Rector’s Weekly Letter to the Congregation for Sunday, September 29, 2019
Biblical Interpretation II
The Christian in the pew is encouraged to become aware of his/her faith. Read your Bible, understand it, and be equipped to defend what you believe. Familiarize yourself with theology. I am intending to start writing on Systematic Theology in the weekly letters. Every Christian needs to become a theologian of sorts, to know what the Bible says, to know the attributes of God, the doctrine of salvation (Soteriology), yes, all the ten major doctrines of the Christian Faith. Such knowledge leads to a rounded and informed appreciation of who God really is, and it leads to enhanced worship of the almighty. The days for shallow religiosity are of the past. Let us rouse ourselves to study our faith. Have a blessed week.
You will be surprised how liberal interpreters handle texts like Acts 4:12 “Salvation is found in no one else, for there’s is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” Somehow, they dance around it and reach the conclusion that Jesus is not the only savior, that there are other saviors like Muhammed, and Buddha, and Confucius, and others. They interpret uniquely John 14:6 where Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” and the great commission in Matthew 28:18-20, “…All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Liberals think it is wrong for Christians to evangelize people of other religions and anyone anyway. No need. Former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the US, Jefferts Schori, once tried to go to the UN to apologize “on behalf of Christianity” for missionaries having gone to other continents like Africa to take the Gospel of Christ to them. She said it was wrong to do so since Christ is not the only savior. Those people’s religions were as valid as the Gospel of Christ and lead to God as much the Gospel does. That is the stand of liberal theology.
The liberal interpreter will bring in other considerations such as sentimental feelings towards people who are condemned by a text for their sin. The liberal interpreter will feel it is his or her duty to “fight” for such people and then can come up with the weirdest rendering of the meaning of the text. The orthodox interpreter does not ever have such considerations. The same want to present what the text says period, whether it cuts left or right or center. Out of the mouth of a liberal interpreter, you might hear justifications such as “That was a culture dominated by men. That’s why they said that. We are not obligated to obey what they said.” The liberal interpreter will not hesitate to fault prominent figures of the Old Testament, the apostles of Christ, especially Paul, and even ascribe ignorance to Jesus Christ himself about certain things in order to avoid the unpleasant clear teaching of a text of Scripture in favor of one that allows him to espouse what he wants.
The orthodox interpreter comes to the Word of God with great awe attempting as much as it is humanly possible to bring out nothing but what the author meant. The orthodox interpreter desires to make the author of the biblical text speak to the current audience exactly what he/she wanted to speak to the first hearers. So, the orthodox interpreter approaches the text without any agenda as to what meaning he/she favors. Several things are considered by the orthodox interpreter, such as, what was going on? What situation was the author addressing? What was he/she trying to correct or to prevent? How did the original hearers receive the message? Answers to those questions are painstakingly sought, and the rules of biblical interpretation strictly applied to ensure that own ideas are not passed on as the Word of God. The orthodox interpreter allows the evidence of the text to lead him/her to the meaning without any other considerations.
It is from assigning a text as meant for only original hearers, or for them and for all time, that liberalism, legalism, and orthodoxy arise. The liberal interpreter will take a message that was meant for all time and posit that it was meant for the first hearers only and is not for us to obey today and in the future. On the other hand, the legalist will take what was meant for first hearers only and say it was meant for all time. The legalist also often takes a message that was delivered figuratively and requires that it be obeyed literally, such as Jesus telling his hearers to take up their cross daily and interpreting that to mean we must carry literal crosses with us all the time whatever we are doing, at home, at work, in the bathtub, and while in the gym, everywhere. In Romans 16:16, Paul told his readers to salute one another with a holy kiss. The legalist will insist that in the Church we must greet each with a kiss and no other way, that that’s what the Bible commands quoting the said verse as biblical authority. The orthodox will say no, Paul meant to greet each other in a manner appropriate to the culture such as a hug or shaking hands.
For example, one rule of biblical interpretation is that one cannot harvest doctrine from an obscure verse or text which perhaps no one understands fully what it means. This is well illustrated by 1 Corinthians 15:29 in which Paul, in arguing for the truthfulness of the resurrection, asks the question, “If the dead will not be raised, what point is there in people being baptized for those who are dead? Why do it unless the dead will someday rise again?” What on earth is this “baptism for the dead”? It is not mentioned anywhere else in the entire Bible except here. Hermeneutics tells us not to formulate doctrine about baptizing for the dead basing on this verse. Any doctrine arrived at must have the support of the entire sweep of Scripture.
How does an interpreter determine what in the biblical text was meant for the local hearers and was limited to them only, and what was meant for all time? That is where the art of biblical interpretation becomes crucial. The interpreter is not totally left to his own wits though. The field of hermeneutics has put together a series of guidelines to lead the interpreter in a certain direction and to help the same not go another direction. Hermeneutics does not tell the interpreter what meaning to assign to a text. Hermeneutics guides the interpreter on what meaning he/she cannot assign to a text, and what doctrine he/she cannot assert from a text.
The Bible was written to address immediate situations and issues, and at the same time to proclaim teaching about God and the God life true for all time. So, some parts of the Bible were written and meant to be limited to the first hearers only and not beyond, and other parts of the Bible were meant to be for all time. For example, in Philemon 22 Paul told Philemon, “Please prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that God will answer your prayers and let me return to you soon.” That by all means is not for us today to start preparing a guest room for Paul. But when John writes in 1 John 2:15 that “Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you,” he clearly is writing to the people of his day as well to all people of all time including ourselves today.
God has spoken. We have his Word, the Bible. But unfortunately, we are separated from the world of the Bible by History, Geography, Culture, Language, and Ethos. Ethos has been defined as “the characteristic spirit of culture as manifested in its beliefs and aspirations.” A whole era also can have an ethos of its own, such as the Victorian era. All these are very important to consider when attempting to understand the meaning of a text of the Bible.
From Peter, apostle of Jesus Christ, to God’s chosen people who live as refugees scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia [and Fort Collins, Greeley, Loveland, Mead, Longmont, and everywhere]. You were chosen according to the purpose of God the Father and were made a holy people by his Spirit, to obey Jesus Christ and be purified by his blood. May grace and peace be yours in full measure.
1 Peter 1:1-2 (Good News Bible)