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Did Jesus “Do What the Bible Says”? Some thoughts on Jesus, Biblical Formalism, and Problem of Indeterminacy

Tomorrow morning, our Sunday School class at SPUMC is going to talk about a Sabbath healing story. This particular story is located in John 9, but certain elements of this story are present throughout the gospels.

As I have been working through this text during the last few days, I have been noticing a parallel between the disputes that are at play in the Sabbath healing stories, and some rather foundational questions – very similar in nature – that have been playing out in legal philosophy during the last few decades. I have also been thinking about what that means in terms of our approach to “following” the Bible.

The recurring theme in most of the Sabbath healing stories is this: Jesus heals someone on the Sabbath, which action – in turn – draws sharp criticism from the religious leaders who observe it, since Exodus 20:10 forbids people from any form of “work” on the Sabbath. Most of these texts are dripping with irony: the leaders’ criticism – directed at what ought to be recognized as an astounding sign of Jesus’ divine authority – seems narrow-minded and, as John 9 emphasizes in particular, “blind” to the reality of what is happing in front of their own eyes.

One of the things that intrigues me about these texts, however, is that neither Jesus nor the authors of the texts seem to have any interest in denying that Jesus is, in fact, doing “work.” To the contrary, Jesus often characterizes his actions in healing people as work. Similarly, in responding to his critics, he usually points out how the critics themselves will sometimes find the Sabbath law to be inapplicable in a particular circumstance, thereby justifying their own “work” on the Sabbath. In other words, Jesus is admitting that he is acting inconsistently with the text of the Sabbath law, but he is also nevertheless suggesting that he is in compliance with the law itself.

The disagreement between Jesus and his critics is what modern legal philosophers would characterize as a conflict between purposive and formalist approaches to law. Or, in slightly cruder but more accessible terms, it is a conflict between “spirit” and “letter” of law.

One of the most perplexing problems for jurists (and, I expect, theologians) is the problem of indeterminacy. That is, what does one do in a situation where a stated rule of law is obviously inapplicable to a particular circumstance? HLA Hart, for example, believed that – because language is “open textured” – it can never clearly and completely address every unforeseen circumstance. Thus, the law will be indeterminate. A legislature can say, for example, that no vehicles should be in a public park. However, eventually, a question may arise about roller skates or toy cars, or three and four-wheeled bicycles, and a judge will have to decide whether those various items count as “vehicles.” Other philosophers, such as Lon Fuller, even go so far as to say that judges should look the particularities of individual cases and simply ignore the plain text of the law where it seems inconsistent with its intent.

One of the more famous examples of the  “purposive” approach is S v. Jordan, a case that was decided in South Africa’s Constitutional Court in 2002. In that case, a group of prostitutes objected to a law banning prostitution on the grounds that it violated the South African constitution’s guarantee to a right of privacy. The court had previously recognized that sexual activity was protected under the terms of this provision. However, the Court rejected the argument that, in this instance, sexual activity was private, on “purposive” grounds – it said that sexual “privacy” was appropriate only to allow people to “establish and nurture” relationships. Because such relationships were not being formed in the context of prostitution, the court concluded, there was no right of privacy to protect in this circumstance.

But, like Jesus, advocates of purposive law – such as Fuller – are not without their critics. How can we know what a legislature is thinking when they make a law? they ask, and furthermore, how are people supposed to predict what judges will decide if they could ignore the text of the law based on their own whimsical notions of the “meaning” behind the law? Such critics, known as “formalists” because of their insistence that judges stick to the form of the law itself, make a number of arguments that I think are quite compelling in the context of civil law.

So here is the conflict between Jesus and his critics: the critics, somewhat hypocritically, take the formalist position, insisting that “no work on the Sabbath” means “no work on the Sabbath.” And Jesus seems to take the opposite position – going so far as to say that the text of the Sabbath law can be ignored when it seems inconsistent with the purpose of the Sabbath law.

Jesus, in other words, is saying that you can’t approach the Mosaic law (the “Bible” of his day) from a formalistic perspective. The law of Moses, though divine in origin, is – nevertheless – subject to the same problems of open texturedness and indeterminacy as more modern laws against vehicles in parks and sex trafficking, and therefore must be applied (or not applied) in light of different circumstances.

These Sabbath healing stories, it seems to me, ought to have a profound impact on the way we go about reading and responding to the Bible. In short, I do not think that the Bible is a step-by-step instruction manual on how to go about living our life, but – even if it is – it is simply not enough to say that “because the Bible says to do (or not do) x, we must therefore do (or not do) x in every situation.”  Some level of interpretation and discernment that transcends the text itself is always necessary.

I realize that abandoning a formalistic approach to the Bible is disturbing to people. But I am not, of course, the only one who is saying this. Christian Smith is making a similar argument, for example, in The Bible Made Impossible. I am also not saying that there is some easy alternative to Biblical formalism that will resolve the issue. There isn’t. However, I do think, as Smith does, that a strong Christology (or belief in the nature and authority of Jesus)  is a good place to start. I also think that it is helpful to guide our interpretations of particular, narrow texts in accordance with the broader, more sweeping theological themes of scripture, but that issue will have to wait for another post.


  1. Steve Allison's Gravatar Steve Allison
    March 15, 2012    

    My sophomore year at Harding I had a class under Andy T. Ritchie called, I think, Life of Christ. We went through the book of Matthew in detail. We read closely the Sermon on the Mount and from that point on I have been a purposive rather than formalist interpreter of the Bible. This in contradistinction to our conservative Reformation and Restoration heritage. How can anyone reading Jesus’ approach in Matt 5-7 come to any other conclusion? Ok I’ll answer my question, people are creative and can reason to any conclusion with confidence when their perceived identity is at stake, myself included. Anyway, it nonetheless seems to me the best way to follow the example of what Jesus said and did is to use the purposive approach.

    So I guess the “strict constructionist” approach to interpreting the U. S. Constitution is formalist?

    I linked your post to my blog:

  2. March 18, 2012    

    ¬†Thanks for the comments, Steve. I think you are right: there is a potential problem in being more purposive in the way we read the Bible, because we will only see what we want to. But I’ve never noticed that to be a problem for the formalists, either. They seem to be pretty good at picking the stuff they want, and conveniently ignoring other things that are equally direct.

    Yes, the strict constructionist/constitutional scholars do fancy themselves as formalists, but they are not so much formalists as they pretend. You can’t be. The Constitution was written before mass media, campaign finance law, and globalism. Much of the plain wording simply won’t apply unless you step back and look at more global principles that are behind the document… and even then I’m skeptical even of claims that purposes directed complex, twenty-first century issues can somehow be discerened from the constitution.

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