I’ve started reading K.W. Leslie’s Fuller Understanding on a regular basis. I like his clear, no-nonsense approach, not to mention the way that he makes fun of common evangelical ideas (albeit not important ones, like, say, the Gospel). He also gives me fresh ways of looking at Bible passages.
This morning, I read his post on I John 2:1B-2, Jesus paid off the universe’s sins. K.W. critiques John Calvin’s interpretation of I John 2:2, which says that Christ died, not only for our sins, but also for the sins of the whole world. This verse poses a challenge to Calvinists, who believe that Christ died only for the “elect,” the people God chose before the foundation of the world to believe in Christ and be saved. But this verse says that Christ died for “the world.”
According to K.W., Calvin interprets this verse to mean that Christ died for John and John’s audience, and also for the Christians in the rest of the world. K.W. is not impressed, for he thinks that Calvin’s interpretation is forced, as Calvin tries to reconcile this verse with predestination.
What’s interesting is that K.W. acknowledges that all Christians do this sort of thing on some level, including him. He offers an example:
Now, Calvin reinterpreted this verse in light of how he understood Jesus. And that’s valid. I do this all the time. Whenever I read a bit in the scriptures where Jesus appears to be unloving, or unfair, or otherwise unlike Himself, I look for an interpretation that is consistent with His character. Sometimes popular interpretations simply accept the idea that Jesus could be unloving or unfair. I don’t. I look for loving or fair motives. If I can’t find them, I struggle with these verses. But in my struggle, I don’t try to alter the clear meaning of the text. Otherwise, why bother to read the text at all?
K.W. distinguishes himself from Calvin, for K.W. seeks to be honest about the text’s meaning rather than forcibly reconciling it with his preconceived notions.
I can identify with K.W.’s hermeneutical approach: he goes into the Bible with the idea that God and Jesus are loving and fair. And he sticks with that notion even when things in the Bible appear to challenge it, like God’s command for Israel to slaughter the Canaanites (see K.W.’s post, God’s relationship with love, and our relationship with God.).
I think that these lenses of interpretation are biblical, for James 2:13 affirms that mercy triumphs over judgment, and Psalm 30:5 states that God’s anger is for a moment, whereas his favor lasts for a lifetime. There’s a lot of divine wrath in Scripture, but these passages maintain that God’s love and mercy are greater than his anger and judgment. Then there’s Jesus’ affirmation that love sums up the entire law (Matthew 22:40), and Paul’s description of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5). Would God command us to be loving, if he himself were not?
Moreover, there are times when even God’s “unfairness” is tempered with some sort of love. In I Kings 14, we read the story of Jeroboam seeking healing for his sick son. He sends his wife in disquise to the prophet Ahijah, who quickly identifies her as Jeroboam’s wife. The prophet tells her that her son will die, since Jeroboam is a gross sinner. This appears to be unfair, since God is allowing an innocent person to die on account of Jeroboam’s sins.
But vv 12-13 are telling: “Therefore set out, go to your house. When your feet enter the city, the child shall die. All Israel shall mourn for him and bury him; for he alone of Jeroboam’s family shall come to the grave, because in him there is found something pleasing to the LORD, the God of Israel, in the house of Jeroboam” (NRSV).
God says that he is pleased with the child, like he’s reluctant to take his life. God is doing something that’s manifestly unfair, yet he doesn’t want to do so, for he is pleased with the innocence of a little child.
Could this be a way to view most of God’s atrocities in the Bible? God doesn’t want to do them, but he feels compelled to (for some reason)?