Category Archives: Biblical interpretation

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.

Book. Chapter. Verse.

Book. Chapter. Verse.

That’s one of the basic concepts I like to teach to Bible readers. To help them think about context, I encourage them to think book -> chapter -> verse.

I’ll admit upfront that’s an oversimplification. But for new readers, it’s a handy way to be reminded of context, because they see it every time they’re given a verse reference. When I read “John 3:16,” I can immediately see that the book is John, the chapter is 3, and the verse is 16. So I teach new Bible readers that, as they seek to interpret a verse, they should first think about the book and the chapter.

For John 3:16, I want to look at the Gospel of John, and it’s structure. That’s a challenge for new readers, but they need to see the idea. I encourage them to think about what a gospel is, why the gospel of John is different from the others, who John was and who he may have been writing to. Questions of that sort.

Then I encourage them to look at chapter 3, and it’s place in the gospel. What’s going on in chapter 3? How does it tie chapter 2 and chapter 4 together (or does it?). Those questions.

Now they can look at the verse itself and consider it’s place in the chapter. How does verse 16 relate to what comes before and what comes after?

That won’t answer all questions about context. But it will get new readers started on the road to exploring the subject and seeing how it moves us from surface-level reading to a deeper understanding of the text. And it’s a concept that they have illustrated right in front of them, every time they look at a scripture reference.

New Bible readers don’t need a concordance

I’ve mentioned that when I was growing up, I thought the epistles were compilations of proverbs, short sayings basically unconnected to one another. I had always heard a verse quoted from here and another from there; I didn’t realize that the epistles were letters with main themes and logical arguments. In other words, I knew nothing about context.

A lot of new Bible readers are the same way. Maybe they’ve seen Bible verses posted here and there on social media. Possibly someone has studied with them some and has used chains of verses in those studies. However it happens, many people view the Bible as the collected sayings of holy men, rather than an anthology of books written by and for God’s people.

I’ll mention that I have a growing distrust of memory verses. Memory verses rarely lead you to think in context. They get you to focus on individual words stripped of context. They’re a bit like some of the quotations you see from famous people; ripped from their original place in a work of literature or a speech, these quotes are often made to say things that the person they are attributed to never intended.

In Bible times, memorization was not uncommon, but it was typically the memorization of entire books of the Bible, rather than individual verses. That allows the learner to think in terms of sections and paragraphs rather than individual words and sentences.

With new readers, we need to steer them away from island hopping their way through the Bible. Don’t hand a new reader a concordance. Hand them a reading plan, one that reads the Bible book by book.