People are not topics: a problem in biblical interpretation

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April 23, 2013 by jmar198013

In an article from several years back, Cynthia Briggs Kitteredge paid a thoughtful compliment to feminist interpreters of Scripture: “They understand women as historical agents who contributed to the formation of early communities of Christ-believers, rather than as ‘topics’ addressed by biblical writers.” [1]

Embedded in this compliment is a challenge to how, at least in my experience, we generally interpret the Bible. We tend to abstract “topics” from what were concrete struggles between flesh-and-blood people, and interpret where a certain author may or may not have “landed” on a specific “topic” from his or her writing.

My concern is that we go to Scripture looking for guidance on “topics,” be it the role of women in the assembly, household structures, the role of elders in the church, or even the big scary bugaboos of our day like gay marriage. We want to draw a line between the “topic” addressed in the Bible and the analogous “topic” that confronts us now. The danger is, we cease to view other people as people, and view them as a “topic,” which gives us a certain detachment. We then feel justified in making lofty pronouncements on the basis of “for the Bible tells me so,” without pausing to consider the human factor in it all. I don’t know that this is a positive development for the witness of the church. For one thing, it’s a lot easier to dismiss a topic than it is a person. You don’t worry as much about “as much as depends on you, live at peace with all topics.” Have you ever tried to “love your topic as yourself”? Furthermore, you can’t witness to topics: you witness to people. And people are not topics.

How might our use of Scripture change if we focused on people rather than “topics”? How might such an interpretive strategy help us relate the Bible to people caught up in flesh-and-blood struggles? This line of thinking may be especially helpful for how we use the epistles, because they were not addressed to topics, but to people struggling to be faithful.

I have a few suggestions off the top of my head, all from Pauline letters. You could probably fill in others:

1) The premise of Romans. Since the Reformation, Christian interpreters of Scripture have been wont to read Romans as a treatise on the “topic” of law vs. gospel or faith vs. works. Unfortunately, we have also tended to read Luther’s antisemitism onto Paul, to the point where we really read Romans as a letter from Paul attacking Judaism. What if, instead, we read Romans as Paul’s letter to Jewish and Gentile Christians tempted to divide along cultural, liturgical, and even ethical lines? What if we read Romans as Paul’s word to these deeply divided congregations for healing and reconciliation, the apostle at pains to keep fellowship among believers he knows by name and dearly loves?

2) Romans 13. Many are the treatments of this passage that assume Romans 13 constitutes a treatise on the “topic” of Church and State. How might our use of this passage be improved if we saw it instead as addressed to specific Christians in the heart of the Empire who might have been tempted to revolt–either a tax revolt or armed insurrection? How might our reading be improved if we remembered that these were people Paul had just told to bless their enemies, and to repay evil with good by feeding a hungry enemy and watering a thirsty one (Rom. 12.14-21)?

3) The Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11.17-34. Is Paul addressing the “topic” of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Cor. 11? This one is tricky, because much of 1 Corinthians is comprised of Paul responding to questions the Corinthians have asked him. On the other hand, it seems that this is an issue Paul broaches on his own, and notice that he does it on personal terms, calling out the wealthy Corinthian “patrons” for pigging out and leaving poorer “client” brothers and sisters hungry. Is this really a passage about the “topic” of the Lord’s Supper? Or is it, in fact, one facet of an overarching pattern of mistreatment of some Corinthian Christians by others? Do we not hear the plight of the marginalized brothers and sisters embedded in what Paul has to say here? How might our use of 1 Cor. 11.17-34 change if we “took it personal”? Because the excluded brethren sure did, and so did Paul.

I suspect that if we read our Bibles with an eye seeing those they addressed as “agents who contributed to the formation of early communities of Christ-believers, rather than as ‘topics’ addressed by biblical writers,” it will go a long way in promoting healthy fellowship and conflict resolution within the church, and perhaps even foster more goodwill in our conversations with those without the church.

Two Old Men Disputing - Rembrandt

One interpretation of Rembrandt’s enigmatic painting, “Two Old Men Disputing,” is that the old men in question are the apostles Paul and Peter. How might learning to read the Bible as addressed to “people” rather than “topics” aid the church in our use of Scripture for practical moral reasoning?

[1] Cynthia Briggs Kitteridge, “Corinthian Women Prophets and Paul’s Argumentation in 1 Corinthians.” In Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel, Imperium, Interpetation, Essays in Honor of Krister Stendahl, ed. Richard A. Horsley (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press, 2000), 104.

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8 thoughts on “People are not topics: a problem in biblical interpretation

  1. Xyhelm says:

    If people interpreted the Bible more this way, we would have less theology and more practicality. People would see the Bible less like a textbook and more like the story of their life. Speaking for myself, I need more of this kind of interpretation in my life.

  2. jmar198013 says:

    I don’t think we need less theology; we need less bad theology. 🙂 I mean, when John wrote, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” he was doing theology. He was making a claim about God and what God has done on our behalf.

    I think one reason this particular issue–I am a person, not a topic–hits me as it does is based in my theology. Christian theology tells us that we originate in a God who made us in his image. More than that, that this God played in the mud to make us, and breathed his Spirit into us to animate our being. And what’s more, that he continues to love us creatively and redemptively, even calling out to us to make peace with him through his Child we murdered. See, that’s good theology. And that theology properly dignifies humans whom God made in his image and whom he cares for through the Cross. Treating people as topics does not properly dignify them.

    Part of the reason we read our Bible more like textbooks is that we in Churches of Christ, and really in much of the broader Protestant world, have been trained to read them propositionally. The problem is a lot of the Bible was meant to be read as narration. Two cases in point: Leviticus/Deuteronomy and the Sermon on the Mount. With the Torah, Moses didn’t just hand down a list of rules for the people to live by. Rather, the instructions are all embedded in a larger narrative. So for instance, you’re supposed to read “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” not as a sanction for retributive violence, but as an alternative to Lamech’s revenge in Gen. 4: “I have killed a man for wounding me, a lad for injuring me.” Sermon on the Mount, same idea–you have to read it in light of the story of Christ’s life, and also his death. The one who tells us to turn the other cheek has been struck himself. The one who tells us to give the other garment has been stripped naked in public. The one who tells us to carry our enemy’s pack a second mile has carried the burden of his enemy on his own shoulders. This is precisely why he has the moral authority to tell us these things.

    It’s also, as I said in the post, easier (in the lazy way) to read and apply Scripture in a way that treats people as topics. One instance: let’s say you read Rom. 1.18ff, and now you “know” what the Bible says about the “topic” of homosexuality. And you go and try to apply what you’ve learned about this “topic” to gay people. You assume because of what you have read that gays and lesbians are insolent God-haters and inventors of evil who deserve to die. Okay, when that’s what you believe about the “topic” of homosexuality, you are never going to be able to live at peace with a gay person, much less befriend one. And that’s just it: you can’t befriend a topic. Or how about this: for the past 500 years or so what Protestants believe about Jewish people is basically what they think Paul said (and I believe in a lot of instances we’ve gravely misinterpreted him) about Judaism. So imagine this: you “know” what the Bible “says” about Judaism, and now you’re going to do what? Tell Jewish people what they believe like you know better than they do? That’s just silly. And arrogant.

  3. […] “People are not topics: a problem in biblical interpretation | neoprimitive” neoprimitive.wordpress.com/2013/04/23/peo… […]

  4. […] post is courtesy of the neoprimitive blog. It’s titled People are not topics: a problem in biblical interpretation, and is really food for thought in our bible […]

  5. kteemac2013 says:

    Reblogged this on God's Little Feminist and commented:
    I’m not sure about “re-blogging etiquette”…but I have often thought you are not meant to repost another’s blog until you have some huge following…or that it’s not deemed “worth it” until such time, maybe?? However, I’ve decided to just stay blissfully ignorant on the protocol of this and do what my heard leads. I am relatively new to blogging but I’m loving it and fast becoming passionate about my writing as well as reading other people’s. I thought this was written really well and very relevant for Christians and the church today! Hope it stirs your mind and touches your heart…..

  6. gmw3550 says:

    One church I was part of got their first female pastor. I was trying to help people who didn’t believe that women should be pastors by discussing the subject, when I realized the topic itself didn’t matter near as much as the fact that we had a pastor who had gifts that were great for our church. We were all so involved in the debate of “female pastors” that we didn’t look at the specific person serving the specific church.

  7. […] real people at particular places in history. For more on this, read my recent post, “People are not topics: a problem in biblical interpretation.” This is as true for Titus as it is for, say, Galatians. In other words, if Paul is writing […]

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