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Context and Interpretation
How we read is as important as what we read
A week or so ago, I posted a question to my Facebook. Sometimes I post these kinds of things to stir debate. But this one was more to gauge how my friends read, particularly, the Bible to say what they believe it says.
I only got one answer. And considering the friend who gave it, I already knew sort of what he was going to say or at least how he was likely to answer the question.
The question was inspired by some posts on Threads regarding prescriptive versus descriptive texts. The original poster’s thread was a bit of play about the differences between exegesis and eisegesis. This thought led me down a rabbit hole about the differences between these two types of texts.
So my question to my Facebook friends was this (Yes, I’m aware of the typo):
I have used a lot of words here, though. So before I dig into the answer to the question, let me start by defining some terms.
Exegesis is the practice of interpreting or finding a critical explanation or interpretation of a particular text. It is usually used in a religious context in speaking about reading that group’s scriptures. One is reading the text and extracting the meaning from it.
Eisegesis, on the other hand, looks at a text and, instead of trying to draw meaning out, brings meaning into the text and does not necessarily concern itself with what the original context or intent of the text may have been.
A prescriptive text is like a rule. What is stated in writing is the particular action or attitude you are to take.
A descriptive text is one that describes a certain set of behavior or norms, but it is not telling us that we are required to behave or think in that way.
This whole discussion has been simmering for a long time. How one reads the Bible determines their beliefs, worldview, and what they do or do not do or accept. It can have negative or positive results for themselves and the world around them.
How we read the Bible is extremely important.
A fascinating thing is that people have read the Bible differently from generation to generation, and sometimes differently within the same generation. Despite Christianity’s attempts to place its theology within a neat little package, people have continued to read the Bible differently from each other and debate those differences.
I remember reading once, and I cannot find the source now (so if someone comes across it, I will gladly add it here), that Billy Graham did not think it was necessary to believe that the story of Jonah being swallowed by the giant fish was a literal historical event that actually happened. But he also maintained that the earth was created in 6 literal days. There are others who would interpret both events as poetic language or parable, and even those who would interpret them as completely literal.
St. Augustine often employed an allegorical hermeneutic, for example.
In other words, interpreting the Bible allegorically does not necessarily put one outside the bounds of Orthodoxy, at least not when speaking of the broader Christian family.
The way we decide what to take literally and otherwise is important, though. It is bad form to read the Bible however you feel like at a given time. Yes, you can read the Bible as a parable to make a personalized point, but when you do, it can become divorced from its original contexts and meaning, which can lead to the book losing all meaning for you and others. It is not a slippery slope so much as an adventure in missing the point entirely.
So the way we approach the Bible is important.
To determine whether or not a given text is prescriptive or descriptive we must look at the context. The problem is, contexts change. When you pick up the Bible, you are not picking up a book written by Americans for Americans. Rather, you hold in your hands a book written by Middle Eastern men to other Middle Eastern people. And even then, different sections and individual books and letters were written to more specialized and specific groups of people. And those original recipients had their own context in which they were reading or hearing the stories.
Even more importantly, the Bible a Protestant holds in their hands is different from the one your typical Catholic reads from. Martin Luther was instrumental in the “removing” of certain books from the Bible and placing them within their own separate section that he felt were, in his words, “not considered equal to the Holy Scriptures, but are useful and good to read."
Later, protestant publications of the Bible, likely the ones some of you read from daily, do not include the Apocrypha between the covers at all.
So when we approach the Bible, we are hearing those stories and letters within our own context. We are hearing words written to someone entirely different from us and attempting to bring that meaning forward into an entirely different time and place. It is, therefore, not hard to imagine that there would be passages that do not have a literal application in our time and place.
Muddying the waters, though, is the fact that different individuals and groups of Christians understand different passages from each other as not applying to us today. This is where most of our arguments happen. We are no longer debating the main, core tenants that make up Christian Orthodoxy. We have that down.
Rather, what we are debating are the implications of our Orthodoxy for things like abortion, homosexuality, and patriotism. Important matters, for sure, but none of them are the matters that determine whether or not someone is a Christian.
According to broader Christian orthodoxy, being a Christian is “by grace, through faith”. This is plainly Biblical.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Our actions do not get us there. Saying the right words is not the key. The act of choosing the right congregation is not salvific in any way. Adhering to the correct set of rules is not the path toward salvation. So, it stands to reason, that how one reads the Bible, whether allegorical or literally, whether as a timelessly applicable set of rules or as more broadly useful for “teaching and training” matters little outside the maintaining of unity within a specific congregational context. One should avoid doing, for example, what Benoni Stinson did when he went into Calvinist congregations preaching that salvation was a personal decision rather than God making the first move of choosing who they were going to save, which led to eventual turmoil, disunity, and a splintering of the Baptist church.
This all raises the question of what we are supposed to do with some of the more controversial passages of the Bible. The current big debate, since the Constitutional right to an abortion was struck down by the Supreme Court, is over the issue of LGBTQIA rights, and more specifically transgender issues. There are endless citations of a handful of cherry-picked passages condemning homosexuality, and they are being read outside their original contexts as though they have a timeless application to even American culture today. Our current understanding of homosexuality is being read into them to make them say something to a culture that is vastly different from the one in which they were originally written.
The people doing this are the same ones who wear mixed fabric, eat shrimp and bacon, and marry people of a different race from themselves. In fairness, these types of “unclean” things were done away with by the earliest of Christians, at least in theory, when God told one of the apostles, “Do not call anything that I have made unclean”.
Homosexuality is only an example, though. The main point here is that how the Christian reads and understands the Bible is vitally important. It can have positive or damaging results for everyone around them. And sadly, we have seen as much destruction as we have building up, and very little in the way of willingness to repent of those destructive behaviors and tendencies.
In 2007, a group of Christian scholars apologized to the Muslim community for the Crusades and the "War on Terror”. They were openly criticized for doing so and even accused of equating Jesus and Mohammed. In criticizing the apology, it was even stated that the War on Terror “was started by Muslims against innocent men, women and children, for whatever that might be worth.”
The leaders and scholars who penned the apology were doing what Jesus specifically said his followers were to do, turn the other cheek and offer forgiveness and even what there is Old Testament precedent for (repentance for national sins). Yet the response was to say, in so many words, that is not what Jesus meant. Because “they” started it.
This is a prime example of how the way we read the Bible can have an impact on everyone around us.
In Genesis, God says to Noah,
And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being.
“Whoever sheds human blood,
by humans shall their blood be shed;
for in the image of God
has God made mankind. (Genesis 9:5-6)
Later in the Bible, this is interpreted as law. What you do to other people, is to be done to you in equal measure. But, when Jesus comes along in the story, he says that actually, no, this is not the way this is supposed to work. But pulled from its original story context, it became the law of the land. But was this a command, or could it be, or have been, interpreted as prophetic? What if it was not intended to be what people were supposed to do but rather what would happen if they did? Because what God goes on to say to Noah is,
As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it.
It is as if God was telling them, “You go do your job and let me do mine.”
That difference in understanding has led to all sorts of terrible results. All sorts of retaliatory war and death and needless cycles of violence. All this from reading a (potentially) descriptive text as though it were a prescribed set of actions.
The point is this: we need to be careful how we read and interpret the Bible. But we also need to be open to the possibility that we might have it wrong, as well as being open to the fact that there might be other ways of viewing the Bible that are correct alongside ours. Open to the possibility that we are in a time of transition from one form of faith into another. Open to the possibility of moving forward instead of remaining stagnant or even moving backward.
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