Heart 7: Biblical Interpretation and Frameworks

The kinds of warning lights these sorts of discussions begin to set off are understandable.  Do not Christians stand for truth?  Does not the Bible give us truth?  Is not God a God of truth?  The word relativism is a dirty word in many Christian circles, where it is used to refer to a perspective on the world that is squishy and does not have a clear cut sense of rights and wrongs.  Sometimes the antidote is seen as “absolutism,” which is often taken to mean that right is right and wrong is wrong.

We suspect that the protests in these voices have some validity to them, validity because these terms and arguments are attempts to talk with the mind about things their hearts sense are not right.  Nevertheless, the intellectual arguments in these sorts of discussions are often not a little confused, despite the veneer of intellectual argument.  For example, not every right or wrong is an absolute.  The sense we take from Romans 13 that believers should obey those in authority over them is not an absolute.  If your boss commands you to murder a co-worker, God would not want you to comply.  “Absolute” means no exceptions, but many if not most biblical commands not only allow for but demand exceptions.

Further, some of God’s commands are relative, indeed many of them are.  Jesus did not treat the Sabbath command as an absolute in Mark 2:23-27.  Indeed, Paul does not even treat it as a universal command that applies to everyone (Rom. 14:5; cf. Col. 2:16), even though it is one of the 10 commandments.  Christians believe in definite rights and wrongs, some of which are absolutes–particularly the commands to love God and love neighbor (e.g., Matt. 22:37-40).  But whether a right or wrong is “absolute,” “universal but not absolute,” or “relative” has to be weighed one by one. [1] Anything short of this is not only bad thinking but quite possibly a harmful misrepresentation of God.

The response is also understandable that sees the books of the Bible as somehow insulated from the kinds of changing frameworks of understanding we have been discussing.  Yes, one might say, culture may change and intellectual frameworks may change, but the Bible gives us God’s unchanging and timeless perspective.  These are very well intentioned sentiments and they often reflect a person whose heart is in the right place.  But it is an unreflective sentiment that ultimately misses two crucial elements in the equation: you as a knower and the nature of the original revelation of the biblical books.

The unreflective reader of the Bible, the majority of Bible readers, is generally unaware of the fact that they are in fact interpreting the Bible as they read it, defining the words on the basis of their inherited frameworks of understanding–contemporary frameworks.  For example, when they read the word tithe, they may understand that it was a tenth of one’s intake.  But an American believer will inevitably understand this tenth from within a framework of money and income.  They earn a certain amount of money.  They will thus see a tithe as contributing to a church or some other God-institution ten percent of their income.  They might debate whether they should tithe on the gross or the net income.

Needless to say, this framework of understanding tithing is quite different in its connotations within ancient Israel’s framework of understanding.  It would be worthwhile for us to reflect on whether giving a tenth today is the most accurate appropriation of this ancient practice.  For one thing, the New Testament never gives any instruction to Christians to give a tenth of their income.  The only mention is Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees in Matthew 23:23, where he affirms their tithing but condemns their priorities.  Paul’s approach is one of giving the entirety of your excess to others in need (2 Cor. 8-9), which one might argue requires more of us than a mere tenth.

The ancient world was a “subsistence” economy, where people generally produced only what they needed to survive.  Those who had more than this amount, the rich, were often viewed as suspect, perhaps as thieves who had gained their excess at the expense of others (cf. Jas. 5:1-6).  Further, the Old Testament world was an agricultural world, where tithes were a percentage of a crop, not money.  It was not a world where it was at all likely that a person would have any significant amount of food or resources above what was necessary for you and your family to survive.

Our monetary economy, where one person’s wealth need not imply someone else’s poverty, is drastically different from any of the cultures of the Bible.  Certainly we do find something like investment in the Parable of the Talents, which most of the gospel audiences may have experienced as strangely removed from their worlds even at the time.  But we also find the Parable of the Unjust Steward, where money is treated as something from a quite different world from that of God, and we find Jesus saying something similar when he suggests coinage is something that relates to Caesar, not God (e.g., Mark 12:17). 

Perhaps God does want Christians today still to give a tenth of their income to one of his causes.  Perhaps he wants even more than a tenth from us today!  Our point here is that the distance between our world and the biblical worlds is significant and generally unknown to us.  The issue is one that we must prayerfully and carefully work through together.  Those who take a black and white approach because of certain words they read in a Bible verse are both unaware of their own framework of understanding and unaware of the framework of understanding the individual biblical authors had. 

If we are to listen to the Bible, it tells us that its original audiences were ancient Israelites, Thessalonians, Romans, and so forth.  These ancient audiences had frameworks of understanding just as we do.  Assuming that God wanted them to understand what he was saying initially to them, assuming that the commands God gave to them were meaningful to them, our default assumption must be that the primary framework of the Bible’s original meaning was theirs.  And most of the time, their frameworks will not be our frameworks, at least not exactly.  The degree to which the words of the Bible seem directly relevant to us is a fairly good indicator of the degree to which we are reading it out of context, whether reflectively or unreflectively. [2]

The application of the social sciences to the interpretation of the Bible has been incredibly fruitful these last few decades, but it has also highlighted how often modern readers of the Bible unreflectively impose their social categories on the words of Scripture. [3] The “blesseds” of the Beatitudes are not about being happy but about being honored by God, as we might expect of an honor-shame culture (Matt. 5:3-10).  An entire household can be baptized because the ancient world was largely a group culture rather than an individualist one, where a father could make a faith decision for an entire family (Acts 16).  

Uncleanness had to do with things being in their appropriate place, so that eels were inappropriate to the sea because they did not have fins and scales (Lev. *). [3]  Similarly a bird that could not fly was not a clean bird (Lev. *).  Blood contained the life-force and belonged in the body, not out (Lev. *).  Purity was thus a matter of a framework of understanding that saw you in the right place, holiness was a category in that framework that saw you in God’s place. 

Holiness in the Old Testament was not a matter of individual moral purity, understood primarily in ethical terms.  Holiness meant that one belonged to God with all the connotations of that fact, which went far beyond some simple mental assent.  It meant that things that touched Mt. Sinai had to die (Exod. *) and that someone who touch the Ark of the Covenant, even with good intensions, would have to die (1 Sam. *).  The way a person lived was important not because of individual moral purity but because of the honor or dishonor it brought to God.

The point of this discussion is that our intellectual frameworks change from time to time, and those who are living at any one time are often unaware of their own frameworks.  The default is to assume that those from other cultures are stupid or wrong to think and do things differently.  We interpret words, actions, intentions, and events from within our own framework of understanding with little or no sense of how our frameworks developed over time.  Obviously I would contradict myself if I thought these facts meant that there was no such thing as definite truth.  Why even write then? 

The point is humility in our knowledge, a recognition that the understanding I am laying out here has the weight of all the processing that has gone before, but it is still flawed and finite.  Someone will find potential errors in my analysis and perhaps a more complete understanding will come forward in the days to come.  But I write this analysis because I am convinced that it is a good expression of how our knowing takes place, that I am far more reflective about my knowing of the Bible and the world than I used to be.  I am a “critical realist,” someone who believes in definite truth but who also recognizes that my apprehension of that truth will always be flawed.

Next week: critical realism 

[1] The category of universally valid rights and wrongs, but with exceptions is a far more helpful category than that of absolutes, which by definition do not allow for exceptions.

[2] One thing we will argue in the next chapter is that it is possible, perhaps even desirable to loosen the words of the Bible from their context the more it is done reflectively.

[3] The work of Malina *** 

[4] The work of Mary Douglas is invaluable here, Purity and Danger***