When we take an approach to biblical interpretation that is heavily historically oriented, there are natural questions that come up as to how texts that are so historically conditioned could be relevant to you or me. This is really a struggle for anyone, I think, who wants to be honest about what the Bible actually is and how we got it but also wants coherence with what the Bible means to them.
The standard “solution” to this problem was given to us by our Greco-Roman theological forefathers. The Bible’s history is more or less a shell around timeless truths and spiritual realities. It just so happened that first century Judea was an ideal time for Jesus to come, but the same complex of events really could have happened anytime, anywhere, and the significance would be the same. The Old Testament becomes a series of stories that allegorically point forward to the Christ event and communicate general moral or spiritual truths. The New Testament becomes a story about the destiny of immortal souls and, as such, is no longer bound to history. Everyone has a soul, everyone has a sin problem, everybody wants to go to heaven (but nobody wants to die), and the New Testament addresses these issues.
I’m not going to say all of that is completely wrong, but I am going to say that I personally don’t think that way of looking at the Bible does much justice to the actual writings in the Bible, nor to the events they describe, nor to the faith communities who originally produced and received these writings. These writings show every indication of being shaped by the community that produced them at that time, and they deal with issues that are pressing at that time, and as we uncover more about life in the first century and Judaism of the period and the experience of various strata of people at that time, we come to realize that, “Where will I go when I die?” was just not a big issue. What were big issues were the ones that faced them as a nation at that time.
But if we decide the Bible is primarily about whatever issues were facing the people of that time, then how could it have relevance for us? Isn’t it basically at best ancient history, or more accurately ancient mytho-history? What can Jesus really mean to us when we are so far removed from the main concerns of Israel two thousand years ago if that were his primary focal point?
I think about this issue a lot. A lot. Especially on Sundays when I have a rich spiritual experience in corporate worship and the preaching from the Bible plays a big part of that. How do I reconcile being what I see as intellectually honest about the nature of the Bible with my present experience of it? How do I present the Bible to others, believers or non-believers, and what value to I hope to pass on by doing so?
Well, there are a few different facets to this answer, in my view, and nobody is forcing you to read this (are they?), so here I go.
We Have to Be Comfortable with the Idea That We’ve Moved On
This is at the core of the struggle and is something that has to be dealt with. For various reasons, we are intrinsically uncomfortable with the idea that the Bible is not a comprehensive, definitive portrayal of our present experience, nor is it particularly concerned with what questions or struggles we might have as individuals.
You can see the fruits of this in all kinds of ways beyond just talking about what the Bible means. There is this impetus that our present spiritual experiences should look like what we read in the New Testament. We talk about following Jesus and we use his disciples as models, but this is literally impossible. You cannot leave your home and follow Jesus around as your rabbi. We look at the early church in Acts, and we wonder why we don’t look like they do, and we try to close that gap (selectively – you don’t find a lot of churches where the members sell all their possessions and pool their money to care for one another). We look at the instructions given to these early communities, and we try to dissolve the historical particulars to get at a timeless, moral core.
Why can’t we be in a different place than the first century church? Why can’t we look different? Why can’t we have different issues that might not be directly addressed by the Bible because they are our issues and our challenges and our questions? Is our faithfulness at our time in history somehow illegitimate because a chronicle of it didn’t end up in the Bible? Is it somehow less acceptable to God because the experience of believers in 21st century America doesn’t look like the experience of first century Palestine?
I think part of coming to a place of peace about the role of the Bible in the church today is being ok with the idea that we can be in a different place than what is described in the New Testament. We certainly seem to be ok with the idea that we’re in a different place than Israel as described in Leviticus. And that Israel was in a different place than the Israel described in Ezra. History marches forward and the world changes and the circumstances around the faithful change as well. There is no law that says the New Testament has to be about us or that our experience has to look like the New Testament. We have to be ok with the idea that we are living out our own story trying to be faithful in our time in our culture in our circumstances, and different things are on our stage than were on the stage in the first century. This is not a mistake. One might argue, in fact, that it is the will of Heaven.
Everything that is in the Bible was written retrospectively. At any given point, what may have ended up as a biblical text later was originally just some faithful people trying to do the best they could with what was on their plate at the time – what they were currently experiencing as part of their current story. This is just the way God rolls.
Some Things Are Still the Case
I feel like the thing we need most is what I said up above – to accept the fact that we are at a different place in history than the Bible describes and it’s ok for there to be discontinuities between those two things.
But if we can come to a peace with that, we can also acknowledge that some of the things the Bible describes continue to the be case.
For example, God gave Jesus all authority in heaven and earth and raised him to His right hand. This is something that is still the case. Jesus is still the Lord and those who followed his path of faithful suffering are with him. A lot of New Testament energy is expended on things that are long past, like life under the corrupt leadership in Israel, the survivability of the early communities of faith in Jesus, and the outcomes all of this would have for the Roman world.
At the same time, these events not only have repercussions for the future but actually establish certain things that continue to be true in our present circumstances, and one of those things is the Lordship of Jesus.
Another thing that is still the case is that the God who elevated Jesus to this position is the Creator of heaven and earth. He’s still out there. He’s still worthy of worship. He’s still doing things. And if there’s any common thread that ties together every biblical writing across thousands of years, it’s that this God desires a people who will model for the world what God wants the world to be like and will continue to testify that this God is there and this hope for the world isn’t a pipe dream.
Speaking of, another thing that is still the case is a promised general resurrection of the dead, expulsion of death and evil, and a new age for creation. This requires a lot of trust, but such things always have. How do you think Israel felt when Isaiah prophesied her deliverance from Assyria? How do you think people felt when Jesus announced that the kingdom had come in the midst of Roman oppression? It is such promises that continue to give us hope and inform our testimony and mission to the world.
Insofar as the Bible speaks to these things, it continues to describe our present circumstances and future hope. In fact, one could say that it provides a grounding for our future hope by showing us many historical episodes of trust, delay, three steps forward two steps back kinds of events that the faithful experienced before us and what the outcomes were, nonetheless.
It’s a Vital Part of Our Story
If you are a Gentile believer, you are here because of the faithfulness of Jews. You are here because of promises made to Abraham, who is the father in faith of both Jew and Gentile. If you have any inclination to pursue the new creation in the name of Jesus, you do so because of Moses, David, Solomon, Ezekiel, and John the Baptist. You do so because of Peter and Paul and James. And you do so because of the countless numbers of nameless faithful throughout the ages who God had relationships with, delivered, brought forward, and carried their testimony with them.
Some of these people died in their faith, only having seen the promises from afar. But in every age, they were there, looking in hope to God for whatever their historical circumstances were and passing that along.
It is because Jesus reclaims Israel that you have been grafted into the tree of Abraham’s promise. It is because a group of Jews received the promised Holy Spirit that Gentiles would also receive that Spirit. It is because those Gentiles held their faith even unto death that you have your faith.
Our neo-Platonic early church fathers and their apprehensions of the Gospel. Constantine. The fall of Alexandria. The wars over monophysitism. The schism between East and West. The Hugenots. The Moravians. The Reformation. The Counter-Reformation. The missionary movement. The emigration of the Puritans. So many people and cultures and historical events have brought you where you are today, and not just you, but the church as it exists in the world.
The Bible is relevant for this reason as well. Their story is our story. There is a direct, organic relationship between an ancient man who decided he and his family would worship YHWH alone and you being in church this morning. There is a direct relationship between whether or not Peter gets out of prison in Acts and your faith, today. And there are lessons to be learned as we watch them live and die in their up and down relationship with this God through the ages.
Our Present Experiences
Finally, we seem to be having experiences that are consonant with the kinds of things we learn from the Bible, both collectively and individually. We pray, like so many people have prayed before us. We worship. We find that we love one another and would sacrifice for one another. We find that we desire justice and mercy. This dream God has for the world stirs our hearts. We find that odd things happen that are difficult to explain from time to time, like a vision or a healing. We find that lives can be radically changed.
And speaking subjectively, how is it that I can get wrapped up in various intellectual issues surrounding the faith, how can I find myself in long, dark nights of the soul wondering if God is out there and if he really cares about me, and then find myself in worship praising and professing my allegiance to this God and clinging to Him as though I were a child again? How can it be that someone like me has faith and can’t give it up?
How is it that I can preach a sermon and feel the kerygma speak through me and depart? How can I be weighed down under the burdens of a difficult week only to feel them melt away in the worshipful presence of my brothers and sisters as if they had never been there to begin with? Why do I care about how I spend my time and my money? Why do I agonize over how to be faithful in my time and my culture? How does faithfulness even happen?
Why do I love some ancient Palestinian deity who, to me, seems to describe something transcendent, ineffable, and there?
I suppose there are various explanations that could be supplied, and my atheist friends probably have a few. But they don’t have to live my life, and for me, the thing that makes sense is that vibrant, transcendent Thing that so captivated ancient peoples literally millennia ago is there and can be experienced and is still at work in His creation. Jesus shows me in human form what this Thing is like, and I like what he showed. I am captivated by this vision for the world and my fellow man in much the same way countless others have before me.
The Bible speaks of these things. When it is read in worship and preached, I feel it resonate in my bones and blow through me, touching and taking. It challenges me and calls me to something greater than myself and the hope that these things will be realized. It comforts me with a picture of the invisible layer behind the history I experience, and it makes me profess that even when my composite particles are scattered in dust, air, and dying stars, that each one will continue to praise the Creator, and perhaps in the unfolding of thousands of more years, He may in fact raise me from the dead into a new age.
Yeah, I actually believe all of that. When I hear it from the Bible, I believe it. Perhaps this is the most immediate relevance there is.