But He Has a Good Heart!

*Posted by Bill Watson. This piece was originally posted at lookslikereign.com.

In Christian circles, it is common to hear of a particular person as having a good heart while lacking deep understanding of the Bible. This is often considered an acceptable failing, so long as the person really does have a good heart. There are many problems with this kind of perception. The following is an excerpt from St. Augustines On Christian Doctrine that highlights one of the most significant dangers in thinking that as long as a Christian learns love from scripture, a correct approach to understanding and interpreting scriptural passages is not essential.

Let me provide a little context first. Up to this point in the book, Augustine has stressed that the ultimate effect of reading scripture correctly is love for God, and as a result of that love, love for ones neighbors. Accordingly, any reading of scripture that does not result in love for God and neighbor represents a failed reading. This is where our passage comes in. Augustine has said that all correct reading of scripture results in love for God, but what about incorrect readings that still result in love for God? In other words, what about readers of scripture that learn to love God despite failing to read scripture properly?

Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought. If, on the other hand, a man draws a meaning from them that may be used for the building up of love, even though he does not happen upon the precise meaning which the author whom he reads intended to express in that place, his error is not pernicious, and he is wholly clear from the charge of deception

But whoever takes another meaning out of Scripture than the writer intended, goes astray, but not through any falsehood in Scripture. Nevertheless, as I was going to say, if his mistaken interpretation tends to build up love, which is the end of the commandment, he goes astray in much the same way as a man who by mistake quits the high road, but yet reaches through the fields the same place to which the road leads. He is to be corrected, however, and to be shown how much better it is not to quit the straight road, lest, if he get into a habit of going astray, he may sometimes take cross roads, or even go in the wrong direction altogether.*

According to Augustine, and I agree with him, we must be careful not to justify bad biblical interpretation by excusing the interpreter based on his or her ability to exhibit love for God and for other people. The reason is that this person, however loving he might be, is constantly at risk of going astray because he has not yet learned to stay within the bounds of a proper understanding of scripture. Being right by mistake in one instance mostoften results in being seriously wrong in another.


*Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Chapter 36.

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