problems.

27 Apr

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.

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7 Responses to “problems.”

  1. Jim Fisher April 28, 2012 at 1:45 PM #

    I find it instructive to realize that by the time we read our English Bibles, we are already reading through three or more layers of interpretation by different people. Here is an interesting view of the “women must remain silent in the churches” passage. In one of the oldest documents we have (the Codex Sinaiticus) there is a often-untranslated particle, a single Greek letter (eta), which can mean disagreement with the text which precedes it. It could be that Paul is quoting that passage from the letter he received from the church in order to refute it. It’s like saying, “You say women should remain silent in the churches? Phooey! Who died and made you God?” The “phooey” or “eh? say what?” particle has not been in our translations since the RSV. Since there is no punctuation and no separation between words (no whitespace to speak of) even the choice of the translators to start and stop sentences and paragraphs at specific places is a matter of interpretive choice. Check this out http://gracetracer.wordpress.com/2012/03/31/breakthrough-on-paul-and-misogyny-part-two/ and notice that there IS whitespace surrounding this passage, which could be quite meaningful, especially when we include it with the text which follows it.

    • gracetracer April 29, 2012 at 8:33 AM #

      Thank you for this post and for this summer series. Some of the passages you quoted are easily understood but only within a consistent hermeneutic. Some are hard within any framework but even some of those hardest passages make sense if that principle of interpretation takes into account the story of God as a story, a non-linear narrative which snakes through times and cultures in which we can see God using people to bring redemption to creation and utilizing tools to do that which can be found on the ground, in each existing culture. I wrote something on this recently, not about “rules,” per se, but about the rough places in the story itself. I called it, How Can God Have Blessed Such Evil? http://gracetracer.wordpress.com/2012/04/21/how-can-god-have-blessed-such-evil/. I am looking forward to this discussion. Again, thanks!

  2. the WayWard follower April 28, 2012 at 2:01 PM #

    great find, jim!

  3. Oliver April 29, 2012 at 2:31 PM #

    Hey all, just one or two days ago I also read something interesting about that “women in church” passage. It was in the book “Lost Christianities” by Bart D. Ehrman: “[…] No one doubts that Paul wrote that letter. Even so, there are good reasons for thinking Paul did not write the passage about women being silent in chapter 14. For one thing, just three chapters earlier Paul condoned the practice of women speaking in church. […] It has often been noted that the passage in chapter 14 also appears intrusive in its own literary context: Both before and after his instructions for women to keep silent, Paul is speaking not about women in church but about prophets in church. When the verses on women are removed, the passage flows neatly without a break. […]”

  4. Michael Trower May 2, 2012 at 1:27 PM #

    So, Then after reading all this I noticed there is a specific passage not specified in this discussion. Im sure there are more than this one. I guess my question is what is everyones stand point on what it says in I Corinthians 14:34-35 : “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.” I only ask because that to me seems pretty straight forward and direct on what is expected.

    • the WayWard follower May 3, 2012 at 12:22 AM #

      hope the conversation at crux helped this evening, michael. i’m encouraged by your desire to learn and your willingness to put in the hard work of research! keep searching for truth, and it will be found. jeremiah 29:13

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