Living with Difficult Texts at YDS

Harold W. Attridge

On several occasions in recent years I have had the pleasure of teaching a very special course at Yale Divinity School entitled Living with Difficult Texts. It has been reserved for M.Div. seniors who are willing to commit themselves to a serious exploration of applied hermeneutics.

Many of those that the students propose are quite predictable. They include texts that have stirred up controversy in various churches in recent times, texts that enjoin women to be silent in church (1 Cor. 14:33–36; 1 Tim. 2:8–3:1) or subordinate to male authority (Cor. 3:18–21; Eph. 5:22–24; 1 Pet. 3:1–6). The roster might include texts that seem to condemn same–sex relations (Rom. 1:25–27; 1 Cor. 6:9) or texts that have seemed to glorify violence (Ps. 137:9; Rev. 18:19–24; 19:15), willing acceptance of slavery (Col. 3:22–25; Eph. 6:5–8; 1 Tim. 6:1; 1 Cor. 7:21–24), or unquestioning obedience to civil authority (Rom .13:1–7). Texts that have demonized the Jews (John 8:44; Rev. 3:9) or could be read as disparaging Jewish tradition (Heb. 7:18–19; 8:13; Rom. 7:7–13; 1 Cor. 15:56) and have thus played a role in the sorry history of Christian anti-Semitism usually appear on the list.

The roster includes texts that have created classical theological or ecclesiological problems, such as the apparent discrepancy between Paul in Romans and Galatians and James on the relationship of “faith” and “works.” Some students propose texts that have been at the center of contemporary exegetical debates, such as the texts in the Pauline corpus that speak of the “faith in/of Jesus Christ” (e.g., Gal. 2:16; Rom. 3:22), texts at the heart of the “new perspective” on Paul. Students also propose texts, like the whole book of Revelation, whose conceptuality and style continue to baffle and challenge many readers, particularly in light of the prominence of dispensational theology in American evangelicalism.

Many of the texts proposed are “difficult” because they make claims or suggest norms that stand in tension with our modern sensibilities and with the conscientious judgment of many Christian communities in recent days. Some issues—e.g., the immorality of slavery or anti-Semitism—have long since been settled, so the difficulty consists in the simple presence of texts whose presuppositions or implications have been clearly rejected by the Christian tradition. Part of the difficulty that such texts raise is at the level of a theology of Scripture. What do we make of a body of “revelation” that has such transparent, and such widely recognized, flaws?

Other texts are difficult because they remain controversial among contemporary readers of Scripture. Here divisions between more “liberal” and more “evangelical” readers surface. It is hardly a surprise that texts involving sexual ethics, which have provoked intense debate among Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, and others, should be on the roster.

In addition to the more or less predictable texts, students have proposed familiar but still opaque texts, such as the parable of the “unjust steward” in Luke 16:1-9. Of course, as soon as students begin to discuss one apparently obscure parable, it often becomes apparent how tricky virtually all of the parables of Jesus can be. (As John Dominic Crossan famously asked,1 does the finder of the treasure in Matt. 13:44 have a right to the treasure, and if not, how does this little vignette function as an image of the reign of God?)

Finally, as difficult texts some students propose passages the meaning of which is not at all in dispute; nor would Christians disagree in principle on the relevance of the texts to their lives of faith. Yet the exhortations to turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39), to sell all and give to the poor (Matt. 29:21; Mark 10:21-22; Luke 18:22-25), not to divorce (Matt. 5:31-32; 19:9; Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18), to love enemies in deed and in truth (Matt. 5:44)—such extravagant, sometimes outrageous, demands have always been “difficult” to preach, teach, and fulfill. Equally challenging are the descriptions of his own ministry in which Jesus is portrayed as calling into question love of parents and family (Matt. 10:34-39; Luke 12:51-53; 14:26-27) or embracing a very severe asceticism (Matt. 12:12). A resolutely radical Jesus remains as challenging and difficult now as he ever was.

As anyone who has had a ministry devoted to expository preaching can probably testify, just about any passage in the New Testament could, with a little reflection, qualify as a “difficult text.”

Intense Discussions

After students have proposed their texts, I select a roster for treatment in the course. Each week all the students prepare a two-page position paper on the text(s) of the week, which they share ahead of the class session. One or two students will be called upon each session to present their paper to the class and then the floor is open for what usually turns out to be an intense discussion.

From time to time I modify the rhetoric of the “position paper” by asking students to consider a pastoral scenario in which they have to deal with the text in some way. They are called upon to preach it; they are asked about it at a picnic, a pot-luck or a cocktail party; they are in a situation of interfaith conversation; they are counseling a couple who come from different religious traditions, and so on.

Students bring to the discussions of these texts various resources from their academic experience at Yale, from their own denominational traditions, and from their own personal experience. Sharing their tools and strategies usually proves illuminating no matter where the students are “coming from.” Most, reflecting their course work at YDS, find it helpful to put the text in question into its historical and literary contexts. That process seldom settles issues, but it exposes the differences in presuppositions between ancients and moderns. It also often leads to a conversation about development within and beyond Scripture about fundamental values and the evolving implications of faith claims. Historical and contextual considerations can be useful, especially in discussing issues of sexuality, social institutions such as slavery, or attitudes toward women in roles of leadership. But history, either in the sense of the historical context of the original scriptural witness or the history of its appropriation, seldom resolves an issue.

Students will often bring to the table a framework for theological reflection, such as the “quadrilateral” of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Conversations then develop about how each of those factors should be brought to bear on a particular issue raised by the difficult texts. There are some issues on which there is ready consensus about the moral or practical matter involved. No student in any version of this course, for instance, has ever argued that slaves should be submissive to their masters. There remain questions of what to make of a revelatory text that supports such a notion, and there opinions will differ rather dramatically, reflecting different denominational and personal assessments of where the center of gravity in religious authority lies. Some are content with a rather “low” view of Scripture, a testimony of the struggles and the beliefs of our forebears in this religious tradition, instructive, yes, but hardly binding. For others, it is vital to find ways in which Scripture functions as the Word of God in today’s world.

Whatever their theology of revelation or their notions of inspiration, most students in this class develop a more thoughtful and articulate view of the significance of Scripture for their ministry, a sense of its power and potential as well as a sense of its limitations. Some are attracted to a model that I have borrowed from my colleague Dale Martin in Religious Studies, of Scripture as a kind of “cathedral” that one enters and lives in, “reading” it in different ways, being formed and inspired by it as a community of worshippers. Some have found helpful my own essay in an earlier issue of this journal2 about the ways we can and cannot “trust the Bible,” not as a textbook of science, history, or even ethics but as a story or collection of stories, a compendium of debates around issues crucial to human life, and as a poetic hymnal, articulating basic human fears, aspirations, and longings. The telling of those tales, the arguments about the presence or absence of God, and the expression of human hopes and fears have shaped and will continue to shape communities of profound conviction, in service to a fractured world.

One fruitful result that emerges from the many conversations in a course on difficult texts is this: students reflect on their experiences as readers of Scripture in communities of faith, and in reflecting on those experiences they come to a deeper appreciation of the ways in which Scripture, for all its difficulties, takes on its layers of meaning. Whatever their problems, the texts gather meaning in such communities of faithful and faith-seeking readers, communities like the classes that have met at YDS.


1. John Dominic Crossan, Finding is the First Act (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978).

2. “Can We Trust the Bible?” Reflections (Spring 2005).

Harold W. Attridge is dean of Yale Divinity School and Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament.