Many United Methodists have heard the popular hermeneutical (biblical interpretation) teachings coming from one of our most prominent pastors. In contrast to more holistic and classical methods of Biblical interpretation, this method separates out the words of Scripture and places them into one of three “buckets.” According to this “bucket” method, Scripture can fall into one of three groups as follows:
- Scriptures that express God’s heart, character and timeless will for human beings.
- Scriptures that expressed God’s will in a particular time, but are no longer binding.
- Scriptures that never fully expressed the heart, character or will of God.
Different people have written on the positives and negatives of this method, so I do not guess that my words about it will add much to that particular discussion. Nevertheless, I offer two criticisms to the method that I hope will provide a bridge for us to see a more comprehensive and better method to deal with passages.
Hermeneutics has a specific objective: take an ancient text, understand its meaning and then apply it to ministry contexts we find in the current day. This task is never a simple endeavor, and one that should be approached with a humble and meticulous spirit; it’s God’s Scripture, after all. That being said, any method of hermeneutics that seeks to short-circuit this methodical process should receive thorough criticism. Many current day methods, including this one, attempt to jump too quickly from one necessary step of hermeneutic, that of context, directly to the final step, that of application. I would place this method forefront among them.
Secondly, another concern coming from the method is its objective of being a sort of winnowing fork. The pastor who envisioned the method presents it as a way to deal with difficult passages that seem to have little relationship to the current context of today. Instead of trying to deal with the passages on their merit, it isolates and confines them to their historical worlds, refusing to see them as any more than dusty signposts in the life of the people of God. Standing resolutely against the separation advocated by this method are Paul’s words to Timothy, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (3:16-17, NIV, emphasis added).
As a result of this method, one walks away with a Scriptural record that looks more like that proposed by Thomas Jefferson or Mark Twain. Jefferson’s and Twain’s uses of this method provided them with a cut-up version of the Scriptures that very much reflected their own personal pictures of the Christian religion, rather than the orthodox faith that has come through the centuries. Yet, their efforts pale in comparison to those of the early church leader Marcion. Marcion wanted to put the entirety of the Old Testament into either buckets two or three, leaving the Church with only the New Testament’s vision of God. The church rejected Marcion’s bucketing of Scripture long ago, but that has not stopped it from re-appearing elsewhere.
With these ideas in mind, and before turning to a method that would deal with the concerns, let us examine how this method might work in practice a passage so that we can see the difficulties. Let’s look specifically at Leviticus 19:18-19:
“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord. Keep my decrees. Do not mate different kinds of animals. Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed. Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.”
Now, using the logic of the bucket method, combined with some aspects of the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral, we should split this passage apart into pieces and place it section by section into different buckets. It would keep verse 18 as a ‘timeless’ command and throw away most (but not all) of 19 because we ‘enlightened people’ know much better about science and life than those to whom this was written. Except by doing so, we have disobeyed both Lev. 19:19a itself as well as 2 Timothy 3:16-17. In effect, we have bifurcated the two Leviticus verses over some arbitrary line that we seem to have drawn based on some idea of ‘enlightenment.’
Now some have made the argument that the New Covenant has abrogated much of the Old Testament Law (of which this is a piece), and thus, these commands are mostly a part of an outdated code that is no longer in force. I find this argument extremely weak, especially in light of the context of Paul’s statements to Timothy about Scripture and the multiple places in the Psalms where the Torah of God is praised. Paul makes no such case here but instead insists that all Scripture has use. Furthermore, Christ indicates in Matthew 5 that he has come not to abrogate Law, but to fulfill it. Additionally, this “bucket” method has been used on supposedly “outdated” pieces of the New Covenant. Instead, it actually hands us a Swiss cheese type of Bible.
In its impatience to find some possible application, if it seems not to fit any kind of “enlightened” context, this method ignores any kind of teaching that the text might provide (Paul calls Scripture useful for teaching!). Therefore, we need a method that works to help us use the whole Scripture, fits well with our own Wesleyan Theological Task (the “Quadrilateral”), and is faithful to the whole Biblical narrative. It must consider context, investigate the pedagogy, and provide a useful application.
The late Distinguished Professor of Old Testament, Dr. David A. Dorsey, in his work on understanding the role of the Torah in the life of the believer, developed a method that can be expanded for all of Scripture. His framework can be used as a foundation for other hermeneutical methods and honors all of the issues we have noted. The framework has three parts: Clarification of the context; Insight about God and God’s ways; Application, called for short C.I.A.
Context clarification is of first importance, as has been said, “a text without context becomes a pretext for prooftext.” Nonetheless, as N.T. Wright has written, context does not mean just the text within its larger pericope. It also means the context of the entire narrative of Scripture. Where does the writing appear in the story with respect to Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus, Church, Consummation? Wright encourages us to recognize the location of the action and in that see the point of the particular text.
The second step is the most important of the three. What insight do we gain about the heart of God, story of God’s people, and the ways of God’s Kingdom through a particular piece of Scripture? What does this text tell us about what God wants or values? Here is where the teaching part of Scripture gets its place.
Lastly, how do we begin to apply, not the bare text itself, but the insight we have gained into our investigations. Scripture is revelation, i.e. an intimate look into the heart of God. We must find out how to reflect that into our current context of today. What we do not do is, after context clarification, determine that some text doesn’t apply because our context has changed. The text exists to teach us something about God. It is that insight that must be reapplied in the current context, while being faithful to the heart of the God who revealed it in the first place. Otherwise we are left with a Bible that looks like Swiss cheese and an incomplete picture of the One who inspired it.