When a person crosses ideological boundaries in order to engage in discussions about Jesus, Paul, or any other aspect of biblical theology, it seems as though the more seriously one takes the context of the biblical authors, the ‘lower’ one’s view of Scripture is said to be. Conversely, the more one favours a ‘plain reading’ of the texts at hand, the ‘higher’ one’s view of Scripture is said to be. Not surprisingly, it is usually those who favour this ‘plain reading’ who tend to make this sort of statement.
Imagine, for example, the following discussion.
Party A wishes to suggest that Paul as a human person, is not simply an unbiased conduit of the divine Word of God but is, at times, influenced by other political or cultural factors (after all, what human person is not so influenced?). In order to illustrate this point, Party A points to 1 Cor 11.14-16, wherein Paul argues that ‘nature’ teaches us that it is disgraceful for men to have long hair or for women to have short hair. Surely, Party A says, this is not God’s general and eternal rule for how we wear our hair; rather, in this passage Paul is revealing one of the ways in which he has been influenced by his own historical context. Therefore, Party A concludes that there are times when properly respecting Paul means not applying what he has said to our contemporary context.
At this point Party B objects. No, Party B says, Scripture — whether written by Paul or anybody else — is the divine Word of God and means the same thing for us as it meant at the time it was written. If Paul makes a statement to one of his churches regarding the length of hair worn by men and women, then this statement must apply equally to us today. To do otherwise, Party B asserts, is to diminish the authority of Scripture — as though we can pick and choose which commandments to follow! Therefore, Party B concludes that Party A must have a ‘low view’ of Scripture, whereas Party B holds to a ‘high view’.
Now this conclusion is problematical for at least three reasons.
First, comments regarding ‘high’ and ‘low’ views of Scripture tend to actually operate as (veiled?) ad hominum attacks upon the other Party engaging in this discussion. The implication is that those who have a ‘high’ view treat Scripture with more reverence or respect than those accused of having a ‘low’ view. In my own experience, this has never been the case. What is at stake are two differing hermeneutical methodologies and not the reverence or respect with which Scripture is treated. Indeed, one cannot even say that those who claim a ‘high’ view of Scripture allow Scripture to operate with more authority in their lives. Once again, what one finds is that both of the parties are trying to live lives that accord with Scripture — it’s just that the parties differ over which elements of Scripture operate authoritatively. Thus, while members of Party A may not give much contemporary weight to what Paul writes about hair (based upon cultural and contextual grounds), they might give a whole lot more contemporary weight to Jesus’ injunction to the rich young ruler in Mk 10.21. Similarly, while members of Party B might disregard what Jesus says to the rich young ruler (based upon literary and contextual grounds), they might continue to affirm what Paul says about hair. Thus, the question is not who treats Scripture as a greater authority, the question is who treats what parts of Scripture as authoritative and why.
This points to the second problem with the conclusion drawn by Party B — it is fundamentally inconsistent with the way in which members of Party B tend to treat all the texts contained within the Canon. While members of Party B often want to defend a ‘plain’ reading of almost every sentence found within the Pauline and deutero-Pauline epistles, they most certainly do not apply the same rule to every other passage, observation, or injunction found within the Bible. Thus, while a member of Party B may choose to follow Paul’s advice regarding hair, that member likely won’t follow the Deuteronomic command to stone disobedient children (cf. Deut 21.18-21). This is not because the New Testament ever tells us that the command to stone disobedient children has been revoked (which is often the rational used by members of Party B to disregard other passages in the Old Testament — largely those related to food, circumcision, purity, and cultic acts). Rather, it is because members of Party B can see the ways in which the violent patiarchalism of the Ancient Near East (often reflected in the Old Testament) is not something worth applying within our contemporary context.
Or, to take a second example, let us look at Prov 26.4 and Prov 26.5. The first verse tells us not to answer a fool according to that person’s folly lest we become like the fool ourselves. The second verse tells us to answer a fool according to that person’s folly so that the fool does not become wise in his or her own eyes. What are we to do with this glaring contradiction? Well, I suspect that members of both Parties A and B would tell us that Proverbs belong to a certain genre of Wisdom literature wherein general but not universally applicable aphorisms are suggested. Thus, it is up to the person with wisdom to discern which aphorism applies to which context. What is clear (to both Parties, I think) is that both Prov 26.4 and Prov 26.5 cannot be equally applied at the same time in the same way.
Therefore, it actually looks like members of Party A and of Party B hold strikingly similar views of Scripture as a whole, but disagree on how this view is applied to certain passages. Given that this is the case, it seems like a cheap effort to gain power over the opposing Party by claiming a ‘high’ view of Scripture, or by charging the opposing Party with a ‘low’ view. (Or it could simply be a way of avoiding addressing the issue more substantially — i.e. by saying that a person’s view can be rejected, a priori, because that view belongs to a ‘lower’ view of Scripture.)
Third, and finally, claiming a high view Scripture is problematical because it is often a means of masking what is actually a rather disrespectful approach to Scripture. To illustrate this point take the way in which Mary is treated within the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic hierarchy can point to its veneration of Mary in order to suggest that it has a high view of women… and this then becomes one of the ways in which that hierarchy masks the way it oppresses and marginalizes women within the historical Church itself! Similarly, those who claim a ‘high’ view of Scripture often (intentionally or not) end up using this as a way of masking the ways in which they abuse Scripture by disregarding its contexts, its various genres, and so on. Sadly, the rhetoric of a ‘high’ view of Scripture is all too often employed to defend superficial readings that actually abuse the texts at hand. Thus, the language of ‘high’ and ‘low’ views becomes a propaganda tool and a means of deception.
Therefore, in light of these things, I suggest that we abandon this language altogether.