Who is the Bible for?

I’m calling on bible scholars to take a moment of prayerful self-examination as you consider this from P. E. Hughes:

“The Bible is for everyone. It is not the preserve of the specialist. To allow it to become the book of the expert, on whose pronouncements the average person is dependent, is an abuse and inversion that can lead only to disastrous results. The effect is to take the Bible out of the hands of those for whom it is intended, that is, the totality of mankind. Whatever the difficulties and obscurities associated with particular passages (on which the expert may be able to throw some light), not only is the Bible’s central message, in all its plainness and constancy, addressed to everyone, but it is also accessible to everyone. It is especially pertinent to the one who recognizes in himself or herself the sinner for whom Christ died, and therefore the one who needs above all else to hear and heed the good news of redemption and reconciliation in Christ.” P.E. Hughes, “The Problem of Historical Relativity” in Scripture and Truth, p. 176

I think that Hughes’s remarks relate most directly to scholars who do their work among people who already have the Bible translated into their native tongue. That being said, I doubt that anyone would disagree with Hughes’s statement in so many words. Nevertheless, I wonder how many of us might disagree implicitly by the way we teach and preach.

Test yourself on this. Do you teach and preach in such a way that the Bible’s meaning becomes plain to your hearers? Or do you teach and preach in such a way that the Bible becomes confusing to your hearers? Do you teach the word such that people feel inadequate to read their Bibles by themselves? Or do you teach in the way that the Bible says gifted teachers should teach? Ephesians 4:11-13 says that God gives pastors and teachers to the church,

“for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ.”

Notice that there is an equality of “faith” and “knowledge” in view here, not a differential. That means that all of our scholarship and teaching ought to have as its goal a leveling effect. We want everyone to see Christ with equal clarity when they open the scriptures. We are to be facilitators of that kind of knowledge, not gate-keepers.

So a hearty “amen!” to the late Dr. Hughes. The Bible is for everyone. It is not the preserve of the specialist.


  • Donald Johnson

    The Bible was written FOR everyone, but it was NOT written TO us, it was written to people in the 1st century or earlier.

    To think that is is all plain TO US risks taking text out of context in a big way and misunderstanding what God wants to say to us.

  • RD

    Donald makes a very good point that is often overlooked by modern readers of scripture. The biblical texts are written to a specific reader/s (or group of hearers who had the texts read to them) in, or before, the first century a.d.

    It’s been my experience that we tend to view scripture as the divine word to ALL people in as much as they read it and come to the same theological interpretations that we do when we read it. 🙂

  • Nate

    “Whatever the difficulties and obscurities associated with particular passages (on which the expert may be able to throw some light), not only is the Bible’s central message, in all its plainness and constancy, addressed to everyone, but it is also accessible to everyone. It is especially pertinent to the one who recognizes in himself or herself the sinner for whom Christ died, and therefore the one who needs above all else to hear and heed the good news of redemption and reconciliation in Christ.”

    Donald, while I understand your premise, your statement insinuates that one has to understand the 1st century world in order to understand the bible. Dr. Hughes statement refutes that and I agree.

    I would argue that the overwhelming majority of believers never understood the 1st century when they heard the gospel and received Christ as their Savior. Obviously, more in-depth study of Scripture would shed light on your insinuation, but the gospel saves those who hear it and receive it, regardless of the audience to whom it was originally written.

  • D.R. Randle


    Perhaps another question you should add is, “Do you teach in such a way as to instruct others on how to interpret the Bible correctly for themselves?” I certainly believe that those who have been equipped to teach ought to not only model correct interpretation, but teach others to do it as well. In this way there is a “leveling” as well.

  • Denny Burk


    Perhaps it wasn’t clear, but that’s actually what I meant by the words “to read their Bibles by themselves.” I believe that when preachers and teachers do their teaching well, they give their hearers a model for proper interpretation.


  • Donald Johnson

    Some children accept Jesus, so the gospel is not that hard to understand.

    Some parts of the Bible are not that hard to figure out, God is love and if one wants to be like God, then one needs to be loving.

    Other parts are incredibly EASY to take out of cultural context and therefore misunderstand. A teacher should explain the cultural context so the student can understand the text, but that does not mean that text is self-explaining.

  • Mark

    I agree the Bible is for everyone. I also agree that teachers and pastors should teach the Bible to the laypeople in a way that the central message is easiest to understand. Finally, I also believe that too many “experts” teach in a way that makes laypeople feel inadequate or condescended upon.

    However, being a student of theology myself and having taught bible studies for some years, I certainly know from experience that many laypeople truly need guidance in how to read/exegete the Bible faithfully and properly. Not that they embrace appallingly heretical stuff but many of them just water-down the demands pf Scripture in such a way that they want to read the challenging parts of Scripture in a way they want to.

  • Donald Johnson

    On Eph 4, believers are FAR from the unity of the faith, so we must strive to keep the unity of the Spirit. Believers disagree about many doctrinal questions, but that does not make them non-believers.

  • Mark

    I agree with Donald about the first century thing. I think one of the things seminary students are taught in hermeneutics classes is that the Bible was not written by modern people living in developed countries. I think we often miss that point and think that the inspired writers had our current mindset. However, I think this time-context thing can be driven too far. Any person, no matter the time period or region of the planet, will know what John 3:16 means.

  • Mark

    Donald wrote: “On Eph 4, believers are FAR from the unity of the faith, so we must strive to keep the unity of the Spirit. Believers disagree about many doctrinal questions, but that does not make them non-believers.”

    It depends on what the doctrinal issue is. If a person denies that the death of Christ is a vicarious and subsitutionary sacrifice for our sins, I would have serious doubts about the veracity of that person’s faith.

  • Chris

    Yes some things were cultural but ultimately there is very little that can be written off as “cultural context”. People use cultural context as an excuse to justify their 21st century behavior!

    The bible itself is clear that it’s for everyone and there is no need for “professional” interpretation!

    1 Timothy 2:4 – God desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

    2 Timothy 3:16-17 – All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.

    Titus 1:1-3 – Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ for the faith of God’s elect and the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness— 2a faith and knowledge resting on the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time, 3and at his appointed season he brought his word to light through the preaching entrusted to me by the command of God our Savior…

  • Donald Johnson

    Anyone might use any reason to justify their behavior and we are all tempted to do this. However, misuse does not disqualify good use of cultural context.

    I need all the help I can get in understanding the Bible. I am not a member of the church in 1st century Corinth and most assuredly I am not Timothy. I am looking over their shoulders at it were and reading Paul’s half of a conversation. Even Peter wrote that Paul was hard to understand, and this in the 1st century.

  • Chris

    Donald that’s true! We are all very good at justifying!

    Cultural context is one criteria to a better understanding God’s word but it’s way too easy and dangerous to write things off as simply cultural especially when there are other words and principles in scripture that support one another!

    My point being that if anyone is rejecting something in Gods word only because of “cultural context” then that in itself is a misinterpretation!

  • BPRjam

    Interesting that someone mentioned John 3:16. When I teach an adult Bible reading class, I ask them what it means. Usually, they say something like, “God loved us SOOOOO much that he gave away his prized possession to have us back.”

    In fact, the Greek work for “so” in “For God so loved” is “houtos”, which means “thusly”, “so” (archaically), or “in this manner”.

    That means John 3:16 isn’t about the extent of God’s love (i.e., he loved us SOOOO much), but is about how God loved us (i.e., “God loved us in this manner…”), which matches much more closely with 1 John 4:9.

    Denny did point out that good translations are very, very important. Hopefully, we all agree on this.

    Does the archaic translation of John 3:16 and the subsequent misinterpretation undermine the ultimate message of God’s love for us through the son? I don’t think so. Does it at least partially undermine the idea of intense participation in God’s love displayed on earth as outlined by Jesus in John 3ff? I believe it does.

    I think my point is that learning how to read the Bible correctly also involves some talk about translations, textual criticism, and politics (which is the only reason I can think of that John 3:16 has not been updated).

    Once that foundation has been laid by wise teachers, biblical interpretation still needs a reasonable dose of humility.

  • Jordan

    I agree with Chris. Cultural context should be noted (and when used properly, it heightens the Bible’s meaning), but cultural context should NEVER be cited as a reason to write off certain texts (ie, about homosexuality or biblical gender roles). We must not be so arrogant to think that our modern way of life is of higher value than the infallible Word of God.

  • Donald Johnson

    Context is everything in interpreting text. Language only exists in cultural context, the meanings of words are derived from the culture.

    And it is entirely possible to miss idioms and technical terms and think a text says something it does not. Yes, in some cases, it is a deeper meaning and what one thought was the basic meaning is roughtly the same, but in some cases the meaning to original readers is not easily discerned and unless you know that context, you WILL misunderstand. In other words, what one might think is the basic meaning IS simply dead wrong and does not correspond to the original meaning.

    For example, the cultural context of the household codes in Scripture is Aristotle’s version of same, but how many teachers teach that? Instone-Brewer does.

    The cultural context of Gen 1 are the creation accounts of the ANE and John Walton’s new book “The Lost World of Genesis One” explains this.

  • Raul Zamora

    Seems that most are missing the point of Dr. Hughes article. It is not about what we can do for ourselves like learning Greek and go to Seminary. But having the faith of little children, which is greater that knowing Greek or Hebrew. I like what Jesus said, about the essential element to enter the Kingdom,
    Mark 10:13-16 (English Standard Version)

    Let the Children Come to Me

    13(A) And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples(B) rebuked them. 14But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, (C) “Let the children come to me;(D) do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 15(E) Truly, I say to you, whoever does not(F) receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” 16And(G) he took them in his arms and blessed them,(H) laying his hands on them.

    I think we sometimes that we get caught up in our own self-rightness, and think because of our head knowledge, that we are above the so called “average Joe Christian”

    Has far as BPRjam comments: Are you implying that all the English translations are incorrect? What does the word “so” mean in English?
    Learning to read the Bible is easier than you think, it’s self proclaimed scholars that make it much harder. Studying Calculus, Law, or Economics is much harder.
    And yes the bible was written to Us and all of God’s children, in every generation.

  • Nate

    Amen Raul! That is exactly what I was attempting to say in an earlier post. Dr. Hughes is making a fundamental point: The gospel is for everyone and the gospel is understood by reading the bible. Yes, there are deeper levels of study of Scripture that requires understanding of culture, etc., but Rom 10:9-10 doesn’t need a 1st century understanding. Neither does John 3:16.

  • Donald Johnson

    On those gospel verses, one does need to understand that “believe” does not mean just “mental assent” but “active trusting”. That is, it is POSSIBLE to read these verses as saying much less than they actually imply when understood in cultural context.

  • BPRJam

    Raul (#17):

    I am indeed indicating that every English translation I have come across has done a poor job translating John 3:16 into English. I say “poor” rather than “incorrect”, because in some circumstances in English the word “so” can mean “in this manner”. For instance, we can so “Make it so”. This is the King James meaning of “so”.

    But in recent times, if I say “I’m so tired”, it means “I’m really, really tired.”, and not “I’m tired in this manner.”

    People are, of course, free to disagree with me on this, but they would do best to consider the facts before doing so, and ask themselves why translations follow the archaic King James English on this verse. Could it be political?

    It may appear that I am trying to muddy the waters, but nothing could be farther from the case. Instead, I’m arguing that robust understanding (not merely reading!) of our scriptures helps us plumb it’s depths. I believe good scripture reading necessarily involves robust Christian community to arrive at orthodox understanding, and includes all of our collective experiences, education, and daily challenges. We should rarely interpret on our own, because our tendency is to bend the Bible to address our individual questions and struggles. Instead, the Bible tells us the story we are to participate in – it shifts our view from us to God’s action in the world. In other words, scripture is for everyone – just in a different way than it seems some are interpreting Hughes. The Bible is for everyone – but, for the most part, individuals should use caution for all the reasons this comment thread has already generated.

    It has taken me many years of journey to arrive here, and although I am still in process on the proper Christian hermeneutic, I have found it much more transformative than assuming the Bible is “plain and clear” and I arrive at understanding in my daily “quiet time” (which I still attempt, but use in a different way).

  • RD

    Donald wrote, “…in some cases the meaning to original readers is not easily discerned and unless you know that context, you WILL misunderstand. In other words, what one might think is the basic meaning IS simply dead wrong and does not correspond to the original meaning.”

    This is so true. It even happens, at times, to the writers of the biblical texts. An example is Matthew’s mistranslation of the verse in Isaiah and the reference to the word virgin which Matthew uses in his birth account of Jesus. He was quoting from the Greek translation of the OT which mistranslated the original Hebrew word (thus mistranslating “young woman” to read “virgin”).

  • Donald Johnson


    One does not need a 1st century understanding to accept Jesus. One does need a 1st century understanding to understand everything he said.

  • Brian Krieger

    In a nutshell, I think that we can import our culture too much, but to say that we must understand the bible only if we understand exactly what was in the mind of Paul, Peter, Amos, etc. is dangerous at best. We do use culture, but the bible was authored by God to all, not (to take the example above) authored by Paul to Timothy (highlighting the difference between author and scribe, essentially). To me, to view the bible through our culture first or through (whatever century) Jewish culture first is a gross importation of culture.

    In a slightly related link:
    Justin Taylor

  • Nate

    Donald, I understand that and even agreed with what you said in earlier posts. However, Dr. Hughes’ point, “To allow it [bible] to become the book of the expert, on whose pronouncements the average person is dependent, is an abuse and inversion that can lead only to disastrous results.”

    One disastrous result is RD’s proclamation that Matthew mistranslated Isaiah in telling us that the virgin birth was a fulfillment of the prophecy.

    The average person has for hundreds of years simply read the bible, been converted, and lived by its content. The trained theologian, on the other hand, has led millions into nuances about translation and context that have caused much chaos.

    As the title of Denny’s post and Dr. Hughes’ comments state: Who is the Bible for? It is for everyone.

  • Donald Johnson

    I do not believe Matthew mistranslated Isaiah, he was quoting the LXX. What Matthew is doing in some of his quoted prophecies has been a subject of much discussion, which I do not want to get into here. But it is true that at first glance it can appear he is “cheating” in his quotes. By this I mean that it is non-obvious how some of his quoted prophecies even apply, they can APPEAR to be totally out of context.

  • BPRJam


    You wrote:
    “in some cases the meaning to original readers is not easily discerned and unless you know that context, you WILL misunderstand. In other words, what one might think is the basic meaning IS simply dead wrong and does not correspond to the original meaning.”

    But this seems to clash with Luther’s perspicuity of scripture. In his essay, he challenges the Sophists to come up with an example of where the “things” of scripture (Luther’s words) are easily misinterpreted. Can you take that challenge?

    Keep in mind that Luther distinguishes between “places” in scripture and “things” in scripture. He readily admits that places in scripture are obscure.

  • Donald Johnson

    There are WIDE variations about some doctrines among Christians and some are not even esoteric doctrines, but basic ones. And each church and interpreter claims they are basing what they teach on what the Bible teaches. It is obvious that they cannot all be correct, so discernment is needed.

    And translation involves interpretation, it cannot be helped as it involves word choices and discerning what was meant.

    On cultural context, essentially no one understood the meaning of the question in Mat 19:3 for over 1700 years and many still do not.

  • Donald Johnson

    ESV Mat 19:3 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?”

    Many people, including some teachers, say this means the Pharisees are asking if there is any reason for divorce. This is what it APPEARS to be saying based on the way it is translated. However, this is wrong, when the text is understood in cultural context.

    There are 2 technical terms, one which might be figured out correctly, but the other would be very hard to figure out.

    The first is what is translated as “lawful” and in this context it means “in the Torah of Moses” what we call the Pentateuch. This MIGHT be able to be figured out by someone from the context of knowing the Pharisees were asking the question.

    The second is what is translated as “any cause”. This one will stump anyone that does not know the 1st century context of the debate between Shammai and Hillel. Shammai said that Deu 24:1-4 just allowed sexual immorality as a reason for divorce. Hillel pointed out that there appeared to be an extra word “thing” in Deu 24:1 and therefore ANY thing or any reason for divorce was valid.

    So the question is really about how to interpret Deu 24:1 and they are asking Jesus what does he say.

    Jesus proceeds to correct 7 misinterpretations of the Pharisees, including the Hillel one mentioned above, but unless you know WHAT the Pharisees taught on the subject of marriage and divorce, how would anyone be able to figure this out? This is what I mean as an example of cultural context being needed.

  • Brian Krieger


    I disagree that you must understand Shammai and Hillel. Christ gives His context (He is the author, after all) to understanding. The fact that Christ says “except” tells us that He is speaking not on the absolute of whether or not, but in a nod toward the “when is it legal”. Knowing the culture certainly sheds light on what the Pharisees’ motivations were, but the real question Christ is answering is, well, shown in what He answers.

  • Donald Johnson

    I assume you are referring to Matthew’s “exception clause”. This is in Mat 19:9 where he finally answers the question asked in Mat 19:3, he disagree with Hillel. The earlier stuff in correcting other misinterpretations of the Pharisees.

    It is critical to see that the scope of the question is limited to Deu 24:1 and is not a general question. Yes, Jesus goes WAY beyond the question and in effect answers questions that were not even asked to try to show the askers where they went wrong.

  • James K.

    I love this post and the subsequent discussion. I think the comments illustrate, in part, the problem that P.E.Huhes may have been adressing.

    We put up unnecesary road blocks in front of the average layman when we say that we must know historical context of a passage before we can know what it really means.

    This has the result (hopefully inadvertantly) of puting the inspired text at the mercy of archeology and historiography.

    Does history help us understand some portions of Scripture? Certainly. Are we severly handicaped in understanding the Word if we do not know the political and cultural situation of 1st century Palestine? Certainly Not.

    The text itself gives us all we need for salvation and sanctification.

    I have heard preachers spend so much time talking about historical context when preaching from a passage that it leaves the congregation feeling that it is not enough to just sit down with a good translation and read the Bible. They need supplemental works or else the miss the real meaning of a given text.

    This is a shame.

    (sorry for any misspellings…)

  • RD

    Interesting comments. Donald once again makes a very good point when he states that many different denominations interpret theology differently based on their readings of scripture. Baptists believe in the eternal security of the believer. Nazarenes read the same Bible and teach that one can lose their salvation. Some read scripture and see a rapture of the church prior to an earthly time of tribulation. Others read the same bible and see a rapture happening in the midst of tribulation, and still others at the end of this tribulation (still others don’t even see a rapture, per se).

    As to the divorce discussions in Matthew’s gospel, how do we address the fact that in Mark and Luke there is no “exception” clause? If one reads Matthew one gets a different view of whether or not divorce is permissable from the view one gets when reading Mark or Luke.

  • Derek

    James K., I agree with you.
    I’m so weary of scholars who jump through all kinds of complicated hoops and use academic language to justify what they simply want to believe, even though it contradicts a simple reading of the text. Ironically, it is often academics and not the ordinary rube who take us down some very kooky and un-biblical paths, e.g. dispensational premillenialism, open theism, egalitarianism and now, an increasing acceptance of homosexuality. The common thread between both liberal and conservative academics is that they have a temptation/tendency to rely heavily upon secondary commentaries and theories.

    Interestingly, the same formula was at work in Jesus’ own day, when many religious leaders were more familiar with Hillel than Moses himself. They also constructed complicated, academic frameworks that made Scripture unapproachable to the common man, even while ignoring clear statements, warnings and teachings, which is why Jesus said “You strain at a gnat and swallow a camel.”. Over the years, I’ve come to believe that Christ will ultimately repeat these same words to many a religious teacher in our own day.

  • Brian Krieger


    Well said (and James K., too!).

    I might not categorize dispensationalism as quite in the category as open theism, egalitarianism and the acceptance of homosexuality, though (taking a plain text and obscuring it or expanding it as Donald does above). But I am not adroit enough to defend either side (not that I am in other categories, either, mind you).

  • Muff Potter

    Such a wide and diverse range of comments, and that’s a good thing.
    It’s precisely why I take a Jeffersonian approach to Scripture, but not necessarily in lock-step with all of Jefferson’s views on Scripture.

  • Chris

    Spot on Derek!

    “Ironically, it is often academics and not the ordinary rube who take us down some very kooky and un-biblical paths,”

  • Scott

    I think that’s a gross generaliztion Derek. Secular academics may indeed go down some strange paths, but Christian academics work diligently to bring clarity to the biblical text. Yes, they make mistakes.

    If we’re speaking in generalities, I would contend that the plain, simple reading is often the culprit of strange readings of the text. As Donald said, the text is for us, not to us. That’s a big difference. If we’re truly serious about wanting to understand the text, what’s wrong with studying the first-century world? Why shouldn’t we work diligently to situate the text? That’s not just the domain of biblical scholarship, but also the responsibility (IMHO) of faithful biblical study.

  • Donald Johnson

    If any readers wish to be Bereans and study about what I wrote on Mat 19, I strongly recommend David Instone-Brewer’s book, “Divorce and Remarriage, the Social and Literary Context.” This is the book that showed me that I could misunderstand Scripture in a big way by not understanding the cultural context.

    A “simple reading of the text” or “plain reading of the text” is often a rationale given for understanding text out of context, and ANY text taken out of context can become a pretext for almost anything.

  • Brian Krieger

    I suppose I see act as a Berean means study the scriptures, not culture first, then the scriptures. I see the view of the adding information not originally in the bible as a contradiction of the idea of being a Berean (i.e. eagerly studying the scriptures). And, I suppose, saying culture is what ultimately defines the meaning is flawed since we don’t a) know Christ’s thoughts (to speak specifically to this) and b) we still only have a good idea of Jewish culture. You have to assume what pieces of culture dictate meaning (and, in this case, attempt to peer into the mind of Christ). Over and over God states that we let the scriptures inform us. I guess I just see that God did write them to us to be understood plainly. I don’t think that it means that all scripture is easy, it’s not, but that’s a fractional exception (ha ha, punny), not a rule.

  • Donald Johnson

    The very words of Scripture are defined by the culture that used those words, except that Scripture gets to define or refine the definitions, but this only happens on occasion.

    What you end up doing, is teleporting text from its original context into your own context. Everyone does this to some extent, but most try their best to reduce the amount of their doing it.

  • Brian Krieger

    The challenge is teleporting what the scribes (Paul, Peter, David, etc.) thought. Not only is that not something we can do, I don’t think it’s wise to try to discern reading between the lines. If we were to apply that thinking, then, as an example, Matthew would be incorrect in citing Isaiah as a prophetic writing about the messiah, Christ would have been wrong to correct the Jewish culture from Moses’ time, etc. In the end, I think that Christ went out of His way to make a grand example and say stop injecting our (self reasoned) ideals and culture (whether 1st Cen AD, BC or 20th cen AD) into His words. Stop making law say what He didn’t say. We do run the risk of teleporting God’s word into a relativistic cultural setting one way or the other. It seems a plain reading would be preferred over an inferential reading if at all possible. Or so go my thoughts.

    And, just to make sure it isn’t lost, I think that both of us would pray fervently that we understand and apply what we are reading. Problems can arise in both camps (if this issue is taken as an either or, that is). I certainly don’t claim perfect understanding (as you would avoid as well, I think, well, I sure hope ;-)).

  • Chris

    Found this on an atheism website.

    It’s long but very interesting and relevant to this discussion!

    There is extensive interaction between religion and culture: religion influences culture while culture influences religion. Most religious believers acknowledge and emphasize the former, but don’t recognize the extent of the latter, assuming that their religion is based on revelations from an unchanging divinity about absolute standards of conduct. This prevents them from seeing how their religion is culturally conditioned and thus how they attribute political or economic opinions to their god.

    Believers may assume that the Bible is a common touchstone which never changes no matter what the culture, but this is a false sense of security. Christianity is different from one era to the next, from one culture to the next. Christianity as Americans today practice it is different form the Christianity practiced in colonial America and both are different from the Christianity practiced in present-day South Africa, 19th century Japan, and medieval France.

    Inconsistent Originalism

    Few Christians understand or even notice the culturally conditioned ways in which they read and interpret their Bibles. As far as most people are concerned, they are simply reading the Bible the way it was meant to be read and are interpreting it in the manner which the original authors intended it to be interpreted. Steven L. McKenzie writes in How to Read the Bible: History, Prophecy, Literature:

    The recognition of the interpreter’s situation as a factor in appropriating text is nothing new. Christians of all stripes have long recognized it. That is why the few churches today practice foot washing or exchange the “holy kiss,” despite direct commands to do so in the New Testament. Nor is the question of eating meat sacrificed to idols an issue in modem Western churches. These practices are all recognized as cultural, and modern culture has changed. …

    Still, the extent to which the New Testament letters are permeated by the culture that produced them does not always received full consideration by modern interpreters trying to appropriate them. Thus, the text about head covering in I Corinthians 11 has a history of (ab)use and is still used today in some circles to argue for the subordination of women; yet the idea of the female body as an imperfect edition of the male body, upon which the text is based, was a product of an ancient culture and strikes a modern reader as ridiculous.

    Paul himself admits in the passage that he is dealing with a “custom,” even though he presses theology into service for the sake of his rhetorical argument. This raises the question as to whether Paul’s discussions of other issues (e.g., marriage, women’s roles, homosexuality) also reflect his rhetoric and the culture surrounding him and may no longer be tenable for the modem understandings of such matters as gender roles, sexual orientation, and the like.

    These are examples of how the New Testament texts are not only products of a specific culture which is not ours, but also how the text is interpreted based upon the reader’s culture. This isn’t necessarily a problem; the real problem lies is in how few Christians recognize, understand, and acknowledge that this occurs.

    Instead, Christians tend to pretend that their readings of the text stand outside of their culture and that the parts of the text which they emphasize most are also independent of the culture in which they were written. Thus, the pretend to be locking on to eternal truths revealed by God and external to mere cultural habits.

    Christians, whether liberal or conservative, progressive or fundamentalist, don’t have consistent, coherent standards for judging certain passages as still applicable to them and others as cultural products which might be interesting for historical reasons, but not binding anymore. All of these categories have shifted over time in every denomination and church. Christians “wing it” and divide up the text according to political and social preconceptions — in other words, they use thinking which is the product of their own culture in order to decide what is “really” a product of another culture and what isn’t.

    Authors and Readers

    Refusing to acknowledge the cultural influences operating both on reader and author impoverishes any reading created. Cultural influences — the political, historical, social, and economic context — do not invalidate an interpretation because they are part of what makes one’s interpretation their own. The ways people read the Bible in 5th century Rome, 10th century France, or 18th century China would not speak to contemporary Americans as well as modern American interpretations. And that’s fine.

    What is invalidated are attempts to impose those interpretations on others and use those interpretations to impose their own cultural views on others via the political process. This makes the Bible a political and cultural weapon. Insisting that one culturally influenced interpretation be adopted by everyone as the only valid one, thus determining others’ behavior, outlook, and beliefs, is an attempt to end political debate about how people should behave. It’s no coincidence that passages which demand the subordination of certain segments of the population have been read by those who aren’t subordinated as being “eternal truths” rather than cultural products.

    This is how America’s Christian Right fights its culture war in America: demanding that others accept their views — especially views on who should and should not have power, who should and should not dominate — because it’s what the Bible requires. For example, instead of serious debates about whether abortion or capital punishment are appropriate, people trot out the Bible, declare their interpretation as the only valid one, and then insist that all society adhere to what they have proclaimed God’s Will to be.

    There is no debating God’s Will, we can only follow it. Thus there is no substantive political debate, just attempts to cow others into a particular course of action.

  • Derek

    I never said that there isn’t a need or place for academics and scholarship. What I am saying is that we’re kidding ourselves if we think that we can’t or don’t fall into many of the same traps that the religious teachers and leaders of Christ’s own day fell into, i.e. using their position to carve out positions that are convenient for academics/shepherds; allowing cultural pressures/trends to shape interpretation; pretending that Scripture can’t be properly understood by laypersons; forgetting that we all need the Holy Spirit to illuminate our understanding, etc.

    I also remember a seasoned theology prof sharing how he had a mid-career realization that the temptation to try to see something in Scripture that no one has seen before is overwhelming. This temptation often leads even good scholars to spend too much time speculating (as I believe John Stott has on annihilation, for example) when most or all of their time could be spent on less esoteric and more fruitful endeavors. I believe this is the main idea Paul was driving at in I Timothy 1:3-7.

Comment here. Please use FIRST and LAST name.