Did Jesus Really Interpret the Bible Like This? A Review Essay (Part Six)

This post continues my review of Karen Keen, Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships. Today we focus on chapter 5, “What is Ethical? Interpreting the Bible Like Jesus.” In this chapter, Keen puts the finishing touches on her theory of biblical interpretation. She devotes the rest of the book to its application.

How Does the Bible Teach Morality?

Virtue Matters

In addressing the question of how the Bible teaches morality Keen mentions commands, examples, symbolic worlds, and virtues. Virtue seems to be Keen’s all-encompassing category. “Virtues,” she explains, “are about who a person is, whereas rules address what a person does.” Biblical virtues are culturally transcendent whereas laws and rules are culturally relative. Loving God and your neighbor are always right. In commenting on Jesus’s statement, “But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you” (Luke 11:41), Keen draws the following principle:

Jesus indicates that if we act out of virtue, the outcome is always the will of God…When the virtue of selfless love fills a person’s heart, all actions that flow from that are pure and are pleasing to God.

Applying the above principle to same-sex relationships, Keen argues,

If sin is defined as something that violates the fruit of the Spirit, how are loving, monogamous same-sex relationships sinful? These partnerships are fully capable of exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit. If Jesus says that all the law can be summed up in love, then don’t these relationships meet this requirement?

Interpretation within the Bible

Keen finds the argument from virtue “compelling” but realizes that some in her target audience may need more convincing. To provide that extra push she attempts to demonstrate that the biblical authors themselves employ the very interpretive strategy she has been advocating. She examines three instances of such internal rereading of the Bible: Deuteronomy 15:12-18 covers the same situation as does Exodus 21:2-11 but softens the law, making it more humane. The gospel of Matthew (19:9) makes an exception to Jesus’s strict teaching on divorce as recorded in Mark 10:11-12, and Paul adds another ground for divorce in 1 Corinthians 7:12-15. In reply to the Pharisees’ accusation that Jesus and his disciples were breaking the Sabbath law by stripping grain from the heads of wheat and eating it, Jesus cites David’s breaking the law by eating the holy bread of the sanctuary because of his hunger (Mark 2: 23-28; Matt 12:3-4). Jesus concludes, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Keen infers from Jesus’s teaching on the Sabbath that “God’s ordinances are always on behalf of people and not for the arbitrary appeasement of God’s sensibilities.” If the author of Deuteronomy, Jesus, and Paul were correct to read the Bible this way, surely we are permitted to do so. Hence we are not only free but are obligated to apply biblical laws “with attention to human need and suffering.”

Helpful Distinction or Universal Principle?

In this chapter, Keen continues to build her case begun in the previous chapter for the clear distinction between the Bible’s specific instructions, which are culturally relative, and the universal moral principles that those instructions attempt to embody. This time she appeals to the category of virtue. Virtues are habitual attitudes that guide moral behavior in specific circumstances. Biblical virtues are universal principles that apply everywhere and always. In contrast, the moral quality of behaviors depends on how well they embody the universal virtues in specific contexts. Keen offers Jesus’s teaching about the purpose of the Sabbath and Matthew’s and Paul’s adaptation of Jesus’s teaching on divorce as biblical examples of the distinction between universal principles and their contextual application.

Undoubtedly, Jesus and Paul did distinguish between principle and application and between virtue and act. No one I know denies this distinction. But Keen’s case depends on transforming the admitted distinction into a dichotomy and incorporating it into an interpretative framework that allows no exceptions. For admitting the possibility of exceptions would weaken Keen’s case for the biblical legitimacy of same-sex relationships because it would plunge her into endless debates about which specific biblical instructions are transcultural and which are not. She would need to develop interpretative criteria for deciding this question also. The process of interpretation would never end.

But applying her no-exceptions interpretative method consistently would create even worse difficulties for her case. We could accept no biblical command at face value. The Christian ethicist would be required to explain how each and every biblical rule can be justified on the basis of general principles. Objections, alternative interpretations, disputes, and accusations of rationalization or callousness are sure to multiply.

Next: I will devote the next essay to criticism of the interpretative method Keen developed in chapters 4 and 5.

5 thoughts on “Did Jesus Really Interpret the Bible Like This? A Review Essay (Part Six)

  1. Charles A Hanson

    Reading some of the posts you put up I come to this in mind; the people of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed not just for their sin of the flesh but the first sin was they did not believe in God. I have a question for the lady who is trying to write about sin? I question if she believes in the God of the bible? So far she may be aware of a God but does not know the God of the bible as far as what you have written about her book. She is trying to question sin as OK so sad. Virtue or any other such as love does not disqualify sin as OK.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Claudia B Sangster

    Many years ago, I watched a “debate” on television (a short one to be sure) where a Baptist and Unitarian minister were talking about the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah. I almost fell out of my chair when the Unitarian minister said that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was not homosextuality but “inhospitality!” This is such a hard subject. No matter the result, we are called to love one another and treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. My gay family members and friends should be treated with love even if we do not agree with their lifestyle.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ifaqtheology Post author

      Yes Claudia! I plan to address the issues of compassion and love in future essays. I suspect that many people do their thinking with their feelings, which are determined by participation in the culture that values a subjective sense of well-being above all things. The idea that one’s subjective feelings of happiness could be at odds with one’s true welfare is completely foreign to many people. Consequently compassion and love toward people is expressed in our culture by affirming other people’s experience of what makes them feel a sense of happiness. On the other hand, one does not have to look far for inconsistencies in applying this rule. It depends on who the shifting culture designates as objects of compassion and affirmation. Why does the culture choose as it does? I think there is a reason. I hope to explore that reason, which makes some sense of seemingly arbitrary cultural decisions. The dominant culture divides people into oppressors and oppressed, and always favors the oppressed for no reason other than they have been given that status. Groups compete with one another for the “oppressed” designation. We are conditioned to feel compassion for the oppressed and overlook character traits and behaviors we would otherwise condemn.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Charles A Hanson

    I believe this book is not good in many ways. I put the book in what God calls seven sins He hates. It is not difficult to understand the theology in these statements. I see many things in this book that God does not approve and are mentioned in Proverbs.
    God does not love these seven sins. God did not have compassion for Sodom.
    Pro 6:16 These six things doth the LORD HATE: yea, seven are an abomination unto him: 
    Pro 6:17  A proud look, a LYING tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, 
    Pro 6:18  An HEART that contrives EVIL wicked IMAGINATIONS, feet that be swift in running to mischief, 
    Pro 6:19  A false witness that speaks LIES, and he/she that soweth discord among BRETHREN. 
    and so much more but this should help in understanding sin is not good, loving or has virtue.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Dr Jonne Smalhouse

    Hello Ron,
    It’s not the discussion on “sin-handling” i’ve tried to have; but i’m joining in now anyway…
    I’ve preached this way before—” Rebecca, a student of theology, is always late because she works so hard, every morning as she hurries for lectures through the courtyard, she cuts the corners off the cloister lawns that clearly say “Keep off the grass”- this is tresspassing. She doesn’t think it does much harm…
    Professor McBride goes to the same lecture, slowly ambling diagonally across the cloister, stepping over the warning signs and wearing out the grass. He believes that he is important enough to be exempt. This is transgression…
    Lord Flygt, unfortunately doesn’t attend lectures though he is a student. He rides his bike drunkenly across the cloister lawns to his rooms. He trips on the warning signs, and pulls them up throwing them through a window. This is iniquity on very many levels.”
    We all love a sermon on sins don’t we? Does it make you feel better because you’re proud and satisfied not to be like any of that or them? Do you think you know?
    Well, what i’ve written up there above is bunkum- and ‘dangerous’ bunkum too. It tempts us to judge, to moralize and the criticize each other. Ron’s author’s use of Luke 11:41 is out of context, and does not mean or imply any of the rhetoric she has applied to it, leastways the conclusions. In my view Ron is far too polite; but then he is, he’s very patient.
    Analysing and judging sin ourselves is fundamentally wrong ( this does not mean we do not need to understand it, far from it!). And such mis-handling leads to much misunderstanding and myth in soteriology.
    In Luke 11 Jesus is trying to get us to look inside ourselves, rather than being blinded by our own public image- this very thought depresses Him intensely ” it’s rank hypocrisy”. He points it out beautifully, with OT references in which he does not need to moralize or ‘virtuize’ viz Jonas.
    The “soul that sinneth it shall die”- comes from at least two OT sources, and figures much in the NT. However, how many times do we stop to think, when we preach or judge what EXACTLY was the sin, and just when exactly shall ‘that’ particular soul die, how-so and by what means, for what reason?
    Do we apply OT teachings, which it says in the Old Testament were ignored (and which it says in the New Testament are superceded/simplified, crystallized, unified) – or do we place the heart of Jesus in our heart, His mind in our mind, God’s will upon our hearts filled with the love and fellowship of the Holy Spirit?? Jesus repeats this ” do not judge” and ” has’t though faith- then have it before God alone”.
    The sanctity of the sacrement of Christian marriage is not something being discussed here- it cannot be. But it’s going to take a lot to convince me personally that “same-sex” and ” marriage” and ” church” are something that is easily possible, when so many ceremonies in churchs nowadays are not marriages in any spiritual sense… i’m not judging- they’re just not!
    God bless, and take care.

    Liked by 1 person


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