Hearing God’s Word through the Scriptures is essential to a healthy relationship with God and necessary for faithfully following Jesus. Some claim that it is easy to understand what Scripture is saying if we simply take it “literally.” But no one really does, nor should they. How many literalists obey Jesus command to gouge out an offending eye (Matt. 5:29) or even to “sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Luke 12:33)?
For the rest of us interpreting the Scriptures involves several challenges. The first question is what method of interpretation to use. The 16thcentury Protestant Reformation embraced the historical-grammatical method – examining the ordinary grammatical meaning of the text in its historical, cultural and linguistic setting, to discover what the original authors intended to say. Churches and scholars have also employed other methods, such as allegorical/typological and historical-critical approaches.
Jesus himself doesn’t always look for the original meaning to interpret the Hebrew Scriptures. For example, when arguing with the Sadducees about the resurrection, Jesus cited the Exodus text in which God identifies himself to Moses as “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” saying, “God is not the God of the dead but of the living” (Matt. 22:31-33). In the original meaning of this passage God was identifying himself as the God worshipped by Moses’ ancestors. It had nothing to do with the idea that the three patriarchs were somehow still alive. Jesus creatively used an inferential or typological interpretation to apply the text the way he did. Most profoundly, Jesus and the New Testament writers often use typological interpretation in seeing Old Testament prophesies as fulfilled in Jesus as their spiritual and historic consummation, though the prophets’ words often meant something more immediate in their original context.
Most theologically conservative and moderate Protestants prefer some version of the historical-grammatical method for interpreting the New Testament Scriptures. Mennonites generally employ this approach, but also affirm that all Scripture must be read in relationship to Jesus; that the ability to understand Scripture correctly requires faithfully following Jesus in life; and that Scripture must be interpreted within the community of the church.
What the Scriptures say – what specific words meant to the biblical writers and what they intended to communicate – is often a matter of dispute. Today there are more sophisticated tools to make these determinations than Luther and Calvin had. Even so, scholars often reach different conclusions.
This brings up a second challenge — the issue of context. Interpreting the meaning of Scripture requires reading their instructions in context. We try to learn what Jesus and the biblical writers intended to say by looking at what’s going on in the text itself, in Scripture as a whole, and by studying the history and culture of the times. But what if our context today is different from theirs?
When we read Scripture contextually, we find that some biblical instructions are so integral to the Gospel message of Jesus Christ that they apply as written in every time and place. We can think, for example, of the commands to love God, neighbor and enemy; to reject idolatry and hate; and to be holy as God is holy, that is, to grow in the character and actions of Jesus.
But some instructions are closely tied to a specific set of circumstances and concerns. We may need to translate such instructions for our own different contexts. It’s not enough to make our best determination of what the biblical writers’ intended at the time. We also have to know how to apply the instructions to ourselves. Implementing some instructions – authoritative for their own time — outside of their original biblical and historical framework can give us a distorted result contrary to God’s will – for example, the justification of slavery. So understanding the context — the Bible’s and ours — is vital.
Another issue is that churches in different eras and places find different theological keys for unlocking Scripture’s meaning. The 16thcentury Protestant Reformers read the New Testament texts in view of their conviction that the core of the Gospel message was salvation by grace through faith, not works. Accordingly, they understood references to “the works of the Law” as denouncing attempts to gain favor with God through one’s own moral efforts. This approach shaped their interpretation of the entire New Testament.
Many scholars today believe that the “works of the Law,” refer to the Law of Moses specifically, not a general principle of righteousness by works. For them Paul’s contrast is not between faith and works, but between an inclusive faith in Jesus the Messiah available equally to Jews and Gentiles versus maintaining an exclusory national and cultural identity based on prescriptions about circumcision, sabbaths and foods. This new lens changes how many biblical passages are understood and their meaning for Christians today. Interpretative keys used by some scholars and churches also have included covenant, existentialism, liberation from oppressive socio-political structures, and prosperity, among others.
A further concern is that the Scriptures don’t speak to every issue that Christians throughout the world and across the centuries encounter. We have to discern the application of biblical instructions to new matters that they didn’t originally address. New issues arose as a result of the Roman Empire adopting Christianity as the official religion, something completely unforeseen in the New Testament. The monastic movement revitalized Christian faith by creating new religious arrangements not envisioned in the New Testament. The industrial revolution produced new economic relationships and generated moral questions different from what existed in biblical times. The 20thcentury missionary movement sought to make the Gospel relevant in a variety of cultural settings and dealt with complex questions of Christian practice without obvious New Testament solutions. While Scriptural truths, values and instructions were relevant to all these situations, no clear biblical directives told believers what to do.
These are the challenges that Christians face as we seek to hear God’s word in Scripture. We grapple with better understandings of the meaning of biblical words, new information about the historical setting, different cultural contexts, changing interpretive lenses and unprecedented circumstances. Finally, of course, there are the very personal experiences and values that readers bring to the text. We have to make a judgment about what a text meant to the original writer, andwe have to discern with the guidance of the Holy Spirit how biblical instructions should be applied to our own time and place.
These apparent complexities may tempt believers to despair about ever being able to hear God’s Word in Scripture. We may even feel like abandoning Scripture as an authoritative resource of faith. But that would leave us adrift without a foundation of encouragement and guidance that assures us of God’s love and helps us live faithful Christian lives. Scripture after all is “God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:15-16). God speaks through the Scriptures, and God gives us the grace to hear and understand. How does that work?
The Scriptures themselves show us what to do.The Apostles model for us how to read and apply Scripture to our own lives and churches. When the Apostles and elders of the Jerusalem church heard about Gentiles believing in Jesus and receiving the Holy Spirit without being circumcised, they had a special gathering to discern whether this new phenomenon was within the will of God. They prayed, talked together, related their experiences, and discussed relevant passages of Scripture, interpreting them through the lens of the Messiah Jesus. Finally, they reached a conclusion that “seem[ed] good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28).
Their consultation yielded an astounding result. The Apostles handled the [Hebrew] Scriptures with integrity, but they interpreted the Bible in new ways for a new time. They looked beyond the original intent of the writers and let their eyes be opened to new understandings by the resurrected Jesus (Luke 24:45). They dug deep into the text to the heart of Scripture in order to hear God’s living word to them. They also looked outside the written word to the acts of the Holy Spirit as an aid to discerning God’s will in their time and place (Acts 15:6-12). Because their context was different and because God was doing “a new thing” they were willing to revise authoritative, seemingly universal biblical commands.
Only by prayerfully recognizing the context-specific nature of some biblical instructions and paying attention to the Holy Spirit’s new work in history, related in Peter and Paul’s testimonies, could the Apostles have reached the shocking conclusion that Gentiles can be full and equal members of the covenant people of God without being circumcised – thus revising a command as old as Abraham that was an “everlasting ordinance” (Gen. 17:13). Only thus could Paul have made Sabbath-keeping – one of the Ten Commandments and rooted in the creation account — optional as a matter of individual conscience (Rom. 14:5-8, Col. 2:16-17).
These changes were explosive. The Apostles’ interpretations were far from obvious and overthrew a millennium of understanding about the nature of God’s covenant people. While the Council addressed the specific issue of Gentile admission, the larger question involved discerning the parameters of holiness— what behaviors were faithful to God’s covenant, character and call. The battle within the early church over this revolutionary change rages across the pages of the New Testament. Given the apostles’ method of interpreting Scripture and the conclusions they reached, it is easy to see why the “circumcision party” so vehemently opposed them. How many of us would have been in that camp?
The Apostles’ foundational role is unique, but throughout history churches have revised authoritative biblical instructions once thought to be timeless in view of changed circumstances and new perspectives on biblical texts and themes.Examples involve Christians’ relationship to governments, church leadership structures, fighting in war, interest-bearing loans, lawsuits, swearing oaths, slavery, divorce and re-marriage, head-coverings, and women’s roles, among others. Looking back, we may feel that churches sometimes got things faithfully right, and sometimes terribly wrong. Even so, the responsibility to discern God’s will in our own time and place is unavoidable.
Jesus himself instructed the churches to make these kinds of decisions. He provided his followers with a process of Spirit-led biblical reflection and community moral discernment. Because we would encounter new and complex moral dilemmas, Jesus sent us the Holy Spirit to “guide [us] into all the truth” (John 16:12-15). And he gave the church the responsibility to “bind and loose” (Matt. 18:15 – 20).
In Jesus’ time binding and loosing referred to the rabbis’ power to provide authoritative moral instruction. To “bind” was to forbid a particular practice; to “loose” was to permit it. Jesus gave such authority to his disciples, saying “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” By authorizing binding and loosing, Jesus affirms that it may not always be immediately clear whether a given action in a specific context is a sin or not. The gathered believers will have to make a judgment about God’s will. This is not arbitrary power to decide whatever we wish, but the responsibility to make Holy Spirit-inspired moral judgments according to God’s will in a particular set of circumstances. The Jerusalem Council on Gentile admission in Acts 15 is an example of the earliest church applying binding and loosing.
Like the early church, we are called to address disputed matters of Christian practice through holy, courageous and humble conversations of community discernment in which churches consider the relevant biblical material, listen to the testimonies of God’s people, seek the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, and accept our responsibility before God to issue by faith our best collective judgment. Guided by the Holy Spirit we must be prayerfully open to hear anew from God through his written Word and living Spirit something we may not have understood before.
This practice of discernment has been referred to as a sacramentof the church by at least one prominent theologian. When should it be invoked? It is not necessary to submit every biblical teaching to fresh determination. But there are times when a question is ripe for consideration, when a controversy significantly impacts a church body, and “binding and loosing” — discerning God’s will on a matter of right and wrong – must be undertaken. In these circumstances, it can be a grave mistake to assume – as did the “party of the circumcision” and American slave-holders — that the original context-laden instructions or the traditional biblical interpretation express God’s will in today’s world.
Some version of this is common in church denominations today as believers study Scripture, read scholarly articles, listen to the experiences of others, exchange views, and vote in church assemblies. But being careful to ensure that the practice of discernment is rooted in faith and guided by the Holy Spirit can maximize the opportunity to reach that a conclusion faithful to God’s will.
A biblically faithful discernment practice consists of (1) Jesus’ community (2) prayerfully gathering under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, (3) reflecting together on Scripture to hear God’s living word, (4) learning from one another, (5) listening to testimonies about the acts of the Holy Spirit in our time and place, and (6) seeking a faithful conclusion that “seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” This is not a matter of individual interpretations with “each person doing what is right in his own eyes” or of democratic decision-making, but of a faithful community discernment by the family of Christ.
This “sacrament” of discernment is available to ordinary believers gathered as church because while it draws prayerfully on scholarly thinking – however disputed and uncertain — about the meaning of words, the biblical context, and interpretative keys, it gathers up these considerations into the living work of the Holy Spirit acting to “lead us into all truth.” While no human endeavor is guaranteed to be error free, engaging in Spirit-guided discernment, as provided by Jesus and practiced by the early church, offers the best opportunity for believers to faithfully hear and heed God’s Word.
Almost 40 years ago a church I co-pastored carefully undertook this congregational discernment process on the question of whether women could serve as pastors and elders. Today an increasing number of churches are engaging in such discernment on the issue of gay marriage. Other issues may arise for other churches.
As believers seeking to follow Jesus in faithful living, we honor the authority of Scripture and rely on its trustworthiness. At the same time, we do well to follow the Bible’s own guidance on how to interpret and apply its message. Faithfulness means accepting with utmost seriousness the responsibility given us by Jesus to discern God’s will and dynamic work in and through the churches today. And only if we truly listen to one another, love God and are committed to God’s will above all else can we hope to reach a faithful conclusion.
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