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.



What is the Gospel?

In one of my online communities today, someone asked about “what is the Gospel? How do you go about sharing it if it comes up in conversation?” The community is generally more liberal-leaning, so there aren’t exactly a lot of “street corner evangelist” types in it, but several people have come up with some interesting responses. Here is mine:

The Gospel is this: that God’s kingdom has broken into the world, and the time of fulfillment is here. God is re-creating the world and instituting God’s reign which is characterized by peace, love, healing, and the restoration of God’s image in broken people. This entails not only the forgiveness of individual “sins”, but also the process of healing people from the oppressive networks in which they are embedded that encourage sin, from the broken places in our own hearts to the broken social, political, and economic systems that exist in the world that contribute to the overall picture of brokenness. This kingdom is embodied and inaugurated by Jesus, the Jewish Messiah who lived in the 1st century CE, who institutes the kingdom not by conquering his enemies, but in being conquered by them and trusting that God will vindicate him (the Resurrection). Therefore the power of Christ’s love is shown to be superior to hatred, bloodshed, and evil.

Not only that, but God is inviting all people, everywhere, to turn around and move from lives embroiled in sin, conflict, and warfare into lives that are healed, whole, self-giving. In some wonderful, mystical way, people now have been invited to “enter into” Christ’s death and resurrection, being “translated out of the dominion of darkness and into the kingdom of his beloved son” (Col. 1:13), to be a part of God’s people who are the visible sign and agent of this kingdom that is coming into the world, with the Spirit enabling us to grow more in faith, love, and hope. One day the true king of the world, Jesus, will return to finally, totally put all things right, but right now the things we do that are faithful and loving are somehow (again, mystically and wonderfully) being used as “building blocks” of a sort that God is using in the re-creation of the world. ALL areas of life are marked for redemption, including sexuality, creativity, social organization, culture, religion, and so on.

Of course, because the church is subject to the true king, Jesus, and to the re-creation of the world on God’s terms, she must (or at least SHOULD) reject ways of living that are not faithful to the life of Jesus who taught love for enemies, turning the other cheek, and carrying one’s cross. This will inevitably bring Christians into conflict with those who are steeped in worldly modes of selfishness, power games, and violence. The church must live according to mutual submission, not lording power over one another and the world; fellowship that breaks down social and economic barriers between sisters and brothers, not holding national affiliations, race, class, or other factors as signs of superiority; and service to the world that demonstrates God’s love for all people, not fighting culture wars or practicing in other ways that seek to set Christians up as some kind of ruling class (aka Christendom).

The end goal is no less than that which was originally intended at creation, that all of the created world would be enabled to participate in the divine life (one of my favorite images is of being drawn into the perichoresis, the eternal dance enjoyed by the Trinity from before the beginning of time).

It takes a little longer to express this than to say “Jesus died for your sins so you can go to heaven”, which is a modern fundamentalist caricature of the Gospel at best, but this definitely does more justice to the whole Biblical picture.

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. 😉


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