There is an old preachers’ tale of a young man who turned to the Bible for guidance on making decisions. Using the text as a divining rod, he would flip through Scripture and let his finger land on a verse, using the result as a divine insight into how he should decide.
One day while wondering what to do with his life, he flipped his Bible open and pointed to Matthew 27:5. He read, “[Judas] went and hanged himself.” He decided to try again and on the second attempt landed on Luke 10:37, “Go and do likewise.” He tried flipping one more time and arrived at John 13:27, “What you do, do quickly.”
Although we might find the story amusing, most of us Christians have done something similar ourselves. Eventually, though, most of us outgrow the “flip and point” method of guidance. As we mature in our faith we begin to recognize that just because the Bible is the word of God does not make it a sanctified Ouija board that will answer whatever questions we might ask. Unfortunately, we often discard such childish approach only to replace them with more sophisticated, yet equally flawed, hermeneutical methods. Once such approach is what philosopher Roy Clouser calls the encyclopedic assumption:
[The Bible h]aving such an inspired record also carries with it a great temptation. The temptation goes like this: since God’s covenant is inspired and preserved by Him, why not use it as a short cut way of finding out other things we want to know? We have questions about prehistory, biology, geology, astronomy, economics, etc. And these questions are ones there is no way-or no easy way-for us to answer. But suppose there are statements or hints about these matters in Scripture. Wouldn’t these also have to be infallibly true? In fact, even if there are ways for us to investigate questions on nonreligious matters, shouldn’t a believer at least start by canvassing Scripture to see what it says on any given topic?
I call succumbing to this temptation the “encyclopedic assumption.” It results from regarding the Bible as an encyclopedia in which we may look for an answer to any sort of question we may have. The encyclopedic assumption may not go so far as to think that the answer to every question is in Scripture, but it does suppose Scripture to contain answers to all sorts of nonreligious questions. It ignores the Bible’s own central theme and purpose, and instead of trying to ascertain the literal meaning of the text (where “literal” means the intent of the author), it tries to force the text to yield truths about matters which never crossed the minds of its author(s). This temptation has not been resisted successfully in the whole history of biblical interpretation. The Jewish Cabala, and the Talmudic attempts to extend general ethical principles into a vast set of rules for every conceivable circumstance, are examples of this assumption at work. So is the Canon Law of the Church developed throughout the middle ages, and so are the more recent attempts to obtain scientific truth from Scripture.
A particularly egregious example of the encyclopedic assumption as applied to economics comes from David Barton of Wallbuilders. Barton claims that Matthew 20, where we find the famous parable of the workers in the vineyard, presents Jesus’s opposition to government minimum wage laws:
So what you have here is Jesus says, ‘The government doesn’t tell me how much to spend, I get to choose my own wages and, two, if you choose to work for me for that, you have an agreement, we have a contract; and three is if you’ve got greater skill, you can sell it to somebody else for a higher price, you can go down the road.’ That’s all free market stuff, there’s no government regulation of wages; and by the way, Right Wing Watch, that is the minimum wage. Government doesn’t tell you want to pay an employee, you make a contract with that individual for whatever they agree on and what you agree on, and if the don’t like that, they can use the free market to go somewhere else and try to get more. All of that is in Matthew 20. That is a great story of socialism versus free market.
Warren Throckmorton, a professor at Grove City College, asked several people (including me) to respond to Barton’s claim. Here was my response:
Our task as interpreters of parables is to find how the relevant meaning of the story applies in our own context. And while Jesus frequently referred to money and economics in his parables, never is the point of any parable to teach us about monetary or economic policy.
The illustrations used in parables are not meant to be normative, though I do believe they can be instructive. For example, since Jesus would not use a positive example that was based on injustice or evil, we can assume that there is nothing inherently wrong with negotiating with people to pay different wages — even for the same type of labor. However, that does not mean that we must take this illustration as a normative basis for personal ethics, much less as a direct claim about government policy.
Also, the statement in verse 14 — “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?” — has to be read in a broader context. As the Bible makes clear, we don’t have an absolute right to do what we want with our own money (c.f., Mark 12:17), so it can’t mean that the landowner can do anything he wants. What about the broader context? We don’t know what the economic context even is — probably because it was unimportant to Jesus’ point. We don’t know, for instance, if in this parable the denarius was the government required “minimum wage” for a day’s labor.
There are many prudential reasons for opposing the minimum wage. I oppose it myself because I believe there is evidence that it harms, more than helps, many economically vulnerable groups (low-skilled workers, young African American males, non-native English speakers, etc.). But while my motivation for opposing the minimum wage (i.e., a concern for helping the poor) is based on the Bible, there is nothing in Scripture that directly supports my policy preference, much less forbids a government from instituting a minimum wage.
Read Throckmorton’s post to see the other responses. My favorite is from my friend Justin Taylor, who asks, “If we think that Jesus is doling out economics lessons here, why couldn’t we make the case instead that he was a socialist, paying everyone the same wage no matter how long they work?”