4. Many Books, Many Contexts
One of Martin Luther's principles in determining the meaning of the Bible was that "Scripture interprets Scripture." We can now identify this notion as "pre-modern" in the sense that it does not really understand how to read the words of the Bible in context. These books were written by different authors who each used words differently, indeed who wrote in three different languages. We should weigh Scripture against Scripture, but you cannot usually interpret the original meaning of, say, Romans, by looking at a book like Matthew. Each author had his own vocabulary and way of putting things, and any conception of inspiration that cannot accommodate this fact is inadequate.
For example, in Mark 7:12, Jesus says, "Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly I say to you, [may I be accursed] if a sign [semeion] will be given to this generation." It is hard to find words in English to express the Aramaic expression that likely lies behind this statement in Mark. To say the least, it strongly denies that Jesus was willing to provide a sign to the crowds.
Now consider John 21:30: "Jesus did many other signs [semeion] before his disciples that are not written in this book." What are some of the signs recorded in John? Turning water into wine for a public wedding was the first (John 2). John mentions that Jesus did several signs in Jerusalem (2:23) before a second sign (4:54). In short, John tells us that Jesus not only performed signs; he performed so many miraculous deeds that "if every one was written, I do not think the world itself would have room for the books in which to write them" (John 21:25).
How do we fit these seemingly conflicting accounts together, if indeed we should try? Actually, while the flavor is in tension, these comments do not really contradict each other. Jesus clearly performed miraculous deeds in Mark as well as John. The principal difference is that Mark and John use the word sign differently. John used it of any miraculous indication that Jesus is the Christ. Mark used it as a kind of proof on demand, like jumping through hoops at the behest of those who doubt. In the end, it is only by taking the individual vocabulary and perspectives of the two authors into account that we are saved from a rather significant contradiction here.
In terms of the original meaning, the context of an individual book is that book itself. When Revelation 22:18-19 says that "if someone should add to the words of the prophecy of this book, God will add to that person the plagues written in this book," it originally referred only to the book of Revelation rather than to the whole Bible. The books of the Bible were not placed in a single book at the time Revelation was written. At that time each book (or sometimes groups of smaller books) circulated on its own individual scroll.
Indeed, it is not until the year AD 367 that we hear of someone even suggesting that the current list of books in our New Testament was the right list. Revelation was one of the books that early Christians debated over, in terms of whether it was Scripture or not. It was not until the 300's that this debate became somewhat settled. Before then, godly Christians legitimately debated whether Revelation was as inspired as other books like Romans. This information is not meant to call into question the inspiration of Revelation, but to show that these books were originally written separately from each other and thus originally meant to be read on their own terms.
The more we listen to each book, the more we will see the variety of the circumstances and perspectives in the Bible. In the same way that you wouldn't give the same advice to a serial killer and someone with a hyperactive conscience, so each book delivers a message appropriate to its circumstances and place in the flow of revelation. Indeed, we probably listen best to the text when we see some of these books in dialog with each other, even taking different sides on the same issues in a great debate.
For example, Deuteronomy 24:1 freely allows a husband to divorce his wife because she becomes displeasing to him. In contrast Malachi 2:14-16 inveighs against any man who might divorce the wife of his youth. Jesus will reinforce Malachi's complaint by forbidding men to divorce their wives for any old reason (Matt. 19:1-12). In this passage, Jesus considers the allowances of Deuteronomy as contrary to God's original intention (19:8). Here we have Jesus telling us that God allowed something to be in Scripture that was not God's first preference.
Let us also consider books like Joshua, where non-Israelites must be obliterated regardless of their disposition to Israel or Yahweh (e.g., Josh. 6:21; 7:12; 9:24), and Ezra, where Israelites are commanded to divorce their foreign wives and the children from such marriages (Ezra 10:3). These books at least seem to be in dialog with books like Jonah, where God freely forgives the atrocious Assyrians (e.g., Jon. 3:10), and Ruth, where a Moabitess is welcomed into the lineage of David (and thus Jesus; Ruth 4:18-22). Indeed, Jonah himself seems to espouse a perspective similar to that of Joshua or Ezra, a perspective that the book of Jonah itself condemns.
Our point is that listening to the books of the Bible speak, rather than forcing them to fit together on our terms, presents us with a better understanding of the whole truth more than if the books of the Bible simply gave us a monotone voice. Reality is probably too complicated to be summed up in such a simple schema.
Beyond dialog, we also observe a "flow of revelation" within and beyond the pages of the Bible. In Genesis, we soon realize that someone like Jacob (e.g., Gen. 31:34; 32:30) did not have nearly as good an understanding of God as Moses would (e.g., Exod. 6:3). Further, God presented the idea of monotheism more precisely in Isaiah (e.g., Isa. 44:6-20) than he did to Moses (Deut. 5:6-7; 32:8) or one of the psalmists (Ps. 82). When we get to the New Testament, we now understand that Jesus must be fit within God's divinity as Lord in some way (1 Cor. 8:6; Titus 2:13). We observe a clear development in understanding even within the pages of the Bible.
But even the New Testament did not resolve all these issues. Is Jesus to be worshipped (proskuneo) in the same way we might "bow the knee" to a king (cf. Matt. 2:11)? What does 1 Corinthians 15:28 mean when it speaks of the ultimate subordination of Christ to God the Father? Does Hebrews 1:8-9 make a distinction between Christ as God and the God? Was the fourth century Arius interpreting Colossians correctly when he argued that the phrase "the firstborn of all creation" (Col. 1:15) meant Jesus was the first thing God created? Yet John 8:58 seems to say that Jesus was the very same Yahweh who appeared to Moses at the burning bush. And the Lamb of Revelation 5:14 is worshipped alongside the One on the throne.
Christians discussed these kinds of questions for four hundred years before our current understanding was finally settled. And the church ultimately found that they had to resort to categories outside the Bible to resolve these issues. The Nicene Creed (381), which gives the position Christians have taken ever since on the Trinity, includes a good dose of somewhat philosophical language that the early Christians used to make the necessary distinctions that we continue to use today.
What we find is that far more than just the Bible alone is involved in the way Christians use the Bible. On the one hand, we would not even have a "New Testament" if God had not led the church to identify these particular books as authoritative Scripture. Before there was a New Testament, each of these books circulated somewhat independently of each other. It was through a process of dialog among Christians over several hundred years that these particular books finally became the unanimous collection of Scriptures--the canon--that all Christians now affirm them to be. It was in the church of the 300s and 400s that this process finally came to completion. It was not the decision of a political body, but something that "bubbled up" in the church.
This is a good point in history to reiterate and clarify that the Bible as Scripture is ultimately the possession of the church. By church here, I do not mean a political body, but all those who are truly Christians everywhere. The original meaning is important because it was the meaning God first inspired, and we can only add depth to our understanding of God when we know something about it. Yet as will become clearer in the final section, it is the Bible as the church has read it that has really stood at the heart of the way Christians have heard God's voice in its words.
Here is a moment of immense clarity. Words take on meaning when they are placed in a specific context. The result is that words can potentially take on many, many meanings. It is for this reason above all that there are over 20,000 different Protestant churches who claim to get their beliefs from the Bible alone. Clearly, far more important than the question of whether the Bible is inspired is thus the question of what meaning of the Bible is authoritative.
On the one hand, we can certainly argue that the individual, original meanings of each book were inspired and authoritative for each particular original circumstance. But in practice, the original meaning is not really what Christians have meant when they have claimed the Bible to be inspired and authoritative. In practice, Christians read these words through the eyes of the church. This is the meaning you get when you read the words in light of the orthodox beliefs and practices of historic Christianity. And of course, each Christian group has added its own unique beliefs and traditions to the "dictionary" it uses to interpret the Bible's words. The final section will explore what this point of clarity might mean for how we appropriate the Bible today as Christians.