The Bible was NOT written to you

Seen today on a church sign: “The Bible is a letter that was written to you!”

I have a serious problem with this attitude. Yes, I believe the Bible was written FOR us, and for our edification and instruction as followers of Jesus, but it was not written “to me” as a letter, meant for me to read as an individual – or even for us, as a group of people. The Bible is a collection of letters, stories, poems, and other literature written to various people at various times in history anywhere from 3500 to 1900 years ago, in different cultural and social circumstances. This “the Bible was written for me/us” idea obscures the fact that each and every one of the books of the Bible was written to people so different from us as to be almost a completely foreign work that cannot possibly be adequately interpreted without a strong knowledge of history, cultural/social/political circumstances, philosophies, and so on. This task is obviously too much for any one person to undertake alone, which is why from the earliest time the church has focused on the relational nature of the body of Christ-followers, as the Christ-head/church-body metaphor implies. I got a strong impression the “you” intended by the church sign was intended as a singular you, even though there could have been no such thing as an “individual” Christ-follower in the ancient church apart from the whole body.  Even if the plural you is intended or possible to read into the statement, the distinction between “the Bible was written TO us” and “the Bible was written FOR us” is a very important one that we ignore at our peril.

The Bible is not some disembodied collection of universal, timeless truths about God that dropped down from heaven one day. Just as Jesus the Incarnate Word lived as a particular man at a particular time in a particular place, so also the books of the written word that witnesses to Christ are embedded within historical matrices that require us to approach the scripture as a legitimate other – to have an “I-Thou” relationship with them and let them speak to us from where they come, within the stream of interpretation of the church throughout history. If we objectify them and read them in a way that does not engage the way the church has read them throughout time, we run the risk of adding to the word in a sense – adding to it the baggage of modern individualism.

This is just one of my pet peeves, I know for most of you this will be pretty old news. 😉

Shalom!

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4 Responses

  1. 100 years ago, the attitude of “the bible was written directly to me” would have been written off as “premodern,” and then we would have gotten out our commentaries and historical tools and mined the words for theological gold (whether individualistic or collective).

    Recently, however, the rise of postmodern hermeneutics has almost brought us back full circle, where a premodern reading of Scripture is just as fruitful and “correct” as a modern reading (which would presuppose the need for philosophical/historical/cultural knowledge before interpreting). Keeping up with hermeneutics is like watching fashion change over time–it all comes back in style.

    What would you do with the Church Fathers and their interpretive styles? Likewise, many Medieval church scholars/pastors had little room for historical accuracy in thought and application. Granted, they read more collectively versus individually, and they did so within the walls of the Church, but still…it seems to fight against your hermeneutical biases. Any thoughts?

  2. 100 years ago the idea may have been written off as “premodern”, but the person who wrote it off would have been wrong. There simply was not the kind of individualistic consciousness that we had even 100 years ago (which is undoubtedly less severe than the individualism of today) in the ancient world. The nature of kinship allegiances, what we might mistakenly call “tribalism”, precluded any such radical individualism. The modern homo autonomous would have been an alien creature to the ancient writer. That is not to say there was NO individual awareness in the ancient world, but the individual would more likely have situated his/her individual-ness within the context of kinship (which included national identity) and other relational understanding – not to say it all would necessarily have been consciously self-reflective, it’s just very complex.

    Hermeneutics is a very interesting enterprise. The two books I have that have been most helpful so far are Grant Osborn’s The Hermeneutical Spiral and (to a lesser degree with regard to postmodern issues but still helpful regarding matters of basic literary analysis of the Bible) and the multi-author volume edited by Moises Silva, Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation. I have a bunch of stuff by James Smith. Kevin Vanhoozer, and others on my shelf as well as further works related to social science and the Biblical cultures and so on, but right now reading for my classes takes precedence. It might make a nice summer reading project if I get through my current project of reading through Frederick J. Copleston’s History of Philosophy series.

    A form of allegorical seems to be popular in some interesting ways, coupled with historical analysis – kind of like what Eugene Peterson’s been doing for some time now. It’s an interesting blend of what might be considered pre/post/modern kind of all at the same time. I think of it kinda like wearing a toga and a 90’s grunge-style flannel overshirt over bell-bottoms and cowboy boots. 😉

    Regarding the church fathers and Medievals, wow there’s a lot that could go into answering that. I try to look at them in context as much as possible and to see their interpretations in relation to the times in which they lived. For example, Anselm’s works only make sense if you see that he’s reading the scriptures through the lens of contemporary ideas about feudal justice in order to develop theology appropriate to medieval Christendom. J. Denny Weaver’s The Nonviolent Atonement discusses Anselm at some length and the changing political/social conditions of Christendom vs. the “pre-Constantinian” status of the church.

    I’m not sure the above post can be seen as too much a statement of my hermeneutical thought as it was more of a rant than anything, but you’re right there are certain biases that come out in it. I think one of the keys to looking at interpretation throughout history is to see it as a product of the church katholikos and therefore as material we have at our disposal to encounter the ways the church has understood God and the nature of its own being and mission. I also think this way of looking at things resonates with a lot of the methods of the fathers, though none of them would have put it as such – and it’s possible I’m more guilty than I’d like to be of projecting my own biases onto them. Nevertheless, the fact that they did it from within the church is important, which could serve an important corrective against the tendencies of “individual” interpretation, which generally tends to be strongly influenced by the “community” of modern liberalism anyway – pardon me, but my Hauerwas slip is showing. 😉

    Lots of words, and yet I feel like I said very little… so I’m going to stop now and see where we are.

    Shalom!

  3. […] “I-It” with the text as an object that we analyze and appropriate for ourselves (see this article for further commentary on the […]

  4. excelent post. It makes me feel an inspiration for something I’d like to write. It reminds me a phrase I found in Chesterton’s “The innocence of Father Brown”: “When will
    people understand that it is useless for a man to read his Bible
    unless he also reads everybody else’s Bible?”

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