In my previous article I began thinking with you about a commonly held three-fold formula for discerning God’s will in Scripture: commands, examples, and inferences. To many disciples, this hermeneutical approach is contrived and distorts Scripture into a law-code that in turn produces a very legalistic version of Christianity. My primary objective in this series is to follow the example of Jesus, especially in regard to the way He reasoned from the Scriptures. But before I begin looking at the first of three episodes in the gospels, I want to offer a few more introductory observations on this issue.
Descriptive Rather Than Prescriptive
My basic contention in the last article was that looking for commands, following examples, and drawing inferences are fundamental and universal ways of responding to information. Even those who dispute the command/example/ inference model ultimately employ these modes of interpretation, often while arguing against them. I wonder if part of the confusion is due to the way command/example/ inference is presented.
Let me illustrate what I mean from the subject of physics. In what sense is the Law of Gravity a law? Is it because someone in the ancient world uncovered a stone tablet inscribed with the phrase, “What goes up must come down?” Obviously not. The Law of Gravity is actually a description of what we observe to regularly happen. It is not prescriptive, but descriptive. I would suggest that the same is true with command/example/inference. In the past I have sometimes spoken of command/example/inference as if there was a passage in Fourth John that prescribed three ways to establish authority! But that isn’t the case. What is true is that if you want to describe how anyone draws conclusions from the Bible, in one way or another those conclusions will be drawn from commands/examples/inferences.
Observation, Interpretation, Application
Another objection to command/example/inference is that this approach pays little attention to the overall story of the Bible, and to the many different literary styles found in Scripture (like poetry and narrative). I believe these criticisms have some merit. Responsible study of the Bible involves far more than simply cherry-picking out random pieces of information. A true commitment to the authority of God’s word involves carefully reading what the text says (observation) and understanding its original context (interpretation). Only then can we responsibly move from what the text originally meant to what it means for us (application).
Too often, we come to the Bible with a point to be made, in search of a text to prove it. This sort of proof-texting pays no attention to the genre of writing, the literary context of the books of the Bible, or the sweeping plot of Scripture. Instead, it involves haphazard and arbitrary use of command/example/inference. But the real problem is not that command/example/inference is therefore invalid. The real problem is poor Bible study.
And the solution is to look at the way Jesus interpreted the Bible. That’s what I would like to do in the remaining articles in this series, beginning with a question about the most important command of the Law.
The Greatest Commandment
And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31)
During Jesus’ final week in Jerusalem, representatives of the various Jewish sects challenged Jesus in the temple, including the Pharisees and Herodians (Mark 12:13-17) and the Sadducees (Mark 12:18-27). In addition to these hostile confrontations, Mark explains that – overhearing these debates – one of the scribes posed a question to Jesus that was common in rabbinical debates: “Which commandment is the most important of all?” (12:28). Jewish sources describe debates regarding which of the 613 commands of the Law were heavier or lighter. The goal in many discussions was to find a simple summarizing principle that would encapsulate the Law.
Jesus offered two such principles, found in two commands of the Law. First, the Jewish Shemah, found in Deuteronomy 6:4-5: “Hear (shemah in Hebrew), O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” Second, the command found in Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In both cases, Jesus drew conclusions about God’s will by appealing to commands written in Scripture.
Jesus’ teaching here also provides a helpful corrective against the tendency of legalism. There can be no question that Jesus held all of the Law in the highest regard, down to the very smallest strokes of the Hebrew alphabet (Matthew 5:17-18). But there can also be no doubt that while Jesus believed all of the Law was important, He also believed that some parts of the Law were more fundamental (“weightier matters,” Matthew 23:23). The two love commands were not simply two out of 613 commands. According to Jesus, they were the very foundation of everything else in the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 22:40).
The apostolic writers maintain the same emphasis. In Romans 13:9 Paul says that the commandments of God “are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” In Galatians 5:14 he says that loving your neighbor as yourself fulfills the law “in one word.” And the brother of the Lord describes this command as fulfilling “the royal law according to Scripture” (James 2:8).
Command/example/inference can become a stumblingblock when the Bible is flattened out and all commands are stressed the same. But careful attention to what our Lord taught as He made use of the commands of the Bible will place the emphasis where Jesus placed it. Love, according to Jesus, is the supreme biblical doctrine, and we can hardly claim to live under the authority of Christ when we fail to love others.