. . . The person who starts down the path of reading the books of the Bible on their own terms soon runs into some interesting issues he or she may not have anticipated. For example, most of us who are Christians read and value the Bible because we believe it to be God’s word, God’s word to us today. We thus eagerly read the Bible to hear God’s living voice, giving us the answers to our life’s questions. Perhaps we take a course in Bible study.
Ironically, this drive of ours to listen to the Bible and to hear what it has to say may lead us directly into a conundrum. We are reading, say, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. We notice that this chap named Paul is writing it. Perhaps we think for a moment. Now who was this Paul and when did he live? The answer to the question is not particularly controversial. He lived some two thousand years ago. So God is speaking to me through the words of a man who has been dead for some time now.
But wait. This letter does not say it was written to me. Indeed, it quite plainly says it was written to a group of people who lived in a place called Corinth. And I have assumed it is a letter. This would seem a fairly good suggestion, since this Paul chap seems to be responding to a letter himself (1 Cor. 7:1). Again, where was this Corinth place? The answer to the question is not particularly controversial. It was a fairly large ancient city in Greece, situated in the Mediterranean Sea.
The more I pursue the original location of this letter in time and space, the more distance I may feel between myself and this ancient letter. I will discover that the meaning of actions in one culture may very easily differ from the meaning of actions in another. When Paul wrote the Corinthians, Romans, Thessalonians, and so forth with behavioral instructions, the meaning of those actions surely had much to do with those contexts such that even if I were to mimic the actions, I would not be doing the same thing.
An amusing example is the old Levitical instruction not to boil the kid in the milk of the mother goat (Exod. 34:26; Deut. 14:21). Even to this day in Israel, you cannot eat milk and meat in the same meal or serve it under the same roof because of the longstanding Jewish application of this verse. The reason for the original prohibition is not entirely clear, although it has often been suggested that it had something to do with the religion of the Canaanites who surrounded Israel. What it likely was not about, is some arbitrary and inexplicable desire on God’s part to keep a person from drinking milk with eggs at breakfast.
Whenever we have this sort of puzzled reaction to the Bible, we are very likely reading stories or instruction whose most direct meaning is largely locked away in its ancient context. What? A woman should have authority on her head because of the angels (1 Cor. 11:10)? What does that mean? What? Jacob put speckled rods in front of sheep having sex so they would have spotted offspring (Gen. 30:37-43)? What does that mean? What? Women will be saved from the transgression of Eve through childbearing if they live in continued faith, love, and holiness (1 Tim. 2:15)? What does that mean?
Most Christian readers never pursue the contextual reading of the Bible far enough to have a crisis. [Emphasis added.] . . .
I would add that most Western Christians have not been immersed enough into another cultures to “get” the importance and implications of different cultural contexts.
. . . One of the things that distinguishes one Protestant group from another is the specific "glue" used to connect the story pieces to each other.
But for some, the deeper exploration of reading the books of the Bible on their own terms begins to pull against this unified story. Indeed, it is one reason seminarians sometimes find the Bible begin to lose some of its living quality for them, which ironically was one of the reasons they went to seminary in the first place. . .
. . . Learning to read the books of the Bible in context is not something to try to avoid, although this has been the initial reaction of many–either to fight context or flee it. Twentieth century fundamentalism and, to a lesser extent, evangelicalism, tried to make the most likely original meanings of the books of the Bible go away when they seemed to come into conflict with reading the Bible as Christian Scripture. . .
. . . But the "liberal" conclusion was wrong as well. The liberal lost faith in the possibility that the Bible might present a unified story and that this story might be the Christian story. This person may at times have understood better what it means to read the individual books of the Bible in context, indeed, may in some cases have been more "honest" with the evidence in his or her interpretations. But the unfortunate consequence was that the meaning of the Bible’s books ended up locked up forever in the ancient near east or in the Mediterranean world. The meaning of each biblical text became so particular, so foreign to our world, that it became irrelevant, certainly not God’s living word for us today.
The way forward, however, was neither to deny the insights of reading in context (as the fundamentalists) nor to consider the unity of Scripture no longer viable (the liberals). The way forward . . .
. . . is to read Schenk’s entire post. 😉