Understanding the Bible Today
The Rev. Daniel J. Adams, Ph.D.
Professor of Theology Emeritus, Hanil University, Jeonbuk, Korea
Former Professor of Systematic Theology, Taiwan Theological College, Taipei, Taiwan
Introduction: Making Sense of the Bible
The Bible is central to our identity as Christians. This is especially so for Protestants and among the various Protestant denominations, it is definitely true for Presbyterians. The reason for this is threefold. First, Presbyterians have come to be known as “people of the book.” We have always taken the Bible seriously in our churches and we are among the few Protestant denominations that still require seminary students preparing for ordination to study both Hebrew and Greek. In our worship—including prayers, hymns, and confessions of faith—we find numerous quotations and adaptations from Scripture. Sermons must be biblically based, for the written and proclaimed Word cannot be separated. Indeed, even the sacraments cannot be separated from the Word and we often speak of pastors as “ministers of word and sacrament.” The reformers were quite right when they defined the essence of the church as the place where “the Word is faithfully proclaimed and the sacraments rightfully administered.” The Bible as the written Word of God is central to the life and work of the church in our Presbyterian tradition.
Second, unlike some denominations which tend to view the scriptures in a literal fashion, we Presbyterians always seek to apply the words of the Bible to our contemporary life situation. The Bible is not only the Word of God in the past; the Bible is the Word of God for today. If we look at the history of the various Presbyterian churches, we will find that there has always been a close relationship between knowing or understanding the Bible and applying the insights from the Bible to our society and culture. Here in the United States one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence was the Rev. John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian minister. Presbyterians have always wrestled with the issues of the day whether slavery, divorce, racism, war and peace, the position of women in the church, and more recently homosexuality. All of these issues have involved turning to Scripture for guidance. In Taiwan it has been the Presbyterians who have led the way in the movement towards democracy and self-government. A number of our confessions of faith—such as the Scots Confession and Westminster Confession—have been forged in the fires of warfare and rebellion against tyrannical political powers. We look to the Bible for direction as we live in the world and face the various issues which confront us in the areas of politics, economics, social justice, morality both public and private, and norms for human behavior.
Third, Presbyterians are a very diverse group of people. We speak different languages, live in different cultures, and face different problems in our societies. We also hold vastly different positions in terms of theology. It can fairly be said that the Presbyterian tradition includes a spectrum running from conservative-evangelical to radical-liberal with every possible shade of difference in between. As a result we often disagree and we often split into fragmented denominations. At the same time, we occasionally reunite into new denominations. We call this the “Presbyterian alphabet soup”—for example the PCUSA, PCA, EPC, ARP, CPC, OPC, BPC, KPCA and most recently the ECOP. If you include our Reformed cousins of European heritage we have to add the RCA, CRC, and FRC. In spite of this diversity, however, we all claim the Bible as our rule for “faith and practice” that is, our authority for theological belief and ethical action. No matter where we may be on theological spectrum, we always come back to the Bible as we seek to live out our Christian faith in the world. This means that we interpret the Bible and bring our theological perspective to bear upon the issues of the day. As we read the Bible we bring to it our own preconceptions and ideas and this is why there may be different opinions concerning what a particular passage of Scripture actually means.
How then, are we to make sense of the Bible? We would all agree that the Bible is our authority. We would probably all agree that we must apply the insights of the Bible to our daily lives and to the major issues of our time. But we would also have to agree that we are different. We interpret the Bible in different ways and we often have strong disagreements about the issues of the day. Is there one way to interpret the Bible or are there several ways? Is there a biblical interpretation which is “once-and-for-all” or does biblical interpretation change from age to age, from culture to culture, and even from language to language? Is it possible that a particular biblical passage can have several different meanings? In answer to these and other such questions, I would like to propose five steps which lead to what I call “an adequate interpretation of Scripture.”
These five steps can be briefly summarized in terms of the following questions:
Step One: What does the text say? This is the TEXTUAL question.
Step Two: To whom was the text written? This is the CONTEXTUAL question.
Step Three: What were the limitations of the writer of the text? This is the WORLDVIEW question.
Step Four: What is the meaning of the text? This is the INTERPRETATION question.
Step Five: What would the writer of the text say if he were living today? This is the CONTEMPORARY APPLICATION question.
If we follow these five steps and can answer these five questions, then we will be well on the way to “Understanding the Bible Today.”
Step One: What does the text say? This is the TEXTUAL question.
This appears to be a very simple question to answer. Just open up your Bible and read the text. The text is clear and right before our eyes. Right? Wrong. To begin, you have to ask which text are you reading--the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament which is used by Roman Catholics, or the Masoretic text in the Hebrew which is used by Protestants? The Septuagint includes the Apocrypha which are the “extra books” in Catholic versions of the Bible. So this is our first textual problem. It is a serious one as we shall discover later in this lecture.
Then you must ask which Protestant version of the Bible are you reading from? Which of the many versions of the Bible is the most reliable? There are three quite distinct types of biblical translations on the market today, and it makes a big difference which translation of the Bible you use. Each has strengths and weaknesses and not all versions of the Bible are suitable for use in all situations.
The first is called the formal-equivalency translation. This kind of translation attempts to translate the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into English (or another language) in a direct, literal fashion. The most accurate formal-equivalency translation in use today is the New American Standard Bible. It follows the meaning of the original text as closely as possible and it good for study, however, it does not read well for worship and most people find it difficult to understand because of its grammatical style. The New Revised Standard Version sacrifices some of the literal meaning in order to read well for worship, and it is perhaps the most commonly used version of the Bible for study and worship.
The second is called the dynamic-equivalency translation. Here the translator is willing to sacrifice the literal text in favor of the meaning. Two popular dynamic-equivalency translations are the Good News Bible (Today’s English Version) and the New International Version. More recently the Common Bible has come out to replace the Good News Bible. These translations are easy to understand, read well, and are frequently used in worship. However, they are not completely faithful to the text. This is especially true of the Good News Bible and the Common Bible which were intentionally translated into popular English. The New International Version has become the major “competitor” to the New Revised Standard Version for ordinary use in the churches.
Both the formal-equivalency and dynamic-equivalency translations have one very important characteristic in common—they have been translated by committees which means that the work is shared, checked, and approved by a number of biblical scholars. The American Bible Society, the United Bible Societies, the National Council of Churches, the National Association of Evangelicals, and other groups have been responsible for these translations. This means that, in general, they are reliable translations.
The third is the paraphrase. The paraphrase translations make no attempt to be literal and very often they do not even convey the original meaning of the text. Because of these weaknesses, paraphrase translations are rarely used in serious Bible study and almost never used in formal worship services. However, paraphrase translations are quite popular with youth and new Christians who are not familiar with the language of the Christian faith. Perhaps the greatest weakness of paraphrase versions of the New Testament or of the entire Bible is that the work has usually been done by one person such as J. B. Phillips or Eugene Peterson. One of the most unreliable paraphrases is the Living Bible which is not as popular today as it was a few years ago.
Another textual problem concerns sexist and gender inclusive language. In recent years considerable controversy has taken place over the use of sexist language in biblical translation. In the past neutral terms were automatically translated using the male gender terms, but with the sensitivity to sexist language in the 1990s biblical translators became aware of the masculine cultural bias in earlier translations. The result is that the Revised Standard Version was replaced by the New Revised Standard Version which attempts to be more gender inclusive. The NRSV has been well accepted in most mainline churches. When the translation committee of the New International Version came out with a new gender inclusive translation, it was strongly rejected by the more conservative evangelical churches, and it soon was taken off the market and the earlier NIV was retained. Thus we can clearly see that the theological bias of the translation committee and/or the churches which use the translation can influence the final translation. Liberals are willing to be gender inclusive; conservative evangelicals are not. The NRSV is gender inclusive in its language; the NIV tends to use masculine gender in its language.
Still another textual difficulty concerns the grouping together of scripture into paragraph sections. You probably know that in the original Hebrew and Greek texts there were no chapter and verse divisions—these were added centuries later. However, most modern versions of the Bible now also use paragraph divisions. When in Korea I was surprised to discover that Korean translators have different paragraph divisions than English translators. I suspect that this is true in other languages as well. When you think about it, this is significant. Paragraph divisions often frame a biblical text for preaching or for a Bible study. Readers in different cultures may frame their biblical texts differently because of the paragraph divisions and this can radically change how we read—and understand—the text.
I could go on and mention the various notes that are found in study Bibles and special editions of the Bible and how these influence our understanding of the text and its meaning. I could speak about terms used in translation to make the meaning of the text clearer in a particular language, even though some of these terms may not be found in the original Hebrew and Greek. I could speak of the various ways we may read the same text—academically, devotionally, for information, to prepare a sermon or Bible study, and for worship. But I think that you get the idea. Discovering what the text says is not nearly as easy or simple as it first appears.
The first step in arriving at an understanding of the Bible today is to be clear about which text you are reading and then answering the question: “What does the text say?”
Step Two: To whom was the text written? This is the CONTEXTUAL question.
When we read the Bible we must realize that the text was not originally written to us. Each book of the Bible was written by various authors to a specific audience. Various literary forms were used such as narrative, myth, law, history, prophecy, philosophical wisdom, parables, sermons, letters, poetry, and music. If we are to understand the text, we must first discover the context in which the text was written. Who wrote the text and why? What literary form did the writer use? To whom was the text written and what was the intention of the author of the text?
One of the great dangers of the “proof texting” method of reading the Bible—that is, quoting verses of Scripture to prove a particular point—is that the context is usually totally ignored. Sometimes this can have serious implications for the life and witness of the church. One of the most tragic examples of this has to do with the issue of slavery, especially as it is recounted in the letter of Paul to Philemon. I am sure that you all know the story. One of Philemon’s slaves, Onesimus, had run away, been caught, and was imprisoned. While in prison Onesimus meets Paul and becomes a Christian. Paul writes a short letter to Philemon and asks him to take Oneismus back, not as a slave, but as a Christian brother. Paul gives his signature as a guarantee to pay back to Philemon any costs involved. Paul asks Philemon to treat Onesimus just like he would treat Paul if he were a guest in Philemon’s home. This is the message of the text.
However, in this letter Paul does not condemn slavery. Indeed, he tells Onesimus to return to his master Philemon. Nowhere in the New Testament does Paul say, “Slavery is a sin.” In the 1700s and 1800s slave owners in the United States were quick to point out this fact to those who condemned slavery as a sin. Indeed, they used the Book of Philemon and other words of Paul along with numerous Old Testament passages to justify the enslavement of human beings. “If slavery is such a terrible sin,” they argued, “then why is slavery found in Scripture and nowhere condemned in Scripture?” Through using the “proof-texting” method they justified the practice of slavery. In doing this they failed to understand the context of this passage.
They failed to realize that the early Christian church was in a minority situation in the first-century world. The church was under persecution and Paul was not about to add to that persecution by taking on various social justice issues in Roman society. If the church in a minority situation condemned slavery, and by implication the entire social and economic structure of Roman society, the persecution would become even worse. The church in Paul’s day was in a situation similar to that of the church in China today—there was enough persecution already without adding more by criticizing the society or the government.
We must remember that Paul was writing from prison and undoubtedly his letters were read by the prison censors. If he was to continue to have the privilege of writing letters, he would have to be very careful not to condemn the government or the prevailing Roman social and economic structure. After all, a condemnation of slavery could be understood as advocating open rebellion on the part of slaves!
A careful reading of the biblical text in Philemon reveals that Paul does condemn slavery—not slavery in general—but rather, the enslavement of one man, Onesimus. He tells Philemon to receive Onesimus “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother,” and to “receive him as you would receive me.” Paul is clearly stating that one should not enslave one’s brother in Christ. Thus the intention of Paul in the Letter to Philemon was to free Onesimus from slavery. This means that the Book of Philemon could not be used as a justification for slavery in the 1700s and 1800s.
Of course there are numerous biblical passages in both the Old and New Testaments dealing with slavery and such issues as divorce and remarriage, the position of women, and homosexuality. It is common to use the “proof-texting” method in taking sides on these issues. I would suggest, however, that a careful reading of each biblical text dealing with these controversial issues, must take the context into account. This includes the intention of the biblical writer and the specific audience to whom he was writing. While the church is still undecided about homosexuality today, we have pretty much decided concerning slavery, divorce and remarriage, and the position of women in society and in the church. And on all three of these issues we have made that decision with the context in mind—both the biblical context and our context in today’s world. The words of the text itself are not enough to fully understand the Bible for today. It is necessary to take the context into account and answer the question: “To whom was the text written?”
Step Three: What were the limitations of the writer of the text? This is the WORLDVIEW question.
The reality of different worldviews confronts us almost every day. Virtually everyone in this room knows what I am talking about. There is the Taiwanese worldview and there is the American worldview and they are different. This is why Taiwanese churches in the United States have a Taiwanese ministry and an English ministry. This is why there is such a gap between the first generation of Taiwanese-born immigrants and the second generation of American-born immigrants. Whenever we have family gatherings, the elders eat with chopsticks and the youth eat with silverware. The elders converse in Taiwanese and the youth converse in English. For me comfort food is hot rolls with butter and Idaho potatoes, but for my wife Dr. Chou comfort food is hot steamed rice. And of course worldviews involve much, much more than these obvious examples. Social relationships, interpersonal attitudes, cultural values, political opinions, and even clothing styles are all a part of our worldview.
When we read the Bible we immediately come up against the differences in the worldviews of the biblical writers and our worldviews today. The Old Testament arose out of a Hebrew worldview and the New Testament was written within the context of a Greek and Roman worldview. In the Book of Acts and throughout the letters of Paul there are numerous instances of conflict between these two vastly different worldviews. But these were the worldviews of two-thousand years ago and they were formed in complete isolation from the Indian and the Chinese worldviews. And of course the modern European and American worldviews were unknown until they developed following the Enlightenment in the 1700s. So, when we read the biblical text we have to ask the question: “What were the limitations of the worldview of the biblical writers?” We ask this question, of course, being fully aware that we are also limited by our own worldviews. We can only know what our culture teaches us to know.
In our classes on biblical hermeneutics (hermeneutics is a theological term which means “interpretation”) we always ask our students to look out the window and write a list of ten things which they see. The classroom has large windows on one side of the room, high windows on the other side of the room, and large windows all along the hallway outside the classroom door. We purposely leave the classroom door open so that these hallway windows can be seen. No further instructions are given to the students. Here is what happens. 97% to 100% of the students never leave their seats. They only look out the large windows on one side of the room. Of course the position of one’s seat pretty much determines what one will see outside the window. Of the 3% who may (but usually never do) get up out of their seats, virtually all will walk over to the window in back of the room so as not to disturb the other students. In over ten years, only two students ever looked out the high windows on the other side of the room, and no student ever walked out into the hallway to look through the windows there. However, on one occasion a student did look through the classroom door and through a hallway window. But that student remained firmly seated. The lesson learned? Most of the possibilities for looking out the windows were never taken. Not one student had a total view. They were limited by the position of their seats.
We also learned that all of the students saw some of the same things such as “a mountain” or “trees.” Some students saw things that no other students saw such as “a falling leaf” or “a church in the village.” But what was most interesting is that students would see the same things but also see them differently from the other students. For example, “a pine tree” verses “a green tree.” Or, “a red car” versus “a Hyundai Sonata.” Women were more sensitive to colors; men more sensitive to cars and buildings. Once in a great while a student would comment on the window itself—“a dirty window” or “a cracked window.”
I think you can begin to see the relevance of this little experiment to understanding the Bible. Assuming that the Bible is the windows, we find that most of us are stuck in traditional ways of reading the Bible. We have our worldview and that basically limits us as to what we see and understand. There may literally be hundreds of possibilities for biblical understanding but we are limited by that possibility we know best—our worldview. One example—until very recently virtually all biblical scholars and church ministers were men. Women simply did not count.
Returning to the classroom again, I can tell you that the view out those windows in 2012 is very different than it was in 1995. There are two new four-lane highways, two new churches in the village, and an entire apartment complex that was not there before. Going back even further to 1985 the original four-lane highway was only two lane, the road in front of the university was unpaved, and two of the large university buildings were not even built back then. Thus a 2012, a 1995, and a 1985 view from the windows would be totally different. Returning to the Bible, think how people interpreted the Bible in 396, 1263, 1555, 1645, 1723, 1856, 1956, and 2012. The worldviews would be totally different! St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Puritans, Karl Barth, and C. S. Song all interpreted and understood the Bible from the position of vastly different worldviews.
The problem for us is crossing the bridge between the worldview of the biblical writers and our worldview today. I call this process “crossing the hermeneutical bridge.” Fortunately we have a number of examples of how this can be done within the Bible itself. The first is from Acts 17:16-34 where Paul is in Athens and delivers his famous Areopagus Address. Paul is facing a Greek pagan worldview that is vastly different from his own Christian worldview. He must find a way to build a bridge between these two worldviews. Paul does this by speaking of “the Unknown God” whom the people worship in one of their temples. Paul tells the people that this “Unknown God” is really the true God whom they are worshipping unawares. In the “Unknown God” Paul has found a bridge that will help those of the Greek pagan worldview understand the God of the Christian worldview.
The second example comes from Hebrews 11:1-50. Here the writer is trying to explain the Christian concept of faith (a part of the Christian worldview) to a group of Jewish converts who are steeped in the writings of the Law and the prophets (part of the Jewish worldview). The writer of the Book of Hebrews crosses the bridge between these two different worldviews by referring to the heroes of the Old Testament. These heroes are well-known to all Jews, but more important, they can be used as examples of persons who had faith in God. All of us—including the biblical writers—are limited by our worldviews. If we are to understand the Bible today we need to be aware of these limitations and find ways to “cross the hermeneutical bridge” and answer the question: “What were the limitations of the biblical writers of the text?”
Step Four: What is the meaning of the text? This is the INTERPRETATION question.
Once we have answered the first three questions relating to the text, the context, and the world view of the Bible, we are ready to interpret the text and try to arrive at a meaning of the text. We now have some useful tools for biblical interpretation. The question we seek to answer here is: “What should the writer of the text have said?” or, to put it another way, “What does the writer really mean in this text?” This is what every Bible study leader attempts to do and what every preacher attempts to do. Let’s examine this process in relation to one of the most troublesome texts in the entire Old Testament, Isaiah 7:14. We all know this verse: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and he shall be called Immanuel.” When the first edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible was published in the early 1950s the term virgin was translated as “young woman” and the controversy was so great that some fundamentalist church groups actually burned copies of the RSV claiming that it was heretical. To this day, many conservative-evangelicals refuse to use the RSV because of the way Isaiah 7:14 is translated. Because of this controversy later editions of the RSV immediately put the word “virgin” in a footnote as an alternate reading. This was, however, not enough to satisfy the critics and it was one of the reasons, albeit not the only reason, that conservative-evangelicals undertook the translation of the New International Version.
How did this controversy come about? In Matthew 1:22-23, the writer quotes directly from Isaiah 7:14 and uses the term “virgin.” However, he is quoting from the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint. Remember, this is the text used by the Roman Catholics and it was also the text often quoted by the writers of the New Testament. The term used is the Greek word parthenos which clearly means “virgin.” Matthew was quoting Isaiah to show that Jesus—who was born of a virgin—is the Messiah. Furthermore, Matthew wanted to show that the virgin birth of Jesus was a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, specifically Isaiah 7:14.
The translators of the RSV used the Hebrew Masoretic text as their guide. This is the text used by Protestants. In the Hebrew the term used is almah which means “a young woman of marriageable age” or “a young woman of childbearing age.” A careful reading of Isaiah 7 shows that this passage originally did not refer to Jesus at all, for the events prophesied would take place before the child reached adolescence. God tells the prophet Isaiah to tell King Ahaz of Judah that the country will not be destroyed in a war. When the king refuses to ask for a sign, God sends a sign—the child which the young woman will bear. Before this child knows the difference between good and evil, the enemy will be destroyed and Judah will be saved from destruction. This promised deliverance will come within a very few years.
Therefore we have the answers to the first two questions: “What does the text say?” and “To whom was the text written?” However, when we turn to Matthew’s quotation from the Greek text we come up against the worldview question. Isaiah’s worldview concerned a terrible war and God’s promise of deliverance to the people of Judah. The child was a sign of that deliverance. Matthew’s worldview concerned humankind’s salvation and God’s promise of a Savior or Messiah. The virgin birth of Jesus was a sign of that promised salvation. To Isaiah and King Ahaz Isaiah 7:14 had the meaning of political deliverence; to Matthew and the readers of his gospel Isaiah 7:14 was a direct prophecy of the virgin birth of Jesus.
Whose meaning is correct—that of Isaiah and King Ahaz or that of Matthew and the early church? I would suggest that there is no reason why both meanings cannot be correct. The reason is that both passages are messianic and strongly affirm God’s salvific presence and promise among the people. What we have here is an original meaning given by Isaiah and then a new meaning—or new interpretation if you will—imposed over the original meaning by Matthew. It is somewhat like the example of looking out the classroom window—Isaiah is looking out the window and Matthew is looking out the same window, only Matthew is looking out that window several centuries later than Isaiah. They see the same thing—a young woman giving birth to a child who is a sign from God—only they see that young woman at different times and from the perspective of different worldviews. Living in the twenty-first century we have the advantage of reading both the Hebrew Masoretic text and the Greek Septuagint text and arriving at an interpretation of Scripture that brings the views of Isaiah and Matthew together. God promises deliverance and salvation to the people in both the socio-political sphere of life (human history) and in the religious and ethical sphere of life (personal salvation from sin). In our time the bringing of these two passages of Scripture together is perhaps best illustrated by the words of the Apostles’ Creed “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary” and Handel’s Messiah, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive….”
As we seek to answer the question: “What is the meaning of the text?” and discover new insight and meaning we can only say with Paul in Romans 11:33-36, “O depth of wealth, wisdom, and knowledge in God! How unsearchable his judgments, how untraceable his ways! Who knows the mind of the Lord? Who has been his counselor? Who has ever made a gift to him, to receive a gift in return? Source, Guide, and Goal of all that is—to him be glory forever! Amen.”
Step Five: What would the writer of the text say if he were writing today? This is the CONTEMPORARY APPLICATION question.
I am sure that you all know the story of the rich young ruler who came to Jesus with the question: “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He knew the scriptures and told Jesus that he had kept the Law and the commandments from the days of his youth. Jesus is impressed with this young man and praises him for his knowledge and understanding of the scriptures. But then Jesus asks him to apply the Law and the commandments to the contemporary world. He tells the young man to sell all that he has and give the money to the poor. The story ends with the words: “He went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” Steps One through Four mean nothing unless we can answer the contemporary application question.
Of course one is immediately tempted go directly to the contemporary application process in Step Five. If we do this, however, we are making a very big mistake, for we first must remember that the Bible is the written Word of God to us. It is not simply a book whose meaning we must discover; it is the word of the Lord. Once we have arrived at the meaning—or multiple meanings—of a passage we must read and re-read the passage, meditate and pray over the passage, search through various versions and translations of the biblical text, consult commentaries, seek out interpretations and meanings from cultures other than our own, and enter into what biblical scholars call “the hermeneutical circle.” As we interpret the text we also find that the text—as God’s word to us—begins to interpret us! As we read and re-read the passage we discover new meanings in the text even as we discover new insights about ourselves and the world in which we live. This process can lead us in directions that we cannot even imagine.
Let me give you an example. I am sure that you are all familiar with the story of Jesus driving the money changers out of the temple. It is found in all four Gospels: Matthew 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19:45-46; and John 2:14-16. As a young boy I had read this passage of Scripture many times. But what did it mean? My mother firmly believed, and taught me to believe, that this meant that the church should not become a place for buying and selling. Therefore she was opposed to church suppers which sold tickets to make money for the church and church bake sales and bazaars which made money for the church. According to my mother, “Christians should freely offer their money unto God. The church building should not be used as a place to make money for the church.” Since I attended a conservative-evangelical church which held similar beliefs, I just assumed that this was the meaning of Jesus’s words, “You shall not make my Father’s house a den of thieves.” Later, during my seminary years, when I pastored a church that was much more liberal, I always had a twinge of guilt when the church put on its annual chicken and biscuit supper and annual fish fry supper. Somehow I kind of felt that the church was doing something that was sinful and against the will of God.
But then I went to Taiwan as a missionary and professor at Taiwan Theological College. I can still remember my first visit to my wife Dr. Chou’s hometown of Miaoli. Just down the street from her home was the city temple which was a combination of Taoism, Buddhism, and folk religion. It was during a festival time and imagine my surprise when I saw worshippers buying temple money! I also saw several animals that had been sacrificed for the festival all laid out on ceremonial palanquins. Suddenly the story of Jesus cleansing the temple took on an entire new meaning! I realized that traditional religious life in Taiwan is much closer to the religious life in the temple in Jerusalem during the time of Jesus. For the first time in my life I understood what Jesus was talking about when he said, “You shall not make my Father’s house a den of thieves.” And this was after my seminary graduation and my Ph.D. in theology. There is always more to learn from Scripture.
The contemporary application of Scripture involves crossing that hermeneutical bridge between time and space, that is, history and culture. Let’s take another example from 1 Corinthians 14:33-36—“For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. What! Did the word of God originate with you, or are you the only ones it has reached?” There are, of course, churches today who accept these verses literally and refuse to allow women to be ordained as deacons, elders, and ministers of word and sacrament. Indeed, there are still churches which refuse to allow women to enter the pulpit area of the church or even to attend theological seminaries. But is this what Paul would say if he were writing today?
First let’s look again at the first part of verse 33, “For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.” The issue which Paul is addressing here is not women in the church, but rather, confusion in the church! In the Jewish tradition women were not educated; most were semi-literate at best and many were totally illiterate. The problem was that women were becoming emotionally excited in the church, speaking out loud—sometimes in tongues, and disturbing the order of the worship. Therefore Paul appeals to the Jewish Law in verse 34 to silence these women who disturb public worship.
Second, let’s look again at the context of 1 Corinthians. Corinth is not a Jewish city but a Greek Gentile city. Greek women were often well educated, many were literate, and a good many women occupied positions of high social standing. Indeed, some were even leaders in the Gentile churches. There was, obviously, a disagreement between Paul (who sided with the conservative Jewish tradition) and some Gentiles (who sided with the more progressive Greek tradition). How do we know this? Read on in verses 37-38—“If any one thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord. If any one does not recognize this, he is not recognized.” Paul would not write these words unless there were those who disagreed with him concerning the position of women.
Third, let’s look at our context today. All women in countries such as the United States and Taiwan are literate, most are well educated, and many occupy positions of leadership in virtually every area of modern society, including the church. If Paul were living now and took the same position today that he took in 1 Corinthians, he could not be a Presbyterian either in the United States or in Taiwan! Since Paul was an educated man himself, spoke several languages, was well-traveled throughout the world of his day, and held dual citizenship both as a Jew and a Roman, he probably was considered to be among the educated elite of his time. He would also viewed like this if he were living today. The difference would be that the more progressive Greek tradition has prevailed and Paul would find himself surrounded by women who were not only his equal but perhaps even surpassed him in terms of education, linguistic ability, and travel experience. We can conclude that Paul would still be concerned about order in the church, but his comments would not be aimed at women, but rather, at televangelists and perhaps even at those within our own Presbyterian denominations who encourage schism and division and sow confusion rather than peace.
Conclusion: Toward an adequate interpretation of the Bible
The general topic for this lecture today has been “Understanding the Bible Today.” We have considered five steps that can help us to understand the Bible.
First, What does the text say? This is the TEXTUAL question.
Second, To whom was the text written? This is the CONTEXTUAL question.
Third, What were the limitations of the writer of the text? This is the WORLDVIEW question.
Fourth, What is the meaning of the text? This is the INTERPRETATION question.
Fifth, What would the writer of the text say if he were living today? This is the CONTEMPORARY
I would suggest that if these five steps are followed in interpreting the Bible, you will arrive at an ADEQUATE interpretation. I do not say “correct” interpretation for there is no such thing. Biblical interpretation continues to change with each new context, culture, language, and period of history. Biblical interpretation changes with each passing generation. While it is impossible to speak of a correct once-and-for-all interpretation of the Bible, it is possible to arrive at an interpretation of the Bible that is adequate for your time and place, so that you and your people can truly say with the Psalmist in Psalm 119:89-93—
Eternal is thy word, O Lord,
planted firm in heaven.
Thy promise endures for all time,
stable as the earth which thou hast fixed.
This day, as ever, thy decrees stand fast;
for all things serve thee.
If thy law has not been my continual delight,
I should have perished in all my troubles;
Never will I forget they precepts,
for through them thou has given me life.
Some of the material used in this lecture has been adapted from Daniel J. Adams, The Word in the World, edited by Chou Fang-Lan. Jeonju, Korea: Shin-A Publishing Co., 2003. © Daniel J. Adams.