i’ve said it before. countless times, in fact :: context and usage determine meaning.
at the crux this past wednesday, we began a new series for the summer entitled exegesis • ἐξήγησις. we’ll be tackling some strange passages in scripture, applying my favorite rule in interpreting the bible (see the context and usage bit above). i anticipate, as we learn how to better read and interpret the scriptures together, that we’ll have some disagreements and lively discussion in our community. the bible is a great book. it’s beautiful, in fact – and i love it a great deal.
but there are problems.
i’ve recently been reading through christian smith’s the bible made impossible || which, by the way, is a great read for anyone who isn’t too uncomfortable asking uncomfortable questions about the bible.
yesterday as i discussed the book with some friends, the following excerpt came up in conversation ::
The contemporary relevance or irrelevance of some biblical passages is clear. The author of 1 Timothy’s specific teaching about eating meat sacrificed to pagan idols, for instance, clearly can be directly relevant only in cultures that make such sacrifices in pagan temples. Likewise, the pastoral command to Timothy to start drinking wine in addition to water (1 Tim. 5:23) pertains to a particular situation of his unclean-water-borne stomach illness, and is not, it would seem, a general command to all Christians to drink wine. However, it is next to impossible to argue successfully that biblical teachings to love and forgive neighbors and enemies without measure pertain only to certain times, situations, or cultures. So, those are the more obvious extremes.
But many other scriptural passages are less clear than this. Take, for instance, the passage about women being silent in church. Is that a direct command to Christians now? Or was that the case of a particular command directed toward a specific situation that is not relevant for women and churches today? Or does it reflect a biblical teaching that is true at a level of general principle (and, if so, which principle?) but that must be applied variously depending on the specific historical and cultural situation? Different Bible readers believe each of these views, whether or not they are consistent in working them out. But let us suppose that one of the latter two views is correct. How might we know that? By what standard or principle could that be determined? And then what are the other implications of that standard if it applied consistently? Nobody seems to know, or at least agree. Yet these questions often matter a great deal.
Consider the broad range of problems this difficulty creates. May God’s people never eat rabbit or pork (Lev. 11:6-7)? May a man never have sex with his wife during her monthly period (Lev. 18:19) or wear clothes woven of two kinds of materials (Lev.19:19)? Should Christians never wear tattoos (Lev. 19:28)? Should those who blaspheme God’s name be stoned to death (Lev. 24:10-24)? Ought Christians to hate those who hate God (Ps. 139:21-22)? Ought believers to praise God with tambourines, cymbals and dancing (Ps. 150:4-5)? Should Christians encourage the suffering and poor to drink beer and wine in order to forget their misery (Prov. 31:6-7)? Should parents punish their children with rods in order to save their souls from death (Prov. 23:13-14)? Does much wisdom really bring much sorrow and more knowledge more grief (Eccles. 1:18)? Will becoming highly righteous and wise destroy us (Eccles. 7:16)? Is everything really meaningless (Eccles. 12:8)? May Christians never swear oaths (Matt. 5:33-37)? Should we never call anyone on earth ‘father’ (Matt. 23:9)? Should Christ’s followers wear sandals when they evangelize but bring no food or money or extra clothes (Mark 6:8-9)? Should Christians be exorcising demons, handling snakes, and drinking deadly poison (Mark 16:15-18)? Are people who divorce their spouses and remarry always committing adultery (Luke 16:18)? Ought Christians to share their material goods in common (Acts 2:44-45)? Ought church leaders to always meet in council to issue definitive decisions on matters in dispute (Acts 14:1-29)? Is homosexuality always a sin unworthy of the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10)? Should unmarried men not look for wives (1 Cor. 7:27) and married men live as if they had no wives (1 Cor. 7:29)? Is it wrong for men to cover their heads (1 Cor. 11:4) or a disgrace of nature for men to wear long hair (1 Cor. 11:14)? Should Christians save and collect money to send to believers in Jerusalem (1 Cor. 16:1-4)? Should Christians definitely sing psalms in church (Col. 3:16)? Must Christians always lead quiet lives in which they work with their hands (1 Thess. 4:11)? If a person will not work, should they not be allowed to eat (2 Thess. 3:10)? Ought all Christian slaves always simply submit to their masters (reminder :: slavery still exists today) (1 Pet. 2:18-21)? Must Christian women not wear braided hair, gold jewelry and fine clothes (1 Tim. 2:9; 1 Pet. 3:3)? ought all Christian men to lift up their hands when they pray (1 Tim. 2:8)? Should churches not provide material help to widows who are younger than sixty years old (1 Tim. 5:9)? Will every believer who lives a godly life in Christ be persecuted (2 Tim. 3:12)? Should the church anoint the sick with oil for their healing (James 5:14-15)? The list of such questions could be extended.
what do we do with such questions? what ‘rules’ do we apply to these passages? do we apply them to other passages as well? why or why not? are we ‘picking and choosing’ not only which verses in the bible we submit to and obey, but the ones that we believe are even relevant to us today? how?
these are some of the questions that we’ll be tackling over the course of the summer – asking questions of ourselves, the scriptures, and the God we believe to be revealed in them. along the way, i’m confident God is big enough to absorb our questions and doubt – and that as a result of interacting honestly with the text, we will find ourselves falling in love with our bibles all over again…perhaps even in a deeper, more beautiful and personal way.