Love one another deeply, from the heart. For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. (1 Peter 1.22-23)
There is at present in the US Supreme Court a vast Constitutional divide. Justices Scalia and Thomas stand at the conservative extreme advocating an interpretive approach commonly referred to as originalism. At the consistently liberal extreme, Justices Ginsberg and Breyer assess constitutionality in terms of pragmatism, with the remaining five panelists oscillating (to a predictable degree) between the two schools of thought. Originalism regards the US Constitution as inflexible, drawing its doctrine directly from what it literally says or inferring meaning through the lenses of its originators. Pragmatism is the opposite. It sees the Constitution as a “living” document that shifts in parallel to the nation’s progress. One shudders to imagine the Founders meant the Court to become the politically polarized body it is. Based on what we find in the Constitution, it appears they didn't. Nothing in the document definitively indicates either methodology is correct.
A very similar constitutional divide fractures the Church, with conservatives embracing the equivalent of originalism and progressives touting their version of pragmatism. The interpretive tug-of-war between them eclipses the document they’re wrestling with—God’s Word. Disagreements about how it’s to be treated confound current understanding of its governance in our lives. Is the Bible like the Creator Who speaks through it—immutable, immune to human time and advancement, and impervious to challenges? Or is it a living thing designed to shift and mature in keeping with humanity’s progress? Did God intend it to become the polarizing entity that currently paralyzes the Church? Before shuddering to consider this, we’re wise to search its pages for answers, because unlike the Constitution, the Bible provides profound instruction about how it must be approached and interpreted.
C—All of the Above
Based on what God’s Word says about itself, arguing its virtue as a volume of timeless precedents or its value in terms of timely relevance is superfluous. The answer isn’t A or B. It’s C—all of the above. “Not so!” Scriptural originalists will say. “What God says in the Old Testament remains in effect for us. What He inspires the Apostles to write applies across-the-board to us.” They’ll turn to Christ’s statement in Matthew 5.18: “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen will by any means disappear from the Law, until everything is accomplished.” They’ll quote Isaiah 40.7: “The word of our God stands forever.”
Yes, these texts are accurately cited. But they’re also incorrectly couched. Jesus prefaces His teaching with this: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (v17) The Old Testament’s purpose culminates when Calvary opens free access for all to God’s grace. The world and heaven defined by the Law and Prophets cease to exist. And Peter quotes Isaiah to debunk what many of his readers presumed—and many continue to presume—it to say. In 1 Peter 1.23-25 he writes: “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. For [quoting Isaiah], ‘All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever.’ And this is the word that was preached to you.” God’s Word is living and enduring—timely and timeless, flexible and firm, i.e., all of the above. It lives in the present to ensure its durability over time. Thus we approach it pragmatically, weighing its contents in context with what we know and preceding generations did not. At the same time, we must trust its Author’s original intentions were sound and the principles He set down long ago hold true for all time. So how do we solve these internal contradictions? We dig below “what” to uncover “why.”
From the Heart
The Apostles took a radical position on Scripture that shocked conservatives of their day. They emphasized it should be lived, not merely learned. “The word of God is living and active,” Hebrews 4.12 tells us. “Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” God’s Word reaches the heart, the innermost being where motives and desires abide. It separates fickle thoughts and emotions from enduring truth. That’s what the Apostles were getting at. Our thoughts and opinions will change over time. Today’s feelings won’t be the same tomorrow. If we get hung up on what we’ve learned without letting it come alive in us, we bury God’s Word in the past, ruining its relevance to our lives and times. A Word that isn’t alive in us will not endure.
Peter’s instruction on God’s Word is a sub-bullet to a bigger point. “Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth, so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart,” he writes. (v22) We activate God’s Word in our lives to do what’s right. We don’t abuse it to prove we’re right. That’s dead thinking—mortal imposition on immortal truth. Peter says God’s Word plants in us “imperishable seed.” It circumvents intellectual pride and emotional fear to penetrate our hearts. Love blossoming in the depths of our beings overtakes compulsions to treat Scripture like a high school debate topic. We can learn it word-for-word. But until we live it, we’re playing mind games, entertaining idle fascinations. The living, enduring Word is evidenced by deep love planted in our hearts.
A truly living, enduring Word will pierce our hearts, bypassing our intellectual vanity and emotional fears. It will sow imperishable seeds of love in our beings.