Home Opinion Columns Weekly Reflections: Understanding biblical text

Weekly Reflections: Understanding biblical text



“All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the truth, rebuking
error, correcting faults, and giving instruction for right living, so that the person who serves God may be fully qualified and equipped to do every kind of good deed. — II Timothy 3:16-17

Pacquiao’s Senate Bible Study

Senator Manny Pacquiao’s first speech on the senate floor recently was spiced with strings of Biblical texts which many would find quite amusing. But some Biblical scholars, like Bishop Pablo David, were not amused, but rather found the good Senator misusing the Scriptures. Senator Pacquiao tried to justify his bill advocating death penalty by quoting Biblical texts here and there without serious consideration of their historical contexts.

Obviously, the Boxing Legend turned Senator has been heavily influenced by Bible touting fundamentalist evangelical groups that interpret the Scriptures literally and would think that their ideas are right and acceptable to God if it is supported by Biblical texts, forgetting the fact that even demons quote Scriptures (cf. Mt. 4). Merely quoting Biblical texts does not necessarily make our ideas right and relevant. Perhaps, we need to review some rudiments of Biblical hermeneutics.

Twofold task

Understanding and interpreting Biblical texts has a twofold task: a). To understand the Biblical texts in their historical context; and b). To relate the Biblical texts to today’s context. The Bible and people’s lives cannot be separated; those people who told and wrote down their experiences with God as well as today’s people who read the Bible and want to find meaning in it. Therefore, both contexts are important for understanding and interpreting the Bible.

Interpreting the Bible historically is based on the understanding that the Biblical texts were written by human beings in a specific time and situation with specific purpose and intention for specific people. Biblical writers responded to particular situations, most often a crisis situation. Biblical authors wanted to give orientation. Oftentimes, they wanted to comfort and encourage believers in such situations of distress.

We must be aware that we are not the first readers of the biblical texts; the biblical texts were not written originally for us but for different people in a different situation. This does not mean that the texts have no meaning or importance for us today, but we have to interpret them differently as second readers or even third readers.

Interpreting the texts as second readers

If we acknowledge that the Biblical texts were written in a different time for different people, then we have to interpret the texts historically. And this is not an easy way of interpreting.

First, we have to understand the text, its language, and its structure. As second step, we have to understand the text in its situation and context in order to understand the meaning or message of the text in its time. This requires further pieces of information, which often are not contained in the text itself, because the author shares it with his readers in his own time, and therefore does not need to mention it. But for us today, it is often very difficult to gather these additional pieces of information. But thanks to Biblical scholars who have been conducting researches through the ages.

A central task for interpreters is to relate the message of the Biblical text to people today. This requires knowledge about today’s people, their lives, and situation. To know the situation and life of people today is the third step in interpreting the Biblical texts. And the fourth step is to relate the message of the Biblical text to today’s people and situation.

To understand the Bible as written by human beings does not mean that the Bible is a book like any other book. The Bible is different in several ways. The Biblical texts are “witness to God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ and in history”, thus they always relate to God. The Biblical texts are “a faithful and inspired witness”. God through his Spirit inspired the authors of the Bible, and inspires us as well, when we read the Bible (cf. II Tim. 3:16-17). God uses the Bible as instrument to speak to people. The Christian church from its beginnings placed itself under the Bible; thus, we today stand in a long tradition.

Every interpretation of Biblical texts has to be committed to two poles: the Biblical texts themselves with their truth claim, and the situation today, to which the truth has to relate. A lofty truth, not related to a concrete situation and concrete people is irrelevant and superfluous. On the other hand, to give up any truth claim means to be entirely caught up in one situation, thus everything said in this situation is irrelevant to other situations.

Fundamentalist understanding

This way of interpretation is different to a fundamentalist understanding and interpretation of the Bible, which understands the Bible literally, as timeless truth with timeless instructions, which are always and everywhere valid. It is often difficult to discuss about the interpretation of Biblical texts with people who have a fundamentalist understanding. The main difference lies in a different understanding of the Bible: Is the Bible everywhere and always in the same way valid, thus to be followed literally, or is it necessary to interpret the biblical texts for our time?

The temptation of the fundamentalist approach is that it is much easier. The historical approach is more difficult and often not so clear. Several ways to interpret historically seem possible, and it is often difficult to decide which is the right or adequate one.

However, the fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible has to be rejected for different reasons: In the fundamentalist understanding, the word of the Bible has the highest authority, an authority, which is only due to God. Even the Bible can become an idol, if it replaces God. It is important to remember that the Bible has only ‘derived authority,’ an authority derived from God; thus it always stands under God. Biblical texts are human words; God reveals himself in these human words. Thus, to deify the Bible is against God’s will to reveal himself in human ways. This is where Senator Pacquiao’s use of the Scriptures becomes highly questionable.

We believe in the Holy Spirit who works in and with us today, and who is able to reveal new truths. Thus, God can speak to us also in other ways than through the Bible; God’s word goes far beyond the Biblical texts.

Unity in diversity

One problem we will encounter if we interpret the Bible historically is the diversity and even some contradictions between Biblical texts. How do we deal with these? If we study New Testament history we will see that only in a few decades (30-130 CE) a surprising diversity of witnesses and interpretations of how Jesus Christ emerged. In the same way different views of eschatology, ecclesiology and ethics emerged in the first decades of Christianity and we find several different views reflected in different New Testament writings. This diversity is due to the spread of the good news among people of different national and cultural backgrounds.

But surprisingly: The New Testament is in favor of this diversity! The best examples are the Four Gospels, telling the same story about Jesus Christ – differently. The differences are due to the different situations and different addressees for whom the authors of the Gospels wrote ‘their’ Gospel. When the New Testament canon was discussed, they included the Four Gospels; they were obviously very aware that each proclamation depends also on the addressees. And they apparently thought that four different voices proclaim Jesus Christ better than only one, because none of the four is perfect, faultless (because all are human voices). It is like four different photographs of a person show more from that person than only one.

Thus, the diversity of the New Testament writings might be sometimes confusing, but it is first of all enriching. It confirms that the New Testament voices are human voices, which proclaim Jesus Christ in their time for their people – and thus the New Testament voices not only tell us about Jesus Christ but also help us to proclaim Jesus Christ in our time. We have to understand the different voices, and then we have to ask how the different voices sing their piece together, like a choir. # nordis.net

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