Category Archives: Biblical interpretation

Experience and Scripture

I’ve been reminded again about the struggles between Scripture and our experience. Today we see a tension between two major schools of thought: one which interprets Scripture based on human experience, and one which interprets human experience through the lens of Scripture. There are many variations on these themes, but that’s the basic tension.

I remember experiencing this tension when I was in school at Abilene Christian University. At that time, there were approximately 150 students from Thailand who were studying at ACU. They were almost all, if not all, Buddhists. Many were good people, morally sound and ethically strict. They cared about the poor and the suffering. They were fun people; I came to form some very special friendships.

For many of us, our relationships with these students presented a minor challenge to our theology. Were we willing to say that these wonderful people were lost without Jesus Christ? Many of them seemed to show more of the fruit of the Spirit than a lot of the Christians. Could we say that they needed something more than the faith they had?

This challenge has played out many times in many ways throughout the world. Many Christians have responded to this challenge by embracing some form of universalism or religious relativism. The result has been a church that de-emphasizes evangelism. Most of our people would rather build a house or dig a water well than talk to someone about Jesus.

The same struggle comes up in discussions about gender roles. It’s the rare person who begins with the Bible and works out to decide that traditional views need to be challenged. Most look at talented women they know, examine changing views in society about men and women, and then find a way to make Scripture line up with their experience.

Homosexuality and gender identity also bring this tension to a head. When gays and transgender people were mocked and ridiculed, it was easy for the church to reject them. As society has changed, the church is facing new realities. More LGBQT people want to participate fully in church without changing their lifestyle. They are loving, caring, spiritual people. How does the church say to them that there is only heterosexuality or celibacy?

So we face the struggle again and again. To value experience over Scripture is to be applauded by society, celebrated as open-minded and accepting. In his wonderful article “Why Pushing Right is Harder than Pushing Left,” Andrew Wilson explores these ideas and says:

So the things that make me and my church stand out are now the areas where we’re conservative: a high view of the gathered church, biblical authority, an orthodox view of hell, Reformed soteriology, complementarianism, and things like that. And for some reason, pushing right on these things doesn’t feel anything like as exhilarating as pushing left on the other things. It doesn’t draw the same whoops from the crowd, nor the same admiration for being courageous. (In fact, when I get called courageous at all, it’s usually for pushing left on something that most people approve of, even though this requires much less real courage than pushing right. It may just be me, but I think it requires far more bravery to say the things Al Mohler says than the things Brian McLaren says, even though the latter is far more likely to be admired for his courage.)

For now, I’m firmly in the camp of interpreting experience in the light of Scripture. It won’t get me a lot of applause nor acclaim as a forward-thinking champion of the downtrodden. But it will help me sleep at night. And feel at peace with my God.

We need God’s help to understand God’s Word

I’ve often said that many in the church fear post-modernism without realizing that modernity was no friend to Christianity. Like a fish in water, many of us have swum in the river of modernity so long that it just seems right. Because of that, we often approach the Bible in a scientific way instead of a spiritual way. When interpreting the Bible, we prefer syllogisms and logical constructions to prayer and meditation.

To quote Jesus out of context: “You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” In Bible study, logic has its place, but so does spirituality.

In his Christian System, Alexander Campbell wrote:

RULE 7. For the salutary and sanctifying intelligence of the Oracles of God, the following rule is indispensable: We must come within the understanding distance.
There is a distance which is properly called the speaking distance, or the hearing distance; beyond which the voice reaches not, and the ears hear not. To hear another, we must come within that circle which the voice audibly fills.
Now we may with propriety say, that as it respects God, there is an understanding distance. All beyond that distance can not understand God; all within it can easily understand him in all matters of piety and morality. God himself is the center of that circle, and humility is its circumference.

In other words, you aren’t going to be able to understand God’s teachings until you draw near enough to God to really hear him. In the same document, Campbell wrote that “the philological principles and rules of interpretation enable many men to be skilful in biblical criticism, and in the interpretation of words and sentences, who neither perceive nor admire the things represented by those words.”

Rules of interpretation can only take us so far. New Bible readers need to understand the importance of prayer, the priority of drawing near to God, and our dire need of the Spirit’s guidance to truly comprehend what God is saying to us. This isn’t achieved through step-by-step processes of word study and exegesis.

We need God’s help to understand God’s Word. We must draw near to God to comprehend his voice. New Bible readers need to hear this.

Cultural or supra-cultural?

Another consideration for new Bible readers is the question of cultural vs supra-cultural; that is, readers need to see that some commands have an application that was limited to a specific situation while others seem to be expected of all believers. Most people see Paul’s commands about women wearing veils as a cultural command, while seeing the command to remember Jesus via the Lord’s Supper as supra-cultural.

When presenting some of these ideas at a retreat last year, I presented the following list to the participants:

_____ The church should meet on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7)
_____ The church should meet every day (Acts 2:46)
_____ We ought to love our enemies (Luke 6:35)
_____ We must give to everyone who asks of us (Luke 6:30)
_____ We should raise our hands when praying (1 Timothy 2:8)
_____ Women should not teach men (1 Timothy 2:12)
_____ Women should not use fancy clothes (1 Peter 3:3)
_____ Men must not have long hair (1 Corinthians 11:14)
_____ Women shouldn’t wear pants (Deuteronomy 22:5)
_____ Our clothes are to be made of one type of fabric (Leviticus 19:19)
_____ We are to anoint the sick with oil (James 5:14)
_____ A Christian shouldn’t get a tattoo (Leviticus 19:28)
_____ A Christian shouldn’t shave his beard (Leviticus 19:27)
_____ We must submit to church leaders (Hebreos 13:17)
_____ The church should have elders and deacons (1 Timothy 3)
_____ The church is expected to maintain a list of widows (1 Timothy 5)
_____ The church must care for widows and orphans (James 1:27)
_____ An offering should be taken each Sunday (1 Corinthians 16:2)
_____ Sunday offerings are to be sent to Jerusalem (1 Corinthians 16:3)
_____ We should take the Lord’s Supper in memory of Jesus (Luke 22:19-20)
_____ We are to wash one another’s feet (John 13:14)
_____ Christians should drink wine and not just water (1 Timothy 5:23)
_____ We are to avoid eating blood (Acts 15:29)
_____ Christians should love their neighbor as theirselves (James 2:8)
_____ Christians are to look for Paul’s books and take them to him (2 Timothy 4:13)
_____ We are to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19)
_____ Women should cover their heads when praying (1 Corinthians 11:10)
_____ Men should not have anything on their heads when praying (1 Corinthians 11:7)
_____ Christians shouldn’t marry (1 Corinthians 7:27)
_____ Christians must not take oaths (Matthew 5:34)
_____ A Christians is to pay taxes (Romans 13:7)
_____ We are to work with our hands (1 Thessalonians 4:11)
_____ We should greet one another with a kiss (1 Corinthians 16:20)
_____ Christians are to pray in the name of Jesus (John 16:23-24)
_____ When talking about the future, a Christian must say, “Lord willing…” (James 4:15)

I asked them to decide which of these instructions were of limited application and which were eternal commands for all believers everywhere. I wasn’t too concerned about how they answered each question, though I did point out to them that it was unlikely that any two of them had exactly the same answers. (The retreat was discussing how to handle differences in the church) I then encouraged them to define how they decided which instructions (and examples) were applicable to us and which weren’t.

As I’ve noted before, it’s not helpful to tell someone to look for commands in the Bible and follow them; even less so with examples and inferences! All Bible readers need to understand that some commands are of limited application, while some are meant for all of us. Part of our task when reading and interpreting the Bible is to know how to differentiate.

Looking for major themes in the Bible

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been looking at concepts that new Bible readers need as they begin to read Scripture. Let me say that I don’t dump all of this on someone at once; these are things that are learned over time. But we should get new readers to consider some of the practices that will help them interpret the Bible in a healthy way as they grow in their knowledge of Scripture.

Dr. Tom Olbricht introduced many of us in the Church of Christ to the idea of considering major biblical themes when reading the Bible. It’s not an overstatement to say that studying theology under Dr. Olbricht transformed my view of Scripture.

Simply put, reading the Bible in terms of major themes helps us see that the Word isn’t flat. There are things of “first importance” and other things of lesser importance. God’s call of Abraham in Genesis 12 is more important than the genealogy in Genesis 10. The genealogy has its place, but the promises made to Abraham become the basis of man’s relationship with God going forward.

So, in looking for major themes, we look for things like:

  • What is said to be most important. Jesus spoke of the greatest commands. He talked about the more important parts of the Law. Paul spoke of certain things being of first importance. Again, it’s not that the rest of the Bible is unimportant; it’s a matter of recognizing the most essential.
  • What is repeated. It makes sense that the things talked about most often, in various contexts, are things that really matter.
  • What is connected with salvation. There are some things that the Bible says determine whether or not we are saved. These things are of obvious importance.

Focusing on major themes helps prevent our “majoring in the minors.” By emphasizing what the Bible emphasizes, we can be confident that we are helping people learn to be more pleasing to God.

New readers need to be able to tell Jonah from John

There’s plenty more to be said about context, but the concept of Book->Chapter->Verse is sufficient to get a new reader thinking about the topic. The next thing I’d want to mention is literary genres.

One of the major problems I see with people reading the Bible is that they want to read it all as legal code. Or, at least, they read it looking for commands that they are supposed to follow. That may be especially true for those of us from the Church of Christ, but I suspect it occurs in other groups as well. People are told, “This book contains God’s will for you,” so many think that means that the Bible is full of rules they are supposed to follow. Those people tend to find the epistles especially attractive, because they contain more instructions than most other books in the Bible.

Once people see that most of the Bible ISN’T merely a list of laws, they can begin to learn how to read different genres. They can learn to read narrative and find applicable teachings for them. They can differentiate between the hyperbole of proverbial statements and the symbolism of visionary writing. Thinking about genres helps us see what the gospels are saying to us today and help us read the letters as the situation-based documents they are.

Just as we read the sports page differently than we read the obituaries, so we must learn to read Revelation differently than we read Ecclesiastes.

One word… I don’t emphasize “rightly dividing the Word” as much as many in my fellowship do. The fact that we aren’t under the regulations found in the Torah has led many to basically disregard the whole Old Testament. (I’ve told the horror story of being in a meeting where a preacher scolded another man for quoting from Psalms; “My Bible says that’s been nailed to the cross!” All these years later, I still marvel at such ignorance in one who had been a Christian so long.) When we stop trying to parse out laws from every line of Scripture, such distinctions lose their importance.

I know that a lot of older Christians also need to be introduced to the concept of literary genres. Let’s give new readers a head start. Teach them early that within the sacred anthology that is Scripture, there are different types of writings that need to be read in different ways.