Scripture, Conflict, and a New Theological Humanism

William Schweiker

Though painful for some and baffling for others, history plainly shows Christians read the Bible in different ways.

Some see it as a book of rules; others cleave to the story of redemption. Many turn to Scripture for comfort and others see it as a text about the origin and end of the world. Scripture itself designates how it can and ought to be read. The reader is told to inscribe the law on one’s heart, for instance. In 2 Tim, 3:16-17 we read: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” Given the myriad approaches to reading Scripture, it is no surprise that there is heated debate about the proper use of the Bible for orienting Christian life.

The question of how to read Scripture is pressing not only for Christians. Every religion with a tradition of scriptural commentary is struggling with how to read sacred texts in an age of colliding faiths and worldviews. In these reflections, I will explore the relation between a new version of Christian humanism, what I call theological humanism drawn from Christian sources, and how the Bible needs to be read in this global era.1 I hope to persuade readers to adopt a specific way of living the Christian faith in our wild, dangerous, and exciting times.

The Long Reach of Christian Humanism

One defining feature of our age is the conflict between broadly humanistic visions of life and heightened religious fervor. For some people “humanism” is antireligious. (Admittedly, it is in some, but not all, cases.) Fundamentalists in most religions attack the supposed relativism and nihilism of Western secular humanism. Conversely, many humanists champion the advance of science and democracy but cannot imagine looking to sacred texts for insight into the meaning and purpose of human life. They find religion a source of ignorance and violence that drives people to fear heavenly illusions, demons, and gods. (It is in some, but not all, cases.) And there are those who castigate both humanism and religious convictions as naive, anthropocentric, and dangerous. (Again, they are in some, but not all, cases.) Among Christians, the connection between the Bible and humanism is contested ground.

However, with a little historical reflection things appear more complicated than current opinion seems willing to admit.2 Christian humanists traditionally insisted that the core of the Christian witness is God’s gracious condescension to our condition, most radically in Christ’s incarnation but also through Scripture so that the gospel could be known in human ways. Nothing human is scorned by the God of Christian faith. Little wonder, then, that with the flowering of Christian humanism during the Reformations and Renaissance, thinkers like Erasmus and Thomas More but also Protestants like Melancthon sought to wed classical learning with a return to Scripture. Erasmus no less than Luther saw in the Scriptures the path to the simplicity of the gospel and what it means to live freed from encrusted doctrines and ecclesial laws.

The interest among Christian humanists in history, languages, and the moral life naturally flowed into a renewed appreciation for the place of Scripture in the Christian life. There were differences, of course. Erasmus remained in the Roman Catholic Church and drew on the allegorical method in his reading of the Bible. Luther and Calvin demanded reform and insisted on what they called the literal meaning of the text. Some spiritualists sought mystical ways of knowing God. The point remains, however: the conjunction of humanism and Scripture is a historical fact and continues even today.3

While acknowledging the importance of doctrine, Christian humanists understand the core of faith practically, more a matter of life than dogma. The proper response to God’s love is a life of love rather than assent to dogmatic formulas. But they recognized there is something grand, mysterious, and also dangerous and flawed in human freedom. And on freedom Erasmus and Luther split. Erasmus asked: without freedom how can one struggle to live by the gospel? Luther thought that human freedom was a burden too great to bear. The deeper point, granting this difference, is that human freedom is not self-orienting; human beings need guidance in how to orient their lives. Where to look? The church? Dogma? Priests, popes, and pastors? For the Christian humanist one looks to Christ and Scripture in which God’s word takes human form.

So, at the core of Christian humanism is a question: how ought we to orient our lives freely through love? Should we love only our self, seek the increase of our self-love, as many thinkers, ancient and modern, have argued? Maybe we should direct our lives solely by the love of the Good, as Plato and some contemporary thinkers hold. Perhaps the love of the other (as postmodern thinkers put it) or the neighbor (as traditional Christians say) should orient life. Maybe we are to reverence all life or the system of nature or being itself. Though love is self-evidently good, it is not self-orienting. We have to ask whom we should love and how we should love.

Classical Christian humanists answered this question by turning to the two great commands: love God with one’s whole heart, mind, and soul, and love one’s neighbor as oneself. The second command was further elaborated in terms of the love of enemy, the most radical love that Jesus lived. The commands have a specific relation. The love of God is total: love God with the whole of one’s heart, mind, and soul. The love of others is reciprocal—to love others as oneself—and therefore utterly different from the love of God.

A Practical Theology

The double love command provided a way, practically speaking, to orient human life, a norm that is incarnate in Christ and elaborated throughout Scripture. One interprets Scripture, then, in order to orient life around these two loves, so that love of God anchors the love of neighbor. Erasmus even wrote that, “The precepts of philosophers are innumerable, and the commandments of Moses and of kings are many; but [Christ] said, ‘My precept is but one: that is that you love one another.’”4

What is the purpose of a life of love? Classical Christian humanists thought the purpose of love was peace. A life directed by the double love command is meant to stop the warring madness in the human soul, between people, and between human beings and the living God. One thereby interprets Scripture under the norm of the double love command but for the sake of this peace. The interpretation is humanistic because it arises out of God’s condescension to human flesh (Christ) and language (Scripture) for the sake of peace. It does not scorn human aspiration or deny the distinctive character of humans as creatures who bear the joy and burden of responsibility. The outlook is humanistic also because of its practical, rather than dogmatic, orientation and concern for the whole realm of human meaning and worldly existence.

This outlook offers a distinctive account of Christian faith and also an agenda for interpreting Scripture. Yet there are problems with the Christian humanist outlook that have become clear in our age. This is largely because “humanism” in the West arose in pre-modern societies and then spread within the early modern world. Early Christian humanists lived in a society unified by the church despite the conflicts of Reformation. They saw reality divided between the church and the world, described from God’s perspective as revealed in Scripture; love of God has priority in all human loves. Early modern humanists did not assume the domination of the church, but they did endorse, as Enlightenment thinkers held, the unity of the human race. They did not grapple deeply with human diversity.

In our global situation today one can neither assume the authority of the church, although some conservatives seek it, nor the unity of the human race, although some rationalists proclaim it. What then is the meaning of a humanistic outlook within religious communities?5 We need, I think, a critical revision of Christian humanism for global times, one that ensures the freedom to inhabit faith traditions in ways that resist authoritarianism and ignorance that pit people against one another.

Given the spread of differentiated societies, it is no longer plausible to believe or to insist that any faith or religious institution provide the coherence of the social order. Though there are people in every tradition who seek a theocracy or the dominance of their religious outlook, that agenda leads to tyranny and conflict. In the name of peace, then, Christians must reread their texts in nontheocratic ways. And this means reinterpreting how we understand the “lordship” of Christ. I am, obviously, a Christian theological humanist, but in our situation I must reinterpret my tradition in ways that lead to peace even when that means dethroning the church’s social power. No nation, not America or any other, is or ought to be a “Christian nation,” both because this violates the differentiation of the social order but also because it leads to violence and thus violates the great commands. By the same token, the church should not try to rule science or the economy in ways that threaten knowledge or human creativity. I pray that humanists in other religious traditions will do the same work of reinterpretation and engage in the theological humanist task.

Humanizing Faith in Wartime

In a time when peoples increasingly interact, theological humanism drawn from Christian sources must rethink the two great commands in ways intimated by Erasmus. The love of God cannot be true if the neighbor, even the enemy, is not loved. Love of neighbor, we might say, is the sign of a proper love of God. Living by the second command is a lens through which to understand the first. Are there good reasons for this move? Consider the scriptural warrants. Jesus taught that the Sabbath was made for humans and not human beings for the Sabbath. In the letters of John the claim is made that anyone who hates the neighbor and claims to love God is a liar. Recall the prophetic denunciations of cultic purity when it is used to trammel the poor, the weak, and the outcast. Theological humanism is rooted in the insight that the lives of others utter a claim, a demand, to respect and enhance their integrity. It is expressed in the Christian Bible through the two great commands. But now we must read Scripture from the vantage point of responsibility for and with others; one must work to humanize faith in a world at war.

Finally, it is important to remember the richness of the English word “humanity.” “The root word is, quite literally, humble (humilis), from the Latin humus, earth or ground; hence homo, earth-being, and humanus, earthly, human.”6 The Bible depicts the creation of human beings from the dust of the earth; many myths and stories tell that the deepest failure of human beings is the prideful assertion of power beyond our finite capacities. In scriptural terms, human beings are dust that breathes—breathing and longing for peace, for meaning, and for what is sacred and true. We are creatures “in between” dust and breath, finitude and infinite longing.

A theological humanist views her or his religious tradition—and all traditions—with a double vision. One is mindful of human dust—the weakness, fallibility, fault, and the hope of finite existence. One says “yes” to this life in its pain and hope. A Christian theological humanist does so because, again, God does not scorn the human lot. Yet as mere dust, humility and not pride should rule our lives; the affirmation of life, not domination, should be the rule of social existence. The theological humanist also insists that human dust breathes: the human spirit seeks meaning and freedom in forms of culture and this quest reaches out to the living God. Any form of social existence, any ideology or faith, that denies the transcendent reach of existence narrows human reality. If one is a humanist in the awareness of our dust, one is also a theological humanist aware of the reach of human aspiration. One reads Scripture to glean the mixing of dust and breath in human existence. One challenges ideologies that deny our fallibility or suppress the spirit.

Theological humanism among Christians continues the venerable legacy of Christian humanism while acknowledging new global realities. The task of reading Scripture is to isolate those points where revision is needed and to which we are now called for the sake of the integrity of life. It is also to discover a word spoken to us, a word of divine grace and demand. That word, found in all too human form, is a hope of peace within a mortal, whirling world.


1. See William Schweiker, Theological Ethics and Global Dynamics: In the Time of Many Worlds (Oxford,
UK: Blackwell, 2004), and David E. Klemm and W. Schweiker, Religion and the Human Future: An Essay on Theological Humanism (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008).

2. R. William Franklin and Joseph M. Shaw, The Case for Christian Humanism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1991).

3. John W. de Gruchy, Confessions of a Christian Humanist (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 2006).

4. Erasmus, “The Complaint of Peace” in The Essential Erasmus, trans. and ed. by J. P. Dolan (New York: Meridian, 1983), 184.

5. See Humanity Before God: Contemporary Faces of Jewish, Christian and Islamic Ethics, ed. W. Schweiker, M. Johnson, and K. Jung (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 2006).

6. Tony Davies, Humanism (Routledge: 1996), 125.

William Schweiker is Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service. Professor of Theological Ethics and director of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago. An ordained minister in the United Methodist Church, he is the author of Religion and the Human Future: An Essay in Theological Humanism (Wiley-Blackwell, 2008), and other books.