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Hoosier Musings on the Road to Emmaus

Saturday, January 24, 2004

Ethics II - Week 3

This week our discussions revolved around with the ethics of biblical interpretation. Now, this is a topic where I find it easy to remember Trevor's injunction to "focus on how all ethics is personal." Scripture is a big deal to me, enough that I have something of a reputation as a Bible geek around here. I believe that as Christians, ours is a revealed faith-- and a primary mode of that revelation is the collection of scriptures that make up our biblical canon.

To be ordained in the Episcopal Church, a candidate stands before his/her bishop and declares that "I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation." If we're making that declaration before the Lord-- and signing it before witnesses gathered-- then what those scriptures contain, and how we understand (read, interpret) them is critical, crucial stuff.

And interpret we do, each one of us; even those who purport to take every word literally. Does anyone believe that describing Jesus as the Lamb of God mean that at one point he was a sheep? No; we look behind the words, to the meaning of the metaphor. That's interpretation.

So what is "ethical" interpretation? Where can we stretch the metaphor and meaning, and where must/should we stop?

Part of the answer to that question, I believe lies in scripture itself-- in the Great Commandment.

If we love God, we take seriously the gift of God's word. That means reading it, listening to it, praying it, in large, satisfying chunks. It means studying and working through the whole canon; not just lingering in the parts we like or understand, or that make us comfortable. It means, in academic terms, "referring to the primary text," rather than simply listening to what some photogenic, proof-texting, pulpit-pounding televangelist spins out, and taking his/her word for "what it really means."

If we love people, then we grant them the same prerogative; and we listen when that prerogative is exercised. This does not mean we necessarily agree, certainly; discussion and challenge are endemic to how we as humans grow, intellectually and spiritually. But it does mean respectfully seeking to hear the voice of God in the multitudes of places in which the Word is loved and spoken: through both men and women, rich and poor, of all races and nationalities, past and present. I can certainly read my Bible on my own, and gain understanding, and strengthen faith; but only in combining my understanding with others committed to the task will God's Word be heard in its fullness.

So there's my suggested approach to ethical interpretation: first, to be committed to "read, mark, learn and inwardly digest" the Word of God as wholly worthy of our personal attention; and then, to attend to what that Word is saying to the minds and hearts of those around me, as well as my own.


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