, if a son is born from that union, the child is considered the heir of the deceased brother.

And what if the surviving brother doesn't want to take on a second wife? In that case, the widow has a right to go to the elders of the village and demand that they pressure him into doing it. If the stubborn man still doesn't yield to that moral persuasion, the widow has the right to go up to him, pull one of his sandals off his feet, spit in his face and declare: "This is what is done to the man who does not build up his brother's house!" Henceforth, the book of Deuteronomy concludes, "Throughout Israel his family shall be known as 'the house of him whose sandal was pulled off.'"

There it is, a law from the Bible. Would anybody here care to make the case that our state legislature ought to adopt it, forthwith? Should we add it to our state's statutes that, henceforth, polygamy be not only permitted in this state, but required in the case of a man and his widowed sister-in-law?

Of course not! That doesn't fit our lives today.

Yet, it does raise the question: How do we know which biblical laws no longer apply in the present era - and who decides?

The Old Testament laws

Thankfully, when it comes to the Old Testament, there is some guidance from thinkers in the past who influenced the growing church. Especially, there was the theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), who explained that there are three types of biblical laws: moral, ceremonial and judicial, and that of the three, only the moral laws - certainly including the Ten Commandments - are permanent. In fact, Aquinas held that even before the Law was given through Moses, the precepts of moral law were part of the law of nature.

The ceremonial laws were those dealing with forms of worshiping God and with ritual cleanliness. Aquinas said they were ordained to the divine worship for that particular time and to foreshadow the coming of Christ, so that when Christ arrived, those laws ceased to bind.

Judicial precepts, such as rules for how long a Hebrew slave can be kept, how cases of accidental manslaughter should be handled and rules about who's responsible if an ox kills someone,1 came into existence only with the Law of Moses and were only intended to be temporary, Aquinas said.

Most Christian denominations today draw similar conclusions about the permanence of moral law, including the Ten Commandments, and the expiration of the ceremonial and civil/judicial laws from the Old Testament.2

The New Testament

Turning to the New Testament, which deals with the time after Christ came, some Christians find it uncomfortable to say that any part of it has expired, but in fact, we often assume some parts have.

For example, there's a place in First Corinthians when Paul says women ought to cover their heads in church.3 That wasn't exactly a law, but it was a rule that Paul wanted to impose on the church. And for many centuries in the church, it was expected that women would cover their heads. That's still the case within a few Christian groups, but it's no longer required in most denominations.

In the case of this rule, biblical scholars have helped us understand how the rule was part of the cultural understanding of Paul's time, and church leaders, if not in decree, at least in practice, have let that rule expire. Bible scholar William Barclay begins his commentary on this passage by saying, "This is one of those passages which have a purely local and temporary significance ...."4

Moving on

Of course, allowing that some laws and practices in the Bible have reached their expiration date can seem like the beginning of a slippery slope. For if some rules no longer apply, who's to say that some others will eventually no longer apply as well.

You can see the sort of dilemma we're in. Human knowledge is a good deal more complicated than it was in years past. A simple, literal reading of the Bible isn't always possible. Short of going to seminary and studying ancient Hebrew and Greek, how's an ordinary Christian to decide what the Bible is really saying about one ethical issue or another?

Well, in the church, we have help. We have a strong tradition of biblical preaching and teaching, presented by ordained leaders who have studied both the Bible itself and modern methods of biblical interpretation. Not that we pastors are always 100% in agreement - biblical scholarship is always a work in progress - but there's impressive consensus out there about the meaning of most biblical texts.

Apart from relying on a trained interpreter to open up the meaning of the Bible - there are a couple of other general principles of interpretation anybody can apply.

Let scripture interpret scripture

The first of these is an ancient dictum that goes back to Augustine and other leaders of the early church. That principle is: "Let scripture interpret scripture."

That may sound, on the face of it, like a circular argument: but the principle of studying scripture passages in light of other scripture passages does carry us a long way toward the sort of certainty we're seeking. That's because the scriptures are, by and large, consistent with one another (at least when it comes to the big issues).

It was this let-scripture-interpret-scripture principle that ultimately led to the tremendous change in Christian ethics in the 19th century, resulting in the abolition of slavery. For centuries, people in favor of slavery had pointed to the existence of that "peculiar institution" in biblical times. They also pulled out a certain far-fetched argument, based on the story of Noah cursing his son, Ham, who was generally thought to be the ancestor of the African peoples. The more Christians became familiar, though, with the overall message of the Bible - the preponderance of passages about loving and caring for one another; the fact that we're all created in God's image; not to mention God's fundamental justice - the more they came to conclude that the biblical evidence was much stronger against slavery than for it.

The rule of love

The second principle is one we see Jesus himself using, in our New Testament passage for today. A Pharisee, perhaps intending to test Jesus' Jewish orthodoxy, asks him which is the greatest commandment. Jesus dispenses the textbook answer: reciting the Old Testament declaration known as the Shema: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind."

That would have been enough to get an "A" on the exam, by anybody's standard, but Jesus goes on. There is a second great commandment, he says: "Love your neighbor as yourself."

Love and obey God: such is the hallmark of classical Judaism. Yet, in elevating love of neighbor to an equally high level, Jesus is breaking new ground. Such a thought was not completely unknown in ancient Judaism - a few other leading rabbis had taught much the same thing - but Jesus made it so much a part of everything he said and did that his followers came to be noted for it. The church father Tertullian remarked on how many pagans in the Roman empire marveled at the Christians they met, saying: "See, how they love one another!"5

This hallmark of the faith has been adapted into a principle of biblical interpretation known as "the rule of love." It's very simple. About any biblical passage, one can ask the question: "Is this interpretation consistent with love of God and love of neighbor?" If we truly reflect on the meaning of this greatest commandment of Jesus and hold it up as a yardstick to interpretations that seem questionable, it's remarkable how well it cuts through the confusion and helps us decide what the Spirit is truly saying to us.

To sum up: there are three reliable methods for hearing what God wants us to from a biblical passage: seek out preaching and teaching that is faithful and well-informed, let scripture interpret scripture, and finally, apply the rule of love. While it's true that biblical interpretation is always a work in progress - and that, of debates about the meaning of the scriptures, there will be no end - following these three methods is not a bad plan.

And that, my friends, is how we can use the Bible to hear direction from God.