It has seemed to me that, as Christians, our general approach to Scripture has been problematic. I have no high, theological issues to discuss here about inerrancy or the like, merely an observation on how our attitudes frame what is acceptable discourse and what isn’t.
Let me explain. In my Bible study group we’ve been going through the Gospel of Matthew, and we’ve recently gotten into that stickiest of passages, the Sermon on the Mount. Now, the Sermon is not all that complicated in my view, and Jesus’s commands are fairly straightforward. But to my amazement, I watched the straightforward words of Jesus get turned upside down and inside out. As it turns out, most Christians think the Sermon is a highly contextualized document that requires a fine reading that splits all the hairs that are possible. Jesus’s command not to take oaths, for example, now means that oaths are perfectly okay, so long as you mean what you say and actually do it. Not only are religious oaths okay, but so too are oaths of a civil and national nature. It is not a violation of the taking of oaths to say the pledge of allegiance. Obviously. Jesus was totally on board with nationalism, apparently.
Imagine my surprise, then, to find out that not only does Jesus’s straightforward statement “Do not resist with violence those who would harm you” actually mean “go ahead and resist with violence those who would harm you,” but that doing violence and harm to them can itself be fulfilling the command to love one’s enemies. This sort of reasoning, no matter how popular, is really twisted. How exactly is this kind of thing different from how the Pharisees treated the Torah? It does have a long tradition, though. Augustine’s classic commentary on the Sermon says this, “Nor are we thus precluded from inflicting such punishment [requital] as avails for correction, and as compassion itself dictates.” Oh, right, of course. Correcting someone violently is actually compassionate. That’s obviously what Jesus meant. Augustine goes on, “But no one is fit for inflicting this punishment except the man who, by the greatness of his love, has overcome that hatred wherewith those are wont to be inflamed who wish to avenge themselves,” and claims that it is “not a rule for outward action.” Right, that obviously makes sense. That is, basically, so long as you’re not punishing out of inner hatred, you’re in the clear.
John Calvin was little better. He claims that the “design of Christ was merely to train the minds of believers to moderation and justice, that they might not, on receiving one or two offenses, fail or lose courage.” Right, sure. Don’t use violence against your enemies means inward mind training and extends to “one or two offenses.” Further, for Calvin, it is “unquestionably” true that “Christ did not intend to exhort his people to whet the malice of those, whose propensity to injure others is sufficiently strong: and if they were to turn to them the other cheek, what would it be but holding out such an encouragement?” Again this magical love that lets us overturn Jesus’s own words. You can’t just refuse to defend yourself at all, that’s crazy, right? I mean, if they love violence, then you’re just encouraging them in their sin, and we can’t have that, can we?
And so here’s my point. Christians spend more time talking about what certain things in the Bible don’t mean than what they do mean. It happens in the Sermon most of all, but also in Acts 2 and 4, because it just cannot mean what it appears to be saying. But why? Why can’t it mean exactly what it says? Why is it that we have to twist and dig and rend and explain the power out of these passages?
There isn’t a good reason. There are just excuses. So when someone tells you that the Bible “just can’t mean that,” stop and ask why not? What happens if it did mean that? Most of the time when this happens, you have some sort of ideology or prior commitment hovering around in the background not too far off.