This is the fourth part of a series. The other articles can be found here:
As I’ve thought about this final post in this series, I’m not sure how much different it will be than the General Principles article, but it might be helpful all the same to arrange things into something looking like a process.
As usual, this isn’t meant to be the “right” way to do this. It’s a way. It preserves some things I think are important and may be helpful to you as you think about applying the Bible to today.
1) Determine What the Text Originally Meant
This is probably the hardest part for all kinds of reasons. We don’t really teach people to understand the Bible this way, and from very early on in church history, our forefathers decided to pass down theological statements rather than a story. We’re not used to thinking about those people at that time; we’re used to discerning universal and timeless truths.
Since this hasn’t been a huge priority for much of the church, we have to learn. We have to learn things about the history and geography of the original audience. We have to learn things about the civilizations that surrounded them at the time of the biblical writing we’re looking at. This can sound very daunting and perhaps even inaccessible to your typical Christian.
The good news is that 1) we now know more about the world of the Bible than any other time in church history (I mean, other than the original audiences, themselves) and 2) there has been some effort to make this accessible to people in the evangelical tradition who are not historians or academics.
If you’re looking for some accessible gateways into this world, many books by people like N.T. Wright or Scot McKnight can help get you pointed in the right direction and get the gears turning. McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel is a great way to get going. If you’re wanting something a little more intensive (and disruptive), Andrew Perriman’s blog is a good read. Pick the topics that are most interesting to you. I would wait on reading his books, though, until you get kind of the basic hang of his thought from his blog.
Or you can find your own way in. There are many, many books out there that will get you closer to the Bible’s world.
But you don’t have to become an expert in ancient history. Often just asking the question, “Who is the original audience and what would this passage have meant to them?” is plenty disruptive enough and gets you facing in the right direction.
It’s important to note that getting at the original meaning is not so we can limit ourselves to it, but it gets us pointed in the right direction as we set out on our journey. If you’re coming up with all kinds of stuff that would have been utterly alien to the original audience, you may be having thoughts that are useful for you, but you probably aren’t using a given passage in the manner it was intended to be valuable for later readers.
2) Is This Used Elsewhere?
There are two main ways we can get insight into how later generations in touch with the biblical story used texts outside of the immediate context of those texts.
One way is to read rabbis – the further back the better. This isn’t a very accessible path to everyone and not every passage has a ton of rabbinical commentary tied to it, but if you can take the time to find it, this commentary often has helpful examples of how people with direct connections to the audience of the text interpreted and used those texts, later. That doesn’t automatically make them right, but it can help us gauge if we’re on the right track.
Also, you’ll be exposed to a decent degree of diversity. Not every rabbi agrees with every other rabbi, and you’ll see differences in preference and style that sort of gives you permission to think of a text in different ways. The use of symbolism and allegory, for example, is very prominent in many rabbis.
The other way, which is a lot more accessible, is to see how the New Testament uses the Old Testament. The overall patterns can be helpful, here, but it’s especially nice when the specific passage you’re reading through is used in the New Testament. It’s also interesting when the New Testament doesn’t use a passage that it seems would settle the issue, especially when we read some of the Pauline ethical passages.
There are two things to keep in mind when we’re using New Testament usage as guidance:
- The author is using the original meaning to explain something in their present circumstances; they usually do not exegete the original meaning in front of you. They don’t “show their work” as we ask math students to do, sometimes. We don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking that an NT use of an OT passage is the “real” meaning and the original (or later) understandings of the passage are somehow less real. They are not saying, “This is what that Scripture intended to say all along.” They are saying, “Now that we’re experiencing this thing, we can see how the meanings of the past help us understand what these events mean to us and how we might navigate them.”
- The way an NT author applies a passage is not meant to be where the train stops. It provides us even more guidance and insight as we think about understanding our current context in light of the Bible, but it’s not meant to provide us with the final word (no pun intended) in how those texts should be understood. Rabbis continued to find new referents and guidance for Old Testament passages as the people of God encountered new, significant historical events, and you can see this in the Bible, itself. To go back to the analogy of a voyage, these represent more points on the line we can use to see if we’re heading the right direction. They’re not meant to be the X that marks the spot. As we move forward in history, so does the X.
3) What Are Our Present Circumstances?
In order to apply the past to our present, we have to understand the situation we face in the present.
It’s here that some methods of application fall short. They see our present circumstances as more or less extensions of the New Testament situation with minor adaptations. So, what it meant for, say, Paul, is also what it needs to mean to us in as identical a manner as we can reconstruct.
But the Bible itself fights this tendency.
Take, for instance, the laws about where Israel should make sacrifices (credit to Pete Enns for pointing this out to me).
You need make for me only an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your offerings of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you. But if you make for me an altar of stone, do not build it of hewn stones; for if you use a chisel upon it you profane it. You shall not go up by steps to my altar, so that your nakedness may not be exposed on it.
Exodus 20:24-26 (NRSV)
So, here, the law is that, wherever the Israelites happen to be, they can make an altar of earth and God will come to them and bless them. If they use stone for the altar, it has to be raw stone and not stone they’ve carved. And don’t make stairs, either, otherwise someone might look up your robe.
But look at Deuteronomy.
Take care that you do not offer your burnt offerings at any place you happen to see. But only at the place that the Lord will choose in one of your tribes—there you shall offer your burnt offerings and there you shall do everything I command you.
Deuteronomy 12:13-14 (NRSV)
So, here, Israel can’t just set up an altar wherever. They have to offer sacrifices at a specific place that God will choose.
If we assume that the role of Exodus 20 is to give us a fixed situation for all of Israel’s history, Deuteronomy 12 is kind of jarring. But when we look at the historical circumstances being described, they make sense. Exodus 20 is describing a scenario where Israel is somewhat nomadic. Deuteronomy 12 is describing a scenario where they are about to claim Canaanite territory for themselves – a land where they will dwell permanently and is already dotted with shrines to Canaanite gods.
So, sacrifices are still important to God, but the change in historical circumstances necessitated a change in the Law.
When we get to the construction of the Temple, we find that the altar is not made of earth or stone but of bronze (2 Chronicles 4:1). They did use a ramp instead of steps, though, because the robe thing was still an issue.
In this circumstance, Israel is building a stationary place of worship, and its grandness is meant to reflect the glory of God. The ad hoc earth altar just isn’t going to cut it.
In all of these scenarios, you can see a basic continuity of meaning, but you can also see that nobody assumed the Scriptures they were given under one set of historical circumstances still applied in the same way under different historical circumstances.
We can see similar trends in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. We can see this at work as the early church figures out how Gentiles fit into all of this, especially with regard to the regulations laid out in God’s Law. In all of these circumstances, you see a principle of, “Yes, that Scripture was good and holy and authoritative, but we’re in a different situation, now, and we have to figure out what this means for us.”
There is no indicator that we were ever supposed to stop doing that.
But in order to do that responsibly, we have to have a good handle on what a given Scripture is saying to its own context and world and a good handle on what our context and world is.
What is the state of the church, today? What are our obstacles? What are our day to day concerns? What are our big historical events? What things potentially threaten our future? What are the political and spiritual powers of our present age? What are our current social taboos and what meaning does our society place on these things? What do families look like? What does a life look like?
The church is so widespread now in comparison to the Bible’s perspective that it gets even trickier, because there’s a global level to these issues and more local levels. Being a Christian in America isn’t very much the same as being a Christian in China or in Haiti. Just as Paul conditioned his responses to various churches in Asia Minor, how much more should we be mindful of those differences as well?
Understanding our present circumstances wouldn’t normally be too hard except for the fact that our perceptions are also heavily influenced by our present circumstances. We don’t really get how thoroughly individualistic and egocentric and wealthy American culture is until we visit a rural village in South Korea. To us, it’s just “normal.” We are not prone to think of the historical significance of the events in our lives (or we overinflate them) and what it might mean for the church’s behavior, message, and the shape of her hope. To us, it’s just life. It’s just events.
Jesus warned about this tendency in his own day:
The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” Then he left them and went away.
Matthew 16:1-4 (NRSV)
So, just as we might be amateur historians and anthropologists of the world of the Bible, we need to be amateur historians and anthropologists of our world as well. If we don’t have a good understanding of our present circumstances, how we got here, and what is no longer the case, we’ll have a very hard time usefully applying the Bible. We’ll end up constructing applications that might have been great in the first century but not so much in the twenty-first century.
4) Bring These Worlds Together
So, we know what a given passage meant to its circumstances. We may also have some insight into how later generations of believers used that passage to speak to their circumstances. We have a decent understanding of our own circumstances.
This begins the work of “transposition.”
Transposing is what you do in music when the key that a piece of music was written in does not fit what you’ve got. This song was written in E flat, but our singers can’t hit those notes. So, we transpose the song to the key of C. It’s the same song, but now it fits our range.
This analogy is flawed in a few ways. I don’t want to give the impression that applying the Bible is simply taking the exact same meanings and bringing it into our context. When you transpose a sheet of music, you pretty much get the exact same song in a different tonal range.
But the gist is correct. The song was written for a specific set of circumstances (i.e. singers and instruments that hit that range), and you have a different set. You have to map between the two worlds. You don’t get to come up with a wholly different set of notes, but neither can you allow notes to go unchanged.
How might you go about this?
One way is to look for similarities in circumstances. For instance, the church as it exists in countries under the strong dominion of a political power that espouses another ethos will find close correspondence to the the circumstances of the church under various Near Eastern powers and, ultimately, the Roman Empire. The closer your circumstances are to the circumstances that produced a biblical text, the more likely the application will be very similar. The book of Revelation, for example, might provide comfort that God will not allow the oppression of His people to go on forever, even though it might be necessary to endure it for a season. There is no world power great enough to stand against God, Revelation shows us, no matter how strong the Beast may seem. The White Rose under the regime of Nazi Germany made a strong identification with the events in Revelation, all the while realizing that Revelation was not “about” Nazi Germany.
Similarly, we might find that our circumstances relate in principle or by analogy even if the particulars are different.
The Gospel of Matthew does this, for instance, when talking about Herod’s order to kill Israelite infants in Bethlehem in Matthew 2:17-18:
Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
The Jeremiah passage is clearly addressing a different city. This isn’t a “prophecy” about Bethlehem. Nor are infants being executed in Ramah. Ramah is, instead, a processing station for Babylonian captives. Israel was experiencing their sons being carted off to Ramah before being dispersed through the Babylonian Empire.
The original passage is meant to give hope to Israel at the time, because the prophet goes on to talk about how this situation will be overturned, the weeping will stop, etc.
Matthew sees in this a relationship to what is happening in Bethlehem (probably after the fact). Israel, under a foreign dominion, is suffering the loss of her children. But this is a sign that the great overturning of these circumstances is close at hand. Soon, her weeping will end. God is about to intervene to rescue her. This great tragedy is a cue for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear – the salvation of God is nigh.
So, even though the historical circumstances of Jeremiah and Matthew’s author are different, Matthew sees a broader, more principial commonality. I would say that, in my experience, this is the most common path forward to applying the Bible to today. We can’t say, “This passage is about us,” but we can say, “In the past when circumstances like these happened, here’s what God wanted people to know. Although we can’t know for sure what our outcomes will be or when, we have reason to believe that the same God can be trusted for the same reasons and we should be observant and hopeful for the same kinds of things to happen.”
Another cue can be how different our circumstances are.
For example, in some passages, Paul seems to discourage strongly the leadership of women, especially in the church. At the same time, Paul lived in a society that considered it very shameful when a man did not lead, and this was the case for pretty much the entirety of the Scripture-producing enterprise.
In our day, when at least in Western society, it is not seen as shameful for women to be leaders, should we also follow the same ethics in the same way? Is Paul’s root concern that women shouldn’t be leaders because this is somehow intrinsically disastrous, or is his root concern that Christians will be unnecessarily slandered in a time when they are already politically controversial, and it behooves us to, insofar as we can without compromising our identity, live at peace with our society? Perhaps Paul’s instructions about women leadership are more applicable to Christian missionaries in countries with certain cultural taboos we do not share.
“Ah,” but you counter, “Paul also ties these instructions to arguments from the Old Testament! Like creation!”
True, but Paul also does this for arguing that women should have their head covered when they pray or prophesy, while men should have their head uncovered (including uncovered by long hair – take note Western Jesus!). Paul is applying these things to his contexts.
“Well, you can’t just go changing a biblical command!”
Also true, in the sense that I can’t just randomly disregard whatever I don’t like or doesn’t conform to modern secular values. But the process of the church discussing together in the power of the Spirit what ethics still do and don’t apply in our present day is a practice enshrined in the Bible itself.
What was the Jerusalem Council for? There were no passages that said Gentiles don’t have to keep the Law. In fact, if a Gentile wanted to convert, they had to be circumcised and keep the Law! That was the only biblical way for this to happen. There should have been no need for a Council to decide if they needed to or not. The Bible settled it.
So what happened? Changing historical circumstances! These ham-eating, non-Saturday-observing, uncircumcised Gentiles received the same Holy Spirit as God-fearing Jews who had faith in Jesus. What did the apostles do in response? They didn’t insist that somehow their past theology and ethics had to be maintained despite changing circumstances. They didn’t try to theologize away their current circumstances by saying that these conversions weren’t real and the manifestations of the Spirit were actually demons. They got together to hash this out, because no matter what your doctrine was, non-lawkeeping Gentiles were clearly receiving the Spirit. So deal with it and survive, or don’t and don’t.
I think we can successfully argue that the inclusion of the Gentiles was a major portion of God keeping His covenant promises to Israel in the first century.
Again, this doesn’t throw everything in the Bible up for grabs to be included or discarded at our whim, nor does it mean we should be pressured by the changes in culture at large to change our ethics to be less “backward” or more socially acceptable. But it does mean that, while there are constants that are always true for the people of God, very few of the specific implementations are static, and we should never be afraid to at least have the conversation, “Given what the situation looks like for us now, do these ethics still make sense?”
I hope this has helped somewhat. If you want to see examples of this in action, I recommend you read any of the biblical text based articles on this blog. They’re all examples of me trying to do this. I screw it up, yes. Ten years from now, I may look at some of these entries and cringe. I know that’s very likely.
But I think the attempt is moving in the right direction, or at least, it mirrors the Bible’s own trajectory. I offer it for your own consideration.