The only question worth asking

madewithOver-2

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Here is the full quote from Yale New Testament professor Dale Martin:

I have tried to illustrate how all appeals to “what the Bible says” are ideological and problematic. But in the end, all appeals, whether to the Bible or anything else, must submit to the test of love.

To people who say this is simplistic, I say, far from it. There are no easy answers. “Love” will not work as a foundation for ethics in a prescriptive or predictable fashion—as can be seen by all the injustices, imperialisms, and violence committed in the name of love.

But rather than expecting the answer to come from a particular method of reading the Bible, we at least push the discussion to where it ought to be: into the realm of debates about Christian love, rather than into either fundamentalism or modernist historicism.

We ask the question that must be asked: “What is the loving thing to do?”

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The context for this quote is a lengthy but illuminating piece on the meaning of two Greek words, arsenokoites and malakos, both of which occur in 1 Corinthians 6, a passage many read as condemning all same-sex intimacy.

Martin demonstrates convincingly (for me, anyway) that modern scholars read too much—or perhaps too little, depending on your perspective—into the meaning of these words. But at least in the case of malakos (unfortunately rendered “sodomites” in the NRSV), the correct meaning is no less troubling. It introduces just as many interpretive problems as it solves.

(Spoiler alert: Martin argues the correct translation of malakos is “effeminate,” adding weight to accusations of misogyny laid at the apostle Paul’s feet.)

In the end, Martin concludes that we can’t resolve every interpretive difficulty in Scripture—nor should we try. No matter what our view, conservative or progressive, and no matter what our approach to Scripture, fundamentalist or historicist, we all run into difficulties when reading and applying the Bible. It doesn’t always work to just “do what the Bible says.” It’s not that simple. Which is just as well, because sometimes the Bible says to “annihilate” people.

Nor do interpretation and application suddenly become easy once we cross from the Old Testament into the New. We are still 2,000 years removed from its context. We are still listening in on one side of conversations that took place in a much different world.

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The good news is, the apostle Paul (yes, the same Paul who rather unfortunately suggested that “effeminate” people will not inherit the kingdom of God) gave us the key to answering the age-old question, “How should we live?” And the answer is not, “Line up as many Bible verses as you can find on a given topic and try to make them all say the same thing.” Because sometimes that doesn’t work.

The answer, according to Paul, is to obey the one command that fulfills all the other, sometimes conflicting commands:

For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  

He also says, “If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other,” proving that sometimes, the application of ancient Scripture to our context IS rather straightforward.)

Another way to put it is, as Dale Martin did, is to always ask one question, no matter the issue: What is the loving thing to do?

Original photo by Abhi on Flickr (overlay and text added to original image) / CC BY 2.0

4 thoughts on “The only question worth asking

  1. “”It doesn’t always work to just “do what the Bible says.” It’s not that simple.”” Yep. As a mainliner, we know that’s the main problem with evangelicalism….it just isn’t that simple. That’s why we also include tradition and reason, reflected upon within the community, in a formal way. And *that* is biblical, if someone really needs to go there. Acts 15.

    Liked by 2 people

    • So glad you brought up Acts 15. Also worth noting: the passage where Jesus gives the disciples authority to “bind and loose” (in effect, to work out the an appropriate rule of faith)—which is exactly what you see them doing in Acts 15.

      Thanks for sharing!

      Liked by 1 person

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