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How St. Augustine’s hermeneutic of love brought me to the PC(USA)

PC(USA) pastor Aaron Neff chooses to be Presbyterian because he believes in Scripture and, above all else, love. While no denomination is perfect, he has faith in this one, despite any mistakes we make.

Photo from First Presbyterian Church in Hutchinson, Kansas.

“Why have you chosen to be in the PC(USA)?” I get this question from time to time. Ultimately, my answer to this question is this: I’m a Christian because I believe in the resurrected Jesus, and it has been my pursuit of following Jesus over my life that has led me to the PC(USA). I believe Christ’s literal death and resurrection says something incredibly important about him, something that I believe also makes significant claims about my own life. If I didn’t believe Jesus had literally rose from the dead, I’d probably still think Jesus was an interesting historical person — but no more interesting than any other ethical thinker from history and certainly not deserving of organizing my whole life around.

I was raised in a congregation from the Wesleyan tradition. However, my childhood pastor went on later to join the Reformed Baptist Church, and I would now describe the “religious culture” of my upbringing as being fundamentalist. From early on in my life, I thought the Bible was really important and eventually came to love it. I still do. It was because I loved the Bible that I went to a Christian college to major in biblical languages and then went on to a Christian graduate school to earn another degree in biblical exegesis. However, the more I studied the Bible, the less I felt able to grasp it. Growing up, I had been taught to assume that there was one “God-ordained” meaning in every text of Scripture. The Bible is inspired, after all. Yet the more I studied the Bible, the more I realized that such a goal isn’t possible. It turns out – I discovered – the Bible doesn’t work that way.

I bounced around between different Christian traditions and denominations as I was trying to find my way. All I wanted was to find Jesus. But the Bible – the book that I believed was supposed to help me find Jesus – had become an enigma to me. I could read it in its original languages. I could explain the content of the Bible historically and interpret it through the lens of its ancient cultural origins. But I was at a total loss for how to use the Bible to help me (let alone anyone else) find Jesus to follow him.

I eventually discovered what Augustine of Hippo wrote about how to interpret the Bible, a perspective that is sometimes called the “hermeneutic of love.” Nearly 1700 years ago, the ancient African bishop wrote a treatise called On Christian Doctrine in which he reflected on what Jesus taught when he said that all of the Law and the Prophets hang on the two commands to love God and love your neighbor (Matthew 22:34-40). Augustine extrapolated from Jesus’ words and concluded, “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.” In other words, if our interpretation of the Bible doesn’t lead us to love God more or love our neighbor more, then we’re doing it wrong.

This new-found revelation felt authoritative (Jesus endorsed it!), grounded in tradition (1700 years at that!), and useful for Christian formation. It was a game-changer for me! The problem I encountered, however, was that not many of the churches I had been associating with welcomed a view of Scripture that said: love is the goal. I no longer felt welcome in those churches and so I went out looking for a church that both took the Bible seriously (as I did) and wanted to use it to help people follow Jesus and grow in love. That’s when I found the PC(USA).

In the PC(USA), I feel a freedom to continue to highly value Scripture in my pursuit of Christ (we are, after all, a people of the Word) and a freedom to make love the goal above all else. Here’s the thing about Christian freedom that I don’t think my former denominational associations fully grasped: having the freedom to pursue God’s will for our lives as revealed in Jesus also means we must be free to get it wrong sometimes (Galatians 5:1). Whether I am interpreting Scripture, pastoring my congregation or determining my responsibility to my neighbor, I get it right sometimes — but I also get it wrong sometimes. As a denomination, the PC(USA) gets it wrong sometimes — let’s be honest! But as long as we highly value Scripture and use it in our pursuit of Christ’s love, we’ll continue to get it right when it matters most. That’s why I choose to be in the PC(USA).