Parting Reflections: Love As the Hermeneutic

As I leave for Europe on this Sunday morning, I want to share what has most been on my mind lately. I just finished an article for Pepperdine’s academic religious journal Leaven. It concerned the nature of truth in a postmodern age. Below is an excerpt called “Truth as Love”.

“In the face of cultural or religious challenges to their Christian faith, Paul
asserts that the Colossians who live a life in the face of a cross and resurrection must turn from truth understood as power to truth practiced as love. As they grow in love and as Christ lives out his life among them, the knowledge and mysteries will be revealed to them. “I want their hearts to be encouraged and united in love, so that they may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery that is Christ himself,” (2.2; 3.14). After delineating the lifestyle of one raised up with Christ in chapter 3, Paul places one virtue above them all: “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds together everything in perfect harmony,” (3.14; cf. Gal 5.13–14).

Love becomes impossible for many Christian communities because someone decides that truth is more important than relationship. But this presupposes that truth is the opposite of relationship and love. What if truth is love, and that the failure to love is error? The Gospel of John over and over reminds us that truth is not limited to scripture as some Jews believed, or to propositions as the Greeks espoused. Rather truth is a person who loves and seeks to be loved (John 1.1; 5.39; 14.6), and love becomes the essence of what it means to be human, to believe the truth, and to follow Jesus Christ (John 13.34; 1 John 4). Unlike religions or ideologies that make substantive truth claims, Christian truth is most fundamentally a relational truth that results in a transformed reality. Truth is both objective (the real that is beyond our knowing) and subjective (the real that transforms our knowing).

There is some problem with Christian faith if the Christ we proclaim says love is the primary value but our interpretation of the Bible keeps leading us to violence, hate, and discrimination. The medieval age and the modern age led us to read biblical texts as law codes and as neutral texts from which objective truth can be mined and applied. Under this interpretative system, we seek neither to read into the text nor to interpret it but rather to draw out its specific literal or original meaning. This enterprise of modernism works as long as everyone accepts the authority which is determining the precise or original meaning. But that’s just the problem. It relies on authority and power to enforce the interpretation. What if love is the exegesis and compassion the interpretative lens (Mark 2.27; Luke 10.25–37; John 8.11; Gal 5.13–15; Phil 2.2–4)? What if command, example and necessary inferences are not even biblical hermeneutics and love is the only one? That’s exactly what Jesus said.

The story is told of a commander of troops that occupied a mountain village who said to the mayor of the village, “We know you are hiding a traitor. Unless you give him to us, we shall harass you and your people by every means possible.” The village indeed was hiding a man who was loved by all the people, so the mayor was unsure how to proceed. The mayor finally turned to the priest for help, and they together came up with a text that said, “It is better that one man die to save the nation.” So the mayor turned over the innocent man to the commander, and his tortuous screams were heard throughout the village as he was put to death. Twenty years later, a prophet came to town and confronted the mayor, “This man was sent here by God to save the village. How could you have done this to him?” The mayor replied, “What else was I to do? The priest and I simply followed what the scriptures commanded.” “That’s where you went wrong,” the prophet replied. “You should have looked into his eyes.”

To be “faithful to the text” is not to read the Bible with scientific or historical objectivity and then to make pronouncements outside of the context of complex human lives. To be faithful to the biblical text which serves to witness to God in Christ is to interpret it creatively and relationally in light of Jesus Christ so that truth is upheld and love prevails most of all. Read this way, scripture then becomes a living voice of truth, interpreted from the place of vulnerability and not power. Scripture then is not an end in itself, but rather it is the tour guide to the place where love always triumphs, and where grace and truth kiss in the streets.”

Now abide faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

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