Scripture, Interpretation, and History

(Delayed post due to an incredibly busy semester) This past semester my teaching load included a course on the Biblical Texts and American History. As part of our general education offerings, students do not come to the course wanting to major in history or Christianity (most places would call this a religion department) and the best I can do is help them understand how historical actors use scripture to make sense of the world they inhabit. In fact, I take this approach in every survey course I teach. Since history is about interpretation of primary sources, I hope students learn that historians contest historical facts and that there is no such thing as “the” history.  Every semester in my survey courses that conversation reveals itself in the present.

Toward the end of the semester, we encountered that moment in  two different social media posts. I am the recipient of weekly emails from the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion. The Thursday posts (Mondays are always Martin Marty messages) include scholars across a broad range of fields and interests. John Stackhouse, Jr., examined the way that some current evangelicals have shifted on the LGBTQ+ question. In full disclosure he publicly named one of my colleagues at Mercer University, David Gushee. David and I have never spoken about this issue, so this post does not serve as a defense of his work. That same week from the Twitter-sphere, I clicked on a link in a retweet that led to an open letter from a faculty member at Moody Bible Institute to The Moody Standard. Brian Litfin, professor of theology, addressed a campus conversation that had erupted over the issue of Christians’ response to “white” privilege.” Litfin made clear, using biblical passages, that privilege was celebrated in scripture and that oppression needed to be addressed but not through categories created by humans. He appears to have been offended by a campus discussion of white privilege and American Christianity’s role in that privilege.

Perhaps it had to do with the fact that both posts hit me the same week, or perhaps in the midst of trying to help students realize how everyone makes interpretative moves regardless of the position, I found myself thinking about how Stackhouse raised an important questions concerning hermeneutics. How do we know when our own lense about culture and society get in the way of our understanding of the Bible? What does authority really mean? He, however, forgot his own interpretative move by suggesting that since these evangelical leaders simply changed their minds without creating a new biblical insight on the subject and that they were moving away from the Bible, including the authority evangelicals give to scripture.

There is nothing in evangelicalism to prevent those who feel led by altered circumstances and by solidarity with the oppressed from seeking out new understandings of Scripture. But understandings of Scripture are required to ground evangelical faith and practice, and new exegetical insights are remarkably absent among evangelicals who champion the full LGBTQ+ agenda.

In this understanding of scripture, it is not enough to highlight God’s judgement that oppression requires confrontation as some of the prophets and Jesus suggest. Stackhouse makes the leap that these leaders have somehow abandoned evangelicals’ understanding of biblical principles without himself admitting the interpretive contexts for those evangelical principles. The working assumption in his argument is that these principles come from some authority external (the Bible? God?) to our context.

Litfin’s letter is instructive here. He argues that since the Bible rejects the idea of corporate sin under the new covenant in Christ (an odd use of Jeremiah 31.29-30 to explain the new covenant), which means all believers stand in judgment for their own actions and not any collective guilt. He appears to be  concerned about being blamed for something he did not do, presumably commit any racist acts. Litfin cannot see how his skin tone helps him because his immigrant family came to the U.S. and worked hard, which means anyone can reach the American Dream and should not play victim to racial issues.

an entire race should not be held accountable for the sins of individuals. It doesn’t work like that anymore.

Here is an example of evangelical biblical principles on display. Individuals have to stand for account of their sins. This interpretation suggests that there is little or no corporate/systemic sin that renders individuals unable to attain their place in God’s order. God’s judgment of collective guilt in prophets like Amos and Jeremiah becomes less important in Litfin’s interpretative system, and Jesus’ own condemnation of systemic evil takes a backseat to an emphasis on individual guilt/salvation. My guess is that Stackhouse would be uncomfortable with Litfin’s assertion that the Bible celebrates his privileged position in society as an educated, white male. Litfin goes so far as to add that Proverbs justifies the privilege as long as it is not used to harm others. His letter argues that there is evil in the world that harms people. If we are unaware of how our relationship to others indirectly affect “those” people, how will we even see our privilege position? Jesus is clear that the religious leaders of his day could not see their privilege and it would be their downfall.  As I try to show in the course, both cases highlight how the Bible does not speak to all of the issues we face in the present, as earlier eras had similar struggles, so we all make interpretative moves to help us understand God purposes in the present. The funny thing is our interpretative moves don’t appear to be interpretation like others’ positions do. This phenomenon is often easier to see in the past. Students are convinced they would sided with civil rights activist until I ask them what their position on LGBTQ+ issues is. Asked in a rhetorical way, I hope to help them see that the issues of the past were not as clear cut as they assume.

Since the biblical authors would not have been looking at issues of sexuality in terms we use today, they did not think in those terms and so scripture often does not address what we think it does. American slavery’s defense is a good example of this, as well as twentieth century discussions of race. Litfin’s concern about white privilege has some merit in the context of a biblical world that did not think in the same racial terms we do today. These two recent examples continue to highlight how we use the Bible to make sense of our world.

Of the two Litfin’s is the least remarkable. In a nation that still cannot have an honest dialogue concerning racial issues, a professor’s letter to the school paper reveals little more than the internal dynamics on a particular campus, and sadly, this squabble is no different on many other campuses across this country. Stackhouse’s post suggests a bigger problem for American Christianity, particularly in its evangelical form. His attention to individual pastors moving congregations away from traditional evangelical hermeneutics appears to be protecting a particular type of evangelical thinking on sexuality. In theological battles over slavery, women, and the Civil Right Movement, similar warnings were fired from those who saw in the change something new that would erode the faith. Stackhouse’s post felt a little like the attempt to stave off change in the face of overwhelming evidence that the shift would come. It is not clear where American Christianity will fall on LGBTQ+ issues, but my historian’s sensibility suggests that it will be closer to an open stance than the closed one Stackhouse suggests. As I hope in my courses, I think we will move forward as church when we all acknowledge our interpretative moves are conditioned and that God’s presence is somewhere in the midst of those interpretations.

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  1. As you succinctly pointed out in another blog, the white race is a recent historical invention, its peculiar American version certainly not founded in biology — and invisible in Scripture (a search for white people in the Bible leads to uncomfortable confrontation with the Biblical symbolism of external whiteness; but will not uncover any biblical concept of race as practiced in USA.) It is remarkable that so many people want to adopt and embrace a racial identity, but deny its historical antecedents and its inherent meaning. I am only familiar with Dr Litfin’s beliefs from the snippets in your blog, but if indeed he protests that “an entire race should not be held accountable for the sins of individuals. It doesn’t work like that anymore” he seems to buy into the actual existence of races. People who want to dissociate themselves from unpleasant implications of their self-selected racial identity should resign from the club. Stop calling themselves white — and mean it!

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