I put it like this to a class--before the 1800s, people interpreted individual verses in the light of their overall theology. Now, individual trump verses, often unclear verses, create a miscellaneous collection of atomized beliefs and practices. American Christianity has become Pharisaical--we have a list of things to believe and do, without underlying reasons for believing or doing them.
Let me see if I can unpack that a little. In their support of slavery, the Princeton Calvinists used a "trump verse hermeneutic." Forget the big principles of Scripture, Colossians 3:22 tells slaves to obey their masters. A context developed in which people focus on individual verses rather than on the big principles of Scripture.
The problem with trump verse hermeneutics is:
- These words weren't written to you originally. It is on the most localized level that verses are most likely to be context-bound to the worlds and situations they first addressed.
- It is on this micro-verse level that meaning is most ambiguous and susceptible to multiple interpretations.
You think of the fact that Jews don't eat meat and dairy in the same meal because "you will not boil the kid in its mother's milk." The reason for this rule is lost to history, but today it is observed blindly in a context that makes the rule seem silly. In the same way, fundamentalists today insist the husband must be the head of the home not because it fits the big picture of Scripture applied today but because there are some trump verses, like the verses used in support of slavery in the 1800s.
We have created a culture in American Christianity where we urge and drive the person in the pew to pour over the Bible and linger on every word, but we have set the individual Christian up for failure. First, they have no hope to understand the words in context, at least not on their own. The first meaning of the Bible was a meaning of the times when it was written. Period. No debate. To disagree is not to understand the situation.
This has never been the end of the story, however. The Spirit can speak to anyone through the Bible, whether they know what the Bible really meant or not. Nevertheless, the problem I am addressing is that in our enthusiasm to get Christians into Scripture, we have inadvertently made them into Pharisees.
History has taken away from the American Bible reader the key to success when reading the individual verses of the Bible without contextual training. We have not given them an overall theological compass into which they might fit those individual verses. We have not taught them to see in the individual verses of the Bible the great truths of Scripture. We have not given them the "clear" by which to approach the "unclear" individual verse.
Instead, we have programmed them to come up with a thousand individual truths from a thousand individual verses, ripped from their contexts. We have not given them a dictionary by which to read the individual verses but have programmed them to see each individual verse as an individual truth. Their theologies are a loose collection of direct mandates and atoms to believe.
American Christianity has become a grand company of Pharisees and theological lawyers, and the mechanism for propagating this system has only become more and more sophisticated. We have trained our pastors to train our people to read the Bible this way. The pro-slavery interpreters of the early 1800s have won.