Professor Erik Heen on the nature of sin in misuse of the Bible

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Prof. Erik HeenThe seminary’s holder of the John H.P. Reumann Chair in Biblical Studies took up how the Bible may be misapplied during a wide-ranging interview focused on the school’s 150-year history. He has been a leader in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Book of Faith initiative.

“I think it really is pretty easy to misuse the Bible,” Professor Erik Heen said. Noting he is a confessional Lutheran coming from the Augustinian tradition, he said, “I have a healthy respect for the power of sin that can lead to the misuse of the good gifts of God. We need to remember we are fully sinful — not 80 percent sinful, not 75 percent sinful, or two percent sinful. We are 100 percent sinful. We are 100 percent righteous too for the sake of Christ. We become God’s righteousness only because of Christ, who [took on] our sin.

“It becomes a problem if we believe that by picking up the Bible the problem of sin goes away,” he added. “Is it not possible that sin may still be a problem when we are trying to engage a Biblical text? I think there really can be a tendency for many of us to undervalue the problem of sin in Biblical interpretation. To what extent may I become engaged in Biblical interpretation in such a way as that interpretation becomes my own creation?”

Heen made the point that he believes it is easier for sin to take hold of one’s interpretive thinking when one is making “individual deliberations” as opposed to discerning Scripture during group study and discussions “within the body of Christ.” He pointed to the history of social statements made in Lutheran denominational contexts wherein “at great deliberation and cost we make sure the body of Christ is represented fully in the discernment process, including the discernment of Biblical interpretation.” 

Heen explained that the “model of Christ is most helpful in Biblical interpretation. The key is the ultimate love of God as understood in Jesus Christ, how our deliberations reflect that we are one in Christ, each of us striving to serve our neighbor. If, instead, our Bible deliberations are all about little ‘me,’ how I’m saved rather than focusing on the needs of our neighbor, we may want to rethink that approach. A focus on God and the needs of the neighbor is always a key to good Biblical interpretation.”

Heen recounted a variety of ways the neighborly focus has been subjugated as it has been used in the past to oppress others. He said part of the Mt. Airy faculty tradition has been to consider the Bible through the prism of history in helping seminarians to see how Scriptures have been misused.

Examples? “Use of the Bible to legitimate the institution of slavery in the U.S. is a classic example,” he said. “The difficulties gay and lesbian people have been subjected to in North America through use of certain Biblical texts is another example. Women could not partake in full leadership roles in the Lutheran Church in America (predecessor to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) until the 1970s based on misuse of Biblical texts.” He also cited divorce as a hot potato of misuse. “These abuses take Biblical passages out of context. They do not serve our neighbor in need but instead oppress those who are suffering.” 

Heen referenced the thinking of his predecessor, the Rev. Dr. John H.P. Reumann, who expressed key thoughts during the seminary’s 125th anniversary. “If we understand that our Lutheran tradition is based on the content of Christ, then the Gospel of Jesus Christ is at the center of our understanding of the Biblical text,” Heen said. “The question then becomes how does having Christ at the center, that clear center, allow us to apply our interpretation of Scripture to the more obscure, difficult Biblical texts we come across?

“If it is true,” Heen said, “that we believe that Jesus Christ reveals both the love and tender-hearted mercy of God as well as God’s deep concern for our neighbor, we need to ask how the interpretations we make reveal that love and concern.”

The 150th Anniversary website debuts in January.

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