At The Threshold’s series on interpreting scripture continues. Today’s piece ponders the context of the bible, the build up to good news, and the continual re-interpretation of scripture forced by the need to correct positions wrongfully taken by church and society.
Part 2 of a 10-part series
The story of God’s people is a continuing one that must be taken up by each generation. The scriptures relate the story from the beginning of creation and the spread of sin though to the redemption in Christ Jesus and the establishment of his church.
The Bible is a library of separate books with a baffling variety of literary forms, composed by numerous and different kinds of authors over many centuries. Some of the writings are quite ancient; some of the earliest are versions of a prehistoric oral history. Various editors and redactors have re-written, edited and re-edited, or supplemented much of the material as each generation made its contribution.
Even so, from the very outset the scriptures are headed somewhere. They contain a particular logic and share a common aim. The logic and the aim reveal certain grand themes about God’s will for human life. From time to time such pervasive themes get articulated specifically, as in Jesus’ Summary of the Law. Each of the books has to be read and interpreted within the context of the general themes and the conclusions at which the aim is taken. Nothing can be read out of that context, and certainly nothing can be used against the aims and purposes of the scriptures.
According to Christians, the whole of scripture is aimed at the incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. This is definitive of the entire story of the people of God. From the first words scripture is going somewhere, and it arrives. Good news.
The scriptures do not make each and every issue God’s people must address in succeeding generations entirely clear, especially on specific matters of morality and justice. The early Christians found themselves embarrassed by certain matters in the Hebrew Scriptures, including several of the ways in which God’s nature is depicted. They had to re-interpret them, and explain how they were part of a process of coming to an evermore complete discernment until the fullness of that understanding is defined in the Messiah. But the problem has not been simply with what Christians began to call the “Old Covenant” books. Jesus was explicit in preparing us for new insights as the age and the church become ready to receive and recognize them. On the night before he was betrayed he spoke about the Spirit to his followers:
I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. (John 16:12-13).
The church has discovered itself waking up to an awareness of wrongful positions and actions from time to time, forcing the re-interpretation of certain scripture. It is as though we were not ready to see the matter in its clarity until the time was ripe. When we do so we find that the call to right action is indeed inherent in our scriptures; it simply becomes clear to us. It is as though a fuse has been set within scripture and only in due course does it explode. Once this happens we may well wonder how we ever could have missed this.
Painful examples in European history include the inquisition and the crusades. The striking example in American history is slavery. During the course of the 19th century the meaning of scripture was changed for the American church from one that was viewed as favorable, or at the very least tolerant, toward the institution of slavery, to a testament ringing with clear denunciation of it.
Among the factors that required the church to see things differently was the evolving sense of decency and right in Western culture. Christians discovered the mind of Christ with new clarity. Christians must always be open to this. At this point in the continuing story of God’s people the ecumenical church has reached a relatively new consensus in its teachings about the use of the death penalty in human society. Churches in The United States are, together with the larger society, in the process of awakening to new insights about human sexuality and marriage. As is presently the case regarding slavery, will generations to come will be amazed at how long it took the church to recognize that a broad spectrum of sexual identity, with a diversity that includes homosexuality, is a given part of anthropological reality?
Joe Morris Doss
President, At the Threshold