How What You Love Shapes How You Interpret the Bible

Love of God and neighbor are the two great commandments upon which everything else in the Bible hangs—and, interestingly, the Bible happens to be the only book in the world written by both God and neighbor. So, for Christians, love drives hermeneutics.

Just like love drives all interpretation and discussion of online articles and social media in the United States.

Or not. Come to think of it, I can’t remember the last time someone on the Internet actually read an entire article before firing off an angry or a self-righteous opinion about it. Some historians do believe love-driven interpretation has happened online—once in 1987 in Denmark, I think it was—but so far no direct evidence has come to light.

Okay, that was hyperbole, because I have some awesome readers here at the Logos Blog who engage in meaningful discussion without flaming. But I think we can all agree that even we Christians need what writer Alan Jacobs called the “Hermeneutics of Love.”

Love God with All Your Mind

Some readers try to master interpretation by chasing the supposed ideal of “Cartesian alienation”—an effort to doubt everything one knows in order to get in as objective a frame as possible.

But the Great Commandment tells us that isn’t the right approach. If the Bible, in particular, is a book written by God and neighbor, then a Hermeneutics of Love won’t let me doubt everything I know. I know God. I love God. How does one bracket out a love that consumes his or her whole heart, soul, mind, and strength?

Our loves necessarily shape all our reading. People don’t come to any text with a blank slate; and when they share articles on social media, they reveal their hearts. At the bottom of every “Like” is a love.

The verbally brilliant Muslim debater I recently heard interpreted the anarthrous θεός (theos) in John 1:1 the way he did because of his loves. He gave pedantic and unsympathetic readings of multiple biblical texts because of his loves. The Unitarian minister I once met who insisted, “You can’t take the Bible literally,” likewise failed to take God’s Word seriously because of his loves. He dismissed anything in Scripture not validated by American culture because of those loves. And it isn’t just non-Christians whose loves drive their interpretation: at both my best and my worst, my interpretations also grow from the center of my heart.

We are not word-processing machines gathering data, turning cranks, and spitting out more data. We are persons relating to other persons when we read. And when we read the Bible, we are relating to a perfect tri-personal Person—through his words as expressed through human persons like us. So the solution to hermeneutical difficulties in Scripture is, ultimately, not obtaining objectivity but right affection. We need to love God with all that’s in us if we expect to interpret his Word well.

Love Moses as Yourself

And we need to love those fallen persons through whom God gave us his Word. We need to love Moses—and Paul and Matthew and Obadiah and Hosea and Jude and whoever wrote Hebrews—as ourselves. Neighbor love is an essential key to biblical hermeneutics.

When Moses said (quoting God), “Honor your father and your mother,” it should have been plain to readers that people of all ages have an obligation to their parents. But the Pharisees’ twisted hearts found a way to interpret him that could excuse their disobedience (remember when they declared those gifts “Corban” in Mark 7?). There’s no way a single Pharisee would have admitted to rejecting God in their hearts. But Jesus can see through rib cages: “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!”

The Pharisees were doing what my kids do when I tell them to stop making a particular annoying and repetitive noise, and they come up with new annoying and repetitive noise. They think they’re clever. Really they’re rejecting the hermeneutics of love. Do I really have to spell it out? Does Moses?

When secular Bible readers dismiss Paul as a misogynist, they’re not loving Paul as themselves. When Christians commit our own hermeneutical sins, we’re failing adequately to love that subset of the class “neighbor” which includes all the biblical authors.

Love and the clarity of the Scriptures

Alan Jacobs asks in his A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love,

What makes the difference between a reading that is manipulative and selfish and one that is charitable?…. Fundamentally, it is the reader’s will that determines the moral form the reading takes: If the will is directed toward God and neighbor, it will in Augustinian terms exemplify caritas; if the will is directed toward the self, it will exemplify cupiditas…. That one can read charitably only if one’s will is guided by charity is a pretty obvious point, yet it is neglected in hermeneutical theory even more than the charitable imperative itself. (31)

So to my favorite definition of the clarity of Scripture—”God’s communicative act, [which] ensures its meaning is accessible to all who come to it in faith“ (A Clear and Present Word, 169–170)—I’d like to add “and in love.”

How do we get this love? Jacobs observes,

Various Christian thinkers might characterize agape as the fruit of spiritual discipline, the achievement of moral labor, or the unearned gift of the Holy Spirit, but no one would say that the kind of love, of God or neighbor, that Jesus commands and Augustine endorses simply “happens to us.” Rather, it is a matter of the will, and thus in the etymological sense voluntary, rather than given. How, and by what force, the will may be redirected is a matter of theological dispute, but that it requires redirection in order that we might meet Jesus’ commandment is axiomatic for Christian theology. (32)

Love for God doesn’t guarantee accurate interpretation. But rebellion against him does guarantee inaccurate interpretation. Even if an individual rebellious reader gets some things right, he’s bound, ultimately, to misunderstand the Bible. Paul says categorically, “The natural person … is not able to understand” the things of God’s Spirit, “because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:14 ESV).

Bible study is not the time to set aside your presuppositions and clear your mind; it’s the time to fill your heart with love and bring to bear on the text everything your mind knows about those who are communicating to you, so that you can read charitably.


Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. He is the author of multiple high school Bible textbooks, including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.

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Comments

  1. Excellent!

  2. Jeff O'Neal says:

    Mark, you are a dear brother in Christ who has obviously been repeatedly flamed as a result of thoughts and ideas you have expressed. Rejoice!
    “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” (Jn 15:18–19 ESV, typical).

    If “Christian” brothers show hatred towards you, they are obviously of the world or are at least worldly in the way they are dealing with you. I often fail in this, but your point is well taken that we should be charitable with each other in pursuing the Truth together. Disagreeing and admonishing each other are part of this pursuit but there is a right and wrong way to go about it.

    As to your assertion, “Come to think of it, I can’t remember the last time someone on the Internet actually read an entire article before firing off an angry or a self-righteous opinion about it,” I would suggest that some of us are a bit slower about properly testing things. I actually had to read your article, start a response, then read it again to really see that we are pretty much aligned in our thoughts, as brothers in Christ should be.
    What led me to initially conclude otherwise is that at times you seem to blur the distinction between love that is an act of the mind in response to God’s Command and the desires of the heart that should be guided by our mind that is responding properly to God and His Word. The world would have us follow our heart while the Word of God warns us that, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Je 17:9).

    I think you made the point but I just want to hammer it a bit harder to drive home the distinction – proper love (an act of the mind), commanded and demonstrated by God, is different than affections of the heart. Understanding this distinction is key to our sanctification by God. We give up on trying to fulfill the desires of our heart, rather we deny ourselves and these desires and we set our minds on following and obeying God and His Word. And we find His Word to be sure and His promises reliable that as you “Delight yourself in the LORD [act of the mind], … he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the LORD [act of the mind]; trust in him [act of the mind], and he will act.” (Ps 37:4–5).

    Can you tell I am grappling with “A Treatise concerning Religious Affections” by Edwards, Jonathan?
    https://www.logos.com/product/604
    &
    Signs of the Spirit: An Interpretation of Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections by Sam Storm
    https://www.logos.com/product/47615

    • Jeff,

      Thanks for the great comment! I must clarify that I truly have not been flamed very often, far less often than I have probably deserved. I have had to delete only a tiny, tiny number of nasty comments in all my years as a blogger. And more than once, when I have privately emailed nasty commenters, they have responded in ways not so nasty.

      But… I happened to write a dissertation that focused a great deal on love and Edwards view of it, and I’d encourage you to keep studying… Page 96 in the Yale edition of Religious Affections is one I spent many hours on. We’ve got that edition in Logos, though we don’t sell it individually. I’d send you back to that page. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding you, but the distinction you draw between an act of the mind and affections of the heart is one that I think Edwards undermines rather than supports. (I asked Ken Minkema about this very thing once at the Yale Edwards Center, and he concurred.) This is such a worthwhile study! I’m glad you’re engaging in it.

      • Mark,
        It is amazing also how the world has hijacked this verse and corrupted it. I watch evening news and they always have a clip at the end about “do-gooders” but they never mention Loving God.

        They are quick to remind us of half the verse which is:
        New International Version: and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”
        But they leave off: New International Version
        He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength:

        • Make the second most important verse most important and you undermine its reason for being. We are to love other humans because they are made in the image of God.

  3. Jeff O'Neal says:

    Thanks, Mark. Yes, Edwards uses different terms and consolidates the heart and mind into one “person” but he still draws a distinction in functions or “faculties” that I am attributing to two “persons” – heart and mind:

    “This faculty is called by various names: it is sometimes called the inclination: and, as it has respect to the actions that are determined and governed by it, is called the will: and the mind, with regard to the exercises of this faculty, is often called the heart.
    The exercises of this faculty are of two sorts;…”

    Edwards, J. (2009). Religious Affections. (J. E. Smith & H. S. Stout, Eds.) (Revised edition, Vol. 2, p. 96). New Haven: Yale University Press.

    I am an engineer, so I have an “affection” for spreadsheets. I performed a lot of Biblical research and a spreadsheet analysis many years ago of all of the uses of soul, heart, and mind in the Scriptures. I was using more modern Bible translations than Edwards had and do not have the command of the Biblical languages that Edwards had, so our terms may be different. And his writings may bring me to a new level of understanding. But so far, I see Edwards vacillating about the substantial issues of what I term heart and mind while making distinctions in function or “faculties” that tie in nicely with and provide more fodder for my thoughts about it.

    • The question I asked Dr. Minkema, as I recall, was whether in fact Edwards ends up collapsing the affections and understanding as I thought he appeared to do. Minkema, as I recall, answered in the affirmative. In the words of Anthony Hoekema, we are “psychosomatic unities.” Another great source here you’ll enjoy if you haven’t already looked is his Frame’s Theology of Lordship. He’s got a number of sections on anthropology that I found very helpful and illuminating—and biblical.

  4. Love it! :-)

  5. Tony Osimo says:

    Wow great article! I was led to believe that proper hermeneutics required looking at the scriptures through the lenses of cultural context, literal context, historical context etc. I believe all of this is true, however if love is not the foundation underneath all these things, then we miss God! God is love! I am not a scholar, but a man who loves God’s word and so often we come to the text to get a three point sermon, to share what we learned about God in the scriptures, but we miss God Himself (who is love)! I believe we need to get to the author’s intent when we seek to interpret the Scriptures accurately. As you said, there are two authors, one human and one divine. One has limited understanding of what he is writing, the other unlimited. If Jesus states in Luke 24:44-47 that the volume of the scripture was about Him (the 2nd person of the Trinity), then we need to see Christ (who is love) in what we read. So my question is, wouldn’t it make sense that the more we understand God’s love for us, the more we will be able to read the scriptures with a mindset of loving God and others? Isn’t it true that the only way we can grow in our knowledge of the love of God is to read the word of God……prayerfully? I am all for sound doctrine, but doctrine without the love of God is legalism, not grace! Thanks Mark for your insights, I believe God used them in my life to encourage me in my Bible reading…..

    Blessings,

    Tony

  6. I just have to say this is really good. If I was still on Facebook, I’d share it!

  7. As I have learned we cannot truly Love untill we are saved and then read, study and meditate on scripture with renewed minds. We do tend to read with motive, is that motive renewed in Christ do we surrender to God and scripture or do we resist it.