Passionate about our church, a friend has argued that because Jesus is the “ultimate measure of divine will,” all interpretations of Scripture must be filtered through Him. Jesus, His love, His compassion, His inclusiveness, should be the determinative arbiter of all our hermeneutics because Jesus is “the exact imprint” (Heb. 1:3, ESV) of the divine being.
My friend’s argument, however, notches up this Christ-centered hermeneutic to an unbiblical and self-refuting level. Disturbed, for instance, by Old Testament texts that have the Lord (Jesus) ordering Israel to wipe out nations (Deut. 20:16-19), my friend claims that these texts cannot be correct because Jesus would never do that.
“No one sees,” he wrote, “in the Jesus of the Gospels someone who would endorse violence, let alone genocide, against an enemy.”
But this approach falls into the self-referential conundrum. Jesus is, yes, the fullest expression of God that we humans have. But it’s not as if we have Jesus here now in the flesh, outside of and transcendent to the text, and from that perspective interpreting the text for us as He did with the two disciples on the Emmaus road (Luke 24:27). Instead, the fullest expression that we have of Jesus—who is Himself the fullest expression of God—is in the Bible, the very text that Jesus, as revealed in that text, will challenge or even in places nullify? Will the “Word of God” (Rev. 19:13) contradict the “Word of God” (Luke 4:4; 2 Cor. 4:2; Heb. 4:12)?
If the motto, as my friend asserts, is “Christ the criterion,” it’s hard to see the criterion—who always uplifted Scripture (Mark 12:10; Luke 4:21) and who said that “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35, KJV)—dissing parts of it.
And why stop with the “genocide” texts? Would “the Jesus of the Gospels” wipe out the world in a flood (Gen. 6-8)? And those who reject the global nature of the deluge are left with a Jesus who drowns . . . what, thousands, tens of thousands, in a local flood?
And would this same Jesus drop “brimstone and fire” on Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:24, KJV)?
Years ago the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., had an exhibit on the Enola Gay, the airplane used to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The exhibit played a recording of the prayer that a chaplain offered for the success of the mission. When he ended his supplication with the words “In Jesus’ name,” I cringed: Come on! You’re about to blow up and burn alive thousands of women, children, babies. Keep Jesus out of it, please! Yet the word of God says that the Lord (Jesus) was directly responsible for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (see Gen. 19:24, 25).
Where does this hermeneutic stop? The loving, inclusive Jesus, who reached out to the underclass, the marginalized, the outcasts—would He say something as exclusivist as “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6)? Or, stronger still: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Luke 11:23)? These sharp, unambiguous words by default not only exclude lots of people but “other” them as well, to the extent that they become “against” Jesus, that is, His enemies, merely by not being with Him. To argue that the “Jesus of the Gospels” would not say that is problematic because the “Jesus of the Gospels” did say that.
What spiritual principle demands that we must feel comfortable with all Scripture, anyway? In the dribble of time in which we turn oxygen into carbon dioxide, and within the thin and often vacuous shred of reality that we experience during this oxygen-to-carbon-dioxide transformation, and do so filtered by defective flesh (basically protein metabolism and cellular division)—what makes us think that we can get it right and Scripture, in places, wrong? And the little that we might get right is, surely, a small, contingent part of the whole.
However well-meaning and sincere my friend’s concern, a hermeneutic that rejects parts of the Bible is nothing but humans—woven, wired, and dipped in sin (as we all are)—passing judgment upon the Word of God.
Good luck. They’re going to need it.
Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. His latest book, Baptizing the Devil: Evolution and the Seduction of Christianity, is available from Pacific Press.