Thursday, December 21, 2006

7 Overview of the Text to Life Approach

In the next few pages we want to run through the typical process by which someone might move from text to life. In general, there are two "players" in this process: 1) the text and 2) us. Some speak of these two as the two "horizons" of the text.

We have seen in the section on hermeneutics that the original world of the text was an ancient world. While God is not limited to the world of the original meaning, we surely respect the original meaning. We wouldn't like it if someone listening to us completely ignored what we were trying to say. Surely Christian love at least respects the world of the original text, even if it is not limited to it.

We have then overall a two step "text to life" process:

1. Determine as much as possible the original meaning.
2. Determine as much as possible the relationship between that meaning and us.

We will briefly run through this process in the next few pages. For now, here is an overview of what the process might look like.

1. Pray!
It is bad theology to think that prayer doesn't apply to study with your mind. Our minds are all too fallible in their reasoning. And there are many points where we simply do not have enough information to know the original meaning or how it relates to us today. We could sure use the Spirit's guidance past these moments of uncertainty. By all means, pray before you begin the process of moving from text to life.

2. Determine what the original text was.
We do not have any of the original copies of any of the books of the Bible. We have very early ones--especially compared to the works of other ancient writers like Plato or Caesar. But there is enough difference in wording between these ancient copies of the various books of the Bible that we are forced to choose between different ways the original texts might have read.

This is why the King James Version (KJV) sometimes has different words than other English versions. Thus if you look up Acts 8:37 is almost all modern versions, it isn't there in the main text. The man who divided the Bible up into verses in the 1500's was using the same basic "manuscripts" that the KJV was based on, so he assigned a verse number to Acts 8:37. But since then, we have found much older copies of the New Testament than the KJV translators had in 1611. The vast majority of those who have studied this issue agree that the relatively late medieval copies of the Bible that the KJV was based on were not as accurate to the original as those that stand behind almost all other English translations today.

We can debate whether we really need to determine the original wording to hear God in Scripture. But if you are aiming at the original meaning, you will want to take this science called "textual criticism"--the science of determining the original wording--into account. This brief guide will not go into the process of how to go about deciding what the original text of a passage might have read. But you should be aware of this step in the process, one that you will have to let someone else do for you unless you want to learn this skill. We should be immensely thankful to the many scholars who have devoted their whole lives to determining the likely way the original text read.

3. Observation: What does the text say?
Whether you are moving from "text to life" or from "life to text," one skill you will want to have is the skill of "observation," the ability to distinguish between what the text says and what it doesn't say. Probably well over half the things Christian groups debate about today have to do with things the Bible doesn't even say. The person who is observing accurately what the text says is the person that is asking the kinds of questions that the text wants to answer. These may not be the questions we are asking or the questions we need answered, but they are the questions that the text originally was asking and answering.

There are two sets of observation skills. The one is the ability to grasp the "big picture" of a book of the Bible, or maybe a section of a book, or even of a passage. This mode of observation sees where one thought ends and another begins, and how one thought relates to the next one. A second set of skills is able to observe the fine details of a verse or smaller passage. You will almost certainly need to work in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek for your detailed observations to be accurate to the original meaning. We will briefly discuss both these skills in the next section on observation.

4. Interpretation: What did the text mean?
If good observation skills raise the kinds of questions the text is wanting to answer, good interpretation skills come up with the most likely answers to those questions. We saw in the section on hermeneutics that context is what determines the meaning of words. Good interpretation of the original meaning will correctly place the text you are interpreting in the right context.

We've already mentioned some of the key contexts to take into consideration. There is, for example, both the immediate and broader literary context of the text you are looking at. Given the train of thought that leads up to the words you are trying to interpret, what do those words most likely mean. Then there is the broader literary context. Given what the author says in similar contexts in this same book or in other books by the same author, what are these words likely to mean here? The context of genre is a larger literary context that can have a significant effect on how you take certain words. And then the historical context places the words in question against a broader historical background.

One key tool in interpretation is the word and phrase study. To be sure, many preachers and interpreters have a kind of "magical" view of word meanings that makes for interesting preaching but probably isn't quite accurate to the way words actually work. A whole previous generation of scholars also labored under a number of fallacious ways of using word studies. These slight misunderstandings have not prevented God from speaking to be sure! But we will briefly suggest how we might preach and use words with greater integrity in our section on interpretation.

5. Integration: Mapping the Texts to Each Other
Our section on hermeneutics mentioned that the individual books of the Bible do not connect their individual teachings to one another. We are forced to do that from the outside looking in. Joining these teachings together, mapping one part of the Bible to another, is a theological task. When we say that "the Bible says" or "the biblical worldview says" what we are usually referring to is a biblical theology that we ourselves have created by gluing the parts of Scripture together. It is crucial to recognize that we are the ones who are forced to provide this glue because the Bible itself, "Scripture alone," does not provide it for us.

Sometimes the glue we use to connect the individual materials of the Bible together can be a glue very like the biblical material itself. So Paul tells us how to "glue" the Old Testament teaching on the Sabbath to his teaching. When we recognize that he was writing to Gentiles and Matthew likely to Jewish Christians, we can map their teaching on the law to each other in a way that we are doing to be sure, but that lies fairly close to the biblical world.

At other times, we are forced to bring much more of ourselves and the subsequent history of Christianity into this integration process. For example, when integrating the biblical teaching on women in ministry we today are wrestling with an issue that calls for much more sophisticated glue than many other issues. Here is a subject where from the Old Testament to various situations within the New Testament we have quite mixed signals. Since we are the ones integrating this teaching, the task of integration easily blurs into the task of appropriation because the flow of revelation and the trajectory of the new covenant are involved in the dialog.

6. Appropriation
If one is moving strictly from text to life, the final step is the appropriation of the biblical text to life. If you believe you have "found the center" of biblical teaching on an issue, making the jump to today can involve any number of considerations. For example, you may want to look at points of continuity and discontinuity between a specific passage you are looking at and our world today. You will want to locate that passage within the "flow of revelation" or the "new covenant trajectory." You will want to consider how the Christians of the ages have dealt with that passage or issue--if virtually all Christians have taken a particular position on an issue throughout the centuries, that seems significant! You will want to listen to the Holy Spirit and use "spiritual common sense." Then make the jump from text to life!

In the rest of this part of the guide, we will go in slightly more depth on two of these skills: observation and interpretation. Then in the final section--"life to text"--we will explore integration and appropriation in greater depth.

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