Friday, November 5, 2010

“How Lutherans Interpret Scripture – Part III”

For the previous two editions of the “God Talk” blog, we have discussed various concepts of how Lutherans interpret scripture. However, no one comes to scripture with a totally neutral or open mind. Let me give an example from Mark Allen Powell that might help us to understand this reality.

Powell was doing research on a paper or his doctoral thesis. As part of the process, he surveyed three different cultures with the story that is commonly known as the Prodigal Son. Most of us know the story. The younger son asked for his inheritance. The father gave it to him. He squandered it on loose living. A famine developed where he had gone. No one would give him anything to eat. He ended up eating the food that is given to pigs. Powell’s question was, “Why did the younger son end up in a pig sty eating the food that pigs were given?”

Initially he asked that question to seminary students in the United States. The resounding answer was that he squandered the money. Powell noted that our culture is capitalistic. This would be an understandable answer.

Then he went to Tanzania and asked seminary students of that culture. The answer was quite different. The high percentage of responses was that no one would give the younger son something to eat. Powell said that in Tanzania, hospitality is considered very important for their way of life.

Powell also went to Russia. There he asked the same question. This time the greater majority of answers were that there was a famine. In the Russian culture, it has been deeply embedded in their thinking of the two year siege of Moscow during World War II where millions died of starvation.

All of the answers are truthful. All of the answers provide an insight into the relevant components of the culture.

Besides cultural influences of interpreting scripture, there could be circumstances in the culture or society that are different than when Jesus was on earth for his human ministry, along with the western culture and society that developed the norm for understanding scripture. Here is an example of this dynamic.

Lutherans were prevalent in Tanzania. At the time that missionaries were having some success with conversion to Christianity, they came face-to-face with a challenge. The Tanzania culture embraced polygamy. This was clearly against the understanding of how we were to live our lives as revealed in the Christian Testament. How should the missionaries respond? They could require that polygamy cease immediately, if they wished to sincerely proclaim their belief in Christ. However, what would happen to the wives that would be removed from the family? Their entire economic situation was dependent upon the husband. Also, they would also display sexual desires. Would they be cut off from all of that? Would that be the “Christian way” to deal with the situation? And who would be the wives that would be removed? Would it be the latter ones? Why? And if it was concluded that polygamy would cease immediately, how would that set with our understanding of divorce, as stipulated by Jesus? And what about the children of all the wives; how would their lives be affected?

The Lutheran Church of Tanzania responded by embracing polygamy, as it was practiced when people converted to Christianity. However, the practice of continued polygamy was stopped. No more wives could be added and those who married for the first time were asked to remain monogomistic.

All of what we have discussed, as far as interpreting scripture, requires prayer and understanding, along with justice and mercy. As Jesus said, God requires mercy, not sacrifice.

In all situations we must remember some basic instructions from Jesus:
  • Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.
  • Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
  • Love one another as I have loved you.

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