I recently saw a Facebook post about a lesson from the bible by the “president” played by Martin Sheen on “The West Wing”.
In the episode, a woman, Dr. Jenna Jacobs, who had a popular talk show (modeled after Dr. Laura Schlessinger) was representing the bible, from a literal point of view. Of course the president did not properly “interpret” the bible, and so his argument was not persuasive to those who believe. In his critique of this woman and her view that the bible was to be interpreted “literally” he presumed that it was also universally applicable, meaning that I can take any thing in the bible, and say that it applies equally to any situation.
But it brings to mind two words that I think that we often misunderstand as Christians, and so our idealogical opponents can wield them against us as a bludgeon from which we have limited defense.
Mind you, I am not a clergyman, I am not a Bible scholar, I have no degree or even certification that my understanding of the scripture is correct or aligned with any specific denomination or doctrine that any church organization would support. I am just a lay christian, who has read and studied and discussed the contents of the scripture for 28 years of adulthood. I have not devoted my time to studying apologetics, but I do not consider myself ignorant of those arguments, nor do I consider myself unintelligent.
Here are the words:
Biblical literalism (also called Biblicism or Biblical fundamentalism) is the interpretation or translation of the explicit and primary sense of words in the Bible. A literal Biblical interpretation is associated with the fundamentalist and evangelical hermeneutical approach to scripture—the historical-grammatical method—and is used extensively by conservative Christians, in contrast to the historical-critical method of liberal Christians. The essence of this approach focuses upon the author’s intent as the primary meaning of the text. Literal interpretation does place emphasis upon the referential aspect of the words or terms in the text. It does not, however, mean a complete denial of literary aspects, genre, or figures of speech within the text (e.g., parable, allegory, simile, or metaphor). Also literalism does not necessarily lead to total and complete agreement upon one single interpretation for any given passage. (Wikipedia)
While there is a school of thought called “Letterism” that takes a simple mechanical “by the letter” approach to understanding the Bible, most biblical literalists start from the position of trying to understand what the human author of the scripture was trying to say.
So what about it. We know what it means, right. So what? Let’s start with the understanding of the Bible as expressed by the writers on “The West Wing”: In his rhetorical attack on his target, the “president” asked if when interpreting the bible literally, that it meant that he should impose the punishments for certain behaviors and actions as expressed in Mosaic or Levitical law?
What he didn’t ask (and of course his target refused to debate) was is it reasonable according to a reasonable reading of the Bible, that we should enact the laws that God gave to the nation Israel through Moses as our own laws. Do those laws apply to all people for all time? A “letterist” interpretation of scripture might say yes, but most fundamentalists would reject this as a contextually incorrect interpretation.
So on the basis of the intent of the author – why would we not adopt mosaic laws as our governing rules?
1) Israel (the word, means God’s Servant) is God’s Servant Nation. It is a Theocracy – a nation ruled by God. When the law was written, there was no King, only the priesthood.
2) “The Law” is a human readable understanding of what God sets as a behavioral standard for His servants. His servants are to be holy (set apart) and righteous. It was given to Moses, with a system of sacrifice and punishment as a means of keeping His servants set apart, and His relationship with them was through the priesthood.
3) With the advent of Messiah (Jesus Christ) God Himself became both the High Priest and the sacrifice that was necessary to make His servants righteous enough to support a direct relationship == not through any human priesthood.
4) Thus the sacrifices and punishments and the priesthood established to support that theocratic paradigm have been replaced – leaving only the law itself as a reminder to us of God’s behavioral standards and also of how far we fall short of that standard.
5) So while the Bible has a literal account of “the law” as faithfully reproduced describing the system that pre-messianic Israel lived under, we also understand contextually that it does not apply to post-messianic believers in the same way.
So as to our fictional President’s argument – without an ability to interpret the whole of scripture, taking simple commands out of context, one might think that Christians ought to believe in the sacrifices and punishments from the old testament, and they do – as descriptive of God’s system for Israel. Christians believe that those sacrifices and punishments have been replaced with God’s grace in his willingness to become our High Priest and our savior, the sacrifice necessary to make us Holy in God’s sight.
So while it is reasonable to say that in God’s standard, He rejects incest, homosexuality, adultery, promiscuity, fornication, bestiality and many other sexual behaviors that have been prospering in our time, it is not reasonable to say that the punishments set forth in that legal system still should be applied. Regardless of my understanding of what counts as sin in God’s eyes, the Bible also teaches that ALL men (and women) are created in God’s own image, and that all of those sins are able to be forgiven, and ALL of us can be redeemed. The fact is we all transgress God’s law, believer and non-believer alike. None of us can “claim the higher ground” necessary to sit in judgment over our brothers and sisters.
There is a difference between interpretation and application. Just like in laws of science, I can correctly interpret the law of gravity in the context of the earth, but apply it incorrectly on the moon, because I do not apply the contextual variables. This is true with our laws today. We can understand a law, but apply it in contexts that it was not intended to govern or regulate.
It is disappointing that the writers of “The West Wing” did not either understand, or want to expose the error in the “president’s” argument. They chose instead to allow his opponent to remain mute and somewhat embarrassed, unwilling to challenge the argument, or point out that the president was interpreting scripture correctly, but applying it incorrectly.
It is equally disappointing that there are people who claim to have a Judeo-Christian moral perspective like Dr. Jenna Jacobs who prefer to sit in judgment, telling people what is wrong with them, exposing the error, without offering the hope of a savior, or explaining the rest of the story. Regardless of how we interpret the Bible, literally, or through some more liberal process, when we choose to express judgment without also sharing the hope that we have in Jesus Christ, our ministry will not produce fruit in accordance with God’s plan. He did not choose to die on the cross, so we could sit in judgment over our brothers. He died to make us righteous in God’s sight, freeing us from the judgment that the law brings, and to give us hope in redemption.