Should we interpret the Bible through the lens of a “love hermeneutic”?

March 25, 2014

In last Sunday’s sermon about “taming the tongue,” I used an illustration from my own life, which happened to me just last week. I was arguing online with a fellow United Methodist pastor, whom I haven’t met in person. The argument didn’t end well. I couldn’t control my anger. While not vulgar, my language was sarcastic and demeaning. If he were standing in front of me, I’d just as soon punch him in the nose as shake his hand. As I said on Sunday, I was seething with contempt for him. Finally, one fellow commenter, Jean, said the following:


To which I replied:


The issue was related, once again, to the United Methodist Church’s traditional stance on homosexuality. He compared people like me, who support church doctrine on the issue, to “idiot” fundamentalists who believe in a literal six-day creation.

A couple of thoughts: My brothers and sisters in Christ who, unlike me, are young-earth creationists are not “idiots” for being so. The vast majority of laypeople who accept evolution’s account of “how we got here” are merely trusting that the scientists who really know something about it aren’t misleading them—it’s hardly because they’ve reasoned it through, and it makes perfect sense to them, for example, how a sponge becomes a whale (or whatever). (I said more about this a while back.)

Besides, many of us who aren’t young-earth creationists aren’t disregarding what Genesis 1 and 2 say about creation. We believe that the text itself permits us to interpret portions of it in a figurative way. So we mostly disagree over interpretations of Genesis, not over the Bible’s authority in general.

Finally, anyone who sincerely loves Jesus and is trying to be faithful to him has a friend in me. I’m not going to call them idiots. Scratch that: my anger is such that I’m liable to call any number of people “idiots” at one time or another but I recognize that this is a sin.

Regardless, I asked my fellow United Methodist pastor if the Bible could say anything on the topic of homosexual behavior that would make him change his mind. He ignored the question. Later, however, to a more sympathetic commenter, he said the following:

I’m certainly not suggesting we just jettison traditions, teachings or texts. We have though, as the Church, over time concluded by consensus that certain teachings are no longer normative or constitutive of Christ. To shut the door on the possibility is to deny the activity of the Spirit…

For me, I think Barth’s view of scripture allows the saints of the past to have gotten homosexuality ‘wrong.’ It’s not simply that we have to acknowledge the different forms of text in scripture; it’s that they’re human, fallible, imperfect texts that God chooses to speak through nonetheless. The Spirit, I believe, has the power to reveal those failings with time—and has revealed on any number of other topics. Bottom line, though, I believe that the best way to approach scripture is through the “love hermeneutic” introduced by Augustine in his De Doctrina Christiana. If a reading of scripture doesn’t edify my love of God or neighbor it’s not prescriptive nor is it, in all likelihood, correct.

When he says that we’ve concluded “by consensus” that “certain teachings are no longer normative or constitutive of Christ,” what is he talking about? My guess is the Bible’s alleged endorsement of slavery and the subordination of women. As I’ve written several times before, including here and here, those are different issues from homosexual behavior. As I said in reference to Adam Hamilton’s argument about women and slavery:

In other words, contrary to his argument, it’s not merely “‘weightier’ scriptures on justice, mercy and love that superseded those on slavery,” it’s also scripture’s direct words about slavery itself that destroyed the institution—again, my colleagues in ministry have it right when they talk about a clear trajectory.

No such trajectory exists for homosexual behavior. On the contrary, those verses that speak against same-sex sexual behavior (“five or eight depending upon how one counts,” Hamilton writes) move in the opposite direction.

My fellow pastor writes, “The Spirit, I believe, has the power to reveal those failings [i.e., places where the Bible gets it wrong] with time.”

It’s a shame that the Spirit didn’t have the power to prevent those failings in the first place!

I hope you can see the danger with this point of view. In smart-aleck mode, I asked him how we know when the Spirit is giving us new information that contradicts the Bible? I asked, “Do you have to have some spiritual feeling to accompany it?” It’s still a good question.

My fellow pastor would say that if scripture violates what he calls the “love hermeneutic”—an extra-biblical principle to be sure—then we can scrap it altogether. He believes this is the case with the Bible’s words about homosexual behavior.

From this perspective, however, “love” can never be tough love. If the Bible is right that homosexual behavior is contrary to God’s intentions for humanity and that all sexual behavior outside of marriage—by definition between a man and woman—is sinful, then it would be unloving to say otherwise. Right? If homosexual behavior is spiritually harmful, then we ought to say so, out of love. Even my fellow clergy who disagree about homosexual behavior would agree with that principle, I hope.

Elsewhere on this pastor’s blog, we see this same “love hermeneutic” at work in his recent discussion of penal substitution. (Can you guess where he stands on that doctrine?) Among other objectionable things, he asks this question: “And how is it then that the message of the Son bears no resemblance to how the Father redeems?” In other words, the idea that God has wrath and punishes sin bears no resemblance to the “message of the Son.”

I assume he means this question rhetorically, but not so fast! Has he not read the Son’s many harsh words about hell, judgment, and “weeping and gnashing of teeth”? And what about this? “And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town” (Matthew 10:14-15).

Is Jesus also wrong? Does my fellow pastor’s “love hermeneutic” also filter out what Jesus himself says?

It’s very troubling to me, which is one reason why I lost my temper. The other reason is envy: I’m jealous that this person gets so many more blog hits than I do! My motives are hardly pure as the driven snow.

One more thing: In the same comment thread, he told someone that it doesn’t matter if he’s wrong about homosexuality—despite scripture’s dire warning that this unrepentant behavior excludes us from God’s kingdom. He said, “I tend to think salvation is God’s business and don’t feel particularly anxious that I will get in God’s way of what God wants (or doesn’t want) to do.”

How do you reconcile these words with Paul’s departing words to Ephesian elders in Acts 20: “Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.” Paul is implying that if he hadn’t declared to them the “whole counsel of God,” he would bear some responsibility for the Ephesians’ salvation. As James says in James 3:1, we preachers and teachers will be judged by a higher standard than many other people. So being wrong on this issue is hardly a matter of indifference.

Or do these scriptures, once again, fail to pass muster with the “love hermeneutic”?

On a related note, referring to Adam Hamilton’s “three buckets” approach to scripture, my fellow Methodist pastor Chad posted the following on Facebook this morning, which made me smile.


12 Responses to “Should we interpret the Bible through the lens of a “love hermeneutic”?”

  1. Dave Nuckols Says:

    Thanks for being willing to admit openly what so many of us struggle with in terms of civil discourse on the internet. I’ve been struggling a bit myself lately. So I thought I’d share — and think you’ll enjoy — this from Justin Lee:

    Now, to the issue you’ve been debating: I’m a fan of the “love hermeneutic” although I’d apply a bit differently than as described here. I see it as a helpful lens, to be used along side other lenses, and not as a litmus test for every circumstance. I do think it appies here, but it is not sine qua non. Even without that lens, my exegesis reads the clobber passages quite differently than the condemnatory approach adopted at the 1972 GC. The Bible writers were addressing immoral acts (for example, rape is rape whether hetero or same sex). They never explicitly address homosexuality as an orientation nor same-sex marriage. I conclude that “celibacy in singleness, and fidelity in marriage whether man-woman or same-sex marriage” is the most faithful and most Biblical witness for Christians in today’s world.

    • brentwhite Says:

      You’re certainly correct that they don’t address homosexuality as an orientation, which is why I speak in terms of homosexual behavior. Orientation is beside the point. Everyone, gay or straight, can choose how to behave sexually.

      Of course they don’t address same-sex marriage, either. It’s a contradiction. Genesis 1-2, as affirmed by Jesus in his discussion of divorce in the gospels and Paul, who looks back on the creation story in Romans 1, implies that marriage is between a man and woman. Given that homosexual behavior was illegal in first-century Judaism, why would Bible writers feel compelled to talk about same-sex marriage? It was unthinkable. So I’ll ask you the same question I asked the blogger: could the Bible say anything to convince you that homosexual behavior is a sin?

      • Dave Nuckols Says:

        Yes. If you mean “Can I imagine something which if it were in the Bible and the Bible condemned it as sin (where “it” is loving homosexual sexual behavior within the bound of a marriage covenant)?” Then, “yes,” I would be persuaded. However, I don’t see the point though, since “it” isn’t in the Bible. You make a distinction between orientation and behavior, but the Bible passages you rely on strike me as immoral behaviors whether heterosexual or homosexual. That should not be extrapolated into a condemnation of duly married same gendered couples. We should be offering Christ to gay folks on the same terms (God’s terms) as straight folks; and equipping them for discipleship, mission and the journey to sanctification.

        Since you asked, let me ask you: Could the Bible say anything to convince you that ordained men should be celibate? Or that slavery in our era is okay and slaves should obey … provided that the master is just? I don’t think the Bible supports these propositions, but others have thought so. So I wonder could the Bible say something to convince you of these things?

        Thanks for engaging in the discussion. Peace.

      • brentwhite Says:

        The Bible condemns homosexual behavior per se, without qualification, a position the universal church held without controversy until the past four decades. What do we know that every other generation of Christians didn’t know? Were they less compassionate than we are? Why did Christian exegetes who were much closer to Paul in time, place, culture, education, and language not understand him to be saying what you (I assume) say he’s saying?

        Besides, if Paul is looking backward to Genesis 1-2 and inferring that God intends for marriage to be between a man and woman only, and on that basis condemns homosexual behavior as being “against nature,” then why would you imagine that any arrangement of same-sex relationship would be OK?

        It’s a myth that Paul, for instance, was unaware of non-pederastic, non-exploitative homosexual relationships. N.T. Wright has discussed this at length.

        Besides, what about Paul’s inclusion of lesbians? Lesbian relationships in the first century were mostly mutual, consensual, and non-pederastic (almost by virtue of anatomy). If Paul has in mind only “immoral” forms of same-sex behavior, by which I’m guessing you mean pederastic or non-consensual, it’s unclear to me how lesbian relationships fit that bill.

        We know for sure that first century Judaism condemned homosexual behavior without qualification. See Philo and Josephus. It’s hard to imagine that Paul (and Jesus, for that matter) would see things any differently.

        As for slavery, follow the link in my post to Tim Tennent’s essay about “trajectories.” There is a clear trajectory within scripture itself against slavery. Consider, for example, Paul’s words to Philemon—receiving Onesimus back as a fully equal brother, etc. It’s incomprehensible that Paul’s words, if taken seriously by every Christian, wouldn’t undermine the institution of slavery. Which of course Christianity ultimately did. Slavery was illegal in the Christian west by the Middle Ages. It returned in a different, much more brutal form with the African slave trade, and Christian apologists for it weren’t being faithful either to the Bible or tradition.

        As for ordained men being celibate, you surely know that the Catholic Church wasn’t making a biblical argument for celibacy among the priesthood. The requirement that priests be celibate only emerged in the Middle Ages, but it wasn’t based on exegetical considerations. The first Pope (Peter), after all, was married!

  2. pinkagendist Says:

    “My brothers and sisters in Christ who, unlike me, are young-earth creationists are not “idiots” for being so.”
    Well, they’re monumentally under-educated, and if you feed that sort of under-education you’re a snake oil salesman trying to make a profit on their ignorance.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Oh please… Have you studied evolution beyond a ninth grade biology text? Many young earth creationists understand evolution far better than that. I’m not aware I’m selling anything.

      • pinkagendist Says:

        Actually, yes. I don’t make money as a pastor selling delusions. I’m a PhD with a real job, and my grandfather is the most published and peer reviewed scientist of the 20th century.
        You’ve organized your life around taking advantage of people who are incapable of asking questions and need a primitive sort of literality.

      • brentwhite Says:

        When you say stuff like that, do you not have, like, beloved family members or friends who, like me, have this “primitive need for literality.” Do you have so little respect for them?

      • pinkagendist Says:

        I have no respect for xenophobia. Your right to follow the tenets of your religion END at the next person’s right to do their own thing.
        Don’t eat bacon, don’t kill a chicken on a roundabout, light candles, pray whilst kneeling on corn- all your choices- but don’t dare interfere with another tax-paying citizen’s right to choose for themselves.

      • brentwhite Says:

        Xenophobia? Fear of foreigners? Anyway, you may have the last word.

      • pinkagendist Says:

        Xenophobia is what you’re promoting. Xenophobia and the imposition of a single religion. Unless of course you’re prepared to concede Muslim extremists should get to force your mother to abide by their traditions, burqa and all.

      • pinkagendist Says:

        And just so we’re clear, xenophobia isn’t just the ‘fear of foreigners’, it’s the fear of different. Racism is a form of xenophobia, so is anti-gay sentiment, so is religious persecution of other religions.

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