What we Christians need is salutary force. Or at least, that is what I think our interpretations of Scripture need. Salutary means for something to be of benefit. The theologian Karl Barth believed in salutary of doctrine. For example, the doctrine of original sin, he thought, should be used to lead people to Jesus – and for no other purpose, such as driving them to despair. Now I don’t know that our interpretations should lead people directly to Jesus, necessarily. That is not what I’m saying. But I think they should have salutary impact. If we are Christians, our interpretations of Scripture should heal. And, all else being equal, we should prefer those interpretations of Scripture which do heal, which have salutary force.
This is not just a kind idea or a gentle thought. For Christians, those interpretations of Scripture which have salutary force are actually better interpretations. Now precisely why this is so will take a great deal of explanation, and that will be the purpose of these essays. But I am not the only person to have thought this. There is currently a resurgence in the therapeutic use of Scripture, which in the old days people just would have called biblical pastoral care. But what is of interest to me is that all of this research tends to do one of three things.
First, the research focuses on what we might call the authoritative contents of Scripture. The Bible offers wisdom about how to live that people could not get elsewhere. Second, the research may also focuses on the empathetic, linguistic form of Scripture. The Bible was written for us as human beings. And it comes to us in particular ways, though the language of poetry, narrative, letter, and parable, and how we read or hear all of these affects our cognition, empathy, and understanding.
Finally, the research may combine Biblical form and content working together to foster human transformation. The Bible was written for human beings seeking right relationship with God, and – as the apostle Paul was quite clear – this project requires wholesale change, the new birth of spiritual, mature human beings.
Now I myself agree with this last focus. But I do not want in these essays to eschew any of the research I’ve encountered, whether psychological, linguistic, or theological. The purpose of the Bible is obviously going to employ both its form and content. So these essays will focus on the themes of authority, empathy, and transformation in the Bible. And hopefully in the end we will all have a better sense of why an interpretation which follows the salutary content, form and purpose of the Bible is actually going to be superior to those that do not.
Perhaps I should conclude with two visions of what such interpretation might look like. The first of them is quite old. It comes from Augustine, one of the church fathers. He says that “so our medicine, Wisdom, was by His assumption of humanity adapted to our wounds, curing some of them by their opposites, some of them by their likes.” So here we have a therapeutic relationship between affinity and opposition—between kingship and kinship, as the ancients might have said, or through authority and empathy, as we might say today. In the Bible that which commands us as human also relates to us as kin.
The second image actually comes from contemporary psychological therapy. And what is fascinating about modern therapy is that it comes in very many different forms, which nearly all have about the same rate of success in helping clients, no matter what reason or school of thinking lies behind them. Now the scholar Robert C. Roberts has outlined what almost all such therapies have in common: the therapist is considered an expert, the client trusts, the client makes an effort to confront or change the problem, and the therapists recommends altered behavior while conveying a sense of empathy.
Do you see how this might happen when Christians read Scripture? We trust the text as authority (content) and empathize with the people Scripture imagines (form). In doing so, we come to a new understanding that allows us, through the power of Christ, to “live into” the reality that Scripture imagines (transformation). This is the face of salutary force. Holistic, personal growth through transformation is the healing which salutary force should indicate.