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‚Ķ 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.

4 thoughts on “How do we learn from what was done in Bible times?

  1. Charlie

    Tim – really appreciate this – I have been thinking a lot recently that (almost) every disagreement about “what does God want (command us) to do?” is rooted in different assumptions about who God is? and What the Bible is?. I think this is particularly true of those things that cause division both within a specific “faith group” and in the broader Christian Community.

    I wonder if there isn’t a 3rd dimension to this discussion — The “historical/scientific” (literal) vs. “allegorical” ” —

    By “historical/scientific” I mean
    1. that if we where “Dr. Who” and could travel in time and observe the event(s) described in the Bible our observations would match what the Bible described OR
    2. if scientific methods say that the event described couldn’t have happened that way the answer is that God overrode the physical laws he put in place at creations (in other words the science is wrong and the Bible is right (see #1)

    By allegorical I mean that God used illustrative language that would be understood by the people of the time to describe things that would otherwise be beyond their comprehension (I believe that Gen. 1 & 2 — and most of Genesis up to the time of Abraham fall into that category.

    Anyhow I haven’t done the research to fully identify the various views in this area and would be interested in your “categorization” of the different “schools of thought”

    God Bless

  2. Tim Archer Post author

    For me, much of that discussion comes down to understanding genres. I love the example of Judges 4 and 5, where the same battle is described in literal terms and in poetic terms. Am I required to affirm that the stars actually left their orbits to come fight Sisera (as chapter 5 states), or do I have the freedom to recognize poetic language?

    In the same way, I can’t expect Hebrew history to be read as a science text. When it says that the sun stood still during a battle, that doesn’t require me to argue that the earth revolves around the sun.

    Your post brings us into a whole new arena of discussion! (I have a cousin who has a hard time fellowshipping anyone who doesn’t believe Genesis 1 talks about 7 24-hour days)

  3. Nick Gill

    “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’m ambivalent about this mindset. I appreciate how they are taking very seriously the historical locatedness of the responses in the New Testament to questions and problems.

    What I think they might be missing, though, is that HOW the NT writers and leaders come to their answers might be more authoritative for our diverse 21st century situations than the specific answers themselves.

    The way Paul leads Philemon to set Onesimus free is worlds apart from the way a lot of people in the church today try to enact change, and how they address differences of opinion.

  4. Tim Archer Post author

    Nick, I hope you got to read the follow-up post, which was written after some exchanges with someone who favors the third mindset. I agree with what you’ve stated, but am trying to learn more about those that reject such an approach to the Bible. They would argue that our attempt to determine HOW answers were reached says more about what we are reading into their motives and methods than it does about what those people actually did.

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