Last weekend I started a weekend series in which I am trying to capture somewhat of my journey with Scripture. Last Sunday's post ended with me in college trying to decide whether the historical context of Scripture really made any difference for me today. Would God have allowed the text to have teachings or instructions that were not "timeless."
... Let me illustrate with an issue where 1 Corinthians comes into conflict with current Christian practice: head coverings for women. I grew up around people who took this letter's teaching on women's hair to apply directly to women today. "For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head," says the King James Version (KJV) of 1 Corinthians 11:10. 11:15 then goes on to say, "if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering."
Now the experts don't actually agree on what Paul is exactly talking about here. Is it simply talking about long hair on a woman or a special braid? Or is he talking about a veil to cover the hair, my personal favorite? I grew up hearing that the passage was about women having long hair and men having short hair, and the custom in my circles was for women to heap their hair up on their head in a bun, a "Wesleyan wad," as it were, to have "power" on their heads.
So the question presented itself. Is there something about Paul's instructions to the Corinthians here that applied to the Corinthians but would not apply to twentieth century (at that time) North America? Why would God allow something in the timeless answer book that only applied to back then and not to today as well?
I can shed a lot more clarity to this question now than I certainly could then. My starting point is again to recognize that at the very least, 1 Corinthians 11 meant something to the Corinthians. After all, that's who Paul says he is writing in 1 Corinthians 1:1. He does not say, "and to all you women who will be reading this letter in two thousand years, you need to cover your hair too."
Sure, there are instances where you might argue that a passage in Scripture wasn't aimed at its original audience but was a prophecy only to be understood in the distant future. I'm sure I'll come back to that later. Suffice it to say, there is much less of this sort of prophecy in Scripture than you might think and the first order of business is always to see if a text made sense at the time it was written in the categories of its own day.
But the books of the Bible overwhelmingly say they were written to people who have been dead for a very long time. That is the place to begin to understand the first meaning of the books of the Bible. Any other approach opens up the door to a "semantic free-for-all," meaning that these texts can come to mean almost anything. While in the end I think some of this looseness is perfectly appropriate, we need to be clear that it is not the first, original, historical meaning of the Bible. The first meaning of a biblical text is what it actually meant in its original context, not what it means to us today.
Let me also say that the response, "Ah, but what did it mean to God," is a bit of a cop-out. After all, if you're talking about a meaning the text did not originally have, who are you to think you know what was really going on in God's mind at the time. There are some good come backs to this question, such as "Well, the New Testament tells me with regard to the Old Testament" and "God clarified what he was up to later on in the church through his Spirit." Those are of course faith responses that may very well be correct.
In fact, I believe answers like those are necessary from a Christian perspective. But it does not change the original meaning, which is what these texts meant in the light of what words meant at the time these books were written or reached their "final forms." The first meaning of a biblical text is what it actually meant when it was first written.
So the first meaning, the default meaning of 1 Corinthians is what the words of 1 Corinthians meant when Paul wrote them to Corinth in the early 50s. I understand so much more about this sort of thing now than I did in college. This is not just the stuff of a dictionary. The meaning of words is a matter of how they are used in relation to a place and time, a culture and a social setting.
Meaning is always local, in the first instance, and universal meaning is simply instances where all the local meanings are the same everywhere. This is an incredibly important insight and fundamental to the meaning of anything, anywhere. The meaning of something is the function of something in a specific context, and universal meaning relates to instances where the function of something is the same no matter where you go.
As one of my seminary professors used to put it, "Context is everything." Common meaning builds up from particulars. It does not play out down from some imagined, vastly oversimplified universals we project onto God's mind--as if he thought in such pre-school categories. To hear so many people talk about the universals in God's mind, he is less than a kindergarten student in the sophistication of his thought.
So to understand 1 Corinthians in its first meaning, we must know what hair meant in ancient Corinth, in its socio-cultural matrix. The question of what hair means to God is an interesting one but one that must be put on hold if we want to understand 1 Corinthians. Maybe the meaning will be the same for us, but it is beyond question that hair did mean something to the Corinthians and they would have read 1 Corinthians in that light. To understand 1 Corinthians I must first know how their categories might differ from mine. Otherwise, simply by doing what they did I may actually be doing something quite different in terms of its meaning.
Obviously I did not have this depth of insight at the time and I will simply leave the question of historical meaning here for now. I'm sure I will have opportunity as I continue, to return to the fundamental historical insight over and over again. I would sum it with the following, seemingly incontrovertible logic:
1. The biblical texts were, in the first instance, written to multiple ancient audiences who understood those texts in terms of what words and actions meant at that time.
2. The meaning of words and actions for them is often different from the meaning of words and actions to me.
3. Therefore, the original meaning of the words of Scripture are more indirectly applicable to us today than directly applicable.