Should we use love to understand Scripture or Scripture to understand love?

This week I’m diverging from my typical book review/summary to review a cartoon I read a few weeks ago. In it, Jesus says to a group of modern Pharisees “The difference between me and you is you use Scripture to determine what love means and I use love to determine what Scripture means.” The implication of this cartoon is clear: We should interpret the Bible like Jesus did, through the lens of love.

The problem in interpreting Scripture through love

While this cartoon contains an element of truth, which I will get to later, I want to begin by pointing out a rather obvious danger: Who is to say what “love” means? “Love” is an especially ambiguous word with an incredibly broad range of meaning. That meaning is culturally bound. If 100 cultures use “love” to interpret Scripture, you will come up with 100 – probably wildly divergent – interpretations. In most of those cases, Scripture will end up being said to value whatever that culture already values (whatever the culture loves.) To put it more bluntly, a culture that equates love with sexual expression and freedom will interpret Scripture as permissive, even celebratory, towards sexual expression and freedom. In other words, to use one’s cultural conception of love to interpret Scripture will likely simply lead to an interpretation that already agrees with one’s preconceptions. 

The question remains, though, did Jesus read the Scriptures through this hermeneutic of love? Consider, for instance, Mark 2:23-28:

23 One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”

25 He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 26 In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”

27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

Jesus counters the Pharisees’ interpretation of the Sabbath law with one that gets at the heart of the Sabbath. The Sabbath was given to man to give life. The Pharisees failed to love, so they arrived at a rigid understanding of the Sabbath. Jesus loved, so he saw the deeper meaning of the Sabbath. Or so the argument goes. But, more subtly, we see that Jesus didn’t interpret the Sabbath through an abstract concept of love. He interpreted the Sabbath law through Scripture, namely, the story of Abiathar the high priest feeding David and his companions (1 Samuel 21).

The necessity of love in interpreting Scripture

Jesus made it clear, however, that love and God’s commands should never be separated. Loving God and loving neighbor are the two greatest commands and “all the Law and Prophets hand on these to commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40). The apostle Paul agrees:

The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:9-10)

Interpreting Scripture apart from love would be a dangerous thing indeed. “Knowledge puffs up,” says Paul, “while love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). Again, in the famous love passage, “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2). Without love, interpretation of Scripture, no matter how scholarly, is of little value.

We need something like the “hermeneutical cycle” I learned about in seminary. We use Scripture to correct and refine our cultural conception of love (this is not Pharisaical) and we read Scripture through the lens of love, recognizing that the two (when properly understood) will not contradict each other.

A brief note on this point: Should we expect any continuity between our human/cultural conceptions of love and God’s apart from Scripture? We should, for two reasons. First, God has given each of us a basic understanding (Romans 1:20) and the law (Romans 2:14-15). Since God’s law is fulfilled through love, we will all have a sense of God’s love and his law of love. However, we should not trust that conception to surely, since it can be warped by our fallen minds, our fallen cultures, and Satan’s deception. 

A third component to our cycle

To this “hermeneutical cycle” we must add a third component: Jesus. I know, that’s the Sunday School answer, but Scripture itself invites us to interpret Scripture and love through the Messiah. 

How do we know what love is? “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16-20). Jesus’ life and sacrificial death cut through many of our cultural misconceptions of love. In Jesus, we see love personified. 

Likewise, Jesus instructs us to read Scripture in a “Christo-centric way.” Jesus says, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40). Jesus’ words and life fulfill the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 5:17). In the passage from Mark quoted earlier, Jesus’ interpretation of the Sabbath, gave future generations new insight into its core meaning. His interpretation of the Sabbath was right for two reasons: First, because he used Scripture to interpret Scripture, but second, because He was Lord of the Sabbath. In a theological sense, he wrote the law, so he can give its authoritative interpretation. And, because all Scripture points to him, he fulfills the Sabbath (Colossians 2:16-17). 

But, the picture gets more complex: How do we know about Jesus in the first place? We know about him through our Christian communities, but also through Scripture in whom he is revealed. And, once again, we cannot help but bring our cultural conceptions of love to the table, the good and the bad.

At the end of the day, then, we have a hermeneutic cycle: Love, Jesus, and the Bible. Each helps us come to a clearer understanding of the others. But of these three, in a twist of Paul, the greatest of these is Jesus.

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