We left off the last section saying we’d look next at how to protect against heresies and controversy.
Spoiler alert! I am about to argue that the single most important thing a true Christian can do here is know how to handle scripture correctly.
This is another enormous topic – so as in all the previous parts we’ll merely be skimming at a high level and touching upon the odd detail here and there. One of the books I recommended in part 1 (How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth) goes into greater detail than I could possibly achieve here – it’s a thoroughly worthwhile starting point for getting deeper into this critical subject.
So, let’s get started with our high-level examination.
What do we mean when we say the Bible is God’s message to us today?
And how do we get God’s message to us today from scripture?
These aren’t rhetorical questions. This is the crux of the problem that faces us. We’ve established that scripture is reliably God’s message as given through the words and hands of select men some 1900+ years ago – and we touched very briefly on how there are ‘accents’ and ‘personalities’ in some of those writings. Now if we extrapolate the fact that scripture is somehow from God and yet given through men, we’ll immediately see that there’s questions of ever-evolving language (beside the problems of translation!), culture, and historical context.
It was here that I presented a diagram to those attending on Wednesday night which tried to show how from long ago (let’s say 1600BC for the sake of this discussion) through to the birth of Christ, there was a progressive revelation. God worked through signs and miracles and prophesy and angels and creation and the orchestration of world events and a whole host of other mechanisms (but notably prophesy and a few select men) to gradually reveal something of Himself.
That is to say: over the period of 1500 or so years, God provided clarity and growth in humanity’s understanding of who He is. And that climaxed (in a sense) with the birth of Christ.
Then after Christ’s birth we have everything Jesus said (which filled in a lot of blanks) and finally John’s vision of Revelation and a number of Epistles (almost entirely written with the context of the New Testament church).
Our mission when studying scripture then is to take a “cut” (a slice, a section) of what God revealed (let’s say the letter of 1 Corinthians), and extract and carry God’s message across from some 1900 years ago (when originally written) into 2020 (today).
Now don’t misunderstand me to say we lift this “cut” of scripture out of its wider context! There are three things that matter when studying scripture: context, context, and context (that’s basic 101 stuff). My point here is to illustrate that we have a problem of difference in culture and historical context (and quite possibly language). Those contexts, coupled with the wider context of scripture, provide us almost everything we need to perform the extraction of God’s message and translate it into today.
This “Work happens here!” part of the diagram is the problem we’re trying to understand. How do we do it? Is there a formal process? Do we just “wing it”? Do we need 10 years of formal training?
It’s here that the road splits and I diverge from many other people. I’m a strong believer that there is a (largely) scientific process (backed by prayer and Holy Spirit’s empowering – this is both a spiritual and practical discipline), and that if done correctly – we should all come out with the same conclusions (although we may present them in different ways and our personalities and experiences will shine through when teaching others).
Formally we typically break the “work” down into three steps:
(Analysing the text to extract God’s message, working out objectively what God was saying through these men of old, drawing out of what was bound to their culture and situation [the relatives] that which is applicable to all time [the absolutes])
(Taking these absolutes [that which is God’s message in a general sense, regardless of culture or situation] and translating it for our target audience [making it applicable])
(Either as we “teach it to ourselves”, or as we teach it to others – either a very simple or very nuanced presentation process!)
So taking Romans 16:16a as an example “cut”. Paul instructs the church at Rome to:
Greet one another with a holy kiss.(Romans 16:16a, ESV)
The exegesis here analyses what Paul said and extracts God’s relative message (to the church at 50AD Rome only: “always greet by kissing“) in order to unearth the absolute message (to all churches anywhere at any time: “always greet one another in such a way as to express your love and respect for one another in the Lord“).
We work this process in large part by “getting ourselves in the 50AD Roman church”. We move ourselves (mentally) back into their context – and understand that what Paul was saying.
If we get ourselves into 50AD Rome, we’ll understand that men would kiss men’s cheeks as a sign of warmest welcoming – it was a cultural and social norm (in fact, to do otherwise would be just plain cold). So to paraphrase 50AD Roman Paul:
When you greet one another, do it with a kiss to show your love and respect in the Lord to one another(Romans 16:16a, paraphrased, as 50AD Rome would understand it.)
Then our Hermeneutics translates absolute message we extracted (“always greet one another in such a way as to express your love and respect for one another in the Lord“) into our target audience – which for 21st Century England is probably something like this:
Greet one another with a warm handshake to show your love and respect in the Lord to one another(Romans 16:16a, the relative message applied to 21st Century England)
Now at this point we’re either saying “This sounds super easy!” (which it is, with such a straightforward half-verse!) or “This sounds overwhelming!”.
Either way, we’re fortunate to not be “on our own”. Beside the most powerful help at our disposal (Holy Spirit, who we can call upon through prayer), we have a plethora of useful tools which God has graced us through church history:
- Good translations
(Note I said “translations“. Looking back at the previous parts of this series we should understand now that having multiple trustworthy functional- and formal- equivalence translations is a minimum, and sometimes [not always] an interlinear or technical commentary can help – like with the various Greek words for “love”, for example.)
- Good commentaries
(Note, again, the plurality. A couple of ‘high-level’ commentaries can help us to grasp the wider context – to understand what was going on historically and culturally. Sometimes they draw us to link this passage with another. Bible study notes [there’s loads] can often be sufficient – remember, we want God’s text primarily, these are secondary sources which might help clear up ambiguity or point us toward a wider context we might otherwise miss.)
- Sermons and teaching
(And finally – other people’s teaching.)
But never forget! The “trust of the passage”! Let the passage say what the passage says. We should be able to get 90% of the way with 90% of passages using nothing more than a good translation and good study Bible notes.
The risk of “over analysing” a passage cannot be overstated. We have passages (and indeed entire books) which are incredibly rich and deep in theology, context, logic, and illustrative wording (Romans and Revelation notably!) – and we have others which are incredibly straight-forward in their documenting historical facts (take Numbers for example).
Yet regardless of which end of the extreme the passage is, we can “over analyse” the text. Always let the “main thing be the main thing” – identify the “trust of the passage” and don’t overcomplicate it!
Shaping the way we speak and think
Finally on this subject – let me say that it’s important that we move beyond saying “because the Bible says so”. Going back to Romans 16:16a once more – if the Bible says we’re to kiss when we greet, why aren’t we?! It’s “because the Bible says so – in context, with the exegesis performed”.
And I strongly believe that wrong exegesis is 90% of the church’s issue (in a general sense). I mentioned at the very start of this course that I anticipate gender being the biggest issue the church will face in England in my lifetime – and I first publicly stated that back in 2017. How things have changed since then (I’m now writing in 2020).
In the next section I’m going to spend a little short while looking at the exegesis and translation pitfalls surrounding gender – not in order to draw any conclusions around society today (at least, not in this blog series), but in order to demonstrate how bad exegesis and bad translation can trip us up as Christians.