What Does it Mean to “Interpret” the Bible?—A Review Essay (Part Five)

Today’s post continues my analytical and critical review of Karen Keen, Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships. I will summarize and examine chapter 4, which along with chapter 5, gets at the heart of Keen’s interpretative strategy. Since these two chapters combine to form one argument, I will delay my critique of chapter 4 until I have summarized and analyzed chapter 5.

The Target Audience (Again)

As you think about Keen’s argument and my critiques, keep in mind her target audience and the constraints this focus places on her reasoning and my responses. She speaks to evangelicals, to people who wish to remain loyal to the principle of biblical authority. They will not accept the progressive view of the Bible’s moral teaching, which dismisses it as primitive, uninformed, and of mere human origin. Though Keen rehearses progressives’ arguments and obviously accepts some of their conclusions, she labors to distance herself from their liberal theological presuppositions. Hence to achieve her purpose of steering clear of both extremes—progressive and traditional—Keen must develop a hermeneutical strategy (interpretation) that both affirms biblical authority and demonstrates that same-sex relationships are morally acceptable. She devotes chapters 4 and 5 to this task, and I am devoting the next two essays to summarizing, clarifying, and critiquing the method she develops in these chapters.

A Theory of Interpretation

The title of chapter 4 gives us a feel for what is to come: “Fifty Shekels for Rape: Making Sense of Old Testament Laws.” In this chapter Keen compares two Old Testament case laws found in Exodus 21:22-25 and 28-30 to similar cases found in law codes of other ancient near eastern peoples. In Keen’s view the similarity of Old Testament laws to those of non-Israelite nations demonstrates that they share a common cultural milieu. Progressives take this commonality to prove that such laws are wholly irrelevant to our time, and traditionalists ignore the challenge this discovery poses to their proof text method of biblical interpretation. Keen proposes a theory of interpretation that takes seriously the cultural relativity of biblical laws while preserving their divine authority. She distinguishes between the culturally conditioned laws and the underlying purposes of those laws. We may view the underlying principles as inspired, divine commands while viewing specific instructions as culturally conditioned applications. It is a mistake, Keen argues, to focus on what the laws instruct the Israelites to do rather than on why the laws were given and the goals at which they aim. In a section on the “enduring meaning of Old Testament laws,” Keen makes the following assertions:

“Inspiration resides not necessarily in the particularities, but in the overarching reason for the laws—namely a good and just society.”

“Sin is generally defined by what harms others.”

“Thus, whether and how we apply a particularity from scriptural mandates depends on the underlying intent of the law and its relationship to fostering a good and just world.”

“What both progressives and traditionalists typically overlook is the deliberative process that we must undertake to rightly interpret and apply biblical laws today.”

The chapter concludes with two questions that prepare the reader for the next phase of the argument:

“What is the overarching intent of the Bible’s sexual laws? Are there alternative ways to fulfill that intent more fully that take into consideration the predicament of gay and lesbian people?”

Analytic Observation

1. In constructing her hermeneutic method, Keen argues that the specific behaviors that biblical laws enjoin or forbid are culturally conditioned applications of such universal and divinely inspired principles as justice, peace, mercy, and love. We are obligated to respect those universal principles everywhere and always, but we are not bound by any previous attempt to embody those principles in specific mandates. According to this interpretative strategy, we are obligated to honor the Bible’s specific rules forbidding same-sex relationships only if we can be convinced that those rules embody the universal principles of justice, peace, mercy, and love in our contemporary situation. Her success in convincing evangelicals of the biblical permissibility of loving, same-sex relationships depends on demonstrating the universal validity and workability of her hermeneutical principle. Does her method of interpretation help us grasp the unchanging divine meaning of the scriptures as she claims or does it give us license to find our own values and meanings underneath the words of scripture? This question poses one of the two or three most decisive issues the reader must decide in assessing the book’s thesis.

Preliminary Questions

1. But has Keen made a convincing case that we can separate specific biblical rules from the principles they embody as discretely as she presumes?

2. Do we agree that Keen’s list of universal principles is exhaustive, that is, is it impossible that a specific rule could do double duty as a universal principle? For example, consider this rule: “Never betray an innocent friend to death.”

3. Does limiting inspiration and divine commands to general principles while attributing all application to culturally conditioned human judgment do justice the Bible as a whole, especially from an evangelical perspective?

4. Has Keen made a sufficient case that these so-called universal principles are not merely abstractions that give no specific guidance in real-life situations but depend for their content on subjective or cultural factors? For example, does “Always love” mean “Never participate in any act that makes another person feel unhappy?” And even if we take it to mean, “Always seek the best for everyone,” within what moral framework do we determine what is best?

5. If the only inspired moral guidance in the Bible is that articulated in the universal principles listed by Keen and those principles lie behind the law codes of every nation—ancient Babylon, Egypt, Greece, India, and China—what sense does it make to claim divine inspiration for their presence in the Bible? Will evangelicals be satisfied with such a theory of inspiration? It seems more like a theory of natural law written on every heart than the special revelation that evangelicals treasure.

To be Continued…

4 thoughts on “What Does it Mean to “Interpret” the Bible?—A Review Essay (Part Five)

  1. ifaqtheology Post author

    It’s got to be done! These arguments are being put forth by very sophisticated and highly motivated people who give great time and energy to thinking through their positions. An off the cuff reply won’t work. We must match their efforts hour by hour and point by point or our arguments will appear weak and shoddy compared to theirs.

    As a lawyer, you know how this works.




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