At the Gate: The First-Christians Hermeneutic

Sitting at the gate, I look one more time at “the Gospel says” interpretive declaration. Following Jesus, it is not surprising that the first Christians interpreted the Hebrew scriptures (and then, Jesus’ teachings too) as Jesus did. Sadly, this did not last, as the Church became increasingly imperialistic. [1] With its mounting institutionalism, the Church splintered into factions vying for power and control. A major schism occurred in 1054 CE, only to be followed in both the Roman and Orthodox branches with thousands more. With each ensuing split, The Jesus hermeneutic faded in favor of a hermeneutic more given to group-think and doctrine-drivenness. At its worst, being “orthodox” was more important than being Christlike. [2]

Given this departure from the Jesus hermeneutic, it is important to see how the first Christians remained faithful to it, forming the second wave of “the Gospel says” interpretation of Scripture In the rest of the New Testament.

First, the first Christians continued the trajectory toward inclusion. We see this in key texts: Acts 10, Acts 15, Galatians 3:28, and Colossians 3:11. The Jesus hermeneutic is clearly in play here, one which Paul declares to have been in effect at the beginning of creation itself (Colossians 1:15-20). The first Christians enlarged the Jesus hermeneutic to the universal Christ interpretation. [3] Full inclusion was not achieved by the close of the New Testament, but the trajectory for it was set—even though aspects of it (e.g. women and non-European people) were subjugated, and still are.

Second, the first Christians perpetuated the primacy of love. Paul (1 Corinthians 13) and John (1 John 3:13-23 and 4:7—5:3) amplified the two great commandments, making love “the more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31) and enjoining love as the evidence of the Spirit-filled life and the hallmark of community. And as Jesus had done, the first Christians understood that love is an action, with grace being love in operation. [4] The result is Christlikeness, the virtuous life, characterized by the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).

Third, the first Christians continued restorative justice. They expressed it in the ministries of healing and forgiveness (sometimes combining them as Jesus did), with the result that they “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). The metaphor is one of restoration. Sin turned the first creation upside down; when the first Christians turned it upside down the second time, they were actually turning it rightside up! That’s restorative justice—where equality, inclusion, and the common good prevail.. And more, they believed that what God had begun in Jesus would be fulfilled in the cosmic Christ (e.g. 1 Corinthians 15:22, Colossians 1:20, Ephesians 1:9-10)—the entire order (all things in heaven and on earth) will be set rightside up. They called it the new creation, and envisioned it as a new heaven and a new earth. Love wins!

Taken together, the Jesus hermeneutic and the first-Christians hermeneutic create the glasses we wear when reading the Bible. Looking through their lenses, we declare “the Gospel says!”

[1] Scholars are paying more and more attention to the period from the close of the New Testament into the time in and around the Council of Nicea, and the ensuing conciliar era. A substantive study of this era is, ‘After Jesus, Before Christianity,’ by Erin Vearncombe and others.
[2] Sadly, the word “orthodoxy” has been moved out of its original meaning of “what the creeds say” and used to mean “what our group believes.” Justin Holcomb writes about this critical distinction in his book, ‘Know the Creeds and Councils’ (Zondervan, 2014). Orthodoxy is determined by the creeds, not confessions, doctrines, or other statements of faith. The misuse of the word ‘orthodoxy’ is divisive and harmful. Misusing the term “orthodoxy” allows some Christians (in history and today) falsely to allege that those who disagree with are “heretical.” The tribunal/inquisitional spirit is alive and well alive and well among fundamentalist/nationalist Christians in our time.
[3] Richard Rohr has called our attention to this in his book, ‘The Universal Christ,’ as did Matthew Fox before him in ‘The Coming of the Cosmic Christ.’ Both writers describe Christ in relation to the Wisdom tradition in the Hebrew scriptures—the tradition Cynthia Bourgeault highlights in her book, ‘The Wisdom Jesus.’
[4] Thomas Oord is writing these days about the centrality of love. His book, ‘Pluriform Love’ is a good place to begin in reading him.

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 45 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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