Over the years I’ve talked to a number (pick a number, any number) of people about the need to understand the cultural, historical as well as theological contexts of the Bible. More than once, I’ve had people respond with something like, “Shouldn’t the Bible meaning be clear? Why would God gives us the Bible, and make it so we can’t just read it and understand it for ourselves, without learning history, etc.?” I’ve also had people say, “It says it right here, in plain English. I believe the Bible means what it says.” (as Dr. Suess may continue: … and says what it meant, the Bible is faithful, 100%.)
Continuing the theme of my last post, Authority Issues, let’s take a very quick look at these issues.
To respond to the first question, I would remind these people that we have a God to revealed Himself as a man who teaches in parables, so that “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.” (He who has ears, let him hear.) So, at the very least, we have established a precedent for this kind of cryptic communication. I would also point out that Jesus’ disciples were often befuddled, even when Jesus was being clear. Again, a precedent. He who has ears …
But, there are other considerations; I propose that the Bible wasn’t always as hard to understand as it may be now, due to the Bible having been removed, by the church and by time, from its original context. Now, most of us see that the Old Testament can only be properly understood in the context of Israel’s history, which, for the most part, it also conveniently teaches. Paul, when addressing his Gentile audiences, did his best to provide that context, without forcing Gentiles to adopt the Jewish culture (as the “super apostles” apparently were doing, among other things). So, again we have a precedent for reading the Bible in its proper cultural context. Remember, too, that it is the church who removed the Bible from it’s 1st Century, Jewish/Greek context (such as the Roman church, who put everything in a Roman context, the Enlightenment church who put the Bible in a Modern context, and us in the U.S who insist on putting everything in our context).
When something as important as the Bible is removed from its context, I think we have an obligation to bring forward and teach the context as well; this is, I believe, a failure of the church in more often then not, teaching the Bible either isolated from any context, or simply presuming our own equally applies. We are now so far removed from the 1st Century church, not just culturally but in our entire worldview, so that we have a bit of work to do to reconnect.
In other words, it is not God who inspired a cryptic, difficult-to-understand Word, it is the Church who muddied it up. It is, I think, quite presumptuous of us to assume that God has magically created the Bible to be instantly translatable into all languages without regard for history, culture and philosophy. Now, I believe that the Gospel is, in fact, translatable across cultural boundaries, but I also believe that this is part of our challenge, to do it properly. I think it is also presumptuous, and arrogant, for us to expect that we shouldn’t have to “work” at understanding and applying God’s Word. It may even be God’s desire that we work a bit – in cooperation with those around us – to constantly rediscover Truth and learn to apply it in our own circumstances.
I think we are in error if we expect that God has not only inspired the original writing, but has absolutely controlled every transcription and translation. We may wish God to be that way, but it is clear from experience and Scripture that this is not God’s M.O.; the disagreement of various translations themselves demonstrate that God will indeed allow us to err. God does not keep us from error, but rather, He graces us with the way back. I think most of us are aware that later manuscripts contain some things that are not found in earlier manuscripts, indicating that a scribe may have added “clarification” here or there, or simply added stuff that possibly shouldn’t belong. We discover error, and by the grace of God, we repair it. If you believe in a God who prevents us from making errors, then you probably have the wrong religion.
Today, we live in an instant, microwave world. However, if you invest $10-20 in a couple of good, New York cut steaks, you’re not going to toss them in a microwave. No, you may marinate them for a day or two, then probably grill them slowly over some hot coals, and serve them with the appropriate side dishes and a good bottle of wine. If you believe with me that the Bible – Old and New Testament – is the inspired, authoritative Word of God, then isn’t it, too, worth marinating, preparing and serving properly?
As Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”