Category Archives: Biblical interpretation

Form, function, and determining motives

It was pointed out to me yesterday that a discussion about form and function, like what I wrote yesterday, hinges on us being able to properly identify the motives behind the form we see in the Bible. And that’s not an easy task.

That’s a very important point. In the case of footwashing, it seems to me that Jesus makes his motive fairly clear, even when footwashing carried a multitude of meanings. He points it directly to service and tells his followers that they are to be servants.

In other discussions, it’s more complicated. In the teaching about head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul refers to the covering as a sign of authority. But whose authority? The woman’s authority to pray and prophesy in public? Her husband’s authority over her? The elders’ authority in allowing her to pray and prophesy?

And Paul doesn’t just talk about authority. He also says it’s “because of the angels.” There’s lots of conjecture and speculation about what that means, but it’s difficult to say with precision. How to identify the function of something when we can’t clearly state the motives?

This interpretive difficulty lead some to abandon form and function as a hopeless exercise. To me it says more about the need for humility and charity in our interpretations.

Glad to have gotten some feedback on yesterday’s post. Let’s keep the discussion going.

How do we learn from what was done in Bible times?

As I hope a lot of us do, I’ve been thinking about how we read and interpret the Bible. Too often we spend our time debating issues without looking at the underlying principles behind our differing viewpoints.

When we look at something that was done in the Bible or something commanded in the Bible, we have to figure out what that says for us. I’m not sure that there is anyone who takes every command personally… seen anybody gathering animals into an ark lately? Nor do we follow every example. We all make decisions about how to extract teachings from the Bible and apply them to us.

Some try to stick as closely to the things they see done in the Bible. Their women wear veils, they wash each other’s feet, and they greet with a kiss. What matters to them is what people did back then.

Another group is more interested in why things were done a certain way in the Bible. This is something I’ve discussed in the past as “form vs. function.” Instead of insisting that women wear veils, the form and function camp looks to why they were required to wear veils, and seeks an equivalent response today. The idea is that the means are (may be) culturally bound but the motives are eternal.

A third group, which I see as growing in prominence today, feels that both the means and the motives are culturally bound. What people did in Bible times and why they did those things only respond to questions of their moment in time. Christian living today can and should be very different.

I’ll confess to understanding the first two positions better than I do the third. I would absolutely love for someone to help me understand and state the third position better. I find myself firmly in the “form vs. function” position, but not so firmly that I’m unwilling to grow and learn.

Can you help me state any of these positions more clearly? Can you help me see other views toward the Bible that might fit into this discussion?

As always, I appreciate your input.

You can’t understand the Bible without interpreting it

I hadn’t heard the phrase in a while, but saw it again on Facebook this week: “We don’t  interpret the Bible, we merely understand it.” I’m sure the person saying it had good intentions, but it’s a ridiculous statement.

If we don’t interpret the Bible, we can never hope to understand it. And if we come to understand what the Bible is saying, then we have interpreted it correctly.

Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.
“How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” (Acts 8:30-31)

I’m glad Philip didn’t have a prejudice against interpretation. He interpreted the Isaiah passage the eunuch was reading, helping him to understand God’s message.

image courtesy

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.