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Original Cover of the Study written by Dr. Erwin Buck

original cover art for Studies on Homosexuality and the Church

 

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How Does One Apply Biblical Teaching?

Toward a Principle of Interpretation

We need now to think anew about what principles are appropriate for the interpretation of scripture. For guidance we may turn to Paul. Paul certainly was not a libertine. He by no means advocated license. Yet he indicated with all desirable clarity that a person is justified not by works of the law, not by what one does or does not do, but only by faith in Jesus Christ (Galatians 2:16; Romans 3:20; Romans 3:28). The righteousness and the promise of God does not come through the law (Romans 4:13; Romans 3:21; Galatians 3:18); we are not under the law but under grace (Romans 6:14). Christ is the end of the law (Romans 10:4). The law cannot give life (Galatians 3:21).

An interpretation of scripture which focuses on the Bible as a deposit of rules for right and wrong living, is missing the point. At least that's the way Paul sees it, and Lutherans have always had special admiration for Paul and for the Reformation doctrine which derives chiefly from his letters.

In "Biblical Perspectives on Homosexuality" in The Christian Century (1979), Walter Wink states boldly "There is no biblical sex ethic. The Bible knows only a love ethic, which is constantly being brought to bear on whatever sexual mores are dominant in any given country, or culture, or period."

Love sentimentalized

Of course, love can be sentimentalized and distorted beyond recognition. The result can be that there no longer are any objective standards left and anything goes, as long as it is done out of love. Then love becomes little more than pleasure-seeking selfishness. One married man tried to legitimize his affair with his neighbour's wife by reasoning, "it must be alright with God, because I love her."

Indeed, love can be perverted into selfish lust, but that is no reason for desiring to go back to the law. Jesus interpreted the law in such a way that it served the needs of people who suffer and are persecuted. When he did so, he acted in a caring and loving way. A few years later, Paul did the same. By love both Jesus and Paul meant an ethically responsible love, a self-giving love which is motivated by what is helpful, by what is good for the neighbour (1 Corinthians 6:12). For Paul the phrase "bear one another's burdens" encapsulates it all.

One should not suggest, then, that there are no longer any rules or standards for Christian living. The law still has its usefulness, limited though that may be. However it is one thing to say that the law is still useful and it is quite another to maintain that the norm for Christian living is to be found in the law literally and rigidly applied.

No one has understood better than Paul—and Luther after him—that justification by grace through faith pulls the rug from under any kind of legalism. This insight rules out any kind of narrow or fundamentalist interpretation of scripture.

The weightier matters

According to Matthew, Jesus was quite sharp with those admittedly well-meaning and religiously deeply committed Pharisees who were so concerned about the meticulous observance of specific commands that they neglected the weightier matters of justice and mercy (Matthew 23:23).

Jesus interpreted the biblical injunctions in such a way that they served the health and well-being of humanity. In doing this he diverged radically from the way the rabbis had interpreted the text. There is no denying that the rabbis were deeply sincere people who were thoroughly committed to obeying God's commandments at all costs. When the decalogue commanded that the Sabbath be kept inviolate, that no work be done on that festive day, the rabbis set to work defining in ever more minute detail what constituted "work" and what was permissible on the Sabbath. The large collection of Mishnaic (and later Talmudic) regulations bear witness to the deep desire of the religious establishment to build a fence around the law, a sort of protection that would serve to keep the people from even coming close to breaking the commandment.

By contrast, Jesus is known to have done things on the Sabbath which would be regarded as impious. Jesus defended his actions by affirming that the Sabbath was made for humanity, not the other way around.

Thus, two principles of biblical exegesis confront each other. The rabbis focus on the meticulous observance of the commandment. Jesus is more concerned about human welfare and knows how to interpret the law in such a way that it serves that end.

What Do You Think?

In what ways could the examples of Paul's dealing with two new situations be applied to dealing with homosexuality?

Can we be faithful to scripture and yet not carry out all its injunctions to the letter?

In your estimation, what does it mean to love your homosexual neighbour as yourself? How would that love for the homosexual work itself out in helpful action?

 

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