Ack, all of a sudden I have half a dozen different lines of thought running amok through my head. Better try to get some of them written down before they vanish.
I’ve heard it asserted that “the Bible says what it says” and that personal experience cannot be allowed to get in the way of that interpretation. And yet personal experience is an inextricable part of how we approach and interpret the Bible, regardless of how many hermeneutical principles we apply and how much time we spend considering grammar and comparative literature and cultural context. There’s simply no way to filter completely for personal bias, even when consensus is sought within a group context.
In addition, if the Bible is supposed to speak identically to all people in all situations in all times and places, then it ends up speaking to nobody, since we are all unique individuals in a constant state of growth (or at least change), and none of us can be reduced (except in the broadest, shallowest terms) to some universal “everyman.”
The beauty of being able to sum up all of the Law in two simple commands (love God and love others) is that it frees us to evaluate every action on an individual basis, taking into account the people involved and the facts of the situation; no list of dos and don’ts, no matter how detailed, can ever anticipate what the correct response would be for every possible situation. Such lists can be very useful, but as soon as they become straitjackets they become part of the problem.
This basic reality of life is one of the major reasons for the existence of our jury system. Any competent judge can rule on the facts of a case, in all but the murkiest of situations, but even if the letter of the law has been violated, our legal system recognizes that a crime hasn’t necessarily been committed. The letter of the law can, in fact, be an enemy of the greater good in some situations. By impaneling a group of twelve ordinary citizens with no direct interest in the case, no political power base to protect and every interest in making their community a safer yet freer place to live, a defendant can be acquitted, regardless of the evidence against him, if the average member of the community would agree that the defendant’s actions aren’t deserving of punishment.
Granted, even the jury system is prone to error and sometimes produces unjust verdicts, but a better human system has yet to be devised. And given that even theologians of similar ideological bent can (and do) disagree about exactly what constitutes the letter of God’s law, how could we ever hope to thrive by treating every situation we face as though it were identical to one written about thousands of years ago by people whose lives, cultures and languages were radically different from ours?
That’s not to say that the Law is without value. It shows us how God spoke to his people in times past, and how they responded, for better or for worse, to the situations they found themselves in. But to assume that we can directly apply those commands and actions to our own lives as if they were written in English for an American audience is quite frankly sloppy, lazy and potentially even more dangerous than it would be to discard the Law entirely.
The letter of the law kills. It’s worth repeating that as many times as necessary.