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.