Review: The ‘Jesus approach’ to the Bible

Richard Rohr is a Roman Catholic and a Franciscan priest best known as an exponent of the ‘contemplative’ approach to prayer and spirituality. His many books have been immensely popular, even among non-Catholics, some of whom have had questions about the way he approaches the Bible. To answer them, we now have

What Do We Do With The Bible? by Richard Rohr (SPCK, 2019)

wdwdwtbIt’s a short book: just over 40 pages. And it’s commendably to the point. Rohr is keenly aware of the way Christians have misused the Bible over the centuries to justify the most appalling practices, like apartheid, slavery and the burning of heretics. And he is equally familiar with the weird ways many ordinary believers today approach it: ‘as a personal power pack, a hammer, or a rationale for their bad behaviour.’

At the same time, he recognises that, for sincere Christians, the Bible remains properly ‘the primary authoritative source’ for their beliefs and practices. He outlines the different approaches to it fashionable in different periods of history, most recently the rational, literal and historical approach since the Enlightenment. This, he maintains, hampers true spirituality. He is sceptical of the ‘biblical inerrancy’ line, with its excess literalism, and points out that Jesus took a different approach to his own OT scriptures, and so did the likes of Paul.

We cannot, the author claims, act as independent interpreters of Scripture, but must be aware of ‘the perennial tradition’ formed throughout Christian history. Nor must we overlook the way our individual personality affects our approach to the Bible. And let’s remember that, in the vast aeons of human history, the Bible turned up very late, but God was not silent before that; he was known through the natural world (Romans 1:20).

A ‘bullet point’ section briefly identifies some popular misconceptions about what the Bible is, how it came to us, and how we should use it. Traditional evangelicals will feel a few body-punches here! Rohr is skilled at showing how some of our strange ideas came into being, enabling us better to identify and hopefully jettison them.

He ends with what he calls ‘the Jesus hermeneutic’. That means, simply, ‘Let’s use the Bible the way that Jesus did!’ Jesus in fact treated his own Scriptures in a very biased way, picking and choosing which bits to highlight and which to overlook, and sometimes veering close to what have been called ‘situation ethics’. A further string of bullet-points provides a comprehensive range of examples from the Gospels.

He winds up by re-asserting that we ourselves should interpret Scripture the same way, which will be unsettling for many evangelicals—and needs to be!

Reassuringly, Rohr’s overall approach tallies with the hermeneutical approach being emphasised by a wide variety of scholars and writers today. If you want a brief overview of that approach, you can find one in my own free e-book, A Poke In The Faith.

Here’s a selection of quotations, with page numbers.

…the postmodern revolt against religion in general and Bible quoters in particular. (9)

Read the Apostle Paul’s Sermo Sapientia, or sermon on wisdom, in 1 Corinthians 1:17–2:16, where he says that believers have an alternative way of knowing that prayerfully contemplates a text instead of using it as dualistic ammunition to protect our opinions or attack others. (9)

We must be prepared to somehow state our method of interpretation, including our conscious biases, or we end up being dishonest or manipulative with the text—without even knowing it. (13)

Our hermeneutic must make use of both our will and our intellect. Mere conformity (will) or mere reason (understanding) is always a dead faith, and unworthy of the full human person. (13)

The most common default position for Scriptural interpretation is, of course, the literal/historical one—which is honestly the least helpful and the least fruitful. (17)

The Reformation’s critical thinking was surely a necessary stage in our maturation process—but we cannot permanently rest in oppositional thinking. We must continue toward mystical, non-dual, and conciliatory patterns. The overreaction that produced fundamentalism soon set in motion an equal and opposite reaction called rationalism. This is the present argumentative frame inside of which we are trapped. There must be some good alternatives and subtleties to this false dualistic split between non-critical fundamentalism and overly critical rationalism. (18)

Good scriptural interpretation is not limited by the rational lens, but that does not mean it is irrational either. There is also the childlike lens of the pre-rational, the adult’s intelligent reason, and the very sophisticated lens of the trans-rational, the symbolic, and the mystical. This last is our wide-angle and long-distance lens, which provides the basis for our Biblical hermeneutic. We need all three. In fact, I would correlate the pre-rational with the always unknowable work of the Creator, the rational with the visible work of Christ, and the trans-rational with the ubiquitous work of the Holy Spirit. (19)

As Paul directly puts it, “Ever since the creation of the the invisible existence of God and the Divine Power can be clearly seen by the mind’s understanding of created things” (see Romans 1:20). These words undercut and self-correct the absolute and autonomous authority of Scripture—from the inside out! They base spiritual wisdom in nature, in creation, and from the beginning, thus preceding all later spiritual writings, which were composed in the last nanosecond of geologic time. (20)

This “proof text” approach to Scripture, which allows us to find a single line to prove or illustrate almost anything, has now been universally discredited and, also, shown to lead us to some very dangerous and difficult conclusions. (22)

The Bible does not demand academic scholarship, but it is indeed dangerous in the minds of unbalanced or agenda-driven people. (23)

We also extracted Christ from the eternal love flow of the Trinity and made him into a lone male monarch, revealed as such in almost all language and art up to our own time. We henceforth understood the God relationship less in terms of a circle and flow of shared life, and more as a pyramid of feudal authority. Obedience and loyalty were the supreme virtues, not love and compassion. (26)

By not reading the Jewish prophets, except in terms of their “foretelling” of Jesus, we failed to notice that the constant recipients of their ire and judgment are two special groups—the princes and the priests. (27)

When we watch his pattern of interpretation, we could even say Jesus “played light and easy” with the only Bible he knew—the Hebrew Bible. Jesus was anything but a fundamentalist or a legalist. This is not hard to demonstrate; in fact, it is culpable ignorance not to see it now. (29)

I am convinced that Jesus is presenting rewards and punishments as inherent and present-tense. Goodness is its own reward, evil its own punishment. (31)

Jesus appears to ignore most of his own Bible, yet it clearly formed his whole consciousness. That is the paradox. If we look at what he ignores, it includes any passages that appear to legitimate violence, imperialism, exclusion, purity, and dietary laws—of which there are many. These are the very ones we love to quote! Jesus is a Biblically formed non-Bible quoter, who gets the deeper stream, the spirit, the trajectory of his Jewish history and never settles for mere surface readings. (32)

[Jesus] is not factually correct in some of his examples, which clearly should suggest to people who like to pick apart arguments that this is not the point! For example, he describes the mustard seed as the smallest of all seeds and the mustard bush as the biggest of all shrubs in Matthew 13:32, which, in both cases, is not anywhere close to the truth. Is the Bible still to be called inerrant when Jesus uses erroneous examples to make spiritual points? (34)

When religion meets culture, culture wins, nine times out of ten! Take that as normative. (35)

Not all Scriptures were created equal in Jesus’ mind, which is a great blind spot for most fundamentalists, who have little or no skill or training in spiritual discernment. Jesus seems to teach that you can only tell goodness “by its fruits” (see Luke 6:43–45) and not just by the naked action itself. (35)

God does not ask and expect you to do anything new until God has first made it desirable and possible for you to do it. (37)

Excessive God talk and quoting of Scripture are the best cover possible for a narcissistic personality. (38)

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