I’m in the process of finally doing some deep personal study of Revelation (I’ve been putting this off for some reason) and so I was reading that portion of Luke Timothy Johnson’s intro The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation (Third ed.; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010). One good thing about scholars is that not only can they teach you things you don’t know but they can also help you say things you would like to say.
Johnson says this:
“The conviction that God’s Word speaks directly to every age has not been accompanied by the appreciation that it does so as mediated through its initial historical expression. The contemporary significance of any NT writing does not derive from the fact that it was written expressly for our age but from the conviction that a truth spoken to the first age of Christians can and does remain a truth for every age of believers” (508).
I would like to say that, too.
I don’t think there’s anything more important–and perhaps anything more lacking–in properly interpreting Scripture than this. My entire higher education has been in biblical studies, so I have been trained to think about the original historical contexts of the biblical writings without even thinking about it. This isn’t something that should be true of only people with the same sort of education as me, however.
Many readers without any formal education on how to interpret ancient texts simply don’t know that what is needed is a close look at who wrote, to whom, when, why, where, etc. Instead interpreting a word or idea first through the lens of whatever information we have about its original author and reader, the natural move for many is to simply receive that word or idea into their own context. It’s like an American going to England and being asked if she wants a biscuit. She says yes, taking the word “biscuit” directly into her own American context (which is a foreign context in England) and she receives something almost totally different from what she expected to receive. What she actually receives she has a word for, but it comes from her own, American, foreign context; to her, it is a “cookie.”
It is this practice of not considering (or being unaware) of the differences between one’s own context and the context from which a text comes that has led to the myriad of strange conclusions as to what Revelation, for instance, is actually talking about. It is reading a text as if its words apply directly to your own linguistic, cultural, historical, situation.
And It’s even trickier for readers, not just of any ancient text, but those who consult the Bible as an authoritative revelation of God. We don’t even want to think about the idea that the Bible was not written to us. Of course it was! It’s what we memorize, meditate over, pray with, it’s what informs us, encourages us, disciplines us, guides us. The Bible was written to us! Stop being heretical, Nathan.
Well, no, I actually don’t think that’s the best way to think about it. I think the best way to think about it is as if the Bible was written for us (and that’s not heretical so you can relax). Paul’s letter to Titus was written to, wait for it, Titus. In God’s grand scheme, it was written for us, but Paul most likely never envisioned that he was also writing to 21st-century believers. And we take Paul most seriously, and we treat the Bible most respectfully, when we listen first to Paul writing to Titus. And only as a second order to that, what it means for us.
And it’s the same way with the entire rest of the Bible.
Even in a portion of Scripture regarded most highly by Christians like the Sermon on the Mount for how it illustrates the proper Christian ethical life—we cannot say that it was composed and delivered to the church. Because, it was not written to be immediately understood and applied by Christian believers made mostly of Gentiles who worship the risen and ascended Lord. It was written to be immediately understood and applied by first-century Palestinian Jews still waiting for a Messiah and still curious about how and when the future age of peace and justice will be established.
What was true for those ancient Jews, in some ways is true for us, but that truth is not directly communicated to us. We have to engage in interpretation, in the principled system of inquiry known as hermeneutics, i.e., properly interpreting and applying the Bible. We have to respect context, both our own, and foreign ones. To do so is to honor the way that God has chosen to make himself known–through history, through events, through conversation, through argument, through language, culture, irony, suspense, characters, rhetoric, and so on. And not to us, but for us.