Editor’s Note: Tom Beutel, a regular contributor to PeaceSigns, is Professor Emeritus of Computer Science at Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Balancing Acts is a monthly feature of PeaceSigns and appears the second week of each month.
by Tom Beutel
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.
2 Timothy 2:15 (NRSV)
Disagreements among Christians often originate when individuals or groups interpret the Bible differently. Differences arise for many reasons: lack of understanding of the context of the passage, personal “filters” we bring to reading scriptures, and possibly even different translations.
Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart in their book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth emphasize that
the Bible was not written directly for us. It was written using language, ideas, and cultural and historical specifics related to the author and intended audience. Nevertheless, the stories, principles, and revelations contained in the Bible are applicable to us in the current day; that is, the Bible has both historical particularity and eternal relevance.
Understanding what a portion of scripture means is a two-step process:
- exegesis: understanding what the text meant “there and then,” given its genre, historical and cultural context, vocabulary, thought patterns, content and literary context. Reference material such as a good Bible dictionary must be used for history and culture (unless one is an expert in such matters.) Literary context considers words in sentences, as well as text that precedes and follows. A key question is “What’s the point.
- hermeneutics: understanding what the text means in the current time and culture, “here and now.” Proper hermeneutics depends on good exegesis. “A text cannot mean what it never meant.” (Fee and Stuart) In applying the text to the current day consider:
An important element in understanding scripture is allowing ourselves to be guided by the Holy Spirit. But, this requires some care if we are to avoid imprinting our own ideas on a text and claiming that the Holy Spirit has revealed a particular understanding.
According to the NIV Study Bible, “The teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit (what is commonly called illumination) does not involve revelation of new truth or the explanation of all difficult passages of Scripture to our satisfaction. Rather, it is the development of the capacity to appreciate and appropriate God’s truth already revealed.” ( a study note on I John 2:27, italics added)
As we work at understanding what a text meant “there and then,” it is important to remember that different parts of the Bible use different literary forms: narrative history, genealogies, chronicles, laws, poetry, proverbs, prophecy, biographical sketches, parables, letters, sermons, and apocalypses. (Fee and Start). Proper understanding requires taking genre into account. A narrative history typically follows people and events over a period of time, while a letter typically focuses on a specific problem or set of problems. Poetry expresses the thoughts and feelings of the poet while a sermon or a proverb is intended to teach a lesson.
Finally, in applying texts to the current day (hermeneutics) we sometimes run into situations where the original meaning may be limited to the original historical and cultural context. But one must be careful in making this judgment. Here are several considerations to see if a text has present day relevance. (Fee and Stuart in the context of understanding the Epistles, thus their emphasis on the New Testament.)
(1) Is the text part of the central core message of the Bible or dependent on or peripheral to it?
(2) Is the issue in the text one which the New Testament sees as inherently moral or not?
(3) Is the issue in the text one for which there is a uniform and consistent witness throughout the New Testament?
(4) Is the text a general principle or an application of a principle to a specific situation?
(5) Is the issue in the text one for which there was only a single cultural option?
Women’s roles in the church. This issue would be seen as culturally relative since: it is not inherent in the core message of the Bible as a whole (human sin, God’s love, redemption through Christ, etc.); it is not treated uniformly in Scripture (women have leadership roles in some places, and seem to be denied them in others); it is probably a specific situation in Paul’s letters responding to problems reported to him; and there was only one cultural option open to Paul – in his time women were considered inferior to men, did not receive education, etc.
Divorce (and remarriage). This issue would not be seen as culturally relative, but as applicable to all time (eternal relevance) since: it is inherent in Biblical idea of covenant and is representative of the relationship between Christ and the church; the New Testament (including the teachings of Jesus) see it as a moral issue; the New Testament is consistently opposed to divorce; it is a general principle, not an application to a specific marriage; it was not the only option as divorce was allowed in Biblical cultures.
Here are links to some resources related to Biblical interpretation:
How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, Fee and Stuart, Zondervan, 2003: http://www.amazon.com/How-Read-Bible-All-Worth/dp/0310246040
Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible: http://www.amazon.com/Eerdmans-Dictionary-Bible-David-Freedman/dp/0802824005
The Holy Spirit and Hermeneutics, Daniel B. Wallace: https://bible.org/article/holy-spirit-and-hermeneutics
Bible Gateway for Online Bible Translations: https://www.biblegateway.com/