I didn’t live through the “Bible Wars” of the 20th century (thank God), but their effects still reverberate into the many debates today. Those who hold to scriptural authority, usually defined as inerrancy or divine inspiration, view it as a bulwark against the tendencies of mainline Protestantism to discard the witness of scripture in favor of what is deemed a moral and doctrinal relativism. Thus, the popular distinction between Bible-thumping conservatives and apostate liberals. If one is to believe the rhetoric of capital-E Evangelicalism, Scripture and doctrinal orthodoxy go hand-in-hand, and the loss of the Bible necessarily leads to heresy. Progressives, for their part, almost enthusiastically play the part of the villain in this drama, decrying conservative Biblicism and the cultural primitivity of Scripture itself.

Some aspects of this dichotomy have a basis in reality. If orthodoxy arose principally through its protracted engagement with the canon of Scripture, it’s hard to imagine a Christianity that discards these foundational writings and doesn’t end up espousing heresy. The 2nd century Montanists come to mind, as does high medieval Catholicism. But there are other features of the Bible Wars that are more problematic, places where the rhetoric outstrips the evidence.

As much as orthodoxy is believed to be the necessary inference of biblical fidelity, church history suggests otherwise. To take one example, the Valentinians of the 2nd century believed that Jesus only became the Son of God at his baptism in the river Jordan. Following Mark’s Gospel, this adoptionist reading of Mark supposes that the descent of the “dove” upon Jesus is when the life of the Son of God effectively begins. This is the precise moment that “the word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Jesus was indeed born of the virgin, Mary, but this only illustrates the “indescribable skill” with which the creator “constructed” the body of the Messiah.

The terrain upon which the Valentinians and the orthodox Bishop Irenaeus battled is Scripture itself; it is not a matter of which texts are deemed authoritative, but how these texts are coordinated with each other and understood. Irenaeus viewed Mark and John through the lens of Matthew and Luke, while the Valentinian heretics understood the birth narratives in light of Mark and John (with some significant support from Paul). Without the prioritization of the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke, Mark’s gospel can more readily be understood to espouse adoptionism. In other words, Irenaeus did not defeat the heresy of adoptionism by simply appealing to the inerrancy of Scripture. The same could be said for other heresies like Arianism or PelagianismSola Scriptura is an important doctrine, but it’s not the silver bullet to defeat all the werewolves of heresy that so many claim for it.

Yet, lest the reader begin packing their bags for a dip in the Tiber, to believe that the magisterium of the Church is the antidote to heresy is to trade one set of problems for another. Without the (Protestant) freedom to adjudicate which theologies of church history are most congruous with the gospel, an appeal to the authority of the Church carries a great deal of unexpected baggage.

Instead of recapitulating the worn out and, frankly, unimaginative debates of the 16th century, the threat of heresy should summon a call for a more robust examination of hermeneutics, or how Scripture should be read. If we fail to articulate how the Bible should be interpreted, our discourse will be reduced to volleying memes of Bible verses at one another on Facebook. For every post that quotes Romans 3:28 in scripty letters there is a snarky commenter that cites James 2:24. The battle for theological truth isn’t won by having more Bible verses in one’s arsenal, but by demonstrating how the component parts of Scripture should convincingly be coordinated with one another.

Paul himself posits an inter-scriptural antithesis between faith and works, citing Habakkuk 2:4 (“the one who is righteous by faith will live”) and Leviticus 18:5 (“the one who does these things will live by them”). To resolve this dispute, Paul employs a faith-works hermeneutic in his reading of Scripture. Both texts are read by Paul in light of the Abraham narrative and the reckoning of righteousness to the believing Abraham, finding the scriptural promise of life through works to be an empty hypothesis. While Leviticus 18:5 is not “of faith” (Gal. 3:12), for Paul it nevertheless retains its status as Scripture.

The interpretive coordination and balancing of texts likewise occurs when deciding ethical matters. So on the question of the ordination of women, for example, one’s position will invariably prioritize the explicitly male qualifications in the pastoral epistles over against the presence of female leaders in the writings of Paul (Phoebe, Junia) and Paul’s apparent relativizing of gender in Galatians 3:28, or vice versa. Appeals to the plain sense of a given passage to justify one’s conclusions often conceal that the same plain sense of other texts is not given equal weight. This stratification of texts is a perfectly legitimate enterprise, but often the advocates for either side fail to acknowledge this complex and arduous hermeneutical process.

If Scripture provides the raw data for our theological constructions, then it is our hermeneutic that attempts to best account for Scriptural data, ascertaining trend lines, discarding outliers, and discovering which data sets are the most relevant. This sorting, ranking, and sifting of Scripture is precisely what Martin Luther’s Law-Gospel hermeneutic attempts to do. Taking his cue from 2 Cor. 3:6, “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life”, Luther prioritizes Paul’s writings for making sense of the entirety of scripture in accordance with the impact it has upon the individual — whether it kills or makes alive. This distinction between Law and Gospel in Paul provides the key to understanding the harmony of scripture, united in God’s salvific purposes. While detractors would take issue with making Paul the key to the whole of Scripture, the order of the canon implicitly does this by placing all of Paul’s writings immediately after the book of Acts. Paul then becomes the chief expositor in the New Testament for the significance of Jesus’ life/death/resurrection.

In its totalizing claims, Luther’s Law-Gospel hermeneutic is, at worst, a reductionist way of reading the diversity of Scripture (though no more reductive than rival hermeneautics like “covenant” or “narrative”). Indeed, Luther himself struggled with how to best apply it to the whole canon. For example, his early introduction to the New Testament functionally demoted the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke to a subordinate status below the more evangelical Gospel of John. Revisiting the subject years later, Luther revived these gospels by way of a distinction between understanding Christ as a gift and Christ as an example.

Even so, the vitality and ingenious utility of the Law-Gospel hermeneutic remains unparalleled. Whether it be through the rapid expansion of Protestantism in the 16th century or even the profound explorations found here on Mockingbird, the good news of a law-gospel hermeneutic uniquely addresses the depths of human failure, loss, and brokenness.

A doctrine of Scripture that holds the Bible to be authoritative is a necessary foundational belief, but its limitations underscore the need to have an equally robust understanding of how Scripture is to be interpreted. The mere citation of Scripture is not sufficient to understanding. Without hermeneutics, expositors of an inerrant Scripture may unwittingly espouse heresy.

This is not to suggest that Scripture is inscrutable or only comprehensible to experts. Nor is it that the diversity of Scripture is meant to validate the diversity of Christian practice and belief. Perhaps, instead, the complexity of Scripture is God’s way of preventing us from subjugating the Bible and making it into our own image. Taking a cue from Luther, if the Word of God both confronts and comforts (killing and making alive), then the double-edged sword of Scripture forces us always to deconstruct our presuppositions and remake us into a people whose confidence lies solely in the saving death of Jesus. In other words, Scripture is not a household pet that is meant to be domesticated by us, but a book whose strangeness remains wild and untamed, always opposing us and our self-assuredness to make us live by faith in God.