The Bible and “plain meaning”

I have been involved in two discussions (using the term very lightly) lately, one on this blog and one in another, where I have been accused of over-intellectualizing, getting too into scholarship, and not taking the “plain meaning” of scripture.

I’m not going to mince words. This is an absurd charge to make. It is only because people are so out of touch with the fact that the Bible was written over a span of centuries, thousands of years ago, in a culture that operated on very different foundational assumptions than the late modern Western world that people can say things like that. It is because people (quite likely myself included) are prejudiced towards our own understanding of what it means to be a person-in-the-world and so we universalize our own place as if it were the time and place from which all other people have lived, experienced the world, experienced God, and written about that experience.

It is precisely because the Bible speaks to us from a time and place that is very different from our own that scholarship is needed. It is simply irresponsible to teach or to expound on the scriptures if one has not done some serious homework learning about the various contexts involved – the ancient near eastern background to the Old Testament, and the Second Temple Jewish and Imperial Roman background of the New Testament. If you don’t have some knowledge of these, all kinds of errors are likely in interpreting the writings the church has (more or less) always affirmed as the inspired record of God’s work within history. It is not because of some intellectualizing fetish, but because of a love for God and for the message God has given us, both in the written words and especially the Word-made-flesh to whom the written words witness, that I dig into the essential background for studying the scriptures with understanding.

If you don’t know that Paul is poking at imperial propaganda in Romans 13, you can easily make the mistake of thinking Paul’s project is to underwrite the state’s authority; if you don’t know about the Babylonian worldview to which Genesis 1 is a challenge, you won’t catch even a glimpse of the full breadth and depth of the Biblical vision of creation.

It is precisely because I believe the Bible itself contains the writings through which God desires to speak to us, in our time, that I seek to study what the writings said in the times in which they were written – at least with as much understanding as it is possible to attain. It is because I love the scriptures that I do what I do, it’s because I love them that I desire to hear them speak to us from their time, instead of imposing the presuppositions of late modern American culture upon them. I’m not naive, I don’t assume that we can ever truly and finally transcend our time and place to hear the message in some pristine, unadulterated sense (nor should we be able to, but that’s another matter to discuss), but to tear the scriptures from their contexts and re-inscribe them into our own without hearing first with ears to hear how the word calls to us from a time and place in the past that is very different from our own is an act of supreme violence against the text, and even extremely irresponsible particularly when it is done by people in pastoral positions who have the responsibility to teach and to help people grow as disciples.

Christian Truth-with-a-capital-T is not a set of precepts, though it is not a bad thing to make concrete theological propositions based on the word we have received. But Truth is not in our constructions, it is in a man who lived nearly two thousand years ago, a man whom we believe still lives today and is with us even to the end of the age. The Jesus who is with us is the Jesus who walked the earth healing, teaching, and living out God’s will to the fullest, and unless we get to know him for who he was we cannot know him for who he is.



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