From time to time I will be posting selections from things I have posted elsewhere. This is from a piece I wrote for the Take Heart Project (which, due to trademark issues, will be changing its name to the No Longer Quivering Foundation). The original essay can be found here.
There are those who will suggest that any method of interpretation that does not take each passage of the Bible at its "plain sense" or "face value" is not taking the Bible seriously, or is motivated by a desire to "weasel out" of certain scriptural requirements. In response to this, I offer a modern-day parable.
A certain company had been in business for 100 years. The founder of this company, before he retired, had written a letter to all employees, and had asked that this letter be read aloud every year, at the time of the annual picnic, so that all employees for years to come could know what the founder’s vision was.
The letter contained a lot of things about the company’s vision and policies, as well as solemn requests never to lose sight of goals like customer service, quality of product, and so on. One of the policies in the letter was this:
“Every employee who works here will be held to high standards as to the treatment of horses. Employees must stable their horses in the company stables and make sure the beasts are well rubbed-down and supplied with adequate food and water. Buggies are to be drawn up neatly in the stable-yard. Under no circumstances are horses to be left between the buggy shafts all day.”
Because of this letter, the current leaders and employees of this company believed firmly that they were to travel to work by horse– that automobiles were against the founder’s intention, and therefore, the company policy was that if you were caught driving a car to work, you would be immediately fired. When asked by the city leaders why their company had never replaced its stables with a modern parking facility, the leaders pointed proudly to the plain text of the founder’s letter. “We are only maintaining the principles upon which this great company was founded,” they said. “We take our founder at his word, and we are against anyone who doesn‘t take his message seriously enough to follow exactly what it says.”
You may be shaking your head right now and saying, “I get the point of your parable, but that’s not how I read the Bible. I know some things in it were just for the people back in Bible times. But you can‘t just toss out whatever you don‘t like as being only cultural!”
So I want to look for a minute at the things most Christians do take as “only cultural” in the sense of not following them as literal commandments to practice today.
Some of the Apostle Paul’s letters end with what appears to be a direct command — “Greet one another with a holy kiss.“ But most of us don’t kiss other church members when we meet them. Are we “dismissing” the command as “only cultural”? Perhaps not. We do understand the spirit of love with which Christians are supposed to treat one another. We do greet one another with cordiality and even affection when it‘s appropriate. But we don’t feel that people need to kiss one another in church the way they did in Paul’s day.
What about I Tim 2:8 — “I will therefore that men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands”? Most of us will admit that the men in our churches do not lift their hands every time they pray. Or when I Peter 2:17 exhorts us to “honor the king,” we don’t feel it is against the will of God that we have a President and not a king– even though nowhere in the Bible is it ever mentioned that people should be allowed to vote.
No one actually reads and follows all of the Bible according to its “plain sense” meaning, all the time. We all pick and choose what we read as meant to be literally practiced today, and what we don’t. Does this mean that no Christian takes the Bible seriously?
No– it means that we all try our best to read the Bible in a way that honors what we feel it is truly teaching, without getting distracted by the way those teachings were practiced in Bible times. We may not lift our hands to pray, but we do try to be holy in our prayer lives. We may not have a king to honor, but we do try to honor our earthly leaders.
The real question is, are the methods we use consistent? Are we certain we are understanding what the Bible is actually teaching as we read it, so that we don’t miss the actual meaning that God intended to impart?
Are we consistently using good principles, principles supported by the Scriptures themselves, in reading the Bible? For it is in doing this that we are truly taking it seriously.
The Scriptures do give us an actual example of a God-inspired apostle reading the Bible in terms of the truth being taught rather than the literal, plain-sense meaning. In I Corinthians 9:9-14, Paul begins, “For it is written in the law of Moses, Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn. Doth God take care for oxen? Or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written.” He goes on to talk about the labor he and the other apostles have labored in, as they spread the gospel, and concludes with, “Even so hath the Lord ordained, that they which preach the gospel should live by the gospel.”
If Paul, inspired by God, could interpret a passage of the Scriptures in terms of the timeless principle that a laborer is worthy of his wages, rather than strictly in terms of how oxen were treated when treading grain, how much more can we do so, in this age where we have tractors rather than oxen– but laborers in the gospel are still worthy of our support?
So how do we do this? Do the Biblical writings themselves give any more clues as to how they are intended to be understood?
First of all (as I have touched on here ), to understand the Bible as inspired by God is to understand it as one big story of creation, fall, redemption and restoration (both in terms of individual relationship with God, and in terms of community before God). Every book and passage in the Bible should be looked at as being, in some way, part of this story, with Jesus as the focal point. Jesus said in John 5:39-40, to Jews who were seeking to kill Him, “[You] search the Scriptures, for in them ye think ye have eternal life, and they are they which testify of Me. And ye will not come to Me, that ye might have life.” We must be careful not to think that eternal life is in the Scriptures; it is in Jesus, and in His redemption of mankind. Everything in the Bible has some part in that great story.
Second, the Scriptures themselves gives us place-and-time markers to help us understand them. For example, the opening of the Book of Hosea reads like this: “The word of the Lord that came unto Hosea, the son of Beeri, in the days of Uziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. . . “ Similarly, the first verse of Philippeans: “Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi. . . “
Almost every book in the Bible begins with words along these lines, and these statements are there for a reason. They make it plain that books of the Bible were first of all God’s message to the specific people mentioned, in a specific location and culture, at a certain point in time. Those people, those places, times and cultures, need to be taken into account. Only after we understand how the message would have been understood by those people at those times, can we be certain we‘re not being distracted by things they took for granted. In the story we started with, the company employees needed to understand that the founder’s letter assumed certain things about the culture, and thus was not giving a command about those assumptions. In the same way, we need to see that often the writers whom God was inspiring to write a Biblical text, are assuming, and not commanding, things having to do with the cultures they were writing in.
This means Christians should take the Bible seriously enough to study those ancient times and cultures, and the meanings of words in the original languages, in order to understand what the original audience was intended to understand. Bible handbooks and dictionaries can help with this. Christian leaders go to seminaries and consult Bible experts in order to help their congregations with this. But all of us, expert and layperson alike, are just human. We all have personal biases that we also need to take into account, to make sure we’re not reading our own preferences into the text as well. If we understand those biases, it can help us be aware of where we (or even a Bible expert!) might be missing important meanings.
Most of us know to be careful of our own, 21st-century cultural biases when reading the Bible. But for evangelical Christians, we also need to be aware of the opposite: many Christians today have counter-cultural biases. There may be values in our own modern culture that are actually inspired by God’s truths. We must be careful not to allow prejudices against the “world” to make us disregard these without even considering them.
For example, Christians nearly universally read the Bible today with the understanding that our modern anti-slavery morality is good and comes from the overarching messages of scripture. All humans belong to their Creator and therefore cannot be owned by one another– even though it wasn’t very long ago that "face value" readings of the Bible were used to justify owning slaves. There may be other moral values of modern culture that are more in line with the Bible's teachings than we may realize. We must try to hold our biases in both directions, out of the way.
In any event, the thing to remember is not to lift a Bible passage out of its original context and make it mean something that looks like “plain sense” to us, but would not have been understood that way by them.
For example, in Genesis 38:8-10, where Onan “spilled his seed on the ground” to avoid raising children that would be considered his brother’s, the ancient Hebrew reader would have seen Onan’s crime as defrauding his brother’s widow of her rights in that culture, and then lying about it. He only pretended to fulfill his duty, by publicly taking her in marriage– but then privately refused to honor the obligations he had taken on. Their focus would not have been on birth control; they would have seen the story in terms of fraud, breach of covenant, and deceit. Onan used birth control as a means to defraud his wife and dishonor his deceased brother. The passage does not actually say that God is against birth control.
A third help to interpretation is this: the writers of the Bible often say things within the Scriptures themselves about their intentions and what we are to understand them as trying to do. For instance, John 20:31 says that the Book of John was “written that ye might believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that believing ye might have life through His name.” And Paul, going on from his point about not muzzling the ox in I Corinthians 9, speaks at length of what he believes his apostolic calling is all about. In verse 17 he says it is all because “the dispensation of the gospel has been committed to me.” He goes on to say that “unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews . . . to them that are without law, as without law. . . I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” Just as we would be missing the point of the Book of John if we failed to see how everything in it points to Jesus being the Son of God through Whom we have life, so we would be missing the point of Paul’s letters if we didn’t understand that he intentionally adapted his message to the cultures he was ministering to.
Paul’s teachings, therefore, about believers’ conduct in the church, in the home and in the outside world, must be viewed as practical advice for functioning in that culture, at that time, as a redeemed community (part of the great story of redemption) in such a way that they would be good witnesses of the gospel to the surrounding cultures in the time they were written. In the first century, for example, that would mean that slaves were advised not to harm the witness of Christ by rising up against their masters. But as we discussed earlier, this doesn’t mean Paul was setting forth God’s approval of the institution of slavery itself.
Paul took certain cultural factors for granted in his letters, and assumed his readers would do the same. The message, after all, was first of all God’s message to them, not to us. What were the cultural understandings of his society? They included slavery, male domination, the rule of Caesars, circumcision as a religious practice of devout Jews only (and never, as is common today, by non-Jews as a simple medical procedure), and so on. These assumptions should not be turned into commands to us to follow the same cultural practices– any more than the company founder in our parable intended to communicate that his employees were always to use horses. Rather, within those cultural norms, the factory owner was giving principles of the right treatment of property and animals, as well as policies for order as employees were coming to work. Paul’s teachings regarding practical Christian living must also be viewed in terms of such principles as well.
This principle of adaptation and change within changing cultures, is one that is repeated throughout the Bible. God spoke in one way to Abraham in Abraham’s time, another to Moses when He gave the Law, another to David as king, and another still to the Church. All the things God spoke fit together in the great story– but each message was adapted for the people who originally heard it, in the times that they heard it.
God accommodates His message so that those He speaks to can understand it within their own frames of reference– and so that He may move them in the direction of the final, complete redemption that is the goal of the great story. Just because the writers of the Bible speak in terms of certain cultural understandings, does not make the cultures they found themselves within, “Biblical cultures,” in the sense of those cultural norms being God’s will for all cultures, for all people, or for all times. There will be no such culture until we attain final glory. But all cultures can be changed from within by the timeless truths of love and justice that are the core of the Scriptures.
Finally, the Bible presents itself to us as a group of different kinds of writings. Some are historical narratives, some are letters, some are poems, some are prophecies. It’s important to read each kind of writing according to what it is. In the Psalms, the Book of Job, and the Song of Solomon, for example, we are reading poems or poetic narratives, filled with metaphorical, poetic language. We need to be sure to read these as poems, and not in the same way we read Paul‘s letters. Similarly, in the historical narratives, we are presented with people acting in certain ways. Some of their actions are meant to be examples for us to follow, and others are meant as warnings. We must follow the clues provided by the narrative voice in the story we are reading, to determine whether to approve or disapprove of the actions of the people in the stories– and we must not read our understandings from other texts into passages that in and of themselves, say nothing in terms of that understanding.
Abigail, for instance, in I Samuel 25, is presented by the narrator as “a woman of good understanding and beautiful countenance (v. 3),” and David tells her that he believes “the Lord God of Israel . . . sent thee this day to meet me (v. 32).” There is not a hint anywhere in the story that Abigail is doing wrong in going against her husband’s wishes and taking matters into her own hands, when her husband’s wishes are selfish and sinful and will result in harm to the entire household. To see Abigail (as some Christian groups do today) as an ungodly, rebellious woman, is to read things into the story that simply are not there.
Each part of the Bible needs to be read on its own, for what it itself says and not for what we think (or have been taught) it’s supposed to say. Though Christians can and should fit it into its place in the great story as a whole, it must fit as itself, and not as something it is not. When we read into a part of the Bible, something it doesn’t say, it can twist our idea of the great story as a whole– and the great story of the creation, fall, and redemption of all people of all races, male and female, in Christ, should be taken by Christians very seriously indeed.
If we follow these principles, then we are indeed taking the Bible seriously– for its real message and not a false idea of it. We are not dismissing anything as “only cultural’ — but we are taking cultural assumptions into account.
It may be harder, it may take more work, to understand it this way, but reading the Bible for what God meant it to say, is worth the extra effort.
For more information, see The Blue Parakeet by Scot McKnight and How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart.
More information of my view on the Bible's "plain sense" meaning can be found here.