In his Lectures on Ethics, Immanuel Kant proposed that there are two methods by which people measure themselves morally: (1) comparing themselves with perfection and (2) comparing themselves with others. For those who do the latter, he observed that when one does not measure up to someone else, one can bridge the gap by striving to attain his/her good qualities or seeking to depreciate his/her good qualities. The latter is the easier course, Kant noted, which is why so many take it. And this, he says, is the vice of jealousy.
I tend to agree with Kant here. None of us like to see our moral faults and shortcomings, which is why we’re all inclined to compare ourselves to others rather than to a standard of moral perfection. To believe in the authority of Scripture, therefore, is to defy that natural tendency and opt to assess oneself according to the standard of absolute perfection. This is, of course, as humbling as it is motivating and inspiring.
Yet, although this commitment to the authority of Scripture enables one to overcome the pitfall noted by Kant, it is no guarantee that we won’t “cheat” in the game of moral assessment. For there is another way to lower the moral standard even while consulting Scripture, and that is by interpreting Scripture in a way which favors oneself, whether in terms of one’s life choices, desires, or preferences. This is a temptation we all face, and it is especially challenging because this form of interpretive cheating is almost always unconsciously done, perhaps as a form of self-deception.
So how does one guard oneself against this pitfall of self-favoring misinterpretation of Scripture? Obviously, we need to practice sound biblical hermeneutics—interpreting Scripture as responsibly as we can, abiding by sound interpretive principles. We also need to be prayerful, honestly asking God to show us our faults and to use his Word to convict us of sin in our lives. But we also need the guidance of the church—fellow Christians, both contemporary and historical.
Consulting church history for what the greatest Christian minds have said on critical issues of our time is something that is often overlooked these days, because ours is such an historically myopic culture. But it is precisely for this reason that we must be careful to look to our theological forbears for guidance. Their insights—especially when there is consensus or even uniform opinion among orthodox biblical scholars and theologians throughout history—might give us the best chance at ensuring that we are not misled by our own personal desires and preferences (not to mention popular culture) when interpreting Scripture. They provide us with something far more objective than our own exegetical skills as we strive not to “cheat” in our moral self-assessments.