Hermeneutics and the Gospel

If you follow the Complementarian and Egalitarian debate you may have come across an article written by Derek Flood. He makes the claim that this issue is much deeper than gender roles – it goes all the way to how we read our Bibles. I couldn’t agree with that more, and I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to explore the different kinds of Bible reading that lie at the heart of this debate.

The Background

The article, “Gender Equality: Why the Gospel Coalition Misses the Gospel,” was written by Flood as a critique of The Gospel Coalition’s (TGC) focus on a doctrine called complementarianism (if you need a refresher on that term you can go to one of these posts: A Mean Marriage, or Criticizing Complementarianism). The point of his article is that the men leading TGC read the Bible wrongly and it has actually caused them to miss the gospel altogether.

But Flood’s not the only one suggesting that reading the Bible wrongly can distort or destroy the gospel. In the same video that Flood is criticizing,  Tim Keller (joined by Don Carson and John Piper) explained that though egalitarianism doesn’t directly affect the gospel, it “indirectly affects the way we understand Scripture and thus the way we understand the gospel.”

So how do the groups read the Bible and what does Bible reading have to do with the gospel? Though I ultimately disagree with Flood’s conclusions, perhaps it is easiest to start the conversation by looking at his argument.

The Testing Grounds: The Issue of Slavery
Derek Flood leads his critique of TGC with an example of why he believes the TGC guys are bad Bible readers.

The problem with this is that if folks at TGC really want to read their Bibles in that way, then they would need to support the institution of slavery, because in the same way that the New Testament affirms traditional gender roles that were a part of the dominate culture of the time, it likewise affirms the assumption of the institution of slavery. So if you want to make a biblical argument for traditional gender roles, you also need to be pro-slavery. Otherwise, as Keller puts it, you are being “loose” with the text.

Instead of addressing whether Flood’s criticism is valid, I want to look at what he teaches us about how we should read the Bible. Perhaps the most important lesson is that everyone agrees about at least one thing – you need to read the Bible consistently. 

The TGC Hermeneutic
Flood deserves credit, it seems that he does understand how the TGC guys read the Bible. They claim that the Bible is God’s word and it is free from errors. The TGC guys believe that everything it says is trustworthy and right and it is the reader’s responsibility to obey its message in every way.

This way of reading really does present a challenge for the TGC guys. When they come to passages like the one’s Flood is referencing (Ephesians 6:5-8 for example), they either have to show that the passage is not an endorsement for slavery or they have to endorse slavery in the same way the passage does. The culture’s view of slavery must remain completely irrelevant to their Bible reading. The TGC method of Bible reading can only seek to understand what God was saying in his word and then follow it without question. To do any less is to be inconsistent and being consistent is the cardinal rule.

Is There Another Way?
Of course, Flood suggests that there is a better way to read the Bible. He explains,

As you might have guessed, I think this way of reading the Bible is completely wrong. In fact, I would argue that this way of reading the Bible misses the entire point of the New Testament. Jesus is anything but the defender of traditional values. He is someone who continually turned traditional values on its head, and was so subversive to authoritarian religion that it got him killed. People who argue otherwise clearly are not paying attention to the narrative of the Gospels. Why was Jesus opposed to these traditional values? Because they hurt people, and ignored those who are oppressed and marginalized.

While Flood doesn’t label how he reads the Bible, his language seems to reflect two of the most common models of Bible reading among the egalitarian movement: ideological hermeneutics and trajectory hermeneutics. Though there are differences between the systems, both methods suggest that the Bible does indeed affirm slavery (or hierarchalism when refering to the gender roles debate), yet suggests that the reader need not follow that teaching to remain consistent. While I suspect that Flood would identify more closely with the later option, I will review both systems just to be on the safe side.

Ideological Hermeneutics
The key to reading the Bible “ideologically” is something called “pre-understanding.” The idea is that as a member of an oppressed group (Latin-American, black, feminine, homosexual, etc.), you can read the Bible as a sort of commentary on liberation from your own form of oppression. Yet, people who espouse this reading style recognize that not every passage is equally liberating, so their goal is to identify the liberating texts and remove or ignore the “texts of terror.”

Robin Perry offers an example of how feminist theologians sometimes use this method of Bible reading:

They will identify liberating strands within the Bible (e.g. freedom for the slaves, all humanity in God’s image) that feed into their liberating theology. At the same time “toxic texts” (racist, sexist, homophobic ones, etc.) will be identified and stripped of their authority. For instance:

  1. The teaching that all humans are equally in God’s image (Gen. 1:26) is a liberating text that undermines any theology or practice denying the full humanity and equality of women.
  2. Paul’s teaching that man is the image and glory of God while woman is the glory of man (1 Cor. 11:7) is patriarchal and must be rejected.
  3. Traditional Christian teachings of the equality of men and women are patriarchal and oppressive because “equal but different” in practice means “not equal.”
    (quoted from “Ideological Criticism” in The Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible)

In this way, the feminist reading of the Bible avoids charges of inconsistency. They do not have to be consistent with the original intentions of the author, they simply need to be consistent with their own pre-understanding to determine which passages are useful and which are harmful.

The obvious problem with reading the Bible this way is that it strips the Bible of its authority. On the other hand, if you think of authority as oppressive, that’s the whole point.

Trajectory Hermeneutics
A heavy handed emphasis on Jesus’ rejection of tradition and the suggestion that this is what led to His crucifixion (as opposed to the claim that He is God), are signs that Flood may be coming from an ideological approach. However, the surprising charge that his opponents haven’t paid attention to the narrative of the Bible suggests that he may be endorsing a trajectory hermeneutic (I say surprising because Don Carson is in the video he critiques and has written detailed, scholarly commentaries on both Matthew and John). The two views have their similarities, but there are some important distinctions.

Reading the Bible according to its trajectory is a sort of middle way between the TGC method and the ideological approach. It avoids the problematic pick-and-choose methodology without forcing the reader to accept anything that seems barbaric to modern sensibilities. One of the leading proponents for this way of reading the Bible is William Webb, but he uses the term Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutics.” In an explanation of the slavery issue he says,

When the Bible’s slavery texts are read against their contexts, redemptive movement becomes increasingly clear. These biblical modifications to the existing social norms brought greater protection and dignity for the slave. This improvement in the conditions of slaves relative to the original culture was clearly redemptive action on the part of Scripture. Admittedly, it was not redemptive in any absolute sense. Scripture only moved the cultural “scrimmage markers” so far. Yet that movement was sufficient to signal a clear direction in terms of further improvements for later generations.
(quoted from “Slavery” in The Dictionary for the Theological Interpretation of the Bible)

In other words, Webb is suggesting that the general direction of the Bible is to make things better. However, the Bible only gets the ball rolling. Jesus and His followers challenged the status quo, and made improvements – but only incremental improvements. It is the reader’s responsibility to do even better than Jesus and His followers.

This seems to be how Flood avoids the problem of contradiction. He makes it very clear by stating:

Once we catch the subversive spirit of what Jesus and the rest of the New Testament is doing here, we can then see the direction that the New Testament is moving in, and recognize that this is a trajectory that eventually lead to the abolition of slavery, and likewise towards valuing men and women equally.

He doesn’t have to demonstrate that that Bible was right, only that it was on the right track. Sure, Jesus and his followers may have endorsed slavery or gender roles back in the day, but given enough time they surely would have progressed beyond those primitive ideas.

Bible Reading and the Gospel
It is not hard to understand why Derek Flood would suggest that the TGC method of Bible reading can distort the gospel. For Flood, the gospel is a message of hope to the oppressed that comes through subverting any authority that could enable oppression. As long as the Bible speaks positively of authority, not to mention that it is itself an authority, final freedom from oppression seems impossible. And thus, the gospel is destroyed.

The TGC understanding of the gospel really is radically different from Flood’s. Rather than a subversive spirit, the TGC gospel is calling for a spirit of submission. The gospel according to a TGC hermeneutic comes by faith – a faith that is characterized by complete and total submission to the authority of God.

As I read the narrative of Scripture, as Flood suggests we should do, I am convinced that the true mark of a believer is not subversion, but submission to the word of God. Perhaps no greater example is given than Abraham, whose act of submission is repeatedly acknowledged as the mark of his faith. Consider Hebrews 11:17-19:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.

I cannot imagine how hard it was for Abraham to trust God when faced with a command to kill his own son. If ever there was a time that an ideological hermeneutic would have been nice, it was then. I am sure Abraham was tempted to say, “sorry God, that sounds like a ‘text of terror.'” Or perhaps a trajectory hermeneutic would have been sufficient. He could have simply said, “God, one day you will realize a better way.” But neither of those responses seem congruent with the type of faith that the gospel requires. Instead, Abraham choose unmitigated surrender, and it was this faith that was credited to him as righteousness.

If submission truly is a mark of the gospel, TGC is correct in asserting that the predominant methods of egalitarian Bible reading can distort or destroy the gospel. If the words of God are subject to our dismissal or to our improvement then we cannot, in any true sense, be submissive to them. The gospel requires a word from God that is higher, better, and more authoritative than the people whom the word seeks to save.

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The Bible’s Waning Electability

If you want to beat your opponents in the Republican primaries this year, you have two options. The first option is the dangerous route. You get bogged down in issues and theories. You have to show that your position is true and your opponent’s is false. You need to prove that you are right and he is wrong. But that’s not easy to do, especially in today’s climate. No one wants to come across as the mean guy who attacks the other candidates.

The easier way is to simply suggest that your opponents aren’t electable. Newt, Mitt, Ron, and Rick have all been attacked on the issue of electability this year. Its the safest way to attack. You don’t have to show that they are wrong, you simply have to suggest that they don’t matter. You don’t have to defeat them, you just have to disregard them. Don’t argue against their message, instead just make sure that no one takes the time to stop and consider their message. If everything works out, you come out looking like the nice guy who thinks your opponents are good people, but just a little less relevant than you.

The only problem is, what if the strategy backfires? What if the voters become convinced that none of the candidates matter? What if they start to think that none of you are really that important? What if, after the primaries, no one takes any of the candidates seriously enough to actually show up and vote? What if you win the battle, but you lose the war?

The Unelectable Author
I am worried that this is exactly what is happening to the Bible. Christians, who have wanted to be the good guys, have traded discussion about the text’s meaning for discussions about its relevance. As the famous fictional demon, Screwtape, explained, we no longer “think of doctrines primarily as ‘true’ or ‘false,’ but as ‘academic’ or ‘practical,’ ‘outworn’ or ‘contemporary,’ ‘conventional’ or ‘ruthless.” In the world of Bible reading, right and wrong have taken a back seat to relevance and electability.

This trade is a direct result of a shift in our worldview. In a pluralistic society it is seen as arrogant to claim that there is only one right view or interpretation. To claim that the biblical author prescribes the one and only meaning to the text seems to be a completely unelectable idea. To deal with this we made a simple change. Rather than claiming that the Bible has one meaning which is determined by the author’s original argument, we have embraced the idea that it could mean something different to each individual reader. The argument of the author has become less significant than the relevance to the reader. Rather than asking “what does this verse mean,” we now ask, “what does this verse mean to me?”

Robert Plummer gives an example of how we train our children to think this way.

In a children’s Bible given to my daughter, the story of Joseph is followed by these questions: “Has anyone ever given you something like a new coat or sweater? How did it make you feel to put on new clothes?” It is clear that the author of the children’s Bible values self esteem and affirmation. Even though the author of the biblical text obviously is not relating the story of Joseph to cause sentimental reflection on how others have affirmed us, the modern author of the children’s Bible has used the story for this purpose. He or she has created meaning alien to the biblical author’s intent.

The heart behind this new question isn’t mallicious, but it is fallacious. It assumes that the truth claims of the Bible aren’t as relevant to the child as the issues of self esteem and affirmation. In an effort to appeal to the masses we have asked them to disregard the unelectable biblical author and look to our new, more relevant, meaning.

Winning the Primaries, Losing the Election
The great thing about, “what does the Bible mean to me,” is that no one gets offended. Seriously, who doesn’t want children to learn about self-esteem and affirmation? And even if you don’t like that meaning, you are free to find your own, more relevant meaning. Everyone can get along and you win the primary. The only problem is, who cares?

When we regard the biblical author’s message as irrelevant, we are condemning it to the same fate as the unelectable candidate. It’s not that people think its wrong, its that people don’t care if its right or wrong. And in our misguided attempt to make a new, more relevant, meaning, we simply convince the watching world that there is no real authority, no real importance to the Bible in the first place. And in spite of our best efforts, our new meanings don’t really gain any electability. We are just putting forward another candidate in a sea of irrelevance. In the end, our entire party, the party of the Bible, loses the election, not because of what it says, but because we have convinced the world that it doesn’t matter because it isn’t electable.