Part Two: The Fairness Method

by Ryan Ross

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your. philosophy. - Hamlet

It is time for the Liberal and the Legalist alike to consider a new approach to interpreting the Scriptures...new to them, that is. I call it The Fairness Method, because an honest appraisal of it will prove it to be exactly that...And fairness can be applied consistently.

The Basic Premise

There's nothing ill can dwell in such a temple.--The Tempest

All methods of interpretation require a Basic Premise. We will use this one:

The Scriptures are a trustworthy revelation from God.

This Premise differs from the Big Assumption of Liberalism because it accepts the entire text as genuine. It differs from the Big Assumption of Legalism because it does not assume that "trustworthy" automatically means "law."

Liberal critics will charge that this Basic Premise is merely another Big Assumption. Actually, it can be if it is accepted blindly, without rational cause. But I do not suggest that it should be used that way. It should be proven. It should be tested. Once it is verified that this Basic Premise squares with reality, then and only then should it be accepted. I believe the reader who investigates it will discover that the Basic Premise is true to the facts; the Big Assumptions are not.

Space does not permit a detailed discussion of this here. Liberal skeptics are referred for now to a careful consideration of the Bible's content, serious introspection, and a reading of Miracles by C.S. Lewis.

One vital fact should be recognized: interpretation is necessary. Liberals enthroned the interpreter over the text, giving interpretation a bad name. Legalists tried to abdicate their roles as interpreters by inventing a "Law of Silence' to do it for them, in a sort of Gramm-Rudman approach to Bible interpretation.

But the interpreter has always been in the picture. We may as well acknowledge his role and define it. He will neither presume to be the editor of the text nor its prosecuting attorney. He will instead endeavour to be its understander, and ultimately, its performer.

The Method

But screw your courage to the stroking place and we'll not fail--Macbeth
The truly rational way to interpret a Bible passage would be like this:
1. Discard Assumptions.
2. Read the text.
3. Consider its literary context.
4. Consider its circumstantial context.
5. Determine the principle.
6. Make an Application.

We will examine each step in detail.

1. Discard Assumptions. Reject all preconceived ideas about what the text "ought" to say. Take with you only the Basic Premise-and then only if you have verified it for yourself.

2. Read the text. Ask a simple question: "What does it say?"

3. Consider the Literary Context. Note where the passage is located in the larger text around it. Note the flow of ideas and the main subjects addressed.

4. Consider the Circumstantial Context. Ask a few more simple questions. "Who wrote this? To whom? Why?" The further removed we are in time from an author's writing, the more conscious effort must be put into asking these questions.

5. Determine the Principle. Ask another, very crucial simple question: "What is this about?" All the previous questions have been asked to help you answer this one. What was the author telling his intended recipient about?

6. Make an application. Ask one last simple question: "What does this mean?" Specifically, what does it tell you that is relevant in your own life, your own generation, and your own culture?

This method allows the interpreter to be fair to the text and to the writers. It respects both. It is reasonable. It requires no extraordinary amount of formal education, what it does require is open-mindedness, intellectual honesty, and curiosity. And if we have pet beliefs to which we are very emotionally attached, it requires courage.

In open-minded investigations, pet beliefs always have a high mortality rate. Take note, take note, O world, to be direct and honest is not safe.--Othello

Both Liberals and Legalists have said, "Of course that is a sensible method. It's what I do!" But this claim is false. It is only what they do when they feel the need for a loophole; the loophole lets them out of the straightjackets of their Big Assumptions. The Big Assumptions themselves make open-minded investigation impossible.

The Liberal expects to find no meaningful answers in a text he has prejudged to be unreliable. The Legalist never asks, "what does this mean?" of a text he has pre-judged to be binding law. (Indeed, he is prevented from asking the perfectly reasonable question. "Is this law?" Only when he doesn't want a law say, a law requiring a "holy kiss" --does he become interested in the circumstantial context, customs of the day, etc.)

A plague or both your houses!--Romeo and Juliet


The King's name is a tower of strength --Richard III

When we say that the Scriptures are trustworthy and reliable, we say the reason they are is because they are a revelation from God, who is Himself trustworthy. This means that they are the genuine work of an Author who knows what he is talking about. This is what we mean when we say the Scriptures speak with authority.

The Legalist makes an instant leap from this idea to the idea that Scriptures exist primarily to authorize things. He has equated an authoritative text with an authorizing text. But the two ideas are not equal. The second is a much narrower concept.

Consider an illustration: in our country, a treaty must be signed by the President to go into law. The President's signature carries authority. His signature authorizes the treaty to become law. Someone else's signature can't, because it lacks the authority of the President's signature. Authorization, then, can come only from one in authority.

But does one in authority always authorize? Consider the President signs a personal check. Is it now a law that all U.S. citizens withdraw the same amount? Suppose he writes a letter to an advisor telling him to fly to Oslo. Must all U.S. citizens immediately fly to Oslo or be jailed? Suppose he writes a letter to his wife telling her to have a nice day. Must all Americans enjoy their day or face prosecution? Of course not. We realize that, although legal mandates must be set by the President, the President isn't always and only setting legal mandates. He can do other things if he wants.

What if you were looking at a document signed by the President and you wanted to find out what kind of document it was? A Legalist would say, "Well, there's the President's signature! That's all we need to know. It's a law? But you would probably say, "That's the President's signature all right. Now--what kind of document does this look like?" You would use, consciously or unconsciously, the Fairness Method. And you might find out the document was a law...Then again, you might find out it was a personal letter. Or an anecdote. Or a calendar. Or a poem.

The Tapestry

Tell truth and shame the devil. - Henry IV

Often you hear the Bible spoken of as consisting of "the Old Law" and "the New Law." These are understood by the Legalists to correspond roughly with the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Bible, therefore, is all Law. But the Law is on two stone tablets: Old and New.

This concept is wrong.

Let's really look at the Hebrew Scriptures--the "Old Testament"--seriously. There are 39 books. To a Jew living in Jesus' day, these 39 books were his whole Bible. They constituted what he called "the Scriptures.''

But were all 39 books called "the Law?" Not at all. Jesus himself called Hebrew Scriptures "the Law and the Prophets." This was the common way to describe them. Clearly, some Scriptures were Law and some were not.

How much of the Scriptures were Law? The Law was contained in the Torah, the first five books of the 39. And the ten commandments weren't even given in the Torah until well into Exodus, the second book. Out of 39 books in the Hebrew Scriptures, less than four constituted Law.

That means that thirty-five books, give or take Genesis, were "non-Law." But if they weren't Law, what were they? Why would generations of scribes painstakingly copy and recopy books that weren't Law? What possible value could these books have?

These books, loosely called "the Prophets," consisted mostly of prophetic writings. They also contained a great deal of historical narrative. They also contained poetry, song, prayer, and counsel.

After the Law was given on Sinai, prophets came to the people to train them further spiritually. In each case they applied the Law to a particular situation. The problem might have been idolatry, or it might have been neglect of certain regulations, or it might have been prude. The prophet spoke to the people of his age and called them back to their Law and their God.

What good did it do a Jew of Jesus' day to read "the Prophets?" If each prophet was speaking to a particular situation, how could a Jew living centuries later expect to benefit from his words? Quite simply: he learned by example. He could see where his forefathers erred in pursuing idolatry and he could avoid the same mistake. He could learn about the power of God from Job's experience. He could be inspired to be a more noble, courageous person by the example of Moses or David.

The Jew learned by example. But he did not learn by binding example. No Jew ever came forward with an idea like this: "The Scriptures teach us that God told Ezekiel to cook over cow manure. Since Ezekiel was a prophet and therefore an 'approved example,' and since God himself commanded him to do it, we know that cooking over cow manure is the only acceptable way of cooking in the eyes of God. All other cooking materials are therefore sinful. Anyone who questions this doctrine questions that authority of the Scriptures." If such a Jew had ever existed, we would expect him to have been quickly relocated to the Hebrew Happy House...where he could cook over whatever he pleased.

My Oberon! Such visions have I seen! I dreamt I was enamoured of an ass! - A Midsummers Night's Dream

Jesus never taught such an approach either. Those who think he did would do well to consider the following incidents in his life:

1. Jesus spoke approvingly of David's eating the priest's consecrated bread. But a Law of Silence would have strictly forbidden this. Jesus could not cite David's action to justify his own action if it was indeed sinful.

2. God commanded Moses to eat the Passover meal standing. Jesus ate the meal while reclining, in accordance with the custom of his day. But a Legalist would have to regard this "substitute" posture as unauthorized and sinful.

3. The synagogue was never authorized in the Hebrew Scriptures as an acceptable mode of worship. A Legalist would have to regard the synagogue as sinful. Yet Jesus' "custom" was to be in the synagogue, and much of his teaching was done as a participant in synagogue worship.

Jesus was no Liberal; he had too much respect for the Scriptures. But he was no Legalist, either. In fact, his major quarrels were with people who insisted on making more rules than God had given them.

When we look carefully at .the Jews' Scriptures, we see no monolithic "Old Law" at all. The Hebrew Scriptures were not an imposing block of stone. Rather, the Scriptures were a rich and varied tapestry, woven together by many artisans over many years under the eye of one Designer. The multicolored strands featured dense solids in some places, to be sure; but these were juxtaposed with pastels, rich hues, and ornate metallics. The devout Jew, living in the Middle East, recognized the tapestry for what it was. Law? Yes. And much, much more.

The Tapestry Today

...those blessed feet which fourteen hundred years ago were nailed for our advantage on the bitter cross..--Henry IV

A careful and fair consideration of the content of the Scriptures will yield, I believe, several major discoveries; they are full of meaning and beauty. We can only outline a few of them here.

1. No legal code exists in the New Testament. There was never any "Manual of Discipline" to find. The Jews had one, but Christians do not. Find a New Testament passage that reads like Leviticus. It cannot be done. When Paul rejoiced that the old legal code had been abolished, he never said that a new one had replaced it.

2. Our law is Christ. Our law is not a legal code; it is a Person. Paul said, "Imitate me as I imitate Christ." Christ said his words would judge humanity. But look at what he taught. He did not teach procedures. He taught principles.

3. Principles are eternal. Specifics are not. The specifics of how to greet someone change, but the principle of brotherly love does not. The specifics of staging change, but the need for mutual encouragement does not. The specifics of showing humility change, but the need to be humble does not. Specifics are never binding. Principles are never-changing.

4. Principles originate in the character of God. When Christians imitate Christ, they probably will not do it by living in Judea, performing miracles, or living a life of celibacy. They will not literally wash feet or overturn money tables. But they will imitate Christ's character, as Paul did. They will do this because, as Christ said, his character is God's character.

5. New Testament epistles are applications of Principles to particular situations. The writers apply the principles of Christ's character to specific problems-- just as the prophets applied the Law to specific problems. The epistles are not themselves "Law" at all, and they never claim to be. We have the privilege of learning from them, but we are reading someone else's mail.


Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance: that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature. - Hamlet

The fairness method solves the problem of unity which both Liberalism and Legalism fail to solve. The basis for unity lies in acceptance of the Script and, beyond that, its Author. The principles will be acted out in countless varied portrayals. Unity will not lie in the sameness of the performances, but in the fact that they are all performances of the same role. None of the performances will be definitive. There was only one definitive performance. But all the performances can be valid, diverse as they are, if they approach the role with integrity.

Same principles, many specifics. Same role, many portrayals. This is practical. This is true to life. We can live with this approach and make it work.

Paul saw this. He knew that honest performances of the same role could still vary greatly. One performer might eat meat; another might abstain. One might observe special days; another might consider all days alike. But if the performances had integrity, if they were honest responses to a godly principle, then they were accepted.

The Scriptures tell us who the Author of the universe is. Without them we can only look around us, as many have done, and speculate. With them, we learn who He is. We also learn who we are, and where we have been, and where we are going. We are not so much "told what to do" as we are shown what to become.

Let us treat these Scriptures fairly.

In addition to a reliable, modern translation of the Scriptures, the following reading is recommended:

  1. C.S. Lewis. Miracles. Macmillan Press.
  2. Frances Williams. "The Big Mistake: The Wrong New Covenant," Examiner, May 1988.
  3. Frances Williams. "Looking For Mr. Goodchurch," Parts I-III, Examiner, September, November 1987, January 1988.
  4. Cecil Hook. Free in Christ and Free to Speak.
  5. Ryan Ross. The Sound of Silence: Lessons in Legalism," Examiner, April 1987.
  6. John Bunyan. The Pilgrim' s Progress. Signet Classics.