Thursday, September 18, 2014

WSPK 2: The world in front of the text

I started a series yesterday--What should a pastor know about the Bible? (WSPK) Yesterday I made two key points:
  • The words of the Bible in themselves are susceptible to multiple interpretations.
  • The Bible as Scripture is as much transformational as informational.
2. Today, I want to dive a little deeper into the first one.
  • We are always unaware to some extent of how much of "us" is in our reading of the Bible. The less we know about ourselves, the less we are able to read the Bible as something other than a mirror.
This is especially the case if we have grown up hearing certain interpretations and ways of reading the Bible. So I grew up in the Wesleyan-holiness tradition. So grew up with certain definitions of words like "holiness" and "sanctification." I grew up reading Acts 2 a certain way that I inherited.

As it turns out, these interpretations had as much to do with the nineteenth century American holiness movement as they did with what the various biblical authors likely had in mind. Inevitably, we are all wearing glasses that color our reading of the Bible. No one can escape them completely. We can't know when we're not aware of something... because we're not aware of it!

We call this element of reading the Bible, "the world in front of the text." It's me, and all the preconceptions I bring as a reader, sitting in front of the text. I assume the text is as it appears to me. And I don't realize how different it appears to someone else... including those to whom it was first written.
2. So what is the right interpretation of the Bible? That is the ultimate question, isn't it?

Here's at least a place to start:
  • The books of the Bible say they were written to ancient Israelites, Thessalonians, Corinthians, etc. That means their first meanings were meanings that made sense to these ancient people in the way they used words at their times and their places. 
It may be difficult at first to appreciate the magnitude of this statement and how far its implications reach. We tend to read the Bible as God speaking to us, not as Paul to the Philippians or even God speaking through Paul to the Philippians. What was the literal meaning of the Bible? It was the meaning that was communicated and understood by those to whom it actually says it was first written.

Our first reaction might be, "It doesn't matter that it was written to them first. God inspired it for all times and all places." Let's hold that thought for now. Perhaps this is true in some sense. My point right now is that we know it was written to them. We have to argue it is for us too because that's not really what the books of the Bible themselves say for the most part.

So let's hold off on the question of the extent to which the Bible might be God's word for all times and all places. Let's start with some absolutely obvious truths about the first meanings of the Bible.
  • The Bible was not one book originally. It was dozens of books written over many centuries in at least three different languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek).
  • They were originally written to audiences at different times and places. That is to say, the "yous" in the Bible were, in the first place, no one alive today. "YOU shall have no other gods before me" was first spoken to ancient Israelites (Exod. 20:3) who lived over 3000 years ago. 
  • For the most part, therefore, each book of the Bible was originally a stand-alone book. For the most part, they were first written to be read separately, not as a collection.
In the first place, we are reading someone else's mail when we read the books of the Bible. Perhaps it is also our mail in some way too. But we should not miss the obvious for that which must be argued. The obvious is that it was their mail first.

What we will find is that to read them for us as well usually requires us to take them in a less than literal way, in an extended sense. Chances are, you know how to read them in an extended sense. The greater blind spot is knowing how to read them for what they literally meant originally, their first meaning in context.

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