|Approaches to Scripture:
Considering the Options
People often disagree about how we should approach Scripture
in determining right and wrong. I shall suggest later that this is not
the only reason for approaching Scripture and, indeed, for most people
of faith, not the main one. But let us begin with some models of
approaching Scripture for determining right and wrong.
1. "These are the words of the Lord": To be believed and obeyed
This approach asserts that the Bible is God�s word in the plain
sense that all its instructions are to be read literally as God�s
instructions. To love God with all one�s heart means nothing less than
obeying all God�s instructions.
The advantage of this approach is that it seems to leave no room for
interference from taking into account other factors, but stays simply
with what it believes are God�s instructions. It can, however, lead to
inflexibility and also faces huge problems arising from the fact that
there are differences among the various writings of scripture, both
between the testaments and within each.
Ironically it is the approach best represented by those who opposed
Jesus and Paul on the grounds that neither shared this approach.
While many claim this as their stance, few hold to it consistently.
Most set aside a large number of instructions. In the Old Testament
these include stoning adulterers (Deuteronomy 22.22), not eating meat
with blood in it (Leviticus 19.26), not eating certain kinds of animals
(Leviticus 11), not mixing fibres of different origins in a garment
(Leviticus 19.19), keeping the Sabbath, charging interest (Leviticus
25.27), to name only a few; and in the New Testament: women not speaking
in church (1 Timothy 2.11-12), women wearing head covering in worship (1
Corinthians 11), slaves obeying masters (Colossians 3.22), forbidding
divorce absolutely (Mark 10.11-12), to name only a few
2. "This is the word of the Lord": To be weighed selectively
This approach is very common and is, in fact, the approach of many
who might assert theirs is the approach outlined above (including many
who call themselves "fundamentalist"). People do make selections and
they do see some parts as more important than others. This is not
arbitrary or disrespectful, but is seen to be consistent with the
approaches within Scripture itself.
This was the approach of Matthew and Luke. They both portray Jesus as
saying, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe
mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the
law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have
practised without neglecting the others" (Matt 23.23; Luke 11.42 is
similar). "Justice and mercy and faith" matter more than tithing, but
tithing (even going into detail which Scripture itself did not
enumerate) must be practised ("without neglecting the others").
We find the same approach reflected in Matthew 5.17-19 (and Luke
16.17), where we have a picture of Jesus asserting that not a jot or
tittle is to pass from the Law and no Christian teacher should teach
otherwise. But then in what follows Matthew shows Jesus focusing on such
major themes as love for enemies, murder, adultery, and divorce
The disadvantage of this approach is that it still apparently affirms
all the instructions, even though some are deemed much less important
than others. In reality, however, it makes exceptions where it believes
God has changed the instruction, especially where this is indicated in
the Scriptures, themselves.
A good of example of this is the command in Genesis 17 to circumcise
Gentiles who join the people. While it infuriated some Christians of the
time, most early Christian communities believed the demand for
circumcision should be dropped (see Acts 15; some Christian missionaries
who espoused the first approach were having success in persuading the
Galatians that they should be circumcised � we benefit from knowing
A slightly different example is Jesus� approach to Sabbath law. A
number of stories depict him as placing response to human need (which
might include what some defined as work) ahead of the commandment not to
work on the Sabbath. In many instances he could easily have put off the
healing for a day, but chose to let the weightier matter of compassion
override the Sabbath law.
People do something similar when they justify the speeding of an
ambulance � but also in other areas such as killing and stealing in war.
One law overrides another law.
The advantage of this approach is that it allows one to assess what
is important and, if need be, set aside what is of lesser importance,
especially where there is conflict between them. The disadvantage is
that it raises the question of who decides what is weighty and what is
not and that it leaves people open to the accusation that they are
watering down biblical instructions to suit their own ends or ideas.
This was one of the reasons why people attacked Jesus and Paul.
There are, then, two additional factors which operate in this
approach, which are not present in the first approach: (1) weighing and
The second factor is the most controversial. If compassion for
Gentiles overrides the command to circumcise and the will to heal
overrides the Sabbath law, should the same kind of concern also override
biblical statements about slaves, women, and divorce, and even
homosexual behaviour? Some will answer yes in all instances.
Some will say no to some. How people resolve the issue about
homosexuals in leadership, for instance, usually has less to do with
what the relevant texts in scripture say (which are reasonably clear)
and more to do with what people now understand homosexuality to be.
People on both sides of the debate in such issues may share a similar
respect for Scripture (and should, therefore, not label those on the
other side as "unscriptural") but be divided on how to balance what is
said in one part of Scripture with values they may see it espousing at
3. "In this is the word of the Lord": To be engaged openly, including
This approach shares with the others the view that the Scriptures
are special as a place where God speaks, but it neither equates all its
instructions with God�s instructions nor assumes that such instructions
remain valid and can only cease to be so when one part overrides another
Commonly people espousing this approach will say that "The Word of
God" is a person and that the Scriptures bear witness to the Word. The
authority of scriptures thus lies beyond the Scriptures themselves. This
is notably the approach of the "Basis of Union" of the Uniting Church in
"This is the word of the Lord" is commonly understood in this way.
It goes beyond the second approach in its critical engagement with
Scriptures, although mostly the difference is a matter of degree and is
often exaggerated. Commonly people taking this approach will view
critically those parts of Scripture which contradict or are difficult to
reconcile with "the weightier matters", whether or not the conflict was
seen in biblical times.
This tends beyond the second approach. It will confront biblical
statements which embody violence, discrimination, injustice and will not
feel under obligation to defend them as if they still have to be seen as
the Word of God. Frequently such people argue that particular attitudes
(for instance, towards women) reflect value systems which are in
conflict with what they see as more fundamental ones represented in
While similar to the second approach, it is usually more
thoroughgoing. They will also challenge biblical values which conflict
with what they see as common sense or better information. They argue
that in doing so they continue to affirm biblical values, especially
those about openness to truth.
Mark illustrates this approach when he portrays Jesus as declaring
that biblical laws about food and external impurity were not only no
longer to be applied, but never had validity in the first place, because
nothing from outside can make a person unclean (7.15-19). Food simply
enters into us and what is left goes out into the toilet.
Here an appeal to down-to-earth common sense (or the prevailing
values of the time) sets parts of Scripture aside, which claimed to give
God�s instructions about food and many related issues of holiness based
on what are reported as God�s categorisation of foods and places.
People argue in a similar way in the homosexuality debate. Biblical
writers thought of homosexual behaviour as deliberate perversion or the
result of deliberate perversion. Current observation suggests, at least
to some, that this is incorrect.
It is, then, an injustice (and against a key biblical value) to
discriminate against authentically homosexual people in and beyond
church. This third approach need not lead to that conclusion - it
depends on whether or not one agrees with "current observation".
The advantage of this approach is that it can give full weight to all
insights available - from everywhere - and bring these to bear on its
interpretation of scripture. The disadvantages are that it leaves open
major issues of what is to be deemed authoritative, even more so than in
the second approach.
4. "Your word is a lamp for our feet, a light for our path" Beyond
right and wrong
Approaching Scripture from the perspective of right and wrong runs
the risk of missing what is probably the most common reason why people
approach Scripture. Instructions are only part of it.
The stories of God�s engagement with people, witnessed to by writers
from ancient Israel and from the first century of the Christian church,
give us much more. Themselves inspired by such encounters, they inspire
us to engage in new ways with God, with ourselves and with others. When
we seek to live in the community where these stories are told and
retold, something of their life and their hope catches us. The Word
meets us, challenges us and engages us.
This may be far more relevant to our understanding of right and wrong
than any of the instructions, because it focuses on a relationship and a
vision and invites us to live in and through that relationship.
Jesus� words, "The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the
Sabbath" (Mark 2.27) illustrate this stance. In God�s eyes people matter
most - not laws, not even Scripture itself. Loving God and one�s fellow
human being encompasses and interprets all the commandments (Mark
12.28-34; see also Gal 5.14). It is also sets people free to live in
such a way that their loving is not based on adherence to instruction,
but is a fruit of the Spirit which inspires them (see Gal 5.22-23). Paul
argued that such an approach more than fulfils what the biblical laws
demand (Romans 8.1-4). We live not by the letter but by the Spirit
The Scriptures form the authoritative context for our reflection on
how our feet walk on the path before us. That context also includes the
community of faith and its story which, through history, connects with
the story of Scripture itself and helped define and preserve it.
The light that shines will not always be sufficient for us to see all
of the path, nor to see where it is leading. We may sometimes hold up
our hands in despair that before some issues we see no clear way or that
we see it very differently among ourselves.
But the alternative of reverting to the assertions of the first
approach are no longer tenable, if they ever were. We cannot escape our
fallibility and our need to make judgements when we approach Scripture.
It is na�ve and lacking integrity to pretend otherwise.
This does not mean we are rudderless. The security is to remain
engaged in the community faith which seeks to live by the Word which/who
addresses us through these stories and to remain open at all times to
new insights and new information . For many
people the need to identify with one or other of these approaches has
never arisen because their issue has not been right and wrong but life
When we must � and sometimes this is the case � the life and nurture
needs to retain its centrality. We will, then, still find companions in
all four ways.
 Editor's note: Professor Loader does not make a judgement when
quoting the gospels here about what may or may not be historical. I take
this to imply that where the words of Jesus are actually the
interpolations of the early Church, we are reading about the position of
those first Christians in relation to the Old Testament. After all, the
New Testament had not yet been written and assembled into its present
 This paper has been written and presented in
contexts where people from the Uniting Church in Australia are grappling
with the issues. For others it might just be interesting to note these
citations so I have left them in the paper for general information. "The
Uniting Church acknowledges that the Church has received the books of
the Old and New Testaments as unique prophetic and apostolic testimony,
in which it hears the Word of God and by which its faith and obedience
are nourished and regulated. When the Church preaches Jesus Christ, its
message is controlled by the Biblical witnesses. The Word of God on whom
salvation depends is to be heard and known from Scripture appropriated
in the worshipping and witnessing life of the Church." Basis of Union
 "The Uniting Church acknowledges that God has
never left the Church without faithful and scholarly interpreters of
Scripture, or without those who have reflected deeply upon, and acted
trustingly in obedience to, God's living Word. In particular the Uniting
Church enters into the inheritance of literary, historical and
scientific enquiry which has characterised recent centuries, and gives
thanks for the knowledge of God�s ways with humanity which are open to
an informed faith. The Uniting Church lives within a world-wide
fellowship of Churches in which it will learn to sharpen its
understanding of the will and purpose of God by contact with
contemporary thought. Within that fellowship the Uniting Church also
stands in relation to contemporary societies in ways which will help it
to understand its own nature and mission. The Uniting Church thanks God
for the continuing witness and service of evangelist, of scholar, of
prophet and of martyr. It prays that it may be ready when occasion
demands to confess the Lord in fresh words and deeds." Basis of Union