Monday, September 22, 2014

WSPK 4: Biblical commands were contextual too.

I decided there were at least two more posts I want to do on hermeneutics in this series on "What a pastor should know about the Bible."

The last post talked about how "all meaning is local." The key points from that post were:
  • There are meanings the words of the Bible had that do not correspond to any words in English or concepts in our world.
  • The first meanings of the books of the Bible was a function of the way words were used at the times and places when those books were written, and those meanings were largely if not entirely a function of their ancient worldviews.
  • My default interpretations of their words are not some timeless, universal meaning. Rather, my default interpretations of their words are also a function of the way words are used in my time and place, and the meanings I see are largely if not entirely a function of my modern worldview.
  • Meaning is always understood locally.
1. This dynamic also applies to actions.
  • The meaning of actions is also understood locally. 
There are actions that have a very similar meaning regardless of time and place. This is because all those local contexts share features in common. For example, the murder of an innocent person no doubt involves very similar dynamics around the world. (although we might be surprised to find differences even on this score).

However, there are many instances where the meaning of an action has everything to do with a cultural context. This is one benefit of spending some time immersed in a foreign culture--so you can see aspects of your own culture that do not apply in other places.

Rude gestures are a great example of how actions and events find their meaning in a particular context. When my son was very young, someone in an elementary school class told him that he couldn't lift his middle finger up. Proudly, my son showed him that he could, leading to uproarious laughter by several students.

The meaning of that action is not inherent in the universe. We learn it as we live in this culture. I could give the equivalent English gesture, and most Americans would think I was giving a peace sign. The meanings of those actions are not universal. They are culturally-defined.

2. So it is that the Bible was not written so blandly and generally that all its instruction is as broad as "Love your neighbor." (Again, even what it means concretely to love someone else can vary widely from culture to culture) When God spoke to the audiences of the Bible through human writers, he spoke in a way that was timely and relevant to them.

The implication of this fact, however, is that some of the biblical instruction is not as directly relevant to every time and place and some of the specific instruction does not apply directly at all. In many cases, our traditions of interpretation have reinterpreted the sense of the biblical words to make them continue to be relevant, even though their original meaning is not.

A good example of this dynamic is the instruction in Deuteronomy 14:21: "Do not cook a young goat in its mother's milk." We do not know enough of the historical context to know for sure what the reasoning behind this instruction is. Probably the best guess is that it has something to do with Canaanite religion.

What is certain is that it had nothing to do with the way this verse is applied in orthodox Judaism today...

[By the way, being Jewish does not intrinsically give a person any greater insight into the historical context of the Old Testament. At most, one may be more aware of literature and traditions than the average person. But the same historical data that are available to Jews today are available to anyone else. In some cases, acquaintance with the Mishnah and Talmud can actually hinder an open-minded listening to the biblical texts, which predate these rabbinic sources by hundreds of years. Judaism before AD70 was much more diverse than later rabbinic Judaism.

[The bottom line is that while we celebrate the Old Testament people of God today and especially Messianic Jews, their Jewishness does not make them any greater experts on the meaning of the Bible--or give them any greater knowledge of the historical context of the Ancient Near East--than any other scholar. Such an interpreter especially needs to guard against anachronism--reading rabbinic and modern practices anachronistically into the Second Temple Period.]

... In Judaism today, you do not eat meat and milk in the same meal. The meat represents the young goat and the milk obviously relates to the mother's milk. But this tradition has nothing to do with the original meaning of this verse. There was a reason for the verse, one that had everything to do with the context in which the instruction arose.

In the same way, we naturally do our best to make sense of these words within our view of the world. So, metaphorically, is it not cruel to cook a child in the milk of its mother? Does this not point to a gross violation of the nurturing of motherhood? Is this not a horrendous evil?

Those are all truths we can take from the instruction. The point is that it is not at all clear that those were the original truths. They are rather truths that we see in the text as we read it with Christian values.

3  There is a bottom line here:
  • Doing the specifics of what the biblical authors instructed may not have the same meaning that they had. "Doing what they did isn't always doing what they did," especially if doing it in our context doesn't have the same significance today that it had in their context.
Indeed, it could be that "doing what they did" actually has the opposite meaning for us that it had for them. Instruction that actually freed women up for them may have the effect of constricting them today.

Take the question of drinking. None of the biblical texts completely prohibit drinking. They urge moderation, but only Nazirites did not drink at all. Jesus almost certainly drank fermented wine.

But, and here is the crucial point--this fact does not end discussion on whether Christians should drink today in every context. Doing what they did--drinking moderately--may not mean the same thing in every context today. Drinking at all in my own religious context had such a seriously bad significance at one point that I can't imagine that any loving person would have done it, even if it did not bother their own conscience.

Once again the fundamental truth comes home. The words of the Bible were not written originally to us today. No mature reading of Scripture will be unaware of this fact.
  • We should not simply apply biblical instruction in its specifics blindly to today. It is essential that we know why that instruction was given in the first place, which had everything to do with the context in which that instruction was given.
Since the pre-modern interpreter assumes that all the instruction of the Bible was written to them, this crucial dynamic is missed. We might end up dressing like we think biblical people dressed. We might end up doing things that are actually contrary to the point of the original instruction. The result is a kind of hermeneutical Amishness.

This is not, strictly, a matter of determining what in the Bible is cultural and what isn't.
  • Every single word of the Bible was cultural. That is to say, it took on meaning within the historical-cultural matrix in which it was written, just as every word we say has meaning in our own historical-cultural framework.
The question is what also applies directly to our culture, what indirectly can apply to our culture, what needs to be applied differently to our culture, and what should not be applied at all to our culture.

This is not relativism. This is finding the real points of continuity rather than blindly misapplying many things in ignorance. I can show the same spirit as Paul had when he greeted other men with a kiss (e.g., 1 Thess. 5:26)... without kissing them today. A holy handshake will do.

Much of the time, we process these issues subconsciously, using spiritual common sense. Often the Christian traditions we are in have processed them for us, drawing on the God-given wisdom of our communities of faith. Most of the time, we don't even realize this processing is happening.

But when we hit the borderline issues, when we can't agree on the common sense, the principle that the words and instructions of Scripture took their first sense from the contexts in which they were written gives us a fixed point (I would argue that the other important fixed point is the consensus of orthodoxy). It allows us to strip the layers of paint on paint that have accrued over the years, to see our own subjectivity more clearly, so that we can work out our salvation with fear and trembling from a standpoint of better contextual understanding.

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