In order to “deal with” the very problematic passages in the biblical texts that portray God as one who considers, commits, commands and/or condone violence (physical, emotional and spiritual), most Christian interpreters take what they call a “Christocentric” approach to reading the Bible. I think a Christocentric hermeneutic, however, doesn’t go far enough.
Basically, the Christocentric principle is an attempt to interpret the Bible primarily through the lens of Jesus’s life and teaching. In this way, Jesus is placed as the author, dominant subject, and principle interpreter of scripture. After all, the New Testament texts make claims that Jesus is God in the flesh, the exact representation of his image, who came to make God known. So, if there are passages in the biblical texts that portray God in a way that is antithetical to the Gospel’s portrayal of Jesus, obviously those biblical texts do not portray the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, right? I mean, didn’t Jesus say, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father”? Phew! Relief! Obviously God didn’t command the genocide of the Amalekites, kill the entire human and animal population of the world via “the flood,” or turn the people of Sodom and Gomorrah into ash and Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt. How can we be sure? Because Jesus both taught and lived a live of love for all and never portrayed his Father as having anything to do with violence, right? Wait! Not so fast.
The problem with most presentations of the Christocentric hermeneutic is that they don’t, in my opinion, adequately explain (or explain away) some of Jesus’ portrayals of the Father as capable of and, even, promising violent consequences for at least some of, if not most of, the human race (past, present and future). Also, the Christocentric hermeneutic gives special privilege to the Gospel writers, a privilege not extended to other biblical authors. What is that privilege? It is that the authors of the Gospels never got Jesus (God in the flesh) wrong, whereas other biblical authors, at least sometimes, got God wrong. Yet, the Gospels are just as human in their authorship as the other biblical texts. Therefore, the portrayal of the Jesus of the Gospels is just as prone to human misrepresentation, purposeful invention and/or human error as are the rest of the biblical texts in their portrayals of God.
Terence Fretheim helped me when he wrote about the need to differentiate the textual God from the actual God in the Old Testament. I believe we must do the same with the New Testament. We must differentiate the textual Jesus from the actual Jesus. But, you might ask–if you know anything about the last two centuries of Jesus’ studies–”Haven’t scholars done that time and time again, without any consensus?” Yes, there have been numerous “Quests for the Historical Jesus.” And, I am certainly not equipped with sufficient knowledge, wisdom or any unique spiritual insight that would qualify me to do any better. However what if, when we read all the biblical texts in our search for the actual God/Christ, we do so through the lens of love?
Would that help us? I don’t know about you, but doing so has helped me to refine and redefine my faith without losing it all together. I hope to be able to demonstrate how beginning with “love” we can see that while the biblical writers got God (and even Jesus) wrong, more often than not, they also got God right.