One of the great privileges of being where I am at is that I am seeing more and more of the leadership of the American church at closer and closer proximity. As a Biblehead, this also means that I increasingly get frustrated at faulty thinking that is perpetuated from American Christian voices.
For example, I have always tried to make hermeneutical space for the way Christians generally read the Bible as a single book from God to them--and thus by definition read its individual books out of their historical context. I continue to affirm this "directly to me" way of reading the Bible as valid and even as perhaps the most important way God speaks through Scripture.
However, as the default Biblehead at my denomination's only seminary, I also feel obligated to try to point out how to read the Bible for what its books actually meant. There are some very simple truths involved here that I have tried to point out over and over again, and just within the last week a couple things lead me to reiterate them:
1. In terms of what the books of the Bible really meant, they were not written to us. The "Y-O-U" of the Bible is not, in its original meaning, me at any point. That means there is a historical distance between me and the books of the Bible in their initial revelation.
2. The individual books of the Bible themselves do not have the same audiences. That is, the "Y-O-U" of each book is often different from each other.
3. If you understand how culture and situations change, the implication is that we cannot simply assume that the Bible's categories or commands should be directly applied to today.
"It was written for all time." Pertinent language just doesn't work that way. The categories of biblical times are not our categories. They must be translated.
"God doesn't change." Yes, but people do, and assuming that God wants to be understood (isn't that what revelation means?), then he is going to speak in different ways to different people in categories they can understand. Principles play out differently in different situations.
I heard someone say recently (perhaps jokingly) that we need to call church boards a "board of elders" not a "Local Board of Administration" because where do you find the phrase "Local Board of Administration" in the Bible. Frankly, I like the term elders better, but this argument just doesn't follow. [For one thing, even before I get to the point of this post, it confuses description with prescription, a fundamental distinction to make when reading the Bible. Jacob is described as taking on several wives and concubines. Is that something I should model too? Sheez, welcome to the American church] This is the same sort of lunacy as those churches that don't use organs because organs aren't mentioned in the Bible.
Doing what they did may have a completely different meaning in our context. That means there may be things they did we should not do and there may be things they did not do that we should. This is a fundamental and incontrovertible insight. The question of whether we should drink, for example, is not automatically answered on the basis of whether they drank in biblical times, any more than the fact that the OT fully allows for polygamy means that we are allowed to be polygamous today.
Bottom line: a mature understanding of the Bible will know how to read it in its original socio-cultural contexts. That means a regular intercultural experience greater than travelling to Africa. The books of the Bible were "answer books"--but they were answer books for people who have been dead for 2000 years and more.
Translating the answers is a major task that is not simply a matter of some formula. It is a spiritual task. It is a corporate task. The result is that the Bible is not a crutch with easy answers to hard questions--not if you really understand it. It is a means of grace, yes, an appointed place for divine encounter. It is a place of joy and edification. It is a place where the Spirit may speak directly to you.
But when things get serious, the community of faith has to get down to business and struggle to "work out its salvation with fear and trembling." Next time when someone makes fun of another Christian who disagrees with them and references the Bible as obvious on that matter, the thought that should appear in your head is, "Hmmm, he or she probably doesn't know how to read the Bible in context very well."