The Most Deadly Interpretive Move

by Steve Kindle

I continue to encounter claims that the Bible teaches things that are decidedly not true. Most recently, someone on Facebook said our planet was created in six days, therefore the Theory of Evolution is false. In the first place, there are abundant interpretive options that even Evangelicals use to discredit this notion. More importantly, this assumption of six literal days falls into the most dangerous trap to deriving legitimate interpretive outcomes.

Here it is: The problem is keeping the Bible in its time assuming it is immediately relevant for and transferable to our time.

There is no interest in context, cultural limitations, or clashes of worldviews. This is why progressive Christians say we take the Bible seriously, not literally. Taking the Bible literally requires no thought; just pick a prooftext and claim it speaks for today. Taking the Bible seriously requires critical thinking skills and great humility.

When it is finally realized that all biblical texts are never straightforward and always need interpretation we will be freed to approach biblical understanding. What follows is an examination of these three categories that must be considered each time we come to a text. Failure to do so will inevitably lead to interpretive failure.

CONTEXT: Devotional Versus Interpretive Reading

1 Corinthians 1:5-8

…for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The casual Bible reader and especially the devotional reader will easily slip into the habit of assuming that the word “you” in this verse (and most verses) refers to the one reading. This obscures several things. First, the “you” here is one situated in the Corinthian congregation almost 2000 years ago. It is this “you” that has been enriched and strengthened and not lacking in any spiritual gift. But most importantly, it is that ancient one who is waiting for the revealing of Jesus. By assuming that the “you” in mind is the reader we miss entirely that situation that permeates the New Testament: the early church was expecting the imminent return of Jesus in their generation. We overlook entirely that this expectation was unrealized and push its expectation (wrongly) into our own time. 

Reading the Bible as though it was written for the present reader leads to many such false conclusions.

OVERLOOKING CULTURAL LIMITATIONS 1 Corinthians 11:13–15

Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering.

Many of our readers remember the vociferous arguments  made in the 1960s against those men (particularly Hippies) who grew their hair down to and over their shoulders. Never mind that they adored the rendering of Jesus by Warner Sallman  with decidedly long hair. The argument they often used was taken from 1 Corinthians 11, especially focusing on Paul’s question, “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him…? Try as we might today, there is no way we can find how nature could be thought to teach such a thing. Nature teaches no such thing. So, how could Paul reach such a conclusion? 

“Nature” in Paul’s world was basically conventional wisdom. It was what everyone generally believed as it was part of the received culture.  As far back as Hippocrates it was taught that hair was hollow. This created a vacuum. The longer the hair, the greater the pull of the vacuum. If a woman couldn’t bear children, the physician would insert a pungent supposatory in her vagina and smell her breath a few days later. Why? To determine if the vacuum of her long hair was pulling the spern (the homoinculus or fully formed human) into her wormb. That  was the function of hair. The same vacuum pull was operative in males, also. For men to procreate, it was necessary that sperm be released into the female. Long hair on men acted to inhibit the process, as sperm would be pulled back into the male body due to the increased power of the vacuum.  For Jews in particular, not to procreate was an offence against God. Therefore, Paul could say that nature condemns long hair as degrading of the male. (Read more on this here: http://www.ibiblio.org/bgreek/forum/viewtopic.php?f=34&t=4796) This is a perfect example of why we cannot simply move a biblical text from its time into our own without doing much interpretive harm.

CLASHES OF WORLDVIEWS
Genesis 2:1-2

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. 2And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.

When someone opens the Bible, often disregarded is the realization that one is crossing over 2-3000 years of change in worldviews. To properly understand the Bible, we must constantly be reminded that the world as understood by the biblical writers and our world are wholly different and, therefore, we are not to confuse how we understand things as equal to how they understood things. Imagine Abraham or Paul being plunked down into modern America and how disoriented they would be. And how would we moderns fare in a culture where Lot, a “righteous man”, offered his virgin daughters to be raped as an act of hospitality, or the man born blind in John 9 was assumed to have been caused by sin, either of himself, or his parents? Or where it is incumbent upon the brother of a deceased brother to impregnate your sister-in-law and the child would not even be considered yours.?

Yet, readers blithely enter the world of the Bible unaware that they are entering into a foreign and sometimes hostile world. Complicating this are the views that the Bible is inerrant (at least in the original texts), and is somehow the voice of God. Therefore, the Bible must be taken at face value; God would not mislead us. True, God would not mislead us, but we were not the intended readers. We are misleading ourselves when we assume the texts were meant directly for us. As many have observed, we are reading someone else’s mail when we read the Bible. Failing to keep that distinction leads us into immediate trouble, not just in interpretation, but also in life application. 

This example takes us back to the beginning of this post. It’s not hard to see how people reading with the inerrant assumptions must cling to the idea that the earth is very young, geologically speaking. Since Adam and Eve, taken literally, were created as farmers and shepherds, and cities arose in one generation, we are looking at the age of the earth no more than 10,000 years old, far short of the 13+ billions suggested by the Theory of Evolution. 

Then compare the biblical (and ancient Near Eastern cosmologies) with our modern understanding of the cosmos, and we see greater disparities between our world and theirs. The biblical cosmos was three-tiered: heaven above where God lives, Sheol below where humans go after death (not heaven), and the planet in between. Heaven was just above the mountains, no more than a few miles away. God would come down from time to time to check things out (e.g., rumors of Sodom and Gomorrah). Even Luke’s story of the ascension of Jesus into heaven is dependent upon the three-tiered universe with heaven so close; otherwise it makes no sense in an expanding universe. 

These few examples, and they could be repeated many times over, should be enough to at least make one pause before jumping to any quick conclusion that a text has an immediate application for today. The good news is that even though the Bible is an ancient document that reflects the age of its composition, when the contextual, cultural, and worldview issues are located, we can attempt to learn what the stories were intended to reveal about the people of their time that translates more easily to the people of our time, as humanity hasn’t changed much over the ages. When that happens, the message of the Bible is no longer lost among the vagaries of time.

Interested in a Progressive Bible study? Meet with us on Zoom

Our first session will look at more of these ASTONISHING texts as we search for answers to what the Bible is and how it makes sense in the 21st century

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