In the previous six essays I traced Karen Keen’s construction of the principle of biblical interpretation she uses in her argument for the biblical acceptability of loving, covenantal same-sex relationships. Today I will present my critique of Keen’s hermeneutical principle.
Keen’s Method of Interpretation Restated
According to Keen’s principle of interpretation…
(1) Promoting the universal principles of justice, kindness, and love, and minimizing human suffering is the divine purpose of the Bible’s moral instructions. The well-being of individuals and the community is the point. Our highest loyalty must be given to the divine purpose of promoting justice and love.
(2) When the Bible commands or prohibits specific moral behaviors, these instructions must be viewed as conditional applications of justice and love to specific circumstances. When circumstances change, therefore, the specific applications of those unchanging principles must also change. What the biblical authors thought was just, good, loving, kind, and compassionate in their circumstances we may judge not to be just, good, loving, kind, and compassionate in our circumstances.
(3) Hence we are free and even obligated to exercise our reason to determine whether a biblical command applies to our setting in the same way it applied to its original situation. If applying a rule as written to our setting would cause suffering, injustice, indignity, or any other form of harm, we must reformulate it in a way that avoids these negative consequences.
Six Critical Observations
1. Keen’s interpretive method exemplifies a fallacy studied in every basic logic course: that which proves too much proves nothing. Keen knows that the specific biblical teaching against same-sex intercourse is subject to revision because every biblical teaching on specific behaviors is subject to revision. Only because the general principle covers every case can she presume without argument that it also applies to same-sex relationships. To be true to the divine intent, contends Keen, we must deliberate about how a specific command measures up to the divine purpose of the Bible’s moral teaching. I see two major problems with this conclusion. First, if we can find even one specific command that can also serve as a universal moral principle, she would need to revise her method. She could no longer assume but would need to argue that the general principle, though not applying in every case, applies in the case of same-sex relationships. Second, if Keen’s principle of interpretation applies to every specific biblical moral rule, every one of those rules becomes subject to review and revision in view of our understanding of what is good and just. Adopting Keen’s hermeneutical method, then, would open a Pandora’s Box of other behaviors that could in a stretch be justified by these principles. It would create a night in which all cats are black.
2. Keen’s method conflicts with another truth: a half-truth is still an untruth. Keen is correct that the Bible recognizes the difference between general moral principles and specific cases of their application. She is also correct that the Bible teaches that God gave his commands for our good. Those are easy cases to make. But Keen’s argument makes a much stronger claim. For the argument to work, (a) she must demonstrate that only general principles, never specific commands, are universally binding. She does not demonstrate this; instead she lets us jump to this conclusion. Moreover, (b) Keen’s argument depends not only on the biblical teaching that God’s commands are for our good but on our ability to know in what ways they are good for us and how God’s general moral principles may be applied today in ways that produce outcomes that are good for us. She leaves out of consideration the possibility that God’s specific commands are good for us in ways that we cannot presently grasp.
3. Does the Bible really support Keen’s view of interpretation? Every reader of the Bible knows that there is great emphasis in the Bible on trust and obedience to divine commands even when we do not perceive their wisdom. Even when obedience produces suffering and death! The Bible praises unquestioning obedience as a virtuous quality and it never approves of questioning the wisdom and goodness of the law (Psalm 119). Were Adam and Eve correct to question God’s command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? The fruit looked good to them, and what’s wrong with knowledge (Gen 2:17)? The angel of the Lord communicated God’s approval of Abraham’s faith and obedience to the divine command to sacrifice his son Isaac (Gen 22:1-19). Or, listen to words from Deuteronomy 4:
“Hear now, O Israel, the decrees and laws I am about to teach you. Follow them so that you may live…Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations….So be careful to do what the Lord your God has commanded you; do not turn aside to the right or to the left. Walk in all the way that the Lord your God has commanded you” (Deut. 4:1-32).
On what grounds may we assume that we have the wisdom and perspective to judge every biblical rule by our understanding of what is good and loving? Keen fails to make the case that her proposed method of interpretation expresses the Bible’s view of specific commands.
4. General principles alone cannot guide us in specific situations. How do the principles of justice, peace, mercy, and love, apart from specific commands and a tradition of examples, doctrine, and narratives, give us concrete guidance in particular situations? What is just? How do I love my neighbor? What are compassion and mercy? Every observer of modern culture knows that many of our contemporaries, having cut themselves loose from the biblical tradition, use these words as empty vessels into which to pour their own wishes, desires, and preferences. Consider how the word “love” is used today. Do you love someone when you affirm their desires and feelings, when you care only for their subjective sense of well-being? Or, does loving someone mean to will and seek the best for them? From where, then, do we learn what is good, better, and best for human beings…in the short term, medium term, and eternally? Taking up the Christian life involves learning the true nature of love, justice, mercy, compassion, and all other virtues from the Bible’s commands, narratives, doctrines, and examples. We cannot do this if we claim the right to sit in judgment over every specific command in view of empty general principles.
5. I am not convinced that Keen has sufficiently differentiated her interpretative principle from the liberal progressive principle of interpretation, something she has obligated herself to do by claiming to be an evangelical writing for evangelicals. Simply to say, as Keen does, that evangelicals hold these universal principles binding because God commanded them does not differentiate Keen’s approach from progressive/liberal theology. Liberal theologians make the same affirmation. Liberals might be more radical than Keen in their application of this hermeneutical principle but their principles are identical. In their radicalism, liberals can claim with some justification that they are being more consistent than Keen is with her starting point.
6. Keen fails to consider how much “love” needs to be enlightened by knowledge. Consider again the following assertion, which I quoted in a previous post:
“When the virtue of selfless love fills a person’s heart, all actions that flow from that are pure and are pleasing to God.”
After thinking about this statement, I happened to read Philippians 1:9-11, which says,
9 And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.
Notice that love must be informed about what is best. Thus informed, it can produce lives that are “pure and blameless.” Good motives are not enough. For it is possible to do bad things for the best of motives, and it is possible to do good things for the worst of motives. Paul urges us, instead, to do the best things for the best of motives. Desire to do good things must be enlightened by knowledge of what is truly good.
In these criticisms, I have not attempted to demonstrate that Keen’s interpretative principle is altogether false. I readily admit that it contains elements of truth, which accounts for its power to persuade some people. Nor do I offer an alternative hermeneutic strategy to explain the Bible’s moral teaching. As a minimum result, the six criticisms above show that Keen has not demonstrated that her method of interpretation will bear the weight she places on it. Specifically, she has not shown that the distinction between universal and contextual, or virtue and deed, or general purpose and contextual application, or principle and embodiment applies to every specific biblical command in a way that justifies revising and restating it in view of its supposed underlying divine purpose. Therefore, she has not yet demonstrated that her hermeneutic method applies to the biblical prohibition of same-sex intercourse. She will have to make this case independently. Does she succeed? I will address this question in my review of the final three chapters of the book.
Next Time: A review of chapter 6, “The Question of Celibacy for Gay and Lesbian People.”