Leviticus 20
June 24, 2008 1:38 PM   Subscribe

Who decides what passages of the Old Testament are no longer relevant in Christian theology, and who grants this authority of interpretation?
posted by plexi to Religion & Philosophy (30 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
There are many Christian denominations (Roman Catholicism, Russian Orthodox Christianity, Missouri Synod Lutheranism, The Southern Baptist Convention, Syriac Christianity, Anglicanism and Episcopalianism, Coptic Orthodox Christianity, Unitarian Universalism, The Religious Society of Friends, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, etc.) some with their own authority, and some with no defined central authority at all. Are you looking for a complete list?
posted by mr_roboto at 1:50 PM on June 24, 2008

Don't take this as a smart ass answer, because I'm being completely serious and basing it on what I've noticed throughout my life.

The passage is relevant if it supports the person's argument.

The passage is irrelevant if it goes against the person's argument.

That's also why I think people cut passages short when arguing with scripture.
posted by theichibun at 1:54 PM on June 24, 2008 [5 favorites]

There isn't really any such thing as 'Christian theology' except as an umbrella term like say, 'music' or 'science'. Each denomination of Christianity has its own particular brand of theology; usually decisions are centralized (e.g. the Catholic church, the Anglican).
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 1:55 PM on June 24, 2008

Among non-Catholics, the is no widespread agreement. Different denominations have different interpretations, and different congregations within denominations have different interpretations. And different church-goers within congregations have different interpretations (in some churches this is encouraged, not as much in others).

Also, most protestants would say the whole OT is still relevant to Christians today, but that the original covenant has been superseded by Jesus's sacrifice. So the OT can be used for learning, seeking guidance, etc., but the NT holds the key.

2 Timothy 3:16-17 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. This is often quoted and interpreted by some to mean that the OT is useful. Some people use this to back up their claim that the bible is 100% inerrant, or whatever they want to claim.
posted by bluejayk at 1:56 PM on June 24, 2008

Jesus was of the the opinion that the Law and the Prophets was completely valid. Not that he always followed them.
Peter, in Acts, with his vision from God to share the gospel with gentiles - called some laws into question. And Paul basically said that any food is clean. Alot of the current belief stems from that.
posted by bigmusic at 1:57 PM on June 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Also, it depends if the Christians you are talking with believe in the inerrancy of the Bible as the absolute truth.
posted by bigmusic at 1:58 PM on June 24, 2008

And Paul basically said that any food is clean

Actually, that's a very important point to make. Most 'Christian' theology should rightly be termed 'Pauline' theology.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 2:04 PM on June 24, 2008 [5 favorites]

Yeah, on second thought, I think a good answer to this question might simply be 'Paul'.
posted by bluejayk at 2:06 PM on June 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

It's also important to realize the literal interpretation of the Bible is modern phenomenon. This is not to paint traditional Christian interpretation as some wonderfully liberal postmodern paradise hijacked by Protestant fundamentalists, but the literal interpretation of the Bible was not necessarily foremost. A common formulation is that there are four ways to interpret the Bible (esp. in the Middle Ages, which is what I'm studying): literal/historical, allegorical, tropological (moral), and anagogical. That last one, especially, is always difficult to remember.

As for the Old Testament, a huge amount of effort was spent in what is called Typology. This sees the Old Testament having foreshadowings of Christ in almost every page. See the Wikipedia article. Modern Christianity has tried to escape some of this, since it could succeed in blocking out other elements of the text, especially the Jewish context and interpretation.

Some more Wikipedia links:
Tropological Reading
And this useful Wikipedia category page:
Biblical Exegesis

Not vouching for the accuracy of any of the Wikipedia stuff.
posted by Gnatcho at 2:15 PM on June 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

Who decides...
Speaking as a Baptist, you decide.
posted by brownpau at 2:17 PM on June 24, 2008

Short answer: They can all be made "relevant", but not necessarily in a direct fashion. No one person (or set of people) decides for all Christianity.
posted by Gnatcho at 2:17 PM on June 24, 2008

I guess this is in response to Dobson's attack today on Obama. I am with bigmusic on this as to sources, but who interprets and why is all over the place. It seems to me that the literal interpretation folks all too easily dismiss certain parts of the Old Testament and nevertheless look there for support of their anti-gay theology.
posted by caddis at 2:32 PM on June 24, 2008

As has been said, who decides is either "the Pope," "our church council," "our founding pastor" or "the individual believer" depending on what denomination you are in. This question is too big to answer well, and even something like "how do Methodists decide" is still a huge question.

I wouldn't mind writing paragraphs and paragraphs on this if I thought the end result would be helpful, but I don't think it would. Short answer: most Christian thinkers agree that the OT reveals something of the nature and moral will of God, but that after Christ the sacrificial system, the priestly hierarchy, and things like the food and medical regulations lost relevance. Some passages--in Luke's book of Acts more than in Paul's letters (see ch. 10 and 15 especially)--make this explicit. Jesus challenged the existing interpretations of things like the Sabbath code in his day, but he made it clear that he saw himself as fulfilling the Law and Prophets, not doing away with them. At any rate, the major areas of disagree are in those passages that could be seen as offering a timeless moral principle, rather than an obsolete worship or food regulation. I think it's also fair to say that most Christians are going to hesitate to assume an OT statue carries on to the present unless there is some NT allusion to it.

Man--I've already written to much, or too little. But I also want to say that answers like "Paul" or "whatever benefits their argument" are way too simplistic. As hard as it may be for some to believe, pastors and theologians usually take this kind of interpretive task very seriously. As someone with 111 graduate hours in ministry and theology, I guarantee you that not as single prof of mine has ever said "Just use the OT in the way the benefits you most." Far from it.

If you really wanted to dive into this question this book and this one would help.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 2:40 PM on June 24, 2008 [8 favorites]

I'm not Christian or from a Christian society / family, so I'm certainly no expert. But I was wondering about this same issue - there's a lot of lunatic stuff in the Old Testament, and much of it is disregarded by Christians. For instance, the prohibition on eating shellfish in Leviticus. (Even though I sort of agree with that one!) I've never heard a Christian have a problem with eating shellfish, at least on religious grounds. But I've heard many Christians cite similar passages from the same book of the Bible to argue against homosexuality. So is it pick and choose what one likes, or what?

I asked a nice Christian lady about this, and instantly she told me that the new covenant with Jesus voided all that Old Testament stuff, and that's why Christians don't abide by it all. I don't know if that's accurate or not, but it does explain it a lot. And so, to get around to your question, it would seem to me that *any* of the OT stuff is kind of irrelevant, unless it's also dealt with in the New Testament, or at least largely in line with NT teachings.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 3:05 PM on June 24, 2008

As someone with 111 graduate hours in ministry and theology, I guarantee you that not as single prof of mine has ever said "Just use the OT in the way the benefits you most."

Of course not.

ichibun seemed to be referring to the political reality, not what is taught.

The right answer is probably that someone like Dobson is not really a theologian, or necessarily even a Christian. Dobson and his ilk tend to worship Uncle Sam more than the risen Christ. Someone like Dobson isn't conservative because he's Christian. He's Christian because for people like that being Christian, or going to church and blethering about bits and pieces of the Bible at least, is part and parcel of what it means to be a conservative American. Christ as Uncle Sam's sidekick.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:13 PM on June 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

Re: theichibun

A typical snide response. It's worng

Re: Who decides what passages of the Old Testament are no longer relevant in Christian theology, and who grants this authority of interpretation?

Simple answer: Jesus.

(Loooong story short) When Jesus came to Earth, he made himself the standard for living, thus making the old laws obsolete.
posted by bamassippi at 3:38 PM on June 24, 2008

The most universal and applicable answer to this question is Paul. Pauline theology decides, for example, that kosher eating and circumcision are not necessary for converted Christians. Oxford Press' Very Short Introduction to Paul outlines a lot of the reasons why.
While Catholicism is the Christian church with the most clearly defined authority structure, its important to note that theologians, even at Catholic institutions, are not necessarily speaking with the recognized authority of the hierarchy. Opinions can differ even among those who all call themselves Catholics. As Gnatcho points out, literal interpretations are a mostly modern phenomenon confined generally to fundamentalist Christians (indeed, that's what the term refers to). Other denominations (Catholicism in particular) hold moral prohibitions that are found in the OT, but can and do justify them by the construction of theological / ethical proofs rather than scriptural citation. As in ethics and philosophy, people can and do disagree, even coming from the same or similar premises.
Whenever interpreting the Bible, remember that it was not written by one person nor is it really one book persay but a collection of books. An alternative approach to literalism held by many Christians is to believe that the Bible is still true in the sense that the particular events described in it reveal truths about the human condition or ethics.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 3:40 PM on June 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Dobson - business man first, spiritual leader second (or third, or 100th...) Don't get your Biblical info from guys like this. Their agenda outside of theology is too strong. Reading some of the links, especially bigmusic's, in this thread will allow you to decide for yourself. The Bible has too many opposing passages for strict constructionism to make sense. This just leads to people interpreting it to say what they want and then insisting that any other interpretation is wrong. You have to pick and choose from opposing scripture, and then you insist that your choice is the "correct" and "original intent" construction. That is Dobson's way. The more allegorical way of interpretation, which I believe was pretty much the way it want for most of the last few millenia, still allows people to interpret scripture according to their own bias. At least they are more honest about that fact. I am truly in the "you decide" camp. I think you have to read the scripture and interpret it for yourself. You can seek guidance from what more intense scholars have found, but God speaks to you through his scripture and you have to find your path to God in your own way and not let others try to guilt you into disbelieving what you have found in your own study. Guys like Dobson don't have superior knowledge, just a superior desire to control others.
posted by caddis at 3:54 PM on June 24, 2008

i thing the word "relevant" is key to the answer. the laws of leviticus are relevant to us even if we don't follow them. the story of the creation is relevant to us even though we may believe that it is a fictional account.

the old testament tells us where we come from, in a religious sense. we learned from all the unhappy prophets that god often calls the reluctant, the unbeliever, the rat bastard. many if not all of the passages in the old testament are relevant to some christians.

here's how i look at it: widespread religious beliefs changed dramatically throughout the old testament, many of which lead up to the changes in the new testament. to understand christianity, i think you need the back story.
posted by stubby phillips at 3:57 PM on June 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

The Bible itself, taken as a whole.

There is a reason that biblical heurmaneutics is taught in Bible college and seminaries. The Old Testament Law had a purpose, both symbolic (such as the instructions on building the tabernacle) and for living (in order to maintain the Hebrews' separation from people groups surrounding them.)

The Bible teaches that the Law was fulfilled under Christ. He perfectly obeyed and fulfilled every jot and tittle of OT law (which, by the way, God knew humans themselves could never do.) For us the Law was meant to be a schoolmaster leading us to Christ-and also a mechanism by which we discovered we had a sin nature-if there is no law, how do we know we sin? We also needed to discover that in our own strenghth we are unable to fulfill the law ourselves.

Anyway, each book of the Bible has to be read in context-in context to the rest of Scripture, and in context to the people it was written to (for example, Paul's letters.) To take scripture out of the context of the whole work is to misinterpret the portion.

If one reads the word of God as a progressive revelation of God's purposes-particularly the purpose He had in sending Christ-things start making more sense. There are also New Testament books that deal more with these issues-such as Romans and Hebrews.

One cannot just lift a couple of sentences out of Leviticus and start waving them around. The BIble, Genesis to Revelation, is fit together like a very complex, very nuanced puzzle.
posted by konolia at 4:48 PM on June 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

For those who struggle with the idea of Paul writing so much of the New Testament, one does need to remember he was literally caught up to the third heaven and got a lot of his info directly from the source-Jesus Himself. (And of course, he like other writers of biblical books was directed by the Holy Spirit.)

Which is one reason he also was given a thorn in the flesh-the revelations were so incredible God knew he'd need something to "keep him real."
posted by konolia at 4:51 PM on June 24, 2008

Since the poster said nothing about Obama or Dobson could we avoid these derails?

Plexi, I hope it's clear that there cannot be a definitive answer to your question as asked. There is no singular "Christian theology." There are as many Christian theologies as there are Christian organizations with the will and resources to create them, and plenty of division and controversy even within the most well-defined denominational entities, not to mention masses of essentially free agents out there making it up as they go along.

Organized denominations are generally going to have explicit, formal theological positions based on tradition and ongoing scholarship and whatever processes by which their authorities issue positions on specific things. Some traditions go way, way back. To get a flavor for it you might look into the origins of common Christian creeds, important theology-establishing events like the Council of Nicea and the Council of Trent. You could investigate the origins of a slightly more recent presentation of a central denominational theology like the Augsburg Confession, or the 20th century revision of Roman Catholic theology that occurred in Vatican II. For a really modern flavor you might investigate the ongoing ELCA Social Statement on Human Sexuality, which has been going on for seven years and is still in progress. This is one example of how "Christian theology" gets hammered out in modern times.

If you're interested in specific denominations large mainstream churches often have quite a bit of doctrinal discussions available online.

One last thing I'll say is that I doubt many if any mainstream denominations would say that particular passages of the Old Testament were "no longer relevant in Christian theology." The Old Testament is all still relevant in that it is part of Scripture: it is not necessarily viewed as literally prescriptive of adherents' behavior today (else we would all be, you know, spilling a lot of cow blood in church on Saturday).
posted by nanojath at 6:00 PM on June 24, 2008

Oh, and just because it amuses me that it's out there, HowStuffWorks presents "Papal Authority."
posted by nanojath at 6:04 PM on June 24, 2008

It depends. Many Catholics equate any decision made at the Council of Nicaea to be equivalent to the word of God. Perhaps not quite as much now, but the Pope has historically had a tremendous amount of power in the Catholic church (including the ability to forgive sins!)

That being said, your average protestant is going to go by what they think, or by their pastor think, or by what Josh McDowell/James Dobson/Etc. think. It's not like there is a board of trustees for the Christian religion who make all the policies.
posted by Autarky at 6:29 PM on June 24, 2008

Also, regarding all the comments about OT condemnation of homosexuality: there's plenty of condemnation of it in Romans and I Corinthians. You shouldn't have to dig all the way to the OT to build an argument...
posted by Autarky at 6:31 PM on June 24, 2008

[a few comments removed - seriously folks, if you aren't directly addressing plexi's question please take it to metatalk or email. thank you.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:51 PM on June 24, 2008

Since the poster said nothing about Obama or Dobson could we avoid these derails?

Yeah, the elephant is in the very small room, but we will just pretend he isn't there. It's a great question, and I have favorited it, but to pretend that there is no context is just a little too Victorian for me. Perhaps someone said something awful that I missed, but when on the same day that Dobson castiizes Obama and alleges that Obama has misinterpreted the OT, and then the very on point question asks how do we resolve this conflict, it is anti-intellectual to pretend that questions lack context. I completely understand the desire to keep the discussion focused on the main issue of scriptural interpretation, but to try to answer that as if no other issue is sitting in the room, especially when it is an elephant, well that just seems forced and artificial. This is further reinforced by the fact that the answer to the question at hand is entirely political, entirely personal, and not some rigid rule culled from "the Christian Bible interpretation rule book." Each religion, sect, person, makes this call, and that is the essence of political. This blinkered mentality that one should don horse blinders in AskMe and never stray from a narrow and direct answer is an anathema to everything that Metafilter stands for, it is anti-intellectualism, a narrowing of thought. Answers must be on point, and directed to the question, but to insist that they must only be a narrow and direct answer, ignoring context, well that is puerile. (this response is limited to nanojath's comment, not any comment deletions)
posted by caddis at 9:45 PM on June 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

The first documented decision to suspend Mosaic laws in Christianity is described in Acts 15.

Background: At Antioch, some Christians who had grown up Jewish (Pharisees) said it was still necessary for other Christians to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses. As you might imagine, this was a touchy subject, and eventually they sent Paul and Barnabus up to Jerusalem to ask the apostles. Acts records Peter's speech on the subject (15:7-11), saying that the Jews were never so hot at keeping the law, that the Gentiles have been set equal to the Jews, and that it's Christ and not the law that saves them both alike. James speaks next (Acts 15:13-21) seconds the sentiment, quotes the Prophets (Amos 9:11-12) to back it up, and proposes a much simpler policy (vv. 19-20) that still prohibits eating blood or strangled animals, for reasons not explained. The decision was approved by the apostles and elders, and official letters were sent to the believers in other countries (vv. 22-31).

Since then, a wide variety of procedures have come up for making these kinds of calls. Wesleyan Methodism recognizes four bases for a doctrine or practice (scripture, reason, tradition, personal experience), and different denominations (or movements within denominations) have put different amounts of weight on each one of these.

In the system I know best, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the authority on doctrines and practices is continuing revelation from God at the appropriate level of the hierarchical structure (an individual, family, congregation, area, or the whole church), but the person receiving such a revelation is expected to measure it against the standards of scripture, and anybody affected by it is encouraged to go ask God and get a personal conviction that it's true. Where God is silent, reason is used to fill in the gap, again measured against scripture (and/or historical practice).

My best friend in high school literally had his own Christian faith. He did view the rules on eating pork etc. as binding, although he did not subscribe to all the rabbinical interpretations of them, i.e., when it says don't eat a kid boiled in its mother's milk, that means not to eat that particular fertility-cult food, and it doesn't mean not to mix meat and dairy generally. I gather Seventh-day Adventists have a similar approach, although they worked these things out communally, whereas he and his mother were AFAIK their own entire faith community. He's now a Catholic, so there are endless volumes of canon law to explain exactly what is and isn't still binding.
posted by eritain at 12:21 AM on June 25, 2008

It may help to rephrase the question slightly, from 'who decides?' to 'how is it decided?' This is not so much a question of authority (who gets to control the interpretation) as a question of reception (what is the accepted interpretation and how does it get to be that way).

The central problem, of course, is that the New Testament is inconsistent in its attitude to the Jewish Law. At some points it appears to be saying that the Law has been completely abolished (e.g. Romans 7: 6, 'now we have been released from the law'), at others it appears to be saying that the Law is still in force (Matthew 5: 18, 'until heaven and earth pass away .. not one jot of the law will pass away'). Christian interpreters have generally tried to resolve this problem by making a distinction between first-order or 'moral' law, which remains in force, and second-order or 'ceremonial' law, which has been superseded by the gospel. Needless to say, this still leaves considerable room for debate about which bits of the law are moral and which bits are ceremonial. But once you accept the basic moral/ceremonial distinction, then you have a way to respect the authority of the Old Testament without having to treat every bit of it (e.g. the Levitical dietary laws) as prescriptive. All the rest is just filling in the detail.

Now, of course, the moral/ceremonial distinction is a completely artificial one, imposed retrospectively on the Old Testament by later Christian interpreters. Is this a problem? I don't think so, just as long as it 'works', pragmatically, as an explanation of why Christians do what they do. What matters is that it is meaningful inside the tradition, even if it has no purchase outside the tradition. Questions like 'which bits of the Jewish law are still in force?' come from within the tradition and can be answered from within.

In the great Atheists v Christians debate (yawn), one common polemical move is to challenge Christians to explain why they don't keep all the Old Testament dietary laws. 'You believe in the Bible, right? But you eat shellfish, right? Well, it says right here in Leviticus ..' (etc etc) This argument collapses as soon as you realise that the vast majority of Christians have never taken an 'all or nothing' approach to the Old Testament and have no reason to do so. There are many, many problems with the Christian understanding of the Bible, but this is not one of them.
posted by verstegan at 3:02 AM on June 25, 2008

It's all a matter of levels. Firstly, the individual believer doesn't decide anything one way or another about passages he or she hasn't actually read. The Bible is a big book; most highly-educated and well-read unbelievers, ie the kind who post here, whatever their attitude to the religion, assume it is read in its entirety by believers. It really isn't. Nor are passages memorized by believers. Biblical memorization is a remote-fringe practice in contemporary Christianity. Most Christians I've met frequently read their Bibles: that is not the habit of someone who memorizes, it's the habit of someone who studies.

(This is broadly true of any book-based activity. For example, most lawyers or bureaucrats operate day-to-day on their general knowledge of the relevant law and crack the books only when the full accurate text is required for some reason. And fair enough; if one is answering the same question over and over, one gets to know what the law says. They may pay more attention to professional journals, or summary books, or training materials, which explain in detail particular parts of the law; the equivalent of sermons. Books are reference material.)

Also, the Bible has a lot of "boring bits", the best example being the genealogies (the "begats"), which are frequently found in the OT and make up the first 17 verses of Matthew 1 in the NT. Much of the dietary and customary laws--with, for some reason, the exception of Leviticus 20--are similarly boring, regardless of their ecclesiastical validity. A typical believer, even a typical priest (who, after all, reads looking for inspiration for sermons and advice to believers), will not find much in these lists. I would (pulling a figure out of nowhere much) guess that an averagely committed, averagely literarily inclined Christian will have thoroughly read perhaps 2% of the pages of his/her Bible per year of serious study. Adjust that up and down according to the personality; and allow for the occasional individual Christian who deliberately decides to read the entire Bible, perhaps a chapter per day or so, as an exercise in seeking inspiration and/or a test of faith.

Most Christians are told (in all fairness, quite accurately and well) what the Bible says, and what it means, by their church's priest, by deacons, prayer-leaders, youth group leaders, etc; and also by family members and fellow churchgoers, generally quoting the church leaders quoting the Bible. Many denominations place little or no value on Biblical study as compared to Christian life practice.

So it's unreasonable to expect any given Christian, even any given priest, to be familiar with the entire Bible. However, if there's some particular passage you want to discuss, the Bible has one of the world's oldest referencing citation systems, and it's entirely reasonable to expect them to be able to look it up. If one wants to look up a particular word or subject, a concordance is essential, but I would guess at ownership rates of concordances among "typical churchgoers" to vary between 1/20 and 1/3 depending on the values the church places on Bible study, and the relative wealth of attendees. A large number of believing Christians don't even personally own a Bible, sharing a church copy. Roughly 6 billion Bibles have ever been printed; roughly 2 billion Christians exist today; assuming half of all Bibles have been destroyed over time, that's an average of 1.5 Bibles per Christian, 3 among 2. For every Christian who owns three, there is one who owns none.

OK, so having narrowed the question down to those passages which the believer is familiar with, how does he/she decide what is important? Again, the church supplies a lot of this. The sermons of the priest, discussion in the church groups, relevance in one's day-to-day conversation and reading material, all are sources of prompts to read particular passages. It's a somewhat analogous process to reading encyclopedias for recreation, or browsing the Web.

Christians, unsurprisingly, tend more than most people to believe their reading is guided (by God), and their reading of the Bible in particular. So a believing Christian will place relevance on her reading of a Bible passage above and beyond its mere presence in the Bible; that she cracked it open and read "And whosoever shall compel thee to go one mile, go with him two." - Matthew 5:41, right now, will inspire her to find a way to make that passage relevant to her life, right now. (For instance, by considering its relevance to answering of AskMeFi questions.)

It helps a lot that many, if not most, Bible passages are open to application to all kinds of exigencies, with a little lateral thinking.

So, how does a believer decide, with a straight face, that Matthew 15:4 "For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death." does not command him to go out and kill Samuel L Jackson? Well, the usual answer is that it's "a warning from God" or some such, ie the Christian is not commanded to kill the curser of mothers, he's warned against being one. With a little creative interpretation, all kinds of urges to violent action can be diminished into warnings, and the entire OT dismissed as "irrelevant after Jesus". (Except for that passage.)

In summary, theichibun is right, except that "supporting the argument" includes such things as "finding a verse to help my friend's mother get over being fired from her job". That is, stuff that isn't, except in a very literal fashion, an "argument".
posted by aeschenkarnos at 3:05 AM on June 25, 2008

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