Thursday, October 10, 2013

These Essays: The Interpretation of Love

He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and
 with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment.
And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
- Matthew 22:37-38

Whoever, then, thinks that he understand the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them,
but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold
love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.
- Augustine, On Christian Doctrine

Almost any loving interpretation might pass through On Christian Doctrine. Augustine’s guidance agrees with Scripture itself, wherein Christ’s injunction to love both God and neighbor is already an interpretive guide. Jesus clearly uses his instruction as a way to read Scripture: love is the most important of the laws, the Torah and Talmud of Pharasaic Judaism. More, the double love of God and neighbor in Matthew’s gospel goes one step further: Jesus will himself fulfill the law as love. Jesus becomes the double love of God and neighbor. 

So Christians can interpret the Old Testament in light of the New. Did Jesus fulfill the law and the prophets? If so, what was the nature of this fulfillment? One answer might be that through the fulfillment of God’s love of the world, Christ accomplishes God’s purposes. Christ is the promised Messiah of Israel and all of humankind. 

But to even ask these questions is to begin a kind of reading. Scripture becomes a text that refers to itself. In practical terms, this requires a codex, a book, rather than a scroll. And this, among other things, made early Christians so distinct in the ancient world. Seeking Christ defined Christianity in a very practical way.

Of course the gospels and epistles contain other instances of intertextuality, but the love commandment emphasizes Christ. John’s gospel and epistles identify God with love, and Paul elevates love as the highest Christian virtue. Love can lay a good a claim as any as a rule for interpreting Scripture. If the immediate purpose of Scripture for Christians is to identify the Christ, then its ultimate aim would be to identify that to which Christ points: the loving goodness of the Father, and our human need of it.

This does not meant that Christian love or charity is the only possible theological purpose of Christian Scripture. But building love cannot be an indefensible purpose for interpreting Scripture. Indeed, on the merits of emphatic passages of Scripture as well as its place in Christian tradition, it seems just as arguable as any of those other second-tier criteria. 

An emphasis of the broadest Christian traditions has been that Christians interpret Scripture together. Indeed it may be one of the things that makes Christians Christian. So any rule of interpretation which openly solicits a communal understanding of interpretation has much to say in its own defense. And an interpreter who seeks to love the neighbor would certainly not deny his or her interpretation out of hand, far more so if one’s neighbor is also a brother or sister in Christ diligently seeking to understand the Scriptures.

Such meetings mark the beginnings of the church, as Christians discussed the Scriptures together, or met to hear those interpretations proclaimed. Here begins the traditional appropriation of reading Scripture in worship, and the later Protestant fascination with the Word of God bringing communities together. An Augustinian understanding of the purpose of Scriptural interpretation as the building up of caritas speaks to basic Christian desires toward understanding, community, and transformed life together.  

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